What’s paragraphing? Don’t ask a 15-year-old.

The other day I asked my students what they knew about Herbert Hoover, the name emblazoned on their school.   Besides a few rudimentary things such as he was a president, few knew anything else.

Then I asked about Mark Keppel and Eleanor J. Toll, names of their elementary and middle schools, respectively.

Nothing.

Isn’t it odd that students can attend a school for several years yet not be taught anything about the person whose name graces the building they enter and exit day after day?

They were never curious enough to Google these names even though they have libraries of information at their fingertips on the phones they carry.

Just another reminder about the paradox that surrounds us living at a time when information is everywhere, yet people seem less knowledgeable despite the technological advancements.

Unfortunately, from my view in the classroom trenches, the downward trend of what kids know is not surprising.

Exhibit A:  student writing.

Picture a piece of notebook paper with printing (no more cursive handwriting) that starts on the first line all the way on the left-hand side and continues down the entire page without any indentations, paragraphs or blank lines.  Just a block of text.

I even have students who turn in multiple pages of their work without stapling them together.

If I were talking about a third grade class, you wouldn’t be surprised.

But I’m referring to 10th graders in an honors class, two years away from entering college.

Yikes!

How can a 15-year-old get this far in school and not know how to follow the most fundamental rules of writing?

Students’ lack of paragraphing carries over to more critical areas of writing such as formulating a thesis, organizing topics, supporting opinion with evidence, and so on.

With each passing year that I teach, I have seen a degradation in students’ writing skills.

It’s not that students don’t know how to write, it’s that teachers haven’t asked them enough times to practice it.

Kids aren’t getting the instruction and practice they need to become more effective communicators.   The amount of writing a student does depends on the individual teacher.

If a student writes one paper per quarter, four papers a year, in grades 9-12, that totals 16 papers in one’s high school career.  But more often than not, students receive even less writing practice than that.

For the most part, students write papers in their English classes.  Imagine how much stronger their skills would be if they were practicing them in history and science classes.

The writing doesn’t have to be multiple page opuses.  Even a one-pager regularly assigned can provide sufficient practice in exercising their writing muscles.

Years ago, I was asked to coach social science teachers on how to grade short pieces of writing using rubrics.   There was resistance.

If only English teachers are expected to give writing assignments, students will continue floundering.

After all, today’s English teachers must deliver differentiating instruction for three types of student populations—regular ability, special education, English language learners—in a classroom bulging near 40 pupils.

And it is expected those instructors will assign writing on a regular basis?   Where is the time outside of work hours to grade 175 papers?

As I have written in this space before, Glendale Unified used to support English teachers with lay readers and paper grading days to ease the heavy workload.  However, those programs have long been eliminated.

Why should the average person worry about these things?

Think about where these less than qualified students are headed:  the workforce.  The people who will be our caretakers in law, accounting and medicine.  It is not just about indenting paragraphs.

 

 

To Catch a Thief

Strange how one alteration in a long-running pattern can turn everything upside down.

After 30 years of regularly playing racquetball early Sunday mornings at the Hollywood YMCA with a longtime friend, we had to switch to Saturdays in 2020 due to a later opening time—change #1.

Because the on-street parking in front of and across from the Y was taken, I ended up parking one block further north, an area I had never parked before—change #2.

Because the metered parking begins at 8:00 a.m. on Saturdays instead of 11:00 a.m. on Sundays, for the first time I had to put money in the meter—change #3.

Because I needed to retrieve coins from my car, I neglected to relock the vehicle (which I did not know at the time)—change #4.

My friend set an alarm on his phone for 7:57, allowing me enough time to run downstairs, cross the street, and feed the kitty for both our cars.

As I walked across from the main entrance to where my friend’s car was parked, I noticed a beat-up white sedan pull up next to mine which was one block up from where I was.  It appeared to be in position to parallel park; however, there wasn’t a place to park behind me.

Without thinking much about it, I stepped on the sidewalk and took out coins to put into the meter.

Suddenly, my eye caught a peculiar sight—my trunk had just popped up!   In a flash, my eyes quickly zoomed in to see the front passenger door open with someone half inside my car.

Instinctively I rushed over shouting, “Hey!  What are you doing?!”

Like the head of a jack-in-the-box, the rest of the man jumped out of my car.  He was in his late 20’s or early 30’s, white, disheveled looking.

“Oh, is this your car?  Sorry.  I thought this was my buddy’s car.  He said he left something here for me.”

At that point a voice inside of me said, “Brian, do not say anything else.  Get in the car fast, turn it around, and get the hell out of the area.”

Before I knew it, I made a U-turn and drove two blocks to a church parking lot, my heart pounding and my mind racing.

Lucky for me I never leave anything visible inside my car except for a pair of sunglasses and a water canteen.  And the only item in my trunk are reusable shopping bags.

But what about my registration and insurance card inside the glovebox?

I opened it up and discovered nothing had been disturbed, everything was there.

Did what just happened happened?  Was I a victim of a car burglary?

What hit me like a brick was the strong odor of cigarette smoke that must have been absorbed on the crook’s clothing.  It was so powerful that even after driving several miles with all the windows down I still could not get it completely eliminated.

I carefully walked back to the Y, looking to see if the man would still be there.

He was gone.

Within 60 seconds, he had pulled up next to my car, sized it up, pulled in front of my car, exited his, opened my unlocked passenger door, reached over to the driver’s side and pushed the release button to the trunk—clearly an activity he had mastered in record time.

I must have left the car unlocked because there was no sign of forced entry. That explains how he quickly got into my car without breaking a window.

However, if I had arrived a minute later, who knows what condition my car would have been in?

It wasn’t until I told this story to people that I realized how fortunate I was that the guy wasn’t confrontational or didn’t have a weapon.

There must have been a guardian angel watching over me that day.  How 2020 could have easily gone sideways in just four days old.

 

New Trump, New Year

This New Year’s we say goodbye not just to 2019 but to the second decade of the 21st century.

It seemed not that long ago when the biggest worry we had was the alleged Y2K crisis.  Who knew that 20 months after celebrating the new millennium, 9/11 would turn our world upside down.

And so, with 20% of the century now gone, what is the health of America?

Scanning negative headlines everywhere, the future seems bleak.

Like a vision from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come from Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, I can’t help but picture a headstone reading:  The United States,

1776-20–?

But just like Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation, America can turn it around.

Imagine President Donald J. Trump waking up on New Year’s Day a changed man, compassionate and decent, delivering a speech for the ages, words to unify all Americans.

“My fellow Americans,

For these past three years, I have not been the best person I could have been.

Ever since November of 2016 when I was shocked to learn that I had won the presidential election, I really had no idea what to do next.  My team and I were completely unprepared for those results; our pollsters had Hillary Clinton winning by three million votes.

Since I did not want to come across as someone incompetent, especially since so many believed in the brilliant billionaire businessman they saw on television who hosted “The Apprentice,” I did not want to let citizens down.

From my childhood, when my father sent me to military school, his only child of five for whom he did such a thing, I have felt insecure.  That is why I boast, berate and shout to cover up my inadequacies.

But once the House of Representatives passed those two articles of impeachment, it made me reflect on what type of legacy I want to leave behind.

Just as I am the first president ever to be impeached in his first term, I could become the first president who performed amazing deeds in less than a year.

As of today, I am disabling my Twitter account.  The juvenile name-calling stops now.  Restoring the honor of the office of the presidency is a prime priority.

Dishonesty and misinformation will no longer thrive; the Trump Administration will be known for truthfulness and transparency.

I will rebuild our relationships with our allies and strengthen our human rights concerns with our foes.

I will model bipartisan Congressional relationships by working alongside Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

The Trump presidency will welcome those people from other countries who are seeking a better life in America.

I admit that climate change is real, so I will re-affirm the United States’ commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement.

I will embrace not insult the free press, and as a sign of my pledge, will host regularly scheduled press conferences.

And, if after 10 months of Trump 2.0, you wish to reelect me, I would be honored to continue as president for another four years, remembering always that I serve at the pleasure of all Americans.

The enemy is not the person who disagrees with you or votes for someone else, not the person whose religious or ethnicity is different from yours.  No, the enemy is intolerance of those who are unlike you.  That is not America.  We are stronger because of our diversity.

I welcome each and every one of you to remember the words of President George H. W. Bush to be a ‘kinder, gentler nation,” as well as President Kennedy’s proclamation, ‘ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.’  May God bless America.”

I know, I know, like Dickens’ story, it’s a work of fiction.  This is never going to happen.   However, if it did, what a wonderful world this would be.  Happy New Year.

Christmas Songs You May Have Never Heard but Should

Of all the magical aspects to the holiday season, from classic movies to family recipes to neighborhood outdoor decorations, the one that enthralls me the most is the music.

I probably have close to 90 Christmas CDs.  As much as I love the pantheon of carols such as Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” I also treasure more obscure singers, songs and arrangements that bring fresh sound to these old chestnuts.

“(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays” by Perry Como.  Look for the less heard 1959 stereo version.  While the 1954 original is solid, this one soars.  It starts out slowly with a plaintive Como nearly singing a cappella as the background singers later come along with an orchestral sound that gets the heart pumping to a rousing woodwind-driven crescendo.  If you don’t have goosebumps by the end, you probably don’t have a pulse.

“Here Comes Santa Claus” by the Mills Brothers.  The combination of the men’s harmonies matched to the simple instrumentation is foot stomping.  And when lead singer Donald says “now listen children” you feel he is talking to you.  I only wish it was longer than 1:48.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” by the Blind Boys of Alabama and Taj Mahal.  Next to Bing Crosby’s traditional version, this is the best rendition of the song due to its gospel-like arrangement.  You won’t believe it is the same song once you hear this.

“Children Go Where I Send Thee,” a traditional spiritual sung by Peter, Paul and Mary backed by a chorus from 1988’s “A Holiday Celebration with the New York Choral Society” that aired on PBS.  It is one of those songs where each lyric is added to the previous one similar to “The 12 Days of Christmas.”   Listen for Mary when she growls “itty bitty baby.”

“Brazilian Sleigh Bells” by Ferrante & Teicher, the popular piano duo of the 1960’s.  Strictly instrumental, this high-flying, full-throttle arrangement is sure to boil your hot cocoa.

“Silver Bells” by Tony Bennett and the Count Basie Orchestra.  The easy phrasing of Bennett matches the famous Basie sound.  You can almost imagine yourself walking outside looking at decorated storefronts—that is, if you can find any.  Notice how Bennett sings “silver bells” to the beat of the instruments, then when he repeats the phrase, sings it ahead of the instruments.  Only a master crooner can do that.

“Good King Wenceslas” by Mel Tormé.  This swinging arrangement will move you to dance not sit while listening.  With the dulcet sounds of Mel, and a bit of scatting thrown in, you can’t go wrong.

“Christmas Blues” by the Ramsey Lewis Trio.  A steady beat that makes a perfect soundtrack for trimming the tree, the song proves one doesn’t need more than three masterful musicians to produce a multi-textured sound.

Even songs that I don’t care for, when arranged with a certain tempo and orchestration, can be like hearing the songs for the very first time.

“Mele Kalikimaka” by Seth MacFarlane.  The original Crosby tune never was one of my favorites, but this rendition has a swinging tempo.  Arranger Joel McNeely does a masterful job creating a sound that is both retro yet fresh.

“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” by John Driskell Hopkins and the Joe Gransden and His Big Band is a revelation. The salsa beat arrangement is contagious.  Each Christmas I find one song that I just have to play every day and this is the one for me.

No matter what you listen to, I hope you do hear the Christmas spirit that is within you and those around you.

Season’s Greetings.

 

 

For Rent: The House I Grew Up In

There is a street in Burbank, maybe the shortest one in town, that connects Pass Avenue to Hollywood Way.  On that street is a house where my family lived for seven and a half years, from April 1969 until the fall of 1976.

That may not seem so long, but for my family it was a lifetime for that was the one residence where we lived at the longest, and where life’s obstacles tested the strength of our familial bonds.

Back then, the rent was $175 a month.  Right now, it is for rent again . . . for $3,075 a month.

I found that out by happenstance when my wife and I took that shortcut while running errands the other day.  The colorful flags out front caught my attention, the “open house” sign compelled me to stop.

Walking into the house I was struck with how small it was, barely over 900 square feet.

The tiny living quarters seemed like a gigantic dollhouse.  If one person was washing dishes in the kitchen, another person could barely squeeze in between the sink and the refrigerator and stove.

And the lone bathroom was less than half the size of the kitchen.  Imagine one bathroom for five people.

Yet we did it without any complaints for that was the size of all the houses that we rented:  two bedrooms and one bath.  My sister being the only female child always had one of the bedrooms.  My parents had the other, while my brother and I shared the den.

At this house, however, my parents had the den, while I had the smallest bedroom.  For the first time since he was a toddler, my 20-year-old brother had his own bedroom in the converted detached garage.

We never felt that we lacked anything.  All the credit goes to our parents who despite minimum financial means, always made sure we had food to eat, new clothes each school year, and presents for birthdays and Christmas.

When I entered this house I was still in elementary school; when I left, I was attending UCLA.

This was the house when my family got our first color television.

This was the house when I got a blue Schwinn Stingray bike for Christmas.

This was the house when a stray cat had a litter of kittens in a drawer of my parents’ dresser.  From that litter, we kept one who ended up living for 18 years, keeping my mother company when she eventually lived alone.

This was the house when my Dad was stricken with lung cancer, dying within a year.  When I began living in the house I had a 50-cent weekly allowance; when I left I was receiving Social Security survivor benefits.

How ironic that 14 months after my father passed away at UCLA Medical Center, I was hospitalized at the same facility for one month, my body attacked by psoriasis.

When we moved into the house in 1969, we were a family of five.  When my mother and I moved out in 1976 after my brother and sister left, we were only two, moving into an apartment for the first time.

In that period of time the nation witnessed the first moon landing, the end of the Vietnam War, Watergate, President Nixon’s resignation, and the Bicentennial celebration.  Locally, the 1971 Sylmar earthquake reminded Angelenos of the ground’s instability.

I entered that house a boy and exited a man, with too much growing up in between.

It is a cruel reality that people cannot grasp sense of their lives as they are living them.  It is not until years have passed that allows us the perspective of our narrative, to look back over the entire tapestry of experiences, and to think:  my God, how amazing it was that we lived in that house and still remained a close-knit family weathering the storms that banged at the door of our domicile.

 

Later start times for schools benefits students

7:00 – “Good morning, Mike. Time to wake up and go to school.”

7:10 – “Mike, get out of bed.  Your breakfast is getting cold.”

7:20 – “Mike, get up now, you’re going to be late for school.”

7:30 – “Mike, if you don’t get out of bed this minute, there is no video game playing tonight!”

How often has a parent gone through this script morning after morning, urging a child to wake up and go to school?

Such a ritual may soon be a relic from the past due to Gov. Gavin Newsom signing a bill on Sunday mandating that middle schools begin no earlier than 8:00 a.m. and high schools no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

Districts have three years to implement the later start times.  It is probably the only bill of the 70 he signed that I agree with.

Allowing children especially adolescents to sleep in matches their natural biological clocks.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has long supported later start times since teenagers tend to stay up later thus requiring more sleep in the morning; 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night is recommended.

Students attending school so early suffer from sleep deprivation interfering with their performance in school.

In a University of Washington study of students attending later start schools, researchers discovered an increase in student achievement.

Those opposed to this measure are concerned about its negative impact on students’ extracurriculars mainly sports since several games begin before or immediately after 3:00 p.m.  Depending on the sport, some kids already leave class after lunch in order to be at a game.  With a later start, those kids will miss even more school.   Such an obstacle can easily be resolved by starting the games later.

For parents, dropping off children later may interfere with their work schedules, meaning child care issues.  However, where I work, I often see students as early as 7:30 a.m. hanging out on campus; no big deal.

Starting school later would also benefit employees.  It is challenging for a teacher to be fully alert by 8:00 a.m. to work with 35 children.  For decades I have trained myself to rise no later than 5:30 a.m. just so I could perform my duties at an optimal level. I would prefer a 9:00 a.m. start so I could sleep in to 6:00 a.m. when there is more sunlight than darkness.  Plus, I would see more of my family before heading off to work.

In addition to starting school later, I would tweak school hours even further by extending the school day by an hour, from 9-5.  American students traditionally have less time in school than other industrialized countries.  An extra 180 hours of instruction over the course of a year could benefit them tremendously.  And, it might even decrease the amount of homework since some of it could be done within the extended school day with the assistance of the teacher right there for help.

My only concern about this new law is that Sacramento legislators felt compelled to mandate this statewide instead of allowing individual school districts to poll their principals, teachers and parents to make an informed decision.   That is why former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it last year.

This is just like the law Newsom signed last month dictating that local districts no longer suspend disruptive students even when they defy their own teachers.   The people in a community should retain control over that community without Big Brother imposing its will.

Still, parents should welcome this change.  With the recent release of middling state test scores in math and English, school children could use any little advantage to help them be more successful.

Teaching Opera with a Little Help from a Friend

Before this school year began, I planned experiences for my students outside the classroom walls that would expand their knowledge of literature, history and the arts.

First on that list was to see a production of Puccini’s La Boheme by the Los Angeles Opera company at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

For years, the education arm of L.A. Opera has funded programs for students to be introduced to the splendor of a live opera performance for free, quite a gift considering the best seats in the house go for over $300 a piece.

Back in the last 1990’s when I discovered this program, I would apply to it each year by submitting lesson plans and attending Saturday workshops in order to bring dozens of students to see a matinee performance.

Year after year, students and parents told me how much they enjoyed the experience, but year after year I became increasingly exhausted.

Without clerical support, I had to call the bus company myself to make all of the arrangements, collect enough money from students to pay not only for their transportation but to cover the cost of those who could not afford to pay, solicit parents to serve as chaperones, and fill out several school and district forms.

It also didn’t help that some teachers did not approve students going on the field trip.  One actually called me to ask if my students could miss my class the following day in order to make up for the lost hour due to the opera.

By the end of this century’s first decade, I decided I was done.

Until this year when I resurrected this event for my 10th graders.  After all, L.A. Opera was producing my favorite, La Boheme.

When I first taught opera, the L.A. Opera League would schedule guest speakers to visit each school participating in the program.

One of these speakers was Leslie Einstein.   She came armed with full-size posters of not just the opera but of history and literature.  Ms. Einstein wanted the students to be immersed in the time period, turning the classroom into a French café by passing out cups of apple juice and plates of home-baked madeleines.

She enjoyed interacting with my students so much that she proposed starting an after-school opera club.

Think about this.  A woman living in Pacific Palisades driving to a school in Glendale to fund an opera club where students learn about opera, then go see the actual performances.  In addition to the donated tickets, Ms. Einstein treated the students to a formal dinner beforehand.

So before I began my opera unit on La Boheme last month, as a shot in the dark, I contacted Ms. Einstein after 18 years.   Luckily, I found her phone number on a fax cover sheet dated from 2001 in a folder in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet.

I didn’t know what to expect when I called, but after hearing her voicemail greeting, I knew she was doing well.

When we finally spoke over the phone a couple of days later, it was as if we had just recently talked to one another.  Amazing to think that the last time we spoke was before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.  How much in the world had changed since then, but not Ms. Einstein’s enthusiasm.

Not only did she agree to drive out to Hoover to be a guest speaker for my students, she was going to do two presentations as well as bring the apple juice and madeleines.

It was nice that so many of my students enjoyed studying opera and seeing La Boheme, and even more special that they had an opportunity to know Ms. Einstein.

Today’s world could use a few more kind souls like her whose charity brighten and enrich young people’s lives.