Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Benefits of Music

I think my mom (a music major with perfect pitch) would be very upset if I didn't post this about the value of music education!


Sunday, October 27, 2013


Winning seemed pretty easy as a child.  My high school team was dominant, the Vikings of the 1970's were among the NFL elite, and even the Gophers- though down from their glory years- could at least hold their own in trophy games against the Badgers and Hawkeyes.

I later became the defensive coordinator for the Milwaukee Vincent Vikings.  For two years, we lost games in heartbreaking fashion.  We broke down at just the wrong time.  We found creative ways to, as they say, "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."  We some some games, but no signature wins.  No playoff appearances.

Milwaukee Marshall was always in our way.  We couldn't beat them.  And then- magically- we did.  The feeling of euphoria that overtakes you in those moments is stunning.  I'm not a scientist, so I can't describe the chemical reactions going on inside- but it sure feels good!

In those moments, all differences are set aside.  All of them.  The team celebrates as one.  One heartbeat.  Special.

Winning is always nice.  It beats losing one hundred times out of one hundred.  But, the especially euphoric feelings only happen when you achieve an unexpected victory after experiencing hardship and pain.

My Gophers beat Nebraska in football on Saturday.  The win extended the Gophers lead in the all time series against Nebraska to 30-22-2.  But, it was their first win since 1960- the year before I was born.  Since then, Nebby had run away with 16 straight wins, most of them in blowout fashion.  When the Gophers took the lead in the 2nd Quarter, it was the first time they had held a lead against Nebraska at any point of any game since 1964.   Ponder that for a moment.

So yeah, I'm sorta pumped up by that win!

Pain and suffering, even within the limited context of being a sports fan, are real emotions.  Overcoming the odds, breaking through, and achieving victory- even if only in a game- unleashes tremendous joy.

I'm reading David and Goliath, another great book by Malcolm Gladwell.  I highly recommend it.  He talks about overcoming odds, dealing with adversity, and pushing through pain.  While no one wishes bad things on anyone, the proof is overwhelming that many of our most creative, undaunted, and fearless innovators endured real adversity.

Real adversity, not the self-inflicted adversity of a sports fan.  Go Gophers!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Failure- it's not the worst thing in the world

I recently stumbled across a "GRIT" Rubric developed by a school in San Francisco.  It outlines behaviors that Exceed, Meet, or Fall Below Expectations in the areas of Guts, Resilience, Integrity, and Tenacity.  I gave one to every teacher, but should probably give one to every student and parent as well.  It provides an opportunity for purposeful introspection and offers a model of what decent and exceptional "GRIT" looks like.

I just started reading David and Goliath, the new book from Malcolm Gladwell.  Two of the early themes are overcoming what appear to be insurmountable odds and overcoming adversity. 

I've had an old Marine slogan hanging in my office for 20 years: "Improvise  Adapt  Overcome"

One doesn't 'overcome' anything without a little "GRIT."  Guts.  Resiliency.  Integrity.  Tenacity.

It also reminded me of these posts:



Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Toughness and Evaluation Models

"Men, we have our fun on Friday nights!" The booming voice of Coach Larson, my high school football coach, reverberated around the practice field and the surrounding countryside.  It was a Tuesday, in the middle of a miserable, exhausting drill.  Or a Wednesday as we struggled to complete one of our brutal conditioning regimens.  Or a Monday, after getting screamed at for being, without question, the worst collection of football players to ever even think about playing football at Cambridge High School.  Or a Friday, just before we took the field for a game, right after being told how proud he was to be associated with this group of guys.

We loved Coach Larson.  Still do.

Most people couldn't get away with the things Coach Larson did and said.  Some people are just jerks.  Coach Larson was one tough hombre, but he wasn't a jerk.

I wonder what an evaluator with a detailed "practice walkthrough rubric" would've hand to say to Coach Larson in the post-observation conference.

Some teachers are mean to kids, or are just plain ineffective.  Others do and say what can look to the untrained eye like almost the exact same things, and yet the kids love 'em.

A new cottage industry is rapidly forming around teacher evaluations.  There were lots of concerns and complaints about the deficiencies of the old model.  I share those concerns and complaints.  The new evaluation models provide us with significant improvement.  Or do they?

The new models really amount to a tightening up and a doubling down on the old model.  At the core- it is still a principal evaluating a teacher's instructional effectiveness.  To be fair- the new models do a much better job of getting a more complete sense of the overall instructional picture.  That's a good thing.  The new models also more directly account for "professionalism."  That's a very good thing.

And yet- I'm still not completely sold.  A local band writes a song and records it on crummy equipment.  A more refined band hears the song- cleans it up, adds better musicianship, records it on superior equipment- and the song sounds a lot better. 

The problem is- I just don't care for the song. I can't offer any suggestions on how to make the song any better.  I want a new song.  A different song.  A different kind of song.

I wish I had better answers, because I do have questions.

What if most of the really heavy lifting around instruction and pedagogy happened in conversations between teachers?  What if the primary evaluator, presumably the principal or superintendent, instead of running around with a new and improved evaluation rubric, was instead expected to foster a culture and climate that promoted those kinds of courageous conversations?  A culture and climate that focused on positive relationships between and among all stakeholder groups.  A structure that hired the best people and kept them both nurtured and challenged.

Part of that would involve a "culling of the herd."  Some folks be replaced over time.  But, and this is a big but..., not necessarily in the way that I hear some talk about 'firing bad teachers.'  These folks might not be 'bad,' they just don't fit the organization.  Or- they don't fit it anymore.  Also, a truly strong and innovative organization needs people in various roles- not a collection of cookie cutter cutouts who all think and act the same.

I want someone like Coach Larson in my organization.  Not an organization full of them, but a few.  One of my worries is that the new evaluation model makes it more difficult for a Coach Larson type to survive.  I hope I'm wrong.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Lying artfully (ie Fishing)

I love to read, and appreciate great writing.  This is a small excerpt from a surprisingly funny and enjoyable book.  As a fisherman, I can neither confirm nor deny the veracity of these claims!

Jerome Klapka Jerome. “Three Men in a Boat.” iBooks.
Some people are under the impression that all that is required to make a good fisherman is the ability to tell lies easily and without blushing; but this is a mistake.  Mere bald fabrication is useless; the veriest tyro can manage that.  It is in the circumstantial detail, the embellishing touches of probability, the general air of scrupulous—almost of pedantic—veracity, that the experienced angler is seen.
Anybody can come in and say, “Oh, I caught fifteen dozen perch yesterday evening,” or “Last Monday I landed a gudgeon, wrighing eighteen pounds, and measuring three feet from the tip to the tail.”
There is no art, no skill, required for that sort of thing.  It shows pluck, but that is all.
No, your accomplished angler would scorn to tell a lie, that way.  His method is a study in itself…

I knew a young man once, he was a most conscientious fellow, and, when he took to fly-fishing, he determined never to exaggerate his hauls by more than twenty-five per cent.
“When I have caught forty fish,” said he, “then I will tell people that I have caught fifty, and so on.  But I will not lie any more than that, because it is sinful to lie.”

But the twenty-five per cent. plan did not work well at all.  He never was able to use it.  The greatest number of fish he ever caught in one day was three, and you can’t add twenty-five per cent. to three—at least, not in fish.

So he increased his percentage to thirty-three-and-a-third; but that, again, was awkward, when he had only caught one or two; so, to simplify matters, he made up his mind to just double the quantity.
He stuck to this arrangement for a couple of months, and then he grew dissatisfied with it.  Nobody believed him when he told them that he only doubled, and he, therefore, gained no credit that way whatever, while his moderation put him at a disadvantage among the other anglers.  When he had really caught three small fish, and said he had caught six, it used to make him quite jealous to hear a man, whom he knew for a fact had only caught one, going about telling people he had landed two dozen.

So, eventually, he made one final arrangement with himself, which he has religiously held to ever since, and that was to count each fish that he caught as ten, and to assume ten to begin with.  For example, if he did not catch any fish at all, then he said he had caught ten fish—you could never catch less than ten fish by his system; that was the foundation of it.  Then, if by any chance he really did catch one fish, he called it twenty, while two fish would count thirty, three forty, and so on.

It is a simple and easily worked plan, and there has been some talk lately of its being made use of by the angling fraternity in general.  Indeed, the Committee of the Thames Angler’s Association did recommend its adoption about two years ago, but some of the older members opposed it.  They said they would consider the idea if the number were doubled, and each fish counted as twenty.

If ever you have an evening to spare, up the river, I should advise you to drop into one of the little village inns, and take a seat in the tap-room.  You will be nearly sure to meet one or two old rod-men, sipping their toddy there, and they will tell you enough fishy stories, in half an hour, to give you indigestion for a month

Friday, October 11, 2013

Live, or Studio?

It didn't take the "geniuses" of iTunes too long to figure out that I prefer live music over studio tracks.

From a purely technical standpoint, the studio versions are almost always better.  Better acoustics, richer and more complex background tracks, tighter vocals, precise instrumentation.  A sound for the masses.  A sound for the casual fan who likes the song and the group enough to listen when it's played on the radio, and maybe even buy it for a playlist.

The live versions simply can't replicate the musical precision of the studio.  They offer something else- joy, freedom, passion, excitement.  A live version represents a celebration amongst a tribe. The connection between the group and the crowd is palpable.  You can hear it in the cheers of the crowd and the intensity of the performance, but you can also feel it.  Literally.

Live versions are usually longer.  Sometimes, the artist tells a story, often they extend the riffs- building on the familiar, but creating something new and special as well.  The time constraints of commercial radio and a mass audience are kicked to the curb and replaced by an extended musical expression, one built around freedom and joy.

Here is one example:  The first couple minutes of the song sound pretty much like the recorded version, the last part is the extra little bonus you can only get on a live version.


I'll take a little less musical precision in favor of the extra joy and passion of the live performance.

Maybe my preference for live versions also offers a partial explanation for my skepticism over the value of things like the WI School Report Cards.  Some very important things don't lend themselves to easy 'measurement.' 

Literally thousands of people, maybe tens of thousands, can sing better than Bruce Springsteen.  He can play a guitar fairly well, but still, by any objective measure, not better than many other musicians we've never heard of.  He is "good enough" at both, but that's not why millions buy his records or attend his concerts.  His true gifts are in songwriting and performing- and both of those are harder to measure and quantify.

It always amazes me how many of our most creative people struggled and felt stifled in school.  And that was before the standards, testing, and accountability craze.  Hmmm....