Monday, February 26, 2018

Guns: the common denominator in mass school shootings

It's been almost two weeks since the school shooting in Parkland, FL. The national conversations about school safety and gun culture have remained front and center as debates and town hall meetings seek answers. Some people have speculated that "this time it's different," as the calls for legislative action have not abated, and the student voices have seemed to be more prevalent than in the past.

I don't know.

Regarding the role that access to guns plays in mass shootings would seem to me to be pretty indisputable. The general consensus of research is that areas that have more guns simply have more shootings. The international comparisons are certainly worth investigating and discussing when seeking solutions to our problem and making policy decisions. Having grown up in an area where gun ownership was not at all unusual, I've had plenty of time to discuss (and at times argue about) whether "guns are the problem." I certainly think they are a significant part of the issue, but I am not the type of person that insistent on banning weapons. I know where I live, and I know the challenges that position poses. That said, I'm also not one to accept that the status quo that gun violence and mass shootings are the new normal that can't change. It can.

I will admit that I simply do not understand the resistance to licensing and registration for guns and ammunition - other than the (IMO) ridiculously radical argument that private citizens must maintain arms to prevent tyranny. Obviously, in the historical and theoretical sense, there would seem to be some logic and precedent for the conspiracy-minded to believe that a government registry could be used to confiscate weapons and oppress people. But I just don't think rational, educated American citizens should buy into such fringe thinking. Of course, I know my wording on that will certainly alienate some rational, educated friends and acquaintances, but I'm not sure how else to frame it. They might ridicule how naive I am about freedom, but I offer equal ridicule how naive they are about gun violence. Regulating guns like we do cars seems a fair compromise, and I'm holding out hope that younger generations will eventually come around to that.

And then there's a few pro-gun solutions to mass shootings that I simply don't ever expect to understand, among them is arming teachers. Here in Colorado, one of our legislators, Republican representative Kevin Neville, introduced his annual bill to allow "conceal and carry" of weapons on school campuses. Thankfully it was defeated in committee. Neville argues that schools are targets of mass shooters precisely because they are "gun free zones." There is no evidence of this argument, and it dismisses the obvious reason kids shoot up their schools - they have an emotional connection to the school which is linked to their rage.

So, anyway, those are some thoughts as the nation seeks answers. I don't see any yet.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Thank you, Olympians - Pyeongchang 2018

Every so often the world needs a reminder of the triumph of the human spirit and the ability of men and women to be nothing short of awesome. For me, the Winter Olympics are a time, not to escape from, but to embrace all of humanity around a simple idea - cheering people on who simply aspire to be excellent in the realm of physical achievement. This pursuit of athletic success is a very simple and time-honored value of human society. We are in awe of greatness, and we seek to honor it with our attention and symbolic awards.

When I used to teach Beowulf as part of our freshman literature curriculum, I usually began by introducing my students to the Anglo-Saxon concept of "The Heroic Ideal." Beowulf is the quintessential hero in society as their ultimate warrior. He is strong (with the "strength of thirty men in his grip"), proud, courageous, and ultimately a winner. It seems obvious but societies honor and revere that which they value most. And, from at least the times of ancient Greece, civilizations have pretty universally valued physical prowess and achievement. It's why we watch, and often handsomely compensate, our top athletes. They do awesome things, and we stand amazed and thankful for sharing with us the pinnacle of their achievements.

This year's Winter Olympics has been everything I hoped it would with veteran competitors and fresh new faces once again pushing the limits in the pursuit of excellence. How cool that the 2018 Winter Olympics took place in South Korea, just 60 miles from the Demilitarized Zone. The politics of late have been disturbing and disheartening, but the image of a unified team of athletes entering under a banner of one Korea was nothing short of wonderful. Even as these moments fade amidst resurfacing tensions, we will have that image of hope. And the Koreas needed and deserved the triumphs we saw like the South Korean Iron Man bringing home a gold medal in the men's skeleton. Awesome.

As I watched the closing credits from NBC's coverage of competition, I was once again in awe (and a little bit misty) as I watched the highlights of so many great Olympic moments. The epic snowboard slopestyle win of 17-year-old Red Girard made me laugh, cry, smile, and scream. What a great story - including the R-rated verbal responses of Red and his brother. The sort-of-homecoming triumph for another 17-year-old, Chloe Kim, was the stuff dreams are made of. And who can forget the adorable picture of Chloe's dad and his homemade sign. The redemption story of snowboarding royalty Shaun White was the perfect script for feel-good stories, and I'll cry every time I see video of Shaun sobbing as he falls into the arms of his mom and hugs practically everyone in sight. What a beautiful moment.

On the slopes the action was as unpredictable as the weather. Lindsay Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin did not ski away with all the accolades at this Olympics, but it was such a joy to watch them compete and both win and lose with grace and class. And I have a newfound fascination with cross-country skiing - those athletes are hard-core. Holy crap, those competitions were incredibly grueling, and I don't know that we could script more incredible wins than the come-from-behind victories of both Simen Hegstad of Norway and the team of Jessica Diggins/Kikkan Randall. The sport of cross-country would seem to be slow at times, but I don't know that I've seen a more thrilling sprint for the finish line than that of Diggins.

On the ice, from the intensity of short track to the meditative strategy of curling to the majestic beauty of figure skating the athletes gave us moments to cherish forever. The 2018 Olympics saw the USA make hockey history again as the USA Women knocked of the Canadian team for the first time in twenty years - it was an epic match that went deep into the night and was only resolved in a shootout. This year saw the first ever triple-axel from a woman in competition which America's Mirai Nagasu nailed it. And despite not winning a medal the USA's Nathan Chen made history with not just one or two but six quad jumps in a single routine.

There were so many special moments, and I'll still be thinking about them and watching highlights for weeks. The Olympics remain - at least for me - the moment when we set everything aside that divides us, and we come together to cheer and celebrate the pursuit of excellence. So, thank you to Shaun and Jessica and Lindsay and Nathan and all the others who gave us a couple weeks to simply enjoy the beauty of sport and the thrill of victory.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Brat Pack movies & Gen X Nostalgia

And then out of the blue, the Facebook page was created and the invitations and comments started coming - I just turned forty-eight and thus am approaching the 30th anniversary of my high school graduation. Ah, Generation X, how far we've come. While I probably won't make it home for my class reunion, I've been entertained by the nostalgia of classmates who have been planning an 80s theme for the weekend. Inevitably the references to songs and movies come along, and it's no surprise that John Hughes references are aplenty, for, in many ways, he raised us.

Coincidentally, I have been making my way through writer Jason Diamond's poignant and nostalgic memoir Searching for John Hughes: or Everything I thought I needed to know I learned from watching 80s movies. The book came out a couple years ago, and it's been sitting on my shelf with other pieces of Gen X commentary and criticism. But I picked it up recently and have been reflecting on my own John Hughes obsession as Diamond explains the origins of the book as his plan to kickstart a writing career by composing a biography of John Hughes.While Diamond is almost a decade younger than I, and his experience with the Hughes canon was on DVDs, rather than the theater, I appreciate the spirit with which he acknowledges the Hughesian influence and insight on his coming-of-age.

The nostalgia that comes through revisiting the pop culture of our youth is particularly strong for Gen Xers who can arguably be considered the first pop culture kids. Artists like Hughes - a Baby Boomer himself - were attuned to the powerful presence that media, film, and music had on the identities of young people in the 80s. And Diamond's book is an admirable contribution to the growing canon of Hughes/80s studies. One of my next reads is a reflection on Hughes' film settings, notably the suburban North Shore of Chicago. Gen X writer and book/film critic Kevin Smokler published Brat Pack America: a Love Letter to 80s Teen Movies last year, and I'm looking forward to his take on the genre as well.

Other 80s film commentary and criticism that I've enjoyed, or plan to read, includes:

Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from 80s movies and ....

You Couldn't Ignore Me if You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation

Don't You Forget about Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes

John Hughes: a Life in Film - the Genius Behind Ferris Bueller, the Breakfast Club, and more

Monday, February 5, 2018

Micro-credentials – Professional Development That Matters

Let’s be clear: quality professional development is one of the greatest demands and a high priority for people in the teaching profession. However, finding meaningful PD is one of our profession’s biggest challenges, leading to plenty of frustration. I’ll be honest. Like many teachers I shamelessly attend education conferences looking to “steal stuff.” Educators are always on the prowl for new and innovative ways to engage students and craft quality learning experiences. But is one lesson or learning experience worth a conference worth of time? Not always. But now, with the increased presence of professional learning communities (PLCs) in schools, many teachers are realizing that quality professional growth can be just down the hall.

Professional development – an idea that should intrigue, excite, and inspire educators – often elicits groans and eye-rolling as simply another set of hoops to jump through before they can get back to the job of educating young people. Micro-credentials may just be the key to help “salvage teacher PD.” In the Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin, teachers are coming together to create their own PD that is timely and specifically relevant to the actual kids sitting in their classrooms. For example, one group of teachers formed a book study on a necessary skill like close reading. They exchanged ideas, collaborated on lessons, implemented strategies, and documented the results on student learning. Then after submitting their work for review, they were able to earn a college-backed micro-credential, which can be tied to evaluations and salary, and even licensing. The goal is to make professional development more accessible and practical.  

The key for success in the Kettle Moraine district is that teachers were able to access professional development specifically relevant and tailored to the kids in their classrooms, and they were able to tailor their own growth, lesson planning, and instruction to the diverse learning styles of their students. As an educator and administrator who works closely with varied student populations, an attention to differentiation and unique learning styles is of primary importance to me. As a Gifted & Talented Coordinator (and GT parent), I am attentive to the unique needs of advanced learners, including when those needs include challenges with skills such as executive functioningTo organize lessons and instruction without knowledge of specific students' strengths, challenges, and interests is to be dismissive of the entire learning process. Yet, the challenge of differentiating for varied learners can be daunting. PD opportunities that support teachers' efforts to personalize learning are a long overdue development in education. As I work with students developing advanced learning plans, I can tailor discussions of affective programming by acknowledging the emotional intelligence and mindfulness that is often a far greater indicator of potential than simple standardized grades.

I am also a coordinator for professional development around the goals of equity and pedagogy, and in that regard I know that one of the most valuable components of inclusive excellence and culturally responsive instruction is a teacher's commitment to building relationships and a positive classroom culture. As a colleague recently noted, we simply can't keep doing what we've always done and expect students to adjust. The goal of the educator is engagement in meaningful instruction, and anyone with knowledge of rhetoric knows that effective speakers pay careful attention to their audience, adjusting for who is sitting in front of them. By paying attention to specific qualities and needs of students such as   I see so many opportunities in the micro-credential world that are specifically relevant to the work I am doing. From the important challenge of cultivating digital citizenship to the value of honoring unique student potential through the growthmindset, I see much potential in this new model of PD.

Education truly is an institution in flux, and an intriguing development of professional development is the emergence of micro-credentials as a new, refined, and effective way of providing professional development on a small and focused scale of personalized instruction and competency-based learning.  Organizations like Digital Promise are now offering an extensive platform of PD opportunities in the form of micro-credentials. Digital Promise is a non-profit “authorized by Congress to spur innovation in education and improve the opportunity to learn for all through technology and research.” To earn a micro-credential, educators simply “select a specific skill or area in which they want to develop and demonstrate competency, or an area or skill they already possess competence in. Collect the required evidence as articulated in the micro-credential (e.g. videos, audio, writing samples, samples of student work, reflections from students and/or teachers etc.) Submit their evidence through the online platform.  Assessors then review the evidence against the scoring guide and rubric. If educators successfully demonstrate competence, they receive the micro-credential in the form of a digital badge. Helping to establish the platform and make the opportunities accessible and established is the BloomBoard organization, providing structure to an emerging field.

When a teacher considers how he can “remain current” in his field – an expectation for many professional evaluation rubrics – he’s often faced with the tired and mundane list of professional development offerings that may not fit what he’s actually doing in the classroom. In the spirit of the online credentialing movement, educators now have increased opportunities for micro-credentials which are relevant to and reflect what they are actually doing in the classroom. The greatest benefit of micro-credential is that it honors and relies on the content-area expertise of the classroom teacher, as opposed to relying on an ambiguous, top-down mandate that may come from people far removed from the classroom. Some have explained how the concept of micro-credentials works a bit “like merit badges” in scouting.  

So-called “micro-credentials” work a lot like scouting badges. Teachers complete a specific activity to develop a critical competency for their role, and earn a micro-credential based on showing mastery of the skill. They can collect micro-credentials to document growing expertise and share their accomplishments in the classroom. Proponents of teacher micro-credentials … aim to shift teacher PD to a competency-based system with personalized development opportunities that match teachers’ and schools’ specific needs. Such a system could allow teachers to drive their own development, signal their true areas of expertise to school and district administrators, and advance in their careers according to their skills. If it gains traction, micro-credentialing could help transform how K–12 teachers are prepared, hired, developed, and assigned teaching responsibilities.

As the education world continues to innovate, moving away from a one-size-fits-all system, one of the best things schools can do is to provide opportunities for professional growth that are individualized and competency-based. Relying on the ability of teachers to be content experts and also advocates for the specific learning needs of their students is an effective way of improving instruction and best meeting the needs of all students. Teachers and their students are hungry for quality meaningful instruction that improves outcomes for all kids. The concept of micro-credentials and the establishment of groups like Digital Promise and BloomBoard are innovations that can provide this opportunity.

Ultimately, as I've grown as an educator, I've grown to understand the value of "teaching them where they are, as opposed to where I expect them to be." The value of personalized learning and individualized instruction cannot be understated, and PD that allows, encourages, and supports teachers efforts in this area is professional development worth pursuing.

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Friday, February 2, 2018

Groundhog Day @ 25 - An Existential Treat for the New Year

Groundhog Day: An Existential Treat for the New Year

As many people do, I’ve occasionally used January 1 as a time to re-set, start over, and finally begin to live, in the words of Thoreau, “the life I have imagined.” But as February approaches, and desks become re-cluttered and gym attendance begins to wane, I’m realizing perhaps a month later is a better fresh start date. Specifically, the second of February becomes my target for rebirth, just like it was a quarter-century ago for a weatherman named Phi Connors. Groundhog Day, which has become as well known for a subtly ingenious romantic comedy starring Bill Murray as it has for the odd folk practice of celebrating a weather-forecasting rodent, is another option for mid-winter self-reflection and reinvention.

On the twentieth-anniversary of the quirky Harold Ramis-Danny Rubin hit, it’s worth looking back at the film for all the existential wisdom and advice it offers, especially in a year when people are increasingly divided and confounded in their search for meaning and understanding amidst a world gone somewhat crazy. In a year ripe for self-reflection and reinvention, Phil Connor’s existential journey to a better self is a reminder of our ability to bring meaning to our lives in world that often appears to be nothing short of absurd.

2018 seems like an apropos time for a shift toward existentialism, what with divisive politics tearing at the fabric of society as a pop-culture President toys with nuclear annihilation over whose button is bigger. It’s hard to believe it’s been a quarter century since a pretentious, snide, and self-absorbed weatherman named Phil Connors begrudgingly made his way to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the nation’s strange little tradition of waiting for an over-sized gopher to predict the weather when seeing his shadow. The absurdity of the tradition is matched in the film by the absurdity of Phil’s unique dilemma, as he ends up stuck in small town Pennsylvania, reliving the same day again and again. Groundhog’s Day itself is a bizarre little folk tradition, and Phil’s monotonous waking up to an outdated and random but annoyingly catchy tune – “I’ve Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher – matches the inane circumstances that force Phil to re-evaluate everything he knows and does.

Obviously, the idea of living the same day over and over again – especially while stuck in a small town you despise – could be seen as a curse, and Phil certainly spends years believing that about his fate. But the idea of reinvention and getting a second chance – or unlimited chances – for a do-over to finally “get it right” is actually quite appealing. Phil’s initial reaction to his bizarre predicament is predictably to use his newfound power to indulge his basest fantasies. Given such freedom and power, who wouldn’t abuse it? He truly indulges in life with a string of hilarious scenes of Phil smoking indiscriminately, gulping coffee and pastries, manipulating women (“Nancy? Nancy Taylor?”), and even robbing an armored car. Of course, ultimately the freedom and power he truly achieves is freedom from and power over those Neanderthal-like urges. For even unrestricted access to endless hedonism and debauchery apparently becomes boring after a while.

Groundhog Day is truly a message film and the existential theme is clear – you will awake tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow as the same you in the same situation for no clear reason. Everyone lives through years, if not decades, in the same spot, doing the same job, with the same people in an endless loop. And the only way that situation will change or mean anything is if you change it, and you define the meaning. It’s never been a truer example that, as Dr. Phil once told audiences, “you create your own experience.” The issue of control in our lives is a central tenet to the philosophy and the film – our world is a creation of our own making. Yet, in many ways, the only thing we truly have control over is our choices, our reactions, and our interpretation. The issue of judgment is also relevant for Phil’s growth, for there is no correlation or causation between his actions and his circumstance. Whether he’s good – helping the homeless man – or bad – robbing the truck – his situation always remains the same. There is only one way out of the prison of our own existence – and that’s to not see it as a prison.  

Not entirely existential because the resolution of the film seemingly rewards him for making “good choices,” there is a value judgment bias in the film. At the beginning of the film Phil is narcissistic and egocentric, and that’s the point. Everyone is. He begins the film as a TV personality who declares “I make the weather.” Later, he shares a more melancholy realization that he’s a deity – “Well, I’m a god, I’m not the God. I think.” It even takes on a sweet innocence as he speculates, “Maybe God isn’t omnipotent. Maybe he’s just been around soo long, he knows everything.” Phil appears to have achieved immortality – but is that a blessing? He conquers death, but only because he literally tries to die out of exhaustion and despair. He ultimately becomes what Fitzgerald once called the “Platonic conception of himself,” or Jung just called the fully realized individual and self. He becomes what he is meant to be – the fully actualized self. The ideal.

The film has become more than just an entertaining rom-com, as critics, writers, and teachers have used the story as an avenue into the philosophy of existentialism. It first occurred to me about ten years ago while teaching a class called Intro to College Literature, a standard unit of which included Camus’ The Stranger, as well as his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Clearly, the existential premise has occurred to numerous educators and writers, for this is no shortage of articles about the existentialist brilliance of Groundhog Day. The most obvious philosophical components of the film and story are the absurdist nature of existence, the idea of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, and Camus imagining Sisyphus happy. Camus saw the story of Sisyphus as the perfect metaphor for the human condition – stuck in a repetitive cycle which would seem absurd to the outsider. When he “imagines Sisyphus happy,” he shifts the paradigm from judgment and punishment to liberation and empowerment. Both Sisyphus and Phil transition through the act of acceptance – accepting and embracing their inescapable dilemma.

Once Phil accepts his fate, he is ironically freed from it. Life in Punxsutawney is no longer a prison, but an opportunity. He learns to play piano, becomes an expert ice sculptor, develops deep genuine knowledge of the people around him, and appreciates the woman he loves for all her simple goodness. The process takes time, and time is the one thing he has. One enterprising film fan, Simon Gallagher, once calculated the number of days Phil is stuck – 12,403, or approximately 33 years. That stretch of time is basically the length of adulthood when people come into their own, finish their education, develop careers, enter long term relationships, have kids, and look toward retirement.

Unlike many redemption stories, there is no specific antagonist nor any obvious guide or mentor figure leading Phil to peripeteia, his moment of clarity. The movie never explains why Phil’s space-time continuum glitch is, well, glitching. And it’s all the more satisfying that way. Phil’s status and challenge is his and his alone to understand and resolve – as is the case for all of us. If there seems to be nothing we can do about the state of the world, perhaps the most logical choice, which is really the only choice we ever had, is to turn back toward ourselves with a focus on making meaning of the one thing we can, ourselves.  Ultimately, the film deftly touches up 18th century neo-classical ideas of “freedom” – not the ability to do whatever you want, but to be free from ultimately unsatisfying and dead end of impulsiveness and appeals to our primal nature.

Pieces of popular culture truly embed themselves in the national consciousness at the moment they enter the lexicon. Danny Rubin’s screenplay certainly did that, as “Groundhog Day” has become the catchphrase for “monotony” and a drudgery-filled sense of repetitive daily life. Beyond that, the movie has become a reliably entertaining bit of self-help for the existentially thirsty who seek solace and understanding in the classic redemption narrative that has captivated audiences since the time of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which Bill Murray also explored in the Christmas classic Scrooged. Ultimately, after all these years the weird little tale of Phil Connors remains a refreshingly engaging romantic comedy that also happens to be an inspiring primer on the wisdom of existentialism. Given one life to live with certain parameters beyond our control, the best and only thing we can do is to make that life exactly what we want it to be and imagine ourselves happy.