Monday, May 23, 2016

Food Network Star Returns

And Bobby and Giada are back ... with another group of amateurs who are going to annoy us until one of them is named the next Food Network Star .... and then go on to not have a show or be put in a really crappy time slot with some contrived idea. Seriously. Is anyone interested in watching Season 11 winner Eddie and his show about a kids BBQ competition? And, how 'bout the fabulous offerings from that Food Network Star Lenny McNab. Clearly, that season was a complete and total waste of time, not to mention incredibly poor judgment and vetting on the part of the Food Network execs. How did they not see that disaster coming? It was clear he was crass and unsophisticated to begin with. And, we're all still waiting for Chef Lucca's show, too.

Actually, we're not. I'm much more into HGTV these days. Property Bros or Caribbean Living, anyone?

But, I have been a pretty loyal fan of the Food Network Star idea, and I was interested enough to tune in for part of episode one, including the Star Salvation episode right before.. And, for a brief moment, I was pretty excited because I thought a true Food Network Star, Michelle Ragussis, was going to get another shot. Michelle was clearly the most talented and camera-ready contestant to ever lose out on the show. Nikkie Dinky is a close second. Yet, for mystifying reasons Tyler Florence and Valerie Bertinelli ( ... really?) chose to send Martita back for another shot. Sorry, Michelle. There is clearly some inexplicable bias against you.

So, this seasone we are offered ... really, nothing. My gut tells me from day one that the only real potential stars are the Italian guy, Damiano Carrera, and southerner Joy Thompson. The others are almost too painful to watch. But I will probably check in from time to time to see how they are all doing.

What do you think of the show and this year's crew?

Literacy Skills & Rigor

Re-post: Mazenglish, January 2013

What should high school students read?  And what should high school teachers teach?

The struggle in high school classrooms is vast.  Teachers face the challenges of offering students a rigorous curriculum that will prepare them for college and life and developing basic literacy skills by engaging them with material they can handle.  However, it doesn't have to be an either or decision.

Two great instructional texts for teachers to craft their English classroom model are Carol Jago's Classics in the Classroom and Denver-area teacher Cris Tovani's I Read It But I Don't Get It.  Both women are renowned English teachers who have decades of experience promoting literacy and refining the best practices for the English classroom.



Sunday, May 22, 2016

Allusions - What Students Need to Know

Re-post: Mazenglish - August, 2012

All literature draws from the record of stories and events that has preceded it.  English and American literature primarily draws inspiration from the stories of Western civilization, grounded in the the Judeo-Christian ethic, as well as Greek and Roman history.  Thus, the challenge for many readers - and students in the high school classroom - is accessing the texts with enough prior knowledge to recognize the allusions and "get the point."  As an English teacher, I often tell my students they need to be on their way to becoming - in the words of Henry James - people "on whom nothing is lost."

In the past few years, my colleagues and I have discussed the challenges of engaging students in classic literature when there is so much that is no longer common knowledge.  At the AP level especially, teachers speak at conferences about how much students need to know - and the disconnect from their actual store of knowledge.  To that end, we began compiling a list of allusions and references that students may encounter and might need to know.  Certainly, the lists of "cultural knowledge" the E.D Hirsch has assembled for his book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know is a foundation and the gold standard.  In fact, it forms the curriculum of many schools that adopt the Core Knowledge movement.  For others, a more abbreviated list is perhaps more practical.

To that end, I developed a list of common cultural allusions, and we have made it a part of the English handbook.  The abbreviated list has background info, and it is divided into sections on:

Biblical allusions

Greek and Roman myths

Anglo-Saxon myths

Major historical events

Pop culture references

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Cherry Creek Student Build a Tiny House

If you spend any time watching the immensely popuar House & Garden Network - HGTV - then you are aware of the tiny house movement. People across the country are taking "downsizing" to a whole new level with homes that are often no bigger than the size of a contemporary bathroom. Whether it's part of the de-clutter and simplify phase of a society that's reacting against decades of materialistic expansion, or if it's just an economic necessity to purchase a smaller abode in a country where property values have once again gone north of sanity, the interest in tiny houses is real.

But where do these tiny houses come from, and is there anything students can learn from the movement? Those are the questions being asked and answered by a group of students at Cherry Creek High School. Kids of Jeff Boyce's Environmental Science class have been pursuing knowledge and experience while designing and building a tiny house over the past year. Here's some coverage of their efforts:

A former contract environmental scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency, Boyce said the tiny house provides valuable insights into sustainable building practices. The house is being outfitted for solar panels. Boyce said that once students help put them in place, they will be linked to a computer system that will display how much power the panels are generating, how much the house is using, and how much power is required to do normal everyday things like charge a smart phone or laptop, among other things.
"It's a teaching tool that I can use to talk to kids about energy efficiency, resource consumption, conservation and their practices at home," Boyce said. The work students put in also has provided hands-on experience that could be valuable in a variety of jobs, Boyce said, including fields that are in high demand right now like renewable energy. "The STEM application — really making science real — that's what the tiny house is all about," Boyce said. "That's what my environmental sciences curriculum is all about. It's providing a foundation so kids can do more than work at the jobs they are doing right now."
Students who took part in the tiny house project sacrificed hours on the weekends to participate. Several of them said they were surprised by just how much they learned through workshop sessions where they watched construction professionals hang siding and perform other tasks before the students tackled them themselves.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Force Awakens Gen X Nostalgia

The Force Awakens Gen X Nostalgia

The opening text scrolled up the screen … and it was 1977 again. By now, those of us in our forties who have seen JJ Abrams’ re-tread of George Lucas’ classic space opera have settled into a comfortable pose of contented reminiscence, as we reflect on the most important movie of our youth. Yes, of course, as too many critics have been quick to point out, we’ve been here before. There is no doubting the striking similarities between the original film and Episode VII, with Rey almost identically substituting for Luke in the early scenes, and the plotline of a secret message carried by a droid making us nostalgically nod our heads or cynically roll our eyes in recognition and reminiscence. But it was almost as fun the second time around. A true Gen Xer can enjoy the movie for all the praise it gets while also acknowledging the validity of every criticism of Abrams. Yet, we get it – you have to go back to go forward. Screenwriter Blake Snyder pointed out that Hollywood studios and filmgoers simply want “the same thing, only different.” That is the art of allusion and archetype which grounds all fiction and continually enthralls audiences with the same basic stories re-told with different costumes, settings, and characters. And, considering the original Star Wars: A New Hope drew heavily from the mono-myth first explained by Joseph Campbell, it’s only appropriate that Star Wars: The Force Awakens pay homage to the archetypes. At this point in our lives, Generation X is ready to look back and live it all again, maybe a bit jaded, but hopefully with some wisdom.

In framing the story of Rey and her almost mystical connection to The Force, Abrams doesn’t dodge the obvious connections to the past. Instead, he writes the redux directly into the film, referencing it when Maz Kanata tells Rey, “I’ve lived long enough to see the same eyes in different people. I know your eyes.” Clearly, Maz is dropping hints about Rey’s true identity, but Abrams is drawing on a larger truth about stories and the human condition. Students of literature and film know that there only seven basic stories anyway. And, as the children of Generation X move into adolescence, and as the political and cultural landscape reflects a stagnation reminiscent of the 70s and 80s, the return of a familiar epic hero seems eerily appropriate. Is it really that surprising that the Star Wars myth is returning at the exact same time Sylvester Stallone is back to the original Rocky story? Most Gen Xers are now heading into the midst of the U-curve of emotional growth, and it’s at this point that life seems to bottom out only to suddenly start getting cool again because we are now looking at the world with a bit of hard-won wisdom. We know stuff. The year of 1977 brought the release of Star Wars, but it also saw the rise of punk rock and all its rebellious spirit which no doubt influenced young Gen Xers.  As disaffected a generation as Gen X was supposed to be, the idea of nostalgia would almost seem unfathomable. In Star Wars terms, Gen Xers were much more like Luke Skywalker who couldn’t wait to get away from home than they are like Rey who wants nothing more than to get back home. Yet, strangely, Generation X is every bit as retro as their initial hipness foresaw, and the return of Star Wars is a reminder of the magic their entertainment represented to their coming-of-age. The nostalgia boom is big for Gen Xers, and it’s with no shame that forty-somethings are looking back fondly upon a past that really wasn’t much to speak of when they were in it.

So, what to make of the nostalgic feelings about a story that seems so familiar but contains enough subtle twists to be “the same thing, only different.” Certainly, the villain of The Force Awakens is a bit of a departure, or perhaps a development in the Lucas legend. Kylo Ren – a child of divorce and the emotionally-frazzled product of a dysfunctional home – is not the cold and calculating automaton that intimidated us as Darth Vadar, but instead a brash young bully, prone to Millenial-esque emotional swings and moments of self-doubt.  Clearly, the moment of patricide – an ironic reversal of the “Luke, I am your father” scene from the original – was a clever bit of re-branding. And, Gen Xers get it. Of course, Han Solo had to die just like Obi Wan did. That was our first acknowledgment of the archetypal coming of age – the loss of a mentor figure. Generation X was a group defined by loss and harsh realizations, especially about institutions and authority figures. Luke would ultimately be abandoned by the only father figure he knew – for that was how Xers grew up. As Gen X writer, Chuck Klosterman noted in his essay “Lisa Loeb on Planet Hoth,” Empire Strikes Back is really the most Gen X of movies – it’s the darkest of films grounded in disappointment and frustration, the good guys losing, and the deepening sense that it’s never going to get better. Ultimately, Empire and the whole trilogy reflected Cold War and recession realities that left a generation jaded, but stronger and wiser for it. That wisdom, wrapped up in myth and legend, is why Star Wars nostalgia resonates with Xers.

Yet, there are also unexplained and underdeveloped plot twists in The Force Awakens that give an original fan pause, seeking to understand those meta-moments and glossed over plot points. A significant difference and development is the new weapon that wipes out numerous planets in The Republic for whom the audience has no real emotional connection other than passing reference to The Republic. In Star Wars: a New Hope, it was Leia’s home planet of Alderaan that was at risk, and as the vulnerable and recognizable humanity served as the example of the Empire’s power and sheer ruthlessness, the chilling effect was pervasive. But in The Force Awakens, the massive weapon is just a cool special effect for many younger viewers who won’t take time to consider the significance of The Republic.  Has an era of drone strikes and a never-ending War on Terror so desensitized society that the political ramifications of mass destruction are reduced to big impressive fireworks? Some deep humanist reflection is missing in a movie that so blandly glosses over the annihilation of millions. From that point, Star Wars: the Force Awakens veers into meta-fiction during the déjà vu discussion of attacking the new “Death Star,” which for older audiences had to happen, but also weakens the overall story. Do we really need Jedi fighters seemingly aware that they’re in a movie, repeating lines from nearly four decades ago? It seemed a self-serving conceit from a slightly embarrassed director, rather than an insightful bit of self-aware satire. Meta-fiction in Star Wars seems eerily out of place, as amusing as it is. Gen Xers were the first audience to truly appreciate meta-fiction, but its use in Star Wars is somewhat pathetically patronizing.

Thus, the question for Gen X viewers is whether we appreciate JJ Abrams’ paying homage to the original epic, or whether we are pissed off at the way he hacks off the foundation of the franchise. As Generation X sits in the heart of middle age, with the youngest at 35 and the bulk of us taking our pre-teens and middle schoolers to the movie, The Force Awakens is a perfect moment of “Where Are We Now.” The original news that Disney had purchased the franchise sent shivers of artistic malpractice through many Gen Xers. For a group raised on punk rock, and for artists and fans instrumental in the rise of alternative music and independent film, the Disney-fication of our most sacred bit of pop culture seemed a gut-wrenching sell-out. Yet, as our kids’ eyes lit up with the hype of the first trailer, and we couldn’t help but smile at the appearance of Han and Chewy, the nostalgia won us over. Despite the cynicism of a jaded generation, Generation X was ready to reflect fondly on its past. Gen X is, no doubt, a strangely sentimental group that has been in some ways nostalgic for the past almost from the moment they entered adulthood. Perhaps no group ever graduated college as ready for retirement as the group of Xers in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming who lamented, “I’m nostalgic for five minutes ago.” It wasn’t as much about slacking as it was about weariness. And now, as those nostalgic kickers and screamers enter middle age, the return of our oldest mythology revives the wisdom of our pop culture mythology.

If there were ever a time for Generation X to begin looking back, then 2016 is the moment. This year represents the quarter-century mark for much of the entertainment that marked the post-Boomers as Generation X – notably, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, Richard Linklater’s Slacker, and Nirvana’s Nevermind. But if the seminal works of the 90s consciousness are representative of Gen X identity, then the iconic films of the late 70s and early 80s like Stars Wars and Empire Strikes Back were the foundation.  With the return this year of both The Muppets and The X-Files, Gen Xers can embrace the satirical whimsy of childhood in Kermit and Piggy’s innocently dysfunctional romance, while also wallowing in the jaded cynicism of Mulder’s return to smoking out government conspiracy. Certainly, the darker side of reflection would seem to be the default of Xers, as New York Times critic A.O. Scott has explained as the midlife crisis of Generation X.  And, recent works such Ben Stiller’s While We Were Young and the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, and Noah Baumbauch’s Greenberg have almost too often reflected the generational ennui that never really left Gen Xers after their youth that was, in the words of Allison in Breakfast Club, “unsatisfying.” Thus, for a generation that has often felt like reality never stopped biting, the return of our original rebel alliance, framed so poignantly in that final encounter between Ray and Luke Skywalker, is righteous cause for the cautious nostalgia the Force has awakened.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

DJ's Make Millions? Calvin Harris Tops the List

This weekend my high school held prom at a cool venue in Denver, and the DJ for the  evening was a sophomore at our school. It was impressive, as he had hundreds of kids on the dance for hours, and they all had a blast. Over the years, we've hired DJs for our dances, and I've never given much thought to people who do this for a living. But I've taken notice recently after learning that the world's top DJs can make tens of millions of dollars a year. Who knew?

It’s been a year to remember for Calvin Harris. Over the past twelve months, the Scottish DJ earned $66 million, dropped an album that rocketed to the top of the U.S. dance charts and started dating Taylor Swift, in the process dethroning Jay Z and Beyoncé as music’s top-earning couple. The fact that he’s the world’s top-earning EDM act—tying the record for annual earnings by a DJ, which he set last year—is almost a footnote. Harris HRS -0.01% is once again the top name on our Electronic Cash Kings list, nearly doubling the total of second-rankedDavid Guetta, who pulled in $37 million. Not bad for a guy who’s roughly a decade removed from being a supermarket stockboy in a remote town in Scotland.“The rise of dance music has been astronomical … I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he told FORBES.



That sort of money simply baffles me - though I am just beginning to understand how the world of EDM - Electronic Dance Music - can be so lucrative. Entertainment has come a long way since the days of traveling minstrel shows, and there is no doubting the revenue involved in EDM. So, the next time a student is talking about his interest in DJ-ing, I will look more favorably. Though I am not entirely sure of when the DJ is writing and composing (or creating music) and when he is simply mixing and playing the music. This is a world that I'd like to learn more about. I'm thinking I might learn something from a new drama about the EDM world - We Are Your Friends. I'm not sure how authentic it is, but the film looks intriguing.

Cole Carter (Zac Efron) is a former track star and struggling 23-year-old DJ in the electronic dance music (EDM) scene, dreams of becoming a major record producer. He constantly reminds himself of his plan to rise to the top consists of three things: a laptop, some talent, and one track. Cole lives with his friend, Mason (Jonny Weston), and they would usually hang out along with their friends, Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer), around their native San Fernando Valley. With Mason's help and his friends heavily promoting at college campuses, Cole finally books a gig to DJ at a local nightclub, where he meets the headliner, a once-innovative DJ, James Reed 




Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Edward Wan of Washington is the National "Math Bee" Champion for 2016

Math Counts.

In this STEM-focused era when schools, companies, and legislators are falling all over themselves to promote the study of science, technology, engineering, and math, it's truly surprising that more people are not aware of the national Math Bee known as MATHCOUNTS. The MATHCOUNTS competition is sponsored by the Raytheon Corporation and organized by a foundation of people including the National Society of Professional Engineers and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Like the national spelling bee, MATHCOUNTS is open to middle school students who compete in regional and state tournaments for the chance to compete at the national level.

The competitors known as "mathletes" compete in individual and team written rounds with the goal of "making the stage" for the lightening fast Countdown Round, where the top mathletes answer complex math questions on algebra, geometry, probability, and statistics, and they must solve them in forty-five seconds or less. The mad math skills of these kids is truly extraordinary, and the head-to-head matches are nothing short of breathtaking in their intensity.

Check out these highlights from the Countdown Round:


This year's competition was held at the Renassiance Hotel in Washington DC, and the last two mathletes standing were eighth grader Edward Wan of Washington and Luke Robitaille of Texas. The Texas team was truly dominant this year, winning the team competition and sending all four of its mathletes to the 12-person countdown - a feat which has never happened. Texas also feature two sixth graders in countdown, which has also never happened. The countdown round was featured on ESPN3 on Monday, May 9 during the mid-day. It's nice for ESPN to offer the coverage - but it's a bit of a shame that ESPN offers three hours of prime-time air to the national spelling bee. While we shouldn't take anything away from the achievements of the nation's top spellers, there is really no comparison to the incredible math skills of the nation's top mathletes. Perhaps someday, the Department of Education and ESPN and Raytheon will give proper due to the kids of MATHCOUNTS.


Monday, May 16, 2016

6th Annual Cherry Creek Poetry Slam

The power of language is alive and well in the Cherry Creek School District of Colorado, and the young slam poets of the district's six high schools are making their voices heard. Slam poet Jovan Mays is a key force behind the growing slam community in the southeast Denver school district. As a former national slam competitor and as the Poet Laureate of Aurora, Jovan inspires all kids to embrace the spoken word as a platform for their thoughts. Here's a link to the story I wrote on the Cherry Creek School District's 6th Annual Poetry Slam.

“The point is not the points – the point is the poem.” That artistic wisdom was laid down by slam poet Jovan Mays two weeks ago at the Sixth Annual Cherry Creek School District Poetry Slam. Mays, who is a district alum and the Poet Laureate of Aurora, emceed the event as twenty-four high school poets took the stage at Eaglecrest High School on April 14 to throw down verbal gymnastics in their bid for the district championship.
This year’s slam host was Ashley McCulloch, an English teacher and debate coach, who coordinated the event with students from Eaglecrest and other district high schools. For the first time, the Cherry Creek Slam featured poets from all six high schools. Jovan explained how “This district slam began six years ago after I competed at the National Poetry Slam, and I just knew I had to bring this art form back to students in my community.”  He has worked tirelessly during the past decade or so to workshop with students and teachers, promoting the power of language and the freeing power of poetry. “This art form saved me in high school,” Jovan has noted, and he is committed to opening the medium to as many kids as possible.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Cherry Creek High School's Troubadours Play Carnegie Hall

One of the great joys of working at a place like Cherry Creek High School is getting to experience the incredible artistic talents of groups like the Troubadours. Creek's men's audition a cappella choir is a group of hardworking and musically gifted young men who bring sheer joy to their art. Last month, I had the special opportunity to travel to New York City where the group participated in a musical showcase at Carnegie Hall. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many. Here's some info from the story I wrote for the Denver Post - Cherry Creek's Troubadours Take Manhattan:

Everyone knows the old adage about the way to get to Carnegie Hall – “practice, practice, practice.” No one has to tell that to the Cherry Creek High School Troubadours, as the men’s a cappella choir practices extensively, working daily in class and putting on numerous concerts throughout the year. Their hard work was recently rewarded when they achieved the dream of so many aspiring musicians, playing Carnegie Hall on a recent trip to New York City.
Cherry Creek’s audition choir The Troubadours travelled to the Big Apple in late March to participate in a Saturday evening event where eleven high school choirs from around the country came together for three days of rehearsal to prepare a musical program that was performed at Carnegie Hall. Cherry Creek choir leader and director Sarah Harrison was contacted by travel company Manhattan Concert Productions which organizes events such as the Carnegie Hall concert, and the Troubadours were invited to join the production. She has worked with the organization numerous times because she can “trust this company to put together a quality product.”

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Teresa Keegan Demeans Non-College-Educated Workers to Promote Standardized Testing in Denver Post

Standardized testing - what could be wrong?

The role of standardized testing in public education continues to complicate discussions about students and learning and achievement. A major problem is people who look so superficially at the idea of education and assessment that they can't begin to fathom what could be wrong and why some parents and teachers criticize testing and "opt out." The latest argument published by the Denver Post comes from Teresa Keegan who overimplifies the issue, complicates her own argument with conflicting information, and succeeds in demeaning and insulting 7 in 10 adults who work in fields that don't rely on academic skills. Here's her piece titled: Fourteen Centuries of Standardized Testing Can't be Wrong.

But what happens when these untested kids grow up? Those who wish to become lawyers are not going to be able to "opt out" of the grueling two-day bar exam. Anyone who wants to enter the lucrative accounting field must take the four-part, 14-hour CPA exam. Will these people even be able to pass a driving test? Of course, there is one surefire way to avoid the stress that comes with qualifying for grown-up professional jobs. There are currently no testing or licensure requirements to be a retail sales associate at Walmart.

Here's my response to her:

Ms. Keegan,
While I generally enjoy and agree with your pieces for the Post, I am quite disappointed in the naive and myopic view of testing you take in your most recent piece. It is an example of the general public who have scant knowledge of education, pedagogy, assessment, and learning. While you start off on the right foot with your connection to the problems of Confucian era testing, you veer off at the end into a superficial generalization at the end which implies that since someday some kids will need to take tests for a job, then all standardized testing is simply practice for that future and thus beneficial. This generalization overlooks genuine questions about our goals and endpoints of education. A future civil servant or accountant is making a choice to enter that field. And your comparison to a driver's test is petty and misguided.
A key positive of your piece is noting that these tests (PARCC, ACT, etc.) assess only academic skills which represent only a snapshot of how kids "test," but nothing more. However, I was quite shocked at the end when you pretentiously and rather curtly dismiss the value of anyone who does not pursue academic skills and bachelor degrees and white collar work. By demeaning people who work in retail and skilled labor, you have exposed a flaw in your argument and the problems of the "college-for-all" mentality. Shame on you, Ms. Keegan. Do you not know that only 3 in 10 Americans have a four-year degree and work in a field that requires one? If you - and other pro-PARCC voices - succeed in preparing 100% of students for four-year degree and promise them white collar "academic" careers, who will work in the service industry, repair your cars and plumbing, build houses and office buildings, take out the garbage, clean the offices, stock the grocery shelves, etc, etc., etc.? Yes, some engineer will create an iPhone, and some marketing exec will commercialize it. But that product is worthless without the hundreds of thousands of workers who assemble the phone, sell the phone, and service the phone (not to mention the whole related infrastructure). Have you given much thought to the "non-academic" role played by the truck drivers who deliver all the products on which you depend for your job and your writing hobby? Your ignorance of the roles all workers play in a dynamic economy lacks the precise sort of "critical thinking" that we desperately try to teach kids ... and which is rarely "assessed" by companies like Pearson.
Additionally, the "opt out movement" does not support the elimination of all tests. They are for scrutiny of who is being tested, what is being tested, how much they/it is being tested, and, most importantly, what is being done with the data. They are critical of the quality of the tests and the "quality control" in determining which assessments we use. Do you have any expertise in math and language arts assessment? Is the PARCC an accurate test of skills? Is it norm or criterion referenced? Have the proficiency cut points been piloted and cross referenced? How can different states have different cut points for PARCC proficiency? How can PARCC honestly declare that "ZERO percent" of high school students in Illinois are advanced"? Knowing many top national schools and students in Illinois, I know for certain that "data" like this exposes serious flaws in the system, and those flaws are not only deserving of far more scrutiny than you would pursue, but they also demand a refusal to submit to the test until the validity of the measures are determined. 
Have you given any thought to these concerns and issues? Assessment has a role - and so does careful scrutiny of the tests and the process. As a parent and a teacher and a school administrator, I think carefully about these issues on a daily basis. I write extensively on the issue, and I've testified before the State Board of Education and the Senate Education Committee. And, I am troubled by people superficially commenting on serious educational issues.
I would be happy to discuss the issue of standardized tests and assessment policy with you further if you have any interest in learning more about the issue. Let's chat before you decide to publish another piece on testing.
Regards, 
Michael Mazenko
A Teacher's View

Monday, April 25, 2016

Can Teachers Do What Students Are Asked


RE-POST: From Mazenglish - September 2012

Recently a colleague asked me for a copy of a practice or released-ACT test.  After a relative with a science background had taken the science section and aced it, and a math-oriented friend had taken the math section and scored a 100%, my colleague was wondering how he would do on the English and reading section of the ACT.  Because I am in charge of our grammar program and have access to many of the standardized resources, he asked for a test.

And it made me wonder.

How many high school teachers test themselves against the ACT or SAT or AP tests in their field?  How many trust themselves to do well?  How many teachers can - and do - actually write the high quality essay or research paper in response to their own questions?  And should we know if we can or not?  Years ago, while taking a staff development class on grammar instruction, I sat with a group of English teachers and took the ACT and SAT tests.  It was exciting and interesting and even intimidating for some.  But it revealed a lot.

The same type of challenge occurred in an assessment of writing class.  Our instructor put an essay prompt in front of us based on some common reading and told us to write the best essay we could.  The terror of the blank page came storming back at some people, and it was an inspired and insightful lesson.  One great activity that addresses this issue is the National Writing Project.  Writing teachers should write, and because it was promoted to me as a great opportunity, I have challenged myself twice during the summer by taking the Colorado Writing Project.  In fact, that class led to success in publishing my writing and inspired my foray into the blogosphere.  Because I regularly write on-line and occasionally publish pieces in the Denver Post, I am pretty confident in my skills and the ability to produce high quality content.  The same goes for my grammar skills because I spend so much time taking the sample tests our committee writes.

But, I have to be honest.  I am not so confident about the rest of the teacher corps in this country.  And perhaps scoring poorly on a standardized test - or writing a weak essay - has no correlation to success in teaching and inspiring students.  However, if for nothing more than a bit of empathy and compassion, I believe we should regularly challenge ourselves to do that which we ask of children, day in and day out.

Think about it.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Visiting the Kirkland Museum in Denver

As part of my son's fourteenth birthday (and Shakespeare's b-day and 400th anniversary of his death), we took the light-rail into Denver yesterday to take advantage of the Open Doors Denver program. Dozens of historic and significant Denver sights are open to the public for one day to encourage people to investigate the rich culture of the Mile High City. After a nice brunch at the Mercantile in Union Station and a casual stroll down the Sixteenth Street Mall, we made our way over to an open day at the Kirkland Museum, which is soon moving to a new Denver locale. Our excursion proved to be a most valuable experience, for I was not familiar with this unique and somewhat iconic figure of American abstract expressionism.

Quirky is good. With so many art museums nationwide drawing from the same playbooks, a numbing homogenization has set in, as they too often race to show the same artists and play copycat on many fronts, including the way they exhibit and interpret the works on their walls. If you've seen one recent exhibit of Chinese contemporary art, for example, you can pretty much predict how the others will play out. But the Kirkland avoids that trap. Perhaps because director Hugh Grant is not a museum curator by training, there is a refreshingly unbridled, free- form approach to everything the Kirkland does. He does things the way he sees fit and is not always looking around to see if his approach conforms to what every other gallery in town is showing. Be yourself. The Kirkland does not try to be all things to all people. It has established a few well-defined areas of emphasis for itself, and it hews to them. It hopes to spark visitor curiosity with at least one, but it simply accepts that not everyone will be interested by what it has to offer. In fact, children under 13 aren't allowed in, ever. While the spotlight on the decorative arts springs from Kirkland's own collecting in the field, the museum's more recent foray into Colorado art derives from discerning a gap in what other area institutions are doing and shrewdly and aggressively acting to fill it.

As part of my intent to start living the life I've imagined, I want to spend more time and energy exploring the world of art and culture. Last month, I visited the Museum of Modern Art while in New York with a school group, and I was not only captivated by the art, but I was thoroughly educated in the area because I visited with an artist, our school's Fine Arts coordinator. Seeing the MoMA through the eyes of an artist was one of the most inspiring cultural moments of my life.

I need more of that.