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.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

"The Wire" creator David Simon on the future of news ...

While I only watched two seasons of the groundbreaking crime drama The Wire, I can fully appreciate the depth and significance of the show. What I didn't know about was the depth and significance of its creator, David Simon. Prior to becoming the writer of one of HBO's first genre-changing shows, David Simon began his career as a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Undoubtedly, the gritty nature of crime reporting honed his skills of insight and expression around the darkest of our social issues including the drug war and race. Since finishing his run as a television writer of one of last decade's most watched and talked about shows, Simon has become a prominent voice in the social media world of cultural and socio-political blogging. And, this month Simon will be in Denver to receive the Denver Press Club's Damon Runyon Award. In anticipation of that career moment, the Denver Post's John Wenzel recently sat down with Simon to discuss his career and his thoughts on the ever-fascinating world of journalism, news, and info-tainment in 2016/17. I really appreciated his thoughts on the future of news, looking in the rearview mirror at how journalism somewhat missed the challenges and opportunities posed by an on-line world.

Cable succeeded — and is now threatened by some of the same forces, including streaming and people pulling the plug — because of its subscription model. Look to the cable model for what journalism should have been doing in the 1980s and ’90s, particularly in the ’90s as we were coming online. Not every station can be self-sustaining. Not everybody wants C-SPAN, The Weather Channel or The Cooking Channel. It’s effectively like that with a daily, general-interest newspaper. Everybody got it for different reasons: the metro section, the classified section. The model was such that the things people found essential — like sports or stock tables — sustained things like covering the zoning board. What would have happened if, at the point which you were going online, you were offered what the cable companies were offering? By basically synthesizing the visual information world under one bill, they were able to offer content and sustain the stuff that wasn’t all that popular. On a small scale, that’s what happened to me at HBO, because I was in same tent as “The Sopranos,” and I was basically the metro section.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Spring Cleaning for the Soul

Spring has sprung. The spring equinox has passed, the days are getting longer, and the winter chill is starting to thaw. Many schools are off for a week of Spring Break, and that's providing kids and families with the chance to re-charge and rejuvenate, whether they hang around for a stay-cation with long lazy mornings and cleaning out the basement or they head off for a week in Aruba. It's also the time for a little re-charging of our personal and professional lives and choices. To that end, around this time of year each spring, my AP English Lang class does a brief, non-AP unit about life and how to live it. The foundational text is a wonderful little fable by Paulo Coehlo called The Alchemist, and the unit draws in a variety of supplemental pieces designed to generate reflection from the kids on how they feel about the life they are choosing to live.

One question I ask them is whether they are "sitting on their ticket." By that I mean are they procrastinating and putting off the things they really want to do. The metaphor is a reference to beautiful anecdote from the twentieth-century American sage, Robert Fulghum, who many of us know as the author of the book/essay All I Need to Know about Life I Learned in Kindergarten. In one of Fulghum's many essays from another book, he tells a humorous story about a young woman he encountered years ago who was stuck at the airport because she was sitting on her ticket. That moment and phrase became a metaphor and guiding principle for Fulghum to always remind himself to get on with what he really wants to do with his life. 

Another bit of sagely advice that I share with my students comes from a guest spot on Oprah. It's been a few years now, but many of you may recall the story of a man named Randy Pausch who became known for his Last Lecture. The lecture from the Carnegie Mellon professor who was dying of pancreatic cancer became a viral hit on as well as a best-selling book. It was a bit of advice and a few principles for how to life your life and achieve your childhood dreams, and it was based on the simple idea that if "you live your life correctly, the dreams will come to you." Here's the clip from Pausch's appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show:

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Norway has the happiest people - And the key is the bureaucracy

So, the other day I met with a family from Denmark because they are relocating to the United States, and they were in the country looking at schools. When I mentioned that story at the dinner table later that night my daughter said, "Why?! No, tell them to go back. They already live in the happy place." Her reaction was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it reflected a genuine sentiment in contemporary America that things are better elsewhere. And everyone knows that the Danes are the happiest people on earth. That is until this year when they were edged out by the country of Norway. According to the recent "World Happiness Report," the country of Norway beats Denmark for the happiest people. What I found really interesting was the reasoning - it may be the bureaucracy that is the key to happiness. Of course, it's not the bureacracy in the negative American sense with all the implications of incompetence at the DMV and the cushy government salaries drawn from the tax dollars of the hardworking common man. It's instead a trust in the standard institutions of society that provide stability and "a sense of the common good." In reality, it's the stressors of daily life around safety, health, and well-being that cause the most anxiety among people. If those are removed by a basic trust and understanding that the police serve and protect, that the schools provide a respectable education, and that the family won't be bankrupted by medical bills, then it's easy to understand why Norgwegian countries with a strong sense of community and a stable social welfare system produces happiness among their people. As Norway resident and comedian Harald Eia explains,

“The answer to why Norwegians are happy — it’s a bit boring — it’s well functioning institutions,” explained Norwegian comedian Harald Eia. “The schools, health care, police, all the bureaucracy treat people with respect and that trickles down and makes us happy, makes us trust each other, makes us feel a part of the whole community. So it’s very boring: bureaucrats are the secret to our happiness.”

Sunday, March 19, 2017

CO's Conservatives need to stand up to Libertarians on Roads

Personal responsibility is one of the central tenets of conservatism, and it has been foundational thinking for conservatives since the days of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk. The problem for American conservatives in the twenty-first century is that the GOP and its brand of "Republicanism" has an agenda and ideology, but it's not really what could be called conservative. Nowhere is this disconnect between party and philosophy more apparent than in Colorado, where the state legislature is trying to fill its potholes by filling a serious gap in revenue and budgetary responsibility. As the Denver Post recently opined, Republican "Sen. Kevin Grantham is a statesman standing up for transportation." His bipartisan bill to raise transportation funds by simply asking taxpayers to approve a one-cent/dollar increase in state sales tax for twenty years is the epitome of personal responsibility and legislative leadership. Yet, among the loud and rigidly unproductive Libertarian voices in Colorado, the very idea of even asking taxpayers for the money is being squashed. No one typifies this lack of personal responsibility more than the head think-tanker at the Independence Institute, Jon Caldera. While Caldera recently used a rather absurd analogy about taxes and date rape to assert that the important part of Colorado's constitution is that the government must simply "ask" for the tax revenue rather than just take it, he contradicts his own position by opposing the simple opportunity for Grantham and the legislature to ask taxpayers. It's as if he is violating his standard tenet that only liberals don't trust voters to choose for themselves. Now, Caldera and other "free market libertarians" are crying foul at the very idea that the government ask for money. Instead, Caldera and his echo chamber have floated their own idea of fiscal irresponsibility with a bill that seeks to find transportation funding in an already stripped down state budget. These not-even-conservative thinkers have crafted a bill with the (in their mind clever but actually crass) title "Fix Our Damn Roads. When people like Caldera craft legislative ideas around the idea of revenue and government budgets, you can be certain that the idea of personal responsibility will be tossed aside in exchange for their standard position that no new tax revenue could possibly be necessary or amenable to the people of Colorado. It was conservative thinker Edmund Burke who articulated the most important principal of the government's fiscal responsibility in that "The revenue of the state is the state." Failure to have simply pragmatic discussion of that idea is the reason that Coloradans so rarely find conservative principles in the decisions of their Republican leaders. However, there is hope if people like Sen. Grantham can stave off the Tea Party attacks of his bill and his leadership.

Oh, and for a great tongue-in-cheek response to the silly FODR bill, look no further than the recent editorial from Aurora-Sentinel editor Dave Perry who asks Caldera and people who naively endorse his ideas to "Pay your damn share if you want your damn Colorado roads fixed."

New to Jazz? Just follow Bret Saunders

I've been getting my jazz on lately, and my world is infinitely better for it. However, it's tough to come into the jazz world later in life because the vocabulary and the players and the rules are just off-center from what so many of us know. So, it can be helpful to have a guide if you want to immerse yourself in the world of jazz beyond the classics that we all know and love. Certainly, I can listen to my "Cool Jazz" station every day and continually go back to classics like "Take Five" by Dave Brubeck or "My Favorite Things" by John Coletraneor even a sublime but less well-known jazz re-telling of a contemporary song like "Dear Prudence" from the Brad Meldhau Trio. But if you want to stay up on who's doing what in the present jazz circuit, then look no further than Denver's own KBCO host Bret Saunders. Saunders regularly writes for the Denver Post as well, and last weekend he offered a great write-up on "the best of jazz so far this year."

The trio Harriet Tubman has collaborated with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith on a bracing set of tracks titled “Araminta” (Sunnyside Records). These smoldering, brief pieces of state-of-the-art funk and rock are the ideal showcase for Smith’s ageless post-Miles horn, Brandon Ross’ massive guitar sound, Melvin Gibbs’ more-thunderous-than-Thundercat bass, and the exhilarating drum fills of JT Lewis. The chemistry of these artists, brought on by decades of collective wisdom, is ideal, and the level of communication is at a very high level. The effect of “Araminta” is that of a splash of cold water to the face of current jazz music, and in the first three months of 2017, I haven’t enjoyed any new recording as much.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Jack Kerouac Turns 95 Today

"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, the ones who are desirous of everything at the same time, who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop, and everybody goes "Awww."

With that beautiful, rambling, labrynthine piece of poetic syntax, the Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac won my heart and blew my mind, just as he did for millions of others longing for a little something more and a little something different in their art and in their lives. The darling, the godfather, the voice of the Beats and the Hippies and even the punks would have turned 95 today, and sixty years after the publication of On the Road, the world is celebrating the man who turned us all on to a new way of thinking as we went in search of old Dean Moriarty.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Buffy Turns 20

I don't know if it is "the greatest show in the history of television," but among pop culture fans and critics there should be little doubt that Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Joss Whedon's brilliant piece of 90s post-feminist storytelling - is an iconic bit of film-making with archetypes, unique dialogue, and narrative arcs that changed and defined television and pop culture for a generation. Few shows are so influential that they literally spawn a portmanteau word to describe their impact - as in The Buffyverse - and become a topic of such sholarly commentary that they are worthy of collegiate investigation and review. Today is the twentieth anniversary of the premiere Buffy on the independent WB Network, and the celebration has led to a treasure trove of writing that should satiate Buffy fans for weeks ... or at least the weekend.

Two great pieces for new members to the "Scooby Gang" to start on come from a great pop culture news gatherer The Guardian - writer Lucy Managan explains how Buffy represents "the thrilling birth of TV as art" and none other than the man Giles himself shares insight and a nostalgic explanation of how Buffy became "a feminist parable for everyone." At a time when the rise of women's issues are facing some of the greatest challenges in decades, it's worth re-visiting and reviewing how a young and reluctant female warrior set a tone of empowerment and inspired both passion and empathy.

Everywhere was thickly strewn but lightly handled metaphor. While the vampires stood for all they have ever stood for – rebellion, subversion, predation and sexuality – Buffy, by virtue of her slayer status, was the perennial outsider, a walking (“in stylish yet affordable boots”) embodiment of teenage alienation. Individual episodes dramatised particular adolescent fears. In Witch, a domineering mother literally takes over her daughter’s life via a bodyswitch. In Family, timid Tara is nearly taken out of college by her father and brothers who aver that their demonic heritage means all the women in their family become evil when they reach adulthood – it turns out to be a myth perpetrated by the men of the family down the generations to keep the women passive. And when Buffy sleeps with her ensouled-vampire boyfriend, he turns into a different person overnight and rejects her the next morning. In his case it was because of a gypsy curse that de-souls him, but teenage girls everywhere nodded sagely, sighed, and wished they too could simply stake their first loves through the heart. At the end of season two, Buffy “comes out” as a slayer to her mother, who asks her if there is any way she could stop being one and throws her out when she says she can’t. In later series, the gay subtext is made text via a relationship between Willow and Tara, still one of the most positive, remarkable-in-its-unremarkability and, alas, rare depictions of young lesbian love around.

My daughter will turn twelve soon, and she already knows that her Buffy education begins this summer when we break into Season One. Being a theater girl, she has already seen the legendary musical episode, and she is familiar with many of the characters. But as she heads deep into middle school, it's time she comes to understand the role of The Slayer.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Adult School - Raising 35-year-olds

What do you need to know to be an adult? Is the quadratic equation necessary info, or is it more important to understand how to cook, budget, and get car insurance? These questions are time-honored standards for society and the older generations to ask of young people as they enter the earning years. As the Millennial generation starts getting into its late 20s and early 30s, the word on the street is that this much fawned over and over-parented group lacks the basic life skills to make it on their own. Of course, as I've noted, this sort of criticism is generally made of all younger generations. However, now it appears as if an industry is developing to teach these emerging adults the basics of life. It's amusingly becoming known as "Adulting School."

They tend to be millennials and women. Lindsay Rowe Scala, 32, said she is trying to figure out how to save for the future and pay off school debt. "In job interviews, they're always asking 'Where do you want to see yourself in five years?' " she said. "And I never know how to answer that because I'm always thinking on how to survive today and next week and what's coming up." Holly Swyers, an associate professor of anthropology at Lake Forest College who has researched adulthood, said this stress goes back generations. She said part of the problem is that classes that teach life skills, like home economics, aren't emphasized and there is no dedicated place to learn adult skills.
When I first read of this, I was reminded of a phrase I heard recently in a professional development presentation around the idea of supporting students' affective needs, or "social emotional growth." While schools are - and should be - predominantly focused on curricular areas of academic and/or career-oriented content and skills, the educators should also work on cultivating life skills such as interpersonal relationships, executive functioning, learning culture, and self-awareness. In talking about these skills and understanding that are beyond concepts such as US history and algebra, a presenter noted that we are in the job of "creating 35-year-olds." In other words, we are preparing kids to become productive adults. And doing so includes more than simple academics.

This idea reminds me of a popular book that circulated my community in the past year or so - How to Raise an Adult by Julie Hythcott-Haims.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

30 Years Ago "That Kiss" happened with the release of Some Kind of Wonderful

John Hughes is undoubtedly the sage of teen films, and his short spectacular run of teen movies in the mid-1980s set the standard for teen cinema and "dramadies" for decades to come. Everyone knows the classics like Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and The Breakfast Club. But an equally endearing film that wasn't huge at the box office but developed an appropriate cult following in re-runs is Hughes' last film, Some Kind of Wonderful. The bittersweet comedy of Keith, Watts, and Ms. Amanda Jones turns 30 this week. And this classic story of romance and friendship endures decades later.

This month marks the 30th anniversaries of both the release of “Some Kind of Wonderful,” the last teen movie written by the genres’ 1980s svengali John Hughes, and the relationship between the film’s director Howard Deutch and star Lea Thompson, who met on set and began dating around the time of the “Wonderful” premiere. Unfairly branded as a gender-reversal retread of “Pretty in Pink,” a Hughes/Deutch collaboration from the year before, “Some Kind of Wonderful” was not a box office hit upon its release at the end of February 1987. Yet it endures as a late-arrival classic that holds its own among its better known Hughes siblings from the era, like “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Recent fair-minded portraits of young people and the uncertain boundaries of friendship and love — “Juno,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “The Edge of Seventeen” — can legitimately be called its nieces and nephews.
And, who could forget "that kiss":

Monday, February 27, 2017

Colorado must fix TABOR law on revenue/spending

The state budgets of both Illinois and Colorado - my two homes in the past 15 years - are rather screwed up, albeit in very different ways and for very different reasons. Basically, revenue doesn't match spending obligations and basic government responsibilities, and the laws and legislators of both states are so hamstrung as to be an almost Gordian knot of ideological absurdity. In Colorado, the issue has come to a head, as state transportation and education budgets are strained to the limit even as the state's economy is roaring and population is booming. Residents of the Rocky Mountain state can blame this inconsistency on a 25-year-old constitutional amendment known as TABOR, or the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. It was a law pushed through by a small group of anti-government zealots and sold to somewhat naive voters who simply wanted the right to vote on any tax increases. That "right" in itself is understandable. It's the correlary garbage of the law (that most voters never read or understood) that has caused such problems in a state that should be in much better shape. Now, as the law turns a quarter century, and the current crop of "yeoman legislators" seek to fill potholes and classrooms, the state is reflecting on the mess. This weekend the Denver Post pulled together some great pieces of commentary and analysis as food for thought, and tomorrow they will host a public forum on the issue. The most concise and accurate analysis of the problems comes from writer Tim Hoover who is asking legislators and voters to "Break antiquated tax policy of TABOR." Here's the problem in a nutshell:

Worse, though, TABOR has imposed a formula on state government that guarantees it will never be able to keep up with rising costs. TABOR says state revenue may only grow by the rate of inflation plus population every year. So if inflation is 2 percent and population grows by 2 percent, revenue can grow 4 percent. Any revenue collected above that limit must be rebated to taxpayers. This sounds like something based on economic policy. It isn’t. TABOR uses the Consumer Price Index as the guide to inflation, meaning that it measures increases in prices for clothing, food, plane tickets, toasters and so on. These are all consumer goods, not goods purchased by government. The state buys road construction, school teachers, college classrooms, public safety and other goods and services consumers don’t. The way government buys things is really not much different from how businesses buy things. Someone who owns a construction company might look at the price of lumber, bricks and construction workers. They wouldn’t try to gauge their costs based on the prices of shoes, cottage cheese and basketballs. Just as government does, businesses look at costs in their sector of the economy.
In effect, the people of Colorado could fix this problem quite easily. Re-write TABOR so that voters still have to approve any tax increases .... and scrap every other part of the law and its nonsense formulas. The tax approval is the one thing CO voters agree on, and many concede that they voted for it based on only that idea. In fact, many I've talked to admit they thought that was the only thing the law did. That limited knowledge is, in effect, the problem with democracy. But that's OK - the beauty of our republic is that our government and our laws can always be changed. It's just a question of whether people have the will to do so.