Sunday, January 25, 2015

Breckenridge vs. Estes Park?

A while ago a friend from the Midwest asked for advice on where to go as she plans a summer vacation to the Rocky Mountain State.  She and the family are driving out, hoping to do some camping and hiking, but they would also like to do a couple days of nice resort-style living.  Some friends told her Estes Park "all the way," while others threw out a few resort town names, especially those in the central mountain corridor.  It's a tough call, but really it's all about what you're looking for.

If they're looking to camp and hike, Estes Park is the classic national park camping experience.  Located at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park has countless campgrounds, hikes, and outdoor activities from fishing to rafting.  Many people favor it for the YMCA of the Rockies locations, and its definitely the place in Colorado that tourists are most likely to see wildlife. Moose, elk, deer, fox, and even wolves are prominent, even in the actual town of Estes Park.  In fact, that's one of the treats - a literal treat right out of the opening scenes of the 90s show Northern Exposure.  The town is touristy in a common man sort of way.  Of course, the downside is it being isolated from the rest of the Colorado resorts, and it's potentially a little less ... upscale than the resort areas.  Some people call it rustic; others would say a little less refined.

The other main options are the I-70 corridor - mainly Summit County - with the run of ski resort areas that transition to summer activities.  In that regard, Breckenridge is the perfect mountain town to me. Of course, it is a little more ... refined, with better restaurants, shopping, and amenities.  The proximity to other resorts is also key, as you can hit Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail, Frisco, Lake Dillon, the Continental Divide, and other key spots all within driving distance.  Obviously, the resorts are not the spot for camping.  But the fishing, rafting, hiking, biking, and dining are pretty great.  I'm also a fan of Crested Butte to the south, especially in the summer.  With the Fat Tire Mountain Bike Festival followed by the Wildflower Festival followed by a great 4th of July, CB is a great place. And, of course, you're closer to Aspen as well as the southwest corner areas such as Durango and Telluride, which are a whole other story.

It's a tough call.  But I'd take the area around Breckenridge for the true Colorado experience.

Coehlo's The Alchemist & The Alchemist Project

Paulo Coehlo's The Alchemist is the perfect "self-help" book for high school students because it comes in the form of a readable parable, and the narrative helps to disguise the preachy nature of many books designed to help teens find themselves and find their way in the world.  However, it's not enough to simply read and discuss the book - teachers need to craft activities and tasks around the ideas of the book which engage the students in their own journey and quest for their personal legend.  Thus, in continuing my explanation of my "Alchemist Project," I always show a truly engaging TED talk, featuring Mike Rowe of the Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs."

Rowe has some fascinating bits of advice and insight for students.  Most importantly, he ponders the idea that "following your passion" might be the worst advice he ever got.  That fits well with my previous story of Sarah Marshall - the girl from The Ambitious Generation who was adept at getting into college, but not so adept at figuring out why she was going in the first place.  I advise my students that in Rowe's view "Some people should follow their passion, some should follow their skills, and some should just follow the market."  This video always has a significant impact on students.  And I ask them to journal and comment on Rowe's ideas in relation to their own search.

Other ideas come from David Brooks and his op-ed on institutional thinking called "What Life Asks of Us."  I ask students to honestly answer some tough questions meant to elicit some serious self-examination, for the goal of this book and this project is for students to figure out, not what they want to do, but who they really are.  I ask them to journal again after reading another Robert Fulghum essay about a girl who was "sitting on her ticket."  It always has a way of motivating them to think critically.  And, perhaps the most interesting and engaging of the tasks is for students to complete an extensive analysis of their "Imaginary Lives."  It gives them a chance to dream and wonder, and ultimately try to see themselves in a future.

I always conclude our unit by showing them a short clip of Randy Pausch, the man known for his Last Lecture.  The book and entire video are great - but if you want to limit the time, he gave a great short version of his speech on Oprah.  It is definitely worth the discussion and coincides well with the story of The Alchemist.  While Coehlo's book says "The universe conspires to help you achieve your personal legend," Randy Pausch posits "If you are living correctly, your dreams will come to you."

Ultimately, The Alchemist is a meaningful book for high school juniors or seniors.  I think any year before that is too young and too early.  Students sometimes dismiss the book as a little cheesy - and it probably is.  But even the most hardened student finds something useful in our Alchemist Project.

Keystone Resort Lodge & Spa ... Aahhhh

There's nothing better than a summer in Summit County, Colorado.

When the late summer heat arrives in Denver, it's time to head to the High Country, and the Resort at Keystone is the perfect way to ride out July. Located right along the Snake River and offering easy access to all the best that Summit County has to offer, Keystone Resort has provided my family with a nearly perfect, relaxing summer holiday for years. For lodging we prefer to stay in a beautiful condo near Keystone Lake at the Keystone Lodge and Spa. This location provides us all the access and amenities we need. The Lodge and Spa provides a huge outdoor, heated pool and two hot tubs that provide endless hours of relaxing fun. Whether we're swimming laps or playing beach ball baseball or simply lounging around with the pool noodles, the spa is a perfectly relaxing scene surrounded by great mountain views. We go back and forth between the pool, the two hot tubs, the scented steam, and the dry sauna, and we always finish the day showering in the large locker room before heading out for a walk around town, if not out to dinner.

The Keystone Lodge and Spa is directly along the Snake River which provides immediate and easy access to fishing or simply sitting in the shallows watching the water roll by on its way to Lake Dillon. There is plenty of action for fly fishers up and down the river - and even a novice like me can pull out the occasional rainbow trout with a rod and reel. The river is bordered by a beautiful biking and walking trail that heads up to River Run or all the way down to Dillion. You could even head up and over Swan Mountain Road and into Breckenridge or Frisco. A great way to spend the evening - after a day on the river or at the pool - is to stroll over to Keystone Lake for dinner at Pizza on the Plaza. The kids will enjoy feeding the plentiful fish and ducks at the lake, or even taking a quick spin on the paddleboats. Happy Hour for Pizza on the Plaza offers discounts on drinks and $1.50 slices of pizza, and this pizza is quite tasty. It's only bested by the calzones - which are certainly worth staying for dinner. And for a beverage, I always go with the Backcountry Wheat, which is brewed and now bottled in Frisco - make sure to ask for a slice of orange. Basking on the plaza and watching the sun go down over the beautiful Keystone Valley is the perfect end to a perfect mountain day.

For other great recreational opportunities, consider scheduling some hikes such as the easy and accessible climbs on the Tenderfoot Trail or up to Lily Pad Lake.  These hikes are doable for even families with young kids, and the views are truly breathtaking.  On Fridays, it's worth taking a free gondola ride up to Keystone Summit - though prepare to stay a while if the summer monsoon storms move in. Nothing like enjoying a beverage while watching the fire on the mountain. Fridays offer live music and plenty of lawn games, and it's always fun watching the hard-core mountain bikers take off down through Keystone's bike park adventure. One of these days I will challenge myself on one of the green runs - and anyone can ride down on the dirt roads that wind around the mountain. Of course, simply strolling around the resort on the trails is great fun as well. The views of the valley are worth the time - and my time in Keystone is literally my most relaxing week of the year.

The Keystone Lodge and Spa is also a popular place for conferences, and we see plenty of people on working vacations each year. I know if I had to attend a conference in the middle of the summer, Keystone Conference Center is one place I'd like to do it.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Being Quiet - the Power of Introverts

"You're quite the loner, aren't you?"

At the age of seventeen, I had no idea how true those words were. And, these days, few of my students would ever believe that I could be reserved or shy or introverted or anti-social. Yet, it is true. I am an outgoing and friendly introvert who is most comfortable by myself on a bike ride or a walk. It seems so strange, really. But there is much to be said for solitude. And that is the brilliance of the message found in Susan Cain's work on the "power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking." When the book first came out, I smiled at the simple truth of it all, but I hesitated to read what I knew to be true. Yet, in this day and age - a world truly awash in noise and information - there is much to be gleaned from Quiet: The Power of Introverts.

Being quiet is a good thing. And, I knew that I found my soul mate, best friend, and wife when I met the girl I "could be quiet with."

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Some Thoughts on Teacher Accountability

The question is: "Is our children learning?"

Accountability for teachers and schools is behind the push for increased standardized testing in the era of No Child Left Behind. Edu-reformers have vigorously pushed standardized methods for identifying "good/bad" schools as a way for parents and taxpayers to know if they are getting their money's worth. Yet, in stirring analysis from education researcher Marc Tucker, we can conclude that a decade of testing has only produced ...

"... Very low teacher morale, plummeting applications to schools of education, the need to recruit too many of our teachers from the lowest levels of high school graduates, a testing regime that has narrowed the curriculum for millions of students to a handful of subjects and a very low level of aspiration. There is no evidence that it is contributing anything to improved student performance, much less the improved performance of the very low- income and minority students for which it was in the first instance created."

Denver-area teacher Mark Sass shared Tucker's sentiment and more in a recent piece for Colorado Chalkbeat where he offered his conclusions on "How to Make Standardized Tests More Useful for Teachers."

To use the standardized tests, I have to trust them. The onus to that build trust rests on the testing companies. Teachers should be involved in writing the questions and they need to release the actual test questions. I realize this is a difficult demand. Releasing test items is expensive, since every question made public would need to be replaced. In addition, many testing companies also claim intellectual rights to the questions. But the Colorado State Department of Education can write contracts with testing companies that require these companies to release exam items and to require them to involve practitioners in writing these exams.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Do Standardized Tests Measure Anything that Matters?

As the legislative sessions begin across the country and in Washington, standardized testing as related to NCLB and PARCC will be on the minds and on the debate floor. There is much debate about decreasing the burden - and signficance - of state and national standardized tests, and even Chief Educator (who has never actually taught) Arne Duncan is talking about lessening the mandated testing regimen.

In Colorado, the State Board of Education took the unique step of offering waivers to district to opt out, or not administer, part of the PARCC test. This news was great relief to many schools and students, as PARCC will take days rather than hours. Alas, the waiver is too good to be true, as, strangely, critics have argued that the State Board has "no authority" to grant such waivers. This, of course, poses the question - What exactly can the Board do, and why does Colorado have one without any authority?

Testing proponents immediately jumped to the defense of PARCC - especially as a state task force recommended less testing and clear rules on how parents can "opt out." In response, one of PARCC's and test-based reform's biggest advocates, the Denver Post editorial board, touted the value of PARCC, as it dissed the vote by the State Board to lessen testing. Writer Alicia Caldwell argued that Common Core and PARCC will "expose deficiencies" in the education system.

Well, that's one opinion.

Of course, veteran educator and education writer, Marion Brady has this to say:

"Even if standardized tests didn’t cost billions, even if they yielded something that teachers didn’t already know, even if they hadn’t narrowed the curriculum down to joke level, even if they weren’t the main generators of educational drivel, even if they weren’t driving the best teachers out of the profession, they should be abandoned because they measure the wrong thing." - Marion Brady

Standardized tests can't measure creativity, imagination, emotional intelligence, critical thinking, collaboration, charisma, insight, wisdom, maturity, tolerance, ... or really anything else that matters.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Spelling Bees - What's the Point? Really?

I never liked the spelling bee.

When I was in school, I was a good student who had no problems with reading and writing. And, on paper I was a pretty effective speller from the earliest grades. But ask me to spell something out loud, and I could quickly be at a loss for the word. That's why I was never very good at "parent code" either - because when my wife spelled a word that we didn't want the kids to know, I was at as much a loss as the kids. So, the thought of spelling words out loud in front of a group - for a competition - was simply annoying for me. As it was for Brian Regan:

I actually did that - failed "the Bee" on purpose in the early rounds. And I still can't figure out what our national fascination is with this contest. Spelling out loud from memory? What a completely worthless and pointless "skill." There is no marketable or useful quality in the ability to spell from memory on stage. Yet, it's a national fascination, and there is serious prize money associated with it. Why is Scripps still so committed to forking out cash for the ability to recite "e-r-y-t-h-r-o-m-y-c-i-n" from memory? What a colossal waste of time and money?

Why not award the kids for engineering feats? Or creative writing? Best poems? Even a memorized poem with dramatic interpretation? But spelling? It's nothing like "Math Counts" - now that is a school competition that has some value. But how is it that the prize for the Scripps Spelling Bee is $30,000, which is more than Math Counts? A kid who can do complex math in seconds is worth serious cash and college scholarships, and a kid who can spell ... is a kid who can spell.

Seriously. This Spelling Bee thing has to stop.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

My Life & the Second Law of Thermodynamics - Order to Disorder

One week into 2015, and my life is like a high school locker or a Thomas Pynchon novel - slowly working its way toward disorder. The second law of thermodynamics, which is the explanation for both the locker and the theme of early Pynchon, explains the basic reality of entropy, or the tendency of systems to inevitably move from order to disorder. Ironically, entropy defies and encapsulates the very idea of a "system," which is designed to create and maintain order. Oh, yes, order - that elusively difficult standard which we hope we make everything work out.

Leafing through the Sunday paper, I often envision my life and house the way I want it to be with everything having a place and everything in it. Less clutter and more order is the goal. Whether it's a clean workspace or a few tubs for the holiday decorations or a system for hanging the bikes in the garage, I am ever seeking the "system." A schedule for taking care of daily business, from work to my writing aspirations, is also on the agenda. Yet, there never seems to be enough time in the day or motivation to "get busy." Parade Magazine recommends a daily regimen of meditation as the "number one health booster" for 2015, but ... well, you know.

That said, breakfast is awesome this morning.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Read to All Kids - It's Good for Them

Everyone loves to hear a story. And every kid loved being read to in elementary school. So, the question is, why do we stop? A new study has found that reading to kids of all ages has positive benefits and encourages them to read on their own.

The finding about reading aloud to children long after toddlerhood may come as a surprise to some parents who read books to children at bedtime when they were very young but then tapered off. Last summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced a new policy recommending that all parents read to their children from birth.“A lot of parents assume that once kids begin to read independently, that now that is the best thing for them to do,” said Maggie McGuire, the vice president for a website for parents operated by Scholastic.But reading aloud through elementary school seemed to be connected to a love of reading generally. According to the report, 41 percent of frequent readers ages 6 to 10 were read aloud to at home, while only 13 percent of infrequent readers were being read to.

I try to read regularly to my classes, even though they are AP English students. Whether it's as a starting point for a quick read, or a passage from one of the novels we're reading, or simply an interesting article I found in the paper. One year, I even read the entire first novel of Harry Potter out loud to my class of juniors, a few pages a day.

It was amazing how it captivated them.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

New Health Rules in 2015

It's no surprise that we have health problems in this country, and it's a safe assumption that we are responsible for a significant portion of them. Yet, we have a lot of misinformed bias about the problems. For example, the belief that we can simply "exercise away weight" is a myth that is clouding the conversation. Today, I did a fifteen-minute interval workout on a treadmill and sweated up a storm - and I run hard - and I burned about 130 calories. That's, basically,a couple of Oreo cookies, or about a third of a Frappucino. Now, I am a grown man who is in shape, and I barely burned off a couple cookies. So, how in the world are little kids going to work up enough energy to burn off the snacks they have been bred to so casually eat. It's not a fair fight, and it's simply wrong to shame people, especially kids, who struggle with weight by telling them they just need to "get up and move around a little."

Certainly, people need to be active, and we should encourage exercise and physically active lifestyles. Many Americans are too sedentary, and our school system based on "sit and get" while preparing for standardized tests is not helping at all. However, food choices and eating habits are far more significant in successful weight management, and there are some simple lessons. Michael Pollan said it best when he advised people to simply: "Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants." And, this year, people who are resolving to be healthier have a new resource in Dr. Frank Lipman's The New Health Rules.

  • Don’t fear fat. Coconut oil, avocados, and meat from grass- fed animals all contain healthy natural fats, which your brain and body need to function optimally.
  • If you eat cows, make sure they eat grass. In other words, know what went into the meat before it goes into you!
  • Get 15 minutes of sunshine a day. You’ll boost vitamin D, mood and immunity in minutes.
  • Stop this egg-white omelet nonsense. Yolks are packed with satiating nutrients so put them back on your plate and feel fuller longer.
  • Curb sugar cravings. Eating less sugar reduces your risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes so the sooner you taper off, the sooner your risk will drop.
  • If you learn only one yoga pose…….let it be supta badha konasana.
  • Break up with bread.…….and over a 100 more tips

Monday, January 5, 2015

Maintain, Don't Gain in only 7 Minutes

As part of my school's health and wellness campaign, I joined the "Maintain, Don't Gain" program to motivate me to not give in to excess during the winter holidays. That's not an easy task around my house because my wife is a former professional pastry chef who has a simple catering business during the holidays. Starting around Thanksgiving, we will have roughly two hundred dozen cookies in the freezer. And, of course, working in a school, there are countless parties and treats around school and in the community that are specifically designed to derail our healthy efforts.

Additionally, I've found that my workout routine - which is effective and routine for much of the year - can really take a hit during the midpoint of the school year. I can go from 3-4 days of cardio and weights down to one, usually only on Saturdays. I am certainly an afternoon exerciser. The mornings are reserved for waking up with the coffee and paper. And because we start school at 7 am, there is simply no way I am going to get the workout done early. Normally, I will run for 25 minutes outside, or work out with weights for at least that long.

So, I was intrigued when I read about "The Seven Minute Workout."

This high-intensity, interval workout featured on the New York Times blog might actually be all it's cracked up to be. Anyone can spare seven minutes, right? There have been times that I come home and want to crash on the couch with a beer and the news, but I've been able to commit seven minutes of intense exercise before that. And, it's easy to do with this really cool workout app. I've even added to it when I have the time ... and the energy. So, I'll do a 9-minute workout. And sometimes a few minutes of weights afterward, or even ten minutes on the bike in the basement. So, if you are hoping to keep yourself in check this winter, consider this workout:

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Live the Life You Have Imagined

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. - Henry David Thoreau

With those words, transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau outlines for us how to live. I've shared these thoughts with my students many times, and I've written them in my journals numerous times as well ... and now, right here right now in 2015, it is time for me to start living them. Thoreau's words encapsulate just a bit of inspiration that has inspired a thousand self-help books, most notably the original tome, Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking. But none of those works have really expanded upon the simple significance of Thoreau's basic advice - "live the life you have imagined."

While I am proud of my life's work to the age of forty-five, and I am quite content with my hard work and success and current position in life, I am not, alas, "living the life I have imagined." I am, of course, in a good spot professionally, working in the best of all positions. My job as a high school administrator still allows me the opportunity to teach one class, which is a privilege many in administration must give up to pursue the leadership opportunity. And, I am blessed to still work with students directly as a GT Coordinator and sponsor of our Youth Advisory Board. Additionally, I work with great people in areas of tech support, staff development, and school culture. I really couldn't be happier with my job.

That said, there's more I've always planned to do.

For many years, I've told people that when I grow up "I want to be David Brooks of the New York Times." That, or perhaps, Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker and "Outliers" fame. Basically, being a writer and speaker and cultural critic is my dream job. I've always enjoyed researching and writing and, basically, passing on information to others. That's why I am a teacher ... and I am fairly confident that I am quite good at what I do. But, for as long as I've been teaching, I've always been waiting for that moment when the writing/speaking career develops out of something I've written. For many years, I mistakenly thought myself a novelist. It took a friend who really is a novelist (though shockingly unpublished as of yet) to point out that I should be focusing on the non-fiction success that I've had and pursue that option. Really, duh. It was a surprising lack of self awareness on my part.

Yet, I've never followed through on any of the big ideas I have for writing, and I spend more time reading people I admire and journaling about potential books than I do actually writing them.Granted, I do a fair amount of writing on several blogs, and I am regularly posting and passing on links and thoughts via Twitter and Facebook. This blog, A Teacher's View, was my original idea for my forum as a cultural critic, and I also began two others. Mazenglish is my blog which is supposed to focus primarily on my knowledge, skills, and insight as an English teacher. The term refers to the unique qualities  of my class which have made it popular and successful for so many years. After that, I started the blog Views on the Village as my Colorado blog which was going to be an eye on my community. Originally, I thought it would be focused on politics and community, and then I expanded it into culture, hoping to use it as list of my favorites and suggestions about the world in which I live. Despite my desire to write these blogs, and use them to create an audience for my work, I have not adequately maintained them, or developed an efficient system for doing so. Yet, I am not ready to abandon them, and I have hope that they can become more significant.

So, ....

Yeah, so.

So, I like my job, and I can't complain about my life, but I had a different vision of success in my life, and my daily-ness does not look like the life I had imagined. And, I will not be truly happy or content or satisfied until I am doing all that I have planned and am capable of doing. There are articles and books to be written, presentations to be crafted and made, products to be produced, businesses to develop, and refinements to my daily living experience to be crafted. And, 2015 should not end with the resigned disappointment and acceptance of "adequate" that has been the conclusion of previous years. And, I am hoping that this blog keeps me focused and honest and on track. Last year I turned forty-four, and it seemed like a convenient marking point for my next phase. I'd graduated college at 22, I'd achieved career success in pubic education at 44, and it was time to begin "Act III." Act III is a writing career and the role of "independent scholar" and public commentator.

So, here's to Act III. Here's to more writing and "advancing confidently ... to live the life I have imagined."