Monday, December 31, 2012

Les Misérables As The Great Film Musical

One of the most important things that makes a performance by children enjoyable and engaging is their energy. You can forgive a bunch of third graders if they mess up a line here or there during a school play, but if they have good energy, the play can still work.

It is the same energy, that translates into the commitment and the dramatic determination that makes Les Mirables one the best film musicals of all time. There is much to criticize about this film. Broadway purist are frustrated that Hollywood starts took over the lead parts. The plot is sometimes confusing (and humorously implausible) for people coming to this film without knowing the original stage musical or the book. And while there are some incredible dramatic moments there are some singing performances that seem stiff (i.e. Russel Crowe and well. . . Russel Crowe).

Many of these criticism can be applied to some of the greatest film musicals of all time like West Side Story, The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady (at least Les Mirables didn't pull the "have an actor lip sing someone else's voice"). I'm not making these comparisons because I think musicals need to be given a pass or criticized on an easier scales than other films. I'm bringing up these older musicals to help reflect on the fact that the film version of a Broadway musical is a very different kind of film.

All of the great film musicals brought parts of the Broadway show to the screen that work on the silver screen and the parts that do not. The filmmakers attempt to balance the needs of the commercial audience with a desire to maintain musical integrity in a type of drama that has a very different grammar than film.

Les Mirables does a remarkable job of balancing all of these factors while doing things on screen that bring layers to the story that can't be done on the Broadway stage. There's the incredible sets that help tell the story, the innkeepers pick pocketing and the intimacy of the performances like Anne Hathaway's unforgettable performance of "I Dreamed A Dream."

No other medium but film could capture this performance in this way. Performing "I Dreamed A Dream" on stage is beautiful and powerful but there s a distance we have from the performer.

Lea Salonga is amazing, but try to imagine her performance this with an intense close-up on a large movie screen.  That's a very different artistic feat than what Hathaway attempts.  Throughout Hathaway's song, the camera frames her face reminiscent of Sinead O'Conner's video for "Nothing Compares 2 U." The previous scenes, the sets, the wardrobe and the make-up create the desperate plight and context for this song perfectly. Even before she starts "I Dreamed A Dream," we feel that we understand the tragedy but then the performance revels more emotional depth.

Everything you've heard about Hathaway's performance is true. It's raw, uncomfortably intimate and one of the greatest performances captured on film. Does the rest of the film hold up against it? No, there isn't another scene which is as powerful (except maybe for Samantha Bark's "On My Own") and many other scene get close. 

On future viewing of the Les Misérables, I will cringe as Hugh Jackman barely hits the notes for "Bring Him Home," and giggle as Javert once again does not realizes that he is meeting Jean Valjean.  Many great film have these kind of moments and almost all great film musicals do.  Those thing don't ruin this film because Les Misérable is a film that embraces what it is: a film version of Broadway show.

Many of the critics who have been criticizing this film seem to miss that point.  Instead of trying to be something that it's not, Les Misérables leans into the melodrama and embraces the spirit and grandeur that makes a film musical great. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Why You Need To Go See A Shrink - Part 1: My Moment

Everyone has moments their lives when they need to go see a doctor. Even with the healthiest of lifestyles, there are broken bones, high fevers, appendicitis and other issues that arise.

Everyone also has conflicts, insecurities, fears and mental issues in their lives that require the help the help of a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor or therapist. And even with the best of friends and spouses, we all hit moments in our lives when we need professional help.

That moment for me was in a dining hall.

The first time I went in to see a psychologist was my freshmen year of college. Growing up in the Seattle area, being Asian was a non-issue. There were no Asian clubs in my school that I was aware of and I was rarely reminded of the fact that I was Asian. That all changed when I went to college.

There were a variety of Asian clubs that invited me to join. I was the first Asian friend for some people I met. This made me feel uncomfortable but what hit me was hardest was one night in the dining hall. I walked in and as my card was swiped I saw two long tables filled exclusively with people who were Asian. This made me feel so uneasy that I left the dining hall I immediately without eating dinner.

This felt like the most ridiculous thing to react to and this idea that I had "issues" with being Asian sounded ridiculous. How could I talk to anyone about this? Northwestern University made a big deal about the fact that they provided free counseling and psychological services so I figured, why not take advantage of this and get my money's worth out of this college.

The first session was awkward. I didn’t feel right telling a stranger about my feelings. But there were two things that made this experience worthwhile. First was the fact that when I told the psychologist my problem she didn't laugh at me and validated my feelings. And second, at the end of the session, while my issues with being Asia were still present, I didn't feel as bad about my problem.

For the remainder of my freshmen year for about six months I went in for weekly sessions. Sometimes I had a lot to say and sometimes I had nothing to say. I read some books and wrote some reflections as part of my therapy and gradually, eventually being reminded of being Asian stopped bothering me.

A couple years later when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease (which I discussed in this earlier post). I went to therapy again to learn how to control my stress which was having a direct effect on my disease. This therapy not only helped me with the Crohn’s but changed the way I handled problems and conflict in my life.

None of this therapy changed who I was. What it did was help me realize the kind of person I wanted to be and gave me the tools to become that person. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Winter Break Wisdom: Forcing Meaning Into Milestones

Sometimes we don’t trust life.

Birthday parties, prom, graduation, wedding reception, the birth of your first child . . .

These are all events in life that we sometimes over-plan and build up to be pivotal life-changing moments. We tell ourselves that if the limo is a certain color or that the center pieces are perfect than the moments will be that much more special, and that much more meaningful.

We do this out of fear because we don’t want these things that everybody talks about being so important to fall short of our expectations. Well, here’s the thing, often times these things don’t live up to expectations, because these events mean different things to different people and no amount of fore planning or micromanagement can ensure that these will be life-altering experiences.

Trust that life will bring you the experiences that you need to find meaning. Let go of this idea that you can make something special by adding material things and by taking control of these special moments.

Look for meaning not in the moments themselves but how they connect to other points in life from the past and in the future. Look for meaning not in people who share in these moments but by what you share with these people and look for meaning not only in these milestones but in every day of your life.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Sermon from the Non-Christian

I did not grow up in a Christian household and while I celebrate Christmas with my wife’s family, I don’t embrace Christianity as the center of my spiritual life.
So what does Christmas mean to me?

That’s a difficult question, and not only for us “non-Christians.” Partially, it’s because more than any other religious holiday, Christmas has become an integral part of American culture. People continue to mourn the commercialization of this holiday. Charlie Brown had issues with this in 1965, yet we seem as a culture to not really care to make movements away from the shopping and gift giving.

It’s because there’s nothing really “wrong” or “bad” about giving people gifts. Yes, it can steal our attention from more important things in life but at the same time thoughtful gift giving can really help us focus on the people that we love.

Commercialism can get annoying, but let’s move past that and consider the central story of Christmas:
The Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
Let’s strip down this story for a second and take away the spiritual part of the story.
Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Christmas is a celebration of a birth. Yes, there is the layer of Parthenogenesis and what Jesus grew up to become but without those things, it is still a miraculous story.

Two Easters ago, I wrote this “Easter Sermon For the Non-Christian,” focusing on how we relate to Mary’s suffering more than Jesus’ on the cross and how there’s a powerful connection in the story of Easter to our own lives. The connection we have to Christmas is the central experience of the miracle of life.

Childbirth seems so common and unremarkable sometimes. About 350,000 babies are born every day worldwide. So what’s the big deal? People get pregnant and they have babies?  Well, it's not that simple.  

There’s a woman who tried to have a baby for ten years with her husband. They went through numerous fertility treatments, which not only cost a lot of money but also had physical and emotional tolls. They finally met their baby after the wife’s sister carried the baby to full term and delivered their baby.

Even with our modern medical technology people continue to struggle to have babies and woman continue to face childbirth with levels of risks. After talking to my brother about his wife giving birth to my niece, I realized there is nothing commonplace or insignificant about the birth of a child.

One of the things that we think about on Christmas is the impact Jesus Christ had on other people’s lives. Something I see every time I talk to a parent is how much their children change their own lives. President Obama related that the most difficult moment in his life was when his daughter Sasha was in the hospital for meningitis:
"I still shudder when I think of those three days; how my world narrowed to a single point, and how I was not interested in anything or anybody outside the four walls of that hospital room -- not my work, not my schedule, not my future."
In celebrating the birth of Jesus, we are celebrating one of the most significant human experiences. We’re taking a moment to think about this event, the birth of child and honor it not simply as a point of religious salvation, but as the center of our shared humanity.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Year 3: Week 15 – One Week Later

Throughout the country, teachers went to work last Monday morning.  We had the weekend to reflect and gather our thoughts about the tragedy in Connecticut, but like many teachers I didn’t feel like I was ready to face my students.

It seemed like that every hour a new story or photo would appear and the tears would return. I could barely think about what happened without being overwhelmed by sadness. Last Wednesday was the first day that I didn’t break down thinking about that community or hearing a news story.  As I think about it now, my tears have subsided but the heavy feeling in my heart is still present.

I guess this all would have been easier if this week I didn’t work in a school or with children. Maybe, I wouldn’t be reminded of the tragedy and think about it as much. But I do work in a school.

I spent the weekend reading articles about how to talk to kids about the tragedy and talking to friends who were teachers. I was hoping that this perspective would help me feel different; somehow better about walking into my school Monday morning. But I found myself driving to work feeling no more prepared to deal with my students feelings and my own then I did Friday afternoon.

Before school we had a special early faculty meeting. One of the things I love about faculty meetings is seeing people from different parts of the school in one place. It’s usually a fun positive feeling in the room but today felt different. There was a feeling of tension and apprehension.

I found out that some veteran teachers were not sure how to handle the tragedy with the kids. On one hand, this was comforting, knowing that I wasn’t the only one who felt lost, but one the other hand, it made me realize that this tragedy was an even more shattering. If these teachers who I looked up to were struggling with this thing, than this really was an extraordinary situation.

First thing in the morning I had my 8th grade band. I didn’t address the tragedy directly, but I did talk about “Some Nights,” by Fun. I discussed the feeling of not knowing and fully understanding the world as being something to embrace in life (as I explained in this blog post). I probably went on for a little bit too long, but I couldn't myself.

The classroom teachers had discussions with their students but beyond that it was a pretty chill school day. The thing about kids is that when tragedies happen, they sometimes don’t affect kids as much as we think. A fourth graders does not have the life experience or the mental capacity to comprehend what happened in Connecticut.

I know that there were children who were affected deeply by what happened, but I didn’t end up having any conversations with kids about it. This week really was about trying to keep it together and create a sense of normalcy for my kids. Little things caught my attention like the sound effect of a gunshot in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” when Linus throws a snowball with his blanket.

Then there were the moments that were really a struggle for me to keep it together. Watching a class of first graders walk down the hallway and seeing the kindergarten students perform on stage during our holiday program.

These kids are so small and so beautifully awkward and cute and to them the world is a beautiful and wonderful place full of love and friends. These kids don’t know how much they mean to their families and how much they mean to all of us.

So one week later. Has anything changed for me as a teacher? The main thing is that I feel much stronger about the responsibility I have with my students. Hearing parents reflect on the children that they lost reminded me of how important children are to their parents. It is an enormous amount of trust that parents put into schools. They are entrusting in teachers the most important thing in their lives and the most important thing in our society.

You can’t sit and dwell on this because it can become overwhelming and petrifying, but you can’t forget this because we can’t get lazy, there’s too much at stake. There’s too many kids we loose, so we have to make the time with the ones that we have meaning.

This was a hard week and it wasn’t any speech, news commentator, editorial or even any other teacher that helped me get through this week. What put me back together were my students.

It's hearing the voices of children singing, helping a student understand a song a little better and watching one of my third grade girls greet her friend with a hug.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Buffy's Christmas Tree Lights


Monday, December 17, 2012

8th Grade Playlist: 8 - Hit The Road Jack by Ray Charles

There are a lot of songs that reflect on break-ups and tell the stories of relationships that ended. However there aren’t a lot of songs that put you right in the middle of a break-up while it’s happening.  That doesn’t really seem like a fun place to be, but Ray Charles manages to make it entertaining.

“Hit The Road Jack” by Ray Charles is one of the most popular songs in the history of pop music. It was written by Percy Mayfield and released in 1961. This song is a conversation between a fed-up woman and a man she is trying to make leave. He tries to convince her to let him stay, but she stand her ground and demands that he “hits the road.”

This is a short song with only two alternating sections. The opening “Hit the road jack,” section sung by the Raylettes (Ray Charles’ female back-up singers) with interjections by Ray.

During Ray’s first response he lashes out, telling the woman she’s mean. But then he pulls back and states that if she says he has to go, then he’ll leave. It’s almost like he’s trying to play a sympathy card to change his mind. But then she snaps right back singing “that’s right.”

During the second verse Ray takes on a different strategy. He tries to convince her that he’ll get his act together. Then we hear one of the most powerful phrases in pop music, “don’t care!” These two words aren’t sung as much as they are growled. It’s full of attitude, strength and one of the greatest “oh, snap,” moments in the history of popular music.

The relationship dynamics portrayed in this song are fascinating. This was released in the early 1960s. The power in relationships was more often in the hands of men both legally and socially. So here’s a song about a girl dumping a guy.  The guy is unable to convince her to let him stay and she proceeds to kick him out. Her reasoning is sound, he has no money and he’s no good.

Ray puts himself out there as the guy who gets dumped. This is the opposite of a rap star bragging about how much money he has or how many “ho’s in different area codes,” he “possesses.” It’s this willingness to be the man who gets dumped, the butt of the joke and that makes this song so much fun.

“Hit The Road Jack” is empowering to women and it’s a good lesson to men to remember get their act together before a girl gets fed up because there’s a good chance that if you don’t, you may be hitting the road. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Year 3: Week 14 – Nothing to kill or die for . . .

Between classes sometimes I surf the web to clear my mind and get a break from thinking about my kids.

Today I wish I hadn’t.

Earlier in the day I saw the headline that there had been a shooting in a school in Connecticut. There weren’t very many details at the time. Because of this, it didn’t really have an impact on me and I continued through my afternoon of teaching.

Right before my final third grade class of the day I had a ten-minute break. That’s when I saw the headline, 26 victims, 20 of which were children, the ages from 5-10. Before I knew it, I had my class of 3rd graders in front of me, ages 8-9.

I got through the lesson pretty well. We’re learning “Imagine” by John Lennon for the upcoming Holiday Program (if this seems like an odd choice for a Holiday Concert, hang on, I’ll explain why I chose to have my students perform this song in a later post). I’ve been showing them videos of different artist performing this song. Today it was Lady Gaga’s cover:

When she sang “ . . . nothing to kill or die for . . .” I felt so sad and confused. Now that I know these kids, I couldn’t imagine a world without them. The idea of these kids, any of my kids being taken away from their families and this world was simply incomprehensible.

You’d think, that the more you teach, the more that you are able to compartmentalize the way you feel about your kids and the rest of your life. In many ways this is true, but in some ways it's not. Each time I hear about a tragedy at a school, it gets to me even more than the previous one.

Schools are one of our societies’ greatest accomplishments. The energy of young children, their hope and their spirit, is what keeps the best of our humanity alive inside all of us. When you bring together kids in a school with the goal of growing and becoming better human beings, what is created is simply magical.

That should never change and when it does, when the horrors of our world invade our schools, it hurts, it really hurts.  It's shattering.  

I wanted to say something to my 3rd graders. They hadn’t heard the news and this was the kind of thing that it was important that their parents talk to them about.  However I just needed to say something to them.  I felt this tragedy too deeply to not express my feeling to them.  So I ended the class with this:
One of the thing that changes when you get older is that you have more choices. Most of you don’t have a choice of whether or not to come to school, but I do. I chose to take this job and I choose to come to school everyday to work with all of you. I don’t have to be here. If I didn’t want to come in, someone else would replace me.

I like teaching you.  I love sharing the music that I love with all of you. I enjoy the time I spend with you and I feel really lucky to have that time.

Next week, we get the opportunity to perform “Imagine,” for our community.  It's a song about imagining how the world can be a better place and I know all of you can make it better, simply by being who you are. 
I’m really looking forward to your performance. I know all of you are going to be fantastic. 
Thanks everybody.  Have a great weekend. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What the "Hallelujah Chorus" can mean.

Today I led of a soprano sectional in preparation for a mass performance of the "Hallelujah Chorus."  Before starting this group of about seventy 7th-12th grade students I tried to explain to them the point of what we were doing:
One of things that I love about music is how the personal meaning we find in music extends beyond the artists intention.  Handel wrote this song to glorify and celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  For those of you who are Christian, Handel's intention is meaningful to you, but as someone who is not Christian like myself, it's not meaningful to me in this way. 
It's like "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" by Taylor Swift.  I don't listen to this song and think about breaking up with someone.  I think about one time when I was making cookies with my wife when this song was playing. 

What we are creating here, the meaning we are connecting to this song is centered on how it feels to work on this great piece of music and feel the sense of community that comes from performing music with each other.
So let's get to it, here we go. . . 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Some Nights by Fun

Where did this guy learn his dance moves? From One Direction? And what is he wearing? Why is he wearing a woman's trench coat and why is he wearing riding pants? The rise is all wrong, it's like down to his knees. And his pants are way too short for his shoes.

- Diana (my wife)

I got to admit that their fashion also distracted me from the fact that they were performing “Some Nights,” a great pop song with some revealing and insightful lyrics set in a unique musical landscape.

“Some Nights,” describes a man lost in the circumstances that life has put him in. The title line, “some nights,” sets our minds somewhere between the magic in the night that can uplift us and the darkness that haunts us.

Fun tells the story of a man unsure of his life and his surroundings. “What do I stand for?” echoes through the song as he questions the world that he lives in, which encourages us to reexamine our own lives.

The opening call is a glorious and confident musical statement. It sounds like a call to action, a call to war. It’s starts the song as a chorus for all to sing along with but the lyrics present an unexpected banner to unite behind.

By “cashing in” his bad luck he is saying that he is giving up on fighting. Sometimes he thinks his lips, his words can build things up, but other times he wishes that he would loose the power of speech all together. He is haunted by a ghost of someone he cares about and ends declaring for the entire world to hear, that he doesn’t know what he stands for.

What we stand for comes from our beliefs. More often than not we declare what we would like to believe as opposed to what we actually believe. In a sense, this song is asking up what we truly believe in.

Fun takes us through some different settings to help us explore our own beliefs. There is the setting of war, declaring that he doesn’t believe hype and the pressures of his peers, “I try twice as hard and I’m half as liked.” He wishes that, “this all would end,”so he could find himself in his friends.

The most powerful line in the song is when he considers his nephew and the fact that this amazing life came from a “terrible night.” This line brings different situations into our mind but instead of dwelling on what happened, we are left we the question in our minds. What if what we stand for can result in an outcome that we don’t expect? What if we are wrong?

All of these questions are set against a mash of 1980s rock vocals, march like percussion and dance-pop sounds. It initially doesn’t make any sense how such existential lyrics fit such glorious sounding music.

If you believe that values are not to be questioned and that you stand, unwavering in your belief than this song doesn’t really work. However if you’ve been in the world and encountered the lives of others you realize that the journey of life is all about questioning who we are and what we believe in. This is not something to be ashamed of or feared because this is something we all share.

The days when the world makes perfect sense and you know for sure what you stand for come right before the nights when this all comes into question.  Look forward to those nights because it is in those moments that you see the most amazing things.  

Friday, December 7, 2012

Year 3: Week 13 – The Roses

Right now I’m in one of the most stressful times of the school year. I’m preparing for my 3rd and 5th graders holiday presentation and helping organize the middle school and high school choral concert. At the exact time when I need my kids to really focus in, they start becoming distracted by the upcoming Holidays. Also, there’s the general insanity that surrounds the Holiday season that inevitably seeps into my work life.

During these times it’s easy to forget to stop and smell the roses. Teachers are trained to be reflective and to constantly be thinking, “what could I have done better?” We place high expectations on our students even though we know sometimes that they will not reach them and other times we take far too much responsibility for the way our students learn and behave.

With all of that twirling around in our brains, it’s easy forget to take time to savor the seemingly insignificant, but meaningful moments that make all the stress and the craziness worth it.

These are moments when students want to tell you something about their lives. Like when a fourth grader stopped me in the hallway to tell me how she injured her foot earlier in the week during gymnastic practices.

These are the moments when students relax. Like this morning, when my 8th grade band students while playing a card game during some free time at the end of a band class stopped trying to be cool and were just themselves.

These are the moments when students feel a sense of accomplishment. Like when my 3rd grade students sang the two parts of a partner song at the same time for the first time.

The tricky thing is that so often we are thinking about the next part of the lesson or the next class that we don’t slow down and really savor the time we have with our students. If we want our students to cherish their learning and to have meaningful experiences in our classrooms, then we need to have those moments as well and truly be with our students in the present.

The school year goes by so quickly and if we don’t stop to really enjoy and appreciate these moments, we lose sight of our goals and the point of our jobs. It’s exactly the times when the stress is the highest when we need to help create these moments for our students and ourselves.

Take your time and smell the roses. The papers will get graded and not everything on your lesson plan must be covered. Your kids are worth the extra time and so are you.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Thunder Road - Part 3: Magic In The Night

There are things that haunt us in our lives. Regret chases away our dreams and petrifies our motions.

Throughout “Thunder Road,” we get a sense that Mary has some thing that is holding her back from joining the protagonist in his car but we aren’t sure what it is. While we never hear the details, the last part of “Thunder Road” focuses on how much bravery it takes to move beyond the ghosts of the past into the possibilities of the future.

 Mary has made promises that she has broken. These boys that she has hurt and sent away haunt the “skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolet."  Mary can’t escape all of the mistakes she has made, all the sins of her past and in the darkness of the night they overtake her. Her graduation gown, the symbol of what she worked so hard for, is in rags.  What she thought would bring her liberation is just an illusion.

As the night ends, there is a “lonely cool before dawn.” The engines of the burned out Chevrolet's filled with her broken dreams, start to roar like an animal heading towards her soul. But when Mary steps out onto the porch and sees him standing there, all her regret and fears, disappear on the wind.

The perspective switches one more time and as Mary climbs in, he thinks, “it’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win.” This line is about leaving everything behind, moving on with one’s life and taking a chance to make something happen. As Springsteen sings “win” we hear the music rev up like an engine and in the sailing saxophone line we see the car drive out onto thunder road.

“Thunder Road,” like many of Springsteen’s songs works through a simple arrangement of chord progressions. If you know the basic I-IV-V chords on a guitar you can work through most of this song. Combined with the harmonica at the beginning of the song has a folk-like sensibility. Springsteen mixes this with the grandeur of Phil Spector’s symphonic pop songs like “Unchained Melody.”

“Thunder Road,” lacks a clear verse and chorus structure.  Instead it unravels with a stream of consciousness, slowly building and evolving across a musical landscape that reflects the nostalgia in all of our hearts.

When Springsteen broke into this song in the pouring rain at Wrigley Field, I pulled my wife close to me. As the harmonica line sailed into the night, I felt tears welling up. You could feel the entire stadium begin to sing with Bruce. Then Bruce put his mic down and let the audience sing “ . . . young anymore, show a little faith, there’s magic in the night, you ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright.”

Then Bruce responded approvingly “well, that’s all right with me.”

With these words, the audience is singing about Springsteen himself. He’s not the twenty-something he was when he first sang “Born To Run,” but he’s still our man.  These lines are about what is the most important things in life, faith, love and the belief that there is magic out there. There is wonder in the unknown and if we believe in something hard enough and take a chance, we can all find our own “Thunder Road.”

Monday, December 3, 2012

8th Grade Playlist: 7 - The Scientist by Morgan Gold/Coldplay

Dear Morgan,

Musical heroes: Train, Taylor Swift The Black Keys, and you, Morgan Gold.

I’m a music teacher in Chicago.  To get to know my 8th graders, I asked them to send me youtube clips of their musical heroes.  A lot of the clips were what I expected, but there were some videos that were surprises like your performance of “The Scientist” by Coldplay.

I know this song well. “The Scientist” is the first Coldplay song that connected with me. The washed out production of "Clocks," while unique, didn’t really capture my imagination.  It wasn’t until I saw Chris Martin perform this song that I got drawn into their world.

There is something magical about this song. It’s like a great novel. You know there’s a deeper story and instead of becoming frustrated that it’s not revealed, you are excited that you get a glimpse. This is a song about vulnerabilities, insecurities and hope.

If it’s possible to love a song because of one line, then I love this song because of “you don’t know how lovely you are.” It’s one of the most beautiful moments in music I’ve ever heard and the setting and arrangement of these words truly is beautiful.

This is what I brought with me when I watched your video for the first time, but there was something more than just the song itself that made this video powerful for me.

We so often focus on the worst of the Internet and how it enables bad behavior.  Sometimes we forget the amazing connections that can be made because of technology. What you’ve done is a great example of what’s amazing about not only music but the internet itself.

Morgan, you were brave enough to put yourself out there and because of your courage you’ve inspired people and you are at least one person’s musical hero. That’s a big deal. Right now your video has 371 views. It doesn’t seem a lot when compared to the amount of views that popular videos get, but it’s still amazing when you try to imagine all of those people in one room. 

We live in a world now where young people are empowered not only to create and share their art but to inspire other young people. I’m so excited for your generation to be able to have this exchange.  I can’t think of a better song and performance than your rendition of “The Scientist,” to represent what that means.

There’s no irony, cynicism, or sarcasm in your performance. It’s devoid of everything that people who don’t know young people unfairly stereotype about people your age. And like the lyrics suggest, this performance gets back to the start: music's role in connecting us to other people through our shared humanity. 

Keep creating Morgan, keep playing and keep singing.


Friday, November 30, 2012

Year 3: Week 12 – Boundaries

On my first day of new teacher orientation at my first teaching job, the lawyer who worked for the district gave us a presentation about the legal issues related to teaching.

This was a sobering presentation, but a necessary one.

Being a teacher in our increasingly litigious society presents unique challenges. Like other aspects in life, extreme situations influence our everyday practice. Most of the time wearing a seatbelt is completely unnecessary when you ride in a car, but we wear them all of the time for those rare instances when we get into a car accident.

Most of the time when a teacher hugs a student, it’s a mutual expression of care, but there are the rare instances when a student feels uncomfortable or when the teacher initiates a hug in an inappropriate way. This makes us think twice as teachers when it comes to hugging a student.

I’ve heard teachers mourn the fact that we have to be more careful than they used to around students. I not really sure how to respond to this thought. I never taught in the “good old days.” I grew up hearing about Mary Kay Letourneau and other similar cases. And I came to be a teacher in a time where the trust that our society placed in adults who work with children was called into question.

Is it annoying that I have to be careful around my students? Not for me, because it’s how I’ve always operated as a teacher. I can see how this shift could be annoying for veteran teachers, but so was wearing a seat belt once upon a time. It’s worth it for that one car accident. It may be worth the precautions for that one student who is saved from a traumatic experience that could effect the rest of his or her own life.

I don’t doubt my own judgment, but that’s not what this is all about. This is about how other teachers view my interactions with students and the atmosphere that the choices we make about the boundaries we have with our students create.

I refuse to hug my students. It’s awkward sometimes but I’ve made that call not only because it could make a student uncomfortable but also because I’m not comfortable with that level of physical contact with a student. Does this mean I don’t care about my students or that I don’t develop meaningful teacher-students relationships? No. In the same way that capital punishment is an easy way out to correct a student’s behavior, hugging students can be the easy way out to show affection.

Our practices as a teacher have to reflect societies changes and concerns.  Some of these restrictions can be annoying but they also challenge us to be more thoughtful about the relationships we have with students.  I'm not any less invested in my students than teachers who taught generations before.  I simply express my care in different ways.

Teachers, we need to be careful out there.  If you're not sure about the legal boundaries and liabilities related to being a teacher, education yourself.  That knowledge will liberate you the same way classroom rules make students feel more comfortable. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Thunder Road - Part 2: What else can we do now?

Sometimes life answers our prayers in ways that we don’t expect.

Yes, Mary can hide from the world, throw down the gift of roses and push away the boys that have tried to comfort her. She can wait for some figure, some savior to appear. What Mary doesn’t realize is that the person she is looking for is right in front of her.

He knows he’s no hero. The only way he can bring her “redemption,” bring meaning to her sins and her heartache is ride out into the open road, to escape and find freedom.

He can’t offer her the world but he can help her find it. In the simple joy of feeling the wind in her hair, and the possibility of the open road there is liberation. There’s a sense that anything can happen. With uncertainty mixed with excitement, they’ve got one more chance to strip their wings, the angelic visions of their dreams, for the reality of these wheels that can drive them to everything and anywhere. It’s a transformation from the dreams you’ve prayed for to the blessings you’ve never imagined.

The name “Thunder Road,” an allusion to a Robert Mitchum film brings images of romance, the unknown and mystery. Like a “killer in the sun,” a criminal with no where to hide they can make it to this magical place, their own personal promised land, if they run.

What does he really have to offer her? In a moment of childlike excitement he describes his guitar. There’s a sense that he is trying to impress her but then he quickly pulls back. He knows that it truly is a long walk from her front porch to his front seat. He explains that the ride isn’t free because he knows that there are things that he is asking her to sacrifice.

There are words that she longs to hear from him that he can't speak.  It’s in this acknowledgement that we realize that this is not the end of a journey but the beginning of one.  He will eventually say these words she needs to hear as he promises that he can provide her freedom.

This part of the song is all about the things that we hope for coming true in ways that we never expect. Life doesn’t always have a sense of urgency because it all seems infinite but it’s not.

We need to trade in our illusions, face the possibilities in our life and take whatever path will make our dreams come true.

Monday, November 26, 2012

8th Grade Playlist: 6. Dynamite by Taio Cruz

I don’t really like this song.

When one of my 8th graders submitted this song to me as one of his favorites, I groaned a little on the inside. Sometimes when things go “viral,” my reactions is negative. I still have a little of the “when something gets incredibly popular, I don’t want to go with the crowd,” thing in me. ( I didn’t actually watch Titanic until this last fall).

Honestly, I don’t really know this song that well and I don’t know a lot about Taio Cruz beyond what’s in his Wikipedia. As I listened to this song repeatedly on the way to work, I just didn’t find something in this song that I found that interesting. And then I watched this:

. . .and it reminded a lot of this:

I’m not saying that “Hungry Hearts,” is comparable to “Dynamite” on a musical level. They are very different songs, but both of them have inspired something similar, something truly amazing about music.

When you have an entire stadium full of people singing a song with complete joy, something is right about the music, something is really working. There’s objective arguments that one can make about the quality of a song but that’s not really relevant when you look at the way a whole crowd enjoys a song.

“Dynamite” is hooking into the singular theme that is present throughout all rock music: liberation. Rock and American pop music continues to inspire people through almost six decades, and each generation has different ways to express this idea feeling of liberation. For Taio Cruz, its going to a club and dancing, which really isn’t all that different than what the Beatles were singing about in “Twist and Shout.”

“Dynamite” doesn’t connect with me, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important, significant and meaningful to other people. It’s hard sometimes when you look at another generation’s music to make sense of it, but that’s okay. It doesn’t have to “work” for you. In the same way that younger people don’t get the music I love, I’m not going to love all of the music my students bring to me. What’s important is not that we convince each other of the quality of the music we like but rather what the music means to us. That’s where we find common ground.

The love of music is a beautiful thing.  If you really love music, then rejoice in people’s love of music, even if that love is directed towards a song you don't like.  This is something we should all celebrate as we live our lives, and if you are of a certain age, while singing “A-Yo.”

Friday, November 23, 2012

Year 3: Week 11 - Teacher Marathon

Most of the time I’m a teacher from 7am-4pm. Sometimes when there’s a concert, my day can last longer like from 7am-9pm. The longer days are tiring but they don’t happen very often so it’s not a big deal.

The times when I’m a teacher I have to be more careful about what I say and what I do. When I’m at school I’m constantly watching to see what kids are up to so I can jump in if an issue comes up. So even when I’m not “teaching,” I still “on” and I have a responsibility to be a role model and take care of students in my school.

A couple weeks ago we took our fifth graders on an outdoor education retreat. We brought about 55 kids and 13 adults on a three-night/four-day adventure. This is a great trip that allow us to work with kids outside of the context of the school and challenge them with unique and meaningful activities. Instead of sitting back and letting the staff at this place take control, we take an active role in the teaching and lead most of the activities.

Teaching students, eating with them and sharing a cabin with them at night, meant that I was a teacher from 7am-midnight. Even when I was sleeping, I still had responsibilities, if a kid needed anything in the middle of the night.

Needless to say, this was exhausting.

It’s kind of like a “teacher-marathon.” The sleep deprivation and the depletion of patience places teachers is a challenging place. This is the kind of situation that separates the amateurs from the pros. Either you go crazy and say something to a student that you will later regret or you figure out ways to deal.

For example, after spending a night with the six boys in my sleep group, eating breakfast at a table of all girls is refreshing. Making jokes about situations with other teachers helps a lot and there’s nothing like a mini-rant to let off some steam. Then there’s simply balling up your jacket placing it on a table and burying your face in it (screaming is optional).

The thing is that it is totally worth it.  The kind of experiences that we provide for our kids at this trip are profound.  It takes so much out of the teachers but the kids get more than we will ever know out of our efforts.  How do I know this?  Well, the same way that I know I'm making a different every day as at teacher: faith.

So go on a retreat or a lock-in or some kind of situation when you have to spend long periods of time as a teacher.  While I am glad that there is only one of these trips a year, I'm looking forward to next year's trip and running this marathon again. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thunder Road - Part 1: Magic In The Night

To celebrate my 300th post on this blog I presented “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen.  I felt that post did this song justice embracing all of what this song meant to me by letting the song speak for itself.

Lately I’ve felt myself drawn to this song. It’s like I need this song in my life right now. Maybe it’s my grandmother dying, becoming comfortable being thirty, or the other changes in my life. I’m not sure. But I’m finding what I’m searching for in my life in this song now more than ever.

I have hesitated to write about this song because it so magical and I fear that I lack the skills to really articulate everything that this song is about. It’s time to not be afraid and to look deep within this song. To know what a song is about is to know what it means and it is within this meaning that we find ourselves.

It starts with an invitation, a guitar and piano ascending carefully, dancing and flowing in and out of each other. “Thunder Road’s” introduction is one of the most famous album openings. As the first track on Springsteen’s pivotal album Born To Run, “Thunder Road” was the entry point into a universe of characters that would encapsulate everything that is rock music.

With each line Springsteen paints a vivid picture. The sound of a screen door, the waving of a vision of grace as Mary comes into our world. Originally, this girl was Angelina and then Christina but in the end Springsteen settled on Mary. This name brings forth images of the innocent virgin carrying an unimaginable burden to the mother watching her only son suffer. These visions mix together with a girl standing nervously facing the road ahead.

One of the ways that you know that you are in love is when love songs begin to make sense. As our unnamed protagonist identifies with Orbison’s song for the lonely we know there is something immediate and powerful about his feelings. He begs for her not to leave him because he “can’t face myself alone again.” She’s turned him home and he’s tried to imagine his life without her that he can’t.

She has doubts. Maybe she’s not that young girl, the idea woman. He begs her to have faith and believe in him. When he says that she “ain’t a beauty,” he isn't saying that he doesn’t think she’s pretty. Instead he’s embracing what she is, not the woman she wishes she could be.

The song starts by setting a scene and switches perspectives through Orbison’s song to this man speaking to a girl. These words reveal a vulnerability and a passion. He’s trying to convince her to come with him because there is something that she brings to the way he sees himself that he can’t live without.  Also, he believes there is something that he can give her that no one else can.

In the opening of "Thunder Road," our main character embraces everything that this girl is, her doubts and her fears because he has faith.  He knows that there is something there between them and that there is magic in the night.

Monday, November 19, 2012

8th Grade Playlist: 5. Red by Taylor Swift

Define work . . . if you define works as: Can you get something out of it? Was it good for you? Was it good for them? Did you grow in this relationship? Do you look back at it with some fondness if it should end before your death or his death? Than yeah, it can work. . .
Dan Savage Savage Lovecast: Episode 226
The idea of a relationship for many people is a relationship that lasts 50 or 60 years. Sometimes in our struggle to find that relationship, we see the relationships that don’t last the long haul as not really “working.”

If you think about what Dan Savage is saying, a relationship that lasts 60 years and then ends because someone dies, may not have necessarily “worked.” And a relationship that lasted a year could have really worked for that period of time.  Just because it ended, as all relationships eventually do, doesn’t mean that it didn’t work.

“Red,” the title track from Taylor Swift’s most recent album is about a relationship that worked. It ended, but Taylor is able to look past this to celebrate what the relationship meant. I’m reminded of Springsteen’s “Bobby Jean,” which has a similar message. It’s not about trying to get back together, but rather its' about acknowledging how what was meaningful about a relationship.

Taylor goes into some great similes and metaphors, “Loving him is like trying to change your mind, Once you’re already flying through the free fall."  However I got to say though the opening line “Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street,” is kind of hard to relate to for most of us. She takes us through different colors, expanded on the idea of feeling the “blues,” to feeling “grey,” and most powerfully: “red.”

Taylor effortlessly sings through this song and introduces some great musical touches that are heard throughout the album. Right after the bridge she sings the chorus in a slightly different way with more intensity and darkness. Also the line “and that’s why he’s spinning round in my head,” feels like its twirling. Taylor could have made an entire section of this song repeating this part but rather she leaves it undeveloped as a catchy and beautiful musical nugget.

“Red” revels in the wide range of emotions that love can bring and celebrates the drama, the lack of control, the intensity and the true wonder that is love. We hear her struggle in the bridge trying to get over the relationship but part of her doesn’t want to because she remembers everything about the relationship that worked.

Sometimes we feel like the only way that we can get over a break-up is by convincing ourselves that the relationship never worked and that there was never anything worthwhile in the relationship. Well, if there wasn’t anything of value even for five minutes then the relationship would have never happened.

Yes it’s hard to get over the end of a relationship.  However this process isn’t always about burning photos, bad mouthing the other person with friends and being bitter.

After Ellie dies in Up!, Charles struggles to move on with his life.  The way he accomplishes this is by cherishing the time they spent together, which helps him realize the value of the relationship he develops with Russell.

If you go out with a guy for a month and it doesn’t work out, am I saying you should strap some balloons to your house and go to South America? No, but don’t let the way it ended cloud the beautiful colors of the memories of when it worked.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Year 3: Week 10 – Working Through The Crazy

Okay, I’ll be honest, this week was a little crazy.

My 5th graders had a presentation this last Thursday and my 3rd graders are preparing for their Thanksgiving assembly next week. Both of these grades have to prepare for a Holiday program in December. Also, today, the Middle School orchestra, which I conduct, performed at an assembly.  And then I have my middle school band kids who I still need to attend to.

I didn’t schedule all of this stuff to come together in these couple weeks. What happens is that the different grades and musical groups schedule these performances reflecting their own needs. They don’t really think about the fact that I may have multiple performances in one week. Honestly, they shouldn’t.  It’s my job to manage all of this.

Sometimes the way the difference grades’ schedules line up make my life at school a little crazy, but it’s also what I’m trained to do. I don’t remember the first time I performed in front of an audience because I was so young. It’s something I’ve done my entire life and it’s part of my job to be involved in kids' performances and have the ability to balance all of these things out.

Yes, I have to somehow get groups of fifty kids to perform on stage, but I don’t have to grade essays. I don’t have math test to write. I’m not outside early in the morning coaching a sports team. I don’t have to prepare food to feed the entire school. I’m not responsible for helping kids get into college and I don't have to nurse 1st graders who fall down at recess.

It’s easy to forget when things get tough that other people in the school have just as challenging jobs as you do. Just because a teacher never has to put on an assembly doesn’t mean that he or she isn’t working as hard as a drama teacher.

Let’s say for a minute that this is not true and that there are some teachers who have harder jobs than others. Does focusing on this fact really get you anywhere in the day?  This kind of thinking just leads to bitterness and pull your focus away from your students.

One of the things that keeps a positive school climate is maintaining a community of teachers that truly respects and admires each other.  One of the joys of being in a K-12 school like mine is that every teacher can look at what another teacher is doing and reflect, “there is no way that I could EVER do what they are doing.” That’s a really good feeling because while it makes us feel proud of our work, it also humbles us at the same time.

My next couple weeks are going to be a little insane, but it’s all good. Its what I signed up for. Yes, I may have the challenge of putting together musical programs but the feeling of watching these performances makes it totally worth it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Letters From 5th Graders

During the 5th grade camping trip, I am responsible for the wake-up call.  I sing a song and accompany myself on the guitar.  On the last night, some of the boys wrote anonymous letters of request for the following morning's wake-up call (all of them are written by boys).  Here they are: 

Monday, November 12, 2012

8th Grade Playlist: #4. Lonely Boy by The Black Keys

Music is a conversation. One artist says something through a song and then a different artist responds with his or her own song. Sometimes the response brings in a fresh idea and other times the response is a restatement, an elaboration on the first idea.

When I state that “Lonely Boy” is the one of the greatest modern Rolling Stones' songs, it’s meant as a complement. The blues inspired rock of the Rolling Stones with their profound lyrics are a statement that has been screamed down the decades of pop music and that continue to engender responses. The Black Keys did an amazing job doing just that, elaborating on what the Rolling Stones said while bring a fresh perspective.

It starts with a riff, a short musical idea that is repeated. This three-note pattern gives way to another riff, with contrasting musical colors and an upbeat groove. Each layers that is added has a grit, a dirtiness, reminiscent of “Rocks Off.” Alone these elements would be a musical train wreck, but the fact that they are tied together with a tight an infectious grooves makes something that should feel so wrong, feel so right.

Like the lyrics of “Under My Thumb,” there is a deeper story that is being told in this song. While the musical landscape of this song is aggressive and full of bravado, the lyrics reveal a sense of sorrow and insecurity.

The opening line is about a guy being “above” a girl. Despite the fact that he is so much better than her, he falls in love her anyways. She hurts him, but he says that “I don’t mind bleeding.”  If she was really that much below him than he wouldn’t be “bleeding,” and he definitely wouldn’t be waiting.

The second verse continues this insecurity as he insults her saying he should have left her like her dad did. This is a horribly mean thing to say but like the statement “Under My Thumb,” it is an overcompensating response. He has been hurt so badly by this girl that the only way he can try to save face is to go to extremes. This is not an abusive man but a scared, torn down soul.

There's heartbreak and a resignation by stating “I’m A Lonely Boy.” While he tries to embrace his reality but he is clearly in conflict. Even though there is a chorus of voices and a glorious rock sound, this is a break-up song. It’s a song about feeling tortured, and responding to these feeling through anger and bitterness while at the same time not being able to let go of love. This tension mirrors the messy riffs being held together tightly by the groove.

Why does this song make us feel so good? Because love, even when it drives people to dark places makes us feel alive.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Year 3: Week 9 – Letting Go of Being Let Go

People and their jobs separate for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s mutual, but other times it’s not. When I lost my first teaching job, which I discussed as one of the most important moments in the past 10 years of my life, I was dumped. My “contract was not renewed.”  I knew that the job wasn’t a good fit for me, but I didn’t have it in me to quit, so the school did what I didn’t have the courage to do and they let me go.

It’s still difficult to reflect on that whole situation. Diana and I were living in an area that we weren’t excited about and we both had challenging situations at our jobs. Coming fresh out of college you’re just excited about having any job, so this idea of what kind of job is a “good fit” is elusive, because the fear of not having a job looms large.

I was hired for that job after a two-hour interview, without a teaching demonstration. Before I started in the fall, I thought I would receive more preparation and instruction on what was expected out of me. But before I knew it, I was conducting two high school bands that had almost seventy students each. With limited prep time, little high school teaching experience, I struggled.

It seemed like everything I tried didn’t work and whenever I had an idea to try something different or do something innovative, my input didn’t seem valued. It felt like I was just barely able to keep my head above water as the school year progressed on like white water rapids, refusing to let me pause to take a breath.

I was assigned tasks that did not reflect to my strengths and I failed multiple times to come through when things were asked of me. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because I didn’t have enough experience but regardless, many situations at that school made me feel less confident as an educator and made me question my abilities as a teacher.

Now, it’s a different story. I feel comfortable and confident in my current school. I have great evaluations, my ideas and input are appreciated and I really love what I do. As I’ve prepared to go on the 5th grade camping trip for the third time, I was asked to take on more responsibilities. While I know I can handle this, I think of the failures of my first job and I worry.

I wish I could say that I’m over what happened in my first job and that I’ve come to terms with everything that happened. Like with any breakup, getting over these things takes time.

I love the teacher that I am, and if I had to go through all I did in that first job to get to where I am now, maybe it was worth it. But maybe I could have gotten to where I am without all of that pain. I’ll never know. 

The positive years I've had as a teacher now outweigh the negative years.  With every day that passes, the failures of the past feel more like they truly are part of my past.  It's not like I don't make mistakes any more, but now I don't fear failure, because I've been there.  I failed, I messed up so badly that I lost my job.  But y'know what?  I got through that.  I survived that.  So I know that no matter what happens I can get through it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

8th Grade Playlist: #3. West Coast by Coconut Records

When you think of great sing along songs, you think about songs of joy and hope. These are upbeat songs like “Sweet Caroline,” and “More Than A Feeling.” So when I heard Jason Schwartzman (yes, the actor) of Coconut Records urge us to sing-along to “West Coast” I wasn’t quite sure it made sense.

This is a song about a man missing someone in his life. We’re not sure whether it’s a girlfriend, friend or family member. The circumstances of the distance between them isn’t made clear. It could be a break-up or someone making a career move.  It’s not clear who is to blame for the situation.

Does this sound like the kind of a song that works as a sing along? I wasn’t quite sure until I saw this video of Coconut Records performing live:

“West Coast” is a beautiful and intriguing song. It reminds me of “Wake Up” by Arcade Fire. Coconut Records has an indie rock flair mixed with a sense of story telling. “West Coast” is a song that takes us on a journey and brings us to a place we don't quite expect.

The song begins simple enough with a keyboard line, and then immediately draws us in with hints of a larger story told through fragments of thoughts. The verse is in 7/4, with the beat organized in a group of three and then a group of four. This metric pattern creates a subtle feeling of being unsettled as the melody doesn’t quite play out like you expect. The meter doesn’t bring attention to itself, rather it enforces the emotions of loss and longing in the lyrics.

After the second chorus, Jason calls to everybody to sing a soaring line that is sung over the verse music. There is a feeling of unity and freedom, almost a sense of flying as the words of the verse enter layering underneath. This section continues to build and then suddenly pulls back with the words “I miss you."

Music is about feeling comforted by knowing that there are other people in the world who share our emotions. When we sing along with a song we connect our own emotions with that song in an immediate and very real way. Sometimes those emotions are happy but other times they are not. “West Coast,” is a sad song but it reminds us that the feeling of missing someone is bittersweet. The only reason you miss someone is because of how great that person makes you feel and that is exactly what that soaring melody line is all about.

If you feel like singing along, than just sing along. It’s not about whether the song is happy or sad, it’s about the connection you feel with the artist.  In that moment you are sharing an emotional world that transcends time and space that only music can create.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Election 2012: The Land Of Hopes And Dreams

When George W. Bush was reelected as President in 2004 some of my friends who were Democrats were quite upset. By that time President Bush’s leadership he demonstrated after 9/11 had faded in people’s minds and many liberals expressed significant issues with his leadership. It wasn’t just my friends were angry with Bush being re-elected. A lot of people were spreading doomsday scenarios resulting from four more years of President Bush.

But we survived and none of my friends who said they would, actually moved to Canada.

Now the tables are turned. The same liberal negativity towards President Bush is coming from extreme conservative voices towards President Obama. The doomsdays scenarios and the criticisms are just as crazy as the far left liberal complaints about President Bush.

Is there a lot at stake in this election? Yes, but it reaches far beyond just the president. While the Electoral College renders some people’s voices moot, local elections and referendums count on every single vote, every single voice. So please do your research and vote.

I vote because even with Politics, I’m an optimist. Are their corrupt self-serving politicians out there? Of course. There’s corrupt self-serving people in every part of our society, from schools to churches, from books clubs to waiters. But we still go to these places. We don’t’ just give up on institutions because they have problems.

We are the American government. It’s not some alien entity, the government is a reflection of who we are, with all of our great traits and some features we’d rather not think about sometimes. It is the collective expression of all our greed and selfishness, but it is also an expression of our greatest hopes and dreams.

A couple months after President Obama was elected someone I knew who was conservative asked me how that “hope and dream stuff” was working out for me.

After four years it’s still working out great. I still believe in President Obama.

I don’t believe Mr. Romney is a horrible person or that he’d lead our country into an apocalyptic zombie wasteland of capitalism run wild. In many ways he would be a very similar president to President Obama. To accomplish his goals he would have to move towards the center with many of his views like President Obama had to. Any major changes he would try to make would take time to implement.

Am I worried about the economy? Yes, am I sure either Mr. Romney or President Obama have significantly better plans to fix it? Not really. It’s not like the President can literally make jobs. I don’t think President Clinton doesn't deserve the credit for the surplus, and President Bush doesn't the blame for the recession. The consequences of economic policies are passed down to latter presidents. It’s difficult to place blame or credit for something as immensely complex as the economy on one person. I trust that there are smarter people then me trying to figure this stuff out on both sides of the aisle.  Regardless of who will be elected, our economy will continue to improve, not because of one man but because of our collective will.  

The main reason I voted for President Obama is that I believe he along with the Democratic party is on the right side of history when it comes to LGBT rights and women’s rights.

Democrat Stephen A. Douglas was on the wrong side of history when it came the issue of slavery when he lost to President Lincoln.  Southern Democrats as well as some Republicans were wrong fighting against the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act.

While slavery and Civil Rights were extremely contentious issues of their time, no reasonable person in our society now would argue that our country did not move into the proper direction of protecting more people’s rights.

We are now at a similar impasse. The Supreme Court is deciding which case to hear this year about the issue of Gay Marriage. Women’s rights have once again come to the fore as a political issue. At this critical time, more than ever, we need a President who can lead on these issues, fighting to expand rights to all citizens.

Can President Obama make these changes all by himself? No, but his voice, on these issues brings comfort to those who feel disenfranchised and reminds us of the compassion within us that we sometimes forget. This is the part of us that puts aside stereotypes, and insecurities and acknowledges the basic human rights that we all deserve. Right now, every single voice that fights against hate and bigotry is literally saving lives.

I am 100% confident that future Republican candidates and Republican platforms will have very different things to say about LGBT Rights and Women’s Rights. It will take some time and there will be people like the ones whose insecurities resulted in the need for National Guard Members to escort students to school in Little Rock. But we will get through this, and America will continue to expand rights to all of its citizens.

So vote. Vote with the best inside of you. Don’t vote for a “lesser evil.” Put aside the gaffs, the jokes, and the headlines.  Think about who represents the best inside of you, the best inside of all of us. Believe in our system as we believe in ourselves. Place hope in politicians through your vote. If you don’t believe in anything or anybody, you will never be disappointed, but then again you will never know what its like to feel the glory of a dream fulfilled.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Year 3: Week 8 - The Buffers

They are called “buffers.”

These are the students, most of whom are girls, that teachers sit between the most disruptive students, most of whom are boys. A lot of the science of making an effective seating chart for a classroom is the careful placement of buffers.

You probably know someone who was used as a “buffer” by a teacher. I married one. Growing up, Diana was an attentive and cooperative student and because of this, she was sat next to the more disruptive students in her class. Logically, Diana’s teacher should have rewarded her good behavior by letting her sit next to one of her friends. Instead she was used like so many students as a “buffer.”

Seating charts have positive motivations too. Sometimes you sit students next to other students who they work well with but more often than not, seating charts are created to discourage inappropriate behavior.

“Buffers” may help the class and the more disruptive students but it’s not really fair to students who are putting in the best work. It’s a necessary evil, that I don’t really like, which is one reason I felt compelled earlier this week to have a talk with my “buffers.”

This class was a little rough. I’m not sure why. It could have been my lesson plan, or the specter of Halloween. Either way, it was a class where enough of the students were disruptive enough that I had to give a couple stern warnings and some harsh lectures.

Usually when students are being disruptive in class I hold them back after the other students have left and have a private conversation with them about their behavior. I was mentally preparing myself for this when I looked into the eyes of one of my students, one of my “buffers,” looking tired and a little sad.

Instead of holding back the half of the class that was causing issues, I asked the teacher to take those students and leave me to talk with the students in the class who consistently did amazing work and demosntrated great behavior in class.

I told them that I was sorry that the class had to get so harsh and that I wanted to make sure that they knew that the lectures I gave were not about them. I told them that I understood that it was frustrating to be in a class and have a teacher get mad at a class when they had done nothing wrong. I told them that it was important to me that they understood these things and that this angry song they heard wasn’t about them.

One of the reasons I did this was because I was so frustrated with some of the students in the class that I wasn’t able to talk to them in a reasonable way (a teacher should never talk to a student when he or she is truly angry). Also, I just felt bad for the other students.

Of course you have to put out the biggest fire in the room and yes that is the disruptive students, but you can’t take the quiet, attentive ones for granted. They need to know that they are appreciated, that you care about them and that they matter. These students are more than “buffers” that allow the class to keep going, they are what is working in your class.  For every time you need to redirect a students behavior, you need to complement and build up the students who are doing great things.

If you do this enough, you may just find that you don't need kids to be buffers any more.  

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Monday, October 29, 2012

8th Grade Playlist: #2. 50 Ways To Say Goodbye by Train

I asked my 8th graders to share me songs by their music heroes.  Here are my reactions to these songs.

Sometimes we forget that pop music can be funny. Growing up in the maelstrom of gangster rap and grundge music, I remember music getting really dark and serious. Even now, sometime it seems like pop musicians feel that the only way to be taken seriously is well to have music that is not all really all that much fun.

This is one of the reasons I love PSY's “Gangnum Style.”

People laugh at the ridiculousness of this music video and revel in it. It’s a breath of fresh air, but the thing is, most music videos of the 1980s were just as silly as this one and just as fun. Also “Gangnum Style,” is a great song.

When one of my 8th graders sent me “50 Ways To Say Goodbye” by Train, I was dreading having to listen to this song. Look, I acknowledge the catchiness of Train’s music but the nonsensical lyrics of “Hey, Soul Sister” drive me crazy (here is my post about that song). Well, my student made the effort to e-mail me about this song and it deserves my attention so here we go.

Wait a second, David Hasselhoff!! I LOVED this guy on Knight Rider. There’s a mariachi band and there’s lead singer Pat Monahan dropping any level of pretention and hamming it up for the camera! This is awesome AND the lyrics totally make sense.

Okay, the story is that a guy gets dumped and because of the shame and hurt, he can’t bear to tell his friends the truth so he makes up ridiculous explanations for his ex-girlfriend’s absence including being eaten by a lion and getting hit by a purple Scion.


Look, this is exactly what great pop music is all about. Train is incorporating some cool sounds like a Mariachi band ala Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire.” Then they took a very sad and difficult feeling of being rejected and turned in it into a hilarious anthem.

Sometimes the only way to deal with difficult emotions is to make a joke out of it and Train effectively does this helping us work through these emotions by reflecting the ridiculousness of this reaction. At the same time Train makes us feel better about the impulse of hiding the truth by letting us know that we are not crazy for feeling a need to hide being dumped from our friends.

Train, you totally redeemed the nonsense of “Hey soul sister, ain’t that mister mister” with “She'll think I'm Superman, Not super minivan.”

Nicely Done.

. . . but we still got some work to do to get passed "Meet Virginia."

Friday, October 26, 2012

Year 3: Week 7 – To Be Liked

“It’s nice to meet you Mr. Tang. My son really likes you.”
“Thanks, that’s fantastic, but its not my job to be liked.”
Back when I was student teaching I had this conversation with one of my student’s parents. Coming out of graduate school, I had this view that if a teacher’s priority was to be liked, they were misguided. Our job as teachers is simply to “teach” and if we focused on being liked, then we wouldn’t be doing our job.

While I still agree that a teacher’s priority shouldn’t be to be liked, it’s difficult to be an effective teacher if students don’t like you. I’ve had teachers that I didn’t like, but I dealt with it if they were good enough teachers, but that was more of a college thing, especially with middle school and my elementary school students this, “being liked” thing is becoming more and more important in my mind.

It’s not so much the goal of being “liked” that misguides teachers it’s what teachers do to become liked that gets in the way of learning. If you ask students what they like about teachers you hear a variety of answers. Sometimes it’s the fact that the teacher is funny, or because the teachers like sports, but more often the answers are focused on the teacher’s professionalism.

Kids like teachers who are fair, prepared, professional, and who genuinely like their students. While a group of students may request to goof off during a class, letting them do that is not going to make them like you as a teacher. Challenging them to work hard, tuning back homework on time, having interesting and engaging activities and materials and creating a safe classroom environment will buy you more points in the “like” category then any amount of free time.

You don’t want to create a personality cult where students simply do things because they want to please you and also there are lines in relationships between students and teachers that should never be crossed. A students liking you as a teacher is a very different thing than a student liking you as a friend or seeing you as a peer. This is a difficult thing to distinguish which is probably why when I was a rookie teachers I was told to completely ignore the whole “being liked” thing.

It is essential for teachers to like their students as people. Also, it is important that students like something about their teachers mixed in with a high level of respect for their teachers as well. The way we go about creating this relationship is very hard and is different depending on what grade you teach and what groups of personalities make up your class.

Being liked isn’t something to be put out of your mind as a teacher. Sometimes we need to make choices and do activities to create connections with students.

Earlier this week a parent came up and told me that her son liked me.  I replied, “Thanks, I really like teaching your son.”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Buffy's Special Lady!!


Monday, October 22, 2012

8th Grade Playlist: #1. Give Me Love By Ed Sheeran

I asked my 8th graders to share me songs by their music heroes.  Here are my reactions to these songs.

She really likes One Direction.

The first couple classes of this year she asked repeatedly if we could play a One Direction song. I have a suspicion that the One Direction photos that have cropped up around the middle school may have something to do with her. So when she mentioned that her musical hero was Ed Sheeran, an artist who co-wrote a One Direction song, I was expecting something similar to the One Direction songs that I knew (like this one I've wrote about earlier).

What I got was something very different.

Ed Sheeran is a English singer and songwriter. He is in his early twenties and had his breakthrough song with “The A Team,” which charted on the British charts giving Adele a run for her money. Like Adele, there’s a sense of musical tradition and authenticity in his music. Sheeran sets lyrics with an Elton John like ease with musical arrangements that sound comforting in their acoustic quality but surprisingly fresh.

“Give Me Love” like Spain’s “Spiritual,” is a heart wrenching song. The expression in this song has glimmers of hope but lives in a world full of sadness, regret, pain and desperation. Every way you could imagine someone expressing the words “give me love,” are revealed here in a musically simple but emotionally complex composition.

The song pulls no punches like Elton John’s “I Want Love.” The first verse sets the tone beautifully with the Bob Dylan-esque line “Paint splatted teardrops on my shirt.” He’s made a commitment to fight for a girl but this leaves him empty as he drowns his sorrows, simply wanting to hold this person that is beyond his grasp.

The sadness of the first verse is brushed aside as Sheeran tries to convince his love to give him some time or “burn this out.” He wants a chance to fix this relationship or he wants her to simply let it collapse in on himself. We get a sense that there is something unsettled in this relationship as he tries to “turn this around.” While there is hope in these words, in the second verse, he is taken back to the pain of how much he needs her.

Ed Sheeran ends the song boldly, repeating a statement of want. This is the kind of thing that is really tricky to pull off. Sheeran makes this work by going through a range of emotions by getting softer and then getting louder, growing in intensity. It almost becomes uncomfortable to at a certain point as he sings “love me” with a mix of rage and pain. Right when you feel like you can’t take it anymore he arrives at an optimistic almost spiritual singing of the words “give me love.”

The repetitions of the words give us musical space to think about what these words really mean not only to Sheeran but to all of us as the listener. This song is a reminder of how painful the want for love can be. More than that, what Sheeran expresses is that the want for love is only painful because of how great it can make us feel and how central it is to the human experience.

Don't judge a book by its cover and don't judge someone's musical taste on one song or artist that they like.  Don't disregard someone's musical taste because you don't like one artist they are into.  You never know what you will discover if you simply ask and listen.