Monday, March 19, 2018

Support The Guardian and a la carte news consumption

I like the British newspaper The Guardian for numerous reasons, and I like to support their journalism by making occasional donations to the cause. It seems whenever I am searching for a bit of insight on some sort of cultural development or another, The Guardian will pop up in my web searches with a particularly relevant piece of news or commentary. For example, I am just diving into Zadie Smith's new book of essays Feel Free, and I went looking for a bit more info about her career arc. The search led me to this piece, "Zadie Smith: I have a very chaotic and messy mind." The article is just the sort of additional flavor that I wanted to add to my connection with the writer.

However, what led me to this post is the unique offer that comes from The Guardian every time I seek an article. They do not have paywalls like the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post, but instead ask for a donation to support the cause. I love this, and I wish print sources like newspapers would offer more opportunities similar to a pay-for-what-you-read idea. I do not need to or want to subscribe to the Guardian because I probably want to read a dozen or so of their pieces every six months. Thus, the idea of spending $100-$200 on a subscription like the WSJ or New York Times or WashPost want me to do is a bit ridiculous ... and I won't bite. I already subscribe to the Denver Post because it's my local news, and I also have subscriptions to magazines like Harpers and Time.

At the same time, I love reading the Guardian, and I appreciate the accessibility. As a result I support the paper by donating a small sum ($15 today) to the Guardian every once in a while. I feel like it's a more reasonable a la carte option for their content. I simply won't read them daily, but I am happy to purchase what I want. It'd be great if the WSJ, the Post, and the Times would do the same.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Save the Denver Post from Hedge Fund Thuggery

The metropolitan area of Denver, not to mention the state of Colorado, was rattled this week by the announcement that the hedge fund owners of the Denver Post planned to lay off an additional thirty workers, gutting an already anemic newsroom staff to an unsustainable number of perhaps sixty. It was real news that elicited actual gasps and tears among the journalists in the room. On the surface it may have appeared that this was once again an example of the fading power of print newspapers, as fewer people are reading hard copies of the news. It could have been quickly passed off as one more sad example of a failing industry. Yet, that's not the case for the Denver Post.

In reality, there are far more sinister forces at work - forces which led DP writer John Wenzel to comment, "The Denver Post is not dying - it's being murdered." And he should know. The layoffs - not buyouts of aging staff - are actually a form of corporate patricide as the hedge fund bumpkins at Alden Global Capital and its subsidiary Digital First Media seem to be cutting the paper's staff to a point where it can't help but fail. The actions are twofold:  to cover losses in other parts of Alden's business and simply undermine and destroy the fourth estate of the institution of journalism. What the Washington Post has speculated as "the strip mining of journalism" is the apparent attempt of the owners to destroy the company.

Denver and Colorado must not let this happen.

Alden needs to have its hand forced. I’ve thought of a couple of possible ways to do this — most of them certainly quixotic — but something needs to be done. The governor needs to call on Alden/Digital First to sell the Post. Now. This is his job. He’s the leader of the state. The leading news site in his state is under what could well be a fatal attack.

As community members and educated citizens, we all know that a thriving and free press is the life's blood of a democratic republic. (We need look no further than the increasingly autocratic state of Russia for confirmation). A civilized society based on democratic ideals and free (or actually mixed) market capitalism must have newspapers staffed by real journalists who are on the ground and working the beat to get the news to the public. Granted, we can concede and discuss the challenges of media bias, and we should certainly continue the debate about news and commentary being distinctly different. But that should not lead to the outright dismissal of the need for papers. The Denver Post has done exceptional (and exceptionally important) work lately on key societal issues, ranging from the opioid epidemic to the challenges of housing costs to the investigation of sexual harassment to the budgetary challenges of the state government.

We need a strong and independent Denver Post, and we need the political and financial leaders of Colorado to vocally support its survival. The Washington Post was saved by billionaire Jeff Bezos a few years ago, and we have a few billionaires in the Rocky Mountain State who could do the same for the Denver Post. Phil Anschutz must be encouraged to revive his interest in purchasing the Denver Post. If he's no longer interested, then it should become the mission of John Malone of Liberty Media or Charlie Ergen from the Dish Nework or Pat Stryker or Tim Gill. Anyone who has any ability to reach out to these leaders and philanthropists should do so for the good of Colorado. But it's not just about finding a buyer.

Alden and Digital Media must be strongly encouraged to sell the Denver Post.

The political and business leaders of Colorado must take action to advocate for the needs of the state. We need a strong and secure print newspaper centered in Denver. The paper is profitable and growing, and it must remain. So, I am calling on Governor Hickenlooper and the leaders of Colorado to do everything they can to lobby for the sale of the Denver Post to a local investor or  group of investors who will protect the institution of the free press.

I encourage you to do the same.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Why Should State Workers Risk Retirement for PERA Reform Bill?

Senator Tate & Representative Pabon,

Regarding the PERA Reform bill and the defined contribution option for future members, I have a simple but very important question:  Will a shift from PERA's defined benefit to a 401k-style defined contribution option also include commensurate Social Security? I ask because it has to, or it is a non-starter for many constituents who would support it.

The financial reality for every American who has a defined contribution plan like a 401k or IRA is that they also receive Social Security or a defined benefit. It may not be much, and it may not be the primary income of retirement (though for many it is), but it is there as a bit of security. Asking PERA members to step away from any defined benefit and rely solely on the income from a single 401k-style plan is asking them to do what no other worker in the United States does, or risks. The basic concept of Social Security is the small modicum of security in case of an economic downtown, or perhaps risky and ill-advised advice from financial consultants.

The defined-contribution option is very appealing, especially for younger workers. specifically because of the portability option. Currently, members can be stuck in positions for 20, 25, and 30 years in order to "get their retirement." The idea of workers being able to shift careers and locations when they desire is actually quite appealing for the education profession. But there must be some degree of security.

As far as I can see, your current proposal contains none. I would like to take an active position on this bill, but I can't do so without some clarification, and I would love to get some more information from you.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Whom do you trust & respect?

A friend recently posted this question for discussion on social media: "As an adult who is an authority figure you respect? Not should respect, but actually do." 

Many people immediately think of specific individuals like their family, while other people will note specific professions or titles. It's no surprise that fields like doctors and police officers and the military are commonly respected, though plenty of people will also question whether those traditionally respected roles always and implicitly deserve respect. Political leaders not surprisingly rank low on the list, though that seems a bit disappointing considering the way we have so revered some of our finest leaders from history. And, of course, in contemporary America, we will mindlessly support and respect people from one political party while adamantly dismissing the opposition wholeheartedly.

I’ll say this: it’s not the job, position, uniform, or institution. It’s just about the person and character/integrity. That’s a pretty standard view for Gen Xers - we were the first generation to grow up witnessing the public trust being violated by the Presidency, the priesthood, and other titles once thought to be sacrosanct. So, now we view institutions with caution, and we raise our kids to do the same. That’s probably a good thing - though it’s a shame to think about what’s been lost.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Celebrating Culture & Diversity

Each February I work with a student leadership group at my high school to coordinate an event called Ethnic Fest. It is our celebration of culture and diversity. This year I did a little write up for the YourHub section of the Denver Post. Here's my review of the night:

Cherry Creek Students Get Their Culture On

From eating crepes and churros to listening to Celtic guitar and K-Pop to dancing to West African drums and Polynesian rhythms, Cherry Creek high school students came together on the first day of February to embrace the many ethnic and cultural niches of its community. In what is billed as “a night of food, friends, and fun,” Ethnic Fest is Cherry Creek’s annual celebration of culture and diversity. Hundreds of Creek students filled the halls of the IC and Fine Arts buildings as they visited a seemingly endless string of booths hosted by clubs such as the African-American Leadership Council, Chinese Honor Society, and the International Exchange Club. Students also had the opportunity to visit four separate stage and performance areas for musical, dance, and spoken-word performances.

Ethnic Fest dates back to 1994 when a group of students first envisioned an event that could honor the growing diversity and varied backgrounds that make up the Creek community. The evening of cultural celebration is now sponsored yearly by Cherry Creek’s Youth Advisory Board, which organizes and plans the event through collaboration with other student clubs as well as outside organization such as music and dance schools. This year’s event featured musical performances by Skean Dubh Celtic guitar, the Colorado Mestizo Dancers, a Mexican folk dance group, the Kalama Polynesian Dancers, and Koffi Togo, a West African drummer. “I love Koffi Togo,” one Creek parent noted, “He’s just so entertaining but also great to listen to as he explains the various instruments and beats. And, it’s so fun that he gets the kids up drumming and dancing.” Audience participation was also a big part of the Kalama performance, as the lead dancer encouraged students to join him on the stage as he narrated the story behind the dances.

Other performances featured the talents of current Creek students. The tempo of the evening was set from the minute fest visitors entered the doors as Creek senior and working DJ Ari Kutzer welcomed the crowd with beats and popular music. His professional sound system was helpful for several performers on the Activities stage, including the Mestizo dancers. Kutzer also pumped up the crowd toward the end of the evening as a group of freshman students performed a set of K-Pop, choreographed Korean dance music. The group’s leader had visited Ethnic Fest the year before after seeing posters at West Middle School. “When I saw students performing last year,” she told event organizers, “I just knew I had to be a part of it.”

Other students performed full musical sets in the school’s Black Box Theater, and they shared individual songs, poems, and spoken word performances in the Open-Mic area hosted by the Youth Advisory Board and emceed by district alum and slam poet, Jovan Mays. A jazz/rock/funk quartet known as ACI, headed by seniors Clare Hudson and Hank Friedman, played to a full house in their fourth consecutive Ethnic Fest. And, new to the Ethnic Fest student line-up this year was sophomore David Weinstein who performed an eclectic set of songs on the guitar and piano.

Ethnic Fest is designed to be informative as well as entertaining, and many of the booths and performances offered cultural education. Creek parent Donna Chrisjohn (Sicangu and Dine) offered a presentation and performance honoring the culture of indigenous peoples. Ms. Chrisjohn’s daughter joined her at a booth featuring various pieces of Lakota art and traditional apparel. Her daughter modeled clothing and dance as mom shared stories of Lakota history. The Ghana Education Collaborative, a student group, hosted a booth selling bracelets and jewelry to raise money for health and literacy efforts in the West African country. Eco-Action club, another student organization, used its booth to inform visitors about renewable energy as they also raised money in collaboration with Grid Alternative, a Denver-based non-profit.  The club’s goal is to raise $5000 to install solar panels on the home of a veteran living on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.    

Ethnic Fest was a night full of culture and connections. For some students, their enthusiasm for the evening pushed the limits of the 5pm-8pm event schedule. Even as clubs were cleaning up their booths, and a student crew was taking down the lights and array of multicultural flags and banners, senior Andrea Arias didn’t want to leave at the end of the night, hoping for one more poem at the open mic. “I can’t believe it’s my last Ethnic Fest,” she said. “I’ve come all four years of high school, and it’s my favorite night. I’m really going to miss it next year.”

Monday, February 26, 2018

Guns: the common denominator in mass school shootings

It's been almost two weeks since the school shooting in Parkland, FL. The national conversations about school safety and gun culture have remained front and center as debates and town hall meetings seek answers. Some people have speculated that "this time it's different," as the calls for legislative action have not abated, and the student voices have seemed to be more prevalent than in the past.

I don't know.

Regarding the role that access to guns plays in mass shootings would seem to me to be pretty indisputable. The general consensus of research is that areas that have more guns simply have more shootings. The international comparisons are certainly worth investigating and discussing when seeking solutions to our problem and making policy decisions. Having grown up in an area where gun ownership was not at all unusual, I've had plenty of time to discuss (and at times argue about) whether "guns are the problem." I certainly think they are a significant part of the issue, but I am not the type of person that insistent on banning weapons. I know where I live, and I know the challenges that position poses. That said, I'm also not one to accept that the status quo that gun violence and mass shootings are the new normal that can't change. It can.

I will admit that I simply do not understand the resistance to licensing and registration for guns and ammunition - other than the (IMO) ridiculously radical argument that private citizens must maintain arms to prevent tyranny. Obviously, in the historical and theoretical sense, there would seem to be some logic and precedent for the conspiracy-minded to believe that a government registry could be used to confiscate weapons and oppress people. But I just don't think rational, educated American citizens should buy into such fringe thinking. Of course, I know my wording on that will certainly alienate some rational, educated friends and acquaintances, but I'm not sure how else to frame it. They might ridicule how naive I am about freedom, but I offer equal ridicule how naive they are about gun violence. Regulating guns like we do cars seems a fair compromise, and I'm holding out hope that younger generations will eventually come around to that.

And then there's a few pro-gun solutions to mass shootings that I simply don't ever expect to understand, among them is arming teachers. Here in Colorado, one of our legislators, Republican representative Kevin Neville, introduced his annual bill to allow "conceal and carry" of weapons on school campuses. Thankfully it was defeated in committee. Neville argues that schools are targets of mass shooters precisely because they are "gun free zones." There is no evidence of this argument, and it dismisses the obvious reason kids shoot up their schools - they have an emotional connection to the school which is linked to their rage.

So, anyway, those are some thoughts as the nation seeks answers. I don't see any yet.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Thank you, Olympians - Pyeongchang 2018

Every so often the world needs a reminder of the triumph of the human spirit and the ability of men and women to be nothing short of awesome. For me, the Winter Olympics are a time, not to escape from, but to embrace all of humanity around a simple idea - cheering people on who simply aspire to be excellent in the realm of physical achievement. This pursuit of athletic success is a very simple and time-honored value of human society. We are in awe of greatness, and we seek to honor it with our attention and symbolic awards.

When I used to teach Beowulf as part of our freshman literature curriculum, I usually began by introducing my students to the Anglo-Saxon concept of "The Heroic Ideal." Beowulf is the quintessential hero in society as their ultimate warrior. He is strong (with the "strength of thirty men in his grip"), proud, courageous, and ultimately a winner. It seems obvious but societies honor and revere that which they value most. And, from at least the times of ancient Greece, civilizations have pretty universally valued physical prowess and achievement. It's why we watch, and often handsomely compensate, our top athletes. They do awesome things, and we stand amazed and thankful for sharing with us the pinnacle of their achievements.

This year's Winter Olympics has been everything I hoped it would with veteran competitors and fresh new faces once again pushing the limits in the pursuit of excellence. How cool that the 2018 Winter Olympics took place in South Korea, just 60 miles from the Demilitarized Zone. The politics of late have been disturbing and disheartening, but the image of a unified team of athletes entering under a banner of one Korea was nothing short of wonderful. Even as these moments fade amidst resurfacing tensions, we will have that image of hope. And the Koreas needed and deserved the triumphs we saw like the South Korean Iron Man bringing home a gold medal in the men's skeleton. Awesome.

As I watched the closing credits from NBC's coverage of competition, I was once again in awe (and a little bit misty) as I watched the highlights of so many great Olympic moments. The epic snowboard slopestyle win of 17-year-old Red Girard made me laugh, cry, smile, and scream. What a great story - including the R-rated verbal responses of Red and his brother. The sort-of-homecoming triumph for another 17-year-old, Chloe Kim, was the stuff dreams are made of. And who can forget the adorable picture of Chloe's dad and his homemade sign. The redemption story of snowboarding royalty Shaun White was the perfect script for feel-good stories, and I'll cry every time I see video of Shaun sobbing as he falls into the arms of his mom and hugs practically everyone in sight. What a beautiful moment.

On the slopes the action was as unpredictable as the weather. Lindsay Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin did not ski away with all the accolades at this Olympics, but it was such a joy to watch them compete and both win and lose with grace and class. And I have a newfound fascination with cross-country skiing - those athletes are hard-core. Holy crap, those competitions were incredibly grueling, and I don't know that we could script more incredible wins than the come-from-behind victories of both Simen Hegstad of Norway and the team of Jessica Diggins/Kikkan Randall. The sport of cross-country would seem to be slow at times, but I don't know that I've seen a more thrilling sprint for the finish line than that of Diggins.

On the ice, from the intensity of short track to the meditative strategy of curling to the majestic beauty of figure skating the athletes gave us moments to cherish forever. The 2018 Olympics saw the USA make hockey history again as the USA Women knocked of the Canadian team for the first time in twenty years - it was an epic match that went deep into the night and was only resolved in a shootout. This year saw the first ever triple-axel from a woman in competition which America's Mirai Nagasu nailed it. And despite not winning a medal the USA's Nathan Chen made history with not just one or two but six quad jumps in a single routine.

There were so many special moments, and I'll still be thinking about them and watching highlights for weeks. The Olympics remain - at least for me - the moment when we set everything aside that divides us, and we come together to cheer and celebrate the pursuit of excellence. So, thank you to Shaun and Jessica and Lindsay and Nathan and all the others who gave us a couple weeks to simply enjoy the beauty of sport and the thrill of victory.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Brat Pack movies & Gen X Nostalgia

And then out of the blue, the Facebook page was created and the invitations and comments started coming - I just turned forty-eight and thus am approaching the 30th anniversary of my high school graduation. Ah, Generation X, how far we've come. While I probably won't make it home for my class reunion, I've been entertained by the nostalgia of classmates who have been planning an 80s theme for the weekend. Inevitably the references to songs and movies come along, and it's no surprise that John Hughes references are aplenty, for, in many ways, he raised us.

Coincidentally, I have been making my way through writer Jason Diamond's poignant and nostalgic memoir Searching for John Hughes: or Everything I thought I needed to know I learned from watching 80s movies. The book came out a couple years ago, and it's been sitting on my shelf with other pieces of Gen X commentary and criticism. But I picked it up recently and have been reflecting on my own John Hughes obsession as Diamond explains the origins of the book as his plan to kickstart a writing career by composing a biography of John Hughes.While Diamond is almost a decade younger than I, and his experience with the Hughes canon was on DVDs, rather than the theater, I appreciate the spirit with which he acknowledges the Hughesian influence and insight on his coming-of-age.

The nostalgia that comes through revisiting the pop culture of our youth is particularly strong for Gen Xers who can arguably be considered the first pop culture kids. Artists like Hughes - a Baby Boomer himself - were attuned to the powerful presence that media, film, and music had on the identities of young people in the 80s. And Diamond's book is an admirable contribution to the growing canon of Hughes/80s studies. One of my next reads is a reflection on Hughes' film settings, notably the suburban North Shore of Chicago. Gen X writer and book/film critic Kevin Smokler published Brat Pack America: a Love Letter to 80s Teen Movies last year, and I'm looking forward to his take on the genre as well.

Other 80s film commentary and criticism that I've enjoyed, or plan to read, includes:

Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from 80s movies and ....

You Couldn't Ignore Me if You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation

Don't You Forget about Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes

John Hughes: a Life in Film - the Genius Behind Ferris Bueller, the Breakfast Club, and more

Monday, February 5, 2018

Micro-credentials – Professional Development That Matters

Let’s be clear: quality professional development is one of the greatest demands and a high priority for people in the teaching profession. However, finding meaningful PD is one of our profession’s biggest challenges, leading to plenty of frustration. I’ll be honest. Like many teachers I shamelessly attend education conferences looking to “steal stuff.” Educators are always on the prowl for new and innovative ways to engage students and craft quality learning experiences. But is one lesson or learning experience worth a conference worth of time? Not always. But now, with the increased presence of professional learning communities (PLCs) in schools, many teachers are realizing that quality professional growth can be just down the hall.

Professional development – an idea that should intrigue, excite, and inspire educators – often elicits groans and eye-rolling as simply another set of hoops to jump through before they can get back to the job of educating young people. Micro-credentials may just be the key to help “salvage teacher PD.” In the Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin, teachers are coming together to create their own PD that is timely and specifically relevant to the actual kids sitting in their classrooms. For example, one group of teachers formed a book study on a necessary skill like close reading. They exchanged ideas, collaborated on lessons, implemented strategies, and documented the results on student learning. Then after submitting their work for review, they were able to earn a college-backed micro-credential, which can be tied to evaluations and salary, and even licensing. The goal is to make professional development more accessible and practical.  

The key for success in the Kettle Moraine district is that teachers were able to access professional development specifically relevant and tailored to the kids in their classrooms, and they were able to tailor their own growth, lesson planning, and instruction to the diverse learning styles of their students. As an educator and administrator who works closely with varied student populations, an attention to differentiation and unique learning styles is of primary importance to me. As a Gifted & Talented Coordinator (and GT parent), I am attentive to the unique needs of advanced learners, including when those needs include challenges with skills such as executive functioningTo organize lessons and instruction without knowledge of specific students' strengths, challenges, and interests is to be dismissive of the entire learning process. Yet, the challenge of differentiating for varied learners can be daunting. PD opportunities that support teachers' efforts to personalize learning are a long overdue development in education. As I work with students developing advanced learning plans, I can tailor discussions of affective programming by acknowledging the emotional intelligence and mindfulness that is often a far greater indicator of potential than simple standardized grades.

I am also a coordinator for professional development around the goals of equity and pedagogy, and in that regard I know that one of the most valuable components of inclusive excellence and culturally responsive instruction is a teacher's commitment to building relationships and a positive classroom culture. As a colleague recently noted, we simply can't keep doing what we've always done and expect students to adjust. The goal of the educator is engagement in meaningful instruction, and anyone with knowledge of rhetoric knows that effective speakers pay careful attention to their audience, adjusting for who is sitting in front of them. By paying attention to specific qualities and needs of students such as   I see so many opportunities in the micro-credential world that are specifically relevant to the work I am doing. From the important challenge of cultivating digital citizenship to the value of honoring unique student potential through the growthmindset, I see much potential in this new model of PD.

Education truly is an institution in flux, and an intriguing development of professional development is the emergence of micro-credentials as a new, refined, and effective way of providing professional development on a small and focused scale of personalized instruction and competency-based learning.  Organizations like Digital Promise are now offering an extensive platform of PD opportunities in the form of micro-credentials. Digital Promise is a non-profit “authorized by Congress to spur innovation in education and improve the opportunity to learn for all through technology and research.” To earn a micro-credential, educators simply “select a specific skill or area in which they want to develop and demonstrate competency, or an area or skill they already possess competence in. Collect the required evidence as articulated in the micro-credential (e.g. videos, audio, writing samples, samples of student work, reflections from students and/or teachers etc.) Submit their evidence through the online platform.  Assessors then review the evidence against the scoring guide and rubric. If educators successfully demonstrate competence, they receive the micro-credential in the form of a digital badge. Helping to establish the platform and make the opportunities accessible and established is the BloomBoard organization, providing structure to an emerging field.

When a teacher considers how he can “remain current” in his field – an expectation for many professional evaluation rubrics – he’s often faced with the tired and mundane list of professional development offerings that may not fit what he’s actually doing in the classroom. In the spirit of the online credentialing movement, educators now have increased opportunities for micro-credentials which are relevant to and reflect what they are actually doing in the classroom. The greatest benefit of micro-credential is that it honors and relies on the content-area expertise of the classroom teacher, as opposed to relying on an ambiguous, top-down mandate that may come from people far removed from the classroom. Some have explained how the concept of micro-credentials works a bit “like merit badges” in scouting.  

So-called “micro-credentials” work a lot like scouting badges. Teachers complete a specific activity to develop a critical competency for their role, and earn a micro-credential based on showing mastery of the skill. They can collect micro-credentials to document growing expertise and share their accomplishments in the classroom. Proponents of teacher micro-credentials … aim to shift teacher PD to a competency-based system with personalized development opportunities that match teachers’ and schools’ specific needs. Such a system could allow teachers to drive their own development, signal their true areas of expertise to school and district administrators, and advance in their careers according to their skills. If it gains traction, micro-credentialing could help transform how K–12 teachers are prepared, hired, developed, and assigned teaching responsibilities.

As the education world continues to innovate, moving away from a one-size-fits-all system, one of the best things schools can do is to provide opportunities for professional growth that are individualized and competency-based. Relying on the ability of teachers to be content experts and also advocates for the specific learning needs of their students is an effective way of improving instruction and best meeting the needs of all students. Teachers and their students are hungry for quality meaningful instruction that improves outcomes for all kids. The concept of micro-credentials and the establishment of groups like Digital Promise and BloomBoard are innovations that can provide this opportunity.

Ultimately, as I've grown as an educator, I've grown to understand the value of "teaching them where they are, as opposed to where I expect them to be." The value of personalized learning and individualized instruction cannot be understated, and PD that allows, encourages, and supports teachers efforts in this area is professional development worth pursuing.

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Friday, February 2, 2018

Groundhog Day @ 25 - An Existential Treat for the New Year

Groundhog Day: An Existential Treat for the New Year

As many people do, I’ve occasionally used January 1 as a time to re-set, start over, and finally begin to live, in the words of Thoreau, “the life I have imagined.” But as February approaches, and desks become re-cluttered and gym attendance begins to wane, I’m realizing perhaps a month later is a better fresh start date. Specifically, the second of February becomes my target for rebirth, just like it was a quarter-century ago for a weatherman named Phi Connors. Groundhog Day, which has become as well known for a subtly ingenious romantic comedy starring Bill Murray as it has for the odd folk practice of celebrating a weather-forecasting rodent, is another option for mid-winter self-reflection and reinvention.

On the twentieth-anniversary of the quirky Harold Ramis-Danny Rubin hit, it’s worth looking back at the film for all the existential wisdom and advice it offers, especially in a year when people are increasingly divided and confounded in their search for meaning and understanding amidst a world gone somewhat crazy. In a year ripe for self-reflection and reinvention, Phil Connor’s existential journey to a better self is a reminder of our ability to bring meaning to our lives in world that often appears to be nothing short of absurd.

2018 seems like an apropos time for a shift toward existentialism, what with divisive politics tearing at the fabric of society as a pop-culture President toys with nuclear annihilation over whose button is bigger. It’s hard to believe it’s been a quarter century since a pretentious, snide, and self-absorbed weatherman named Phil Connors begrudgingly made his way to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the nation’s strange little tradition of waiting for an over-sized gopher to predict the weather when seeing his shadow. The absurdity of the tradition is matched in the film by the absurdity of Phil’s unique dilemma, as he ends up stuck in small town Pennsylvania, reliving the same day again and again. Groundhog’s Day itself is a bizarre little folk tradition, and Phil’s monotonous waking up to an outdated and random but annoyingly catchy tune – “I’ve Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher – matches the inane circumstances that force Phil to re-evaluate everything he knows and does.

Obviously, the idea of living the same day over and over again – especially while stuck in a small town you despise – could be seen as a curse, and Phil certainly spends years believing that about his fate. But the idea of reinvention and getting a second chance – or unlimited chances – for a do-over to finally “get it right” is actually quite appealing. Phil’s initial reaction to his bizarre predicament is predictably to use his newfound power to indulge his basest fantasies. Given such freedom and power, who wouldn’t abuse it? He truly indulges in life with a string of hilarious scenes of Phil smoking indiscriminately, gulping coffee and pastries, manipulating women (“Nancy? Nancy Taylor?”), and even robbing an armored car. Of course, ultimately the freedom and power he truly achieves is freedom from and power over those Neanderthal-like urges. For even unrestricted access to endless hedonism and debauchery apparently becomes boring after a while.

Groundhog Day is truly a message film and the existential theme is clear – you will awake tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow as the same you in the same situation for no clear reason. Everyone lives through years, if not decades, in the same spot, doing the same job, with the same people in an endless loop. And the only way that situation will change or mean anything is if you change it, and you define the meaning. It’s never been a truer example that, as Dr. Phil once told audiences, “you create your own experience.” The issue of control in our lives is a central tenet to the philosophy and the film – our world is a creation of our own making. Yet, in many ways, the only thing we truly have control over is our choices, our reactions, and our interpretation. The issue of judgment is also relevant for Phil’s growth, for there is no correlation or causation between his actions and his circumstance. Whether he’s good – helping the homeless man – or bad – robbing the truck – his situation always remains the same. There is only one way out of the prison of our own existence – and that’s to not see it as a prison.  

Not entirely existential because the resolution of the film seemingly rewards him for making “good choices,” there is a value judgment bias in the film. At the beginning of the film Phil is narcissistic and egocentric, and that’s the point. Everyone is. He begins the film as a TV personality who declares “I make the weather.” Later, he shares a more melancholy realization that he’s a deity – “Well, I’m a god, I’m not the God. I think.” It even takes on a sweet innocence as he speculates, “Maybe God isn’t omnipotent. Maybe he’s just been around soo long, he knows everything.” Phil appears to have achieved immortality – but is that a blessing? He conquers death, but only because he literally tries to die out of exhaustion and despair. He ultimately becomes what Fitzgerald once called the “Platonic conception of himself,” or Jung just called the fully realized individual and self. He becomes what he is meant to be – the fully actualized self. The ideal.

The film has become more than just an entertaining rom-com, as critics, writers, and teachers have used the story as an avenue into the philosophy of existentialism. It first occurred to me about ten years ago while teaching a class called Intro to College Literature, a standard unit of which included Camus’ The Stranger, as well as his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Clearly, the existential premise has occurred to numerous educators and writers, for this is no shortage of articles about the existentialist brilliance of Groundhog Day. The most obvious philosophical components of the film and story are the absurdist nature of existence, the idea of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, and Camus imagining Sisyphus happy. Camus saw the story of Sisyphus as the perfect metaphor for the human condition – stuck in a repetitive cycle which would seem absurd to the outsider. When he “imagines Sisyphus happy,” he shifts the paradigm from judgment and punishment to liberation and empowerment. Both Sisyphus and Phil transition through the act of acceptance – accepting and embracing their inescapable dilemma.

Once Phil accepts his fate, he is ironically freed from it. Life in Punxsutawney is no longer a prison, but an opportunity. He learns to play piano, becomes an expert ice sculptor, develops deep genuine knowledge of the people around him, and appreciates the woman he loves for all her simple goodness. The process takes time, and time is the one thing he has. One enterprising film fan, Simon Gallagher, once calculated the number of days Phil is stuck – 12,403, or approximately 33 years. That stretch of time is basically the length of adulthood when people come into their own, finish their education, develop careers, enter long term relationships, have kids, and look toward retirement.

Unlike many redemption stories, there is no specific antagonist nor any obvious guide or mentor figure leading Phil to peripeteia, his moment of clarity. The movie never explains why Phil’s space-time continuum glitch is, well, glitching. And it’s all the more satisfying that way. Phil’s status and challenge is his and his alone to understand and resolve – as is the case for all of us. If there seems to be nothing we can do about the state of the world, perhaps the most logical choice, which is really the only choice we ever had, is to turn back toward ourselves with a focus on making meaning of the one thing we can, ourselves.  Ultimately, the film deftly touches up 18th century neo-classical ideas of “freedom” – not the ability to do whatever you want, but to be free from ultimately unsatisfying and dead end of impulsiveness and appeals to our primal nature.

Pieces of popular culture truly embed themselves in the national consciousness at the moment they enter the lexicon. Danny Rubin’s screenplay certainly did that, as “Groundhog Day” has become the catchphrase for “monotony” and a drudgery-filled sense of repetitive daily life. Beyond that, the movie has become a reliably entertaining bit of self-help for the existentially thirsty who seek solace and understanding in the classic redemption narrative that has captivated audiences since the time of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which Bill Murray also explored in the Christmas classic Scrooged. Ultimately, after all these years the weird little tale of Phil Connors remains a refreshingly engaging romantic comedy that also happens to be an inspiring primer on the wisdom of existentialism. Given one life to live with certain parameters beyond our control, the best and only thing we can do is to make that life exactly what we want it to be and imagine ourselves happy.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Conservative Classical Liberal

With several books out recently that contain the word "Liberalism" in the title, I have been giddily traipsing across the internet exploring ideas and definitions of conservatism. The intriguing game for me is coming to understand and articulate how many contemporary conservatives are actually classical liberals. Isn't that fun? From Patrick Deneen's hot-off-the-presses Why Liberalism Failed to the boldly titled and eloquently researched The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce, there is much to entertain the minds of Burkean-Kirkean conservatives. For a while I have maintained a pretty consistent "conservative-but-not-Republican" eye toward the issues, as I generally find myself aligning with the fiscally-conservative-but-socially-conscious camp. Many would simply identify that as being a moderate - and I don't quarrel with that view. There are simply so many contradictions and dead ends in the party politics that have made the heads of America's center-right spin. Religion would be a key component of that, with the roots of dissent going back to the rise of Ralph Reed in the 80s and 90s. It seems that many conservatives draw a line in the sand on "their" ideology as being intrinsically linked to a firm religiosity, notably Christian. But the line of thinking I tend to follow believes, as George Will so eruditely explains “an individual’s faith is not a requisite for good citizenship; that democratic flourishing does not require a religious citizenry; that natural rights do not require grounding in God.” Tell that to Focus on the Family though. As I've wondered around the blogs and think tanks, I've enjoyed discovering The Imaginative Conservative, a website filled with commentary and scholarship exploring conservatism in the contemporary age. There I found a wonderfully succinct bit of Kirkean wisdom worth repeating:

The conservative is concerned, first of all, with the regeneration of the spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest. - Russell Kirk

And, as I continue to explore the Burkean-Kirkean tenets of conservative thought, all the while pondering ideas of the Emerson-ian and Thoreauvian conservative, I am always amused to get lost in thoughtful ponderings such as this one from the New Republic:  Everyone Hates Henry David Thoreau.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

If I'm the Media, what does that say?

I believe in the news. And, as much as any rational, educated person can be reasonably well-informed while also scrutinizing any source of information, I also believe the news. That seems to be an ever more rare and suspect position in the era of fake news and Russian trolls, and I think a lot about what that means for contemporary society. The number of people who "don't believe the news" or simply don't pay attention to the news always surprises me (with increasing frequency), and a couple of recent conversations have re-framed this for me in interesting ways.

For one, I have an old college buddy who regularly challenges my blog posts and tweets as being part of "the media." The criticism mostly implies that I am "brethren" to the liberal mainstream media that is in conspiracy against the President and his agenda. Now, I am definitely a critic of the current White House, and I will occasionally post about relevant issues. But I'm a personal blogger with a couple social media accounts. That ain't "the media." For me, the media are professional news organizations such as The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and NBC. Journalists are people who have trained to report the news and information. While any individual and organization is bound to have bias in the way stories are reported, I'm fairly comfortable with the state of news.

The issue of a news organization's "trustworthiness" came up over Winter Break with my middle-school-age daughter and one of her homework assignments, and the subsequent discussions I had with another parent also baffled me a bit. I was initially annoyed by the task my daughter had because she was asked to gather some factual information on a government-associated issue (hers was military spending), and her teacher told her she could not use news organizations because they were biased. She was instead steered toward using "a dot-org" because it's unbiased. Now, clearly any educated person knows that Americans for Prosperity and the Progressive Policy Institute are both .org groups, but each has a clear bias and agenda. So, I didn't like the assumptions about a website's inherent bias or the implication that CNN would be intrinsically biased about reporting of military spending.

Yet, interestingly, when we did a bit of researching, the quickest way to find simple facts about spending was, in fact, to go to a ".org" like Pew or the Petersen Foundation, and all searches of news sites truly did offer some biased commentary even in the headlines. And, I guess a lot can be said for not just turning kids loose on news websites because it's not so easy to simply go to Time or CNN or the WSJ or Fox and just collect facts and information.  That said, I am surprised by people who simply don't read or watch "the news," and I am a bit saddened by people who choose to remain somewhat aloof and uninformed simply because "all news is just biased."

Certainly, as an educator and teacher of rhetoric and argumentation, I am committed to developing a better understanding among my students about "what's out there," and I still seek to create "people on whom nothing is lost." This challenge of interpreting the media is actually in the media with the recent AP report that "States Push Media Literacy in Schools." While that goal is already ripe for criticism because of who will teach what to whom, it's probably a worthy goal for schools. And, interestingly, even as I was composing this post, I was challenged to find some sources. For example, in terms of an organization actively pushing a political party's agenda, I immediately referenced AFP. But I was initially at a loss to come up with a comparable group pushing the Democrats agenda that had equal prominence. Here's a good question: who makes up the progressive version of AFP?

Lawmakers in several states have introduced or passed bills calling on public school systems to do more to teach media literacy skills that they say are critical to democracy. The effort has been bipartisan but has received little attention despite successful legislation in Washington state, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Mexico. Several more states are expected to consider such bills in the coming year, including Arizona, New York and Hawaii. "I don't think it's a partisan issue to appreciate the importance of good information and the teaching of tools for navigating the information environment," said Hans Zeiger, a Republican state senator in Washington who co-sponsored a bill that passed in his state earlier this year. "There is such a thing as an objective source versus other kinds of sources, and that's an appropriate thing for schools to be teaching."

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I do know a few things. I will still read the Denver Post everyday and the Wall Street Journal on the weekends. I will still subscribe to Time Magazine and occasionally check in with CNN. I will still get my news and news commentary from sites like The Atlantic, Vox, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. And I will still trust my ability to read news with a critical lens, rather than simply choose not to read.

And I will maintain that I am not "the media."

Friday, January 5, 2018

Ideas Junkies & their Gurus

America is fascinated with ideas - just take a look at the non-fiction bestseller lists across the country and then review the careers of people like Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks, Daniel Pink, Thomas Friedman, and others. We love to read and think about cool stuff. As a self-diagnosed "ideas junkie," I have been thinking a lot about my list of favorite thinkers and ideas-writers. I got to thinking about this when I recently read a review of Daniel Mendelsohn's new book An Odyssey: a Father, a Son, and an Epic. 

Looking in to Mendelsohn's work, I discovered him to be a thoughtful and erudite literary and social critic. His website led me to other works of criticism, and I just disappeared down the rabbit-hole of more and more books. Literally, I (and many others) just can't get enough of writers who so smoothly introduce the general populace to ideas and information that we would probably never encounter on our own. Perhaps no one has done this so effectively - and to such success - as former journalist Malcolm Gladwell who taught us about The Tipping Point and people known as Outliers

So, who do you like to read?  Here are some people I like to call "Ideas Gurus" who catch my attention regularly with the cool stuff they've been reading and thinking about:

Thomas Friedman

David Brooks

Daniel Pink

Daniel Khaneman

Stephen Levitt

Thursday, January 4, 2018

"I am What I am" - Poem, 2018

Art, more art. That is what I regularly tell myself ... and others. Being a creator more than being a consumer, seeing the world as an artist does - these are my goals for 2018. So, to begin this new year in pursuit of art, I offer this poem that I just ran across in an old folder at school and that I apparently wrote years ago, though I can't recall when.

I am what I am; 
Teacher, husband, father,
I am what I am.
More conservative than most people expect,
More liberal than I might admit,
I am what I am.
A traditionalist who likes to push the envelope; 
a painfully shy extrovert,
I am what I am.
Smart enough to know better, foolish enough to
make the same mistake twice,
or three times.
I am what I am.
Fiercely loyal to those I know well,
strongly suspicious of too many others;
I am cautious and carefree, and while 
I am always learning and usually willing
to listen, I figured it all out a long
time ago.
I am what I am.
Madly in love with my wife, amazed with,
inspired by, devoted to, and enamored of
my children, I live for my family,
and I can't get enough of them.
I am what I am.
In perpetual pursuit of the truth, constantly
refining my craft, fascinated by the whole
world, desirous of everything
at once, I am completely satisfied, but
always questing for more.
I am maniacally, cautiously
at peace with my life.
I am what I am.