Saturday, December 31, 2016

Teach Literacy Skills & Content Knowledge

RE-PRINT: Mazenglish, 2012

A somewhat cold and undeclared war seems to be boiling in the English community, specifically, and the education world at large regarding the teaching of literacy.  Basically, the divide is happening between subject knowledge and the practice of basic literacy and the teaching of reading strategies.  While people like Cris Tovani have argued passionately for the teaching of reading strategies all the way through high school, core knowledge people like Dan Willingham have expressed concern that teaching strategies has no impact on actual learning.  The war isn't actually as serious as it has been hyped.  For Tovani's camp is certainly teaching the importance of core knowledge - as one of their foundational strategies is that "effective readers use existing knowledge to make sense of new information."  And from the Willingham/Hirsch side, there is no evidence that they are outright dismissing the teaching of literacy strategies.

Ultimately, the solution is found - not surprisingly - in a balanced approach.

Anthony Palumbo, a literacy professor, examines and explains this idea quite well in a recent piece of commentary published in Education Week.  The key concepts of reading strategies - such as basic phonemic awareness - are the foundation of accessing text.  But they do not automatically lead to comprehension.  A student can pronounce the words in his head, even as he fails to understand what he's seeing.  It's called "fake reading."  And, the data reveals that students' comprehension of complex information is declining, even as schools seem focused on ramping up literacy instruction.  Clearly, the gap is evident at the earliest level, but it becomes a foundational issue by grade four when "schools begin to emphasize the measurement of subject-matter knowledge and de-emphasize the measurement of basic literacy skills."  Schools find this most frustrating in the subject areas outside of English class where the science and social studies text simply baffle many average teenagers.  They shut down and fail to engage with the text.

The problem often can be traced to the overall lack of "knowledge-based literacy," meaning kids simply do not know enough to access texts on information they don't know.  And, worse, they lack the self-awareness and meta-cognitive abilities to even understand when and why they do or do not understand a text.

And, that is the nature of our burden.

Friday, December 30, 2016

So Much to Read and Do

I'm finally reading a lot of literature again. Truly, I am a bit of an enigma and a contradiction for an English teacher because I don't always read novels regularly, and I really have no desire to teach AP English Literature, as opposed to AP English Lang. Like many men, I am far more interested in non-fiction writing, and that emphasis in Lang is really where I find my calling. That said, I am often a "literature admirer" from afar - there are many books I would like to read or at least have read. For there is so much honesty about the human experience, and that knowledge and insight is truly a part of who I want to be.

So, I've been haunting the library and bookstores again like I used to, and I am pulling more books off the shelves than I could ever read in the time alloted. For example, I am currently working my way through Skios by Michael Frayan - it's a delightful satire of academia and the world of large foundations and their conferences.

And I recently grabbed Madam Picasso by Anne Girard off the shelf. Not sure if I will get around the reading it before it's due and I've finished other books on the desk, but the back page alone was compelling enough - "... the mesmerizing and untold story of Eva Gouel, the unforgettable woman who stole the heart of the greatest artist of our time."

I truly hope I have time to crack open the sci-fi-ish story The Subprimes by Karl Taro Greenfeld. It has a fantastical setting in a future dystopian world where people are known primarily by their credit score. What a fascinating and timely discourse on the dangers of an increasingly finance-driven world, and it reminds me a bit of another great dystopian satire Jennifer Government by Max Barry. 

There are more, of course. My desk and shelf are piled high, as an English teacher's should be. And, I believe I will be reading and writing more.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Loving Where I Live - Go, Colorado

Growing up in a small town in southern Illinois, I couldn't have been happier. Alton is a beautiful little historic town along the Mississippi River, and even as a young adult I referred to it as God's country. However, I couldn't be happier in my adopted home. I was "born in the summer of my [thirty-third] year, coming home to a place I'd never been before."

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Retiring Abroad & Paying for Health Care

"So, do you guys plan to be empty nesters in this house?"

That question was posed recently when we had some friends over for wine, food, and games. My teenage son and friends were over playing various board games, and I was showing a friend the newly renovated basement and the desperately-needing-renovation backyard. The response from my wife and me was immediate - "Oh, good god, no. We've got seven to nine years before we get out of here," but we definitely won't be living here when the thirty years of our newly refinanced mortagage expire. The conversation shifted from the when to the where, as our friend thought we might look for a condo in Denver, and was surprised when we talked of heading south. "The Springs?" he asked, surprised.

Colorado Springs? For retirement? Damn, that's worse than the thought of southeast Denver. No, when we talk south, we're thinking the Caribbean, and that's not surprising as "More Americans Choosing to Retire Outside the US." Having lived abroad before, we are certainly not averse to living somewhere other than the United States.

Just under 400,000 American retirees are now living abroad, according to the Social Security Administration. The countries they have chosen most often: Canada, Japan, Mexico, Germany and the United Kingdom. Retirees most often cite the cost of living as the reason for moving elsewhere said Olivia S. Mitchell, director of the Pension Research Council at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
For some people, the idea of living outside of United States and far away from family is a baffling idea. But for many others, there is no specific lure to living in suburban - or urban - America, and there is just too many inviting things about life abroad. Mexico has become a desired location for many based on the low cost of living, and it's clear that health care costs and spending are another key. Let's face it, the United States is a colossal embarrassment of financial mismanagement when we consider how "The US Spends More on Health Care than other countries," and we're not always sure how much benefit we're getting.

For me, the lure of the islands and the health care systems of places like Great Britain and the Netherlands are certainly reason to start scoping out plans for that bed and breakfast we just may enjoy owning in Aruba or the BVE.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side

Adapted from Mazenglish, 2012

While I am not generally a fan of "education-ese," I've reached the point in the year when I feel the need to step aside from the direct instruction and encourage my students to begin owning their own educational process. As we head into second semester, the classroom needs to be less a place where "kids come to watch adults work." To often the students are willing to be the "happy little troopers" and do exactly what they are told to get the grade they need. However, that's not always the best way to cultivate skill and knowledge - in fact, we've all been in classes where we simply want to be told what we need to know. For now in AP English Lang, I am feeling a more "workshop-like approach" will be the best avenue for them to cultivate writing skills.

When I was teaching freshman English, I always took this approach with one of the last literary works of the year. In my Honors English 9 class, I would tell them it is time they leave the nest.  After being the "Sage on the Stage" through numerous novels and units during the year in which I taught them "how to read literature" at the high school level, I turned the study of the last novel over to them. They were pretty much "on their own" (but actually encouraged to collaborate in pairs and small groups) to work their way through Hemingway's classic The Old Man and the Sea. After teaching them all year about heroes - tragic, epic, and existential code - as well as allusions, allegory, symbolism, motifs, and all the other components of a general survey lit course, I expected them to apply their knowledge to a scholarly analysis of the novel.  They worked in groups, they lead the discussion, they interpreted the text.  And, hopefully, I told them, all the information they gleaned from their study would coincidentally be all the information that I "put on the test."

It's always an exciting time - as they head off on this quest.  And it is always fruitful.  They never fail to disappoint me.  And by the end of the unit they are quite proud to be experts on this work of literature.  They are on their way to becoming "people on whom nothing is lost."

Monday, December 26, 2016

Beverly Clearly still rules YA fiction

RE-PRINT: Mazenglish, 2012

If you want to kick start a love of reading among young children, you can still do what parents, teachers, and librarians have been doing for sixty-two years now - hand the kids a copy of anything by Beverly Cleary.  The young adult/junior fiction raconteur has been weaving entertaining and readable stories for children for decades, and her stories still ring true with young people.  For narrative content to remain fresh and engaging for decades, it has to be something truly magical.  And magical - with deference to JK Rowling - is what Beverly Clearly has been for a long, long time.

My two children are ages seven and ten, and both are avid readers who are as entertained with the stories of Henry Huggins, Beezus and Ramona, Ellen Tebbits, and more as I was thirty-five years ago.  In fact, I am still amazed and amused by the staying power of these stories of children who lived in a truly different era.  How can such simple stories of growing up in an era before pop culture and technological explosion still resonate?  It's because they are stories of the "human condition" which makes them nearly timeless.  Cleary has said she sought to write the types of stories that she would want to read if she were scanning the library shelves.  And in her words, they were simply "funny stories about her neighborhood and the sort of children she knew."

If you are an educator - or a parent with an educational interest - Beverly Cleary's website is a great resource for ideas about how to use her books in the classroom.  Beyond that, the entire site can be a fun and safe source of online information for kids who are fans of the books.  Beverly Cleary's books represent childhood in all its splendor - from the struggle and uncertainty of coming of age to the magic and joy in simply being a child.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

2016 Christmukkah Holiday Gift Highlights

The winter holidays of 2016 have coincided in a wonderful synergy of holiday spirit, and thus we have the gift of celebrating Christmukkah this weekend. Christmas Eve consisted of lighting the menorrah for the first night and following our tradition of honoring some person, group, or idea for each night. This year we began by honoring the good "people of non-profits," who do so much heroic and often un-sung work of altruism. The world can certainly use some Goodwill about now, and we wanted to remind ourselves of that.

This year in the Mazenko home, we had a nice simple round of gift-giving. Here are some of the highlights:

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Looking for Something about Life

I think I've always been a searcher, albeit a lazy one at that. A devout - or at least a devoutly aspiring - Catholic in my early days to a lapsed and recoving Catholic in my (gasp!) middle age, I guess I have a pretty sound foundation on the reflective life. Could've seen myself as a Jesuit priest at one time, and certainly investigated Eastern ideas with a silly Keroacian earnestness. Thought at one time I'd be a tai chi master and zen writer hiding out in Southeast Asia, though the depth of my true taoist understanding is more familiar with Benjamin Huff's The Tao of Pooh than it is the actual ways of Lao Tzu. So, yeah, a searcher of "The Way."

Amusingly, I just ran across a new philosopher, guru-type that I'd never heard of before. And I didn't really think that was possible. What do you know about this early 20th century Armenian mystic by the name of G.I. Gurdjieff? Gurdjieff was a proponent of seeking a "unified mind body consciousness," and he believed that man's primary problem is that he exists in a sort of "waking sleep." Amusingly, I learned of this teacher while reading pop culture critic Robert Schnankenberg's wonderfully entertaining book The Big Bad Book of Bill Murrary. Murray, the wildly entertaining trickster prince of contempary Hollywood comedy is apparently a follower of Gurdjeiff-ism, or whatever the idea may be.

There seems to be a lot in this discipline, which has been called "The Work," about the Thoreau-ian idea of "living deliberately." And I've long been in search of the way I can finally start "living the life I have imagined." Of course, this is just one more way of approaching the necessary task of becoming ourselves and creating meaning through daily actions of existence. And, this post hasn't really ended up the way I envisioned it. I just thought it was amusing to run across this new philosophical source, especially because of the place I learned about it.

So, for whatever it's worth, I offer the idea of "Bill Murray-ism."

Friday, December 23, 2016

Where there's a will, there's George Will

In the topsy-turvey nonsensical political reality of 2016, I am looking back on some of the thinking and writing that makes the most sense to me when I consider the role of government, the value of politics, and the all important question of how men should live. Granted, it was with a profound bit of dismay at Election2016 that I begin this reflective quest to make some sense of political realities. And, truly, I do get it. I understand why what happened did in fact happen. It's really not so surprising the more I think about it, and I am more than a little miffed that HRC seems to be hanging her hat on the idea that the election was stolen from her by Russian hacking of DNC emails. If that's the position of Democratic leadership, they're going to be wandering in the muck for quite a while.

Instead, let's look back to some sound political reasoning about the way things ought to be. I have been reading two important socio-political critiques from fifteen and thirty years ago: Building a Bridge to the 18th Century by Neil Postman and Statecraft as Soul Craft by George Will. These two men might be a couple of the most astute thinkers of the modern era, and their ideas are sadly ignored and obscure to society's peril.

In perusing George Will's 1983 explanation and defense of true conservatism, I am reminded of why I call myself a conservative yet often "caucus with the Democrats" and find so few heroes in the contemporary Republican Party. In fact, the book reminds me of the article I've been meaning to write for a while entitled "Conservative but not Republican." The basic idea is that I believe in government as the foundation of a stable society, which is why I have so much trouble taking the contemporary Libertarian Party seriously - and that was before Gary Johnson embarrassed himself nationally in a haze of marijuana-influenced policy gaffes. Truly, as Thoreau noted in the 1830s, "the government is best that governs least," and we certainly don't need a continued expansion of government offices or programs. Interestingly, I argued with a liberal friend recently why anything more than a 35% tax rate is ridiculous, regardless of total income. But I digress. George Will has spent decades defending why a conservative can believe in "a strong government" and the "essentials of the welfare state." And he's right. It's just common sense.

In the new era of populism - which is a bit mystifying when truly considered - George Will reminds us that "Andrew Jackson said any American could fill any office." Those thoughts were also expressed by Vladimir Lenin, and in a strange way, Mao Ze Dong. Yet, it's pretty clear we are long past the days of the "citizen legislator," as Will points out how unsuccessful the last one - Jimmy Carter - was in the Presidency. Truly, "A great state cannot be run by citizen legislators and amateur administrators ... Government is increasingly and necessarily conducted by specialists. Progress requires specialization."

Yet, that is not where we're headed, which is disconcerting.  So, consider taking a look back at Will's analysis and prescription for what the country needs in terms of leadership.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

For the true holiday spirit, watch "The Year without a Santa Claus"

I believe in Santa Claus, like I believe in love ...

It gets me every year, and it's been doing that for more than forty years. As the holiday season rolls around, and everyone makes it a point to watch and talk about their favorite Christmas movies, there is only one answer for me: "The Year without a Santa Claus" is the best one of all.

The 1974 claymation classic features the voices of Shirley Booth and Mickey Rooney, and it's based on the wonderfully sweet and sentimental book by Phyliss McGinley who captures in a story all the mystery of the Christmas spirit. "The Year without..." is not the traditional take on the holiday themes of family and gift giving, and it is a truly original look at the values of love and generosity that remarkably get a re-charge every December, even amidst the crass commercialism that's been growing in strength since McGinley first penned her tale.

The story presents a unique challenge for the traditional Christmas characters, as Santa begins to doubt the necessity or relevance of his yearly ride to bring joy and goodwill wrapped up in toys for children. Nursing a bad cold and feeling a little old, Santa ponders the possibility of taking a holiday. It's up to Mrs. Claus and a couple of lovably loyal elves to go out into the world and find a just a hint of that "Christmas spirit" to convince Santa that it's all worthwhile. Of course, Santa eventually needs to head out after the crew after they run into trouble in an uncaring world, and it's in those moments that the writers and producers of the show revive the wholesome and simple beauty of the season.

If you've never seen it, or you just don't remember how special it is, take time to remember the spirit of Christmas. Watch TYWASC, and you will "believe in Santa Claus."

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Whiskey, Wine, & Beer in Colorado

RE-PRINT - Views on the Village, 2012

Having just returned from a glorious trip to the Napa Valley, I'm in the mood to appreciate some local quality spirits.  Coloradans are probably learning that the Denver-Ft. Collins area is developing a reputation as the Napa Valley of Beer.  Of course, there's more to the area than ales and pilsners, but Denver is really putting itself on the map for high quality craft beers.  For those in the area who have never sampled the local flavors - from our microbrew industry to the Western Slope wines to spirits such as Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey - the Denver Post has offered a great guide.

In a special feature to the Post, local writer Erin Barnes has put together an excellent breakdown of the 11 Best Tasting Rooms in Colorado.  This moves beyond the wines of Palisade and New Belgium in Ft. Collins - though those are still worth the time.  Additionally, you might want to consider such spots as Silver Vines Winery in Arvada, Breckenridge Brewery in Breck or Denver, Stranahans Colorado Whiskey, or Equinox in Ft. Collins.  These all sound like they are worth the trip - though probably not all at the same time.

And, definitely, bring a designated driver or take a cab.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Make the "Electoral College" a simple point system

I'll admit it created a bit of excitement and curiosity for me - the idea that we could have a true crisis where the Presidential electors would revolt and send the 2016 Presidential election to the House of Representatives. It was the last-ditch effort and final sliver of hope for the #NeverTrump movement. Many dismayed liberals and Democrats pinned their hopes and dreams on the idea of the "Hamilton Electors" voting against the majority of the people in their state and choosing someone other than Donald Trump (or HRC for that matter as the case turned out to be). But, alas, it was not to be. And that got me thinking about the whole charade of the Electoral College - really, what's the point of the actual voters showing up to the capitol to "cast a ballot" if the action is purely ceremonial.

The Electoral College appears to exist for two reasons:
  1. It provides equal representation to voters in low-population states and "guarantees" that the candidates must consider and try to win their votes. It over-rides a straight popular vote election.
  2. It was a safety-valve put in by the Founding Fathers, who truly did not trust the common man to elect an appropriately qualified leader to the office of the Presidency.
Yet, we now know the rather shakey ground for both those arguments. The population center claim may still be somewhat relevant, though critics have reasonably argued that low-population states now carry significantly more weight than they should. And, the idea that electors could over-ride the popular vote if they didn't trust the selection of the masses has been all but nullified by the laws in many states that legally bind and mandate electors follow their state's popular vote.

So, it's purely ceremonial ... and a complete waste of time and debate. By whatever legal means necessary, the US Election Commission and the Congress should simply shift the idea of "electoral votes" to a point system. If a candidate gets 270+ "electoral votes," or points, that person is automatically declared the winner.

Enough with the drama of actual voters who don't do anything but "rubber stamp" what the country already knows.

Monday, December 19, 2016

La La Land is a Holiday Treat

By now you've heard the news - Hollywood is bringing back the musical - and so far the hype has been nothing but positive. Young writer and director Damien Chazelle's fun and fantastic new musical feature La La Land has been exciting audiences and making the obligatory holiday season film-going a true pleasure. La La Land is quite simply a lot of fun, and the challenge of engaging contemporary audiences with a good old-fashioned musical has been accomplished. From the opening number, you can tell it's going to be a fun ride, and if that opening scene doesn't pull you in, then you are no fan of musicals.

The story is a classic romance set against the age-old quest of seeking fame and success in the City of Angels. Emma Stone's "Mia" is the aspiring actress whose chance encounter with Ryan Gosling's "Sebastian," a jazz piano player who has dreams of opening a jazz club, sets up the central conflict and give-and-take relationship. While neither actor is a trained singer, dancer, or musician, their authentic portrayals are part of the charm of the film. Stone's voice is just strong enough to carry the tunes with a hint of amateur raspiness, and while Gosling's is clearly not a singing voice, he brings the necessary soul to his numbers. The same can be said for their dance scenes which are nothing short of adorable. I went in to the film only knowing the most basic elements, and I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed getting to know the characters.


Obviously the film is going to depend on some pretty standard boy-meets/gets/loses-girl conceits, and I wasn't surprised by any of the somewhat cliched beats to the film. Setting various acts and transitions against the (never-changing) seasons in LA was amusing as it should have been. And the wonderful interplay of music and drama more than made up for the obviousness. Hollywood and Broadway have been down the meta-path of staging musicals so many times that a re-tread of aspiring and artists trying to make it in a cold, heartless LA was not too disappointing. And the film put some nice touches on the genre. The cinematography alone could be worthy on an Oscar statue, and the music - along with Sebastian's passionate defense of the art form - was just a lot of fun.

That said, I don't like the ending. The mix-and-mash of possiblities at the end was amusing, no doubt. And the filmmaking was poetic. But I just don't buy the timeline or the supposed "success" of Mia. Had it been ten years down the road, I would have been more inclined to accept her success and marriage and child. Even then, she seems to be with exactly the type of man she left Seb for in the first place. And when she ends with "I will always love you," the sentiment is robbed by her quick exit into another relationship. So, Chazelle (or someone) certainly went the wrong way with that ending for obvious reasons. But it is the obvious lacking element of an otherwise beautiful film.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Learning to play the piano

I started playing piano today.

It wasn't very impressive, and I was just alone in a room trying to find my finger positions and playing some notes up and down. But it was a lot of fun, and it's exactly what I've been wanting to do for a while. Both my sisters play piano beautifully, and we had a baby grand in the house growing up. They were "forced" to take lessons, as many kids have been, but I never was. I'm sure it had to do with it being the 70s and me being a boy who played sports, but my parents never forced me to play, and I really regret that.

I love music in general and piano jazz in specific. And, as I've reached my late forties, I am realizing that there are many talents and hobbies and activities that make life more beautiful, and I need more of those in my life. So, I'm going to learn to play the piano. I chatted briefly with one of our choir teachers who also teaches in our piano lab, and he was thrilled that I wanted to learn. Rather than taking lessons, he loaned me a copy of the school's introductory piano book, and gave me some tips and a lot of encouragement. So, today after grades were filed and paperwork was completed and the school emptied, I ventured into the piano lab. And it was really nice.

I've also been watching more than a few You Tube videos for different tips on playing piano. And I realized what a wonderful world that we can access so many tutorials. The one listed below is about playing "cocktail music," and it's from a guy named Bill Hilton who has a channel with many great piano tutorials.

So, I'm off on my next great adventure - learning to play piano. Some day, probably years down the road, I hope to post a You Tube video of me playing some great piano jazz.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

I'm Donating to Wikipedia

Each year about this time, Wikipedia asks for donations to support the service and keep the world's largest internet encyclopedia "free of advertising." Supporters of Wikipedia can give money to Wikimedia, which is the non-profit organization that oversees the operation of the site. I have given money to the open-source brainchild of Jimmy Wales in the past, and I plan to do so again this year. I do so for one simple reason:  I use Wikipedia regularly, and I firmly believe in the value it provides. In fact, I know of few people who don't use Wikipedia reguarly - for you can hardly avoid it in any given Google search, nor should you. Wikipedia is an excellent resource and starting point for wanting to learn about anything.

On numerous occasions researchers have analyzed and studied Wikipedia entries for accuracy and reliability, and the site has been confirmed to be overwhelmingly accurate. In fact, because Wikipedia is an open-source document with regular peer review, it can in many ways be more accurate than print sources. Rarely does inaccurate information stay on the site for long because the community of users will correct errors. For that reason, I have no problem with my students using Wikipedia, and I always encourage them to use it as a starting point for more extensive research. It is a valuable tool, and because we all use it so regularly, we should be willing to fund and support it, just as we may do for NPR or PBS or any number of non-profits and foundations.

Granted, there are many critics of Wikipedia and especially Wikimedia's fundraising efforts. Yet, I don't really understand the aversion to the fundraising drive. Even if the foundation has ample funds, there are still obvious costs associated with maintaining the site. If you use it, you should pay for it. And I plan to do so.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

News, "Fake News," & All the News that's fit to Print

In the post-truth world, and the rising era of "fake news," it's worth looking back at these prescient words from social critic Neil Postman in the essay "News" from his 1988 collection of essays Conscientious Objections:

The whole problem with news on television comes down to this: all the words uttered in an hour of television news coverage could be printed on one page of a newspaper. And the world cannot be understood in one page. Of course, there is compensation: television offers pictures, and the pictures move. It is often said that moving pictures are a kind of language in themselves, and there is a good deal of truth in this. But the language of pictures differs radically from oral and written language, and the differences are crucial for understanding television news. 

Imagine what he thought of the internet and social media.

Contemporary American society is in a somewhat precarious and certainly transitional phase in regards to what we "know" to be true. Or really just what we know. Period. The foundation of successful representative democracy is the presence of an active and educated electorate. Yet, the rising division of Americans in relation to what people "know to be true" has merged with an increasingly distracted society that is less than thoughtful about pertinent issues of economics, legislation, rights and responsibilities, and more. Basically, the massive overflow of information and the ever-expanding world of entertainment has begun to cloud out the collective ability to make sense of the world.

And, that puts American society at risk of cultural malaise, decline, and decay.

Monday, December 12, 2016

AP Lang, Annie Dillard, & a Starling Murmuration

Each year around this time, my students read and write about an Annie Dillard passage on the experience of witnessing a large flock of birds. Most teachers of AP English Language are familiar with the Audubon-Dillard prompt, in which students are asked to read two passages by John James Audubon and Annie Dillard and then compare how each author's use of language reflects the experience and the effect on the observer. The descriptive passage by Dillard has a transcendental approach, reflecting a spiritual connection between Dillard and the natural world. After writing the essay, I often share this video of a starling murmuration to help the students appreciate the awesome spectacle which Dillard beheld and was inspired to write about.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Challenge Students w/ blind-topic timed writing

My students never cease to amaze me. As a teacher of AP English Lang & Comp, I will give my students nearly thirty in-class timed writings with released AP prompts each year, and these dedicated and bright seventeen-year-olds will respond with some truly brilliant essays, crafted in 45-minutes or less. The prompts are nearly always "blind-reads," which means they will not have seen the passage or question before, and they need to simply be able to "sit down and play." That approach is part of my goal of making them, in the words of the inimicable Henry James, "People on whom nothing is lost," which is an apt description of the class expectation as explained by AP chief grader David Joliffe in his book Everday Use. Jolliffe draws from the well-known parlor metaphor first mentioned by rhetorican Kenneth Burke in his book The Philosophy of the Literary Form in 1941. My students will always be able to write well on the spur of the moment as a result of the regular challenge of being able to craft an essay off the top of their head. It is a valuable skill, and I believe that sort of challenge is - or should be - an integral part of any academic environment. Challenge students to be able to read, write, and think with little or no preparation. It will help them in all their classes, it will benefit them at the time of college and job interviews, it will assist them in becoming truly educated people. And, I am always disappointed in hearing of classes and schools where students write few essays and no in-class writing. Students need to write regularly. And being able to write on demand will mean there is probably little else they won't be able to do well. Have them write - a lot.

Sugar - Society's Biggest Health Danger

If you follow the news about contemporary American life and health risks, you have probably noticed a growing number of stories about the looming danger of opioid abuse - a drug addiction/health scare that is crossing all demographics and inflicting billions of dollars of damage on communities. Prescription drug abuse joins heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and car accidents as the health problems that put America at risk and threaten to bust the ability of most people to pay their health care bills. Those are the health problems that most people fear and worry about. But there is a far more insidious toxin which is inflicting daily damage on the lives of nearly everyone - sugar.

At least that's the warning from long-time health advocate Gary Taubes.

Just in time for the holidays - with all the sugary goodness of Christmas cookies and Whole Foods' chocolate truffles - Taubes is back on the health news front with a new book, as well as several articles asking the all important question: "Is Sugar Killing Us?"  The answer, while I hate to be alarmist and am currently revelling in all the culinary magic of my pastry chef wife, is probably ... yes. Sugar is the most addictive drug that we consume, and researchers have known for years that the addictive power of sugar - and all its subtle but nefarious variations - is more addictive than nicotine or cocaine. Additionally, it inflicts much more long-term damage to health because people so readily and regularly consume so much of it, often without even knowing.

Many argue that sugar in moderation is benign, but that assumption has been up for debate for as long as we have added sugar to our diets. Anti-sugar forces (myself included) continue to warn that sugar—both the crystalline variety that we put in our coffee and high-fructose corn syrup—may be a fundamental cause of disease, particularly a condition known as insulin resistance. If we are right, sugar has a uniquely powerful role in causing obesity and diabetes—and thus increases our risk of developing the major chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, associated with these conditions. This debate is not new. Western sugar consumption surged in the mid-19th century with the growth of the candy, chocolate and ice-cream industries. Soft drinks were added to the mix in the 1880s—first root beer, then Dr Pepper, then Coca-Cola and Pepsi. By the 1920s, as Prohibition spurred the nation to turn from alcohol to sugar, yearly sugar sales in the U.S. passed 100 pounds per capita for the first time.
So, it's probably worth considering the down-sides of sugar, even as we celebrate the sugariest time of the year. Perhaps, a few lucky ones will find a copy of Taubes' The Case Against Sugar (out December 27 from Knopf) under the tree or in their stocking, just in time for New Year's Resolutions.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Larkburger Turns 10 - the era of the "Better Burger"

In the era of the "Better Burger," with the rise of fast-casual restaurants like Smashburger, Five Guys, Bad-Daddy's, and, of course, Larkburger, I can't fathom why anyone would ever lower themselves to visiting the old fast food standbys like McDonalds or Carl's Jr. Today, the Colorado chain of Larkburger celebrates its tenth birthday in style, and business writer Emilie Rusch of the Denver Post has composed a fitting profile of the burger joint that typifies the "Better Burger" culture. Fortunately for people outside of Colorado, the Larkburger franchise is looking to expand its reach out of state.

But it all started with just one burger, a steak au poivre-inspired take on the American classic first featured at chef Thomas Salamunovich’s high-end Larkspur restaurant in Vail in 1999. “When we opened Larkspur, I wanted to have a hamburger in the menu that was truly memorable in a straightforward manner,” Salamunovich said. It was so memorable, in fact, that a version of that very same Larkburger — made with all-natural Black Angus beef and topped with tomato, lettuce, onion, pickle and house-made lemon-Dijon sauce — got a restaurant all its own in 2006, with a fast-casual spin.
Of course, the celebration of a great business model in the burger business is tempered by today's news of the President-elect's pick for the head of the Labor Department, CKE Restaurant CEO Andrew Pudzer. Pudzer, like other corporate shills in the new administration, is emblematic of the low-cost, low-brow, low-quality burger culture of McD's and Carl's Jr. It's that system of mass production of mediocrity that places like Larkburger and Chipotle saved us from. Thus, it's no surprise that a man who champions "dollar-menu" mentality would be an opponent of minimun wage measures and support for overtime pay - ideas that could save the fast food industry from itself. Higher quality products/service and higher wages are intrinsically linked to higher quality of life. I know I'm "worth more than a dollar menu," and the country would be "great again" if more people felt the same. How apropos that Pudzer is named Labor Secretary just as we await the release of The Founder, a bio-pic of the "processed burger king" Ray Kroc - the man who unleashed mass marketing of mediocrity many years ago.

President-elect Donald Trump is expected to name fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, a vocal critic of substantially increasing the minimum wage and an opponent of rules that would make more workers eligible for overtime pay, as head of the Labor Department, according to a Republican briefed on the decision. Puzder, who runs CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., has been a harsh critic of raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, arguing that it would increase costs for consumers and lead to fewer jobs. He also opposes the recently-delayed Labor Department rule that aimed to make millions more workers eligible for overtime pay.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Teaching classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird in 2016

Is classic literature still relevant in the contemporary age? It certainly is if you're talking about works of social criticism around race and the American consciousness like To Kill a Mockingbird. One of my colleagues, Alisa Wills-Keely of Smoky Hill High School, was recently profiled in the Denver Post for her work with the novel in the era of Election-2016. The class and the article focuses on how the Classic Novel helps students develop perspective, empathy. 

A novel, set in a sleepy southern town in the 1930s and written by a young white woman in the late 1950s, is remarkably relevant to students at Smoky Hill High School in 2016. The themes explored in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” – racial and social stereotypes, discrimination, inequity and injustice – seem just as common in the world today as they were when Scout Finch was growing up in the fictional town of Maycomb nearly 90 years ago

Glenn Beck talk about the next four years of Trump

Glenn Beck has certainly been a candid and interesting political commentator over the past decade or so, and I haven't always had a positive view of him. However, I have appreciated the perspective he has brought to many political conversations, and when I first encountered him through his book Real America: Messages from the Heart and Heartland, I found a lot of common ground with his common sense approach and libertarian views. I also appreciated the recent re-evaluation he offered regarding the Obama administration. Thus, I was appreciative of his #NeverTrump position during Election 2016, which focused primarily on the hypocrisy of the GOP for nominating and supporting a man who is not conservative or Republican, but simply a egotistical demagogue who is using the office of the Presidency for personal gain. In the follow-up to the election, as Trump fills his cabinet with some "interesting" people, Beck offered some perspective on his disappointment and his concerns for the next four years.

On Thursday, Dec. 8, Yahoo News and Finance Anchor Bianna Golodryga speaks to TV and radio talk show host Glenn Beck about his thoughts on the incoming Trump administration and its Cabinet picks. The once staunch conservative was a vocal supporter of the “Never Trump” movement.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Lapham Quarterly - Get your intellect and culture on

Nearly a month after Election 2016 and the moment of Wednesday Morning, my reliable sources of information are still filled with news, comment, and commentary on the President-elect - and all that entails. I don't want to even turn on CNN or Fox or MSNBC, and my reading of the Denver Post and Wall Street Journal are hastened by my skimming for culture. Needless to say, it's worse on my social media feeds like Twitter and Facebook, no matter how I try to screen out the endless back-and-forth on the upcoming transition. Granted, I could just turn off and tune out. Because as I noted in the past month, I want to spend more time on culture and growth and less time on "info-tainment."

I've been reading more - recent titles include the brilliantly beautiful The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the existentially intriguing Meursalt Investigation - and trying to work on the Gen X writing and reflection that I've been planning. Beyond that, I am listening to more music and working out with a renewed interest in dropping the Election-Ten before the onslaught of holiday cookies and Winter Break eating/drinking. In terms of news sources, I am really interested in returning to academics, intellectual pursuits, and culture. And, that has led me back to a great source of thoughtful composition:

The Lapham Quarterly

Lapham’s Quarterly embodies the belief that history is the root of all education, scientific and literary as well as political and economic. Each issue addresses a topic of current interest and concern—war, religion, money, medicine, nature, crime—by bringing up to the microphone of the present the advice and counsel of the past. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Is Trump dragging the USA into war with China?

So, the Donald Trump phone call to President Tsai of Taiwan ... this could be the beginning of something altogether unexpected - a diplomatic, trade, and military conflict between the United States and China.

Having lived in Taiwan during the 90s, I am attuned to the delicate nature of relations across the Taiwan Strait. So, I understand the history of the Taiwan Relations Act and the Three Communiques regarding the United States' position on the One-China policy. And, I was living in Taiwan at the time of the first direct presidential election in Taiwan during which the Chinese military launched missile exercises and lobbed missiles over Taiwan, effectively shutting down air traffic and seeking to intimidate the Taiwanese people. This tense standoff included the United States putting aircraft carriers on both ends of the Strait. And, when President-elect Lee Tung Wei gave his acceptance speech in Taiwanese, rather than Mandarin Chinese, there were reports that very high level military officials in China mobilized forces for an invasion.

So the Taiwan Question is no small matter.

As a result, I am deeply concerned and troubled by the recent actions of the President-elect and the apparent behind-the-scenes work of his transition team to set up the phone call without informing the State Department. In all honesty, this is how wars start - though I don't want to sound hysterical, and I don't subscribe to a sky-is-falling mentality around the recent election. And, I must admit that as a former resident of Taiwan, I somewhat appreciate the more aggressive, or at least assertive, approach toward clarifying the United States' unwavering support for the autonomy of the Republic of China on Taiwan. In fact, there's a chance the phone call wasn't a blunder, but brilliant.

I'm just not sure whether this was an unnecessarily bold and risky move. I hope not.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

My Favorite Christmas Songs

Christmas has a wonderfully simple feeling of good will. It's a pathos-filled time of year that makes us all look for the goodness in everything and everyone. The Hallmark commercials of "coming home for the holidays" make us tear up, even if our own family gatherings are considerably more dysfunctional. The warmth of a fire, the malty sweetness of eggnog, the smell of pine trees, the good cheer of Happy Holidays - these all evoke a genuine degree of hope and mirth. For me and many others, there are certain Christmas songs that evoke that mythical time of good will, even as some of them reflect a poignant sense of loss or nostalgia. Amusingly, many of the songs that matter to me are more contemporary, and they were on the standard mix tape at the restaurant where I worked many holiday seasons. Listening to these songs takes me back to those times when I had the added comfort of my Pasta House family. Here are a few good memories:

Friday, December 2, 2016

Breckenridge Brewery - A Great Place for Drinks

RE-PRINT: Views, 2012

As a huge fan and regular visitor to Breckenridge, Colorado, I am not always satisfied with my options when it comes to grabbing lunch or dinner - especially with young kids.  Breck is a great resort and mountain town with much to offer, though the restaurant choices can sometimes be mediocre food for resort prices.  And, I just have a hard time with restaurants who can't be just a little better, a little more high quality for the price.  However, a recent trip to Breckenridge Brewery on Main Street did not disappoint.

Though I've been a fan of Breckenridge Brewery's Vanilla Porter, Avalanche Ale, and Agave Wheat for years, I have never visited the Brewery.  And, I'd been wanting to sample the Oatmeal Stout and Summer Ale for a while now.  So, on our annual summer trip to Summit County, I made sure one of our days in Breck would include a day at the Brewery.  We spent the day biking and hiking and playing in the Blue River before heading up Main Street to the home location of Breckenridge Brewery.  We arrived in the four o'clock hour, so we could catch the end of the lunch menu, but still hit Happy Hour for some three dollar drafts.  Alas, we were a bit disappointed that the online menu is different in the mountains than the locations in Denver.  That meant my wife couldn't have the tuna sandwich she'd been planning.  But we found many other options.

We ordered an Avalanche Ale and the Oatmeal Stout and were not disappointed.  The Avalanche has a refreshingly full flavor with just a bit of tang in the finish.  A great beer to relax on the patio with after a day of biking.  The Oatmeal Stout was malty richness, evoking a great cup of coffee.  The "oatmeal" isn't as present as the vanilla in the porter, but it's smooth and surprisingly refreshing stout.  Though I enjoyed it for a July afternoon, it's much better as a fall or winter beer, sitting around the fire pit or just relaxing on the couch.  The Summer Ale wasn't available - a strange reality for the middle of July - but I'm sure to check it out later.

For an early dinner, we were pleasantly surprised at just how well this pub does food.  The kids absolutely devoured the wings with an Asian sauce, as well as a healthy order of edamame.  They also ordered the pulled pork sandwiches - though we brought one home, as a single sandwich cut in half was good for both.  The fries looked to be fresh cut, and were excellent.  My wife had the black bean soup - which was really more of a vegetarian, black bean chili - and it was outstanding.  Rich and full of flavor, the soup is meal unto itself, though the soup and salad is a great option.  I was drooling over the portabella mushroom sandwich with a basil pesto and grilled red peppers, and I was rewarded with one of the best pesto sauces I have ever had on a sandwich - rich and full of basil and pine nut flavor, this pesto is not to be missed.  The sandwich was also not a single portabella, but one cut in pieces and grilled with the peppers.  It worked very well.  And the sweet potato fries - Oh, goodness. They were thin cut and prepared to perfection.

The visit to the Breckenridge Brewery was a resounding success with the family, and I am glad to have another dining option in Breck that will not disappoint.