Week 2 Reflection

I managed to finish the second week of the school year, which because of the way that my Middle School Jazz Band is scheduled, is really the first week of what will be my normal schedule the rest of the year. I’ll admit that it already feels a bit hectic, but I’m sure once the kids and I are more used to the routine things will start to calm down.

Things that went well

Overall, this week has been a pretty strong one. Most of my classes are going pretty smoothly to start, and the kids are having a lot of fun (and also seem to be learning something). If I had to pick the thing I’m most excited about from this week, though, it would be the strategy I chose to give sight reading tests in my IB Music Class.

Though sight singing isn’t explicitly assessed in IB Music the way it is in AP Music Theory, I still think it’s an essential skill for students in that class–not to mention for musicians in general. As a result, every year I’ve taught the course I’ve given the kids regular sight singing practice and assessments.

Because IB Music is a 2-year course and I’ve got a mix of second year and first year students, the skills spread in that class is pretty wide. There are some who’ve already been taking the course for a year, there are some who are completely new to it. If that weren’t enough diversity in my group of learners, there’s also an enormous spread in terms of how experienced students are at sight reading: there are a few classically trained pianists on the one hand, but also a rock guitarist and a student whose only musical training is in the Indian Classical style. So when it comes to the specific skill of sight reading, my students are really all over the map.

My normal strategy to approach a group of students like this would be to do one of two things: either start everyone at the most basic and try to move quickly (practicing basic skills is good no matter how advanced you are!), or try to find something that’s adequately challenging for everybody. Because the skills spread this year is so wide, though, I didn’t think either of these approaches would work. So I chose a third way.

At the start of class on Wednesday, I passed out the sight singing books we use (Ottman’s Music for Sight Singing) and told the students they were going to be tested. Their instructions were to start at the beginning of the book (the exercises are all skill-graded somewhat) and find the first exercise that they’re likely to fail at.

I then gave them two minutes to practice and at that point started going around the room, having each student perform their chosen exercise. When they failed–which almost everyone did on the first try–I then said something along the lines of “All right! Good job! You failed.” Then we worked together as a class to perform whatever exercise the students had chosen.

Though this was initially a strategy for differentiation–you know, letting every kid find something that was in their personal zone of challenge–it wound up having some really beneficial side effects.

The first was that every kid ended up doing something harder than I think they otherwise would have done. In ten years of teaching sight singing out of Ottman books, I’ve never really gotten past chapter 10 or so. Some of the more advanced students in the class were choosing to sight sing exercises out of chapter 17 or later.

The second positive side effect–and this is the one I’m most excited about–is the way it seemed to completely shift my students’ relationship to failure. Since failure was the goal, not an undesirable outcome, everybody worked harder to master the most difficult material they could, and even the least-experienced students in the class felt no shame in their lack of skill. Since everyone was failing at something, there was no reason to be embarrassed about not being successful.

Eventually, by the end of the class, every student had successfully completed at least one exercise–even the ones who had never done any sight singing before.

Future Concerns

Looking back on the week, I can’t say there’s anything that went particularly badly–in most of my classes, we’re still in the introductory phase in which I’m assessing the students’ skills and prior knowledge of the subject. But there are a few things I’m going to have to keep an eye on in the future.

First is the schedule. I’m extremely grateful this year that my school has scheduled me with no first period classes–this means that I can drop off my son at school every morning before coming in. That’s really, really great, but the cost of it is that I’m generally not done with my teaching day until around 5:15, and I haven’t really got a lot of prep time built in to my schedule. This means I’m going to have make sure that what prep time I do have I use extremely well. I’ve never been terrific at using my prep time extremely well, so we’ll see how that goes.

Second is my beginner Jazz Band. This year I traded one period of prep time so that I could split that group into three sectionals that each meet once a week. I’ve got my horn sectional on Mondays, keyboardists on Wednesdays, and then drummers and guitarists on Fridays. So far, I’m extremely encouraged by this arrangement–but I will have to look out for the combination of skills spread and different instruments in my Friday group. Of the eight kids (or so) in that group, most of them have some prior experience on their instruments–but there are also two pretty complete beginners. Combine that with the fact that there are two very, very different instruments present, and I think I’m going to have my hands full with that class.

Random Thoughts

This year, I traded teaching an Advisory for doing after school private lessons with individual students. So far, this seems to have been a really, really good decision. I’ll miss the relationships I’d formed with my advisees, but spending an extra three to four hours giving private lessons to my beginners is going to make my life a lot easier in the long run. I can already tell.

Most of my classes this year are smaller than usual. On the one hand, this is a bit of a bummer because it means less music is happening at the school. But on the other, the quality of music is going to be much, much higher. I can already tell just from the first week or so of rehearsals in the middle school bands that things are going to sound better than they probably ever have in my career there. But we’ll see.


Ideas that are destroying America: The Caitlin Flanagan Edition

Oh boy. Here it is, barely days before the start of a new school year, and yet another article about helicopter parenting has come out. Hooray. One of its more memorable drop quotes comes in its second paragraph, on teenage rebellion:

Kids don’t rebel against their parents anymore; why would they? Would you rebel against the concierge at the Hyatt?

Speaking as an individual who has taught high school for my entire life, I can tell you one thing: the above statement is complete, utter bullshit. I have worked with hundreds of teenagers, and I can assure you that they’re all rebelling just fine. In fact, when you encounter that rare teen who isn’t rebelling–the one whose relationship with his or her parents is warm, connected, and supportive, and who listens when they offer advice or feedback–as a teacher you lean forward and pay close attention. What are these parents doing right, that their kids actually listen to them?

Anyways, that second paragraph made it clear that this essay is pure bullshit. I could, from here, simply talk about all the ways in which this article is pure bullshit, discussing the complete lack of evidence or examples, and so on, and so on.

But that’s not really the problem with this article. Not only is this article bullshit, it’s dangerous bullshit. It is Bullshit That Is Destroying America. Let me explain.

1. Caitlin Flanagan is Destroying America Because She is Perpetuating Unnecessary Parent-Shaming. 

I’ve worked with parents a lot in my career, and I’ve seen a lot of parents through very, very difficult situations. Sometimes, their kid is in dire academic straits, having fallen behind by more than a grade level or having failed multiple classes in high school. Other times, their kid was struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. Or their kid was just severely depressed, upset, or anxious. Or, most of the time, their kid is just a normal teenager, and even being a normal teenager is hard on everybody in the family.

In all these situations, I’ve observed a common anxiety in parents. They all love their children more than anything else in the world, and they feel extraordinarily responsible for everything that happens to their children. And they feel both of these powerful emotions while at the same time feeling utterly powerless to influence their children’s behavior.

It would be easy for me as a teacher and think-piece author to say that this last bit is a cop-out, that clearly there are things that these parents could (and should!) be doing to ensure that their children have better outcomes. Maybe they should be paying more attention, or maybe they need to be less overbearing, or maybe they’re too permissive, or maybe they’re not with it in the way that they should be.

But the thing is, as I’ve worked with more and more students, I’ve come to see that parents’ feelings of powerlessness are completely and totally accurate. As important as parental influences are–and they’re probably the most important single external influence on a child’s life–in the grand scheme of things they don’t really account for much. Children are influenced by so many other things: school, peers, TV, music, random encounters on the street, and so on. And this isn’t even accounting at all for the fact that, in the midst of all those influences, children still get to make their own choices about what they listen to, what they do, and how they spend their time.

In my career, I’ve seen incredibly permissive parents raise well-adjusted academic superstars. I’ve seen “good” parents who establish limits and consequences raise drug addicts. I honestly haven’t observed any real correlation between parenting choices and teenaged outcomes.

This is why I think the kind of parent-shaming in which Flanagan indulges is such a dangerous thing. In our culture, parents of teenagers really badly need support and sympathy. They need the rest of us to let them off the hook for the things they can’t control, so that they’re able to focus on those things that they can control. They also need us to let them off the hook so that they can actually take a moment, and be present, and enjoy the teeny tiny amount of time they have on this planet with their children.

Instead, we get articles like this one.

2. Caitlin Flanagan is destroying America by giving us one more straw man to burn. 

Without once providing an example, or citing a study, or anything, Flanagan neatly divides the world of affluent parents of teenagers:

Good Parents think that alcohol is dangerous for young people and that riotous drunkenness and its various consequences have nothing to recommend them. These parents enforce the law and create a family culture that supports their beliefs.

Get-Real Parents think that high-school kids have been drinking since Jesus left Chicago, and that it’s folly to pretend the new generation won’t as well… On the nights of big high-school events, Get-Real Parents pay for limos, party buses, Ubers—whatever it takes to ensure that their kids are safe. What is an Uber except a new kind of bike helmet?

In a way, this distinction serves as a wonderful illustration of why we seem to love parent-shaming so much as a culture. When any author or public intellectual creates a binary opposition such as this, there’s always the desirable group and the undesirable group. The smart, moral, hard-working parents and the loony, immoral, lazy parents.

From the audience’s point of view, a division like this is an invitation to feel superior to someone else. It’s a way to place yourself in a category with all the other good people like you so that you can feel righteous indignation towards those in that second category.

It’s a seductive feeling, honestly. Nothing feels better than thinking–no, knowing–that you’re better than someone else.

This is probably why Flanagan so carefully avoids providing any examples. Because as soon as you have an individual, a person with a name, a face, a story all their own–as soon as you have all that, you have to feel some sympathy for their plight. You have to make some effort to understand why they made the choices they did, some effort to understand how they must feel in dealing with the consequences.

Reducing other people to a caricature, though, requires none of that. So we can pile on with glee.

That, of course, is why these stupid, stupid articles blaming all our social woes on coddled millennials and helicopter parents keep coming out, and thus the vicious cycle of guilt (“Am I coddling my kids too much? Am I not coddling them enough?”) and shame (“At least I’m not as bad as those people…”) continues unabated. It’s my sincere hope as a parent and teacher that, someday, it will break, and we can all simply be kinder to each other.


Four Things I Wish Had Happened in the Uber & Lyft Debacle

Let me begin this by saying: generally speaking, I’m a supporter of ride-sharing. I know a few of the people who formed the original Ridesharing Works coalition that passed around the petition. They’re good people, who do good work in the city, and whose values I generally share. I plan to vote for Prop. 1 when it comes time for me to do so, if only (at this point) to be done with this whole thing for two more years. But, man, what a mess it is.

Thing #1: I wish that Uber and Lyft had been smarter about local politics. 

It all began with the advertising, when Uber started picking on Ann Kitchen. It continued with the somewhat disingenuous–or, at the very least, convoluted and difficult to explain–claims that ride sharing was being “forced out” of the city. And now it’s continuing with a PAC that’s receiving upwards of $2 million.

All of these moves, in my opinion, are indicative of an utter cluelessness about the local political scene. While some people have been animated to support Uber and Lyft because of their aggressive messaging on this issue, many more have been completely turned off.

In a city that prides itself on being a pale blue dot under constant attack from the sea of red surrounding it, outsiders running ads attacking prominent progressive leaders isn’t going to win you many friends. In a city that is very suspicious of corporations, and whose most prominent news source is an alt-weekly, making claims about onerous regulations isn’t going to win many friends either. And lastly, in a city that is probably significantly more pissed about Citizen’s United than the national average, pumping loads of cash into a PAC to influence an election isn’t going to make you look particularly good either.

The most annoying thing about all of the above is that it’s made it increasingly difficult for people who oppose fingerprinting to justify that position. Do you like using Uber and Lyft? Do you feel like the regulations that were in place before this past December were working OK? Well, too bad. Because now you’re a corporate shill.

That brings me to Thing #2…

Thing #2: I wish people in Austin could re-think our narrative about the local power dynamic. 

I’ve been participating in lots and lots of online discussion on this issue, and it never really takes long for anyone taking a pro-Uber position to be called a corporate shill. On reddit, it’s gotten to the point where people are pretty quickly called out for being astroturf, paid commenters. And while there’s good reason to believe that that might be true (see Thing #1), my experience in this town is that people are really, really quick to go to the “you’re being paid” explanation whenever someone seems to disagree with them.

For whatever reason, one of our favorite stories about the city is that it’s been bought and sold. We love telling ourselves that corporations moved in and sold Austin’s soul, and now it’s ruined forever. Due to Thing #1, the ride sharing issue is now getting sucked up into the “greedy-corporations-ruined-Austin” narrative. Kudos to the Travis County Democratic Party and the Our City Our Safety Our Choice PAC for connecting those dots for people. That’s really, really excellent messaging.

If and when Prop. 1 fails in May (which I think it will), I can hope against hope that people will revise what they think about who really pulls the levers of power in this city. Maybe we’ll look at the $2 million Uber and Lyft spent to no real good purpose and reconsider whether corporate money can really buy an election. Maybe we’ll finally realize that–surprise!–it isn’t greedy developers or greedy corporations who run things in the city but rather central city homeowners.

More likely, the narrative will stay intact, ready to be used by the next constituency that wants to cloak their narrow economic self-interest in the mantle of progressivism.

Which leads me to…

Thing #3: I wish that we could be talking about taxi regulations instead. 

A common argument that people make about Uber and Lyft is that they’re really just a taxi service, and they should be regulated as such. That seems to me to be a fair argument. Except, my sense is that most people making this argument don’t really know exactly what our taxi regulations are.

Dan Keshet has already done a great job discussing these on his blog. The bottom line is that they’re absolutely terrible. For whatever reason, our city council has decided that it’s only appropriate to allow 3 cab companies to operate in this city, despite the fact that they’re universally hated by their customers. The owners of these franchises all live in nice houses in West Lake and keep their drivers toiling at around the poverty level.

Did I mention that the cab companies suck for customers, too? The reviews on Google are… like, my God. They’re bad. Really, really bad.

At this point, I honestly think it would just be better if we regulated the taxi companies the way we regulated Uber and Lyft, and not the other way around. The regulations we have have brought us a state of affairs in which full-time drivers are getting mercilessly exploited all while providing seriously shit service in a sector that is in very, very high demand.

And this brings me to my last Thing, Thing #4: I wish city council had done things differently. My most immediate preference is that I wish they’d just left well enough alone with Uber and Lyft and then quietly re-written the taxi regulations so as to better serve the public. That might have been impossible, but I’m sure there is at least one other alternate universe where this issue could have been handled more effectively.

At least, I hope there is.



3 Harsh Truths Musicians in Austin Need to Understand

or: Musicians in this Town Need to Learn Economics

Note: I am no expert in economics. I don’t hold a degree in it or anything. But the field has been one of my many interests for quite some time, at least since I was in my 20s and learned that money was an important thing that drove most decisions that people make. So if there’s an expert economist who wants to correct any of my assertions, please do. I will welcome getting schooled.

Harsh Truth #1: The reason why musicians don’t get paid in this town has everything to do with supply and demand, and little else.

When I moved to Austin, one of the things that drew me here was the music scene. I loved the idea that it would be easy to find people to play with, that it would be easy to get gigs, and that everyone in the city seemed to really love music. I know lots of people get cynical about those things, but in my 13-or-so years of living here, I’ve found all of the above to be true. Yes, it is very easy to find like-minded creative types to start a band with, and get them to play gigs with you. Yes, if you don’t mind playing at 1 am on a Tuesday, it’s very easy to find places to play. And, yes, the people who live here generally like music a lot. Even if you go to a mainstream, corporate-style office building, you’re as likely as not to find someone there who’s heard of Wilco. Where I come from, that would be unheard-of.

The one thing that’s really hard to do is get paid. Like, at all. Back when I was gigging a lot, we considered a good night in town to be one where we landed more than $200. As time went on, we found it was increasingly difficult to get people to come out to our shows. After being a band for a few years, all our friends had seen us play–a lot. And they wanted to go see other bands. And there were plenty of other bands to see.

Musicians in this city love to complain about the fact that people here don’t support live music. But that’s just totally false. People in this city love live music and they support it all the time. The problem is that there are just too many bands and not enough people to go out to see them.

In economic terms, one might say that the Austin live music market is experiencing a glut. There’s just so much good music going on in this town that the market is totally saturated. When a market is saturated well beyond demand, the price drops until it’s basically zero. Right now, that’s the situation for live musicians in Austin.

In a normal market, if the supply of a commodity is overwhelming demand, producers stop producing until the supply decreases enough to bring the price back up to a sustainable level. But with music in Austin, this isn’t happening. This is because many people who play music here (like me) do so not because they’re trying to make money at it, but because they love to do it. To many musicians in town, simply having the opportunity to perform for an audience is reward enough. Any cash they earn is just gravy. They’ve got day jobs to keep them housed, clothed, and fed–music is their passion.

So if musicians in this town are cynical about this being a place to be for serious professionals, I understand that completely. Austin is a great city to make friends, form a band, and gig regularly. But unless you make a concerted effort to get out of town a lot and expand your audience beyond what Austin can offer, you’ll always be struggling to make rent because of the economics of the thing.*

But I’m sick of hearing people bitch about how this city “doesn’t support local music.” This city supports the hell out of local music. It’s just that there’s too damn much of it.

Harsh Truth #2: We need to stop protesting condos.

The entire time I’ve lived here, I’ve heard the same thing over, and over, and over again: “They’re tearing down [BELOVED LANDMARK / BUSINESS / REHEARSAL STUDIO / LAUNDRY SHED] and putting up condos! We’ve got to STOP THEM!

I was sick of this in 2004, and it hasn’t gotten more fun to listen to in twelve years. I hear this especially from musicians and artists, who because of Harsh Truth #1 tend to feel the pinch of development more than most others in the city. It’s easy to see condos go up where your favorite club used to be and get pissed. I get it.

The thing is, stopping an individual development does jack shit for artists and musicians in Austin. Sure, you might get to keep your club or your studio a little longer. But the problem we have in this city is that it’s growing really, really fast. So fast that there isn’t anywhere near enough housing to contain everyone who wants to live here. People want to build condos on the site of your favorite club because they’re pretty sure that they’ll be able to find 200+ people who want to live on that exact strip of land.

If you stop the condo near your favorite club, all you’ve done is just guarantee that those 200 people who would have lived in those condos will go looking for housing elsewhere. And, since, let’s face it, those condos were going to be pretty high end, those 200 people will have no problem outbidding the Annie Street Arts Collective for that charming bungalow in Travis Heights.

I’m not saying that artists who are getting displaced from cheap, run-down housing near downtown shouldn’t try to avoid that displacement. They should. But the problem is that that fight isn’t accompanied with any kind of concrete plan for where those 200 housing units should go. Absent that policy, stopping the condo they’d bulldoze your house for is just delaying the inevitable another couple of months or years.

If you ask me, I think any artist, musician, actor, or working class individual who doesn’t want their home bulldozed for a luxury condo should look at West Austin and say: PUT IT THERE! Those neighborhoods are the richest in the city, and they’ve managed to keep it that way by keeping condos out of their neighborhoods (you know, keeping the supply of housing near them low). That’s been good for them, as they get to reap the rewards of skyrocketing property values and less riff raff in West Austin Neighborhood Park. But it sure has sucked for the rest of us.

Harsh Truth #3: What’s Happening in Austin is Happening Everywhere

You’ve read the articles. You know that the story of the music industry since 2000 has been one of almost inexorable decline. Some segments of the industry, of course, have grown a lot. And the focus has certainly shifted more to online content, videos, and the like. But even the most high profile artists these days will admit that it isn’t as easy to make money playing now as it was twenty years ago. Harsh Truth #1 is true at all levels of the industry, in just about every city in the country.

Harsh Truth #2, that musicians and artists are being priced out of cities that are increasingly getting walled off for the rich (and I might add that by focusing so frequently on immediate displacement without focusing at all on the big picture we are helping the rich in this effort), is also true everywhere. Austin happens to be a particularly extreme example when it comes to economic segregation, but it’s not completely off the scale.

So, in the face of these realities, the next question is: what exactly do we do?

If you ask me, the first step is that we musicians have to organize–and we have to organize around reality. We can’t just get together and bitch about how nobody wants to pay a cover, or about how some asshole developer is trying to bulldoze our rehearsal space and put up a condo. We have to come together with realistic answers to the difficult questions that face the city, and advocate for policies that actually serve our economic interest.

Until we do that, we’ll just keep getting screwed.


*You could also explore other economic avenues–like playing weddings, funerals, and quinceaneras, or YouTube or whatever. But you can’t just play clubs.

Some things I learned from asking people where they were going on Lamar

by Marshall Escamilla

So, a while ago I was sitting in really bad traffic on South Lamar, and I started to get curious. “All these people,” I wondered, “where are they going? And where are they coming from?” So I made a survey that asked exactly that.

To be specific, here are the questions I asked:

  • Did you drive on Lamar from 3 – 7 pm today?
  • Where were you going?
  • Where were you coming from?
  • How long did it take?
  • Did it suck?

Before I talk about my results, I need to make a note: this is totally unscientific. Like, really, really unscientific. The conclusions I might come to from this data are more provocative than conclusive–so you should add the words “but this is probably bullshit” to every sentence you read below. Be forewarned.

All that being said, here are a few things I’ve learned:

1. People are generally going pretty far.

When I made this survey, part of me was hoping to find that there are lots of people driving on Lamar who are only going a few miles, and could easily replace their trip by biking, walking, or some simple combination of the two. Maybe if there were better infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, we could really reduce congestion!

Turns out, nope. The mean and median trips were both at around 7 miles–which is way out of walking distance and outside of bike range for most casual cyclists. If you set walking distance at 1 mile and biking distance 4 miles, there was only one respondent who could have walked, and only 10 who could have biked. Out of a total of 35. And that’s even if you don’t consider physical fitness, disabilities, hills, etc.

To extrapolate that number out, this survey implies that better pedestrian infrastructure would only remove about 1,000 cars from Lamar out of the total 35,000 that travel on it every day. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing–but at least according to this survey, walking isn’t really an alternative to driving on Lamar.

Having said that, remember, this could all be bullshit.

2. The further you go, the more it seems to suck.

One mistake I made in phrasing the survey had to do with the answer choices to the “Does it suck?” question. I should have done a Likert scale or something, so I could get an objective sense of how much people hated having to drive on Lamar to get to where they were going. Instead, I went for the humor factor and just gave the options “Yes,” “No,” and “Yes, there was traffic.” Oops.

Since that’s what I did, I don’t really have a way to gauge whether people who said “There was traffic” thought Lamar sucked more or less than those who just said “Yes.”

However, there was this one thing.

People who said their trip on Lamar didn’t suck were going the shortest average distance, at 4.78 miles. People who said there was traffic went the second shortest, at 6.85 miles. People who simply said “Yes, Lamar sucks” went the furthest at 7.08 miles. As long as I’m drawing specious conclusions from an unscientific survey, I may as well just say that this means that people in that third group hated Lamar the most. People in the second group had a good reason for why things sucked–there was traffic–so I’ll take that to mean that they’re feeling a little less hopeless.

Urbanists in Austin and elsewhere have been making the case for years that letting people live closer to where they work and vice versa makes for a better society. This survey would seem to lend some credence to that idea. Of course, this is probably meaningless bullshit.

3. We’ve got a long way to go when it comes to connectivity. Oh, and also transit.

In order to have a few other numbers to play with, I created two other metrics for each respondent that weren’t included in the survey. The first I called connectivity score, which was based wholly on my subjective measure of how well the street grid connected around either the respondent’s destination or point of origin. This score really didn’t have anything to say about whether the two points were well connected to each other–because that would have been far too much work for me to figure out. Instead I just eyeballed the map and gave each location a score ranging from 1 (few connections) to 4 (lots of connections). Since most of Austin’s connectivity is so poor, I generally erred on the side of generosity with this score–naming Barton Springs at Lamar as “2” even though in many other cities it would be considered a “1”. I then took a mean of each respondent’s two scores.

The second metric I called the “transit multiplier.” I calculated this by looking up the time it would have taken each respondent to take the bus (according to Google), and dividing that time by the midpoint of Google’s traffic estimate for driving during rush hour (those numbers are reported as a range). The result is the ratio of the amount of time it would take to bus from one point to the other vs. drive.

What I learned from these is two things I already knew. First, Austin’s streets don’t connect to one another very well. Generally speaking, people are going from places with decent connectivity (i.e., downtown) to places with poor connectivity (basically anywhere else). This leaves them few options when it comes to choosing routes home. There is at least a chance that connecting more streets in neighborhoods could improve traffic on Lamar.

The second thing I learned that I already knew is that taking the bus is a lot slower than driving. The average transit multiplier was 1.91, meaning that it generally takes people about twice as long to ride the bus as it would to drive. That’s a big difference, especially when you consider that this accounts for driving in peak traffic, and that some people are already spending a decent amount of time in their cars.

The only respondents who seemed at all well served by the bus happened to be traveling along the 1 route. Pretty much everyone else was screwed–and they got more screwed the further they traveled. These conclusions, being based on observations of destinations on Google Maps, are probably somewhat less specious than everything else. But, still, it’s probably bullshit.

4. People generally don’t have any idea how long they spent in the car. One of the questions I asked people was how long their trip took. Their estimates were wildly inaccurate, with most people estimating way too low. One respondent said it only took them 5 minutes to get from the Whole Foods downtown to the Target on Cameron Road. Uh. No. It took a lot longer than that.

I suppose that’s good news, though. It may take 20 minutes, but it only feels like 5! That’s at least something positive. What this meant is that I basically ignored people’s responses to this question.

5. What to do about it
While I didn’t necessarily learn anything shocking from this exercise, I can say that I was a little surprised at how important the distances between destinations seemed to be. If we want to do something about the traffic on Lamar, it seems, the best possible thing would be to try to allow central Austin to become denser.

Most of the traffic seems to be coming from people who are traveling long distances, between places that were poorly served by transit and not well-connected to the rest of the street grid. All of these are contributing factors to the enormous volume of cars clogging up that one road. Putting people’s houses closer to the places they want to get to–whether it’s work, or a strip club, or whatever–seems to be the only real way to combat traffic congestion.

The advantage to this approach is it’s basically free. Allowing increased density in close-in neighborhoods would be cheap when compared to the infrastructure-based traffic fixes people in Austin discuss on a daily basis. In terms of traffic solutions, simply building houses closer to downtown would probably be the simplest and most effective approach.

But then again, like everything else, this conclusion is probably bullshit.

Affordability Really is Just a Word in the City Budget…

Let me begin this post by talking about Manchaca Rd. Manchaca is my neighborhood’s “main street,” or whatever you call a hellish highway near your house with far too little pedestrian infrastructure. On Google street view, it looks like this:

Screen shot 2015-09-19 at 7.38.33 PM

From the point of view of someone whose son is presumably going to attend Joslin–that school on the right hand side of the picture–in about 5 years, this street has a lot of problems. First of all, the sidewalks are way too narrow, so that you can’t walk two abreast on them. Second, they’re right up against the curb, putting small children trying to get to school dangerously close to traffic that is regularly going 40 – 45 miles an hour. Third, the sidewalk is frequently blocked by vegetation, or it’s incomplete, or there’s a utility pole on it. Fourth, and perhaps most annoyingly, it’s very difficult to cross Manchaca on foot. The traffic moves so fast on it that, even if you think you’ve got plenty of time to get across, you might find a car right on top of you before you make it. There are only four traffic lights on Manchaca between Ben White and Stassney, and two of them change so infrequently that I’ve frequently found myself waiting 3 to 4 minutes at them just to cross the 30 feet or so to the other side of the street.

Manchaca isn’t really unique, of course. It just happens to be the nearest-to-me example of a phenomenon that really is more common than not in Austin’s streets. Many, many, many of our roads would require significant upgrading to make them even a little bit safe for pedestrians, let alone welcoming or inviting to walk on. I’ve heard it said that it would take around $1 billion just to get our city-wide sidewalk deficit up to zero–that is, everywhere that needs sidewalks will have them–or about the same amount as the latest failed rail bond.

So, anyway, as an engaged citizen and Austin Neighborhood Advocate, I started calling 311 on a semi-regular basis to bring up issues relating to pedestrian safety in my neighborhoods. I asked for more safe ways to get across Manchaca, more and better sidewalks, and so on. And every time I’ve managed to talk to someone who works in the relevant city department, I always end up hearing the same refrain: “There’s just no money for that.”

This brings me to a letter from my council member, Ann Kitchen, that was recently posted on NextDoor (among other places). In it, she says the following:

During this year’s budget process “affordability” was more than a word, it was our guiding principle.

Ok. Fair enough. I understand that lots of people have been harmed by Austin’s sky-rocketing housing costs, and I know it was a big issue in the elections last November. So I guess I’m glad that it’s more than a word. A little lower down, though, she says this:

For the owner of the median value home, the city property tax bill decreased by $14. That means, with a limited total fee increase, the total bill from the city will increase by only about $4/month.

Wait, what? A $14 / month savings is taking affordability seriously? It isn’t an increase, so for people on a fixed income who are stressed by rising assessments that’s probably a good thing–but what about everyone else? Those tax savings wouldn’t cover one extra night out at Torchy’s a month; let alone help keep us in our home if we were so tax-burdened that we were thinking of moving out.

And then, what about renters? I suppose it’s at least theoretically possible that landlords paying reduced property taxes* might result in lower rent. But given the 99.9999% occupancy rate (or whatever it is), I think it’s much more likely that landlords would just pocket the extra savings and treat themselves to some ice cream.

Of course, if you’re one of those people who has a $2 million mansion in Tarrytown, these savings start to get pretty substantial. I’m glad we’re helping those people out–I’m sure they’re hurting. Maybe they’ll be able to use their savings to get another boat.

I don’t know enough about the city finances to be able to say exactly how much this tax cut is hurting city services. But, in the face of the massive need to upgrade and improve safety on our city streets (among many, many other pressing needs), I would have preferred it if council had just kept my $14 / month and used it for something important, because clearly they need it more than I do. How about more traffic signals on roads that used to be rural but are now major arteries? Or how about a few feet of sidewalk here and there? Or subsidized affordable housing? Or even better kolaches for city staff in morning meetings?

This ultimately puts me in complete agreement with Kathie Tovo. Given the meagerness of the tax savings for the average Austinite, it’s hard for me to get on board with CM Kitchen’s assertion that this is an accomplishment worth crowing about. If anything, it makes it seem like affordability really was just a word. You know, like a “what we can do so that we can say we did something about affordability?” kind of thing.

Now, if they could just find $60,000 to get another traffic light on Manchaca…

*It’s worth pointing out here that much of the tax savings are coming from an increased homestead exemption, which wouldn’t even apply to renters at all.

What People Keep Not Getting About Growth Mindsets

In case you haven’t been near the world of education in the past decade or so, Growth Mindset (or, “mindsets” more generally) was a term coined by Carol Dweck. It grew out of her research, in which she identified that some individuals approach learning tasks with what she called a “Fixed Mindset” and others approach them with a “Growth Mindset.” Individuals with the former mindset tend to believe that their allotment of talent or intelligence was granted to them at birth and will never change, regardless of practice or effort expended. Individuals with the latter mindset, on the other hand, believe that their allotment of intelligence or talent is unknown and potentially limitless, and therefore can grow as they practice or work at things. Dweck, along with many, many other researchers, found in her work that folks with growth mindsets tended to be much more resilient in the face of failure, and generally speaking tended to do much better in learning tasks. Big surprise, right?

I first came to these ideas when I read a study by B.P. Smith for one of my graduate classes in Music Education. Smith had done a study on a number of University Music Students in which he gave them a survey to determine whether they had what he called “Fixed Ability Beliefs” (what you could call a Fixed Mindset, a belief that talent is unchanging throughout life). Then he asked them a few questions about their goal orientation. Did they care more about looking good or being better at music than their peers, or did they care more about mastering the music for its own sake? Then, he monitored their practice sessions.

As it turned out, and pretty perfectly in line with what Dweck might have predicted, Smith discovered that individuals with Fixed Ability Beliefs cared more about looking good than mastering music. Their practice routines were also a total mess—they were much less likely to use what the researchers called “robust” practice routines that utilized multiple effective strategies to master difficult material. People without Fixed Ability Beliefs, conversely, cared much more about mastering the music for its own sake, and their practice routines were much more varied and generally effective.

When I first read this study, it was one of those rare instances when you completely read your own story in a Peer-Reviewed article that talks a lot about p-values.

You see, when I was an undergraduate, I studied classical guitar, and I used to suffer from truly crippling performance anxiety. Whenever I was called upon to perform, my hands would shake uncontrollably and my performance would inevitably be orders of magnitude worse than it had been in my worst practice session. I tried all kinds of things to calm myself down, but pretty much nothing worked.

It wasn’t until my senior year that I realized what was going on. I began to understand that in those moments when everyone was looking at me, my internal monologue went something like: “They’re all judging you, and you want to impress them—you don’t want them to realize what you know, which is that you were born without talent. Whatever you do, don’t let them see just how much you suck at music.”

This monologue would pretty much play on repeat whenever I played in front of people and knew they were paying attention, and it was absolutely debilitating. It quite frankly still is, in those moments that I let it get to me.

Even as this was happening, I would also have these sublimely beautiful moments while playing. In these moments, I thought no one was looking or judging—or when I didn’t care—and it was just me and the music. In these moments, when I would be fully experiencing the beauty of playing, I felt truly alive. It was this feeling that kept me coming back to music, even though I’ve never really felt like I was all that good at it.

So when I learned about Mindsets, suddenly my experience as a musician made tons of sense. Everything clicked, and I quickly became an evangelist. Everyone, I thought, needs to know about this stuff!

Luckily for me, of course, everyone quickly started to find out. Dweck published her book Mindsets in 2006, and it really became an instant hit on the Pop Education Writing and Teacher PD circuits. Many, many people have picked up her ideas and run with them. Unfortunately, not all of them have really gotten it right.

When I first read B.P. Smith’s article, I wanted to learn absolutely everything I could about these ideas. I wanted to know how to get my students to adopt a Growth Mindset with respect to music. I looked up and read basically every study I could find on Mindsets and Attribution Theory (which is a different name for basically the same idea); about Performance vs. Mastery orientation, and so on and so on. The great thing about being in grad school is you can read all this stuff for free. What follows are a few things I learned, with some special attention paid to things that I think the popularization gets wrong about the research.


1) It’s not about praise, it’s about what you think.

This is a really big one. The most common ideas about praise and Growth Mindsets all emerge from Carol Dweck’s most famous study, in which she gave two groups of 4th graders a math test, and told them all that they did well, regardless of how well they actually did. She then told one of the groups that they must be really smart at this sort of test, and another one of the groups that they must have put a lot of effort in. When she gave the kids a subsequent, much harder test, the kids in the first group completely fell apart and gave up; the kids in the second group kept at it until they mastered the puzzles.

Now, there’s a large (and loud) contingent of thinkers about education who think kids today are too coddled. They write columns in newspapers about how everyone gets a trophy these days and how that’s obviously bad for kids because they don’t work hard like grandpa did. They also don’t walk home uphill, three miles, in the rain, and they have iPhones. These people, already pretty accustomed to complaining about kids today, really seized on this praise piece. “You see!” they’d say, “praise is ruining our kids!”

Of course, the problem is, that lots of other research doesn’t necessarily support that praise is the ultimate kid-ruiner. What it does seem to suggest is that adults transmit their own Mindset—you know, their belief that talent is innate or developed—to the children they parent or teach. Praise is only one of many ways that adults can communicate their beliefs about talent and intelligence. Abuse is another.

And if you’re skeptical that the beliefs of adults are important to the mindsets of children, you should consider that children (and especially older elementary, say, 4th– 6th graders) are very astute about this kind of stuff. When they interact with a teacher or parent, the first thing they want to know is whether they’re being evaluated or not. Is this adult trying to judge whether I’m smart, or talented, or good enough, or whatever? In Dweck’s study, the praise served to give the kids that information. Saying “You must be smart at this” was a really effective way to communicate that the person giving the test was primarily interested in evaluating the talent or intelligence of the test-taker.

One question that always comes up when I’m in a PD session is whether we, as teachers, are developers of talent or discoverers of talent. I’ve never met a colleague who, after thinking about it for a little bit, hasn’t said that they’d at least like to think of themselves as developers of talent. But here’s the thing: if, as a teacher, you yourself approach learning with a fixed mindset, doesn’t that mean your job is to discover talent?

If that’s the case, the kids are gonna find out, no matter how you praise.


2) It’s about perception, not reality.

When I think about the beauty of adopting a Growth Mindset, I think it all comes down to the spirit of play. Children automatically adopt a Growth Mindset when they’re at play; it’s only once they think they’re being evaluated that they start to even be concerned with the idea of talent.

That’s one big reason why most advocates of focusing on student motivation (e.g., Alfie Kohn, Ryan & Deci, etc.) believe that doing away with evaluation systems like grades is the first step. Generally speaking, I might agree with them. However, I’d diverge in one respect, and that is that all the research really just points to students’ perception, not necessarily the reality.

For instance, the reality of the situation may be that every student in a school is being evaluated and judged for their talent and intelligence. However, if students don’t perceive it that way, their mindset may or may not be affected. There is significant research that shows if a student’s relationship with a teacher is strong enough—and if that teacher is sensitive enough to her students’ mindset—it doesn’t really matter what the structure of the school environment is. Or, at least, harmful school structures may be rendered un-harmful.

3) It’s really hard to change High Schoolers’ minds.

            That being said, one finding that keeps coming up in study after study is that Growth Mindsets tend to decline as students grow older and get more experience in school. One study I read recently showed that increase in grade level was the only thing that seemed to have any influence on students’ likelihood to have a Growth Mindset, and that influence was negative. Essentially, as kids get older, they get more entrenched in a belief that talent and intelligence are fixed traits.

Once kids get into high school, their beliefs about themselves are pretty firmly fixed, and don’t really change much going forward. That’s why, if you’re concerned about your child’s motivation, it really doesn’t matter much where you send them to high school. By then, your kid has probably made up his or her mind about his talent and intelligence.

However, you really need to look out for 4th – 6th grade. In those years, the research seemed to show that kids were uniquely open to influence from teachers, and that once they get into 7th grade their mindsets are pretty well-formed and difficult to change.

Given that fact, I get really concerned about the nature of most middle school band programs—particularly here in Texas, where band is basically a competitive sport. Is it really a good idea to drop 11-year-olds into a program where evaluations are constant and kids are constantly jockeying with one another for position in chair tests? If our goal is to be developers of talent, does it make sense to give middle schoolers auditions, to rank bands, to take kids to UIL, and berate them when they don’t meet our expectations at Solo & Ensemble competitions? I frequently wonder whether the benefit of these experiences is worth the possible cost to students’ long-term motivation as learners.

When people criticize this idea, I don’t necessarily disagree with them. It’s true, a Growth Mindset isn’t really going to be the panacea that solves everything in education. It’s also true that zeroing in on praise, or the idea that “kids just need to work harder,” can both be pretty crappy ways to address the iniquities and injustice in our education system. However, if we really took these ideas seriously, it really could transform education for the better. What if teachers, everywhere, asked themselves the hard questions about their own Mindsets; what if we all tried to inculcate Growth Mindsets in our own students through our own example?

I can’t help but think that we’d at least be better teachers.