Thursday, December 31, 2015

Goodbye - and Good Riddance - to 2015

And, so, we bid a not-so-fond farewell to the "Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad" disappointing, frustrating, and mediocre mess of a year that was 2015.

OK, so it wasn't really terrible, horrible, or very bad. And, of course, there was plenty of good. Living in middle-class, suburban Colorado with a wonderful family, great colleagues, overall good health, safety, security, friendship, support, and opportunity, I can't and shouldn't complain about ... life. In comparison to the challenges faced by many people this year, and in acknowledgment of the serious tragedies that this year has wrought, I am satisfied and appreciative of my world.

That said, in reflection, this year threw some curveballs at us that have made things unpleasant at times. I've been tempted to reflect on this as the $100,000 year because there have been enough disruptions to put this middle class family in a rut. With record rains last spring, and really crappy soil in Colorado, my basement floor has heaved to the point of potentially catastrophic structural damage. After a trying and frustrating time dealing with the complicated world of construction contracting, we are looking at a new basement floor and sump-drain system, with the repairs probably topping out at just under $50,000. And that hurts, especially because when it comes to problems linked to "earth movement," State Farm has been anything but "a good neighbor." So, we have a pretty hefty bill to shoulder which has pretty much drained savings and required additional debt. And if that wasn't enough, the transmission dropped on our twelve-year-old beloved Pontiac Montana, necessitating the purchase of a new car. Not what the financial security doctor ordered for us that's for sure. And, as the kids get older and the spectre of college looms, it's been an uneasy year here at A Teacher's View.

Beyond that, the year 2015 was just not a successful version of my intent to "live the life I have imagined." Let's just say that while I love my job and am happy to be so fortunate, there are other things I want to do, and I just haven't been able to make them happen. Of course, the year wasn't a total loss. In fact, my plan to live one of my healthiest years yet showed a lot of promise. While struggling with a variety of issues during the year - and feeling like I couldn't commit to the sort of changes I'd like to see - I did have a successful experiment with my health when I went "Gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, alcohol-free, and caffeine-free" for one month. I never followed up on the blog, but it was a pretty nice run that allowed me to hit my goal weight and post my best 5K of my adult life. I wish I'd written more about it, and I probably should. But the failure to post about it is a reflection of how busy and stressful the work life became - especially because I've been less than successful about becoming a more focused and organized person. From the start of the school year, there has been a lot going on, and while I am pretty good at my job, I often feel like I'm just getting by, getting things done, rather than thriving. I know that's not really true - but perception matters.

So, rather than going on and on about this year, I'll simply finish by reflecting on a pretty mediocre year and pointing out that "I don't want no mediocre." See ya, 2015. Don't let the door hit you ... on the way out.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Purpose of School - It's Not What Bill Gates or the Chamber of Commerce Says

In regards to a Most Likely to Succeed, documentary film on the purpose of public education, I may be a bit late to the discussion. But I am intrigued by the work and goal of Ted Dintersmith, a former venture capitalist who is challenging the conventional notion of school and asking questions beyond the myopic focus of corporate education reform that just promotes skills and thinking that can be tested to gauge a student's "readiness" for a workplace cubicule.

In a couple of pieces for the Washington Post, we have been introduced to the man behind Most Likely to Succeed, who is promoting a fresh look at schooling that moves beyond the 19th century focus of preparing kids for manufacturing jobs. In a September profile, Valerie Strauss introduced him in "Not Bill Gates: Meet Ted Dintersmith," which framed the work of a man who is following the path of people like Tony Wagner and Sir Ken Robinson who are merely seeking to move education beyond the standard factory model.

The over-arching message of the film is that students and teachers should be given the latitude and trust to define their own approach to learning. So I hope other schools don’t just copy what they see in the film, but are inspired to come up with bold and innovative learning experiences that leverage the talents and passions of the students and teachers involved. That said, there are a few key principles you see in the film that are applicable to all schools and classrooms. Students have a large role in defining and managing their learning. Classrooms center around peer-interaction, not on a lecture model with the teacher doing most/all of the talking. Students are encouraged to make decisions, try bold approaches, experience failure, and given a chance to rebound. Students are assessed on the basis of a public display of achievement. Students provide feedback and constructive criticism of each other, and play a big role in the assessment process. These are the things I hope find their way into other schools.

And in a more comprehensive look at his goals and actions, we learned what happens when "A Venture Capitalist Searches for the Purpose of Education":

And then it hit me, full force. The most innovative country on the planet is blowing it. As we move full swing into an era of innovation, the United States should be educating to our creative strengths, but instead we’re eroding the very characteristics that will enable our kids to thrive. We’re setting kids up for a life without passion, purpose, or meaningful employment. Absent profound change, our country is a decade away from having 50 million chronically-unemployed young adults, adrift in life and awash in debt.
I was now fully consumed with this cause. I stepped up my pace, criss-crossing the country to visit schools and gain perspective. I was in hot pursuit of the right answer to the question: “What is the purpose of school?” Everywhere I looked — mission statements, meetings with school leaders, websites — I’d find sensible, even inspiring, purposes:
  • teach students cognitive and social skills
  • teach students to think
  • build character and soul
  • help students in a process of self-discovery
  • prepare students to be responsible, contributing citizens
  • inspire students through the study of humanity’s great works
  • prepare students for productive careers

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Break Means Break - That Means No Homework

On Winter Break - or Fall Break and Spring Break for that matter - I do not give my students homework.  That means nothing, zilcho, zip.  It is called "break" for a reason, and I do not feel the overwhelming need to burden the kids with busy work during the holidays.  This puts me in a minority among teachers, but I can't quite figure out why.

This year it has been easier to make that work for teachers. Traditionally, in my district we break for winter two weeks before the end of first semester and final exams, and many students claim they spend the entire break studying for final exams.  Now, I don't believe that at all, but I do sympathize with kids who have an extra book to read or a final review packet to complete or pages of calculations or research papers to complete.  There should be enough time during the normal thirty six weeks of school for teachers to accomplish all they need to accomplish.  If not, they are probably erring on the side of forcing too much "content" into their lessons. This year, however, was the first year that we took final exams before Winter Break. It noticeably created a greater degree of stress, for students were used to a couple weeks off before exams to study, and teachers seemed to have more time for first semester units. Yet, when all was said and done, it seems like most are happy to just "take a break." And, teachers have been encouraged to not assign any work during the break.

The issue of content is a contentious one, as teachers revere their content and can't imagine their students missing out on one fact or name or equation or definition or connection.  But this point of view too easily veers into rote memorization of trivial content or, worse, busy work.  As an English teacher and supporter of core knowledge approaches, I completely support the intention to build within students a vast store of background knowledge which they can and must use to access new information.  But nothing is so serious or monumental that it can't be accomplished during the standard schedule.  There is nothing wrong with students continuing to read and learn during time off school.  But that's a long way from believing that the extra "vacation packet" is going to solve the ills of gaps in student knowledge.

So, this break, take a break.

Monday, December 28, 2015

$3 Million in Prizes & Grants with H&R Block's Budget Challenge

"They saw what no one else could see." And they pocketed billions for knowing about money in a way that no one was talking about. The Big Short, based on a book by Michael Lewis that framed the 2007 financial crisis as a thriller, has recently become a holiday hit, holding its own against that other December blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If the film The Big Short teaches us anything, it instructs all Americans about the value of improving their financial literacy. 

Money talks. And, if educators and parents agree about one key to a well-rounded education, it's the importance of having "money talks" with our young people. The latest generation to enter adulthood, the Millenials, are facing some of history's toughest financial challenges while also experiencing some of its greatest opportunities for financial well being. That is why I am always impressed when my students enroll in our school's economics and business finance classes. Like all young people, they can always use help. And that is why I am happy to announce and proud to support H&R Block who is once again promoting financial literacy to young people and supporting that goal with direct support to the nation's classrooms.

It's in the best interest of all Americans for as many people as possible to achieve financial well being. But they can't do it without a little know-how. To that end H&R Block thinks "financial education is so important, we're paying people to learn it." That is the spirit of the H&R Block Budget Challenge from the company that has been helping Americans with their taxes and assisting them in planning for future for more than fifty years. The key to effective financial management is experience, and that's why H&R Block's Challenge is so appealing. Students who take the challenge:

  • Experience real life as an adult: paying bills, managing expenses, saving money, investing in retirement, paying taxes and more. 
  • Sit in the "drivers’ seat" as they immerse into the financial life of a recent college graduate who has been working for about six months. 
  • Receive a regular paycheck, a checking account, a 401(k) savings account, and bills to pay throughout the simulation. By maximizing 401(k) savings, paying bills on time and responding correctly to quiz questions while avoiding fees like late fees, overdraft fees and finance charges, students increase their individual score.

The H&R Block Budget Challenge is a great opportunity for schools and students alike because lesson plans and classroom materials are readily available. And, best of all, the program is FREE. There's no better financial decision than to take advantage of free opportunities, and in an era of ever-tightening classroom budgets, teachers will be happy to learn they can access these opportunities for no cost to themselves or their school. And, most importantly, in addition to the free experience and knowledge, students can EARN BIG CASH. $3 million in cash and scholarships are available to participants. 

Learning how to manage a check book or decipher credit card offers was a mystery to me as a young adult. That's why I like to promote financial literacy to my students, encouraging them to learn about concepts such as compound interest and "saving 10%" of what they earn. As I approach middle age and consider my financial future, I wish I could have had some practice making adult financial decisions before I was actually an adult and risking my own money. That's why I really appreciate our high school social studies teachers who make economics and personal financial literacy a part of their standard curriculum. Teachers who take advantage of offerings like H&R Block's Budget Challenge have the greatest impact on their students by using a game and the spirit of competition to engage young people with possibly the most important and immediately useful information they'll learn in school - the ability to manage their financial lives.

And, lest you think, there are no real winners, check out this video of a St. Clair High School senior who thought he won a $20,000 scholarship, only to learn he actually won the grand prize of $120,000:

Clearly, dreams come true and hard work pays off. And, there's no reason to sit this one out. The Challenge is open to any full-time students age 14 and older whose teacher registers them. The deadline for this latest round is January 7, with class creation deadlines rolling through February 4, so you have some time, but there is no time to waste. Start the semester off right by encouraging your teachers and classmates to enter the H&R Block Budge Challenge. Participating teachers can get $15 off their tax preparation just by downloading the lesson plans.

I have trusted my tax returns to H&R Block for years, and I firmly believe in the guidance they provide. Join H&R Block in its quest to promote financial literacy. It just makes sense.

** “This is a sponsored post on behalf of We Are Teachers and H&R Block. I received compensation for this post, however all opinions stated are my own.”

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Stop Trying to "Fix Schools" & Just "Fix a School"

The education reform movement, which has become surprisingly pervasive and powerful in the past fifteen years, is founded on the mistaken notion that American public schools are "in crisis" and American education is "failing." This faulty narrative has opened the door to countless education reform initiatives that are often developed and promoted by corporate business entities and wealthy "edu-philanthropists" who think their business success enables and entitles them to impose their ideas on communities in the interest of "fixing schools."

This week in a piece for the Denver Post, I've taken on the naive approach of corporate and business education reformers and offered them advice on how they should "Stop Trying to Fix Schools, and Just Fix a School." My basic argument is centered on a neighborhood - rather than systemic or national - approach where reformers can address the basic needs and gaps in student achievement at the source - where students live.

Here's the full text:

Stop Trying to “Fix Schools” and just “Fix a School”

It’s been 32 years since an Education Department report declared America “A Nation at Risk.” It’s been 15 years since Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates began his education philanthropy, na├»vely believing his wealth and business acumen could solve the country’s supposed “education crisis.” It’s been 14 years since No Child Left Behind promised all students would achieve at grade level by 2014. It’s been seven years since the launch of the Common Core initiative to standardize education. It’s been five years since Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg gave $100 million to “fix schools” in Newark, NJ and turn that poverty-plagued system into a national model of education.

In all that time academic achievement has remained roughly the same, with national tests like NAEP and ACT indicating a relatively stable, or stagnant, state of education. Education laws and reformers like Gates and Zuckerberg have had little success in changing neighborhood dynamics that inhibit school achievement. Their shortcomings are reflected in the recent re-write of NCLB, Gates backing away from ideas like his “small schools” initiative, and Zuckerberg’s Newark experiment exposed as a colossal waste of money documented in Dale Russakoff’s The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? Clearly, none of the actions of edu-reformers have been able to change the fundamental societal problems of poverty at the root of low achievement. And, there’s one simple conclusion. The education reform movement led by billionaire philanthropists would be far more effective and much less controversial if it focused on fixing “a school” and not on “fixing schools.”

Despite new standards, new tests, new laws, new accountability systems, and new ideas, academic results in poor neighborhoods remain, well, poor. And these results are no surprise to anyone. Recent news of continuing struggles in Aurora Public Schools and the apparent re-segregation of many Denver-area schools indicate specific socioeconomic and geographic challenges that require a “neighborhood focus.” Such an approach requires directly supporting struggling students with school supplies, tutoring, after-school programs, parenting classes, health care, food, and more. That’s the focus of an intervention program in northwest Denver called Blocks of Hope, where school and community leaders plan to attack the issues of poverty and struggling schools “one neighborhood at a time.” Poverty intervention and whole child/whole family support for education is modeled on Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. A similar approach has shown dramatic results at Camden Street Elementary School in Newark, New Jersey where principal Sam Garrison teamed with a wealthy business owner to improve the school through community building programs. Clearly, Mark Zuckerberg could have had more success in Newark if he followed the Garrison model and used his $100 million to directly support struggling schools.

Despite claims by reformers like Bill Gates and College Board president David Coleman, the establishment of common standards and yearly standardized tests have not improved education. The root causes of education failure often reside outside the school environment, and these are too often ignored by reformers. Non-school factors are the primary drivers of low achievement, and there is little doubt where these needs are greatest. There is no crisis in public education, but there are many crises in individual communities. Thus, declaring a crisis in "education" and instituting state and national programs is not helpful because it aims at too big of a target. There is no reason to declare a crisis in the thousands of successful schools. Education is not "in crisis," but 30% of schools and neighborhoods are. We already know which schools and students struggle. Thus, reformers and educators and media and legislators must focus directly on them.

Now that NCLB has been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the federal government has returned education reform to local control, perhaps it is time for all those interested in “fixing schools” to act locally and simply fix a school. That requires looking beyond the charter school model. While charter schools are touted as a solution, they have not helped struggling communities, and they do nothing to improve neighborhood schools. Often charters simply weaken neighborhoods and increase segregation by leaving behind many children who cannot access schools outside their neighborhood. The charter school movement should only be considered successful if it succeeds at “motivating students” and not just when it educates “motivated students.” Programs like Blocks of Hope will address problems directly where they exist. Thus, true change will come when education reformers, including the billionaire philanthropists who have promoted a variety of wasteful and unnecessary initiatives, commit to supporting those students who need it most where they need it most. And that’s where they live.

Michael P. Mazenko works at Cherry Creek High School and blogs at A Teacher’s View. Follow him @mmazenko

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Fine Dining in Park City, Utah

Reprint from my other blog: Nov 2013

Taking a quick family vacation to Park City, Utah, this fall, I didn't expect to find a culinary mecca - but we were pleasantly surprised by the fine food along old Main Street in historic Park City.  We sampled several places around town, but if I had to recommend a restaurant, it would have to be 412 Bistro on Main Street.  Not only is it an adorable and convenient French restaurant, but it knows duck like it should be prepared. The "Duck Three Ways" is one of the best duck meals I've ever had - and I do appreciate a well prepared duck.  Though the chef recommends medium rare, I would definitely say medium to medium well, and if you do it that way, it is absolutely succulent.  The pan roasted breast is sweet and meaty, but it's the duck confit leg that is done to perfection - the meat is tender and the spices are a perfect complement. And, the duck pate? It is butter, absolute butter-y goodness. We also enjoyed a couple of finely paired glasses of French syrah that went well with a nearly perfect bowl of french onion soup.  The soup can be a bit of a cliche, and too often it's not done well. But Bistro 412 knows how to extract the best from the onions, cheese, bread, and broth. It was worth a second bowl - seriously. I have some criticisms of the escargot, as it was a bit too bread-y, and the broth was simply standard. The bouillabaisse was also well done with some wonderful crab, though the broth wasn't any more special than the escargot.  Service at Bistro 412 was pleasant and efficient, and we started the evening around the fire pit outside - amidst great views and snow flurries.  And, I'd like to share some thoughts on dessert … but there just wasn't room.  Overall, a great meal in Park City.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Will Colleges Move Away from ACT/SAT & Focus on Writing for Admissions?

The college admissions game is becoming more and more difficult to predict and to play. And the percentages continue to expose the dirty little secret of standardized test scores - one: test prep classes can help kids game the system, and two: these classes skew admissions toward wealthier students. And, there are plenty of innovative and thoughtful and skilled students who could greatly contribute to and benefit from higher education but are unprepared and unable to play the games to game the system.

Enter Bard College.

Last year, Bard College, the innovative liberal arts school, made waves in the world of higher education by offering an alternative admissions route to the standard ACT and GPA route. Slate's education columnist Rebecca Schuman reported on the new system which asks students to "simply write four essays" to qualify for admission to Bard. Of course, these are no simple high school essays, and they're not just a variation on The Common App. The essays are complex, challenging subjects that demand about 10,000 words of innovative critical thinking and commentary.

Thus, as more colleges begin to re-think the excessive emphasis on the ACT and SAT, English teachers - and really all high school educators - may want to amp up the writing instruction and prepare kids for the rigor of some high-level college writing.

Look for more colleges to re-consider the way they gauge applicants.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

I Love Denver - Living in the Mile High City

It was almost twelve years ago that my wife and left the Midwest and arrived in Denver, Colorado, for a new job and a new life with our new son. We have never regretted our decision. And, here is a fabulous look at Denver in a production put together by Air Ball Creative for TEDx at Mile High

Love you, Denver.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

In Washington CD and Hungry? Check Out "Burger, Tap, & Shake"

Driving around DC with a group of hungry kids on a school trip, doing all we could to avoid fast food and extremely pricey fair, and we found a great burger joint called Burger, Tap, and Shake. Being a bit of a foodie, and certainly a healthy food aficionado, I was not thrilled about walking in to just any burger joint. And then I discovered the Burger of the Month - "The Blitzen." It was a venison-bacon burger with smoked gouda, caraway marmalade, and lingonberry mustard. It was quite a nice surprise. While the bun was a bit better than average fair - and obviously white flour fluffy - the burger was rich and juicy with a great blend of flavors. The fries were tasty, but the onion rings looked delicious (still regretting my choice). And, while I didn't order a shake, several in my group enjoyed some unique flavors, including mango. Burger, Tap, and Shake was quite busy, but efficient, with an eclectic customer base consisting of teenagers and young professionals, as well as families and older patrons. Had I not been on a school trip, I would have certainly imbibed in what looked to be a great tap beer selection as well. So, if you're on Pennsylvania Avenue and looking for lunch, check out B-T-S.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

In Literacy, Close Reading & Passage Analysis is Key

How does the author use language to ...

This question would seem to be the foundation of English and language arts classes, as it is the most critical and requires the most attuned close reading skills. Whether students are looking at a poem or a novel or an essay or a speech or a news feature, they should be studying, analyzing, and commenting on the way the writer uses the conventions of English to achieve his purpose. Focusing on a writer's choices with diction, syntax, tone, and other rhetorical strategies is the essence of analysis. It is also one of the keys to confirming student learning and comprehension. If students are truly being meta-cognitive, if they are truly comprehending the words, if they are really affected by the literature, they should be able to comment on the "ways" by which the author makes that happen.

Certainly, class discussions will address the elements of the novel in terms of character, setting, plot, and theme. But those areas are the most basic of levels in analyzing literature, and they don't address multiple genres outside the novel, play, and short story. Thus, I believe one of the keys to weak English performance and low literacy skills results from English teachers lacking the ability to teach language. Far too often the English classroom is focused on the theme because so many of us are in love with the stories and simply want the students to share our passion for the coming of age of Scout and Holden or the American tragedy of Gatsby or the whimsical fun of the Jabberwocky.

So, in an effective English classroom, you won't only be asking the students about what happened, but instead about how the author made it happen. It's not all about content - it's also about technique.

That is the true study of English.

Is Colorado Ready to Reject PARCC Test

With the recent release of PARCC test scores in Colorado, there was bound to be discussion about the validity of results. For a test in its first year with no data backing authenticity of the scores, and in a state where a considerable number of parents refused to allow testing of their children, the scores were already of dubious value. 

Thus, I was disappointed by the Denver Post’s recent editorial statement that “Parents should accept that PARCC is here to stay and is necessary to help guide education efforts and accountability.” This seems to run contrary to conventional wisdom in education circles which have seen PARCC lose ground in the state of Massachusetts and New York consider a rewrite of Common Core. PARCC is losing ground fast, and many people expect it to fold. According to ChalkbeatCDE head Eliot Asp recently told school boards in Colorado Springs “there’s not enough time to switch to a new test,” and state board chair Steve Durham said, “The odds of continuing with that particular assessment are slim” beyond next year. “But I have only one vote.” A majority of the board is on record as opposing PARCC. Clearly, a shift from PARCC appears to be coming.

In reality, there is significant and reasonable distrust of PARCC’s authenticity, and the legislature has already confirmed a parent’s right to refuse testing for their children. Thus, declaring that parents should simply accept it is hardly going to make that happen. In fact, the opposite is probably true until the people promoting changes in education convince parents that the changes are in the best interest of their children. Parents are going to advocate for their children and their schools regardless of what the state or the media or corporate education reformers like Bill Gates or David Coleman tell them they should do.

PARCC is the problem, and many parents, educators, and legislators who have scrutinized the test have determined it does not meet the needs of the education community. As I've noted, PARCC scores in Illinois indicated “zero percent” of high school students were advanced – a conclusion that is patently absurd in one of the country's most populous states with some of its top high schools. The same is true for Colorado results that indicated only 18% of 8th grade students are proficient in math.  It’s a flawed assessment that will fold for good reason. But that doesn’t mean that parents and critics are opposed to all testing or accountability or measurement. Case in point: many schools in the metro area gave the ACT-Aspire test this fall, and there was no opt-out movement. Similarly, in the past year Colorado students have willingly taken MAPS and CoGAT and the PSAT and the ACT and AP exams without hesitation. Thus, it’s clear that parents are interested in standardized tests as a diagnostic for learning, and they will commit to tests they trust.

Now that the ESSA has replaced NCLB, and decision-making on school accountability has returned to the states (albeit with maintaining an emphasis on yearly testing), Colorado schools and parents have an opportunity to craft a more authentic and meaningful system of assessment. Diagnostics are valid and appreciated – a test-and-punish system that seeks to myopically focus all accountability and measurement of “success” on a single test score are not. Going forward, those seeking progress in public education need to look more deeply into the issue of student achievement and testing and not simply consider the issue resolved. 

Because it’s not.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Denver Post Nears $400 a Year

I must say I was little taken aback on Saturday when my Weekend Wall Street Journal jumped to $4.00 a copy. Seems like just yesterday it was $2.00. And, granted, even $4.00 is a great deal for all that comes in the weekend WSJ. And, I know producing a world class newspaper isn't cheap, and it's getting more and more difficult with the digital age. That said, I was even more shocked when I went to renew my subscription to the Denver Post.

The Denver Post is a fantastic, high quality city newspaper, and I have truly enjoyed being a daily subscriber for the past decade.  However, I must admit I was given pause with my most recent renewal notice.  One year, seven days a week, $399.  Considering the price when I came to Denver ten years ago was less than fifty bucks, I'm having a hard time getting my mind around this.  Though I shouldn't be.  For a high quality paper to be delivered to my driveway each morning by 5:00 am, I shouldn't complain.  It's actually a hell of a deal at a little more than a dollar a day.

But I do worry that we are on a downward slide, and that fewer people will truly appreciate the value of such a daily news feed.  And don't get started on the internet.  Because I am talking local news that requires feet on the ground and reporters in a newsroom regularly.  Certainly, I can get a lot of news from national sources.  But the world will be worse off if daily big city newspapers disappear.  While local suburban journals like The Villager or the Aurora Sentinel or the Centennial News do a nice job for their narrow markets, we can't lose the Denver Post.

So, give it some serious thought.  We need the Denver Post.  Even if you're just getting the weekend package, an investment in the Denver Post is good for us all.

So, check it out.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Support the Study of Humanities - Life's Not Just about STEM

The study of English and the humanities could use a spirited defense these days, as education budgets are slashed and the country is increasingly infatuated with the study of STEM.  The New York Times resident Burkean conservative and defender of culture David Brooks worries about the decreasing number of humanities degrees being awarded.  In fact, that number has been cut in half in the past fifty years, and the "humanist vocation" is fading as a legitimate course of study primarily for career and economic objectives.  Certainly, parents and students have reason to shy away because there is some truth to the adage, "Accounting majors get jobs; lit majors don't."

And that point of view poses the potential of cultural decay.

English and humanities teachers are, in the words of my former department chair, "purveyors of culture."  English literature and the humanities are vestiges of our spiritual identity, as they address existential questions about character and destiny.  There is a meaning-of-life angle to education that all people seek, and those answers are uniquely found in the stories we tell and our collective history as human beings.  These areas - the part of us that is "talked about in eulogies" represent the most "inward and elemental" essence of our lives.

Brooks' concerns were mirrored in the Times Sunday Observer column, as Verlyn Klinkenborg laments The Decline and Fall of the English Major.  Notably, Klinkenborg laments that she still has a job teaching fiction and nonfiction writing, as she "hopes and fears" each year she will have nothing left to teach them because they can already write well. Obviously, her hopes and fears never come to pass, which considering her position at Harvard may be a bit depressing. The type of writing that she is talking about - clear, direct, and humane - is at the heart of the study of humanities that Brooks discusses.  She notes the humanities is "a set of disciplines that is ultimately an attempt to examine and comprehend the cultural, social and historical activity of our species through the medium of language."  

Clearly, a theme is emerging about the role played by the study of language and literature.  And English teachers must step up. However, Klinkenborg offers a very clear explanation and warning of the situation: The recent shift away from the humanities suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring (though that doesn’t explain the current popularity of political science). Two, the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter. And three, the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations.

Granted, there are defenders of the arts and humanities that are still fighting the good fight and raising the profile of culture in schools.  Brooks points us to the recent report from The Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.  And, certainly, Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind promotes the sort of right brain thinking the defines Brooks' humanism.  Other voices from the wilderness that has become the realm of the literature and social science studies are seeking to change the discussion from "STEM to STEAM."  Millenial writer Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post acknowledges the recent revelations about the humanities, adding perspective and counterargument to the claim of the humanities' demise.  Like Brooks, Petri observes that the criticisms about the usefulness or marketability of an English degree actually miss the entire point of the humanities in the first place.

Read the case for the Humanities, and it is like someone saying that painting is great exercise for your arm and studies show that painters on average live three months longer than their non-painting contemporaries. If that’s all you get out of it, forget it. There are other ways of exercising your arm and living longer. Those are externalities. They aren’t why you paint.  

That is, perhaps, the most astute of her observations.  The true crisis of the humanities is that people have so obviously missed the point taught in great works of art that to argue for justifying the arts is beyond the critics' ability to understand.  Interestingly, Dickens addressed this issue more than a century ago with his satirical portrait of Gradgrind's utilitarian school in his tenth novel Hard Times.  Notably, Petri links to an article from The Atlantic which claims "Actually, the Humanities Aren't in Crisis."  Of course, Jordan Weissmann is simply arguing that 1985 was a worse year, and not that the humanities are actually in great shape lately.  However, the argument that the humanities are not in decline is bolstered in a recent piece from Andrew Grafton and James Grossman, "The Humanities in Dubious Battle."  Grafton and Grossman expand upon the basics of Weissmann's piece and criticize faulty reading of data regarding the study of the humanities.  Certainly it is that true that the elite colleges like Harvard are going to procure and produce more humanities students than state and community colleges.  But that has always been the case, precisely because studying the humanities can be seen as almost a luxury among those paying heavy tuition bills.  That said, I still have little doubt that in a STEM-focused world where some in government and media want to eliminate student loan and scholarship for all but STEM majors, a PR campaign for the arts is still necessary. That is perhaps the most astute observation from Grafton and Grossman who believe:

What we need to hear—and what the Harvard report doesn't offer us—are their voices. We also need to hear the voices of those whose lives are touched by these humanities majors after college, whether at the workplace or in the community.  What makes some students believe that being humanists will make them better doctors, better lawyers, better advertising experts? What do they find, in their courses, to keep them in departments of English and history and Romance languages? How are we helping them to articulate what they bring to the world beyond the university, so they can tell those stories more effectively? How can we make those stories available to new undergraduates as they decide what to study?
Ultimately, the real battle lies with those on the front lines in the English and social studies classroom.  It is up to us to reiterate "this a very real matter ... of being."


Sunday, December 6, 2015

What to do about Gun Violence?

Paris. Colorado Springs. San Bernadino.

Sandy Hook. Aurora. Virginia Tech. Columbine. San Ysrido. University of Texas.

The list of mass shootings in American society just keeps growing, and there seems to be no way to ever stop the carnage in a country that allows unlimited and untraceable access to weaponry. The media covers the mayhem non-stop and then asks whether Americans have become "desensitized" to the violence. Which, of course, they have in many ways because life goes on, and there is little evidence that any progress can be made in decreasing or stopping the scourge.

This week the Denver Post's Jeremy Meyers asks, "How Do We Cope with Mass Shootings?" It is, sadly, appropriate that a Colorado writer ask this question, as the Rocky Mountain state has been the target of a seemingly disproportionate number of mass shootings. Meyer effectively frames the issue and poses legitimate queries:

It could be argued those past events show how deranged our society has been for years, that gun violence and mass shootings have been our plague and likely will continue until something changes. That has been the call coming from everyone from the president to Facebook friends. Can gun laws be changed to prevent mass killings?
The answer to that question is probably a meek and resigned, "No." For Meyer acknowledges the research on both sides of the debate, explaining how such violence and mass shootings are either getting worse, or they're not. And, he notes that there is little chance the country would ever take extreme actions to decrease gun possession

Repeal the Second Amendment. Seize guns like in Australia. Round up everyone who scares us and turn our schools, hospitals and movie theaters into armed fortresses, he said. Clearly, this won't happen. Fox is probably right. Even with tighter restrictions, mass murders will continue. However, there is disagreement over whether tougher gun laws would influence the overall number of gun deaths.
Certainly, contemporary American society is a different place in terms of mass shootings than it was for its entire history up until the turn of the century and millenium. Truly, while overall violence and crime are down in the past twenty years, the incidents of mass random shootings are way up and unprecendented in history and among civilized, first-world countries. This conclusion is, interestingly, supported in another Denver Post article published today which advises, "Know the Drill? Security Experts See Shift ..." Truly, while violence and crime is down, the type of mass shootings first engrained in our consciousness with Columbine (though there were previous, but rare, examples in American society) and now becoming a regular event are on the rise and show no signs of abating.

And, while "gun control" advocates like President Obama are stating "Enough is enough," there seems to be no way that the NRA and GOP leadership will allow any restrictions on gun possession - even when it's the seemingly logical step of prohibiting people on the terrorists watch list from amassing arsenals in America. Americans already possess and are continuing to buy firearms at a staggering rate. While American citizens make up roughly 5% of the world's population, they own 40% of the world's guns. And, with the FBI saying that Black Friday background checks set a record, there is no way Americans are decreasing gun possession. Truly, a significant percentage of Americans support gun regulation, which could include licensing and registration, as well as tracking ammo sales, while an equal number of people believe that if all Americans are armed, we will "stop these shooters" in their tracks.

I truly believe that is naive, if not downright crazy. Mass shootings operate on a degree of surprise, and shooters can still take out dozens, if not hundreds, of people before any person with a concealed handgun could accurately respond. It just won't happen. But neither will a decrease in gun possession or legal access. All the discussions about terrorism and mental illness and background checks and "good guys with guns stopping bad guys with guns" are really, in my opinion, pointless. And, that makes me sad. Perhaps that makes me desensitized. I certainly feel resigned to the status quo and simply hope I never randomly end up in the line of fire. I also think that some action is better than none. So, if gun possession is going to go up, I would like to see legimate regulation.

What that looks like is anybody's guess. So, like Jeremy Meyer, I don't know that there is an answer to how we cope with mass shootings ... other than just cope with mass shootings.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Alamos - A Nice, Affordable Malbec

I've always enjoyed pinot noir when I drink wine, though I can appreciate a really nice zinfandel or one of the many interesting red-blends out there these days.  There are even a few merlots that really intrigue me.  However, the malbec from Argentina is a wine that really appeals to my palate.  The malbec - in my novice opinion - bridges the gap between the full flavor of a cabernet sauvignon and the soft delicate nature of the pinot noir.  That said, malbec is a relative unknown for the average American, and I don't have a lot of great names to point to.  In fact, I enjoyed a great malbec in Vail recently, but can't recall the name.  Thus, on a recent trip to my neighborhood shop DTC Wine and Spirits, I engaged in a great malbec discussion with one of their "wine guys."  He recommended Alamaos from Mendoza, Argentina as "their most popular Malbec."  At $10.99 this wine is both quite affordable and drinkable.  My wife does not enjoy a heavy red, and rarely enjoys the cabs I drink. But she found this quite to her liking.  Alamos Malbec is a great introduction to malbec, the red wine gem of South America.

Alamos Malbec

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Choose First Bank

Personal banking is important.

I grew up in a small town and my family always banked with a local credit union. Thus, I grew up with great personal service and a financial institution that was committed first to customer service and second to conservative fiscal policy. I never had any concerns with my money, and the bankers always knew my name from the second I stepped in the door. That was what banking meant to me. Thus, as an adult when I moved to Chicago, I was disappointed with the impersonal nature of the Bank of Chicago that charged extra for personal banking service and expected as much to be done on-line as possible. That wasn't "banking" to me.

When I moved to Colorado where I knew virtually no one, I had to take a chance on a bank, and I considered going with a huge national bank like Wells Fargo. However, I instead wandered in to the King Soopers at Belleview Plaza, and was introduced to the small community banking of First Bank. I couldn't be happier with that choice. Living in walking distance to my supermarket and bank, I have in Greenwood Village that small town credit union feeling. And, of course, it got better when (DISCLOSURE) my sister-in-law began working for First Bank.

To this day, my bank is a place where I feel at home. First Bank is a well-run institution that suffered few losses in the financial meltdown of 2008. With great personal service and solid, conservative money policy, First Bank is a great choice to park your money. So, if you are looking to move away from the big banks - especially Bank of America - consider giving First Bank a try.

You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Teacher's View of the Week That Was - 11-22-15

Thanksgivng of 2015 came on the heels of the Paris terrorist attacks, and was, disturbingly, bookended by an act of domestic terrorism in Colorado when right-wing nut job Robert Dear opened fire at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, CO. In the news that followed, the officials and media referred to the "gunman" and the "attack" without using the appropriate term - terrorist attack. Commenters on social media immediately took the media to task for this intentional downplaying of the issue, for the target of a facilility that provides women's health treatment, including pregnancy termination, clearly makes the attack politically motivated. Keep in mind, the media and officials immediately used the term terrorist attack in Paris, despite no immediate motive or agenda. Both attacks are terrorist in nature, and both should be referred to as such.

It's tough to think about other events during the week when violence dominates the discussion. But the week of Thanksgiving also gave us Black Friday, which continues to mar the spirit of the holiday and expose the true nature of American consumerism, as brawls and stupidity make the news on the annual day of wasteful spending. Of course, it should be noted that as much as we like to condemn the mindless shopping and craziness, consumer culture is synonymous with the American identity. As a Gen X-er, I am a textbook example of a person who laments the sterile mindless nature of consumer culture at the same time that I embrace the very culture I criticize. Such is our lives.

And, the issue of education reform and standardized testing caught my attention this week, as Congress debates the re-write of No Child Left Behind. As we hope for some reprieve from the naive test-and-punish approach of past edu-reformers, we still face the intransigence of writers and critics who naively promote the Common Core standards and associated testing as the answer to struggling schools. The latest entry that frustrated me a bit was a bit of commentary from Fordham leaders Michael Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio who asked CCSS/PARCC critics in Colorado to not "shoot the test-score messenger."  The Fordham boys are basically rubber-stamping the CCSS and PARCC results as valid measures that expose "failing schools," but they are ignoring the legitimate criticisms of CO parents who challenge results and "refuse testing."

It was an interesting week, though a rather unproductive one for me. I've been fighting a tough respiratory virus for two weeks. Here's hoping for a better December.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Alex Seidel's Fruition in Denver is a Sublime Dining Experience


There are places where we eat, and then there are places where we dine. Chef Alex Seidel's restaurant Fruition on Sixth Avenue in Denver is a place for dining. Fruition is one of those culinary meccas where dining can be a truly sublime dining experience, as the preparation and serving of food is elevated to an art form.  My wife and I visited Fruition on Friday to celebrate Winter Break and start the holiday season. It was a rather brisk, damp evening, but our hearts were quickly warmed by the atmosphere of Fruition. From the moment we entered the cozy little place on Sixth, we felt like we had simply stopped by Seidel's house for dinner. The hostess and staff were friendly and welcoming.

We began the meal with a couple of starters - the butternut squash bisque with duck confit and the Monteray Bay squid with salt cod fritters.  The soup was rich with a fascinating blend of flavors from the duck and pears, while the squid was delicate and beautifully accented by a marmalade.  The squid ink was a unique flavor that made for a wonderful varied appetizer. Of course, our kids couldn't get enough of the whole wheat bread and butter with sea salt and herbs.  For dinner, we ordered the pork tenderloin, the black olive crusted sole, and the grilled bavette steak. Everything was done to perfection, as the dishes were accented by multiple flavors, from the Maine lobster fondue to the braised short-rib daube. My son was in heaven with the short ribs, and our waitress told it had been braised for eighteen hours. It was practically butter by the time it reached our table.

We also enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine - a Lirac from Rhone, France and a Spanish Rioja. Both wines were rich on the nose and palate, though I was partial to the full body of the Lirac. Either one would go well with the meats and fish. And that sort of symmetry is what makes a place like Fruition so special. We eat to survive, but we dine to live. And Chef Seidel is a true artisan in the kitchen. I also appreciate his attention to the craft of raising food, as Fruition also maintains a farm down near Larkspur. Seidel is so attuned to the farm-to-table concept that all staff work at least one day a week on the farm. That dedication is what creates such a wonderful experience at Fruition.

For dessert and coffee, we enjoyed the French press along with the bourbon pecan pie a la mode and the Vahlrona chocolate brownie.  While the flavors were rich and developed, I do think the crust on the pie was a bit stiff. It probably resulted from the richness of the caramel-like pie filling. And that's my only criticism. The coffee was rich as well, and that's an important finishing touch, for far too often we are disappointed by the pedestrian nature of the coffee at nice restaurants. Fruition, however, did not disappoint.

* This post is a re-print from my other blog; published Dec of 2014

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

How to "Teach" Literature

While it's true, as I've noted, there is no sacred book - that is no book that is essential and indispensable to any child's education - I wonder if there are sacred elements to teaching a piece of classic literature. For example, is it a reasonable expectation that a teacher using an allegorical novel to actually teach the allegory and the allusions?

I tend to believe that if a class is studying Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and the teacher does not focus on the halo around Hester Prynne's head, then that class is not truly studying the novel. They may be reading it, but they are not appreciating it as literature. The same goes for the Garden of Eden imagery in Lord of the Flies or A Separate Peace. Certainly, they can be read as popular fiction. Character, set, and plot can be discussed, just as young adult novels are discussed in middle school. However, I don't feel positive about teachers failing to instruct students in the finer points of the works.

Of course, none of these writers published their novels with the intention of it being deconstructed by students. And, in a novel like Lord of the Flies, it's probably worth discussing whether it's important to teach the Christian allegory and the Freudian allegory and the World War II political allegory. Yet, the authors used the allusions and archetypes for a reason. There is a message in each of these novels that is linked to those techniques.

So, I certainly hope that a considerable degree of academia and scholarship guides the teaching of literature in the average high school English class. But I don't have a lot of hope at times.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Colorado Wine Takes a Seat at the Table

When Warren Winiarski pronounces your wine "all grown up," you have arrived. And it seems that is the status for Colorado wineries which have been expanding with increasingly credibility for years now. Winiarski was one of the early pioneers in California wines, and he was one of two people to put American wines on the global map when his Stag's Leap cabernet bested French wines at the Judgment of Paris, an epic moment for oenophiles and one which was captured for all of us in the movie Bottle-Shock.

Since that epic moment in the enjoyment of crushed grapes, it has been the rest of the country's task to catch up to California. And while Colorado will probably never compete with Napa or Sonoma on a big scale, the praise Winiarski offered for Colorado vintners should not be understated. This moment was artfully captured by Denver Post food critic Kristin Browning-Blas who recently reported on Colorado's best wines at the Governor's Cup, a competition that Winiarski helped judge.  The competition identified Colorado's Top Wines with some recommendations for us all.

Colorado has been developing a reputation as "Beer's Napa Valley" with the incredible growth in the craft brewing market. And the state is developing a similar name in the world of distilled spirits, especially with the medal winning status of Breckenridge Bourbon, as one of the world's top three bourbons. And, now it seems the vino in the Rocky Mountains is world class, too.

I'll drink to that.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Teaching English, Not Just Literature

High school English teachers are tasked with a pretty significant curriculum load when you consider how extensively they must be teachers of content and teachers of skill.

English teachers are asked to teach a variety of literary ideas from a seemingly endless list of titles, and there is often no rhyme nor reason to why one book is chosen, other than the fact that the teacher likes it. Of course, there are the standards of the canon, and certain genres are common as part of American history and culture. Accordingly, the challenging nature of the language and the themes should increase with each grade level - for example, Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is probably much more effective with juniors, whereas Lord of the Flies can probably be included in most freshman classes. The goal of a literature-based curriculum is, of course, two-fold: teachers are asked to impart and develop literacy in terms of skills of reading and critical analysis while they are also asked to be "purveyors of culture." Arguably, character education is the goal.

However, beyond the literature-based components of the job, English teachers are tasked with teaching students how to write - and this is often the most neglected part of the job. The reason is obvious: to assess writing, teachers end up buried under mountains of essays. And far too many high school English teachers do not consider themselves composition teachers. For some, they just love their novels and stories too much. Others, perhaps, simply don't really know how to teach writing. And, alas, there are some - perhaps many - who simply don't like to grade essays, so they don't assign them. In discussing pedagogy with teachers, I understand all too well the challenge of actually "teaching English" well. Beyond curriculum - which often contains more than good teaching could accomplish in several years - teachers must culttivate skills which kids master at wildly different intervals. This is a problem.

Ultimately, teaching English is about develop competence, then mastery, with facilitating language. But what that looks like on a daily basis varies widely.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Trump & Carson Are Un-Serious Candidates Who Should Be Ignored by Rational People

I still don't get it. This bizarre fascination with an "outsider" or rebel candidate who will "fix Washington" should quickly come to an end. Donald Trump & Ben Carson should never, and will never, be President of the United States. For, as Bill Maher recently noted, "If Ben Carson thinks someone with zero governing experience should be President, he must first let someone with zero medical experience operate on his brain." Why do we believe people who know nothing about the government are the best qualified to run it? Strangely, "If there is one thing Republican voters can agree on it's that the less the head of our government knows about government, the better."

And, that's just wacky.

Obviously, voters are disgruntled with "our government," which really just means they are dissatisfied with roughly half the reps with whom they disagree. And, it is the frivilous thinking that "government is broken" which leads to the rise of un-serious and potential harmful candidates like Trump and Carson. Let's be clear, the American government is not "broken." Somalia's govt is broken. Syria's govt is broken. The American government is in no way whatsoever "broken." But it's that type of thinking that allows for un-serious people like Trump and Carson to get a megaphone. And, that is a problem. That part of our electorate is, in fact, broken. Despite all the rants of people like Trump and Carson who declare America a mess and make crazy comparisons to Nazis and slavery and the Depression, the Republic survives and thrives. Strangely, immigration, debt, spending, etc. have not inhibited the US from remaining the most dynamic economy in the world. Certainly, we could decrease a bloated military budget that is largest in the world, and larger than the next 30 countries combined. And, we could raise more revenue to pay for the retirement and medical care of the last two generations who have drawn out far more than they ever paid in (leading to massive debt & shortfalls) while also voting themselves an ever-lower tax rate. But, that said, contemporary American society and government is every bit as sound as it has been. Nope, not "broken." And Trump/Carson are bizarre candidates who should not be acknowledged by serious people.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

John Kasich is the Right Choice for GOP - Why Don't They Agree

What is wrong with GOP voters?

Certainly that is a question that many Democrats and pundits and GOP leadership are asking themselves as they watch the inexplicable popularity of GOP presidential "candidates" like Donald Trump and Ben Carson. But, as many political observers concede, the GOP electorate has a history of flirting with the "outsider" candidate who talks tough about fixing Washington. Eventually, the primary voters send the outsiders home and support a candidate who can actually appeal to a broader voter base, including independents and conservative Democrats, and who can actually compete in the general election. This year the GOP candidate field features basically three of those: Florida Senator Marco Rubio, New Jersy Governor Chris Christie, and Ohio Governor John Kasich. And, while any of the three will be a strong challenger to Hillary Clinton, I can't figure out why John Kasich is polling so low.

In John Kasich, GOP faithful have a Reagan-era Republican leader with a strong history of fiscal conservatism, and who happens to be a Republican governor of Ohio, which is a strong Democratic swing state that is pivotal in the race for the White House in 2016. How is that not a Republican dream candidate?  Kasich is a successful Republican leader who appeals across the spectrum, and he has been that for decades. He's been a strong state and national legislator, serving in the Ohio Senate as well as the US House of Representatives. And, in a state that has swung Democratic in all the recent close Presidential races, Kasich has been a popular and successful governor who can work across the aisles to appeal to both Democrats and Republicans - or at least the moderate, rational ones in each party.

Truly, if the GOP actually wants to take on Hillary Clinton and run a competitive race, the best choices are Rubio, Christie, and Kasich. And, really, the best of all three is John Kasich.

Will the GOP primary voters ever wake up?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Misguided Mike Bloomberg Misses the Point on Testing & Public Education

Many in the education world recently cheered the announcement by the Obama administration that schools should seek to decrease testing and limit the amount of time taking standardized tests to no more than two percent of class time. While the stance was a clear reaction to the public's opposition to NCLB policies and increased testing, as well as a growing "opt out" movement of parents and kids who simply refuse the tests and their test-based accountability ideals, it was pretty clear that this policy is a text-book case of Obama politicking. For, it was his administration's policies under Education chief Arne Duncan that pushed these test-based policies in the first place. And, there is little evidence that Obama's policy will do anything to help the situation.

In fact, the one thing Obama's announcement has done is to amplify the entrenched positions of pro-testing and pro-test-based-accountability voices. This rigid opposition to facts is best exemplified by New York mayor Mike Bloomberg's recent piece of naivete in which he urges us to Demand Better Schools, Not Less Testing. Bloomberg perpetuates many myths about public education, not the least of which is the belief that "public schools are failing" or that American students are "falling behind" the rest of the world. Recent test scores from NAEP and ACT show stagnant or slightly lower scores on math and reading, which truly exposes the flaws of the test based reform that have dominated the past decade of public education policy. And scores from the international PISA tests continue to expose the real problem of American public schools - that is, poverty. For, American students are not, in Bloomberg's words, "in the middle of the pack." American schools with less than 25% poverty actually rank among the leaders of the world in international tests, and the state of Massachusetts actually ranks among the scores of countries like Finland, Singapore, and other "high scoring nations."

Additionally, Bloomberg ignores all the data the indicates test-based reform hasn't improved the academic achievement for our poorest and neediest students. As those kids' schools narrow their curriculum to only test prep, the students fall farther behind, and the measure of success by standardized test actually continues to favor students of affluent families. These tests have long been known to be at best a predictor of socio-economic status, not academic achievement or, worse, potential. By focusing on a one-size-fits-all model of academically focused tests with a bias against poor kids and students with an interest in the arts or skilled labor, people like Bloomberg actually cause more harm than good.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Keep Colorado Liquor Sales Local & Independent

Colorado is unique and independent and home to one of the largest most well-defined craft liquor industries in the country. Often referred to as "Beer's Napa Valley," Colorado is home to thousands of independent microbreweries, wineries, and distillers. And, it's a wonderful time for both producers and consumers in this artisan field. However, some are critical of Colorado liquor laws which limit liquor licenses to one per individual business entity. After trying for years to convince the Colorado legislature to change the laws and allow them to sell full-strength beer and wine, the large corporate supermarket chains are now attempting a legislative "end around" by floating a ballot initiative asking voters to approve what the legislature has long rejected. These corporate entities believe that as Colorado's population changes with thousands moving here every month the voters who are used to buying liquor at supermarkets will shift the state's liquor laws to make Colorado like all the other states.

That is change for change's sake, and it's something Colorado does not need. Here is a link to my recent letter to the Denver Post, voicing opposition to the change.

The first rule of governing is “Don’t fix what ain’t broke.” That advice should guide voters’ rejection of Your Choice Colorado’s ballot initiative to change Colorado’s liquor laws on beer and wine sales. Allowing supermarket liquor sales will decrease choice for Coloradans by putting many independent store owners out of business while creating a beer-wine monopoly of the Big Three grocers — King Soopers, Safeway and Walmart. Supermarkets are not hurting for business, and they don’t need to sell everything. Clearly, their limited shelf space and narrow purchasing practices will not offer consumers the vast varieties of small craft beers, wines and spirits available in the state’s 1,600 independent liquor stores. Coloradans appreciate the choice offered by individual liquor stores with knowledgeable staff. Supermarkets don’t need to monopolize beverage sales, and Colorado doesn’t need a pointless and unnecessary new liquor law.
My support for Colorado's liquor stores is not about "opposing the free market," or any other nonsense about my politics. In reality, there is no free market, and when suppliers are consolidated, supply shrinks. Undoubtedly, if supermarkets sell full-strenght beer and wine, many independent liquor stores will lose enough business that they will not be able to make their rents, and they will close. Certainly, as in many states where supermarkets sell beer, wine, and liquor, many liquor stores will be able to stay in business. But that's not really the point. Colorado has a unique economy that offers consumers extensive choice, and there's no reason to change the laws that have helped cultivate such a diverse artisan industry.

Colorado media has covered the issue extensively over the years, and there are many solid arguments on both sides. In this piece of commentary, two writers argue "No, Don't Allow Colorado Grocers to Sell Beer and Wine." It's a sound argument about the value of locally owned independent stores, And, of course, in the interest of fairness, the Denver Post also offered the counter-argument, which basically centers on the innocuous ideas of "choice" and "freedom" with little appreciation for the nuances of the economy and small business. And, the Denver Post hasn't been shy about promoting the interests of large corporate supermarket chains over the hopes of independent business owners. Editorial writer Jeremy Meyer has written in favor of corporations a couple times. Meyer tries to argue that "other states do it," so Colorado has nothing to fear. But that view is naive to the uiqueness of individual states and communities. And, again it simply focuses on the idea that consumers should have the convenience of buying liquor at supermarkets. Yet, that assertion is on shaky ground. Nearly, every supermarket has a liquor store nearby. And arguing that shoppers are so burdened by not being able to buy everything in one place is a bit absurd. Meyer recently followed up with his second column on the issue, though he was a bit more even-tempered with this one. Here was my response to Jeremy Meyer and the DP Editorial Board:

As a supporter of independent business owners, I firmly oppose an unneccessary change to Colorado law, especially when it would only succeed in consolidating larger market share to corporate owners. And, I speak with the view of a transplanted mid-westerner who knows about "how other states sell liquor." When I moved to CO a decade ago, I discovered the uniqueness of the industry that has created something special. And the conservative in me sees no need to change. With your most recent piece, I am hoping you are beginning to re-consider your position that Colorado needs to change simply to be like other states. Coloradoans are not hurting for choice - in fact, they have plenty. And, as I noted in my letter, "supermarkets don't have to sell everything." We can preserve specialty shops because it works for Colorado. Let's focus on avoiding change for change sake, and let's not promote the "Walmartification" of Colorado's liquor industry when we can honor the spirit of artisan craftsman and small business owners.

Ultimately, there is no reason to change Colorado liquor laws. Individual licenses means the state has thousands of vendors for spirits, and no single business has a monopoly. The system serves Colorado well, and, truly, no one is going thirsty.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Broken Compass - A Breckenridge Brewery

For those who are heading to the High Country this fall break or through the winter, and who might be hoping to enjoy a tasty, malty, hoppy beverage while there, the town of Breckenridge welcomed a new brewery to town last year with the launching of the Broken Compass Brewery. The brewery, which had an unofficial opening over Memorial Day weekend, is fully operational now after hosting a grand opening during the last weekend of May. The owners celebrated with a tasting party that was offering generous two-ounce+ pours of six featured beers, including a very sippable Coconut Porter, a couple deep rich coffee and chocolate stouts, and an innovative Chili Pepper Ale.

The Broken Compass Brewery is located outside of Main Street, Breckenridge, and so patrons will need to take the quick two-minute drive down Airport Road. There they can join co-owners Jason Ford and David Axelrod, who are affectionately known around town by their beards, and enjoy some truly innovative beers the reflect the spirit of life above 9,000 feet. It is truly a labor of love for these men, and they would be happy to show you around the brewery while talking about the process of fermenting barley, wheat, and hops. They are simply happy to create a product that will appeal to their customers. And if they can sell somewhere between 500 and 2000 barrels a year, the effort will be worth the time.

For beer drinkers in Breckenridge, it's worth stopping by, having a few cold ones, and perhaps taking home a growler or two.


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Is Ayn Rand's Anthem Rigorous Enough for High School?

Rigor is defined by some teachers as the amount of homework or the expectation of daily quizzes.  Others believe it is related to the quality of the materials studied and the level of sophistication in the text.  As I deal with discussions of appropriate - and appropriately rigorous - texts for high school students, I am struggling with my feelings toward Ayn Rand's Anthem.  While this dystopian novel has been taught at both the middle and high school level, I feel the simplicity of the text and the overly transparent nature of the theme and message make it far more appropriate for early middle school.  It's more like Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 or Lois Lowry's The Giver, than it is Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World.  Of course, the Ayn Rand Foundation offers Anthem as the freshman and sophomore book choice for its essay contest each year, but I don't think I'll base my ideas about pedagogy on their recommendations.  Obviously, Rand wrote this book geared toward children as a way of contributing to the dystopian genre - and offering her own indoctrination.  The book is, after all, roughly one hundred pages.  And, it begins with sentences like "It is a sin to write this.  It is a sin to think words no other think ..."  That just doesn't sound like a high school text to me - and if it is, that may be part of the problem in public education.