Monday, January 23, 2017

Do You Believe in Magic

I love magic. And, what I love most about it is that I believe in magic. From the time I was a kid, I could watch magicians and illusionists and contortionists and the like for hours, and it never got boring. These days, it's an amazing time to be a fan of magic because there are people pushing the limits of belief and imagination like never before. The man at the top of the pyramid in my mind is the incredible Mr. David Blaine. Blaine showed up on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon recently, and with some seemingly simple card trips he blew the minds of Jimmy and the Roots. Of course, I was a little upset with myself when I ran across it because it led to an evening just watching David Blaine clips on The coolest thing for me is the idea that David calls it magic but really just explains that he is committed to making the impossible possible. And that is just fine with me.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Trip to the Library

My reading is all over the place, which is really a reflection of my mind and interest level in general. Whenever I read a book review that is interesting, I'll request the book. Depending on the order they come in, that can make for some eclectic reading time. It's usually a blend of novels and non-fiction, and I am truly not a committed literature guy despite my role as an English teacher. And, of course, I occasionally pick up some featured books and "staff picks."  I probably finish about thirty percent of what I actually check out of the library or buy on Amazon. After a recent trip to the library and book store, here are the books on my shelf that I'm currently bouncing around with.

My pop culture fix is currently provided pop culture writer Gavin Edwards' entertaining and informative look at contemporary America's favorite trickster-god:  The Tao of Bill Murray: Real-life Stories of Joy, Enlightenment, and Party Crashing.

In YA lit land where I browse both as a teacher and a father of two adolescents, I ran across a compelling title for a Gen Xer English teacher. Author Barbara Shoup had me with the title Looking for Jack Kerouac.

And for the strangest of reasons I picked up another well known book from the Gen X-chic lit genre: Sophie Kinsella's original pop culture hit Confessions of a Shopaholic.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Give PSAT, not PARCC, at High School

Thankfully and rightfully, parents and students in Colorado are increasingly discerning about the standardized tests administered in school. Relevance is the key, and that's where long-standing college admission assessments like PSAT, SAT, & ACT are superior to the PARCC test. Fortunately, we have some clear-thinking legislators who are attuned to this issue and are taking action. Nancy Todd from Senate District 28 has introduced a bill this session that will give schools choice in the state-mandated test for ninth graders.

This legislative session Todd is introducing a bill that would give districts more flexibility when it comes to testing ninth graders. Currently, Colorado high school freshmen are required to take the PARCC test in English language arts and math, but Todd wants to give districts the option of offering the PSAT, ACT Aspire or an equivalent test in lieu of the CMAS assessment.

Kudos and gracious thanks to Senator Todd. She's a legislator and advocate for kids who truly gets it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Best Albums of my Youth

As a Gen Xer coming of age in the 70s & 80s (and probably still growing up a bit in the 90s), I was definitely impacted by the music of the age. It's no surprise to anyone who knows me that I consider REM to be the greatest American rock band, and musically they could do almost no wrong by me. Of course, we all have those albums (records, cassettes, and CDs) that define us and transport us back in time. On Facebook, it appears to be a thing to list our Top Ten from adolescence. Ranking always bothers me, and lists are always too limiting. But here are ten albums that rocked my youth:

  • REM - Life's Rich Pageant 
  • VIOLENT FEMMES - Violent Femmes
  • THE WHO - Who's Next
  • THE CLASH - London Calling
  • THE DOORS - Greatest Hits
  • THE POLICE - Zenyatta Mondata
  • U2 - War (& Under a Blood Red Sky)
  • SEX PISTOLS - Never Mind the Bollocks ...
  • NIRVANA - Nevermind

Monday, January 16, 2017

Deplorables are always "bad," Mr. Weiss - You sadly miss the point

The "basket of deplorables" comment will live on in infamy, as it probably should. It truly does reflect the completely aloof way that HRC and the Democrats waged a misguided Presidential campaign and irresponsibly turned the White House and the country over to potentially the most pathetic and risky person to ever occupy the Oval Office. However, the bigger mistake may be the misunderstanding that so many Trump voters - enthusiastic and reluctant alike - asign to the statement. This equally aloof and misguided view is nowhere better exemplified than in the sad piece of commentary published in the Wall Street Journal recently by a carpet salesman in Pittsburgh named Lou Weiss who strangely believes "The Deplorables Aren't So Bad, Once You Get to Know Us."

Actually, Mr. Weiss, the "deplorable" people in American society who are racist, prejudiced, mysoginistic, aggressive, violent, insulting, and threatening are, in fact, "so bad." That is the nature of the word deplorable. Deplorable words and behavior should always be exposed, criticized, and opposed in a civil society, and supporting any of those words or actions or attitudes is deplorable in itself. Sadly, after reading your piece of commentary, I don't believe that defense of bigoty is what you are arguing. Even sadder is that I don't believe you understand what you are trying to argue. Obvioulsy, Trump supporters who are not racist or hateful are also not deplorable, and HRC's mistake was not in the use of the word deplorable, but in foolishly assigning it to "half of his supporters."

That said, your subsequent criticism of progressive Democrats as an explanation of non-"deplorable" people at Big 10 games or frequenting Chick-fil-A or "working on your leaky faucet" is the worst form of elitism, as it manages to misunderstand both Trump supporters and Trump critics. Your claims contribute to stereotypes and bias based on jobs, socioeconomic status, and region, and your argument implies that values and morals are inherently part of a demographic when they may not be. By seeking to criticize bias and misundertanding, you sadly reflect it. Many supporters of HRC and critics of Donald Trump also support Michigan football, and watch American Sniper, and work in skilled labor like plumbing or nursing or mechanics. How sadly aloof you are to those realities. Truly, even many Trump supporters who work in the trades or are well-off attorneys in gated communities opposed the "deplorable" behavior so visible at Trump rallies by supporters and the candidate alike. And don't kid yourself - some of those people in the jobs you mention and frequenting the places you describe are potentially quite deplorable. Jobs do not equate to character or values or morals. And believing so is simply another example of prejudice.

Unless you are the type of person who went to the rallies and screamed hateful racist and mysoginistic threats, you should not identify with being "deplorable" or ask people to "get to know us." In attempting to educate the hipsters and Hamilton fans about how wrong they are about deplorables, you've only furthered the division, complicated the issues, and embarrassed yourself.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Will Shoder, David Foster Wallace, & the End of Irony

Just because it was on You Tube, I ran across this really well done video on irony and post-modernism. It was put together by some guy named Will Shoder, who isn't on Twitter as far as I can tell, but does have this Patreon page which he uses to support his work.

Standardized Test Companies should end time limits

My ninth-grade son took a Practice-ACT last weekend, and he did exceptionally well, as I would have expected for an advanced learner who aced AP Calculus as an eighth-grader. However, the feedback he gave about the experience simply reinforced my long-standing criticism of the tests such as ACT, SAT, PSAT, and of testing companies like College Board, ETS, & Pearson. Simply put, the time constraints on kids in these tests are completely arbitrary and create an inauthentic view of a student's intellectual and academic abilities.

My son finished the hour-long math section in roughly fifteen minutes and achieved a perfect score. Math at that level takes him almost no time to process. On the other hand, he felt the unnecessary pressure of finishing the 35-minute Reading section. He still did incredibly well on that section, but the ACT Reading section is truly an abomination in the world of literacy. It requires students to read four passages and answer 40 questions (10/per) in 35 minutes. That means averaging roughly eight-and-a-half minutes per passage. That is not reading. That is not literacy. That is not predictive of any applicable skill or intelligence ... other than the ability to do that test.

In a more reasonable environment, my son would have and should have been able to apply the extra 45-minutes from math to the reading section. The reverse may be true for students who can quickly read and answer questions on passages, but may need more than an hour for math. And, really who cares how long it takes to finish the tasks. We all remember taking the tests and hearing the dreaded "Stop, put your pencils down. You may not go back to that section or go forward to other sections." And, seriously, why not? Testing environments should allow the student the freedom to simply work on the whole test at their own pace and leisure.

As a coordinator for tests and testing accommodations, I am quite familiar with students who receive "extended time" on tests. They are required to apply for this privilege, and they must have some extensive documentation about a diagnosed "processing speed" disability or impairment to qualify. But there is no legitimate reason that all kids shouldn't be given extended time. If a kid finishes the tasks in one hour or seven, what's the difference if they can both solve the problems, exhibit the skills and knowledge, and accomplish the tasks.

Free the students. End ridiculous time constraints on standardized tests.

Writer-Mom "Experiments" with LSD

Well, this is certainly one of the weirder stories I've heard in a while. Even stanger, it's not just a story. Author Michael's Chabon's wife, Ayelet Waldman, has published a new memoir called A Really Good Day: How Microdosing made a Megadifference in my Mood, Marriage, and Life. Microdosing? That's a word? And a thing?

Ayelet Waldman would like you to know that she’s just a regular mom. Like you, she lives in her yoga pants, Instagrams her indulgent desserts, bickers with her husband and (four!) children: “I’m the woman standing behind you in Starbucks ordering the skinny vanilla latte, the one getting a mammogram in the room next to yours, the one digging through her too-full purse looking for her keys while you wait impatiently for her parking spot,” she writes in “A Really Good Day.”  But Waldman the everywoman is also Waldman the outlaw. She has not only taken LSD but has also written a book about it. “A Really Good Day” is a chronicle of her one-month search for emotional balance by taking small doses of a drug most people associate with Timothy Leary or CIA experiments [or hippies at a Dead concert or millenials dancing at raves of a Phish concert].

I'm not quite sure how to feel about this idea and story other than to say it makes me ... uneasy.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

GOP's "State Lines" Claim on Insurance Prices is Flawed

As the country braces for controversial changes to a controversial health care law, many American families are deeply concerned about the GOP making things worse and losing gains that have been made. Obviously, lowering health care costs is the primary and very necessary goal, and the "Affordable Care Act" has for the most part failed to accomplish that goal. And, there is simply no legitimate reason that health care and health insurance has to be so expensive - especially in a time of somewhat ridiculous revenue and profits for the health care industry. That said, the standard GOP call for "market reforms" and "consumer freedom" seem like rather naive and ambiguous plans and policies to alleviate the problems. I'm not going to disagree that "fixing health care requires the repeal of Obamacare," as argued by three Colorado congressmen.

And speaking of replacement plans, the narrative that Republicans have offered no plan to replace Obamacare is false. Republicans have introduced multiple alternative health care plans since 2010, and we encourage you to review them. The most recent replacement plan was offered by the Republican Study Committee, called the American Health Care Reform Act. The Empowering Patients First Act was a plan put forth in the 114th Congress by future Health and Human Services Secretary, Dr. Tom Price. Our Better Way Agenda also includes a blueprint for replacing Obamacare that is centered on more choices, lowers costs, and greater flexibility.

However, many of the claims and counterarguments and proposals by the GOP are simply ideological positions that have no proven benefit, and potentially troublesome effects. The biggest myth of GOP health care reform is the argument that allowing the purchase of policies across state lines will lower health care costs. Insurance prices are market-based, and companies will simply not sell a low-cost market policy to a higher cost market consumer. That's such basic business and economic knowledge that I wonder how GOP politicians and policy writers can continue to claim otherwise with a straight face. They are either ideologically naive, or they are simply lying. The question voters have failed to ask is why. As Bruce Japsen explains for Forbes magazine, "Selling Insurance Across State Lines Won't Lower Costs."

“Currently individual states can decide whether or not to allow insurers to sell plans from another state in their state,” the Center for Health & Economy wrote about Trump’s health plan earlier this year. “However, even where this is allowed, various barriers such as the difficulty of building a network and attracting enough customers to create a large enough risk pool make it unappealing to insurers to pursue this option.”

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Is the 401K Retirement a Lie?

I've been thinking about retirement lately as I approach the mid-century mark, and like too many members of Generation X who were hit hard by several downturns and recessions, I don't have a grand plan for reitirement income. As an educator who pays into a state pension, I will never draw from Social Security, and I have to hope that legislators in Colorado and Illinois do not gut the defined benefit plans I have paid into. The story of the "vanishing pension" plans has been the story of a generation that may not have the comfortable golden years that the Silent Generation and the Baby Boomers have enjoyed. A solution to the problem of weak or disappearing pensions and the unstable future of Social Security was the rise of the brilliant 401k plan that promised to allow people to control more of their own money and grow their own nest eggs. Sadly, it may all be based on false promises and naive ideological thinking. That's the warning from Bloomberg's Meghan McCardle who writes this week about "The 401K Problem We Refuse to Solve."

Was the 401(k) a tragic mistake? “The great lie is that the 401(k) was capable of replacing the old system of pensions,” former American Society of Pension Actuaries head Gerald Facciani told the Journal. “It was oversold." This is true. On the other hand, so was Social Security oversold. As was that good ol' defined benefit pension, so beloved of editorial writers, which was available to only a minority of workers when the 401(k) sprang into being. Nor were those pensions necessarily the generous perpetual incomes of popular imagining; autoworkers and public-sector employees got a great deal, but most people were not working for either the government or General Motors. They got smaller pensions -- sometimes much smaller, if their companies failed and dumped the pensions onto the government’s pension insurer.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Maggie Smith's Poem & the Loss of Innocence

It's not so often that poetry and poets make national news or even create a buzz among the non-literary population across the forums of social media. But 2016 was the type of year that could stir many in middle America to read, respond to, and promote a poem that captured a moment and articulated the emotions and confusion that are too often impossible to describe. National tragedies and tragedies of the human spirit are becoming all too common, and events like the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando scream for someone to explain and clarify and offer an avenue for healing. And so it was that poet Maggie Smith "sat in a Starbucks and wrote a poem" that begins with the resigned melancholic observation "Life is short, though I keep this from my children." It became, in the words of Washington Post writer Nora Krug, "A Poem that Captured the Mood of 2016."

The poem is a heartfelt work that grapples with pain and injustice, with unfairness and disillusionment. “The world is at least/ fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative/ estimate,” it says. “For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird./ For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,/ sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world/ is at least half terrible, and for every kind/ stranger, there is one who would break you.”Its subject is whether, when and how to talk to children about these hard realities. “I was troubled by the question of how we teach our kids about the world without lying to them — telling them that it’s all good — and telling them the truth without scaring them.” In the poem, the speaker takes on the role of a real estate agent: “I am trying/ to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,/ walking you through a real s***hole, chirps on/ about good bones: This place could be beautiful,/ right? You could make this place beautiful.”
Poetry is a bit of a conundrum for many, but often it rings true and clarifies, and that's the case with the full poem "Good Bones," which grapples with the delicate question of how we protect our children from the harsh realities of the world without hiding it to their detriment. It's a parenting question I first addressed here, and which many a critic has struggled to clarify. Neil Postman warned us that the increasingly technological and interconnected world we seek and have casually cultivated will ultimately lead to The Disappearance of Childhood, a societal invention that should be more cherished.