How to Get a Letter to the Editor Published

Before starting this blog, I used to vent my thoughts by writing letters to newspapers. I’ve probably had about two dozen printed, but haven’t done many in recent years.

I actually wrote several before I had one published. After that, I hit on the formula, and most every letter I sent after that was printed somewhere.

Here’s my formula:

1. Always start by referencing a specific article or previous letter that recently appeared in the publication. Random rants are the stuff of blogs, not op-ed pages.

2. Keep it short. No paragraph should be longer than three simple sentences. You might be burning to pen an intricate analysis, but it’ll never see the light of day.

3. End with a memorable sound bite: a pithy quip, quote, accusation, or call to action.

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Let’s Not Tell Students the Sky Is Falling

Two Saturdays ago the following letter of mine appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.  In the ongoing budget kerfuffle, I worry that the rhetoric of some of my teacher colleagues has crossed the line into irresponsible territory.  Frankly, even the insinuation that money is the biggest factor in student achievement is bothersome.  Yes, there are things we need funding for, but why haven’t we gotten this fired up over the epidemic of failure in our schools? 

Astute readers will recognize that this letter canibalizes part of a post I put up here about a month ago. 

**********

As a fellow English teacher, I appreciated Elizabeth Strehl’s Wednesday letter in defense of education spending, but I can’t condone her statement that, “If the proposed budget cuts to education happen, our schools and therefore our children may never recover.”

Perhaps such education advocates are exaggerating to emphasize their point, but can’t these academic Chicken Littles see the danger of their hyperbole? If these budget cuts do pass, what message have we now sent to our students? Might young people pick up on the idea that their fate has been sealed and that further work is pointless? Might the economic situation be used by some as an excuse for failure?

Lobbying for schools is noble, but I hope the fatalism so prominent in this conversation won’t turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To all students out there: The ultimate force in your academic achievement isn’t the money coming from politicians, it’s the effort that comes from you. Don’t take our concern over the budget the wrong way. No matter what happens, we believe in you. Your future will always be yours to control.

Myth: The Constitution Is Racist

My letter in today’s Las Vegas Review-Journal corrects a popular old myth: that the U.S. Constitution is racist.  I even remember this faulty interpretation of the passage in question being used in an episode of The West Wing

To the editor:

In his otherwise excellent Wednesday letter, Robert Gardner does make one mistake. He repeats the old fallacy about the Constitution being racist, suggesting that Article I, Section 2 says, “blacks are … considered three-fifths of a person.”

Not true.

That section is about counting population to determine how many representatives we get in government, which is why we have the census. That count was to enumerate “free persons” and “three-fifths of all other persons,” meaning slaves. Free blacks were counted as a whole.

The language isn’t meant to determine someone’s worth as a human being, but merely to reduce the total count. The strength of a state’s presence in government was determined by this count. Northern states didn’t want slaves counted at all; Southern states wanted them counted as a whole. The point of the three-fifths compromise was to reduce the South’s power.

Ironically, for those who see this part of the Constitution as racist, this rule did what it was supposed to do: It contributed to the eventual end of slavery. With Black History Month right around the corner, it’s important to set the record straight.

The Underdog in the Culture War

I had a letter printed in the Las Vegas Review-Journal this morning.  In response to local citizens’ and the media’s universal lambasting of parents who are protesting a high school’s performances of Rent and The Laramie Project, I wrote:

As soon as news broke of a parental protest to Green Valley High School’s productions of two socially progressive plays, a chorus of indignation started singing the praises of the brave teachers and actors and decrying the “obvious” hatred and ignorance of the parents. What actually bothers me far more than the political agenda at work in the play selections or the reflexive mob sanctimony of the aggrieved is the monolithic, vitriolic reaction of the community — including the Review-Journal — to the parents’ opposition.

What lessons will the children who likewise oppose the performances learn from this controversy? If your opinion is different from the majority, be quiet. If you question the assumptions of the majority, they will have free rein to slander you. If you think something is deeply wrong but it’s popular, you have no right to oppose it.

If these aren’t the true lessons to take from this matter, then we have to ask why the media isn’t also sympathetically profiling the students who oppose the biased selection of plays, or why local commentators aren’t applauding the courage of a handful of people for standing up to a smug establishment.

This treatment appears to be just another example of the mainstream’s one-way tolerance.

 

UPDATE: The comments section at the end of the page on the newspaper’s web site where my letter was printed has some very interesting debate, which largely illustrates my point–only those with officially sanctioned views should participate in cultural discussions.  All others should stay home, and will be stigmatized as knuckle-draggers if they dare speak up.  The democratic process is moot–the decisions about culture have been made for us. 

Also, apparently, someone in those comments thought to “expose” me by googling my name and listing the results.  How strange and sad. 

 

Classic Letter: Bad Parents

Education-related posts are a little harder to come by in the middle of July, but here’s something that’s never far from my mind.  This letter ran in the March 13, 2007 issue of the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

 

Bad parents

To the editor:

Your recent editorials about school grades rising in the face of failing test scores, and Jim Day’s Friday cartoon about grading parents, have opened a Pandora’s box of irritation. I can no longer politely shrug when we wonder why Nevada children lag so far behind the rest of the nation.

Our schools do not teach in some backward fashion, while other states use fancy methods we can’t find out about. Here’s the elephant in the room: Our children disproportionately fail because Las Vegas is home to some of the worst parents in America.

I’ve seen too many educations ruined by parents who let kids take two or three vacations during the school year; who spoil their children with so many electronic toys and negative fashions that apathy is the obvious result; and who excuse, ignore or even encourage today’s ubiquitous sex and drug use (to say nothing of those poor students being raised by their grandmothers, who still dress like hookers), to say anything else.

There is an epidemic in our schools of parents who demand that the bar be lowered for their kids, who huff and puff about any poor grade or referral to the office and threaten their way into special treatment, who bully the schools, but who won’t keep up with their kids’ grades or check their homework.

Too many of you see yourselves as little more than landlords whose greatest vision for parenting is just to keep children alive and out of jail.

Stop modeling attitudes that will only be counter-productive for your children. Teach them that you expect results and that you will take the school’s side when they screw up. Don’t let them beg for a schedule change or lamely demand “a sheet of make-up work” to atone for three weeks’ truancy, or skip a class because they can make it up online. Kick them in the butt and take their iPod away. Ground them, for heaven’s sake.

Frankly, my colleagues and I are getting tired of cleaning up your mess.

 

I’ve had letters similar to this one printed before and since (see, especially, here), but none has ever had such an impact.  Within two days of this letter appearing, I received about thirty emails, mostly from other teachers in my school district, and mostly from complete strangers.  Every last one was not only positive, but praised me for saying what they had been wanting to say for years.  Some of the writers even told tragic stories of their own emotional abuse at the hands of a system that officially places them between a rock and a hard place, assigning us to teach young people, but tying our hands with a hundred knots and ignoring the things that actually hold students back.

I’m told that the principal at another high school posted it on that school’s email bulletin board for the staff to read.  At other schools copies were made and passed around among the teachers, samizdat-style.  A local AM radio station used it as a starting point for discussion.

That was the best thing about this letter–it really seemed to help release some pent up tension for a lot of good people who needed it. 

Wanting to go further with that, I thought about compiling a book of stories from teachers about their experiences with clueless parents, both the hilarious and the depressing.  I batted the idea around on some online bulletin boards and got a tepid response, at best.  Oh well.  At least it did some good.

And the backlash I expected never materialized because, I now see, nobody would want to identify themselves as the kind of parent I was griping about!

Letter: The North Las Vegas Library District Owes Me An Apology

The following is a message I emailed to the mayor and city council of North Las Vegas this morning:

 

Dear Mayor Montandon and City Council Leaders:


I encountered a rude shock when attempting to check out two books at the Clark County Library yesterday. The librarian informed me that the North Las Vegas Library District and the Las Vegas Clark County Library District had now merged and that, as a resident of North Las Vegas, I could no longer enjoy the privileges of LVCCLD library patrons. Because of this merger, I am now allowed to check out far fewer items, for a shorter length of time, and will be bound by North Las Vegas’s far more draconian late fee policy.


The librarian had no printed material to give me about this change. I went home and checked the websites for both districts, but nothing was mentioned on either one. I receive email from the library regularly, but no announcement had come my way. Why was this process conducted so secretly? Why did this Las Vegas librarian have to apologize for North Las Vegas’s decisions?


More importantly, if the two library districts have merged, why do they have differing policies at all? If they’re going to be linked together, shouldn’t their patron policies be the same?


Or are residents of North Las Vegas to be treated as second-class citizens at libraries now? How many people will approach the circulation desk at Rainbow Library or West Sahara Library and be told that they must pay the fines that most other residents in the valley can defer, that they can only check out a fraction of the items that every one else in line may borrow, and that those items must be returned sooner? Why are we to all be embarrassed by this implied inferiority?


This is the first time I’ve ever regretted moving to North Las Vegas.


I call upon all involved to rectify this sad situation by having the North Las Vegas Library District immediately adopt the same patron policies as the Las Vegas Clark County Library District. If this matter is not quickly resolved, I intend to appear at the July 16 North Las Vegas City Council meeting to discuss it further.


Thank you for your time and attention to this matter, and thank you in advance for acting to make North Las Vegas the equal of any other part of Southern Nevada.


Sincerely,


Jamie J. Huston

 

This is not facetious: the library is a large part of my life and I take my library usage very seriously.  I find this bit of bizarre skulduggery to be grossly outrageous.  Anyone else with an interest in the matter is encouraged to also contact the city council and voice your disgust.  I hope to get positive results to this farce soon.

 

Letter: Tax Breaks For Good Parents

A shorter version of this letter was published in the Las Vegas Sun on Saturday, October 28, 2006.  It got universally positive feedback, including a hand written note of thanks from the superintendent.  Near the end, I say that my idea is tongue-in-cheek because it’s impractical: no doubt the law of unintended consequences would turn this into a circus of manipulation, intimidation, and blame.  Too bad.  In a better world, this idea would work just fine.

 

Dear Editor:
 
As the first quarter of the school year goes out not with a bang but a whimper, this frustrated educator wonders why. Indeed, teachers scrutinize and reform their methods far more often than you may realize.
 
We beat our heads against the wall trying to discover that magic detail that will turn our students into scholars. Is it curriculum? Scheduling?  But these and a thousand others have been endlessly honed! Only one thing has remained constant—apathetic parents.
 
It’s an old observation in teachers’ lounges across America that as society has grown less disciplined, children’s academic achievement has followed a parallel path.
 
Barring a wholesale overhaul of cultural mores, what are we to do to stem this tide of parents who model incompetence and get nothing else from their offspring? How could we actually work within the bloated, entitlement-minded bureaucracy that Joe Sixpack has abdicated his autonomy to and get his attention?
 
Here’s how: let’s give tax breaks and penalties based on children’s performance in school.
 
It’s easy: If your child gets an A one semester, you get a $100 tax credit. Perfect attendance, $50. And what about the cost for someone who has ten kids who always get straight A’s and never ditch school? God bless them. They’ve earned every dollar they get. They’re producing the kind of citizens this Republic needs to flourish.
 
But your kid failed two classes? Ooh, that’ll cost you $50. Skipped class ten times? Cough up a Franklin or two. Got suspended? Goodbye refund.
 
How is that fair? Think of it this way—why does public education exist?  It’s to ensure the future of the nation. And what better indicator is there that someone will be a benefit or burden to society in the future (via welfare, lost productivity, and crime) than performance in school?
 
Finally, parents who are doing their part could get some overdue recognition, and those who neglect to actually provide parenting might get a red flag to help them see their kids’ lives already going down the toilet.  Or at least they’ll pay for the mistakes they’re letting their children prepare to make in a needlessly wasted future.
 
Of course, this is all tongue-in-cheek.  The courts would choke on the glut of petty lawsuits from parents who want to sue their way out of having to pay for their children’s mistakes.  (And they would win—another reason why our schools are so weak: they’ve been neutered by such lawsuits.)
 
Even more distressing is that we even have these ideas.  Nobody wants schools checking up on parents!  But that leaves us where we are now—helplessly tweaking mundane details of education while the real power players, the parents, sit back and do nothing.

My Sarcastic Campaign For Superintendent

Looking through my journal this week, I found a printout of a letter that was printed in the January 20, 2000 issue of Las Vegas Weekly.  Checking their web site showed that issues that old are no longer online.  In the interest of preserving one of my first published letters, as well as adding some spunk to this droll little blog and ushering in summer vacation time in style, here it is.

First, some background.  In 2000, I was a senior in college and the Clark County School District, which had ballooned almost overnight into one of the largest in the nation, found itself without a superintendent.  Nobody around here was qualified or wanted to do it.  Seriously.  So a committee scoured the country looking for people.  Some of those seemed promising, but they dropped out of the running.  We ended up with a guy from California who ditched us a couple years ago for a textbook company.  His administration was, uh, less than universally loved.

Anyway, during the debacle of trying to give away a powerful job to somebody, anybody, I wrote in the following:

 

After months of standing by and doing nothing while our city’s educational establishment has been reduced to a quivering bowl of pink jelly, I’ve decided I must act!  I am shocked, even outraged, that this endless search for a new superintendent has produced so little satire, which it so richly deserves.  Accordingly, I am officially throwing my hat in the ring of candidates to be considered for the position.

Months of sitting idly by watching this committee has left me, like most Las Vegans, somewhere between morbidly offended and slightly bemused.  But fear not, for I shall accept my patriotic duty and save you from further embarrassment and costly ad campaigns. 

This process has become a bloated, pathetic farce, and nobody is more prepared to benefit from it than I am.  I volunteer to take the job that nobody wants; I will be superintendent of the Clark County School District.

Who am I?  I am an education major at UNLV.  How can I be qualified for this position, you ask?  I’m the most qualified candidate you’ve had so far!

1.  As a teacher-in-training, I’ve had literally weeks of experience being in the general vicinity of classrooms, which already puts me head and shoulders above most administrative professionals.  Also, my own career as a public school student is much more recent than any other candidate’s, giving me an edge in understanding the issues facing children today and in manipulating the public’s desire to have quirky young people in figurehead positions of authority.

2.  So critical to being an effective superintendent are the abilities of making yourself look good by doing whatever’s trendy in your field and by putting politics ahead of actual success.  I have had ample exposure to the best of the best doing just this.  I have spent the last four years at an American college.

3.  My college indoctrination has prepared me to be a quality leader in cutting edge curriculum and instruction: I can spout all the right buzzwords and quote all the fashionable experts.  Just listen to my mission statement: “Celebrate diversity and multicultural empowerment with a vision of inclusive awareness and raise test scores if there’s any time left over.”  As superintendent, I will spearhead dozens of pointless programs that will consistently disappoint everybody.  Will any other candidate make this bold promise?

4.  Much of the debate has centered on the salary issue.  Let me settle this right now: if chosen to be superintendent, I will sacrifice my entry-level wages as a teacher and work for a measly, piddling $100,000 a year, a mere fraction of what others have been offered.  No, don’t protest.  I’ll get by on bread and water.

5.  What about my career as a teacher?  After researching the superintendent’s position, I have found that he’s not actually required to do anything.  I will delegate paperwork to my army of underlings, make token appearances at social functions, and humbly continue my service as an educator of our youth if my golf schedule permits.

I can confidently assert that I am the best option as I appear to be the only person who’s actually applying for the job.  Let’s end this circus.  Choose me.  I’m a little bit better than nobody, and a whole lot better than the other yahoos you’ve looked at.  Please contact me anytime for a resume and an interview.

Eight and a half years later, I think this holds up pretty well!

Evolution Expelled

I haven’t seen Ben Stein’s Expelled–his alleged expose of how evolutionary scientists who also believe in God are systematically silenced in the academic world–but I’ve read enough detailed reviews to suppose that it’s a political hack job on the order of your average Michael Moore dreck.  Significant quotes and interviews (even some that Stein actually filmed) are left out of the movie, and logical fallacies are piled on top of each other to make sinister implications that can’t be defended rationally. 

Too bad.  Rather than go into all the counter-productive nonsense of Intelligent Design activism, I’ll reprint my essay that ran in Las Vegas CityLife, a liberal weekly, about two and a half years ago:

I’m breaking ranks here. I wouldn’t hesitate to describe myself as a conservative and a Christian, but on at least one recent national issue, we’re just wrong. There’s been a lot of talk lately about including a discussion of intelligent design in science classes, even the bizarre idea of defining evolution and intelligent design as “equal theories.”

Isn’t this creating a conflict that many of us have long privately avoided by realizing that there is not anything inherently anti-religious about evolution?

If intelligent design is just evolution plus God, then what’s the point in teaching intelligent design? What exactly does it add to the teaching of science? Obviously, the only purpose it could possibly serve is to help convince students of the existence of God. This is where the conservative argument shows its fanatical side — even if we’re right, even if we can reasonably infer the existence of a purposeful guiding hand from a close study of evolution (and that may well be the case), this concept has no place in a classroom.

How is a science class — a public science class where the majority of families today probably want to avoid a discussion of religion like the plague — an appropriate arena to pontificate about theology? The whole scenario reeks of Orwell.

This is not an instance of America’s paranoid fear and irrational dismissal of all things Christian (a very real trend); this is not about squelching anybody’s public expression of belief or whitewashing the historical values of our great republic. Conservative editorials I’ve read on this subject are quite straightforward about their agenda here — they want to promote a belief in God in the classroom. Not just allow or mention, but promote.

The Christian complaint is that modern society has steadily eroded the long-standing Christian infrastructure of America, but when was God ever the answer to a question in our science classes? Nothing’s being protected or restored here.

What also bothers me is that we’re playing right into the hands of our critics. Why would conservative Christians actually indulge in the kind of intolerant indoctrination they’ve so long been unfairly accused of, and have spent so much time defending themselves against?

When did religious Americans become so desperate? Isn’t it a staple of conservative thought that you don’t force others to accept your views, that when you want to have a debate, you go to the marketplace of ideas? If intelligent design is so viable an idea that it deserves a place alongside Darwin, prove it through the media, but don’t try to weasel it in with the established curriculum.

After your children learn how amazingly complex the mechanisms of life are, if you want them to understand that those intricate processes are the handiwork of God, you’re free to tell them so … at home.

http://www.lasvegascitylife.com/articles/2005/11/03/opinion/guest_commentary/youropinion.txt