Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Faith is What Remains

Feeling a bit pensive with this week's column in The Villager. It's a good time of the year to be reflective and appreciate what is.

Many years ago during a moment of ennui and melancholy, I voiced a concern that perhaps I had lost my faith. It was a time in my life that I was experiencing a fading sense of belief and trust in many things, including myself. Feeling a bit unmoored and listless, I occasionally found myself apathetic and disinterested in many things I once found meaningful. It wasn’t a particularly dark or depressed feeling, just a dull sense of emptiness.

At that time in a rather brief but enlightening conversation, a wise and spiritual young man told me that, on the contrary, faith is not something you can lose. “Faith,” he said casually but with a calm confidence, “faith is what remains when all else seems hopeless. Faith is not something you lose -- it’s what you turn to when you are feeling lost.” Few conversations have stayed with me as long and as vividly as that one. And I have recalled it often, especially in the past couple years. Faith is what reminds us that every day there are many opportunities to smile, laugh, and love.

I have heard and read that the pandemic has increased feelings of anxiety and despair in many people as they fret about the state of the world and their place in it. As the pandemic approaches two years, many of us are simply exhausted by the news and the uncertainty of our daily lives. However, amidst those uneasy feelings, a recent poll indicated that a majority of people feel their mental health is better than it’s ever been and a key reason is because the last few years have given them the opportunity to think about it. Rather than losing hope in the world, people are finding faith in themselves.

Part of that change can be attributed to a simple focus on mental health, and some have discovered clarity through the art of mindfulness. For the past few years, I’ve added mindfulness practice into my life and my classroom. It started with a simple app called 10% Happier, which had several free guided meditations with a man named Joseph Goldstein who simply encourages listeners to “Sit and know you are sitting. Breathe and know you are breathing.” That sort of calm, reflective guidance allows people to step outside of the external factors that stress them and just be still for a moment.

An old old Peanuts cartoon I remember from my youth indicated “happiness is a warm puppy.” And that’s true for many people, except for me. I’m allergic. But I appreciate the idea of finding happiness in life’s simple pleasures. A happy man never really ever asks if he is. Thus, asking “Am I happy?” probably indicates the answer. Doing something about it is the challenge. Steve Jobs once said, “For the past 33 years, I’ve looked in the mirror every morning and asked: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

One thing people can change is their mindset, and practices such as mindfulness can improve mental well being. Another change is a practice that becomes common every November, the act of being thankful. Gratitude and being actively aware of positives in our lives has been shown to improve mental health. And one simple practice that has a beneficial effect is gratitude journaling. Studies have shown that simply taking time each day for twenty one days to write down three things in our lives for which we are grateful has a positive mental health benefit. And one of those things that I have tried to remember each day is what I learned many years ago about faith.

Of course, faith is not limited to a religion or belief system. While faith can be spiritual, it can also be metaphysical, and there’s a relationship between faith and hope. According to some, faith is trust in the past, whereas hope is trust in the future. As Andy Defrane writes to his friend Red at the end of Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Just like faith. Because faith isn’t something you ever lose. Faith is what remains.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Schools are in Crisis ... and always have been

"Everything about American education is getting bigger all the time: the number of students enrolled, the amount of dollars it spends--and the vast amount of pedagogical gobbledygook. As it gets bigger, more and more people are insistently asking: is it any good? The complaining voice is not that of a few carping malcontents but a multitude of doubters deeply skeptical of what is being produced in the way of a people who should be personally content, socially responsible, and politically effective. Thoughtful parents--often aghast at what is being done and not being done--organize, agitate, protest and petition.”

– "U.S. Schools: They Face a Crisis" LIFE Magazine October 16, 1950

This clip comes courtesy of Robert Pondiscio, a teacher, parent, writer, and education pundit. Such relics from the recent past are important to keep in mind as we ponder the state of schools and contemporary society. As an educator and writer, I've often shared a similar bit of perspective, which I put in one of my earlier columns, as well as a presentation at the University of Denver, called "Unpacking the Backpack."

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.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Democracy isn’t Light or Transient

While I tend not to veer into political issues, especially those of local government and philosophy, in my column for The Villager, this week's entry originated out of my class's study of the Age of Reason and our analysis of the Declaration of Independence. So, I offer these thoughts on the state of -- and the original vision for -- the republic.

“Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.”

So wrote Thomas Jefferson arguing for the colonies’ independence from British rule. When the American colonists separated from England, there wasn’t much faith that a new country and government would survive, much less thrive. In fact, many early Americans simply hoped the republic would last twenty years. Now, two-hundred forty-five years later, the republic has avoided splintering into factions while truly becoming a “government long established.”

Each fall during a unit on the Age of Reason, my class spends time deconstructing and analyzing both the language and ideas of the country’s founding document; the experience is a revelation and a reminder every year. The American experiment in self-government was rooted in the Enlightenment, drawing from European philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. The ideas were mostly theoretical on the continent, and put to the test across the ocean in the colonies. Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, believed first and foremost in stability and the enduring of institutions against chaos and disorder. In establishing his beliefs about government, Burke contrasted the revolutions in both America and France, praising the American colonists for establishing a government and not descending into anarchy and chaos.

The American republic has survived because of a common understanding and shared commitment to the vision of a united group of states which, while widely spread and unique, are still one country. The one time in the country’s storied history that threatened division was, of course, the Civil War. That conflict was of monumental, profound significance, freeing an enslaved race of people and affirming the vision that all men are created equal and no one shall live in bondage. That cause was neither light, nor transient. As President Lincoln noted in his Second Inaugural Address, “Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.” Ultimately, with the guiding words of Lincoln appealing to “the better angels of our nature,” the nation healed and reunited.

The past couple decades have seen an increasingly vocal population that decides and acts based on ultimatums and intransigence. Recall elections, the splintering of collaborative departments, and even talk of secession at the county and state level are all examples of careless disregard for the institutions of democracy. The January 6 attack on the nation’s capitol following frustration over a lost election is the most egregious affront to the vision and sacrifices of 1776. All these rebukes of established government are indicative of an increasingly thin-skinned constitution in the American people who seem incapable of accepting any difference of opinion or heterogeneity to their world. Recall elections are a huge waste of time and money, and they’re a sign of the whiny petulance that currently infects our politics and our lives. Barring evidence of obviously illegal activity or ethics violations, the recall election is always simply the next election.

Similarly, the rash decision of political leaders in Douglas County to leave Tri-County health over a mask mandate is precisely the sort of frivolous action that Jefferson would have dismissed as light and transient. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, who crafted the Federalist Papers to defend the Constitution, would have looked askance at recent moves by legislators in three Maryland counties to secede from the state. Talk of secession would be absurd if it weren’t so dangerous. Similar movements have percolated in Colorado’s Weld county, where some residents want to join Wyoming. Parts of eastern Oregon want to join Idaho. And it seems like every year, there’s a bill in Texas to form its own country.

The “take-my-ball-and-go-home” attitude that influences such action is not the same resolve and firm political conviction that led to the establishment of the United States, nor is it reflective of the honorable commitment to save the union in the name of freedom and equality. Instead, it’s flippant, rash, and, quite frankly, un-American. To be rash is to not be conservative, prudent, or respectful, and such political tantrums are an affront to the vision which expects each generation to conserve the foundation upon which our societies, our communities, and our republic is built.

We all need a little more faith and a lot more patience in the systems and traditions that establish the blanket of comfort under which we rest so comfortably, and we should reaffirm our commitment to “governments long established.”

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Gifted, Advanced, & Average

Last week's column for The Villager -- to coincide with NAGC, the national organization for gifted education, coming to Colorado for the national conference.

"Every child is gifted in their own way."

That was the tagline years ago in a commercial for some cram school, and I've never liked it. Beyond the grammatical error and the manipulative advertising, the idea of everyone being gifted is a flawed, disingenuous idea. Obviously all people have individual interests, inclinations, strengths, motivations, even knacks. And many people are quite good at what they do, whatever it is. That said, the average person is, of course, average.

Yet, that poses an important question: Is there something special about the term gifted? I truly believe there is. In fact, there’s something special, unique, unusual, and even extraordinary about many gifted people throughout history. Individuals ranging from Leonard Da Vinci and Michelangelo to Albert Einstein and Marie Curie to Amadeus Mozart and Misty Copeland to Michael Jordan and Babe Didrickson defy all standards and expectations of achievement. These individuals quite simply have gifts not possessed by most humans.

In the field of education, the term gifted has a unique and significant definition and connotation. Advanced academic learning, acceleration, honors classes, enrichment activities -- these are all important in educating children, but they are not necessarily synonymous with or a substitute for giftedness. In most states giftedness, or GT, refers to legally defined exceptionalities that are guaranteed support under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In that regard, all schools should have staff and resources under a gifted title, as opposed to just "advanced academic services," which is what some school districts shortsightedly call it.

This weekend Colorado hosts the annual conference for NAGC, the National Association for Gifted Children, at the Gaylord Convention Center, where thousands of educators and advocates will meet to address important issues and share ideas. Groups like NAGC and CAGT, Colorado’s gifted education organization, play an important role in maintaining support for gifted students because nationwide many people try to minimize and even eliminate advanced learning. For example, in California new math curriculum guidelines, which are not binding but recommended, actually claim to reject “the cult of giftedness.” And in New York Schools, gifted programs and high achieving magnet schools are facing scrutiny or elimination for being elitist and exclusionary. The Atlantic even recently carried an article entitled “Should Princeton Exist?”

Of course, this is not to say the term gifted is always accurately, appropriately, and equitably applied. White and affluent students are disproportionately identified compared to other demographics, and while the benchmark for gifted identification is supposed to be the 95th percentile, that can lead to nearly all bright hardworking students being labeled gifted. Metrics are tough because in many ways giftedness can be a "know-it-when-you-see-it" quality. Many schools have incredibly smart, high achieving students, but that doesn't mean they’re gifted. Some achieve through much hard work and access to vast resources. That should be honored, but it's not always gifted. If someone masters a standard, class, or skill after diligent practice, that's wonderful. But if someone masters it almost immediately, is that not truly exceptional?

A great example of the distinction I'm getting at can be found by digging into the problematic claims by Malcolm Gladwell in the book The Outliers which popularized, and many say distorted, the ten-thousand-hours-to-mastery theory. While Gladwell's loose reading and interpretation of data has been exposed as inaccurate by numerous researchers, many still believe it. And that can complicate discussions of giftedness.

One of the best counterarguments to Gladwell’s disputed claim and to critics of giftedness is David Epstein's The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Achievement. His research spotlights elite athletes who achieved incredible mastery in their field in far less time than ten thousand hours. He also contrasts gifted athletes with the competitors they bested who had accumulated practice in excess of the established norms. In reality, some people master skills and knowledge with hard work and access, and others simply do it naturally in far less time.

Bill Gates is described in Gladwell's book as having great access to resources which led to his success. That's true. But he is also truly gifted. A real genius. The same can be said for someone like Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes. To be an NFL quarterback, you have to work pretty hard and be pretty awesome. However, some people exist outside the norms. And some achieve exceptionality beyond just the summation of access and hard work.

Some people are just gifted.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Puffs - Magical Fun on Stage

This past week for my column in The Villager, I wrote a review/promo for the fall play at my high school. Our fine arts program is quite exceptional, and I enjoyed the play, as well as a chance to do a bit of local arts spotlight and critique. After attending the dress rehearsal on a Monday night, I crafted a little write-up of the play and the school's production. "Puffs, or a Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic" is a wonderfully entertaining parody of one of the most significant book series in publishing history. If you get a chance to see a local production, I'd recommend checking it out.

The Boy-Who-Lived is mostly a side character, and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named isn’t much of a threat at all. But the magical world created by J.K. Rowling twenty years ago is unmistakable, not to mention a laugh riot, on the stage at Cherry Creek High School this weekend. Creek theater kicks off their season with a performance of Puffs, Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic.

The show, which parodies the tale of a well-known boy wizard, is structured as sketch comedy, with endless transitions and few scenes lasting more than two minutes. The result is a non-stop freight train of sarcastic quips and comments. Those unfamiliar with J.K. Rowling’s magical stories will certainly miss some of the best fun in the puns and wordplay, but there’s plenty to enjoy for even the most inexperienced Potterverse fans. Currently one of the most produced plays in the country, Puffs is a hot commodity in theater, and each acting troupe puts its own spin on a familiar tale. Clearly, the kids at Cherry Creek are doing some cutting edge theater work.

While the script is obviously a parody piece, writer Matt Cox describes it as an exploration of the non-traditional hero. The story follows the struggles of an orphaned young wizard named Wayne whose parents perished in a regrettable chocolate frog incident. Arriving at school, he is sorted into one of the less glamorous houses, the Puffs. They are the lovable losers who fail spectacularly, always trying to convince enemies they are “not a threat.” In school competitions, Puffs are simply aiming to not finish last. Yet, while Puffs may be third place in the standings, by the end of the show they will be number one in your hearts. For this show is not about being a hero as much as it is being the hero of your own story.

The show definitely has the feel of a teen comedy with budding relationships linking a silly but sweet story of friendship amidst the absurd drama of high school, a key element which made the works of J.K Rowling so appealing. Fans of Saturday Night Live and John Hughes movies can both enjoy the show, as it spoofs both fantasy literature and the drama of the teenage years. The humor is definitely for more mature audiences, with jokes and exaggerated moments of snogging, lots of absurdly dramatic screaming, flying teddy bears crashing around the stage, and a high school party fueled by indulgence in butterbeer.

As the show spoofs a beloved story while paying homage to classic teen comedy, you can’t look away too long, or you might miss the joke. Fortunately, a nameless but wise and wisecracking narrator guides the audience through the seven years and whimsical fun of Puffs. Each year at school is introduced with a sardonic twist on the original plot, as the trio at the center of the story explore the role of sidekicks who share “the desire of the onlooker’s heart.” Yet just when the show gets sentimental, with characters writing letters home to a sappy 80s soundtrack, slapstick physical comedy arrives with the quick flick of a wand, or even a lightsaber. Fans of the Potter books will also appreciate some not-so-subtle digs at the movies.

Following a pandemic-limited year, Creek’s thespians deemed 2021-22 “Our Comeback Season,” and after a string of more serious dramatic productions, theater teacher and director Alex Burkhart noted “it’s time to laugh.” He hopes the audience will appreciate the challenge and the magic of ensemble work, as actors play off each other with character switches and physical comedy. The script presents a real challenge for the actors, with a script demanding lines seem effortless to hit their mark. In fact, this show was designed for and first produced in small comedy improv clubs.

The Fine Arts program at Cherry Creek has many talented thespians with a skilled technical crew, and the show is an impressive achievement for a high school to pull off. It's tough to believe this production is put on entirely by teenagers with a cast and crew that is precisely the age of the characters they bring to life. Puffs is great fun but also rather quick-paced, and you may want to see it again to catch all the jokes you missed the first time. Tickets are available for purchase online simply by going to the Cherry Creek High School website.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Substack: the new magazine

I love the sharp wit and insight of this comment:

Prediction: The atomization of American journalism into a million email newsletters will soon lead to the invention of something called a "magazine" that presents a well-curated collection of news, features and essays.

It comes from Ron Charred, a writer for the WashPo, and it nails the shifting dynamic of commentary-journalism. Basically, the rise of Substack as a medium, platform, and venue for popular opinion writers has replaced the role of the newspaper column writer.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Steve Martin

I first saw Steve Martin on SNL in 1978, and I have never lost my fascination with and admiration for this artist and his art. Regarding lists of famous people you’d invite to dinner or drinks, Steve Martin tops my list every time. Steve Martin may be the most interesting man in the world.