Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Musings from the Scrapheaps of History

The New York Times ran an interesting column penned by a German editor today (you can read it here). The upshot: many older Germans hailing from the old East harbor a great sense of skepticism toward those who criticize Russia. They're distrustful of policymakers and opinion-makers who may be slaves to a pro-American world view. Perhaps the most interesting angle the author offers is that the sense of loss these east Germans feel at the vanquish of the East more than 25 years ago runs deep. Those old enough to remember life in East Germany remember making all sorts of sacrifices, both small and large. They must have seen some merits in their system. And that system was declared the loser in a conflict between two greater powers. The defeat of that system ended up being their subjugation in a Western system. And, the author points out, there's little that east Germans can point to as evidence of their active role in the end of East Germany, unlike the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, and others who more actively brought about the end of the old regime.

There's a powerful lesson here in how we treat the defeated and other victims of historical forces outside their control. There's also an interesting lesson in what measure of pride victors should take.


It's so exciting to see gasoline prices in the low 2's. My wife's little car sips fuel and has a small tank: filling it the other day cost less than $20. I filled up my minivan for less than $50 yesterday. The drop in prices acts like a coupon for $20 per fill-up.  

But it's not a change in disposable income. And I'm getting increasingly aggravated when I hear journalists say that. 

Misuse of economic jargon like this is becoming to me what wreaths on the door in February has been to my wife. A change in disposable income would be the result of a change in personal income (all the wages, interest, profit, or rents coming into a household) and/or a change in the level of taxes and/or a change in transfer payments. Disposable income is the amount left over for a household to spend after the government gets its bit (or the household gets its entitlement). 

What's happening at the gas pumps right now is significant, for a lot of reasons. For us, it means our purchasing power grows. The dollars we're earning are able to buy more things because a very critical thing on which we rely has become significantly less expensive. In a broader sense, this drop in prices is significant in that it undermines the power of some regimes we dislike (like Vladimir Putin's), discourages some economic activity on which we are ambivalent (like fracking), and encourages some activity that might cost us more money in the future (like buying fuel-sipping automobiles). 

Monday, December 29, 2014


We did worship for the 11th consecutive week. Being the Sunday after Christmas, our church's worship revolved around Lessons and Carols. The neatest part of that was it afforded Sam the opportunity to be a lector. One other eight-year-old got to serve in that role as did a middle school aged boy. It was neat to see some younger folks up there at the pulpit.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Five Myths

Normally I'm not a fan of The Washington Post's Five Myths weekly series. Usually the use of the word "myths" in a column title turns me off with its whiff of condescension. However, this week's offering is a gem, tackling some stories that meandered through 2014.

I've got to agree that the death of the NFL was greatly exaggerated. Yours truly is watching the Bengals-Steelers game as he pens this post. However, if the NFL were a stock, I wouldn't buy. I might sell it. I might hold it. But I wouldn't invest more of my time or money in the sport. The steady flow of players to the sports highest ranks seems to be slowing. The impact of the shrinking numbers of students whose parents will permit them to play football may take years to affect the NFL. In the meantime, the league will probably need to institute rules that will take the violence out of the game. Such changes will begin with prohibiting meaningful contact with the quarterback. Eventually it will turn toward implementing flag football rules in the sport, and those changes will eventually diminish fans' interest in the game.

I often don't agree with Eugene Robinson, the author of this particular segment of "Five Myths" yet I often gain a lot from reading what he has to say. Here he offers a useful perspective that we've moved on a great, great deal from the Jim Crow days. I can think of three reasons for concern, however, regarding race relations: 1) the disconcerting perception that the police community disproportionately targets young men of color, 2) the very real disappointment black Americans might feel about progress not being more impressive than it is by 2014, and 3) the naivete I see in my students about racial stereotypes (not always about blacks, but about other peoples of color). I work with great students and acknowledge that they are products of a world featuring faster-paced entertainment and mixed messages about racial identity. These wonderful young men and women might have very superficial ideas about the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable. It worries me a little bit.

Dead on. Wages are stagnant. America is dealing with an unfortunate demographic trend that has us getting grayer and our population growth slowing. We're weathering these demographic changes better than our peers in the rich world, but ultimately our growth trend is slowing. 

I admit that I've lost track of developments in this corner of the world.

I'm looking forward to another year of news from the Washington Post. Far and away it's my favorite news source. 

Another sample of irony

Just as I published my last post, a post which meandered until it touched upon how important objectivity is to what I do, I came across this column, penned by a Heritage Foundation writer. I'll likely use this column in class next week. It's actually very timely to what I'm teaching in AP Macroeconomics. The students, if we've done a good job, should be able to recognize the bias of an opinion piece (heck, it comes from the Opinion section of a newspaper). Even if they disagree with it, they should be able to objectively use it to better understand what we've been doing regarding policy decisions and the consequences of economic trends.

Happy birthday, Laffer Curve.


This column regarding the Washington Redskins by a Philadelphia Inquirer sports writer caught my eye more than a week ago. I tucked it aside assuming I'd be in the mood to write on it after an Eagles victory. That victory didn't occur. It's been hard to look at or read about anything sports so it slipped my mind.

There's an analogy Mike Sielski makes to Chris Redman in the column that I think falls flat. Otherwise, I think he offers an intelligent perspective on what a professional does about something uncomfortable. The team name and logo for the Redskins bothers me, not so much that I'm inspired to activism, but enough to make me uneasy with its use. I would really like for the team to make a change in name and logo to something else. I'm not a fan of the team, though, and there's no power in me withholding my merchandise or ticket purchasing. From the perspective of moderately interested bystander, there's not much I can do.

Sielski, however, isn't a bystander. He's a reporter and he has to confront and possibly employ the term that may offend him. So I appreciate, therefore, the position he takes about how not employing the term can get in the way of doing his job well.

I find his standards helpful as a teacher. Issues of race, gender, and religion constantly color the topics I must discuss with my students. In those discussions, I choose words that reveal values I have about what is polite, what is sensitive, and what is objective. I also choose words that keep a conversation as unencumbered as possible. Quite some time ago, for instance, I stopped using the phrase "African American" regularly in my classroom. An essay by a former newspaper editor suggested that when race is important to a discussion the term "black" is clearer and less prone to awkward inaccuracy (such as what one does when having to discuss Canadian Olympian Ben Johnson . . . an African-Canadian). There's a lot of trust my students, their parents, and my bosses must extend to me and my judgment of what's not a pejorative, but that's a slippery slop on which one just has to stand in education.

Economics challenges me more in terms of speaking clearly and accurately without offending. As I get more comfortable with that discipline, I increasingly see dilemmas and policies through the prism of rich and poor. When I use the term middle class, I often am lumping that group in with the rich. And this comes up often, for there are implications about wealth distribution in almost any policy discussion I have with students. Issues of unintentional wealth redistribution also come up when I talk with my students about news developments (I have often quipped with them that Costco is a middle-class benevolent society). I can think of more times in the past year, however, when I've cringed at an indiscreet way of phrasing something in that class rather than in the field with the more obvious verbal landmines, history.

Sielski's column serves as good reinforcement for the place of objectivity in one's professional work. Students love to use "biased" and "unbiased" in class dialogue. Though those terms have their use in evaluating informational sources we see, I don't care for using those words to characterize someone's intentions. We're all biased. We all have preferences and tastes on things innocuous (like chocolate vs. vanilla) to things significant (like religious faith). The behavior I want to model for my students is objectivity, the ability to see things as clear from personal preference as possible. That's a habit of mind I think they can emulate.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Nuclear Winter Begins Now

Goodness gracious, it's been some time since I've written. Good news, I'm back. What with the Eagles' sudden fall from grace, and imminent elimination from playoff contention, I'll have time to write.

There are many times in one's life as a fan that one must mourn the end of the season. As a Philadelphia fan, we normally get to do this four times a year. This funeral, however, seems particularly bleak given the suddenness of it (wasn't it just three weeks ago we were laughing at their swashbuckling victory over Dallas), the fact that it's at the hands of Dallas, and that there is no hope for a good season from any other team in Philadelphia.

Further, the immolation of this football team was so shameful, so sharp, that it leaves virtually every aspect of this team's prospects next season in doubt. It's going to be a long winter.

So now I must give thought as to how I'll fill the space. At home that's easy: spend more time focusing on my kids. Read more books. On my commute, I'll need to say good bye to sports talk for a few months. I'll have to figure out some good podcasts to pass that time.

Back to home: more time to write, I guess.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The long, short first half

The winter break is almost near. Only four school days stand between me and more than a week and a half off of teaching. Like I am any year, I'm somewhat exhausted, and I feel just a bit in over my head, fatigued by the nature of "this year."

But this is an annual exercise for me. I walk into every winter break filled with the motivation to do something different the next semester. And I believe that's true because, by falling before the true midpoint of the year, there has enough time to infer lessons from the administrators and the students about how to proceed for the remainder of the year. And, there is enough left to the year to justify trying a new approach.

Last year, around this time, my educational guru started sharing ideas with me about differentiation that slowly but surely transformed the atmosphere of my class. I hit the second semester with those ideas in place. I also mulled over how to rearrange content of a politics and civics class I taught then, and approached semester two with a distinctly different approach. I remember spending time a few years ago mulling over how I needed to be more transparent online about my lesson planning (okay, that's a very nerdy revelation).

The good news is that my middle-of-the-year revelations are stemming more from what I perceive the kids need rather than what I think my higher-ups want. I'm glad to know that I haven't lost my ability to read and hear the students. In short, I know at mid-year how I need to push my students but the manner in which they need that push is more subtle. It's not as much about expectations of content mastery as it expectations of use of time and nimbleness of mind.

This job remains exciting. Every class is a puzzle, and one has a given amount of time (9 weeks, 18 weeks, 27 weeks) to figure out what works for them. You're reading the post of someone who, in week 14, figured out how to make a group of students work and think and contribute in the way he's been looking for.

I'm very proud of what my administrator saw when observing me today. He saw a teacher who knew how to keep a group of 11th graders moving, both intellectually and physically, for 90 minutes. He saw a teacher who knew how to blend instruction and assessment so fluidly it was a bit hard to tell what the kids were doing when. He saw a teacher able to improvise and laugh and adapt. And he saw kids honoring the atmosphere the class needs.

I chuckle a little bit when I think on how different my room and lesson looks now than it did half a career ago, when I came to the high school. I'm lucky that I have a career that challenges me to keep things fresh.

Monday, December 8, 2014


Eight weeks in a row. Big Kahuna will be devoured on Advent 4. I wish I could say my time at church got me any closer to making up my mind on a few difficult decisions. It didn't. Still, eight weeks is a good streak.

Some more Mojo . . .

I might have just created a board game. Holy cow. More, later . . .

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Getting one's mojo back

The first two days of this week were defeating: days on which it seemed I couldn't find a groove teaching, coordinating, parenting, husbanding . . . you name it, I felt like I was off. I was due for a good day teaching, and I think I got it today.

At least in two of the three classes I teach. The other, okay, I'm still off my game a little bit.

Back to Macro. I came across a great column written by Catherine Rampell in The Washington Post. It did a very good job summarizing the health of the U.S. economy, and therefore served as a good review of recent course content. Moreover, her column contained a rich assortment of references and allusions. Good writing is filled with references that intrigue, inspire, and offer meaning on different levels. If one doesn't get those references, one cannot appreciate what they're reading. Heck, one might not even understand it.

So, I challenged my students to take her column, and use their phones to Google three references. Here's what we learned . . .

  • "mojo" has its origins in Voodoo
  • my students have the tact to not read out loud the definition Urban Dictionary offers for "mojo" (I praised them on respecting the PG boundaries of a classroom in a world that is sometimes Rated R)
  • most of my students had no idea who "Mr. Magoo" was . . . until today
  • the "one-eyed man" reference has possible roots in Genesis
Some students' learnings. 
More learnings.
We categorized their learnings according to how jargon-ish the terms were. 

In an attempt to light a fire in my one history class, I've decided to enlist my students in an endeavor to create a contest like Twilight Struggle relevant to the 1860s. There is a chance it might actually work.

Students drafting the cards. We're now up to fifteen. 
Boy, wouldn't I love to see a class playing cards with titles like "Freeport Doctrine" and "John Brown's Raid" while vying for control of the border states' loyalties?

On the motivation front, I ended a long day yesterday looking for a tome that would most certainly put me to sleep. So, obviously, I reached for . . . 

Doesn't everyone have this fine work of scholarship on their nightstand? 
It worked. Within two paragraphs I was getting sleepy. In closing it up, I noticed an inscription inside the front cover. Then I remembered, this book was a gift from a student nearly five years ago. 

It was a pleasant, and timely, reminder of why I do what I do. Teachers occasionally receive great compliments like this, and it keeps us going on rainy days.