Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Lights, Camera, Teach!

Latest column for The Villager. I've been thinking about this idea for a while now. Wondering if there might be a book in here somewhere.

“Oh, Captain, my Captain.”

In 1989, those words launched a thousand teaching careers. The movie was Dead Poets Society, the star was Robin Williams, and the quote – from a Walt Whitman poem eulogizing Abraham Lincoln – was the dramatic high point of the classic inspirational teacher movie. That beloved genre, filled with heartwarming stories of passionate educators guiding reluctant young people to academic success and self-discovery, is a time-honored institution in film and television.

The primary draw of these movies is the shared common experience of viewers. Everyone has a favorite teacher, and most people have a story about one who made a difference, opened their minds, turned them around, and even changed their life. We all have that one class, that one year, that one teacher, that one moment which is an indelible and heartwarming memory to share. And that’s one key reason the inspirational teacher story is so popular and is remade so many times.

The earliest on-screen version of this familiar story is probably Goodbye, Mr. Chips, first made in 1939 and remade in 1969. The next two most well-known versions of onscreen teacher heroes both featured Sydney Poitier. In 1955, he starred as a tough kid and reluctant, rebellious student in the Bronx who is ultimately inspired by the tough love of his teacher. Poitier returned to the genre at the front of the classroom in 1967 as the tough love teacher who brings a group of British hooligans to education and maturity through self respect in the classic To, Sir, with Love.

The 1980s and 90s can be considered the Golden Age of the great teacher film with a seemingly endless string of heroic public servants inspiring groups of ambivalent and rebellious youth through a mixture of tough love, witty banter, and mutual respect. From Richard Dreyfus finding his true calling as a music teacher, not a musician, in Mr. Holland’s Opus to Michelle Pfeiffer and Hillary Swank playing the savior teacher to inner city youth in Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers, every year seemed to produce another rendition of the same old story. And the inspirational, but often wise-cracking, teacher hero is not just on the big screen. Going back to the 1970s, television has seen numerous iterations of the hero Welcome back Kotter to Abbot Elementary.

The primary problem with the classic teacher movie is a predictable formula based on false narratives and unrealistic expectations. The teacher wins over a bunch of disengaged, unmotivated kids and inspires them to love learning and excel in a very short time. That’s true even when the films are based on true stories, as in Stand and Deliver, where it appears the teacher Jaime Escalante takes a group of underprivileged students with no math background, and in one year inspires them to take and pass the AP Calculus exam. In fact, Escalante built his program over many years with students who’d shown an aptitude but had never felt they belonged in the class.

In Dead Poets Society the students are urged to “seize the day” and “make their lives extraordinary,” but writer Elizabeth Grace Mathew suggests “the boys were actually thriving before Mr. Keating got there.” They were, in their own small ways, rebelling as all adolescents do, but still achieving. Their inspirational teacher actually leads them to tragic results. In a New York Times column, teacher Tom Ford cautioned viewers that “It’s as if all the previously insurmountable obstacles students face could be erased by a 10-minute pep talk. This trivializes not only the difficulties many real students must overcome, but also the hard-earned skill and tireless effort real teachers must use to help those students succeed.”

The inspirational teacher stereotype has even been held up to brilliant mockery in films like Bad Teacher starring Cameron Diaz as the title character who is motivated to push her students to success on state tests simply to fund her breast implants, which she hopes will win her a wealthy husband so she can quit the job she actually hates. In an article for The Atlantic, writer Eleanor Barkhorn actually praises Bad Teacher as “Finally, a film that takes down the destructive myth of the hero instructor.”

There is much we can learn and be inspired by through fictional teachers in film and television. There are also many destructive myths and misleading assumptions rooted in the inspirational teacher story. So, keeping in mind that these stories are first and foremost simply entertainment, we should all remember it’s never as simple as Lights, Camera, Teach!

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Artists ask Where’s the Money?

This week's column for The Villager:

“Like, where’s the (bleep)in’ money?”

Leave it to hip hop icon and pop culture philosopher Snoop Dog to clarify the issue regarding the streaming of digital content and the related labor strikes by writers and actors that has currently brought film and television production to a screeching halt. As the nation took the day off this week in honor and celebration of labor, it’s worth pondering the very real labor situation happening in the entertainment industry. For a segment of workers who contribute nearly $100 billion to the economy every year, the issue of compensation in a rapidly changing world of artificial intelligence and digital streaming is a watershed moment.

Snoop Dog went a bit off script recently while at a Milken Institute event where he was on a panel discussing the fiftieth anniversary of hip hop culture and rap music. As the panel discussed his career and the business side of hip hop and the recording industry, Snoop paused to pose a simple logical question. “I mean, can someone explain to me how you can get a billion streams and not get a million dollars? That don’t make sense to me. I don’t know who … is running the streaming industry, if you’re in here or not, but you need to give us some information on how …. to track this money down ’cause one plus one ain’t adding up to two.”

Snoop noted how when he began his career, there was a tangible way to track the money. If the record company sold a million albums at $9.00, then there was a set amount of money and the artists received their percentage. Snoop and countless other artists now ask how data can show that people watched, say, 300,000 hours of a show, but the artist isn’t receiving commensurate money for that huge consumption of the goods.

Streaming of digital content, as opposed to the sale of CDs, is the problem which first arose in 1999 when the company Napster established the practice of digital file sharing. This was much like illegally copying cassette tapes in the 70s and 80s, only easier and far more extensive. But Steve Jobs and Apple’s innovation of iTunes leveled the playing field. Jobs and Apple, while making millions with their new technology, also guaranteed artists they would receive payment for downloads. That was a game changer – and one more example of a true visionary. Jobs was a ruthless businessman, but he also had the spirit of an artist.

The actors and writers are striking for numerous reasons. Working in the arts can be a precarious position because it’s rarely a full time job with a company providing benefits year to year. Thus writers and actors depend on the income of residuals during the time between gigs. And if the company continues to make money from the product during that time, the artists should as well. When Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David sold the syndication rights for Seinfeld, they earned a staggering sum of $225 million. That, of course, is evidence of just how much more money the networks made by endlessly showing reruns. That’s why just two years ago, Netflix paid $500 million for Seinfeld, NBC Universal paid $500 million for The Office, and WarnerMedia paid $425 million for Friends. Clearly, these networks make huge outlays for content, knowing they will earn massive returns on their investment.

In the era of data science, the industry has the ability to track penny for penny how much a piece of art is earning. They also have a responsibility to be transparent in their use of new technologies, including streaming and AI, another aspect of the strike. One problematic development is the industry’s use of AI to regenerate images and likeness of an artist, but suggest that it’s not really the artist so doesn’t deserve compensation. Author Jane Friedman had a truly dystopian moment earlier this year when someone used AI to write books in her style and subject matter and begin selling them on Amazon in her name. Initially Amazon refused to take them down, though the company shockingly relented when her professional organization intervened on her behalf.

As a writer and teacher of literature, I know all too well the value of the creation and the history of compensation for writers and artists. In the spirit of Labor Day, it’s worth talking about fair compensation for workers, especially creators. Artists deserve their share, especially because there is no art without them. As Snoop Dog would say, “that’s fo’ shizzle.”

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Teacher, or just Presenter?

This week's column for The Villager:

Sometimes I worry that I’m not a very good teacher.

It’s not that I’m inexperienced or unskilled or lacking in knowledge of my course content and basic ideas on pedagogy, curriculum, and instruction. After thirty years in the classroom, both in public and private schools in the United States and abroad, I am undoubtedly a veteran educator. And as one of the most experienced honors and AP teachers in the English department of one of the nation’s top high schools, I think I can claim to be pretty good at my job.

However, there are times when I wonder whether I am just a talented presenter of information. When a teacher works at a high achieving school in a well-run district with a supportive community and scores of highly motivated students, the distinction of truly exemplary teaching can be more difficult to discern. Granted, in an environment with high expectations and exceptional results, the consumer is no doubt attentive to the product being offered. And that expectation to be excellent in order to maintain a tradition of excellence is a great motivator for an educator.

After many years of successful teaching with positive feedback from students, parents, colleagues, and administrators, I have no doubt that the content and instruction I provide is well received. And in classes that have a national test as a benchmark, I can be pretty confident that the results I am helping students achieve are appreciated by the stakeholders in the game. At our high school’s recent Back to School Night, numerous students from previous years came to see me, and that was one of the more validating feelings an educator can get. When they come back to see you, when they want to simply check in and say hello, you know you’ve connected as a teacher.

However, self reflection is, I believe, one of the most important tasks of any teacher. Effective educators must ask whether the students are achieving because of the instruction, or regardless of it. Engagement is the key. Carol Jago, an esteemed teacher and education researcher, has long noted that there is a difference between a fun classroom and an engaging one. In an engaging classroom, learning will happen. In a fun one, that’s not necessarily the case. At the high school and college level, especially among high achieving students, it can be all too easy to lapse into the role of lecturer. And, while in the era of TED Talks, engaging presenters can be seen as impressive and engaging, the presenting of information is not actual teaching.

As I’ve noted before, I am an English teacher, but I don’t like to think that I simply teach English. I teach kids. I teach the skills of English to kids. But the students are the objective – teaching them. I teach them how to read, write, and think. There is a huge difference between teaching a subject and simply assigning material. Being a responsive educator is about teaching the kids in front of us, as opposed to simply talking about our subject. In planning lessons, teachers are tasked with three important questions: What do we want them to know? How will we know when they know it? What will we do when they don’t?

That last question is where many educators fall short. What do we do when the students fall short of our goals? While a student's education ultimately resides with them and their individual efforts, effective educators do not simply present the information and hope for the best. It’s when students struggle that true educating, the art of pedagogy, comes into play. Cris Tovani, the author of “I Read It, But I Don’t Get It,’ has noted the importance of continuing to actually teach the skills of reading throughout school. Sadly, when many kids struggle to discern information from text, they are told to just read it again more carefully.

There are two key models for education – the Sage on the Stage versus the Guide on the Side. While I believe strongly in direct instruction and the idea of the teacher being the expert in the room, I also know that simply standing in front of the classroom and presenting information is not necessarily effective teaching. As the old teacher adage goes, school is too often a place where children go to watch adults work. If they just sit and listen to information, research suggests they won’t actually learn much.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

A Mathematician’s Lament

In a column for Education Week, writer and teacher Larry Ferlazzo assembled a series of essays promoting the idea of “Art in Every Class.” As an educator, writer, artist, and art aficionado, I was intrigued by that idea.

Art plays a significant role in children’s brain development, and it can be an engaging way to connect students with new content. I’ve used various forms of art in my high school English classes for years. From writing an analysis of a painting to demonstrating knowledge of a subject by crafting sketch notes instead of an essay, my students benefit from art as part of their learning. I’ve even asked my students to do an interpretive dance of a piece of literature.

Of course, many people inevitably wonder how visual arts apply to STEM subjects. Sure it can be relevant and valuable to bring art into humanities classes, which are generally more focused on right-brain creative thinking, allowing for open interpretations. But how about math and science, especially subjects like algebra or physics? With the exception of geometry, most people would not consider math to be a remotely artsy subject. Mathematician and professor Paul Lockhart, however, disagrees.

Lockhart laments the state of mathematics education in America because it fails to promote the beautiful art of math. In 2002, he first published a twenty-five page essay which he called “A Mathematician’s Lament,” and it became the talk of the math world in higher education when it was published on the blog for the Mathematical Association of America. A passionate math student, Lockhart had dropped out of college when he became bored and disillusioned by the way math was studied and taught. In pursuing his own math research, he was later accepted by Columbia University where he earned his Ph.D.

Lockhart’s criticism of math education is not unusual. USA Today recently reported that a majority of American parents are not happy with how math is taught in their children’s schools. That’s not surprising, as national and international test results often suggest American kids struggle. More than 30% of Americans report not liking math and believing math is a natural skill people are either good at or not. Of course, the counter is that vast majorities of Americans report liking math in school. The problem may be in the nature of the instruction geared toward assessments and basic computation, rather than an emphasis on discovery and creative thinking.

Lockhart’s lament emphasizes that distinction. He explains how "The first thing to understand is that mathematics is an art. The difference between math and the other arts, such as music and painting, is that our culture does not recognize it as such." In Lockhart’s world, math is a beautiful exploration of relationships, not a sequential drilling of definitions, formulas, and equations in isolation. The puzzling nature of math can and should be one of the key engagement strategies. Kids love puzzles and riddles and games, and a focus on the fun in those challenges is one way Lockhart encourages a return to joy and discovery in the math classroom.

Of course, the problem for teachers is pressure that mistakenly leaves little time for fun. In commentary for US News & World Reports, Elie Vanesky attempts to explain why “The United States is so Bad at Math.” And, to be honest that assumption is not an entirely accurate statement. Vanesky does not intend to bash teachers for poor instruction. Instead, he challenges the very nature of the system that hems teachers into a singular focus on standardized tests. Rather than looking at test scores and criticizing teachers for failing to teach, he wants “to be very clear that the problem is not with our teachers. The problem is with the way math must be taught in school because of the emphasis on the very exams on which students underperform.”

As an English teacher, I might be inclined to say I don’t like math. But actually I do – I read about it all the time. Books like “When Godel Walked with Einstein,” a collection of essays on math, and “How Not to Be Wrong: the Power of Mathematical Thinking” by Jordan Ellenberg fascinate me, and I love reading about math’s practical relevance. Many people enjoy television shows like NUMB3RS or movies like Hidden Figures because the math is inherently intriguing and enlightening. And it is truly an art form. Thinking of it that way could be the key to changing American’s attitudes toward math class.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Life Skills 101

I've written on this subject before. This week's topic for my Villager column is the idea of life skills as a high school class.

“We need a mandatory class in high school for all students that teaches basic finance and life skills.”

In my thirty years as an educator, I’ve heard many suggestions from people outside education about what “schools should really be doing.” Ideas range from personal finance to basic household maintenance to interpersonal communication and letter writing. It surprises me how many people are upset that “kids today can’t change a tire or balance their checkbook anymore.” I smile and nod politely as I struggle to remember where my checkbook even is or whether I’ve changed a tire since I was about sixteen.

Sometimes these concerns rise to the legislative and policy-making level, as in Oklahoma which last year proposed a law requiring all high schools to teach a class called “Adulting 101.” Yes, the term adult has now become a verb, and apparently there’s a curriculum that will teach everything a person needs to do to become a licensed practicing adult. The proposed class covered all manner of useful life skills from finance to home repair, and it pledged to teach young people all the soft skills they will need to be successful adults.

Granted, there is value in teaching the basics of personal finance, especially for young people going off to college or entering the workforce. My daughter was genuinely shocked when we received the long-term payments for her college loan offer recently. “How is it even possible?” she reasonably wondered, that people end up paying so much in interest to borrow money. And she’s an honors student who has taken AP micro and macro economics. When the theoretical becomes personal, and young people face the prospect of incurring five and six-figure debt by the time they’re twenty-years old, the intricacies of high finance become all too real.

That said, no high school class will magically prepare students for all the challenges they will face in their adult lives. Schools could devote a semester or a year to teach teenagers about variable interest rates and escrow, about compound interest and mortgage deductions, about all the byzantine intricacies of their credit card agreements. But that would be as big a waste of time as teaching all kids to change a tire or install a dishwasher. In reality, no one will remember those details years later, any more than they remember the plot of the Great Gatsby, the dates of major battles in all of America’s wars, or the countless formulas from algebra and physics class. When a consumer takes out a loan to buy a house or a car, they want to know and understand one thing – what’s the monthly payment.

People believe students need a financial literacy class so they can understand the economy and make wise decisions about credit and interest rates and risk. Yet, wasn’t the housing and subprime crash of 2008 fueled by people who knew finance better than anyone? They still made bad decisions. Studying government for a semester doesn't make people better citizens, nor does a couple years of world language make people fluent. And no one learns to change their oil anymore because they don’t need to. In fact, with computerized cars and hybrid-electric models, it’s almost impossible for car owners to tinker with the engine anymore.

For as long as schools have existed, students have inevitably asked, “When am I going to use this?” For most content, the answer is likely never. School is not simply a utilitarian training course of useful skills that barely require a twenty-minute tutorial, much less a semester class. Few of us ever use much of the information we encountered in twelve years of public school. But we all use the well-developed brains and temperaments that were cultivated during the long process of growing up and going to school.

A classical liberal arts education, upon which modern school systems are grounded, is in fact Life 101. It’s about working with people, meeting responsibilities, opening the mind to new ideas, learning foundational theories and skills. Requiring a class like “Life 101” to teach check balancing and tire changing is based on the naive belief that education is simply utilitarian, practical, and indelible. And expecting that once we learn something we never forget it is completely unrealistic. So, the next time someone suggests young people need a class in Life Skills 101, remind them we already have one. It’s called the K12 education system and simply growing up.

Monday, August 7, 2023

Advice for College Freshmen

In my last column of May, as the school year wrapped up and I prepared to take a writing break, I shared my thoughts about the Class of 2023, a group I sincerely think of as “just really good kids.” This week, as summer vacation fades in the rearview mirror, and my wife and I prepare to send our second child off to college, I want to share some thoughts for those young people with their lives out in front of them.

In many high school graduation speeches, there is always a message about college being the time of freedom to explore and figure out who you are. A few years ago, Austin Kleon, artist and author of the cleverly titled Steal Like an Artist, wrote a message to graduates, reminding them that college is filled with that freedom and opportunity, but it comes with a caveat. “The classroom,” he wisely observed, “is a wonderful, but also fairly artificial, place: Your professor gets paid to pay attention to your ideas, and your classmates are paying to pay attention to your ideas.” Never again in your life will you have such a captive audience.

The college years are wonderfully rich times of learning and development. And it’s important to understand that not all of it, or even most of it, happens in the classroom. Additionally, college is not simply an internship or job training. In fact, for most students, a bachelor degree is decidedly not job training. Trust me, few companies are out there anxiously waiting for a twenty-two-year-old college graduate to come in and let them know how the work is done. Instead, employers want to know you earned a degree and have a credential that verifies you have the ability to do the work, whatever they assign you.

Shortly after you start working, you will discover the difference between the classroom and the workplace. Kleon goes on to remind students that “Soon after you leave college, you learn that most of the world doesn’t necessarily care about what you think. It sounds harsh, but it’s true.” As the writer Steven Pressfield says, “It’s not that people are mean or cruel, they’re just busy.” So, while in college, embrace the freedom, stretch your mind, and step outside of your comfort zone.

In a final bit of advice from Kleon, “Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts,” and embrace all the experiences available. Participate in theater if you never stepped on stage in high school, or enroll in intramural sports of some kind if you didn’t play before. Stay active, and make sure you eat some vegetables regularly. Spend time on the quad, playing frisbee and hacky sack. Learn to juggle or paint or sing. If your university is large enough, unofficially audit a class or two in something you’d never study or do. By that I mean, just sit in on a class lecture and learn something new.

By all means go to your college football and basketball games if they have teams and you enjoy sports, or even if you don’t. But also consider losing your voice cheering on the swim team. Take the time to go crazy with friends cheering on athletes in a tennis match or a gymnastics meet. In fact, try to see every team once.

Live on campus, and get a part time job while you’re in school. Find your spot to study on campus, and build a routine around that important part of the college experience. Whether it’s a coffee shop, some back corner of the library, or an academic building’s common room. Visit your professors during office hours. And try to do it before you need last minute help. And, if possible, study abroad for a semester. I have expressed this idea to my students for years – get out of your comfort zone, and by that I mean the country you call home.

Finally, remember that while these years are a time of freedom and opportunity, your time in college is not “the best days of your life.” I don’t share the ridiculous belief that college is the peak – what a depressing message for an eighteen-year-old. That said, it is a new beginning. Appreciate all the moments, including the stress of classes, the solitude of being on your own, the uncertainty of new friends.

Oh, and call your parents every once in a while. Not when you need something. Just because.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Grecian Dreams – Thirty Years Later

I've been on a bit of a hiatus since May, doing some traveling and writing and relaxing. This is my first column for The Villager since then.

Our memories were hazy as we stepped off the ferry in Parikia, the port city on the isle of Paros in the heart of the Aegean. It had been thirty years since my wife and I walked down a similar ramp amidst a group of travelers scanning the lot for taxis, cafes, or just a place to stretch. As we made our way past the windmill in the roundabout and headed toward the town center, we serenely drifted back into our past, all the while holding hands with our daughter’s future.

The impetus for our summer trip to Greece started for our daughter back in middle school when she and a friend began planning their European trip for the summer after senior year. As seven years flew by, and they entered the last year of high school, the plan narrowed to the Greek isles, and soon we were researching plans to rent a house, serving as home base for the girls to island hop. And, then, we were back in Greece, thirty years after our first trip.

In the summer of 1992, my wife and I moved abroad following our college graduation and spent years working and traveling. Living in southeast Asia, we knew many young expats who regularly headed to the beaches of Thailand or the Philippines or Indonesia. But during a lull between two work contracts, we instead headed west to Europe and Paros, which we heard was “where the Greeks vacation.” Initially planning to island hop, we rented a small villa on Paros fifty feet from the beach and stayed a month.

This summer, as in 1993, we began with a couple days in Athens. The city is noticeably different, following the 2004 Olympics which greatly extended the infrastructure. Yet it’s still a quaint European city filled with delightful cafes, inviting restaurants and bakeries, endless galleries and shops. As I stood one evening on our balcony, looking at the Parthenon rising from the Acropolis, I was struck again with the historical magic. I then grinned, glancing down on the Plaka, wondering if it was the same place where we had divine moussaka while also getting scammed as we struggled to mentally convert our drachmas to dollars.

These days, the euro makes things much easier, and once we reached Paros we were comfortably home again. Paros is centrally located and perfect for island hopping, but we spent weeks there before and chose to again. With more than forty named beaches, there was more than enough to keep us busy, though relaxing was the goal. This time we stayed outside the fishing village of Naoussa where our host Kariakos has several villas surrounded by his vineyard. He produces a wonderful boutique Greek white wine, light and refreshing with hints of lemony citrus and mellow melon accents, and gifted us a bottle.

The gem of the trip came at Golden Beach, near the village of Drios where we’d lived. Curiously walking along the coast, I spotted a vaguely familiar villa. As I walked toward it, a voice came from behind me. “Can I help you?” A young man, mid-twenties, had come from the restaurant. I hesitated, then turned around. “Hi, I, uh, think I rented this place thirty years ago.” He nods, as I go on. “The owner’s name was “George?” A huge smile comes across his face, as he places his hand over his heart. “That was my father! “Come, come inside.”

As we chat I realize, Paros thirty years later is really me thirty years later. A return to Paros is a return to myself as I sat on the cusp of becoming the person I would be. This time, sitting in a cafe as my daughter logged on to her university website to schedule fall classes, I rested in a sense of contentment. As I’m embraced by my past, she’s getting ready to move on with her future. It’s with fond nostalgia that I listen to my daughter’s desire to travel and live internationally, and I couldn’t imagine a better plan.

On our last day, as we spent an evening picnicking on the beach and watching the sun melt into the Aegean, I think Paros has given us again a serene reminder of what life really is. Vacation at times can feel like real life, an escape from the dailiness that distracts us from who we really are.

It won’t be another thirty years before we return to our Grecian dreams.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Godspeed, Class of 2023

Some thoughts on and for the Class of 2023 for my semi-annual unofficial commencement speech.

“They’re just really good kids.”

That view was shared with me last week by a colleague, as we talked about the school year on the last day for seniors at Cherry Creek. I was having a nostalgic moment because, well, last Wednesday, my daughter turned eighteen, and she attended her last day of high school the following day. Thinking about her and her friends, I beamed with pride for my daughter, her classmates, and the entire class of 2023. There’s just something about these kids.

“I’m going to have a hard time letting this group of seniors go,” said Alex Burkhart, theater teacher at Cherry Creek High School. The class of 2023 will always be special for Burkhart, for in his fourth full year at Creek, they were his first freshmen class. But it’s not just sentimental. They seemed pretty special from the get-go, as when their ensemble cast nearly brought the house down with their performance of Mary Poppins in March of 2020, just a week before stages went dark. In their four years, this class has been above the drama.

Burkhart’s thespian troupe co-presidents campaigned to lead the board as a team because there was no competition between them, just collaboration. It was symbolic of the confident maturity with which they’ve led. Each class is, of course, unique, and when I think of the class of 2023, I will always smile fondly about this group of “really good kids.” That sentiment has been echoed numerous times this year. Another colleague who sponsors a leadership group said of this year’s class, “They have a pretty special bond that I don’t know I’ll see again.”

If we had to choose one word for this year’s graduates, whether it’s high school or college matriculation, it would have to be resilient. At both levels, the class of 2023 entered school in a seemingly normal fall with the usual bit of excitement and a dash of reservation about what their next four years would hold. We all know how that went. But more than this group of young people being so strong and showcasing such endurance, I think they serve as a helpful reminder of the resilient nature of the human spirit. We are all strong, and we can all carry on, because that’s what we do.

To end the year, I’ve been teaching, or actually helping my ninth graders teach themselves, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. They are exploring his existentialist Code Hero Santiago, a fisherman struggling through an unimaginable string of bad luck – eighty-four days without a fish. Yet despite the hardship, Santiago’s eyes remain “cheerful and undefeated.” That’s a wonderful way to look at the kids of the class of ‘23 – cheerful and undefeated.

The senior class at Cherry Creek went through school during their football team’s historic four-peat state championship run. So, in a way, these kids are perpetual champions, never knowing defeat. And that spirit is the soul of the class of 2023. They are champions, and like Santiago, they remain undefeated. Even amidst serious challenges and setbacks, they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and prepare for what comes next.

In a theatrical bit of poetry for graduates, the musical this year at Cherry Creek – the culminating work for the thespians of 2023 – was Man of La Mancha. It’s the story of Don Quixote, the man who “dreamed the impossible dream.” He’s a man who remained forever undefeated in his mind. He is the idealist and eternal optimist who saw the world, not as it is, but as he hoped, wished, and believed it could be. In the fearless spirited pursuit of his dream, Don Quixote lived an idealized life, one of nobility and chivalry and triumph. Like Santiago and the class of 2023, he was forever cheerful and undefeated.

In the iconic song from the musical’s finale, Don Quixote sings of his quest “to dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to run where the brave dare not go.” That is the heart of the class of 2023, and I see them with faith and hope and optimism. On their journeys, knowing what they know, they will “right the unrightable wrongs” and “the world will be better for this.” That is their quest, and they will, cheerfully and undefeated, “reach the unreachable star.”

Godspeed, Class of 2023. We are so proud and impressed, and we can’t wait to see what you do next.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Noticing the Poetry

Poetry hides.

That’s what Naomi Shihab Nye tells us in her whimsical poem, “A Valentine for Ernest Mann.” Poetry is found in the unlikeliest of places, even in the eyes of a skunk or at the bottom of a sock drawer. If we're looking for it, we can find poetry everywhere in our lives.

When I first read Nye’s poem at a writers conference many years ago, I was given the opportunity during a writing exercise to think about and list all the places that poetry hides in my life. When my kids were younger, I realized poetry was often giggling under the couch cushions when I came home from work. It was hiding in the bottom of the toy box in the basement, and it was out on the driveway amidst laughter during a game of tag or wiffle ball. As a teacher, I realized poetry is found in random doodles of a student’s notebook, or in their silly comments walking down the halls. It’s found on the fields and in the gym where it is always in motion. I revisit my list from time to time, trying to add new places where I’ve noticed poetry hiding.

April is National Poetry Month, which makes it a time to celebrate the beauty and art of language. For poetry, despite all its mystery, is simply language as art. That’s the approach I have always tried to take in teaching poetry in my English classes. Rather than simply study poetry, I hope my students can appreciate it as well. Seeing and hearing the artful turn of a phrase is the key. A great example of this approach can be found in the poem “Introduction to Poetry” by former teacher and national poet laureate Billy Collins. Rather than asking students what a poem means, he merely wants them to “hold a poem up to the light like a color slide,” or perhaps “water ski across the surface of a poem, waving at the author on the shore.”

In a recent Washington Post article, “What if the Sun Could Make a Sound?” poet Maggie Smith shares how she teachers poetry to her own children. “As a single mother, as a poet, and as a teacher,” Smith says, “I’m a noticer. My work at home, on the page, and in the classroom is paying attention — and, if I’m doing that work well, inspiring others to pay attention.” That act of noticing, of paying attention to simple details, is what artists and poets do so well. And when we listen and follow their lead, we become more mindful and aware of the world. When her kids were young, Smith did not force poetry upon them, but instead “began by celebrating the poetry in everyday life — sound, metaphor and image — because I wanted to instill in them a love of language and its possibilities. I wanted to encourage them to use their imaginations and express themselves. I wanted them to think like poets, and to see the world around them in a poetic way.”

There are numerous ways to celebrate and experience poetry during the month of April. Denver has regular poetry readings and performances. Or, there are numerous websites where you can sign up to get a poem a day sent to your inbox. One simple and fun way to appreciate poetry takes place next Thursday, April 27, which is known as “Poem in Your Pocket Day.” Sponsored by the American Academy of Poets, the day is an opportunity to remember the beauty of poetry and the poetry around us by simply carrying a poem in your pocket. If two people meet with poems, they can exchange poems and add a new poem to their collection.

I try to keep a book of poetry on my desk at work, and I will pick it up from time to time while taking a break from grading and just read. Lately, I’ve been working through the body of work from Billy Collins, and I am always amused and pleasantly surprised by the endless ways he uncovers poetry in the world. So, as Naomi Nye says, poetry hides, but you can look for the poetry in your life. Notice it in casual conversations and appreciate it in beautiful views. For, if I can paraphrase from one of my favorite movie lines, if you look for it, I have a sneaking suspicion you will find poetry actually is all around.

Friday, April 7, 2023

Hope Springs Eternal

Growing up in St. Louis, a Midwestern city where baseball is basically religion, I know of no more gratifying words in early spring than “pitchers and catchers report.” Far more significant than any silly rodent not seeing its shadow, the news about pitchers and catchers signals the coming of spring. Snow may be on the ground, we may have not seen the sun for weeks, the mornings might seem like they’ll never warm up. But when the boys of summer head down to Arizona or Florida, it reminds us winter can’t last forever. Soon the summer afternoons will be filled with that familiar crack of the bat.

Coming with the arrival of spring, baseball brings a myth and magic that doesn’t really exist with other sports. Perhaps it’s simply the season, a time of rebirth and renewal, which gives baseball an air of hope and infinite possibility. It could be the game’s long history and pastoral feel, played on a diamond in a park. Or perhaps it’s the schedule of nearly daily games and the idea of teams playing a series of games over three or four days. With a hundred and sixty two games in a season and the next game inevitably coming the next day, no sense of loss lasts for long. The next day brings another chance to play, another shot at the thrill of victory. It’s easy to have a short memory in baseball because another pitch, another hit, another game is coming soon.

The mythology of baseball extends through the poetry and prose of the nation, memorialized in columns and stories and novels and films. From the timeless song Take Me Out to the Ballgame to the classic short poem “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer to timeless movies like Field of Dreams, baseball is a sport filled with stories, and many are grounded in hope and redemption. At the beginning of the classic baseball movie Bull Durham, Annie Savoy, the part-time English professor and full-time baseball fanatic played by Susan Sarandon, talks about belonging to the church of baseball, for the game makes far more sense to her than any of the world’s major religions. Later she recites the words of Walt Whitman: "I see great things in Baseball. It's our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us."

This year brings a bit more of a spring in the step of baseball fans. It’s a new era in baseball with the recent changes including a pitch clock and the banning of the infield shift. Of course, it’s not really new – it’s a return to the old era of baseball played the way the game was meant to be. The average time of a game this year in spring training was two hours and thirty-five minutes. That’s an improvement of almost forty-five minutes over what games had stretched to in recent years. And with players back to playing their positions as originally intended, the screaming grounder up the middle is a hit again. The base paths are alive with fast players just itching to swipe a base now that pitchers can’t throw over endlessly. The traditionalist in me struggles with some of the new “rules,” but I’m reminded these changes are just returning the game to its roots.

As of this writing, the Colorado Rockies are 2-2, having split a road series against the near billion-dollar payroll of the San Diego Padre$. The Rox still have a chance for a winning record. They can still win the division, make the playoffs, bring home a pennant, and achieve their first franchise world championship. It could happen. Because in baseball, hope springs eternal. Writers from Roger Angell of the LA Times to George Will of the Washington Post to Jayson Stark of the Athletic remind us of the magic of baseball. And perhaps the best description comes from the James Earl Jones speech at the end of Field of Dreams:

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game – it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”

So, this spring take yourself out to the ballgame, and let’s “Play ball!”

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.