Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Empty Classrooms


Public education faces many challenges. But one challenge that I don't hear mentioned much in the media or by parents is actually one of the most concerning. I'm speaking of the number of absences accrued by students due to extra-curricular activities and special "school related" activities.

I have students who miss up to six weeks of the school year due to "school related" events. I thought this problem might be unique to my school, but I have discovered, after conversing with teacher friends of mine who teach all over the United States, that it is a problem in high schools everywhere. I'm not talking about absences due to illness or personal issues. I'm talking about absences due to activities run by the schools themselves. 

And the problem has only gotten worse in recent years. Who's at fault? Who's to blame? I'd have to say teachers and administrators. Many teachers and administrators have created a climate where it is perfectly acceptable to pull students from another teacher's class any time they want. Today, for example, I have seven sophomores who are missing the final day of review before tomorrow's AP World History Exam so they can attend a Rangers game. That's right, they're not missing for an educational reason, they are missing for a baseball game.

I wish I could say this is atypical, but it happens all year long and at schools all over the nation. Class time is simply not respected. Many of these teachers pulling kids out are the same ones who say that teaching is a profession that is not respected enough by society. I find this completely hypocritical. They show utter contempt for what happens in my classroom by assuming the student can just "make-up" the missed work. They completely negate the importance of the teacher led instruction. Why, as a teacher, do I even bother crafting lesson plans if the student can just "make it up" later? I might as well just photo-copy a bunch of worksheets for the entire year and just let the students work on their own pace. Why do I even bother showing up?

Some of this, I believe, is due to the rise of online education. Online education can be beneficial in certain situations and in small doses. But now, we have entire degrees, undergraduate and post-graduate, that can be attained completely online. I've seen much of the coursework of online courses and they are often a joke. They completely discount the importance of face to face interaction with an expert. They rule out the importance of dialogue and conversation with other learners in a shared setting. As a result, we've created a situation where teachers are just an appendage, a highly paid baby-sitter. Just post the work and let the students get to it.

So we have Band, Tennis, Golf, Ag, "Academic" Competitions, and a host of other activities taking our kids out of the classroom at will. We have NHS, Special Olympics, Blood Drives, and Field Trips taking our kids out on a weekly basis. Many of these are noble pursuits and worthwhile. But they've been allowed to get out of control. Many events that can be done after school or on weekends have been allowed to fall during school days. These outside events should be integrated into the school calendar in a measured and reasonable way.

It is extremely demoralizing to teachers who actually try to do their job. The problem is endemic and has become a cultural norm. When 50 percent of my advanced placement students have missed over three weeks of instruction due to school related activities, then we have serious problems in our educational system. When you walk into your classroom and find it half empty on a regular basis it becomes really hard to remain motivated to put your all into the instruction. I continue to do so for the students who do show up. But it is a beating when so many are gone and then you have to put in extra time to help those kids make up their work since they were absent.

This is not the kids fault. This falls on the offending teachers. This falls on principals and administrators. This also falls on parents who allow it to happen and never question why their student has missed 24 days of class due to school events. It's not a trivial complaint. It is a problem that goes to the root of our understanding of the value of classroom education. Sure, education is evolving and much is learned outside of the classroom. However, there has to be balance. Right now, the balance is extremely out of whack, not just in Texas...but all over the United States.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

So Long to the Hilltop



Last week I finished up my regular coursework at Southern Methodist University. I still have a ways to go. Next semester I will be undertaking an Independent Study Course where I will complete my Capstone Project for my Masters Degree in the Humanities. If all goes well I will graduate in December 2016, although I would like to walk in the May 2017 ceremonies. There's a little more pomp and circumstance in May and after all these years I would like to enjoy it a bit. 

I ended up with a 3.9 GPA. I got one B+ during my first year in the program...an 88...that kept me from a perfect 4.0. Yeah, one of those kind of professors, you know the type. I will miss making the weekly trip to The Hilltop. I had a great experience and made quite a few friends. The professors were excellent. Although I am relieved to be rounding third and heading home, I am a bit sad that I won't be on campus as much. 

I know, I know...a doctorate. Could be in the cards. Right now I need a break. But who knows? Give me a year or two and a doctorate could be awfully tempting.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Goodbyes


This past Saturday I drove up to Oklahoma City to pay my final respects and say goodbye to my old friend Darren Currin. The weight of his tragic loss was heavy upon me as I made the drive up. It was good to see some old friends. I wish we had been re-united by different circumstances. Some of these guys I had not seen in fifteen years. We get so busy in our lives and I regret not doing a better job keeping up with them. I hope to amend that in the years to come. I wish it didn't take a funeral for us not to take each other for granted. But we shared memories of Dar and had a nice time reminiscing. I wish Darren could have been there. 

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Dar

This morning I was proctoring an Advanced Placement exam when I received news that one of my oldest friends had died suddenly and unexpectedly. Darren Currin (pictured left), was one of the first friends I made in college. We served on the university Newspaper and Yearbook staffs together. We became fast friends and were roommates our sophomore year of college. We were in each others weddings. He died of a heart attack last night at age 42. He is survived by his wife and twelve-year-old daughter.

Today has been a shock. I sat in stunned silence as those students continued to work on their A.P. exams. I just couldn't believe the news. We hadn't seen each other in a long time. We always promised that we would get together the next time were in town. But stuff, stupid stuff, always came up. We stayed in contact via social media and texts. But I should have made an effort to see him and his wonderful family more often.

He was one of the nicest guys I ever met. Seriously. He would do anything for you. He let me stay two weeks on a couch at his apartment after I returned from the United States after a year abroad. He helped me move a couple of times including my last big move, my move to Texas nineteen years ago. He would do anything for you. I can't believe he's gone.

He was a huge Sci-Fi fan. He probably would think it was a bit of sad irony to leave earth on May the Fourth, Star Wars day. He was a great writer. He worked as a columnist at various news outlets including the Metro Journal and the Journal Record in Oklahoma City. He became a leading real estate journalist in the state of Oklahoma. He also was a spiritual man. He wrote content for a large church in the OKC area. He often copy-edited my stuff back in college. Man, there's so much I could write, so many stories. Our senior  year we were suite mates in an upperclassmen dorm and pulled off a lot off practical jokes together. He was a great accountability partner. He never judged. He was always there for you.

I am a bit numb this afternoon. Darren is gone far too soon. I just can't fathom him being gone. He was a great man and a great husband and father. I feel so awful for his wife and daughter. I don't mean this to be trite, I mean this with all honesty...this world would be a hell of a lot better place if we had more people with the compassionate heart of Darren Currin. Rest in peace my friend.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A NASA Kind of Mood


I've been in a NASA kind of mood lately. I think it started with seeing the movie Gravity at the IMAX a couple of years a ago. Then Interstellar came out and blew my mind. FOX brought back Cosmos with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The Martian was excellent. I think these movies and shows rekindled my interest in all things space related. I always loved NASA stuff as a kid. I had a big NASA poster on my wall and a model Space Shuttle growing up. I even had a pretty sophisticated and thorough manual on how to fly the Shuttle. But as I grew up and realized my strengths and interests didn't lie in Math or STEM, I kind of let that phase pass. I focused on studying the Liberal Arts and Humanities. I still loved the big ideas of science, but the technicalities were beyond my skill set.

Then these movies and shows got me back into it. So I started looking at more than fiction. I began reading up on the recent expeditions to Mars such as NASA and JPL successfully landing a rover the size of a MINI Cooper on the surface of Mars. Space X and Virgin Galactic are doing incredible things. Space X just successfully landed a reusable rocket on a drone barge in the middle of the ocean. Crazy stuff!

Being in the space mood, we traveled down to Houston over Spring Break to visit the Johnson Space Center, among other sights. The Space Center is a pretty cool place. My nine-year-old son loved it, as did I. We saw the original Mission Control center that guided the Apollo missions. We saw massive rockets and amazing interactive exhibits. It was a pretty cool trip. My son is really big into all this science and engineering and already says he wants to be a rocket or robotics engineer. I remember feeling the same thing at his age, only difference is he actually enjoys doing science and math homework.

So this summer we're going to continue the theme and take him down to Cape Canaveral, Florida. We're going to spend a few days at Cocoa Beach and tour the Kennedy Space Center which is even more massive than Space Center Houston. I visited Cocoa Beach and toured Kennedy when I was in eighth grade and had a blast. My son can't wait. We're going to visit other places in Florida as well, but for my son, Cape Canaveral will be the number one attraction.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Earth Day 2016



Prince

The Omni Hotel in downtown Dallas honors Prince last night.

I wasn't a massively huge Prince fan. I owned a couple of his albums but I didn't actively follow his career. I did really dig some of his stuff. Some of it was amazing. But much of his work just wasn't my style. His flamboyant creativity often overshadowed his brilliant guitar playing. He was one of the most innovative and skillful guitar soloists ever. He had an intuitive sense on how to take a song in new and unexpected directions. Brilliant and weird guy. I wish more of our modern pop artists were as daring and creative. Here are two examples of Prince's guitar solos that blew my mind...

The first video is from Coachella 2008. He's covering Radiohead's Creep. This song is a Holy Grail song for me. This song was extremely important to me in the early 1990's and the thought that someone would dare cover it seemed almost sacrilegious. But Prince respects the song yet takes it and makes it his own. The guitar solo work is crazy good...



The second song comes from a 2005 tribute to George Harrison at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. George Harrison's While My Guitar Gently Weeps. This band features a lineup of legends: Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne and others. Prince was given the solo originally played by Eric Clapton and he rips it apart. Even in a band made of legends, he stands out. So yeah, he was flamboyant, strange, crazy and sometimes profane. But the guy could play and could play hard. He will be missed.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Bout Time


I am thrilled to see Harriet Tubman will be honored on American currency. She was a hero of great courage and moral conscience. It is also wonderful to finally see a woman represented on American money. Not to mention that it is fantastic to see an African-American represented on our currency. This is a great move on so many accounts. There is nothing bad to say about this change except this...

They are still keeping Andrew Johnson's image on the $20 bill albeit in a different form and on the back side of the bill.

He should be removed entirely.

No one on American currency is perfect. But who are you going to replace? Washington? Lincoln? Franklin? Hamilton? Grant might be debatable since he did oversee one of the most corrupt and scandalous White House administrations in history. However...

Andrew Jackson? Not really a debate.

In no particular order...

Andrew Jackson was against paper money. He was a strict adherent to the gold standard and made it illegal for people to use currency to buy federal lands. Only gold or silver coins could be used which caused the Great Panic of 1857 and led our nation into its worst economic depression until the 1930's. He was against the idea of a national bank. To have his image on currency has long been a ridiculous joke.

He murdered a guy in a duel.

As a general he illegally declared martial law in New Orleans and had federal judges arrested. He suspended due process and shut down all opposition newspapers. Hundreds arrested with no due process.

He owned hundreds of slaves. He was virulently against abolition.

He broke federal law as a land speculator by buying and selling Indian land already protected by Federal treaty.

He forcibly removed thousands of Indians out of Georgia, against their will, in an act of ethnic cleansing. He did this to make room for many more plantations worked by thousands of slaves.

He summarily executed prisoners of war during the Creek Indian Wars.

The list goes on and on. How this guy was ever honored on our currency is beyond me. This is not liberal propaganda. This is simply the truth, the facts...facts that Jackson was proud of and wrote about freely.

So yes, I wish Jackson was off our currency for good. And it was way past time for a woman and African-American be so honored.

The only people that seem to be upset by this change are white males. Hmmmmm. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Duolingo


Things I try to do everyday:

Use the Duolingo app to study Spanish. Five minutes a day. Amazing little app. Available for lots of languages. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Ladies Man


My son was super embarrassed to have to take this photo with members of the High School's Drill Team who were greeting kids as they came to school Friday. He looks pretty cool and collected in the pic but he's a pretty shy guy and this caught him off guard. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Baseball Baseball Baseball


It's baseball all the time for us now. Practice twice a week. Often games twice a week. That's four nights a week of our lives taken by baseball...and we are not even on a tournament or select team! Not too happy with our league. We have several games that start at 8:00 pm on school nights. That means wrapping things up around 10:00 pm...for nine year olds...on school nights!

Youth league sports have gotten ridiculous. Jackson loves playing the game. Loves getting dirty on slides. Loves playing ball. He's progressing very nicely. He has a good coach and a good set of teammates. We like his team. But the overall culture places a lot of pressure on these kids. We have friends on select teams and the burden they put on these kids are terrible. 

People wonder why so many kids burn out or why there are so many Tommy John Surgeries these days. We are over-working these kids and most of them, the vast majority, will not play any sort of pro ball. A few might get lucky to get scholarships for college. But this should be about fun. It should be about building teamwork and social skills. It should be about exercise and fitness. It should be about learning the game and good sportsmanship. But now it's mostly about obsessive adults, living out their failed dreams vicariously through eight and nine year olds. And it only gets worse as the kids get older.