Wednesday, November 25, 2015

How to "Teach" Literature

While it's true, as I've noted, there is no sacred book - that is no book that is essential and indispensable to any child's education - I wonder if there are sacred elements to teaching a piece of classic literature. For example, is it a reasonable expectation that a teacher using an allegorical novel to actually teach the allegory and the allusions?

I tend to believe that if a class is studying Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and the teacher does not focus on the halo around Hester Prynne's head, then that class is not truly studying the novel. They may be reading it, but they are not appreciating it as literature. The same goes for the Garden of Eden imagery in Lord of the Flies or A Separate Peace. Certainly, they can be read as popular fiction. Character, set, and plot can be discussed, just as young adult novels are discussed in middle school. However, I don't feel positive about teachers failing to instruct students in the finer points of the works.

Of course, none of these writers published their novels with the intention of it being deconstructed by students. And, in a novel like Lord of the Flies, it's probably worth discussing whether it's important to teach the Christian allegory and the Freudian allegory and the World War II political allegory. Yet, the authors used the allusions and archetypes for a reason. There is a message in each of these novels that is linked to those techniques.

So, I certainly hope that a considerable degree of academia and scholarship guides the teaching of literature in the average high school English class. But I don't have a lot of hope at times.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Colorado Wine Takes a Seat at the Table

When Warren Winiarski pronounces your wine "all grown up," you have arrived. And it seems that is the status for Colorado wineries which have been expanding with increasingly credibility for years now. Winiarski was one of the early pioneers in California wines, and he was one of two people to put American wines on the global map when his Stag's Leap cabernet bested French wines at the Judgment of Paris, an epic moment for oenophiles and one which was captured for all of us in the movie Bottle-Shock.

Since that epic moment in the enjoyment of crushed grapes, it has been the rest of the country's task to catch up to California. And while Colorado will probably never compete with Napa or Sonoma on a big scale, the praise Winiarski offered for Colorado vintners should not be understated. This moment was artfully captured by Denver Post food critic Kristin Browning-Blas who recently reported on Colorado's best wines at the Governor's Cup, a competition that Winiarski helped judge.  The competition identified Colorado's Top Wines with some recommendations for us all.

Colorado has been developing a reputation as "Beer's Napa Valley" with the incredible growth in the craft brewing market. And the state is developing a similar name in the world of distilled spirits, especially with the medal winning status of Breckenridge Bourbon, as one of the world's top three bourbons. And, now it seems the vino in the Rocky Mountains is world class, too.

I'll drink to that.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Teaching English, Not Just Literature

High school English teachers are tasked with a pretty significant curriculum load when you consider how extensively they must be teachers of content and teachers of skill.

English teachers are asked to teach a variety of literary ideas from a seemingly endless list of titles, and there is often no rhyme nor reason to why one book is chosen, other than the fact that the teacher likes it. Of course, there are the standards of the canon, and certain genres are common as part of American history and culture. Accordingly, the challenging nature of the language and the themes should increase with each grade level - for example, Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is probably much more effective with juniors, whereas Lord of the Flies can probably be included in most freshman classes. The goal of a literature-based curriculum is, of course, two-fold: teachers are asked to impart and develop literacy in terms of skills of reading and critical analysis while they are also asked to be "purveyors of culture." Arguably, character education is the goal.

However, beyond the literature-based components of the job, English teachers are tasked with teaching students how to write - and this is often the most neglected part of the job. The reason is obvious: to assess writing, teachers end up buried under mountains of essays. And far too many high school English teachers do not consider themselves composition teachers. For some, they just love their novels and stories too much. Others, perhaps, simply don't really know how to teach writing. And, alas, there are some - perhaps many - who simply don't like to grade essays, so they don't assign them. In discussing pedagogy with teachers, I understand all too well the challenge of actually "teaching English" well. Beyond curriculum - which often contains more than good teaching could accomplish in several years - teachers must culttivate skills which kids master at wildly different intervals. This is a problem.

Ultimately, teaching English is about develop competence, then mastery, with facilitating language. But what that looks like on a daily basis varies widely.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Trump & Carson Are Un-Serious Candidates Who Should Be Ignored by Rational People

I still don't get it. This bizarre fascination with an "outsider" or rebel candidate who will "fix Washington" should quickly come to an end. Donald Trump & Ben Carson should never, and will never, be President of the United States. For, as Bill Maher recently noted, "If Ben Carson thinks someone with zero governing experience should be President, he must first let someone with zero medical experience operate on his brain." Why do we believe people who know nothing about the government are the best qualified to run it? Strangely, "If there is one thing Republican voters can agree on it's that the less the head of our government knows about government, the better."

And, that's just wacky.

Obviously, voters are disgruntled with "our government," which really just means they are dissatisfied with roughly half the reps with whom they disagree. And, it is the frivilous thinking that "government is broken" which leads to the rise of un-serious and potential harmful candidates like Trump and Carson. Let's be clear, the American government is not "broken." Somalia's govt is broken. Syria's govt is broken. The American government is in no way whatsoever "broken." But it's that type of thinking that allows for un-serious people like Trump and Carson to get a megaphone. And, that is a problem. That part of our electorate is, in fact, broken. Despite all the rants of people like Trump and Carson who declare America a mess and make crazy comparisons to Nazis and slavery and the Depression, the Republic survives and thrives. Strangely, immigration, debt, spending, etc. have not inhibited the US from remaining the most dynamic economy in the world. Certainly, we could decrease a bloated military budget that is largest in the world, and larger than the next 30 countries combined. And, we could raise more revenue to pay for the retirement and medical care of the last two generations who have drawn out far more than they ever paid in (leading to massive debt & shortfalls) while also voting themselves an ever-lower tax rate. But, that said, contemporary American society and government is every bit as sound as it has been. Nope, not "broken." And Trump/Carson are bizarre candidates who should not be acknowledged by serious people.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

John Kasich is the Right Choice for GOP - Why Don't They Agree

What is wrong with GOP voters?

Certainly that is a question that many Democrats and pundits and GOP leadership are asking themselves as they watch the inexplicable popularity of GOP presidential "candidates" like Donald Trump and Ben Carson. But, as many political observers concede, the GOP electorate has a history of flirting with the "outsider" candidate who talks tough about fixing Washington. Eventually, the primary voters send the outsiders home and support a candidate who can actually appeal to a broader voter base, including independents and conservative Democrats, and who can actually compete in the general election. This year the GOP candidate field features basically three of those: Florida Senator Marco Rubio, New Jersy Governor Chris Christie, and Ohio Governor John Kasich. And, while any of the three will be a strong challenger to Hillary Clinton, I can't figure out why John Kasich is polling so low.

In John Kasich, GOP faithful have a Reagan-era Republican leader with a strong history of fiscal conservatism, and who happens to be a Republican governor of Ohio, which is a strong Democratic swing state that is pivotal in the race for the White House in 2016. How is that not a Republican dream candidate?  Kasich is a successful Republican leader who appeals across the spectrum, and he has been that for decades. He's been a strong state and national legislator, serving in the Ohio Senate as well as the US House of Representatives. And, in a state that has swung Democratic in all the recent close Presidential races, Kasich has been a popular and successful governor who can work across the aisles to appeal to both Democrats and Republicans - or at least the moderate, rational ones in each party.

Truly, if the GOP actually wants to take on Hillary Clinton and run a competitive race, the best choices are Rubio, Christie, and Kasich. And, really, the best of all three is John Kasich.

Will the GOP primary voters ever wake up?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Misguided Mike Bloomberg Misses the Point on Testing & Public Education

Many in the education world recently cheered the announcement by the Obama administration that schools should seek to decrease testing and limit the amount of time taking standardized tests to no more than two percent of class time. While the stance was a clear reaction to the public's opposition to NCLB policies and increased testing, as well as a growing "opt out" movement of parents and kids who simply refuse the tests and their test-based accountability ideals, it was pretty clear that this policy is a text-book case of Obama politicking. For, it was his administration's policies under Education chief Arne Duncan that pushed these test-based policies in the first place. And, there is little evidence that Obama's policy will do anything to help the situation.

In fact, the one thing Obama's announcement has done is to amplify the entrenched positions of pro-testing and pro-test-based-accountability voices. This rigid opposition to facts is best exemplified by New York mayor Mike Bloomberg's recent piece of naivete in which he urges us to Demand Better Schools, Not Less Testing. Bloomberg perpetuates many myths about public education, not the least of which is the belief that "public schools are failing" or that American students are "falling behind" the rest of the world. Recent test scores from NAEP and ACT show stagnant or slightly lower scores on math and reading, which truly exposes the flaws of the test based reform that have dominated the past decade of public education policy. And scores from the international PISA tests continue to expose the real problem of American public schools - that is, poverty. For, American students are not, in Bloomberg's words, "in the middle of the pack." American schools with less than 25% poverty actually rank among the leaders of the world in international tests, and the state of Massachusetts actually ranks among the scores of countries like Finland, Singapore, and other "high scoring nations."

Additionally, Bloomberg ignores all the data the indicates test-based reform hasn't improved the academic achievement for our poorest and neediest students. As those kids' schools narrow their curriculum to only test prep, the students fall farther behind, and the measure of success by standardized test actually continues to favor students of affluent families. These tests have long been known to be at best a predictor of socio-economic status, not academic achievement or, worse, potential. By focusing on a one-size-fits-all model of academically focused tests with a bias against poor kids and students with an interest in the arts or skilled labor, people like Bloomberg actually cause more harm than good.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Keep Colorado Liquor Sales Local & Independent

Colorado is unique and independent and home to one of the largest most well-defined craft liquor industries in the country. Often referred to as "Beer's Napa Valley," Colorado is home to thousands of independent microbreweries, wineries, and distillers. And, it's a wonderful time for both producers and consumers in this artisan field. However, some are critical of Colorado liquor laws which limit liquor licenses to one per individual business entity. After trying for years to convince the Colorado legislature to change the laws and allow them to sell full-strength beer and wine, the large corporate supermarket chains are now attempting a legislative "end around" by floating a ballot initiative asking voters to approve what the legislature has long rejected. These corporate entities believe that as Colorado's population changes with thousands moving here every month the voters who are used to buying liquor at supermarkets will shift the state's liquor laws to make Colorado like all the other states.

That is change for change's sake, and it's something Colorado does not need. Here is a link to my recent letter to the Denver Post, voicing opposition to the change.

The first rule of governing is “Don’t fix what ain’t broke.” That advice should guide voters’ rejection of Your Choice Colorado’s ballot initiative to change Colorado’s liquor laws on beer and wine sales. Allowing supermarket liquor sales will decrease choice for Coloradans by putting many independent store owners out of business while creating a beer-wine monopoly of the Big Three grocers — King Soopers, Safeway and Walmart. Supermarkets are not hurting for business, and they don’t need to sell everything. Clearly, their limited shelf space and narrow purchasing practices will not offer consumers the vast varieties of small craft beers, wines and spirits available in the state’s 1,600 independent liquor stores. Coloradans appreciate the choice offered by individual liquor stores with knowledgeable staff. Supermarkets don’t need to monopolize beverage sales, and Colorado doesn’t need a pointless and unnecessary new liquor law.
My support for Colorado's liquor stores is not about "opposing the free market," or any other nonsense about my politics. In reality, there is no free market, and when suppliers are consolidated, supply shrinks. Undoubtedly, if supermarkets sell full-strenght beer and wine, many independent liquor stores will lose enough business that they will not be able to make their rents, and they will close. Certainly, as in many states where supermarkets sell beer, wine, and liquor, many liquor stores will be able to stay in business. But that's not really the point. Colorado has a unique economy that offers consumers extensive choice, and there's no reason to change the laws that have helped cultivate such a diverse artisan industry.

Colorado media has covered the issue extensively over the years, and there are many solid arguments on both sides. In this piece of commentary, two writers argue "No, Don't Allow Colorado Grocers to Sell Beer and Wine." It's a sound argument about the value of locally owned independent stores, And, of course, in the interest of fairness, the Denver Post also offered the counter-argument, which basically centers on the innocuous ideas of "choice" and "freedom" with little appreciation for the nuances of the economy and small business. And, the Denver Post hasn't been shy about promoting the interests of large corporate supermarket chains over the hopes of independent business owners. Editorial writer Jeremy Meyer has written in favor of corporations a couple times. Meyer tries to argue that "other states do it," so Colorado has nothing to fear. But that view is naive to the uiqueness of individual states and communities. And, again it simply focuses on the idea that consumers should have the convenience of buying liquor at supermarkets. Yet, that assertion is on shaky ground. Nearly, every supermarket has a liquor store nearby. And arguing that shoppers are so burdened by not being able to buy everything in one place is a bit absurd. Meyer recently followed up with his second column on the issue, though he was a bit more even-tempered with this one. Here was my response to Jeremy Meyer and the DP Editorial Board:

As a supporter of independent business owners, I firmly oppose an unneccessary change to Colorado law, especially when it would only succeed in consolidating larger market share to corporate owners. And, I speak with the view of a transplanted mid-westerner who knows about "how other states sell liquor." When I moved to CO a decade ago, I discovered the uniqueness of the industry that has created something special. And the conservative in me sees no need to change. With your most recent piece, I am hoping you are beginning to re-consider your position that Colorado needs to change simply to be like other states. Coloradoans are not hurting for choice - in fact, they have plenty. And, as I noted in my letter, "supermarkets don't have to sell everything." We can preserve specialty shops because it works for Colorado. Let's focus on avoiding change for change sake, and let's not promote the "Walmartification" of Colorado's liquor industry when we can honor the spirit of artisan craftsman and small business owners.

Ultimately, there is no reason to change Colorado liquor laws. Individual licenses means the state has thousands of vendors for spirits, and no single business has a monopoly. The system serves Colorado well, and, truly, no one is going thirsty.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Broken Compass - A Breckenridge Brewery

For those who are heading to the High Country this fall break or through the winter, and who might be hoping to enjoy a tasty, malty, hoppy beverage while there, the town of Breckenridge welcomed a new brewery to town last year with the launching of the Broken Compass Brewery. The brewery, which had an unofficial opening over Memorial Day weekend, is fully operational now after hosting a grand opening during the last weekend of May. The owners celebrated with a tasting party that was offering generous two-ounce+ pours of six featured beers, including a very sippable Coconut Porter, a couple deep rich coffee and chocolate stouts, and an innovative Chili Pepper Ale.

The Broken Compass Brewery is located outside of Main Street, Breckenridge, and so patrons will need to take the quick two-minute drive down Airport Road. There they can join co-owners Jason Ford and David Axelrod, who are affectionately known around town by their beards, and enjoy some truly innovative beers the reflect the spirit of life above 9,000 feet. It is truly a labor of love for these men, and they would be happy to show you around the brewery while talking about the process of fermenting barley, wheat, and hops. They are simply happy to create a product that will appeal to their customers. And if they can sell somewhere between 500 and 2000 barrels a year, the effort will be worth the time.

For beer drinkers in Breckenridge, it's worth stopping by, having a few cold ones, and perhaps taking home a growler or two.


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Is Ayn Rand's Anthem Rigorous Enough for High School?

Rigor is defined by some teachers as the amount of homework or the expectation of daily quizzes.  Others believe it is related to the quality of the materials studied and the level of sophistication in the text.  As I deal with discussions of appropriate - and appropriately rigorous - texts for high school students, I am struggling with my feelings toward Ayn Rand's Anthem.  While this dystopian novel has been taught at both the middle and high school level, I feel the simplicity of the text and the overly transparent nature of the theme and message make it far more appropriate for early middle school.  It's more like Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 or Lois Lowry's The Giver, than it is Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World.  Of course, the Ayn Rand Foundation offers Anthem as the freshman and sophomore book choice for its essay contest each year, but I don't think I'll base my ideas about pedagogy on their recommendations.  Obviously, Rand wrote this book geared toward children as a way of contributing to the dystopian genre - and offering her own indoctrination.  The book is, after all, roughly one hundred pages.  And, it begins with sentences like "It is a sin to write this.  It is a sin to think words no other think ..."  That just doesn't sound like a high school text to me - and if it is, that may be part of the problem in public education.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Colorado News - What to Read & Watch

Colorado is a beautiful, diverse, and progressive state with much to offer. It also has the complex mix of opinions that establish it as purple state. And that doesn't refer to the "purple mountain majesty." So, the question becomes, "How do you get news about Colorado?" Clearly, the immediate answer comes in the form of its one major newspaper, The Denver Post, and its major news stations 9News, Fox31, ABC7, and CBS4. But where else do people learn about the Colorado Voices? I recently ran across an article in the Aurora Magazine, and up to that point, I had never heard of the magazine. As it turns out, it's an off-shoot of The Aurora Sentinel. So, I started thinking about the other places I get news about Colorado that is worth reading.

5280 Magazine is the monthly Mile High collection of news and features, with great info on restaurants and events.

Living in Greenwood Village, I like to check out The Villager, though even its online content is subscriber only.

I do check in from time to time with Fort Collins' paper The Coloradan.

Of course, Colorado Springs has The News Gazette

Because I am a teacher, I check Chalkbeat Colorado for the latest in education.

And, there's no substitute in the High Country for the Summit Daily News.

For more local and specific flavor, you can check out this list of Colorado blogs.

Sazza Restaurant - A Delicious, Earth-Friendly Find

Being a foodie, and the husband of a natural foods chef in Denver, Colorado, I am never at a loss for new and interesting locales on the restaurant scene that offer more than just a tasty meal. Foodies don't just like to eat - we like to dine. And that's as true for a light snack or lunch as it is for a five-course meal. So, I was thrilled to discover a tasty destination for pizza today that also appealed to my green and progressive sensibilities, and I found it in an unexpected place, the Cherry Hills Market Place on Orchard in Greenwood Village. After my daughter and I picked up a brush at Sally's Beauty supplies, we wandered over to The Wooden Table, a higher end nouveau Italian restaurant I've been meaning to try. And, next door we discovered:

Sazza Restaurant - Pizza, Salads [Mostly] Organic

The sign caught my eye, as it did my daughter, who is a pizza fanatic. I thought we might pop in for a slice, and instead sat down for a nice snack in a most interesting of "fast casual" style restaurant. The ordering is done at counter service, though the man behind the counter was as pleasant as any maitre' d, discussing the menu with my daughter and me, and then complimenting her on her choice of an 8-inch, whole grain pizza with red sauce, mozzarella, fresh basil, and pepperoni. The rest of the menu is variations on pizza and an array of salads, the name "sazza" coming from a combination of pizza and salad. As we checked out the decor, I became more intrigued by the message of sustainability, and the goal of "mostly organic." The wood-fired style and thin crust reminded me of the St. Louis style dear to my heart, and the flavors were fresh and original.

Everywhere you look at SAZZA
There's Earth-Friendly thinking:
 We source from sustainable and local growers and suppliers   Our ingredients are certified organic, and when they can't be they are pure and natural  Our Togo containers, utensils, cups, lids, and straws are compostable and made from renewable resources    We recycle the glass, plastic, aluminum, and paper we use to minimize our landfill contribution   In former lives, our patio furniture was soda bottles, and our dining room tables were manufacturing remnants   The glasses you sip from are recycled wine bottles   Our mismatched silverware? It's donated from our customer's kitchen drawers   Our mismatched employee shirts? Also donated for reuse by our customers   We continually strive to do more   We'll keep you posted...

Sazza is the brainchild of Jeff Rogoff, who developed his plan for a better pizza joint while studying at the DU (University of Denver).  He and his wife Jenni Hayes opened Sazza in 2006 with an eye for organic, clean eating and a sustainable business model. To that end, they developed an urban garden in Denver to give back to the Earth and the community, and provide as much fresh produce for their restaurant as possible. And it's no surprise where they found inspiration for this model, as being students in Denver opened their minds to the potential of all natural fast casual when Chipotle first opened while they were students. While it's not clear that Rogoff and Hayes are on their way to millionaire status like Chipotle founder Steve Ells, it is nice to see a high quality pizza place contributing to the same theme.

Check out Sazza. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Disappointing Season of the Great Food Truck Race

America has a very complicated relationship with food, especially in terms of taste and culinary standards. We are truly a nation of Zagat Guides and dollar menus. Some Americans appreciate and craft true culinary masterpieces, and they seek out artisan talent in the food they eat. Others de-value food - and really themselves - as worth no more than a buck and will shove anything in their mouths as long as it contains sugar, salt, and fat. That said, you would expect culinary icons and purveyors of fine food like Tyler Florence to appreciate and promote culinary excellence. That's clearly not the case with this season of the Food Network's Great Food Truck Race.

Let's be clear:  the boys from Utah selling some "Waffle Love" are not by any measure - other than simple sales - a contender for the "Best Food Truck in America." The title of "Best" should indicate some degree of talent, beyond simple sales. And, that's why I've been quite disappointed in this season of the Truck Race, specifically because Tyler (in a mystifying move for a culinary artist) included three un-skilled waffle makers alongside some obviously talented chefs. Tyler and his producers found five really interesting and unique food trucks who can create numerous eclectic dishes filled with flavors. And then they threw in a group of rather simple boys who sell a basic waffle covered with Nutella or some cookies spread and whipped cream. Sure it sells - but then so do Twinkies and Chips Ahoy cookies. Sales are not the indicator of quality - people eat crap in this country. By Tyler's apparent measure for this contest, McDonald's sells the "best hamburger" in the country. And, we know that no one, including Tyler, would ever put the Golden Arches on a "best" list when talking food.

On this week's episode from Tulsa, Oklahoma, Tyler could not have found more ways to dishonor the efforts and talents of the two legitimate food trucks - Pho-Nomenal and GD Bros. Throughout the contest, the Waffle-kids have not won a single cooking challenge when it came to be judged on quality and talent. And Tyler "warned" them that they needed to "take it seriously" because it's going to matter. But it didn't. They were not judged on quality - they were judged on how many chick/waffles they can sell to hot rod owners in Tulsa, OK. Give us a break, Tyler. Those car show people would choose chicken & waffles any day of the week and twice on Sunday. It was crass and cluless for Tyler to ask Pho-Nomenal and GD Bros "why you lost the challenge." It wasn't their food or their marketing Tyler. It was because people at a car show in Tulsa have very simple tastes, and they would never try something remotely "foreign." Send the Waffle-makers to Chinatown or the Village, and we would have a different result. The only reason that GD Bros lost was because it was in Tulsa.

Now, let's be clear. I'm not saying the Waffle-dudes don't have a thriving business. Heck, Dairy Queen and Entenmanns make millions. But they don't top the lists of "Best" ice cream or pastries. Because they're really not that good - they're just sweet in a nation with a big sweet tooth ... and expanding waist lines.

So, the Great Food Truck Race will end next week in St. Louis. And the Waffle-kids will win by making a lot of money selling a product for which they have invested almost no skill. They will profit from selling processed foods, and the talented ladies from Pho-Nomenal will lose out despite whipping up culinary excellence and promoting it with marketing skill. And Tyler will basically ignore any shred of respect for the culinary world by awarding these guys a title of dubious authenticity. Let's hope next season Tyler tries to restore some culinary integrity to the show he promotes.