Thursday, March 31, 2016

Soda Consumption Falls to 30-Year Low - It's About Time!

Have you noticed more Coca-Cola commercials now than you have in recent years? It certainly seems that way - and it may be a result of the soft drink companies feeling a financial pinch from the news that "soda consumption dropped to a 30-year-low" in recent months. If that were true, it could be an amazing development in the fight against obesity and type-2 diabetes. Let's face it - soda is one of the worst products we can consume because it is basically "sugar water" with a bunch of chemicals thrown in to make it even more addictive. I know that when I cut daily soda consumption out thirteen years ago, I lost a good 15+ pounds in about six weeks. While I certainly enjoyed a pop every once in a while, I enjoy much more feeling healthy and fit. And, there is no reason that we can't adapt our tastes to products like unsweetened Arizona Tea, or better yet, some Coconut Water. That said, I dilute those products for a variety of reasons. And, even if consumers are switching from high-fructose corn syrup laden soft drinks to something as simple as Vitamin Water, at least they are cutting their sugar and calorie consumption.

CO Civics Test Bill Barely Passes Committee

SB/HB-148 - the "civics bill " from Senator Owen Hill and inspired by the work of The Foss Institute - barely cleared the Senate Education Committee today on a 5-4 vote. It was a fascinating day of discussion and testimony as the committee worked through amendments and discussion. There were several stops and starts as Senator Kerr introduced numerous amendments, and Senator Merrifield tried to replace the 9th grade PARCC test with the civics test in an "amendment that should satisfy everyone." That comment was, of course, one of many moments of levity and humor during almost two hours of discussion. But, the most interesting point of the debate came very early on when bill sponsor Owen Hill basically exposed his own bill to the widest interpretation possible, implying that teachers and schools have complete "local control" and autonomy in how they administer the test. When pressed on this issue from a quizzical Senator Mike Johnston, he said he "trusts teachers and principals"to do what is right for their communities, even if that means the exam can be taken as "an open book" quiz with the teacher "projecting the quiz on screen." Basically, it can be a group test with all students passing it together. The point, he explained, was to "start the conversation" about civics and citizenship. It was a truly, uh, interesting point of discussion, and at the end of the day, none of us listening in can be really sure whether students have to take the test or not.

The new exam would be on top of a longstanding state requirement that every student “satisfactorily complete” a civics class to graduate. Disabled students wouldn’t have to take the test, and principals or superintendents could waive the requirement for students who meet all other graduation requirements and can show “extraordinary circumstances.” And test results would not be used for teacher evaluations or district and school ratings. Committee members asked Hill if the bill would allow principals or superintendents to waive the test for whole groups of students. He indicated it would, to the quiet surprise of several people in the room.

In the end, Senators Kerr, Todd, and Merrifield were joined by Committee Vice-Chair Marble in voting against the bill. Marble commented that she was unsettled by the implication of this bill that by "passing the test" students could in some way feel like they were competent in their knowledge of civics and government. She was also disappointed by bill opponents who criticized the content as trivial. Ultimately, the bill will go to the floor and then the House committee where it will be target for more amendments.

In my view, it should be enough for the legislature to turn this bill into a resolution that "strongly encourages" the incorporation of this test into the current civics class. Students should be given the opportunity to take the test and receive some sort of endorsement for doing so successfully. That promotes the idea without creating the most high stakes standardized test in the state.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Testimony Opposing Colorado Citizenship Test Bill

Today, I testified before the Colorado Senate Education Hearing, asking them to oppose and reject SB/HB-148, which would require that all high school students pass the citizenship test as a graduation requirement. Here is the text of my testimony:

My name is Michael Mazenko, and I’m an educator and school administrator with nearly 25 years in education both here and abroad, in public and private schools. I am speaking as a private citizen and on behalf of SEEK, the grassroots group of parents and educators, and I am urging you to reject the idea of a citizenship test as a graduation requirement. I am not opposed to standardized tests – in fact, as an AP teacher, I teach to them. But this bill is unnecessary and will do nothing to improve educational outcomes for kids. On the surface, the test seems innocuous or even "a good idea," but we must not diminish a student's entire academic body of work to a single standardized test, regardless of subject. And, let’s be clear: if you pass this bill, you are stating that a single test of civics knowledge is equal in value to all other subjects combined. That is a sad dismissal of the idea of a well-rounded education.

The problem with this bill is it naively and mistakenly equates facts with knowledge. Colorado already requires students to pass a government class, and a standardized test neither proves nor guarantees a person is an informed citizen. Being able to cite the Mississippi River as the country’s longest or knowing that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration will not make citizens more informed voters. It's easy to argue that an educated person should know the same facts about American government that aspiring citizens do. But, what do those facts really prove about knowledge of citizenship and government?

Our opposition is not simply about "over-testing,” though that does create a slippery slope toward an increasing battery of tests. The problem is the significance placed on this test. No single test should be a graduation requirement. A student’s education consists of numerous subjects and varied skills with thousands of hours of class time and credits. And CDE has spent years developing the 2021 requirements that contain multiple pathways to demonstrate proficiency across curricula. Placing one test above all that is ridiculous. This test is a symbolic red herring that deceives the public into thinking passing the test will guarantee "an educated electorate." It will not.

Taking a punitive approach that threatens kids with no graduation if they don't pass a single objective test will not inspire a love of country or a deeper understanding of government. Many students will memorize the info for the test only to forget it a short time later. But this test could negatively impact struggling students who could see their entire academic record tossed aside over the inability to regurgitate facts. Many people forget civics facts after they leave high school. Will you also mandate that adult voters pass a refresher test every couple years to prove they are competent to vote? If not, then this whole idea is hypocritical. Mandating the Pledge of Allegiance does not make people love their country, and mandating a citizenship test won’t either. Let’s inspire kids with civics knowledge, not threaten them with it.

If you want to improve civics knowledge, you should promote and fund programs like Model United Nations. You should promote and fund debate classes because, let’s face it, debate kids are often the most well-informed voters in the state. This bill does not promote democracy and education, it’s not in the best interest of kids, and it should be rejected.

Overall, the hearing went well, and I believe the committee received a lot of insightful information from both sides to consider. I have to thank the committee for graciously receiving our comments and engaging in thoughtful discussion of the issue. Specifically, I want to thank Senators Andy Kerr, Nancy Todd, and Mike Johnston for their questions and comments. And I would like to thank Senators Kerr, Johnston, and bill sponsor Owen Hill for taking the time to speak with me and my son after the hearing. This was democracy in action, and for my son, that was the best civics lesson of all.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Millenials Need McLuhan

Though he wasn't a member of Generation X, cultural philosopher and pop culture critic Marshall McLuhan was a prophetic voice in response to the encroaching consumer culture that has created a world driven by info-tainment. McLuhan is best known for an insightful quote from his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man where he explained "The medium is the message."  In a post-modern world saturated by media and advertising McLuhan saw vividly how man would come to be manipulated by the very media he actively sought for clarification and truth. 

Gen X writer Douglas Coupland was heavily influenced by the views and criticism of McLuhan. And, Coupland was inspired several years ago to research and compose another biography of McLuhan which clarifies and synthesizes his ideas for a new generation. Coupland's work Marhsall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work  explains the background of McLuhan's life which enabled him to so astutely and presciently predict the internet and information, along with plenty of inherent warnings about the damaging power of media saturation.

As a fan of pop culture and pop culture criticism, I am just beginning to delve into the brilliance of McLuhan.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Oh, the Joys of Banjo

It was in Taipei around 1993 that I first heard the intricately funky but captivatingly cool sounds of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. A musically gifted roommate - you know, the type of guy who always had a guitar and could craft a song out of any givent moment - was introducing me to a variety of new and ecclectic sounds he'd discovered in college. But Bela Fleck wasn't the first banjo player to intrigue me - that distinction goes back to my youth in the 70s, and the cool and seemingly out-of-place but amazingly appropriate sounds of the Coolest Man on Earth, Mr. Steve Martin, playing the banjo on Saturday Night Live. Only recently have I started listening to banjo again, as I discovered this beautiful little diddy called "Freddie's Lilt" from Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. I had created an Avett Brothers station on Pandora, and one day on a whim I added Steve Martin, and the magical sounds he gets out of a Deering Clawgrass Banjo. There is something so whimsically beautiful and folksy about the sounds of bluegrass that just oozes the best of Americana.

So, take a seat in the rocking chair and kick back to a wonderful song.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Infinitely Behind on the Infinite Winter

It seemed like such a brilliant idea at the time. Join an online book club celebrating the 20th anniversary of David Foster Wallace's brilliant post-modern magnum opus Infinite Jest. While the book can certainly be intimidating with the Pynchon-esque feel and the daunting 1079 pages, including 150+ pages of footnotes, I was in. After all, how hard could it be to read 75 pages a week. And, it being 1991 and the quarter-century mark for the establishment of "Generation X," via three brilliant pieces of pop culture from Coupland, Linklater, and Cobain, the reading of IJ seemed so poetic. How hard could it be?

Apparently, quite the challenge.

I am now hundreds of pages behind in my reading, and feeling overwhelmed by the mere thought of trying to keep up with the posts at, which were going to be the key to making sense of this beautifully intricate but infinitely challenging novel. That said, you haven't lost me yet peeps. This week is my spring break, and while I have a tremendous amount of work to do, and plenty of reading and writing I want to catch up on, this could be my chance to make a run and catch up with the story of Hal Incandenza and the Enfield Tennis Academy.

That much I know so far. There is the brilliant savant-like and tremendously athletically talented Hal - love the connection to both 2001: A Space Odyssey and the young prince of Shakespeare's Henry IV. The intricate tale of these talented athletes and the complicated world of being elite is somehow wrapped up in a conspiracy tale of Quebecois separatists, drug addiction, and a movie that no one can stop watching. I'm getting there ... slowly.

But, I'm trudging back in.

Boyz in the Hood to Straight Outta Compton

Last night my son and I sat down and watched Staight Outta Compton, and as a forty-six-old Gen Xer and pop culture afficianado, it was a riveting and ironically nostalgic trip into the history of "reality rap." Certainly, growing up in a small town in southern Illinois, I wasn't an early listener or even remotely aware of the rise of "gangsta rap" when NWA first began to make waves in 1986. But by 1991, when Ice Cube debuted in John Singleton's powerful work Boyz in the Hood, I was fascinated by this new genre that was an artistic view into a world I knew nothing of, but could no longer remain ignorant to. As a future educator who was just beginning to understand the challenges of poverty in poor African-American communities, the movie was an important piece of my education. And, becoming attuned to the voices of the street that were now impacting contemporary America in hard and unignorable ways, I was educated by these works. Soon, I was asking classmates for CDs and names of DJs to look up. To this day, the power of early hip-hop and hard-core reality rap resonates with me in the same way that any educational medium can impact students.

This year, 1991, marks the 25th anniversay of Singleton's film and Cube's big screen debut. It is also the quarter-century mark for the Rodney King beatings that are reflected aptly in Compton, and which served as a powerful call to action for the cause of race in policing. Yet, it was a poignant moment for my teenage son to see the footage in the film from more than two decades ago and try to reconcile that with the Trayvon Martin murder, the Michael Brown tragedy, the Eric Garner story, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Groups like NWA, individuals like Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, and artists like John Singleton put a spotlight on a corner of America that mainstream America would just as soon not know about, or easily dismiss with priviliged comments about "personal responsiblity." Yet, a quarter-century later, how far have we come to realistically be almost nowhere in the race discussion.

Generation X has been a group forged by the challenges of a disconnect between the narratives we heard and the realities we lived and witnessed. Films like Boyz and music like Compton  and F--- the Police are simply more examples of generation of Americans searching for authenticity in a world seemingly devoid of it.

Straight Outta Compton is a bold attempt to remind us of that quest.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Ross Izard Perpetuates Myths about Civics/Citizenship

The nice thing about the Denver Post is that they publish community views and op-eds. The downside is that they occasionally give platform to questionable claims like those made by Independence Institute writer Ross Izard in "Make Civics Test Mandatory for Colorado High School Grads." There are countless problems with Izard's argument, not the least of which is that he mistakenly equates facts with knowledge. And, he seeks to support his call for a single mandated test by pointing out that a required class doesn't guarantee understanding of civics. If a semester in a class doesn't resonate with kids in terms of memorizing arbitrary facts, how will the test change that? Certainly he is aruging that a punitive approach to threaten kids with no graduation if they don't pass the test will have the effect of inspiring a deeper pursuit of civics knowledge. And, that, of course, is a bit ridiculous. Might many students memorize the info simply for the test ... only to forget it a short time later ... until they show up on video for a late night talk show unable to answer the same questions? Sure. Might this test also have a negative impact on struggling students who could see their entire academic record tossed aside over the inability to regurgitate facts for a test? Most definitely. Might this entire exercise be a waste of time that will unnecessarily cause civics and government teachers to shift attention of an already short class to contain a unit of "citizenship test" cramming, so students can simply pass this test ... and then forget the facts later? Of course.

Despite Ross's belief that a single test is not a big deal, it's not really about the testing time. It's about the naive emphasis and misguided faith placed on standardized tests. Ross Izard's argument lacks the precise type of critical thinking that we hope students and voters display. Objective standardized tests - especially ones that emphasize arbitrary factual knowledge like length of rivers or numbers of justices - do not in any way validate knowledge. Facts are not knowledge, and mandating memorization of them will not improve civics knowledge or understanding. This test is a symbolic red herring that seeks to deceive the public into thinking that passing the test will guarantee "an educated electorate." It will not. As a representative of the Independence Institute, Ross Izard should himself be much more knowledgeable about the basic ideas of civics, government, and education. Many people forget civics facts after they leave high school? Would he and Senator Owen Hill mandate that adult voters pass a refresher test every couple years to prove they are competent to vote? If so, has he forgotten how the Jim Crow South used "poll tests" to deny citizens basic suffrage. This whole bill reeks of faux patriotism and naive advocacy. "Mandating" the Pledge of Allegiance does not make people love their country, and mandating a citizenship test of arbitrary facts will not make people more knowledgeable or wise.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Colorado Should Reject "Civics/Citizenship Test" as Graduation Requirement

Just when you thought Colorado had gained some sanity around standardized testing, a lone state senator caves to pressure from an out-of-state organization and introduces a completely unnecessary new bill which would mandate that all high school students pass a "civics/citizenship" test as a graduation requirement. This bill could not be a bigger waste of time for the state legislature, and Coloradans should call upon their state legislators and the Governor to reject Sen Owen Hill's bill HB148 and the idea of a civics/citizenship test as a graduation requirement in Colorado. 

While on the surface, this required test seems innocuous or even "a good idea," it's a problem for myriad reasons, not the least of which is we don't diminish a student's entire academic body of work to the result of a single standardized test, regardless of subject. Even the pro-testing Denver Post has editorialized against this bill. Colorado already requires that students pass a government class, and a standardized test neither proves nor guarantees anything in regards to a person being an informed or astute citizen. Exit exams only assess arbitrary factual knowledge and provide no measure of the type of critical thinking we expect of an educated electorate.

Additionally, it's important to know that opposition to this civics/citizenship is not simply about "over-testing." That is certainly an issue, as it creates a slippery slope toward an increasing battery of tests. The more serious issue, though, is the significance placed on this test. No single test should act as a graduation requirement - grad requirements consist of myriad subjects and skills with thousands of hours of class time and credits. And CDE has spent years developing the 2021 requirements that contain mulitple pathways to demonstrate proficiency across curricula. Placing one test above all that is ridiculous. Sen Owen Hill is simply bowing to pressure from an out-of-state organization that is pushing this agenda nationwide. There was no statewide interest in such a bill, and now the Senator is wasting the time and money of the state with this silly idea.

And, let's be clear: being able to cite the Mississippi River as one of the longest rivers or knowing that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence will not make citizens more informed voters. Ultimately, this bill is a diversion and a red herring in terms of assessing education. Certainly, it's easy to make the case that an educated person should probably have the same knowledge about American government that aspiring citizens do. But, then again, what does knowledge of a river's length really say about knowledge of civics?

As it stands, there are far more serious issues facing public education. Senator Hill should be focusing on narrowing the negative factor or finding funding for great programs like Blocks of Hope. He should be scrutinizing CDE's mishandling of the ACT/SAT decision. He should be out promoting the success of students at State MathCounts and State Speech and Debate and Destination Imagination and State Science Fair. He should be expanding support for the arts, and addressing school safety issues in response to the Claire Davis bill. He should be doing numerous things other than wasting the time of legislators, the media, and school administrators with this silly and arbitrary bill.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

25th Anniversary of Douglas Coupland's Generation X

Generation X didn't even exist ... and then it did.

Twenty-five years ago today, St. Martin's Press released a small, quirky, unassuming, oddly-shaped novel by Douglas Coupland called Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. It launched a career and a marketing buzz, and it ultimately named (some might say stigmatized) an entire demographic of people. It wasn't even supposed to be a novel - Coupland had been contracted to write an updated "Yuppie Handbook for the 90s" - but in typical Xer fashion he went another route, moving to the desert of Palm Springs and crafting a novel about a trio of twenty-somethings who have fled the traditional career path of college/work/career/family to live on the fringes and work "McJobs" while telling each other stories as a way to find meaning in their lives.

Ironically, most members of what became known as Generation X have never even heard of, much less read, Coupland's seminal work of Xer identity - and that's a quality that makes the book and the generation all the more poetic. Coupland never intended to become the "spokesman for a generation," and he was so annoyed by the title that in 1995 he declared a moratorium on the use of the term, and he effectively declared the "death of Generation X." In fact, Coupland did not mean for the term to apply to an entire group of people born between 1961 - 1981 (which is what generational sociologists Strauss & Howe determine is Gen X). Coupland drew the title from a book by Paul Fussell called Class, in which Fussell referred to an "X-class" of people who live outside the traditional norms. Coupland was simply reflecting the collective feelings of ennui among his group of friends in the late 80s and early 90s.

Yet, the year of 1991 actually became a pivotal year of generational identity, much of which is framed as a general suspicion of and lack of faith in institutions and central authority. For a generation that came of age as latch-key kids amidst historic divorce rates, along with a failed "war," a resigning President, and an anemic economy, it's not surprising people approached the world with a jaded heart. Generation X is also defined by a quest for authenticity in a world which is increasingly defined by crass commercialism and superficiality. In 1991, these generational feelings were aptly reflected in three pivotal works of pop culture: the publication of Coupland's Generation X, the premier of Richard Linklater's art-house film Slacker, and the release of Nirvana's Nevermind anchored by the ironic teen anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

In terms of legacy, Coupland's novel may be much more significant for its title and terms it coined such as "McJob" than it is for literary value. It is probably more of a historical artifact and a reflection of a specific moment in time than a significant piece of literature. And, Coupland himself would most likely not disagree with either of those sentiments, for he has pretty much moved on from the novel to a career more defined by accomplishments in the visual arts. That said, few novels have entered the American lexicon the way Generation X has, and few novels have so effectively encapsulated the idea of zeitgeist, and, thus, it's worth noting for those qualities alone.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Tips on Writing

*REPRINT from my other blog - April 7, 2012

I am sharing my favorite tips for superb writing as a part of the Superb Writers’ Blogathon. In partnership with Grammarly grammar checker, this series is bringing helpful hints to aspiring superb writers all across the world wide web.  

“It’s about readin’. It’s about writin’. It’s about thinkin’.”

That’s the advice of an old-school professor of rhetoric when asked about the goal of AP Language and Composition and freshman writing classes. In an era of complicated state standards and debates about the Common Core, English teachers need to remind themselves of the basic mission. Of course, many English teachers love the literature side of the job because they love their books and the themes. That handles the reading and the thinking.
But what about the writing?

English teachers are tasked with teaching students how to write - and this is often the most neglected part of the job. In fact, many English instructors don’t consider themselves composition teachers. For one, it’s hard. The reason is obvious: to assess writing, teachers end up buried under mountains of essays. Secondly, teachers too often use writing as simply summative assessment. The kids write an essay to show what they know. And many teachers do not know how to teach the craft – for writing truly is a craft, an art form.

The key to effective writing instruction is the opportunity to write. Students must practice the craft, and they must do so in a variety of genres for a variety of purposes. And it’s OK for writing to simply be practice. A colleague once told me, “If you’re grading everything they’re writing, they are not writing enough.” Whether it’s journaling and free-writing or copying famous speeches and essays in the tradition of the Greeks and Romans, regular practice of writing is integral to success. Thus, students should occasionally just write. One of my favorite free response activities is to read the students a short essay to begin class – generally it’s from the works of Robert Fulghum, the author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. His essays are great conversation starters.

So, how do we move from assigning writing to teaching it?

We all want our students' writing to sing. Creating voice where there is little to none, however, is a challenge. Thus, as my AP Language students progress in their writing and ability to argue and deconstruct style, I reach a point where top students wonder if their scores will ever improve. The key to higher scores is often sophistication of language. It's diction, syntax, tone, style, voice, mood, attitude, and command of language. Top papers just sound better. And it's the way they command the language that makes the difference. Thus, breaking the task down into its various components is fundamental. It’s what many people call Six-trait.

To that end, I use an assignment writing op-ed commentary as a way to model effective style/voice, and as a way to help them find their own. We analyze numerous pieces of commentary during the year, as they are great pieces for style and opinion/argumentation. In crafting their own, students are then challenged with finding some topic on which they have something interesting to say. To begin, we do a few short journal entries entitled "Angry Talk," Happy Talk," and "Interesting Talk." They often share their ideas - and even a few choice sentences - as a way of generating ideas and discussion. Often, this assignment produces some of the best writing I see from them all year.
The issue of teaching and grading conventions – that is, grammar and mechanics – is also a tricky aspect of the job. While grammar is only one aspect of effective writing, a poorly edited paper is distracting and ultimately ineffective. Thus, teachers are remiss if they don’t hold students accountable. In a standard, holistic rubric, conventions are certainly considered, but they are not the predominant part of the grade.

Certain practices in writing instruction can improve grammatical fluency. For example, one of the most effective is the practice of sentence combining. Giving students a deconstructed and simplistic passage in single sentences and asking them to combine the sentences is a helpful tool for improving command of language. Sentence combining not only improves sentence fluency and sophistication of syntax, but it also dramatically impacts mechanics and punctuation.

Finally, the task of editing and revising is integral to developing the craft. In this area, the use of exemplar essays is foundational to good instruction. Showing students how it’s done well is a step beyond simply assigning and returning writing. Whenever I discuss exemplar papers, I always urge – even require – that students copy some of the sample sentences that I’ve highlighted. This work goes in their writing journal along with a reflection on their own paper. Students must always copy and take note of sentences I’ve edited. Revising and re-writing a troubling sentence effectively internalizes the improvement. Early in the year, I ask students to circle all the weak word choice – especially “be” verbs – in their sentences and revise the sentences with a stronger, action verb. Giving them a list of such verbs, analytical terms, and tone words is also helpful.

Ultimately, the craft of writing can – and actually must be – taught. Students learn through the opportunity to write and create, the freedom to make mistakes, the practice of peer and exemplar review, the act of editing and revision. While few of us wield the magical pen of Shakespeare or Mark Twain, all of us can – with effective instruction – become competent and effective writers.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Algebra II or Art History

Why do we need to know algebra?

It's a question that has been raised for decades or more in American public schools, and the answer is always the same: knowing advanced math builds critical thinking skills for all people that will positively impact their ability to learn other skills and concepts. Unless you're an engineer or in a math-oriented field like accounting/finance, you will most likely never use your high school math skills. Yet the study persists, and Joanne Jacobs address the issue with a post about social scientist Andrew Hacker's questioning of mandated math curricula that pushes all students to a minimum of competency in algebra II/trigonometry.

In his new book The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions, political scientist Andrew Hacker proposes replacing algebra II and calculus in the high school and college curriculum with a practical course in statistics for citizenship (more on that later). Only mathematicians and some engineers actually use advanced math in their day-to-day work, Hacker argues—even the doctors, accountants, and coders of the future shouldn’t have to master abstract math that they’ll never need.
“We are really destroying a tremendous amount of talent—people who could be talented in sports writing or being an emergency medical technician, but can’t even get a community college degree,” Hacker told me in an interview. “I regard this math requirement as highly irrational.”

For many yearsI thought the same thing as CCSS proponents, and I bought the argument that learning math to algebra and beyond was fundamental to developing the critical thinking part of the brain, that knowing algebra and trig was part of being an educated person. But I'm beginning to believe that is a smoke-and-mirrors argument. Looking back, I wish I'd learned to play the piano, and taken more art classes, and done graphic design, and learned to code, and taken art history, and taken debate, and sung in the choir, and worked on set design for the plays, and learned to weld, and studied sound mixing .... and myriad skills and interests other than algebra II and trig.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

President John Kasich

It is a sad, sorry, state of the union when a strong, talented, experienced, knowledgeable, and proven leader like John Kasich is being "Trumped" by a truly embarrassing political candidate. The best hope for a strong America would be a Presidential election between Hilary Clinton and John Kasich. Whatever your politics, you should be able to concede that these are the two adults in the room, and they are the only rational choices to lead the country.

As I listened to the GOP debate in Detroit this evening, I was truly baffled by the absolutely juvenile exchanges between Donald Trump and the other candidates, and I was profoundly disappointed by the debate moderators' inability to stage a professional exchange of ideas among grown men with the highest political aspirations. Such low-brow behavior is evidence that a large percentage of the GOP primary votes are simply naive, ignorant, and ill-informed as to the very concept of governing.

So sad.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Literary Criticism in the High School Classroom

"There is significant difference between reading for pleasure and the study of literature."

While all English teachers want their students to enjoy - and even love - the literature in class as much as they do, the challenge for the English classroom is actually for students to understand and appreciate the written word.  The English curriculum is grounded in the study of challenging reading material.  Because most English departments are studying classic works of literature, as well as sophisticated and engaging contemporary writing, English teachers must instruct students in the craft of analysis.  Basically, the English teacher is tasked with teaching the complex skill of literary criticism.  Lit crit is not an easy or natural skill, but it represents the highest level of critical thinking, and it is the reason we study literature in English class, rather than just read it.

The problem for many English teachers is that they are not that skilled in literary analysis and criticism. They may not even know what they are to be looking for in the classic works of literature.  It pains me to learn that English teachers often resort to Cliff Notes or Spark Notes in order to figure out what to teach when they are tasked with reading and "teaching" required works of literature.  What do you do with literature, other than just read the story and talk about the characters, plot, and theme?

Fortunately, for teachers in the contemporary English classroom, there are numerous resources for how to introduce and teach literary analysis and even literary criticism.  While it's helpful to have an MA in literature to truly understand and teach lit crit - and far too many English teachers pursued their Master's in education or technology because it was easier and they were primarily seeking pay scale advancement - English teachers can seek out plenty of information on how to teach literary analysis and literary criticism.  For example, one of the newest offerings, from a veteran of the high school English classroom is Doing Literary Criticism by Tim Gillespie, available from Stenhouse Publishing.  Gillespie is able to break down the concept of "lit crit" into manageable pieces, offering readable explanations of various "schools of literary criticism," such as reader response, feminist, post-modern, psychological, and philosophical.  The book also contains suggested practice exercises to accompany his use of narrative to relate his own experience and success with literary criticism in the high school classroom.  This book could be a great - and necessary - resource for many English departments.

Other books I have used and benefited from in exposing students to literary criticism include:

Bloom's Critical Interpretations - Professor Harold Bloom's work is really the standard bearer for literary criticism.  His series of critical essays for numerous works of classic literature are great places to start.

The Twayne Works - The Twayne Masterworks Series has always been my starting point for researching any classic work I teach.  I still remember discovering the Twayne Masterwork for John Knowles quintessential coming-of-age novel A Separate Peace.  It was like I had discovered keys to the kingdom.  This series is indispensable for any English teacher who wants to be serious about literary analysis.

Greenhaven Press: Readings on ...  The Greenhaven Press readings on various aspects of literature have been invaluable reference works for my honors freshman who are doing research papers.

How to Read Literature Like a Professor - If you want to know how you should be reading and understanding classic literature - and what sort of ideas you should be bringing to your students - you should seriously consider checking out this fun and very readable work from professor Thomas Foster.