Monday, March 27, 2023

SAT Going Paperless

“Ok, time is up. Please put your pencils down.”

For many years those dreaded words were heard by millions of students as they took standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, AP, and Iowa Test of Basic Skills. These timed assessments of reading, writing, and math skills have become the hallmark of supposedly objective testing to gauge school performance. Perhaps more importantly, they have become a fundamental data point for college admissions. And, until now, they were always pencil and paper multiple choice tests. Alas, that era has come to an end, and in my opinion the outlook is not good for students.

In a recent story from Chalkbeat, Colorado’s source for in-depth education news, the recent decision by the College Board and a “group of teachers and administrators” in Colorado to switch to paperless SAT testing has been praised by the decision makers as a positive step forward in the testing industry. They claim the format will be more accurate and relevant in terms of assessing the knowledge and academic skills of high school students. However, educators, especially those versed in literacy studies, have their doubts. “What’s best for kids” should be the primary factor in any education-related decision. The recent decision is anything but. It’s all about profit for the testing company and ease of administration.

The primary problem with the College Board’s and the state of Colorado’s decision to move high stakes standardized state testing to an all digital format is the simple fact that people don’t read as well online as they do on paper. Since the advent of the internet and the increased amount of digital versus paper reading, researchers have been studying whether people read differently in the two formats. The case against online reading has been growing in recent years, especially ten years ago when many states adopted Common Core standards and assessed students’ skills and knowledge with the now-maligned PARCC testing.

According to the Hechinger report, “studies showed that students of all ages, from elementary school to college, tend to absorb more when they’re reading on paper than on screens, particularly when it comes to nonfiction material.” That’s not surprising. English teachers encourage students to annotate text as a basic strategy for comprehension and understanding, but that’s not so easy online. Students say they prefer paper in any testing situation because scrolling up and down a page looking for information is not only time consuming, but actually distracting. Thus, in high stakes timed assessments where students' reading skills are under intense scrutiny, it’s nothing short of irresponsible for education officials to ignore the implication that digital testing will provide less accurate results. When PARCC testing was first implemented, Colorado statutes mandated students be given the paper option. That should remain in effect, and anyone who cares about the authenticity of the tests should demand it for their child.

Additionally, it’s shocking that digital tests are not available at a substantial discount, knowing all the paper, transportation, and labor costs are basically eliminated. Yet, that’s because the College Board is simply in it for the money. The business is a classified non-profit as an educational services company. That, of course, is laughable to anyone who has ever forked over several hundred dollars for their child to register for AP and SAT tests. Yet, in 2019 the president of College Board David Coleman pulled in a salary of nearly $1.7 million. And nine other College Board executives received annual salaries above $500,000. So, for a non-profit that company seems to be profiting quite a bit.

While many colleges and universities no longer require standardized test scores for admission, colleges will still accept the tests as part of a student’s application. Granted, the criticism of the test scores is that they most accurately reflect socioeconomic status, and affluent families have an advantage because their students can afford private tutoring and test prep. But to be honest, I’ve always felt the benefits of those services are greatly oversold. Besides, the College Board puts all their test prep materials online for free. So, while affluent students may have an advantage, access to prep is free to any student willing to put in the time.

Thus, while the tests are not going away, the decision to test digitally should. Rather than students putting their pencils down, I certainly hope the families of Colorado put their foot down and demand that their students be allowed to pick their pencils up.

Friday, March 3, 2023

E Pluribus Unum

As I sat home on President’s Day last week, reading an essay on Washington’s Farewell Address, I was struck by a comment King George III had reportedly made. In the closing days of the Revolution a decade earlier, it was widely believed Washington could easily have made himself king. Instead, after serving a self-imposed limit of two terms as President of the young nation, Washington simply retired to his farm. “If he does that,” King George said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.” Such is the legacy of our first president, like the one of Abraham Lincoln, an equally great American whose life was tragically cut short far too soon in an act of divisive sectarian madness. Presidents Day, which is aptly nestled between the birthdays of our two greatest leaders, is a time to reflect on who we are as a nation and what their legacies can still teach us.

However, my reflection on the man from Mount Vernon was abruptly rattled when I took a break and scrolled through my social media apps. On Presidents Day, in a shocking display of crass treachery, the GOP’s congressional embarrassment from Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted “We need a national divorce. We need to separate by red states and blue states.” That an elected member of Congress could, on a day celebrating Washington and Lincoln, actually make a public call for insurrection and secession is beyond the pale, even in these times. Of course, the real tragedy is not that Greene said it. She’s simply an idiot, and like too many politicians, she uses her office for attention and personal gain.

No, the deeper concern is that we live in a time when Greene actually believes she can say something so abysmal and get away with it. And, sadly, she can. Granted, there was outrage and head shaking and calls for her resignation, but it didn’t come from the right people. While the current party leaders took a pass on the comment, and have taken no disciplinary action, it was former Wyoming representative Liz Cheney who responded, “Our country is governed by the Constitution. You swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Secession is unconstitutional. No member of Congress should advocate secession, Marjorie.” How sad that Greene still sits in Congress, serving on committees like Homeland Security, while a smart, classy stateswoman like Cheney loses her seat.

Like Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Independence Day, the national holiday in February celebrating the presidents should remind us of the commonalities that unite a shared citizenship. Washington’s farewell and other writings still have much to teach us, perhaps now more than ever. For example, if Representative Greene considers herself an American and a patriot, which ironically she probably does, she might recall Washington’s letter to the nation “emphasizing the necessity of ‘an indissoluble Union of States under one Federal Head,’ stressing the importance of overcoming ‘local prejudices and policies.’” Later, Washington warned Americans against the inherent danger of political parties, hoping that policy disagreements would never divide the nation into “red and blue states.” We are, or should be, stronger and more resolute than any political issue or piece of legislation.

Regarding the natural inclination to align ourselves by factions, Washington advised “Your union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty,” and “… the love of one ought to endear you to the preservation of the other.” Granted, the existence of parties and organizations is not inherently bad, and historians generally believe they are a structure for balancing dissent within the system. However, partisanship, sectarianism, and “local prejudices” are corrosive and unnecessary. Our connections as human beings should supersede our identifications with arbitrary associations. Living in Greenwood Village shouldn’t negate a sense of community with Centennial residents. Being a Cherry Creek Bruin shouldn’t keep us from camaraderie with Smoky Hill Buffaloes. Voting for Democrats shouldn’t isolate and alienate us from others who checked the Republican box.

In a recent Wall Street Journal column, Peggy Noonan looked back at Jimmy Carter’s historic “Crisis of Confidence,” noting how valid and insightful the speech actually was. On news of the former president’s entry into hospice, Noonan reflected on the inherent goodness of his leadership. She reminds us how he ended with this advice: “Whenever you have a chance, say something good about our country.” Great advice from a great man. And he lived it every day of his virtuous life.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Who Am I? Who Are You?

Last week's column for The Villager, inspired by some local events and an intriguing essay from Yuval Harari in Time Magazine.

Growing up in a small town in Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi River, just outside St. Louis, Missouri, I was raised a middle class, suburban Catholic kid who was aware of his heritage but never gave it that much thought. Though my heritage is Irish and Slovakian, I have no identification with those backgrounds other than to know they are where my great, great grandparents and their families lived. For the most part, my identity always lacked ethnicity, a reality that became clear when I went to a large college filled with diverse identities. Later, while living abroad in southeast Asia and then residing in the city of Chicago, a place filled with unique neighborhoods of cultures and ethnicities, my mind was opened even more to how we define ourselves through culture. And, like most people, I often wondered just who I am and how I define myself.

The noticeable void in a specific cultural heritage has, at times, made describing my culture and identity a bit of a challenge over the years as I encounter the rich diversity of the world, and my world. With that in mind, I occasionally refer to myself in relation to where I’m from, specifically my hometown. “I’m an Altonian,” I’ll say when asked about my background. For, even though I no longer live in my little river town, I believe it defines my character as much as any other affiliation I might have. As Morgan Wallen sang, “I’m still proud of where I came from,” and I will always look back fondly upon the place where I was raised. For a placid little river town just north of St. Louis, Alton, Illinois is a surprisingly well-known place with a big history, and it has enough funky eccentricities that, no matter where I am, I love telling Alton stories. Defining ourselves by our geography is a natural inclination, even as that tendency is rife with limitations.

People identify themselves based on many affiliations – their race or ethnicity, their religion or political ideology, their geography, whether it’s a town, city state or country, their likes and dislikes, the teams they root for or against, the lists just go on. And, too often, people think of themselves in terms or this or that, of us or them. In the most recent edition of Time Magazine, Yuval Harari, an Israeli philosopher and academic, wrote a fascinating essay on “The Dangerous Quest for Identity.” Harari identifies and explores all the aspects of his identity that extend beyond his race, religion, and nationality. For example, while he is obviously Jewish, he speaks of being a huge football fan, which is clearly British. He also loves coffee, so he acknowledges the Ethiopians, Turks, and Arabs as clear influences on his identity. Harari is incredibly well educated on history and anthropology, and in exploring the issue of identity, he observes that “People who, in search of their identity, narrow their world to the story of a single nation are turning their back on their humanity.” The point is that we are all humans, and that is the primary quality which we all share. Our shared humanness should unite rather than divide us.

Generational norms are a rather common shared experience, and people also identify themselves by their age. The Greatest Generation, the Boomers, Xers, Millennials, Gen Z, and those to come later all seem to coalesce around shared experiences based simply on chronological age. Douglas Coupland, the author credited with naming Generation X after he wrote a book of the same name, has said the term Generation X was never about a specific age group or demographic. Gen X actually meant a certain kind of person who chooses a lifestyle. Lately some have argued that there is no such thing as a generation, an increasingly relevant claim as society becomes increasingly diverse. Arguably, generations are legitimate divisions only in the sense that they reflect common associations and familiar references.

Often we define ourselves by what we do or who we voted for in the last election. Too often it seems like our sense of who we are is based on opposing those who we are not. And occasionally these days, where I am does not feel like who I am. As Harari notes, many of the ways we identify ourselves as separate from others comes at the cost of the humanity that aligns us.

So, who are you?

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Maybe Students Should Spend Their Money Elsewhere

A follow-up column for The Villager on the local issue of the arts scholarship.

Art can break down barriers. It can open minds and connect communities. Art at its best reaches across borders. Greenwood Village City Council, however, has taken the opposite position with its recent meddling in the work of the city’s Arts and Humanities Council. With the decision to restrict and ultimately cancel the annual Greenwood Village Arts Scholarship, the city leaders prefer to close doors, build walls, marginalize people, and restrict arts funding. In fact, if you follow the thinking of the City Council, you might suspect the Village is closed for business to outsiders.

The GV arts scholarship had been a wonderful message and symbol to the community and the town’s neighbors across Arapahoe County. For thirty-five years, previous leaders of Greenwood Village set an admirable example of support for the arts among young people. With its generous and impressive guideline that opened applications to any student in Arapahoe County, the Arts Council used its independently-raised funds to honor the best among all the students attending school in the area. Knowing no city is an island and that consumers cross borders all the time, the Arts Council simply focused on its mission – supporting the arts.

Apparently, city council members are pretty riled up about giving money to artists who don't live in the city. I guess that could make sense because it’s not like the Village ever pays artists who don’t live here – like say the musicians who play the mobile summer concerts. I guess we’ve never seen non-resident artists and performers at the Mayor’s Lighting Ceremony or Greenwood Village Day. No, of course not. The Village can’t honor, support, and pay artists who don’t live in the Village. That’s the thinking of a City Council member who said “this is city money and we are elected to be stewards of city money.” However, that view is somewhat inaccurate and misleading because city tax dollars are not used to fund the scholarship. The Arts Council is self-funded through fundraising, donations, and grants, a point made clear by member Sandy Carson who noted “I find this particularly appalling because all monies for scholarships are derived from our earnings. City taxes are not involved in the scholarships.”

Sadly, current council members are surprisingly aloof to the nature of the town they profess to lead. For example, one council member responded to an email about the arts scholarship by saying she had “volunteered to chair the application and award committee” limited specifically to a Greenwood Village resident. Had she listened to the discussions with Arts and Humanities, she would have known that last year only two of the twenty-seven applicants were from Greenwood Village, and one of those applications was not even complete and did not qualify. The scholarship is a merit award, yet apparently some council members would simply award the scholarship to applicants based on their address. Clearly the council members have limited knowledge of the work the Arts Council does. In fact, that’s why the Village established separate boards and councils to specialize.

Greenwood Village is a small community of just fourteen thousand people. Thus, in a graduating class of nine-hundred seniors at Cherry Creek, the number of Village residents could be quite small, with no guarantee any of those residents are outstanding artists of exceptional talent. However, a phenomenal artist may literally live across the street from the Village in Centennial or just down the road in Littleton. Council members want to award the “youth of Greenwood Village,” but the youth of the community are not just those living here. It’s those who spend their days – and their money – in the Village. And, to be clear, of the nearly seventy scholarships given over the years, only twenty-nine went to kids outside the Village anyway.

As a Village resident, I’d hate to suggest people not support local businesses, but money talks, as the saying goes. Because the Council has made it clear they don’t value non-residents as members of the community, perhaps students should think more carefully about where they spend their money and the implications of those funds. A Centennial or Aurora student attending school in the Village may spend thousands of dollars in the Village over the years. Until the Greenwood Village City Council reverses its unfortunate decision about the arts scholarship and heals its relationship with the Arts and Humanities Council, the young people of Arapahoe County might want to consider spending their money elsewhere.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Proust Questionnaire

Marcel Proust, a French novelist, essayist, and critic from the early twentieth century, is probably best known for his iconic, massive novel Remembrance of Things Past. The book follows the narrator’s recollection of childhood and his transition into adulthood, pondering the loss of time and the eternal search for meaning. In contemporary times, Proust may be better known for popularizing a common parlor game of the Victorian Age called the confession album, where players answer a series of questions designed to reveal a person’s true nature.

Versions of the questions are now known as the Proust Questionnaire, and they are often used by interviewers. The most well-known example today is probably the profiles featured on the back page of Vanity Fair magazine where celebrities answer variations of the original questionnaire. I’ve always enjoyed reading this feature, and I’ve often used parts of the Proust Questionnaire in my classes. Yet, while I’ve pondered the questions when I read profiles of others, I’ve never taken the time to literally record my thoughts. Until now.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? A quiet Sunday morning with the sun just coming up, a cup of rich dark roast coffee with a splash of heavy cream, a slice of homemade strawberry rhubarb pie, and some cool piano jazz in the background to accompany it all.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Those times I lack kindness and empathy

What is the trait you most deplore in others? A lack of kindness and empathy

Which living person do you most admire? My children are two of the most impressive people I have ever known, and I have endless admiration for how they live their lives. They are both more mature adults at the age of eighteen than I was in my mid-twenties. I’m in awe of their kindness, confidence, compassion, knowledge, talents, and genuine good nature.

What is your greatest extravagance? I never mind paying top prices for exquisite dining, and I also enjoy quality bourbon.

What is your current state of mind? Contentment and joy for how my life is now mixed with subtle but anxious ambition for what comes next

Which living person do you most despise? An old friend of mine once had a bumper sticker on his car that said simply, “Mean People Suck.” I agree with that sentiment.

When and where were you happiest? Summers in Keystone with the family

Which talent would you most like to have? To be a really smooth jazz piano player and musician

What do you consider your greatest achievement? My teaching career

If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? Honestly, I’d like to try this one again.

Where would you most like to live? As my wife and I think of what comes next, we’re tossing a few ideas around. The south of France and northern Italy appeal to us, so the town of Genoa on the border might be the perfect compromise. I am also quite interested in the town of Alton, England, where Jane Austen lived and wrote. Interestingly, I grew up in Alton, Illinois, and never knew of the British counterpart.

Who are your favorite writers? I enjoy columnists like Mike Royko, David Brooks, Robert Fulghum, and I think Mark Kiszla is one of the best sports writers out there.

Who is your hero of fiction? Oh, it has to be Huckleberry Finn.

What is it that you most dislike? As a member of Generation X, I think collectively we most dislike inauthenticity and phoniness.

What is your greatest regret? I believe if we are satisfied with our lives then we should have no regrets about the ups and downs that got us here. However, I was just telling my wife the other night that I wish I’d seen more concerts and shows in my youth. On a more personal level, I do regret any and all the times I’ve senselessly hurt others.

What is your motto? I like Henry Thoreau’s reason for going to Walden – “I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately.”

Self reflection and self examination are valuable parts of the human experience, and it’s helpful to occasionally take the time to think about what we really feel and believe. So, if you have the chance, perhaps sit down with the Proust Questionnaire and record your own “remembrances of things past.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

So, About the Guns

For my column this week in The Villager, I reflected on the continuing tragedy of gun violence. Specifically, I pondered why licensing and training aren't common sense for the pro-gun crowd. I believe increasing respect and personal responsibility, and decreasing fetishization and casual attitudes toward firearms is the best course of action for the United States. The country will always have a problem with gun possession and gun violence. And there will never be widespread bans or buybacks like in Australia or New Zealand. But I do believe we could gradually de-escalate the obsession with and proliferation of guns, and we could more maturely manage firearm possession in the United States.

While it’s not surprising anymore to be surprised with ever sadder and increasingly inexplicable stories of tragic gun violence and deaths, two stories in the news this week rattled and baffled us all over again. In one story which has been in the news for a year, prosecutors have charged actor Alec Baldwin with involuntary manslaughter in connection to the accidental shooting death of the cinematographer on a film set. In the other, it was yet another devastating story of a school shooting, this time with a six-year-old kindergarten student in Virginia who pulled a gun out of his backpack and shot his teacher in class.

America certainly has a problem with gun violence, and no specific gun legislation will end, prevent, or even curtail that epidemic. America has a history of psychotic people becoming deranged, acting out violently and publicly; it also has hateful, rage-filled individuals with access to deadly weapons. Whether it’s a person in the midst of psychosis or an angry impulsive person with violent intentions, it is far too easy to commit violence with implements of catastrophic destruction. That said, it's not simply a matter of passing an assault weapons ban or strengthening the health care system. One is an easy act; the other quite challenging. And neither will solve the problem. The Alec Baldwin situation and the child shooter in Virginia were not issues of mental illness. They resulted from careless negligence in the management of firearms. Acknowledging that weakness may be a key toward eventually decreasing gun violence in the future.

Growing up in the 1970s in southern Illinois where guns were not at all uncommon, I knew the National Rifle Association to be a gun-safety organization. Attending gun safety presentations, workshops, and even "day camps" where young people could learn to safely operate and respect firearms was a natural part of my youth. In fact, the entire purpose of the NRA, as far as I knew, was to promote safe, responsible understanding and handling of guns. To that end, I simply can't fathom the opposition to training, licensing, and regulation of firearms. Regulation is the key to solving the disagreement about America's alarming gun violence. Supporters of gun rights should be the primary proponents of maximizing safety while minimizing tragedy.

Podcaster Marc Maron has a feature of his show he likes to call "I don't get why." The point of the segment is just investigating issues in order to seek clarity and understanding. For example, "I don't get why mandatory regular training, licensing, and registration of gun ownership and ammunition purchases isn't just common sense." It truly baffles me that a society where every automobile must be registered and every driver must be licensed can't have the same expectation on gun ownership. It seems so simple. Anyone who wants to own a gun should undergo extensive formal training, pass an annual test, and maintain a license that is regularly evaluated and renewed. Every firearm should require a registration number assigned to a specific person. That tracking system should be implemented for ammunition purchases. Otherwise, it seems unconscionable that an individual – a mass shooter like James Holmes in the Aurora shooting, for example – can amass an arsenal of thousands of rounds of semi-automatic bullets with no one including law enforcement knowing what is happening.

When Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, the nation reacted quickly to prevent such weapons of mass destruction from ever being assembled and used against Americans again. Law abiding citizens agreed to the regulation of farm fertilizer purchases. Similar tracking was added to the purchase of hairspray after a Denver-area man attempted to create a bomb to set off in New York City. Those restrictions were literally put in place to protect Americans from terrorist violence. Yet, the same would-be terrorists could purchase thousands of guns and millions of rounds of ammunition without ever drawing the attention of any law enforcement agencies. How does that make sense?

America has plenty of guns, and it’s certain there will be more tragedies. But we can do more to increase safety. Tragic accidents like the film set shooting and a six-year-old getting a gun could be decreased. Firearm possession is a serious responsibility and should be treated as such. America will not quickly decrease gun possession or violence, but it could take incremental steps to improve personal responsibility and safety while lessening recklessness which leads to avoidable tragedy.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Greenwood Village Should Restore Arts Scholarship

Some thoughts on a local issue:

In the film Dead Poets Society, teacher John Keating, played by Robin Williams, tells his students this: “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are the things we stay alive for.” I would add the term “art” to his list, for that is what he is talking about, the Arts. Art sustains us, consoles us, inspires us, heals us, makes us human.

Greenwood Village has long been a community that values and supports the arts. It is, or at least was, a community that cultivates the arts among young people. Programs like Art in the Park, which my daughter took as a child and now works as a rec aide, and the impressive array of Curtis Arts Center classes promotes the arts to the next generation. Until recently the Village also supported the arts with the annual arts scholarships awarded by the city’s Arts & Humanities Council. For thirty-five years, this scholarship has been a wonderful message and symbol to the community and its neighbors, as the award has always been open to any student in Arapahoe County.

However, the Greenwood Village City Council recently eliminated the scholarship after the Village’s Arts & Humanities Council rejected a directive to limit the scholarship to only high school seniors who are Village residents. The City Council’s misguided and unilateral decision to end the scholarship on December 1, was a disappointing lump of coal delivered to the area’s young people just in time for the holidays. Their "take-my-ball-and-go-home" attitude sends a terrible message to our community, especially to young people. For inexplicable reasons, city leaders have broken a thirty-five year tradition of offering an arts scholarship simply because they couldn’t restrict the program to only Greenwood Village residents, even though that had never been the practice.

Until now, Greenwood Village has never limited appreciation of the arts to only Village residents. Non-residents have always been welcome in the city to enjoy the arts, whether that’s art shows and classes at the Curtis Center, summer Concerts at the Crescent, or movies at the Landmark. Past city leaders have always wanted non-residents to enjoy – and, of course, spend their money on – concerts at Fiddler's Green. And it seems money is the crux of the Council's misguided vote. By eliminating the scholarship altogether because they can’t limit it to Village residents, the Council is basically telling all young artists in Arapahoe County, "If-we-can't-have-it-no-one-can."

Yet, current council members conveniently forget the city depends on non-residents coming to the Village and spending their money here. Many non-resident spenders are high school students who spend thousands of dollars on lunch every day they come to school in the Village. They spend thousands of dollars hanging out with their friends here. Many study art, music, and dance in the Village, with their parents spending thousands of dollars on classes. The City Council shouldn’t send a message that they are not a part of our community every day they come here. Giving a scholarship to a non-resident is not a waste of city funds – it’s an investment in the arts and in the youth of the community. And it might actually return to a family some of the thousands of dollars they have spent in the Village over the years.

Greenwood Village is not a self-sustaining municipality whose residents generate enough revenue to support all the amenities they value. As part of Arapahoe County, the DTC, and the greater metro area, the Village benefits from outside money and civic programs. For example, every day students at Cherry Creek take a beautiful path through Chenango Park on their way to spend money at Belleview Square. That path was funded in part with a grant from Arapahoe County. Additionally, as reported by The Villager, the City Council and residents should know arts programming in the Village received $70,000 in funding from the metro area’s SCFD funds – that’s the Science Cultural Facilities District, the regional district providing arts funding for the greater metro area.

So perhaps the current City Council could dispense with the idea that Greenwood Village is only for residents, and these community leaders could focus on opening doors rather than building walls. The Council should honor a legacy that precedes them and should outlive them, for the Greenwood Village arts scholarship is a shining example of civic stewardship. The Greenwood Village arts scholarship is about one thing and one thing only – supporting the arts through the young people who are its future.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Measures of Excellence, and "the GOAT"

With the news the NBA has renamed the league MVP Award after Michael Jordan, discussions of greatness, and who is the greatest basketball player of all time – or “the GOAT” – will ensue all over again. However, I might suggest the conversation is already over. For, when the MVP trophy is literally named after you, it’s safe to say you are the MVP-est of MVPs. Or as NBA Commissioner David Stern said when awarding Jordan his second of five MVP awards: “You are simply the standard by which basketball excellence is measured.”

When an individual sets the standard for excellence, he is by default the greatest of all time; any achievements after that basically seem derivative. Of course, comparisons between eras are always difficult. In today’s NBA where there is no hand-checking, traveling and carrying are just standards of dribbling, and flopping has become a way of life to gain an advantage, not to mention a cheap path to the free-throw line to pad scoring totals, the two potentials GOATs of the NBA – Michael Jordan and Lebron James – actually played noticeably different games.

While some sports fans may argue the statistical measuring sticks for basketball prowess from points to assists to rebounds to longevity lean in favor of Lebron James, or other players to come later, I’m skeptical that discussions of excellence will ever be about anyone other than Michael Jordan. Straight numbers can go both ways, and interested fans can read endless commentary aligning all relevant numbers for both players. In those articles, the conclusion is generally that superiority is subjective and too close to call. However, “greatness” in terms of overall impact on and dominance over the game, as well as the general assessment by players, coaches, commentators, and fans, always end with Michael Jordan being the marker by which all others, including Lebron James, are judged.

The concept of greatness, or especially the measure of “greatest-ness” is obviously a rather subjective and relative idea. Excellence and pinnacles of achievement have always been highly valued by societies and cultures. As humans we simply stand in awe and respect of individuals who push the boundaries to unimagined heights. And, the interest goes beyond athletics. The same argument can be made about artists, especially in terms of innovation and game-changing practice. In many people’s view, Pablo Picasso is probably the greatest artist of all time, the GOArtisT if you will – because of his vast and diverse achievements over a lifetime. When any individual is responsible for so many incredible innovative game-changing achievements, the others coming later simply can’t truly pass them. Others may achieve equally great success, and many have, but it won’t be better.

A similar standard of comparison can be applied to objective rationalist areas as well, such as science and mathematics. In the exciting news out of the energy world, the scientists who recently achieved landmark developments in pursuit of fusion energy are astoundingly brilliant people. Their achievements will go down in history as truly legendary. But are they greater than Einstein or Feynman or Turing? I have a hard time supporting any claim like that. And, of course, the innovative nature of these scientists and thinkers must give nod to previous visionaries such as Isaac Newton or Galileo or Pythagoras or Euclid.

And the GOAT discussions arise in all sports – On the PGA, is it Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods? Where do we place two-sport athletes like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders? And with Argentina’s thrilling victory in Sunday’s World Cup, does Lionel Messi stake a claim to being the best soccer player of all time? It’s not really about any singular achievement, but about standards of excellence beyond all the rest. For that reason, in the world of sports, Jim Thorpe will always be the greatest athlete in history, in my view.

So, back to basketball and the MVP. I believe the “standard by which excellence is measured” is the reasonable gauge for the GOAT. Basically, the comparisons will always start and end with MJ. And it’s not because he was the first. The gauge and comparison isn’t Bill Russell. It’s not Magic or Bird or Wilt or Kareem or Dr. J. And fifty years from now it won’t be anyone else. It won’t be Lebron. It’s not Lebron now, and it won’t ever be. The discussion of all GOATs in the NBA past, present, and future will always go back to “Is he better than Jordan?”

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Thoughts, Quips, & Comments

For my last Villager column of 2022, I decided to simply write up some of the random wanderings of my mind -- the type of things I occasionally post on various social media.

“Sometimes I just think funny things.”

That line is one of my favorites from the classic Dudley Moore film Arthur from 1981. And I always think about it when random thoughts, quips, and comments pop into my head or come at me from a friend in a casual conversation. We all have those random instances of a wise or profound or thoughtful or silly or poignant or just interesting thought. And a few years ago I started collecting a list of mine. So, for this week’s column, I thought I’d list a few favorites.

Before you can have a good week, you can have a good day. And before a good day, you can have a good hour. And before a good hour, you can have a good moment. So, here’s to more good moments.

The Dalai Lama once said something to the effect of, you suffer because you want something that doesn’t belong to you. And while I’ve understood the Buddhist beliefs around suffering and attachment, the simplicity of his words provides clarity for me.

Years ago during a moment of ennui and melancholy, I voiced a worry that I had perhaps lost my faith. A young but wise and spiritual man told me that, on the contrary, faith is what remains when all else seems hopeless. Faith is not something you lose – it’s what you turn to when feeling lost.

I no longer double check the mailbox slot to make sure the letter went all the way down, and I think that’s a sign I’m finally growing up.

Growing up in the Midwest means a natural balance of maintaining a hopeful idealism in “the way things ought to be” while also holding onto an honest pragmatism about “the way things actually are.”

From a physiological standpoint considering the rules of physics and what we know about human reaction time, it should be impossible to hit a 95-mph fastball from 60 feet 6 inches away. According to the laws of physics and aerodynamics, bumblebees should not be able to fly. Neither professional baseball players nor bees know this. And no one should ever tell them.

The Presidency is kind of like being head cheerleader, tasked with inspiring us to believe in ourselves and win the big game. The best presidents have always lifted us up reminding us that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” as we “Ask not what our country can do for you but what you can do for your country” because “It’s morning again in America” and no matter what challenges confront us, we know that “Yes, we can.”

I think the key to artists is they never stop noticing the world. When they create art, it is to remind us of the fascinating brilliance of everything. Picasso said every child is an artist. The key is to not forget that when we grow up. Look around and notice the infinite complexity and simple beauty of the world.

A primary tenet of the Hippocratic Oath for doctors is to first, do no harm. I think that’s a pretty good tenet for all professions and really everyone in their personal lives. It’s part of my daily quest to the kinder, gentler Michael.

One of the best bits of advice a colleague ever gave me as a teacher was “Don’t become a caricature of yourself.”

Arguably, the greatest day, week, month, and year of your life is the current one. It’s always the current one. For it’s the only one that truly exists, and it is here to be embraced for all it’s worth.

My dad was the eternal optimist. He was always looking for and reminding me of the positives in any situation. Often he had a wonderful anecdote to illustrate his point. One of his favorite stories was about two brothers – a pessimist and an optimist – who were tasked with cleaning up a huge pile of horse manure. As the pessimist whined and complained about the work and the mess, the other brother just started digging through the pile. When the first brother asked what he was doing, the optimist simply looked up to say, “With all this horse s–t around, there has to be a pony in here somewhere.”

Look for the pony, my friends. Always look for the pony.

Friday, December 16, 2022

A Rushmore Revolution

In a recent column for The Villager, I revisit an old piece and idea I wrote about many years. Specifically, I'm thinking about the type of leadership and vision that is too often lacking among today's politicians and legislators.

In a popular film from 1991, Grand Canyon by Lawrence Kasdan, a character played by Danny Glover tells Kevin Kline’s character to “get yourself to the Grand Canyon.” In a movie about personal discovery and re-defining faith in society and the self, the Grand Canyon serves as a point of inspiration, implying that a trip to this wonder of the world might provide some degree of epiphany about a person’s direction in life. The Grand Canyon is a place to go and recharge, restoring faith and encouraging a sense of awe and wonder. These days, following a tumultuous election and years of angst as political pundits continually divide the nation into Red and Blue states, I think America needs to “get itself to Mount Rushmore.”

The uniqueness of this monument to the icons of American history is the universality of these men. In an increasingly partisan country, the men of Rushmore are regularly claimed by both political legacies. At any given time these monoliths of American political rhetoric are adopted by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. While that might seem complicated and confusing, it should actually be seen as comforting and validating. The point is that these presidents are both and neither. They are all, as well as none, of the above. Beyond party and ideology, they are, quite simply, Americans.

When I look at the faces on that cliff in South Dakota, I see leadership on the grandest scale. These are men who held deep powerful convictions, yet acted in the most pragmatic ways. While Jefferson believed in limiting the power of the federal government, he used such power without shame when purchasing the Louisiana territory. While Lincoln knew the Constitution and the law as well as anyone, he was not above manipulating both to save the union. Roosevelt was a fearless capitalist, who nonetheless, was not afraid to use the strong arm of Washington to restrict the more troublesome qualities of the economic system. None of these men were so rigidly foolish to believe one ideology or party had all the answers. In fact, some might say the brilliance of the Founding Fathers lay in their understanding they didn’t know everything, and could not foresee the challenges America would face.

These men governed in a way that was always best for America. Far more than is the norm for political leaders in the twenty-first century, the Rushmore presidents were deeply devoted to keeping the promise that is delivered in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I can’t help but believe the men of Rushmore would be profoundly dismayed by the nature of political discourse in America today. It’s not that they opposed differences of opinions. Think of Jefferson’s disputes with Adams, Lincoln’s presiding over the greatest division in American history, and Roosevelt splitting off to form a third party in 1912. What each of these men did throughout their careers was fight the corruption of the ideals upon which America was founded.

I can’t imagine what they would think if they knew that more than $14 billion was spent on the 2020 election campaigns. While Jefferson wrote the book, so to speak, on free speech, I can imagine he would suggest, “That’s some darn expensive speech.” I can almost see Roosevelt’s sneer. I can feel Lincoln’s eyes staring with profound disappointment. America needs the men of Mount Rushmore. America needs a Rushmore Revolution.

We need a new political movement that is neither Republican nor Democrat, one not driven by ideology. We need a perspective that acknowledges the value of both sides, one not simply focused on beating the other party for control. We need a group of men and women who will devote themselves to a common goal, making the best decisions for the best of all Americans. We need to make a fresh start, and then we need to ask ourselves. What would Washington do? What would Jefferson do? What would Lincoln do? What would Roosevelt do?

We need to streamline a government and a political system, so with all the pragmatism of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt, we can stop shouting at each other and criticizing each other and demeaning each other, and simply fix the problems. We need to find the commonality that is the greatness of the men of Rushmore.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

The Gratitude Journal

Taking time to reflect on and write about the good things is a healthy practice. My thoughts in a recent column for The Villager:

Each year in November, I introduce my classes to the practice of keeping a gratitude journal. Research suggests that people, who take a few minutes each day to reflect and write down good things in their lives, and who do so consistently for at least twenty-one straight days, will feel and exhibit improved mental health and well-being. Thinking good thoughts and being grateful for positive aspects of our lives, no matter how small, actually makes us feel better. It improves our attitudes toward ourselves, our communities, and the world at large.

A few years ago, Cherry Creek High School implemented a student-led program called Sources of Strength, which focuses on building and sustaining positive school culture. In the first year, students were encouraged to identify positive influences in their life, from mentors and friends to healthy activities and mental health. Through advisory classes, each student was given the opportunity to keep a gratitude journal. It’s a mindfulness practice, and for three weeks each November, my students get settled and prepared for class by reflecting quietly and writing down three positives in their lives – as a class we take a few moments to voluntarily share out loud.

I am grateful for so many things in my life, and first and foremost are the many people who mean so much to me. My wife of thirty years and my wonderful children who are wise beyond their years are sources of joy and strength in my life. I also value my colleagues at Cherry Creek High School. The daily sense of collegiality and professionalism that I encounter is truly a source of good fortune. From engaging professional conversations to thoughtful and supportive discussions to silly chats about the most random of things, the people of Creek fill my day with positivity.

I’m also honestly thankful for my students, all of them over a thirty-year career. The young people I have the pleasure of working with continually improve me. When I think about the greatest accomplishment in my life, it’s undoubtedly my teaching career and the kids who make it a fulfilling vocation. As much as I try to educate them, these hardworking, fun-loving citizens of Generation Z teach me a great deal as well. And at a place like Creek, I regularly encounter ordinary kids doing extraordinary things. From top-ranked academic achievements to inspiring athletics to stunning fine arts performances to dedicated participation in a vast collection of clubs and activities, the kids these days amaze me. One particularly gratifying aspect of Cherry Creek High School is the Unified programs, which pair special needs students and their mainstream peers in theater productions, sports leagues, activities, and adaptive classes. I am truly grateful to work in such an inclusive environment.

I am also grateful for the simple unsung conveniences of contemporary life. I appreciate all the technologies that make life so much more efficient. From digital music platforms like Pandora, Spotify, and YouTube to simple web applications and software like GoogleDocs and even wireless projectors in the classroom, tech just makes life nicer. I also value my home, my short walk to school each day, and the community of Greenwood Village. From the city workers who maintain our parks and guarantee well-plowed streets to the Parks & Rec department that offers regular enrichment activities, my village is a wonderful place to live.

Finally, I am thankful for the arts in all their beautiful forms. Music is an indispensable form of joy in my daily life. From the cool jazz I listen to each morning to the pop, rock, and country I hear throughout the day to the lo-fi chill hop in the background as I write to the punk rock that energizes my workouts, music brings a rhythm to my life. I also appreciate simple culinary pleasures like pumpkin pancakes, St. Louis specialties like toasted ravioli and thin crust pizza, and of course, coffee because, well, … coffee.

The practice of journaling is a positive act and practice which has thousands of years of evidence to validate its benefits. From the meditations of Marcus Aurelius to the reflections of Michel Montaigne and St. Thomas Aquinas to the journals of Henry Thoreau, taking time to write and reflect everyday, or at least regularly, is a valuable contributor to overall mental health and well being. And a good place to start is writing a gratitude journal for the next twenty-one days.

Monday, December 5, 2022

The Kids Are All Right

In a recent column for The Villager, I share some positive thoughts about young people, the state of their world, and thoughts on the future.

I don’t fret about “kids these days.” At least not much. Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher. Maybe it’s because I’ve parented two children through the teenage years. Maybe it’s because I’m just the eternal optimist, though that’s probably a dubious claim to many who know me. Perhaps it’s because I’m a member of Generation X, an often maligned if not altogether overlooked demographic. Gen Xers were first referenced in “A Nation at Risk,” the pessimistic report on education in the early 80s that predicted “a rising tide of mediocrity.” Later on, Xers were called the “Slacker Generation,” who would amount to nothing. Needless to say, they are the innovative people who, in the 1990s, went on to build the internet as we know it today.

Regardless, I’m simply not worried about young people, and I never have been. Worrying about the youth of the day, as older generations are always wont to do, and as even many contemporary teens themselves do, has become a bit of a national pastime. In fact, it's become a bit of an obsession, and I don’t think that’s a healthy attitude, nor do I believe it’s an accurate portrayal of Gen Z. Tracy Moore, a Los Angeles-based writer, thinks likewise, and she recently published a piece in the Washington Post letting us know that “The kids are alright, take it from a Gen X parent.” I’ve made the same claim over the years, and have even written those words before. The kids are all right.

According to a parent like Tracey Moore, the generation of kids born after 1998 is “the most diverse, engaged, social-justice-minded, purpose-driven generation yet, and we have every reason to anticipate their success, or at least not to presume their failure.” This perspective is borne out by extensive studies on Generation Z from the Pew Research Center. The kids these days have many positive attributes and much to be proud of. My own kids are in many ways wiser and more balanced at the age of seventeen than I feel like I was at the age of twenty-seven. My students regularly produce writing that surpasses work I did in my undergraduate degree. In fact, across many content areas, students are achieving at admirable levels. The knowledge and skills these kids possess will serve us all well going forward.

One of the most recent causes for alarm and sources for criticism of Gen Z is the recent release of national standardized test scores known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, also referred to as “the nation’s report card.” Lower reading and math scores across the board from fourth through twelfth grade suggest students are far behind the expected academic levels previous to the pandemic. There’s little doubt that two years of inconsistent in-person learning has impacted students’ education. How could it not have? That said, society has long placed too much significance on those standardized assessments, which are given to a cross-section of kids nationwide in a voluntary format. And it’s far too soon to judge the long-term impact of the learning. In the meantime, educators will simply do what they do best, which is teach the students in front of them. And who knows, maybe we’ll learn that we greatly overestimated the value of those tests.

Yes, many people might concede, but what about their obsessive use of social media and the apparent need to post everything and live their lives online? Certainly, the kids of today are tuned in and influenced by media in ways unimaginable decades ago. However, I truly believe the twenty-four-hour talk radio culture and negative talking-head programming on cable TV is every bit as subversive and insidious as Instagram and Tik-Tok are. And to be perfectly honest, young people often seem more attuned to the downsides and problems of their media. They regularly mock it even as they engage with it.

I refuse to look at young people today and tell them they are damaged. I refuse to engage in the idea of ongoing trauma. Each generation faces its challenges, and somehow comes out on the other side. I once read a New York Times column in which the writer opined that it’s amazing the human race survived, knowing we all had to be nineteen at some point. How true. So, here’s looking at you Gen Z, with hope and optimism. I believe in the youth as I believe in the future.