Sunday, December 10, 2017

Mendelsohn: a father & son study The Odyssey

Man, I really dig smart people. And veteran scholar and critic Daniel Mendelsohn definitely qualifies as one of the smartest people in the contemporary humanities world. If you're a reader, and especially if you are a reader of reviews and essays on the classics and humanities, you've most likely read some DM before, as he has been publishing critical commentary for years. Now he's released perhaps his most personal work with his re-visiting of Homer's The Odyssey in a seminar class at Bard College with his 81-year-old father sitting in on the class. Wash Post writer Wendy Smith offers an engaging and inviting overview of the man and his project as "Daniel Mendelsohn learns that teaching his dad 'The Odyssey' is a classic trip."

Daniel Mendelsohn is one of the finest critics writing today and the most broadly erudite, as comfortable and astute assessing blockbuster movies as he is when writing about classical Greek and Roman literature. He’s also an elegant and moving memoirist, of his personal history in “The Elusive Embrace” and of his family’s entanglement with the Holocaust in “The Lost.”  His lovely new book, “An Odyssey,”draws on all Mendelsohn’s talents as he braids critical exegeses into intimate reminiscences to illuminate them both. His 2011 seminar at Bard College on the “Odyssey” becomes a voyage of discovery not just for his students but also for Mendelsohn, who gets more than he bargained for when his 81-year-old father, Jay, decides to sit in on the class.



Thursday, December 7, 2017

Art, more art - in Denver

Some time around a year ago, I concluded that what I need more of in my life was art. Art, jazz, photography, food, culture, .... life. The reality was that while I am pretty well-established and successful in my personal and professional lives, I was reeling from a sense of ennui, and I needed to be reminded that music, art, literature, and culture are the "things we stay alive for." For that reason, I am glad that even as a school administrator, I have remained in the classroom with a connection to the humanities that give us meaning and understanding. And I am also thankful for writers and critics like Denver's Ray Rinaldi and the Denver Post for continuing to cover the art world as an indispensable part of news and society. Reading about those neighborhoods where art is thriving, I am inspired and fulfilled, not to mention reminded to see the world like an artist.

These days, the Golden Triangle is the serious contender. While other districts have been turned upside down by gentrification, the triangle has remained a reliable place to see good work, due mostly to the fact that four of the city’s most venerable and trusted dealers call it home, with William Havu, Sandra Phillips, Tina Goodwin and Bobbi Walker all running namesake businesses within a few blocks of each other. The neighborhood also happens to overlap geographically with the city’s well-hyped Museum District, which means it hones in on the arty aura of the Clyfford Still Museum, the Denver Art Museum, The Art hotel and, starting in March, the newly relocated Kirkland Museum.

The world is alive. Get out there and see it.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

George Will explains the Wedding Cake/Gay Marriage Issue

Making a cake is not practicing or "exercising" Christianity. For me, it's that simple. It's all in the words of the amendment:

Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Having been born and raised Catholic, and having practiced that religion for many years, I understand the perspective of Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Philips, who believes that his religion and faith do not approve of homosexuality and subsequently the legality/legitimacy of same-sex marriage. That said, I cannot fathom how he extrapolates that belief into arguing that conducting business at his cake shop constitutes violating his religious beliefs. While I do know the origin of the opposition to homosexuality in Scripture, I also know that doing a job is not practicing the religion, and nowhere in Scripture does it expect, command, or encourage the faithful to deny doing business with anyone, including those believed to be in a state of sin.

Making a cake ain't going to church or receiving a sacrament, Jack, and thus you are wrong in your interpretation of your faith, the Constitution, and the law.

Conservative writer George Will expounds on the issue as well this week in his commentary, More Wrongs than Rights in Masterpiece Cake Shop Case anticipating the Supreme Court ruling on the cake issue and Colorado's anti-discrimination legislation.

The First Amendment speaks of speech; its presence in a political document establishes its core purpose as the protection of speech intended for public persuasion. The amendment has, however, been rightly construed broadly to protect many expressive activities. Many, but there must be limits.
Phillips was neither asked nor required to attend, let alone participate in, the wedding. Same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Colorado, so Craig and Mullins were to be married in Massachusetts. The cake was for a subsequent reception in Denver. But even if the cake were to have been consumed at a wedding, Phillips’ creation of the cake before the ceremony would not have constituted participation in any meaningful sense.
I do believe Will goes a bit off base when he criticizes the plaintiffs for filing the case. Sure they could have gone to other shops, George. But that's not the point. Other consumers in other towns might not have that luxury, so the case had to be resolved, and Philips had to be sued.


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Stop Reporting Local Bad News

There was another traffic accident (break in, house fire, fight, robbery, hit-and-run, etc.) in Colorado today. I would know about this event, of course, if I happened to tune in for my local news, broadcasts which are seeing a noticeable decline according to recent sweeps.

The chief reason for the decline is obvious: Digital devices continue to draw attention away from television as younger audiences desert the medium in droves. According to a September 2017 Pew Report, in a drastic change from a generation ago, “the internet substantially outpaces TV as a regular news source for adults younger than 50.” It’s also possible that KUSA was hurt by the loss of a viewer favorite, longtime anchor Adele Arakawa, who left in June after 24 years on top of the ratings.

Or perhaps it's because the stories they feature are not really news. Perhaps one reason viewership declines is that no one really needs to, or wants to, hear news about a traffic accident or criminal act that is not "newsworthy" to others in any relevant way. Henry David Thoreau in Walden: or, Life in the Woods noted that "to a philosopher all news is gossip," and he can't fathom ever getting much communication via mail or otherwise that was actually worth the paper it was printed on.

Daily life in contemporary America, especially in a large metropolitan area like Denver, is filled with fascinating and newsworthy stories with pertinent information and knowledge that can lead to a more erudite population. But single traffic accidents or singular instances of criminal activity like robberies and break-ins aren't such information. When I flip the news on and see a report on a local crime, followed by a traffic accident, followed by a house fire, followed by .... well, you know, then I am uninterested and turn off the news. I am not a more informed citizen, voter, father, teacher, or neighbor because I learned of a traffic accident in Thorton or a robbery in Aurora.

Give viewers more illuminating matter, and perhaps they will return.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

New Policy for Dept on Ed Civil Rights?

"So, can a teacher have a Christmas tree and a crucifix on his/her desk?"

As we approach the "holiday season," which of course includes Christmas, the annual questions about religious holiday displays on public property will once again flare up on news commentary and social media. There are clear guidelines for what can be deemed acceptable displays, but those are always going to be contextual based on the time, place, and people. And these questions are part of a larger socio-cultural question about civil rights in schools that spans a range from Christmas songs to reading lists.

At the federal level it appears there will be some changes in how the US Dept of Education handles such issues, with the emphasis moving to "individual complaints rather than systemic problems."

WASHINGTON — The Education Department wants to narrow the scope of civil rights investigations at schools, focusing on individual complaints rather than systemic problems, according to a document obtained by The Associated Press. Under the Obama administration, when a student complained of discrimination in a particular class or school, the education agency would examine the case but also look at whether the incident was part of a broader, systemic problem that needed to be fixed. Proposed revisions to the department's civil rights procedures, distributed last week among civil rights officials at the department, remove the word "systemic" from the guidelines.
It seems unimaginable to me that we still debate reading lists and are "banning" books like Fahrenheit 451, but apparently that's where we still are.

Monday, November 27, 2017

"The World is Too Much with Us ..."


In these times, these strangely complicated, yet oversimplified times, it's worth looking back to the 18th century for some insight from the masters. Is our progress really a regression? Do we "lay waste our powers" when we spend too much time "getting and spending"? Is there something we can learn from "heading out under the open skies and listening to Nature's teachings"?

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. --Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreath├Ęd horn

Ponder and get back to me.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Does Bill Gates Ignore the Family Connection?

In reading a bit of commentary from The Villager, a community newspaper in southeast Denver, I ran across an interesting bit of ed-reform criticism from writer Joneen Mackenzie, who publishes a regular relationship column for the paper. Mackenzie's piece about how "Families Play a Key Role in Child's Success" calls out Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation for ignoring and excluding the role of family relationships as they seek to reform and improve public education. Specifically, she references and summarizes an article by Ian Rowe of the Fordham Institute that criticizes Gates and all his "investments" in ed-reform because of his "Neglecting to mention family structure and stability—and, more importantly, omitting any strategy to use schools to strengthen those levers—undermines the very ability of all of us who have committed our lives to improve outcomes for children." 

This important factor in the academic success of children is a complicated bit of sociology, and it poses a challenging dilemma for anyone attempting to improve educational outcomes for students whose lives outside of school not only fail to support an academic focus but more than like subvert and compromises them. The tough conversation also wades into complicated socio-cultural arguments about the importance of two-parent homes and the ability of all parents to adequately contribute to their children's education. If we're being honest, we can't fix or solve the challenges kids face outside of their school time. Or can we?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

We Need Electricians more than Business Majors

About a month ago I helped coordinate and host a career fair at our high school, and the information students can glean about careers is incredibly important these days. Nearly two dozen trade schools, contractors, and career association reps provided information to our students about working in culinary arts, cosmetology, plumbing, landscape design, auto-body repair, and electrical trades. In chatting with a representative from the electricians apprenticeships, I was surprised (well, not really) to learn that a journeyman electrician with several years experience and working forty hours a week can pull in as much as $80,000 annually. And there is no drought for work in Colorado - in fact, there is a shortage for this sort of skilled labor, and job vacancies with impressive salaries abound. Some electricians who are willing to travel and stay at job sites for 2-6 months or longer can expect to pull down high six figures (even reaching $200K) because contractors are so desperate for skilled electricians that in some places they pay time-and-a-half for the first forty hours a week. At a time with the average family income in the United States hovering around $54K, and a time when the average college student is carrying loan debt of $30K or more, the news on opportunities for electricians needs more prominence. And, rather shockingly, one of the primary reasons for such a shortage of laborers is the inability of people to reliably show up for work five days a week and be able to pass a drug test. Yes, thanks to marijuana legalization, it seems everyone who could or would work in the trades can't be trusted to actually do the job. Now, that's truly sad.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Edward Luce & the "Time to Start Thinking" about the "Retreat of Western Liberalism" and making "America Great Again"

It's hard to believe that Edward Luce first warned of the risks to American greatness and the "retreat of Western Liberalism" way back in 2011 with his first book Time to Start Thinking. That was back when Mitt Romney was squaring off against Barack Obama in a smart, well-argued presidential campaign between two clear-thinking and respectable leaders who simply had different ideas about the challenges facing American society in the twenty-first century. What happened to that? Oh, to go back to a time when we argued about whether Russia was a friend or enemy. It seems so quaint.

The challenges facing American society on the multiple fronts of economics, finance, politics, culture, and world vision are not beyond us if we're willing to think long and hard about them as we debate who we are and how we got here. And that quest for clarity and truth can certainly be helped by the erudite views of a (somewhat) objective observer without the baggage of American identity politics. Enter Edward Luce, columnist for the Financial Times and writer of several books on geo-politics and finance. Luce has the education and insight to offer critical analysis of our economic sector and the misplaced emphasis on corporate spreadsheets rather than wages and spending power. He also has some pretty powerful revelations about our misunderstanding of what our own military leaders think in regards to their mission and their budget.

In Time to Start Thinking, Luce covers in-depth "The Lonely Middle Class" and its struggles to survive amidst growing automation, innovation, and re-direction. Sadly, Americans continually look to Washington and politics as the source of our troubles, but the reality is that our society has frayed throughout a decreased sense of community, a misguided understanding of economics, an outdated approach to education, and a refusal to align downturns in finances and employment with the true deciders in those areas.  Perhaps the best part of Luce's books is found in his opposition to including a checklist of policy suggestions which will repair our present and improve our future. Those have become all too cliche. Instead his book simply offers important history and perspective to consider.




Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Greenwood Village Zones Out the Middle Class

Well, in light of last night's election, I will lamentably post my recent piece of commentary published in The Villager about life in the Village.


When my family moved to Greenwood Village, we joked that “the Village zones against tornadoes.”
It seemed like every storm headed south or north of the Tech Center.

Zoning in GV is no small matter, as anyone who has remodeled knows, but it used to be about property, not people. Voters should scrutinize plans which zone against small businesses and middle-class earners, as the opposition to mixed-use development near the Landmark did.

While some residents seem to prefer high-rise offices or empty lots over small shops, restaurants and homes, others prefer pragmatic review of individual projects, rather than rigid rejection of any new buildings or residents.

To be clear, no City Council candidates or residents are actually “pro-density,” and it’s disingenuous to argue they are. No one seeks “high-density urbanization” that brings crime to neighborhoods, traffic to the streets and undesirables to our community and schools. Such exaggerated fear mongering should be viewed cautiously by voters.

In reality, we need rational discussion about community development. Greenwood Village is a city of 15,000 people with a small-town feel and ample parks amidst a thriving corporate sector in the Denver Tech Center. Yet, areas around I-25 have outdated property that could be updated to feature open spaces, restaurants, offices and housing, including single-family homes, townhouses and condos. In fact, that was the vision behind the Landmark, a mixed-use area quite popular with residents, despite those unsightly residential towers.

Last year at a local charity event, a councilmember told me, “I want single-family homes, not condos.” Perhaps unintentionally, he revealed an inclination to exclude people like me from his city. As an educator earning a middle-class income, I probably can’t afford a house in Greenwood Village, but I value living in the neighborhood where I teach, and I can afford my townhouse near school.
Middle-class Americans earn between $50-100,000 a year, making it tough to buy houses. By opposing any multi-family housing, some residents seem intent on excluding teachers, police officers, firefighters, healthcare workers and city employees from living in the very neighborhoods they serve.

The Village has rarely seen such controversy over our sense of community. There was no outcry over new houses on One Cherry Lane and no opposition to the subdivision built just west of Peoria. No candidates fought the new development just south of Belleview.

So, what has happened to our Village and what caused such harsh reactions to community development? Why have we seen such vitriolic comments about our public servants and our neighbors? Village residents should ask themselves, who are we as a community? Is Greenwood Village closed? Or can we reach a civil compromise that promotes responsible growth while preserving the Village?

If the free market prices consumers out of a neighborhood, that’s a natural effect of capitalism. But if government zones to ensure that exclusivity, well, that’s just sad.


Perhaps some residents would prefer to just build a wall around Greenwood Village

Monday, November 6, 2017

No, We Don't Need a Class Called "Life 101"

If you are on Facebook, you have probably seen a meme about schools needing a "mandatory class called Life 101" that teaches basic skills everyone should know. It looks something like this:


Often these pics get plenty of likes, and the post asks if you agree. Well, I don't. Not at all. And I'm a bit annoyed by the ridiculous implications of this idea.

No, we don't need a "mandatory class" for arbitrary skills that should be taught at home by parents, if they even need to be taught at all. First of all, who "balances a checkbook anymore"? Online banking and statements pretty much handle that. And if someone feels kids need to know that, then teach it yourself. It takes about five minutes, and I learned from my dad when I was about twelve years old. And, changing a tire or changing your oil? No. Not many people need to know that, and practically no one does that themselves anymore. I would bet 90% of the people who "like" this meme have never done either of those tasks. And, they don't balance checkbooks, sew buttons, or grow their own food either.

The primary issue I have with these posts is the complete abdication of parenting skills and the absolving parents of any responsibility for teaching their children any life skills. If the parents don't know it or can't teach it, it's probably not that important anyway. The arbitrary premium that people are placing on these skills and tasks is completely out of whack with reality. I'll bet right now there are thousands of men and woman in their local ER saving lives, and they probably can't change their own oil. But they don't need to because they spent their time developing an expertise in something a little more significant - like how to jump-start the heart of someone in cardiac arrest.

Geez! The kind of "internet wisdom" that goes around these days baffles me.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

What Happened to Middle Class Stability?

America news and media is certainly not at a loss for discussions of economic insecurity - from declining upward mobility to ballooning health insurance costs to tax reform and/or "tax cuts for the rich" - the issue of class warfare has been running heavy through the American psyche lately. And, I'm not entirely sure what is getting better, what is getting worse, and what the true extent of the narrative is. But for those interested in exploring, a couple recent headlines caught my attention.

More than a decade and a half ago, investigative journalist and writer Barbara Erhrenreich spotlighted the struggles of America's working poor to make ends meet. The seminal and thought-provoking Nickled and Dimed explored the challenge of getting by on minimum wage, and Erhrenreich provided real world insight with her immersion in the struggle, working numerous entry-level jobs while living (barely) in hotels and low-rent apartments. That issue has been given an update with a somewhat surprising focus on similar and growing struggles among middle class American workers who are often college-educated with experience in careers, rather than just jobs.

Writer Jessica Bruder brings attention to "casualties of the Great Recession" in her new book-length investigation of the new breed of homeless people living in the cars or RVs while they criss-cross the country doing seasonal work for companies like Amazon.com during the holiday season. Bruder's work, Nomadland: Surving America in the Twenty-First Century, offers stories of a struggling segment of the population who are facing the prospect of never retiring as they simply hope to get by until their bodies simply wear out.

As far as human inventions go, retirement is shockingly recent, and proving fragile. A fringe idea until the 20th century — and one that outraged many — it took tenuous hold in the United States in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Today, only 17 percent of Americans imagine they will be able to afford to stop working someday.“Nomadland,” by Jessica Bruder, an important if frustrating new work influenced by such classics of immersion journalism as Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” looks at one strategy older workers have devised for “surviving America.” Tens of thousands have traded in their homes for “wheel estate.” They are “the Okies of the Great Recession”: grandparents living in school buses and vans seeking seasonal work cleaning toilets at campgrounds, picking blueberries in Kentucky, sometimes for wages, sometimes for just a parking spot — “not necessarily paved but hopefully level.”

Books about the rising "gig economy" have coincided with interesting discussions about the middle class and what that even means in America anymore. In my own town of Greenwood Village, CO, there is a debate about the prospect of "high density housing" and "urbanization" that is fueling an intense City Council election. In a place like GV, where the "average" home price is north of $1 million, the challenge for middle class earners to find housing is becoming truly strained. Of course, in a neighborhood where homes can reach $10+ million, the idea of middle class seems almost absurd. The Denver Post recently reported on the concept when it asked "Is $100,000 a middle class income in America?" Growing up in small town Illinois in the 1970s, I have a hard time talking about $100K as middle class and "middle class suburban" homes going for $1.5 million.

Who knows where this goes next?

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Why Does The Athletic Want to Ruin Sports Journalism

Let's start here: I still subscribe to my local newspaper, The Denver Post, and I will for as long as it exists, knowing as I do the integral role that newspapers and print journalism play in maintaining our communities, society, and republic. My mother was a print journalist (reporter, editor, and features writer) for thirty years, and I grew up with a respect for the industry and a warmth in my heart for the sound of the newspaper landing on the driveway each morning. Thus, it was with profound disappointment and a genuine bit of queasiness that I read this morning (in the print version of the New York Times) about radical entrepreneur named Alex Mather and his plan to destroy local sports journalism and monopolize sports reporting.

“We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” Alex Mather, a co-founder of The Athletic, said in an interview in San Francisco. “We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.”

My first - and lingering - response was "Geez, what a tool."

Mather, who is 37, and his partner Adam Hansmann, a green 29, plan to gut local newspapers of their premier sportswriters by hiring them away to work at a subscription sports site, The Athletic, which they intend to ultimately be the Amazon or Neftlix or Spotify of sports journalism. The "vulture"-like strategy of luring away the talent from print sources that face a shrinking market amidst free online content and amateur-reporting on blogs and open sites like Bleacher Report is certainly a workable business model. Mather and Hansmann know they can poach the reporters and use venture capital to absorb losses until the original bundle-service news source, the newspaper, folds. At that point, they hope to have the monopoly on quality sports writing, and they are banking on millions of current sports writing fans being willing to pay yearly fees for sports news.

It could work. But it will more than likely ruin local news organizations' ability to continue providing content, and then fade on a naive and unsustainable model. Then it will leave consumers mostly willing to accept mediocre reporting from whatever source their social media friends post.

Sadly, both Alex and Adam are still too young and under-educated to understand that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Do Students Need Four Years of English .... or homework?

I once taught in a school where a single research paper in English class, including the creation of "fifty note cards," was an actual graduation requirement. It was a stupid idea at best, but it more likely bordered on educational malpractice.

As an English teacher with a passion for teaching reading and writing and roughly twenty-five years of experience in the classroom, I probably shouldn't be asking this, but do high school students really need four years of high school English class? It is a pretty standard mantra nationwide that high school graduation requirements include an indisputable "four years of English" and then variations of two to four years of math, science, social studies, foreign language, and the fine/practical arts. And, I'm thinking that this conventional wisdom is naive at best, but probably more ineffective and even detrimental to the K-12 education process in this country. It is, of course, colleges and universities that drive this requirement, or expectation, (which is really a mandate). But let's be honest:  if a student took five years of math, four years of  science, and two or three of English, social studies, and fine arts, would he be "less prepared" for college and university classes?

Of course not.

Granted, the general roles of reading  and writing in the success of college students cannot be disputed. Certainly, "Composition 101" remains the flunk out course for so many colleges nationwide, and if a student can't read and understand his textbooks or write decent essays and research papers, he will truly stuggle and probably not finish his degree, which is a very real problem in this country. That said, the expectation that four years of English class will solve the problem and equip students with all the study skills they need to be successful is a bit of an exaggeration, if not an actual absurd assumption. Merely taking four years of English in high school is not a guarantee of college readiness, and students may cultivate reading and writing skills just as effectively in a social studies or science class. It's undeniable that many high school classes nationwide simply aren't that challenging - and a high school creative writing class won't automatically included a quality and rigorous workload of college prep writing. And, over several decades I have been frustrated and disappointed by knowledge of students who "didn't graduate" because they had all their credits except one semester of English or a single research paper. It's simply ridiculous.

For far too long, I have worried about the expectation and understanding that the high school English class is the only place where students actually learn to read and write. They should be learning those skill in all the content areas. Few English teachers, I believe, would disagree with me. Yet, if the understanding is that students learn the skills of reading and writing and thinking in all classes, then we must let go of the misguided belief that all students need more English classes than any other curriculum, core or otherwise.

Of course, this won't end until colleges and universities ease their dictatorial control of the classes that they mandate high school students must take in order to be "college ready."

Let's start an honest conversation about "what students really need to know."

Oh, and to be true to my post title: we need to cut down on the homework at the high school level. School should be like Disneyland because the classroom is "where the magic happens."

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.