Thursday, May 26, 2022

I've never given a graduation commencement speech. But if I did, it would sound something like this, my latest column for The Villager:

In 1997, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich advised that year’s graduates to “Wear Sunscreen.” Humanities professor Neil Postman once told a graduating class they must choose between being Athenians or Visigoths, urging them to use education to cultivate a fulfilling life. Iconic contemporary novelist David Foster Wallace went viral with a commencement speech entitled “This is Water.” Novelist Carl Hiaasen wrote the book Assume the Worst about advice you’ll never hear in a commencement speech. And, of course, Steve Jobs told Stanford grads the way to do great work is to love what you do. Giving advice to young graduates each May is a timeless tradition, though in many ways it’s probably also a pointless one. Ultimately, we all have to figure it out for ourselves.

Despite the negative talk about the youth, public education, and the country in general, I look to young people, filled with hope. You are our pride and joy, our best and brightest, and the future belongs to you. The question is what are you going to do with it? The twenty-first century is a time constantly in flux, undergoing perpetual change. While that can be unsettling and even scary, it can also be tremendously exciting. The future truly is wide open, and the challenge is to find your path, to carve out your niche, to make your impact. When Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Woods to live, he said he wished to “live deliberately.” My advice is to extend that idea and “live artfully,” carefully crafting and thoughtfully creating the canvas, the sculpture, the picture of your life.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Denver Arts Festival - May 28/29

This weekend the Denver Arts Festival returns for its twenty-third year. After chatting with festival director Jim DeLutes, I wrote up a little preview for 303 Magazine:

Jim DeLutes, a local photographer and director of Denver Arts Festival, has one goal for art patrons who visit the event: “Everyone walks away with a smile.”

DeLutes has been involved with the Denver Arts Festival for each of its 23 years, starting as an artist promoting his photography and later moving into a directorial role. While he is an artist himself, the work as a director gives him an equal amount of pleasure for the opportunity to celebrate and “support Colorado artists who aren’t always represented at the larger gatherings,” as he puts it. He says the value of an art festival is the chance to “get the public interested in following and perhaps collecting an artist.” Festivals are the perfect setting to interact with the art and the artist simultaneously. It’s always a treat to engage with the creator, discuss the process, learn about a medium or technique or just appreciate the art together.

Monday, May 16, 2022

White Noise Inside the Supermarket

Like so many of us during the early days of the pandemic, I returned to reading some older works that might offer some insight into the way we were feeling. For me, one of those books was Don Delillo's postmodern classic White Noise from 1985. That reading led to the following piece of lit crit, recently published by Porridge Magazine.

Wandering the aisles of my neighborhood supermarket, the kind of place Don DeLillo once wrote evoked “a sense of replenishment … and fullness of being,” I tread cautiously out of suspicion and respect for the potential “airborne toxic event” that is the coronavirus pandemic. As the world continues to pass milestones of Covid infections, I have gradually come to realize that, like The Clash’s Joe Strummer, I am feeling “all lost in the supermarket; I can longer shop happily.” Now, more than two years since the pandemic was declared, as society cautiously emerges from quarantine cocoons while also facing a return to some restrictions amidst fears of the delta and omicron variants, I’m still wearing a mask in crowded places like our nearby grocery store, despite being vaccinated and boosted. And, in a socially distant world where the supermarket was the last bastion of a semi-normal suburban existence, I’m thinking of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise.




Thursday, May 12, 2022

What's in a Grade?

The detrimental effect of zeros in a gradebook has become an important issue in education circles lately. I address that problematic assessment practices, as well as a couple other controversies, in this week's column for The Villager.

Giving zeros to students who fail to complete work seems to make sense – if no work is submitted, a teacher cannot rationally assign points. However, in a point-based grading system, a few zeros can mathematically eliminate a student from ever passing a class. In a philosophical way, such a punitive structure may not make sense in a system designed to educate and assess learning against standards, as opposed to the simple accumulation of points. The issue has been aptly summed up in a paper called The Case Against Zero.

When I heard of schools eliminating zeros from grading policies, I instinctively recoiled at the sheer audacity. How can teachers not be allowed to give zeros? However, in scrutinizing my own assessment practices, as any professional educator should routinely do, I’m taking a fresh look at assessment. Two years ago at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, I participated in a professional development session about standards-based grading, and I was struck by the discrepancy between letter and numeric grading. The traditional system of assigning points and assessing grades based on percentages is at odds with the practice of converting those scores to letter grades, which are the only record on a student’s transcript. Basically, the practice used by most schools appears illogical and mathematically flawed.

Most schools use two separate grading systems which literally don’t match up and contradict each other. Assignments are generally measured by a 100-point percentage system. Using those scales, any grade below a 60% is considered failing. That means only 40% of the scale passes and grants credit. However, schools then convert number grades to a letter system of A, B, C, D, F. In that letter scale, 80% of the grades pass with credit. Thus, in a four-point standards-based system, a zero out of four is a legitimate grade to represent failure. However, in a 100-point system where the lowest passing D is a 60%, the mathematically accurate measure for an F, or failure, is 50, not zero.

Assigning zeros in a 100-point system is actually mathematically disingenuous. It punishes failure at twice the rate of awarding success. Failing to complete work should receive a failing grade, but assigning a zero is disproportionate to achievement. For, in a quarter or semester of work, a few zeros on individual assignments can lead to failure of an entire semester, a result which inaccurately measures a student’s entire work portfolio. Consequently, failure can have residual effects such as increasing drop-out rates, which have catastrophic consequences on both personal and societal levels.

Policies regarding deadlines and late work are another problem area of assessment. During the pandemic, amidst remote learning and a literal disconnect between teachers and students, schools implemented more gracious and forgiving practices, and it was a valuable opportunity for teachers to assess what they are actually assessing. However, some teachers from elementary through high school refuse to accept late work, or assign it just half credit. That seems absurdly punitive and not in the spirit of assessing achievement. How can a teacher rationally accept quality work, yet assign it a failing grade based on submission schedule? Docking points, or refusing to give late work an “A,” seems reasonable. Failing completed work does not.

Teachers often justify punitive late work policies by emphasizing personal responsibility. Some even tell students that “in the real world” late work gets you fired, which is not really accurate. How many teachers are late to class occasionally, late grading and returning work, late updating grades in the system, late responding to a parent or student communication? How many are fired or lose pay for that? Clearly, teaching responsibility is important, though it’s not in any curriculum or state learning standards. Teachers are not truly teaching kids a lesson by failing late work, and the real world will teach those lessons soon enough. To paraphrase a student’s view: “Schools have exams and failing grades. The workplace has performance assessment and development goals.”

Ultimately, the primary question for teachers, schools, and families when talking about grades is what exactly they are assessing. Is it skills, knowledge, or compliance? Are teachers assessing learning against standards, or just compliance with assigned tasks? Should schools revisit point and letter-based grading systems? It seems unorthodox to ask, but it’s a legitimate question. Achievement of standards should be the marker, and as controversial as it sounds, critics have a valid case that assigning zeros makes zero sense. There might be a better way.



Monday, May 2, 2022

The Joy of Art Returns

The Governor’s Art Show in Colorado for the 2022 year premiered last weekend at the Loveland Art Museum, and it did not disappoint. I visited last Saturday and wrote up a review/feature of 303 Magazine. 

“Happy and hopeful.” That’s how one patron described the paintings of landscape artist Rick Young at the opening gala for the Governor’s Art Show in Loveland. The exhibit premiered Saturday, April 23, at the Loveland Art Museum featuring more than two hundred works from sixty Colorado artists. Show Director Ruth Scott described the opening gala the night before as an “amazing crowd with a real buzz of excitement for getting back to celebrating art.” People were emailing and calling weeks in advance in anticipation of the show. They won’t be disappointed by the richly curated and diverse show, exhibiting some of the best art Colorado has to offer.

In a state known for breathtaking mountain views, as well as stunning sunrises and sunsets, it’s no surprise to find a healthy representation of landscapes produced by the artists who live and work here. From vivid photorealism to soft impressionist takes to abstraction, this show offers numerous media in which to appreciate the environment. Acrylic painter Rick Young “uses color expressively, rather than representationally,” noting the vibrant pinks, purples, and oranges in his work. In “Trails End,” centered by a towering cairn, Rick’s lively colors and signature curved brush strokes used to express movement exaggerate, or perhaps accentuate, the scenery of the hike he is recreating on canvas.

John Lintott’s mountain landscapes take a different approach with sharply detailed realism capturing the stark beauty in the semi-arid landscape of Western Colorado and the West. He balances the scenes with brightly colored vegetation, like the tree along the river in “Boney Desolation,” accentuating the intricate features of the rocky hills behind it. His attention to detail comes from “a lot of time outside observing.” Refraction of light is a key interest of Colorado artists, whether it’s bursts of light through the trees in Kathleen Lanzoni’s “Shining Through,” the soft glow coming through the windows in Kim English’s “Home Office,” or the golden hue of water lilies in Dix Baines’ “Silver and Gold Light.”

A sense of joyous vitality runs through this year’s exhibit with sculptures and other visual art celebrating movement and a clear joie de vivre. Clay Enoch’s bronze sculptures capture a group of energetic kids in a “Jump” and on the slope anticipating a “First Run.” A similar energy is found in Danny Haskew’s sculpture “Dance Within, Wear Only Sky,” and that poetic beauty of movement is celebrated in numerous other pieces featuring dancers. The skillfully curated layout at the museum emphasizes such subjects, as with the bronze piece “In the Wings II” by Jane Dedecker placed near the huge oil piece “Fervent Reclamation” of a dancer by Jen Starling, creating a beautiful display of both anticipation and action.

There’s a clear sense of fun and whimsy in many pieces, such as the tempting, delicious still lifes of donuts from Gregory Block. Anyone who has visited Voodoo Donuts and wanted to capture the memory will love Block’s “Box Set” and “Jubilee,” which look like they were delivered by a bakery, rather than an oil painter. The fun is also present during the artist meet-and-greet, which occurs every Saturday afternoon of the show from 2:00 – 4:00. Artists Sabrina Stiles and Douglas Wodark were laughing and chatting about their artistic process, describing the “sheer joy, and playful,” feeling of creation where “you’re just having fun.”

Similarly, watercolorist Kathleen Lanzoni described her process as “controlled playfulness,” which is required with a medium that will quickly take on a mind of its own. In two landscapes, Lanzoni blends colors with a loose style that “lets the colors run and do their magic.” The effect she gets in working from light to dark, creates a powerful sunburst coming through the trees in her piece. The technique complements and reflects the natural landscapes she paints, like the colors which so smoothly blend along trails.

The show also provides a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the beauty, even the mystery of Colorado, as the artists remind us to stop and look at the world around us. A thoughtful reflective theme is seen in numerous wildlife images, whether it’s animals sitting in repose like Timothy Nimmo’s coyote in “Wary Rest” or the impossible-to-ignore intensity of Douglas Wodark’s stunning buffalo, “Standing Strong.” The paintings and sculptures evoke a sense of strength and calm and hope. That “happy and hopeful” feeling is also present in various pictures of bird eggs, such as the work of Elaine St. Louis, an oil painter, whose four pictures are different varieties of birds. In noting her own picture of eggs in a nest, Lanzoni observed “maybe we’ve been nesting for a couple years” and now it’s time for spring and rebirth.

The Governor’s Art Show is an investment in and celebration of the arts community in Colorado. In a statement for the show’s program, Governor Jared Polis endorses the show, noting how it “encourages investment by recognizing current Colorado artists” with the goal of “growing and supporting the art industry which contributes $3.7 billion” to the state's economy.

The show is collaboratively sponsored by the Loveland and Thompson Valley Rotary clubs. Ruth Scott explained that curation is “nearly a year-long process” with artist calls for submission going out in August through November and then selected by a five-person jury. This year’s selection jury consisted of Maureen Corey, Loveland Museum Curator; Don Hamilton, artist; Dr. Jennifer Henneman, Denver Art Museum, associate curator; Scott Kelley, patron; and Tal Walton, artist. The show has no specific theme or requirement for medium or style, according to Scott, who says selection “is simply all about the quality of the art. Whatever moves the jurors” is what makes the show.

Proceeds from the show help support multiple causes including scholarships for art students and the purchase of art supplies for the Thompson School District. All works are available for sale in person and online, and interested patrons can preview the entire selection on the website for the show. Granted, photos can never replace the experience of being up close and personal with art, so a visit to the museum is a must. The show runs through May 22, and tickets for non-members are $7.00.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

A New Plan for Teacher Pay

Playing with a bit of satire for this week's column in The Villager. Or, perhaps it's a really great idea for school funding.

The country is facing a serious teacher shortage, as fewer young people see the profession as a viable career move. And teacher salaries is a key issue. According to Chalkbeat, the average Colorado teacher makes $51,000 a year, though in rural districts the pay can be significantly lower where starting teachers make just $25,000 a year and earn only $40,000 annually after a twenty-year career. In a state with above average housing prices and a high cost of living even before inflation, the challenge to lure young professionals to teaching with lucrative salaries remains a problem.

However, this isn’t a column to complain about teacher pay. As an educator for nearly thirty years, I’ve always been quite satisfied with the living I make. Granted, teachers earn twenty percent less than comparably educated workers in the private sector. The reason is teachers are only paid for ten months of work. Despite what many people believe, teachers aren’t given a year-long salary for only forty weeks of work. Most schools have yearly contracts of roughly 180 days, though districts often disperse pay over twelve months for obvious reasons. The one perk meant to offset the public-private pay gap is a pension system that offers an earlier retirement age than Social Security, which teachers don’t receive.

Many people believe society undervalues teachers and has misplaced priorities. They think it's wrong that professional athletes make millions of dollars to play a game while some teachers struggle to pay the bills. I completely disagree with that comparison. I won’t fault any athlete for earning as much as they can. I once heard Oprah ramble on about how athletes should make less and “teachers should make a million dollars a year.” That’s nonsense, even if it weren’t coming from a billionaire television personality. Athletes earn millions for one simple reason – they generate that money. It’s all about revenue, especially advertising.

Millions of fans pay hefty ticket prices to watch adults play a game for our entertainment. Millions more tune in to televised games which generate billions of dollars in advertising revenue. Athletes deserve a share of the money they produce. Teaching doesn’t produce revenue. No one is buying tickets for even the most entertaining classrooms. And advertisers are not throwing money at schools and teachers for advertising space. However, perhaps they could. Maybe they should. So, I’m thinking about advertising and endorsement deals for teachers.

Picture this: a teacher walks into the classroom where anxious students await the lesson or assessment. The teacher announces, “Ok, today we have a quiz on multiplying polynomials … and this quiz is brought to you by Quiznos.” Or Starbucks. Or Nike. Or T-Mobile. Students receive a copy of the test with company logos splashed across the top of the page. At the bottom of the paper is a coupon for ten-percent off their next purchase. It could even be used to incentivize achievement. Students would receive higher discounts, premiums, and perks for better grades. The possibilities are endless.

As an English teacher reads an intense passage, he might add, “Wow, this character could use an ice cold Coca-Cola.” Business teachers could offer financial literacy lessons, as well as discounted prices for opening an IRA or new bank account. Teachers and schools have a captive audience which is a virtual goldmine of current and future consumers. Why not take advantage of that widely available advertising opportunity? Teachers often wear clothing with school logos, which is nice to support the school, but not remotely lucrative. So, why aren’t teachers sporting company logos and getting a nice kickback from advertisers?

Interestingly, some teachers do make million dollar salaries. Kim Ki-hoon, a popular private tutor and cram school teacher in South Korea earns $4 million a year because his test prep lectures are so popular in the country where high stakes testing for high school and college admissions is even more intense than America’s. And Deanne Jump is a kindergarten teacher who has earned more than a million dollars selling her lesson plans and class materials online.

So, now that college athletes have been freed by the courts to capitalize on their marketability, perhaps the same courtesy might be extended to educators. Critics of public education have long argued that schools need to work more like the business world. So, why not let market forces work their magic in the classroom? And if not, then maybe teachers could just set a tip jar on their desks.



Monday, April 25, 2022

Conservative, but not Republican

A common theme among conservative writers lately has been the surprising, even embarrassing, behavior of Republicans and the Republican leadership, leaving many people to realize they are "conservative but not Republican." I explore this idea in a piece published this week by the Colorado Sun.

In the early 1960s, Ronald Reagan switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, famously noting, “I didn’t leave my party. My party left me.” The same hollow feeling of abandonment is now felt within the Gipper’s party as many conservative Americans no longer see themselves in the contemporary Republican Party. Republican leadership has slowly ceded authority to media personalities and fringe political upstarts, leading a growing number of people to realize they are conservative, but not Republican.

As conservative stalwarts like George Will and Joe Scarborough literally left the party, and leaders like Liz Cheney are attacked for questioning the January 6 insurrection, it’s become clear conservatism is no longer a guiding principle in the Grand Old Party. The censure of Liz Cheney and Illinois congressman Adam Kinzinger signified a new low in party politics, the tolling of the bell for a political organization that has been moving away from conservatism and toward extremist partisanship since the late 90s. That partisanship focused primarily on securing power and winning elections culminated in 2016 when Republican voters rejected a lifelong conservative of impeccable character, Mitt Romney, and instead nominated a media personality who’d never been actively Republican nor remotely conservative.

Conservatism is a belief system and set of values, not a political platform and voting record. Prudence, decorum, tradition, and stability are hallmarks of conservatism, harkening back to the Ten Conservative Principles of scholar Russell Kirk and the moral conviction of Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. That word, conscience, is pivotal in the struggle of many conservatives to see themselves in today’s GOP. With so many unconscionable words and actions by noisemakers like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, and Lauren Boebert, the party brand has been tarnished, and a conservative would never support or condone such crass, disrespectful opportunists. People don’t usually capitulate on values or compromise on ethics, which means excusing or justifying these disruptive political voices is simply a rejection of the conservative tradition.

And still, the anti-conservative actions among prominent Republicans keep piling up, often in disturbing displays of extremism. The most recent example is found in the texts and emails of Ginnie Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, regarding the 2020 election and January 6 debacle. As conservative writer Jay Nordinger noted, “You can’t write these things and believe in the Constitution.” A conservative and a believer in law and order can’t excuse or dismiss them either. Both Nordinger and conservative writer David French have spent two years diligently attempting to expose the lies and turn the GOP back toward conservative values. Yet millions of Republicans ignore these voices of reason, instead tuning in as talk television loudmouth Tucker Carlson proudly aligns himself with Vladimir Putin over the autonomous people of Ukraine. It’s truly baffling.

Hundreds of thousands of voters nationwide have left the Republican rolls, and Colorado’s situation is equally concerning. As weak central leadership cedes moral authority, what’s a conservative to do? In the past twenty years, as the number of unaffiliated voters has risen, many people feel conservative-but-not-Republican, and they vote that way, too. Colorado GOP Chair Kristi Burton Brown pledged to not simply be a party of complaints and criticisms but instead one of ideas and solutions. Yet anyone who follows her social media accounts knows her posts read more like snarky insults and whining, than they do a thoughtful political platform with insight and ideas.

Writer Will Durant summarized Aristotelian philosophy by noting “We are what we repeatedly do,” and Burton Brown will not restore the party to the “big tent” of Ronald Reagan while also speaking derisively of Democrats. While many independents share beliefs with Republicans, they don’t see Democrats as the enemy. Declaring fellow Americans enemies is simply unacceptable in the party of Lincoln, the man who united a nation following a tragic Civil War by urging “with malice toward none and charity for all.” While many unaffiliated voters support Republican candidates, they don’t see Democrats destroying the Constitution. While fiscally conservative Coloradans seek prudence in government spending, they don’t believe Democrats want to tax Coloradans into poverty. Such comments make nice soundbites, but they don’t ensure trust.

Thus, the party of Bush, Reagan, Goldwater, Eisenhower, Teddy Roosevelt, and, of course, Abraham Lincoln is ceasing to be a conservative party or a welcoming place for conservative values. It’s simply a political action committee of “Republicanism,” focused on winning seats, holding offices, and acquiring power rather than leading and legislating a community, a state, a society, and a nation. Believers in this new “–ism” will remain members of the Republican Party, but many conservatives can’t and won’t.



Thursday, April 21, 2022

Talk to your Enemy

So, after last week's column about the importance of dialing down the divisive rhetoric and the portraying of neighbors and community members as enemies over basic political issues, I received an interesting email response. A reader thanked me for the column and explained how she really liked it and agreed with me .... except for the part where I said neither party hates America and no one is trying to destroy the Constitution. Then she proceed to explain how the radical Marxist extremists are bent on the destruction of American culture and society.

Oh, well. (heavy sigh).

As I read the email, just shaking my head, I thought of my current study of John Knowles' classic American bildungsroman A Separate Peace with my ninth graders. Specifically, I am thinking about the closing of the novel and its poignant and important bit of wisdom:

"All of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way -- if he ever attacked at all; if indeed he was the enemy."


The novel is a wonderful and insightful read if you haven't read it before, or if it has been a while. And along this same line of thought, I must offer another reading suggestion, I highly recommend Jonathon Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

https://www.tatteredcover.com/book/9780307455772



Thursday, April 14, 2022

We Need to Talk

For my column this week in The Villager, I'm thinking about the problematic nature of contemporary society's inability to have calm, rational discussion about political and cultural issues.

One serious problem in contemporary America is simply a rhetorical one. Basically, the general discourse has become pretty crass and rather harsh. Many people can’t even talk to each other anymore, and when they do, their words are not what we’d call polite conversation. The language Americans use to speak about people with whom they disagree has become negative to the point of absurdity. Perhaps it’s time we put away the superlatives and simply talk in tempered tones.

As a writer and teacher, I come by my language skills honestly, having learned the art of communication from my parents. My mom was a newspaper writer and editor, and my dad worked in personnel. And while my mom was an astute observer and master of the written word, my dad was simply a great talker. Working for many years in labor relations, he valued the art of communication, and he knew that if people were honest and earnest, anything could be talked out. “As long as we’re talking …” he would say. That was his credo: “Everything will be all right as long as we’re talking.”

That spirit of genuine conversation guided my dad in his job and personal relationships. He spent many years walking the neighborhood each morning with a close friend and neighbor who was also his polar opposite on many political issues. As they walked and talked, the conservative Catholic Republican and the progressive Protestant Democrat never resolved much or changed the other’s mind, but they were always friends at the end of the day. We once theorized that if our senators and representatives walked and talked each morning, the country might be in better shape. I actually wrote a column for Merion West Magazine, suggesting “Congress Should Live Together.” I envisioned a 535-family townhouse complex in DC where politicians and their families would all be neighbors. They might not always agree, but it’s harder to hate each other when your kids play together.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill were fierce political rivals. Their public comments about each other weren’t often kind. In fact, Reagan once called Tip after a particularly harsh comment in the newspapers, and Tip told him, “Well, buddy, that’s just politics. After 6:00, we’re friends.” The two political giants battled for many years, and probably didn’t hang out much. But they ultimately developed a healthy respect for each other, and at the end of their careers, Reagan said, “Tip, if I had a ticket to Heaven, and you didn’t have one, I’d give mine away and go to Hell with you.” Years later Joe Scarborough would opine that you could impeach Bill Clinton one day, and the next Bill would come up and ask you to go play a round of golf. Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton led successful presidencies because they were, in their hearts, friendly, gregarious men.

Politics doesn’t have to be a combat sport, and political opponents don’t have to disparage each other. Disagreement about political issues doesn’t mean one side is stupid. It doesn’t mean one side is made of fascists while the other is full of communists. Neither political party hates America, and no one is destroying the Constitution. People just have different views, and they should be able to talk about them with tact and maturity. At one time in American history, the Senate was envisioned as the great deliberative body. Senate procedures and the filibuster were actually intended to slow the discussion and extend the debate. Like my dad said, “As long as we’re talking …”

Of the many great documents in American political history, Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Addresses at the beginning and end of the Civil War are among our most treasured. As the nation prepared to go to battle, Lincoln actually finished his first address by reminding Americans “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Years later, as the conflict came to a close and the country faced a difficult reunification, he urged America to go forward “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” If Americans coming out of the Civil War could cease portraying each other as the enemy, then certainly two political parties talking about tax rates can do the same.

As the campaign season gears up, and voters prepare for midterm elections, let us hope cooler heads prevail, and someday soon we can speak to and about each other civilly. As Honest Abe wished for us, we should always seek to be guided “by the better angels of our nature."



Sunday, April 3, 2022

Generations

As April arrives, and springtime springs, I find myself thinking of home and my parents and their garden and times long past. Since April is also National Poetry Month, I am reminded of this poetic piece I crafted many years ago.


Generations

In the early morning, on my hazy quest for a cup of coffee, I am stopped in my tracks by an image of absolute clarity. Through the kitchen window of my parents’ home, I glimpse the two most important men in my life. One is thirty-five years my senior, the other thirty-two years my junior. It’s summer, and I’ve come home to visit.

Remembering these moments amidst the hassles of daily living is important.

The hour is early, before the intense humidity of a St. Louis summer can make being outside unbearable, and the sunlight is just beginning to peer over the neighbor’s house. In an awkward angle from my position in the hallway, peering sideways through the glass and around the obtrusive windowpanes, past the hummingbird feeder, and over the patio fence, I see them. Sitting on a bench under a tree in the botanical garden that is my parents’ backyard are my father and my son.

Life is good.

They had disappeared out the back door a while ago – my dad to turn on the fountain or take out the trash and my son to look for bugs, frogs, turtles, or any other creature that might be lurking among the hosta lilies, dwarf conifers, and rose bushes.

Life is good because my family is safe.

My wife and I and our two children live in Colorado, a fourteen-hour drive from my childhood home. In the past four years, I’ve been home just once. Even though I’m a teacher, it always seems like summer vacation is too short, as I spend much of it taking classes. When my parents, who are now in their seventies, come out to visit, they always stay in a hotel, and their two or three day visits always seem to be over just as they’ve begun. But there on the bench, my son still in his pajamas, it seems like there’s all the time in the world.

Life is good because my family is safe, and they’re happy.

I watch them for a few moments, but it seems like an hour. At various points, Austen talks animatedly, waving his arms and pointing, or sits quietly, contemplating the scene, leaning into his grandpa, and occasionally tugging on his shirt. My father sits calmly, shoulders slumping slightly, listening to my son and seeing the garden through his eyes. My dad said later that he often forgets to take time to sit and enjoy the garden. Between taking care of the garden and working a new job as a financial advisor, he rarely takes time to smell the proverbial roses. When my son leans over and rests his head against his grandpa’s arm, I know the meaning of life.

Life is good because my family is safe, and they’re happy, and they’re sheltered, and they’re here.

That’s the key, isn’t it? Being present.




Friday, March 25, 2022

Bid Farewell to Class Rank & Valedictorians

When a simple decision by a single school district in Colorado goes viral, and the talking heads suddenly become experts on education and the college admissions process, well, you know something is amiss. After Cherry Creek Schools decided to formalize a policy of not publicly ranking students by GPA and not selecting a valedictorian based on GPA, you'd have thought they decided to eliminate grades and give everyone a cookie. A local attorney and aspiring politician criticized the district in a crass, poorly written, and inaccurate op-ed column for the Denver Post. I've responded with a counterargument that explains the truth of the matter.

Elon Musk was not valedictorian in high school. Neither was Bill Gates whose 2.2 GPA at one point alarmed his parents. Ronald Reagan graduated with a C-average. None of these esteemed men were mediocre in intelligence or achievements, regardless of their high school grades.

Despite what Denver Post opinion columnist George Brauchler believes, high school rank is an irrelevant measure of success, especially when the individual distinction is often mere thousandths of a percentage point. Critics of Cherry Creek School District’s decision to retire valedictorian titles and ranking students by GPA couldn’t be more wrong, and the district should be lauded, not maligned.

Rather than moving toward mediocrity, the district’s action acknowledges and honors widespread high achievement ...

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Art of the State 2022

I did another piece of art review and commentary for the Denver Post YourHub. The Art of the State is at the Arvada Center through Sunday, March 27. 

The tri-annual Art of the State exhibit returned to Colorado this year, setting up at the Arvada Arts Center and featuring 149 individual art pieces from 142 artists across the state. Art of the State 2022 is the fourth rendition of the show, filling three galleries and 10,000 square feet of the Arvada Center Galleries, which continues to spotlight and promote some of the best local talent on the art scene. As always, the show is an eclectic and diverse offering of artwork across multiple media including oil and acrylic painting, prints, drawings, woodblock, found objects, and more. Led by the vision of Collin Parson, the Arvada Center’s Director of Galleries, the show is beautifully curated with fellow jurors, Louise Martorano, Executive Director of RedLine Contemporary Art, and Ellamaria Ray, Professor of Africana Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. The three meticulously evaluated more than two-thousand submissions on the way to selecting this year’s featured artists.

As Colorado and the world emerged from two years of pandemic living, the art produced in the state was bound to evoke themes of the fractured state of the world and a desire to find beauty amidst the chaos. An obvious theme throughout this year’s show is one of disruption, with countless pieces and perspectives slightly askew, as if we’ve spent the past two years viewing the world from a distance, catching glimpses here and there of life but never fully connecting with anything or anyone. In pieces like Neil Corman’s “Balconies” and Chuck McCoy’s “Form One Configured,” viewers only get bits and pieces, odd angles and shifting perspectives, that offer hints of life and the world. A similar effect is found in Deborah Jang’s “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore,” which won the MeowWolf Award. The haphazard sculpture of wooden chairs, poles, and metal creates an intriguing spire in the main gallery.



Thursday, March 17, 2022

George Will on Baseball

I look to, trust, and respect George Will on many things, but perhaps none more than baseball. As people debate the new CBA, the shift, the pitch clock, the DH, & everything else, GW clarifies the issue at hand with reasoned rational commentary.

Now MLB must tweak its rules or find a slew of Rod Carews. He wielded a bat with the delicacy of an orchestral conductor’s baton. The first time Tony La Russa managed against Carew, he moved his shortstop up the middle. So, Carew singled through the spot that La Russa’s shortstop had vacated. In Carew’s next at-bat, La Russa, chastened, left the shortstop where he normally played. So, Carew — don’t tug on Superman’s cape — singled through the spot where La Russa had placed the shortstop in Carew’s first at-bat . Carew’s third at-bat: a bunt so perfect he reached base without a throw.

Today’s analytics could not have helped opponents cope with Carew. He, however, was a genius. Better to change baseball’s rules than to count on reviving the game with an abundance of genius, which is always scarce.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

A Trip down Fascination Street

I'm a bit of an art geek and visiting galleries is one of my favorite activities when I have the time. Denver is an excellent place to indulge that interest, as its vast and vibrant art scene has been cooking for years. Lately I've been doing a bit more writing about art, and after a particularly engaging gallery visit, I've felt compelled to write it up and share the experience. My most recent piece, "Fascination Street Continues to Elevate Cherry Creek North's Art Scene," is the second I've had published by 303 Magazine in Denver. 

A stroll through Cherry Creek North provides boundless opportunities to pop in out of specialty shops, clothing stores, and restaurants. Numerous galleries also await fans of the fine arts, making the posh streets of the southeast Denver neighborhood one of Colorado's best art scenes. Thousands of residents visit the well-known Cherry Creek Art Festival, but regular visitors can experience a festival-like offering every day of the year. Browsing Cherry Creek can be casual window shopping, but wandering into Fascination Street Fine Art will be no short trip. The esteemed gallery in the heart of Cherry Creek is truly a fascinating experience.

While the gallery’s entrance on Third Street is a welcoming storefront, the official address of Fascination Street is 315 Detroit Street, just around the corner. Alice Crandall, the Senior Gallery Director, explains the gallery recently went through an expansion uniting three stores in “a year-long process to design and develop the spaces, including the addition of the dedicated frame shop.” The dual entrances and multiple rooms are just the first hint of the gallery’s vast store of paintings, giclees, sculptures, drawings, and more.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Cherry Creek High School put on a wonderful production of "Mamma Mia!" this weekend. My review is this week's column for The Villager.

Musical theater is back at Cherry Creek High School, and their production of “Mamma Mia” played to packed houses last weekend. Based on songs from Swedish pop band ABBA, this festive musical tells the story of 20-year-old Sophie on a Greek island about to marry her fiance Sky. Sophie doesn’t know her father, but wants him to walk her down the aisle, so unbeknownst to her mother Donna, Sophie invites Donna’s three former boyfriends, and drama ensues.

The lead roles were perfectly cast with Bella Mitchell, bringing an adorable charm and powerful, melodic voice to the role of Sophie. Mitchell, who’s been accepted for musical theater to NYU’s elite Tisch School, put on an impressive performance, masterfully connecting soulful solo scenes to energetic ensemble pieces. “Mamma Mia” has a girls night vibe with Sophie, Donna, and Donna’s lifelong friends Tanya and Rosie, known as the Dynamos, laughing, longing, and loving their way through a tumultuous weekend.

Donna was beautifully played by Miranda Joyce, and her two backup Dynamos literally brightened the stage every time they were on it. Lexi Casey as the sassy, fun-loving Rosie and Eliana Yokomichi as the sardonic thrice-divorced Tanya absolutely owned their roles with vaudevillian-like humor. Yokomichi’s portrayal of Tanya’s clumsy elegance charmed audiences, and her boisterous flirtation with barman Pepper, played by Alex Mitchell, was hilarious. Yokomichi danced across the stage with class and sass in four-inch stiletto heels. “I’d have broken my ankle just walking in those,” one woman in the audience quipped.

The stage was literally filled all night with a huge ensemble of “Dancing Queens,” and Emily Fisher’s choreography led by dance captain Chloe Mazenko was truly a spectacle to behold. During “Voulez-vous” nearly fifty dancers smoothly glided past each other in mesmerizing layered movements, and the true beauty of the scenes was the seemingly natural and effortless interplay of the singers and dancers. Scenes with villagers just spontaneously breaking into song and dance is the magic of well-done musical theater.

The show was an emotional roller coaster from the energetic, joyous “Dancing Queen” to the dramatically artful “Under Attack.” In a poignant mother-daughter scene, Sophie and Donna reflect on the past, singing “Slipping Through My Fingers,” while dancers Catherine Healy and Becca Dwyer performed a poetic ballet, visually mirroring the characters' emotions. It was a hauntingly beautiful scene of love and nostalgia. Moments later Miranda Joyce nearly brought down the house with her rendition of “Winner Takes It All.” Her soaring voicing, filled with soulful angst was a stunning moment, as her suitor Sam, played so smoothly by Jack Diamante, stands stoically across the stage, feeling her pain and longing for connection. “It literally gave me chills,” said Terri Margolies, who saw the show twice.

Donna’s other suitors wonderfully complimented the drama, with senior Caleb Meyerhoff bringing a cool vibe to former musician “Headbanger Harry,” and Hayden Noe filling the stage with his warm “aw shucks” schtick of the kind-hearted Bill. The scene where Noe’s Bill is audaciously, seductively wooed by Casey’s Rosie singing “Take a Chance on Me” was a sassy, saucy, laugh riot. It’s easy to forget these thespians are just high school kids with their mature stage presence.

The set was masterfully designed with the Fine Arts Theater transformed into a small Greek village and taverna, complete with white stucco, blue shutters, and shifting backdrops reflecting the Grecian sky. Associate set designer Dylan List and his crew created a warm, hip Mediterranean vibe, and the audience half-expected the cast to emerge soaking wet from the Aegean. They came close when the groomsmen suited up in scuba gear for a hysterical chorus in “Lay All Your Love on Me.”

Creek theater is an all-student led production, including the exquisitely detailed costumes. It’s no surprise costume designer Sarah Manos is also headed to NYU’s esteemed Tisch School. The directors pulled out all the stops at the end of the show when the entire cast hit the stage for an extended ten-minute dance extravaganza in eye-popping 70s disco costumes for the party anthem “Waterloo.” As confetti fell from the sky, some audience members waving glow sticks and wearing feather boas danced in the aisles. “I’m literally speechless,” said Creek administrator Marcus McDavid, who attended with his two Creek kids. “That was just so fun.”

Burkhart and musical director Sarah Harrison both said of the show, “We just wanted to have fun. We needed to have fun.” Mission accomplished. The thespians of Cherry Creek gave their community a night to remember. With Burkhart in just his third year at Creek, and the school’s seemingly endless line of talented kids, it appears musical theater is in great shape for many years to come.



Thursday, March 3, 2022

Neither Joy, nor Sorrow

As part of my unit on Transcendentalism, and later with my students thinking about their personal legends while reading Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, I like to draw upon the wisdom of Henry Longfellow's poem A Psalm of Life. That topic is this week's column.

Heather Mallick, a Canadian writer, recently observed “Canadians are catching the American disease: expecting personal happiness.” In fact, she speculates that for Americans the situation is even worse because they have moved from expecting happiness to actually demanding it.

This uniquely American affliction, the expectation of bliss and happiness and aversion to discomfort, has been brewing for a while. In fact, it is ironically the result of the positive and optimistic belief in the American Dream. Somewhere along society’s progression over two hundred years, Americans moved past simply valuing the opportunity for prosperity and happiness. Personal comfort and satisfaction are now expected, even perceived as a Constitutional right. When our lives are not perfect and endlessly rewarding, we assume something is wrong, or worse that we have been wronged.

Political philosopher and Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen, author of the book Why Liberalism Failed, believes the national condition is a natural and expected side effect of success. Deneen asserts that classical liberalism based on the concept of individual liberty has failed because it succeeded. Both offshoots of classical liberalism, the progressives and the conservatives, promise more than just opportunity. They promise ideal societies free of any disappointment. In pursuing individual liberty as the greatest value and right, people have become unmoored from the virtues that enable them to responsibly handle and appreciate liberty. The classical concept of freedom includes being free from base self-absorbed instincts that can cause harm.

In the poem “A Psalm of Life,” the Transcendentalist New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observed “Neither joy and not sorrow is our destined end or way, but to act that each tomorrow find us further than today.” The point of life is not to be happy, though there’s nothing wrong with that outcome. Of course, the point of life is not to suffer either, a claim Wadsworth made in protest to and rejection of Puritan beliefs about suffering on Earth while waiting for joy in the afterlife. Instead, Longfellow asserts the point of life is simply progress. It’s about getting better day to day. So, we should regularly ask ourselves: am I a better person today than I was yesterday? A better husband or wife? A better mother or father? A better son or daughter? A better friend? A better practitioner of my faith? A better citizen? A better member of my community? A better person?

I’m just guessing, but I suspect many people who are suffering do so because they have unrealistic beliefs about happiness. Some people suffer because they mistakenly believe they are supposed to be blissful, comfortable, and thriving all the time. And if life is not all sunshine and roses, then something must be wrong. But there’s nothing actually wrong – that’s just life, which is neither great nor awful. It just is. Feeling anxious is not the same as suffering from anxiety. Feeling sad is not the same as being clinically depressed. Feeling stressed is not unto itself a bad thing – in fact, it’s often good. Stress is what tells the body and the mind to be aware, mindful, and attentive to significant, even urgent matters. It is a natural defense system. However, contemporary society is too quick to diagnose a pathology for discomfort and medicate the natural ups and downs of existence.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is considered the happiest man in the world, yet he has no possessions, and seemingly no worries. He is a Nepalese Buddhist monk whose brain has been extensively studied to understand his incredible calm and contentment. The most interesting part of his story is that as a young man he suffered from incredible anxiety and debilitating panic attacks. And he suffered despite having a close, supportive family. As a child he says, “my life in general was wonderful.” It was when he turned to a lifetime practice of meditation that his anxiety lessened and his well-being increased.

The daily ups and downs of life, including achievements and failures, stressors and joys, are natural and to be expected. The downsides of life often teach us as much or more as the positives. Granted, when stress and anxiety go into overdrive, they can become like an autoimmune allergic reaction where the body or mind’s response is disproportionate to the threat. The challenge is figuring out when we are overreacting to the natural rhythms of life.

Thus, happiness is a blessing, and disappointment is inevitable. The point is simply to acknowledge and move forward.



Thursday, February 24, 2022

What is Comfortable?

When does necessity become luxury? When does comfort become affluence? Thoughts on being comfortable are this week's column for The Villager. 

Renowned bioethicist Peter Singer once published an article entitled “The Singer Solution to World Poverty,” in which he spotlighted the increasingly dire need for basic necessities of food, water, clothing, shelter, and medicine in many parts of the world. Singer suggested that prosperous and affluent people in developed countries have a responsibility to provide those necessities to the less privileged. “The formula is simple,” Singer writes. “Whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.”

Of course, nothing is ever simple, certainly not the challenge of solving world poverty. The beginning point to addressing Singer’s plan would be to first establish a definition of luxury and necessity. And the subjective nature of our experiences makes that nearly impossible. In 2005 when the College Board put Singer’s idea on the AP English exam and asked students to defend or challenge his plan, one clever student asked that simple question with one key example – how necessary is toilet paper? In reality and across history, such a simple commodity is clearly not necessary. That said, few people in contemporary society would agree, unless they recently installed a bidet, which should actually be considered a luxury.

Another key component of Singer’s idea is determining if redistribution of wealth and assets can, in fact, end world poverty. The history of allegedly communist and certainly socialist countries seems to indicate the answer is no. Collectivism simply doesn’t work on any large scale, though small successful communities like a kibbutz suggest collaborative societies are certainly viable. Critics of redistribution are fond of referencing the “Ten Cannots” from Reverend William Boetcker who asserts “You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.” Incidentally, that platitude is often incorrectly aligned with Abraham Lincoln, a mistake made by Ronald Reagan in his speech at the 1992 Republican Convention.

Granted, Boetcker words are simple platitudes which don’t necessarily make them valid or true. On the other hand, the ideas of Peter Singer are not simple quips, but instead the summation of decades of research and investigation. And, as a professor of philosophy and ethics, Peter Singer is an advocate for practicing what he preaches, giving away a large amount of his earnings over his lifetime. In fact, following his winning of the 2021 Berggruen Prize, Singer quickly announced he will not keep the million dollar prize, instead distributing it among his charitable foundations. Thus, it’s not easy to dismiss Singer’s ideas when backed up by his actions, and it should make us question our ideas about luxury and necessity.

As a middle-class wage earner living in contemporary suburban America, I try to remind myself that by nearly every measure, I am one of the wealthiest people in all of human history. The relative comfort in which I live and the conveniences that I take for granted as basic necessities of life could be considered luxury and even a lavish lifestyle when compared to the majority of the world’s population. In fact, compared to the record of human history, I am in many ways more comfortable, if not actually wealthier, than kings and queens of yesteryear.

What does it really mean to be “comfortable”? In a world of increasing wage and wealth gaps, the concepts of comfort and middle class have become muddled. Wharton Business School professor Nina Strohminger recently asked her students what they thought the average American worker makes annually. One-quarter of them thought it was more than six figures, and one student actually guessed $800K – the actual answer is $45K a year. The aloof nature of elite business students is unsettling to say the least, and it complicates talk of comfort. In fact, a Denver area realtor recently told the Denver Post, the measure of a “luxury home” is no longer a million dollars. In determining luxury and wealth, “it really starts at two million.”

Americans have a strange relationship with wealth and status, striving diligently for it, then liking to pretend they haven’t made it. In fact, the news and social media is filled with stories of people talking about “struggling” financially while living upper-middle class lives. Instead of calling themselves rich, affluent, or wealthy, many Americans tend to refer to themselves as simply “comfortable.” Such modesty is a rather significant understatement, though everything is, of course, relative. People can downplay affluence as mere comfort, but for Peter Singer and the world’s four billion people living on five dollars a day, that’s a bit hard to accept.



Thursday, February 17, 2022

Whose Classroom?

In this week's column for The Villager, I ponder the growing interest and influence that parents, families, and community members have or are requesting in their local schools.

An interesting thing happened when schools went online last year – parents were given an insider's view of what goes on in the classrooms where they send their kids to learn. And now that the parents have been inadvertently invited into the classroom, some of them don’t want to leave.

Joanne Jacobs, an education researcher, has been writing about the issue of parental interest, involvement, and control that has arisen following the pandemic. Those issues came to a head last November in the Virginia governor’s race where controversies in Loudon County Schools became a factor in Glenn Youngkin’s campaign. Observers described the rise of a “parents matter” movement and credited it with Youngkin’s surprise victory. Jacobs believes that, after a year of depending on parents to be very involved in the actual teaching of the kids, parents may have a case for more influence in the classroom.

Discussion about parents’ role in what and how students are actually taught has been brewing for a while now, emerging ten years ago with the Common Core State Standards. Countless parents were shocked to realize they couldn’t help their kids with math homework under the new expectations. Recently, parents have questioned everything from cursive handwriting in elementary schools to the study of literature for seniors. In Michigan recently, the Democratic Party was criticized for a statement on the role parents play in the education of their kids. A post on the party’s Facebook page argued "The purpose of public education in public schools is not to teach kids only what parents want them to be taught."

In one regard, the very nature of schooling suggests parents should not be in charge of the education of their children. Unless they choose to homeschool and manage the curriculum and instruction, the decision to send kids away defers that authority to others. That deference is what the Michigan Democrats meant when they clarified that the role of public schools "is to teach them what society needs them to know. The client of the public school is not the parent, but the entire community, the public." Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire made a similar claim in a Washington Post op-ed titled, “Parents Claim They Have a Right to Shape Their Kids’ Curriculum – They Don’t.” While that claim may seem inflammatory, their argument really isn’t. Education is about teaching students to “think for themselves,” even if some of those ideas run counter to the views of their parents. And in regards to many topics, parents may make decisions that aren’t always in the best interest of their children.

Similar debates are unfolding across the country, as in Indiana where late last year the attorney general introduced a Parents Bill of Rights. The fifty-page document reiterates numerous legal rights such as the opportunity to run for school board and the legal access to special education. However, the platform also makes general and ambiguous claims like “education policy and curriculum should accurately reflect the values of Indiana families.” In reality, policies and curriculum should reflect the best practices of content and pedagogy that will prepare students for post-graduate life which includes college and careers. It’s about creating a well-educated populace and fully actualized adults, not just reflecting a broad term like values. And it’s odd to envision one uniform, homogenous Indiana family which represents all seven million Hoosiers.

The transient nature of a student body and the inconsistent participation of families also makes such uniformity problematic. Even in the current era when school board meetings are politically charged and more widely attended, participation remains a miniscule percentage of a community. Thus, parent control of curriculum, standards, and pedagogy would inevitably represent only a small but vocal group. Curriculum cannot simply be adjusted year-to-year or even month-to-month, nor should it be, for that would be an inefficient model for instruction. Kids are in elementary, middle, and high school for at best five years, while staff are there for decades. Educators spend entire careers refining their content and craft, not a few hours watching a board meeting, reading a magazine article, or following a brief discussion on talk news.

In a recent editorial for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Marita Malone, a professor and school board director advised that “Public schools must return to teaching and let parents do the parenting.” That pragmatic view is a rather astute observation that should guide this issue.





Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Walk Your Line; Don’t Cross Others’

When the supermarket service workers recently went on strike against the Kroger corporation in Colorado, some people cross the picket line and shopped there anyway. I did not. The why is my column this week for The Villager:

I did not cross the picket line. I did so out of simple respect. When the commercial service workers went on strike against King Soopers and the Kroger corporation for ten days, I did not cross the line. I did not shop there. I did not interfere in or subvert these workers’ efforts to negotiate wages and working conditions with their employer. As a middle class wage earner living in suburbia, I did not presume to know their business and fully understand the challenges they face in the workplace everyday. So, I did not cross the line because I respect the working class people of the service industry.

In a recent column for the Denver Post, writer, part-time professor, and aspiring politician, Krista Kafer explained why she crossed the picket line. In her somewhat curt and straightforward manner, she said she crossed the line because she needed groceries and the labor dispute wasn’t her business. “It’s not personal,” she says. People who choose to cross picket lines do so out of one of two positions – privilege or principle. Kafer’s choice was clearly one of privilege, which she cleverly masks in principle. While Kafer argues that she crossed the line because she wasn’t a pawn in the game, she let her privileged principle blind her to the role she plays as a consumer. And, of course, she capitalized on the opportunity by crafting a column out of it. Despite claiming she had no stake in the issue, Kafer actually did take a side, supporting the Kroger corporation over the people who work the aisles.

Growing up in the river town of Alton, Illinois, outside St. Louis, I lived near three steel mills, two automotive plants, several refineries, and numerous manufacturing plants. I grew up around Owens-Illinois Glass, Alton Boxboard, Olin Brass, and numerous other factories whose collective bargaining agreements with their workers built much of the middle class in the areas around St. Louis. My father worked in labor relations for decades, albeit from the management side. But through the experience of my community and my father’s job, I learned a great deal about labor, about contract negotiations, about work stoppages, and about collective bargaining. It’s where I learned to not cross a picket line. As a point of disclosure, I should note that while I am a teacher, I am not a member of the local education association.

As a young man, I came of age during the 1980s and the Reagan Revolution, and the first political leader I supported to succeed the Gipper was New York Representative Jack Kemp, the original compassionate conservative. As a former NFL player and a resident of Buffalo, Kemp had an authentic understanding of the working class. As co-founder and president of the AFL Players Association, he had a deep understanding of labor. Kemp knew well how collective bargaining simply makes sense. Why would anyone go it alone when everyone knows there’s strength in numbers? It’s not for naught that Ben Franklin reminded the colonists, “we must all hang together or we will surely hang separately.” Collective action in pursuit of just goals is an American tradition.

I live across the street from my local King Soopers, and for twenty years I’ve shopped there, sometimes daily. My children grew up knowing the names of the produce stockers and the deli counter workers who chatted with them, often letting them sample the selections. By contrast, I suspect Krista Kafer’s experience working many years for politicians inside the DC Beltway has left her aloof to the everyday lives and working conditions of service workers. She knows little of the people she passes in the aisles. Kafer said the contract negotiation is not her fight. If so, she should have stayed out of it; instead she chose a side. She chose to interfere and subvert the service workers association’s ability to negotiate a contract.

If people like Ms. Kafer want to understand the workers she disrespected, the essential workers she dismissively walked past on their picket line, then she might consider reading some books about the history of organized labor and the challenge to create a middle class for the working class. As an English teacher, I’d recommend she check out Upton Sinclair's The Jungle or Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. Or perhaps she could simply talk to the people she has so casually dismissed.

I respected the picket line, and I always will.



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Thursday, February 3, 2022

Groundhog Day - An Existential New Year

I've posted about Groundhog Day the movie before, and it's this week's column for The Villager:

Ever since the 1993 film from Harold Ramis and Bill Murray, the term "Groundhog Day" has become synonymous with mundane repetition and mindless redundancy in our daily lives and jobs. The term has become the punchline for people describing the empty and repetitive nature of their jobs or even their lives. However, the film was never really about that. Instead, the message of the movie about weatherman Phil Connor is about rebirth and the chance every day to make our seemingly boring repetitive lives whatever we truly want them to be.

Let’s face it, by February 2, New Year’s resolutions are fading, fitness centers are back to the regulars, and we’re all bogged down in the drudgery of winter. These moments are ripe for a bit of pop culture existentialism, and the quirky film from Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin puts that long cold winter, the odd little holiday, and the repetitiveness of daily life in perspective. Watching the story of a disgruntled weatherman pondering the absurdity of a weather-forecasting rodent provides a second chance at mid-winter self-reflection and re-invention. The conceit of the film is not only the ridiculous holiday but also the inexplicable weirdness of Phil Connors’ predicament.

The film Groundhog Day is actually a wonderful primer for the wisdom of existentialism, and when I taught the philosophy in my college literature class, I would often lead or conclude with a viewing of Bill Murray’s brilliant portrayal of a man trying to bring some sense of meaning to a life that seems nothing short of absurd. Clearly, the idea of living the same day over and over again in an unfulfilling, mundane place and repeating the seemingly mindless tasks of a pointless job is portrayed as a curse and a cruel joke. That realization is actually at the heart of existentialism. Life makes no sense, and the absurdity of it all can lead us to feel our entire existence is meaningless. In the movie Phil spends many years in that disgruntled fashion, viewing his life as a cruel joke. However, the movie shifts when Phil considers his situation as an opportunity to get it right.

Granted, Phil’s initial reaction to his epiphany of a life without consequences is to indulge his most base fantasies. It’s understandable — who wouldn’t at least consider that? He seizes the opportunity, drinking to excess, smoking indiscriminately, gulping coffee and pastries, manipulating women, and even robbing an armored car. Of course, the freedom and control he ultimately achieves is freedom from and power over those primal and materialistic urges. Even hedonism and debauchery apparently becomes boring after a while. A pivotal moment finds Phil sitting quietly in the cafe reading, when he notices a piano playing in the background. Rather than simply enjoy the music, he seeks out a teacher and begins learning piano, offering his piano teacher “a thousand dollars if we could get started today.” He also masters other art forms like ice sculpting, but most importantly he learns deeply the details, hopes, and dreams of the people in his life.

Groundhog Day is a film with a message — each of us will wake up again and again to the same existence that at times seems pointless. The only point is that you have the rest of your life to make it exactly what you want it to be. Bringing meaning to our daily lives was a focus of the numerous American writers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose poem “A Psalm of Life” advised us that “neither joy, and not sorrow is our destined end or way, but to act that each tomorrow find us further than today.” The point is progress; the goal is getting better. What F. Scott Fitzgerald called Gatsby’s “Platonic conception of himself” was simply the eternal quest for the ideal, for striving to become our own best selves. Life is an endlessly repeating opportunity to improve. In Bill Murray’s role as Phil Connor, we can find a second chance at New Year’s resolutions and an opportunity to, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “live the life you have imagined.”

Thus, rather than a sad story about emptiness, the film and the day are a great chance to re-think and embrace the rich potential of our lives every day we live. Think about it. And perhaps even consider watching Groundhog Day to brighten and warm up the dark days of winter.




Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Regis Jesuit High School Should Reverse & Rehire

Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Colorado retracted its student newspaper and fired the two staff sponsors following the publication of a pro-choice opinion piece written by a student. The following is my response and this week's column for The Villager:

Forgiveness is the heart of Catholic doctrine. It can also be the virtue least likely practiced.

When I heard of the controversy regarding Regis Jesuit High School’s decision to fire two staff members over publication of a pro-abortion-rights editorial in the student newspaper, my first inclination was to support the action taken by the school administration. Regis is a private Catholic institution whose position on abortion is very clear. If students and teachers don’t agree with, support, and adhere to the guidelines and expectations, then they are free to attend and work elsewhere. However, upon closer examination of the story and their clearly stated guidelines regarding student media, it became obvious the administration of Regis is clearly wrong in this case.

In a recent piece of commentary for the Denver Post, two former Regis students criticized and challenged the school’s action as both inappropriate and inconsistent with stated policies and precedent in the school’s student media program. Harvard University student Madeline Proctor and Seattle University student Sophia Marcinek were editors-in-chief of Regis Jesuit’s Elevate magazine when they attended the school. As has been widely reported, the students explained how Regis High School’s clearly stated policy establishes that “school officials… shall not practice prior review or to censor any student media.” Yet, following the publication of an opinion piece supporting the “right of choice,” school officials violated their own policy, recalling the entire magazine and firing the two faculty sponsors. Such action is not only hypocritical but an egregious overreach of power and a betrayal of trust between the school, its students, and the staff.

As a former altar boy and a graduate of Catholic education, I understand and believe deeply in the institution of faith-based school. For a brief time in my adolescence I considered pursuing the Jesuit path. A key to that interest was an advisor who explained to me how the Jesuits are scholars. First and foremost, the Jesuit order is pious and devout in the Catholic faith, but it is also an order committed to academic and intellectual rigor. The Jesuits are not afraid of debate. The Jesuits do not hide from intellectual challenge. The Jesuits embrace the pursuit of scholarship and inquiry. Clearly, the Jesuit history of practicing and deepening their faith through education in the arts, sciences, and philosophy would seem to indicate an openness to debate and discussion. Nothing could be more important and relevant to cultivating young minds to be astute thinkers.

Thus, the Regis administration’s reactionary response is all the more problematic for its abdication of the spirit of education and the tradition of the Jesuit Order. An equally troubling condition of the current censorship is the school’s hypocritical rejection of not just its policy regarding student media but also the contradiction of the values and practices the school publicly preaches and promotes. In the Denver Post, Proctor and Marcinek point out how the school’s own website claims “We do not teach our students what to think; we teach them how to think.” That’s a dubious promise at best. The school also establishes as its mission the responsibility of being “called to create environments in which our students may encounter and engage multiple points of view that are presented thoughtfully and respectfully.” Clearly, nothing could be more blatantly inaccurate in this case.

In the 1990s a popular fad among Catholic and Christian young people was the wearing of bracelets which asked “What would Jesus do?” It was a reminder that the Christian faith is not simply a label – it is an expectation. Especially in the case of Catholic dogma, the Church expects the faithful to follow the path of Christ in their actions, choices, and daily living. Faith is more than just claiming belief and attending weekly services. It’s a way of life. We should, to the best of our ability despite our inevitable and inherent flaws, try to live as He lived.

So, in the case of a ninth grade student who writes an opinion piece for her school newspaper advocating for the right of choice, what would Jesus do? In response to that column which was cleared for publication by two staff members who simply followed established school policies, what would Jesus do? I’m fairly certain Jesus would never stifle the thoughts, ideas, and questions of students. And, other than the money lenders in the Temple, I’m positive Jesus wouldn’t fire anyone.






Thursday, January 20, 2022

Schools are in crisis -- and always have been

This week's column for The Villager:

"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.”

While the passage above would seem to be an accurate reflection of contemporary America in 2022, the words actually come from an article entitled "U.S. Schools: They Face a Crisis," which was published in LIFE Magazine on October 16, 1950. Though we like to look to the past with nostalgic rose-colored glasses, all was clearly not well in the post-war years portrayed so placidly in television shows such as Leave It to Beaver and Happy Days. So much for “the Golden Age” of America when all kids were above average. For as long as there have been schools, people have been complaining about them. The kids complain about the work. The teachers complain about the kids. Parents and taxpayers complain about the teachers. And everyone complains about “schools these days,” decrying the state of public education and offering dire warnings about the future.

As I’ve noted before, the education system is simultaneously a great American success story and an inadequate institution which regularly fails to meet the needs of its most vulnerable members. Every year when standardized test scores are released and seized upon by the print media and the talking heads of television, the country frets about the abysmal scores which would seem to indicate that few students can read. The literacy battles will continue to wage over theories and pedagogy with terms like phonemic awareness, whole language, balanced literacy, and calls to simply get “back-to-basics.” However, anyone criticizing literacy today might want to remember that Rudolph Flesch wrote and published Why Johnny Can’t Read back in 1951.

Of course, it’s disappointing to learn that as few as 40% of middle and high school students read anything outside of assigned schoolwork. But is that any surprise considering all the toddlers and pre-school kids out there playing with their parents’ cell phones and watching endless videos online and on television? Can schools really have that much influence on literacy rates when teachers may be the only people to ever tell kids to put the phone down, turn the TV off, close the laptop and pick up a book? In expecting schools to influence and change the behavior of students, it’s helpful to remember that between kindergarten and high school graduation, children will spend roughly 10% of their time in school and 90% of it elsewhere.

Obviously, schools and schooling are no guarantee of success and achievement. Educational institutions represent an opportunity for growth and learning. And while the opportunity must be guaranteed, the outcomes gleaned from students, families, and communities are generally commensurate with what they put into the institution. And that includes the faith, trust, and resources of stakeholders. With nearly fifty million children in K-12 education, the staffing of all those classrooms is no small task. Forbes and Bloomberg have recently reported on the coming crisis in education, as fewer people enter the field while an increasing number of teachers are leaving at a time the demands and expectations placed on schools increase on what seems like a daily basis.

The most important consideration is to be pragmatic about what schools can and should be expected to do, as well as acknowledging and accepting the limitations. Many of the controversies, concerns, and criticisms about schools today are simply distractions at best, as are warnings of a crisis. The very nature of schools can be messy and unsettling at times. In a column on education and the role institutions play in our lives, David Brooks discussed a Harvard study on the purpose of education. According to the report, “The aim of a liberal [arts] education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.”

Schools may be in crisis, but no more or less than they always have been.



Friday, January 14, 2022

Serving Up the Best Education

This week's column in The Villager:

Serving Up the Best Education

I have two college degrees, two professional certificates, and I’ve worked in my field for nearly thirty years. Yet I still believe the best education I ever received were the years I spent in my teens and early twenties working in a restaurant.

The restaurant world is a job experience and an education quite unlike any other. There’s a special fraternity among workers who know the intensity of a dinner rush, the frenzied choreography of cooking on the line, the subtle ballet of taking orders and delivering dishes, the ordered chaos of clearing and resetting tables. And the camaraderie of a restaurant crew tends to create a tight bond, especially because the required hours often infringe upon the social lives of the workers. Still, I wouldn’t exchange the hours I spent peddling pasta for anything. Life on the restaurant floor taught me as much as any class.

Restaurant jobs are, of course, part of the service industry, and the term server is now synonymous with waiter and waitress. Waiting on people is still the essence of service, which means restaurant work requires an inner calm that can test the patience of anyone. Yet, it can also be quite rewarding. In the classic comedy Arthur, the title character played by Dudley Moore tells his date, “Aren't waiters wonderful? You ask them for things and they bring them... It's the same principle as Santa Claus.” There is a unique pleasure in providing customers with a pleasant dining experience, and we learn a lot about life and ourselves when we do it.

Much of what students learn during the course of a K-12 education is actually quite arbitrary, even trivial, and not necessarily applicable to what we call real life. In fact, the answer to the age-old question of students, “When am I ever going to use this?” is likely, “Never.” Education is not a utilitarian practice of job training skills. However, the soft skills that come from attending school are indispensable to living a successful life. Organization, time management, communication, collaboration, and personal responsibility are not generally listed in any syllabus or curriculum guide. Yet they are as integral to education as books, and those skills are the essence of the service industry as well.

Many educators, researchers, and employers agree that the EQ is more important than the IQ in predicting success. That term EQ refers to the “emotional quotient,” as opposed to the standard but somewhat ambiguous IQ as a measure of intelligence. There are many highly intelligent people who never quite achieve the success commensurate with their test scores. Other highly successful people who lack academic credentials often achieve because of qualities developed in the workplace rather than the classroom. My Dad was fond of saying, “there are many people who are far smarter than I am, but you won’t find anyone who works harder.” The spirit of hard work has a special meaning for people who can calmly weather a Saturday night dinner rush. Business writer Daniel Pink has written extensively about the value of the non-academic skills necessary to success. Whether it's The Power of Regret or the importance of Drive, the soft skills of service work can be uniquely relevant to success.

Over many years in education across numerous school systems, I always notice and appreciate what I like to call the “wink-and-a-smile kids.” They might not be the best students from a purely academic standpoint. However, they are the kids who improve a class simply by being there. These are the people I would want on my team, regardless of the task and often in exclusion of any academic qualification like test scores, GPA, or even a diploma. These are the people who could sell me a car or a steak dinner just based on character and hard work.

Working a restaurant floor truly can be the best education. I’d even go as far as saying everyone should work in a restaurant at some point, if for no other reason than to develop a sense of respect for the jobs and empathy for the people who do them. Restaurants are so pervasive in our experience that it’s hard not to believe we could even paraphrase the classic essay from Robert Fulghum about kindergarten and instead say, “All I really need to know about how to live I learned while working in a restaurant.”