Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Comment on Education

On Sunday I sang with a friend at church. This friend is an older fellow (64, I think) and he is mentally retarded. Despite his handicap, my friend comes to church regularly, participates with the choir, serves as an usher, and has an uncanny knack for keeping schedules of his friends, such as myself, straight. He has a heart of gold. He looks forward to singing a solo every summer during a service, but prefers to have someone sing with him, so he and I usually sing a duet together toward the end of the summer. We did so this past Sunday.

On the way out of church, another older member of the congregation stopped me and, after telling me that he enjoyed listening to us, volunteered that he's known my friend since he was a young man because he "worked at the institution" into which my friend was enrolled as a boy.

An institution?

Though it's obvious my friend has intellectual deficiencies, it's hard for me to imagine that those deficiencies were so great as to have need to institutionalize him. Certainly in today's education system that wouldn't happen: he would be in a segregated classroom for nearly the whole day, but there would be a place at school for him.

So I left church Sunday thankful that I work in one school system (and pay taxes for another) that has a place for students like my friend. Hopefully we won't be so hasty in our attempts to eviscerate America's public schools that we forget the good work we do including students of all types in our mission.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Not sure I want to see summer vacation end but . . .

. . . Esther Cepeda has a good point.


Washington, 2008
Chicago, 2009
Toronto, 2010
New York, 2011
San Francisco, 2012
Montreal, 2013

And I don't know where it will be in 2014. Ottawa and Houston are leading the list of contenders for where we'll call home in 2014. Since my daughter's birth, we've made it a tradition to identify a city and call it home for a week as our vacation. There are some times that I question whether or not to continue this: the trips are difficult in a tiring sort of way. Sometimes, as was the case with New York and Montreal, they feel particularly expensive. And there are times in which I wonder if the kids are enjoying what we do on our days.

A feature in today's New York Times, though, reminded me of why Sherry and I enjoy such trips. That feature was a special report on how New York has been transformed during the years in which Michael Bloomberg has been mayor. I enjoyed the fact that it made sense to me, and I feel like I can appreciate what changes  have taken place there having called that city (and Brooklyn) my home for a week. That vacation ended my fears about driving in the city, and made me feel at ease navigating metropolises such as it. Making my way around Montreal seemed pretty natural this summer. And I look forward to the day when income, time, and ages make it possible to simply fly to one of our old homes for a long weekend to see how things have changed, and how our kids' perspectives have changed in them.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Only One Thing Today

A single item popped out of the news at me today, Ross Douthat's take on the sale of the Washington Post. We often decry the polarizing nature of news media today, but perhaps the partisan nature of today's news merely reflects a return to an old trend. From my studies of our past, I know that news outlets at one time were brazenly partisan. In the decades leading up to the Civil War towns typical had two newspapers, one offering the Democrat point of view and another offering the Whig/Republican perspective. Newspapers of different political stripes covered the Lincoln-Douglas debates very differently.

Another response: I've been an avid follower of the Washington Post for sometime. I think their op-ed page offers a superior variety of opinion to any other news organ I follow. It's ironic that a paper whose digital age strategy was allegedly so poor hooked me so convincingly. I'll remain a reader and fan of that paper for some time.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Night in Philadelphia

Sherry and I overnighted in Philadelphia and enjoyed what was one of our more unusual dates. Sherry was the one who wanted to see a football game, I was the one urging us to leave early from it. I was the one to order a dessert involving fruit, Sherry the over-the-top peanut butter and chocolate sundae. I was the one to get goofy over the quirky perk of a water dispenser and a battery of plastic bottles which were complimentary at the hotel

I'm discovering that food odysseys are becoming my favorite way to enjoy a city. We took dessert at Max Brenner's restaurant in Philadelphia, and I enjoyed what I must consider the most spectacular dessert I've ever had. This morning I enjoyed breakfast at the Reading Terminal Market where the Pennsylvania Dutch Festival was underway. I had my choice of meat for my breakfast sandwich, and I chose scrapple. I didn't realize that she would take a whole thick slice of scrapple and put it on my sandwich.
Excessive. Delicious. The finest cream-filled donut finished our breakfast.
I'll end this festival of superlatives by admitting that the coffee we had was good, but not great. 

When in Montreal I hunted for bagels, beaneries, and even shish taouk. My most passionate quest was for a smoked meat sandwich, and I reveled in finding the best, not the most famous. It would seem smoked meat is to Montreal what cheese steaks are to Philly, and true Philly folks know that Pat's and Geno's are the tourist magnets whereas Jim's, John's, and Dalessandro's are the best. So I bypassed Schwart'z in Montreal and headed for Lester's, which ended up being the most fun impromptu jaunt of our vacation. 


My wife posed me a simple question as we slogged our way through traffic in Philly today: "Which teacher was your greatest inspiration?" 

Immediately I listed Mr. Wall, then Dr. Jones, then Mr. Breidinger . . . wait, Mr. Bollinger, then Dr. Birkner, then . . . 

Realizing that such a long list implied indecisiveness I returned to my first two, Mr. Wall and Dr. Jones. The former was my English teacher in 9th and 12th grades; the latter was my band director at college. I'll always give Mr. Wall the credit for not just motivating me to become an effective writer, but also for showing me what an inspired teacher can be in a classroom. Dr. Jones was the biggest reason I chose to go to Gettysburg College, and he inspired me to be part of a group in which I take more pride than any other of which I was a part, the band at Gettysburg. He taught me a great deal about how one works with older kids. Those two, more than anyone else, inform how I act as a professional. 

It's ironic, perhaps, that a pair of teachers outside of history and Social Studies are those inspirational figures. One of my great blessings is that I was a student of an army of great teachers, and I can count the number of poor or ineffective teachers I've had on one hand. My history teachers were outstanding teachers, showing me the discipline, habits of mind, and skills needed to be a historian and teacher. They didn't inspire me to love history and make it my academic field. In fact, my passion for history goes back so far I cannot clearly attribute it to anything and must assume it was my parents' influence. Instead, they molded and informed me. 

I'm glad Sherry got me to thinking of this, for I sometimes forget that I'm not teaching the next generation of historians or social scientists. The minority of the kids I teach will go into those fields. But I still have remarkable potential to inspire them, and I can dispense with the mindset that I'm losing them to other fields when they come back to me to share with me good news of their ventures in music, biochemistry, and art. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Four Cities in Four Weeks

I'm ending a month in which I will have visited four significant cities in just four weeks. Some thoughts on them:

Boston was the focus of a long weekend with some friends from high school. We made a pilgrimage to Fenway, which was worthwhile (though I don't think I need to see a game there again . . . in fact, I'm more interested in seeing another game at the new Mets park, Citi Field). My impression of Boston on this trip was more favorable than my first brief forays years ago. The downtown is remarkably walkable, and I remember often seeing destinations on maps that proved to be closer than they appeared. The transit in the city is very easy to use, though it seems antiquated and can get crowded. The heritage areas meant a lot to me having taught AP U.S. History now for so long. The Freedom Trail proved to be a wonderful way to see the town, and I had the chance to jog along it two of the mornings I was up there.

We called Montreal our home for a week on our family vacation. Of all the cities we have visited like this (Montreal is our sixth, following Washington, Chicago, Toronto, New York, and San Francisco) it is the one that most beguiled me. I had a more challenging time finding range on it than other cities: it seemed like most of our stops had a small hitch associated with them. Also, I saw nothing there that wowed me like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco did, or which the skyscrapers of Chicago and New York did. But I was taken back by the diverse neighborhoods, the great options of where to eat, and the ease with which one could explore on foot or bike. It was also a remarkably easy city to drive, though a frustrating one in which to park.

Ottawa was a stop on our way home. Okay, it wasn't on the way home, it was more of a detour. This city surprised me, and I'm very eager to get back to it. It seemed as if every destination we went there, and we only went to two, had much more to offer than expected. It was somewhat quiet, and it felt to be a much smaller scale than Montreal. The area surrounding Parliament was quaint and meaningful, but it wasn't oppressively large like the areas around our Capitol and White House can be. It offers a sense of humble majesty, if there can be such a thing.

And this weekend I return to Philadelphia, the city that has been around my corner nearly my entire life. On a brief anniversary trip, my wife and I overnighted in Philadelphia and swore we needed to do it again. We almost forgot to do so on this, our fourteenth anniversary. I'm sure on Saturday morning, I'll be realizing why we needed to be back there again.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Missing: Weeks in Review

Goodness how the better part of a month can escape! For a brief while I had been good about posting the happenings in the household on a weekly basis. Then came late July. Since July 15, I have seen and done a lot, with friends, with family. To wit . . . 

A baseball odyssey with some friends from Owen J. Ben, Chris, and Gary traveled with me to Boston and New York for something of a baseball pilgrimage to Boston and New York. 

A family vacation to our sixth North American major city. We spent a week calling Montreal home. On the way home, we briefly visited Ottawa. 

More about those in a later post. My battery is expiring and the weather is to nice to be typing indoors.  

The Buses Come, the Buses Go

The first principal for whom I worked would often say "The buses come, the buses go." Usually he did this in response to someone agonizing over an issue that while pressing at the moment would soon become rather trivial. He didn't mean for the saying to imply that our jobs and actions were fleeting, but that we shouldn't fixate on the crisis-of-the-moment in an environment that worked on a regular schedule over 180 days. We should keep perspective, and be fresh to meet and work with our kids when the buses came the next morning.

I have thought about this phrase a lot over the last three weeks as I watched the passing of a great man and retired educator, Steve Frederick. I invite you to check out what my band's website has to say about our co-founder, who lost a battle to cancer late in July.

My admiration of Steve and our co-director Chuck comes from what I see as a profoundly meaningful application of my first principal's philosophy. Steve worked in public education for decades, first as a band director and then as an administrator. In those roles, he taught, mentored, led, supervised, and directed hundreds of students. If he did his work in a fashion that was ordinary, he would have kept his job and passed time with those kids and colleagues. Instead, he realized that those days in which the buses brought and took away the students afforded opportunities to reach them and push them to do something that lasts longer than the dismissal bell. Legions of former band kids swear as to the impact he had.

And then as he neared the end of his career, Steve worked with a peer to establish a band that has been in existence now for nearly 20 years. That band has come to mean a lot to me. It's something of a weekly sanctuary, allowing me at least once a week to be a part of something that isn't defined by exam performance, educational jargon, or the stresses of being a teacher and parent. Once a week I am part of the creation of art. And it's art well done as well: Steve and Chuck constantly select repertoire that challenges us as musicians. As a result, we create performances that have the ability to entertain or even stir one's emotions.

Speaking personally, it gives me a meaningful refuge like what band in college did. Is the concert band of which I'm now a part the musical peer of my college ensembles? No, but it's not as far off that mark as one might assume a volunteer ensemble would be. In my college years, the band was a chance for me to escape from the unreasonable pressures I was putting on myself to achieve, and in those hours spent rehearsing and performing, I was not just escaping the two-dimensional obsession that academic excellence can be, but I was creating art.

Directors like Steve or Buzz Jones (at my college) lead and create institutions that don't have to exist. Lansdale and Gettysburg would be just fine without those ensembles. But the communities are so much richer when such groups exist, and such groups only exist when leaders compel people to volunteer to be part of something bigger than the everyday.

As I mourn the loss of a man who I knew for a small number of years but who I came to respect a lot, I contemplate the challenge he offers to me. How can I inspire and build despite the Groundhog Day elements of this profession I am in? What can I do to stir the emotions and artistic impulse of the kids who arrive at my school and leave it 184 days a year? What can I do to build something people in my school or community can cherish and support after I am gone? Of course I don't have answers to these questions, but I hope I can figure out some in the next decade or so. After all, Steve was about ten years older than I am now when he talked a friend into cofounding a band with him, a band that would end up meaning a great deal to some kid who moved into the area in 2002 and who felt the itch to be part of something musical again in 2009.