Gene Kelly

Confession: I’ve never really been impressed by the dancing of Fred Astaire. Gene Kelly, however, is the man. Something about his style is carelessly confident, but suggests complete control. I’ve never seen dancing that strikes me as so fundamentally masculine.

Consider this scene from An American in Paris, just an average movie, really (if you disagree, imagine the film without Kelly in it–pretty bland, eh?). This isn’t even his best work–merely goofing off for children, really–but see how he has mastered the movement of his body? Every muscle easily obeys his every command. Such a variety of fluid motion reminds me more of Jackie Chan than Fred Astaire.

Men and Porn

A friend of mine who works in the IT industry told me about this experience he had about a decade ago.

A guy in the cubicle next to his asked him to come over and look at his screen. My friend did and saw that his coworker had a pornographic image on display. He quickly turned away and said something like, “Thanks but no thanks.”

The coworker teased and scolded him a bit about being a prude and said, “C’mon, don’t pretend you don’t like it.”

And this is where the story gets memorable for me. My friend said, “I’m not pretending I don’t like it. I’m sure I would like it. That’s why I have to force myself to avoid it.”

I think that’s a great lesson for all of us.

Highly Recommended: Mockingbird

51IwBRUAXyL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_I think I’ve found a new favorite science fiction novel. Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis, is “set in a grim and decaying New York City in the 25th century. The population is declining, no one can read, and robots rule over the drugged, illiterate humans. With the birth rate dropping, the end of the species seems a possibility.”

The most amazing thing about this story is just how uncanny its dystopian vision is. Combine the most prescient parts of Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World and you have this. Actually, it mostly reminded me of Ayn Rand’s Anthem, but where that was just a skeleton of a fable, this is fully fleshed out.

I marked a couple of dozen passages about stupified dependency, obsession with self-fulfillment, and the joys of rediscovering civilization; there are just too many to quote. Instead, here is a picture of one page, where the hero shares a passage from a history book that explains how the world fell. I got chills. This was published in 1980. He saw where things were going perfectly.

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It’s not just a simple tale of society falling apart, though. There’s genuine love and adventure and sadness. Part of it is a Shawshank Redemption-like prison story. Part is wilderness survival. And there’s even more than that.

Just as with another great dystopian sci-fi classic, The Children of Men (which was also about the decline of the human family), there is one f-bomb, powerful for its lone status. At one point, a suicidal robot tells a pregnant woman that she should have an abortion. Let’s just say that I wholeheartedly approve of her response.

Absent Teachers

Last week in the Las Vegas Sun:

According to new research by the Education Week Research Center, Nevada has one of the highest rates of teacher absences in the country.

As much as 49 percent of teachers in the Silver State miss 10 or more days during the school year, the second highest number of absences of any state. Hawaii comes in first, with 75 percent of its teachers taking 10 or more days off. The national average is around 25 percent.

Comments on the article and on Facebook consist of teachers defending themselves, but facts remain facts. Teachers around here do miss a lot of work. If you don’t believe it, observe any principal’s secretary–the one who coordinates substitutes–on a Friday, and witness the frenzy as vacant spots are desperately filled last minute from a pool of subs where demand vastly dwarfs supply.

Many times those secretaries have to call other teachers on campus and ask them to fill in for their missing colleague on their prep periods, closing the gap that way. I’ve taken plenty of those calls over the years. Hey, it’s an easy way for me to make an extra few bucks.

While the teachers are right–there is a lot of exposure to sickness in our line of work, for example–it’s also true that absences spike around weekends and holidays, and get worse near the end of the year. Odd coincidence if all is innocent.

Thomas Cole

Earlier this year I read a biography of my favorite painter, Thomas Cole, by Earl Powell. Two great quotes stood out, the first by Cole himself:

“The most distinctive, and perhaps the impressive characteristic of American scenery is its wildness….And to this cultivated state our western world is fast approaching; but nature is still predominant, and there are those who regret that with the improvements of cultivation the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away: for those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted, affect the mind with a more deep toned emotion than aught which the hand of man has touched. Amid them the consequent associations are of God the creator–they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things.” from Cole’s “Essay on American Scenery

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The second is from W.C. Bryant, given in a eulogy at Cole’s funeral:

“In 1840 he completed another series of large paintings, called The Voyage of Life, of simpler and less elaborate design than the Course of Empire, but more purely imaginative. The conception of the series is a perfect poem. The child, under the care of its guardian angel, in a boat heaped with buds and flowers, floating down a stream which issues from the shadowy cavern of the past and flows between banks bright with flowers and the beams of the rising sun ; the youth, with hope in his gesture and aspect, taking command of the helm, while his winged guardian watches him anxiously from the shore; the mature man, hurried onward by the perilous rapids and eddies of the river; the aged navigator, who has reached, in his frail and now idle bark, the mouth of the stream, and is just entering the great ocean which lies before him in mysterious shadow, set before us the different stages of human life under images of which every beholder admits the beauty and deep significance. The second of this series, with the rich luxuriance of its foreground, its pleasant declivities in the distance, and its gorgeous but shadowy ‘Structures in the piled clouds, is one of the most popular of Cole’s compositions.”

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The Fake Flanders Bible

By1mwXIIMAAvSBeIt’s been more than 20 years since the episode of The Simpsons aired where Bart and Lisa have to play Bible Bombardment with the Flanders family, leading an exasperated Ned to demand of the Simpson children, “Don’t you know anything? The Serpent of Rehoboam? The Well of Zohassadar? The Bridal Feast of Beth Chadruharazzeb?”

I don’t recognize any of those references, so I finally decided to look them up, and…nothing. I can’t find them in the Bible anywhere. Clearly, Ned Flanders is such a serious scholar that he knows about secret parts of the text that the rest of us can’t find.

*sigh* This is even more disappointing than when I saw Pulp Fiction and went home to look up Ezekiel 25:17. Alas, it’s not even close to the real thing.

R.I.P. Trump

The word, of course, not the celebrity. It’s become appallingly clear that we can no longer use the verb “trump” literally, as in “My evidence trumps yours,” because of the taint associated with the name now. A sad loss. It was a great word.

I don’t expect it to be resurrected any time soon. Several years later, I still can’t refer to that darkening period at the end of the day–“twilight”–without students giggling. And don’t even try to address an issue by suggesting that it has “shades of gray.”

Notes and Review: Fair Isn’t Always Equal

51KK0WZvPCL._SX397_BO1,204,203,200_Last semester, administrators at my school bought copies of this book about grading in the “differentiated” classroom for the staff and encouraged teachers to read it. “This is the direction we’re moving in,” we were told. I don’t know if this dictate comes from them or their own bosses far above us all, but based on my notes for this book, I’m worried about that direction.

  • Chapter 3: the first of the big red flags, this quote: “He or she has to understand each student’s ‘truth,’ and convince students that their perceptions are incorrect or incomplete, and that the ‘truth’ the teacher has is the one they should adopt.” (20) Creepy indoctrination much? A similar puppet-master mindset comes across later on page 129: “[grading on a curve is] an obsolete practice indicative of less enlightened times. We’ve progressed…” Fascistic rhetoric really shouldn’t have any place here.
  • The top of page 24 uses the phrase “death bell” when the author means “death knell.” Similarly, the bottom of page 182 mentions “the big questions that get circumnavigated in our daily attempts,” when clearly the word he was looking for was “circumvented.” There are more examples. Such mistakes from an “expert” make me worry.
  • Page 31: “Some students’ mindmaps of their analyses of Renaissance art rival the most cogent, written versions of their classmates.” Yes, but mustn’t everyone learn to write well?
  • Chapter 7: a meandering, pointless mess of gobbledygook here.
  • Page 90: grading is “a single symbol in a tiny box on a piece of thin paper that may or may not make it out from the crumpled darkness of the boom bag–and only if parents ask for it.” Isn’t that a bit of a straw man? Those always worry me. And do the reforms to grades suggested for report cards in chapter 14 really fix this? If not, why not?
  • One problem with edu-expert books like this is that they tend to see each factor of teaching in a neat vacuum, separate from the rest. For instance, Wormeli often paints problems and offers solutions that either have already been solved by 504s and rubrics, or that couldn’t be solved in the ways he suggests because of 504s and rubrics! Chapter 7 has too many examples of this.
  • The mindset behind Chapter 8 is almost entirely proven false by that one simple Woody Allen quote: “80% of success in life is showing up.”
  • Chapter 8: “laziness is a myth…laziness doesn’t exist.” (104) Students aren’t immune to human nature. Nobody is immune to human nature.
  • Page 108: “To purposely set up a compelling goal that everyone else can easily earn but they cannot seems to be a penalty of sorts.” It’s called life. Good grief. America’s young don’t need more bubble wrap.
  • Chapter 9: “There is no solid evidence to support the current emphasis on students doing large amounts of, or even daily, homework.” (120) Besides all the evidence that might be given here, I might suggest Wormeli read up on Robert Marzano’s work, except that he must already know it well–he cites four of Marzano’s books in his own. Seems oddly convenient to ignore him now.
  • Chapter 15 is a weird collection of ways for administrators to manipulate teachers into accepting the advice in this book. Page 185, for instance, suggests slipping an “expert” into the teachers lounge to casually strike up conversations in favor of these reforms. Seriously. The last of many red flags.

Overall, this book seems like slick pseudo-professional propaganda for things like unlimited late work with no penalties, minimum F, and abolishing homework (or graded homework, at least). The author’s tone makes it clear that this is just science, people, not an attempt to make things easier for kids and harder for teachers. Let’s put it this way: if you really were trying to dumb down our system so that more students do well and we all magically look better, isn’t this exactly how you’d do it? Shouldn’t that make us wary?

Not to seem too cynical, I actually highlighted lots of good ideas in the book, but here’s the thing: all of them were reviews of simple, common sense teacher training that had nothing to do directly with the main thrust of the book. So why were those things here? You’d find that same material in any of a number of beginning education textbooks.

I suppose this truly is the direction into which we’re going. The signs are clear. Alas.

 

Diversity in the Social Sciences

The reason America needs more political diversity in the social sciences is not because moderates and conservatives in academia need an affirmative action-style spoils system. Rather, it’s because the knowledge-creation process—the system by which scientists create knowledge and that knowledge is disseminated to the public and incorporated into political decisions—functions better if there is disagreement and debate among the scientists. Findings are more robust if they have been repeatedly challenged and refined over time.

Conservatives upset with the state of academic research have often emphasized the way non-progressives are discriminated against [and] suppressed in many fields. And that may be true. But a more productive approach may be to highlight the way that their absence undermines the integrity of science itself—and, in the long run, the quality of public policy decisions. [source]

YES! 

“Lascia ch’io pianga”

Soft, sweet, simple, sad. I first heard this aria on the radio a dozen years ago and have loved it ever since. I like seeing music performed, and this video is a classy tribute to the piece. Also, the singer’s voice is perfect for it; this isn’t one to belt out. Here are the words in English:

Let me weep
over my cruel fate,
and sigh for freedom.
Let my sorrow break the chains
of my suffering, out of pity.

Isn’t that perfect?

The Best Sports Story You’ve Never Read

Sports Illustrated ran this feature about 15 years ago, and posted it online last year. It’s an amazing true story of heart and community. I can’t believe there still hasn’t been a movie made of it yet. In a sleepy little Ohio community of old-fashioned Mennonites, the new high school basketball coach was, as they put it, “an unmarried black Catholic loser.” Just try reading it through to the end without choking up.

Two Great Shakespeare Documentaries

Miramax recently put online their “Shakespeare in the Classroom” feature, produced as part of the 1999 film Shakespeare in Love. This is great news for teachers whose VHS copies died long ago. The 45-minute intro to the Bard has the cast doing the heavy lifting, with enough scenes from the film that it’s especially useful for illustrating Romeo and Juliet, though any Shakespeare unit benefits from it. Also, check out how stupid young Ben Affleck looks with that goatee.

Sadly, just the opposite has happened to the great four-hour documentary In Search of Shakespeare (really, four episodes of an hour each). Any copy of it on YouTube is being deleted. It’s worth your time to track down a copy.

One major strain of thought in it is an attempt to show that Will was a closet Catholic, and I have to admit, they marshal quite an impressive bit of evidence for it. I also enjoyed the host–his boyish enthusiasm for every scene really kept me drawn in. In between scenes, too, this film has more beautiful, lush shots of the English countryside than you’d expect from an actual documentary about the English countryside. Just a gorgeous work.