Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Don't Become a Teacher

In every year I've taught, I've heard some of my best and brightest aspire to be teachers. The idealistic side of me is so excited for this possibility, and I understand that it is their great educational experience and love of learning that led them to their decision. And my first instinct is to praise, congratulate, and encourage them. My second thought, however, is more melancholy, and my instinct resting just below the excitement is to counsel them away from the profession. For, in far too many places, teaching has become a thankless task. This week Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet offers a "letter of resignation" of sorts from a seemingly passionate, skilled, and veteran teacher who simply can't do it anymore. In response to Valerie's request for stories, she writes, "I would love to teach, but …"

It is with a heavy, frustrated heart that I announce the end of my personal career in education, disappointed and resigned because I believe in learning. I was brought up to believe that education meant exploring new things, experimenting, and broadening horizons … However, as the whipping boy for society’s ills, I could do none of these things. I was lambasted by parents as being ineffective because their child had a B or a C. “They are not allowed to fail.” “If they have D’s or F’s, there is something that you are not doing for them.” What am I not doing for them? I suppose I was not giving them the answers, I was not physically picking up their hands to write for them, I was not following them home each night to make sure they did their work on time, I was not excusing their lack of discipline, I was not going back in time and raising them from birth, but I could do none of these things. I was called down to the principal’s office many more times before I was broken, before I ended up assigning stupid assignments for large amounts of credit, ones I knew I could get students to do. Even then, I still had students failing, purely through their own refusal to put any sort of effort into anything, and I had lowered the bar so much that it took hardly anything to pass. I would love to teach, but I will not spend another day under the expectations that I prepare every student for the increasing numbers of meaningless tests that take advantage of children for the sake of profit. I refuse to subject students to every ridiculous standardized test that the state and/or district thinks is important. I refuse to have my higher-level and deep thinking lessons disrupted by meaningless assessments (like the Global Scholars test) that do little more than increase stress among children and teachers, waste instructional time and resources, and attempt to guide young adolescents into narrow choices. “Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, and understanding is not wisdom.” It is time that we fall on our sword. In our rabid pursuit of data and blame, we have sacrificed wisdom and abandoned its fruits. We cannot broaden our students’ horizons by placing them and their teachers into narrow boxes, unless we then plan to bury them.

Stories like these - and they are not uncommon - distress me to no end. And they would seem to validate my concerns about encouraging students to pursue teaching.  Of course, the issue is so complicated because, as most in education know, there are far too many unsatisfactory teachers out there producing little of the incredibly hard work and results that are mentioned by this teacher.  There is no easy answer to the problems that plague education - and I am certain that many of our current reforms are misguided attempts which will only worsen the situation. But I am not without hope.

So, with guarded optimism, I will still encourage my best and brightest to "Become a Teacher."

Monday, December 30, 2013

Stop Wearing High Heel Shoes in 2014

If I could recommend one New Year's Resolution for all women in 2014, it would be to end the torturous act of wearing high-heeled shoes. My students have long known - and laughed about - this rant of mine. In fact, I've been known to argue that women will truly take over the world once they shave their heads, throw away their make-up, and ditch the high heels. My example to students is any high school dance (Homecoming, Prom, etc) or any formal party (such as New Year's Eve balls). Inevitably, we will see women walking around and dancing in stocking feet, probably holding their shoes in their hands. Why? "Because they hurt my feet." The obvious question is why the women bought them in the first place. The answer, of course, is "because they are so cute."

Baffled, I am.

The sad reality is that "High Heels May Look Good, But They Are Killing Your [Health]." There is so much research and medical history in opposition to the wearing of high heeled shoes, and they are certainly a form of clothing that objectifies and even subjugates women. The damage done by these implements of high fashion is endless.

Therefore, lots of bad things happen. Shall we count the ways? Among the more common problems podiatrists say they see in women are calluses and, more painfully, corns, hard nuggets of keratin buildup caused by pressure on the skin. With high heels, corns develop up under the balls of the foot where the weight of your body presses down, and they feel like small rocks underfoot when you walk.  Liebow also sees capsulitis, a painful inflammation of the joints where the toes attach to the foot, and neuromas, or pinched nerves, where pointy high heels squeeze the toes. And when the heel is frequently in a high-heel shoe, it can cause the Achilles tendon (which connects the calf muscle to the heel bone) to tighten. When you kick off your shoes and the heel comes down to the floor at the end of the day, the extra stretching of the tendon can lead to a condition called Achilles tendinitis. Wearing high heels can also cause inflammation of the connective tissue at the bottom of the foot, the plantar fascia. That can result in severe heel pain and the need for aggressive treatments such as oral anti-inflammatories, oral steroids, cortisone injections, walking boots and crutches.

(Giuseppe Aresu, The Associated Press)

And, the history of high heels doesn't bode well for women's rights. High heels were, no doubt, invented by a man, and they were designed to promote women's feet as objects of desire. I know, I know, that sounds creepy. But is it not true? Granted, high heels were at one time also worn by men.  And the boost in stature is no doubt grounded in insecurity about height. But the male gender must be in some ways moving past that, as no contemporary man would subject himself to such torture, as pictured above - cowboy boots notwithstanding, which I've never worn but heard great things about.  In reality, no man would buy shoes that he then has to carry around because they hurt his feet. And, I've always understood that men who wore them for professional purposes suffered, too. If I'm not mistaken, rock star Prince has undergone hip replacement surgery which was necessitated by years of performing in high heeled boots. So, that seems reason enough to ditch the heels.

Now, we may have to talk about the necktie.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top Education Reform Stories in 2013

Valerie Strauss - whose Answer Sheet blog in the Washington Post is a top source for education news - takes the end of the year to reflect on the top stories in education reform in 2013.  With Common Core finally raising the controversial debates that should have preceded adoption and implementation, the year of 2013 provided the spark that will drive education talk for years to come. From new "standards" to "standardized testing" to teacher evaluations based on assessment standards, 2013 has set the standard for the education debate to come.  Some of the debate will be driven by former teachers like David Greene who are speaking out in retirement about what they believe is going wrong - and right - in the profession.

“Teaching is a performing art as much as a science,” he said. “It takes talent. And personality. The match of your personality and skill set determines what kind of teacher you are. What works for one teacher may not work for another. You can’t expect everyone to do it the same way. And yet…” Like many teachers, Greene is mystified by the reforms currently favored by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and New York’s educational leadership.In general terms, he thinks there’s plenty to like about the Common Core standards and even efforts to improve teacher evaluations.In fact, he argues in his conversational but impassioned book for many of the same things favored by reformers: greater depth in instruction; lessons that engage students; focused reading that leads to tight writing; and regular assessment of students. But Greene believes that reformers are betraying their cause by overloading the school day with too many new goals, over-emphasizing tests and trying to grade teachers with formulas and test scores. The result, he said, will be a uniformity that sucks the life out of teaching and learning.

Greene's book - Doing the Right Thing: A Teacher Speaks - is intended to spark the debate about what effective teaching and relevant effective reform is all about.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Education Commentary Proves Lucrative for Edu-vocates like Rick Hess in Era of Reform

As a teacher, I have always been a bit of an education geek. Beyond just teaching English or working in school administration, I enjoy reading and writing about the issues of the day. However, the recent news out of Douglas County, Colorado indicates I may be in the wrong part of the education field if I want to rake in the dough for writing about education.  A judge in Denver has ruled that the Douglas County School District "violated the Fair Campaign Act when it contracted for and distributed a paper that espoused" the reforms implemented by the school board. While the reforms - and the inherent controversy - around Douglas County Schools are not news, I was quite surprised to learn that education researcher and writer Frederick "Rick" Hess of the American Enterprise Institute was paid $30,000 for the paper in question.  Hess's article "The Most Interesting School District in America" was published in various places and distributed by the district.

Here in Colorado’s third-largest school district, with 65,000 students — an enrollment larger than Washington, D.C.’s and as large as Detroit’s — the superintendent and board are pursuing perhaps the nation’s boldest attempt at suburban school reform. The Douglas County School District is trying to do something truly new. An all-Republican school board has created the nation’s first suburban school-voucher program, introduced market-based pay, allowed its teachers’ union contract to expire, and developed a regimen of home-crafted standards and assessments in lieu of the Common Core (which superintendent Liz Celania-Fagen dismisses as the “Common Floor”). Former Reagan secretary of education William Bennett has opined that Douglas County is “trying to do all the good reforms at once.”
Unwilling to settle for just adding merit raises atop the old industrial pay scale, Douglas County has adopted a market-based pay system. After hiring a former human-resources manager from GE to lead its effort to rethink teacher pay, Douglas County has established five broad pay bands based on the supply and demand for various teaching roles. This allows the districts to pay more for hard-to-find teachers, such as a special-education audiologist, and less for teachers in easier-to-fill roles. For the first time in memory, superintendent Celania-Fagen reports, the district had more quality applicants for special education than they had positions available. Douglas County has shown, with little media fanfare, that it is possible to pay teachers what the market requires instead of being tied to a rigid, union-imposed, one-size-fits-all pay scale.

Certainly, the Era of Reform has become a lucrative new aspect to the field of public education. With the rise of Common Core reforms and new education legislation that links teacher pay with student performance, education consultants are earning big money. This is certainly true for new College Board  president David Coleman who stands to earn more than a half-million dollars in base salary for his new position. Of course, that's no more than the head of the National Education Association (NEA) who earns north of $500K as well - and that comes out of teacher's dues which should support collective bargaining for, among other things, a respectable salary.  And back in Douglas County, it's not surprising that big money is going to consultants and researchers. The district allegedly paid former Education Secretary William Bennet as much as $80,000 for speeches touting the districts reforms.

Apparently, this blogging for ad revenue is the low end of education writing.

Anyone need an education consultant who will work for cheap?

Friday, December 27, 2013

Hollywood's Heads of the Class

The "Inspirational Teacher Story" has been a time-honored tradition in Hollywood for more than fifty years. From impassioned but frustrated teacher Richard Dadier - played by Glenn Ford - in 1955's Blackboard Jungle to pathetic but ironically effective Elizabeth Halsey - played by Cameron Diaz - in Bad Teacher, audiences can't seem to get enough of engaging heads of the class.  Whether the films are documentaries or "based on a true story," or some scriptwriter's fantasy of what effective teaching looks like, the teacher movies are generally based on one idea - inspiring reluctant learners to achieve by caring about them and having high expectations.  They can certainly become cliched, though the connection between the true stories and the imagined ones are often so vivid that we have to wonder if it's really so simple.  Everyone has their favorite "teacher movie," but there are some standards that top any list.  Some of the "Best in Class" are:

To Sir, with Love

Stand and Deliver

Dead Poets Society

Mr. Holland's Opus

Dangerous Minds

Freedom Writers

The Great Debaters

And, of course, we can't neglect
Bad Teacher

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Disc Golf on the Rise as that Other "Frisbee" Sport

When I was growing up in the 1980s, my friends and I spent countless hours criss-crossing the neighborhood throwing our frisbees toward trees and mailboxes and front porches in "pursuit of par." We called it "frisbee golf," and the course was usually the whole neighborhood, and the holes might be a par-15 or more. Who knew it would actually develop into a sport with a national organization and formal courses in parks across the country.  But it has.  Of course, now it's called "Disc Golf," and the purists would take great offense to anyone calling the discs "Frisbee." 

Living in Greenwood Village, Colorado, I hadn't played any formal disc golf until the city re-designed Village Greens Park and put in an 18-hole disc golf course, alongside a new mountain bike trail. Disc golf has become the new obsession for my 11-year-old son and his friends, and this Christmas they received new discs and a disc golf bag. And, I am catching the bug and re-living a bit of my childhood playing the game. My best so far is two-over par.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Love, Actually Turns Ten as Critics Declare Death of the Romantic Comedy

For five or six years now, our Christmas Eve tradition has been to wrap presents and drink eggnog while watching what has quickly become a holiday classic, Love, Actually. The British ensemble rom-com has reached the decade mark in 2013, and that milestone seemed to touch off debate about the health of the genre Love, Actually so perfectly encapsulates. Is Love, Actually a really great movie? Or is it the worst romantic comedy every?  Is it destined to become a Christmas holiday classic on par with It's a Wonderful Life or Christmas Story? Or is the movie overrated and deserving of all the controversy?  As Love, Actually turns ten, have we seen the apex, decline, and death of the romantic comedy?

The romantic-comedy is a truly classic American film genre which actually has its roots at least as far back as Shakespeare and his classic "Much Ado about Nothing." The romantic-tension fueled bickering of Beatrice and Benedict is the foundation of practically every version of how "Harry Met Sally."  While the genre has often been derided as fluff filmmaking and nothing more than "chick flicks," the rom-com can be an incredibly rich character study that frames the battle of the sexes as representative of the human condition and the struggle for identity. And contemporary filmmakers can provide entertaining satire and social criticism as well as any Jane Austen novel. In fact, when I begin teaching her classic Pride and Prejudice, I open the discussion with several clips from the non-fiction-book-turned-romantic-comedy He's Just Not that Into You. And despite contempt from some critics and the claims by many men that they would never watch such films if their girlfriends didn't make them, nearly everyone has a favorite scene or example of the genre.

Movies like Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, Crazy Sexy Love, or 500 Days of Summer are tough to criticize as nothing but cheesy romance. They are often deeply philosophical and psychological studies that ask tough question and do more than tug at our heartstrings - they can rattle our existential existence. And some would argue that in the contemporary age, the romantic-comedy is getting even better.  With the philosophical beauty of movies like Enough Said - the full film from gone-too-soon actor James Gandolfini - Kevin Craft argues at Salon.com that "The Romantic Comedy Is Not Dead." I would argue the same about a nice little small-release gem starring Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Connelly called Stuck in Love. More than a Rom-Com, it is a story of complicated relationships in a family led by a writer and his dysfunctional family who seemed to have "lost their plot." The story which contains some great writing about the metaphor of writing and storytelling is more than just a romance.

Of course, like any genre, there are plenty of really poor examples which tend to taint the field. And contemporary studios have begun to dilute the genre as much as they blur it when the rom-com becomes the rom-com action flick.  And any genre is ripe for cliche when Hollywood finds something that works.  Often the films are just cheesy escapism.  And, maybe that's OK.  As far as Love, Actually is concerned, the "carol singers" scene may be ripe for criticism as cheesy and overdone , but for me it is a classic rom-com romantic moment on par with John Cusack blasting Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes outside Ione Skye's window.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Affluenza Defense Tests the Bounds of Sanity

The term affluenza was first coined - at least as far as I know - by John de Graff whose book began to spotlight the negative effects of wealth on humanity. Truly, lives of excessive privilege can blind individuals to any understanding of fairness and personal responsibility. And such conditions can cost people the basic empathy that must reside at the heart of any civilization.  The term "affluenza" gained new attention in recent weeks as news of the Affluenza Defense made headlines when a teenage drunk driver responsible for the deaths of four people was basically freed by a judge who bought the defense's argument that the defendant's wealth had left him unable to exercise proper judgment.

Basically, Ethan Couch is not guilty or responsible for the four deaths he caused because he grew up with such privilege that he never learned right from wrong.  It is, I know, the most preposterous argument you've probably ever heard, and it distorts the American justice system in ways rarely so explicitly blind. Certainly, we know there is a disparity between wealth and justice, a situation most clearly defined decades ago by the OJ case, when OJ Simpson was freed in the deaths of his ex-wife and her acquaintance Ronald Goldman.  Most Americans have little doubt that OJ's wealth bought his not guilty verdict. For, no average citizen could have mounted such a high powered defense with the likes of Johnny Cochran and F. Lee Bailey.

Now, Ethan Couch is the new poster child for the wealthy's ability to kill with impunity.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Power of Dreams - Best Irish Band You've Never Heard Of

When nearly anyone mentions great Irish rock bands, U2 is obviously the first one that springs to mind. Other names that might arise are The Alarm - if you're from the 80s and were looking for more after U2 arrived. The Dropkick Murpheys are certainly a great choice, and Flogging Molly is pretty well known, too. Some people might reference The Pogues or The Waterboys, and fans of Irish rap might bring up Black 47. However, one the best Irish rock bands I've ever known - and one whose career ended far too soon after only a few albums - are Power of Dreams. Their first release was an EP titled "A Little Piece of God," and they followed that with an excellent debut album, "Immigrants, Emigrants, and Me." The band only lasted for through the early 90s, disbanding after a tour in 1995. Here are some of my favorites from this great Irish band:

The Jokes on Me:

My Average Day

1000 Ways to Kill a Love

Rain Down
Where is the Love?


Had You listened
See You
Does It Matter

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Speech & Debate Students Defy Stereotypes and Criticism of Teens

Despite the negative commentary on teenagers and the state of American education - especially in the aftermath of the most recent PISA test results which criticize the US schools as average and stagnant - the high achieving intellects of American students are alive and well and on display at speech and debate tournaments across the country on a regular basis. After spending the weekend at the 10th Annual Patriot Games tournament hosted by the Forensics Department of George Mason University, I couldn't be more impressed with the talents of America's ambitious and motivated and high achieving students. There is something truly impressive and inspiring and reassuring about spending time with students who are committed to competing against each other in tests of intellect and performance art.  Judging a public forum debate on the resolution that immigration reform should contain a "path to citizenship," I was overwhelmed with the knowledge and insight and rhetorical prowess of so many young people. These students are as well informed on the issue of immigration - perhaps better because they know both sides so well - as anyone on the country. That is impressive. Judging the Lincoln-Douglas (LD) on the precedence of truth seeking over attorney-client privilege, I was amazed at the profoundly philosophical banter and exchange between these young people. They've thought long and hard about issues of truth and justice, certainly more so than the average American.  And that's every bit as important, and more so, than their ability to answer math and reading questions on a standardized test for which they have no context or motivation.

Ask yourself if you can do that?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Eating Healthy Is Not Too Expensive

Whole Foods is really "Whole Paycheck," right? Or is it really just an extra $1.50 a day?

Can people eat healthy, nutritious, and delicious food for an added cost that is less than half the price of a Starbucks latte? That's the consensus from a review of more than twenty studies across numerous countries. The overall cost separating a healthy choice from an unhealthy one is less than two bucks a day. Granted that equates to more than $500 a year. However, the added benefits that come from a healthier diet should certainly cover the cost. I can recall watching a story of the working poor struggling to afford a decent meal, as the issue was featured in the movie Food, Inc. And I was so bothered by the assertion that the family could not afford healthy meals when, at the same time, they were featured spending enough money on one family meal of fast food that could have purchased days' worth of meals at the supermarket. The reality is that people can afford to eat healthy, but they have to have the information to make the right choices. And overly processed foods are never the right answer.

Of course, it won't be easy to reverse a century-long march to an unhealthy, unnatural, processed foods diet. However, it's certainly worth the investment, no matter the cost.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

PISA Tests and the Problem of International Tests

By now the news of the latest "international test rankings" are out to the general public, and the "sky-is-falling" hysteria about public education is set to begin again.  Sadly, Americans will continually cite this shocking news without any knowledge of what the rankings really mean, or even how they are derived. While nearly two-thirds of Americans had no knowledge of the CommonCore national standards even a couple months ago, I would bet that more than 90% of Americans have never heard of the PISA test or the TIMSS test, even as they refer to America's educational struggles in "international competition." Alas, the international comparison is fraught with faulty logic, not the least of which is comparing vastly different countries and cultures based on single assessments. While some countries perform better on small student samples of standardized tests, that doesn't mean much beyond the ability to take a test. So, while Singapore's students may perform twice as well on the test, ask yourself if their doctors are twice as effective at healing, or if their buildings are twice as high and strong. Are their poems and paintings twice as beautiful? Is their economy twice as strong? And where is Singapore's Apple or GE or Tesla or SpaceX or Microsoft. Bill Gates is a big CC proponent, but he never had it as a student, so how was he successful? We need to think carefully about these questions before accepting that radical change is the answer. Or that it would even change anything.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Donate to Wikipedia

It's that time of year - time to pony up for all the great content you've been accessing on the internet through the largest open-source encyclopedia in the history of the world. That's right. Wikipedia is asking for donations to help support the platform and keep the source of information commercial free. Each year the founders and managers of Wikipedia campaign for support, and it's up to the users and curators to support the cause. Despite criticism and admonitions from teachers who tell students they "can't use Wikipedia," the online encyclopedia is an extensive and reliable source of information that is constantly being updated and refined to offer the most comprehensive source of content. Certainly, readers know that when they do an internet search for anything from Lady Gaga on MTV to Lady Catherine in Austen's Pride and Prejudice one of the top sites will always be Wikipedia. That is true because of the unique nature of open source editing by millions of content area experts. The pages of Wikipedia are constantly under review and revision by the very people who are most interested in the content. Thus, on the basis of pure factual information, Wikipedia is a great site. Of course, teachers do have a point in that Wiki should not be used as a primary source for research. The open-source nature of the content means that a single page can't be cited as a source. However, that doesn't mean students shouldn't use it. They should. Wikipedia is a great place to begin research, and students should become skilled at following the sources at the bottom of each page to extend and deepen the process. And with the support of readers, Wikipedia can remain the excellent launching point that it is. And, if you have questions about the "reliability of Wikipedia," you should check out the best source for a comprehensive list of studies on it - Wikipedia.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The NHL Needs to Ban Fighting

I went to a fight once ... and a hockey game broke out.

That joke doesn't seem so funny now in the era of concussions. As the NFL deals with increased scrutiny over the mental damage done to players, and parents fret about whether they want their son to play football at all, the spotlight on head injuries in sports has expanded to the ice rink with news of a major lawsuit against the NHL.  Several days ago, ten former professional hockey players - notably the enforcer types known for fighting - filed a class action lawsuit agains the National Hockey League (NHL), claiming the league did not do enough to protect players from the long term damage from head injuries. This legal move comes not long after the NFL settled a $750 million suit with its former players over the same issue.

Certainly, it's no surprise that hockey players suffer a fairly high rate of concussions, especially the players who are basically "paid to fight."  The grinders and enforcers are not on the ice for their prowess with a puck or grace on skates. They are there to hurt people.  And this just may have to change.  While hockey players and fans have long defended the practice of fights as "part of the game" or necessary "payback for cheap shots," those excuses are wearing thin as modern medicine learns more about the long term effects of multiple concussions.  And, it's become unacceptable in sports where the suicide rate is going up for players suffering symptoms of a brain wasting disease that results from repeated head trauma.

Perhaps the sentiment of hockey fans and players will change if we continue to put a human face to the dangers inherent in fighting and repeated concussions. The issue is being raised in the Denver area with a recent series of articles from Mike Chambers and Adrian Dater of the Denver Post.  The Denver Post is focusing on the head injury issue with a profile of former Avalanche player/enforcer Scott Parker.  Since being forced into retirement as a result of head injury side effects, Parker has seen his personal life and mental health unravel.  In a rather shocking story, Parker reveals that he was in 400 fights and took probably 4000 punches to the head during his career.  And that's just crazy.

There are many issues to be resolved, such as whether rules against fighting deter violence in the game. But it seems pretty obvious that the issue of fighting - and repeated gloveless punches to the head - is not in the interest of the game. It's certainly not in the interest of the human beings who play it.