Saturday, October 7, 2017

Who is trying to "Save Our Village" - and from What?

Who’s Trying to “Save Our Village,” and From What?

Last week many voters in Greenwood Village received a mass email endorsing a slate of candidates for City Council from the “Save Our Village” campaign. It expressed a desire but inability to “reach everyone … to talk about our issues and values” and asked for help in “urging your neighbors to vote for our candidates.” Yet, the one important piece of information it lacked is any explanation of “Why?” An online search for Save Our Village revealed a bare-bones website, which contained no members’ names, no platform, and no list of issues. In fact, the tab for the organization’s “Vision” contained no information at all. So what are those issues and values, and who exactly is Save Our Village?

As informed community members, we should question why an anonymous PAC is sending a mass email promoting candidates with no explanation of their experience, platform, views, or positions on pertinent community issues. In fact, there is no mention of any specific issue on the agendas – past or future – of Greenwood Village City Council. Most voters know the previous Save Our Village group was organized on one specific issue – the proposed re-zoning of the Orchard Area. Clearly, voters voiced their opinion on that issue, and it’s now time to move on and return to discussion of numerous issues facing the Village in coming years. Yet, if the websites of some candidates are used as a measure, Save Our Village seems to be reigniting the divisiveness of that vote and pursuing election based on a fear of property development.

The phrase Save Our Village also requires greater clarity from this group and candidates. Certainly, many residents know the original platform opposed changes to the city’s Comprehensive Plan to allow mixed-use development, including space for residential units, small businesses like restaurants and shops, and community space. Yet, many residents believed the vote was about allowing one “high density housing” plan, and they rejected it based on that assumption. Voters expressed fears about subsequent traffic congestion, though traffic is far more impacted by the 70,000 commuters to DTC than it is by residents. Voters also expressed concerns about overcrowded schools, though no data supports that claim, especially west of I-25. In fact, no one seems to acknowledge that the Landmark Towers are “high density” housing, and no one connects them to school enrollment problems. All these concerns are valid, yet far too many are based on misinformation. And candidates or PACs who warn of “high density urbanism” and pledge to uphold “Village Values” should be careful with such hyperbole and loaded words.

Additionally, if candidates are directly involved in the organization, voters deserve transparency on those associations. Currently two SOV-promoted candidates seem to be directly connected. Specifically, the address on the email for the group appears to be Dave Kerber's house, and Jerry Presley had directly responded to emails to the group. Thus, it appears Kerber and Presley may have organized what seems to be a third-party PAC which they in turn use to anonymously endorse themselves. Now, that may not be illegal or unethical in some people’s views, but it certainly seems a bit suspect to an average voter. At the very least, it lacks the necessary transparency desired by voters and promoted by candidates.

Voters might also consider greater scrutiny of the candidacies of Dave Kerber, Jerry Presley, and Anne Ingebretsen over the precedent it would set. Each of these people is a long-standing community member who has served on City Council. Yet, as most voters know, Greenwood Village has term limits for the Council and Mayor’s office. While a loophole allows the law to be circumvented for candidates to serve non-consecutive terms, that is hardly the spirit of term limits. Granted, these three individuals have experience in public service. However, in a city of fifteen-thousand people, voters should be able to find new, qualified voices to help the Council stay fresh and avoid the downside of unchecked incumbency.


Voters should be curious about who SOV is. Are they connecting the election to the referendum? If so, how and why? What is their ultimate goal? What are those “issues and values?” What is this yet undisclosed “Vision?” Will they disclose who the organizing and leading members are? Will candidates and members make themselves available in public forums? Village voters deserve some transparency.

NOTE: A shorter version of this commentary appeared this week in The Villager 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

"When Am I Going to Use This?" - What Really Matters in Class

"When am I going to use this?"

A student's question about the usefulness of school content and curriculum is always a challenge for contemporary educators because many of us must face the reality and answer honestly - "Never," we might say. "You will never directly use this knowledge about The Great Gatsby or this skill for multiplying a polynomial or this diagram of cell's structure or this information about the Battle of Antietam." Education doesn't work that way - it's not all utilitarian. However, some of it can be, and for many of us, it's our hidden curriculum, or those little tidbits of information, insight, and life skills that we use to frame the rest of our lessons. For me, those tidbits might be healthy living choices or personal financial literacy. *

Just two weeks, as I shopped in Home Depot for light bulbs, a man walking past stopped and said, "Mr. Mazenko? Is that you?" He was a former student from nearly fifteen years ago, and as we talked about the class and what he remembered, he told me, "Save 10% and invest in a mutual fund. That's what I remember most. Every kid should do what you told us." Now, I taught him junior English, so much of our class was about appreciating The Great Gatsby and writing argumentative essays and sharpening grammar skills for the ACT/SAT.  But I also used to give regular book talks, and we'd often read short pieces from the newspaper that were challenging and relevant. So, when I brought in a Market Watch piece from the Wall Street Journal that advised people to "Save 10%" and I recommended kids read books like David Bach's Automatic Millionaire, it resonated with kids. In fact, many kids will tell me, it's this mini-lessons and supplements to the curriculum that make all the difference.

Anecdotes like this are why opportunities such as Digital Promise are so valuable in education today. The opportunity for competency-based learning opportunities on sites like Bloomboard-Digital Promise is part of the new innovations in education that allow learning and mastery of anything, anytime, anywhere. The digital age has the potential to be the great democratizing influence on education because no information is off limits. Anyone with digital access can learn as much as he or she wants by using online platforms. And, beyond simply accessing and learning the information, people have the opportunity to earn micro-credentials. At the Bloomboard-Digital Promise site, students and teachers have the chance to learn and earn up to twenty financial literacy micro-credentials. In many ways, the access to information and micro-credentials could be the key to expanding not only knowledge but certifications and access to careers.

Competency-based learning and digital access to content, curriculum, knowledge, and skills is the foundation of innovative education. I've noted before my criticism of concepts around seat-time and Carnegie units as the indisputable gatekeeper for education and certification. The work of groups like Digital promise is one step to increasing access and expanding knowledge.


* This is a sponsored post

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Matt Lewis takes a stand ... on nothing


Conservative blogger and critic Matt Lewis has made a name for himself in recent years with thoughtful pragmatic commentary on pertinent issues, and he's not afraid to challenge Republicans or concede to Democrats. Overall, his work for the Daily Beast, his regular tweets, and his appearance on talk television have been meaningful up to this point - but today he decided to weigh in on the NFL controversies, and he has brought nothing to the table. What makes it worse is that he has decided to tweet and comment on his ardent and firm stance .... on basically nothing.

Specifically, Lewis floated a column on the Daily Beast where he comes clean and makes a big deal about his decision that: It's Official: This is the Year I Stop Watching Football. Readers may think that as a conservative and reasonably reliable Republican that Lewis is upset over the protests by football players, such as Colin Kaepernick, who are "taking a knee" during the national anthem to protest racial inequity, especially in the area of policing. But that'd probably be wrong. Other readers may think that he is taking the moral position regarding the violent nature of the game, which leads to traumatic brain injuries and the prevalence of CTE in current and former NFL players. Some people feel they just can't condone the danger and risk, so they've quit watching. This position was well-articulated by writer Steve Almond who published Against Football: a Reluctant Fan's Manifesto back in 2015. And Lewis acknowledges that ethical discomfort as a reason to stop watching the NFL - but readers can't assume it's his.

In fact, Matt Lewis spends an entire article explaining all the reasons someone might boycott or simply stop watching the NFL, but never explains what he believes. He points out that there could be legitimate health reasons that he, and maybe we, should stop watching the NFL. Heart attacks go up among fans when their team loses. But Lewis doesn't concede to a concern about his own cardiac situation. Then, to make it all the more vacuous, Lewis explains that he will stop watching the NFL today .... but that he probably won't maintain this conviction. If a game is on at a friend's house and he's there, he will probably watch. If his team - The Redskins ("with the politically incorrect name") - go on a run to the playoffs, he will watch. And, of course, he will probably watch the Super Bowl. So, he composed an entire column and tweeted several times about it just to concede that he might not watch NFL games on September 24, and that is, for some reason, a really big deal.

After Lewis published his article, and then tweeted about how he's "not watching football" today, it became apparent that he wanted everyone to know about his big decision to take a stance against absolutely nothing. Lewis' work in last year's Too Dumb to Fail was some of the best political writing of the past few years. He should probably stick to topics where he actually stands for something.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

America Ninja Warrior Letdown - Joe Moravsky got robbed (by Pom Wonderful & NBC)

Why do we keep watching? Why do they keep competing? Why won't NBC, Pom Wonderful, and Ninja Warrior do right by these extraordinary athletes? Why are multi-billion dollar companies and brands such tightasses with their earnings? Why am I so annoyed by this?

Once again, for the eighth time out of nine years, the iconic and thrilling endurance competition American Ninja Warrior has ended without a champion, without a victor, without a climb of Mt. Midoryama, without an award of a million dollars, without a satisfying and appropriate conclusion to a season's worth of glorious physical achievements. It all ended in a surprising, anti-climactic, disappointing splash, followed by a dis-spirited shrug from the hosts and a "see ya next year" sign-off from the network. On Monday night, three finalists made it to the coveted Stage III of the American Ninja Warrior course, and long-time competitor Joe "The Weatherman" Moravsky went the fathest on a truly grueling and (obviously) impossible course, only to fall just a few feet and a couple more obstacles from the end.

That last string of challenges on Stage III bordered on the absurd, specifically because it contained one more challenge than it should have with literally no chance for the competitor to even take a breather. And, let's face it, since the course had no winner last year, it really wasn't necessary to change the final challenges, unless the corporate shills wanted to guarantee that they wouldn't have to write a check. You know, Pom (not so) Wonderful and NBC, the producers of the Amazing Race and Survivor give away a million dollar prize every ... damn ... year. It is so satisfying to watch the winner celebrate. That makes those shows a superior production, and they have a lot more integrity.

Let's be clear: POM and NBC are making copious amounts of cash off these athletes who are basically performing for free. They are donating their talents and pushing themselves for the simple pursuit of excellence. It's not about the money, it's not about the fame, it's all about the challenge. And, the producers should honor them for that. POM and NBC are worse than the NCAA in their manipulation and abuse of their athletes. These top tier athletes and stars should be compensated for their efforts. Joe and Drew and Lance and Jessie and so many more are top draws for the network. While someone like Joe may not "deserve" or even want the million dollars for coming up short, the network should cut checks to the finalists to make it financially worth the while. Since Joe went the farthest this year, since he was the last ninja standing (or dry), he should earn some sort of reward. I don't think a $100K is an unreasonable expectation.

Come on NBC. Come on POM. Adapt. Grow. Change. Progress. Be excellent to these athletes who pursue excellence. Leave the course the same until it's conquered, and compensate those athletes who are making you even richer.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Some Ways Lenora Chu is Wrong


Anytime someone bases a criticism of the American public education system on a comparison to the supposed "superiority" of Asian students based on their standardized test scores from the PISA test, I am immediately suspicious, and I have to force myself to listen in an objective way. The latest entry in this discussion comes from journalist and writer Lenora Chu, who has recently published a memoir and education commentary called Little Soldiers: an American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve. The problems of such international comparisons are well-documented, and I don't intend to recount that issue here, other than to note a few things: when corrected for poverty, American schools actually rank number one in the world; the state of Massachusetts regularly outperforms the rest of the world including places like Shanghai; American students have won the International Math Olympiad for two of the past three years; the Chinese don't educate huge numbers of their kids (so the scores aren't really nationally representative); and the performance on standardized tests have not translated to superiority in the real world of innovation and professional achievement. In the past thirty-fifty years, have Shanghai doctors, engineers, scientists (physicists/chemists/biologists), computer programmers, economists, technicians, etc. outperformed their counterparts in America? Uh ... no.

No, I am actually much more interested in exploring how Chu's story and claims are actually a reflection of poor parenting skills and a social dynamic that is not really fixable in contemporary American society. I have not read Chu's book yet, though I will; and I am basing my criticisms on her recent piece of commentary in the Wall Street Journal, Why American Students Need Chinese Schools. It is certainly written as a promotional piece for her book, but I was more intrigued by the underlying issue which is basically an unintentional confessional piece about Chu's lack of faith in her own ability to parent and her desire for schools to raise her children for her. Chu opens her WSJ piece with a disturbing anecdote about Chinese teachers force-feeding egg to her kindergartener, and her apparent acquiesence to this absurd action because "the teacher knows best." Why she - not to mention the entire Chinese school system - believes that people have to eat eggs or that it is a necessary protein is beyond my comprehension. In reality, it's not about eggs at all - it's about absolute and indisputable compliance, complacency, and subserviance to authority.

Granted, Chu is correct in her assertion that "Western teachers spend lots of time managing student behavior and crushing mini-revolts by students and parents alike," and it can be subsequently argued that part of America's education problem is the result of poorly-raised children with negative attitudes toward school, teachers, and learning. That said, America has never been a society of somewhat mindless automatons who are afraid to challenge their government, and I'd argue we don't want it to be. I'd go one step further and argue that students thinking for themselves, having preferences and choices, and not blindly obeying a teacher just because of a degree and certificate are contributors to America's century-long dominance in innovation and social progress, and they are not necessarily correlated to poor educational performance and bad behavior. There is a reason that so many international students - especially from countries like China - come to the United States for college, graduate school, and jobs. It is the freedom from being "force-fed eggs" (and propoganda from an internet-restricted media) that allows people to thrive and grow.

Note: I lived and taught in Taiwan - the Republic of China - for five years. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Updike's "Rabbit" Angstrom is Back - and his name is Rich

The mildly depressing ennui of the middle class suburban man is as dependable as the June swoon for most major league ball clubs, and it's a time honored tradition of American literature and popular culture that seems to never become as boring and uninteresting as the un-loveable losers it portrays. What is it about American guys? Is the species really that lost and pathetic? Probably.

From that mythical and sappy time of the 1950s "Happy Days," when literary lion John Updike first shared the story of the "Rabbit" who desperately wanted to run, the dark pathetic side of Ward Cleaver has been a stock character of American fiction. Rabbit, Run was more than just the story of Harry Angstrom's disillusioned and disaffected minor rebellion - it was a chronicle of a decade with all the mundane details that no one talked about at parties.

I enjoyed Updike's Rabbit novels for all the sociological voyeurism they provided, and I've been pondering them and recognizing them as I make my way through Mathew Klam's 2017 novel Who is Rich?  Klam has a sharp eye for social satire as he relates the story of Rich Fischer, a forty-something old illustrator and once-mildly-successful cartoonist who ekes out a life of quiet desperation working for magazines and freelance gigs like court room artist. His only escape from the monotony is a visit to a summer writing clinic filled with similar misfits.

While the story is one told before, Klam's skill with description and storytelling hearkens back to Updike in language as much as plot. As the New Times opined:

There’s no doubt that “Who Is Rich?” is difficult to read, and that’s by design. It’s an experience akin to listening to a semi-charming casual acquaintance reveal way too much information about his relationship woes — it’s horrifying, but you find yourself unable to turn away. It’s a challenging novel, but Klam’s prose is so clean, so self-assured, that it feels a little like a miracle. Klam forces his readers to think about things many of us would rather ignore, and somehow makes us feel a reluctant sympathy toward a man who hasn’t earned it. Maybe it’s a love story; maybe it’s just a lust story, but either way, it’s a fine accomplishment. 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Students: Be Extraordinary, Indispensable, & Good

This week I was asked to give a speech at the induction ceremony for my high school's newest National Honor Society members. It was a nice honor, and I was happy to share some thoughts with the kids and their families. Here is the text from my speech:

Our youth today love luxury.  They have bad manners and contempt for authority.  They disrespect their elders and love gossip and socializing instead of exercise.  They no longer rise when adults enter the room.  They challenge their parents, gobble up their food, and tyrannize their teachers.

While you might think those comments were part of a recent NBC news special or an article in the New York Times, or perhaps posted by your parents' friends on Facebook, they were actually delivered by Socrates in the Fifth Century, B.C.  We hear a lot of criticism of young people these days, and of public education.  Some would argue that both are in a state of ruin.  I would argue, however, that people who feel that way don’t know anything about Cherry Creek High School.

I want to thank Ms. Benham for the opportunity to speak tonight – and I want to thank the students here for giving me a reason to sing your praises.  Despite the negative talk about education – and the country in general these days – you are the people we don’t really worry about.  In fact, on the contrary, we look to you, filled with pride and hope.  You truly are the best and brightest, and the future belongs to you.  The question is what are you going to do with it?  The twenty-first century is a time that is constantly in flux – undergoing perpetual change – and the technologies and professions that will be in demand may not have even been invented yet.  Thus, your future truly is wide open.  The challenge is to find your path.

Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets Society urged students to “Make your lives extraordinary.”  And I think you are doing that.  You are extra ordinary – you stand out.  Beyond that I would tell you to make yourselves useful through self improvement and service. In fact, I will go one step further, and borrow the advice of a good friend of mine. He credits his success to always being the one who says yes, always being the one who says, "I'll try," always being the one who says, "I can do that." So beyond beyond being skilled and helpful, “make yourself indispensable.”  In an episode of the HBO show Girls, one of the characters is fired from her unpaid internship.  And then she finds out her replacement is actually being paid for the job.  She adamantly asks her boss how this can true, and he says, “Well, she knows PhotoShop.”  When she responds, “I can learn PhotoShop,” he tells her, “Maybe, but you didn’t.”  My point is you are the kind of people who learn PhotoShop.  You are the ones who work hard and do what needs to be done.  That is uncommon in these times, and it will serve you well.

Steve Martin is one of the most prominent entertainers and pop culture figures of our time.  From his early days as a stand-up comedian and original cast member of SNL, he has become a film icon as an actor, director, writer, and producer.  He has written numerous best-selling books and an award winning play.  He is considered one premier art collectors and critics in American society.  And he is a renowned musician whose prowess with the banjo rivals the best in the business.  Steve Martin is just so … good.  So, when Steve Martin was asked for the secret to success, he responded, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”  Be … so … good … they … can’t … ignore … you.  That’s the kind of advice you can do something with.  Dedicate yourselves to your craft – whatever it is, and commit to excellence. 

Regardless of which path you choose, do whatever you do with commitment and determination to succeed.  I mean, you’re honors students at Cherry Creek High School.  You are going to get into a good college.  It will be the right college for you.  When you get there, you’re going to do well, and unlike far too many kids, you’re going to earn a degree that will qualify you for a good job.  And you will be well prepared for your job, and you will be well prepared for life. You will be valued, and you will be indispensable. You will be so good they can't ignore you.

You have worked very hard to get here  tonight, and we celebrate your membership in a highly respected institution and a tradition. As a baseline, you must have achieved highly in the academic field. But NHS is about more than just grades - it's about character and service. Over the years I have appreciated the tutoring and academic support that NHS members provide to our student body. And, believe me, when I am in Beyond the Bell after school, and some kid is asking for help in Pre-Calc, this English teacher is looking around for you. Your service matters a great deal, and it's easy to dismiss it as "no big deal," as so many of you say to me. But for a kid who's struggling, the time you give can mean the world. 

If you continue to develop your skills and put in the time and cultivate your character, you will make a difference in the world, and you will, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, "meet with a success unexpected in common hours." Congratulations on your nomination and acceptance to the National Honor Society.

*Note:  I joked that night that I am somewhat plagiarizing myself because the speech was pulled together from a variety of essays, articles, and speeches I've given in the past.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Problem with Youth Sports

Quote: "I've seen parents spend $100K pursuing athletic scholarships. They could have just set it aside for the damn college."

I've been saying that - hell, even ranting about that - for years, and it makes little difference in the knock-down-drag-out crazy world of competitive youth sports. The most recent spotlight comes in this week's Time Magazine (Time.com) which features the expose on "How Kids Sports Became a $15 billion industry." Writer Sean Gregory takes a detailed look inside the youth sports industry and shines a spotlight on the absurdity of it all. This dark side of the industry is nothing new, and it's been building momentum like a freight train since the dawn of club sports - notably soccer - in the early 1980s. The essence of youth sports, of games, has always been believed to be about fun and the joy/thrill of competition. And for many kids it may still be that way. But it's hard to find the basic pursuit of fun in youth athletics anymore. Nearly every conversation turns to the cost of competition.
Years ago I read a fascinating exploration of the issue - Fred Engh's Why Johnny Hates Sports: Why Organized Youth Sports are Failing Our Children. Published in 2002, I'd imagine Engh's data and anecdotes are somewhat dated - but his argument and claims are probably as timely and relevant as ever. The competition with a long-term career and investment focus, rather than the pursuit of fun and activity, has led to a pressure-filled and increasingly joyless sense about sports. Certainly, all parents and kids enter the youth sports world for some fun and camraderie and competition. At a certain point, however, it becomes a business for far too many.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Some Late August Thoughts

I live a two-minute walk from school, and there are few nostalgic moments I enjoy more than hearing the return of the sounds of our marching band's drum line wafting through the neighborhood. The rythm truly energizes me, letting me know the summer days are fading and the kids will be back on campus soon.

The solar eclipse of 2017 has now come and gone, and we here in Denver experienced nearly 93% coverage. While that sounds pretty intense, I have to say that in all honesty I found the whole experience a bit underwhelming. That said, I know quite a few people who spent the day in the path of totality, and the unanimous word is that the experience is quite special.

Sanity has returned to Dove Valley, as the Denver Broncos have finally ended the charade and named Trevor Simian as starting quarterback. Thank goodness. While Simian is the textbook example of a journeyman quarterback, the hard and obvious reality is that first-round draft pick Paxton Lynch is simply not ready for the NFL ... and may never be. So, even though John Elway should have lots of 'splaining to do (but won't have to because he's John, and this is Denver), the team and town can get down to the business of winning championships with D-Fense.

I still think that "Feel It Still" by Portugal, the Man is the song of the summer, and it should probably be the Song of the Year.

The Netflix series Ozark starring Jason Bateman is an incredible bit of television, and its debut season was worth all the hype. In fact, I believe it's a better show than Breaking Bad.

I must admit that I am late to the hype of the McGregor-Mayweather fight, but I am certainly intrigued, and I sort of wish I knew someone willing to fork out the $99 for pay-per-view. Though I am not a big MMA fan, I was stunned by the video of McGregor's title-winning bout.

Still don't think college athletes should be paid - but I am intrigued by the most recent discussion of the issue from the WSJ's Jason Gay.

Every teacher should read some books by Cris Tovani about literacy, and every school should entertain the idea of PLCs and the work of Rick Dufour.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Healthy Living would "Make America Great"

OK, let's be clear about one thing:  countless national problems could be alleviated, or even solved, if most people simply felt better. And more people would feel better if more people were living healthier. America is certainly no model for healthy living, though the self-help industry seems to indicate that many Americans want to live healthy. Yet, according to TheAtlantic.com, a new study from the Mayo Clinic indicates (or exposes) that "Less than 3 Percent of Americans Live a Healthy Lifestyle."

The study authors defined a “healthy lifestyle” as one that met four qualifications:
  • Moderate or vigorous exercise for at least 150 minutes a week
  • A diet score in the top 40 percent on the Healthy Eating Index
  • A body fat percentage under 20 percent (for men) or 30 percent (for women)
  • Not smoking

There is much to unpack in a study and an article with such claims.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Not every child is "uniquely brilliant"

OK, granted it was an advertisement and slogan designed to sell a product, but every time I hear it I recoil at the absolute absurdity of the claims made by K12, an alleged "tuition-free online public school," which is actually a for-profit education and curriculum company.

The claim made in the commercial by some teacher named "Bryan" is that "at K12 we believe every child is uniquely brilliant." That is selling point meant to appeal to parents/families of kids who are not served by the traditional institutions of public education. Outside of the standard bad press exposing mediocre to poor results at such online learning programs, I am bugged by the implication that qualities of brilliance and giftedness actually common and present in everyone. That is simply not true in any objective reality or rational discussion. Too often and for nefarious reasons, the ideas of giftedness are diluted by people misuing an equity lens to promote education profiteering. In reality, Bryan is not much of an educator and certainly not a credible education advocate if he truly believes that everyone is brilliant. That perspective defies the very nature of the idea of brilliance. Not everyone is gifted. In fact, not everyone even has a gift. The concept of average is a very real thing, and anyone in education touting the idea of unique "giftedness" in every child clearly has no knowledge of or experience with "gifted" people. That borders on educational malpratice, and it's a disservice to the institution, especially if we want all students to reach their potential. Potential is something that all children have. Giftedness is not.

There are many exceptional athletes and even more extremely hardworking athletes who achieve success. However, historical figures like Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt or Lebron James are in many ways "freaks of nature." They are exceptions to the norm, and they have gifts which exceed even the hardest working athlete. The same can be said for numerous gifts in math or science or the arts or creativity or dexterity or countless other areas. Giftedness, or "GT" in my world, is a legally defined "exceptionality." Being brilliant, to use Bryan's term, is not common. It is unusual and unique and rare. Cam Newton is a "GT" football player. Yo-Yo Ma is a "GT" cello player. Lil Buck is a "GT" dancer. Barack Obama is a "GT" orator. Jonathan Franzen is a "GT" writer. Adele is a "GT" singer. Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake are "GT" entertainers.

They are "uniquely brilliant."

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Prost Bavarian Beer House & Summer in Summit County

Each summer as the days begin to heat up, and the encroaching school supply sales begin to hint at the end of summer, we head to Summit County, CO, for a week or so of mountain living. The respite from the heat (it's a pleasant 78-82 degrees here when it's mid-90s on the Front Range) is only one part of the sheer joy of life at 9,000 feet. It's a day after day of outdoor living with a healthy and steady regimen of hiking, biking, swiming, fishing, reading, relaxing, eating and drinking. Our preferred home base is the lovely Keystone Lodge & Resort, nestled along the Snake River in the Keystone Valley, and we have our regular bike rides and hikes as well as favorite locales. But each summer there is something new to discover, and this year has given us a true Bavarian treat in a Frisco ale house called Prost Fine Beers and Sausages. We visited last night for some local music, sausages, pretzels and beverages.

Our "discovery" of Prost was a bit fortuitous, for it began in our desire to hear some great local music, most notably that of Summit County favorite Beau Thomas. Thomas is a singer and guitarist who appeared on "The Voice," and we have enjoyed his shows at Bighorn Lodge in the Resort over the past few years. Just a man with a great voice, an engaging personality, a guitar, and a broad repertoire, Beau has played the Happy Hour at the Bighorn for a few years, and it had been a tradition to see him at least once when we visited. He can sing practically anything and takes requests, but he also puts a great bluesy-folksy spin on it that is distinctly his style. Beau also hosts the Open Mic every Tuesday at Prost, and we made the trip over to Frisco for some great food and music. Prost is a pretty quaint place with beer house tables and a patio, and we had noticed it over the years, but probably wouldn't have checked it out without the draw of Beau and the open mic. Beau serves as the host for the evening, and he was joined by a local drummer and bass player for an eclectic opening set that included a cover of Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready and a funky-cool mashup of Dr.Dre(No Diggety)/EdSheeran(Shape of You)/Mackelmore&RyanLewis(Thrift Shop). Beau Thomas & Co was a real treat, and we also enjoyed a couple other talented local singers.

The beer and food did not disappoint. My wife is not really a beer drinker, but she loved the refreshingly light pilsner-style lager called Stiegel, and I enjoyed a dark, malty Hofbrau Dunkel. The pretzels are a big hit as well, and we tried four sausages on their sampler platter - traditional veal, a beer brat, the elk-jalapeno cheddar, and a boar sausage with apricot and cranberry. All in all a great evening and definitely worth stopping by if you're in Summit County. Don't miss out on great beer and German food, and by all means make it a point to see Beau Thomas.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Teaching and My Identity

So, a former student is interested in education as a career, though not necessarily teaching. He's thinking about education policy and the economics of education. He could certainly teach and be excellent, though I'd see him more at the collegiate than the high school level. Anyway, as he ponders his future and decisions in college and post-graduate life, he sent me an email and asked if I'd consider answering a few questions about my decision to pursue teaching. It was actually a fun reflective moment for me, and I thought I'd share my feelings.

Why do you teach? 
a.     I love knowledge and learning and, of course, sharing this info with “a captive audience.” There is definitely a social justice component to what I do – I have an inherent need to “educate,” and my goal for my class is always to (in the words of Henry James) create “people on whom nothing is lost.” Teaching is simply something I can do well, and that’s significant because not everyone can engage the teenage mind with information and skills they aren’t instinctively interested in. I’ve always been able to write well, and as I learned to hone my craft, I developed a real passion for teaching people how to write – to do that well, they must also be able to read and think. And I have the ability to help kids develop those skills.

2.     When and why did you decide to go into education?
a.     Like many teachers, I had several who inspired me in class, and I quickly decided I wanted to do what they do. From the time I was a junior in high school, I wanted to teach, though I did begin as history/social studies major, and I always assumed I would get a Ph.D. and eventually become a professor. Even as an English teacher now, I still have it in the back of my mind that I will someday publish literary criticism and teach at the university level. While teaching in Taiwan, I became quite skilled at grammar and composition, and those areas have remained one of my areas of expertise. I am more of a Rhetoric and Composition guy than I am a Lit person. I also always swore I would never go into administration, yet here I am, and I love that role, too. I was pretty much goaded into that by my old department coordinator, as well as a few other administrators, and I can’t thank them enough for opening that world to me. Being able to still teach, but also do administrative work and coordinate groups like my school's Youth Advisory Board and events like Ethnic Fest makes me feel like I am making even more of a positive impact.

3.     What did you want to do before becoming a teacher?
a.     Writer – I always thought, quite sincerely, that I would teach until I finished the “Great American Novel,” which I would then turn into an Oscar-nominated screenplay. After three worthless and failed novels and screenplays, I’ve now concluded that I am actually a skilled non-fiction writer, which is why I blog and I write articles for the Denver Post and others. At one time I thought I wanted to go into politics and run for office, and I was quite involved in that at various times. While I am still politically active, I know I am more effective as a consultant and writer than I am at actually legislating, or worse campaigning.

4.     What would you do if you didn't go into education?
a.     I would be David Brooks of the New York Times.

b.     After I retire, I’m seriously considering moving to the Caribbean and opening a bed and breakfast with my wife. I would still publish and hopefully be able to do public speaking on occasion.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Practice a little "Intellectual Humility"

How do you "know" what you know?

One of my more entertaining bits that I like to do in my AP Lang & Comp class is to pose to my students this simple question: How do you know France really exists? How do you know France is a real place and the French language and culture are real things? It seems so silly, but I ask them to consider why they accept at face value something which has been asserted by people they don't even know. And then consider how you might set about "proving" it to yourself. You may go online and buy a ticket to "France," but you buy it from a website operated by people you don't know. You go to the airport and wait at a door that says "France" is the destination. You are directed by people you don't know down a windowless hallway, and then you find a seat in a long tubular room which you trust is an "airplane" - a 400-ton piece of machinery that you believe can "fly" at up to 600 miles per hour. Eventually the room starts rumbling and shaking, and you supposedly fly to France. When you land in this place you've never been, you encounter a bunch of people you don't know, who are speaking a language that you have been led to believe is "French."

But how do you really know?

I thought of this ridiculous exercise when I was at the TEDxMileHigh conference this weekend, and I listened to an "idea worth sharing" from Phil Fernbach, a cognitive scientist at CU-Boulder. Dr. Fernbach is the author of a book called The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. Fernbach's presentation was about that importance of collaboration, and even compromise, in our pursuit of knowledge and understanding. He began his engaging lecture by recounting last year's amusing, though rather disheartening, tweet from the rapper B.o.B in which the singer asserted his belief that "the earth is flat." The tweet caught the attention of eminent scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and they began a sort of debate. This little exchange fascinated the internet for about a week, and the educated world looked on with amusement.

Fernbach used this story and some similar anecdotal material to point out how we like to look with contempt, disdain, and ridicule at stories like these that we find, well, absurd for good reason. But then he pressed us to ask ourselves just how well we truly understand and "know" the physics and the science of a round Earth to conclude that what we believe is correct. With the round earth issue, it seems easy and obvious, but with other issues the idea of factual understanding and irrefutable truth becomes a bit more nebulous. In reality, on a personal level we don't really know very much at all ... especially in the Google era when we can always just "look it up," right? And that dependence on others for our understanding was a valuable bit of insight. Our understanding and knowledge of so much depends on collaboration with others. There is very little we can and actually do know on our own.

So, as Fernbach progressed in his talk, he mentioned a valuable little nugget of wisdom that he phrased as the need to, or at least benefit to, practice a little "intellectual humility." I'd never heard it put that way before, but it resonated with me. At this time in our history, the benefit of the doubt and the respect for opposing views, along with the insatiable quest for fully understanding all sides to an issue or concept seems so important. With that in mind, I think I'm going to delve a little further into the issue by reading Fernbach's The Knowledge Illusion. And, I am definitely going to get to the bottom of this France thing. ☺

So, consider practicing a little Intellectual Humility. I know I could stand to do this.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Things to Do in Denver

A couple months ago, a friend from the Midwest messaged me and asked for some tips about visiting Denver this summer. I'd typed up a quick response and then copied it into a draft for A Teacher's View, but never posted it. But I figured why not. So here it is, slightly edited for a larger audience:

If you’re staying downtown, I’d consider the Crawford Hotel at Union Station, if only for a night. It’s in the heart of Lo-Do (the best restaurants and places to hang), and you’d be walking distance to Coors Field which is a great place to see a ball game. 

Down there for restaurants I’d say: 9th Door, The Mercantile, Vesta, Osteria Marco, Bistro Vendome. Or you could walk/cab over to the Highlands and go to Linger –one of Denver’s best restaurants. Root Down and Little Man Ice Cream are also there. In Denver, it’s also cool to stay at the historic Brown Palace Hotel – or at least go for drinks. Larimer Square and The 16th Street Mall are good walking/shopping destinations. And the Art Hotel is a new cool place to stay. And downtown there are simply so many great breweries, it’s impossible to list them. I’d suggest going to Denver Beer Company.

If you’re willing to head out of the city, it’s a quick ride out to Red Rocks to do some hiking and check out the amphitheater. If you go a little further, there are plenty of great hikes in the foothills around Golden or even Evergreen.  If you’re heading out, I love hiking the 3 Sisters Trail in Evergreen and then going to CreeksideWinery. Boulder is just 30 minutes away and definitely worth the trip. Hike the Flatirons above the University and visit Chattaqua and the Pearl Street Mall.

Of course, if you’re coming to Denver, you should head into the mountains. We prefer Summit County, and Breckenridge is definitely our mountain town. Breck is the perfect mountain town, and just two hours from Denver. We go every 4th of July for a few days – it’s got a great parade. We also spend a week or so in Keystone at the Keystone Resort and Lodge at the end of July. It is our happy place, right along the Snake River. It’s pure bliss.

Of course, there are countless books and websites about Things to Do in Denver, but it's always nice to add a personal touch. Regardless, the Mile High City is a wonderful place to visit .... just please don't move here!


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Masterclass.com - "Can Steve Martin Teach You to be Funny"

Online learning - is it really a thing?

When I think about the potential for learning in the Internet Age, I am truly overwhelmed with the possiblities at the same time that I am quite skeptical of the reality. Because I am currently trying to learn to play piano (in my quest to live more artfully and be more artful), I have hope that there is nothing that is not learnable through the YouTube model. I've watched several videos to learn the basics of songs I wanted to play, and I realized that the model is quite transferable. In waiting for one video to play, I was sucked in to an ad for Masterclass.com, an online tutorial site featuring numerous celebrities. It was the Steve Martin video that hooked me:


Now, I haven't actually signed up for any classes, but I am tempted by the idea, and I thought I'd at least look it over and post about it. There is a fair amount of hype and some credible people behind the idea of Masterclass.com, and it seems like an opportunity that is at least worth the first $90. I don't know if Steve Martin can teach me to be funny, or whether Herbie Hancock can actually help me feel the magic of jazz music, but I would imagine that the experience would be one of the more entertaining classes in my educational career even if I learned nothing.

What do you think? Does anyone have any specific experience with MasterClass?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

"America" - through American Literature


I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, 
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong, 
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam, 
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work, 
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck, ...
      - Walt Whitman

On this celebration of Independence Day, I enjoyed a reflection from LitHub.com on the heart and soul of America as seen by international writers and editors through their picks for the quintessential American fiction. That got me thinking as a writer and teacher what my picks are for the best and truest representations of the American ethos - its voice, its spirit, its identity. Some I have pulled from LitHub's list, and others are my own reflection. Here are A Teacher's View of the "quintessential America" through its literature:


Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walden by Henry David Thoreau


Leaves of Grass - Walt Whitman
  • See opening quote. Is there anyone who more aptly called to attention that uniquely American character through the language we use

  • Growing up on the banks of the Mississippi River, I have a fondness for this book that Hemingway once said is the beginning of American literature. The spirit of America and the hope of the redeeming power of literature is so poetically summed up in Huck's parting words: “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.”
The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald

Winesburg, Ohio - Sherwood Anderson

Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston

Light in August - William Faulkner


The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

  • The bible of the Beat and Hippie generation, this rambling, explosive yet reflective meditation on travel, jazz, booze, woman, and freedom is an iconic American voice. I mean, really. Just listen to this: "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars."
A Separate Peace - John Knowles

White Noise - Don DeLillo



Generation X - Douglas Coupland (technically a Canadian author)

Monday, July 3, 2017

Aruba - One Happy Island

Until last week, I had been to four islands for vacation - Hilton Head, Paros - Greece, Bali - Indonesia, and Penghu - Taiwan. Every one of them was a wonderful experience, albeit in different ways and at different times in my life. The common thread of course is the unique qualities of island life, the most noteworthy being "island time." Having never been to the Caribbean, and having watched way to much "Caribbean Life" and "Island Living" on HGTV, it was a dream to spend some time in Gulf, and my most recent trip to Aruba did not disappoint. The motto and theme of this wonderful little semi-arid beach oasis is "One Happy Island," and at least from the tourist standpoint the experience fulfills the promise of the premise.

The key to the magic of the island is, in a word, its charm - Aruba is a quaint, welcoming, easy-going, safe, accessible, and simply adorable bit of land on the southern end of the Gulf of Mexico. Located roughly twenty miles off the coast of Venezuela in the territory known as the Dutch Caribbean, Aruba is a Dutch-controlled island, and it evokes a symbiotic blend of both Aruban and European culture. Maintaining one of the highest standards of living and average incomes for native people among the Gulf islands, Aruba seems to have nicely balanced its colonial past with its tourism-oriented present. We traveled smoothly between the port city of Oranjestaad and the resort-heavy Palm Beach, using both taxis and the local busses. In fact, I would highly recommend taking the bus for at least some of your trips, for it was a cultural experience all its own.

Our time was spent around the pool at the Marriott Aruba Surf Club, and I'd highly recommend it. We easily drifted between the Surf Club, the Ocean Club, the Mariott Hotel, and even made our way up and down the beach to other hotels like the Ritz-Carlton and the Hilton. All the beaches in Aruba are public, so access up and down is easy and not restricted to hotel guests. One nice quality was the ability to visit the other hotels for their restaurants, shops, and or course casinos. In making our way between the resorts and into the shopping/dining area of Aruba, I always felt as safe as I do in my own hometown. The staff in and around the resorts are literally everywhere with quick assistance and a smile. Visiting a place like Aruba immediately leads me to an inkling to "retire in the Caribbean," and while I will do some additional research over the next decade or so, I will definitely take another trip to island gem that is Aruba.

In the meantime, I'm planning my next vacation and research trip for the US Virgin Islands:




Wednesday, June 21, 2017

2017's Song of the Summer: "Feel It Still" - Portugal. The Man

Well, it's official. This year's song of the summer can be none other than the funky, groovy, hip sounds of "Feel It Still" by long-time indie band, Portugal. The Man



To quote a DJ on KTCL (93.3 Denver) this morning: "Just who do these guys think they are?" I mean, it's only June, and this song and album are so damn good that there's nothing left to look forward to in 2017. And, where did this band come from (they've been around for nearly 15 years), and what exactly are we to make of the name "Portugal. The Man"? What does the name mean, and what's the significance of period in the middle? Oh, well. Who cares.

This song has a groove that could land comfortably in so many decades that I'm not quite sure how to describe it. For some strange reason, the vibe reminds of Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction, and I think it's because that film could have been set in the 50s, 60s, 70s, or 90s, and there was no defining era except for a distinct feel of cool. This song is the same thing. Wide appeal with hipster credibility. The twangy little bass beat just oozes funkadelic, and if you're head isn't just bobbing to the sound, there is definitely something dead inside of you.

Check it out, and celebrate the solstice by getting your groove on.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Breaking Bad's Walter White was never any "good"

I'm a huge fan of pop culture criticism - in fact, at times I feel like I enjoy the criticism as much or more than the actual pop culture itself. The work of Gen X writer Chuck Klosterman is a perfect example of this feeling. Klosterman, who has written for Grantland, Esquire, GQ, and other publications, produces a large volume of sports and entertainment commentary that is at times a work of art unto itself. His most recent collection of essays - Chuck Klosterman X: a Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the 21st Century - has been engaging me recently, and I rarely find issues on which I disagree with Chuck. However, his views of the iconic TV show Breaking Bad are one area where we part ways, and it's his praise not only of the show but his interpretation of the character of Walter White that are so off. As I've noted before, the entire BB fan base as well as an endless run of critics are wrong about Walter White, and I am mystified by the miss. Walter White is not an anti-hero, and the show was not about a man who "breaks bad." Walter White was always evil, or at least pretty "bad," and unlike characters such as Michael Corleone or Tony Soprano, there is no redeeming quality of White.

Klosterman crafts a compelling view of contemporary crime drama with an assertion about the cultural significance and groundbreaking impact of four shows - The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. These are undoubtedly some of the best television of the last two decades. Klosterman analyzes the shows as he argues that Breaking Bad elevates above the rest because of the unique transformation of the character of Walter White. The true magic of the show, and the significance of WW, is that "At some point, he decided to become bad, and that's what matters." Klosterman believes White is set apart because his evil and his actions were guided by his choice to "break bad," an act that his reluctant partner Jesse told him he could never do. You can't just "break bad," or decide to become a different person. You can't choose to become evil. And this is where Jesse is in some ways right, and Klosterman (as well as the show's fans and other critics) is simply wrong.

Walter White is not an anti-hero, and he is not a good (or even simply average) man who chooses to "break bad" as a result of adversity (in this case, his diagnosis of cancer and desire to protect and provide for his family). From the beginning, Walter White is simply not a very good person. He comes across as a rather mediocre, if not downright inadequate, teacher. Obviously, later seasons reveal his contempt and seething regret over his decision to leave the science/businesss world and enter education. Yet, it seems like his partners don't regret his decision to withdraw from the business. I don't think they ever really liked him or even respected him as a person, and the reason is he was ... well, a bit of a tool. Walter White was always a pretty amoral sort of a dick, and the reason he didn't "break bad" or become "evil" earlier is simply because the opportunity never presented itself. People don't just become sociopaths, which is a fair description of his character by the middle seasons. He was always that way, and the cancer diagnosis and chance encounter with Jesse simply offered the opportunity for more socially destructive actions.

Characters like Tony Soprano and Don Draper are compelling and interesting because aspects of the individuals are appealing. We develop some degree of understanding and empathy for these men because of their circumstances, but the reason we do that is carefully crafted by the writers and directors. The characters always have in some way done something to "save the cat," an act which endears us or at least softens our suspicion and mistrust of them. We ironically root for Tony Soprano to get away with crime because we like him. We justify that he is only hurting other bad guys, or we care about the integrity of the close relationships he has - even if they are with other thugs. Yet, none of this is, or should be, true with Walter White. My sympathy was always with Jesse, a true anti-hero. But I never wanted WW to get away with anything. I wasn't hoping to prolong the show - I wanted him busted and the whole thing over. Because Walter White is no good, and he was never worth a damn.

Friday, June 16, 2017

"1979" & growing up Gen X


Generation X, while not inclined to be defined by anything or anyone, was certainly crafted by coming of age in the late 70s and early 80s. There was a frivolous apathy and detached bemusement associated with life in years like 1979. And this ironic spirit is captured oh so poetically in one of my favorite Smashing Pumpkins songs, "1979" from the album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The song's distinct and innovative sound with its funky 70s bass lines and trippy reverb refrains and rhythms just oozes with the 70's suburban ennui that is captured so beautifully in the video. Corgan is reflecting the feel of 1979 when he was just twelve years old and coming into consciousness.

Justine never knew the rules
Hung down with the freaks and the ghouls
No apologies ever need be made
I know you better than you fake it, to see
And I don't even care to shake these zipper blues
And we don't know just where our bones will rest
To dust I guess
Forgotten and absorbed into the earth below
The street heats the urgency of sound
As you can see there's no one around



Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Are TED Talks Helping Anyone?

If you've been a student or attended any sort of professional conference or training (or even spent any time on Facebook) in the past decade or so, you have watched a TED Talk. TED Talks are the brainchild of a man named Richard Wurman, but they really came into prominence as a cultural media phenomenon through the hard work and vision of online curator and media entrepreneur Chris Anderson. Anderson turned TED into a huge foundation of idea promotion, and now the ubiquitous nature of TED Talks are an accepted part of media and learning. I can't tell you the number of times I've experienced or heard about someone else experience a "fantastic presentation" that clarifies an issue or poses an interesting question or solution. Inevitably, speakers and teachers will introduce an idea for pondering and then deftly shift to someone else's work by saying "Watch this TED talk, and then let's talk about what you think."

If you are an ideas-oriented person, then you love TED Talks. In fact, you probably have dreams of giving one yourself someday. And maybe you should. You probably share them regularly on social media, and you can easily get lost on the website for hours - or even days - clicking on one presentation after another. It's easy to get wrapped up in the neatly synthesized wisdom of a TED Talk. The answers just seem so obvious and clear and easy. The world would be a much better place if everyone just listened to TED. But I'm wondering if that is true. Is the TED phenomenon actually helping us, or is the distilled wisdom of a 20-minute presentation just pacifying us and distracting us from the real work to be done. Are the soundbites and slogans of TED Talks actually oversimplifying the issues. And, here's a question:  Why do so many teachers and presenters rely on TED Talks as a key component of their content and instruction?  Shouldn't the class or conference itself be a TED Talk? Or, is the TED Talk just another form of content like a book or poem or piece of data that teachers and speakers have always used.

There is even a cottage publishing industry of books on how to be more like TED. The prime example of this is a book that promises to help you Talk Like TED.

What do you think? Do you like TED Talks? Is TED helping anyone?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

For Gen Xers, Reality Bites was a terrible film

As Generation X settles casually into middle age, I need to share an observation:  Reality Bites was a terrible movie.

When this movie came out in 1994, I was a few years out of college and living in Southeast Asia. The economy was still somewhat sucky for people in their twenties, and by that point the term Generation X had actually become a thing, having been established by Douglas Coupland's seminal novel and capitalized upon by marketing agencies seeking to identify, explain, market to, and manipulate the Twentysomethings previously known as the Slacker Generation. The movie Reality Bites did not help the perception of our demographic. Let's face it, the movie spotlights and caricatures a rather whiny group of losers .... or, as writer Lindy West pointed out a few years ago, a bunch of "shitheads."  The movie wasn't really made for actual members of Generation X, a group of somewhat disaffected young adults who were critical of and suspicious toward most of the traditional institutions in society that had long grounded adulthood in contemporary American - marriage, careers, education, politics, consumerism. It was simply made to capitalize on a moment in time and a marketing term.

None of the people I knew in the early and mid-nineties looked at the world with an entitled sense of desire for the lives of the Baby Boomers or the Silent Generation in front of us. Having grown up in the waning days of the Cold War with a casual acceptance of divorce and disappointing job markets, Generation X simply went about its life, aloof to the self-absorbed yearnings and ponderings of characters like Lelaina and Troy Dyer. Let's face it, the character of Troy was simply a dick, and not in any interesting or noble way. While the backstory of his father is supposed to generate some understanding and empathy for his cold, keep-love-at-a-distance-to-protect-myself demeanor, it is not remotely endearing or appealing. He's just a tool. And Lelaina's interest in him is alternately not at all believable and truly pathetic. The two of them just exemplify terrible decision-making, and they reveal a serious disdain from the filmmakers for the very audience many believed they were portraying honestly. This movie was a big studio release meant to appeal to the masses - but Generation X has never been about "the masses."

Granted, there are some interesting aspects of the movie that were certainly an appropriate sui generis view into the lives and challenges of Gen X. Issues like divorce, drug use, and the dangers of casual sex were addressed in a reasonably honest way. Looking back after decades, the portrayals of "Vickie's AIDS test and Sammy's coming out to his mother" were handled with a candid approach that matched the times and revealed the necessary societal progress that has been a hallmark of Generation X's maturity. And the natural infusion of consumer and popular culture into every conversation was actually an authentic portrayal of the first generation to be acutely aware of the hype with an ability to discount it and embrace it at the same time. Yet, far too often it became as cliche as the jingoistic bromides that Troy regularly tries to pass off as cool, hipster wisdom. The gas station convenience store dance to "My Sharona" was a treat for the creators of movie trailers, and it lives on as a nauseating reminder of why Gen X hates marketing.

There is a fair amount of thoughtful art that actually captures the identity and ethos of Generation X, not the least of which is the novel that named it. In fact, a much better Gen X movie preceded Reality Bites, coming out at roughly the same time as Coupland's novel. Set in the early days of emerging Seattle sound, Cameron Crowe's ensemble piece Singles is the true portrayal of Generation X's rise into adulthood in the early 90s. If I want my generation to be remembered through a film, it's no question that Singles is Generation X's film. Amidst all the sappy commercialized portrayals of Gen X, it's scenes like this one that exemplify who we were ... and are.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Writing Well Matters

Never has the world had so many forms of communication, yet produced so little understanding - Neil Postman

Being able to write well is, in many ways, a gift. There is an art form to written communication, and fluency of thought is so important at a time when it seems so much can be easily misunerstood. At the same time, writing well is a craft that can be learned and refined and developed continually. Often there are simple tricks of the trade. I was recently intrigued to learn that Amazon chief Jeff Bezos maintains a regular practice that his execs provide clear well-developed paragraphs of explanation for ideas and proposals in meetings. He's not a fan of bullet points and quick Power Point-oriented explanations. To that end, reading about writing is a good practice, and I am always interested in new resources for writing. That's why I am planning to read a new offering from Sir Harold Evans called Do I Make Myself Clear: Why Writing Well Matters. In this review from the New York Times, Jim Holt describes "The Value and Virture of Good Writing."

One might observe that Evans’s own guide to writing well is nearly four times the length of its classic counterpart on this side of the Atlantic, Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” But that would be a cheap irony. Besides, the precepts Evans offers are both edifying and entertaining. In his “Ten Shortcuts to Making Yourself Clear,” for instance, No. 7 is “Don’t Be a Bore.” This may sound like an empty injunction, but Evans elaborates it into a discussion of different sentence structures available to a writer — “loose,” “periodic,” “balanced” — explaining how their varied deployment can avert monotony and even, in the hands of expert prose writers (he cites Roger Angell, Richard Cohen, David Foster Wallace and Barbara Demick), achieve a sort of music.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Are We Really Teaching Anything?

A few questions as the school year closes, and both teachers and students casually retreat from the ideas of content and curriculum:  Do we really know what indespensible, or at least highly relevant, information and skills we should be teaching and students should be learning? Do we know what we really need to know? And, perhaps most importantly, what is being "taught" in our classrooms that any student couldn't learn or figure out by just reading the book or watching a video? I'm reflecting on the concepts of teaching and learning after a couple days conferencing on professional development and the establishment of PLC's, or professional learning communities. That experience has dovetailed with my delving into a wonderfully thoughtful book of cultural criticism from a true Gen X voice, Chuck Klosterman.

Klosterman is a pop culture writer and critic who has been researching and publishing for years now in a voice guided by Generation X's inherent distrust of institutions and an instinctive quest for authenticity. One of his latest works poses a simple but valuable question related to my pondering above: But What If We're Wrong. It is absolutely not, in his words, "a book of essays," even though it reads like one. Instead it is the penned ponderings of an honest thinker who sought out expert answers to questions about gravity and the literary canon. And that's just in the first 40 pages. The issue of the canon resonated with me, as I continue to ponder why we do what we do in schools, and how do we address the seemingly arbitrary nature of content and curriculum. As our English department has long acknowledged, there is no sacred book. There is nothing going on in our classes that students can't either do without, or look up on their own.

Yet we continue to do what we do because it produces results - in areas like ACT scores and college admissions and students' future career success - that we can hang our hat on and convince ourselves and our community that we really taught these kids something .... and they learned.

But what if we're wrong?

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Clash - the "only band that mattered"

So .... this was published today:


The Clash. That name. That band. That sound. That look. The Clash just meant so much. And The Clash meant so much at a time and to a people that seemed to mean nothing at all. I remember the first sounds of The Clash coming from a cassette deck in the basement of a friend. It was "Spanish Bombs" and "London Calling" if I'm not mistaken, and it had to be around 1981 maybe. It was certainly pre-Combat Rock because I remember waiting for that release. The Clash felt edgy and important in rural-suburban southern Illinois when the term punk was catching our attention, and music became about more than whatever Casey Kasem was playing on the Top 40. The Clash had guts. And now we have a collection of writers capturing for us that early and long-term impact and giving words to those feelings we couldn't really describe or articulate but that we knew mattered.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Helping Students Rise - with Literature & Rhetoric

I've recently been reading Fareed Zakaria's excellent education commentary In Defense of a Liberal Education, and it has me thinking about the importance of literature and the humanities, as well as rhetoric and writing. These are the subjects often referred to as the classics, and these are the areas that formed the minds of our greatest American thinkers from Jefferson and Franklin to Obama and Reagan. They are the foundation of the class I teach - AP English Language & Composition - and they are the areas of study that can change lives. That transformative experience is - and was - certainly true for the students of Lorena Thompson, who recently retired from Grand Junction High School after nearly thirty years of molding minds and developing the humanity of young adults. Denver Post writer Megan Shrader recently profiled Thompson in a piece of op-ed commentary that promotes the humanities as an integral part of helping students RISE.

Lorena Thompson didn’t just teach Niccolò Machiavelli to Grand Junction High School students, for almost three decades she embodied the advice of “The Prince” that to be both feared and loved is to be respected and followed. Thompson retired last Friday from the Western Slope’s most urban school, taking with her a brilliant mind that instilled critical thinking skills and strong moral compasses in many of the almost 3,000 students she taught over 28 years .... Lorena Thompson proved that, unleashed, a hard-working and talented teacher can bridge the appalling achievement gap or put our top scholars among the best in the world. But how do you teach a teacher to win students’ respect through equal doses of love and fear? How do you inspire them to feats not thought possible? Perhaps it would be wise for someone to ask Thompson before she leaves.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Sunday, May 21, 2017

High School Seniors, Live Deliberately

As one of my responsibilities at work, I help with our graduation performances which includes four speeches and four musical acts. My school does not have a valedictorian, nor do we  bring in an outside commencement speaker. Everything is kid focused, with the exception of a speech by our principal. It's a truly wonderful ceremony.

Of course, I do have some thoughts for the graduating seniors each year, and this year the Denver Post was kind enough to give me a forum for my commencement speech. The primary focus is on an idea from early American writing - specifically, to "live deliberately." Here is a link to my piece which was featured as A Message for Today's Graduates from Henry David Thoreau (and Punk Rock).

The world is becoming increasingly standardized, but the American ethos of a “rugged individuality” and a pioneering spirit was not about sameness. It was, however, about choice. And there may be nothing wrong with consistency and similarity as long as it is conscious and deliberate.
Henry David Thoreau was an original. In fact, he was the original original. And that originality has run throughout American history, from the American Revolution to the culture of punk rock, an ethos nowhere better defined than in the “Punk Rock Manifesto” from Bad Religion front man Greg Graffin, who asserted, “Punk is: a belief that this world is what we make of it, and truth comes from our understanding of the way things are, not from the blind adherence to prescriptions about the way things should be.”
If we approach our lives with that sort of deliberateness and honesty, we will all be in much better shape.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Rest in Peace - Chris Cornell

I don't mind stealing bread from the mouths of decadence;
And I can't feed on the powerless when my cup's already overfilled ...



Some times - too often - our brightest stars burn out too soon.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Is It the Kids? Or their Parents? Both? Neither?


Are kids today succeeding or failing? Are schools successful or flunk-out factories? Is anybody actually a grown-up anymore? These questions drive much discussion on social media and across community groups as we debate whether or not we need to make America great again. As a Gen Xer, I am certainly familiar with the down-turned noses of older Americans who look at young people with disdain and disappointment. And, as I've noted in a recent post, many people are identifying a crisis in or stagnation of the process of "growing up." So, if you have your suspicions and criticisms of young people today, here's a good question: Is it the character of the kids and the superficial world in which they live, or is it a result of poor parenting?

This topic was on my mind recently as I participated in discussions of educational shortcomings and achievement gaps. I begin to ask why some kids succeed while others don't. If you ask well-known psychologist and writer Dr. Leonard Sax, you would receive a harsh criticism of the parenting skills of Baby Boomers and the older Xers. Sax warns of the The Collapse of Parenting. Sax believes "we hurt our kids when we treat them like grown-ups." I haven't read Dr. Sax's latest, but I was a big fan of his earlier book on Why Gender Matters. However, I can also understand some of the criticism which claims that Sax's solutions to "what's wrong with young people" are simply an outdated promotion of authoritarian parenting. And there may be good reason to believe that Sax is overstating his opinions based on anecdotal evidence rather than actual research and data on poor parenting skills.

There is certainly no shortage of advice on how to parent, or in this day and age of arrested development, How to Raise and Adult. That idea is in some ways the antithesis to Sax's advice because it describes the benefit of breaking free from the overparenting trap. How much or how little parenting should happen is really that elusive sweet spot that no doctor or book can accurately pinpoint. Is the question and the solution a matter of cultural norms? That can certainly be a loaded question, especially when considering the views of the Yale law professors Amy Chua (of the Tiger Mom fame) and her husband Jeb Rubenfeld who kicked up some controversy in a recent book about achievement gaps - The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.

Who or what is responsible for the success or failures, the achievement or struggles, the triumphs or the tragedies of young people today?