Of course, after 790 days, I don't feel like blogging on extra days. There's still another 210 ahead until I hit four-digits. Happy Leap Day; see you all in March.
When 2016 started, you know what everyone thought? "This year could really use an extra Monday." So, as a result, we have today. February 29. The ghost day. The extra. The Leap Day. A perfect day to try new things; it's a day you normally don't have, so time to make the most of it.
Of course, after 790 days, I don't feel like blogging on extra days. There's still another 210 ahead until I hit four-digits. Happy Leap Day; see you all in March.
After a few months of speculation, the big night is finally here: The Oscars 2016! I have a very mixed feeling for this year's awards show; on the one hand I'm excited that there's finally an actual race for Best Picture, but on the other hand it's probably one of the weakest fields for Best Picture I've seen in the past many years. One of the biggest advantages to seeing all the Best Picture nominees each is that, while you're certain to see a movie or two you don't like, you're guaranteed that all of them, as a collective, will give you sense of the best of traditional filmmaking for the year. There's usually traditional "Oscar bait" film, a big-budget action adventure, a few smaller, foreign, artistic films, a gimmick film or two, and then just a few that, for no particular reason, are just really worth watching.
This year...I felt like they forgot to make enough good movies and had to go back and select a few at random to fill their list. Nothing on the Best Picture list is particularly terrible, but nothing screamed "must see" or "new and exciting" in the same way that Birdman did last year, or how Her offered a new take on modern concept, or how Avatar broke all the records and set a new standard, or how Lincoln created one of the seminal interpretations of Abraham Lincoln. This year...there were just a lot of decent movies, interesting movies, and good movies, but nothing great. I'm not sure there's a reason for it, it just wasn't an exciting year for films...Star Wars being the exception.
The Oscar predictors say the winner will be either The Big Short, The Revenant, or Spotlight. I think they're right. Nevertheless, here's my list:
8. Brooklyn- Basically a movie about nothing. A girl comes to America in the 1950's, then leaves, then returns again.
7. Bridge of Spies- The title does little more than give away the ending of this super-predictable piece of Oscar Bait
6. The Revenant- While the cinematography was impressive, and it was probably chilly to film, there's not much to see.
5. The Martian- Definitely a fun movie to watch, but there's not really any sense of danger in this modern "disaster film"
4. Room- One of those movies that's good, and you only want to see once. It was what it was.
3. Mad Max- I've read this was very difficult to film especially due to all the speed, though it's really just one big chase.
2. Spotlight- Like All the President's Men, this journalism story is definitely well told...though they made it all seem easy.
1. The Big Short- Funny and informative, though not entirely new info. It's the best of the bunch, but by default.
Do I think The Big Short will win tonight? Who knows; as I said, this is a fun year because there's actually some uncertainty at the top. Looks like I'll actually be staying awake to watch the finale this time...
What's the best way to force yourself to run 17 miles when you really don't feel like it? Run 8 miles away from your car, guaranteeing a return trip in some way. While 17 might be just beyond your comfort zone, 8 is likely very doable. By the time you're done with the easy part, you're trapped 8 miles away from your ride home...which means you might as well run the reset of the way.
This scenario is one we see in countless areas, and it's one that both allows people to accomplish new things...and also prohibits people from going far enough. If you keep giving yourself "turn back now" routes and escapes, you'r guaranteed to take the easy road out when things get tough. Just like Batman escaping "The Pit" in Dark Knight Rises, the trick is to stop thinking about stopping, and then you'll be able to finish the task. Last week I was too focused on eating lunch post-run that I let myself take a shorter loop and ultimately quit 10 miles in. Today, I made sure that there was no emergency exits. By the time I was tired...I was still forced to run the rest of the way home.
Perhaps this is advice I need to pursue in my classroom next year if I ever want to take the gamification concept to the next level. What I have now is good...but it's still making many compromises and filled with exit ramps. Perhaps it's time to kick it up a notch for 2017...
With most of my Senior Class wiped out by what I can only assume was a massive virus, today was originally supposed to be one of the easiest days ever for me. I had four periods of nothing, as well as a planning period, a half-empty lunch duty, and an actual lunch. As I sit here getting ready for the end of the day, I realize...that I did more work today than in the past four combined. With the students (mostly) gone and a stack of Macbeth papers still on my virtual desk, there wasn't a period that went by that I wasn't grading, applying, emailing, calling, or conferencing. The one day I actually wasn't busy...was the busiest day of them all.
In many ways, this is what I wish my class was all the time. I don't just mean for me (though an extra four hours a day to get work done is always a perk) but for the students as well. One of the advantages of college is not just the dorms, or the food, or the easy of access, but the fact that between all classes you're usually given a break. Very few college schedules have students going from class to class to class without having time in between to mentally reset, work on homework, eat, or just relax before going back for more. In many ways, I think all of our classes could benefit from "free chunks" much like today has been for me. Sure, some students would sleep, and others would just tinker on their phone, but eventually many of them, like me today, would realize they might as well use the time to get all the things taken care of. Then they can show up to their next class without the foreboding spectre of weekend-homework upon them and could actually pay attention to what's next. I know that I'm going to be much more productive next week now that the many tasks I took care of today are out of the way.
Hopefully next week the seniors are feeling better and return from their slumber. With only 13 weeks of school remaining for them, they'll have plenty of time to sleep later. It's time to get back to work.
Tonight Baldwin hosts its "first" annual "4C Your Future" Night designed to replace the event formally know as curriculum night. While curriculum night used to appeal primarily to upcoming 8th graders touring the school for the first time and asking "um...should I take honors, or..." this new event is designed to have a more holistic approach. 4C (standing for curriculum, colleges, community, and careers) is designed not just for the new students, but for students considering college in a few years, looking into various non-college career opportunities, or exploring the community for more ways to get involved. If well attended, it should be a great way to appeal to a wider audience. As for me, since I don't teach Honors, I don't teach ninth grade, and I only have one section of 11th, my role will be considerably muted. Despite being Senior Class sponsor, there's not much of a role for me in this setting.
To be honest, though, there's really only one thing that would make a night as this really interesting: actual choices. This isn't Baldwin's fault, or Pennsylvania's fault, or anyone's "fault" really, but simply the result of the education norms. A typical student will have seven classes (eight if they skip lunch), which are already pre-filled with the required English, Social Studies, Science, and Math courses. Add in a required gym or health course for underclassmen, a mandatory technology course for freshmen, a very-highly-recommended 2-3 years of a foreign language for college-bound students, and a possible lab/study hall combo for upper-level science classes and suddenly...you're down to very few options. Students are left to ask 'Do I take band or...not? Do I take chorus or art? Do I take newspaper or video production?' Lots of great options out there...but very little space to put them. Seniors definitely have more flexibility, but its a shame it takes three years before that happens.
The good news? There's already talks about finding solutions. Some districts have added an extra period in the day. Others have begun offering semester versions of courses. Baldwin, for example, is toying with the idea of converting all Junior/Senior English courses to semester-long electives to give students more choice and ownership in the schedule-making process. It's all still way down the tunnel, but it's a step in the right direction.
I suppose for me, I think the best solution would be to reconsider the whole "subjects" nature of school. Is it possible to design courses that address English..and Math...and Social Studies at the same time? Is it possible to set up school as a series of projects, challenges, and scenarios in which students are immersed in multiple disciplines all day...without being aware of it? Would such a scenario allow the course subjects to be more selectable...and the electives to feel more legitimate? Would such a scenario ever be possible in a mainstream public school, not just an "independent", or "private" or "charter" or "experimental" school but something for the masses?
But those questions are ones I can't 4C. For now, it's just a matter of making the best of the current situation. The redesign will have to wait for another day.
With Macbeth in the books, its now time to move on the Satire unit, where we explore selections from Gulliver's Travels, as well as have students create pieces of satire of their own. To kick off the unit today, I had the students watch a few contemporary satire clips, and we discussed what the clips were satirizing and how effective they actually were. While some students got stuck on the surface level ("it's making fun of Beyonce" or "it's showing how silly Adele's song is") many were able to dig a little deeper to see the social commentary ("it's a clip on race relations" or "it's criticizing the criticism of millennials!") It's a great start...but I know it's hardly the end of the struggle.
The difficult thing about satire is that, on the surface, it can look almost identical to sarcasm and insults. In fact, many times satire actually uses sarcasm to make its points, however there's a key difference. While sarcasm and insults are only used as a form of attack (for the subject matter) or personal gain (for the attacker), satire is less about the destruction and more about the identification of the flaws. In fact, though it may seem cruel, satire is actually using insults and sarcasm for a greater good. Whether it's to bring awareness of a flaw, or show others the foolishness of their language, satire can be a powerful tool in getting people to step back and look at their reality in a new way. Sarcasm, however, is usually only good for a one-liner or two, and insults, while clever, aren't designed to build anything.
That is probably the reason we teach satire in school in the first place, and probably why, even though it's one of the most approachable genres, its also one of the most difficult for students to actually grasp...mainly because many students (and many adults) for that matter, don't think about the world deeply. The same crowd that likes to read a book and considers it "just a story about a guy who wants to be king" is unlikely to think deeply about society either. Perhaps that's satire's biggest advantage: regardless of your opinion, it makes you think just a little harder.
I think I've written about this before but a) after 784 days they're all blending together and b) I feel compelled to write about this again after seeing the PETE&C keynote post on Twitter yesterday. I'm skipping out on this year's conference but I still tuned in to see if I was missing anything major on the social media sites (based on what I read so far, I'm not. Same apps they "introduced" last year, though it looks like some new people "discovered" Quizlet and Kahoot). Yesterday's event kicked off with a speaker presenting on the importance of getting more girl's involved in STEM fields, and the importance of STEM in general. As I read through the posts, I saw quotes like "STEM is a super power!" and "Doing STEM is like a gym for your brain!" I think this was my face:
I always get a little exasperated when I hear about the STEM fields for several reasons. I suppose look at STEM a little differently than the current popular Big Ed engine. But I see three problems:
1) STEM isn't a thing: Chemistry is real. Calculus is real. Computer Science is real. All of these are difficult, important, and perhaps lucrative subjects that many do and some should study in school. STEM, on the other hand, is an odd bundling of these disciplines designed to promote "Spaces-to-Make" and "Code for 3600 Seconds" and "Paperweight creation engines". These disciplines are already very real, very important, and frankly, very difficult. And hardly cool. Chocolate-covered broccoli isn't fooling anyone.
2) We Need More Girls In STEM Because?: I realize I need to tread carefully on this topic because it could be taken the wrong way, but I've never gotten the argument that we need more girls in "STEM" (or that we, conversely, we need more boys in liberal arts). I don't think any sane person would argue for less girls in "STEM", but the need for more girls in STEM "because there currently aren't as many girls in "STEM" as boys" seems like a circular argument. If you're arguing that girls fall victim to social pressure to value their appearance over their academics (as the keynote speaker stated), that's one thing (and definitely something that should be changed) but that doesn't really have anything to do with science and math. If more girls pursued "STEM" that'd be great. If they don't, that's fine too. Every single subject out there has a majority of a certain group (age, race, gender, income) and perhaps...that's ok. If science and math has been discriminatory in the past, obviously that's a problem, but if it's simply a lack of interest, maybe it's ok to "let students follow their passions" rather than selling them a new acronym.
3). If STEM were important...it would be important: My favorite line from The Social Network is when fictional-Mark Zuckerberg confronts his adversaries in court. They accuse of him stealing Facebook from them when it was, originally, their idea. Mark looks at them and says "If you guys had invented Facebook...you would have invented Facebook." In other words, sometimes if you have to say something out loud, it's probably not the case. It's the same trap I've seen every discipline fall into; if you have to make a big scene about how important your subject is...it actually must not be very important. No one questions "hmm, is history actually a subject we need?" in school, and no one says "how important could English really be?" The just...are. In fact, no one questions the value of math and science either! You'd be hard pressed to find a reasonable person that wants to cut them. And yet "STEM" is loud and proud about how great it is...which is code for the fact that it's probably not that great. Why else which such a heavy ad blitz be needed to put it front and center in conferences and districts across the country?
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics are all excellent and valuable subjects. They're also completely different from whatever "STEM" is. "STEM" is a marketing term, just like "New Math", and "New Coke", "Zero Trans Fats", "No Initiation Fee", and "Gluten Free". Someone is making a lot of money from all the free advertising being done on its behalf at these paid conferences. Sadly, those someones aren't the students.
Last week, the guidance counselors came stopped into every English classroom (except for the Seniors) to discuss the scheduling process for next year. Each year the system is slightly different with an interesting blend of forms, online portals, staff recommendations, and requirements, so it's actually helpful to have the experts on hand to walk the students through. I only have one applicable section this year (my 8th period Juniors) so I only got to see the presentation once, but for the most part, it seemed valuable.
And yet, as I listened to the presentation, I had some of the same language and buzzwords that I heard back when I was in high school, particularly regarding foreign languages, PE electives, and AP/Honors courses. A student inevitably asks "Do we need a foreign language? It's not required right?" to which the counselor would respond "Yes...but it'll look good for colleges." A similar answer was given for the honors and AP courses. I know I'm guilty of using this same logic to my students, but the more I heard it coming from another adult, the more I stopped and thought "wait a second..."
When I was in high school, I tended to believe what the adults said about college. It seemed to be this highly selective, academically minded, infinitely wise institution that carefully looked at all applications and only accepted the best. Anyone who's ever been to college knows...that's hardly the case. Maybe that was the reality fifty years ago when only a handful of high school students continued their education after graduation, but college these days is anything but rigorous. It's not to say there is no challenge in college (many of my friends in the music school or the sciences had WAY more work than I did) but it's hardly a giant leap in difficulty. In fact, in many cases, college was a step backwards when it came to academically as universities tend to accept...well...just about everyone. After being told college was going to be a place where "they won't accept work like this" or "you'll need to figure it out for yourself", I was shocked when I arrived and found that...just about everyone got in...and it's pretty much just like 13th Grade. It turns out they need students/customers way more than we need them, and your high school schedule doesn't matter quite as much you were lead to believe when selecting classes. Your understanding of the MLA format doesn't really apply (because no one in college uses it) and your ability to master Calculus because it "looks good" is irrelevant because (unless you have a math major) you're probably never taking math again.
Now...does this mean that students should stop taking Calculus, drop out of their foreign language courses, aim for straight C's in high school and refrain from extra-curricular clubs and activities? Absolutely not. However, let's stop pretending like the only reason...or even the primary reason to do these things is because it might help you "look better" when you ultimately apply for college and move on after graduation. By doing so, I worry we degrade the value of the knowledge for its own sake. If something is worth doing...then it's worth doing. For example, I haven't taken anything math-related (aside from statistics) since 2005 and I probably never will again. I've never once had to measure a parabola, and still don't really know who uses integrals. And yet, I'm glad I took Calculus because it was an academic challenge worth pursuing. Did it make me "look better for colleges"? Maybe, but who cares. It was worth taking...because it was worth taking. The same goes for my history courses, my foreign languages, even my seven years in band. I didn't really realize it until years later, but it was worth doing simply for the exposure, the experience, and the residual memory. It had nothing to do with a transcript and a resume.
Now, of course, I don't mean to pick on our guidance department with this post; they were just the catalyst that got me thinking about this issue. In truth, all teachers do this in class everyday, because frankly it's a lot easier to blame the future than sell the present. If a student complains about needing to learn MLA citations, it's really easy to say "well, in college you'll need to be able to do it without any help" rather than convincing a student that citing things is the adult, professional thing to do. It's much easier to say "in-class essays are valuable because they prepare you for college essays" rather than simply stating that it's valuable to be a human that can think, speak, write, and communicate in an organized manner no matter the time crunch. Just last week, when students were complaining about writing their most recent paper, I caught myself saying "listen, next year, you're just going to be given a paper and told 'you have two weeks to write this, good luck!' so be grateful for the time and guidance you're getting now." While there might be less structure for them next year, I should have just argued that writing is valuable in its own right...not just as preparation for a future doom.
So there it is, the secret is out: colleges really aren't the boss battle in the giant game that is Education. Getting good grades might get you into a slightly better school, but that's hardly the reason to get the grades or take the more challenging courses. In the end, you're either motivated or not; no amount of higher-education-threatening will help...because at the end of the day, "colleges" care a lot less than we think...
I'm doing my best to enjoy relaxing today as much as possible...because tomorrow the grading binge begins. Students will be wrapping up Paper Blitz at 2:25pm tomorrow which means I'll be looking at anywhere from 80-110 papers to grade over the next week and a half. You never really appreciate NOT having papers to grade until an entire stack of them appear all at once. It quite literally becomes a constant concern throughout the day. Some teachers choose to attack them immediately, others put the off until the end of the quarter. Some choose to grade a couple a day, while some enjoy several binge sessions. For me, I like to begin immediately and take care of at least 10 per day...though I almost always do extra. With a little bit of dedication, I'm able to get the papers done in just over a week, unless actual fun things get in the way.
I've been checking my site throughout the day to see if any brave students will send their work in early, but so far, no one has taken the bait. As such, I'm just going to take today easy and wait for the hurricane of grading to begin tomorrow...
In one of his many stand-up routines, Jerry Seinfeld once remarked that, when it comes to sports, you're really just rooting for the clothes. He said: "You have this guy, this player, and the crowd loves him, but then he goes to another team, and they boo him! They boo the same guy they were cheering last year. When it comes down to it, you're rooting for the clothes really. BOOO!!!! Different Clothes!!!! Boo...." Considering that almost no major sports team has any significant amount of "local" talent, he's not far off. Even in Pittsburgh, Ben is from Ohio, Cutch is from Florida, Crosby is from Canada, and Neil Walker just got sent to New York. We cheer for the city, we cheer for the team, we cheer for the history...and yes, we very much cheer for the colors and the clothes. The players...eh...we want them to win, but they'll all come and go. We'll still be fans long after they're traded or retired.
I bring this up because on Thursday the Pirates unveiled they're "new" Sunday uniforms: the 1979 World Series Gold pullovers with the pillow-box hats! The reaction online and in the Pirates world has been overwhelmingly positive. Despite the fact that the caps look absolutely ridiculous (the hats were "throwbacks" back in the 1970s but the team kept winning with them, so they kept them around) and the jersey is super loud (I'm colorblind and even I think they look bright), everyone can't wait to rush out and see the time on Sunday afternoons and pick up their own caps and jerseys at the team store. A blatant cash-grab by the team to drum up merchandise sales? Yep. A sneaky way to sell more Sunday afternoon tickets? Absolutely. But...at the heart of it, this is what the fans actually cheer for each and every game. The colors, the history, and the clothes. These new duds bring it all together.
So while the cynics might complain that the Pirates are trying to squeeze more money out of the fans, and the optimists might wax poetically about the glory days of Pops and "We Are Fam-A-Lee", I say they're both absolutely correct at the same time. The product on the field only exists for 486 hours per year (barely more than three weeks). The colors, the history, and the clothes, however, last all summer (and winter) long.
English Teacher | Instructional Technology Specialist | 2014-15 PBS Digital Innovator | Gamification Researcher | Marathon Runner | Ph.D RMU 2015