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?