Thursday, February 11, 2016

Class Levels - Basic, Average, Honors?

Accommodating students of various skills, interests, and levels of motivation is, perhaps, one of the most challenging tasks in public education these days. Far too often, teachers are met with vast canyons of difference in the abilities and work ethics of large classes. And, far too often they are simply told by administrators and coordinators that they just need to "differentiate instruction."

Ah hah! Differentiate. That's what it is. I'll just ... differentiate .... for all my students .... for all my lessons ... and assignments .... hmmmmm.

At the high school level, especially, the key breakdowns are for kids who are deficient, proficient, and advanced. And there are all sorts of terms, and I've probably offended some with my breakdown - so, I'm sorry. But it's basically three levels of ability and/or motivation leading to levels of success and class performance. Additionally, there are extremes of disability that can lead to special education designations for students who simply can't perform at the mainstream classroom level.

While my school long had "essentials," "college-prep" and "honors" English, a few years ago we eliminated the essentials level. In reality, many capable students were less motivated to take the class for which they were proficient - CP English - because they just didn't want to work as hard. However, we've maintained a "essentials of reading/writing" class for students who need extra support. And truly low-performing students are most likely in need of special education. This policy contrasts the social studies department which maintains an "essentials" level in freshman world history, but offers no honors level.

While there is justification for offering support for lowest performing students and differentiating in a single class between proficient and advanced, I'm more in favor of offering truly advanced classes for kids who excel while offering support in a college-prep class for kids who are struggling.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Graphic Novels as ... Literature?

Several years ago, I listened as a colleague presented a graphic novel version of Beowulf to our department coordinator, hoping to incorporate the text into our college prep classes.  The catch was that she wanted to replace the Burton Raffel translation of the epic poem, and use the graphic novel in place of the original text, which many believe is just too complex and overwhelming for the average reader.  The department had to say no, of course, as the substitution of "a comic book" for the thousand year old classic poem simply wouldn't fly with our community.  However, there is not necessarily anything wrong with a supplement.  It could be used in addition to the text - though costs can prohibit such luxury.  That wasn't the only time graphic novels came up in regards to the traditional high school curriculum.  A colleague mentioned a graphic novel as an addition to our AP Language and Composition class.  It was similarly dismissed by more veteran teachers who worry that the strict expectations of the curriculum and the "Lang exam" precluded such innovative and multi-genre approaches to literature - and literacy.  That concern, however, may be changing.

With the rise of the common core standards, teachers are finding it easier to expand the definition of literacy.  The graphic novel is becoming an accepted - even a respected - genre, and that may enable it to work its way into the curricula of English departments across the country.  Certainly, there is something admirable and viable about the art form of graphic novels.  While the truly pedantic and elitist will continue to dismiss its significance, others who opened up the the literary nature of popular culture years ago have come to accept its place.  Certainly, as my department noted years ago, the graphic novel should not replace the novel or poem or play.  But it can take its place aside the classic forms.  Graphic novels can be truly insightful and intricate in the way they blend the oral, written, and visual.  And we should not dismiss their ability to engage reluctant readers in great narratives.  They do require a skill in appreciating the message and the medium, and they can be analyzed critically.

So, it's not a bad thing for the English classrooms to "embrace the graphic novel as a learning tool."

Monday, February 8, 2016

Allusions & Archetypes in Stranger Than Fiction

I know I've posted earlier about using film as part of my existential study in CE Intro to College Literature, notably with the classic Bill Murray/Harold Ramis film Groundhog Day.  However, another excellent contemporary film that can serve the existential lesson plan - Stranger Than Fiction As Harold Crick slowly grows to understand how to live the life he has always wanted, or, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, "live the life he has imagined," his understanding of life, fate, choice, and meaning becomes increasingly clear.  Many quotable lines from the film reveal the existential dilemma.  However, repeated viewings unlock other gems for English instruction.  For one, it has the added benefit of a great explanation of literature that could be used in class for a brief introduction to archetypes and allusions.

The lesson is delivered by Professor Hilbert, an English prof and lifeguard, who is tasked with helping Harold Crick deal with his literary existential dilemma.  Harold seeks out an English professor after attempting to convince a psychiatrist he is not schizophrenic.  Thus, because he appears to be in a story being narrated, the doctor posits that his problem might be better solved by a literature teacher.  And, with that the film transitions to a great subplot of literary deconstruction in a role played perfectly by Dustin Hoffman.

In attempting to determine Harold's situation who is "playing the lead character in his own life," Professor Hilbert devises a series of questions from literature to determine which story Harold is living.  He rules out all the classic characters, including "the Gollum," and from there seeks to determine whether Harold is living in a comedy or a tragedy.  In a classic bit of summation, the professor notes, "In a tragedy, you die.  In a comedy, you get hitched."  It's a great bit of dialogue that would make any English teacher smile.  However, beyond that, it's a scene that could be used to engage students in the analysis of literature in a way they might not have fathomed before.

So, from a Mazenglish standpoint, Stranger Than Fiction is an excellent source for witty literature discussion.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Early Chill of the Infinite Winter of Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is a novel of infinite discovery and infinite rabbit holes and infinitely complex plotlines woven into what can only be deemed a Magnum Opus of the most gifted writer from Generation X. While we readers of the Infinite Winter are officially only into the first fifty pages or so, the discussion forums - of which one has spoilers for those who know the book and another for the novices just beginning to piece together the poetry - are already running strong with speculation and observation ... and some hints of desperation. But the giddiness many feel at even attempting this literary Everest is palpable, and the community will urge us onward.

What I know so far is IJ is a post-modern epic about entertainment and addiction, and much of the plot will center on a young, brilliant tennis prodigy - and probable addict - named Hal Incadenza who is enrolled at the Enfield Tennis Acadamy (founded by his father). The number of characters who weave in and out of the early chapters is mesmerizing - from Hal's brothers (Orin and Mario) parents (The Moms and Himself (as in "the man Himaself" (ha!))), his uncle, poor black youth like Clenette and Wardine, a professional burgler named Don Gately, to a (Saudi?) medical attache who is clearly addicted and engulfed by what I suspect is the "movie you can never stop watching."

Got it?

What makes this read engaging and what makes a reading community like the Infinite Winter supportive (but also a little overwhelming unto itself as you struggle to keep up with the book while also keeping up with the ever-growing feed of reader's comments on Reddit which you don't want to miss ... which in some way seems similar to the movie the medical attache can't stop watching because you don't want to stop reading the book but you want to check the reader forums which you also don't want to stop reading ....) is the fabulously intricate nature of the story and the true art in the crafting of each sentence. As an English teacher (of style analysis in AP Lang & Comp), I want to dwell on the implications of words and syntax like the beginning "I am ..." which is potentially bookended later in the chapter with the words "I am not."  But I am also just digging on the story which I cannot wait to figure out how it relates to the Great Concavity and the Quebecois Separtist Movement.

That said, #InfWin reader "Bill Gaddis" (Ha! Really?) has posted links to two great articles - one from 1996 and one celebrating the 20th anniversary. They are worth the read, but tread cautiously, lest you learn more than you already know before you want to discover it. (ie. the articles can't help but contain spoilers ... but they are also helpful readers guides by indicating some general wisdoms and structures to look for)

First, is "The Alchemist's Retort: A Multilayered Saga of Postmodern Damnation and Salvation" which is a beautifully crafted review in The Atlantic by writer Sven Birkerts

But these more outrĂ© materials combine to form what is finally a thematic second tier. The foreground of Infinite Jest features three basic plot systems. At the center of one is Hal Incandenza, an adolescent tennis star attending Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA), which his family founded, and which has been administered by his mother and uncle since his father, James, who was also an experimental filmmaker, ended things by putting his head in a specially rigged microwave oven. Hal, who is compulsive and brilliant, shows his damage obliquely: he cannot walk the orthogonal paths of ETA with an unaltered mind. “Hal likes to get high in secret,” we read, “but a bigger secret is that he’s as attached to the secrecy as he is to getting high.” An intriguing filtering presence, and a fine departure point for Wallace’s various divagations into Incandenza family lore, Hal does not himself do much besides play tennis and, late in the book, try to stop smoking pot.

And, the other is "Everything About Everything: David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest at 20" which is a wonderfully insightful reflected published this year in the New York Times by writer Tom Bissell.

How is it, then, that “Infinite Jest” still feels so transcendentally, electrically alive? Theory 1: As a novel about an “entertainment” weaponized to enslave and destroy all who look upon it, “Infinite Jest” is the first great Internet novel. Yes, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson may have gotten there first with “Neuromancer” and “Snow Crash,” whose Matrix and Metaverse, respectively, more accurately surmised what the Internet would look and feel like. (Wallace, among other things, failed to anticipate the break from cartridge- and disc-based entertainment.) But “Infinite Jest” warned against the insidious virality of popular entertainment long before anyone but the most Delphic philosophers of technology. Sharing videos, binge-watching Netflix, the resultant neuro-pudding at the end of an epic gaming marathon, the perverse seduction of recording and devouring our most ordinary human thoughts on Facebook and Instagram — Wallace somehow knew all this was coming, and (as the man himself might have put it) it gave him the howling fantods.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Infinite Winter Has Begun

So, if you haven't heard yet, there is a large online group reading of David Foster Wallace's epic masterpiece Infinite Jest going on. January 31 was the first day, and the reading schedule is roughly 75 pages per week. So far, I'm about 65 pages in ... and it's pretty amazing. The problem, of course, is that there is so much going on I just want to take a three-month sabbatical, go sit in a coffee shop with my book and my laptop, and read. The book is an infinite challenge and requires infinite patience and engagement, but the growing discussion forum on Reddit also offers infinite support and insight. So, check it out.

As soon as my very busy week eases, I'm hoping to blog some early thoughts.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Monomyth & the Meaning Behind Top Gun

On this 30th anniversary of the fighter-pilot fueled epic of American firepower and military bravado Top Gun, it's great to look back at this insightful and equally cool piece of pop culture criticism about "Maverick & the Mono-myth" by @theunpoet, Whitney Collins. Collins is a true Gen X pop culture scholar who writes for The Weeklings, as well other publications and Barnes & Noble.

I love pieces that seek to deconstruct literature and pop culture through the foundations of the mono-myth, as first explained by Joseph Campbell in the Hero with a Thousand Faces. The Hero's Journey, which is the foundation of all epics and quest stories, is a comprehensive way to explain and understand the hero narratives of all of humanity. While the connections in a piece like Beowulf, or even Star Wars, are often obvious to many, the adaptation of the monomyth ideals to popular works like Top Gun are so fun ... and also worthy of debate.

But valid theories, hot guys, and catchy music aside, I think this movie stands the test of time because it tells the oldest story there is. The epic one that history likes to tell again and again. The one told in The Wizard of Oz, in Star Wars, in The Odyssey, in The Hobbit, in religious texts the world over…that of The Hero’s Journey. The mythologist and professor Joseph Campbell spent much of his life teaching the concept of the “monomyth”—the idea that all mythical narratives of yore tell the tale of a hero’s quest for meaning, a single narrative of the human condition. Curious as to how Campbell’s seventeen stages of monomyth might sync up with Top Gun, I sat down recently to watch it for the eighty-second time. Almost instantly, the scenes fell into the stages Campbell describes as essential steps in the pilgrimage. The symbolism popped off the screen. Suddenly, the pilots’ call signs weren’t just studly nicknames, they were representative of lore and legend. It was a whole new way to see the film. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Challenger Disaster - 30 Years Today - A Gen X Coming of Age

On January 28, 1986, I was a sixteen-year-old who was home sick and watching the NASA launch of the space shuttle Challenger. A friend of mine was also home and we were talking on the phone as we watched. And we shared a nation's moment of confusion, disbelief, and then a slow deepening horror. It was a pivotal moment, watching as a high school student and knowing America's first citizen astronaut - a teacher - was on board. Later, friends would share their feelings that day as classes rolled TV's into rooms to watch, and we all felt that agonizing sense of emptiness at the tragedy ... and a growing realization of American and scientific fallability.

As I reviewed posts of the 30th anniversary of the Challenger Disaster, I ran across a thoughtful and beautifully crafted reflection of the tragedy through the lengs of Generation X. Chloe, a Gen X blogger at Lights from the Pixel, shared this perspective on The Challenger Disaster and Generation X:

In the mid '80s, while the members of Generation X were growing up, modern American public educations standards were at an all-time low.  The Reagan Administration saw the upcoming Challenger launch as a way to remind the nation of the important role of teachers and maybe to reboot hope in the American school system.  Out of thousands of applicants to the Teacher in Space Project, the charismatic Christa McAuliffe was chosen.  Those of us in elementary school closely followed these events from sources like NASA and Weekly Reader, so that these people would continually be on our minds, so that they could, in every sense, become our heroes, so that we could know their stories and their lives, so we would love them.  The pint sized propaganda was delivered to our desks every week, and we drank every drop of it.

If I allow my mind to fully go back into the moments of that day, it is hard to breathe.  I can still feel the chill of that morning on my skin from where I was two time zones away from Florida in the high altitude desert of New Mexico.  I saw it live on TV from a classroom, along with millions of other kids, and watched quietly as the twisting contrail imprinted itself as an image of horror onto the collective consciousness of my generation, like some coiled up snake that struck without warning. Palpable feelings of excitement degenerated into confusion and then anxiety; and then the teacher abruptly shut off the TV.  We were told that it was over and to get back to our desks.  In that moment that I was supposed to stoically return to school work, I found myself caught in some delicate place between life and death, somewhere between hope and hopelessness.  It took me the whole day to process what had happened, and as I did, an emptiness hovered above my head, above my school, above my country.

I remember in the late afternoon of that day that a local radio station came on the news with a request for a song that they feared would be misunderstood. Hundreds of people had called the station asking to hear David Bowie's classic "Space Oddity." They spoke at length before playing the song, not wanting to be misunderstood or considered dis-respectful. They played the song and, despite their explanation before and after, were still criticized for playing the song. But for many of us, it was a necessary and soothing form of mourning.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Froma Harrop is Wrong about Lowering the Drinking Age

In her recent column promoting the idea of lowering the drinking age to eighteen, columnist Froma Harrop starts with a logical fallacy and doesn't get any better than that in her arguments. Granted, any specific age limit or barrier is inherently arbitrary - PG movies, driving, smoking, drinking, car rental, hotel rental, voting, and other rights are all restricted by an invented age at which society deems the individual "mature enough" for the responsibility. And, we know that's a guess at best. There are incredibly mature and responsible sixteen-year-olds and ridiculously immature and irresponsible forty-five year olds. That said, Harrop's claim that we should "Let 18-year-olds Drink" is simply not a sound argument.

Of course, Harrop starts with the classically flawed and deceptive appeal that qualifiying for military service should entitle a young soldier to drink to his success or drink away his stresses. And, that's simply illogical. There is no correlation between being allowed to enlist, follow orders, and kill for the government and maturely and responsbily handle alcohol. One "right" and responsibility literally has nothing to do with the other. And, considering everything we know about trauma and post-traumatic stress and depression and anxiety associated with military service, it might seem logical that the last thing we want these "boys" doing at the age of 18 is drinking.

And, then she goes straight to the tired and inconclusive European mis-direction as well. Harrop argues that a German sixteen-year-old can "ask for beer or wine." But that doesn't mean he should. Simply because European countries allow it doesn't mean it is appropriate. German and French teens are not "more responsible" with alcohol use simply because they can drink legally earlier. And American teens and college students are not "binge drinking" simply because it is illegal. Younger people worldwide are more irresponsible with drinking, and people become more responsible with age. And, it's important to read this extensive analysis from German Lopez of, where he curates all the most recent and relevant data about Europe's teen drinking problem.

The answer, it seems, is that Europe is not doing fine. If you look at the data, there's no evidence to support the idea that Europe, in general, has a safer drinking culture than the US. According to international data from the World Health Organization, European teens ages 15 to 19 tend to report greater levels of binge drinking than American teens. This continues into adulthood. Total alcohol consumption per person is much higher in most of Europe. Drinkers in several European countries — including the UK, France, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland — are also more likely to report binge drinking than their US counterparts. Younger teens in Europe appear to drink more, as well. David Jernigan, an alcohol policy expert at Johns Hopkins University, studied survey data, finding that 15- and 16-year-old Americans are less likely to report drinking and getting drunk in the past month than their counterparts in most European countries.

Simply put, there is no conclusive logical reason we should lower the drinking age. Raising it to twenty-one dramatically decreased drunk-driving accidents among the youth. Prohibition does delay drinking for a considerable number of people. And, as medical science advances, and we learn more about the deleterious effects of drugs and alcohol on brains before the age of twenty-one, it seems irresponsible to lower the age and send the message that drinking earlier is OK and even a good idea.

Because it's not.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The X-Files Returns Tonight - More Gen X Nostalgia

"The truth is still out there."

If there were ever a show that connected with Generation X through its distrust of institutions, then Chris Carter's super-natural detective show The X-Files would definitely be it. The investigations of FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully into the paranormal were designed for a generation raised on stories of Watergate & Kennedy conspiracies with a healthy dose of Area 51 intrigue. This is the generation that grew up with Star Wars and Close Encounters and was always willing to consider the possibility of the supernatural. Thus, the serious mistrust and skepticism Gen Xers were inclined to have toward institutions like government made it easy to trust in a rebellious FBI agent like Mulder. So, now, at a time of increased skepticism and an all-time low of faith in government, FoxTV is going to capitalize on Gen X nostalgia churned up by the return of Star Wars, and viewers will get a short 6-episode mini-series of The X-Files.

There will be plenty to like, and probably much to complain about. But it will all be worth it for Gen X viewers who will argue and debate the past and future of Mulder's investigations. And, just for fun, David Marcus of The Federalist magazine crafted a great reminder of why The X-Files is the perfect show for Generation X.  Can't wait to see the commentary. Also, it's worth mentioning again that 2016 represents the quarter-century mark for the most pivotal year in the defining of a generation.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Craft Beer & Yoga - the Ultimate Gen-X Workout

Yoga and craft beer - it was only a matter of time until two of our best ways to embrace "lifestyle over career" would come together. These days across the country, craft breweries are creating the ultimate reflective experience by opening their doors to yoga classes followed by a nice beverage. Noting that yoga is traditionally an inwardly reflective experience, the tendency of Generation X to emphasize community in their practices has led to a merge of two perfectly artisan expeiences.

Call it detox and retox: Around the country, yogis are jumping up from savasana and hopping onto a barstool as yoga classes are making their way into breweries. While the teaching is traditional, the classes tend to attract newbies, especially men, says Beth Cosi, found of Bendy Brewski in Charleston, South Carolina and Memphis. "We get the men in the door mostly because it's in a brewery and they get a beer afterward. That's the carrot. A lot of them come with girlfriends, wives, sisters," Cosi said. Her $15 classes are 45 minutes, compared to a typical 90-minute class. The room isn't heated to near 100-degree temperature and the partnering breweries typically offer a tour of the facility after or the chance to drink a flight of several beers.

As part of a larger after-workout beer trend, brewhouse yoga is hopping at Colorado's craft breweries, said Andy Sparhawk of the Brewers Association. For some breweries, it could also make good marketing sense, he said via email. "Both here and around the country, breweries are looking for unique ways to invite new customers into their breweries; brewhouse yoga specifically caters to a niche group that may not have considered a tap room as a great place to practice." Like a craft brewery's seasonal menu, Colorado's brewery yoga options are always in flux — one ends, but another's brewing somewhere. Here's a sampling of what's available this winter on the Front Range: 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Competition Improves Math Skills

I'm not a fan of spelling bees. And, that's a bit surprising considering my background in English and my own son's prowess in that area. But I'm more of the Brian Regen school of spelling bees, which means I think they're a collossal waste of time and nothing but trivial challenges with no correlation to valuable skills or learning. That said, I am not opposed to the value of competition as a motivator for academic success. And, that's not surprising considering my son's prowess in the world of Math Counts. In fact, his success and passion for math was initially fueled by a teacher promoting competitions like Math Counts, Math Madness, Math Challenge, etc. And, "video games" for him are often simply competing on "For the Win." Truly, competitions like Math Counts, the National Science Fair, and others have significant ability to engage students - especially boys - in academics. In fact, if Bill Gates really wanted to improve math skills and academics in school, he would start funding big prizes for competitors in contests like Math Madness or Math Counts.

And, as EducationNext reports today, there is sound validity to the role of competition in increasing academic achievement. The Game Plan for Learning is about the history and reseach on the value of competition in learning.

So Coleman challenged educators to rethink how they viewed competition.

Writing two years later in his 1961 book The Adolescent Society, he noted that educators had long been suspicious of academic competition, but that they unwittingly used it every day when handing out letter grades. The problem, he said, was that the competition in most classrooms was interpersonal. Shift the emphasis—make it interscholastic, that is, school versus school—and the suspicion gives way to celebration. “When a boy or girl is competing, not merely for himself, but as a representative of others who surround him, then they support his efforts, acclaim his successes, console his failures,” Coleman wrote. “His psychological environment is supportive rather than antagonistic, is at one with his efforts rather than opposed to them. It matters little that there are others, members of other social communities, who oppose him and would discourage his efforts, for those who are important to him give support to his efforts.”

Coleman proposed that schools should replace the competition for grades with interscholastic academic games, “systematically organized competitions, tournaments and meets in all activities,” from math and English to home economics and industrial arts. These competitions, he predicted, would get both students and the general public more focused on academics and ensure all students a better education. It wouldn’t be easy, he predicted: schools would need “considerable inventiveness” to come up with the right vehicles for competition. But they already had a few good models, including math and debate competitions, as well as drama and music contests. He noted that the RAND Corporation and MIT had already established “political gaming” contests with great success.

In the early 1960s, Coleman developed six games and tested them in Baltimore schools. Teachers, he would later write, “came to share our enthusiasm for this reconstruction of the learning environment.” But he admitted that his vision was “not realized,” even though a handful of fellow researchers at Hopkins and elsewhere piloted academic games with great success.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

"Big Beer" is Moving in on Craft Beer Scene

I can't blame them really - those craft brewers who hit the lottery. Think about it: you start a small brewpub in a little mountain town, and after a decade or so, you have a few locations and a thriving bottle business. And then someone offers you $50 million or so for the whole operation. That's tough to walk away from. That's tough to say, "No, I want to keep going to work each day and earning a nice, but not extravagant living." And, that's the way it was last month when the soul of craft brewing was rattled to its core by news of In-Bev's purchase of local favorite, Breckenridge Brewery. But it wasn't just about Breck Brew - the international beer behemoth bought up five other craft breweries. And the wrinkles in the spirit of the industry continue, as Jeremy Meyer of the Denver Post notes in his examination of In-Bev moving into the up-and-coming River North  neighborhood of Denver:

Big Beer has discovered the market and desperately wants in. Whether corporate beer will be accepted and whether its incursion will spoil the good thing we have going are good questions.
Anheuser-Busch InBev recently acquired Breckenridge Brewing, which even Gov. John Hickenlooper said left him with a feeling of loss. In another development, 10 Barrel Brewing, an Oregon-based brewery that was bought by AB InBev, just announced it was opening a pub in the River North district. Upon this news, many craft beer lovers took to social media to say they would stay far away from 10 Barrel out of allegiance to independent brewers.

"I'm neither interested in drinking InBev beer or giving them my money on a regular basis ... or at all," said Annie Sugar, a beer lover and research associate at the University of Colorado. "InBev's business ethics and practices will not allow me to support their products." Beer lover Luc Sauer had the same response. "I will be unlikely to visit the pub, especially given its ownership," he said. "The craft beer business movement has historically been one of remarkable cooperation. ... AB InBev seems to be afraid because they are losing share in their fizzy yellow beer sales and so are trying to drive out any competition to anything that isn't theirs."

I don't know if the news of these aquisitions is catastophic to the craft industry. But it sure feels a lot like the Wal-mart-ization of the craft beer industry. And losing that artisan spirit is a loss for us all.