Monday, April 25, 2016

Can Teachers Do What Students Are Asked

RE-POST: From Mazenglish - September 2012

Recently a colleague asked me for a copy of a practice or released-ACT test.  After a relative with a science background had taken the science section and aced it, and a math-oriented friend had taken the math section and scored a 100%, my colleague was wondering how he would do on the English and reading section of the ACT.  Because I am in charge of our grammar program and have access to many of the standardized resources, he asked for a test.

And it made me wonder.

How many high school teachers test themselves against the ACT or SAT or AP tests in their field?  How many trust themselves to do well?  How many teachers can - and do - actually write the high quality essay or research paper in response to their own questions?  And should we know if we can or not?  Years ago, while taking a staff development class on grammar instruction, I sat with a group of English teachers and took the ACT and SAT tests.  It was exciting and interesting and even intimidating for some.  But it revealed a lot.

The same type of challenge occurred in an assessment of writing class.  Our instructor put an essay prompt in front of us based on some common reading and told us to write the best essay we could.  The terror of the blank page came storming back at some people, and it was an inspired and insightful lesson.  One great activity that addresses this issue is the National Writing Project.  Writing teachers should write, and because it was promoted to me as a great opportunity, I have challenged myself twice during the summer by taking the Colorado Writing Project.  In fact, that class led to success in publishing my writing and inspired my foray into the blogosphere.  Because I regularly write on-line and occasionally publish pieces in the Denver Post, I am pretty confident in my skills and the ability to produce high quality content.  The same goes for my grammar skills because I spend so much time taking the sample tests our committee writes.

But, I have to be honest.  I am not so confident about the rest of the teacher corps in this country.  And perhaps scoring poorly on a standardized test - or writing a weak essay - has no correlation to success in teaching and inspiring students.  However, if for nothing more than a bit of empathy and compassion, I believe we should regularly challenge ourselves to do that which we ask of children, day in and day out.

Think about it.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Visiting the Kirkland Museum in Denver

As part of my son's fourteenth birthday (and Shakespeare's b-day and 400th anniversary of his death), we took the light-rail into Denver yesterday to take advantage of the Open Doors Denver program. Dozens of historic and significant Denver sights are open to the public for one day to encourage people to investigate the rich culture of the Mile High City. After a nice brunch at the Mercantile in Union Station and a casual stroll down the Sixteenth Street Mall, we made our way over to an open day at the Kirkland Museum, which is soon moving to a new Denver locale. Our excursion proved to be a most valuable experience, for I was not familiar with this unique and somewhat iconic figure of American abstract expressionism.

Quirky is good. With so many art museums nationwide drawing from the same playbooks, a numbing homogenization has set in, as they too often race to show the same artists and play copycat on many fronts, including the way they exhibit and interpret the works on their walls. If you've seen one recent exhibit of Chinese contemporary art, for example, you can pretty much predict how the others will play out. But the Kirkland avoids that trap. Perhaps because director Hugh Grant is not a museum curator by training, there is a refreshingly unbridled, free- form approach to everything the Kirkland does. He does things the way he sees fit and is not always looking around to see if his approach conforms to what every other gallery in town is showing. Be yourself. The Kirkland does not try to be all things to all people. It has established a few well-defined areas of emphasis for itself, and it hews to them. It hopes to spark visitor curiosity with at least one, but it simply accepts that not everyone will be interested by what it has to offer. In fact, children under 13 aren't allowed in, ever. While the spotlight on the decorative arts springs from Kirkland's own collecting in the field, the museum's more recent foray into Colorado art derives from discerning a gap in what other area institutions are doing and shrewdly and aggressively acting to fill it.

As part of my intent to start living the life I've imagined, I want to spend more time and energy exploring the world of art and culture. Last month, I visited the Museum of Modern Art while in New York with a school group, and I was not only captivated by the art, but I was thoroughly educated in the area because I visited with an artist, our school's Fine Arts coordinator. Seeing the MoMA through the eyes of an artist was one of the most inspiring cultural moments of my life.

I need more of that.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

It's Keep a Poem in Your Pocket Day

As part of National Poetry Month, today is "Keep a Poem in Your Pocket Day."   The idea is to keep a poem in your pocket and share with others as a reminder of the ever present art and poetry of the world. Here are the poems my Youth Advisory Board passed out at school today.

Trees – Mark Haddon

They stand in parks and graveyards and gardens.
Some of them are taller than department stores,
yet they do not draw attention tothemselves.
You will be fitting a heated towel rail one day
and see, through the louvre window,
a shoal of olive-green fish changing direction
in the air that swims above the little gardens.
Or you will wake at your aunt’s cottage,
your sleep broken by a coal train on the empty hill
as the oaks roar in the wind off the channel.
Your kindness to animals, your skill at the clarinet,
these are accidental things.
We lost this game a long way back.
Look at you. You’re reading poetry.
Outside the spring air is thick
with the seeds of their children.

Introduction to Poetry
By Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
And hold it up to the light like a color slide
Or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into the poem
And watch him probe his way out,
Or walk inside the poem’s room and
Feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to water ski
Across the surface of a poem, waving
At the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
Is tie the poem to a chair with rope
And torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
To find out what it really means.

My Teacher Ate My Homework
By Kenn Nesbitt

My teacher ate my homework,
which I thought was rather odd.
He sniffed at it and smiled
with an approving sort of nod.
He took a little nibble --
it's unusual, but true --
then had a somewhat larger bite
and gave a thoughtful chew.
I think he must have liked it,
for he really went to town.
He gobbled it with gusto
and he wolfed the whole thing down.
He licked off all his fingers,
gave a burp and said, "You pass."
I guess thats how they grade you
when you're in a cooking class.

The Rose That Grew From Concrete
By Tupac Shakur

Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature's law is wrong it
learned to walk with out having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What Should Students Read?

REPOST from Mazenglish blog - November 2012

Is there a "sacred book" that all students must read to be considered "educated"?  Doubtful.  However, as the Common Core works its way into the nation's consciousness and the curricula nationwide, teachers are discussing - sometimes passionately so - exactly what kids should be reading.  I've heard it said that "All reading is good reading - but reading literature is sublime."  Certainly, there is an argument to be made for reading Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird over John Green's The Fault in Our Stars or a simple blog on  Basically, education is about introducing students to ideas and information that they wouldn't normally engage with on their own.  And, learning comes from being challenged - both in basic language as well as ideas.  Thus, a child may engage with great YA literature on his own, and many will read anything about sports, but the depth and quality of Mockingbird will give them that which they would miss - that's education.  Education writer Sarah Mosle weighs in on the topic of reading lists with her commentary for the New York Times on "What Children Should Read?"

The most challenging and controversial aspect of the Common Core for many English teachers is the expectation of a "healthy dose" of non-fiction.  Namely, CC advocates for access and learning from "informational texts" which worries English teachers who worry about losing Harper Lee to pamphlets and how-to manuals.  And, English teachers have clear right to protect their "content" - for the other content areas like social studies and science should be - and should have been - teaching these texts and this genre all along.  Isn't a history or biology textbook an "informational text?"  Of course it is.  But is the skill of literacy part of the expectations for those texts and teachers?  Probably not because far too many non-English content teachers do not see literacy and the basic skill of accessing content from the text as part of their job.  And there is a general, but misguided, contempt for the content of English in the world.  For example,

David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”

Coleman ought to be a bit ashamed of himself for his myopic understanding of the content of English class.  While many in the workplace don't have to write poems or short stories for their job, the emotional intelligence skills of narrative and empathy are integral to the job.  Most companies know these days how important the creating of narrative in selling products and self-expression in relating to clients are to productivity in the marketplace.  So, English teachers are going to be hit by all sides from this attack on the content of English.  And they need to be able to effectively argue for the value of their content at the same time they increase the expectation of literacy on other content areas.

What schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing. Most students could use greater familiarity with what newspaper, magazine and book editors call “narrative nonfiction”: writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways.  There are anthologies of great literature and primary documents, but why not “30 for Under 20: Great Nonfiction Narratives?” Until such editions appear, teachers can find complex, literary works in collections like “The Best American Science and Nature Writing,” on many newspaper Web sites, which have begun providing online lesson plans using articles for younger readers, and Last year, The Atlantic compiled examples of the year’s best journalism, and The Daily Beast has its feature “Longreads.” not only has “best of” contemporary selections but also historical examples dating back decades.  If students read 100 such articles over the course of a year, they may not become best-selling authors, but like Mr. Gladwell, they’ll get the sound and feel of good writing in their heads. With luck, when they graduate, there will still be ranks of literary nonfiction authors left for them to join.

 Some food for thought.  What are you teaching?

Monday, April 18, 2016

A Race for Literacy

REPOST: From Mazenglish blog - October 2012

Ever since the Obama Administration announced its Race to the Top, the education field seems to have taken on a increased sense of urgency.  While the STEM movement seems to garner the most attention, some scholars are sounding warnings about the serious deficiencies in literacy that are making it more difficult for American students to compete for jobs in the contemporary age.  Nora Flemming - blogging for Curriculum Matters - spotlights a conference panel at the Brookings Institution that took a critical view of student literacy and proposed ideas about a national push for literacy.  In fact, the idea for a federal grant to fund improved literacy seems on the horizon.

Certainly, the issue of literacy is of primary importance in the Information Age.  However, I worry about the need for increased funding and a national program for literacy.  Isn't literacy a basic goal and primary component of education and instruction already?  Shouldn't schools already be teaching reading, writing, and math.  Of the Big Three in education, literacy holds the top two slots.  Alas, we all know that the current system isn't adequately developing literacy, despite countless movements and reform agendas.  Students simply are not reading and writing effectively on a nationwide scale - and the ranks of partially proficient readers and writers are bleeding into the higher socioeconomic circles that should be counted on for standards of literacy.

The question English teachers and English departments need to ask is whether they are teaching and developing literacy - or whether they are just reading and talking about the books they really like.  And, the question schools and school districts need to ask is whether all teachers outside of the English department are still assuming that literacy is an English class skill.  Because it's not.  Arguably, schools need to implement school-wide literacy instruction on par with the literacy initiative used to turn around Brockton High School in Massachusetts.  Until literacy skills are embedded in curriculum throughout a students day, too many kids - and teachers - will see reading and writing as something that happens only in English class.  And that will perpetuate our need for a Race to Literacy.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Reformers Harm American Education with Monoculture Focus

Standardization and a one-size-fits-all education system is antithetical to the entire history of American education, which has long been grounded in local control, autonomy, and individuality. Concerns about the myopic micro-focus are well expressed by Denver-area teacher Kurt MacDonald in his recent commentary for the Denver Post.

Through their tireless work to propagate "optimally designed curriculum" to schools across the country, they are breeding a monoculture in education and destroying the diversity of ideas that provides fuel for creative, dynamic scholarship. This trend is further compounded by state and national assessments that operate to standardize the content and approach classroom teachers take to education. When a majority of tomorrow's jobs and challenges have yet to be imagined, our students require the diversity of thought necessary to tackle them. Knowing this impending challenge, we need an educational paradigm promoting a cornucopia of educational approaches, not one that collapses down to a homogenous method, no matter how historically effective. Whether it is in dog breeding or ecosystems, the cost of limiting diversity is profound.

Sadly, innovative people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and David Coleman are promoting homogeneous curricula, lessons, and standards in heterogeneous classes in complete contrast to the environments in which they grew and thrived. People promoting such conformity have little experience with or understanding of the incredible diversity of teaching environments in this country. And their political power serves to further reduce the scope of a dynamic liberal arts approach. Thanks to Kurt MacDonald for his thoughtful piece - but unless readers can and will assert their concerns to policymakers, we will continue to see the narrowing of education that ultimately services only standardized test and educational materials companies like Pearson and College Board.

Friday, April 15, 2016

"Best Teen Novel Ever"

NOTE: This post is a reprint from my other blog in 2012.

Last month NPR opened a seemingly simple little survey, asking for the top 100 Young Adult (YA) titles ever.  After a month of suggestions they narrowed the list to 235, which are currently up for voting on NPR's website.  Of course, nothing like a survey is ever simple - and this list is currently raising a lot of heated discussion about "best books" and "Young Adult" fiction and "teen literature."  Certainly, there are books that are written with young audiences in mind - and there are others which are about young people, but are certainly written toward mature audiences.

The problem with this list is centered around the vast array of literature, covering everything from nearly easy reader books to profoundly and historically significant works of classic literature.  There are books which are simply great stories, and their are works of social criticism written with style and sophistication.  Any English teacher - or reader, really - who doesn't see an incomparable difference between The Hunger Games and Lord of the Flies doesn't really understand novels and literature as anything other than stories.  Granted, for a consumer, maybe that is enough.  But for a serious news source like NPR, it's strangely inappropriate - if not down right wrong - to offer a list that contains both The Encyclopedia Brown book series and To Kill a Mockingbird.  From a purely prose stylist standpoint, they don't belong in the same section of the library.  And when we get into content matter, social criticism, and thematic elements, they don't even belong in the same building.

According to Petra Mayer - an associate editor at NPR coordinating the contest - the current frontrunners for the competition are the Harry Potter Series, John Green's The Fault in Our Stars about a teen struggling with a terminal cancer diagnosis, and The Hunger Gameswhich is a rather violent thriller that is written at about a fifth grade level, but contains enough violence to be more appropriate for upper middle school.  What bothers me about these "popularity contests" is the lack of critical analysis into what makes a good Young Adult novel.  Certainly, popularity matters.  However, on a purely critical level, there is little quality writing in The Hunger Games - despite an engaging story, but the work of J.K. Rowling is written well enough to be taught in high school.  In terms of these sort of lists - at least when ranked by NPR, and not E-Entertainment - the quality of writing should matter.

That said, I'd argue that John Green's Fault is, like Harry Potter, a wonderful story and a very well written work worthy of classroom study.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Earn Your Future with PwC to Celebrate Financial Literacy Month

Hope springs eternal in April, and that's probably a primary reason that April is Financial Literacy Month. What could be more hopeful than feeling good about your finances?  That's certainly true as the date of April 15 approaches, and it most definitely factors into making your summer vacation plans. As both an educator and a parent, I am a huge proponent of children and adolescents learning about finance and feeling comfortable with the idea. As a kid I received my first credit card at age twelve - probably because my parents wanted the free microwave given away with new accounts. But rather than become a recipe for financial disaster, I learned many financial lessons quickly, and I've carried them through life. Primary lesson from my father ... and Saturday Night Live? Don't buy stuff you can't afford.

But, seriously, what can you afford?

There is so much that young people could benefit from learning before they become mired down in debt and financial indecision. What's a mortgage? Can I afford a cell phone? How can I grow my money? What exactly does it mean to "play the market?" All these questions can overwhelm people, but they can also be fantastic teaching moments that young people can benefit from before they make the real world decisions. And those teachable moments are the essence of financial literacy classes and programs. The PwC Foundations Earn Your Future Digital Lab is a comprehensive curriculum for grades 3-12 with countless resources and activities for students to engage with finance. That means engage with money - and who doesn't love that?  The elementary level will not be available until the fall, but the materials for middle and high school students are available now.

I'm a bit of a finance and economics geek, so working my way through the different modules was a lot like playing video games. By working your way through modules on various isses of financial literacy, you can "earn" badges. I've gone through several of the modules already, and I am impressed with how easy, accessible, and engaging the information is. For example, the module about risks and rewards would be perfect for the unit I'm teaching this month on Paulo Cohelo's The Alchemist. I do a variety of exercises in which I ask students to imagine their future and question the things they value, including those "things" they would be willing to sacrifice, and those they can't live without. They key is for students to be thoughtful, reflective, and knowledgeable about life - and insight into financial literacy is a key to a successful life. The piece about risk and reward reminded me of the game-based research I did in making the decision to move to Colorado - and that ultimately allowed me to find my spot. I feel the same way about the module called "What's the Plan?" Because, let's face it, we all need a plan.

So, as Friday's tax day comes and goes, consider the value of financial literacy.

* NOTE: This is a sponsored post in partnership with PwCCharitable Foundation - all opinions are my own.

Engage Students with Tales of Travel

Twenty-one years ago I was living as a young expatriate and English teacher in Taipei, Taiwan, and for the first time I became caught up in the wonderful world of travel writing when someone handed me a copy of newly published expat author Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence.  Captivated by Mayle's whimsical tales of southern France, I imagined the life of an expat author, and I spent several years trying to craft similar magic set in Southeast Asia.  Alas, it was not meant to be, and I never became the Hemingway - or even Mayle - of Formosa.  But I always maintained my love of travel writing.

Now, as an English teacher, I try to foster a similar love of great genre writing by recommending travelogues whenever I can.  In addition to inspiring an interest in reading, I am also hoping to encourage a travel bug in my students.  There is nothing more important for many of our kids than to "get out of your country for a while" - get a fresh perspective, try new foods, look through different eyes, challenge yourself to be uncomfortable, learn a new language ... or a new lifestyle.

Some of my favorites for travel writing are:

Travels - Michael Crichton

Video Night in Katmandu Pico Iyer

A Wolverine is Eating My Leg - Tim Cahill

Notes from a Small Island - Bill Bryson

A Year in Provence - Peter Mayle

Objective Tests in English Class

Evaluating student knowledge in the English classroom can be quite challenging, for much of the content centers around subjective skills and knowledge.  Certainly, in essay and short  answer writing, rubrics are a key factor and nearly indispensable if a teacher wants to be as fair and objective as possible.  However, English class also centers heavily on reading comprehension and knowledge of literary works.  And at the core, teachers must meet a standard of their student reading certain works of literature and "understanding literature as a record of the human condition."  Basically, teachers assign books like The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice or other classics, and they want the students to benefit from knowledge of the books characters, setting, and theme.  In order to do so, teachers often feel they must confirm that the students actually read the book.  And objective testing is a time-honored way of doing that.  Giving objective "did-you-read-it" quizzes, as well as cumulative objective tests at the end of the unit, is standard practice.  If a student were to "study" Lord of the Flies, yet not even know who Simon is by the end of the unit, then the teacher has a problem, and the class was a waste of time.  Thus, an obligatory objective test is a way to assess knowledge - and there is nothing wrong with that.

Some teachers like to consider themselves "above" objective testing.  They seem to believe that a teacher is "copping out" if he gives an objective test and runs it through the Scan-tron machine.  Certainly, objective testing is only one narrow measure of knowledge, and the use of objective tests in classrooms can be abused.  However, there is nothing wrong and nothing to be ashamed of in giving objective tests.  We still live in an objective world, and students know the objective tests are valued because they are constantly taking them for the state and to "prove their worthiness" for college.  ACT and SAT are not going away, and even AP and IB both use objective tests to assess knowledge.  Thus, I use objective tests regularly in the English classroom - along with myriad other ways and an extensive load of writing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Linger - One of Denver's Best Restaurant

REPOST - As we head into spring and happy hour season, I thought it was worth bringing this post back:

The hype is not wrong.  Linger - Justin Cucci's iconic Highlands restaurant - is definitely all that the reviews have made it out to be.

Since Linger's opening a several years ago in the building of the old Olinger funeral home, Justin Cucci has been wowing Denver foodies with eclectic takes on street food from around the world.  Cucci, who is also owner of Root Down, is a true culinary artisan, and he knows how to run a world class restaurant.  Of course, all the hype has led to big crowds and long waits for people hoping to enjoy a taste of Cucci's masterpieces.  In fact, numerous people have put off going to Linger because reservations have been hard to come by.  And, during the summer months the waits are even longer as people line up to enjoy the fabulous rooftop views of the city, while purchasing drinks from the bar fashioned out of an old bus.  But true Denver foodies shouldn't wait.  Get yourself to Linger.

Happy hour at Linger is the best place to start, and that was my entry into Justin Cucci's world when I took the family for dinner following a great day of hiking in Evergreen.  We arrived early in the Highlands, so we stayed warm on a January day by sipping some tea at the Common Grounds coffee shop on Lowell and 32nd Street.  When the magical hour of 4:30 arrived, we headed over to Linger which was open and ready for business.  The tables upstairs offered a great view of the the city, and we went to work ordering nearly everything on the happy hour menu.  With small plates representing street food from around the world, Linger's happy hour menu is a lot of fun.  The french onion mussels were rich and perfect and we fought the urge to order a second round.  The pork belly and mongolian duck breast buns were succulent and filled with interesting flavors, and we complemented them with the waffle fries, which came with a great chipotle ketchup.  The sesame bbq tacos were excellent with Kobe beef and a nicely accented slaw.  But my favorite were the Wagyu beef sliders with aged cheddar and curried sour cream.  I am very careful about the beef I will eat, and Linger's Wagyu sliders were every thing a "burger" should and could be.  In fact, the smells of the beef alone were worth the wait.

Our server Rupert could not have been more helpful, as he guided us through the menu and kept us entertained, even as Linger became busier.  Being a bourbon drinker, I was intrigued by the menu's Dead Man's Daisy, but Rupert thought I'd be disappointed in the way the sweetness overwhelms the whiskey.  Instead, he brought out a Vieux Carre, which is one of the better drinks I've had.  It contains rye whiskey, cognac, Benedictine, and bitters.  Served with a single block of ice - to slow melting - and a lime garnish, it was incredibly smooth.  In fact, I was amazed at how the lime scent was prominent but almost vacant in taste, leaving the smoothness of the whiskey and cognac.  It was all that.

We finished up just as the crowds descended on Linger, but the ambience was never too much.  Despite a large crowd near the bar, our table remained warm and intimate.  We did venture beyond the happy hour menu come 5:30 for a great rendition of pad thai - though the citrus might be too much for some.  And, we had to pass on the desert menu, though Rupert satisfied our sweet tooth with some homemade sesame caramels along with the check.

All in all, an excellent outing.  We will be back to "Linger."

Monday, April 11, 2016

Bourbon Bliss in Park City, Utah

*(NOTE: This post is a reprint from my other blog from Fall 2015)

Who knew that drinking in Utah could be such a pleasure?

Coming to Park City, Utah for a nice fall vacation of hiking and relaxing, I didn't know I was going to discover a bourbon lovers delight, just off Main Street in the historic mountain town. Coming down from a nice hike up the Sweeney Switchbacks - and the ski runs above town - I discovered the High West Distillery on Park Avenue, which is producing some excellent quality rye whiskeys and bourbons, as well as a few variations I hadn't considered.  According to the local lore:

High West Distillery and Saloon started with one man’s passion to make a great Rocky Mountain Whiskey. Proprietor and distiller David Perkins married his background as a biochemist, his love of bourbon and cooking, and his passion for the American West to bring the craft of small-batch distilling back to Utah, of all places.

And the Whiskey of Wasatch is proof of a successful marriage. High West offers a tasty whiskey flight that will leave you wanting to expand the menu.  Beginning the flight with a crystal clear silver oat whiskey, I was advised to open my mouth a tad while breathing in the flavors, and the effect on my sinuses and palate was quite pleasant. The oat whiskey is more like a vodka, but the hints of banana and coconut make for a smooth, but potent, finish.  The double-rye and Son of Bourye were also rich, full of expertly blended flavors.  "Bou-rye" was a blend of bourbon and rye whiskeys, and I was intrigued enough to consider purchasing a bottle. However, I'm a bourbon man at heart, and the American Prairie Reserve was what ultimately is going home with me.  Of course, one flight is not enough, and I had to add a couple extra mini-flights to the order. The Barreled Manhattan is a whiskey experiment I've never encountered before - a Manhattan mix that is aged in a barrel. Fascinating.  Of course, that was nothing compared to the Barreled Boulevardier, which was a true whiskey lovers treat. It's not to be missed.

When I think of bourbon and whiskey, it's usually all about Kentucky and the traditional approach, which shouldn't surprise anyone. However, the whiskey magic being distilled in the Wasatch Valley of Utah is worthy of any bourbon and whiskey lovers attention.  For example, the Campfire blend is "the world's only and possibly first" mix of malt scotch, straight bourbon, and straight rye whiskeys. It was the most unique whiskey flavor I've had, with a real earthiness to the spices. While I was unsure of it on the nose and first taste, it really grew on me, and I would definitely take a chance on it again.

High West Distillery is doing some significant work with spirits, and it's worth a stop for any whiskey lover.  And I haven't even talked about the food.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Does School Kill Creativity?

If you're a teacher who pays attention to anything in the world of staff development and critical analysis of school reform efforts, then you've certainly heard - probably numerous times - Sir Ken Robinson's TED Talks presentation about how "schools are killing creativity."  It is embedded below.  You may have even seen a shortened, but very clever visual interpretation of Sir Ken Robinson's ideas as presented by RSA Animate - which is a great site and organization unto itself.

However, Brian Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College, offers an interesting follow up to Sir Ken Robinson's assertions.  Perhaps, as Rosenberg asserts, schools aren't killing creativity, but instead "society is killing the ability of schools to encourage creativity."  Critics of the obsessive standardized test culture - reflective of only left-brain thinking - would certainlhy agree.

Certainly, there is little to criticize about Ken Robinson's ideas regarding creativity.  It is, as Rosenberg notes, difficult to argue against the idea of creativity in schools.  And, I firmly believe we have weakened our schools and society as a whole with a single-minded approach to education that is based on a factory model of creating workers.  For this reason, I have attempted to modify and "enrich" my English classroom with lessons such as "multi-genre research papers" and even "interpretive dance" while studying poetry.  I've also tried to embrace right-brain thinking with my senior before they graduate by using Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind as one of our texts.

There is little doubt that the left brain skills and standardized testing of them have served to provide a stability and continuity in education.  And that stability is important.  But schools are remiss if they don't pursue, vigorously, the addition of more right-brained approaches to education - at the same time pursuing and guaranteeing basic skills of literacy

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Colorado Senate Rejects Civics Bill, Citizenship Test

Today, after three floor readings of SB-148 - The "Citizenship Test" graduation requirement - the Colorado Senate rejected the civics bill by a vote of 18-17. State senator Jack Tate joined seventeen other legislators who stood up for parents and educators who argued against the increase in standardized testing. After the bill had barely passed the Senate Education Committee 5-4, and passed the Senate floor the day before on a voice vote, enough Colorado legislators sensibly rejected an undesired and unnecessary bill which would have been the "highest stakes test in Colorado." While no one disputes the value of civics - which is currently a required class in Colorado - critics of the bill exposed many problems with the idea. On the most basic level, there is widespread opposition to any single test being a graduation requirement. That approach is far too narrow and diminishes the entire idea of a well-rounded education of mulitple subjects and thousands of hours of learning. Secondly, standardized tests of this sort can only measure memorization and regurgitation of arbitrary factual issues, the knowledge of which does not necessarily reflect a true understanding of citizenship or civics. And, that idea is another criticism - that a single test as a measurement makes faulty claims about true knowledge. Being able to memorize info for a test would not accurately reflect or guarantee a student's true knowledge of history, civics, or citizeship.

Again, no one believes that Americans' knowledge of civics is solid. Teens and adults clearly have a lot to learn. But this test would not prove anything, and it would have done more harm than good. Perhaps we could just require that kids learn this rap:

Or maybe this one. These kids are learning their civics.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Forget Computer Science, Mr President. Every Kid Needs Debate

I recently challenged President Obama's misguided emphasis on computer science - simply put, not every kid needs CS. It's a very narrow curriculum and skill which is not applicable, or even relevant or interesting, to most kids and in most careers. And, I feel that way about much of the canon when it comes to public education. Not every kid needs algebra. Not every kid needs to study a foreign language. Not every kid needs to read The Great Gatsby or write a sonnet - or even read a sonnet.

But I might argue that every kid needs Debate class.

I've written before about the value of debate when I reported on the state Speech & Debate Tournament in Colorado. There are few students who impress me more with their knowledge, insight, confidence, diligence, and speaking skills than debate kids. Granted, DECA and FCCLA kids are also mighty impressive. But debate kids cultivate skills of emotional intelligence that will serve them well in any career from computer science to non-profit fundraising. Debate cultivates people skills, and our students need those more than ever. And, in a great piece for, Dasha Fayvinova offers great commentary on "20 Reasons Why Debate Kids are Better Prepared for Adulthood." Among them:

Debaters Know How To Advocate For Themselves

This one is obvious. Being a debater, meant never letting anyone get the upper hand in an argument. Parents would crack jokes about us being able to convince them of anything we set our minds to, and teachers would wave us off saying “You’re on the debate team, right?”. As adults we never struggle to clearly and concisely explain our opinions in a straightforward manner.

Debaters Can Persuade Like No Other

No wonder most debaters go on to have law degrees and political careers. We are masters of persuasion. Arguing is a natural skill, but persuasion can be learned. Knowing that "one third" sounds better than "33 percent" is a gift given to me by my coach. Certain phrases are overused and should be avoided. Eye contact. Next time your friend convinces you of something, ask if they ever did debate in high school. The persuasion possibilities are endless in adulthood, when you face very important challenges like negotiating your rent or vying for the last slice of pizza every day.

Debaters Can See Both Sides

Because the topic you debate has both a pro and a con, and only a flip of a coin decides which side you represent, as a debater you needed to see both sides to every argument. The best debaters predict arguments against their own side. This is what makes debaters the best adults. We can see an issue from both sides.

Debaters Can Smell BS A Mile Away

As John Stewart said in the final moments of his run on The Daily Show — “bullsh*t is everywhere”. Because as debaters, we manipulated so much evidence to help us win argument and spin it a certain way, debaters are really good at spotting when other people are doing it to them. (Take that, Craigslist scammers!)

Monday, April 4, 2016

Play Ball - The Boys of Summer are Back

Ahh, baseball.

Today, hope springs eternal as the Boys of Sumer return to the parks and the diamonds and bring us another season of memories. Baseball is America's game, and despite many people who have lamented the fading of it in our consciousness - especially as the National Football League dominates headlines (not always in a good way) - baseball is thriving in the United States and around the world. It is "a nineteenth-century pastoral game" that represents so much goodness. No one said it better than James Earl Jones in the mythical story of Field of Dreams.

Ray, people will come, Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. "Of course, we won't mind if you have a look around," you'll say. "It's only twenty dollars per person." They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it; for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they'll walk out to the bleachers, and sit in shirt-sleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game, and it'll be as if they'd dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Ohhhhhhhh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.

Baseball is an easygoing game with an understated intensity. In what other sport can a 1-0 pitchers duel with zero offense be as exciting and compelling as a homerun derby or a game filled with hit after hit of small ball. Baseball is a game that can be listened to on the radio for all the beauty of the commentary. It's a game you watch on the edge of your seat, but can also sit back and chat with fellow fans in the interim. It contains the most challenging and arguably impossible act in all of sports - hitting a ball coming at you at 95 mph. It is a game and contest in which measurements are absolutely pristine in their specificity. The bases have to be 90 feet apart, not 89 or 91. One less foot and a fielder could never throw out a runner. One foot more and a batter would could never reach base in time. 60 feet 6 inches is the only distance that gives both pitchers and hitters an even chance. A matter of inches would change everything. It's beauty is in its precision.

In the spirit of baseball, I'll leave you with the inimicable wisdom of George Carlin and his comparison of baseball and football. "Safe at home. I want to be safe at home."

Play Ball.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Ancient Chinese Wisdom for Today's Students

"Why can't I figure out who I am and what I want to do?"

In an era saturated with opportunities and information centered around self-help and finding yourself, it's a bit befuddling that college professsors like Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh hear endless and continual questions of self doubt from the Millennials on college campuses. Yet, it's probably pretty obvious and expected as well. Kids these days are pretty jammed up with perceived pressure of actually being successful someday. Puett and Gross-Loh have offered a fascinating bit of advice in their new book The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us about the Good Life. Their advice is not focused on following their passion or getting into a good college or preparing for a career. It is about living a meaningful life each day. And sometimes that requires approaching life and each day with an "as if" philosophy.

Instead of struggling to be authentic, Confucius proposed another approach: “as if” rituals, that is, rituals meant to break us out of our own reality for a moment. These rituals are the very opposite of authenticity—and that’s what makes them work. We break from who we are when we note the unproductive patterns we’ve fallen into and actively work to shift them—“as if” we were different people in that moment. When you hear your girlfriend at the door and make yourself go to greet her instead of sitting there absorbed in your iPhone, you are creating a break. When you make a point of ignoring your mother’s harping and solicit her guidance, you are recognizing that both of you are constantly shifting and changing and capable of bringing out other parts of each other. Instead of being stuck in the roles of nagging mother and put-upon child, you have behaved “as if” you were someone else. It turns out that being insincere, being untrue to ourselves, helps us to grow.

I really enjoy the idea of living a life and breaking out of our routines by living as if we are someone else. In fact, I see it from the perspective of living "as if you are the person you truly want to be." For me that would probably mean a life filled with more meaningful experiences like arts and culture. The idea of learning to play the piano so I can re-create a piece from Mozart, or of creating a compost garden because that's the impact I want to have on my world, are both appealing ideas. As far as advice for students, I constantly reiterate my advice against "following your passion," and instead focusing on developing skills and talents and knowledge that will make for more significant living.

Writers and researchers like Daniel Coyle and Cal Newport agree with Rowe’s suspicion about following passion. In his book “The Talent Code,” Coyle recommends that students work on developing skills and talents rather than pursuing ideas like passion and personal happiness. In the real world, most people aren’t passionate about work or filled with zeal during the daily-ness of their jobs. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Additionally, following passion is a challenge for young people, many whom don’t have a passion — or at least not one easily linked to a career. Cal Newport concurs in his book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” named after a quote by actor Steve Martin. Martin has written numerous best-selling books, an award-winning play, and is considered one of the premier art collectors in America. He is also a renowned musician whose prowess with the banjo rivals the best in the business.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Obama's Absurd & Unnecessary CS/Computer Science Mandate

I'm wondering how much computer science President Obama knows ... or ever needed to know. Can he code? Does he know Java? Do those words mean anything to him? Are those ideas as foreign to him as the value of art history?

These questions are a signficant part of my irritation with the President naively wading into education policy again with very little knowledge of what kids need to be "successful" in the contemporary age. Truly, computer science and the entire concept of STEM are highly specialized areas that will appeal to many, but should not be forced on any. Education should be about opportunity - not mandate ... or even very strong urging and recommendations. We need fewer required classes and more options and autonomy for students. Greater flexibility in what kids learn is far more meaningful than mandates that everyone become "a digital age" worker.

In fact, the same idea can be applied to the entire idea of studying math ... or literature for that matter. Andrew Hacker has asked meaningful questions about the necessity of every high school student being forced to pursue and achieve proficiency in algebra and algebra II/trig. Hacker challenges the  conventional wisdom of numeracy instruction in his book The Math Myth: and Other Stem Delusions. Students would be equally well served - or even more so - with study of probability and statistics and financial literacy/economics and number theory and ... yes, even computer science.

Andrew Hacker’s 2012 New York Times op-ed questioning the requirement of advanced mathematics in our schools instantly became one of the paper’s most widely circulated articles. Why, he wondered, do we inflict a full menu of mathematics—algebra, geometry, trigonometry, even calculus—on all young Americans, regardless of their interests or aptitudes? The Math Myth expands Hacker’s scrutiny of many widely held assumptions, like the notions that mathematics broadens our minds, that mastery of azimuths and asymptotes will be needed for most jobs, that the entire Common Core syllabus should be required of every student. He worries that a frenzied emphasis on STEM is diverting attention from other pursuits and subverting the spirit of the country.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Math Counts State Championship in Colorado

On March 19, Colorado held its state championship for the MathCounts competition, which is one of the top contests for middle school math. MathCounts is sponsored by the Raytheon Corporation and the National Society of Professional Engineers. The national championship is on May 7-9 in Washington DC. Here's is my write-up of the competition, which was won by my son and his team:

Mazenko, Campus Middle School Win MathCounts State Championship

On a beautifully brisk and sunny Saturday morning in March, the top middle school math minds in the state met to match wits and problem solving skills at the Colorado School of Mines. It was the state championship and national qualifying tournament for the national MathCounts Competition. For the second consecutive year, Austen Mazenko won the individual countdown round and his team from Campus Middle School in Greenwood Village won the team competition. Mazenko will be joined by the team of Rahul Thomas, Edward Lim, and Anudeep Golla for the national tournament in Washington DC on May 7-9.

MathCounts competitors are called “math-letes,” and they attack complicated algorithmic challenges with the same speed and ferocity as a sprinter or a blitzing linebacker. Nowhere was that more evident than in the Countdown Round to decide the national team. In Countdown, the top ten competitors from the morning’s written rounds are called to the stage where they go head-to-head in a “lightning fast” challenge to answer complicated questions like “Integers p and q are both prime and p 2 + q 2 = 53. What is the value of p + q ?” in 45 seconds or less. This year’s Countdown posed a huge challenge for Anudeep Golla of Southern Hills Middle School. Golla, a finalist and member of the Colorado national team in 2015, was the first name called to the stage. That meant he would have to beat five straight opponents to earn a trip to DC for nationals.   “It was pretty intense,” Golla said, “I just kept hoping for one more question.” After reaching the final four, he succumbed to Eddie Lim of Lesher World IB Middle School in Ft. Collins.

Once the final four team was set, the competition became a battle for second place, as most of the competitors in the room knew it would be difficult, if not impossible, to dethrone last year’s champion Austen Mazenko of Campus Middle School. After Lim knocked out Golla, he was bested by Rahul Thomas of Campus MS. But as a teammate of Mazenko’s, Rahul knew he drew the short straw. That challenge became clear when Mazenko answered his first two questions in less than two seconds. The third question which clinched Mazenko’s second state title took a little longer at roughly four seconds. The speed and accuracy surprised even the most veteran of MathCounts observers, among them was Matt Bixby of The Challenge School. “That was amazing,” Bixby said. “I mean study and preparation certainly plays a role, but that sort of speed is something else altogether.” As winner of the team round, Campus Middle School gets to take their coach to the national competition. That means Amy Bainbridge, the Gifted & Talented Coordinator at Campus, will travel with the team to DC in hopes of competing with roughly 220 of the top middle school mathletes in the country.

Local MathCounts director and coordinator Noelle Cochran of the Colorado chapter of the National Society of Professional Engineers again coordinated the state event, and she was responsible for organizing the competition of the eight regional winners and dozens of other qualifiers from around the state. She had high praise for all the competitors and volunteers, and she was especially appreciative of the former MathCounts competitors who return to help out. “We couldn’t do this without the work of so many volunteers,” Cochran said, and she urged the crowd to continue to promote and support MathCounts. The world of competitive math “is a great way to engage kids,” Cochran explained, and she spoke with competitors afterward about opportunities in fields like engineering and data science. MathCounts is a national organization , and the competition is open to all middle school students. Interested parties can obtain more information at