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.