Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Helping Students Rise - with Literature & Rhetoric

I've recently been reading Fareed Zakaria's excellent education commentary In Defense of a Liberal Education, and it has me thinking about the importance of literature and the humanities, as well as rhetoric and writing. These are the subjects often referred to as the classics, and these are the areas that formed the minds of our greatest American thinkers from Jefferson and Franklin to Obama and Reagan. They are the foundation of the class I teach - AP English Language & Composition - and they are the areas of study that can change lives. That transformative experience is - and was - certainly true for the students of Lorena Thompson, who recently retired from Grand Junction High School after nearly thirty years of molding minds and developing the humanity of young adults. Denver Post writer Megan Shrader recently profiled Thompson in a piece of op-ed commentary that promotes the humanities as an integral part of helping students RISE.

Lorena Thompson didn’t just teach Niccolò Machiavelli to Grand Junction High School students, for almost three decades she embodied the advice of “The Prince” that to be both feared and loved is to be respected and followed. Thompson retired last Friday from the Western Slope’s most urban school, taking with her a brilliant mind that instilled critical thinking skills and strong moral compasses in many of the almost 3,000 students she taught over 28 years .... Lorena Thompson proved that, unleashed, a hard-working and talented teacher can bridge the appalling achievement gap or put our top scholars among the best in the world. But how do you teach a teacher to win students’ respect through equal doses of love and fear? How do you inspire them to feats not thought possible? Perhaps it would be wise for someone to ask Thompson before she leaves.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Sunday, May 21, 2017

High School Seniors, Live Deliberately

As one of my responsibilities at work, I help with our graduation performances which includes four speeches and four musical acts. My school does not have a valedictorian, nor do we  bring in an outside commencement speaker. Everything is kid focused, with the exception of a speech by our principal. It's a truly wonderful ceremony.

Of course, I do have some thoughts for the graduating seniors each year, and this year the Denver Post was kind enough to give me a forum for my commencement speech. The primary focus is on an idea from early American writing - specifically, to "live deliberately." Here is a link to my piece which was featured as A Message for Today's Graduates from Henry David Thoreau (and Punk Rock).

The world is becoming increasingly standardized, but the American ethos of a “rugged individuality” and a pioneering spirit was not about sameness. It was, however, about choice. And there may be nothing wrong with consistency and similarity as long as it is conscious and deliberate.
Henry David Thoreau was an original. In fact, he was the original original. And that originality has run throughout American history, from the American Revolution to the culture of punk rock, an ethos nowhere better defined than in the “Punk Rock Manifesto” from Bad Religion front man Greg Graffin, who asserted, “Punk is: a belief that this world is what we make of it, and truth comes from our understanding of the way things are, not from the blind adherence to prescriptions about the way things should be.”
If we approach our lives with that sort of deliberateness and honesty, we will all be in much better shape.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Rest in Peace - Chris Cornell

I don't mind stealing bread from the mouths of decadence;
And I can't feed on the powerless when my cup's already overfilled ...

Some times - too often - our brightest stars burn out too soon.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Is It the Kids? Or their Parents? Both? Neither?

Are kids today succeeding or failing? Are schools successful or flunk-out factories? Is anybody actually a grown-up anymore? These questions drive much discussion on social media and across community groups as we debate whether or not we need to make America great again. As a Gen Xer, I am certainly familiar with the down-turned noses of older Americans who look at young people with disdain and disappointment. And, as I've noted in a recent post, many people are identifying a crisis in or stagnation of the process of "growing up." So, if you have your suspicions and criticisms of young people today, here's a good question: Is it the character of the kids and the superficial world in which they live, or is it a result of poor parenting?

This topic was on my mind recently as I participated in discussions of educational shortcomings and achievement gaps. I begin to ask why some kids succeed while others don't. If you ask well-known psychologist and writer Dr. Leonard Sax, you would receive a harsh criticism of the parenting skills of Baby Boomers and the older Xers. Sax warns of the The Collapse of Parenting. Sax believes "we hurt our kids when we treat them like grown-ups." I haven't read Dr. Sax's latest, but I was a big fan of his earlier book on Why Gender Matters. However, I can also understand some of the criticism which claims that Sax's solutions to "what's wrong with young people" are simply an outdated promotion of authoritarian parenting. And there may be good reason to believe that Sax is overstating his opinions based on anecdotal evidence rather than actual research and data on poor parenting skills.

There is certainly no shortage of advice on how to parent, or in this day and age of arrested development, How to Raise and Adult. That idea is in some ways the antithesis to Sax's advice because it describes the benefit of breaking free from the overparenting trap. How much or how little parenting should happen is really that elusive sweet spot that no doctor or book can accurately pinpoint. Is the question and the solution a matter of cultural norms? That can certainly be a loaded question, especially when considering the views of the Yale law professors Amy Chua (of the Tiger Mom fame) and her husband Jeb Rubenfeld who kicked up some controversy in a recent book about achievement gaps - The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.

Who or what is responsible for the success or failures, the achievement or struggles, the triumphs or the tragedies of young people today?

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Growing Up - Is that Even a thing Anymore?

Kids these days.

The criticism of the young by the old is perhaps mankind's most cherished tradition, along with passing the buck and other assorted bromides. Yet, there seems to be a growing consensus in American culture, media, and publishing that young people are not "growing up" the way they used to. There's plenty of evidence that this is a documented phenomenon with the emergence of phrases like "perpetual adolescence" and "emerging adulthood." Publications like the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, and Salon have all recently featured articles about teens and twentysomethings failing to transition into adulthood. The Journal's article penned by Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse offers his new Republican and anti-Trump conservative view of how to make America great again - be better parents, eschew our obsession with technology and consumerism, and learn responsibility and adult skills by doing things such as travelling and living out of our comfort zone. These ideas make a lot of sense - even as we must acknowledge that telling American parents to do a better job has long been the Republican "platform" that has had little effect in actually becoming a reality in contemporary families. Senator Sasse's article was drawn from his recent book The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and how to Rebuild Self Reliance. And I'm generally a big fan of anyone credibly drawing from the philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau. These ideas definitely warrant looking into further. In the meantime, I'd like to share a list of advice from the new book about the life of Jimmy Buffett. In a profile on mothers and sons in this week's Parade Magazine, there was some sensible advice that the pirate songster's mother shared with him. There are some similar ideas to Sasse's book.

  1. Read often, especially the classics (So, this means books, not just social media posts)
  2. Accept people for who they are, not what  they do for a living
  3. Be well-travelled
  4. Learn to be a listener
  5. Live by the sea
  6. Listen to your spirit and find joy
  7. Education, like money, doesn't necessarily make you happy or successful

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Learning Math requires Learning to Learn

I think a lot about math, which is a little strange because I don't consider myself "good at math," and my career has largely been about the English language and literature. However, I am the father of an incredibly talented math student, and my high school has a nationally-reknowned math team. I'm also a school administrator and GT Coordinator, and as an aspect of that job I observe a fair number of math classes, I read a lot about math curriculum/standards/sequencing, and I discuss the issue of math acceleration for many students. As a result, I'd like to understand math more, and thus I was intrigued by a profile in the Wall Street Journal about Barbara Oakley, a military officer and scholar who never considered herself good at math, yet has written two books about learning math.

The profile on Oakley (which can be difficult to access if you don't subscribe - a situation the WSJ should fix by allowing easier paid access to single articles) focused on how "A Polymath Mastered Math - And so Can You." That's an intriguing promise, the likes of which has been promised by far too many books and math centers and tutoring programs. Oakley's views and ideas, however, represent something a bit different to me. Her career path and her acquiring of strong math skills and insight came later in life, and the insight she gleaned from that process has fueled two books about learning math. Oakley's first - A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra) - describes her own process for math discovery and some valid criticism, as well as some praise, about how American educators teach math and build skills. The balance of sequencing and repetition with the needs of cultivating long-term understanding is at the heart of the discussion.

I have not read Oakley's book yet, but I plan to as part of my goal to continue learning and not simply accept that there are "things I'm not good at."  That pessimistic point of view, especially in terms of schooling, is addressed in Oakley's new book - Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential - about the latest neuroscience behind brain elasticisty and the process of learning. While I am always skeptical about the feel-good, self-help message of so many people promising paths to "unleashing our potential," I am intrigued by Oakley's story, and I am wondering how effectively these ideas might be adapted to general pedagogy and practice in schools, especially for struggling learners and GT kids who aren't so adept at "doing school."

A lot to think about here for an old English teacher. But also a lot to realize about The Power of Mathematical Thinking. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Case Against Zeros - grading gets complicated

I have given zeros to students who fail to complete work. That seems to make perfect sense - if there is no work done or submitted on an assignment, a teacher cannot rationally assign points. However, in a grading system which is entirely point-based, a few zeros can mean a student will be mathematically eliminated from ever passing a class. So, he or she will fail. And that happens all the time. That, in a theoretical or philosophical way, may not make much sense in an eduation system. The issue has been aptly summed up in a paper that has been making the rounds for a while now - it's called The Case Against Zero.

If I were using a four-point grading system, I could give a zero. If I am using a 100-point system, however, then the lowest possible grade is the numerical value of a D, minus the same interval that separates every other grade. In the example in which the interval between grades is 10 points and the value of D is 60, then the mathematically accurate value of an F is 50 points. This is not — contrary to popular mythology — “giving” students 50 points; rather, it is awarding a punishment that fits the crime. The students failed to turn in an assignment, so they receive a failing grade. They are not sent to a Siberian labor camp. There is, of course, an important difference. Sentences at Siberian labor camps ultimately come to an end, while grades of zero on a 100-point scale last forever. Just two or three zeros are sufficient to cause failure for an entire semester, and just a few course failures can lead a student to drop out of high school, incurring a lifetime of personal and social consequences.

I'll admit that when I first heard of schools eliminating zeros from the grading policy, I instinctively recoiled at the sheer audacity. How can teachers not be allowed to give zeros? However, I've been scrutinizing my own class and grading practices recently, and I've begun to develop a more open mind to the idea that we need a fresh look at assessment. However, when I participated in a school visit to Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, IL, I sat in a session about standards-based grading, and I was struck by how strongly the discrepancy between letter and numeric grading affected me. In effect, we have long operated in a grading system in which 80% of letter grades (A, B, C, D) are considered "passing" a class, but only 40% of numeric grades (60%-100%) are considered as an equal measure.

As controversial and blasphemous as it may seem to say, that literally makes no sense.

Interested in further reading? This post has links to numerous thoughtful articles.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Laughing with Kathleen Madigan as she tells it like it is

If you enjoy classic stand-up comedy, and you are looking for a great night of storytelling and jokes, you should make it a point to see Kathleen Madigan whenever she comes through town. I first ran across Madigan almost twenty years ago when my sister gave me a CD of some Madigan stand-up. She comes across as that easy-going girlfriend whom you can sit and listen to all night long. Growing up in the St. Louis area where Madigan was raised, I appreciated the raw and hysterical honesty of her stories of a "drinking Irish Catholic family" with seven kids. The sardonic cynicism with which Madigan observes the world is endlessly entertaining, as you can tell the absurdity of the world just cracks her up.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

You Don't Need to Drink with Everything

In a reasonably refined strip mall in my suburb of Denver, there are two new businesses that serve drinks with activities that should have nothing to do with drinking. One is a nail salon and spa and the other appears to be an old school barber shop. And I'm just thinking, "Ooh. Ick. That's a thing?" Do you really want loose hairs landing in your craft beer or stuck to the side of the glass holding your Manhattan? How about a nice fresh whiff of nail polish and massage oils as you try to get a nose of your cabernet? Many things can be complemented with a nice adult beverage, like a book club discussion for example. But basic personal hygeine shouldn't be one of them.

I first had this thought a few years ago when I noticed the storefronts offering art classes and wine. Clearly some people think, "Wow, what a great idea." They'll go hang with friends, pretend to be artists, and tip back a few glasses. My reaction was, "Gross. Who wants to smell paint while sipping a nice chardonnay?" The more I think I about it the more I realize that quite a few middle class suburban adults need to have an honest discussion with themselves about that little problem they have.

Not everything has to center around booze. In fact, most activities shouldn't.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

GT, College Admissions, & A Mathematician's Lament

It's no surprise that many Americans, young and old, express frustration with math and skills of numeracy. As a teacher, I hear far more people note how they "hated math" and struggled with it than people who express the same feelings about language arts, humanties, sciences, and electives. However, because of where I work and because of the truly gifted mathematical mind of my son, I have a window into the world of mathletes and mathematically-talented students. My school has four classes past AP Calculus, and that's because some students accelerate to the level of calculus by sophomore or even freshman year. These students are usually highly-ranked math and science competitors who score in the top 1% on tests like the AMC8/10/12 and the AIME. It is a pleasure to work with these kids and coordinate their incredibly advanced talents and schedules. However, the achievements of students like these can lead to an unintended consequence - a "math acceleration arms race," where other advanced students want to accelerate quickly, even skipping classes, because they believe they must keep up. As a GT coordinator, we look at a body of evidence for true giftedness, and we see clearly the difference between hard-working, advanced students and truly gifted kids. In speaking with kids and families about math advancement, it always seems to be focused on advancement as the key to an Ivy League college admission. And that's so sad.

For many years, my wife and I have listened to parents of other mathletes ask us "How do you get him to do that?" And that is the key. We don't. It's also the key difference between a smart kid pushed by zealous parents and a truly GT kid. We have never done anything as parents to push our son to achieve. And he does not attend endless math camps or have private tutors. We are certainly open to opportunities, and we encourage him with his participation in competitions such MATHCOUNTS and A/JMO, as well as his work in the mathlete  community on AoPS, the Art of Problem Solving.  But we haven't pushed him to excel - he excels precisely because he is gifted, passionate, and engaged. You can't create gifted, and parents absolutely must stop trying to do so. In a recent discussion with kids about "skipping math classes" to get ahead, I was turned on to a fascinating treatise on math and math education - Paul Lockhart's A Mathematician's Lament. For those interested in the world of advanced math, it's worth reading his essay.

Mathematics and Culture - The first thing to understand is that mathematics is an art. The difference between math and the other arts, such as music and painting, is that our culture does not recognize it as such. Everyone understands that poets, painters, and musicians create works of art, and are expressing themselves in word, image, and sound. In fact, our society is rather generous when it comes to creative expression; architects, chefs, and even television directors are considered to be working artists. So why not mathematicians? Part of the problem is that nobody has the faintest idea what it is that mathematicians do. The common perception seems to be that mathematicians are somehow connected with science— perhaps they help the scientists with their formulas, or feed big numbers into computers for some reason or other. There is no question that if the world had to be divided into the “poetic dreamers” and the “rational thinkers” most people would place mathematicians in the latter category. Nevertheless, the fact is that there is nothing as dreamy and poetic, nothing as radical, subversive, and psychedelic, as mathematics. It is every bit as mind blowing as cosmology or physics (mathematicians conceived of black holes long before astronomers actually found any), and allows more freedom of expression than poetry, art, or music (which depend heavily on properties of the physical universe). Mathematics is the purest of the arts, as well as the most misunderstood.

Additionally, the Lament was eventually developed into a book, which expounds on Lockhart's ideas and his concerns.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

May the Fourth Be with You

It's Star Wars Day - May 4th.  And, I've had a very un-Yoda-like day.

At school my Youth Advisory Board is showing The Empire Strikes Back after school to celebrate the day, and I have just watched Luke's training with Yoda on Hoth. It was a propos for my day, as I exhibited nothing Jedi-worthy in my day today. But after letting too many things bother me, and thinking rashly and emotionally rather than practically and productively, it was nice to get some lessons from Yoda.