Live. Life. Like. Luke.

Luke Swearingin, an eighth grade student where I teach, died on Wednesday. He was loved by everyone and will be greatly missed. A student came up with a very apropos symbol to honor Luke, which students wrote on their knuckles — L. L. L. L., which stands for Live Life Like Luke. If we could, it would be a great way to live. To my Raymore-Peculiar family, I love you all. God be with you.  The “I” in this is meant to represent the reader, whomever they may be. Luke had something to teach all of us about creating a better world.

Sometimes, I can be mean to others. Luke was never mean to anyone. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

Sometimes, I let the stress of my day get to me and I forget to smile. Luke never forgot to smile. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

There are times when I lack the confidence I need to try something new. Luke was always ready to try new things. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

On occasion, I have doubts about my ability to accomplish a task. Luke never doubted his ability and gave everything he had to any task at hand. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

Sometimes, I let sadness overwhelm me, making me forget how truly blessed I am. If Luke was sad, he never let it show, but instead, knew he was blessed. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

Sometimes, I stop noticing all the blessings around me, the people I love, the people who make life worth living. Luke noticed everyone, spreading happiness everywhere he went. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

There are times when I cause others to feel pain, either with my words or deeds. Luke only gave others joy. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

On occasion, it seems like my troubles are so heavy that I cannot bear the load. Nothing was too heavy for Luke. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

Sometimes, days go by when I do not give my all. Luke gave his all in everything he did, no matter how small. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

Sometimes, the noise of the world drowns out the beautiful music that would just make me want to dance. Luke never forgot to dance. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

Sometimes, I forget to love. Luke never forgot love. I need to remember  to Live Life Like Luke.

Thank you Luke. Thank you for reminding me how to live. I love you.

J. VanPelt

P.S. Sometimes, I let the light of my soul be dimmed by the shadow of sin. The light of Luke always shined bright. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

Bunch of Bridge Jumpers — The Dumbing Down of American Discourse

As a teacher of mass media and journalism, my classroom is filled with various magazines, ranging from Popular Science and Mental Floss to Upfront and Popular Photography. There is one magazine that will no longer be featured in my room. Newsweek has been banned.

In what can only be surmised as an effort to appear edgy, relevant or modern, Newsweek’s editorial board under the direction of Tina Brown allows the gratuitous use of profanity, with a great emphasis placed on the utilization of the “f word.” It is a sad day when a national newsmagazine has to be banned from the classroom of a fierce advocate of free speech, but I teach 12 to 14-year-olds, and free speech takes a backseat to their needs.

I am not going to be a hypocrite and say that I have never uttered a swear word. I have stubbed my toe. I have been cut off in traffic. Just like most people, profane words have escaped my mouth during incidents such as these. If your leg gets blown off by a landmine, a lot of cussing is expected.

My concern is that we are on a downward spiral, losing the ability to debate challenging topics, interact and simply communicate in an intelligent, meaningful way. The use of foul language in a national newsmagazine is just one more symptom of the “dumbing-down disease” plaguing America. While it takes time, effort and respect to build a sound argument for or against something, it is so much easier to just result to profanity or insults. Too often, we choose the latter.

A case in point is the recent hubbub over Emma Sullivan’s infamous tweet about Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. The high school senior posted that she told Brownback in person that he sucks (a blatant lie) and she also said “he blows a lot.” When asked by her school principal to apologize, all these alleged “free-speech advocates” rallied to Sullivan’s defense, claiming she had no reason to apologize because she was just exercising her First Amendment rights.

The problem is we take the First Amendment too far in justifying all our inanity. It guarantees freedom of speech, even the freedom of “stupid speech,” but that does not make it right. People also have the freedom to call you to account for what you say.

I teach my students that if they are going to come at me with a complaint, they better have reasons to justify the complaint and a plan of action to solve the problem. This leads to quality discussion and, if warranted, needed change. Just saying something is “stupid” does not cut it. Telling the governor he “sucks” does not cut it. You can disagree with him all you want, but criticism should be constructive. Why do you disagree and what do you propose to change? These are the questions we should be asking.

Really, though, my problem is not with Sullivan, but with the adults who went to the school board demanding answers. As I watched the news, I could not help but cringe when some woman got up and said “she (Sullivan) was just talking the way young people do today.” This is the crux of the problem, the reason we are in this dumbing-down spiral. Instead of trying to raise people up, instead of trying to educate, refine and enlighten people, we are busy making excuses for their bad behavior and choices.

My parents always said to me, “If everyone is jumping off a bridge, are you going to jump off too?” To the detriment of our society, there are an awful lot of bridge jumpers.

The Teacher Shuffle: One Great Big Lie

All the calls for “education reform,” mainly revolving around the phrases “teacher accountability”  and “test scores,” sound so reasonable when uttered, but are really just a cover for a great big fat lie.

I just saw on the news that the Kansas City, Mo., school district is firing 100 teachers at the end of this school year, replacing them with 150 Teach for America candidates for next year. According to the news report, district officials said they are only letting go of teachers who have received negative evaluations and whose students have scored poorly on state assessment tests. This is another great big fat lie.

Come on teachers. Come on people. When are we going to wake up and see what is really happening? When are we going to start sticking up for ourselves and stop letting them tell these lies?

 This is not at all about improving the state of education. This is not at all about the “students.” Everyone spouts off about the “children.” The powers that be say things like, “We are doing this for the children. You know, it is the children who should come first.” Guess what that is — another great big fat lie.

The powers that be do not care about the children. They do not care if every child truly gets the best education.

They are not putting in 12 hours in the classroom and then another four at home so their students can have an engaging lesson. They are not patiently sitting there next to a reluctant student and continually offering encouragement until finally one sentence is written, and sadly, they do not realize what a victory that truly is sometimes.

No test can ever show that. No test can ever account for small breakthroughs like that. That student probably will still score poorly on the test, but that little moment may have just changed his life. The test cannot reveal the future. The test cannot tell you if a child has grown. The test cannot tell you if a child has “learned.” The test can only tell you if a child can remember.

Yet, the powers that be spout on about the test. They will never tell you this, but the test is their ultimate secret weapon. It is not about the children. The fact that they do not even compare the results of a group of students to the same group the next year tells you that. That would be a true measure of growth. That would be a true indicator of progress.

This is not about growth, or learning, or progress. The only thing that matters is money. That is all this is about — the almighty dollar. The test is just one more way to get rid of teachers who cost too much. Why pay a teacher with 20 years of experience $60,000, when you can get two Teach for America kids for less than that? Inevitably, the experienced teacher will have a year with a more challenging group of students who do not test well. That will be just what those in power were waiting for, the ammunition they need to get rid of that expensive teacher.

I have worked with teachers who entered education through non-traditional routes such as Teach for America. While some of them did quite well, overall, they are not as effective as teachers who attained certification through an accredited school of education.

In general, they do not manage classrooms as well. They do not create lessons that are as challenging, preferring to rely on textbooks and worksheets. To top it off, a higher percentage of them wash out within the first one to three years. Do you think any of that matters to the powers that be? Why would it?

This is a guaranteed way to put a warm body in the classroom for the least amount of money, and then to top it off, they can do it again in just a couple of years. Throwing the new “teachers” in the grinder and pushing them out will save school districts millions of dollars over the next decade.

That’s right folks. These Teach for America kids might as well just be volunteers, they are paid so little. Remember, they are “giving back to their country.” What they are really doing is giving school districts a way to show their experienced teachers the door and saving a ton of money in the process.

This is also why graduates of education schools are being ignored. There are plenty of them out there, ready to get to work. Districts do not want them because they will stick around longer. Eventually, that means they will cost more. If they stick to hiring the Teach for America volunteers, the odds are greater that they can just keep hiring 23-year-olds who will be gone before they hit 26.

Will the Kansas City district get rid of some truly poor teachers when they fire these 100 educators at the end of this year? Yes, they will. In the group, there will be some who should never have been teachers in the first place. But, this will be a much smaller number than everyone will be led to believe. Test scores can be misinterpreted or misapplied. Evaluations can be based on personal beliefs and feelings more than actual effectiveness. 

There is no profession that does not have some low-performing individuals. Odds are if I dismiss 100 people from any job, five or six will have been truly bad. Just wait until all these Teach for America kids get in there. The percentage who are low performing out of the 150 will be much higher than it is among the 100 educators who were fired.

This is all a scam. It is being sold as “education reform” and as a way to “cure the ills” of our education system, but that is the greatest, biggest, fattest lie of all. This is not going to cure our system. This is going to kill it.

Reasons Not to Smoke

This list was originally compiled on Valentine’s Day, 2008, the first day I really quit smoking. I smoked from 1988 to 2008. I have not smoked since that day and am so glad. Three years ago today, I became smoke free and am breathing easier. This list has hung on the refrigerator ever since as I reminder of what really matters to me in life.

1) I love my wife and want to be her husband for a long time. I want to grow old with her and experience my love for her for as long as possible. I want to turn 90 and, on that day, I want to still be holding her hand. I want us to enjoy each other’s company. I don’t want to stink anymore. I want to be able to kiss her whenever I want and not miss kisses because I am self-conscious about my smoky breath. I will not have smoky breath if I do not smoke; therefore, I will no longer have to be self-conscious. I will be able to kiss her when I want, as long as I want. Instead of cigarettes, I can kiss my wife every day. Now, there’s an addiction.

2) I love my sons, Kale and Landon, and I want to see them grow up. I want to be there when they skin their knees and need their daddy. I want to be there when they ride bikes for the first time all on their own. I want to be there when they get their first hit in a baseball game. I want to be there for their first date. I want to be there when they graduate from high school. I want to be there when they enter college. I want to be there when they fall in love, get married and have children. I want to hold their children in my arms and spoil them, my grandchildren.

3) I love to sing. I want to be able to continue to do so. I want to sound good.

4) I love being healthy. I want to be that way for as long as possible.

5) I love to be mobile. I do not want to be tethered to an oxygen machine. I do not want to be disabled.

6) I love to breathe. I would like to do so without the aforementioned oxygen machine.

7) I love money. Cigarettes are extremely expensive. Quitting will save a great deal of money for things that are still pleasurable, yet not deadly.

8) I love my family. I want to enjoy decades more holidays and fun times with them.

9) I love playing volleyball. I want to play without wheezing.

10) I love to walk, swim, eat, play, dance and just jump around like a crazy man. I want to be able to do all of those things to the fullest. When I eat, I want to taste my food. When I dance, I want to do so without becoming so tired.

11) I love my life. I want to live it.




National Anthem is About the Nation, Not the Singer

They sing the wrong words. They sing the wrong notes. Sometimes, it is as if they are singing the wrong anthem.

I am tired of listening to singers butcher the national anthem. The “Star-Spangled Banner” is a gorgeous, moving, challenging song. Lately, the mashed, twisted, rearranged versions I am hearing make my ears ring; not from the bombs bursting in air, but the notes twinging, twanging and trilling without ever finding a home.

Listening to Christina Aguilera’s version of the national anthem during the Superbowl on Sunday was so horrific to me that I did not even notice she had messed up the words. Her notes were so wrong, so off, that I completely missed the fact that there were no ramparts anymore. Honestly, all the trilling really is just a sign that she cannot hit and/or sustain a note.

When I was a younger man, people sang the national anthem the way it was written. And, you know what happened, everyone sang along.

That is what I want. I would die and go to heaven if I could perform the national anthem at Arrowhead with all 73,000 people belting it out with me.

Now, that would be powerful. That would be awe-inspiring. That is the way it used to be.

Sadly, singers think it is all about them now. That is the problem; our selfish, hey-look-at-me culture. They want to be applauded for how great they sang the anthem and how they “made it their own.”

It does not belong to them. It belongs to the nation. It is not about them. It is about our nation.

That is what we have forgotten. It is time for us to take it back. Let’s put the “nation” back in our national anthem.