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Howard Levin and The Amazing Urban School Laptop Program

8 Feb

As I roll my sleeves up and prepare to really get my students ready for our spring concert, I want to take a moment to reflect on a particularly awesome individual, a man whose vision, discipline, and understanding of the fundamentals of teaching have pushed the limits of technology in education. Also, a really cool guy whom I have had the pleasure of knowing and learning from during my past six years as a teacher – the one and only Howard Levin, director of technology at The Urban School of San Francisco.

If you spend five minutes at Urban, you’ll immediately see Howard all over the place, though you might not know it’s him you’re seeing. Students all tote white macbooks, crowding around one another’s video projects, sharing earbuds to listen to music (both their own and that of their favorite bands), video-chatting one another or silently typing away on a paper. You can’t help but notice how remarkable it all is, and you’re not the only one – Urban is at the absolute leading edge of technological implementation.

The whole thing – the school’s much-talked about 1:1 laptop program, incredible (and incredibly important) FirstClass implementation, custom-designed PCR grade- and course-report database, unbelievably professional student-directed “Telling Their Stories” documentary series, vital and supremely helpful faculty training, student workshops, and even the philosophy that Urban has taken towards technology… all of that is the work of Howard, implemented over the past decade by him and his incredible two-person team. Additionally, Howard speaks at educational conventions around the world, has published a ton of articles, and is one of the most sought-after minds when it comes to tech implementation in the educational field.

I should add that Howard makes all this happen with the help of just two people. Two. Mercedes Coyle, groovy chick and drummer for dot.punto,  interfaces with the kids and gets them the technology (and, frequently, loaners and replacement parts) that they need. Computer-whisperer Igor Zagatsky, the man behind the curtain, literally keeps Urban ticking, and also built the school’s incredibly robust and flexible local server setup.  If something breaks, Igor will take a break from whatever giant project he’s working on and come make it work – he is as much a part of Urban as the walls, windows, and wiring.

But that’s it – two people. For a school of over 300 students, plus a huge number of faculty and staff… and all those people running over 50 wireless access points blasting around a constant, massive amount of network traffic… wow. That means that Howard, Mercedes, and Igor are overseeing the day-to-day operation of a network of over 400 computers.  And in spite of this, not only does everything work about 90% of the time (which, when you think about it, is insane), they have transcended technical considerations and are focused on how they can actually use this stuff to improve teaching.

Key to this is Urban’s philosophy of “making the laptop disappear.” (the brainchild of Howard, head-of-school Mark Salkind, and, and I’m sure, many members of the Urban administration and board).  If you talk to Howard for even a little bit about the Urban laptop program, you’ll hear him bring up the distinction between using technology to facilitate education and simply “teaching technology.”  It’s a very important distinction, and Urban’s embrace of the former over the latter is the entire reason that the 1:1 program works so well.

In the school’s view, a laptop is simply a tool like any other – pencil, or a notebook, protractor, calculator. Teachers at Urban don’t teach students how to browse the web, or how to type quickly – they teach math, science, music, art, and they use laptops to allow the students to learn those disciplines more effectively, and in a way that fits with how students (and people) think and communicate in the 21st century. That means that laptops need to be totally integrated into daily life at the school, from administration to teachers to students, to the point that lessons and assignments can begin, exist, and be completed online.  It requires a ton of training for teachers to make it work, but work it does, and you’d be amazed at the degree to which laptop actually does “disappear.”

By now, Urban is no longer unique as a laptop school – a huge number of schools nationwide have adopted the 1:1 program that Urban pioneered. But I’d say that Urban still does it better than almost anyone else, and remains at the cutting edge in other ways, too. They’ve installed interactive smartboards in every room, allowing teachers not just to show off sexy graphics and cutting-edge multimedia in their lessons, but to give their students immediate access to all lessons after they have been presented (by far the most useful aspect of smartboards).  What’s more, in-class video capture, as well as Skype and other videoconferencing tech, are letting kids learn and interact in a more global, decentralized way than ever before.

Wow. I still can’t believe I get to teach at this place. And while everyone here is pretty amazing, Howard still stands out. With his vision, patience, leadership, and clear-eyed understanding of the fundamentals of teaching, he’s led an entire school to the bleeding edge of the 21st century and shown us what is possible when teachers and students are given the knowledge and resources to embrace technology as a means to education instead of its end goal.


Mitch On Music

18 Nov

“I played in a death metal band. People either loved us or they hated us. Or they thought we were okay.

A lot of death metal bands have intense names, like ‘Rigormortis’ or ‘Mortuary’ or ‘Obituary.’ We weren’t that intense, we just went with… ‘Injured’.”

“I went to see a band in New York. The lead singer got on the microphone, and he said ‘How many of you people feel like human beings tonight?’

Then he said ‘How many of you feel like animals?’ And everyone cheered after the animals part. But the thing is, I cheered after the human being part because I did not know that there was a second part to the question.”

Monday’s Person I Want To Be

14 Sep

Imogen!It’s been a while since I posted a MPIWTB, and it took someone pretty special to make me post again.  And this monday, I found just such a special someone.

You see, I’ve been thinking a lot about my live performance and where I could go with it, so it seems fitting that right now, I can’t help but want to be Imogen Heap.

And it isn’t because of “Hide and Seek,” though I will not deny the absolute awesomeness of that particular song. No, the reason I want to be the lovely Miss Heap is as follows:

DAMN. I like to loop and everything, but this takes it to a whole new level – I’m not even sure of half of what she’s doing, and that custom MIDI controller she’s using is… intimidating. I’m a huge fan of controllers that have no branding or big stupid displays, just button after button after button of tone-controlling awesomeness.  Outstanding!

And after watching that performance, I’m left with so many questions – is her laptop really all her rig consists of, or is there a stack of synths in a rack somewhere backstage?  Were any of those beats pre-recorded, or did she really input them all live?  How much must she have had to practice to get all that down? But most of all, I’m left wondering, “When is Imogen Heap next playing San Francisco?”

My hat is off to you, Imogen.  You’ve abducted the concept of one-woman-band loopery and taken it straight into the future.  Also, you remind me of a way more awesome version of The Ross Gellar Musical Journey (1:35 in particular):

Infinite time, indeed.

Fun Tim Schafer-Related Things

18 Aug
Guybrush Threepwood

"My name is Guybrush Threepwood, and I want to be a pirate."

Game designer/writer Tim Schafer is enjoying a bit of a “That Hansel” moment these days – along with the re-release of his point and click adventure game classic “The Secret of Monkey Island” and the impending release of his seventh original IP, the Jack Black starring “Brutal Legend,” he’s already in the press quite a bit.

There’s more to it, however, but I know that a lot of y’all have no idea who the guy is, so let me explain him a little.  He’s, like, the Wes Anderson of games, or maybe the Robert Altman… he’s the closest thing that the world of gaming has to a true auteur.  Since he started making games for Lucasarts 20 years ago, he’s made only seven original games, but every single one of which is an incredibly polished gem of comedy, heart, and beautiful design.  From the Monkey Island pirates who swordfight with insults and witty retorts instead of their blades (“You Fight Like A Dairy Farmer!”  “How appropriate.  You fight like a cow.”) to a Dia de los Muertos- influenced tour through the afterlife, complete with beatnik accouterments and a killing jazz score (this would be the one and only Grim Fandango, possibly my favorite game ever made), Schafer’s games are far, FAR more than what people think of when they think of “video games.”

So, it was pretty dang cool when they re-released “Monkey Island,” on the iPhone!  It was actually released on a bunch of platforms, but the iPhone was the one that I have, so I got it there. From my trip to Minnesota until now, I’ve played it off and on, moving at a pretty rapid clip, since I already know how to solve the puzzles.  *Use* “chicken with a pulley in the middle” on “hanging cord.”

Guybrush and Elane Never Pay More Than 20 Bucks

"This experience has taught me something, Elaine."

After I negotiated the game to its classic conclusion (“Never pay more than 20 bucks on a computer game”), the credits rolled.  This re-released version was created by a new team and featured updated graphics and, even cooler, re-recorded audio.  The songs from the first one are, like, burned onto my eardrums (I know I’m supposed to be this jazz snob, but when I was 12, I would listen to the soundtrack to that game on my CD player over and over), so hearing new versions of the old MIDI tunes, performed by actual musicians, was really fun.

And the coolest thing of all was that, as I watched the credits roll, the contributing musicians rolled by, and I saw that Mike Olmos played all the trumpet parts!  Amazing!  Mike’s a player in the city that I know a little bit – he’s totally great, plays all over the place, runs the monday jam session at Grant and Green, plays with a bunch of Jazz Mafia bands, the CJO, etc.  I guess it shouldn’t have come as that much of a surprise that, since they’re based here, Lucasarts would get San Francisco based musicians to play on their stuff, but all the same, I couldn’t get over how cool that was.  Mike got to play on the soundtrack to Monkey Island! My god, I might be the only musician in San Francisco who thinks it, but that just may be the Coolest. Gig. Ever.


Seriously. Put this on a t-shirt, and it will suffice.

I heard that they’re going to also re-release Tim’s other games, and if they do, and someone who works on the games is out there, I will SO play on the soundtracks.  Flute, clarinet, saxophone, just say the word.  I’ll kill it, and I’ll do it for cheap.  Just give me, like, a Grim Fandango T-Shirt and a couple hundred bucks.

So, onward and upward for Tim Schafer.  His new game is a heavy-metal-themed brawler starring Jack Black, and I think it’s going to be, well, just as amazing as all of Scafer’s other games.  It will, at the very least, be hilariously funny, and feature a truly epic soundtrack. The complete track list actually just got leaked, then confirmed, and it is amazing. Anvil, Mastodon, Dokken and even Deathklok… plus lots of Sabbath and Judas Priest, naturally.  Some way or another, I’m gonna have to find a way to check this one out.

Michael McKean Smells The Glove

30 Jul

Michael McKean on The Daily ShowI caught Spinal Tap’s recent performance on The Daily Show and damn, they sounded pretty good!  I’m not sure I’ve ever really thought of the band as a real performing entity, for whatever reason; hmm… actually, if you’ve seen the movie (tell me you’ve seen the movie), it’s pretty clear why.

As The Darkness proved, we Americans tend to have a hard time taking rock acts seriously if they’re the least bit funny; for whatever reason, we like our comedy music with props and acoustic guitars, thank you very much. Spinal tap was very funny, and American that I am, I just never considered that they were a serious performing rock group.

I was impressed with everyone’s playing (their hired gun drummer sounded really solid, though the gig must come with hazard pay), but the most impressive by far was Michael McKean, (A.K.A. “David St. Hubbins”). In addition to singing lead, McKean played a mean lead guitar, keeping some notey riffs going during the vocals and taking a pretty damn good solo.  Huh.  I always knew that all three of the guys in the band (McKean, Harry Shearer, and Christopher Guest) were strong players – if nothing else, their acoustic performances in A Mighty Wind made that clear – but it was pretty cool to hear them hold their own in a straight-up rock performance.


"The French know nothing about shampooing."

I looked up McKean, and it turns out he’s known as much for his musical work as for his comedic roles.  After doing a ton of various musical variety acts in his early career, he was a musical guest on Saturday Night Live before joining the cast (according to Wikipedia, he is the only person ever to be a musical guest, then a host, and then a cast member). The guy is just always working – he’s a quintessential Hey It’s That Guy, currently playing Spinal Tap shows in support of the band’s new album, writing a musical for Broadway, and starring in various plays and TV pilots (one of which, “The Thick Of It,” sounds like it would have been great – Hurwitz! Guest! WTF, ABC? Get on it, HBO!)

Also cool – together with his wife Anette O’Toole, McKean wrote several songs from A Mighty Wind, including the title tune (“Yes, it’s blowin’ peace and freedom, it’s blowin’ you and me“), and the beautiful “A Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow,” a song so great that it single-handedly makes that movie compete with “Best in Show” for my favorite of the Guest ouvre.

And perhaps best of all?  He starred in one of my all-time favorite movies, playing Mr. Green in “Clue”! Mr. Green has long been my favorite character in that movie, and I had no idea McKean played him, though, to be fair, it was long enough ago that he looks completely different.  I guess I’ll just have to force myself to watch that movie again.

So, ladies and gents, I give you Michael McKean –  Singer, songwriter, guitarist, actor, comedian, and undercover FBI agent. Comedy rennaissance man; king of the Hey It’s That Guys.  Props to you, sir.

Michael McKean Mr. Green Clue

"I'm gonna go home and sleep with my wife."

Monday’s Person I Want To Be

15 Jun

This Monday, as I find myself surrounded by an increasingly wacky bunch of well-meaning fruit loops, I find that more than anything, I want to emulate the cool head, deadpan sensibility, zero-bullshit demeanor of the one and only, Private Investigator Emerson Cod.

Emerson is on my mind because this weekend marked the airing of the last episode of Pushing Daisies ever (sniff), and while there were plenty of things that I liked about that show, Emerson was the thing that held it all together.  Whimsical, snappy, and beautiful-looking though it may have been, Daisies was also saddled with a built-in tendency to go off the rails into twee-ville, with scenes featuring Ned and Chuck in particular constantly running the risk of becoming waaaay too cute and “charming,” at least for me.

Fortunately, we could always count on the gruff and vulgar Cod (played by Chi McBride, who needs a new show, stat) to even things out.  Whenever the two romantic leads would start to lose me with their goo-goo eyes, Emerson was there to roll his, bringing things back down to earth in hilarious fashion.  A choice assortment of quotes:

Ned: It’s kind of a random proximity thing.
Emerson: Bitch, I was in proximity!

Olive: Yesterday, a farrier named Lucas Shoemaker was found dead. Trampled.
Emerson: Why should I care about a dude that sells fur coats?
Olive: Not a furrier, a farrier. *Heir*.
Emerson: Fair-rier?
Olive: It’s a blacksmith. Puts shoes on horses.
Emerson: Don’t try to act like that’s a word everybody knows.

Olive: Maybe John Joseph faked his death. People do that all the time.
Emerson: No, they don’t.

And of course:

Emerson: Just because there’s vodka in my freezer doesn’t mean I need to drink it. Wait… yes it does.

So while I didn’t love the final episodes (it was too bad that they didn’t know the plug was getting pulled), I still appreciated getting to spend a little bit more time watching this show, and I hope that all of the actors find success elsewhere in the near future. For his valiant efforts grounding a show with its head so far up in the clouds it threatened to float away, Chi McBride deserves some sort of medal of deadpan-valor or something.  Cheers, Emerson. Keep up the knitting, man.


I'll read a pop-up book in your honor.

That Michael Giacchino is So Hot Right Now

6 Jun

UpLast night, I saw “Up.”  It was really, really great. In terms of drama and story, it wasn’t on the same level for me as, say, “The Incredibles” or “Ratatouille,” but the visuals, the artistry of the film… the incredible use of color, framing, and expression to convey the emotional transformations in the story… unforgettable.  In 3D particularly – I’m not sure if I’m ready to say that 3D is gonna be the thing that brings people back to the theatres, but it certainly was cool.

All three of those films have something in common – they were all scored by Michael Giacchino. I’ve been aware of the man since hearing (and digging) his jazzy, spy-movieish score for “The Incredibles,” but it wasn’t too long ago that no one had heard of him at all.

After working for several years in the video game world (scoring some movie tie-ins and a few WWII shooters), Giacchino got his first break when he was tapped to do the music for J.J. Abrams’ second show, “Alias.”  He clearly did a good job (though my main musical memory of that show is the awesome Abrams-penned opening theme music), because in 2004, Abrams came to him with his second project, a quaint little tropical island romp you may have heard of called “Lost.”

Soon thereafter, Giacchino was dealing out the groaning, keening music for which “Lost” is now famous, a score which I’d say has as much if not more to do with evoking the show’s unmoored, mysterious atmosphere than any other single element of its production.

At the same time, he was brought on to score Brad Bird’s first film for Pixar, “The Incredibles,” and did a fantastic job. Parts of his score actually call to mind Jeff Richmond’s opening credits for 30 Rock, with a little bit of vintage spy-movie string lines. He also slyly used 5/4 time as a way to invoke the Mission Impossible theme without actually quoting it – (well played, Giacchino, very well played). Also fitting, since he would go on to score Abrams’ underrated entry into the MI canon, Mission Impossible III.  Anyway, I flipping loved “The Incredibles,” and the music brings it back for me, every time.

So, while “Incredibles” was kicking ass in box offices nationwide, “Lost” was topping the Nielson ratings. By 2006, five years after first starting on “Alias,” Giacchino had gone from working on video-game adaptations of movies to being the composer of choice for Abrams, one of the most happening young producers in Hollywood and being tapped by Brad Bird for his second Pixar film, the wonderful “Ratatouille.”  Giacchino’s score for that movie (a film which I dearly love) is just great stuff… listening to it is like being lightly asleep and half-dreaming of Paris, the winding streets and cobblestones, old buildings and tiny cafe tables.  Aah!  Love.  What’s more, his song “Le Festin” went on to be nominated for an Academy Award, further cementing his place as one of the most successful composers in Hollywood.

Giacchino’s work in “Up” is similar to that in “Ratatouille” in that it’s largely in 3/4 time and has a sort of dreamy, European quality.  The main theme is absolutely wonderful, the soundtrack to some primordial hot-air balloon dream ingrained on the collective subconscious.  His score is, at times, incredibly wrenching; his handling of the opening montage of Carl’s life is is both larger-than-life and incredibly delicate, and never short of beautiful.  Actually, I’d describe the whole film that way.

And in addition to all of his work for Pixar, Giacchino has remained J.J. Abrams’ go-to music guy, providing music for “Fringe” (which I really like, particularly the Muse-esque opening credits) as well as the the recent “Star Trek” (a score which,  as I remember it, evoked the original while boldly going in its own direction, much like the film itself). His progression has been really fun to watch, from his early work in TV and video games to his ascent to one of the most in-demand cats in Hollywood, simultaneously working for one of the highest-rated shows on TV AND the most consistently exceptional animation house in the world. That’s pretty damn cool.

And yeah, he also did “Land of the Lost,” but hey – a gig’s a gig.

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