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.