Wednesday, January 29, 2014

NCAA Is Not a Dictatorship, Despite Players' Union

Sometimes, it's your language choices that end the argument.

Such is the case with the most recent news in the argument that the NCAA should "pay student athletes" because it is profiting from their hard work - at least that's true for football and basketball players. (Clearly, the lacrosse players and swimmers should continue to exist in servitude because they don't pull in huge TV revenue.) In the latest salvo over oppressed student athletes, the Northwestern football team aligned itself with labor leaders in Chicago in calling for a union to represent these "workers." While the proposed union was not simply about "pay-for-play," student-athlete representative - and Northwestern QB - Kain Colter basically lost the argument when he called the NCAA "a dictatorship."

Kain, this metaphor fails on a dramatic scale, and it is an insult to all people who are currently suffering under true oppression. Student athletes - especially football and basketball players at major universities - are living a life of luxury compared to millions of people living under the brutal control of despots and dictators. People who are basically compensated with an opportunity for an expensive education - potentially worth a quarter of a million dollars - while being academically supported beyond the wildest dreams of the average student have no idea what oppression is. And, it is wildly inappropriate to imply so. It is as patently absurd as Prince writing "Slave" on his cheek over a record contract with Warner Bros. that paid him tens of millions of dollars.

Certainly, NCAA rules regarding student-athlete compensation must be altered dramatically. Student athletes are greatly inhibited from earning spending money by the demands on their time. They should be able to get jobs, or perhaps earn a stipend in some way that enables them to "eat when dorms aren't open" or be able to afford the basic amenities and fun of college. However, for most star players, like Colter, who are on full ride scholarships and come from middle class families, the issue of "spending money" shouldn't be an issue when the family has been excused from room, board, and tuition.  Beyond that, student-athletes are not employees and shouldn't be treated as such.

Perhaps, it is time to divest college football and basketball from the colleges themselves. It certainly is time to divest the NCAA from its tax exempt status based on an "educational mission."

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Allusions & the Power of Prior Knowledge

Effective readers - and thinkers - use existing knowledge to make sense of new information. This basic reading strategy, which was first introduced to me in Cris Tovani's amazing I Read It But I Don't Get It, is integral to successful learning, even though it comes easier for some than others. Explaining the power of the technique and developing an understanding of how people learn can be as important as the actual content being taught. That is the power of allusion and understanding how writers draw from existing knowledge and familiar stories to create new stories. Jessica Lahey - teacher, writer, blogger - explains the value of allusion in a great piece for The Atlantic this month entitled, "To Read Dickens It Helps to Know French History and the Bible." Jessica speaks specifically of the idea of cultural literacy and understanding how history and the Judeo-Christian ethic are a necessary foundation to making sense of classic literature, notably the early pages of books like A Tale of Two Cities. I concur on the value of such knowledge, for I have the same discussions with my students when we read the first four pages of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird together. Accessing the allusions is key to appreciating the novel on its deepest level. Though these works can be understood and accessed on a more superficial level, that's really like watching a movie of the action - as in the Harry Potter films - as opposed to truly delving in to the thematic magic of the written works. Allusion matters - as does gaining general knowledge - and it is all part of the job of educators (and theme of my blog and class) "Creating People on Whom Nothing is Lost."

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Teachers and Facebook

Social media is many things - a connector and a distraction, a tool and a weapon, a benefit and a curse, an insignificant detail and an ingrained component of the social fabric. Regardless of our perception of it and our criticism or defense of it, social media is here to stay. Facebook is the most prominent in our lives currently, and it's the one most likely to stir up trouble. Too many stories of embarrassment, conflicts, and even tragedies cloud the reputation of Facebook, yet billions of users still can't get enough. Teachers are often warned about the inherent dangers of being on Facebook, and it's often a shame that teachers are held to much higher or more restrictive policies regarding personal use. However, the unique situation of interacting daily with young people with their parents' inherent or necessary blind trust leads to a need for teachers to be more judicious in their use of social media. In that regard, it is pretty clear and important advice that teachers should not post any negative or critical comments about their students - or any students at their school - on Facebook. Many use the FB to rant about work - teachers simply should not. It does not matter if names are not used. Posting negative comments about "anonymous" students at a teacher's current workplace is just too close for comfort. They are, after all, children who deserve privacy and care and concern. And that care is trusted to teachers. So, don't rant about students on Facebook. Just .... don't.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Girl Teaches Self to Dance in a Year - And Creates a 100-day Challenge

Persistence. Grit. Determination. Practice.

These are the qualities that are the key to success. Malcolm Gladwell made a big deal about the 10,000 hours of practice necessary to achieve mastery for many skills/talents. And much has been written about how to promote and cultivate these characteristics, especially in children. Of course, it's rare that we can actually see, or have evidence, of the transformation that comes from such consistent practice. That's why the story of the girl who taught herself to dance in one year is so interesting.

Karen X. Cheng's simple challenge to herself - learn to dance in a year - became an inspirational story fueled by a viral video on YouTube. That experiment, viewed by millions, has become something much larger - a challenge to everyone to make changes in their lives by committing 100 days to practice.  Karen's Give It 100 encourages people to practice something - "anything" - for one hundred days and record videos of each day. The whole point is to simply try in a completely shame-free and confident way. So far, thousands have accepted the challenge. And there's no doubt this sort of chain reaction can change lives. For, as Karen notes.

This isn't a story about dancing, though. It's about having a dream and not knowing how to get there — but starting anyway. Maybe you're a musician dreaming of writing an original song. You're an entrepreneur dying to start your first venture. You're an athlete but you just haven't left the chair yet.

When you watch someone perform, you're seeing them at the top of their game. When they score the winning point or sell their company for millions — you're seeing them in their moment of glory. What you don't see is the thousands of hours of preparation. You don't see the self doubt, the lost sleep, the lonely nights spent working. You don't see the moment they started. The moment they were just like you, wondering how they could ever be good.

So, what are you going to do?

What Good Would You Do with $25,000

20th Century Fox studios contacted filmmaker Casey Neistat with an offer to make a movie trailer for the new Ben Stiller film, Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  The studio wanted to launch an ad campaign around the idea of "living your dreams" to inspire people to do something they've never done. Neistat was offered the opportunity to make a video trailer for the movie and this campaign. Instead, Casey responded with a counter offer - they give him the money and he spends the entire budget "helping people in need."  Here's the result:

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Sopranos Celebrates Fifteen Years

Could it really be fifteen years ago that we first saw Tony Soprano and Christopher Moltisanti kicking the crap out of a guy with unspeakable violence in that opening episode of HBO's groundbreaking - and rule changing - television drama, The Sopranos.  Alas, it was fifteen years ago this week that David Chase's crime family drama entered our TV-watching consciousness and forever changed the way we think and watch TV. Seriously, would there be a Walter White transforming from a cancer-sufferer and science teacher into meth cook and sinister crime kingpin if we didn't first develop a sympathetic and fascinated ear for the sounds and images of classic anti-hero Tony Soprano bearing his tortured soul to his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi? Probably not. Or not this soon anyway.

Not only did David Chase change the genre by pushing the limits, but in working with HBO, he changed the rules and structure for how primetime shows are produced, packaged, and delivered.  The shorter seasonal format, where there were far fewer than the standard 22-27 episodes on network television, and the season began whenever the network was ready. This greater freedom allowed for greater creative control of the writers and an overall better production. In fact, the networks have struggled to catch up to the quality of dramas being produced by cable. And the show catapulted into our consciousness the incredible talent of one James Gandolfini, an incredible character actor who's gone too soon.

Recently, as the show's anniversary approached, there was time for the cast to reflect on the greatness of the show. Like many, I'm sure they had long considered the possibility for a Sopranos movie to give us another taste of that world that had so captivated us. But like the abrupt ending of the show, the death of James Gandolfini put an end to that hope. Thus, fans are left to appreciate the body of work that was left, and to reflect on a truly iconic piece of American culture.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Critics Harshly Slam David Brooks' Marijuana Column - But He's Not Entirely Wrong

Since posting his response to the "legalization" of recreational and commercial marijuana in Colorado (and coming soon in Washington) New York Times columnist David Brooks has been widely criticized - even chastised - by other commentators from Slate to more Slate to The Nation to Esquire. However, despite the critics' desire to portray his comments as aloof and misguided, Brooks' basic premise is not wrong, and his criticism of legalized cannabis is being distorted.

Brooks' basic argument - smoking weed is not generally a good thing and shouldn't be promoted or condoned - is a fairly accurate and innocuous statement, and one that is being greatly misinterpreted. For example, people have criticized Brooks for wanting to perpetuate the arrest and incarceration of millions for an arguably minor criminal offense, one that disproportionately affects minorities and the poor. Yet, David Brooks has not endorsed such problematic legal penalties and, in fact, has been on record as opposing such problems in our criminal justice system. Opposing legalization isn't the same as supporting the current legal ramifications for it. And neither Brooks, nor Ruth Marcus, argued for continued criminalization or harsh legal penalties for possession, use, or sales. Certainly, decriminalization of cannabis possession was a necessary change, and such an approach has functioned pretty effectively elsewhere in the world.

Additionally, comparisons between alcohol and marijuana are obtuse and knee-jerk reactions that at best obfuscate the issue and are inherently logically flawed. Arguing that one drug should be legal because another is already legal does not make a lot of sense. Simply put, having one potentially dangerous substance legal does not mean we should have two. If that were the case, proponents should be arguing for legalization of all illicit substances - and no one is doing that. And the comparison is not apt because the substances are not similarly used. Alcohol is not only an established industry and indelible part of the societal fabric, but it can be (and is) enjoyed without the requisite purpose of all other illicit drugs, which is to "get messed up." Certainly, the use and abuse of alcohol can have catastrophic consequences and shouldn't be praised or elevated either. America truly does have a drinking and substance abuse problem. And that is the point made by Brooks and Marcus - substance abuse is a problem.

Ultimately, I don't strongly oppose what Colorado and Washington and Uruguay have done, and I think it will be folded into the fabric of society pretty smoothly in the next decade or so. But there will be a lot of collateral damage that should not be celebrated. In general, doing drugs is simply not a good thing. That was the only point Brooks was making. And his critics have their panties in a bunch simply because they think he's an arrogant, elitist snob. Which is probably more or less true. But it doesn't make him wrong. Critics like to take shots at Brooks' philosophy, and he often makes himself an easy target for criticism as a sort of nerdy, wonkish, elitist. But the attacks on Brooks' marijuana column are off-base.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Science Teacher Challenges Super-Size Me - Loses Weight at McDs

Morgan Spurlock helped set the standard for the new age of documentary filmmaking in the late 1990s when he "nearly killed himself" with a diet based solely on McDonalds' food while documenting the entire experiment in the film Super-Size Me.  While many critics - and the food industry itself - challenged Spurlock's methods and conclusions, science teacher John Cisna took it one step further.

Now, the discussion must shift a bit to the choices we make at the food counter and supermarket.

Mike Rowe - Fewer College Degrees, More Employed Skilled Workers

According to labor statistics, there are currently as many as 3-4 million unfilled jobs in the United States, many of which pay upper middle class salaries … and they don't require a bachelor's degree. In fact, as few as 12% of them require four years of college (and the associated tens of thousands of dollars in debt). Yet, parents and counselors and teachers and principals are still sending millions of students on to four-year colleges with the belief that those degrees are necessary for them to get a job … or get a "good job."  As I've noted many times before:

Mike Rowe disagrees.

Mike Rowe, who gained fame on the Discovery Channel as the host of Dirty Jobs and Deadliest Catch, has spent the past few years developing a PR campaign for "Work." That is, he is promoting skilled labor as the necessary emphasis for our education system. Rowe makes the rounds to as many talk shows and forums as he possibly can, talking about the need for skilled labors. He has many partners in this task, such as Caterpillar who has an invested interested in skilled laborers. And Mike would like to connect young people in search of a future with companies like Caterpillar, where heavy equipment repair mechanics can make a $100,000 a year. So, Mike is promoting many great "schools you've never heard of" like Midwestern Technical Institute, where students can learn about and learn the trades that are currently lacking in the labor market.

So, it's time to stop all the nonsense about how everyone needs to go to college, and start promoting the type of learning that will lead people to careers. And, if you have never seen Mike's TED Talk about his PR Campaign for work, you have to see this. It's one of the smartest segments I've ever heard.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Lights, Camera, Teach! Questioning The Value of the Feel-Good Teacher Movie

Don't watch Stand and Deliver. Don't quote Dead Poet's Society. Don't reference Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. Is it time to be done with the inspirational, feel-good teacher movies? Or is at least time to stop watching them with any hope that they will provide the answers on how to "fix schools"? That's the recommendation from middle school teacher Joshua Mackin for a New Year's Resolution in 2014: "Stop Watching Feel-Good Teacher Movies."

There are obviously many problems with using Hollywood's portrayal of anything as a guide or blueprint for how things should be. Certainly, "fixing public education" is a task far more complicated than any story can begin to crack in ninety minutes. And, between the necessary over-simplification and the requisite "Hollywood Ending," the teacher movies may do more harm than good. As Mackin points out in a succinct and well-argued criticism,  inspirational teacher films do not offer a realistic portrait of what it’s like to be a teacher or a student in an underserved school.  One of the biggest problems is that the movies require a happy ending. This simply dishonors the daily and on-going struggle in the public schools. The movies also revel in stereotypes, and mistakenly portray urban school teachers as superheroes. The reality is far more "boring" at times.

Certainly, the movie industry has all the best intentions of portraying the educational successes - some might call miracles - of people like Jaime Escalante and Ron Clark and Joe Clark.  And the more fictionalized stories behind Robin Williams "Mr. Keating" or Richard Dreyfuss' "Mr. Holland" are certainly wonderful narratives that can inspire as they entertain. However, they risk becoming cliche and doing more harm than good, especially when they fall into the trap of being a WTSM - White Teacher Savior Movie. We've all enjoyed the stories of teachers and students defying the odds, and we all have that favorite teacher who made a difference for us. And there is nothing wrong with honoring them and the ideas they represent.  However, we do have to be careful with the conclusions drawn from a movie's representation of real world struggles.

For more perspective on the portrayal of teachers, consider checking out books like:

The Hollywood Curriculum: Teachers in the Movies - by Mary Dalton

Carry on Teacher: Representations of Teaching in Screen Culture - by Susan Ellismore

Hollywood Goes to High School - Robert Bulman