Monday, October 27, 2008

The Joy of Learning

My son is currently working on his first research project, which could be a bit intimidating, as he is only in first grade. Yet, it is going quite well, and I just had to record some thoughts. The days of Show-and-Tell have passed at my son's school (it is a magnet school for G/T students), and we've moved into the world of Teach-and-Tell. So, rather than grab a toy or a picture and talk about it, my son is developing a seven-minute presentation on Cherry Creek State Park, which is about one minute from our house and a favorite playground for the two of us. Originally, he came home and asked to go over to the park to "look for something to talk about." As we rode our bikes through encountering, among other things, a huge glossy snake crossing the path, a hawk swooping in to take a rabbit or squirrel, a mother deer and her fawn, and several birds we'd never seen before from the watcher's perch, we concluded that the entire park should become his subject. He decided to share his personal playground with his classmates.

Because the project is in a couple weeks and we are home on fall break, I thought it would be a good time to begin. As my son sat on the couch looking through his Insects of North America book, and I started a few housecleaning projects, I suggested he begin looking through some of the books we checked out of the library, as he needs three sources for the presentation. Initially, he was a little frustrated, claiming he didn't know what to say or what to write. So, I asked him to just look at the books and if he saw anything interesting he'd like to tell his friends, he could write it down. By the time I got a load of laundry in, his sister bathed, and the floor mopped, he was engaged, calling out different facts as he wrote them down. We've now started "post-it noting" the books and making lists of favorite facts and activities. These are research skills that I teach my juniors in high school, and I can introduce the skills with no problem to a six-year-old who is having fun making a list of "neat things" about the park.

This has been quite fascinating, as I help my son become engaged in the formality of research, he remains focused on the joy of discovery. There is much to learn from this, and that is what my job as both a teacher and a parent is all about.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Progressive Conservative

In one of my posts about pragmatic, effective government, I referred to myself as a "fiscal conservative," and a reader posted a criticism implying that I couldn't possibly understand what conservatism means if I talked about "effective use of government." Yet, this week one of my favorite conservative op-ed columnists David Brooks argued exactly the same position as he pointed out the sadness of a lost campaign by John McCain. I couldn't agree more with Brooks' notion of "Burkean conservatism," a description I have used numerous times recently in discussions with conservatives on blogs. Burke insightfully noted, "the revenue of the state is the state," clearly accepting that government has certain responsibilities which must be funded effectively. A conservatism in the vein of Hamilton or Lincoln or TR is precisely what has made the United States the great nation it is. Obviously, Ronald Reagan was a man of conservative principles, but he also oversaw one of the government's largest expansions, and he raised taxes numerous times when it was the rational approach.

However, John McCain's rigid adherence to a conservatism that was failing to meet the needs of electorate has, instead, driven the moderate, unaffiliated voters to a man whose philosophy and voting record appears to be truly liberal. I will note, however, that I believe Obama to be a far more pragmatic politician than a "government-agenda-driven liberal." There is much in his demeanor and his record that implies he will govern in the Reagan mode of negotiating
and conceding the opposing view while making decisions he truly believes to be in the best interest of all Americans. One of these will be a health care system that is overseen, but not administered, by the government. Another is a economic policy driven by Volcker- and Rubin-esque practicality, not simple ideology.

As an unaffiliated voter who regularly splits his votes between the two parties, I'm firmly in support of Brooks' "progressive conservatism," and I truly hope it becomes the New Deal of the 21st century. When asked about my philosophy, I often note I am fiscally conservative but socially conscious. Ultimately, I simply feel I am pragmatic, and I hope the next Congress and the next President are as well.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Obama and McCain

Well, the way I see the situation (and sadness of it) is this:

A few months ago, I had an email conversation with a conservative columnist from the Claremont Institute. I argued that regardless of who is elected, the country will be OK. As I asserted that Obama isn’t going to ruin the country, and he’s not a terrible or risky choice, I also explained how I often disagreed with Democrats who claimed Bush, both in 2000 and 2004, was going to be a disaster. While I have many disagreements with policies of the past eight years, and I think the country is in worse shape, I refused to buy into the “Bush is a simple-minded fascist who will destroy America” rant. The same should be said for Obama.

Surprisingly, he agreed with me. He noted, quite honestly, that while he thought Obama was too young and had the wrong ideas about taxes and health care, he agreed Obama was a good person who had great potential as a leader, and that, yes, the country would be fine. Sadly, he recently published a rather snide column about how Obama is a “dangerous choice” who will be a “disaster” for the country. Clearly, he thinks it’s his job to be disingenuous, but I think his public pronunciations are indicative of much that is wrong with the political process.

When it comes down to it, both John McCain and Barack Obama are great men who will serve proudly and honorably as President of the United States. To believe anything less is a sad commentary on America. Had John McCain been the nominee in 2000 or 2004, I would have voted for him. At this point, however, I think he’s wrong on taxes, spending (or not spending), debt and deficit reduction, Iran, and, most especially, health care. I also disagree with the campaign he’s run, though that alone wouldn’t cost him my vote.

In terms of Obama, issues of character and experience are certainly important. I completely agree that the Wright and Ayers stories should have been raised, as they were. Most Americans now acknowledge them, and a majority is considering them, but most are likely dismissing them as inconsequential. That’s fine, and America is not weaker because of this. Sadly, however, charges of “terrorist,” anti-American, Muslim, Arab, black nationalist, socialist/Marxist, continue to surface, and I think that represents the ugly side of America. Many voters have been reduced to the lowest common denominator by this side of the campaign.

McCain and Obama have clear distinctions on domestic, economic, and foreign policy. Those issues should be analyzed in depth. However, neither of these men is “dangerous” for America. Both are fine Americans with many years of service to this country, though to two different ideologies. Both are patriotic men who love their country, and both will serve with always the country’s best interest at heart. McCain and Obama are good men. The country will be fine.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Game Night

"Mr. Mazenko, do you have game night at your house?"

That question has been asked numerous times over the years in my classroom, and the answer is always the same. "Game night? Every night is game night at my house." In the past three nights, my family - my wife, my three-year-old daughter, my six-year-old son, and me - has played Uno, Zingo, and Monopoly Jr. after dinner and before bed. We always play after dinner - all summer long, if it's nice, the neighborhood kids are out on the driveway playing ball tag, kickball, four square, hide-and-seek, wall ball, or other games. When it's rainy or cold, which is coming with winter, our kids are inside playing board games, or hide-and-seek, or any variation of indoor ball games. Thus, the concept of "game night" is rather odd, and it's sad but indicative of contemporary culture that we think that way. Even as I write this, my kids and three neighbors (ages 8, 10, and 12) are in our house on a rainy day playing Monopoly, Jr. (If I can I'm joining the next game, which I'm hoping is Trouble).

Whenever my students ask me about game night, I posit that the world would be a far better place if they asked the question, "Mr. Mazenko, do you have "TV night" at your house?" What if TV weren't the norm, but something families did occasionally on the few nights they weren't playing together? Granted, it's easy for me now, with such young children, to spend a lot of time playing. We don't have many extracurricular activities and homework, and my kids are in bed by 8:00 every night. However, it's not just easy; it's so important to developing skills and relationships and cognitive functions. My son learned his numbers very early - and we spent a lot of time playing the game sorry. My children's verbal skills are often complimented by friends, teachers, and complete strangers - and we spend a lot of time talking to our kids.

Game playing and interpersonal relationship development are integral to raising healthy, confident, productive kids. Perhaps, someday it will be the norm in contemporary families.

Friday, October 3, 2008

O'Reilly Goes Ballistic

In case you haven't seen it, on Jay Greene's blog, I watched six minutes off Bill O'Reilly going completely crazy while interviewing Barney Frank. As disturbing as it was, I’m glad I watched the painful six minutes of this clip because it is indicative of much that is wrong with American culture in terms of political discourse. Years ago, I ran across the Bill O’Reilly show and was amused for a while, and I thought, “Hey, this is interesting. This guy is like Morton Downey, Jr., but with a brain.” Sadly, I overestimated the “brain” part.

Certainly, Barney Frank and the Democrats need to answer for the status of FNM/FRE, but this display was, quite simply, a disgusting display of ranting “info-tainment.” Nothing good can come from people tuning in to this show seeking information. I can’t imagine why anyone, including Bill O’Reilly, thinks this is productive. Sadly, 10-14 million people get their news from shows like this each week.

Years ago, in his work “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Neil Postman noted that all the information contained in an hour-long television news show could be found on one page of a newspaper. That is a disturbing statistic, especially when the amount is probably lessened by a “Factor” of ten when Bill O’Reilly is screaming “that’s Bull!”

Being an educator, I weep for the days before this kind of drivel, and I hold out hope that someday shows like this will again become the realm of only cheap, late-night, local cable access like Morton Downey, Jr.