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, 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 - "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, 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, 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 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?

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Growing Up - Is that Even a thing Anymore?

Kids these days.

The criticism of the young by the old is perhaps mankind's most cherished tradition, along with passing the buck and other assorted bromides. Yet, there seems to be a growing consensus in American culture, media, and publishing that young people are not "growing up" the way they used to. There's plenty of evidence that this is a documented phenomenon with the emergence of phrases like "perpetual adolescence" and "emerging adulthood." Publications like the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, and Salon have all recently featured articles about teens and twentysomethings failing to transition into adulthood. The Journal's article penned by Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse offers his new Republican and anti-Trump conservative view of how to make America great again - be better parents, eschew our obsession with technology and consumerism, and learn responsibility and adult skills by doing things such as travelling and living out of our comfort zone. These ideas make a lot of sense - even as we must acknowledge that telling American parents to do a better job has long been the Republican "platform" that has had little effect in actually becoming a reality in contemporary families. Senator Sasse's article was drawn from his recent book The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and how to Rebuild Self Reliance. And I'm generally a big fan of anyone credibly drawing from the philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau. These ideas definitely warrant looking into further. In the meantime, I'd like to share a list of advice from the new book about the life of Jimmy Buffett. In a profile on mothers and sons in this week's Parade Magazine, there was some sensible advice that the pirate songster's mother shared with him. There are some similar ideas to Sasse's book.

  1. Read often, especially the classics (So, this means books, not just social media posts)
  2. Accept people for who they are, not what  they do for a living
  3. Be well-travelled
  4. Learn to be a listener
  5. Live by the sea
  6. Listen to your spirit and find joy
  7. Education, like money, doesn't necessarily make you happy or successful

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Learning Math requires Learning to Learn

I think a lot about math, which is a little strange because I don't consider myself "good at math," and my career has largely been about the English language and literature. However, I am the father of an incredibly talented math student, and my high school has a nationally-reknowned math team. I'm also a school administrator and GT Coordinator, and as an aspect of that job I observe a fair number of math classes, I read a lot about math curriculum/standards/sequencing, and I discuss the issue of math acceleration for many students. As a result, I'd like to understand math more, and thus I was intrigued by a profile in the Wall Street Journal about Barbara Oakley, a military officer and scholar who never considered herself good at math, yet has written two books about learning math.

The profile on Oakley (which can be difficult to access if you don't subscribe - a situation the WSJ should fix by allowing easier paid access to single articles) focused on how "A Polymath Mastered Math - And so Can You." That's an intriguing promise, the likes of which has been promised by far too many books and math centers and tutoring programs. Oakley's views and ideas, however, represent something a bit different to me. Her career path and her acquiring of strong math skills and insight came later in life, and the insight she gleaned from that process has fueled two books about learning math. Oakley's first - A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra) - describes her own process for math discovery and some valid criticism, as well as some praise, about how American educators teach math and build skills. The balance of sequencing and repetition with the needs of cultivating long-term understanding is at the heart of the discussion.

I have not read Oakley's book yet, but I plan to as part of my goal to continue learning and not simply accept that there are "things I'm not good at."  That pessimistic point of view, especially in terms of schooling, is addressed in Oakley's new book - Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential - about the latest neuroscience behind brain elasticisty and the process of learning. While I am always skeptical about the feel-good, self-help message of so many people promising paths to "unleashing our potential," I am intrigued by Oakley's story, and I am wondering how effectively these ideas might be adapted to general pedagogy and practice in schools, especially for struggling learners and GT kids who aren't so adept at "doing school."

A lot to think about here for an old English teacher. But also a lot to realize about The Power of Mathematical Thinking. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Case Against Zeros - grading gets complicated

I have given zeros to students who fail to complete work. That seems to make perfect sense - if there is no work done or submitted on an assignment, a teacher cannot rationally assign points. However, in a grading system which is entirely point-based, a few zeros can mean a student will be mathematically eliminated from ever passing a class. So, he or she will fail. And that happens all the time. That, in a theoretical or philosophical way, may not make much sense in an eduation system. The issue has been aptly summed up in a paper that has been making the rounds for a while now - it's called The Case Against Zero.

If I were using a four-point grading system, I could give a zero. If I am using a 100-point system, however, then the lowest possible grade is the numerical value of a D, minus the same interval that separates every other grade. In the example in which the interval between grades is 10 points and the value of D is 60, then the mathematically accurate value of an F is 50 points. This is not — contrary to popular mythology — “giving” students 50 points; rather, it is awarding a punishment that fits the crime. The students failed to turn in an assignment, so they receive a failing grade. They are not sent to a Siberian labor camp. There is, of course, an important difference. Sentences at Siberian labor camps ultimately come to an end, while grades of zero on a 100-point scale last forever. Just two or three zeros are sufficient to cause failure for an entire semester, and just a few course failures can lead a student to drop out of high school, incurring a lifetime of personal and social consequences.

I'll admit that when I first heard of schools eliminating zeros from the grading policy, I instinctively recoiled at the sheer audacity. How can teachers not be allowed to give zeros? However, I've been scrutinizing my own class and grading practices recently, and I've begun to develop a more open mind to the idea that we need a fresh look at assessment. However, when I participated in a school visit to Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, IL, I sat in a session about standards-based grading, and I was struck by how strongly the discrepancy between letter and numeric grading affected me. In effect, we have long operated in a grading system in which 80% of letter grades (A, B, C, D) are considered "passing" a class, but only 40% of numeric grades (60%-100%) are considered as an equal measure.

As controversial and blasphemous as it may seem to say, that literally makes no sense.

Interested in further reading? This post has links to numerous thoughtful articles.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Laughing with Kathleen Madigan as she tells it like it is

If you enjoy classic stand-up comedy, and you are looking for a great night of storytelling and jokes, you should make it a point to see Kathleen Madigan whenever she comes through town. I first ran across Madigan almost twenty years ago when my sister gave me a CD of some Madigan stand-up. She comes across as that easy-going girlfriend whom you can sit and listen to all night long. Growing up in the St. Louis area where Madigan was raised, I appreciated the raw and hysterical honesty of her stories of a "drinking Irish Catholic family" with seven kids. The sardonic cynicism with which Madigan observes the world is endlessly entertaining, as you can tell the absurdity of the world just cracks her up.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

You Don't Need to Drink with Everything

In a reasonably refined strip mall in my suburb of Denver, there are two new businesses that serve drinks with activities that should have nothing to do with drinking. One is a nail salon and spa and the other appears to be an old school barber shop. And I'm just thinking, "Ooh. Ick. That's a thing?" Do you really want loose hairs landing in your craft beer or stuck to the side of the glass holding your Manhattan? How about a nice fresh whiff of nail polish and massage oils as you try to get a nose of your cabernet? Many things can be complemented with a nice adult beverage, like a book club discussion for example. But basic personal hygeine shouldn't be one of them.

I first had this thought a few years ago when I noticed the storefronts offering art classes and wine. Clearly some people think, "Wow, what a great idea." They'll go hang with friends, pretend to be artists, and tip back a few glasses. My reaction was, "Gross. Who wants to smell paint while sipping a nice chardonnay?" The more I think I about it the more I realize that quite a few middle class suburban adults need to have an honest discussion with themselves about that little problem they have.

Not everything has to center around booze. In fact, most activities shouldn't.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

GT, College Admissions, & A Mathematician's Lament

It's no surprise that many Americans, young and old, express frustration with math and skills of numeracy. As a teacher, I hear far more people note how they "hated math" and struggled with it than people who express the same feelings about language arts, humanties, sciences, and electives. However, because of where I work and because of the truly gifted mathematical mind of my son, I have a window into the world of mathletes and mathematically-talented students. My school has four classes past AP Calculus, and that's because some students accelerate to the level of calculus by sophomore or even freshman year. These students are usually highly-ranked math and science competitors who score in the top 1% on tests like the AMC8/10/12 and the AIME. It is a pleasure to work with these kids and coordinate their incredibly advanced talents and schedules. However, the achievements of students like these can lead to an unintended consequence - a "math acceleration arms race," where other advanced students want to accelerate quickly, even skipping classes, because they believe they must keep up. As a GT coordinator, we look at a body of evidence for true giftedness, and we see clearly the difference between hard-working, advanced students and truly gifted kids. In speaking with kids and families about math advancement, it always seems to be focused on advancement as the key to an Ivy League college admission. And that's so sad.

For many years, my wife and I have listened to parents of other mathletes ask us "How do you get him to do that?" And that is the key. We don't. It's also the key difference between a smart kid pushed by zealous parents and a truly GT kid. We have never done anything as parents to push our son to achieve. And he does not attend endless math camps or have private tutors. We are certainly open to opportunities, and we encourage him with his participation in competitions such MATHCOUNTS and A/JMO, as well as his work in the mathlete  community on AoPS, the Art of Problem Solving.  But we haven't pushed him to excel - he excels precisely because he is gifted, passionate, and engaged. You can't create gifted, and parents absolutely must stop trying to do so. In a recent discussion with kids about "skipping math classes" to get ahead, I was turned on to a fascinating treatise on math and math education - Paul Lockhart's A Mathematician's Lament. For those interested in the world of advanced math, it's worth reading his essay.

Mathematics and Culture - The first thing to understand is that mathematics is an art. The difference between math and the other arts, such as music and painting, is that our culture does not recognize it as such. Everyone understands that poets, painters, and musicians create works of art, and are expressing themselves in word, image, and sound. In fact, our society is rather generous when it comes to creative expression; architects, chefs, and even television directors are considered to be working artists. So why not mathematicians? Part of the problem is that nobody has the faintest idea what it is that mathematicians do. The common perception seems to be that mathematicians are somehow connected with science— perhaps they help the scientists with their formulas, or feed big numbers into computers for some reason or other. There is no question that if the world had to be divided into the “poetic dreamers” and the “rational thinkers” most people would place mathematicians in the latter category. Nevertheless, the fact is that there is nothing as dreamy and poetic, nothing as radical, subversive, and psychedelic, as mathematics. It is every bit as mind blowing as cosmology or physics (mathematicians conceived of black holes long before astronomers actually found any), and allows more freedom of expression than poetry, art, or music (which depend heavily on properties of the physical universe). Mathematics is the purest of the arts, as well as the most misunderstood.

Additionally, the Lament was eventually developed into a book, which expounds on Lockhart's ideas and his concerns.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

May the Fourth Be with You

It's Star Wars Day - May 4th.  And, I've had a very un-Yoda-like day.

At school my Youth Advisory Board is showing The Empire Strikes Back after school to celebrate the day, and I have just watched Luke's training with Yoda on Hoth. It was a propos for my day, as I exhibited nothing Jedi-worthy in my day today. But after letting too many things bother me, and thinking rashly and emotionally rather than practically and productively, it was nice to get some lessons from Yoda.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Trump Compromises ability to "Respect the Office"

The United States of America has long been a complicated place in terms of its dueling ideologies and political parties, and there is little doubt that the intensity of the differences have been magnified in recent years. Yet Americans have generally been able to disagree about candidates and administrations while still respecting the institutions of society and government, most especially the Presidency. The historical expectation has been that Americans "Respect the office, not the man." But that condition and agreement has changed with the election of the Ivanka's dad. Simply put, the current occupant of the office of POTUS does not respect the very office he holds. And if the man in the Oval Office cannot hold himself to a standard of decency, then Americans cannot simply agree to respect the office while he is in it.

That issue came to a head today on a CNN panel as a group of pundits and commentators discussed the rally that he held in Pennsylvania in opposition to the tradition of the White House Correspondents dinner: The sharp exchange began when Democratic strategist Paul Begala unleashed a withering attack on the President, calling him both a "moral midget" and "needy little baby."  It is simply not possible for many Americans to condone or accept the embarrassingly deplorable behavior of the current occupant simply because he holds the office. He has shamed the office with his behavior, and that has sadly changed the percpetion that America and the world has for what was once reverentially called the Highest Office in the Land.

The man who disagrees with Paul Begala says "We owe this man ... respect," and he could not be more wrong. That man has dishonored the office of the Presidency at nearly every chance he gets, and as a man he deserves no respect because he is not even a man. As countless critics have pointed out - both liberal and conservative - he has said and done things that no sitting President has or should have the gall to do. There is an expectation of restraint and tact and reserve and maturity and poise that must come with the Presidency, and that man has sneered and spit upon all of  that tradition. I'm saddened to say shame on him, and I'm disappointed in anyone who seeks to excuse or justify or accept such indecent and un-Presidential behavior. For me, this is not about politics or ideology - it's about character. And the current occupant simply has none.

Of course, this view is simply my opinion, and I may clearly take "things" more seriously than many. In that way, it's worth noting the views of people who supported him before and still do. Former newsman Greg Dobbs of Evergreen, CO, recently explored the supporter world, and he summed up his findings in a piece for the Denver Post: What My Conservative Friends say about Donald Trump 100 Days after the Election. Dobbs offers some valuable insight into reasoning for Trump support, and while it saddens me, I do accept that these are reasoned positions. They simply don't ground themselves in the same values I do.

I asked everyone the same questions. The first one was: Are you just as enthusiastic now as you were on Election Day? The answer across the board was yes, with a few caveats. Like this one: “In my mind I didn’t vote for Donald Trump, I voted for Mike Pence — a man of character — and I voted against Hillary Clinton.” Another qualified her answer this way: “We didn’t vote for him because we loved him. We didn’t want Hillary.” Another put it bluntly: “It was as much (maybe more) about not giving the Left another four years as it was Trump.”Others were purely positive. One said, “Trump has surrounded himself with experienced business people and I think a perspective on what is going on not only in the United States but worldwide. I think it’s also encouraging that he questions so many things.” Another explained that he’s “getting more accustomed to Trump every day.”

Anthony Bourdain returns with new Parts Unknown

Well, no one can accuse Anthony Bourdain or CNN from shying away from the controversial issue of immigration and culture in the post-2016 election era. The inveterate traveler, foodie, chef, and verbal essayist Anthony Bourdain returned tonight with a new season of his signature food & culture show Parts Unknown, and he delved right to the heart of the immigration and American culture debate with a show about Latino and Mexican culture in the city of Los Angeles. I truly enjoy the show for its meditative voice-over essays of the places and people Bourdain visits, and I revel in the beautiful cinematography that captures the spirit a place through its cuisine.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Homework, "Doing School," & Success in Life

"How are they going to succeed in real life if they can't complete homework?"

Good question. Or is it?

For as long as I've been in education - and that includes being a student - I've heard the argument that the discipline of doing homework, being prepared for class, and knowing how to meet demands are all essential to being successful in adulthood. But the older I become the less certain I am of that platitude. Certainly there is a correlation between students with good grades and adults with successful lives. However, I have an increasingly difficult time squaring that logic as absolute, and I become increasingly frustrated when we as a society write off kids who don't get homework done or meet the often mundane academic expectations of many classes.

In reality, there are numerous kids who very competently handle "real life" even as teenagers, though that may mean choosing jobs and family responsibilities over worksheets and textbooks. Young people with highly developed social-emotional traits or technical skills may have as many opportunities for a successful adulthood as ones who are good at studying, listening to lectures, and filling in bubbles. The saddest aspect of our contemporary education system is that it is so institutionalized that it cannot begin to recognize the myopic definition it has developed for success and student achievement.

Additionally, schools have only just begun to scrutinize the challenging question of whether they are teachers of content or teachers of skills. And if they are teachers of skills, then what exactly are the skills for a successful life? I've known many students who are late or absent from class, and rarely have their "homework" completed, but who are considered the most dependable employees at their jobs and will work harder for minimum wage than they will for a diploma. That can be insulting to people focused on academia. Often the problem is that a teacher's "real world" and a student's reality of that real world are vastly different. 

So, I think we must be careful in writing kids off simply because they aren't adept at "doing school," and I think our outcomes as a society will improve when we acknowledge that academic skills are only one component of a successful character.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Where Have I Been ...?

It's amazing how quickly time can pass when you're busy with work and life. As a blogger, I like to maintian a pretty consistent presence for people checking in at A Teacher's View, and I don't like more than 4-5 days to go by without a post. So .... where have I been? Oh, between Spring Break and administering the PSAT-10 to nearly 850 students, it's been an interesting couple weeks. Here are some issues and ideas that I've been meaning to write about:

I spent a few wonderful days in my hometown, a sleepy little river town outside St. Louis, known as Alton, IL. Over Spring Break, I took my kids back to visit my parents in Godfrey, and then we also did some exploring of what is one of the most interesting towns in the United States.

I've also been doing quite a bit of reading, both fiction and non-fiction. As I noted in an early post, I've been interested in learning more about the ideas and foundations of conservatism as a political ideology. So, that has led me into such pivotal works as the iconic Russell Kirk's A Conservative Mind and modern writer/thinker Yuval Levin's The Great Debate. And, I was forced to return to the library too soon a wonderful little coming-of-age story set in 1970's Maine called Setting Free the Kites by Alex George. I was quite enthralled with the story, but it was overdue and on request, so I've shifted my attention to a bit of post-modern historical narrative from the inimicable writer Robert Coover who has drawn my attention back to the Mississippi River of my youth by offering up the book Huck Out West.

There are of course other things on my mind, and hopefully I will find some time soon to write about them.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Campus Middle School & the Challenge School win at state Math Counts

For those who worry about the state of American students' math skills, they can rest assured that our nation's top students have truly mind-blowing talents of computation and logic. The spring is the time of competitive math for a group of talented kids known as mathletes, and the top national competition for middle school kids is MATHCOUNTS. Late March is when most of the state championships are held, and in Colorado two schools in the noted Cherry Creek school district continue to dominate the Math Counts world. Here is a link to my coverage of Colorado's Math Counts State Championships.

The Countdown Round is where the mathletes prove their skills and amaze the crowds, and this year’s competition did not disappoint. In Countdown, the top ten individual students are called to the stage where they go head-to-head in lightning fast math challenges. Imagine having only forty-five seconds to solve questions like “If a, b and c are positive integers such that a + b + c = 7, what is the least possible value of a! + b! + c!?” Well, some of the mathletes answer these questions in less than five seconds. This year, after working through the top seven students, the final came down to the Challenge School’s Grace Zheng and Brandon Dong trying to take down number one seed Rahul Thomas of Campus. Challenge student Brandon Dong who won first prize at the Denver Metro chapter humbly attributed their success to the fact that “Austen isn’t competing anymore.” That’s reference to two-time state champion Austen Mazenko, now a freshman at Cherry Creek High School. Mazenko, alongside another former state champion Andrew Ying, has returned to help coach the Campus Middle School math team. That mentoring component is another special quality of Math Counts, as numerous high school and even college students coach teams and assist as proctors and judges at the tournaments.

For up and coming mathletes, there is no better place to refine their skills than MATHCOUNTS. Competition is a prime motivator for sharpening skills, and schools/parents who'd like to see their kids math skills develop exponentially should consider cultivating a program and math team. One of the best resources for these kids is a website and curriculum known as The Art of Problem Solving. Participation in AoPS is a must for any high achieving math student and mathlete.