Album Challenge Day 6: Full Moon Fever by Tom Petty

Did anybody write better pop/rock hooks than Tom Petty? He just made it look so easy. Full moon fever was Petty’s first album without the Heartbreakers as his band, though Heartbreaker guitarist, Mike Campbell played on the album. Also on the album was Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and George Harrison. That’ll do. This album is what made me pay attention to Tom Petty. I know his stuff before this album, and liked it, but hadn’t bought any of his albums. This actually isn’t my favorite Petty album. I think Wildflowers is a stronger album, or at least it’s the one I listen to most often. But, I think this one had a bigger impact on my musical taste and songwriting.

Album Challenge Day 5: Inside by Bill Morrissey

I had a difficult time choosing between two different Bill Morrissey albums. I ended up choosing “Inside” over the other consideration, “Standing Eight.” I think overall, “Standing Eight” is a better album, certainly the one I listen to more. However, Inside has a cover of Dave Van Ronk’s “Hang Me Oh Hang Me,” on which Greg Brown sings. This album introduced me to Greg Brown, who also has had a significant influence on my musical taste and songwriting.

Bill Morrissey writes songs that are character-driven, and written for a guy who has a limited singing range. Hey, that’s my thing. The song I’m sharing from Inside is one I recorded a while ago for an aborted project of Bill Morrissey songs, “Chameleon Blues.” I choose this one, because it shows the witty, sarcastic side of Morrissey’s songwriting. I’m also choosing this one as it is thematically, and musically, quite different from the previous songs I’ve shared in this series. His albums were filled with songs that ranged from highly sarcastic and witty to downright tragic. “Standing Eight” ends with the saddest song I’ve every heard, “These Cold Fingers.” Let’s just say the dog doesn’t make it and leave it at that.

Morrissey also published two novels in addition to his 9 studio albums before his death from heart disease at age 59 (according to wikipedia).

Album Challenge Day 4: Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen

This album. This fucking album. When I was a junior in high school, one of my history teachers and wrestling coaches loaned me a copy of this album. He warned me that this is not the Bruce Springsteen you know from “Born in the USA” which came out after Nebraska and still getting significant radio airplay.

When I heard this album, my music world seismically shifted. I had no idea you could write and record songs like this. Songs that were visceral and told such character-driven stories with so few words. This was 1985 in the Twin Cities, and I knew what I knew about music primarily from the radio–which was pretty limited. And, to tell you something about how my brain processes music, I didn’t care much for Born in the USA, though if you strip those songs down, you realize they are the same kind of character-driven storytelling. I just couldn’t hear those stories through the driving rock/pop sound.

Nebraska was released in 1982. These (plus other songs) were intended to be demos that Bruce recrded at home on his 4-track cassette recorder. Remember, this is before digital recording. They decided that many of the songs didn’t work for the full rock production of the E-Street Band, and so they decided to release this album made from the original demo recordings. If you listen carefully you can hear many aspects of the production that would not have been allowed on a studio-produced album. But, his recordings worked so well for the content of the songs, it was released using these recordings.

Bruce and his producer, Jon Landau felt many of the additional songs from that batch of demos did work with the full band and ended up making up much of the 1984 Born in the USA album.

Here’s a “Nebraska-like” Born in the USA.

Album Challenge Day 3: Graceland by Paul Simon

Graceland was kind of a comeback album for Paul Simon. Though, such an iconic songwriter maybe didn’t need a comeback. His previous album, Hearts and Bones, had not done well. Graceland was released the fall of 1986. It won the 1987 Grammy for album of the year. The South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo provided much of the backing vocals. Working with South African musicians in the mid-1980s meant he was breaking a UN cultural boycot agains South Africa for its policy of Apartheid. I think in the end, working with many African musicians was ultimately beneficial in lifting up the voices of African musicians oppressed by Apartheid. The title track is one of my all-time favorite songs. Of course, there is absolutely no chance of a solo guitar and voice replicating the complex bass part and harmonies that are a crucial component to the groove of Simon’s version. So, instead, I slow it down, simplify it, and break out the slide guitar for my version.

Album Challenge Day 2: The Nylon Curtain by Billy Joel

I think this was the last album I owned on vinyl in the BCDE (Before CD Era). It came out in 1982. My two best friends gave it to me for my 16th birthday (in 1984). For 20+ years I had a box of vinyl (years after I had a working turntable) in the basement. They were pretty musty smelling, so I took them (including this one) to Half-Price Books before we moved to Bemidji. And then a couple years later I found a really high end (but older) turntable at Goodwill for $5 and started collecting vinyl. So now, I’ve purchased it, plus many other albums again. I won’t tell you about the copy Sgt. Peppers (even with the little cutout Beatle characters) that I let stupidly go.

Nylon Curtain is one of my favorite pop/rock albums. When I was 16, I had the sheet music book for it, and could play rough approximations of some of the songs. But, man, Mr. Joel writes some pretty complicated chord progressions and melodies. Like Joshua Tree yesterday, I think this album is damn near perfect, with every song fitting in where it does. This album also works really well on vinyl. You have to stand up (or sit down) and flip the album over after side one ends with “Goodnight Saigon” fading to the sound of Huey helicpoters flying away. A perfect break before you continue with side two.

The lead song, Allentown, is actually my least favorite song on the album. I was always a little put off how hard it leaned into pop. However, if you look at it more carefully, you’ll find that it is a damn fine Woody Guthrie-like folk song lyrically. So, I’ve reimagined it as that.

Album Challenge – Day 1 U2 Joshua Tree

You know the album cover challenge that has infected Facebook like a virus? Well, I’ve been infected. Thanks Jeff. I do enjoy seeing friends’ 10 essential albums in the development of their musical taste. It’s like a poorly developed pop culture personality test. However, find it frustrating that part of the challenge is to not post any explanation of why that album was important to him or her. That’s the interesting part. I also like that it brings back the notion of an album as a whole being a piece of art, and not just a song. Context matters.

So, I’m going to break the rules. If you don’t like it, get your own blog. I actually posted day 1 on my Facebook feed yesterday, but then decided this morning (day 2) that this might be more interesting and engaging. Plus this is a hell of a lot more fun to think about than, well, everything else right now. I’m not going to plan out a list of my top 10 and put them in any sequence. Just whatever album comes to me the next day. I also decided I needed to learn how to play and record at least one song from each album. That should make it interesting. I’m not sure what the 10 albums will be. I hope I don’t wake up Queen on the brain one morning. That would be rough for everyone involved.

Day 1 is Joshua Tree by U2. This album was really my (like much of America) introduction to U2. I was familiar with their earlier work, but I didn’t own any of it. This album was released the spring of 1987, my freshman year in college. This was the first album I bought in CD format. It was ubiquitous that year to hear songs from this album thoughout the dorm.

The crescendo introduction to the first song “Where the Streets Have no Name” is one of the strongest introductions to a rock album I can think of. It’s one of those introductions that when you hear it, you immediately know, “this shit’s gonna be good.” It was. I think this album is damn near perfect. Every song works, and as a body of work, it works. Here’s m yrecording. Not perfect. And definitely not Bono. He’s tough to cover as a bass/baritone singer.

It’s Not What the Teachers Do, It’s What the Students Do

During the last month, teachers have had to rebuild their ship while sailing. That was a daunting task. I’m sure some have done it with grace and style while others have really struggled. Could be that those who were dynamic teachers in the classroom have found ways to engage students via remote learning.

I think a key guideline to remember is that how much students learn is not as much a matter of what the teacher does as what the student does. I am not absolving teachers of any responsibility for what their students learn. In fact, the opposite. Here’s my “prime directive” as a teacher:

The teacher’s job is to make it as easy as possible for as many of his or her students as possible to learn as much as possible to the highest level as possible.

I’m not saying school should be easy. It should be difficult. Learning new things is hard work. However, the difficulty should be in the navigation of understanding difficult concepts, not navigating the learning environment.

The pandemic has thrust us into a worldwide natural experiment about how we teach. Out of that may come a broader acceptance that the student learning is maximized when the focus of teaching methods shift from what the teacher is doing to what the student is doing.

I’m sure that there are some teachers whose conversion to remote learning is to simply post five 50 minute lectures and then use an online objective test. Hopefully this will be the outlier and what those teachers, students, and parents will learn is the limitations of that teaching style is that much of the learning is ephemeral.

This method of teaching, which has been the primary teaching mode for a long time, is largely ineffective because the teacher does the work and the student passively observes. There can be a place for that, but it should not be the means to learning. Of course everyone knows we learn better by doing. Teachers really know their subject because of the experience of doing the act of teaching it.

There’s a a silver opportunity in this pandemic cloud. Many teachers will realize the didactic lecture method works even less effectively when there is minimal give and take between student and teacher, or even student and student within the face to face classroom setting. Instead, shifting their focus to providing students an engaging question to answer, a problem to solve, a task to complete, and then providing students time to practice, dig in, collaborate, and then perform, present, or share the results of that work with the teacher and peers is significantly more engaging for all and, therefore, more effective. The teacher shifts from doing most of the work for the students to setting the stage for, coaching, facilitating, and then providing feedback/evaluation of student work and progress.

So, teachers thrust into a new way of doing things, what are you doing via remote learning that shifts the work from you presenting and students listening to students actively engaging with a concept and working with that concept?

Share your thoughts and let’s start a useful dialog to make us all better teachers.

50 Years Ago Today

The first Earth Day was fifty years ago today. Denis Hayes, a graduate student at Harvard and Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin were the creative and political forces behind the genesis of this now global celebration. Twenty million people took part in first Earth Day demonstrations.

So, how are we doing today?

If we were a covid-19 patient, I’d say we are intubated and on a ventilator. So, not so good. Covid-19 prohibits responsible Earth Day gatherings today, therefore, Denis Hayes, now recommends that we “…make Election Day Earth Day…This November 3 vote for the Earth.”

Ten percent of the country’s population participated in demonstrations, prompting Congress to pass, and Republican president to sign into law, the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts, plus create the Environmental Protection Agency. Today we have largely gutted the EPA and rendered impotent the three key pieces of legislation protecting much our commons—the, land, air, water, and all species living on and within them.

Here’s how I think this has occurred. Large corporations and those with extreme wealth gained more and more influence in the political arena. They subsequently squeezed wealth and resources out of the middle and working class, causing an ever-increasing disparity in income, wealth, and access to the natural resources of the commons.

I recognize that these superorganism corporations do not make up the majority of businesses, the majority of which are small, locally owned, and good corporate citizens. The actions of the very powerful few however, have generated considerable and understandable frustration and anger. Republican party (and yes, I think primarily the Republican party) has seized upon that anger and used it to create a very vocal minority providing cover needed to gut of environmental protections, largely protecting those fomented into vocal anger and rage, for the purpose of maximizing profits. They know exactly what they are doing and doing so to increase wealth for a select few. It was brilliant political strategy. Mitch McConnell is maestro of such strategy. I also think this makes them sociopaths.

I understand corporation and landowner frustration with the bureaucracy created to enforce our environmental protections. I work for the Minnesota State Colleges system. I’m very well acquainted with bureaucracy. Like everything else, the most sustainable norm is always moderation, and certainly at times bureaucracy leads to regulations with unintended consequences, and because of the bureaucracy itself it is difficult to revise the regulations. It’s a nasty positive feedback loop for sure.

Here we are now on life support. There’s a new norm. Crisis. Moderation is no longer an option. Bold action must be taken or our children and grandchildren will live in a time of constant states of coronavirus-like emergencies as one pandemic, food crisis, water crisis, sea-level-rise refugee crisis washes over them like an ocean surf tumbling a drowning swimmer over and over, wave after wave.

We cannot allow this to occur. If we do, we are all complicit in the next generation’s new normal being a struggle for survival. Because of our continued inaction, our only choice now is to take bold action that will be costly and painful.

Our response to the coronavirus is  microcosm of our response to the larger environmental crisis. We can commit to the difficult, painful, purposeful, science-based approach, and shelter in place and practice proper social distancing so we can manage the rate of infection (which means we must financially supporting those who cannot afford to take the necessary pause to minimize collateral damage) or we can lose patience, incite the angry vocal minority, and make short-term decisions that end up costing us more in the long run, but start the flow of profits to the corporate superorganisms.

Earth Day is often treated as a celebration of the Earth and the natural world. Today, instead, on this 50th Earth Day celebration, I think it should be a day of repentance and contemplation of our relationship with the natural world and what we can do to replace our adversarial relationship with a reciprocal relationship.

Step one. We must reject leaders who incite sedition, insurrection, and violence for their own political gains, power, and wealth acquisition at the cost of the rest of the human population. We must choose leadership willing to lead us in the collective action necessary (as only collective action will work) to begin living each day as if every day is Earth Day.

A New Framework for Learning

This morning I’m sharing a short video titled “The Learning Cycle: Consider, Construct, Confirm.” This is a 14 minute “nutshell” description and example of a teaching/lesson/curriculum design method that I have developed and outline in detail in my book, Consider, Construct, Confirm: A New Framework for Teaching and Learning.

I offer this now for two reasons. First, my main task during my sabbatical has been to complete the second edition (check), and to revise and complete the list of support videos that accompany the book (not quite check yet, but getting there). This video is one of those. The second reason is that this might be of particular benefit to teachers suddenly thrust into teaching in a very different manner–so might spur on some additional thinking as they redesign their lessons. I think it also might be useful to parents suddenly thrust into a much more active role in their child’s schooling.

And for all others, well, it might be of interest simply in terms of learning more about how the human brain learns and what that might mean for how we do school.

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