Tuesday, June 29, 2021

My Philosophy of Teaching

I was recently asked to articulate my "teaching philosophy," something I have thought about often and had crafted years ago. Now, nearly thirty years into my career, I have revised an updated my views.

When my high school age daughter was very young, one of the first full sentences I recall her saying is “My dad teaches students how to read and how to write.” What I loved most, other than the sing-songy rhythm with which she recited it, was her use of the transitive verb, or more specifically the direct object: My dad teaches children. She didn’t say he teaches English or grammar or books or any curriculum-related words. She focused on the children. I teach children. I’ve always loved the direct and honest authenticity of that description. In being a responsive educator, I don’t teach English or literature or composition or rhetoric or Pride and Prejudice or the American Dream or irony – I teach students. The essence of my instruction is an emphasis on cultivating the arts of reading, writing, and thinking. That singular focus on teaching the craft and the beauty of the English language has been my calling from my earliest days teaching language classes in Taiwan to my time in a middle school in Chicago where half of my students spoke Spanish in their homes to my current position teaching AP English at one of the top high schools in the country.

If I aligned my teaching philosophy with two literary works, they would be Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “I Am Waiting” and Kenneth Burke’s passage “The Parlor Metaphor.” Each of these works are featured as introductory lessons in my various classes to set the tone for the year. The key reference in Ferlinghetti’s piece which informs my instruction is his hope for “a renaissance of wonder.” A sense of wonder and inquiry and curiosity is what I hope to evoke and engage in my students with each lesson in every class. From Burke I draw upon his reference to the unending conversation which exists in the relationship between writer, subject, and reader. The work on the page preceded us and will outlive us, but as students, we engage in the conversation with the text, hoping to glean understanding. Because the works we study can be so vast in scope, I guide my students to become what Henry James called “a person on whom nothing is lost.” Regardless of the subject, context, time period, or purpose, my students will hopefully learn to engage with the works as part of their education.

From the Sage on the Stage to the Guide on the Side, from the classical instructor to the learner facilitator, from direct instruction and rote memorization to child-centered learning and Socratic seminars, the education world has seen numerous models and philosophies in teaching, and over the past thirty years I have learned, practiced, and incorporated most of them in my lessons. Regardless of the lesson and my chosen approach, however, the goal of student engagement and growth remains the key and the non-negotiable factor. In teaching kids rather than content, my intent is always to be a responsive educator. In that regard, I aim to focus on the specific abilities, needs, and goals of the unique students in the classroom at the time and to be fully present for them. Obviously the content and curriculum also guide my approach to the lessons and the students, but the philosophy of responsiveness and engagement remains the same.

The point of education is to gain knowledge and understanding of content which is not already natural and familiar to the students. Thus, I must understand and respond to my students’ backgrounds, interests, and needs. The one thing I truly love to do is to teach students how to read and how to write. Additionally, one of my greatest gifts is that of editor, a talent I inherited from my mom, a newspaper editor and feature writer. So, whether I am introducing young writers to rhetorical analysis and argumentation or helping upperclassmen craft and develop college application essays, I am happiest and most successful in helping students develop their facility with the craft of language.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Which Story is the Story of hiStory?

The teaching of history at the K12 and secondary level is getting quite a bit of attention in the news and at the community level lately. Here are my thoughts from my column in The Villager.

Have you ever heard of the Armenian Genocide?

I hadn’t until I was almost thirty years old, having not learned about the pivotal event in any of my history classes throughout school, including my time as a history major in college before switching to English. The Armenian Genocide first came to my awareness twenty years ago when I was teaching in Illinois, which at the time was reviewing its state social studies standards.

“How can you not teach the Armenian Genocide?” a colleague of mine strongly asserted. It’s widely believed by historians to be the blueprint the Nazis used in planning and implementing the Holocaust. In that regard, it’s an indispensable piece of information in the study of history, which should focus not just on knowing facts but also understanding how history evolves over time and how one event influences others.

Recently on the Denver Post editorial page, two local writers argued the time was long past due for the United States government to recognize the Armenian Genocide, an action which was vigorously opposed by the government of Turkey. Just a week later, the Biden administration publicly acknowledged the monumental historical event, something none of previous White House occupants had ever done. The news was an important step forward toward increasing deeper knowledge of the multiple perspectives necessary to ensure authentic understanding and wisdom about the past.

The Armenian Genocide is not the only history lesson many Americans have received recently. Millions of people are just now learning of profoundly significant historical events like the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 which culminated in the burning of an entire neighborhood known as Black Wall Street. Similarly, the commemoration of Juneteenth is finally on the minds of most Americans after its official adoption as a national holiday, despite being recognized and celebrated in states for decades. One key problem of teaching history is the significant influence held by textbook companies, and the ambiguity of determining what content is taught. For, the social studies standards of most states don’t actually identify specific events that must or should be taught.

Do you know who Samuel Gompers is, and if you don’t, can you really understand the history of business and labor in the United States? Do you know who Elijah P. Lovejoy is? Historians have called him the first casualty of the Civil War, as he became a martyr for freedom of the press and the abolitionist writing which was so instrumental in bringing about the end of slavery. Can you really understand the first amendment and the history of journalism if you don’t know who he is? Have you heard of Joshua Chamberlain? Some historians consider him one of the most pivotal figures of the Civil War, for without him, the Battle of Gettysburg, a turning point in the war, would likely have been won by the South. Did you know that the FBI was primarily formed to investigate the race-based murders of numerous affluent indigenous people in Oklahoma?

Perhaps the key to the conundrum of teaching “history” is that any discussion of what should be taught can quickly devolve into a trivia game like Jeopardy!, and insight to the goal of education is quickly lost as people toss “gotcha!” questions back and forth. That little game conveniently misses the importance of teaching perspective in history. For, truly, the goal of education is to become what Henry James called “a person on whom nothing is lost.” Thus, viewing all history from multiple perspectives is the antidote to what Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie warned about in her TED Talk and essay called “The Danger of the Single Story.”

In a nation that often appears embarrassingly ignorant of history, there is actually a significant interest in history, as noted by the large number of non-fiction texts that continually top best seller lists. Many adults feel compelled to correct the unfortunate fact that they “Don’t Know Much about History,” the name of a popular title from writer Kenneth C. Davis. Others are fascinated by learning all the history they didn’t know until after they read “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James W. Loewen or “A People’s History of the United States” by esteemed historian Howard Zinn.

Clearly, if you only know the history you were taught, you’re likely missing what journalist Paul Harvey liked to call “the rest of the story.”

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Restaurants plan to Replace Tipping with a 20% Service Charge

I approve of and support US restaurants eliminating a reliance on tipping and instead establishing a standard 20% service charge on all orders.

Because gratuity can only legally go to workers who come in direct contact with customers, restaurant owners now are using the “service charge” as a way to bump up pay for those who can’t share in tips, such as line cooks and dishwashers. In November, Padro and his partners introduced a 20% fee on customers’ bills, explaining to diners that the restaurants had switched to a “service-included” model.

“I think in the U.S. there’s this perception that the customer is in charge of their experience based on how much they tip,” Lee said. “In other parts of the world, I love the model where the price on the menu is the (true) price, and that’s all you pay. That’s what the pricing of a restaurant needs to be, but I know people have sticker shock … “It’s just funny to think that someone who would normally tip 20% sees 15% added to their bill (and gets upset),” he added. “If you’re complaining about 15%, you probably shouldn’t be eating out now.”

As someone who worked many years for $2.01/plus tips, I can tell you the system is quite flawed and outdated. The restaurant owners and industry associations are establishing the surcharge to bring overall checks in line with the true cost of the meal, something that tipping has enabled consumers to ignore for far too long. The tip is not a nicety or a gift you bestow upon the people who serve you -- it's part of the wage. The problem has long been paying servers less than minimum wage on the assumption that full compensation is made up through tips. But there is no guarantee of adequate tipping, and a paycheck should not be so arbitrary.

Now, with restaurants switching to service charges, customers are certainly free to continue tipping above the actual meal service cost, but this change will allow restaurants to survive and adequately compensate all staff: hosts, bussers, cooks, dishwashers, bartenders, and of course servers. And, of course, people are always free to not patronize stores they feel are now too expensive. I will support this change fully and am happy to make a daily choice on what I'm willing to pay for. 

I'll take the approach of Steve Martin in the hilarious 90s film, My Blue Heaven -- "Hey, what can I say, I tip everybody."

Monday, June 21, 2021

Swimming in a Pond in the Rain with George Saunders

George Saunders and I approach the teaching of literature and writing in the same way. But he has written it all down in a wonderful exploration of how we read. Saunders' latest book is a called A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, & Life. I just purchased the book after reading the first section on my Kindle from the library, and I simply fell in love with what Saunders is doing. For, really it is Saunders who is giving the master class on how to write and how to use the reading of great writers and, actually, also how to read. 

Any English teacher would benefit from reading this book -- it will inspire and invigorate you for the return to the classroom in the fall.

What I love most is how Saunders walks us through seven classic Russian short stories and shares his thinking (and thus teaching) just as he would if we were in his classroom. As a professor at Syracuse, he teaches a class on the Russian short stories as part of the creative writing program, and he walks students through the stories as an exercise in how to write. It's a requisite class for students who want to become writers, and it centers on the dialogue that exists, or should always exist, between an author and reader.

Basically, Saunders starts with the blank slate idea that a reader has when he first picks up a book, and then proceeds to query along the way about what we know once we start reading. It's the same approach I take when I introduce "reading at the high school level" to my honors ninth graders with Goulding's Lord of the Flies. We usually spend the first day on the first paragraph of the novel, and roughly half that time is often devoted to the first seven words -- "The boy with the fair hair lowered himself down." As we read, I continually ask questions like "what do we know, what do we wonder, what do we suspect, what do we hope ...?" Basically, I want students to think about their thinking while they read as a way of creating an active experience. For, great authors are always asking these same questions as they craft their stories from one line to the next.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Heavy Metal Power Ballads - a genre unto itself

The heavy metal rock ballad became a unique genre of music in the late 80s and early 90s. Also referred to as the "power ballad," these slow emotional songs became a mainstay of the hard rock/heavy metal bands of the 1980s such as Poison, Bon Jovi, and Motley Crue. In fact, it was an oddity for a hard rock band in the late 80s or early 90s to not have a song which, when played in concert, would prompt the most hardcore of fans to hold up a lighter and sway to the music. 

I don't know that there is a definitive beginning of the genre or pioneer of the song style, but if I were to identify a prototype, it would probably be "Beth" by Kiss, from the 1976 album Destroyer. Some people have noted that earlier acoustic-based songs from Led Zeppelin, such as "Going to California" or even "Stairway to Heaven" are early versions of power ballads, but these don't really fit the mold to me. They aren't specifically romantic in a way the most well-known heavy metal ballads are. 

"Beth," on the other hand, fits the style quite well, though it doesn't build in tempo like some. And, it's interesting that the song is basically just Peter Criss singing with a piano and orchestral sounds in the background. It's also interesting to dig in to the history of the song, which has several stories and disputes about origin and authorship. Regardless, it's a great song that actually became the band's biggest hit, despite reservations from several members who didn't want it on the album. And, for me, it's the starting point for the genre that peaked in the late 80s.

My top three songs for the heavy metal ballad are: 

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Santa Barbara Wine Country and the return of summer

I'm wondering if years down the road, historians will note the span of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic as running from March 15, 2020 to June 15, 2021. It would make sense, as June 15 is the day the state of California removed most major health restrictions and the summer kicked off with a sense of normalcy. I witnessed this while on a wine tasting vacation in Santa Barbara.

Having airline tickets from a cancelled wedding in the spring of 2020, my wife and I were looking for somewhere we could fly (from a limited selection with a small airline), and the Santa Barbara/Santa Ynez Valley provided a pleasant and satisfying return to the idea of vacationing. We flew into LA, and spent an evening with a cousin in Old Town Pasadena, a vibrant district that has come back to life. People were out, shopping, dining, and strolling all evening ... and it felt almost normal. Cafe Santorini was the place to be, with a delicious sangria and a moussaka that was probably the best I've had since my time in Greece years ago.

Our time in wine country was centered at the Sideways Inn in Buelton, CA, and, yes, it's the same motel from the Alexander Payne film that put pinot noir on everyone's mind, and nearly caused a crisis in the Merlot industry. The Sideways, which was called The Windmill (for obvious reason), has definitely remodeled and upped its game, and we were quite happy with the accommodations. That said, if we ever go back to the area, I'd probably stay in the town of Solvang instead, for it is adorable and quaint with many attractions, and some easier access to the wineries we visited.

Our winery tour consisted of:

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Alchemist Project and finding your Personal Legend

My column for The Villager this week is about Paulo Coelho's novella, The Alchemist, a book I read with my high school juniors each year.

The Alchemist Project

The Alchemist, a quirky little novella from Paulo Coelho, is the perfect self-help book for high school students because it comes in the form of a readable parable, and the narrative helps to disguise the preachy nature of books designed to help teens find themselves and their way in the world. For many years I have used this book with my high school juniors as a fun yet engaging diversion in the middle of what can be their most intense year of schooling.

The book tells the story of Santiago, a young shepherd in Andalusia, who sets out on a journey to see the pyramids after he has a strange dream about buried treasure. The story actually becomes more of a search for himself, as the people he meets along the way guide him into numerous life-changing decisions. He learns that his journey is actually in search of a different kind of treasure, his personal legend, which is his true purpose in life. For the book to truly resonate with kids, I’ve found it's helpful to move beyond just reading and discussing the events of Santiago’s journey. Crafting activities around the ideas of the book can more effectively engage the students in their own journey and quest to discover their own personal legend.

The lessons I build around the reading of the novel become what I call the "Alchemist Project," which is actually a multi-genre research project about themselves. In a variety of activities I ask students to honestly answer some tough questions meant to elicit some genuine moments of self reflection; for, the goal of this book and project is for students to figure out, not simply what they want to do, but who they really are. They try to determine what they value most and what they can live with and without. They will ultimately create a portfolio which may include poems and paragraphs, lists and pictures, slide shows and songs. One year a student even created a puppet show.

As part of the supplemental activities, I use an engaging TED talk, featuring Mike Rowe of the Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs." Rowe has some fascinating bits of advice and insight for students about the things he got wrong in life on his way to adulthood. Most importantly, he ponders the possibility that "follow your passion" might be the worst advice he ever got. I advise my students that in Rowe's view some people should follow their passion, some should follow their skills, and some should just follow the market. The goal is to figure out which one they are.

We also read and discuss related columns and stories such as a girl from Jean Twenge’s book The Ambitious Generation who was quite adept at getting into college, but not so clear on why she was going in the first place. Other materials include a David Brooks op-ed on institutional thinking called "What Life Asks of Us,” and also a Robert Fulghum essay about a girl who was "sitting on her ticket." These pieces have a way of motivating them to think critically about themselves. Perhaps the most interesting and engaging of the tasks is for students to complete an extensive analysis of their "Imaginary Lives," which gives them a chance to dream, wonder, and ultimately try to see themselves in a future.

I always conclude our unit by showing a short clip of Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor known for his Last Lecture, a speech he gave before passing away from cancer at a young age. His YouTube speech and subsequent book are quite inspiring, and he also gave a shortened version on an episode of Oprah. Pausch’s lessons connect well with the story of The Alchemist. While Coehlo's book says "The universe conspires to help you achieve your personal legend," Randy Pausch posits "If you are living correctly, your dreams will come to you."

Ultimately, The Alchemist is a meaningful book for high school students as they seek to figure out just who they are and where they are going in life. Students sometimes dismiss the book as a little silly and contrived, and honestly it probably is. But even the most hardened student finds something useful in our Alchemist Project. Reading The Alchemist is the perfect nudge toward finding your own personal legend. So, check out Santiago’s fabled journey, and perhaps use it to guide you on your own pursuit of your personal legend.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

A Rushmore Revolution

Years ago while I was doing the Colorado Writing Project and discovering my genre of op-ed commentary, I penned a short politically-inspired piece about Mount Rushmore and what it could and should mean for the country. I haven't thought about that piece for a long time, but as I assemble a manuscript of pieces from over the year, I ran across it and thought it was worth including and sharing.

In a popular film from 1991, Grand Canyon by Lawrence Kasdan, a character played by Danny Glover tells Kevin Kline’s character to “get yourself to the Grand Canyon.” In a movie about personal discovery and re-defining faith in society and the self, the Grand Canyon serves as a point of inspiration, implying that a trip to this wonder of the world might provide some degree of epiphany about a person’s direction in life. These days, as the media and political pundits describe the country as divided into Red and Blue states, I think America needs to “get itself to Mount Rushmore,” or Mountain Rushmore as my four-year-old son likes to call it. For a year now, he has been fascinated by this monument. I’m beginning to feel the same way.

Both literally and metaphorically, we need to “get ourselves to, or back to, Mount Rushmore.”

The uniqueness of this monument to the icons of American history is the universality of these men. In a seemingly more and more partisan country, these men are regularly claimed by both political legacies. At any given time these monoliths of American political rhetoric are adopted by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. The point, I believe, is that they are both and neither. They are all, as well as none, of the above. The point is they are, quite simply, Americans.

As a high school English and social studies teacher, I regularly give book talks or book recommendations to my students at the start of the class. Early in the year I urge my students to read Rush Limbaugh’s The Way Things Ought to Be. The next day I’ll recommend Al Franken’s Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot – and Other Observations. I’ll recommend Limbaugh’s second book See I Told You So, and I’ll follow that with James Carville’s We’re Right: They’re Wrong, which is intended to refute most if not all of Limbaugh’s beliefs. The point of this is that none of these men, or their ideologies, is completely right or wrong, and it’s narrow-minded and pretentious to think so. Having been conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat, I have found common ground with both Limbaugh and Franken. Yet, I groan when I listen to them for too long, hearing their common sense arguments veer off into rants and diatribes that appeal to their core listeners, yet do nothing toward really solving the problems.

In giving my book talks, I’m encouraging my students to open their minds. I hope they will read each side, listen to each party’s rhetoric, and decide what they believe to be right and true. I’m hoping they get a bit from each side.

When I look at each of the faces on that cliff in South Dakota, I see leadership on the grandest scale. These are men who held deep powerful convictions, yet they acted in the most pragmatic ways. While Jefferson believed in limiting the power of the federal government, he used such power without shame when purchasing the Louisiana territory. While Lincoln knew the Constitution and the law as well as anyone, he was not above manipulating both to save the union. Roosevelt was a fearless capitalist, who nonetheless, was not afraid to use the strong arm of Washington to restrict the more troublesome qualities of the economic system. None of these men were so rigidly foolish to believe that one ideology had all the answers. In fact, some might say that the brilliance of the Founding Fathers lay in their understanding that they didn’t know everything, and could not foresee many problems America would face.

These were men who governed in a way that was always best for America. Far more than is the norm for political leaders in the twenty-first century, the Rushmore presidents were deeply devoted to keeping the promise that is delivered in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

I can’t help but believe that the men of Rushmore would be profoundly dismayed by the nature of political discourse in America today. It’s not that they would be opposed to differences of opinions. Think of Jefferson’s disputes with Adams, Lincoln’s presiding over the greatest division in American history, and Roosevelt splitting off to form a third party in 1912. What each of these men was doing throughout their careers was fighting against the corruption of the ideals upon which America was founded.

I can’t imagine what these men would think if they knew that $500 million was spent on the two presidential campaigns in 2004. While Jefferson wrote the book, so to speak, on free speech, I can imagine he and the other Rushmore men would point out, “That’s some damn expensive speech.” I can almost see Roosevelt’s sneer. I can feel Lincoln’s eyes staring with profound disappointment.

America needs the men of Mount Rushmore.

America needs a Rushmore Revolution.

We need a new political party that is neither Republican nor Democrat, one that is not driven by ideology. We need a new party that represents the goodness of both ideologies, one that is not simply focused on beating the other party for control. We need a group of men and women who will devote themselves to a common goal, making the best decisions for the best of all Americans. We need to make a fresh start, and then we need to ask ourselves. What would Washington do? What would Jefferson do? What would Lincoln do? What would Roosevelt do?

We need to streamline a government and a political system, so with all the pragmatism of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt, we can stop shouting at each other and criticizing each other and demeaning each other, and simply fix the problems. We need to find the commonality that is the greatness of the men of Rushmore.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Sensational: the Melodramatic Beauty Of Ellen Wood’s East Lynne

Though it has slipped into obscurity in terms of the literary canon, Ellen Wood’s Victorian novel East Lynne created quite the publishing sensation when it first appeared in 1861. However, later criticism of its melodramatic qualities probably contributed to its loss of favor in comparison to the more literary and socially critical novels of George Eliot and the Bronte sisters. That is not to say that charges of “melodrama” or “sensation” are unjustified. Various elements or characteristics are common to “melodramatic” novels, including “excessive emotion” and a reliance on stock characters who “appeal to each other and the audience by means of exaggerated expressions of right and wrong” (Vicinus). Clearly, the contrast between figures such as the noble Archibald Carlyle and the rakish Francis Levison meet that criticism. Additionally, aspects such as a contrived and complicated plot, unrealistic coincidences, and exaggerated displays of emotion are also present in the saga of young Lady Isabel. However, it is precisely the exaggerated portrayals of standard components of Victorian society in an exciting and complex manner that, in fact, make East Lynn such an engaging and successful example of Victorian literature.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Teach Kids, not Content

My latest piece for The Villager is from a blog post last year about being a responsive educator. I was really happy with the piece, and edited for the paper, it still holds true.

When my daughter was very young, one of the first full sentences I remember her saying was about my job as English teacher. Whenever it came up, she would say, “My dad works at Cherry Creek High School; he teaches children how to read and how to write.” What I loved most, other than the sing-songy rhythm with which she recited it, was her use of the transitive verb, or more specifically the direct object: My dad teaches children. She didn’t say he teaches English or grammar or books or any curriculum-related words. She focused on the children. I teach children.

My daughter’s subconscious emphasis on the human element of teaching has stuck with me. Few professions have the human connection more at their center than teaching. We are not, or at least shouldn’t be, simply presenters of information. Engagement is the key to education. Think about your favorite teachers: what made them special, and what keeps them in your mind? I doubt your memory is about a specific piece of curricula. It’s probably some quirky intangible by which they deftly and subtly engaged you in learning.

Rita Pierson, a veteran educator known for her TEDx Talk “Every Kid Needs a Champion,” laments how the one thing we rarely discuss when talking about improving schools is “the value and importance of human connection.” We physically attend school to be part of a community to connect and learn with and from others. The teacher as a facilitator of learning is at the center, and James Comer, a Yale professor of child psychiatry, opined “no significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” And that doesn’t mean friendship. Too many times kids want to only be friends and have fun in class, but that might not always lead to learning and meaningful education. Education writer Carol Jago distinguishes between an engaging class and a fun one; in one learning is happening, in the other it might not.

Responsive educators make kids the focus of their instruction and teach to the specific children in front of them, from year to year and day to day. In his book School of Life, philosopher Alain de Botton laments the imbalance in the way contemporary education worries a great deal about what children are taught and very little about how they are taught. A true teacher will focus on the unique human beings in the classroom at the moment. In my first years teaching high school, I recall a counselor and dean showing up after my class to ask about a student. They wondered why he kept coming to my late afternoon class, even though he was nearly failing, did very little, and skipped everything else. “I don’t know,” I told them after explaining it wasn’t because his friends were there or because class was easy. “I guess he just likes it here.” I’m not sure what he actually learned in my class, but it was something. And I’m reminded of the wisdom of Forest Witcraft who said, “A hundred years from now, it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove, but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a [child].”

When we speak about preparing kids for the next levels -- college, career, life -- what are we really hoping to accomplish? Socrates’ goal was summed up in two words: know yourself. Creating and sustaining an educated citizenry was Thomas Jefferson’s vision. These days too many people see education as simply utilitarian job training. However, rather than thinking about content and skills, perhaps it’s best to remember we are teachers of people. Alain de Botton also noted “much anxiety surrounds the question of how the next generation will be at math, very little around their abilities at marriage or kindness.” Which will be most impactful in the life of the child? That distinction is at the heart of social-emotional learning, and it’s the crux of true education.

Ultimately, the destination is the same: to become emotionally and intellectually mature adults who can take care of and provide for ourselves while contributing to society in some meaningful way. To do that effectively, we must choose kids over content.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Geometry Explains the Shape of Everything

While my college-age son is a true math genius (despite being named after two authors and being born on Shakespeare's birthday), math stopped making much sense to me in my high school algebra class. I never got much beyond algebra II and trig. However, one math class spoke to me; in fact, it practically sang to me. And that was geometry. 

In terms of scope and sequence in K12 education, geometry is a left turn detour that throws a lot people for a loop, ... or perhaps throws them for a parallelogram. It's not really linear, in a manner of speaking, for the entire math progression. And the mathletes I know tend to sneer at it, especially when it shows up in competition. However, for others, geometry is the only math class that ever mattered. And now a true mathematician, Jordan Ellenberg of the University of Wisconsin, has validated that feeling. Geometry matters a great deal, and in some ways is the most relevant math we have. Ellenberg recently published a book on geometry for the masses, and he seeks to explain and justify "The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else." 

In geometry class, a good friend of mine and I literally never did the homework. We just felt like we didn't need to because we just seemed to get it. In class, our teacher would often divide the class up into teams, and we would race to complete the proofs at the board as our classmates directed us. Sam and I always volunteered. And at the end of the semester, when we had aced every test but done none of the daily work, Mrs. Schneider told us, "You both have 'A's' on every assessment, but zeroes for every daily assignment. That should average to about a 'C.' But considering you did practically every problem on the board with your teams, I think we'll just count that work as your own." That was about the coolest thing a teacher ever did for me.

One key story that Ellenberg shares early in the book is how Abraham Lincoln credited his rhetorical brilliance to the writings of Euclid, the historical figure often referred to as the father of geometry. As an English teacher and writing instructor that makes perfect sense to me. The Lincoln anecdotes are just the beginning of how Ellenberg explains, in layman's terms, how geometry explains the world.