Last night I saw Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, live and on their own

I'm writing this particular post for one simple reason: I witnessed Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea playing piano together last night, and I want a record of it. 

First, the basics: the concert was at San Diego's Copley Symphony Hall, I was sitting dead center in the highest balcony. The stage had two grand pianos with their lids removed, set up so the players would face each other, with an synthesizer set up at a right angle to each piano (both set up to the right of the musician's right as he played piano, which meant Corea was facing away from the audience when he played synthesizer). There was a sign in the lobby indicating that there would be no intermission. The program said "program to be announced from the stage". 

Here's what my view looked like, just as the house lights were going down (I turned my phone off after this naturally):

The crowd greeted Hancock and Corea with a standing ovation. Normally I'm not a fan of this kind of knee-jerk effusiveness, but these two have earned it. The two of them walked out together from the same side of the stage, giving together the (probably accurate) impression that they'd just been hanging out and chatting until they got their cue. Hancock wore a sharply-tailored blue blazer and slacks - 100% the jazz elder statesman. Corea sported jeans and a denim jacket. I suspect he sometimes gets mistaken for Hancock's sound engineer. They stood at the front of the stage for the ovation, Corea giving three bowlegged curtseys, and then wordlessly sat at their pianos and started playing. 

I have no idea what they were playing - they had sheet music out (Hancock's propped on the music stand built into pianos for that purpose, Corea's set directly onto his piano's exposed interior) - but I don't think they were paying it the slightest bit of attention. This was two guys riffing off each other, building singular creations together and then transmuting them, and, much of the time, playing fast as hell. I want to own the evening in album form. I'm aware that the ephemeral one-offness of the music is part of the magic, but I want it anyway. 

After the second tune (or rather, the second shared improvisational journey - I'm looking for an unpretentious way to write it, but for the time being just take my word for it that it didn't feel pretentious in the venue) Corea got up, took off his denim jacket, and, in a gesture whose theatricality and opaqueness rivals Beckett's later work, pulled on a different jacket, this one with white sleeves, and sat back down again. Maybe the lights where hot but not quite tee-shirt weather, maybe this was just schtick. I have no idea. 

Three tunes in, one of them started playing the underlying riff from "All Blues". You could feel the crowd relaxing into recognition, but the players were having none of it - they twisted the chords and the rhythm (I should mention that the evening hardly ever had a "time signature" I'd want to try to count, it just had a pulse - Hancock and Corea, it appears, never need to count off unless there's someone else with them). Finally, they came back, played through the head of "All Blues", and shortly after, got up to talk to the crowd. Hancock admitted he was exhausted after a gig in San Francisco and four hours of sleep. Corea said "the older I get, the less sleep I need". The two of them consulted a chart and decided to play it. "We'll tell you what it is after we play it," they said. 

Hancock carefully set up the chart on his music stand, and the two of them tore into an extended improvisation that was DEFINITELY not charted out on two pages of sheet music. They finished, played something else, and then Corea said, "Oh yeah, we forgot to tell you, that was "Directions" by Joe Zawinul. It was a transitional piece for Miles's band. Herbie, when did you record it?"

"I never recorded it."

"Oh, OK, it was after your time? I never played it back then, so I just play it my own way."

Later on, Hancock told a story of calling Corea mid-recording session to play him a beautiful melody his band had just recorded, which he played for us on the piano, to illustrate the point. At the time, over the phone, he said "Chick, is that your tune?" 

At this point Corea spoke up: "I told him, 'No, that sounds like a Herbie Hancock tune to me.'"

They ended the set with "Maiden Voyage", which was as beautiful as you'd imagine (I've since found out they recorded "Maiden Voyage" together on two pianos back in 1978). I alternated between being transported by the music, and thinking "I cannot fricking believe I'm hearing Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea playing "Maiden Voyage"). 

Then, for their encore, Corea announced they needed the help from, the "San Diego Choir". He split the men into two parts and the women into three, to sing a chord together whenever he told us to (he voiced each note one by one each time he asked). The effect was beautiful and a bit silly all at once. Then it turned out they were playing "Concierto de Aranjuez", the first track off of Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain and one of the most beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard. Then this turned into a bossa tune I didn't recognize, and Corea started doing call and response with the entire crowd, playing a bossa nova riff on the piano and having us sing it back. He passed this over to Hancock, whose harmonic explorations got increasingly baroque, causing some audience consternation, then brought it back for the big finish. 

Both of them stayed out onstage when the lights came up, shaking hands and signing autographs. I rushed down from the balcony and made it just has Hancock was leaving but Corea stayed. I got a picture of him, chatting to fans (wearing the evening's second jacket):


Maybe this is why I never seem to have enough time...

I like to think of myself as a fairly adept manager of my time. I pomodoro (Kanban Flow is my site, since you asked), I use Google Tasks, and yet I've spent the past two months (since Spring Break, specifically) feeling several days and several dollars short, constantly.

I just gained some insight into why. It is currently after school, and I am in my office. I sat down with the intention of entering some (long-overdue) scores into the grade book. Here's what I did instead:

I spent a half an hour skimming the Slice Harvester blog (in which one man tries a slice from every pizza place in Manhattan) looking for a review that didn't include harsh profanity or references to past drug use, so I could share it with a student as a model for the piece he's writing comparing chicken wings from two different chains. 

I know that this stuff matters. I learned to write well by reading exciting writing by adults I wanted to emulate. I never once found this writing in a textbook. But I loved writing since before I could write. Most people aren't like this. Most of the people I knew at school weren't like this. My students need a living, breathing mentor who can guide them towards the writers who can become their mentors. 

On the other hand, when I could have been checking that work is being done on our project, I was skimming blog posts about pizza. And now I'm blogging about it. 

So, not quite the time manager I like to imagine I am. 

Oh, and here's the blog post I eventually shared with the student. Yes, the comments are profane, but when are comments ever not?

Surviving drought is a 21st-century skill (#28daysofwriting)

Scientists at NASA reported today that the Western United states may experience decades-long "mega-droughts" in the near future because of rising carbon levels in the atmosphere. San Diego, where I live, is dry at the best of times. Right now, this makes it seem like a paradise, but you need to be living in a time of extraordinary abundance for a place where it "hardly ever rains" to sound like a paradise. For most of human history, living somewhere where it "hardly ever rains" would have been a nightmare. 

This line of thinking leads quickly to questions like "What happens if we all need to leave? Where do we go?" And, because I'm in my thirties, "Will I seriously regret it if I buy property?" More generally, it gets me thinking about how when I look around at the planet, the places where basic natural resources in short supply tend to be pretty violent. Which is all a roundabout way of saying that I am exceptionally pessimistic about the likelihood of the world forty or fifty years from now being a place I want to live in. For one thing, my country's strides in social justice, equality, tolerance, and just plain safety for its citizens correlate closely with the unprecedented prosperity, material abundance, and physical comfort of the last century. For another, I can't find very many positive examples of large groups of humans going from a time of abundance to a time of scarcity, without a lot of violence. 

Here's where this is going: when educators talk about "21st century skills", we usually assume that these involve the internet. But the internet is the ultimate product of cheap energy and global stability - it works because lots and lots of servers never get switched off, and because an exceptionally complex international network of cables, satellites, and dishes is being maintained. So I just don't feel confident that the internet as we know it is here to stay. That isn't to say that I don't think it's possible that the kind of innovation we've become used to will continue on indefinitely into the future, I just think it's very possible that it won't.  

I think "21st century skills" are at least as likely to be the skills that make it possible to maintain a resilient, civil community that respects the strongest and the weakest equally, at a time when there is less of everything to go around. 

I know this is an exceptionally depressing blog post, and one that is bound to upset people. I really, really, really am not writing it looking for a fight. Rather, I'm writing it because I feel like I spend most of my time suppressing these anxieties and avoiding thinking about them, and I want to acknowledge them in the hope that I can find a way forward. Right now I feel like I'm assuming a future that I don't, based on the data I have, actually  think is very likely, and that seems like a problem. 

When the authenticity gets left out (#28daysofwriting)

Today was our "interview day": from 9:00-11:00, all 150 members of the eleventh grade were interviewed by potential employers for the four-week internships they will undertake in May-June. As you can imagine, the school was buzzing. In my classroom and my teaching partner's classroom (which - by tremendous good fortune - were the only eleventh grade classrooms not being used for interviews) students were doing last-minute research into the companies that were interviewing them, perfecting and printing their résumés and cover letters, and asking each other interview questions.* In the halls, students (dressed to the nines, of course) were walking to their interviews, or sitting outside classrooms waiting to be called. 

Now, things did not run entirely smoothly: the schedule shifted dramatically overnight due to changes made by the organizations that were coming, so some students arrived at school to discover that they were being interviewed by different companies (sometimes in different fields) from the ones they had prepared for. Some interviewers were trying to leave early, and calling students in over a half hour ahead of schedule. Others did not show up until hours after they were scheduled (or at all). Here's the thing: the students took it all in stride. When they needed to, they rewrote cover letters to suit their new companies and reprinted them, the halls were calm all morning despite being criss-crossed by adrenaline-fueled kids clutching their résumés, and students kept it together after they were finished, even though they were buzzing so much that - to give one example - I conducted one informal debrief with a student while the person next to her literally spun in circles in order to shake off her extra energy. 

That was the morning, and it was amazing.

In the afternoon, we decided to do an hour of humanities and an hour of biology. We'd devoted all of Monday to preparing for interviews, half hour students will be gone tomorrow on a trip to San Francisco for College Day, on Thursday we'll all be gone for College Day, and it's a four-day weekend. And there are subject-specific things we need to do. For example, my students finished reading The Fault in Our Stars over the weekend. I hadn't realized how brief this week would be when I scheduled this, but today is the only chance we had to talk about the book until next Tuesday, a full seven days from now. 

During the afternoon, the students were not especially focused. Of course, there were lots of reasons for this: they were exhausted, half of them were departing for San Francisco either in the afternoon or at midnight, we hadn't discussed the book on Monday so it wasn't fresh in their minds, and my discussion plan was sub-awesome. I know all that. But no matter what, there's no way that lesson would have engaged students like they were engaged this morning, despite the fact that the sum total of guidance they received from me was a single Google slide with seven tasks on it. 

What made the morning magical was authentic purpose.

The students really, really cared about these interviews. Internship is a big deal, and they know it. Last Friday they did "speed dating" with 12th graders to find out about the internships they did last year. Everything they were doing had an authentic purpose. The afternoon had a purpose - I really wanted them to develop a richer understanding of The Fault in Our Stars and, via that (let's be honest about my hopes) their own lives, their place in the world, and what it means to live a good life) (you can see the blog here - I think their insights have been awesome). But even for students who had a lot to say about the book, there was no authentic purpose like walking on to an interview with a stranger who might offer them a job that could, potentially, show them the career they want to pursue. 

A constant struggle for me is how to combine the sense of authentic purpose that we had this morning (which invariably comes with a certain amount of tunnel-vision as students keep their eyes in the prize) with rich, and sometimes meandering engagement with big, often abstract questions of the sort that we tackle when we engage with literature. 


*to see how we prepared in detail, look my "what we did today" page for today and yesterday

Running and Reading (#28daysofwriting)

This post is about reading, I promise. Just bear with me for a moment first.

I have two prosthetic heart valves. Or rather, I have a cluster of heart defects, of which the prosthetic heart valves are the most striking and easiest to explain. This rarely impinges on my life in any significant way, but it does affect my ability to run. I've been thinking about this recently, because I've started jogging. This is something I've done off-and-on ever since I was a teenager, and I've developed some hitherto-unspoken personal rules:

1. I never jog with a group.
I'm too hyper-aware of my limitations. I may have actually first become vividly aware of the disparity between my experience and most people's in 11th grade, when my AP English teacher wrote a sentence example in which she confessed "While some people can run 10 or 15 miles, I get out of breath after a measly two-mile jog." I remember thinking "Whoa, hang on. Two miles is measly?"

The summer after that, I went to a summer arts camp (OK, strictly speaking I was in the jazz band, so make all relevant jokes here). I ran a mile and a half every morning with my almost literally indefatigable friend Kyle (who was on the track team at his school) and several slower people. I was by far the slowest, but I could run most of it, and I felt great the rest of the day. That camp was a "safe space" in pretty much every sense, such as I haven't experienced since, and it was, not coincidentally, the only time in my life I've run in a group. Today, I don't have any desire to set off with a group of people who  and I know that other people will find it hard to understand that motivational exhortations will have no affect when I just can't draw the air I need to get up that next hill. 

The only person I run with is my wife, and even with her, the knowledge that she may accidentally set an unattainable standard just by running a normal distance at a normal pace stresses me out a bit. 

When it comes to pickup sports, it's a little different - I can normally hide my deficient running, and I am frequently (and contentedly) the least skilled person who's actually willing to join in. I'm all right with that - it's the stark, unforgiving linearity of running in a group and getting left behind that bothers me.  

2. I don't set myself any target beyond "to the streetlight at the end of this block"
My jogging mantra is "whatever I'm doing right now is better than doing nothing", so I always set myself an extremely modest goal, give myself permission not to meet it, and then incrementally ratchet it up if I feel OK having achieved it. I sometimes use a distance-tracking app on my phone, but I've made sure never to let it develop expectations based on my past performance. The idea of having a standard to hit and exceed alarms me. 

3. I don't really want to get better at running
What I mean by this is that being able to run for longer stretches at a time seems like a terrible prize for improving my fitness. Seriously, why would I want to spend more of my time doing this? This also applies to the running adage that "the first mile is the worst". I've noticed that I often feel more able to run at the end of a run than I did at the beginning, but the last thing I want to do, having just done my time, is to keep going! 


So here's why I'm writing about running: I'm certain that everything I've just written about running applies to reading for some of my students, and this is raising big questions for me about how I should be supporting them. 

The "All Time Greatest Panel" Exhibition, and this project's two axes of content #28daysofwriting

Left to right: Amelia Earhart, Cesar Chavez, Susan B. Anthony

Students started arriving early into the classroom, some already in costume, most carrying bags and asking if they should get changed yet (the answer was an emphatic "yes"). The pair of Frederick Douglasses were tearing up a length of burgundy tulle into what they made into excellent-looking cravates. I was relieved that I'd taken the time to arrange the classes so thoroughly last night - the arrangement of the room established expectations and provided clear channels for the energy buzzing in the room. Here's what the classroom looked like before school, with a shot taken from behind the back tables (the tables set up for the note-takers) - all arranged, but empty:

 And heres's a close-up of two panellists' place-settings:

Our guests of honor were fifth graders from High Tech Elementary, who arrived with clipboards and a note-catcher. They were focused on studying our exhibition, because they are in the early stages of planning a US History exhibition of their own. You can see them watching the panel here:


I'll have a lot more to say about the exhibition after I debrief it with the students tomorrow, but tonight I'm focusing on a single component of it: the "two axes of content". 

I'm focusing on this because of an interesting dichotomy: the characters' "opening statements", in which they introduced themselves and touched on the issues within the State of the Union that they were most preoccupied by, were excellent. However, the discussion that followed tended to be stilted and a bit shallow. 

One reason for this was that we were better prepared for the opening statements. Students had studied my prototype opening statement (you can see the process on slides 12-13 of this presentation, and they had critiqued each other's first drafts using this note-catcher

We'd done "practice discussions" too, but never as deliberately as we prepared the opening statement.

However, there was a bigger problem that wasn't clear to me until the discussion started: students didn't understand the issues in the depth required to discuss them meaningfully, particularly "in character". We hadn't addressed the nuances of, for example, the implications of a minimum wage increase on different parts of the country, so there wasn't scope for depth in the discussion. I'd thought of the students as "skilled at discussion" because they are adept at hosting their own Socratic Seminars, but these are always focused on a single text focused on a single issue, rather than on an array of different issues, as this one. I visualize the content knowledge required in order to be a part of a discussion like this as two axes - like this: 
What makes sense now is that we need to attend to these two axes individually before bringing them together. Next year, my plan is to start studying the issues that are likely to be in the State of the Union as soon as we get back from Winter Break, and to make bingo cards with our predictions for issues that will be covered in the State of the Union. We'll then watch the address and play issue bingo, and THEN, we'll start talking about which historical figure everyone wants to portray.

Day 2 down! At some point I intend to write something with an intended audience other than "me", but no promises.

Beginning the tortuous tale of the All-time Greatest Panel Project #28daysofwriting

I committed to 28 days of writing this morning. Tomorrow, the students of Team Run DMC (long story, which may be told here within the next 28 days) will be portraying figures from US history (in costume, naturally) including George Washington and Abigail Adams, Dolores Huerta, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Carl Sagan. These luminaries are gathering for what I named (not really thinking through the implications, beyond the idea that it consisted of "great" figures from history) the All-time Greatest Panel, to discuss their responses to Barack Obama's 2015 State of the Union

So, it was possibly not the best day to start my 28 days. I stayed at school to arrange tables and chairs for the panel, print out "reserved" signs for the rows where 5th graders will be sitting who are attending the (11th grade) panel discussion, set out the name cards for each character, flip a coin to decide which of the two students representing each character will read the opening statement (as the coin skittered around my silent and unobserved office, using up valuable milliseconds, I started to wonder whether I was taking my commitment to randomness a little too far). I created note-taking sheets with prompts for a few students to fill out who will sit at a row of tables in the back. I set a ruler with a right-angle next to the note-taking sheet that asked for a diagram connecting speakers in the order they spoke, because I realized the diagram shape I'd made was too small (I took this technique from a socratic seminar method I once heard about - the name has "tables" in it). Then I laid out a couple sheets of blank paper at each character's spot, just behind their name card, then drove to Costco to buy bottles of water and pens, because it occurred to me that if this were a conference, everyone would have paper for taking notes, a ball point pen, and a bottle of water. 

All of which means that at this point, it's a little late and I'm pretty tired. However, it just so happens that I wrote up the strange saga of how this project reached this pretty pass over the weekend, and this gives me an excuse to shape it up and post it - which was what I'd intended to do when I started drafting it on Saturday. Here it goes:


How it began: The "Rock the Document" Project
In November, I found an ad in the Atlantic magazine for the Atlantic Magazine and College Board’s essay competition, for which students were supposed to write essays about various historical documents, selected by AP US History teachers as the documents they were most excited about discussing with their students. I read that, and had a dangerous thought: "there's a really good project here. I'm not sure what it is yet, but that's bound to come eventually." 

The plan I developed (using the term "plan" extremely loosely) was for students to host discussions about various documents at tables in what we would set up as an 18th century coffee house. I never made a prototype of this (either of the essay, or of whatever I’d require to host a discussion), so the project never made sense to me, or seemed especially interesting. So the weekend before we returned from Winter break, I realized the project had never coalesced into an idea I was excited about - and I hadn't written a prototype essay so I had no idea what it would be like to actually write an essay for the Atlantic Magazine and College Board's essay competition. In addition, though I'd read the list of documents from which students could choose, I hadn't picked over them one-by-one and determined what I thought of them.

On Sunday (Monday was a staff day, so I figured I still had plenty of time), I called my friend Dan, formerly a High Tech High teacher, still an authority on all things educational. You can see my notes from our conversation below.

He had all the right concerns: students who knew they wouldn’t win a national competition would tune out immediately, the documents themselves were overwhelmingly white, male, predictable, and boring, and the final exhibition idea didn’t really make sense.

And the 28-minute timer's alarm has sounded, so I'll have to leave it there...

What one student had to say about "We Chose Our Own Adventures"

Last year we published an anthology of student writing that we called We Chose Our Own Adventures. You can read all about the project here.

Here's what one student, Gabby Tam, wrote about her piece:

Recently we had to do a creative writing essay. At first I decided to stick with the topic and write a piece that was supposed to convince the public of the importance of keeping habitats to their natural environments. I worked on this piece for a good week and a half, adding more and more info to keep the piece interesting. Draft after draft it was coming along into a final piece but the day before the final draft was due, I read over it and I was bored. I asked my teacher if I could restart my whole piece but with an entirely different topic. My teacher gave me a topic that would be interesting to write about and with that idea the thoughts began to flow right onto the page. Within two hours I had the ideas down and my essay written. There wasn’t much that needed to be fixed thankfully and it was finished in time to be put into the book. The story I had written was very personalized and I believe it gave the readers a deeper understanding of myself. During exhibition I was chosen to read part of my story out loud, which was an honor. It was also nerve racking because I have never been a great reader and always hated being called aloud to read in class. I think this situation was different because it was something that I had wrote and it was easier to portray my reading in a voice that fit the feeling of my story.

The "pair-share lecture" - a structure from Tom Ferenbacher

Tom told me about this technique before I taught my first class, and I have yet to use it, but I like the sound of it.

Here's how it works.

1. Take a set of lecture notes, and split them into a series of questions that are sequential and anticipatory

2. Present the class with the questions in sequence. Everyone in class responds to the question in their notebooks and pair-shares.

3. Call on people to tell the group what their partner's response was, saying  "X, what did Y say?" Then ask "Y, was that right?"

4. Write important points on the board, and add to them.


I guess you could call this "constructivist lecturing", since you help the students to construct knowledge about what's being discussed - though the teacher remains the ultimate arbiter of fact. 

Teaching: it bears repeating

Today I introduced Kelly Gallagher's Real World Writing Purposes by, as Gallagher suggests, having my students look for examples of these in magazines (actually, Gallagher recommends newspapers, but what I had access to was a motley collection of magazines and journals including San Diego magazine, the New Yorker, N+1, and Lucky Peach, among others). 

As is often the case, I'm fairly confident that I learned more than anybody else. Specifically, I learned how far I am from being conversant in the "Real World Writing Purposes." I started one class by grandly declaring "Whatever you write will fall within one of these purposes." It took about three minutes for a student to point to a humor piece in the New Yorker and say "I can't figure out where this one fits." 

"Hmm," I replied. "It doesn't, really. I take back what I just said."

Soon afterwards, I realized that I really didn't know how to explain what an example of an article with the purpose "inquire and explore" would look like. 

Having taken a look at my students' "scavenger hunt" sheets, it's clear to me that for the most part, they have a tenuous grip on what the writing purposes refer to. Doing this again, I will need to provide more of a structured lead-in to the scavenger hunt, so that students are more clear about these. I might provide extracts from examples of each "writing purpose", and ask students to identify characteristics that identify it as part of this category. 

Here's the thing. I wouldn't understand any of this if I hadn't taught this class. It had all seemed so straightforward when I read Gallagher's book. And what this means is that the first time I introduce anything like this is going to be pretty rough. And, continuing this thought, I think I could make more of a concerted effort to have fewer "first times", by keeping a closer eye on what concepts and ideas I've introduced already that are now available to be revisited. 

Two things are keeping me from coming back to structures and concepts that I've already introduced: first, every teaching issue feels new when it looms in front of me, so my instinct is always to find a new solution for this issue, rather than going back through things I've already introduced. The second thing is that I'm inclined to think "Man, I don't want to revisit that, that was a total mess when I introduced it before." What I need to remind myself is that everything is a bit of a mess the first time I try to introduce it, because it's through introducing it that I learn about it.