Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Give All Students Extended Time on Tests

Obviously, schools have long put time constraints on students taking assessments. That reality extends to standardized tests like the PSAT, SAT, & ACT, and those tests are taking on a greater prominence than ever before, especially when it comes to accountability. Those of us in the education world know all about the term "extended time" because some kids with learning challenges require additional time to be able to compete on those tests. Sometimes they use it, sometimes they don't. But it's a necessary condition for many young people. And when it comes to college entrance exams like ACT and SAT, that's of upmost importance.

It's especially true in reading. I've long been a critic of the time limits placed on the reading test for ACT. The constraints are, in my opinion, a bit ridiculous. Students are asked to read four passages and answer forty questions in thirty-five minutes. That means averaging 8 minutes and 45 seconds per passage. That's not reading - it's a sprint. These passages are read "blind" with no prior knowledge or prep, and the obscurity of the passages can by quite challenging. I can't imagine how offering the kids an additional fifteen minutes would be bad. It's true that some kids can answer all questions correctly in the short time - but is that really so important or more impressive than a kid who would take longer. Seriously. When in our adult lives are we given such ridiculous time-constrained tasks. Occasionally, I'm given work to finish in a day. Never am I given completely new information to digest and comprehend in forty minutes. 

Why shouldn't all kids have extended time if they want it. I hated when I was proctoring the ACT or SAT and I had to deliver those dreaded words: "Stop Working. Put your pencils down and close your test booklet." How cruel for that kid struggling to finish the last few bubbles. Time constraints are arbitrary and completely unnecessary. I don't care how long it takes a kid to finish the reading. Give him two hours. Give him all day. If he needs that time to get the right answers, then give it to him.

If ACT and SAT really want to revise and reform their tests, they need to develop a way to allow all kids the time they need to demonstrate knowledge and skills.

LunchSkins are a Great Product

RE-PRINT: Views on the Village, 2013

As summer comes to a close, and school is just around the corner, many parents are kicking into their back-to-school purchasing mode.  And one product that is going to be filling the pantry again is plastic lunch bags for all those snacks.  It's usually a no-brainer for those of  us who send our kids to school with home-packaged lunches and snacks.   However, it doesn't have to be a waste of money or un-friendly to the environment.

LunchSkins are reusable and washable packages that are the perfect product for packing snacks for school lunches, or really anytime.  We discovered them last fall at the Cherry Creek Farmer's Market, and we are really pleased with how easy and convenient they are.  The "lunchskins" are little pouches with a colorful cotton fabric pattern on the outside and a "food safe" polyurthane liner that  keeps food  fresh for the trip to school.  With a velcro flap to keep them closed, they are dishwasher safe and really convenient.

Put LunchSkins on your Back-to-School list.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Jay McInerney - Novelist & Wine Critic

RE-PRINT - Views on the Village, 2012

Most people who have heard of Jay McInerney know him as a literary author, most famous for his classic 1980s novel Bright Lights, Big City.  However, these days he has as much of a reputation - maybe more so - as a wine critic who writes a regular column for the Wall Street Journal.  McInerney always had the voice of a magazine writer, albeit a literary one, and his columns on wine read like engaging stories, using the narrative of experience to open the world of wine to the novice and afficiannado alike.  Since developing a column for House and Garden - and then moving on to the WSJ - McInerney has published several works of non-fiction focusing on the wonders of the fermented grape.  I enjoyed Jay's fiction, and I'm developing a newfound enjoyment of his taste in vino.

In his most recent piece for the WSJ, McInerney spends some time with Steven Tanzer whose popular wine newsletter - International Wine Cellar - has been published since 1985.  Tanzer's newsletter has taken on additional prominence recently after the news that iconic wine writer Robert Parker sold a controlling interest in his newsletter the Wine Advocate.  Apparently, there seems to be some question to the credibility of Parker's information if it's not coming directly from his palate, or is potentially influenced by investors.  And, there is also a difference in the personalities and reputations of these men.  According to McInerney, Tanzer is a wine expert who favors "finesse over power" or more aptly, a pinot over a cabernet.  Favoring the cold climate delicate pinots is definitely my taste in wine, though I can enjoy a nice meaty cab on occasion.

Disc Golf in Greenwood Village

RE-PRINT, Views on the Village, 2013

[In early 2013] Village Greens Park in Greenwood Village underwent an extensive renovation with expanded recreational activities that include a new 18-hole disc golf course and a extensive mountain bike course. Like all things done in Greenwood Village, these projects were well planned and developed. The disc golf course - which aligns with the mountain bike course running along the Cherry Creek Dam - is in its infancy stages, having opened in spring of 2013. However, it is already getting plenty of use and positive reviews from Village residents. The course is "mostly wide open,"according to the DG Course Review website, and it will take a couple seasons for the trees and hazards to grown in. This leads for pretty easy access on approach to most holes. That may not impress the disc golf aficionados, but for players just looking for some recreation and nice challenge on their walk, the course plays fine. Since, discovering the course on a family bike ride a month or so ago, I've played several times with a top score of 3-over-par. My 11-year-old son and his friends, however, are practically obsessed with the course - primarily because of its proximity - and they have logged several 36-hole rounds.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Grade Within a Margin of Error

When a student "earns" a grade by accumulating 89.3% or 79.2% of the possible points, should the teacher award the higher or lower grade? Is the body of work truly the lower B+/C+, or is there a chance the student is really an A-/B- student? Ahh, the nuanced question of absolute value on grades - it's a conundrum for teachers who have a subjective component to their assessments. That disparity between letter grade demarcations is most significant in the arts and humanities, though more objective classes in the math/science world also face challenges in assessing the most accurate grade. I alwasy address this with my students in the first week of school and with their parents during Back-to-School Night. For, in my AP Lang & Comp class I usually give the class a surprise style analysis essay during the first couple days, and many students do .... well, not as well as they'd like and not as well as they will probably do by the end of the semester and the year. To that end, I only count the essay for half the normal points, and I will always consider dropping a low grade at the end of the semester for students "on the bubble." And I can't imagine why any teacher wouldn't also factor in some latitude to the idea of assessment.

The challenge of subjective grading of work like essays can be one of the most frustrating parts of the teaching field. In AP, teachers must rely on a general rubric that rates pieces of writing on a 1-9 scale. For the purpose of letter grades and GPA, teachers must turn those rubric scores into percentages. Many will put 8s and 9s in the 92%-98% range. And the scores adjust from there on down. And, overall we feel like this system is pretty accurate in assessing exemplary, competent, and inadequate performance. But what to do when a student's final grade ends up near that letter grade breaking point? Is the balanced part of the class where teachers grade objective tests enough to guarantee the letter grade is accurate? I often wonder. If a teacher regularly assigns an 82% for a low B grade (or 6 on the rubric), is there a possibility that a legit margin of error in giving a few essays an 81% or 83% instead could be the breaking point up or down for a final grade? The same question can be asked about those objective questions - which are occasionally debatable and certainly arbitrary in some of the content they expect for mastery.

I think we have to give students the benefit of the doubt more often than not. It's troubling that the art of assessment and grading can be such an inexact science. And, twenty-four years into my teaching career, I am still pondering the issue of authenticity.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Denver's Vibrant JAZZ Scene

Denver has a special place in American jazz history, notably for the accounts Jack Kerouac recorded of his time in Denver in the iconic novel On the Road. At the time Kerouac was writing and travelling, the jazz clubs on Larimer street and in Denver's Five Points neighborhood would have featured performances by legends such as Miles Davis and Billie Holiday. These days those areas have gentrified into Lo-Do with high rents, but they are still hipster cool with restaurants, clubs, and hangouts. And Denver's jazz scene is thriving. Colorado is host to many great music festivals in the High Country, from the Vail Jazz Festival to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and many visitors head through town on the way to those fests. Still, in Denver residents can see great jazz any night of the week. And, it's not just limited to the long-time jazz standard El Chepultepec. Recently, writer and former Denver Post travel editor Mim Swartz took a look at all the opportunities to enjoy the finer offerings of America's sound. As she notes for us: Denver's Jazz Scene Today is So Cool, man.

Of course, Dazzle Jazz — a slightly funky lounge and supper club in Denver’s Capitol Hill — has been a mainstay of the local jazz scene for nearly 20 years. Downbeat magazine has named it among the top 100 jazz clubs in the world. The club not only imports big names, it also features local talent. Good local talent. In some cases, great local talent. And where else can you go for lunch on a Friday and hear jam sessions with such a polished pianist/vocalist as Ellyn Rucker (she hosts there on the last Friday of the month, while various musicians sit in). Lucky for us, elegant Ellyn also plays gigs elsewhere in Denver. Other clubs have cropped up in the last several years, like Nocturne in the River North District and The Crimson Room in Larimer Square, both classy, sophisticated spots that make me feel like I’m in New York.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Give Students Time to Revise & Edit

RE-PRINT: Mazenglish, 2012

Teaching Honors Freshman English as well as AP Language and Composition, I focus a great deal on in-class writing with my students.  The in-class essay is only one form of writing, but it is a significant one these days.  With the rising concerns about plagiarism - even in the era of - and the increased focus on AP classes, the ability to write in a timed setting is an important skill for students.  It certainly offers a truly authentic sample of a students ability to translate thoughts into writing.  However, the task of revision is every bit as important.  So, on some assignments I give my students a bit of a perk - and extended time.  Occasionally, I will start them on an in-class assignment, and then hand it back for a second day of revision.  Sometimes I tell them they will have two days, and on others I surprise them.  However, in between days I collect their work, so they aren't actually doing any work at home.  Today, however, I sprung a different format on the kids.  My freshman are writing final essays on Antigone today, and about halfway through class, I stopped them and offered fifteen minutes for peer editing.  They are also allowed to take the essay home and finish it.  However, it must be handwritten and I need to see both copies and any revisions.  The class was thrilled - for sometimes, they say, they just need a little guidance and feedback during the writing.  A quick tweak of the topic sentence or some advice on a helpful quote might be just the sort of editing a kid needs to get over that hump.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Students Can Buy Taylor-Made Essays Online

RE-PRINT, Mazenglish, 2012

In the ongoing battle for academic honesty against a rising tide of easy-to-access plagiarism opportunities, the arguments for a considerable amount of in-class writing just keep going up.  As a teacher of AP Language and Composition, I assign mostly in-class writing to prep my students for the exam.  In the course of roughly thirty in-class essays a year, I have a pretty thorough understanding of my students' styles and abilities.  Thus, if they turned in an out-of-class essay that didn't "sound like them," I would be pretty comfortable calling them out for academic dishonesty.  And, that is the issue in a fascinating feature in the Atlantic Monthly.  Richard Gunderman - in his article Write My Essay, Please - exposes a new addition to the essay-writing assistance that many teachers thought they had prevented with the arrival of

Now, students can purchase assignment-specific non-plagiarized essays which can be accessed in a very short time period.  Apparently, quite a few online sources are offering essays written-to-order for very reasonable prices.  And since they are crafted upon request, they are not plagiarized and will not be caught by the standard plagiarism sites.  While Gunderman approaches the situation philosophically, wondering what it says about students and our world that they would simply pay someone to do their work, I am looking at it more practically in terms of how I can continue to guarantee academic integrity.  In essence, the only way to do so is to assign a fair amount of in-class writing.  While some teachers are more hesitant to do so, it is really the only way to verify a student's skills.  Even longer research projects can be handled in class with a practice of a writing journal and incremental grades for drafts.  One of my colleagues assigns out of class research papers, but tracks students' progress via their journals.

Regardless, English teachers need to be aware of these new essay writing services.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Colorado Law Allows Medical Marijuana at School

So, now there's this:

"Colorado School Districts Dealing with New Law Allowing Students to Use Medical Marijuana at School"

Colorado school districts this year are wrestling with a new law that allows students with a valid prescription to get medical marijuana treatments on school property with or without help from a school nurse. “Jack’s Law” offers two alternatives for the state’s 179 school districts. They can write policies limiting where on campus the treatments can take place or what forms of nonsmokable cannabis can be administered. If the district doesn’t create a policy, parents or a designated private caregiver would have no limitations on where they could administer the treatment. “It’s an either/or for the school districts,” said Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Longmont Democrat who was the bill’s sponsor. He wanted to give parents the right to administer cannabis medicine while also allowing school districts a way to police its use. “Ultimately, the school districts can figure it out,” Singer said, “or the state will figure it out for you.”

Monday, August 22, 2016

Time Film Critic Stephanie Zacharek's Voice and Eye

Criticism is a seemingly easy task that belies the hard work and talent that goes into it. Obviously, criticizing a film or book or meal is a natural tendency for all of us. However, to do so with an air of authority that doesn't seem pretentious and to do so with an eye that is as insightful as it is accessible requires quite a bit of sophistication and maturity. That standard is why I am such a fan of well-written criticism, and that's why the recent work of Time Magazine's Stephanie Zacharek has caught my eye. In perusing my most recent issue of Time, I was so impressed with the writing of one article - a review of Jeff Bridges Hell or High Water - that I took specific notice of the writer.

The performances here are uniformly and quietly terrific. Pine is particularly striking–his gait may appear laid-back and cool, but he lets us see the tension in every muscle. And then there’s Bridges’ Marcus, shaggy and worn but not yet played out. Marcus is on the cusp of retirement and unsure, as we are, how his constant stream of muttering and complaining will translate to life in the rocking chair. This is a man who wears his flaws boldly. He’s borderline racist–actually, he probably goes right over the border–in the way he ribs his long-suffering half-Comanche partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). But when one of the brother-robbers’ victims, a shy young clerk, apologizes for not knowing the make of their getaway car, Marcus teases helpful information out of her with a kind of craggy tenderness. And when the movie hits a tense turning point–one that’s likely to shake you even if you thought you saw it coming–Marcus responds with a strangled, anguished cry that seems to emerge less from his gut than from the earth itself. For Bridges, the old-coot handbook is old hat. He’d rather write new pages, dashing them off one by one with a grunt, a scowl and a flourish.

As I continued leafing through the magazine, I was struck by another story - a profile of documentary filmmaker and "poet-scientist" Werner Herzog. Once again, I noticed the byline of Stephanie Zacharek. She has the true eye of an artist and the pen of a poet, and her reviews of great works are almost as enjoyable as the works themselves. At the very least, she compels me to investigate the works and the people about which she writes. And that's about the best any critic can do.

Only a poet-scientist would care about how a piece of vintage computer equipment smells, and that’s the kind of detail Herzog, a true wack-bird genius, is so good at teasing out. Always off-camera but still intensely present, Herzog seeks out scientists and technicians who are busy perfecting driverless cars, pondering who will take the blame, humans or machines, when the inevitable accidents occur. He visits a group of people so sensitive to wireless signals that for their health and sanity, they’ve exiled themselves on a patch of land in West Virginia where wireless transmissions are restricted. He drops in on a grief-stricken family who became the victims of a cruel Internet prank, and learns about robots that could be programmed to counter nuclear disasters. Everywhere he goes, Herzog asks questions–smart ones, out-there ones–and the result is part celebration, part cautionary yellow light: Even Kleinrock, near the end of the film, laments that “computers and in some sense the Internet are the worst enemy of deep critical thinking.” And this is one of the guys who set the ball rolling.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

I Met a Trump Supporter and ...

So, I met a Trump supporter on my front porch today. She was a very sweet woman who was "taking a poll" in the neighborhood about voters' positions. She apologized for "being kind of new to this" as she brought up the poll questions on her smartphone and prepared to enter our responses. Of course, this exchange was inevitably going to evole into a back-and-forth as we expounded upon our positions, and I have to admire this woman for her willingness to be philosophically barraged on our front porch as she maintained a positive demeanor and tried to articulate just why she is supporting an incredibly unqualified and "dangerous" candidate for the highest office in the land. 

I guess the scariest part was the naivety, ignorance, and unfounded fear that this seemingly well- educated and reasonably well-off woman displayed. For example, when she asked if I wanted "a change in the direction of the country," and the policies of the current administration, and I said no, she seemed genuinely shocked, as if it were a basic fact that the country is in bad shape. So, I explained: "Look at us: two middle class suburban white people in a community with great homes and rising property values, almost no crime, and one of the top schools in the country. The stock market is booming, gas is $2.00/gal, unemployment is way down, jobs are growing, and my health care premiums are increasing at their slowest rate since 2000. What's wrong with that?" Her blank stare was the only answer she had. 

It was ... somewhat pathetic. And, as we proceded to discuss the "issues" that had her so concerned about the "state of the nation," it became glaringly obvious that she had almost no reasons, facts, or justifications for why she felt as she did. Those details are probably worth discussing in a later post. But, suffice it to say, she wasn't thrilled by my positions, nor swayed by my evidence. And, sadly, I couldn't convince her to consider supporting Gary Johnson. Oh, well. So goes the country.

Develop Voice in Student Writing

RE-PRINT - Mazenglish, 2011

We all want our students' writing to sing. Creating voice where there is little to none, however, is a challenge. As my AP Language students progress in their writing and ability to argue and deconstruct style, I reach a point where top students wonder if they will ever write a 9, and good students wonder how to make a 6 into a 7. The key to higher scores is often sophistication of language. It's diction, syntax, tone, style, voice, mood, attitude, and command of language. Top papers just sound better. And it's the way they command the language that makes the difference.

To that end, I use an assignment writing op-ed commentary as a way to model effective style/voice, and as a way to help them find their own. We analyze numerous pieces of commentary during the year, as they are great pieces for style and opinion/argumentation. In crafting their own, students are challenged with finding some topic on which they have something interesting to say. To begin, we do a few short journal entries entitled "Angry Talk," Happy Talk," and "Interesting Talk." They often share their ideas - and even a few choice sentences - as a way of generating ideas and discussion.

Often, this assignment produces some of the best writing I see from them all year. In fact, it works as well with my College Prep kids, too, despite being reluctant readers and writers. So, op-ed commentary just may be a nice addition to your composition components.

Oh, and by the way, the term "op-ed" does not mean opinion-editorial. It actually stands for "opposite the editorial page."