Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Great Food Truck Race Returns

**spoiler alert**

Now that Food Network foodies are moving past the debacle that was the finale of the next Food Network Star, it's time once again to take the show on the road. Tonight saw the return of the Food Network's Great Food Truck Race, a food truck competition hosted by celebrity chef - and true Food Network Star - Tyler Florence. Eight teams of three will compete in a cross country challenge of running a successful food truck. The winning team wins a brand new, state of the art food truck … and $50,000 in start-up money.

Each year, this show provides some inspirational stories of people looking for an opportunity for entrepreneurship in the growing field of food truck service. According to Tyler Florence, there are nearly 15,000 food trucks across the country, and they are changing the way Americans eat by bringing some high quality and even gourmet food to the customer. And there is something unique and charming about food trucks - so much that the surprise Hollywood sleeper hit of the summer was Jon Favreau's story of food truck redemption, Chef.

And, the Food Network has honored this phenomenon with a really quality food show centered around competition and culinary challenges. And, after the last two seasons of Food Network Star, I am realizing that I prefer this simple story of people trying to make a go of cooking in real world situations everyday. No gimmicks or goofy challenges or teasing the camera or cooking out of their element … or any of the nonsense that guides many Food Network shows. The Great Food Truck Race is just people with a dream to serve real food to real food and earning a living doing it.

The 2014 season features some interesting concepts and neat people. Of course, there are a few people who are clearly out of their elements and in over their heads. The fried chicken family from Tennessee set themselves up for failure by basically forgetting everything about cooking, most importantly in the area of food prep. They were so disorganized they lost hours of sales time by making numerous unnecessary trips to the store. Yet they only lost by $60, so it's clear that the Bacon Truck - who sold the whole time - are probably not long for elimination. And, I am a fan of bacon - but this food won't cut it. The Military Moms may have the emotional draw from their backstory - but the food won't take them far. I'm surprised they finished as highly as they did.

The story of the young family serving Mexican food won my heart, especially with the appearance of the dad - not to mention Tyler's advice to the young man about following his heart. And their food is clearly a winner two. Other favorite teams for me are the Beach Cruiser's selling fresh Cali food, and the Gourmet Graduates and the Middle Feast. The Texan group was the winner today, but they're not really my style. Can't wait for next week.

Education Reform Fails to Focus on "Education That Works"

Great piece by veteran newspaper writer Dick Hilker in the Denver Post today called "Education That Works.  Hilker focuses on the growth and success at two Denver area technical high schools - Warren Tech and Pickens. It is an important message that is regularly lost amidst discussion of education reform.  In the past few years, I have rung this same bell several times in the Post, and the response is always large and supportive. The problem, of course, is that no one at the policy level is doing anything to give this the attention it deserves at the state level. 

The emphasis on Common Core, PARCC, and STEM has all but stifled discussion of re-vamping schools statewide on this model. And too many people dismiss any talk of "voc ed" as implying that not all kids should "go to college." Which many probably shouldn't when it's not necessary for their chosen path. The problem is it's always an emphasis on 4-year bachelor degrees instead of associates, certificates, and apprenticeships. Let's hope Hilker's words make the rounds at the Capitol - I know they pay attention to what appears in the Post.

Thanks to Hilker for continuing to promote this invaluable side of public education. The specific focus, with details on the college connection, at Pickens and Warren was an excellent blend of commentary and news.  We cannot promote enough the importance of career and technical education. Four million jobs are available in skilled trades - while politicians and school boards (and Bill Gates) still focus on sending every kid to 4-year colleges for degrees in business and engineering.

More diversity and choice in education is what we need.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Big Lebowski Could Be Back - Bridges Open to a Sequel

"Cult classic" is a term that's thrown around too often when talking about independent films, especially ones that became more popular in re-release via tape or DVD than they were at the box office. However, the seminally cool film from the Cohen brothers, The Big Lebowski, certainly qualifies as a under-appreciated classic that grows better with age. It's not a fine wine, certainly, but perhaps a unassumingly good mid-tier bourbon. And, while too much of a subtly good thing is always a mistake, fans of "The Dude" will be intrigued by news that the Cohens and Jeff Bridges are "open to the idea" of a sequel.

The story of "The Dude" is truly a movie that has grown beyond itself. It's so much more than a movie - and that's the sign of a classic. Like many classic characters and stories, "The Dude" has become a cottage industry unto itself, extending the common man wisdom of a Venice slacker into a guide on how to live a contemporary Taoist lifestyle. Dude-esque sagely advice, playing on classic roots, can be found in books such as the Dude De Ching: A Dudeist Interpretation of the Tao Te Ching, published by the "Church of the Latter Day Dude." Seriously. The "Church" of Dude-ism, which is an organized religion that claims more than a hundred thousand followers. Let's face it - if a movie character can spawn the development of a religion that is seriously (or at least as seriously as a "Dude" could be) practiced, we've moved into a significant cultural phenomenon.

The original "Dude" Jeff Bridges has been happy to comply with and promote the culture that has arisen around one of his most well-known roles. And he has become in many ways synonymous with the Dude, Jeff Lebowski. Along with his longtime friend and philosophical partner Bernie Glassman, Bridges continues to promote the virtues of "Dude" in the book, The Dude and the Zen Master. Bridges and Glassman have spent years exploring the tenets of the contemplative life of non-resistance. And in their book they have simply collected some of their thoughts and conclusions. It's not really about about Buddhism or Taosim or even Dude-ism, as much as it's about the thoughtful life that has been a tenet of American spirituality since at least the times of Henry David Thoreua, if not Founding Father Benjamin Franklin.

Thus, the story of the Dude lives on, and extends itself beyond the script in ways that never cease to entertain some of us. From the lists of quotes that never get old to the discovery of new and interesting aspects of the film that haven't occurred to us before, the "Big Lebowski" continues on.

But that's just an opinion.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Are Common Core/PARCC About Federal Control of Education Curriculum

The foundation of Common Core is, without doubt or dispute, the establishment of national learning standards. And, if that's the case, it's difficult to see how Common Core isn't a de facto establishment of a "National Curriculum." CCSS proponents have argued for the necessity of standards to ensure that all students nationwide are being academically challenged in the same manner because 1.) it's necessary for students going to college and competing for jobs, and 2.) because a fifth grader who moves from one state to the next shouldn't find himself behind or ahead of his new peers. However, those goals basically require teachers to use the same curriculum, and that according to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is illegal.

The argument from Jindal amounts to a syllogism. If the federal government funds the tests, and the tests control what teachers do in classrooms, the governor claims, then the federal government is controlling curriculum, which is illegal. Jindal says the arguments from common-core and PARCC supporters about the damage uncertainty over testing creates for teachers prove his point. 

Whether or not the common standards lead to the establishment of common curriculum is the question to answer. For any moves by the federal government that direct or control school curriculum are clearly outlawed by at least three separate pieces of federal legislation. While curriculum in language arts changes based on the novels and the writing assignments, the role of standards in driving curriculum in the math and sciences is more obvious. And, as Gov. Jindal notes, if the test requires learning in a specific manner in order to succeed on a test that is funded by and basically required by the federal government, then that very action is dangerously close to violating laws on curriculum.

While I am not sure if the CCSS represent a federal takeover scheme, I am a little suspicious of attempts by Core proponents to differentiate the standards from the necessarily similar curriculum. Of course, this discrepancy is the problem when people outside of education try to make policy.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Michelle Rhee Moves on From Education - Looks for What's Next

Whether you agree with her or can't stand her, there's little doubt that former Teach-for-America alum and head of D.C. public schools Michelle Rhee has been a significant force in public education for the last decade or so. She has been called the "most polarizing figure" in public education, and she has been a lightening rod for heated policy debate on education wherever she goes. And, she has ridden this popularity and controversy to greater power and significance as she promotes education reform policies that her critics have called "horrible choices" that have intentionally "made the country a worse place." And now, rather surprisingly, she is walking away from the mess. It sort of reminds me of one of the most powerful quotes in one of America's greatest works of literature, The Great Gatsby.

"I couldn't forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Food Network Star Lenny McNab Controversy - Should He Lose Job Before It Starts?

Should the Food Network immediately distance itself from its newly ordained "Next" Food Network Star, Lenny McNab?

Apparently, there may have been some glaring oversight in the vetting department of America's culinary headquarters, as the cowboy chef, Lenny McNab, who was voted the winner of the Food Network Star competition has some crude and crass skeletons in his not-so-private closet. After McNab was announced as the winner - via voting by viewers - message boards and online forums exploded with all sorts of criticism of the choice. The story - or controversy - was uncovered by the writers at "Food Network Gossip" blog. In questioning whether Lenny's past will cost him his show, FNG listed a series of crass and inappropriate comments that McNab has made in the past, as well as mentioning a disturbing video from Lenny's YouTube Channel that has since been taken down.

Many of McNab's alleged comments contain extremely foul language and crude, disparaging comments about his "fans" and the Food Network Star known as the Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond. It seems like McNab has a history of making crude comments and videos, and there was a lot of evidence of someone called "Chuckwagon Chuck," assumed to be McNab, who regularly called in to the "Ron and Fez" radio show. And there is some mention of "Chuck" stalking one of the show's hosts. At this point, many of the comments and videos have been taken down - though it's probable that some of the content was downloaded and could re-appear.

None of this is surprising to many Food Network Star viewers who found Lenny a crass and unsophisticated contestant from the start. Lenny was my last choice from the beginning, and I was put off by his behavior most of the time. With that in mind, I'd hope that the Food Network, which had to recover from Paula Deen fallout after firing her for inappropriate behavior, would simply cut losses and never film his show. Heck, it's not unprecedented, as the winner from two years ago, Justin Warner, was basically dismissed by the network without ever really filming a show. Of course, the Food Network stars have other controversies in their past, so it will all come down to potential earning power vs. losses.

Let's hope we've seen the last of Lenny McNab.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Disappointing Food Network Star Finale - Lackluster Lenny Wins … but Isn't a Culinary Star

Well, this is two years in a row that viewers of the Food Network Star competition have voted for a really mediocre personality. Last year it was Demaris Phillips, whose "new southern" cooking was the wrong choice in a world that should be moving away from the Paula Deen mentality. Has anybody really watched Demaris' show? Cooking southern at heart (on the road to a heart attack) is not what I want to learn. And this year, shocking as it is to people with refined tastes and high culinary standards, the choice is "cowboy chef" Lenny McNab.

Granted, Chef Lenny is a "nice guy," and he is a reasonably skilled chef. There were many times that he helped out his teammates, and he certainly knew food as well as any of this year's finalists. But, as I noted last year after the Food Network Star finale, Chef Lenny is not - and never will be - in the same league as chefs like Bobby Flay and Tyler Florence and Geoffery Zakarian and Ming Tsai and Alex Guarnaschelli and, even, Alton Brown (whose behavior in this season indicated he clearly knows everything about food and has utter contempt for anyone who isn't a food dictionary like he is). Lenny is, and excuse my elitist attitude, simply uncouth. He is a bit crass and unsophisticated, and his knack for saying the wrong thing simply makes me uncomfortable. Can you imagine attending a high culture food and wine event like the Aspen Food & Wine Festival, and after discussing cuisine with Bobby Flay or Emeril Lagasse turning around to greet Lenny? It's simply not a very appetizing option.

Of course, this decision tells us a lot about the direction the Food Network is going - and it's not in the direction of good taste. And, perhaps it's the competition mentality which led us down this road. It's a road that has led the Food Network to become the Guy Fieri Show - and some argue that Guy's bombastic personality has ruined the Food Network. While that's a bit of an exaggeration, I don't disagree that a TV network constantly focused on food from "Diners and Dives" is not exactly elevating our culinary discussions in this country. While the Food Network still maintains some excellent evening programming with Chopped and Restaurant Impossible, it is more inclined to seek really low-class E-Entertainment sensationalism like Cutthroat Kitchen and Restaurant Stakeout.

So, I offer sincere condolences to Chef Nicole Gaffney and Lucca Della Casa. It had to be tough to lose in that manner. And, by the way, I completely disagree with the manner in which the Food Network eliminated Nicole first and then made her sit there between the other two and wait to learn who won at her expense. That was a pretty classless act, in my opinion. Nothing would have been lost by simply doing retrospective looks at all three and then announcing the winner from the three. So, sorry, Nicole. You deserved better.

And, to the Food Network: I will never watch Lenny's show, I am losing interest fast in the Guy Fieri obsession, and I am a little put off by how truly "commercial" and gossipy your evenings have become.  America has a complicated relationship with food - and you could elevate it or cheapen it. So, far it's seems you are much more about "Network" and much less about food.

Interesting News & Information Websites You Probably Don't Know About

What did we do before the internet?

Information and entertainment is so infinitely accessible these days, it's hard to imagine a time when we couldn't instantly look up reviews of restaurants or the background of a movie actor or the latest stats for the PGA Championship or the NL MVP race. I'm a bit of an information hound, which means I am constantly looking for engagement  - or distraction  - across the internet. That's why I've always been such a fan of magazines. And I can stand in the supermarket aisle for an hour reading random articles from Fast Company or Psychology Today or Men's Journal.

Of course, now that information is all immediately available on any electronic device. And that has led me to all sorts of new time-using (I avoid the word "wasting") sites. Here are a few new sites that I've recently discovered or engaged with to check the headlines on what is new and intriguing:

Thrillist - a digital men's lifestyle magazine with plenty a brain candy like the best Beer Festivals in Denver this month.

The Alternet - a news and information site that has original news and commentary. It pulls from a variety of news aggregation sites like and - and occasionally sends content to those sites. - an international news magazine out of Canada with a a little bit of everything including arts and culture as well as alternative news. It seems to be a go-to for the millennial generation. And they give it as much clout as Gen X gives the New York Times, or HuffPost for that matter.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Can All Teachers Be Great? Is Great Teaching a Teachable Skill?

How many truly inspirational people are there in the world? Enough to fill the nation's classrooms?

Those questions are at the heart of the discussion of education reform as countless people - not the least of which are President Obama and Ed Sec Arne Duncan - set a simple goal of putting a "great teacher" in every classroom. So, the question becomes: "Are great teachers born or made?" Writer and critic Nick Romeo asks this question in response to a new book which claims that great teaching is a simple matter of certain identifiable and teachable skills and tasks. Great teachers do certain things that can be modeled and packaged and voila - a Great Teacher in every classroom.

The foundation of this idealistic view is found in Elizabeth Green's new book, Building a Better Teacher, which implies that society - and education schools - can do exactly that. Green, who is a veteran education writer and editor of Chalkbeat, crafts her message around numerous anecdotes and profiles of "great teachers" who offer countless analogies for what effective teaching looks like. It certainly is a noble undertaking to research and document all these examples of greatness. Though packaging it as a series of practices that can simply be emulated deserves scrutiny. That critical eye is the point of Nick Romeo who logically argues that some people are simply better students who would, thus, be better at applying the seemingly foolproof keys to effective teaching that Green offers.

Ultimately, just like athletes who can all learn the skills, teachers will achieve varying levels of "greatness." And the question becomes whether it is acceptable to be average or adequate in the classroom. Certainly, once we know about great teachers, we would never want our children taught by someone who is simply OK. Thus, not being "great" becomes a matter of being "a bad teacher." And, like all popular critics who seek greatly oversimplified answers to incredibly complex questions, Whoopi Goldberg simply wants to "get rid of the bad teachers." Which is so helpful. Thanks, Whoopi. Because apparently some people want to keep the bad teachers. Right?

Ultimately, the concept of great teaching is like great art - we know it when we see it. And just because we can create a paint by numbers version of the Mona Lisa doesn't mean that we can all be Da Vinci.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

American Schools Are Not Failing - The Manufactured Crisis & Public Education Myths

American schools are not failing.

Education scholar and professor David Berliner tried to warn us.  Nearly twenty years ago, Berliner published The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on Public Education to warn us about the fraudulent claims being used by "education reformers" to radically alter the landscape of public education. Following the release of the Reagan-era education policy statement "A Nation at Risk," Berliner examined thoroughly and exposed the misleading criticisms of public education that were being used to launch reforms of public education. The none-too-subtle title of "Risk" contained a Chicken Little "sky-is-falling" warning that American schools were in such bad shape that a new "Sputnik moment" was upon us, as the miserable state of the nation's schools would lead to the decline of the nation within a generation.

Clearly, that was far from true.

Yet, the education reformers have not relented in their efforts to basically gut the foundation of public education and expand the reach of the business community and the private sector into the classroom. The rise of the voucher movement and the expansion of charter schools have opened the door for the Common Core revolution and the massive expansion of standardized testing as a measure of "school quality." And, thus, David Berliner is back again with another warning in 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America's Public Schools: the Real Crisis in Education. Berliner and education professor Gene Glass take on some of the top "myths" in the public discussion of public education. Notably, they expose the truth about:

  • American students are "falling behind" students in other countries
  • The ability of standardized testing such as exit exams to create accountability in schools
  • The problems of "value added" in judging teacher quality. 

Berliner and Glass recently spoke with education blogger Larry Ferlazzo about the gist of the book and their concerns. Their explanations of the hard realities about public education are lost on the unknowing American public who have long bought into the education crisis - even though most view their own schools and teachers very favorably. And Berliner and Glass are not alone in their attempt to expose the problems with the ed reformers.  Another public education defender - and reformer critic - Dr. Chris Tienken offers a similar and well-researched critique of the education reformers and the false claims about the education crisis in his book  The School Reform Landscape: Fraud, Myth, and Lies

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Slate Writer & Critic, Troy Patterson: An Interesting Dude

Sometimes there are people who just "know a lot," and they are the type of people who just naturally seem worth listening to. One of these people who is simply in tune with the contemporary world is Slate Magazine's Troy Patterson. Patterson writes the "Gentleman Scholar" column for Slate, and has generally been referred to as a "Writer at Large." That is a gig that many aspiring bloggers and writers would naturally say, "That's what I want to do." It's not easy, though, to do what Troy does. It takes a real eye for the zeitgeist, and an ability to distill the complicated to the accessible and find the interesting in the ordinary.

Troy's latest piece on how to be "Well Read without Reading" is just the sort of random topic that is both engaging and something most of us might ponder but rarely craft it into a piece of writing. Troy, however, has been doing that for quite a while. Working as a book and film critic for NPR, Spin, and Slate, Troy has crafted a niche market for his astute observations that can both engage and instigate.

You can follow Troy at @untitledproject.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Who's Responsible for Student Achievement?

Where do you stand on public education and teachers and education reform? That probably depends on where you stand on responsibility for student test scores. It seems these days that views on public education reform are entirely dependent on whether a teacher or a student is responsible for the student's performance on a standardized test.

And that's a problem.

In an era of increased hype around standardized testing - primarily resulting from continued emphasis in No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and PARCC/SmarterBalanced initiatives - the general public is forced to determine whether the quality of a teacher can be determined by how that teacher's students perform on standardized tests given by the state or private testing companies like Pearson and ACT. New NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia called the entire idea "stupid, absurd, [and] non-defensible."

There are certainly many reasons to cast "doubt on grading teachers by student performance." The public education system contains such disparity in the lives of students and the conditions in which teachers teach that it seems rather unconscionable to establish a standard test for all students to meet. Obviously, all students can achieve, and there is little doubt that some teachers are more effective than others at inspiring kids and improving achievement. However, there is little emphasis on how that happens and the significant role played by the kids - and even the parents, community, and environment - in that "equation." That said, certain hard realities indicate that specific populations will perform worse on specific tests in spite of the teaching. Motivation to take the test seriously can be a predominant factor, as can the overall state of mind for the students when they arrive at school - on test day or in general.

Thus, it remains a complicated issue - and ultimately un-definitive reality: "Should Student Test Scores Be Used to Evaluate Teachers?"