Leave those kids alone

It’s time to leave those kids alone. This is an excerpt from a post that just came across my Facebook feed. It’s a common complaint I see coming from the 50+ crowd,

“We don’t need yet another generation of entitled brats who think everything’s about them because their obsessive parents gave them awards just for showing up.”

I often wonder if these cranky old bastards have children in school now or if they actually associate with young people. Those “participation trophies” stop after maybe the second grade and give way to years of tyranny at the hands of teachers frightened to lose their jobs, and volunteer coaches, and high pressure after school activities, high pressure “projects,” which the parents end up doing, and even worse, which the school teachers reward. And when the kids are not busying solving for “x” in the second grade, their teachers are cramming geometry down their throats.

By the time kids reach high school they’ve been tested, sorted, and most thrown on the heap of mediocrity, which in today’s world is the loser pile. There’s a rather crass joke about Asian people that goes something like “Do you know what an A- is to a tiger parent? An “F.” There are tiger parents in every culture and you know what, the kids don’t need their tiger parents to tell them they are “losers” when struggle to get “C”s or “B”s. Message received.

And when they get to college, a few “C”s on an otherwise outstanding transcript puts them out of the running for the better grad schools, which in turn puts them at a disadvantage when competing for jobs. And if you think that doesn’t matter, ask any recent graduate of a third or fourth tier law school. Mostly report they cannot get work as lawyers or if they do, the firm expects them to work for free in exchange for a desk and conference space and a share their profits. And that’s all while paying back hundreds of thousands of dollars in school loans. All while trying to get along in an anti-union, “gig economy” that does no longer provides health insurance or fixed benefit pensions.

So yeah, they have iPhones and Air Jordans, and yeah the lucky ones have parents who can afford to enroll them in after school activities and advocate for them while wending their way through the obscene obstacle course of high stakes tests and pressure filled sports, and extra curricular activities, which if they don’t do they won’t get into decent schools, and yeah they are often not required to do chores around the house but that’s because they spend all of their time in a pressure cooker competing with all the other kids for the choice spots in everything.

Unlike my cranky-ass peers, I put off starting a family until later in life. My son is still in high school. Just this past summer he applied for a counselor-in-training job at the  summer camp for gifted kids which he attended from the fourth to eighth grade.  There were literally only 12 positions available. He competed with a pool of several hundred “gifted kids” to get the job. There was a waiting list of 50 kids who were only less qualified by the equivalent of hundredths of a second. Even though he is working for the camp, as opposed to taking the courses, we still have to pay the full amount. We made the last tuition payment a day late and they assessed a $25 late fee. When we questioned it, the camp operator said fork it over in two days or he loses the spot.

I’m pretty sure every 14 to 18 year old I know would love to have the adolescence I had. The only standardized test I took were the Regents and the SATs. The former was optional and outside of NY had no real effect on your life. I shot hoops with my friends after school, had a part time job, played every sport with a ball, figured out how to get in and out of trouble, went cruising in my parent’s cars on .50 a gallon gas, did marginally well in high school, stumbled in my first few years of college but still gradated from one of the top colleges in the US with a decent GPA and still landed a full ride at the number 16 graduate school for my discipline. And I started my post college life owing just $2500–and that’s because my father died in my senior year.

How about we look in the mirror. It is us 50+ adults who think we are entitled. It is we who created the world as it is. We’re the ones who fucked the banking system, killed the unions, wrote the laws that made it more profitable to send our businesses off shore, who allowed the credit card companies to become legalized loan sharks, who changed the bankruptcy laws so that it is now essentially impossible to recover from a financial misstep, unless of course you’re a rich asshole like Donald Trump. We’re the ones who hired lawyers to sue everyone for everything, and so on and so on.

Want to “straighten out” the kids? Let’s do what we can to right the ship before we die instead of leaving it to our kids with holes in the hull and a broken bilge pump.

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Teaching English Language Arts

Teaching English Language Arts is about incrementally mastering the use of language in developmentally appropriate chunks so students can learn to order the chaos of their busy minds and share their thoughts with others. Few will study literature and language in college and even fewer will be come writers. Yet, the ability to read thoughtfully and communicate effectively is every bit as necessary as science, technology, and mathematics—and, arguably more necessary.

Without writers who can put the concepts into plain English, few people would understand the Grand Unifying Theory, which is expressed in mathematics, or the engineering behind moving a packet of data from our home computer to some one else’s device.

How do we get there? How do we help our students achieve mastery? We use the curriculum frameworks like music teachers use scales, arpeggios, and etudes which is to say the scaffolding of mastery without effort, not the true purpose.

What’s  purpose? To give shape to thoughts and ideas and feelings. To convey information and manifest experiences for our readers.

When I write, I feel like a fully integrated human being. Time slows, I hear every sound. I feel the world around me,. And, (for brief moments) synchronize with the heartbeat of the universe. I am able to

Writing facilitates intimate contact without ever touching physically. Like magic spells it allows me to alter reality by focusing energy from my mind through a keyboard, to the electronic page, and on to a final destination.New neural connections open, mental associations as heavily laden as icebergs bob on the surface of my consciousness. Intention and random thought jostle and weave in and out of a seemingly unconnected narrative until thoughts transform into sounds and letters, which become words and sentences and paragraphs and blend into a final shape for readers, who in their turn to decode and deconstruct to create their own meaning.

Writing when approached this way, transforms every day chores like this short answer questions for job applications into opportunities to spelunk my mind and return with the elements I imagine will touch decisions makers.I have many companions as I wriggle my way through the long forgotten passages of my mind. Fear and doubt thrive in that darkness and crawl ahead of and behind invention and completion.

For many years, angst over that struggle occupied much of my mind as I wrote answers and essays and papers for teachers, articles for magazines and newspapers, copy for client’s web sites, cover letters, and the early drafts of the novel sitting on my desk. I have learned that worry about and fighting with fear and doubt undermines the process.

Fear and doubt are are not enemies. They are protectors of my sense of self and my teachers. Now I share control and listen attentively to their messages and in so doing have learned to open my mind to see the self and the world as it is, not as my mental models would have.

When the truth emerges from the background noise, the words come; each inner voice learns to fulfill its purpose, and thoughts flow from my mind to others.

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Autocorrect: A direct connection to the subconscious?

Sometimes I think auto correct has a direct connection to my subconscious. A few minutes ago the phrase student teaching came out as student teetering. Anyone who has ever done a teaching practicum knows what I mean. All the parties involved seem dedicated to keeping you off balance.

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Anti-intellectualism, declining public debate, 2016 election

The Dumbing of AmericaAnti-intellectualism, declining public debate, 2016 election, all three are starting to come up as topics of discussion among my Facebook feed.  A good friend of mine who is either a Gen-Y’er or a Millennial, I’m not sure about the cutoff, practices the Internet phenomenon of curating the news on social media to stimulate discussion (and maybe to show off how much he reads, which is an admirably considerable quantity). The post in question came from a roundtable discussion held in New York City and sponsored by Basic Books about “The Future of the public intellectual.”

He prefaces the quote about our culture’s predilection toward anti-intellectualism and the newer phenomenon the “declining complexity of public debate” by saying, “This is just stuck in my mind for some reason. I don’t even recall reading the original forum discussion [from the piece in The Nation],” (Jp Pagán, Facebook):

“I’m struck by what one wag called the herd of independent minds; by the fact that what too often passes for intellectual discussion is a process of trying to suit up everybody in a team jersey so we know just who should be cheered and who booed…,”

When we’re looking around for who should get the blame for the declining complexity of public debate… [one is the] celebration of a self that views the world solely through the prism of the self, and much of the time a pretty “icky” self at that. It’s a quivering sentimental self that gets uncomfortable very quickly, because this self has to feel good about itself all the time. Such selves do not make arguments, they validate one another.”
From: http://www.thenation.com/a…/future-public-intellectual-forum#

That got me thinking about how my generation–the baby boomers– has contributed to the current state of affairs and how those things will affect the 2016 election, as well as our chances of meaningful change.

I should warn you ahead of time, being a baby boomer, I didn’t read the original article in The Nation because, being a baby boomer, everything is about me and my considerable hoard of knowledge and learning and my quest for enlightenment–yours not mine. I’m already there, deal with it.  (Now you know why I love Jacques Derrida and deconstructionism).

Having lived through most of the baby boom journey, I’m of the opinion that selfishness and entitlement are the defining characteristics of my generation. And that it, more than anything else, has added to the U.S.’s love affair with anti-intellectualism and contributed mightily to the declining public debate about which my friend Jp was talking.

We turned on and tuned out when we were young because it felt good–that and it was also fun to tell our parents fuck you. As we turned off and tuned in, we pretended we never did drugs, forgot all the kumbaya, said greed was good, and searched in vain for our inner-children.

In the process we bankrupted the S&L industry. Crashed the stock market twice. Created junk bonds and derivatives. Deregulated the banking industry to codify usurious lending practices bad enough to make the Mafia jealous. Face it, loan sharks can only break your bones or kill you. The government can go after your heirs. We spent more than we earned. Took corporate welfare to the heights. And when it all fell apart, turnselfiesed to the government to fix the problem. Oh and let’s not forget, we started two pointless wars which cost countless billions and thousands of lives. Disengaged from our civic duties we treat the government like a provider of services rather than our responsibility. And we hire lawyers for everything to prove nothing is our fault.

So I agree that it’s impossible to have fruitful discussions when our vision is focused on our selfies as opposed to pointing the lens outward and seeing the world as it is.

Buddhists have this notion of big “I” and little “I”. Both exist and require attention but when we see our big “I”, we know our job is to act compassionately and for the benefit of others.

If only things were different. I wish we held onto the best of the ideals of the sixties and early seventies. But the whole counter-culture revolution was all about me, as in . . . I’ll take whatever drugs I want because they make ME feel good.  I’ll sleep with whom I please for the same reason. I deserve to live better than my parents so I’ll treat the equity in my home like an ATM and cry when I get nothing after the final sale.

It appears to be too late for us baby boomers. It seems we cast aside the ideals of our youth and cast the standard of social justice on the field of battle.

My message to people like my friend Jp: Your generation is next in line to run the show. The question to ask yourselves as a cohort is whether you want to follow the path laid out by us or whether you have the courage and wherewithal to do better.


With guys like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and that douche bag Chris Christie on once side of the aisle and the narcissistic would be queen Hillary running for president–the Fantastic 4, I wonder whether the Gen-X and Y’ers and the Millennials can withstand the gravity from the black hole we created.

You guys are on the event horizon. Whatcha gonna do?

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Blue Chameleon Blues

Inspired in part by Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon”

Dawn’s finger tips of rose, along with the rest of her heavenly body, repose deep beneath a quilt woven of light and Phoebus’ traces across the sky. Above, a dark vaulted blackness leaks pin pricks of lights depicting cave drawings of her friends and relatives. Breakfast or brunch or whatever you want to call it came and went in a the flick of a young girl’s knot of curls. Dinner too. The reels on the recorder spin round and round. He inhabits the two and the four as the drummer taps those swung triplets on the high hat while punctuating them with the kick. The bass man slaps a repetitive figure like a shuttle on a loom, weaving the groove with ghost notes and swinging so hard everyone marvels at how close he gets to the next beat without falling out of time. Memories of the Blue Diner fade into his cries, “Stay on the one, on the one!” The guitar player and piano man shade the sketch purple with notes of red and blue. He taps a stomp box, raises harp and mic to his lips and threads a melody through the narrow spaces left in time and silence. The groove holds them or they hold it. No more instrument and musician. No one knows for how long. Groove, only groove.

A light flickers in the booth, She’s pours into the room like cream falling into rich black coffee. He feels the light on his lids and knows it’s Her. Smooth creamy skin and dark curls inhabit the groove. Somehow it becomes tighter and silkier all at once. The melody fills all the empty spaces to the point of bursting. To the bridge he cries, take it to the bridge. Tension builds and resolves to the groove and they stop. They hear her voice over the studio PA, when are you coming home?

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Brain Chemistry

different emotions
waves of emotions
different ways of
saying the same thing?

i think not
i do not think

spider in the web?
i sure wish, she’s
in control while I am not

different emotions
waves of emotions
brain chemistry in real time

spider in the web?
maybe so. she spins
to catch the pieces
of her fractured soul.

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An opinion about data driven decision making

I read a quote today attributed to W. Edwards Demming (yeah I know it’s Wikipedia, so what) which says, “Without data you’re just a person with an opinion,” to which I replied “With data, you’re just a person with an opinion on what the data means.”

That’s right. Data driven decision making obfuscates the opinions and leaves the meaning in the hands of people who almost always have an agenda and who almost always either cherry pick data or start with their answers and work backward.

But even if absolute intellectual integrity were possible, the observer effect and the unique and complicated  lenses through which each observer views the information, results in inferences rather than glimpses at absolute truth.

The policies inspired by Education research are case-in-point. If I had nickel for every time an academic or an administrator or a politician proclaimed their ideas and policies were research based, and therefore unassailable, I’d have enough to start my own school and fund it in perpetuity

Leaving aside my very dim view of the results and rigor of education research, how the hell are policy makers supposed to make sense of the research when people look at the same numbers and reach different conclusions?

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Blue Plate Special

Young Dawn contemplates a fork full of cold eggs as He sits quietly in his booth. A Dylan lyric loops in his head, “There must be some way out of here.” He reaches for his third habnero infused Bloody Mary, “Said the joker to the thief.”

At once She appears in the vestibule by the front door and crosses the space in a bubble of self-possession. A baggy wool hat abruptly flops on table followed by a shower of thick-dark curls.

He contemplates her arrival and imagines the conversation,

“You stole the covers again. I got cold so I left”
She smiles imperiously.
“You do it all the time, I’m tired of it.”

“You left me,” Her voice cools the peppers’ heat as it carelessly veers to remonstrance.

He manages, “You looked so comfortable wrapped in our blankets. And I was hungry.” She doesn’t take the hint.

From the empty space behind the booth the word “Coffee” interrupts the moment. Hot black liquid spills into a white cup. She frowns, “Tea.”

The cup disappears. The cymbal clink of a stainless steel carafe lid punctuates the silence followed by the muffled tear of a tea bag. Hot clear liquid mixes with the leaves as the metallic scent of commercial tea billows upward.

“Need more time?” asks the empty space. She doesn’t bother to look at the menu, “Blue Plate Special.”She rips six packets of sugar and tips the cream.

She notes the dead soldiers strewn about his paper place mat, each grave marked with a twisted lemon slice and half-eaten a stalk of celery. She adds, “And thirsty too, apparently.”

Scovilles of doubt enflame his belly. There’s too much confusion / I can’t get no relief. She goes in for the kill. First a pout then,

“How come you didn’t wait for me?”
“I’m sorry. You looked peaceful. I didn’t want to wake you.”

The blue plate specials arrive. Two eggs over easy, hasbrowns, and toast. They tuck in. He motions for another drink. The chill of silence cools the moment.

Young Dawn stands on the sidewalk, brushes her hair from her face and hails a taxi for home.

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Almost Moving In Day

The summer of 2008
seems like yesterday
Olivia sat on a chair
in the middle school
band room warming up
on her tenor saxophone
preparing to wow
the high school
band director.

Tomorrow she’s off to Hofstra
as an accomplished bassoonist
ready to wow the world.

I’m very proud
of how hard she’s worked
to arrive at this moment.

I pray she learns to find
the secret places where
life’s true blessings lie
and that she always remembers
she is strong enough
to face her challenges
and to overcome
the inevitable obstacles.

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Mythologizing the Michael Brown story

In Pluto’s diary on the life of Michael Brown, you might notice one detail that’s both touching and disturbing: Mike’s graduation photograph was taken in March 2014, still many months ahead of when he would be able to graduate in August. Imagine the “why” of this fact: The grinding […]

Michael Brown’s situation was indeed unfortunate. I don’t understand what this has to do with the shooting. A friend insists this is just an interesting side note worthy of a compartmentalized discussion about academic and economic inequities and institutional racism. I think pulling these threads at this moment have the effect of adding back story to the “Michael Brown” victim-character who will inhabit the story we tell about the shooting and the social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

To be clear, I am not suggesting in any way that the lethal force applied by Daren Wilson was justified. Neither am I ignoring the structural problems of public school education or the generational inequities suffered by the African-American community.

What I am saying is when we start looking at elements not directly related to the shooting, we begin the process of mythologizing the story as opposed to asking and answering the important questions like was lethal force justified in this situation according to the current rules?

Conflation does not help, rather it makes solving the problems more complicated. A good friend complained the president of the Missouri Board of Education, Peter F. Herschend, of Bransonn, MO “lives across the state. He’s a rich, politically connected businessman who runs a state board in charge of perhaps the poorest districts in the state.”

Then he said, the “state took two incredibly poor, essentially all black districts (already paying the highest tax rate in the state), merged them (instead of merging them with other adjoining districts—richer and whiter), took away their accreditation and then—when that entitled the children to be bused to other districts—they reversed that decision, locking the kids into the local schools, but run by the state, by the rich guy with no actual education training who lives nowhere near the kids who have to share graduation gowns. Even if this is business as usual, it shouldn’t be.”

I think we all agree poverty, injustice and inequity are serious problems in our society. But let’s unpack the complaint: first and foremost the school problem is complex. Racism may play a role in the change but economics and the structure for school funding are the larger controlling factors. Leaving aside any discussion about how, the local district failed its students.

When that happens the state is supposed to take over the district, help them develop and execute a plan to fix the problems, and eventually return the district to local control.

Combining two poor black school districts and manipulating the accreditation rules to keep students in place in their local districts without a clear plan to fix the problems is cynical at best and may well be racially motivated.

Nevertheless, I suspect race took a back seat to economics. School funding relies primarily on local tax receipts. Here in Massachusetts, where I live, local tax income pays between 60% – 70% of the school’s budget. The balance is made up mostly from state funds with a sprinkling of federal money.

So the bulk of the money comes from property taxes. If the residential and commercial properties lose value and there is no growth in the district, the amount of money available to allocate to the schools dwindles and therefore the per-pupil rates and monies for facilities suffer. In an ideal world the state should increase its share but that rarely happens in practice.

In fact Brown’s school district couldn’t afford to educate the kids in place. Then it cost more per pupil to send them elsewhere. Somebody has to make up the shortfall.

De-accrediting Normandy High School in effect gave ownership of a structural problem to neighboring school districts without providing them with the resources to accommodate the influx of new students.

Neighbor school were organized to accommodate their existing student population. A large influx of new students skews the calculus in many ways. E.g. The building has x number classrooms and teachers. Building more classrooms is expensive and time-consuming. Therefore, student to teacher ratios have to change. That means students suffer and teacher contracts will have to be renegotiated.

Third, teaching in poor districts is daunting and unrewarding for most educators because of the economic and social factors preying upon students and their families. Staff recruitment and retention is a problem. How does an English teacher convince students struggling for survival that it’s important to be able to identify Epic Similes in THE ODYSSEY?

As to the board president not being an educator, that’s as it should be. Like the military, schools serve the community, not the other way around. Citizen oversight is essential to ensure a proper balance of executive functions and community values. Furthermore, most boards have professional staff and the ability to hire experts so it’s not like they make uninformed decisions.

The laws in Massachusetts contemplate this by placing a statutory firewall which prevents local school committees (i.e., boards of education) from interfering with the day-to-day operations of districts and schools. Essentially they hire and fire the superintendents and allocate funds. Of course decisions can be politically motivated but that’s the nature of our government. Good luck getting that changed.

With all of that said, Michael Brown’s killing and the resulting civil unrest are horrible. We all suffer the loss of the young man and the deficiencies in our police departments and schools.

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