Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Gen X music is somehow on Target

"I'm quirky, not like all the other girls."

Hipster 14-year-old Chloe has been slapping me with that retort, when she challenges me on the music I like. This hipster makes fun of me because I still like indie rock and am weary of music with commercial success. Sellouts!

Chloe points out that I'm kidding myself, that the music I like is more commercial than I realize and just because it's popular, doesn't mean it's bad. OK. Yeah. Whatever. I — and many of my Gen X brethren — are disenchanted, indie-rock loving music aficionados. Gen Z snowflakes like Chloe just don't get it. She ain't punk rock, man.

I'm working, but not I'm not working for you!

OK. I'm evolving. You just can't listen to the Replacements, Superchunk, Flaming Lips and Guided By Voices forever. During 2020, I went out with Spotify, and this music algorithm thing probably knows me better than I know myself. Spotify turned me onto many artists I never heard of, including Courtney Barnett and Barrie. But something painful happened with both singers.

First of all, these two could be huge stars, yet I don't personally know anyone who likes them (save for one English teacher who I somehow found out likes Courtney Barnett). Courtney Barnett, by the way, is doing two shows at the Ace Theater in L.A. later this month, and I realized that she was on the season finale of Saturday Night Live in 2016. OK, so, people must know her.

Back in the day, finding music was so different. I had a stable of music-junkie friends who always knew the new albums coming out, and I picked and chose what I liked. I could bounce back my feelings about albums and artists with my buddies, and pretty much everybody in college did that on some level. Honestly, I yearn to talk about some of the artists I love on Spotify, but that's not how it works. I'm listening to my stuff in my own little AirPod world, and who knows if anybody else likes it too?

But then, a problem ensued this past week. I heard a Courtney Barnett song called Charity in Target. What?!? How could this be? You mean to tell me this musically elite former Fugazi-listening, Matador elitist likes music from Target? This can't be true! What's next? Are the White Stripes playing Wal-Mart?

And then I remembered something that affected me last Christmastime. I was in the aforementioned Target when I heard a song I really liked. I was like, "Wow, this is at Target? This is a great song. I'm Shazaam-ing it." It was Clovers by Barrie. Spotify had already turned me on to Barrie with a couple other songs, and now I officially liked music in big-box stores. God, help me.

What the heck is going on here? When I was a youngster in the '80s, music from the '50s sounded utterly outdated and boring. Is that what kids think about my music from the '80s and '90s and my lame attempts to find new music in freakin' Target? How can Sonic Youth not be cool? How in God's name is Kim Gordon 68 years old? She's betting on the bull in the heather!

So I've done my best to find new music and evolve past Mercury Rev, the Minutemen and Cibo Matto. I've discovered these "newer" artists that I like: George Clanton, Soccer Mommy, NewDad, Pond, Virginia Wing, Katy J. Pearson, Wild Nothing, Kurt Vile, the Weather Station, Junip, Samantha Crain, Yelle (French), and I guess I'll stop the list there.

I imagine I'll be hearing some of them at Target this holiday season. Maybe Kurt Vile will do an in-store.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Easy teacher tips to improve classrooms


Our kids are exhausted. What should we do?

I've been bemoaning the modern culture of high school for a while, and now both of my daughters are victims — yes, victims — of it.

My girls often are tired, overworked, stressed and bombarded by paperwork. My students tell me they're feeling the same way. And I get it. The schoolwork system can be toxic, but we educators can make a difference — a slight difference.

Look, the ridiculous stress bucket that high school is nowadays existed well before the Covid shutdown. But now, it's even more so. Something has to give.

High school kids have a cornucopia of resources at their fingertips with their phones, laptops and Chromebooks, yet their schedules have remained the same, stuck in time. Does that make any sense?

Kids face all the expectations of being digitally savvy in a tech-driven world, yet they reap none of the benefits from tech with their schedules. They do more work, more efficiently than any generation, yet they're still clocking into every class on-time like mill workers, sitting in old-school desks and asking permission to go to the bathroom.

In contrast, I know many adults who now have abbreviated in-person work schedules post-Covid because, like high-school students, they do their work digitally. I also know adults who no longer go into their offices and never will. But what the heck are we doing with our teenagers?

Technology has enabled kids to learn much, much more than yesteryear, yet high schools remain locked in their Industrial Revolution model, preparing students for factory work that no longer exists. So our kids face a double whammy. School is like having both a factory job and tech job, and then they're even forced to do schoolwork at home. What a disaster!

So now what?

I believe in optimism, and I believe we teachers can make some key decisions that can help ourselves and not add to our students' burdens. I don't have all the answers and am open to doing anything in my power to help my classroom feel as if it's in 2021 and not 1921, 1950, 1980, 2010 or even 2019.

Here are easy things teachers can do to help themselves and their students and ,better yet, move out of the compliance model of education and toward actually education:

1) Stop assigning homework — once and for all. I have railed against homework here and highly recommend The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn, yet apparently teachers still assign paperwork. Why? Again, I know of zero studies that show homework improves learning. Please, just stop it.

2) Stop having so many graded assignments. I know students need to be assessed, but why can't teachers do it more informally, without grades? Why must we grade them weekly or even daily? How about monthly? Why don't we turn down the dial on these constant graded assignments?

3) 20 percent total for all tests and quizzes. Haven't we had enough of high-stakes testing? Why do teachers have high-stakes testing in their classes? I see my students so stressed out some days, and when I ask what's happening they often say, "I have a test next period." 

When I started teaching, it was suggested to not count any type of category of grading more than 20 percent. I've kept that plan all these years, and my five categories of grading are tests, in-class writing, reading responses, polished writing assignments and projects.

4) Actually get to know your students. Why are we in the classroom in the first place? Isn't it to support our students? At my school, teachers have 165 students. It turns out those 165 are human beings. While I teach the content standards, human beings are much more valuable than those standards.

5) Model emotional maturity. Sadly, some teachers never left high school, emotionally. I've seen some throw tantrums, assume the worst from their colleagues and students and act like children. I understand that good teaching involves emotion, and it's crucial that we stay emotionally mature, especially when faced with adversity.

The good news is that I am seeing more dialogue on social emotional learning, post shutdown, and how this is more important than our old-timey curriculums. Thank god for that. But I often wonder how teachers can promote SEL when they themselves struggle with self-awareness, social skills, relationship building and their emotional lives.

6) Be vulnerable but pick your spots. It is important to be vulnerable with our students, but don't overshare. The class ultimately is about them, not us. While some sharing of one's life can be healthy, don't overdo it.

7) More student choice. I never have liked being told what to do, and, ooh lordy, high school kids constantly are being told what to do. The more choice we give give students, the better.

8) Stop dominating. High school still perpetuates a dominator-control culture. We need to do everything in our power to stop it to stop dominating and actually work with our students. We're their teachers, not their bosses.

9) Exercise. I found a huge secret to enjoying my school days more: I do light exercise for a mere 15 minutes when I wake up. It gets the blood flowing and makes me feel better throughout the day. No matter what happens, I at least had that minor success in the day.

10) Meditate. With so many face-to-face and digital interactions a day and covering a lot of material, meditation helps. In the era of Big Tech's dominance, I find meditation to be an important part of our well-being. Turn. It. Off.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Millikan shooting demands change

"Welcome to high school, Chloe. Some poorly dressed men at your school carry guns now. Have a good four years!"

Y'know, this blog post originally was going to be about both of my daughters' educational experiences at Millikan High School this year with Sophie, a junior, and Chloe, a freshman, but instead that's been trumped by Monday's news of a shooting outside of their high school.

I feel so embarrassed for the Long Beach Unified School District right now. To learn that Monday's incident could even have the chance of happening — and actually did — scares me and forces me to demand change with LBUSD's campus security plan.

If you missed what happened, here is a recap of the story in the Long Beach Post. Basically, a school safety officer (SSO) fired into the backseat of a car, through a window and struck 18-year-old Mona Rodriguez in the head. Two days later, Mona was pronounced brain dead and taken off life support today. We've also learned that she had a 5-month-old. Video shows the incident, and I have no clue why any safety officer ever would fire through a window into the backseat of a car. This is a tragedy, close to home.

Now, I don't have all of the facts, and that is true. I am just a Millikan parent who is outraged by what occurred. But information is emerging. On Tuesday, Mike Guardabascio of the Post gave LBUSD a chance to explain its point of view in this story. While I see that longtime LBUSD spokesman Chris Eftychiou appeared to strive for transparency about these school safety officers, myriad questions emerge as to why LBUSD has nine full-time SSOs, two part-time SSOs and four supervisors that can be armed and on school campuses.

If Eftychiou explained that the sole intent of these officers is to ensure no gun violence on campuses, their presence could be justified — maybe. However, that's not what he said. Rather, he said their main job is to "monitor students on campus and to assist the administrators in keep ordering."

Say what? We need guns at our schools for that? My daughters are being monitored and kept in order by non-educators, non-policemen with guns. This is 100 percent unacceptable.

And, sadly, we had to lose 18-year-old Mona Rodriguez, the mom of 5-month-old Isael, for this horrific plan to come to light.

I have two main questions as the Millikan community mourns this tragedy. No. 1: Where are all the white people and leaders at? No. 2: Now what?

While Long Beach might consider itself one of the most progressive big cities in the nation, I wonder if this incident shows its true NIMBY colors. I see Black Lives Matter signs in front of the $1 million homes in the Ranchos by Millikan, and my L.B. brethren talk a good progressive game. But then this happens, and I hear, "Well, you don't know the facts." And "he was trying to stop a fight." Uh, I wonder what the response would be if Mona Rodriguez's name were Mona Petito?

Come on, LBUSD ineffectively explained why the dude had a gun in the first place, and there simply is no justification for shooting a woman in the head in the backseat of the car. Where's the outrage? Am I witnessing that Long Beach is full of progressives in theory only, and when something actually happens, they go watch Grey's Anatomy and call that progress?

This shooting reminds me a bit of the Trayvon Martin case, in which he was killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., in 2012. Nine years later, we have someone killed at Spring and Palo Verde in East Long Beach by someone who, like Zimmerman, wasn't even a police officer.

So now what? First of all, I'd like to have all the individuals connected to this, especially our so-called leaders, have a moral reckoning. If you're not outraged, why not? If you disregard the life of Mona Rodriguez, why do you do this? Aren't we better than this as one human race?

And y'know what's next? Here come the lawyers! We will have internal investigations, trials, media posturing, and as early as yesterday, LBUSD did not defend the SSO who killed Mona. But hello, isn't LBUSD complicit in this crime for having the shooter on campus in the first place?

Y'know what I'd really like to see, tangibly, and it is possible — and easy. First of all, we need to get rid of these packing SSOs, obviously. They should have never been there in the first place. They need to be gone. Now.

Second, if you look closely at end of the article in which LBUSD explains the SSOs, you'll see something that I've been saying for years. Why aren't the Campus Security Assistants actually trained?

As a teacher, I see the crucial importance of kind, gentle and effective CSAs. In Long Beach, these people, who do not carry guns, are trained for a whopping three hours. Basically, anybody ends up being a CSA.

These CSAs often dress like they're fresh off the People of Walmart website and can be completely unprofessional and instigate problems as opposed to deescalate them. A lot of them absolutely should not be around kids. Let's revision campus security ASAP, or more tragedies are bound to happen.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Are you ready for some football?

Let's not get too excited. Let's keep an even keel. Breathe. Breathe. Let's not get too excited. OK.

But let me tell you this: I am dang excited about this NFL season!

Jeez, my Cleveland Browns won a playoff game last year for the first time in 26 years and finally displayed competence. We Browns fans and even NFL pundits are more optimistic about Cleveland than ever. What could possibly go wrong?!?

Here's the deal: The NFL may embody what is best in America and what is worst in 'Merica all in one glorious/ridiculous sport that I watch each week.

Let's be positive and focus on what I find good about the NFL. I love the message of "hard work." I love that football is a blue-collar sport. I love that desire often trumps talent. And let's be honest: It's entertaining. Circus-like catches. Bone-crushing hits. Fourth and inches. Heck, yeah!

I'm actually cool with Browns QB Baker Mayfield and his style. I believe he isn't that good, but he busts his butt and doesn't seem to get injured. He ain't fancy and has average stats, but guess what? He's a winner.

Do you know what it's like for a Browns fan to actually like the quarterback? That's nearly impossible from what we've weathered. Decades and decades of incompetent QBs. I literally feel sick in my stomach whenever I hear the term "Johnny Manziel."

While I'm super excited about my Browns, I must say that the NFL may show what's wrong with our American culture, too. It's crazy violent, way too corporate and cruel to its workers. Sure, some players get paid mega-bucks, but at what price?

Football is brutal to bodies and heads, and quite frankly, football culture is patriarchal, militaristic and in some ways, racist and sexist. Toxic masculinity can be on display. And did we even mention concussions yet?

I would not encourage my son to play football, and at the end of the day, OK, if kids really want to play, I guess I support that. But it's such a violent sport, and we are such a violent country. I wonder why we glorify football so much.

Plus, 'Merica eats horribly, and I'm mentally preparing to see a zillion Domino's Pizza ads and chicken-shack crap as I watch games. Why do wings need to be wild? Free-range wings — that would make more sense. We'll eat nachos, drink soda and destroy our bodies as we watch players doing the same on the screen. Good times.

I often have considered elite sports a celebration of life, but with so much violence in the NFL and these so-called wild wings, is it really that?

But I am addicted. I can't not watch the Browns ... and play fantasy football ... and run a football pool. When the NFL is at its best, it brings people together. "You're a football fan? Great. That's all I need. We're cool."

It used to be "You're American? That's all I need. We're cool." Nowadays, as we all know, we got a whole bunch of low-level tribal division happening. I say the NFL is in a higher place than that junk. It sure beats cable news.

If it takes the NFL to bring us all together, I'll take it. Just, please, don't ever bring up Johnny Manziel.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Hey Cleveland, let's guard this franchise!

Guardians. The Cleveland Guardians.

I'm not sure I'll ever get used to that name in my lifetime, but I accept it. I have mixed feelings about the Indians' name change. While I believe it was time to change the name, the Guardians is pretty darn dull, but any new name would have gotten backlash.

I mean, come on, the franchise goes back to 1894, and the Cleveland Indians name has been around since 1914. For many long-time Clevelanders, they bristle with the idea of losing the name Indians, and some still wear Chief Wahoo.

To me, the central question of the decision to change the Indians' name was this: Is the name Indians offensive or dehumanizing?

It doesn't appear offensive or dehumanizing to a bunch of white people in Northeast Ohio. But many of them, hopefully, realize the name Indians is dehumanizing to Native Americans. I believe they understand that it is wrong to refer to Native Americans as "Indians," in a similar way that Asian Americans shouldn't be referred to as "Orientals" (sorry for the bluntness of that example).

Back in 1995, I adamantly opposed any notion that the name Indians or Chief Wahoo was wrong. I was 22 and had just moved out of Ohio. I later evolved to a fuller understanding, and that's not easy because I have loved the Cleveland Indians throughout my lifetime. Five years ago, I admitted I was against Chief Wahoo, and some Cleveland friends practically crucified me for that. But, come on guys, are we still referring to Native Americans as Indians?

So if we accept the name Indians needs to go, is Guardians the best we could do? Guardians is a short-term connection to Indians with the same colors and font style. It might work for this moment and the transition. But what about the future? I thought Cleveland Spiders was cooler and had way more marketing possibilities. Maybe we can at least have the Rally Spider, like the Angels have their Rally Monkey.

I also felt the Spiders connected with the Indians better. See, the Indians never were meant to represent the Native Americans or anything connected to reality. Even Chief Wahoo was a caricature based in non-reality. Now, all of a sudden, the decision-makers are going with something, Guardians, that is said to embody Cleveland. Nope. Don't buy it. Wrong. B.S. Never heard that, and each day, I crossed the Hope Memorial Bridge — that apparently has statues called "The Guardians of Traffic" — to get to my high school, St. Ignatius.

Most Clevelanders work their butts off, and when they watch a baseball game, they don't want to be reminded of reality or think about a serious nickname. For God's sakes, "Buckeyes," our poisonous nuts, is one of the strangest, non-deep names, east of the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs. We Ohioans like a little nonsensical. Spiders was a better option.

Regardless of the names, I maintain that Cleveland is the best sports town in the nation. Yes, I am biased. But you got to understand that it's a tiny market, and so to have the Indians, Browns and Cavs is huge. These teams are a fabric of our culture that big-market folk just don't understand. Cleveland literally is the smallest market that has an MLB, NFL and NBA team. Even though pro sports is big business, I say we support these so-called Guardians so they don't leave for a bigger market. 

No matter what I do, I can't not be a ginormous Cleveland sports fan. I watch or listen to my Tribe daily, see them every year when they visit Anaheim, and when I flew on a red eye into Cleveland this past month, I went to Progressive Field that evening and enjoyed a game with my mom, brother, Uncle Ed, Amy and Brady. We all love our Tribe!

Maybe the move from Indians to Guardians is soooo Cleveland. Maybe the lame name is fitting for this perpetually overachieving franchise. This year, they have the absolute lowest payroll in baseball, yet are still above .500. Amazing!

It's kind of fun rooting for a perpetual competent underdog. "Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. steel," is a famous quote from comedian Joe E. Lewis. Rooting for the Indians is like rooting for the Anthony Michael Hall character in The Breakfast Club.

Back in 1920, Cleveland was the fifth biggest city in the United States, and then after World War II, the population peaked at 914,000. Nowadays, the population is just 381,000, although that doesn't take into account the suburbs.

When I'm in Cleveland, I feel a huge sense of civic pride that I haven't experienced elsewhere; people there absolutely love the place. While I'll concede that, yes, there are other cities with civic pride, Cleveland is unique because it has reinvented itself while facing a declining population and by no longer being the nation's fifth biggest city, but the 54th biggest, edged out by No. 53 Bakersfield.

There are reasons why LeBron James invests heavily into poor sections of Northeast Ohio and didn't just leave Ohio behind or why when I meet anyone from Cleveland I immediately feel connected. We grew up, knowing the value of community and working together. It's not all "me, me, me" there. We learned that economics isn't the only factor in quality of life and even can distract from it. Architecture, art, music and, yes, our sports teams truly matter and bring us together. 

Clevelanders have grit and are leaders in many ways. We didn't do the easy thing, changing the Indians name. We did the right thing.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Streaming killed the comedy star

Is it OK to laugh again?

Now, I understand 2020 was THE WORST YEAR EVER. And then Coronavirus peaked again this January, and my state of California didn't "open up" until 15 days ago.

So, yeah, we've gone through the wringer, and I know many people personally who've been served a big piece of life. But the question I wonder is this: Will America ever be funny again?

I fear that just like rock 'n' roll peaked in the late '60s or early '70s, comedy has peaked, never to return to its heights of the '80s. Back then, we had Comic Relief, NBC's Thursday lineup (Cosby, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court), Saturday Night Live still mattering, recording Late Night with David Letterman on the VCR, Robin Williams killing it and much more. Uh, what do have now?

Just like video killed the radio star, streaming has killed the comedy star.

In 2020, The Office was by far the most streamed TV show, as reported by Variety. The Office is a tour de force and worthy of its accolades. Just as I say Nirvana was the last great American rock band, I fear that The Office, which ran from 2005 to 2013, will go down as the last great American comedy show.

Of course, one irony is that The Office was created in jolly England. Entertainment is so diffused now. There are so many entertainment options that I just don't see an Office happening again. Ever. The show spans generations. I know Boomers who like it, and my daughter tells me some middle schoolers like it, too. Funny shows and comedians will surface, but they won't have the vast audience or impact as The Office.

Maybe this is a good thing. We'll have more diverse voices, more indie shows, better quality, just not one big show we can all agree on.

An ongoing mini-drama in my household accentuates the generational differences between me and my two Gen Z daughters. Anyone who knows me must realize that I'm freakin' hilarious, a self-anointed funny man for the ages. That's what I said.

However, my daughters, especially Chloe, repeatedly say, "That's not funny, dad."

We Gen Xers like comedy with edge, borderline offensive, straddling the line, but not over the line. Nowadays, it often appears that anything coming close to "the line" already is out of bounds.

However, Chloe informs me that my Gen X humor is a product of my generation and demographic and that I repeatedly shame others and am "blatantly offensive." She mentioned a lengthy list of inappropriate jokes I have told, and while I say she's too sensitive, maybe this cisgender heterosexual white male needs to look in the mirror and ponder. ... Or reload another zinger.

I remember learning in the early '90s that corporate rock still sucks. That applies to movies and comedy as well. Globalization is such a focus in the entertainment industry now that, by comparison, minuscule  resources get put into comedy exclusively for American audiences; I guess I'll have to stream funny stuff on BBC.

When it comes to comedy, America is as lost as the Oscars. While I understand that movies can be a conduit for social progress, I bet we open up more minds through laughter than preaching and car chases.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Digital brain book kicks off summer recs

Not too long ago, the family and I watched the 1984 movie Splash with Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah. Y'know what? It holds up. It's still funny, entertaining. Not bad.

The odd thing, though, was that I noticed every little detail of the movie, not like when I saw it years ago. It became obvious that what we watch today is much more fast-paced, and we consume much more video. It's not possible for me to notice every detail of every frame with modern movies and TV because they just move too fast.

Our collective brains have transformed because of the digital age we live. Our capacity for what we take in has expanded, and there are downsides, such as a lack of our depth of understanding and our reliance on images. I recently read Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (2018) by Maryanne Wolf, and it helped me understand the ramifications of reading in the digital age and make a persuasive argument for the importance of reading full-length books.

One shocking statistic in Reader, Come Home is that the average person encounters 100,000 words per day. That's a full-length novel. It's not as if the average person actively reads those words. Oh, no. The vast majority is just scrolled past and hardly pondered, if at all. We have digital brains now.

The ramifications of the changes in our brains and the lack of extended reading are enormous. Empathy suffers, and we end up craving snippets and scrolling. Actual life and human interaction may feel boring. Although the book delves into the science of what happens to the brain when we read, I found the strength to be how Wolf just makes an argument for reading by calling upon Aristotle, Derrida, Heidegger and countless other big thinkers in an accessible way.

Heidegger argued that man's special nature is to be a reflective being, but as the masses face so much fast-paced, non-contemplative images, could we be losing what it means to be human? So I highly recommend Reader, Come Home. It kicks off a list of 10 books I've read this past school year that I also recommend.

Perhaps this will be the format for my book recommendations. I'll do them toward the end of the school year, similar to last year. This will build off the Top 100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend project from 2019. My other recommendations this year are:

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (2020) by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi

This is the remix version of the 2016 book Stamped from the Beginning, and it was much more entertaining than I anticipated. That was a surprising feat, considering the heavy content.

Stamped, the remix, captivated me, and I devoured it in a couple days. I couldn't put it down. I often wonder if we will keep teaching myths to our youth about America's past and call it "history." Do we properly address the consequences of slavery? Do we address shielding the facts that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson each had more than 600 slaves? Stamped is just so accessible and truthful that it deserves the accolades it receives. 

Positivity (2009) by Barbara Fredrickson

As a Gen Xer, living on this planet for nearly five decades, it's hard for a book to improve my outlook on life, but this one did. So often, I hear "be positive" or "look on the bright side." Uh, how? What does that entail?

Fredrickson promotes the idea that we should strive for three positive thoughts or actions to each negative one. Negative thoughts and negativity creep into all of us. Hey, man, we're human beings, and we're honest! However, striving for positivity, or as I call it "realistic, authentic positivity," can happen.

Fredrickson also identifies 10 positive emotions to strive for. Those are: joy, gratitude, serenity, hope, inspiration, love, amusement, awe, interest and pride.

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018) by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

This book reads well, but what stays with me most is how Haidt and Lukianoff list common thought disorders, such as catastrophizing, overgeneralizing and dichotomous (black and white) thinking, and how these used to be individual disorders. Now, those disorders have affected masses of people, and the divisive and unhealthy Interwebs reinforce them.

Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions (2020) by Jeffrey Selingo

A lot of parents, and students, get stressed and have an all-around horrific time when it comes to picking a college. Does it really have to be that way?

Selingo's book pointed out a bunch of college admission myths and explained some things I didn't consider. While the masses flock to brand-name colleges, many unsung and lesser known universities offer world-class educations, too. Another good point was that, statistically, student-loan debt is so astronomical because of post-graduate degrees, not undergraduate ones. I've also read There is Life after College by Selingo, and I recommend that too.

Radical Compassion (2019) by Tara Brach

I've also read Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, and I have mediated alongside her podcast. These books help me feel better by having me look inward and get out of my head. Global sensation BTS might sing "Love Yourself," but, uh, what does that mean? How? Well, Tara Brach helps!

The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook (2017) by Scott Galloway

Galloway has been a huge media personality for a while now (see video below), and I love his bluntness and humor. We live in such a tech-heavy world that I felt The Four set me straight on just how crazily powerful Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook are. Insane.

Tons of tidbits about business are in The Four that I loved, such as Galloway's three keys to business success: 1) emotional maturity, 2) curiosity and 3) ownership of your task, project and business.

Tools of Titans (2016) by Tim Ferriss

In the same vein as Tribe of Mentors by Ferriss, the book interviews "successful" people in all walks of life, especially business, and looks at their routines and the obstacles in their paths. The reoccurring themes that come up are how many exercise to start their days, practice mindfulness or mediation and adapted and learned from crucial failures.

I'm so old-school that I didn't realize that Ferriss had a huge podcast before reading Tribe of Mentors. I'm also so old-school that I prefer these books to the podcast.

Smart People Should Build Things (2014) by Andrew Yang

Why in God's name would you go to law school in the 21st century? This is one of many thoughts that come up in Yang's book. I mean, only 20 percent of law-school grads actually practice law. That number alone makes law school look like a grand waste of time and tuition. And, yes, this author is the former presidential candidate who is running for mayor of New York.

Elite students get sucked into Wall Street jobs or go to law school and don't really help our country grow or create jobs. Yang's premise is to move elite students to entrepreneurial jobs. He even created pathways to get such elite graduates to midsized cities, including my beloved Cleveland. I must admit that he has a point, and it would nice to see the driven of our world actually help others, whether it be through business, social services or something other than Wall Street and law.

The Meritocracy Trap: How American's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class and Devours the Elite (2019) by Daniel Markovits

This barely makes my list because it took long to read, and the books repeats its premise so much that it becomes funny. Look, I get it. To think that the United States is a meritocracy is a joke. It isn't. We have a zillion ways to show how it isn't a meritocracy. Got it.

I found the parts on how the myth of meritocracy devours the elite to be most interesting. The elite live in an odd culture of overworking, stress and proving themselves. Wha' happened?

What about working your tail off, but then enjoying life with leisure and possibly contemplating life? The unreported, sad truth about our billionaire-based 21st century economy is that we have developed an unsustainable, work-heavy culture.

Billionaires and millionaires might want to believe they got to where they are through merit. But we all know this is false. Perhaps it is important to admit that it's nice that 'Merica strives for a meritocracy, but in reality, we are just falling in line with the structure that landowners and slave owners Thomas Jefferson and George Washington laid out about 250 years ago.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

What is the deal with homework?

"It all goes back to balance!"

I remember George Costanza declaring that on an episode of Seinfeld, and as I look at my students' and daughters' workload, I am wondering this: "What is the deal with homework?"

My sophomore daughter dutifully has done Zoom school every day this year, 9:30 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. That's a lot of Zoom! Then, she has hours upon hours of homework every night.

The racial dynamic at both the high school I teach and the one my daughter attends embarrasses me. In both schools, there is a preponderance of white teachers and at least 68 percent non-white students in each school. Basically, white teachers insist on assigning homework to non-whites, even though all homework really does is teach compliance and rule following (See The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn).

My students keep telling me they are bombarded with homework, usually "meaningless homework," which likely is redundant. I believe homework should be renamed "paperwork" because that's what it really is. I hope educators follow my basic math to see that we often assign homework thoughtlessly and based on assumptions of yesteryear.

I understand that my class is one of six on my students' schedules. Then, a lot of my students have important extracurriculars, whether it be sports, band, a particular passion or whatever (mindless scrolling and being manipulated by Big Tech does not count). Some students actually have jobs, too. Then, many have home responsibilities. So in my students' lives, mathematically my class accounts for maybe 1/8th of their time and education, 1/8th at best.

Let's do more simple math. Please try to follow this:

Let's say that a student gets out of school at 3 p.m. and the student goes to bed at 10:30 p.m. That's 7 1/2 waking hours. Let's break down those hours and where potential paperwork, or homework if we must call it, would fit.

Let's deduct 30 minutes for a shower and hygiene (down to 7 hours). Let's account an hour for dinner, an hour for exercise, another hour for household chores and two hours for potential extracurriculars (we're now down to 2 hours). That's it! Our students literally have two free hours for homework in their after-school days. But that means that our students are not allowed for socializing, Netflix, video games or any pastime. That has been voided.

But here's an ugly truth: Our students are multi-tasking their way through non-meaningful school and non-meaningful non-school, AKA life. They' hardly focus on the homework anyway. It's pointless. They're overbooked!

Back to homework, I would venture to say "Two hours max per night!" is reasonable for all classes total. However, two hours, or 120 minutes, means that each of the six classes is allotted just 20 minutes per night. So here is an obvious declaration: Mathematically, high-school teachers should assign 20 minutes of homework max in any night.

But then I even wonder about the 20 minutes. Couldn't those 20 minutes be a part of class time? How much of class is spent lecturing? Is this homework meaningful and authentic? Can it be Googled? What is the deal with homework?

I've had math and science teachers tell me that homework is necessary for their classes. They've told me that's how you build skills and reinforce learning. OK. That sounds reasonable. But then, how much of that homework is in the "sweet zone," meaning it's at an appropriate level for the student? I fear that a lot of math and science homework is either way too easy, making it busy work, or way too difficult, making it pointless.

As an English teacher, I need to see my students' writing and help them develop their skills. I also need to see them grapple with narratives, arguments, informational texts, poems, difficult texts and more. They do indeed need to do some assignments, hopefully during class time, to show me what they understand. Unless we're reading books on our own or pursuing our passions in life, I honestly don't feel my students need to concoct any assignment outside of class time.

Now, I don't have all the answers, and in my 13th year of teaching, I constantly reevaluate and am open to new things. I feel empathetic and sensitive to what fellow teachers face in the classroom and what we've been put through this year. The wringer. Basically, we've been put through the wringer.

My fear is that the systemic over-assigning of homework is a manifestation of problems in education that are under-addressed. Is school simply sorting out social class? Is assigning homework one way we do that? If school is meant to be a precursor to work, is it aligned to actual work in the 21st century or olden times?

Big Tech has stolen a lot of our kids' childhoods and put them in front of screens. I'm hoping we teachers make some smart decisions to assign less homework, help kids actually grow and get off their screens.

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.