My Life, [Censored]

Last Wednesday, I wrote a post reviewing the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated.  The film explores the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), specifically examining the controversial rating arm of the organization and questioning whether their practices amount to censorship.  The filmmakers are especially concerned about the NC-17 rating, which is applied to films that are deemed to be unsuitable for youth based on content that they feel is outside of what is considered to be “culturally acceptable.”  Filmmakers that receive this rating have the option of accepting limited distribution or editing their films to the liking of the ratings board in order to earn an R rating.  In my review, I called into question the seemingly sexist and homophobic “standards” that they use in rating these films and the culture that determines these standards, citing my personal views on the matter.

Upon reading my post, the esteemed women in my life (Wifey and Mom) cited concern about its content given my employment as a public high school teacher.  They were worried that if the “wrong person” stumbled onto my public blog that my statements could be misconstrued, thereby threatening my professional reputation and position.  They suggested I edit my post to make it more acceptable to the general public.

As much as I hated to admit it, they were right.  And that REALLY pissed me off.

It saddens me that we live in such a narrow-minded and litigious culture that one must always fear social (and often professional) backlash for expressing one’s beliefs.  My post dealt with issues related to artistic freedoms and integrity, matters closely related to the subject that I teach, yet I had to censor my thoughts lest someone take offense.  We probably all know at least one person who has been fired from a job for venting about work on Facebook.  We have probably all lost friends based on public comments regarding our views on politics or religion.  When did our society become so closed-minded that expressing opinion has become a dangerous endeavor?  Perhaps it has always been that way.

I know that in life we must always make choices about what we say and how we act with consideration of the repercussions.  It is necessary in order to be successful, have job security, maintain friendships, and garner respect.  I teach my students that in acting, as in life, we must wear many masks depending on the company we keep at any given moment.  But how far is too far?  At what point am I sacrificing my integrity to put on a socially acceptable mask?

Truthfully, I can deal with losing social relationships based on my opinions.  If the people who I’ve chosen to count as friends feel that we are too different to continue, so be it.  But when it comes to the aspect of my life that puts food on my table and allows for a roof over the heads of my children, I am scared to offend.  I hate bowing to these pressures and I wish it wasn’t a choice I had to make.

We spend so much time teaching our children to be “who they are” and to “not be ashamed” of their opinions and beliefs.  But, in fact, it is just a lie.  What we should really teach them is that it is only okay to be themselves as long as who they are cannot be found to be outside the limits of “cultural acceptability.”

So I deleted my post to protect myself from backlash as opposed to editing my views.  Apparently, my opinions are rated NC-17.

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Glengarry Glen Rose

Daddy and the Big 3 at Dinosaur Valley State Park

Wifey has been itching to get out of town for a couple of weeks now, and today she planned an afternoon road trip to Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, TX.  To be honest, I’ve been dodging the road trip since she started wanting to take one, mostly because a car trip to the grocery store with our kids is a trying experience, so the idea of spending an hour or two in the car with them seemed to be a less-than-fun prospect.  With a newborn that cries without ceasing a lot of the time, a toddler who hates to be confined, a 5-year-old that can’t control THE VOLUME OF HIS VOICE, and a 6-year-old whose entire life is an Oxygen Network drama, I was sure that I would not survive such a trip.  Or at least they might not survive it.

But today my wife finally completed the sale (further securing her position at the top of the leader board, btw) when I agreed to this excursion.  It would take us 2 dreaded hours to get there, leaving us an hour or two to explore the park, after which we would stop for dinner at a local eatery before getting back in the car to make the return trip.  For those of my more math deficient friends, that is at minimum 4 HOURS in the car with the kids.  I made sure we took every possible precaution against carmageddon by feeding all 4 kids before leaving (The Baby included), taking plenty of snacks to appease any hunger that might arise, bringing the iPod loaded with our kid’s favorite tunes (and buying all the necessary adapters to plug it into our car stereo), and finally drugging the kids with Dramamine to ensure a quiet ride. 

Except I didn’t really do that last one.

The trip there was much better than I had feared.  We jammed hardcore to the sounds of Journey, The Knack, Pat Benatar, Pearl Jam, Katy Perry, and The Black Eyed Peas (video of Bubba singing Teenage Dream soon to be released).  Wifey and I enjoyed the scenery, the older 2 played car games, The Baby slept nearly the entire time, and Peanut was precious and happy.  We arrived at the park around 4 in the afternoon, leaving us about an hour and a half to explore before dark.

Dinosaur Valley State Park was fairly lame.  To be fair, we didn’t have the time or ability (with 2 babies in tow) to hike any of the trails, but the 2 scenic points were mediocre at best.  The first had quite a few dino footprint (the selling point of the park) but they were pretty hard to see and not well-marked, and we had to cross a slightly treacherous little river stepping rock to rock to get to them.  The second was supposedly a scenic overview of a valley filled with various fossils/footprints, but I can’t verify that because the overlook was barbed-wired off so we couldn’t get close enough to actually see into the valley.  This information did not appear on any of the literature by the way, nor was there any signage in the park to let visitors know that the overlook was closed.  BUT, despite the lameness of the park, we had a good time climbing rocks, crossing rivers, hiking paved-trails, and spending time together.  We ate a good dinner at Hollywood & Vine, a surf-club inspired hamburger joint that was very satisfying and reasonably priced.

Our journey home was less fun due to general exhaustion around, which led to a screaming baby, an intermittently screaming Peanut, an antagonistic Bubba and an overly sensitive Sissy (who began to cry over our cats because we gave them away…a year ago).  But Wifey and I turned up the music to drown out the chaos in the back half of the van and eventually 3 of 4 monsters fell asleep and the last 1/4 of the trip was very pleasant.

Everyone survived our first road trip as a 6-top, and we had fun and learned nothing.  It was a success of a day!  Good job Wifey!

A New Model of American Education

Today the students were out of school, but the teachers were busy learning how to be better teachers (supposedly) in a full day of professional development.  This is nearly always an incredibly dull experience, though it is occasionally infuriating just to mix things up.  Our district is in the process of implementing a new model of teaching called Assessment for Learning, and to be fair it is an interesting program. 

 Essentially, Assessment for Learning is about shifting the mindset away from giving assignments, quizzes, and tests for the purpose of assigning a grade and using them instead as a way to assess students’ level of mastery in whatever area is being evaluated.  The results are then used to guide further instruction, whether that be re-teaching unmastered concepts, reinforcing the material, or moving forward to additional goals.  This may seem like a common sense practice, but I assure you it is a monumental shift in how classrooms operate.  Consider your own educational experience.  How often were you assigned tasks that just seemed to be busy work?  How often did you take quizzes over assigned reading with questions so obscure that it was clear the only purpose was to make sure you actually did the assignment?  How often did you fail a test or assignment and then just move on to new material without addressing the reasons you failed?  This was probably the norm in most of your classes.  While many would argue that this model of teaching requires students to be responsible for their own learning and to work hard in order to get the grade (worthy lessons, without a doubt), the truth is that it leaves many capable students behind.  What is the purpose of school if not to educate our children?  And if those children are not learning the material, aren’t the schools failing in their mission?  Obviously, students have an important responsibility to do their best and complete their assigned work, but the work that is assigned should be focused on teaching or reinforcing actually important concepts.  Why waste time focusing on what happened on page 210, paragraph 3, line 6 in The Grapes of Wrath if what happens in that line isn’t mood, symbolism, metaphor, or main idea?  Education should be streamlined to the essentials in each area, and these essentials should be taught until they are mastered by the majority of students.

The program differentiates between academic and non-academic skills.  The academic skills are obvious: the content of the class.  The non-academic skills are the other areas that teachers teach in their classroom: behavior, social skills, participation, time management.  Often these are assessed at the same time.  For example, you are assigned some math problems to complete for homework.  The assignment is due the following period.  If you do not turn in the assignment on time, no matter how well you demonstrated mastery of the academics, the highest grade that you can receive is a 70% because you did not demonstrate the proper non-academic skill of adhering to a deadline.  This isn’t really a motivator for students to try their best.  And if you fail to turn in the assignment after the second day, you receive no credit, or a 0.  This means that your work will not be assessed for understanding or that you will not even complete the assignment at all and may not fully learn the material.  You may then do poorly on the quiz that follows, resulting in a poor grade on your report card and a failure to master the concept.  And the school failed in its purpose to teach you.

Obviously there must be a balance between the academic and non-academic.  In the “real world” everyone has deadlines they must meet, and if you never learn the importance of completing tasks in a timely manner, then you will be fired from countless jobs in adulthood.  But you will also be a failure if you cannot demonstrate mastery of essential academic skills.  So both must be addressed.

What do you think?  Where should the balance lie?  Do you see think that public schools have a responsibility to teach these non-academic skills?  Is it primarily the job of the parents to teach these skills?  What about the students that just slack off for no good reason?  Do schools have an obligation to do whatever it takes to reach these kids as well?

Let’s get a discussion going my friends!  Comment below!

“Luke, I Am Your Father…er, well, You Are MY Father Actually…I Mean…Ah, Forget It”

For the past three years, my co-teacher and I have been our school’s representatives at our district’s annual Chili Cook-off.  The event raises money for an organization that provides grants to local educators as well as scholarships to our graduating seniors.  Besides the chili competition (my part, I’m the chef), the event is also a contest for who can create the most rawk-your-face-off booth (my co-teacher’s domain), and we have won the booth contest for the last 2 years.  Last year we won with the booth theme The Fellowship of the Chili featuring a mural of Mount Doom created by one of our students.  This year, we won with the theme Star Wars: The Chilogy (did I mention we’re theatre teachers, aka DORKS), and we went all out.  We created a scale, chili-shaped Death Star and a life-sized R2D2, had teachers dressed as Princess Leia and Han Solo (I was the Emperor), and our tent was a giant AT-AT.  The crown jewel of our display was a huge X-Wing Fighter poised as if rocketing straight out of our booth.  It was awesome.

Now Bubba is already a huge Star Wars geek, so he was unbelievably excited about our project.  And somewhere along the way he decided that he was going to get R2D2 when the event was over.  Unfortunately, R2 was the only part of the display that was small enough and sturdy enough to be displayed in our classroom, so our students claimed him, much to Bubba’s dismay.  We finally calmed him down with the promise that he could choose something else from the booth for him to keep in his room.  So what did he choose?  The giant X-Wing of course!  And he insisted it was to be hung from his ceiling, as well!

Normally, I would have put the kibosh on a notion as insane as this, but I didn’t want to go back on my word and also felt guilty because I had my final dress rehearsal for my fall show on the night of his birthday the following week, so I caved and brought home the X-Wing.  The thing was HUGE, not to mention heavy, and also HUGE.  Plus, it was built by theatre folk, meaning it looked good at a distance in the precise position that it was designed for, but up close it looked pretty crappy and unfinished.  It was also damaged when we took down our booth (we weren’t planning to keep it) and then sustained further injury during transport back to the school.

So it sat, in pieces, in Bubba’s room for 3 months because it was too heavy to hang, too big to allow for any movement in his room for anyone older than 5, and was unfinished on the bottom…the part that most people would see.  And every other week or so he would ask “When are you going to put up my X-Wing, Daddy?” to which I would have to respond “I don’t know if I’ll be able to, bud” which inevitably led to tears.

Finally, as we were putting his Christmas presents away and trying to reorganize his room to accommodate, I broached the subject of tossing the X-Monstrocity.

“NOOOOOOOOO!!!”

I explained, I got tough, I begged, I bribed. “What if I bought you a scale model of the Millennium Falcon that we could make together and then hang from your ceiling.”

“I want to get a giant solar system that I can hang from my ceiling.”

“Okay…?”

“I think they make big ones that would fill my whole room. I want one of those because the X-Wing is really big but I have to throw it away.”

“…….sure.”

Now I could have created a solar system to meet his specifications, but I didn’t really have the budget for that, so instead to end our boys outing last Saturday, I took him to a hobby store and let him pick out a much smaller, pre-packaged and painted model made out of styrofoam balls and dowel rods.  For the kit and the styrofoam glue needed to complete the project, I spent 15 bucks.  He was elated, and we spent about an hour of QT together this afternoon assembling it.  Success!

What’s the lesson to be learned from all of this? The force is strong with Bubba, and he knows how to use it.  But Luke still has his fair share of force as well.

Bubba and Daddy’s Dinosaur Outing!

For Christmas, Wifey and I each gave our older kids punch cards good for a one-on-one date with us each month.  Today, I took Bubba on his January Daddy/Son Outing.  I took him to the Heard Museum, which is a pretty small nature museum in a town nearby, but they usually have a pretty cool exhibition or two that is fun for the kids, and it’s not crazy expensive.  For the past few months, they have had an exhibit called “Dinosaurs Live!”, featuring an outdoor walking tour populated by animatronic dinosaurs. 

 Before you become too impressed, I should mention that this exhibit is nothing like the huge Walking with the Dinosaurs show that tours the country (which I would love to go to but I just can’t sacrifice the kidney needed to pay for it).  These dinos keep their feet in one place, but move their arms, heads, and some even their torsos and make fairly canned roaring noises.  BUT, we had a great time.  And despite knowing that the dinos were robots, Bubba still ran away in fear several times (watch the video below to see it!) so they must have been convincing enough for him.  My only other complaint is that I wish that there had been a few more dinosaurs that people have actually heard of.  Bubba is a pretty severe dino-dork, and he hadn’t seen or heard of 7 of the 10 bots displayed, and neither had I.  But we learned about them and were frightened of them just the same.

As an added bonus, the other major exhibit at the Heard was about bugs, so we got to see quite a few tarantulas, Giant and Madagascar cockroaches, scorpions, beetles, and a wide variety of stickbugs. 

The coolest bug, in my opinion, was the katydid, which blended in so completely with its habitat, that I couldn’t find it.  After I had given up, Bubba shouted “There it is!” and pointed right at it…directly where I had been looking.  It was super-cool.

So, our first daddy/son outing of the year was a great success!  We laughed, no one cried, and there were no regrets.  I was a good dad today!