Monday, December 31, 2018

French Piano Handstand - Living Artfully in 2019

I guess I'm a New Year's Resolution kind of guy.

Looking back at my writing notebooks and blog posts from Decembers and Januarys past, I notice a tendency to make big plans for the "next stage" in my life - writing more, better fitness, learning a language, cleaning up my files at work, etc. Alas, most of my years look the same, and that's OK because I'm pretty happy and in a good spot professionally, personally, physically, and emotionally. And, yet I still have more I want to do both professionally and personally, especially in the field of writing and in the world of the arts. One of the areas I'd really like to grow is in The Arts, and one way I attempted to live more artfully - have more art in my life and all I do - last year was to try learning to play the piano. That's gone fairly well, culminating with the purchase of a keyboard for Christmas this year. I've always been a music fan and aficionado, but I've never actually been musical other than some feeble attempts at guitar like practically every adolescent boy. And I have really developed such a fondness for jazz piano trios, that I figure I've got the next 30-40 years to learn how to do that which I love. So, in 2019 I plan to play a lot more piano.

But there's more. And, I'm calling it French-Piano-Handstand.

Living artfully is my idea of being in the flow and in a groove and living well, doing what I want and need to do with deliberate intention and a sense of joy on the way to always "becoming who you are." Thoreau called it "living the life you have imagined," and there are certainly parts of my life that I have imagined but are still not a reality. Part of it is academic and scholarly in terms of the type of writing I want to do. While I've had a reasonable bit of success with some freelance journalism, and have even sold a few copies of my re-imagined thesis study of the works of Douglas Coupland, I would like to do more long-form writing on both academic and pop culture subjects. I've also done enough travel and food blogging that I think I could find some success in that area. My writing notebooks - as I imagine many writers' are - are filled with ideas for articles and books. If I'm living more deliberately and more artfully, then I will be producing regular pieces, regardless of whether I find a place to publish.

So ... what does this have to do with French or Handstands?

It's a catch-all theme for the areas of growth where I want to devote regular attention. Being comfortable in another language is something I would like to have in my life. And, having studied four years of French in high school, and having lived in Taiwan for five years, I have enough of a background in French and Mandarin Chinese that I ought to be able to achieve and maintain a decent level of competence. To that end I've been tinkering around with a few of the obvious online sources like Duolingo and YouTube tutorials, and of course I have the added benefit of working in a high school where I can always pop in on a class or chat in the halls with teachers and students. But in my view of the life I have imagined, French stands for any academic or scholarly pursuit, including writing. In fact, because I have a son who's a junior in high school (and just scored a perfect 36 on the ACT), I would also like to go back and make sure I can still do the kind of math that is expected on those tests. These days it's so easy to learn so many things online via Khan Academy or Udemy or Master Class, that I'd be a fool not to take advantage. So I plan to.

The "piano" aspect of my French-Piano-Handstand is obviously focused on learning to play piano with a degree of fluency. But I am also re-discovering visual and graphic art, and I really want to add more art in my life in terms of drawing and painting. There are so many amazing opportunities to experience art in and around Denver, including opportunities to take art classes, and I would like to make the visual and graphic arts more a part of my life. I know that I used to draw as a child, but like so many people (especially Americans), I somehow regressed into the belief that "I can't draw." That sort of thinking drives the Fine Arts coordinator at my school crazy because he knows that anyone can be an artist, and I believe him when he claims everyone should be. We should make art regularly. That idea of creation is so valuable - if I do nothing else with the rest of my life, I'd like to create more as I consume less.

And, finally, the Handstand. While my fitness is pretty respectable for a (almost) forty-nine-year-old man, I know I can do better. And, to me, the handstand is the pinnacle of fitness, specifically the ability to pull myself into a handstand from the floor in a yoga pose. So, if I could reach a point where I can comfortably do the crow in yoga, and then be able to do a legit handstand, then I will know that I am in pretty good shape and am physically "living artfully."

Thursday, December 27, 2018

What is "This Thing We Call Literature"?

In literature, words have connotations. And it's worth noting that the word literature has a connotation as well. The general consensus is that it's a bit highbrow, and it's almost expected to be less-than-accessible to the average reader. Literature is that long, complicated boring stuff we had to read in school. The definition I've tended to use with my students has been that literature is "the stuff that matters." I would always draw a distinction between good storytelling and literature. Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, I would explain, is a great story, but actually contains rather weak writing, and it certainly won't ever be studied, nor will it even be thought of a generation from now.

Of course, I could be wrong. And there are far more scholarly and erudite people to explain and resolve this. Arthur Krystal is definitely one of those.

Krystal is one of my favorite critics, writers, and thinkers, and for Winter Break I've been reading and enjoying several of his books of essays and criticism, notably the inspiration for this post: This Thing We Call Literature. Krystal is, I believe, first and foremost an essayist, and he spends much of his practice in the form pondering the very nature of writing and storytelling. One of his targets in the book is the growing idea in contemporary society that literature is whatever we want it to be, or even worse, anything that is written. He draws some insight and perspective from the theory posited in a book of lit crit A New Literary History of America, which makes the astute observation that Bob Dylan is potentially the most well known and significant poet in America today. This perspective is, of course, validated by his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Add to this the news of rapper Kendrick Lamar being awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and you can see the argument take shape.

Exploring the depths of my original comment about Stephanie Meyer, Krystal's discussion of commercial or genre fiction versus literary fiction is the crux of differing views about literature. For example, he notes the significance of popularity in weighing a literary work's significance, and he concedes the obvious reality that the works of Charles Dickens were the popular fiction of their time. I particularly enjoyed his reference to Edmund Wilson's classic New Yorker essay disparaging popular crime fiction, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" When I ran across an excerpt from that essay years ago in, of all places, an SAT prep book, it opened my eyes to to the battle over literature and popular fiction. Certainly, popularity is not the barometer by which we measure quality - fast food and reality TV being the textbooks examples of the flaw in that logic.

That said, Pop Culture has a distinctly different status than it did even twenty years ago. As Krystal notes: If you think Buffy the Vampire Slayer deserves to be the subject of an academic dissertation ... then you are living in the right time. No doubt. And I am certainly one to elevate Buffy to the body of work worthy of study. For years, I have half-joked to my classes that my first scholarly work of literary criticism will be centered on the three Bs of culture studies: "The Bible, Beowulf, & Buffy." But I don't disagree with Kyrstal or Lionel Trilling or Northrop Frye or Harold Bloom that there are clear distinctions for that which we deem literature. And, I'd also agree that post-modern obfuscation of ideas like quality and morality and truth are doing no service to culture. There's the good stuff that matters and won't soon be forgotten ... and there's everything else.

Anyway, if you want to read and ponder some thoughts on language and literature, check out some Arthur Krystal.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

AO Scott on Sam Lipsyte novels on the Gen X male

I may or may not read the latest lad-lit semi-ironic satire of the aging suburban Gen X white male from fifty-year-old author and Columbia creative writing professor Sam Lipsyte, Hark. But I certainly enjoyed the clever, erudite, and self aware review from one of my favorite critics, the New York Times' A.O. Scott:

"Sam Lipsyte's Lame Send-up of a Guru and his Acolytes," published recently in The Atlantic.

as someone who has been there—who’s still there, thickening and graying as the Millennials and the Gen Z kids dethrone my idols and refuse to laugh at my jokes—I regard The Ask as one of the most unbearable and hilarious books I’ve ever read. Accordingly, I had great hopes for Hark, which might have been a mistake, given that the cumulative lesson of all of Lipsyte’s fiction (two books of stories, Venus Drive and The Fun Parts, in addition to the novels) is that low expectations are the only reasonable kind.
But somebody might. Most of all, the gestures toward Major Novel status in Hark—Pynchony, Lethem-esque names like Hark Morner and Fraz Penzig, Dieter Delgado and Teal Baker-Cassini; Infinite Jesticles in the form of wacky brand names and inscrutable terrorist organizations; intimations of apocalypse that accelerate in the book’s final pages—have an air of desperation. The impulse to make big thematic statements is accompanied, and perhaps defeated, by a joke-making reflex, as if attempted seriousness has triggered a kind of autoimmune response:

Friday, December 14, 2018

Niche-y Nietzsche

I first discovered Nietzsche in middle school when I read Danny Sugarman’s biography of Jim Morrison No One Here Gets Out Alive. In describing Morrison’s formative years, especially the books he read, Sugarman mentioned the writings of Nietzsche as being hugely influential in the early self-education of the future Lizard King, and for a young suburban kid fascinated by the rise of punk and the rebellious music of the 1960s, the writer-philosopher who developed the concept of the ubermensch and explored the depths of nihilism seemed to be to perfect inroad into the intellectual side of cool.

Over the years, I've been casually intrigued by how many times and ways references would come up time and again to Western Civ’s most challenging philosopher. That consistent presence just deepened and reiterated to me the significance of this complicated man. To know Nietzsche was to know something elitist-ly subversive. Thirty-five years after I first learned of Nietzsche, his presence still pops up in culture and conversation, and the recent publication of John Kaag’s Hiking with Nietzsche has pushed the original Superman onto our cultural radar again. What is it about this man that makes me (us) want to buy the book just based on the title? Mention Nietzsche and you immediately perk interest. We want to know Nietzsche even if we don’t know why. We want to cite him. We want to understand him. We want to be in the know about him.

There is just something niche-y about Nietzsche.

In “Hiking With Nietzsche, ” Mr. Kaag turns from these homegrown, largely optimistic philosophers and considers Friedrich Nietzsche, the German thinker best known for such pronouncements as “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” and “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Why? What is it about Hitler’s favorite philosopher that holds Mr. Kaag’s attention? Mr. Kaag admits that “Nietzsche’s philosophy is sometimes pooh-poohed as juvenile—the product of a megalomaniac that is perhaps well suited to the self-absorption and naïveté of the teenage years but best outgrown by the time one reaches adulthood.” Mr. Kaag’s own wife, a student of Immanuel Kant, loathes Nietzsche. True to cliché, Mr. Kaag’s fascination with Nietzsche is rooted in his adolescence. Years later, having reached a period of relative calm and happiness in his life, he feels compelled to reclaim and come to terms with a raw, wild element from his past that Nietzsche inspired and exemplified.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Gratitude Journaling

Coming out of the Thanksgiving holiday and heading into the holiday season, it's always on our minds to be grateful for what we have. As my school has committed to a culture-building initiative as part of our Sources of Strength program, we implemented a month of gratitude activities, one of which is a daily "Gratefulness Journal." Much has been written about the value and benefit of a regular, daily focus on gratitude; for example, check out this TED Talk on gratitude:

In writing my 21-day "Gratefulness Journal," here are some of the things I'm thankful for:

  • Cookies & pie
  • Cherry Creek High School and all it offers for me and my family
  • Loving parents
  • the right to vote in peaceful elections with smooth transfer of power
  • dependable electricity and clean drinkable water
  • hardworking dependable colleagues
  • my students who are so easy to teach
  • Jazz
  • print journalism and daily newspapers
  • satirists - Saturday Night Live
  • art - abstract expressionism
  • Hettie
  • Post-it notes
  • the seasons - snowy wintery Colorado mornings
  • Greenwood Village Public Works
  • safe air travel
  • books
  • JK Rowling and the Harry Potter books
  • coffee
  • Holiday songs
  • First Bank pens
  • Sudafed, Tylenol, & Advil
  • people like Alex Honnold who push the limits
  • doctors and nurses
  • public libraries
  • naps

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Living Artfully - finding Thoreau in art and the art of living

" .... because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."  -- Henry David Thoreau

In the past couple years, I have begun to discover art and the art of living in ways that I'd long imagined, but have never really visualized. And, as I've been working through a unit of Romanticism and Transcendentalism with my classes, I have pondered and discussed the Thoreauvian approach to our dailiness. What HDT described as living deliberately, I've tried to re-imagine as living artfully. Though I never took an art class, and I certainly don't consider myself an artist or even artistic, I am trying to experience more art in my life, and subsequently experience life as art.

Art and the art of living pops up all over the place if we take the time to notice and appreciate it. This morning in the Wall Street Journal weekend edition I was reminded in a column by Frank Wilczek about the brilliance found in the art and research our earliest neuro-scientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal. Before visiting MIT this summer with my family, I don't know that I'd ever heard of RyC, but I was captivated when I discovered the exhibit of his drawings at the MIT Museum. To learn that he was accurately drawing his ideas of what neurons looked like decades before we had the MRI technology to know for sure was practically magical to me. If you've never see Ramon y Cajal's work (and don't have plans to visit MIT soon), it's worth taking a look at his vision of The Beautiful Brain.

I thought again of art's importance while reading Lance Esplund's Masterpiece reflection about his first "life changing encounter with art." For a future art critic like Esplund, it was odd but familiar and gratifying to hear him reveal how his first experience with arts masters left him empty and not connected. Truly we know that Rembrandt and Da Vinci are great - we may just not be moved by them. Then along comes something sublime in a different way - for Esplund that work was Paul Klee's "Howling Dog."  Something in the colors or the style grabbed him emotionally and let him directly experience the art in the way that Klee intended. And that is the sort of living artfully that I seek more of in my life. Not all of us go on to become erudite art critics, but we can all appreciate looking at the world more artfully.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Free Solo - "Alex Honnold and the Pursuit of Perfect"

See. This. Movie.

Knowing of Alex Honnold from previous stories on his free solo climbing accomplishments, I was intrigued and excited to learn not only that he had free soloed El Capitan, the "center of the rock climbing universe" and the most incredible rock wall on earth, but also that a film crew had been there to capture it all. And now that I've seen it, I am all the more amazed. The climb was a monumental task that is a remarkable human achievement and may be the greatest athletic feat of all time. The film does it all justice. Free Solo from filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is, in a single word, breathtaking.

Learning intimately the story of Alex Honnold and the El Cap climb was a fascinating, inspiring, and, for me actually, emotionally draining experience, for it was joining a truly unique human being as he sought the edge of human achievement and pushed that edge to an area many never thought it could go. Man has always been fascinated by dominant physical achievement and the pursuit of excellence. It was integral to the culture of the Greeks, and it was a primary element of the Heroic Ideal found in the stories of early epic heroes such as Beowulf. We love excellence. We are fascinated by it, and in many ways, we revere it. As we should. For by pushing the boundaries of physical achievement, we develop tangible evidence of just what is possible. Experiencing the arduous process of imagining, envisioning, planning, practicing, and finally achieving a free solo climb of El Capitan is a truly gratifying experience. Interestingly, the movie feels like a thriller at times, which is pretty cool considering we know how the movie ends. But, during the actual climb I must say that my palms were literally sweaty. It was a captivating bit of film to say the least.

In some ways, this is a movie about an athlete. But in other ways this is a significant, meaningful, and important film about a legendary moment in time.

It is in Alex's own words "delightful."

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Roger Scruton explains Conservatism

I refrain from using the terms conservative and liberal to describe or refer to people (and even ideas and issues) anymore because I don't feel like people authentically use and align with those terms, or they will mis-apply them to pieces of legislation and the way they vote. No, these days the only valid terms are Republican and Democrat. Americans identify themselves by whom they voted for in the last election. And, that is not the essence of ideas and ideologies like conservatism and liberalism to me.

Roger Scruton, a writer and public intellectual, may be able to help.

The most important piece of insight and distinction is that conservatism is actually classical liberalism. And, the basic premise to keep in mind is that classical liberalism in terms of the Enlightenment (18th century, neo-Classical Age) is committed to the concept of individual and natural rights. At the core of that, of course, is freedom; and the idea of freedom is where the Republicans and the Democrats get into all sorts of trouble leading to confusing disagreements. (By the way, a great source of intellectual debate about this can be found in Patrick Deneen's wonderful book Why Liberalism Failed ). In its soul, the idea of conservatism is about opposition to radical change, and it's about a commitment to norms and traditions of culture. That perspective leads us to a neat little book by Scruton on the essence and history of conservatism - Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition. 

One of the most important pieces of insight in the book comes in the last chapter, where Scruton succinctly summarizes the primary canons of conservatism according to the esteemed Russell Kirk. I appreciate Scruton's work for the honesty and integrity with which he explores a line of thought outside of the somewhat obscene partisan politicizing of ideas going on in both the United States and Great Britain these days. Clearly, the election of Donald Trump is both a cause and effect of the mess that has been made of conservatism as a label and the GOP as a brand. For me, the sense of decorum and character which have always been a commitment of conservatives has been so egregiously tainted that it's absolutely necessary to identify the culprits as Republicans, not as conservatives. And, it's subsequently important to look outside the parties to explore and discover the philosophy. Perhaps someday, we can return to the purity of classical liberal thought, and we might even reach a day where people once again can choose between two human beings in an election, and not two entrenched political parties.

From Scruton (p. 144):

Kirk's philosophy is founded in the following canons or states of mind:
  1. A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
  2. An affection for the 'variety and mystery' of human existence;
  3. A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize 'natural' distinctions;
  4. A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
  5. A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and a recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Greenwood Village - Comprehensive Plan

When I moved to theVillage sixteen years ago with my wife and young son, I felt welcome and immediately became a part of the community. As a teacher at Cherry Creek High School, I was fortunate to live in the community where I work. Granted I traded a 2200 sq ft house in Illinois for a 1400 sq ft townhouse, but it was home, and affordable for a teacher. Now with the proposed comprehensive plan revisions, I fear the welcome mat has been removed. Restricting any new housing development to single-family homes on quarter acre lots effectively eliminates any new residents who can’t afford $800K+ homes. Teachers in Cherry Creek start at $40K/year and top out at $80K after 30 years and a master degree. I don’t know of any police officers, firefighters, or city maintenance workers making more than that. And, I’m not complaining about the pay in public service – I’m very happy with my living. While I’ll never afford a house in Sundance or The Preserve or One Cherry Lane, I’ve made a home here. Unfortunately, the Council’s plans intend to ensure that no more people like me are welcome to the Village, and I find that sad. When the housing market passed me by, that’s economics. But when government zones to exclude the middle class, well, that’s just embarrassing. And it’s not the Village I used to know. In fact, the Council’s plans seem to be focused on preserving a subdivision, not a town or community or village. Similar intentions in the plan about transportation baffle me. The traffic in Greenwood Village stems not from residents, especially those who might prefer living near and using the light rail. It’s the 60K non-residents who work in GV Mon-Fri, 9-5 who clog our streets. But they don’t keep our shops and restaurants in business, and they don’t attend Fall Fest and GV Day. Their kids don’t attend our schools or play on our teams. They don’t make a Village – they don’t make this a home. So, why would the Council seek only to bring in more transient workers and zero new residents and homemakers? I’ve heard that Cherry Creek students think my AP English Lang class is really hard – they’re sometimes afraid to take it. Soon they get over their fear and even love the class. I hope the Council can learn from them that there’s no need to Save Our Village from the likes of people me. When I was growing up in Illinois, my immediate neighborhood had doctors and lawyers and business owners and teachers and plumbers and more. It was a true community. Yet that has faded over the years, as communities become increasingly closed off and isolated. 20 years ago, Robert Putnam warned us in his book Bowling Alone that a collection of houses does not a community make. It’s certainly not a Village. Let’s not dismiss him and close ourselves off.

The previous text is from my public comments at the November 13 meeting of the Greenwood Village, CO Planning & Zoning commission. The P & Z commission voted unanimously to approve the amendments to the Greenwood Village Comprehensive Plan and to send the amended plan on to the Council. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Taylor Wilson, Tom Clynes, & the story of playing with fusion

At the annual CAGT (Colorado Association for Gifted & Talented), I just had the pleasure of listening to non-fiction travel and science writer Tom Clynes share the story of a precocious and incredibly gifted young man named Taylor Wilson, who basically built a nuclear fusion reactor at the age of sixteen. What began as a magazine article for Popular Science became a book called The Boy Who Played with Fusion. The story of Taylor is most certainly an engaging - and quite unbelievable - one. But I am equally impressed with the skill and craft of Clynes whose keynote presentation was perfect for the CAGT crowd.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Ben Sasse, Loneliness, & the Partisan Divide

Do we have "an epidemic of loneliness?" And is that what is driving the uncomfortable partisan divide that many people believe is the new normal in the United States.

Loneliness? Hmmm. Well, that's what Ben Sasse, the junior senator from Nebraska, is positing as the root of the anxiety and tension and general malaise he sees in contemporary American society. In Sasse's latest book Them: Why We Hate Each Other - and how to Heal, the senator describes how loneliness and a lack of community is the primary challenge the nation is facing. There is plenty of data to support his concerns that "Loneliness in “epidemic proportions” is producing a “loneliness literature” of sociological and medical findings about the effect of loneliness on individuals’ brains and bodies, and on communities (thank you to George Will for summarizing). Certainly, Americans are less connected to their communities than they were decades ago when the nation was smaller, less mobile, and less economically stratified. Even though people seem to be more connected to the nation as whole through media and technology, it's been pretty clear that community connections are weakening, a phenomenon described in sociological works such as Robert Putnam's well known book Bowling Alone

However, I'm not sure I agree that it's loneliness as much as it is emptiness. Not all people need people, but people definitely need something. We might be less consumed by tribalism and ideological divisions if we had more art, music, nature, fitness, wisdom, nutrition, and quiet in our lives. Solitude is not loneliness. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Is late work a big deal?

"Mr. Mazenko, I wrote my paper, but ...."


It is inevitable each year on one assignment or another that a student will not have the work present in class in hard copy at the moment that it is "due." And, thus teachers are forced into dealing with the issue of "late work." Do you accept late work? For full credit? Do you knock off points or a letter grade? Is the penalty based on minutes or hours or days? Do you give kids that disappointed look? Do you publicly shame the kids for forgetting (or neglecting) their school work? Do you believe you have to teach them a lesson? Do you tell yourself it's for their own good?

Do you have an inflated and unreasonable sense of self worth regarding your class and assignments?

Each year I share with my students a little bit of advice whenever the first assignment and issue of late work arises. Drawing from a "life strategy" in Jay McGraw's funny little self-help book Life Strategies for Teens, I remind students that "There is no reality - only perception of it." It doesn't matter if you did it; it only matters if you can prove it. And veteran teachers have heard so many endless variations on the missing homework story - "My printer ran out of ink. My hard drive crashed. I left my backpack in the trunk (it's always the trunk) of my friend's car, and I can't get it back because his sister took the car back to college in Nebraska this weekend, and she can't get the paper and send it to me because she parked illegally and the car was towed and the lot is only open from Wednesday to Friday ....." Thus, teachers are naturally inclined, when they hear the words, "I did it, but ..." to reserve some doubt, immediately thinking, "No, you didn't."  And, it really doesn't matter if you did. Because not doing it and not having it are the same thing.

That said, I am pretty flexible when it comes to turning work in late. For, let's be realistic; we all forget things from time to time. I've forgotten to bring copies or my book. I see teachers running back to the office all the time. I've forgotten to bring documents or information to meetings. It happens. And, we can all do ourselves a favor by getting past the inclination to stare disappointedly at kids and shame them for very human mistakes. And, we should stop telling ourselves that we are teaching them very important lessons about personal responsibility because someday their bosses won't put up with such carelessness. Oh, please. There was a time when I was a bit more rigid about these things. And I certainly am attuned to students taking advantage of situations and trying to get something for nothing. But only offering half-credit for completed work that is tardy in some ways - sometimes by only an hour or two - is nonsense. That's not what grades are meant to assess.

As I've matured in the field of education and parenting, and I've begun "Rethinking Homework," and as I've thought a lot about "The Case Against Zero," I have also begun to reconsider late work.

Give a kid a break sometime.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Is this my crowd? Identity politics and the new normal

In the past couple weeks, I've ventured into LoDo (lower downtown Denver) for a couple of cultural events: a beer/food pairing at Oscar Blues Brew Pub and the Crush Walls Art Festival in RiNo (River North neighborhood). Both were great fun and enriching experiences, though I recently noted to a colleague that I had a couple weird moments of self-awareness when I noticed the mixed crowd of twenty-something hipster Millennials alongside a fair number of forty-something Gen Xers. And, I thought, rather uncharacteristically, Is This My Crowd? We joked about how that might be the perfect title for my memoir.

Who am I? That's a never-ending question for the average American, and that quest for a sense of self is foundational to our national DNA.

However, that sense of identity, both personal and geographical, is at the heart of our troubling national divide. If there truly is a troubling national divide. And, that leads me to a nice bit of social commentary via a couple book reviews in the Weekend Wall Street Journal. Political writer and review Barton Swaim (whose Twitter feed has apparently deleted. Hmmmm) takes a look at the new work from Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity & the Politics of Resentment. Swaim & Fukuyama explain how "the modern quest for dignity may be traced back to Martin Luther, who first expressed 'the notion, central to questions of identity, that the inner self is deep and possesses many layers that can be exposed only through private introspection.'" I like that simple idea, as well as the extrapolation that it was Jean Jacques Rousseau who redefined the idea without the theological component and "elevated the individual to a status of all importance ..."

The complicated notion of the individual and the concepts of individual liberty are both the calling cards and Achilles' heels for progressive Democrats and pseudo-conservative Republicans. While it seems fairly straightforward and honest for Fukuyama to note "the desire for the state to recognize one's basic dignity has been at the core of democratic movements since the French Revolution," the emerging identity politics and selective applications of personal and individual liberty are the complicating factors in today's politics. Just how much do we really support the ideas of personal freedom and individual liberty? Well, we only do so on the readings of issues that resonate with us. Whose personal liberty is at risk and under attack in the case of the Christian baker and the gay customer?

Figure that out in a mutually beneficial and acceptable way, and you win.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Who are the primary & indispensable thinkers?

At the very beginning of my AP English Language & Composition class each year, I present the challenge for my students to become, in the words of Henry James, "people on whom nothing is lost." The challenge begins with my reading of "The Parlor Metaphor" from Kenneth Burke's description of the "Unending Conversation" in his Philosophy of the Literary Form. That situation of entering a conversation already underway is the task any time an AP Lang student sits for an essay - for, they never really know what the question or topic will be. Will they be asked to analyze the strategies Queen Elizabeth used to inspire the forces at Tilbury, or will they be tasked with breaking down the satire of Jennifer Price making sense of plastic pink flamingos?

Regardless of the topic, they must be able to play.

To this end, I seek to build a body of core knowledge for my students, and we do this together through the study of both fiction and non-fiction literature. They will come to understand bits of early Romanticism with the work of Jane Austen, and they will learn a bit about utilitarianism with Dickens' Hard Times. I touch on post-modernism with O'Brien's The Things They Carried, and we explore transcendentalism with Thoreau's work as well as Krakauer's Into the Wild. I've often included a unit on Enlightenment thinkers when I do a unit of political speeches and documents, mostly American, and we write on the strategies used by people such as Thomas Paine to influence his audience in The Crisis. 

Recently, I've kicked around an idea of creating specialists, or content experts, for the major philosophers they might encounter and want to incorporate in their analyses. For example, when we are reading a novel or story or speech or argumentative prompt, I think it might be cool to have one group who could pose thoughts on the Nietzschean or Freudian or Lockean or Thoreauvian view. And, now I'm trying to determine who would be the top 9 or 10 thinkers to assign. Here are my front runners:

  • Plato
  • Aristotle
  • John Locke
  • Jean Jacques Rousseau
  • Friedrich Nietzsche 
  • Immanuel Kant
  • Adam Smith
  • Karl Marx
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Rene Descartes
  • Carl Jung
  • Georg Hegel
  • Arthur Schopenhaur
  • Jeremy Benthem
  • John Stewart Mill

Sunday, August 12, 2018

I won't sleep well tonight ...

I won't sleep well tonight.

That's not a terrible thing. In fact, it's probably a good sign. It will mean that I still genuinely care about the job I do, and I remain passionate and inspired about the importance of the responsibility I have been given.

I won't sleep well tonight. And, even at 8:30, I know it, and I anticipate it. The impending restlessness rests in a giddy anticipation of the coming morning. Dinner is finished, and the family drifts off into the evening rituals. Dishes and lunches and laundry and tomorrow's outfits and books and some TV. Reminders of the daily schedule are around the house in post-it notes and piles of materials.

Even as my eyelids become a bit heavy, and my movements slow in the relaxed ease of a Sunday evening, I won't sleep well tonight. A bit of bourbon before dinner contributes to the calm, but it won't make a difference when I hit the mattress. It's not actually anxiety, you know. Too much connotation with that word. But anxious, excited, ready? Of course. All those words get at the reason why I won't sleep well tonight.

Even though I've been back at it for a couple weeks now, the atmosphere of tomorrow is different. It's the anticipation of the starting bell, and the incredible buzz of energy as we all descend on campus to meet and greet and get on to the business at hand. There's a long road out in front of us - 40 weeks on the road to be exact. But it promises to be an interesting journey, as it always is. The same road,but different scenery. So much to see and do. Yeah, it's definitely anticipation.

The clock marches on, and the alarm is already set. I'll piddle around downstairs for a while as I always do. As I've been doing for a quarter century. There's no hurry to roll into bed because I'll just toss and turn. At some point, she'll tell me to come to bed, to at least rest my eyes and my body. And, of course, I will. But it'll be sometime past midnight that I'll be up and around the house. Just feeling the feelings. Reading a book won't help tonight - I won't be able to focus.

Of course, there's no real reason why I won't sleep well tonight. I'm certainly ready for tomorrow, and I can fairly anticipate how it will go. The pattern is pretty much the same, and there is no more prep work to be done. I won't even be tired in the morning, no matter how restless I am tonight, because the energy will carry me through. But I'm still anxious as always, for I have so many ideas and so many plans and so many visions of how it all will be. I'm so excited for it to turn out just as I imagined it - better than I imagined it.

Tomorrow is the first day of school.

And, I won't sleep well tonight.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Follow Your Skills, not your Passion

Well, after 29 days on the road, touring the Midwest and Northeast, I'm back in the High Country and ready to return to regular blogging about things that interest me (and hopefully you) in my continual pursuit of being "a person on whom nothing is lost." While I will have much to say about the travels - especially the college visits and cultural highlights - the first contemporary issue on my mind and in the news is about a favorite theme - the problem with the advice to "follow your passion." While this seemingly counter-intuitive insight has been bandied about among social critics and ideas gurus for the past decade or so, The Atlantic recently wrote on how "a major new study questions the common wisdom about how we should choose our careers." Psychologist and education guru Carol Dweck of Stanford (and the "Growth Mindset" fame) has co-authored a paper for Psychological Science which basically asserts that "Follow your passion" is really bad advice.

I'm really glad that someone of Dweck's prominence has finally keyed in an invaluable piece of insight that Georgetown professor Cal Newport has been writing and talking about for years. I discovered Newport back in 2012 when he published his analysis and challenge of the "passion hypothesis" in a wonderfully insightful and inspiring book called So Good They Can't Ignore You, and I have promoted his ideas to my students ever since. The idea has been promoted by people such as Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs" fame, as well as ideas guru Daniel Pink, whose book A Whole New Mind is also invaluable for inspiring people to develop their skills rather than seek or follow their passion. Basically, our skills and talents are what lead us to meaningful jobs and lives, and both Newport and Pink correctly advise us to cultivate our skills by learning more about who we are.

Good for Dweck in catching up to Newport, and thanks to the Atlantic for publishing the story.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Summertime Madness

Denver - Des Moines - Chicago (Northwestern, U-Chicago) - Pittsburgh (Carnegie Mellon) - Princeton, NJ (Princeton) - New York City (Times Square, Top-of-the-Rock, Halal Guys, Central Park Bikes, "Chicago" on Broadway, the Today Show, NYU & the Village, Grand Central Station, 9/11 Memorial & Freedom Tower, Staten Island Ferry) - New Haven, CT (Yale University), Boston (MIT & Cambridge, the Freedom Trail, Flour, the Red Sox at Fenway Park, Harvard University) - Washington DC/Arlington VA (Georgetown, Paul) - Durham, NC (Duke University, Camden Indoor Stadium, Cuban Revolution, the Durham Bulls) - Louisville, KY - Alton, IL/StL (Washington University) - Hays, KS - Denver, CO

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Au revoir, Peter Mayle - Toujours, Provence

In the fall of 1992, my future wife and I moved to Taiwan to teach English after graduating from the University of Illinois and realizing the idea of travel and living abroad seemed far more enticing than going to work teaching high school English - a career we weren't ready to embrace at the fresh young age of twenty-two. While living with a few roommates in Taipei, we ran across a paperback copy of a truly delightful expat memoir A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. Thought it had been published a couple years before, the paperback had just been released, and I believe it was a gift from home for one of our roommates. Being an English major living an expat experience in a rather exotic locale, I became fascinated by Mayle's voice and his reflections, and developed a bit of writer's envy as I decided that what Mayle had seemingly effortlessly done was exactly what I wanted to do. Alas, that imagined life has never materialized, though I've remained inspired to someday grow up to be a writer, and I will always look back to Mayle as an early inspiration for non-fiction writing. Twenty-five years later, I was saddened to learn of Peter Mayle's passing back in January, and I only became aware of it as I sat down to craft this post after recently requesting Mayle's last book about Provence, My Twenty-five Years in Provence. The book offers Mayle's final reflections on the region and the lifestyle that inspired and supported a second career for him after moving to the south of France in his early fifties. I can't wait to read the book and get lost in his "Reflections on Then and Now," and I will look once more to Mayle for inspiration to maybe get on with the writing and living the life I've long imagined. Au revior, Peter. Best wishes and many thanks.

"The beloved author Peter Mayle, champion of all things Provence, here in a final volume of all new writing, offers vivid recollections from his twenty-five years in the South of France--lessons learned, culinary delights enjoyed, and changes observed. Twenty-five years ago, Peter Mayle and his wife, Jennie, were rained out of a planned two weeks on the Ĉôte d'Azur. In search of sunlight, they set off for Aix-en-Provence; enchanted by the world and life they found there, they soon decided to uproot their lives in England and settle in Provence. They have never looked back. As Mayle tells us, a cup of cafe might now cost three euros--but that price still buys you a front-row seat to the charming and indelible parade of village life. After the coffee, you might drive to see a lavender field that has bloomed every year for centuries, or stroll through the ancient history that coexists alongside Marseille's metropolitan bustle. Modern life may have seeped into sleepy Provence, but its magic remains. Withhis signature warmth, wit, and humor--and twenty-five years of experience--Peter Mayle is a one-of-a-kind guide to the continuing appeal of Provence. This thoughtful, vivid exploration of life well-lived, à la Provence, will charm longtime fans and a newgeneration of readers alike"-- Provided by publisher.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Battle for and against Public Education

From the expensive and fruitless edu-experiments by corporate edu-philanthropists Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to the legislative and litigious initiatives by groups as varied as the DFERs and the Koch Brothers, the complicated enigma of education reform is a challenging story to report. However, the reliable journalistic mantra to "Follow the Money" is an invaluable guide to the issue. The week the WashPo's education writer Valerie Strauss has given column space to an extensive bit of long-form investigative journalism from writer Joanne Barken:  What and who are fueling the movement to privatize public education — and why you should care

When champions of market-based reform in the United States look at public education, they see two separate activities — government funding education and government running schools. The first is okay with them; the second is not. Reformers want to replace their bête noire — what they call the “monopoly of government-run schools” — with freedom of choice in a competitive market dominated by privately run schools that get government subsidies.
Public funding, private management — these four words sum up American-style privatization whether applied to airports, prisons, or elementary and secondary schools. In the last 20 years, the “ed-reform” movement has assembled a mixed bag of players and policies, complicated by alliances of convenience and half-hidden agendas. Donald Trump’s election and his choice of zealot privatizer Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education bolstered reformers but has also made more Americans wary.
What follows is a survey of the controversial movement — where it came from, how it grew, and what it has delivered so far to a nation deeply divided by race and class.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

What Happened to May?

I'm still here.

The month of May for teachers and administrators can be busy to say the least. But I can't recall a time since I started this blog that I went thirty days without posting. And, there has been much to write about. Ideas that I jotted down but never followed through are:

  • The passing of Tom Wolfe, a Man in Full who had "The Write Stuff"
  • Some thoughts for the graduating class of 2018, courtesy of Krista Kafer in the
    • This piece had a feel quite reminiscent of the classic graduation speech Wear Sunscreen, with its soundbite list of dos and don'ts. 
    • I particularly like Kafer's advice to "memorize a poem." As an English teacher, I have often recommended to students to copy classic speeches or poems in order to internalize rhythm, cadence, and eloquence. Yet I have rarely required it. Now, after reading this inspired piece from a former colleague about memorizing a poem -- The El Capitan of Freshman English: Memorize a - gasp! - poem -- I am planning a lesson on this idea for future classes.
  • The continued gun debate - especially the alarmingly naive idea of "arming teachers." This issue has been argued in the pages of the Denver Post and the Aurora Sentinel recently by some skilled writers and thinkers such as Jon Caldara, Diane Carmen, and Dave Perry.
  • The art of public speaking and the challenge to "Talk Like TED" - This idea is particularly interesting to me as an educator in regards to the idea of lectures as pedagogy. We certainly live in time and place where TED Talks captivate many ideas-focused people. However, I don't know that it's always the best way to "educate," especially for students who aren't particularly interested in the content. Of course, an intriguing quality of TED is the 18-minute rule. If classroom instructors held themselves to that standard, I believe classroom instruction could be more effective.
  • A wonderful dessert experience at a Denver eatery I'd never visited before - Humble Pie.
  • The sticky issue of this anthem protest .... thing. An interesting observation in my view is acknowledging that "kneeling is not a sign of disrespect." It's simply not. 
  • The strangely interesting rise of Toronto professor Dr. Jordan Peterson, a complex thinker who's presenting challenges for the radical left.
There are many more things on my mind, and I am challenging myself to return to the idea of scheduled writing. So, now I have a bit of time before the summer travel schedule, and I plan to get back to that writing groove.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Jon Caldara Educates Us on Teacher Salaries

How much should teachers make?

As I noted in a recent blog post, I am not a fan of the silliness that ensues when people lament how "athletes make millions of dollars for playing a game," but teachers can barely afford to pay the rent. However, K-12 teachers are credentialed professionals whose work is highly valued and necessary, and they certainly deserve a middle class living. The issue of education budgets, including teacher compensation through salaries and retirement plans, has been front and center in recent weeks as education associations across the country have taken to the streets to lobby for appropriate increases in state education budgets. From the statewide strike in West Virginia to the teacher rallies here in Colorado, educators have taken their case to the legislators and the public. So, what's the deal with education funding in Colorado, and are teachers overpaid, underpaid, fairly paid, or what?

Fortunately, Jon Caldara, the state's resident libertarian think-tanker at the Independence Institute, took time out of his busy think-tanking schedule and "ran some numbers" to answer the question. Jon was, of course, inconvenienced because teachers weren't at school to take care of his kids, so he let us know that he "couldn't go to work Friday when teachers abandoned my kids." Interesting thing about that word - work. As a think-tanker whose job appears to basically consist of doing research and then writing and talking (sometimes endlessly) about what he learned, Jon appears to have been able to do his work without actually "going" to work. That think tank gig - nice job if you can get it. Makes me kinda wonder what someone like Jon Caldara makes. I'd have to guess it's an easy $150K if it's a dollar, which would be about three times an average teacher's salary. And we know from Jon's writing about the health care challenges in his family that he has some pretty sweet benefits. I wonder if Jon and the Independence Institute would be willing to share their budget, salaries, and benefits? You know, in the spirit of the importance of transparency. Granted, they are aren't a government entity - but their entire existence basically depends on the government to exist, so ....

Anyway, let's let that pass.

Back to teacher salaries. Jon did grab some numbers off the internet, and he offered some fair commentary drawing from the usual talking points. The average teacher salary in Colorado is $52,000/year, which is basically the very bottom of what is considered middle class, and it is about the median nationwide income of all wage earners for a family of four. So, in terms of the professionalism, Jon may be right that teachers are "insultingly compensated."  Additionally, a bit of research into salary scales (which are public and transparent), the starting pay for many teachers is around $30K, which can make it tough for people to pay rents that hover around $1400, not to mention mortgages in a state with homes averaging $500K in the metro area. Yet, Jon's biggest complaint about the compensation isn't the amount but the fact that teachers negotiate contracts as part of associations, and these contracts use degree credentials and years of service as the gauge. To Jon this is an abomination; but having apparently little knowledge or experience with the field, he fails to appreciate the teachers' choice to collectively bargain and not negotiate individual contracts. Considering Jon is not a teacher, I'm not sure why he takes offense to how others negotiate their pay. But, you know, when you have a lot of time on the clock to just sit around think-tanking, I guess your mind wanders.

Additionally, Jon does attempt to make a seemingly logical argument about just compensation for teachers based on the ol' "summers off" angle, implying that like hourly workers, teachers should make less because they get more vacation. It's an interesting claim that I don't fully disagree with, and I have had my share of conversations with fellow educators about the compensation based on work day/week/year. To be fair, critics from both sides often note, teachers make less money than other professionals of similar education and work experience, sometimes by as much as 20%. That said, a teacher contract is usually for 40 weeks out of a 52 week year - that is if they don't spend breaks working other jobs, lesson planning/grading, pursuing professional development etc. To be perfectly honest, I don't completely oppose Jon about this, and as an educator of 25 years, both domestically and abroad, in several school systems both public and private, I have never been truly dissatisfied with my pay. I'd take more money, sure. And experience tells me I am at least adding as much value to society as many six-or-seven-figuring earning think tankers, writers, and speakers.

But, of course, it's sort of a silly point to make. Teachers are professionals who earn a salary, not hourly at-will employees paid like the "factory workers" that Jon strangely seems to disparage in his column. School contracts are usually about 185 days, and there isn't a comparable argument for changing that. Schools aren't going to stay open and in session for 50 weeks a year - heck, two-thirds of Colorado districts already operate on four-day weeks because they can't afford to stay open with current budgets. And, I've already made the "summer vacation argument" numerous times, so we're not going to year-round school, nor should we. Beyond the hourly-wage argument, Jon also takes a shot at PERA and teachers' cushy retirement at the age of 58. While it's a fair soundbite, it also reveals an ignorance of the deal made to teachers - take lower pay for many years on the front end (I made $20K in 1997), and the trade-off is an earlier retirement. And, to be sure, PERA and other state pensions need review and revision.

So, in the end, the think-tanker in Golden gets to take his shot at educators from his Ivory Tower via his regular column in the Denver Post. And, he's not entirely wrong about some of his criticisms, even if he is a bit blinded by the privilege of not working a real job. (Disclaimer:  I'm a bit jealous - being a think-tanker, writer, and speaker is my dream retirement job .... after I'm done educating the youth of America).

For a more thorough and informed perspective on education funding, I recommend Diane Carmen's piece in the Denver Post, or the numerous articles by the professional researchers and journalists at Chalkbeat.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Know a young Mathlete? The Art of Problem Solving (AoPS) is for them.

"So, how did you get your son to .....?"

This question about my 16-year-old son's highly-developed math prowess has been asked of me and my wife countless times by parents who wonder just how we raised such a successful mathlete. He was a two-time state champion and national competitor for MATHCOUNTS, he aced AP Calculus BC in eighth grade, he's qualified numerous times for the AMO/JMO (American/Junior Math Olympiad), and the list goes on. We are incredibly proud of him and happy for him, and the answer for all the parents hoping to raise a similar math whiz is "We didn't do anything - it's all him."

Of course, he and we have benefited from some important mentors and exceptional resources, the most notable of which is a self-driven math curriculum and website called The Art of Problem Solving. The AoPS program is a beautifully crafted training ground for young math prodigies who seek to refine their skills through math competitions, and my son first engaged with it when he was in fourth-grade and participating in math enrichment class taught by a math teacher and math team coach at his school. It's been a constant source of connection to other mathletes nationwide, and I recommend it to anyone with a kid interested in math.

Recently, a friend sent a nice article and interview that education writer and blogger Rick Hess did with the founder of AoPS, Richard Rusczyk. If you don't know of the Art of Problem Solving, use this link as your introduction.

Richard Rusczyk is the founder of the Art of Problem Solving (AoPS), a math curriculum and online learning community that supports students who excel in math. In the early 1990s, Richard started AoPS as a book series; it has grown into a 300,000-member online community with classes, video lessons, and an adaptive learning system. AoPS is also the go-to trainer for America’s Math Olympiad participants. I recently had a chance to chat with Richard about AoPS, how it works, and the effort to extend its reach to new kids.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Colorado Legislator Seeks to Criminalize Teacher Strikes

Nobody wants a labor strike - it's never the good option for people seeking fair and just compensation in collective bargaining for employment. It's a last resort. That said, work stoppages have been a time-honored practice as the one significant piece of leverage workers have in negotiations. In certain places and fields, the practice is prohibited by law or contracts with a "no-strike" clause. Good examples are first responders - a labor stoppage can be a public safety risk. And any employer can simply fire all striking workers - Ronald Reagan proved this on a grand scale in 1981. Of course, strikes by public employees such as teachers can be quite inconvenient, though occasionally educators find the action a necessary move. Teacher strikes are actually quite rare (before this spring teachers in West Virginia had not struck in 30 years), and they are often resolved in a reasonable time, and progress is made.

And 2018 has proved to be a year that progress is necessary, and improvements in the funding and structure of public education must be made. What started in West Virginia has moved to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, and now Colorado, as educators take a stand for appropriate funding of one of society's most valuable institutions. We need schools, and schools need improved funding. There are many reasons for the protests and strikes, and in Colorado the cause seems justified when the state with a scorching hot economy, high levels of education, and growing population ranks near the bottom of the economy in education funding and teacher salaries. An increasing number of school districts are going to four-day weeks as a cost-cutting measure, and the legislature is considering several versions of a bill to alter the teachers (PERA - Public Employees Retirement System) pension by altering benefits and shifting more of the financial burden to the teachers, who do not receive Social Security.

So, some teachers in several of the largest school districts have worked with their districts to coordinate days of action at the state capitol, leading to the cancelling of classes due to large numbers of teachers taking legal personal days. One school district faces a potential teacher strike as well. And that legal action doesn't sit too well with a couple state legislators who have introduced a late bill in the legislative session which would make teacher strikes illegal and would criminalize - with penalties of jail time - any work stoppage by educators. This seems to me, by any reasonable assessment of the situation, to be a huge over-reaction and a politically charged stunt by a couple state politicians looking to make names for themselves with the fringes of the Colorado Republican Party. Senate Bill SB18-264, sponsored by Republican senators Paul Lundeen and Bob Gardner  "would prohibit pubic school teacher strikes by authorizing school districts to seek an injunction from district court. A failure to comply with the injunction would “constitute contempt of court” and teachers could face not only fines but up to six months in county jail ..." 

I'm not sure what has led Paul Lundeen to take such extreme action toward educators - but I have a hunch. Lundeen is running for Senate. At one time, Paul Lundeen seemed to be a true friend of public education, and he played a significant role in supporting schools, students, and teachers during the standardized testing mess in Colorado a few years back. But he appears to have a problem with organized labor, and he has decided that labor strikes are criminal behavior which should be punished with jail time. They are not, and they shouldn't be. Seriously. The action of work stoppage by labor organizations can certainly be inconvenient - which is precisely the point - but they are legal actions that have Constitutional merit. Choosing to protest and stop work would seem to be a simple issue of individual freedom. What do Lundeen and Gardner have against individual freedom and personal rights? Actually, very little. These politicians are trying to score cheap political points, and I find their choice to clog up the legislative docket quite disappointing. 

Thus, I am urging teachers, parents, community members, and legislators to stand against Lundeen and Gardner's bill. SB18-264 should not waste the time of the Colorado legislature which is doing good work to address the challenges of public funding in the state. This bill should be killed in committee. Please consider contacting the following legislators and encouraging them to oppose this bill which is a stunt at best, but at worst a vindictive assault on democracy and personal freedom.

Senator Vicki Marble - 303-866-4876

Senator Jerry Sonenberg 303-866-6360

Senator Lois Court - 303-866-4861

Senator Stephe Fenberg - 303-866-4872

Senator Owen Hill - 303-866-2737

And, contact Senators Lundeen and Gardner and ask them how they can claim to support freedom and individual rights with a bill that seeks to suppress individual liberty through the power of the state.

Paul Lundeen - 303-866-2924

Bob Gardner - 303-866-4880

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Teacher guru Ron Clark's $100,000 teacher folly

It started with a TweetThe starting salary for educators should be $100,000. In ten years time the U.S. would have the strongest and most powerful education system imaginable.

Ron Clark, a veteran educator and teacher guru whose career has spawned an inspirational teacher movie and a NY Times bestseller, proposed a seemingly logical idea that increasing teacher pay would "fix" America's "failing schools" by attracting and retaining the "best people" to the field of education. On the surface his proposal addressed many concerns about public education in the United States: teachers are underpaid, the country's education system is weak and ineffective, the nation's best and brightest don't become teachers because of low salaries, paying people more improves the quality of work they do, deficiencies in public education are simply a result of low funding for schools, etc. The market-based reform model for public education has gained much clout in the past two decades, as billionaire edu-philanthropists have convinced legislators and political pundits that they can fix schools by throwing money at the problem and running schools like a business. And, hey, what teacher or school administrator would be against paying teachers six figures to start?

Under scrutiny, however, with a little of the critical thinking we hope students learn, Clark's proposal and pie-in-the-sky optimism (ie. naivety) is a profoundly flawed idea.

The most obvious problem is Clark's implication that teacher performance/effort/effectiveness is driven by salary, as if current teachers are "holding back" on the really good instruction because they're not being paid enough. Or even worse is the idea that the top 2-3 million best teachers in the country aren't even in education because they can't make the big bucks there. This implication is nothing short of insulting to the numerous hardworking and effective teachers currently making a difference in America's classrooms. It also poses this question for Clark: how and why was he effective when he wasn't making $100K, especially in his first three years. The conventional wisdom (and research) indicates it takes three years to become truly effective in the classroom (with the same curriculum), and that teachers truly get better with age. That's why an apprenticeship model is actually a great idea for school improvement. The idea of paying a new teacher $100K fresh out of the gate - especially when 50% of teachers quit the profession in five years - seems to be a horrible business practice. Then there is the obvious question of fiscal sustainability for such teachers over a thirty-year-career. Where does the pay scale top out, and just how will it be funded in school systems that are already financially strapped?

The second glaringly obvious error in Clark's plan is the belief that simply throwing more money at the public education system - primarily in the salary area - will solve deeply complex sociological issues that impact a child's education and lead to low achievement and inequity in academic success. It's as if Clark is completely unaware of the shortcomings in corporate ed reform efforts by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. As the nation has been distracted by the Cambridge Analytics scandal at Facebook, it seems to have forgotten "Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million lesson," where the billionaire whiz kid was going to transform the schools of Newark, New Jersey into the best schools in the nation in a quick five years with his infusion of cash and business brilliance. It failed for all the obvious reasons. And, the original edu-philanthropist Bill Gates basically admitted that he wasted more than a billion dollars on his small schools reform. It's quite obvious that simple budget issues are not the reason that the US doesn't have Clark's "strongest and most powerful education system imaginable." Though, it's also worth noting that by many significant measures, we actually already do have that.

Finally, the mythical reverence Clark places on the figure $100,000 also negates his claim. First of all, a "hundred K" is not a uniform measure of a good salary nationwide. That sum is basically the "top end of middle class" in large parts of the country. An annual salary of $100K is practically rich in some parts of the country (and would be almost disproportionate for the work done) whereas it's simply a decent living in other areas, and in some major metropolitan regions it wouldn't even be sufficient to afford a one-bedroom condo and a car payment. With that in mind, it's worth noting that many teachers in many school districts nationwide are already making six figures and up. Currently, there are so many layers to the teacher salary issue with entire state's worth of teachers ready to strike over low pay and benefits whereas many areas defy the myth of the poorly paid teacher. And, there are so many places where students are doing incredibly well and teachers are achieving great success without six-figure salaries. That is certainly true when people look at education systems worldwide. When international comparisons are used to malign the US system, it's not because of teacher pay. In fact, when explanations for poor performance in American school are explored, it's the poverty of students, not the teachers, that emerges as the primary factor in low achievement and in achievement gaps.

Ultimately, Ron Clark's tweet is a minor and relatively harmless bit of "internet wisdom" that doesn't have much relevance to the discussion of public education. And, Clark, with his publications and website and speaking engagements and film receipts, doesn't really have much credibility anymore for discussions on teacher compensation. But it's worth scrutinizing claims like his because they only serve to muddle legitimate discussions about how to improve student achievement.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

"Elegy for Thelonious"

On Sunday afternoon/evening (April 1) around 5:00, I heard a beautiful jazz poem and piano composition on Denver's jazz station, KUVO 89.3, "The Oasis in the City." Some of the words came from Yusef Komunyakaa's "Elegy for Thelonious," but I feel there were additional poems, and I don't know what the piano piece was. I haven't been able to locate the rest of the information, but the poem is just too good to not be shared. Put on some cool piano jazz and give it a read:

Elegy for Thelonious

Damn the snow.
Its senseless beauty
pours a hard light
through the hemlock.
Thelonious is dead. Winter
drifts in the hourglass;
notes pour from the brain cup.
damn the alley cat
wailing a muted dirge
off Lenox Ave.
Thelonious is dead.
Tonight's a lazy rhapsody of shadows
swaying to blue vertigo
& metaphysical funk.
Black trees in the wind.
Crepuscule with Nellie
plays inside the bowed head.
"Dig the Man Ray of piano!"
O Satisfaction,
hot fingers blur on those white rib keys.
Coming on the Hudson.
Monk's Dream.
The ghost of bebop
from 52nd Street,
footprints in the snow.
Damn February.
Let's go to Minton's
& play "modern malice"
till daybreak. Lord,
there's Thelonious
wearing that old funky hat
pulled down over his eyes. 

from Copacetic. Copyright © 1984 by Yusef Komunyakaa 
Online Source