Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Walking Dead – Zombies Are the Least of the Problem

First appeared on Blogcritics.


dead 1 *This article contains spoilers.

For those of you who are missing your Sunday night dose of the zombie apocalypse, you’re not alone. "Coda," the mid-season finale of season five, left us wanting more, needing answers, and wondering where our dwindling band of survivors is going to go next. Add the death of the radiant Beth Greene (Emily Kinney) to the mix, and you have a recipe for angst that will last until that Sunday in February when we can get back into this dismal version of the near future.

This season has been lacking light moments (except for Eugene’s joking about his mullet). There has been a decided shift toward grim that is unrelenting. It really started at the end of season four when Beth was taken and our group became prisoners at Terminus, and the first half of season five included the escape from Terminus, the search for Beth, and the loss of any hope for reprieve from the “virus” that turns the dead into flesh eating ghouls. We learned that Eugene (Josh McDermitt) was nothing more than an intelligent weakling, hoping to secure protection by creating the story that if he could get to Washington D.C. he could fix things. In short the first half of season five was as bleak as you can get.

dead 3

Still, we are compelled to watch, maybe even more so now than ever. Nothing is more obvious than the shift in our protagonist Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who has become more Shane than his ex-partner Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal) ever was. In the mid-season finale Rick runs down a handcuffed police officer with a police car and then shoots him in the head. Rick’s going over to the dark side started when he ripped Joe’s (Jeff Kober) throat out after the guy threatened to rape and murder his son. Rick’s fall from grace is nothing but necessity as the mother of invention, and Rick’s character is compelling because one minute he is cradling his daughter baby Judith in his arms and the next he’s blowing away someone (usually a living person) who is a threat.

At this point zombies are the least of the survivors’ problems. They have become adept at killing them (or is that re-killing them?) and dispensing with the feelings that plagued Hershel (the incomparable Scott Wilson) in season two when his barn was filled with walkers. The concept that the zombies still retain something human has lessened over the seasons; however, the introduction of conflicted priest Gabriel Stokes (Seth Gilliam) revisits the notions of the hazy line between zombie-human persona. He cannot bring himself to kill zombies (is it more about his weakness or one of the Ten Commandments?), especially when he sees a cross around one’s neck.
dead  4The idea of faith in a sea of faithlessness is one of the more interesting aspects of season five; however, Stokes seals himself up inside his church and allows his flock to get devoured outside. This is an ironic twist on the Eucharist, which promises eternal life to the faithful by eating the host (body of Christ). Credit showrunner Scott M. Gimple and his writers for playing up this connection as the walkers eat humans to keep their version of life going on, though it seems as if the animated dead can survive for a long time without eating anything.

dead 5The extended metaphor of faith as being lost is a strong aspect of season five; however, there are also indelible moments of faith shining through Beth as she is forced to work in Grady Memorial Hospital under the despotic cop Dawn (Christine Woods). Kinney’s performance rose to ethereal, her eyes betraying the inner strength she had from not only being Hershel’s daughter but also surviving with the group.

How can we forget Hershel’s Bible or Beth singing for Darryl in the funeral parlor? Dawn couldn’t recognize Beth’s inner power until it was too late for both her and Beth. That scene in “Coda” when Beth tells Dawn, “I get it” is burned in my mind now. I understand why Beth does what she does there, but it has shaken me worse than even the deaths of Dale and Hershel. If there was any vestige of good left in the world, Beth embodies it until Dawn vanquishes all that she represents.

I’ve read some articles in which the writers believe that Beth’s death was inconsequential – they claim that the deaths of Carol (Melissa McBride) or Beth’s sister Maggie (Lauren Cohan) would have been much worse. While I didn’t want to see anyone die, I had a feeling that it would have been a lesser character. My bet had been on either Rosita (Christian Serratos) or Tara (Alana Masterson); however, I should have known that TWD usually takes great pains to build up a character’s story right before he or she gets the axe, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Beth got killed, but it still felt like a sucker punch.

The reaction of the rest of the group, especially Daryl (Norman Reedus), is indicative of how deeply Beth affected the group. Not only was she the beloved Hershel’s daughter, but she also seemed to be a beacon of light in the darkness. Daryl’s goal to find Beth was to bring some light back into his life, one that she had kindled when they had their experiences together in season four. Some people questioned if there would be a romance between the two, but I saw it as a love that rose way above physical needs and attraction. For Daryl, Beth represented an ideal he never had in his life before, and it’s being extinguished crushes his hopes for any kind of respite from the despair he has always known.

dead 2The final scene of “Coda” gives us Daryl walking out of the hospital carrying Beth’s body. Maggie collapses in grief, and all the rest stare in shock as they see the petite girl’s body sagging in Daryl’s arms. I have to hand it to Gimple for ending on absolutely the bleakest note he possibly could have, and the notion of where to go is less important than how can they go on?

How does the group recover from Beth’s death, Eugene’s deception, and the reality that the church is no longer a safe place? When given an option to stay at the hospital even after Daryl dispatched Dawn after she killed Beth, Rick decides immediately that is not possible. They all leave and are now back out in the world of zombies and the more dangerous foe – the humans who still survive and would harm them.

The problem the group faces is that there are no more standards for anyone. In an all bets are off world, it is okay for Joe’s group to rape and plunder and Gareth (Andrew J. West) and his Terminus minions to kill and eat their captives. This TWD universe is sort of like the fall of the Roman Empire, and the barbarians are hanging out among the ruins and in charge of the show. Rick and company can try to navigate through these rough waters, but there is a sense that time is running out for everyone.

In seasons past stability was found first at Hershel’s farm and then at the prison, but even these places became vulnerable as eventually any place probably will. Now, with the notion of getting to Washington abandoned, where will our group turn next? The idea of getting to a place with more people has never been appealing. Recall how Rick didn’t move the gang into Woodbury after the Governor (David Morrissey) ran off. More people equal more problems in TWD world, as we have seen again and again in seasons past. 

With rumors that the second half of season five will require even more Kleenex, we can only imagine that the horrors and loss will be amplified by Gimple and company. It’s going to be a bumpy ride no doubt, but if you’re like I am you will want to be there for every dip, sharp turn, and bottom-out along the way.

  Photo credits: AMC

Monday, December 8, 2014

Top Ten Most Annoying Christmas Songs

First appeared on Blogcritics.

chris 1 As we get closer and closer to the big day – Christmas Day, of course – the plethora of stations pumping out Christmas music is at a peak now. If you are depressed or just not interested in celebrating or feel like December 25 is a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket (Ebenezer Scrooge thought so), it is kind of hard to escape the ubiquitous carols and songs. Almost every store is cranking out the holiday tunes now, as well as banks, office buildings, and post offices. There is virtually no place to escape this non-stop assault except your own home, unless you are like I am and you have kids playing the songs on the piano and the stereo.

I feel like Peter Finch’s character Howard Beale in the film Network - I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Alas, there is virtually no quiet place for me except my home office, where I can barricade the door, plug up my ears, and try to get some work done.

Since I have been subjected to this barrage of holiday playlists from all quarters, I have been noticing that some of these Christmas songs are worse than others. They are quite irritating to say the least. Besides the “Deck the Halls” and “White Christmas” variety and those of the sentimental traditional ilk, there are ones that grate on the nerves more than an Ann Coulter monologue.

So I have composed a list of the ten most annoying, totally unnecessary to hear Christmas songs that I absolutely turn off if I have the power to do so. The first five are those songs that neither mention Christmas nor seem to have an affiliation with it. They are:

 10. “Let It Snow”

All about the weather being frightful and a fire delightful, hearing it makes me want to take a snow shovel and teach the radio a lesson. Worst version – Stephen Colbert with Cyndi Lauper and Alan Cumming

9. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”

I am sure this will be number one on some lists because it is so hard to take, especially when the duet is totally incongruous. My vote for worst version goes to Rod Stewart and Dolly Parton, who have about as much chemistry as oil and water.

8. “Jingle Bells”

Again, a song that could land as number one on many people’s lists, this ditty is most annoying when sung accompanied by said bells in the background. Slews of bad versions, though my vote for number one is Ray Conniff and company (they have quite a few annoying versions of other Christmas songs as well).

7. “Frosty the Snowman”

Everyone loves old Frosty, right? Every time I hear it I wish for tropical sunshine. The absolutely worst version is by Jimmy Durante from the old TV show based on the lyrics, which took a bad song and made it horrible.

6. “Winter Wonderland”

Does it make sense that in the meadow we’re building a snowman and making believe he’s Parson Brown? No connection to Christmas or any other holiday, it grates on the nerves if especially sung by someone who thinks it’s a classic tune. My vote for worst version goes to Willie Nelson.

Now we move on to songs with an obvious Christmas connection that are still dreadful. The top 
five are:

chris 3 5. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”

I get it that someone thought this was a funny idea, and Elmo and Patsy give the song their best shot, but there is nothing remotely amusing about Grandpa being happy that Grandma got killed. I dare you to try to listen to the whole song once without changing the channel.

4. “Santa Baby”

Isn’t it cute that Santa has a little honey on the side who wants a duplex and for the Jolly Old Elf to write checks? The dreadful lyrics that are milked for all their worth (a buck fifty is about right) by everyone from Eartha Kitt to Taylor Swift to Madonna. It’s a song that is more irritating every time I hear it. If I were Santa, I’d jump back in the sleigh and go right back to the North Pole and kiss Mrs. Claus.

3. “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”

Perpetually annoying and often played for laughs, this song makes me wonder if the original kid who sang it didn’t get his teeth knocked out for doing so. Written by music teacher Donald Gardner “in thirty minutes” (isn’t it obvious?), the absolute worst version is by RuPaul. Avoid this one at all costs.

2. “Dominick the Donkey”

One of the oddest, most grueling in this collection of misfit songs, this one is hard to sit through even once. As sung by the obviously enthusiastic Lou Monte, it is a novelty song that will make you search for the “off” button while hoping the donkey will kick Mr. Monte away from the microphone.

chris 41. “The Chipmunk Song”

People of a certain age will remember growing up with this one and loathing it. Sung by its writer Ross Bagdasarian in the “chipmunk voice” (he also plays “Dave” their owner), it is hands down the worst Christmas song ever – and vies with “Disco Duck” (sung by an awful Rick Dees) for the worst song of all time. How Bagdasarian parlayed this dreadful ditty into a franchise is beyond explanation, but I’d like to take Alvin’s hula hoop and hit “Dave” over the head with it.

So there is my list for the absolutely most annoying, dreadful, awful, and eardrum piercing Christmas songs. If you are listening to one of those all Christmas music radio stations, you are bound to come across some of these clunkers. My advice is change the channel before you damage your psyche any more than it already has been by this incessant saturation of holiday tunes.

What are your nominations for worst Christmas songs? Please let me know in the comments section – I am sure that I missed a few.

  Photo credits: pixgood.com, aragec.com, wikipedia   

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving – Being Thankful Today and Everyday

First appeared on Blogcritics.

t 1Sandwiched between the celebrations of Halloween and Christmas, Thanksgiving sometimes is forgotten. In the scheme of the “Hallo-mas” or “Chris-ween” mega-holiday, Thanksgiving can seem to be neglected. It certainly is in retail in terms of decorations. Try to find light-up Thanksgiving items for your window. Indiana Jones had an easier time finding The Holy Grail.

Yet watching the parade in New York City this morning on TV, I was pleasantly surprised by throngs of spectators lining the canyons of the old city. The turnout has nothing to do with Black Friday sales or any of the Christmas shopping hype. It becomes clear that Thanksgiving is more popular than anyone in retail or the media can fathom because, above all things, it is the people’s holiday and one that they enjoy in full vigor.

The reason is simple – Thanksgiving is an equal opportunity holiday for all Americans. Speaking to people from all backgrounds this past week, I realized that every one of them was ready to celebrate on the fourth Thursday of November. No matter what their countries of origin are or their faiths, they bring their own customs into the mix, meaning tasty food of all types being cooked, fried, and baked for the occasion.

t 2Perhaps it is the fact that religion does not have to be involved as you celebrate this day that accounts for its popularity. We can say the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims and Native Americans was a day when the settlers prayed to God and thanked Him for the harvest that their new friends helped them gather. People of different faiths will thank their gods in whatever way they do, but atheists and agnostics can embrace the holiday as well. We don’t have to thank a deity on this day, but we can always thank the people who come into our lives and make each day a little better.

The concept of being thankful is a powerful one. Thanking someone is on the surface fairly simple, but the notion of gratitude is one that can warm the other person’s heart even on the coldest day. The nature of being thankful is humility, which signals to other people that you know you cannot go it alone. As the old Three Dog Night song goes, “One is the loneliest number,” so if you are gathering with one or one hundred people today, you definitely have something for which to be grateful.

Being thankful should not be reserved for one day a year; it is a practice to be utilized year round. We should be thanking people all the time – thank your barista, your mail carrier, the person pumping your gas, the guy mopping the department store floor, the crossing guard getting your children to school safely, the cashier in the fast-food restaurant, and the list goes on and on. If you are thankful to every person you encounter each day, you will put a smile on his or her face, and smiling is the currency of good will. While it may seem inconsequential to some, thankfulness actually dispenses joy and that is a reward in and of itself.

t 3Enjoy Thanksgiving for the notion that it is a day devoted to family, friends, good food, and football. At your gatherings, be sure to thank everyone at the table, and there will be smiles shared before the turkey and fixings are devoured. And starting tomorrow, go out and be thankful to everyone you meet on that day and every day! People of the world unite and give thanks; we have nothing to lose and so much to gain.

  Photo credit: clipartbest.com, thejoyfulheart.com, huffingtonpost.com 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Waiting for Dad to Come Home on Thanksgiving - A Short Story by Victor Lana

First appeared on Blogcritics.

I couldn’t sleep that early Thanksgiving morning. Mom already had started cooking in the kitchen, and the aromas drifted upward to the second floor where I lay in bed staring at my poster of Joe Namath throwing a football.

I went down the hall into the master bedroom, and Dad stood in front of the mirror putting his tie on. I glanced at the dresser where his gun, handcuffs, keys, and detective’s badge glistened in the light of the green-shaded banker’s lamp. I noticed for the first time that there were four small lines cut into the bottom of the gun’s wooden handle.

“Hey, Pal,” Dad said. “You’re up early.”

He walked over to me, touched my head affectionately, and put on his jacket. “Hey, Dad, what are those little marks on the gun’s handle?”

Dad took the S&W revolver and slipped it into the holster on his belt. “You notice everything, Pal.” He squatted down and took me by the shoulders. “I did that as a reminder of times I had to shoot someone.” 

“Really?” I asked. “Yes, you’re big enough to understand now. I’m not happy or proud about it. Those marks really just remind me that four times I might not have come home to you.”

I felt tears running out of my eyes, and he hugged me. “You’re always careful, right?” I asked. “You bet, Pal. Now I have to go.”

 *

t1My sister Janice and brother Jimmy sat in front of the TV watching the big parade. Janice looked up at me and said, “I just saw Dad.” At seven years old she probably thought she saw him. He “worked the parade” every year, but how could we see him with all those people?

I helped Mom in the kitchen, mashing the sweet and white potatoes, opening cans of vegetables, and squeezing boxes of broth for the gravy into a big bowl. Mom’s sisters were in the dining room putting finishing touches on the pies they were making. The house never smelled better than on this day with the big bird in the oven and all the pots steaming on the stove.

A few hours later my other aunts and uncles arrived with all my cousins. My four grandparents came in right after them. Everyone sat around laughing and talking. I glanced at Mom and said, “When will Dad be home?”

t3“He’s working an 8-to-4,” she said. I looked at my watch and noticed it was 3:30. I knew the parade was long over because my uncles and older male cousins were all in the living room watching the football game. If Dad were there I would have wanted to watch it too, but it meant nothing without him.

I went into my room and stared out the window at the Queens’ street. Brightly colored leaves covered the sidewalks, and the bare trees snaked limbs up against the dull gray sky. The sun would be setting soon, and Dad would get the subway and hopefully be home by the time we started dinner.

 *


t2As our mantle clock struck six, everyone was getting restless. Mom had put everything out on the table, and it all really looked wonderful to my ten-year-old eyes. The steam rose from the big bird, and those melted marshmallows on top of the sweet potatoes were calling my name. The kids’ table in the hallway had serving bowls on it with all the same things that were on the main table.

Uncle Jack called for another beer from the living room, and I ran to get it and I saw the look on Mom’s face – she was worried too now.

Finally, Mom relented and broke her policy of waiting for Dad to start dinner. As Dad’s brother Tony sat down at the table he said, “Who’s gonna carve the turkey with Vince not here yet?”

Uncle Jack stood up and grabbed the big knives. He was a little tipsy, and he hacked away at that bird like he was chopping a tree. Uncle Tony kept shaking his head, and my Dad’s father mumbled, “Vin’s like a surgeon when he does it.”

Jack looked up at him and whined, “Come on, Dad; gimme a break here!”

Mom sat at one of two seats at the head of the table and said, “Vincent always leads us in grace, but this year I wonder if little Vinny would do the honors.”

I felt like I was ready to cry being so worried about Dad, but I stood up at the kids’ table. “Bless us oh Lord, and these Thy gifts….”  

*  

When people started to leave, I felt really scared. Dad had been delayed before, but he had always called. Mom’s sister Ruth hugged her tight as she went out the door. “Don’t worry, sweetie; Vince can handle himself.”

Mom’s parents stayed after everyone left. Pop Carney sat in the living room smoking his pipe, and he called me over to him. “You worried about Dad?”

“Yeah, Pop.”

“Say a prayer, Vinny,” Pop said.

“I’ve been praying all day.”

“Good boy,” Pop said, patting my cheek.

I peaked in the kitchen door and saw Mom crying on Grandma’s shoulder. I didn’t know what to do, so I went upstairs. Janice and Jimmy were already asleep; they were both too young to understand. I fell on my bed, stared up at the ceiling, and prayed for my Dad.  

*  

When I woke the next morning, I heard someone talking in my parents’ room, so I rushed down the hall. Mom lay in bed and Dad stood there still wearing his work clothes. I ran and wrapped my arms around him. “I heard you were worried about me, Pal.”

I looked up at him. “Yeah, a little bit.”

I noticed his gun in its holster; on the handle a fifth line crossed the other four. I hugged him harder then, wishing I would never have to let go.


 Photo credits: scholasticatravel.com, thlectures.com, megaodd.com

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Bill Cosby – The Warped Cult of TV Personality

First appeared on Blogcritics.

cos5 If you have been watching TV or reading daily news stories, it would be almost impossible not to have encountered the ever growing “scandal” connected to TV personality Bill Cosby. My goal here is not to bury Cosby, nor to praise him – as I recall the brilliant oratory of Marc Antony’s eulogy in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Rather, it is to recognize a mistake of which most of us are guilty. We invest too much emotion and interest in personalities (movies and TV), and in doing so we are basically always setting ourselves up for a Humpty Dumpty moment.


cos4There is no way to dispute Cosby’s cultural impact through his various television projects going back to 1965. Appearing as Alexander Scott alongside Robert Culp in I Spy, Cosby burst onto the scene as an equal partner to Culp’s Kelly Robinson in their weekly espionage series. This role as Scotty established Cosby as a bankable star and would lead to his many other successful ventures.



When I was a kid I first knew about Cosby through Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, a cartoon series that I remember watching every week. Fat Albert came right out of Cosby’s comedy routines, and the funny, affable, and overweight character won the hearts of many kids like me; it also convinced parents, who had been fans of Cosby since I Spy, that his brand was family-friendly. Those Jell-O Pudding commercials did nothing but corroborate what kids and moms already knew – Cosby was an American favorite.

Another TV series would seal the deal – The Cosby Show came into people’s homes from 1984-1992, and it was hard to separate the image of the good doctor and the star. The amiable personality depicted on screen didn’t seem too far removed (if at all) from the one Cosby projected when interviewed on talk shows. He was a loveable father figure, a wise yet funny guy anyone would go to to seek advice or to get a laugh. For all intents and purposes, Bill Cosby and Cliff Huxtable were the same person, and people of all ages loved him.

cos2If that were not enough, Cosby went out and created another cartoon character that would enhance his standing even further. Targeted for toddlers and their parents, Little Bill premiered in 1999 just in time to capture an entirely different market. Conveniently, all those kids like me who had loved Fat Albert and grew up to love Dr. Huxtable now had kids of their own. Little Bill features the image of Cosby in the opening credits, and that seemed better than the Good Housekeeping seal of approval – if Cosby were attached to something it had to be family friendly, wholesome entertainment.

So forgive us all for feeling like we have been slapped in the face now, but many of us have lots of years invested in old Bill. The problem with him is one we have with all stars that we allow ourselves to fall in love with – we swoon for a media created image, a concocted persona that is as natural as those faces enhanced by Hollywood plastic surgeons. All the nips and tucks, all the publicists, all the TV and movie studio lot contrivances in the world don’t change the person inside the shell, but we become enamored with that shell anyway.

Why do we continue to feel devastated when stars keep falling like dominoes right before our eyes? We hear of marital infidelity, of drug and alcohol abuse, of drunk driving accidents, of spousal abuse, and a litany of other offenses. We have seen the mug shots of everybody from Nick Nolte to Justin Bieber, but we still feel disappointment and disbelief at every new revelation of indecent or illegal behavior. The truth is that we are too invested in the cult of personality that has been churned out by the media.

We are too quick to believe in the persona of the star as it appears to us, rather than realizing that it is all smoke and mirrors. The best example is “reality TV,” which is neither real nor true television. I know it’s difficult to accept that everything from Dance Moms to Cake Boss is scripted, plotted, and edited just as much as your favorite sitcom, but the truth is reality TV is as unreal as it can be.

So now, if all of us who have bought the Cosby image all these years feel burned, we have no one to blame but ourselves. We should realize that TV and movie stars are nothing more than prefabricated packaging. They are like the most beautiful and large present under the Christmas tree. As long as we don’t open it, the possibilities and excitement are endless; unfortunately, when we rip off the fancy bows and pretty wrapping paper and get the box open, sometimes we are disappointed.

When thinking of Cosby let’s go back to Marc Antony talking about his dear murdered friend Julius Caesar. “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interrĂ©d with their bones.” In my life and my children’s lives Cosby’s shows have brought a good deal of happiness and laughter, but all that will be forgotten now by most people, and he will be fodder for late night TV hosts and other comics who can poke fun at him. Just one caution to those people who also fall into the personality category – let he without sin cast the first stone.

cos1One interesting thing to note is that Cosby performed in Florida last night and received a standing ovation. He went about his usual routine, never mentioning the scandal that is in the news. I don’t know what that says about him or the crowd that supported his appearance, but perhaps the cult of personality is more powerful than anything reality can throw at it.


  Photo credit: AP ,diyfather.com, tvworthwatching/com, dragoart.com, biography.com
 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Classroom Environment Is a Key Element for Student Success

First appeared on Blogcritics.

class 2 If you are an adult, what do you remember about your classrooms? In my memory I can think of big windows that let in bright light and through which I could see blue sky and treetops. I also recall in some rooms, when the sun could become a distraction, that teachers pulled the shades in order to block it. The key fact about those rooms was that they had big windows and most of the time they let in bright, natural light.

It turns out that this was a good thing for me and my classmates. A new study found in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, an annual publication from Princeton University, notes that students exposed to more natural light do better in school. In addition the study authors noted "For students to learn to their full potential, the classroom environment must be of minimum structural quality and contain cues signaling that all students are valued learners."

This makes a great deal of sense. For example, the study notes that in science classrooms it is not enough to have photographs of male scientists, but a wide range of male and female ones of various ethnicities. It is important to “boost the achievement” of all groups and not alienate certain students by displays that are not inclusive of “groups who traditionally face educational barriers.”

Besides concerns about lighting, ideal classroom conditions would obviously include temperature of the room, arrangement of teacher and student desks and chairs, and the way a classroom is painted and decorated. If we think back to our own days in school, we can recall those classrooms that were warm and inviting and those that were austere and uncomfortable. The best classrooms that I have been in are those that feature generous amounts of student work. They are also painted in colors that are not too dark, making the rooms seem bigger and more airy.

class 3In Kindergarten classrooms we can often find the most colorful and warm atmospheres for students. Everything from color coordinated tables and chairs to the copious amounts of children’s work hanging from every available space on the walls (and even laundry lines strung across the room) contributes to a friendly and successful environment. Children can see their past successes hanging there along with the alphabet, numerals, calendars, and reading posters. This kind of room utilizes every inch of space to provide a positive learning area.

Unfortunately, sometimes this is not the case as students move up the educational ladder. I recall the bare walls and boards in my high school classrooms. Once in a while an inspired teacher put up subject related items, but for the most part there was a rather bleak atmosphere that did nothing to enhance the academic climate.

class 4If we look back at the old fashioned idea of a classroom, we find what I had in my New York City public high school. Desks were fastened to the floor, still had holes in them for inkwells, and the teacher usually stood in the front of the room to lecture. In that truly antiquated setting, there was a definite sense of stasis, and the idea of aligning desks differently was physically impossible. Many of us faced the same things growing up, and maybe we can say that we got through okay, but is “okay” what we want for our children?


As for the arrangement of desks, in this era of Common Core State Standards, the move is toward more student-centered classrooms and to leave the days of lecturing behind. I like walking into classrooms that have desks arranged to maximize potential for group work, for meaningful interaction, and to let the flow of discourse be more natural and effective. This is not to say that the frontal teaching mode is always negative – it still seems to work well for test taking – but that is why it is essential for desks to be mobile in order for teachers and students to arrange the configuration to best suit the needs of the moment.

Sometimes educators can feel as if everything is out of their control. We have curriculum guides, CCSS, and standardized and state assessments that must be given, but one of the things definitely within the teacher’s power is the way the classroom looks. He or she might not be able to dictate the color of the walls, but how the classroom looks and feels can be coordinated by that teacher. Sometimes it is exciting to include students in implementing ideas when decorating, and teachers shouldn’t be surprised that kids have great ideas about how they want their classrooms to look.

class1Take note of the way spaces look in doctors’ offices, shopping malls, food stores, and restaurants. The lighting, arrangement of furniture, and configuration of displays directly affects the way you feel about going to these places. In my children’s dentist office there are walls painted with cartoon characters, bubblegum machines (with toys not gum in them), and their favorite TV shows playing on screens above the dentist chairs. My kids are not afraid to go to the dentist, proving the power of environment.

This study corroborates what most of us probably knew all along – setting correlates with success. It is true in schools and in other places as well. At this time there is no excuse for a drab classroom atmosphere. It is up to educators to brighten up their spaces and make them relevant to the subject matter they teach with the goal being to highlight student achievement and maximize their learning potential. In classrooms everywhere the attitude should be – let in the light, brighten the colors, and make every space reflective of an attitude promoting success.

  Photo credits: wikipedia, worldof stock.com, mashable.co, conval.edu   

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veteran’s Day – Make Time to Get to Know a Veteran

First appeared on Blogcritics.

vets On this Veteran’s Day 2014, some of you who are reading this are fortunate enough to know (or have known) a veteran of military service. Usually, this is someone in the family. In other cases, you may know a friend or neighbor who has served his or her country. Either way, on this Veteran’s Day when we honor those who served or made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, the best thing we can possibly do is to get to know one of these remarkable individuals.

Of all the many wonderful aspects of knowing my father (sadly, he passed away last year), one of the most rich and continually rewarding elements was his stories of his years in the Army. Though that was only a brief time in his life (1942-1946), it shaped the way he viewed the world, how he lived his life, and the way he raised his children.

To say that he had stories is an understatement – his tales could make Tolstoy’s War and Peace seem like a short story; however, Dad was always very honest in telling all his tales. The amazing thing was not just the details of battles, of how he had been wounded (twice), or even the glory of victory; no, the best parts of his stories were the humanity, the decency, the sadness of losing friends, and the realization that he was one of the lucky ones because he got to come home and live his life.

In my family members have served in the Spanish-American War (great grandfather), World War I (grandfather), World War II (Dad and my uncles), Korea (more uncles), Vietnam (cousins), and Iraq (more cousins). I have also had friends who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a complex and rich tapestry of people with many stories to tell. Now we can magnify their stories by the millions of people who have served over the years, and they are a rich resource of historical details and personal tales.

One thing I have noted in talking to vets over the years (in my own family and friends and acquaintances) is that none of them have ever bragged about anything. There was no “guts and glory bluster” from any of them; rather, there was a sincere belief in their mission and dedication to the service of their country. They would speak of the horrors of war (and there were many), but there was also the love of their comrades, the “good” times they managed to have between battles and even while dodging bullets, and their memories are often tinged with sadness and loss, but also there is a sense of fulfillment and honor in doing the job that they were sent to do.

Dad paris 1On this Veteran’s Day, if you are lucky enough to know a veteran, sit down and listen to his or her stories. If you take even a few minutes, you’ll be happy that you did because you will hear something astounding that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

If you don’t personally know someone who has served, make it a point to go to your local parade. See if you can get to talk to one or more of them, shake their hands, and say the simple words, “Thank you.” I know that can be difficult or even awkward for some people, but believe me it makes the veteran happy to know that he or she was appreciated.

One time when I went out to eat with my father, he happened to be wearing his Army jacket. At this point he was old and sitting in a wheelchair. A complete stranger came up to him, shook his hand, and said “Thank you.” He then proceeded to go to the owner of the place and pay for the entire meal. My father, never the one to get emotional, started to get teary-eyed. He couldn’t believe that this man would appreciate what he had done even after so many years. This was not the only time this happened when my father wore that jacket, and in other cases he would turn down the offer because the offer itself meant more than anything.

Veteran’s Day should have no political implications – even if our elected officials use the parade and the moment to exploit their own agendas. This is not about being pro-war or promoting peace or being Democrat or Republican. This is simply a time to honor anyone who served – those who came home and those who never did.

Dad paris 2Before he left France, my father visited the cemetery and honored the memory of a friend lost in battle. He was a young man just like my Dad who went in a ship across the vast ocean, got off the train in England, and stormed the beach in Normandy, but unlike Dad he never made it out of the water. Dad and guys like him knew too many of those lost, and there is no other way to honor them other than to respect their memories now.

Even if it is not Veteran’s Day, whenever I see anyone in a military uniform, whether in the bank, the mall, or a grocery store, I try to stop and shake their hands and say “Thank you.” This can either be the start of a conversation or it can just be a pleasant way to show appreciation. The best thing you can do though is to stop, ask about their service, and listen for a few moments. “Thank you” may not seem like enough, but it’s the least any civilian can do for the men and women who have made it possible for us to live life as we do here in this country.

Photo credit: trevorloudon.com