Category Archives: Education

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.

 

 

 

Ready for Rachel’s Challenge

She was the first to die that day. She will never be the first to be forgotten.

Rachel Scott was just another high school student the day her life was taken by two of her fellow classmates in the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. Using her words from diaries, letters and poems she wrote, her message of love and compassion lives on through an educational school and community program that tours the country.

The assembly we had at school today was so incredible. It was so deeply moving to me, especially because I remember that tragic day so well. A special assembly will be presented to the community in the gymnasium at Raymore-Peculiar High School at 7 p.m. tonight (Dec. 2). If you live in the area and can make it, it will be worth your time.

Called “Rachel’s Challenge,” the assembly asks us to do five things:  Treat others the way you wish to be treated; dream big; seek good influences in life; spread “positive gossip,” good words about others; and, lastly, start a chain reaction. 

I love this message. It is very similar to what I have been saying to my students for the past eight years and to readers of my newspaper opinion columns for the five years prior to that.

After asking my students if they believed they had the ability to save a life, I told them a story,  a story about a young girl. Sad and alone, she walked through crowds of people in a busy city. She came to the river. She continued walking, right into the river. Swept away by the current, her body was finally located several miles downstream.

On shore, a simple note was found, snagged on some brush near where she walked into the river. The note said, “No one said hello.”

Ever since I first heard that story, I was moved by its power. Those four amazingly simple, yet so profound, words….”No one said hello.” If someone would have just done something as simple as greet her and smile, she would not have taken her own life.

I know there are days I feel down. There are times when someone just says “hello” to me and I know I will then be able to make it through the day. Maybe that person was you —  if not for me, maybe for someone else. You might have saved a life already and not even known it. We have more power than we realize.

You may not believe this, but I do know how it feels to be alone in a crowd. I sometimes feel I have spent my entire life that way. I can make people laugh; I know I have that ability. One thing I sometimes struggle with, surprisingly, is making myself happy.

Somehow in conversations over the years, I mention that comedians are actually among the most depressed people of all. I do not know if anyone ever caught on, but I was including myself in that.

If people are laughing, they are too busy to ask you about your life, they are too distracted by the humor to see the truth, they are too misled by your comedic wit to ever think you could be withering. I suffer from serious bouts of depression, it is true. It is not something I normally discuss. It is something with which I simply deal (and most of the time just refuse to acknowledge).

I just deal with it. And all you have to do is say “hello.”

I just want to strive to be as good as Rachel Scott knew we could all be everyday of my life. I know I will not always be able to do it, but I vow to try. I accept Rachel’s Challenge! If you want to know more, check out www.rachelschallenge.org.

Normally, I would not publish my poetry on here, but this is a poem I wrote shortly after another tragic school shooting, this one at a school in California called Santana High School,  and while thinking of the tragedy of Columbine. Here is that poem:

 

Safe Haven

 By John VanPelt

In Memory of the Students of Santana and Columbine high schools

 

I crawl to natural science

To study the evolution of man

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

This wasn’t in Darwin’s plan.

 

I stroll to history

To explore ancient times

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

The blood-stained hands of crime.

 

I saunter to Spanish

To master a foreign tongue

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

The last dying gasp of the young.

 

I skim to English

To read great authors of the past

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

How long will this pain last?

 

I scurry to biology

To examine the innards of mice

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

To violence we are desensitized.

 

I sprint to algebra

To solve complex formulas of math

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

We move backwards on the wrong path.

 

I tear home

To escape the safe haven of school

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

 The lesson of death has become the rule.

 

We live in such strange times, with such mind-boggling tragedy. Let’s get through it together. Let’s get together.

 

Everyone, just smile and say “hello.” We will save lives.

 

***Photo courtesy of Rachel’s Challenge

The Omnipresent President: T.V. Star or President?

It seems I cannot turn my television on nowadays without the President interrupting my delightful escapist programming with his mind-boggling version of reality and what is best for the country. I cannot even escape him when I go to school.

This guy is everywhere, talking about every thing and yet nothing is getting done. He came on like the second coming itself (and does actually believe he is our “savior,” albeit not a “Christian” one, God forbid), yet he has nothing to show for it.

Maybe, if he would get off my television for a bit, he could get some things accomplished. On second thought, maybe television is right where he should be to keep us all safe from his plans. I can change the channel much easier than I can find $900 billion.

Tonight he was on television again telling us what a great health-care reform plan he has. His plan will not only drive our country further down the path to bankruptcy, but it will allow employers an easy out of paying for their workers’ insurance.

All the stress from our country being in debt, higher taxes, trying to figure out how to participate in the “public” option because our employer dropped our nice, “private” one, is going to kill us all. It will not matter if we have health insurance or not.

We will be dead just from thinking about it. Dead or broke. We will be starving to death, but finally we will all have health insurance, dang it! Ridiculous. This is a crazy joke.

If I am an employer, and suddenly this “public” option is available, why would I continue to pay for my workers’ insurance? I would not. In his effort to insure those who are not currently insured, Obama is going to take away the insurance millions of people have now. The old switcheroo…hope you are paying attention.

Earlier this week, I had to watch him yet again, but this time it was right in the middle of my school day. He did not say any thing new. He did not say any thing controversial. He actually just said what we, as teachers, already say every day. Yet, he somehow believes he just thought of it.

I have to give him credit, though. I have to say he is one shrewd politician. What better way to ensure your reelection in four years?

His main strength was among younger voters. Who better to appeal to then current 14- to 18-year-olds, the very demographic that will be voting for the first time in the next election? This is a brilliant strategy to ensure the young will vote for him. He is indoctrinating them into the cult of Obama.

Good job, Obama. Way to continue to sell yourself; way to continue jamming up the air waves with your omnipresent smirk; way to continue making me find the darn remote. But, I have to say I am sorry, because a long time ago I swore I would not join a cult.

Whole New Meaning to ‘Mile High’ Nickname

For many years and for obvious reasons, Denver has been known as “Mile High City.” Recent news emanating from there about enforcement of marijuana possession laws is giving a whole new meaning to that nickname.

Last week, a committee voted to send a letter to the Denver County Court urging the fine for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana to be one dollar. The total penalty for marijuana possession would be $111 once state fines and other fees are levied. (1)

While these other fines do increase the severity of the punishment, Denver will still be sending out a strong message about its lenient view regarding marijuana possession if the court accepts this recommendation. The Mile High city truly will be a place to get high.

As a former high-school teacher (I teach middle school now), I heard students talk about the safety, pleasure and healthful nature of smoking “weed.” Despite all their praise of the habit, I continued to advise them against such behavior and pointed out all the reasons they should stop, including the fact that I do not agree that marijuana is safe or healthy (as far as pleasure goes, I cannot attest to that since I have never myself indulged).

I am no expert, far from it, but I saw what marijuana did to my students. I could tell which ones were “potheads.” They were the ones with the glazed eyes, staring off into space during my class. They were the ones who never got their work in on time, if at all. They were the ones who did not have even an inkling of concern or plans for their future.

That was the effect I found most devastating about the drug — its power at creating apathy. The students who abused marijuana were the most apathetic young people I have ever met. Nothing mattered to them — not their education, not their futures, not their lives.

The only thing they cared about was getting home that afternoon so they could take some “hits.” They would joke about it, but I knew that most likely that is what they were going to do after school. While “jonesing” for another hit, they would stand there and argue how marijuana is non-addictive. I could never make them see the irony of that.

And now a committee — who knew a city had such a thing as a “marijuana policy review panel” — is recommending that Denver make a mockery of its drug laws by lowering the fine for marijuana possession to $1. This is a shame.

People actually do believe marijuana is “safe.” It is this misguided belief that makes marijuana one of the most frightening drugs of all. When something appears “safe,” we are more free to partake in it. It is like the wolf in sheep’s clothing — once we realize the danger, it is far too late. And, here is Denver potentially providing the wolf with the innocuous costume.

Not only do I not agree with the contents of this letter, I also do not understand how this committee was appointed or how its members were chosen. How does an activist who heads an organization dedicated to the legalization of marijuana — Mason Tvert, the executive director of Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER, more irony) — end up on an official marijuana policy committee in the first place? He does not seem like the most impartial choice to me for such a group.

No wonder this committee agreed to send such a ludicrous letter to the presiding county judge. With members such as Tvert, this group is busy blowing smoke, obscuring the facts as they take one more step in their quest for legal marijuana.

(1) http://www.denverpost.com/search/ci_13212872