Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Taylor Wilson, Tom Clynes, & the story of playing with fusion

At the annual CAGT (Colorado Association for Gifted & Talented), I just had the pleasure of listening to non-fiction travel and science writer Tom Clynes share the story of a precocious and incredibly gifted young man named Taylor Wilson, who basically built a nuclear fusion reactor at the age of sixteen. What began as a magazine article for Popular Science became a book called The Boy Who Played with Fusion. The story of Taylor is most certainly an engaging - and quite unbelievable - one. But I am equally impressed with the skill and craft of Clynes whose keynote presentation was perfect for the CAGT crowd.


Sunday, October 21, 2018

Ben Sasse, Loneliness, & the Partisan Divide

Do we have "an epidemic of loneliness?" And is that what is driving the uncomfortable partisan divide that many people believe is the new normal in the United States.

Loneliness? Hmmm. Well, that's what Ben Sasse, the junior senator from Nebraska, is positing as the root of the anxiety and tension and general malaise he sees in contemporary American society. In Sasse's latest book Them: Why We Hate Each Other - and how to Heal, the senator describes how loneliness and a lack of community is the primary challenge the nation is facing. There is plenty of data to support his concerns that "Loneliness in “epidemic proportions” is producing a “loneliness literature” of sociological and medical findings about the effect of loneliness on individuals’ brains and bodies, and on communities (thank you to George Will for summarizing). Certainly, Americans are less connected to their communities than they were decades ago when the nation was smaller, less mobile, and less economically stratified. Even though people seem to be more connected to the nation as whole through media and technology, it's been pretty clear that community connections are weakening, a phenomenon described in sociological works such as Robert Putnam's well known book Bowling Alone

However, I'm not sure I agree that it's loneliness as much as it is emptiness. Not all people need people, but people definitely need something. We might be less consumed by tribalism and ideological divisions if we had more art, music, nature, fitness, wisdom, nutrition, and quiet in our lives. Solitude is not loneliness. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Is late work a big deal?

"Mr. Mazenko, I wrote my paper, but ...."

😊

It is inevitable each year on one assignment or another that a student will not have the work present in class in hard copy at the moment that it is "due." And, thus teachers are forced into dealing with the issue of "late work." Do you accept late work? For full credit? Do you knock off points or a letter grade? Is the penalty based on minutes or hours or days? Do you give kids that disappointed look? Do you publicly shame the kids for forgetting (or neglecting) their school work? Do you believe you have to teach them a lesson? Do you tell yourself it's for their own good?

Do you have an inflated and unreasonable sense of self worth regarding your class and assignments?

Each year I share with my students a little bit of advice whenever the first assignment and issue of late work arises. Drawing from a "life strategy" in Jay McGraw's funny little self-help book Life Strategies for Teens, I remind students that "There is no reality - only perception of it." It doesn't matter if you did it; it only matters if you can prove it. And veteran teachers have heard so many endless variations on the missing homework story - "My printer ran out of ink. My hard drive crashed. I left my backpack in the trunk (it's always the trunk) of my friend's car, and I can't get it back because his sister took the car back to college in Nebraska this weekend, and she can't get the paper and send it to me because she parked illegally and the car was towed and the lot is only open from Wednesday to Friday ....." Thus, teachers are naturally inclined, when they hear the words, "I did it, but ..." to reserve some doubt, immediately thinking, "No, you didn't."  And, it really doesn't matter if you did. Because not doing it and not having it are the same thing.

That said, I am pretty flexible when it comes to turning work in late. For, let's be realistic; we all forget things from time to time. I've forgotten to bring copies or my book. I see teachers running back to the office all the time. I've forgotten to bring documents or information to meetings. It happens. And, we can all do ourselves a favor by getting past the inclination to stare disappointedly at kids and shame them for very human mistakes. And, we should stop telling ourselves that we are teaching them very important lessons about personal responsibility because someday their bosses won't put up with such carelessness. Oh, please. There was a time when I was a bit more rigid about these things. And I certainly am attuned to students taking advantage of situations and trying to get something for nothing. But only offering half-credit for completed work that is tardy in some ways - sometimes by only an hour or two - is nonsense. That's not what grades are meant to assess.

As I've matured in the field of education and parenting, and I've begun "Rethinking Homework," and as I've thought a lot about "The Case Against Zero," I have also begun to reconsider late work.

Give a kid a break sometime.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Is this my crowd? Identity politics and the new normal

In the past couple weeks, I've ventured into LoDo (lower downtown Denver) for a couple of cultural events: a beer/food pairing at Oscar Blues Brew Pub and the Crush Walls Art Festival in RiNo (River North neighborhood). Both were great fun and enriching experiences, though I recently noted to a colleague that I had a couple weird moments of self-awareness when I noticed the mixed crowd of twenty-something hipster Millennials alongside a fair number of forty-something Gen Xers. And, I thought, rather uncharacteristically, Is This My Crowd? We joked about how that might be the perfect title for my memoir.

Who am I? That's a never-ending question for the average American, and that quest for a sense of self is foundational to our national DNA.

However, that sense of identity, both personal and geographical, is at the heart of our troubling national divide. If there truly is a troubling national divide. And, that leads me to a nice bit of social commentary via a couple book reviews in the Weekend Wall Street Journal. Political writer and review Barton Swaim (whose Twitter feed has apparently deleted. Hmmmm) takes a look at the new work from Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity & the Politics of Resentment. Swaim & Fukuyama explain how "the modern quest for dignity may be traced back to Martin Luther, who first expressed 'the notion, central to questions of identity, that the inner self is deep and possesses many layers that can be exposed only through private introspection.'" I like that simple idea, as well as the extrapolation that it was Jean Jacques Rousseau who redefined the idea without the theological component and "elevated the individual to a status of all importance ..."

The complicated notion of the individual and the concepts of individual liberty are both the calling cards and Achilles' heels for progressive Democrats and pseudo-conservative Republicans. While it seems fairly straightforward and honest for Fukuyama to note "the desire for the state to recognize one's basic dignity has been at the core of democratic movements since the French Revolution," the emerging identity politics and selective applications of personal and individual liberty are the complicating factors in today's politics. Just how much do we really support the ideas of personal freedom and individual liberty? Well, we only do so on the readings of issues that resonate with us. Whose personal liberty is at risk and under attack in the case of the Christian baker and the gay customer?

Figure that out in a mutually beneficial and acceptable way, and you win.



Monday, September 3, 2018

Who are the primary & indispensable thinkers?

At the very beginning of my AP English Language & Composition class each year, I present the challenge for my students to become, in the words of Henry James, "people on whom nothing is lost." The challenge begins with my reading of "The Parlor Metaphor" from Kenneth Burke's description of the "Unending Conversation" in his Philosophy of the Literary Form. That situation of entering a conversation already underway is the task any time an AP Lang student sits for an essay - for, they never really know what the question or topic will be. Will they be asked to analyze the strategies Queen Elizabeth used to inspire the forces at Tilbury, or will they be tasked with breaking down the satire of Jennifer Price making sense of plastic pink flamingos?

Regardless of the topic, they must be able to play.

To this end, I seek to build a body of core knowledge for my students, and we do this together through the study of both fiction and non-fiction literature. They will come to understand bits of early Romanticism with the work of Jane Austen, and they will learn a bit about utilitarianism with Dickens' Hard Times. I touch on post-modernism with O'Brien's The Things They Carried, and we explore transcendentalism with Thoreau's work as well as Krakauer's Into the Wild. I've often included a unit on Enlightenment thinkers when I do a unit of political speeches and documents, mostly American, and we write on the strategies used by people such as Thomas Paine to influence his audience in The Crisis. 

Recently, I've kicked around an idea of creating specialists, or content experts, for the major philosophers they might encounter and want to incorporate in their analyses. For example, when we are reading a novel or story or speech or argumentative prompt, I think it might be cool to have one group who could pose thoughts on the Nietzschean or Freudian or Lockean or Thoreauvian view. And, now I'm trying to determine who would be the top 9 or 10 thinkers to assign. Here are my front runners:

  • Plato
  • Aristotle
  • John Locke
  • Jean Jacques Rousseau
  • Friedrich Nietzsche 
  • Immanuel Kant
  • Adam Smith
  • Karl Marx
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Rene Descartes
  • Carl Jung
  • Georg Hegel
  • Arthur Schopenhaur
  • Jeremy Benthem
  • John Stewart Mill

Sunday, August 12, 2018

I won't sleep well tonight ...

I won't sleep well tonight.

That's not a terrible thing. In fact, it's probably a good sign. It will mean that I still genuinely care about the job I do, and I remain passionate and inspired about the importance of the responsibility I have been given.

I won't sleep well tonight. And, even at 8:30, I know it, and I anticipate it. The impending restlessness rests in a giddy anticipation of the coming morning. Dinner is finished, and the family drifts off into the evening rituals. Dishes and lunches and laundry and tomorrow's outfits and books and some TV. Reminders of the daily schedule are around the house in post-it notes and piles of materials.

Even as my eyelids become a bit heavy, and my movements slow in the relaxed ease of a Sunday evening, I won't sleep well tonight. A bit of bourbon before dinner contributes to the calm, but it won't make a difference when I hit the mattress. It's not actually anxiety, you know. Too much connotation with that word. But anxious, excited, ready? Of course. All those words get at the reason why I won't sleep well tonight.

Even though I've been back at it for a couple weeks now, the atmosphere of tomorrow is different. It's the anticipation of the starting bell, and the incredible buzz of energy as we all descend on campus to meet and greet and get on to the business at hand. There's a long road out in front of us - 40 weeks on the road to be exact. But it promises to be an interesting journey, as it always is. The same road,but different scenery. So much to see and do. Yeah, it's definitely anticipation.

The clock marches on, and the alarm is already set. I'll piddle around downstairs for a while as I always do. As I've been doing for a quarter century. There's no hurry to roll into bed because I'll just toss and turn. At some point, she'll tell me to come to bed, to at least rest my eyes and my body. And, of course, I will. But it'll be sometime past midnight that I'll be up and around the house. Just feeling the feelings. Reading a book won't help tonight - I won't be able to focus.

Of course, there's no real reason why I won't sleep well tonight. I'm certainly ready for tomorrow, and I can fairly anticipate how it will go. The pattern is pretty much the same, and there is no more prep work to be done. I won't even be tired in the morning, no matter how restless I am tonight, because the energy will carry me through. But I'm still anxious as always, for I have so many ideas and so many plans and so many visions of how it all will be. I'm so excited for it to turn out just as I imagined it - better than I imagined it.

Tomorrow is the first day of school.

And, I won't sleep well tonight.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Follow Your Skills, not your Passion

Well, after 29 days on the road, touring the Midwest and Northeast, I'm back in the High Country and ready to return to regular blogging about things that interest me (and hopefully you) in my continual pursuit of being "a person on whom nothing is lost." While I will have much to say about the travels - especially the college visits and cultural highlights - the first contemporary issue on my mind and in the news is about a favorite theme - the problem with the advice to "follow your passion." While this seemingly counter-intuitive insight has been bandied about among social critics and ideas gurus for the past decade or so, The Atlantic recently wrote on how "a major new study questions the common wisdom about how we should choose our careers." Psychologist and education guru Carol Dweck of Stanford (and the "Growth Mindset" fame) has co-authored a paper for Psychological Science which basically asserts that "Follow your passion" is really bad advice.

I'm really glad that someone of Dweck's prominence has finally keyed in an invaluable piece of insight that Georgetown professor Cal Newport has been writing and talking about for years. I discovered Newport back in 2012 when he published his analysis and challenge of the "passion hypothesis" in a wonderfully insightful and inspiring book called So Good They Can't Ignore You, and I have promoted his ideas to my students ever since. The idea has been promoted by people such as Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs" fame, as well as ideas guru Daniel Pink, whose book A Whole New Mind is also invaluable for inspiring people to develop their skills rather than seek or follow their passion. Basically, our skills and talents are what lead us to meaningful jobs and lives, and both Newport and Pink correctly advise us to cultivate our skills by learning more about who we are.

Good for Dweck in catching up to Newport, and thanks to the Atlantic for publishing the story.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Summertime Madness

Denver - Des Moines - Chicago (Northwestern, U-Chicago) - Pittsburgh (Carnegie Mellon) - Princeton, NJ (Princeton) - New York City (Times Square, Top-of-the-Rock, Halal Guys, Central Park Bikes, "Chicago" on Broadway, the Today Show, NYU & the Village, Grand Central Station, 9/11 Memorial & Freedom Tower, Staten Island Ferry) - New Haven, CT (Yale University), Boston (MIT & Cambridge, the Freedom Trail, Flour, the Red Sox at Fenway Park, Harvard University) - Washington DC/Arlington VA (Georgetown, Paul) - Durham, NC (Duke University, Camden Indoor Stadium, Cuban Revolution, the Durham Bulls) - Louisville, KY - Alton, IL/StL (Washington University) - Hays, KS - Denver, CO


Thursday, June 7, 2018

Au revoir, Peter Mayle - Toujours, Provence

In the fall of 1992, my future wife and I moved to Taiwan to teach English after graduating from the University of Illinois and realizing the idea of travel and living abroad seemed far more enticing than going to work teaching high school English - a career we weren't ready to embrace at the fresh young age of twenty-two. While living with a few roommates in Taipei, we ran across a paperback copy of a truly delightful expat memoir A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. Thought it had been published a couple years before, the paperback had just been released, and I believe it was a gift from home for one of our roommates. Being an English major living an expat experience in a rather exotic locale, I became fascinated by Mayle's voice and his reflections, and developed a bit of writer's envy as I decided that what Mayle had seemingly effortlessly done was exactly what I wanted to do. Alas, that imagined life has never materialized, though I've remained inspired to someday grow up to be a writer, and I will always look back to Mayle as an early inspiration for non-fiction writing. Twenty-five years later, I was saddened to learn of Peter Mayle's passing back in January, and I only became aware of it as I sat down to craft this post after recently requesting Mayle's last book about Provence, My Twenty-five Years in Provence. The book offers Mayle's final reflections on the region and the lifestyle that inspired and supported a second career for him after moving to the south of France in his early fifties. I can't wait to read the book and get lost in his "Reflections on Then and Now," and I will look once more to Mayle for inspiration to maybe get on with the writing and living the life I've long imagined. Au revior, Peter. Best wishes and many thanks.

"The beloved author Peter Mayle, champion of all things Provence, here in a final volume of all new writing, offers vivid recollections from his twenty-five years in the South of France--lessons learned, culinary delights enjoyed, and changes observed. Twenty-five years ago, Peter Mayle and his wife, Jennie, were rained out of a planned two weeks on the Ĉôte d'Azur. In search of sunlight, they set off for Aix-en-Provence; enchanted by the world and life they found there, they soon decided to uproot their lives in England and settle in Provence. They have never looked back. As Mayle tells us, a cup of cafe might now cost three euros--but that price still buys you a front-row seat to the charming and indelible parade of village life. After the coffee, you might drive to see a lavender field that has bloomed every year for centuries, or stroll through the ancient history that coexists alongside Marseille's metropolitan bustle. Modern life may have seeped into sleepy Provence, but its magic remains. Withhis signature warmth, wit, and humor--and twenty-five years of experience--Peter Mayle is a one-of-a-kind guide to the continuing appeal of Provence. This thoughtful, vivid exploration of life well-lived, à la Provence, will charm longtime fans and a newgeneration of readers alike"-- Provided by publisher.



Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Battle for and against Public Education

From the expensive and fruitless edu-experiments by corporate edu-philanthropists Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to the legislative and litigious initiatives by groups as varied as the DFERs and the Koch Brothers, the complicated enigma of education reform is a challenging story to report. However, the reliable journalistic mantra to "Follow the Money" is an invaluable guide to the issue. The week the WashPo's education writer Valerie Strauss has given column space to an extensive bit of long-form investigative journalism from writer Joanne Barken:  What and who are fueling the movement to privatize public education — and why you should care

When champions of market-based reform in the United States look at public education, they see two separate activities — government funding education and government running schools. The first is okay with them; the second is not. Reformers want to replace their bête noire — what they call the “monopoly of government-run schools” — with freedom of choice in a competitive market dominated by privately run schools that get government subsidies.
Public funding, private management — these four words sum up American-style privatization whether applied to airports, prisons, or elementary and secondary schools. In the last 20 years, the “ed-reform” movement has assembled a mixed bag of players and policies, complicated by alliances of convenience and half-hidden agendas. Donald Trump’s election and his choice of zealot privatizer Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education bolstered reformers but has also made more Americans wary.
What follows is a survey of the controversial movement — where it came from, how it grew, and what it has delivered so far to a nation deeply divided by race and class.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

What Happened to May?

I'm still here.

The month of May for teachers and administrators can be busy to say the least. But I can't recall a time since I started this blog that I went thirty days without posting. And, there has been much to write about. Ideas that I jotted down but never followed through are:

  • The passing of Tom Wolfe, a Man in Full who had "The Write Stuff"
  • Some thoughts for the graduating class of 2018, courtesy of Krista Kafer in the DenverPost.com
    • This piece had a feel quite reminiscent of the classic graduation speech Wear Sunscreen, with its soundbite list of dos and don'ts. 
    • I particularly like Kafer's advice to "memorize a poem." As an English teacher, I have often recommended to students to copy classic speeches or poems in order to internalize rhythm, cadence, and eloquence. Yet I have rarely required it. Now, after reading this inspired piece from a former colleague about memorizing a poem -- The El Capitan of Freshman English: Memorize a - gasp! - poem -- I am planning a lesson on this idea for future classes.
  • The continued gun debate - especially the alarmingly naive idea of "arming teachers." This issue has been argued in the pages of the Denver Post and the Aurora Sentinel recently by some skilled writers and thinkers such as Jon Caldara, Diane Carmen, and Dave Perry.
  • The art of public speaking and the challenge to "Talk Like TED" - This idea is particularly interesting to me as an educator in regards to the idea of lectures as pedagogy. We certainly live in time and place where TED Talks captivate many ideas-focused people. However, I don't know that it's always the best way to "educate," especially for students who aren't particularly interested in the content. Of course, an intriguing quality of TED is the 18-minute rule. If classroom instructors held themselves to that standard, I believe classroom instruction could be more effective.
  • A wonderful dessert experience at a Denver eatery I'd never visited before - Humble Pie.
  • The sticky issue of this anthem protest .... thing. An interesting observation in my view is acknowledging that "kneeling is not a sign of disrespect." It's simply not. 
  • The strangely interesting rise of Toronto professor Dr. Jordan Peterson, a complex thinker who's presenting challenges for the radical left.
There are many more things on my mind, and I am challenging myself to return to the idea of scheduled writing. So, now I have a bit of time before the summer travel schedule, and I plan to get back to that writing groove.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Jon Caldara Educates Us on Teacher Salaries

How much should teachers make?

As I noted in a recent blog post, I am not a fan of the silliness that ensues when people lament how "athletes make millions of dollars for playing a game," but teachers can barely afford to pay the rent. However, K-12 teachers are credentialed professionals whose work is highly valued and necessary, and they certainly deserve a middle class living. The issue of education budgets, including teacher compensation through salaries and retirement plans, has been front and center in recent weeks as education associations across the country have taken to the streets to lobby for appropriate increases in state education budgets. From the statewide strike in West Virginia to the teacher rallies here in Colorado, educators have taken their case to the legislators and the public. So, what's the deal with education funding in Colorado, and are teachers overpaid, underpaid, fairly paid, or what?

Fortunately, Jon Caldara, the state's resident libertarian think-tanker at the Independence Institute, took time out of his busy think-tanking schedule and "ran some numbers" to answer the question. Jon was, of course, inconvenienced because teachers weren't at school to take care of his kids, so he let us know that he "couldn't go to work Friday when teachers abandoned my kids." Interesting thing about that word - work. As a think-tanker whose job appears to basically consist of doing research and then writing and talking (sometimes endlessly) about what he learned, Jon appears to have been able to do his work without actually "going" to work. That think tank gig - nice job if you can get it. Makes me kinda wonder what someone like Jon Caldara makes. I'd have to guess it's an easy $150K if it's a dollar, which would be about three times an average teacher's salary. And we know from Jon's writing about the health care challenges in his family that he has some pretty sweet benefits. I wonder if Jon and the Independence Institute would be willing to share their budget, salaries, and benefits? You know, in the spirit of the importance of transparency. Granted, they are aren't a government entity - but their entire existence basically depends on the government to exist, so ....

Anyway, let's let that pass.

Back to teacher salaries. Jon did grab some numbers off the internet, and he offered some fair commentary drawing from the usual talking points. The average teacher salary in Colorado is $52,000/year, which is basically the very bottom of what is considered middle class, and it is about the median nationwide income of all wage earners for a family of four. So, in terms of the professionalism, Jon may be right that teachers are "insultingly compensated."  Additionally, a bit of research into salary scales (which are public and transparent), the starting pay for many teachers is around $30K, which can make it tough for people to pay rents that hover around $1400, not to mention mortgages in a state with homes averaging $500K in the metro area. Yet, Jon's biggest complaint about the compensation isn't the amount but the fact that teachers negotiate contracts as part of associations, and these contracts use degree credentials and years of service as the gauge. To Jon this is an abomination; but having apparently little knowledge or experience with the field, he fails to appreciate the teachers' choice to collectively bargain and not negotiate individual contracts. Considering Jon is not a teacher, I'm not sure why he takes offense to how others negotiate their pay. But, you know, when you have a lot of time on the clock to just sit around think-tanking, I guess your mind wanders.

Additionally, Jon does attempt to make a seemingly logical argument about just compensation for teachers based on the ol' "summers off" angle, implying that like hourly workers, teachers should make less because they get more vacation. It's an interesting claim that I don't fully disagree with, and I have had my share of conversations with fellow educators about the compensation based on work day/week/year. To be fair, critics from both sides often note, teachers make less money than other professionals of similar education and work experience, sometimes by as much as 20%. That said, a teacher contract is usually for 40 weeks out of a 52 week year - that is if they don't spend breaks working other jobs, lesson planning/grading, pursuing professional development etc. To be perfectly honest, I don't completely oppose Jon about this, and as an educator of 25 years, both domestically and abroad, in several school systems both public and private, I have never been truly dissatisfied with my pay. I'd take more money, sure. And experience tells me I am at least adding as much value to society as many six-or-seven-figuring earning think tankers, writers, and speakers.

But, of course, it's sort of a silly point to make. Teachers are professionals who earn a salary, not hourly at-will employees paid like the "factory workers" that Jon strangely seems to disparage in his column. School contracts are usually about 185 days, and there isn't a comparable argument for changing that. Schools aren't going to stay open and in session for 50 weeks a year - heck, two-thirds of Colorado districts already operate on four-day weeks because they can't afford to stay open with current budgets. And, I've already made the "summer vacation argument" numerous times, so we're not going to year-round school, nor should we. Beyond the hourly-wage argument, Jon also takes a shot at PERA and teachers' cushy retirement at the age of 58. While it's a fair soundbite, it also reveals an ignorance of the deal made to teachers - take lower pay for many years on the front end (I made $20K in 1997), and the trade-off is an earlier retirement. And, to be sure, PERA and other state pensions need review and revision.

So, in the end, the think-tanker in Golden gets to take his shot at educators from his Ivory Tower via his regular column in the Denver Post. And, he's not entirely wrong about some of his criticisms, even if he is a bit blinded by the privilege of not working a real job. (Disclaimer:  I'm a bit jealous - being a think-tanker, writer, and speaker is my dream retirement job .... after I'm done educating the youth of America).

For a more thorough and informed perspective on education funding, I recommend Diane Carmen's piece in the Denver Post, or the numerous articles by the professional researchers and journalists at Chalkbeat.