Thursday, April 1, 2021

Motivated by trophies in the trash

During my first day on my school campus in more than a year, I saw an oddly memorable image in a dumpster. Two enormous trophies stuck out amid debris.

In a split second, thoughts rushed through my head:

"Should I grab those trophies?"

"How could trophies be thrown away?

"Eh, what good are trophies? I'm looking at garbage here."

I craned my neck and saw the trophies were from 1999. They were relics from a former century. I guess all trophies end up in a dumpster eventually and when we think they're overly important, maybe we're clinging to the past — kind of like the guy at the bar who played high school football and still talks about it.

As my school is on the cusp of returning to in-person "simultaneous hybrid" with 20 percent of students agreeing to come back two days a week and teachers in-person four days a week, I am thinking about motivation. Strangely, the trophies in the trash reaffirmed my motivation, and I feel ready for this "simultaneous hybrid," even though it's ridiculously flawed and silly.

To me, the biggest pitfall of motivation is overthinking. Nike, my generation's Mark Twain, says, "Just do it." I couldn't agree more. You're never going to be talented enough, find the absolute perfect time, have everything aligned to create or accomplish anything. Just do it. Start. That's the key.

I saw motivation for some students and teachers wane during this online only time. I heard some teachers talking as if it were normal to lose motivation and not a problem. While I must say what teachers have been asked to do is exceptionally difficult during a difficult time, I feel badly that some lost sight of their reason for being educators. I wonder if they ever had a meaningful reason in the first place.

I surmise that the teachers who lost, or are losing, motivation fall into one of two categories. No. 1 — They are perpetual excuse makers, swirl in negativity and assume that's what life is. I feel we should be sensitive to potential personal tragedies that they may have faced, but some may not have the agency to get out of their funk.

Category No. 2 has teachers who foolishly and mistakenly entered the profession for comfortability, tradition or to relive their high school days — like the guy at the bar who still talks about his high school football days. Presumably, those teachers' daily activities are an homage to yesteryear, and they just can't adapt to a new teaching format. I would imagine students dread going to these teachers' classes.

I have respect and empathy for teachers in either of those categories. But what can we do for them? It's easier to help a student than a teacher. I guess the key for helping both is to offer ideas, or tools, that encourage them to help themselves.

In my eyes, students had it much harder during this online only time. They had to weather the classes of teachers, who could be stifling, and they might have difficult parents, who could be stifling. Plus, they might find themselves in unwinnable situations: "You got a zero on this assignment for not turning it in. Therefore, you will fail the class no matter what!"

For students who use grades for motivation, I suppose they might be doing OK — on paper. However, I fear for them, if grades are their sole motivation. What happens when grades go away? What happens when there are no more trophies? If grades are the motivation, then isn't it the student's job to do as little work as possible in order to achieve the highest grade?

I think I have developed a deeper understanding of how flawed grading is. What does a good grade mean in the first place? I find good grades mostly to be about following rules. Is that what education is meant to be?

Do grades matter in the workplace? Do grades perpetuate selfish individualism instead of societal connection or collaboration? Is there a virtual dumpster we can throw out grades from 1999?

I've always thought our schools have needed extreme makeovers. Maybe the first step is for teachers to stop it with worksheets, unfair grading scales, too much work, too little learning and just accept "simultaneous hybrid" during the pandemic. True improvement in schools will only happen because of thoughtful, caring, motivated teachers.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Do we need a digital detox?

One year ago today, the big thing happening in my life was my "digital detox." Man, I remember thinking I was online way too much. Too much Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, all of it.

I needed a major digital detox. So I did it, and soon, I was feeling better than I had in a long time.

Uh, well, that was short-lived!

Before I knew it, the pandemic and shutdown hit. When that happened, confusion, misinformation and political debates became the norm in my world.

My digital detox? Eh, I threw that to the wind. I yearned to understand what was happening with this pandemic, how to deal with a volatile stock market and how to teach in an online only format.

Digital detox? You got to be kidding me. The world faced so much uncertainty and confusion that worrying about too much screen time was a joke.

Maybe it's a good sign that Covid-19 numbers are trending down because here I am again, pondering a digital detox. One year ago, I curbed my phone usage to two hours a day, and I was cool with what I was doing — Spotify, reading, talking or texting.

Then, I asked my students how much screen time they averaged per day and if they were OK with it. The answers were all over the map, but my main takeaway was that many were cool with 8-10 hours a day on their phone. I felt that was overboard, but now with one year of online only school gone, where are we?

So let me ask students this: Hey, help Gen X parents figure this out. Should we be worried about your screen time, or should we just let it go? Should you be worried about your screen time, or is it a non-issue? 

Are Gen Z kids blissfully happy, and do we Gen Xers just not get it? Is my Gen X digital stamina different than someone younger? Should we parents stop nagging about going outside and getting a life? And why is everyone calling me "Boomer" now?

These are some questions I've been pondering, and my conclusion is: "I'll take the world, thank you." If younger generations are going to live more digitally than in what I perceive as the actual, real world, so be it. That's more world for this Gen Xer, or "Boomer" if you will.

I've been listening to Podcasts with interviews of billionaires. Honestly, I don't like these billionaires. No matter how reasonable Bill Gates or Mark Cuban might sound, they remain at the top of an economic system that is ridiculous. Yeah, I don't see major change coming with this billionaire system in my lifetime, and I know I have to accept it. But I don't believe we should laud Gates or Cuban as our world's most insightful scholars, and it appears that often occurs.

Isn't all of this screen time just us being manipulated by Big Tech? Have we traded our flesh and blood experiences to level up on whatever we're doing online?

The good news is that I've also listened to this Elon Musk, and it seems obvious to me that this guy is a dweeb. He should go to Mars; he'd be a good fit there. I guess he's the Andy Warhol of the day, but unlike Warhol, Musk is the opposite of cool. Good luck with your rocket ships, dude!

Let's get back to screen time. The way I see it is that this capitalistic system is so powerful and cruel that it has taken over the globe now. Yes, it's been that way for a while.

Isn't it enough for the system to take our money? Now, it's got to take our data and our time and create new money called cryptocurrency. Really? Isn't this going too far? Well, for this "Boomer" it is. I need a digital detox. I'm going outside to work on my short game and tend the Zen garden.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Hey students, what do you think?

In my 13 years of teaching high school, I believe I've been in the homes of zero students. Yep. Nada. Zilch. Nobody.

I've run into students at Trader Joe's, Target, Starbucks, the driving range and random public places, and I have embraced "the art of the awkward conversation with my teacher." Love that stuff!

With online only school, that has changed. I unwittingly have found myself in my students' homes via Zoom, and I see glimpses of home lives that I never aspired to see. In unexpected ways, I have gotten to understand my students better this year than in a conventional classroom, and maybe that is some sort of silver lining. 

As an educator, my approach always has been to soak in what is happening and use that to improve my teaching — and life. That remains my modus operandi, and I may be growing more as a teacher this year than any. Why is this? Answer: My students.

Before the shutdown, my students inspired me with their drive, work ethic and commitment to education. They also have inspired me with their personal stories, kindness, progressive attitudes, tech skills and overall awesomeness.

During Covid times, I've been inspired even more. I have heard numerous heartbreaking tales and, of course, wish we didn't have to go through all of this pain. However, the human spirit is resilient. I see students working through grief, dealing with anxiety and confusion, and as I look at them, I am amazed at how strong they are.

So today, I thought it would be worthwhile to ask students this: Hey, what's working, and what's not? When it comes to online only school, or school in general, what do you believe works well? What does not?

Now, I have my theories on what is working in schools and what is not, and I'll offer the "not" side with a brief self-assessment. Of course, this most likely is flawed.

Where Mr. Stevens could improve:

1) Less talking, more listening. I am making a concerted effort to keep anything resembling lecture to 10 minutes or less via Zoom. However, I notice that leading an opener, offering a health tip per class, explaining a lesson and clarifying assignments involve words. At least I use pull cards to call upon my students as much as possible.

2) Stop the madness of insignificant assignments, readings and tests. The good news is that I am an English teacher, and teaching the standards can be applied to a zillion readings. Giving students choice in what they read is huge. Some students have told me that by picking their own books, they actually are reading again. However, I have to make sure not to backslide into the trap of assigning waste-of-time materials, just because that's what was done when I was a student.

3) Grade for skills and understanding, not compliance. It appears that "doing the work" often is synonymous with "earning the grade." How often do teachers fail students because they missed an assignment or two but have shown grade-level competency? On the flip side, how many students earn high grades, even though they may not have mastered the standards? I'm doing my best to focus on the standards and not the compliance.

OK. Let me shift gears and throw out three obstacles that hinder teachers. These come from impressions I get based on the meetings, professional development and conversations.

1) Overload (AKA "future shock"). In his 1970 book Future Shock, futurist Alvin Toffler coined the term future shock to mean "too much change in too short a period of time." During Covid-19, I see that teachers have been thrown so much, so fast, that some may be shutting down or have shut down. It's just too much. Some are retiring; others are struggling.

I have no magical solution to this problem. Genuine support from the state, district, admin and colleagues would help, but if that's not there, teachers may be stuck with figuring this out on their own. I only hope they have a good support system at home.

2) Horrific self-care. Sugary diets, lack of exercise, negative thought patters, thought disorders — teachers could be struggling on these fronts. Self-care is HUGE. Sometimes, we teachers make sure to take care of our students and families, but what about ourselves?

3) Stuck in patterns that don't work. This is where excuses and ire toward "the system" or whoever is the perceived villain occurs. To me, when I hear teachers complaining, I lend an ear and am kind. However, a lot of times the complaints seem beside the point. While we do have plenty of legitimate concerns, I'm pretty sure that I have the most influence on whether my students succeed in my class or not as opposed to outside forces.

Of course, these Covid times present us with extremely difficult propositions and situations, but maybe that's why we teachers are more important than ever now.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Zombie named top K-Pop song of 2020

The Snooze Button Generation blog has named Zombie by DAY6 the top K-Pop song of 2020.

"Look," SBG founder/CEO Joe Stevens said. "It's my favorite song of the lot. It's well-written and smart, and it doesn't hurt that Jae went to my high school."

Stevens was referring to Jae Park, who is a key member of DAY6 and graduated from Cerritos High School where Mr. Stevens teaches.

Zombie edged out many excellent K-Pop tunes from 2020, and Stevens remarked: "This is the best K-Pop list I've seen. Right on the money. Take that echo4ever!"

Echo4ever is the YouTube channel and group name of Stevens' daughters, Sophie and Chloe, and cousin Ellie. Sophie and Chloe each created videos for their top 20 K-Pop songs of 2020. Feel free to check those out by clicking on their names, and subscribe to their channel by clicking here. They post content every other Saturday; the music videos especially are excellent.

Stevens explained that K-Pop has taken over his household with music, videos, random dance challenges and more. "I definitely have my favorites," he said. "I thought I liked the girl groups much more, but based on this top 20 list, it's not as much as I thought. Happy New Year! How you like that?"

The Top 20 K-Pop songs of 2020 with commentary by Stevens:

1. Zombie by DAY6

I love the tone and thought behind the tune, how the protagonist is closed off emotionally. It's deeper than a typical pop song.


EVERGLOW doesn't have a whole lot of killer songs, but the group killed it with DUN DUN. But I must admit that the song in my house eventually felt overplayed on the random dance challenges.

3. Why Not? by Loona

From my perspective, Loona is the best girl group in K-Pop. This song reminds me of John Sondej's bar Dick's Den in Columbus, Ohio, that had the slogan: "Dick's Den. Why Not?"

4. God's Menu by Stray Kids

One of my complaints about boy groups is that they are too whiny and not fierce. Oh, that is not the case with Stray Kids and this song.


I wonder why there aren't more groups that combine boys and girls. For my money, KARD is the best one that does that.

6. Not Shy by ITZY

I love groups that shout out their band name in the middle of the song. It would have been impressive if the Beatles or Rolling Stones or Guns 'N' Roses had done that.

7. Lovesick Girls by BLACKPINK

I recognize that BLACKPINK is way more popular in the U.S. than a lot of other strong girl groups, but as Loona might say: So what?

8. FANTASIA by Monsta X

If I have a song stuck in my head for days, that must be a good thing. You win, Monsta X.

9. Dynamite by BTS

Yes, this is overplayed and in commercials, and BTS has taken over the world. But it's a great song!

10. Maria by Hwa Sa

Even before I knew she had a solo career, Hwa Sa from Mamamoo became my bias. She remains my ultimate bias.

11. Oh My God by G(I)-DLE

I'd love to hear this song in Church.

12. Any Song by Zico

He reminds me of the Korean Justin Timberlake.


Maybe the lyrics could use some moderation, but apparently, they're never enough.

14. Stay Tonight by CHUNG HA

CHUNG HA is a queen, though Hwa Sa remains my ult.

15. Left & Right by SEVENTEEN

I like to think this song is about politics.


Not sure what the song is about, but it sounds cool.

17. ASSA by cignature

My favorite lyric: "Eeeeeeeewwwwwwww."

18. End of Spring by ONEWE

It appears to me that all ONEWE songs start boring, then gradually get epic.

19. DAWNDIDIDAWN (feat. Jessi) by DAWN

I like to pretend they're saying "Don," and this song is about the Cerritos High School Dons.

20. eight (Prod. & Feat. SUGA of BTS) by IU, SUGA

I'm not sure how this song isn't titled Forever Young, but OK.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Cigarette smoke remains in our air

"It's still Big Tobacco's world, and we're just living in it."

That was a passing thought I had the other day, and I see a lot of truth in it. In my personal world, smoking is not in the realm of possibilities. I don't like smoking. It's ridiculously harmful, and it seems like an act of yesteryear.

Yet in the United States, 15.5 percent of adults still smoke cigarettes "every day" or "some days," based on CDC data. I was shocked to hear that; in my world, it's zero people. Back in 1965, by the way, 45 percent of American adults smoked cigarettes.

These statistics don't take into account vaping that snags nearly 20 percent of adults under 30, and 10 percent of all adults, based on a Gallup poll.

The good news about this blog post is that I have zero agenda, other than to point out facts, connect some dots and promote education. The bad news is that as I reflect on the calendar moving to 2021, I realize that a lot of American culture and structures are toxic, and I am making a concerted effort to at least recognize that.

First, personally, let me wish you a happy 2021. I believe 2020 revealed a lot about us as individuals and a nation. I believe it was the biggest revealer of health, finances and agency. People with healthy lifestyles and financially stability certainly were not affected as much as those not. Also, people who have agency, who are able to take control of their lives and actions, likely thrived more than others as well.

Poor health, finances and agency all come together with Big Tobacco as the long-time beneficiary. Now, I understand that Big Tobacco isn't as powerful as it once was, but since it got away with so much seemingly criminal activity for so long, it paved the way for other industries to do that as well. Big Tobacco may have been Darth Vader, and Big Pharma is Kylo Ren. 

I find the naming of the Coronavirus vaccines horrific. Right now, the most known one is "The Pfizer Vaccine." Then, in second place, it's "The Moderna Vaccine." Instead of championing Big Pharma in the vaccine names, shouldn't we give credit to a key ingredient in the vaccine or the team of scientists who came up with it or pick an esteemed scientist and go with that?

No, we are having the masses link the vaccine with evil Big Pharma, which typically jacks up prescription prices for the elderly and has such a huge advertisement budget it forces me to run across ads on a zillion drugs that are completely irrelevant to me. And, please, stop telling me about mesothelioma!

Remember: Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to three criminal charges of conspiring to addict the American public to opioids and — whoop-de-do — paid $8.3 billion in fines. Of course, Purdue did its plea in October, two weeks before the attention-grabbing presidential election and while Coronavirus cases surged. This should have been a resounding indictment against Big Pharma, but was it?

So the connection to Big Pharma and Big Tobacco is obvious. These are ginormous industries that place profit above public health, and in the case of Big Pharma, the U.S. government has partnered with it because of special interest concerns, immorality, incompetence and, well, that is our established culture.

It took until 1998 for the U.S. government to negotiate its Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement with Big Tobacco. And while that showed bipartisan coordination and the ability to overcome special interest concerns, immorality and incompetence, I'm not holding my breath that similar settlements will be reached against Big Pharma or even Facebook or Google.

But even if the U.S. one day tried to reorganize Big Pharma, it is so embedded in our culture, would it really make a difference? It's not like there was a light switch that made cigarettes go away, and there is no light switch to make prescription drug addiction go away either. Is it really a step forward to have our corporations create our addictive substances now? Might it have been vaguely more ethical to enable international drug cartels to do that?

With improved agency, individuals have the ability to reject cigarettes, vaping, drugs, alcohol, processed food, toxic screen time and inactivity. As we improve our own personal agency, our lives will continually improve as will our culture. My grandfather was a victim of Big Tobacco. I know victims of Big Pharma, and the only way to read this blog post is through Big Tech.

I believe that the human spirit is actually more powerful than Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and Big Tech. But I'm worried about the human mind and body.