Thursday, April 29, 2021

Talking Heads Don't Teach Us Anything

I've written before of my distaste for the talking heads on cable news who mask their info-tainment as news, commentary, and authentic debate about the issues. Here are my latest thoughts on that problem in my column for the Villager:  "Talking Heads Don't Teach Us Anything" 

Talking Heads Don’t Teach Us Anything

Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon are hurting America.

The respective hosts of talk television shows on Fox News and CNN take to the airwaves five nights a week to allegedly provide thoughtful commentary and debate about the issues of the day. What actually happens could hardly be considered thoughtful, commentary, or debate. Instead, these savvy media personalities orchestrate a nightly circus of obfuscation and diversion. The same can be said about Sean Hannity and Rachel Madow, about Chris Cuomo and Laura Ingrahm, about Lawrence O’Donnell and Jeanine Pirro. And it’s literally hurting America.

Approximately seven million people spend weekday nights watching the talking heads on cable news, split among FoxNews, CNN, & MSNBC. While that may seem like a large audience, it’s only a tiny fraction of the nation’s 331 million people. So, it’s at least reassuring to know less than one percent of the nation wastes its evenings tuned in to echo chambers of divisive partisan politics. Far from delivering actual news or insightful commentary, the shows are simply vehicles to produce ad revenue for the stations and lavish salaries for the hosts. At one time the business model for media was large audiences with broad views; the new approach caters to limited audiences who seek narrow content designed to reinforce their own individual beliefs, biases, and prejudices.

Contemporary media critic and humanities professor Neil Postman described the talk radio and television genre as “info-tainment.” In his 1985 non-fiction book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Postman explained that from a word count and general content perspective all the information heard in an hour-long television program could be found on a single page of a newspaper. Thus, as people sit through hours of talking heads like Carlson and Lemon ranting and agitating, they are learning almost nothing. In fact, that’s precisely the point of these shows. They exist as a form of soundbite news with all the intellectual nourishment of a bumper sticker.

While these shows are broadcast on news stations, they are actually an affront to the news-gathering mission of journalism. In a speech to the Women’s National Press Club in 1960, Clare Boothe Luce challenged the harmful direction of journalism by warning “What is wrong with the American press is what is in part wrong with American society.” She questioned whether the American press should be excused for not providing “more tasteful and illuminating” content simply because they were businesses and had to give the audience what it wanted. I cannot imagine what an ethical and inspirational woman like Luce would think of today’s contemporary media. At best she’d be ashamed the Fourth Estate would ever be used to agitate and inflame America’s internal struggles and conflicts rather than enlighten and resolve them.

In a now legendary episode of CNN’s Crossfire when Jon Stewart chastised the show’s hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, the schtick of the cable talk show was first called out as fraudulent. When the hosts claimed their show debated the issues, Stewart responded, “No, no, no, a debate would actually be great.” But that’s not what happens in the contemporary era. Debate has a rich, extensive history as a form of public discourse in American society. The actual Lincoln-Douglas debates lasted three hours, with no commercial interruptions. One candidate spoke for an hour straight. The opponent responded with ninety minutes of claims and refutations. The first speaker then finished with thirty minutes of rebuttal. Imagine the deep thought-provoking content developed over that time. Imagine the thoughtful attentiveness audiences must have displayed.

At one time, Americans could sit and listen for hours of truly enlightening intellectual content. The lyceums of the New England Renaissance featured public intellectuals like Emerson, Thoreau, and Twain who travelled the country, speaking for hours at public events that provided an organized adult education system. Similarly, Boulder’s chautauqua system was a historical example of a time when Americans sought out and sat for hours of thoughtful discussion that wasn’t interrupted every eight minutes for a commercial break.

Ultimately, the media, from large national television stations to small local newspapers, has a sacred responsibility to seek, protect, and promote the truth. Clare Booth Luce ended her speech with these words: “Let us watch then, with hope, for the signs of a new, vigorous leadership in the American press. For if you fail, must not America also fail in its great and unique mission, which is also yours: To lead the world toward life, liberty, and the pursuit of enlightenment.”

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Virginia Plans to Eliminate Math Acceleration -- wait, What?

All kids do not learn math at the same age, pace, and proficiency. In fact, we know the literacy, math, and critical thinking skills of kids are not actually age-specific. That, of course, is a key problem and inefficiency of the K12 once-size-fits-all education system. However, many schools are able to adjust for responsive learning needs through flexible acceleration, and as a result, not every kid is stuck in Algebra I during their ninth grade year, even though that class has long been the standard. As a GT coordinator in a high achieving school community, I've known kids in ninth grade to be in geometry, algebra II/trig, and even calculus. So, clearly one math pathway is not responsive to students.

Thus, the move by the Virginia Department of Education to "eliminate all math acceleration before eleventh grade" is a truly baffling, unsettling, frustrating, and disappointing decision. It is a step backward in education, as is the reasoning of holding kids back in the name of equity. For those of us who have spent a long time in education, in understanding giftedness, and in working for equity, the idea of treating all kids the same is outdated thinking. In fact, we've all seen the graphic of the kids at the fence and the distinction between equity and equality. Equality is providing one path and treating all people the same; equity is providing equal access to opportunity while providing multiple pathways to success and achievement.

Virginia is making a huge mistake in its misguided attempt to help kids. 

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Unpacking the Backpack

This year I have a new writing gig, doing a weekly column for The Villager, a small community weekly in southeast Denver. My pieces logically are from an educator's view, and much of the time I am shedding light on school and learning-based issues. Here's the text from my first piece earlier in the year.

Unpacking the Backpack - What’s Really Going on in Education

Our youth today love luxury. They have bad manners and contempt for authority. They disrespect their elders and love gossip and socializing instead of exercise. They no longer rise when adults enter the room. They challenge their parents, scarf their food, and tyrannize their teachers.

While you might think those comments were part of a recent NBC news special or an article in the New York Times, they have actually been attributed to Socrates in the fifth century, BC. We hear much criticism of young people and public education these days. Some pessimists and curmudgeons even argue both are in a state of ruin. I assert, however, such views are naive, and there is more to the story.

So, are schools failing or is public education still the great American success story? The answer, of course, is yes. For as long as we’ve had schools in the United States, we have provided high quality education among the best in the world to many students while at the same time failing to meet the basic educational needs of many others. And we have been criticizing and complaining about schools for just as long. It’s worth remembering Rudolph Flesch first published Why Johnny Can’t Read back in 1953. And, twenty years ago education researcher Diane Ravitch published Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform. So much for our nostalgic views of the past when, like in Garrison Keillor’s tales from Lake Wobegon, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."

I’ve been in school virtually my entire life, working for the past 28 years as an educator in public and private schools, both here and abroad, as a teacher and an administrator. I’m also 51 years old, making me part of Generation X, a product of our “failing school system.” We were the subject of the Department of Education’s 1983 report A Nation at Risk, which described a “rising tide of mediocrity” in schools, and warned that had the effects on our children been inflicted by an outside power, we would consider it an act of war.

By 1991 Time magazine declared us the Slacker generation, a bunch of losers living in our parents’ basement, playing video games, and amounting to nothing. However, while the nation fretted about our future, Gen X basically went out and invented the internet and tech economy with Marc Andreeson launching the first web browser, Sergi Brin and Larry Page opening access to resources with Google, Jimmy Wales democratizing information with Wikipedia, and Elon Musk revolutionizing online money transfers at PayPal, then building electric cars and rockets at Tesla and SpaceX. Clearly the demise of education and American society was greatly exaggerated.

Yet all is not well, as inequities persist, achievement gaps grow, and too many students fall behind. In 2018, NAEP reading scores stagnated or dropped, indicating many kids are not performing at grade level. Journalist Campbell Brown, who runs an education reform website called the 74 million, expressed outrage, as she should, that “half of our kids can’t read and do math at grade level.” The most troubling part of this news is the inequity, for the low scores can be accurately predicted by family income, zip code, and race. Clearly the egalitarian promise of the education system is not being fulfilled.

We continue to have national debates about what’s wrong with schools and how to fix them. I was just entering the profession in 2001 when George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy teamed up for the No Child Left Behind Act, which declared “all children would achieve at grade level by 2014.” It was quickly replaced in 2015 with the Every Child Succeeds Act. These titles, designed to imply legislators can fix systems with the flick of a pen, would seem to defy the law of averages.

However, for all the struggles, we can also assert the US is more educated than ever before with 90% of people 25 and over graduating high school. In the 1940s it was 24%. Additionally, approximately 70% of students now go onto college, whereas that number was closer to 5% in 1950, and disproportionately male and white.

It’s also worth noting many kids are learning more than ever before. For example, I took Algebra II and Trigonometry in eleventh grade, but many students now complete it by freshman year. Perhaps the most impressive development is Advanced Placement courses which are college classes taken in high school. In 2018, 1.25 million graduates took 4.2 million AP exams in 38 possible classes. As an AP English teacher, I know my students regularly produce the type of writing I didn’t achieve until graduate school.

Thus, clearly great things are happening in our schools, and we still have much work to do. Public education is still among the best in the world, yet we also fail to meet the needs of vast numbers of kids.

So, how do I feel about education? About students? About the future?

Hopeful. After all, I’m a teacher.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Don't Make Students Perform Shakespeare

So, here's my controversial and unpopular English teacher opinion: Don't ask students to read/perform Shakespeare plays out loud in class while studying them. 

Each year that I've taught The Bard's plays -- mostly the standards like Julius Caesar or Hamlet -- I've begun polling my classes, asking, "Okay, so with a show of hands, how many of you are classically trained Shakespearean actors?" You can imagine the responses. I follow by asking how many are actors, are in theater, are public speakers, are comfortable performing plays and monologues, etc. Obviously, few if any answer yes. And, after joking that we can now agree listening to them perform the play, of which they are entirely unfamiliar, would be an insult to old William and would likely literally hurt our ears and our humanities instincts, I let them know we will not be "reading" Shakespeare in the class.

Studying plays in class does not mean that students must read the roles, or even (gasp!) perform them, out loud in class. To truly appreciate the lines, they must be known well and delivered as intended. And reading over the play a night before just won't cut it, especially for young teenagers. Plays are not meant to be read, and while many people might be able to do so, it's not a particularly enlightening experience like reading an essay, novel, story, or poem can be. So, I don't waste class time with such nonsense. Plays are meant to be heard and seen. Yet simply showing the movie is too passive, especially for Shakespearean works where the language is challenging at best and undecipherable at worst for many kids. So, we listen to recordings together and work through the play, stopping and discussing and learning along the way.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Where They Go Is Not Who They Are

In my most recent column for The Villager, I considered all the high school seniors who are now hearing from colleges about their applications. 

Where They Go isn’t Who They Are

“We’ve decided on two colleges: Harvard or Yale.”

I actually heard that comment once from the parents of a freshman in high school; I’m pretty sure they hadn’t actually confirmed this with the colleges in question. Now, as spring arrives and high school seniors learn where they’ve been accepted, I’m thinking about the complicated college admissions game and the unnecessary angst it puts on many families.

The recent Netflix documentary “Operation Varsity Blues” about the 2019 college admissions scandal exposes the seedy details of wealthy parents gaming the system to secure spots at elite colleges “through the side door.” That actually meant bribery, altered test scores, phony athletics admissions, and more. Of course, these intense, unethical efforts to get into college actually reflect only a tiny percentage of the millions of high school seniors who apply to college each year. Most students simply study hard, find a few schools which are appropriate for them, apply in the regular process, get admitted, and go off to college like students have always done.

For others, however, the college admissions game has fostered a cottage industry of private college counselors who prey on the anxiety of students and their families. Operation Varsity Blues exposes the most extreme cases of counselors using personal connections, college rankings, and even the media to cast uncertainty on a higher education system that is actually more accessible than it’s ever been. Yet many successful, well-educated students literally believe they won’t get into college, or at least not “a good one.” As a result, countless families spend thousands of dollars for assistance getting their child into schools, often unnecessarily.

Most Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and older Millennials would acknowledge they never needed private college counselors, college application boot camps, standardized test prep classes, or endless hours of tutoring to get into college. The reality is younger Millennials and Gen Zers don’t either. Granted, more students are applying to college than ever before, and each school only has a specific number of spots. It’s the shrinking pool of interest in a few schools that exacerbates the myth of access. In reality, if a student requires excessive hours of tutoring, editing, and counseling to craft the perfect college profile, the application probably isn’t an accurate representation of the student, and the dream school isn’t the right choice. And if their primary choices don’t have room, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of comparable opportunities for a college education.

Too often bright, qualified students are crushed by not being admitted to one specific school or program, such as engineering at the University of Michigan, only to begrudgingly accept admission to an equal or even higher ranked school like Illinois, Purdue, or Colorado School of Mines. Ironically, every year students from Texas, Michigan, and Virginia are surely devastated by not getting into their dream school of CU-Boulder, while young Coloradans turn their noses up at their home state while desperately hedging their entire future on acceptance to Virginia, Michigan, or Texas. These stories would be absurdly funny if they weren’t so sad.

There are more than 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States, and that means there are hundreds of top-tier premiere schools. Sadly, too many families believe there are only a few acceptable schools. The Ivy League consists of just eight schools, and many people are surprised to learn elite colleges like Stanford, Duke, and MIT aren’t even part of that group. After all, the Ivy League is actually just a football league.

Time Magazine has published numerous stories over the past two decades to emphasize how career access, future earnings, and professional success are actually more related to an individual student’s qualities rather than the institution granting the degree. Time researchers followed students who were accepted into elite institutions but chose not to attend for numerous reasons. Years out of school, they were no less successful than similar students who attended those schools. In many cases they were actually more successful with lower debt and far less stress.

The unrealistic perceptions and misguided beliefs of students about college choices led Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist, to research colleges and reveal the truth about higher education, the admissions game, and the status of schools. In 2015, he published “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: an Antidote to the College Admissions Game.” Perhaps that book should be added to the required curriculum for students and parents.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Yes, There is a Parenting Manual

Parenting is an exciting, heartwarming, challenging, fascinating, wonderful time in our lives, and it's important to know we are not alone in figuring out how to do it. Contrary to many quips from people who believe there is "no instruction manual for a child," there are plenty of parenting books to guide our decisions, actions, and feelings. Here's my piece from the April 1 version of The Villager:

Yes, there’s a Parenting Manual

At age fifty-one, with two kids in high school and college respectively, I look back with pride and a bit of relief I didn’t screw it up.

In reflecting on how we got to this point, my wife and I recalled getting ready to welcome our first child by reading. We read and talked a lot about parenting before we started living it. Just like we always did before planning a trip, we researched, heading to the bookstore and library in search of what was known about the experience we were about to embrace. Obviously it helped that we were both educators and natural readers. It has also helped we somehow have two incredibly amazing kids. In fact, we might not actually be good parents because in some ways we haven’t parented. Of course, that just means we haven’t struggled with managing their behavior. In reality, we’ve parented every minute of our kids’ lives, even when that means stepping back, giving them autonomy and freedom.

Parenting is undoubtedly an uncertain and ever-evolving series of events, and most parents advise newbies that you can never fully prepare for what comes next. However, that doesn’t mean there is no store of knowledge and wisdom about parenting. Sadly, too many people feel they are destined to fly blind, living in a state of crisis management throughout the childhood years. I recall an episode of Oprah when a guest lamented to Dr. Phil, “you know, there’s no parenting manual.” Both Oprah and Dr. Phil nodded, exclaiming, “That’s right, there is no parenting manual.” It’s not like the hospital gives you a user's manual as you head out the door, right? My wife and I looked at each other, dumbfounded. “Of course there’s a parenting manual,” we protested to the TV. In fact, dozens sprang to mind without even doing an Amazon search.

Being a Gen X child of a 70s upbringing, I remember my mom talking about Dr. Spock, the pediatrician whose 1946 bestseller The Common Book of Baby & Child Care influenced post-World War II parenting. Granted, much discussion these days is about everything Dr. Spock got wrong, but there’s no denying the significance of his book and his simple faith in the parenting instinct which reminds us “you know more than you think you do.” Dr. Spock had plenty of detailed advice on how new parents could raise and nurture their children into adults. His revolutionary tome broke with traditions in parenting by encouraging parents to not follow strict rules but to see their children as individuals. It’s an adaptive model used to raise two generations.

In contemporary America, the parenting self-help bookshelf has greatly expanded, and the industry now has specialized genres on everything from feeding your child to getting them to sleep. There are books on literacy and emotional intelligence and allergies and toy selection. There’s no shortage of books on discipline, with full manuscripts about whether or not to spank (Helpful Hint: don’t). In fact, two enterprising parents and “parenting coaches,” Carole and Nadim Saad wrote Kids Don’t Come with a Manual, a bestseller which has since become a series. However, if I am advising a future parent, I think it starts with the classic What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which should be a mandatory baby shower gift, and it should always be paired with What to Expect the First Year. If my wife and I reflect on our experience, the next most significant book we read was Proactive Parenting. And, of course, many people will swear by the “parenting Bible,” How to Talk so your Kids will Listen, and Listen so your Kids will Talk.

Some parenting manuals aren’t guidebooks, as much as they are memoirs of success and failure, sharing tips on how to raise children the French way, or singing the praises of tiger moms and hipster dads. As the parents of two successful children, my wife and I have often fielded not only compliments but queries about what we did. Mostly, we have read and talked a lot about parenting.

So, that’s the crux of my advice: there is a parenting manual, and there is one that is perfect for you and your child. Now read it.

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Do's & Don'ts of Hybrid Teaching

 A few weeks ago, as many schools nationwide returned to the physical classroom for the first time in a year, I was asked by educator and ed writer Larry Ferlazzo, who blogs at EdWeek, to write a piece advising teachers who've been remote on how to return to class in a hybrid model. It started with a response to Larry's tweet asking for advice on online and hybrid learning. My comment was "You can't recreate the physical classroom online; don't even try." My response piece on advice about hybrid learning is below for anyone who doesn't have access to EdWeek:

Do’s & Don’ts of Hybrid Learning

If we’ve learned anything during the past year of remote learning, it’s this: you cannot replicate the physical classroom in an online setting. Don’t even try.

A quick bell starter in an actual classroom might be a statement or question followed by a whip-around with a few students commenting or responding. The teacher can assess a great deal through the comments, responses, facial expressions, nods, and even by walking the classroom to peer over shoulders at who wrote down what. Last spring many of us mistakenly tried to recreate that experience online with discussion boards on Schoology or Canvas. Big mistake. What takes a couple minutes in class with natural, fluid responses could easily become hours of forced work online.

The pandemic has given educators many unexpected lessons about kids and content, pedagogy and learning. Online learning was conceived, intended, and designed for self-directed, intrinsically motivated, independent learners. It was never meant to be a pandemic response or health crisis safety valve. Yet, out of necessity we’ve developed tools and techniques we’ll hold on to even in more normal times.

Now, as many schools that have been on remote learning for most of the year head back to the classroom in various forms of hybrid learning, it’s important to think about what works and what doesn’t. Most importantly, remember that we physically go to school for human connection and to be a part of a learning community. We miss each other. Our kids miss each other. This will be their only class time to directly interact with classmates, so let students connect with us and each other. Encourage it. Plan for it. Expect it.

Let them talk, chat, collaborate, engage, share and use their peers for learning and support. Pre-plan how you will group kids, and stick with standard groups so time is not lost daily pairing up. Collaboration can be very tough online, and let’s face it, kids don’t like breakout rooms and don’t talk when we’re not checking in. Since time together is limited in person, plan and use discussion protocols to keep kids on track and maximize class time. However, don’t micromanage the time you give them. Plan for interaction but also let the connections be organic and natural.

A colleague summed up the in-person approach well for me: “I’m a teacher, so when the kids are actually in front of me, I’m going to teach.” Don’t waste any precious class time with tasks or materials that can be handled online. Thus, don’t spend time on announcements or review, and it should go without saying, but don’t show videos in class. Any tech or media use should have little-to-no set-up time. Make sure students know the lesson plan and objectives before they arrive, but POST IT ANYWAY everyday.

Direct instruction is fine, but remember the lessons of books like No More Teaching as Telling by Cris Tovani and Elizabeth Birr Moje, and don’t use the time to be a simple presenter of information. For many teachers doing hybrid all year, it’s now a natural instinct to front load and frame the week’s lessons with an intro video and resources. In any part of instruction, allow time for questions. Present then query, question, reframe, and follow up. Call on kids, but rethink how you question. It’s subtle but effective to shift from asking whether they have questions to querying, “What questions do you have?” And set realistic goals and timelines for classroom instruction because depending on the hybrid schedule, you likely can’t just plan to go over or pick it up the next day. In checking for understanding, another teacher told me, “All my assessments are online and virtual.” We can't afford to use class time watching kids take tests.

As always, listen to the kids and be responsive to their needs. My fifteen-year-old daughter candidly said, “I actually kinda like the hybrid schedule.” While she expressed uncertainty about learning enough and being prepared for next year, she’s actually grown comfortable with two days in person and a couple others to do the work, study, review, and get help during office hours. Her most important advice for teachers was to plan carefully so it didn’t feel like two separate classes, one online and another in-person. “Don’t have due dates for online work the night of the synchronous class,” she urged me.

Finally, when kids are in your physical presence, don’t sacrifice the social-emotional elements and the classroom culture. Take advantage of the simple but easily overlooked detail of eye contact. Ultimately, we need to be honest and candid in identifying and planning for our non-negotiables, our learning targets, and our exit standards.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Business/Marketing 101 for Rockies Ownership

The people of Colorado are no doubt thrilled to be hosting the All Star Game this year, but that's about all there is to celebrate in regards to the home team. It's tough to be a Rockies fan these days, especially after the loss of franchise player Nolan Arenado to the St. Louis Cardinals. The hardest part is knowing that inept ownership and central management is the problem. Here's my column in The Villager with advice to the Monfort brothers about how to run a mid-market team:

Business/Marketing 101 for Rockies Ownership

Sometimes the free market doesn’t seem to operate as it should. Anyone who’s taken a basic econ or business class knows the market and consumers should decide winners and losers. A well-run company putting out a quality product should profit while a poorly-run business with a consistently substandard and disappointing product should struggle and ultimately fail if it doesn’t change its course or leadership. If that were true, however, then both Dick Monfort and Jeff Bridich of the Colorado Rockies would be out of jobs.

In last week’s Denver Post, two panels of baseball experts examined the problems and challenges of major league baseball and the struggling Rockies. The commentary on the Rockies organization and its ability to make money with a crappy team and poor management was a fascinating lesson in the inadequacies of the market system in professional sports ownership. The publicly-financed stadium which hosts the Rockies only makes the story harder to swallow for Colorado baseball fans.

In explaining why the Rockies cannot compete for the best talent, the team’s tightwad owner and CEO Dick Monfort said the organization cannot go out and sign top-line free agents because they are a mid-market team and can’t afford to take that risk. Yet, the metro population of Denver is actually slightly larger than the metro area of mid-market St. Louis, whose Cardinals took Nolan Arenado and got money-bumbling Monfort to pay them $50 million to do it.

The Milwaukee Brewers are consistently competitive even though the area has half the population of Denver. The Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 2015 in a market half Denver’s size. And the San Diego Padres just signed Fernando Tatis, Jr., one of baseball’s most dynamic players, to the largest contract in MLB history, and they did so in a market only slightly larger than Denver, and one that recently lost its football franchise. Clearly, market size and money aren’t the problem, and Dick Monfort can certainly afford marquee players.

In basic economic terms, Denver is a larger and richer market than St. Louis, and it's a truly sports crazy town. Additionally, it faces almost no regional competition like St. Louis, which has two other MLB teams within fours of it. How can that small town midwest team succeed? Well, it’s arguably one of the best run organizations in all of pro sports. Over the past decade, the city of St. Louis has sent several urban planners to Denver to learn the magic of revitalizing LoDo. Perhaps they could return the favor by inviting the Monforts for a tutorial on running a baseball team.

Clearly, ticket sales are not a problem for Denver, but there is more money to be made in marketing and media. The Monforts have thousands of square miles to develop, yet have failed to capitalize by growing the fan base, instead content to build party decks and sell a few more Coors Lights. That’s not how brands or franchises are built, and it shows surprisingly small-minded business vision. Rockies ownership seems far more interested in developing real estate across the street from Coors Field than it does in developing real estate between the baselines. Rather than thinking of new ways to sell products on the concourse, they should be thinking of ways to sell Rockies baseball from Salt Lake City to Lincoln, Nebraska.

In the 1980s Ted Turner created a huge generation of Braves fans outside of Atlanta by using his cable station WTBS to broadcast the Braves nationwide to communities with no specific team to support. The Cubs have had similar success, with WGN featuring games across dozens of states. The Cardinal Nation fan base is so vast because for decades KMOX was the country’s most powerful radio signal, and with nothing else to watch or listen to, legions of fans from north Texas to South Dakota rooted for the Cardinals. Currently, there is no pro baseball in Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Utah, Idaho, Iowa, or the Dakotas, yet the Monfort boys have no idea how to court new fans.

Denver is a sports town with a huge market for baseball, and if the Rockies were run by people who actually had to work hard to achieve their financial success, the team would be much more successful. But that’s the untold lesson of econ 101: sometimes the market doesn’t work as it should. Sometimes the privileged and comfortable can continue to fail with impunity.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Transcendental Punk Rock Poet: Henry David Thoreau

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

Though it was written in the early part of the nineteenth century, the previous sentence is an apt and accurate description of punk rock and the entire punk aesthetic. Henry David Thoreau, the man who basically coined the phrase and inspired the idea that some people "march to the beat of their own drum," epitomized the spirit of punk. While obviously emphasizing an anti-establishment stance, the punk rock ethos is as much about being authentically individual.

As I continue to develop my ideas about Thoreau as the original American punk, I've been enjoying the insight from a great book The Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant by Robert Sullivan. While the book's title acknowledges the environmentalism for which Thoreau is often credited, Sullivan's analysis actually digs deep into the entire philosophy of Thoreau. It was much more than the ponderings of a man who found truth and answers on how to live by spending time amidst "nature," living in a cabin by Walden Woods. It was also, like Greg Graffin explains in his Punk Manifesto, about the "personal expression of uniqueness that comes from the experiences of growing up in touch with our human ability to reason and ask questions" and "a process of questioning and commitment to understanding that results in self-progress, and through repetition, flowers into social evolution." In his cultivation of individuality and the necessary authenticity needed to maintain it amidst a society pushing conformity, Thoreau was the original American voice of being an original American voice.

In Sullivan's analysis of Thoreau's life, beliefs, and actions, I particularly enjoyed his insight that "In living at the cabin, .... Thoreau was rejecting the changes that nineteenth century America presented to him." 

How very punk.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Are You Really Reading the Newspaper?

 In my ever-present quest to teach people more about literacy, and perhaps deepen their understanding of how and how well people read, here's my column from March 11 for The Villager:

Are You Really Reading the Newspaper?

“If you can read this, thank a teacher.”

I’ve seen that platitude on countless bumper stickers, T-shirts, and coffee mugs over the years, and though it’s rather trite, it does make me smile. However, it brings up an important question: can you read? Seems like an odd question to begin an essay, yet literacy specialists would not dismiss it, for they know many adults don’t read regularly or effectively, and most Americans did not read a single book last year. An equally large number do not read the newspaper, instead skimming articles online, surfing social media, or watching TV. Abraham Lincoln, a voracious reader of the classics, warned us “the man who doesn’t read has no advantage over the man who can’t.” Granted, many people say, “Oh, but I can when I need to.” I wonder what the average adult might learn about himself if he sat down with the SAT or ACT reading section.

According to the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), roughly 40% of high school students are “dys-fluent” in reading even when encountering grade-level, familiar text. 80% of colleges have courses in remedial reading, including the Ivy League. As a result, many adults are also technically "dys-fluent,” which basically means they can’t read. Of course, they’re not illiterate, but they can’t truly authentically read complex texts with fluency and comprehension. In the field of reading instruction we’d say they’re “fake readers.” Their eyes may be able to skim the words and their brains can pronounce them, but they don’t truly comprehend what they are reading.

Sadly, there has been little discussion of the need to teach reading throughout high school and even college. In reality, most school systems teach students to "decode" in first and second grade. After that schools simply assign reading. The problem is as texts get harder and material becomes more complex, students need assistance in how to tackle the more challenging texts. Especially at the upper levels, all teachers need to teach students how to read for their class. Reading is a learning skill, not an English skill. However, most teachers simply tell students they need to “read it again” or “read it more carefully.”

Yet, it’s not simply a failure of pedagogy, but instead a failure of nearly everyone to understand literacy. As an English teacher with decades of experience and two college degrees, I can honestly confess to struggling with reading even in adult life. While completing a master’s degree in English, I initially struggled, along with my cohort of twelve people, reading the text for our socio-linguistics class. On the second day of class, our professor acknowledged with a benevolent grin, “Of course you don’t understand it. I haven’t taught you how to read this content yet.” That insight resonated with me years later when I read a book about reading instruction by Denver-area teacher Cris Tovani. I Read It, but I Don’t Get It is based on her efforts to work with struggling readers, and it literally changed my life as a teacher, moving me from assigning reading to teaching it. I now actively promote reading to my students, and though they’re teenagers, I still spend time teaching them how to read.

Last Tuesday was Dr. Seuss’ birthday, which is also National Read Across America Day, a day meant to be devoted to the art of reading. The last year of the pandemic and remote learning is undoubtedly having harsh effects on the literacy of many young people, but that doesn’t mean students’ reading skills will naturally decline. Carol Jago, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, recently tweeted “Students who have been reading avidly - and had access to books - are unlikely to have fallen behind in reading.” The written word is a special gift. Reading, however, is not natural or intuitive. It’s actually a complicated and challenging skill, one which we too easily take for granted.