This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, April 29, 1992

April 29, 1992 - methods and content

One day in the public library of Springfield, Illinois a young girl -- maybe six years old -- walked into the children's department.

Shyly, she sidled up to the librarian on duty. In a low voice the girl asked, "Do you have any books on incest?"

Cautiously, gently, the librarian led the girl to a more private area. There, the librarian asked, "Are you interested in incest because of something happening at your home?"

The girl nodded, eyes down.

"Are you afraid to go home?" asked the librarian.

"No," said the girl. "Well ... a little."

One thing led to another, and before long, another librarian and an administrator had joined the conversation, in a mood of ever-deepening concern. The girl, meanwhile, seemed to grow more and more agitated.

Finally, she shouted, "INCEST! YOU KNOW -- BUGS! SPIDERS!"

Sometimes, what you think you're hearing is decidedly not what the other person thinks she is saying.

I think the same kind of miscommunication is going on these days between educators (teachers and school administrators) and the general community.

In brief, parents keep asking WHAT the schools teach. But the educational community keeps talking about HOW they teach it. It's the difference between content and method.

I believe that this basic difference in orientation is the key reason for the national frustration with our educational system, and the current confusion in Douglas County about the perceived difference between "basics" and "world class."

To the parents, I think "back to basics" means a focus on factual knowledge. They think that content should drive the curriculum. In the midst of numerous reports that our children can't find Washington D.C. on a map, can't name the first president of the United States, and can't work an equation, parents have concluded that children aren't being taught as much as they used to be, because today's children don't know as many shared facts as the children of a previous generation.

But to teachers and school administrators, "back to basics" means something else entirely. "Back" means "a return," a regression to an old STYLE of teaching. "Basics" means an approach dedicated to the drill, to a dreary, unimaginative, even punitive style of instruction. Educators think that method should drive the curriculum, as in the current focus on Outcome Based Education, which is "content-neutral."

But what's the problem? Can't we use innovative new methods to teach an identifiable, specific body of knowledge? Isn't it precisely the lack of a coherent, sequenced, consistently offered body of knowledge that makes us look so bad compared to the students of other countries?

Every one of those countries has a clearly specified national curriculum, taught in every publicly funded school. Those curricula are packed with facts. Until the American educational curriculum has a similarly rich base of raw data, our children will never do as well.

If the Douglas County School District is serious about becoming "world class," then it's time to get internationally competitive. Let's focus our efforts on the heart of a world class school district: the compilation of an agreed-upon list of facts that includes every fact those other schools teach, and more.

Public debate should not be focused on the methods -- that's a teacher's business. The public should -- and does -- focus its attention on the results, on what the children actually know.

That's everybody's business.

Wednesday, April 22, 1992

April 22, 1992 - assessment center

A library is good, or it isn't, based on two main elements. The first is its collection. The second is its staff.

Over the past year, the Douglas Public Library District has made great strides in improving its collection. But this week, I'd like to focus on library staff. I believe we employ some of the best people of any public library in the state, and I do enough traveling, and enough visiting of other libraries, to know what I'm talking about.

On one hand, I really can't claim much credit for that. I inherited the core of my staff. Most of the rest of them were picked by the branch managers.

On the other hand, I have hired two of the branch managers, and the process through which I hired the last one is what I want to talk about. With the able assistance of Leslie Haynes, our Personnel Manager (and another one of my picks), I think the library has hit upon the toughest, fairest approach to hiring that I've ever seen. And this applies to any business, I think.

Here's the problem: How do you get the best person for the job?

First, of course, you advertise. We placed an ad not only in the Denver papers, but in a library newsletter that gets nationwide distribution. I tried to make the ad a little out of the ordinary. I said that we were looking for someone with "big dreams" and "the organizational savvy to make them real."

I got 45 responses, from one end of the continental United States to the other. After reviewing the resumes with Leslie, I cut down the list to 11.

Next, Leslie and I figured out the kinds of things we were really looking for. Then Leslie set up phone interviews with the people who made it past the first cut.

Leslie and I worked out a series of questions. I called the candidates, and made notes on their answers. Each interview took at least 40 minutes.

Second cut: I narrowed it down to 4 people. Two of them, as it happened, lived within 50 miles of each other in Maryland. The other two lived within 20 miles of Castle Rock. I was confident that any one of them could do the job.

But who would do it best?

Leslie and I then spent a lot of time trying to come up with a means of getting the candidates to SHOW us how they would do the job, instead of just asking them how they would do.

What we developed is based on something called the "assessment center," which was originally developed to spot military leadership potential, then later was adapted to large corporations, and, curiously, hiring practices in fire departments.

Here's how it worked.

The four candidates arrived at the Philip S. Miller Library at 8 a.m. There, they were treated to some continental breakfast munchies, catered by Leslie. At 8:30, the four candidates sat down beside each other at a common table.

At another table, sat four other people and me. Each of the observers (two current branch managers, Leslie, and Beryl Jacobsen of CSU's Cooperative Extension Service), was assigned to observe one of the candidates.

Over the next six hours, each candidate had to: participate in a panel discussion with the other candidates; respond (in a real-life simulation) to someone who demanded the immediate removal of a library book (played to frightening perfection by Cindy Murphy, my Administrative Assistant); talk to one of our reference librarians and the head of our Technical Processing division; get a tour from the outgoing branch manager (Lynn Robertson); deal with a pile of papers that presented all kinds of imaginary (but probable) situations; go to lunch with all the other candidates and observers; then meet with me, Leslie, and Beryl for a half hour each, when they were encouraged to ask US some questions.

When it was all over, we pulled together all the observers and rated each of the candidates on each of the "exercises."

I was right. Any of the candidates could have done the job. But there was one who demonstrated a clear ability to BEST fulfill the needs of the job. Her name is Holly Deni, and she'll be starting as the branch manager of the Philip S. Miller Library on June 1.

Hiring the right person for the job is the most important decision any manager can make. In my judgment, the assessment center is the best approach you will find. Not only do you have an unusually comprehensive insight into how the person actually performs, but that person also gets a good glimpse of how YOU operate your business.

If you're interested in hearing more about the assessment center approach to hiring, give Leslie a call at 688-8752. She'll be happy to tell you more about it. She's available -- on library time -- to talk about our experiences, and about some of the strategies we found most effective.

Why use the assessment center? Simple. It works.

Wednesday, April 15, 1992

April 15, 1992 - Arbor Day

All around the town where I was raised were vast congregations of oak, elm, willow trees, maple, and on and on, raising their arms in exaltation and splendor.

In my youth, I attended them all. I swang from them, leaned on them, lolled in their shade. I draped myself on their raceways and slept. And sheltered in their embrace, held high above the world, I read and read.

Alas, we cannot long abide in the pleasant orchards of our childhood. And like a lot of people who moved to Colorado from the east, I found that Colorado's more open, arid spaces -- took some getting used to.

Don't get me wrong. I have come to love the Coloradan landscape as passionately as the Lake Michigan woodlands I grew up in. But trees are still special. Trees are what people would be, I think, if they couldn't walk or talk, but wanted to tell you how happy they were anyhow.

So for me, Arbor Day evokes feelings of nostalgia, near-familial attachments, and an almost religious tenderness.

But first, let's look at the facts. The first Arbor Day took place on April 10, 1872. It was the idea of a Nebraskan newspaper publisher, Julius Sterling Morton.

Maybe, as he claimed, he thought trees would enrich the soil and conserve moisture. Maybe he just wanted to make sure that there would always be a source for more newspapers.

In either case, you might say that the idea took root.

The Nebraska state government offered prizes to encourage participation in the project, and when all the dirt had settled, the people of Nebraska had planted over a million trees. In one day.

After Morton died, the Nebraska legislature changed the date of Arbor Day to the publisher's birthday, April 22, and made it a legal holiday. Today, it has spread not only to most states but to most of the provinces of Canada.

As a county-wide event, Arbor Day came to Douglas County just last year, when our citizens donated $12,400 toward the purchase of trees. Three hundred twenty-five volunteers planted 500 trees along greenways and in area parks.

This year, the Douglas County Arbor Day Committee -- composed of an impressive coalition of local organizations -- is branching out a little.

In 1992, over 400 volunteers will be needed to find homes for the over 600 trees the Committee hopes to purchase. The date of the planting? -- Saturday, April 18.

It will take over $18,000 worth of donations to assemble this heavenly choir. But then, oh then, we shall hear a veritable litany of leaves: from the slender, flute-like needles of pi€on, ponderosa, blue spruce, foxtail and Austrian pine, to the more robust foliage of cherry, plum, hackberry, maple, locust, green and purple ash, to the brassy crabapple, the elegant birch, the cool cottonwood, and the clever catalpa.

You have to admit. Not only do trees look beautiful, tie down the soil, scrub the air, lend shade, provide sanctuary for summer readers, etc. -- even their names sound nice.

If you want to help out with this project, it's not too late. Just call Ron Benson, chairman of the Douglas County Arbor Day 1992 Committee, at 660-7490.

The Committee can still use more money. (The more money, the more trees.)

Or, if you want to have an even more direct connection to nature, tell Ron that you'd like to sign up at one of the three main planting areas. Volunteers are needed in the Cherry Creek Trail in the Regional and Bar Triple C Parks in Parker, the Castle Rock Greenway/Sellar's Gulch in Castle Rock, and Falcon Park in Highlands Ranch.

Remember: the world can be peaceful and green. It's all just a matter of be-leaf.

Wednesday, April 8, 1992

April 8, 1992 - night of a thousand stars

ome time back (in my October 17, 1990 column), I wrote about the three basic reference sources I thought belonged in every home. I said that every family should have at least a current almanac, an unabridged dictionary, and a good set of encyclopedias.

Since then, my wife has convinced me that you've also got to have a comprehensive collection of quotations. If you don't, you'll be forever wondering who said what.

April 12 through April 18 is National Library Week. This year, as they have for the past couple of years, Douglas County school librarians will observe the week with a "Night of a thousand stars."

What does that have to do with a quotations reference book?

Today I remembered a wonderfully apropos quote: "Hitch your wagon to a star." But for the life of me, I could not recall who had said it.

I suspected that it was Will Rogers, the cowboy philosopher. It had a folksy, pioneer-optimistic sound, with maybe a dash of Hollywood.

But I was wrong. According to "The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations," my wife's recent and wise addition to our home reference shelf, the author was one of America's most brilliant and influential thinkers, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882).

I've always liked Emerson, in part because of another quote: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

While looking up "Hitch your wagon to a star," I ran across some other great quotes attributed to Emerson. Here's one of them: "Never read any book that is not a year old." That's an interesting comment to an age when 80 percent of the business of most public libraries comes from 20 percent of the stock -- the new books -- and many classics languish unread.

Or how about this one? -- "'Tis the good reader that makes the good book." Usually, people think there are good books and bad books, a black or white, either/or proposition. But any book can be good with the right reader.

When you read thoughtfully, carefully weighing the ideas presented in a book, and using those ideas to test and clarify your thinking and values, even a "bad" book can be a positive learning experience. In fact, learning to read critically -- sifting the opinions and evidence of others through the sieve of your own intellect and experience -- is what growing up is all about.

But let's go back to "Hitch your wagon to a star."

For many children, school libraries are much like the almost incomprehensible constellations of Colorado nights. Even if you tried, you couldn't count all the stars in the sky. Even if you wanted to, you couldn't read all the books on your library's shelves.

Infinity, of course, is relative. Every Douglas County school library suffered a thirty to fifty percent cut in its book budget this year. According to various state and national standards, every school library should have at least 12 books per student. Some school libraries in the county have fewer than 3 books per student. Now they'll fall even further behind.

Nonetheless, even impoverished libraries offer books that can inflame the soul of a child, can fill a young spirit with light, can urge a child to acts of greatness. For the live and questing mind, books can still kindle both kindliness and ambition, a need to drive back the dark.

To celebrate the unparalleled possibilities of literature and culture, you might drop in this year's "Night of a Thousand Stars" celebration on Wednesday, April 15, at the Ponderosa High School, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Admission will be by ticket only -- but the tickets are free. Just contact the Douglas County School District Media Center at 688-3195 and request them, stop by your school library, or ask for them at the Parker Library.

The theme of the celebration is "Multi-cultural Safari." Featured performers include Bob Fox (clown and balance artist extraordinaire), Priscilla Queen (noted local storyteller), Mike Lee (a cowboy poet), Jim O'Meara (an Irish mountainman), Angela Griffith (a local Spanish teacher), the Denver Black Arts Festival (an African drum and dance group), String Musicians in Entry (a string orchestra from Ponderosa High and Ponderosa Jr. High), the Northeast Elementary Choir, and someone (to be announced) from the Colorado Chinese Language School.

I think I should give Emerson the last word. In May of 1849, Emerson wrote, "I hate quotations."

Wednesday, April 1, 1992

April 1, 1992 - Plum Creek Monster

This is going to sound strange.

First, I should tell you that I'm in early at the library today, working hard against my News-Press deadline. The time: 6:45 a.m., one of the few times in the day when the phone doesn't ring. The weather this morning? Cool and moist. A low, luminous blanket of fog is lazing over the long grass and railroad tracks to the south of my office.

Today's topic is Connie Jones's talk on April 7, at the Philip S. Miller Library, beginning at 7 p.m. Ms. Jones is the principal of an elementary school in Florida that has adopted the "Core Knowledge Curriculum" -- an outgrowth of E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s "Cultural Literacy" research. At 7 p.m. next Tuesday, Ms. Jones will be talking about why her school selected the Core Knowledge Curriculum, and how well it's working.

But that's not what's strange.

A few minutes ago, as I was turning on my computer, I caught an odd motion out of the corner of my eye.

A bulky, bent-over shape -- someone definitely smaller than me (I'm 5'11") -- jumped over the railroad tracks. I didn't get a good look. But whoever it was, was dressed very oddly. She (he?) was wearing some kind of long, hairy coat. I think it was a woman because it was carrying something over its left shoulder. A purse, probably. But it didn't move like a woman. It moved ... well, this is silly. But it moved a lot like one of the gorillas at the Denver zoo.


As I was saying, Ms. Jones will be talking about the Core Knowledge Curriculum. I happen to have in front of me a copy of "What Your First Grader Needs to Know" -- the first primer of the Core Knowledge Curriculum.

As you may have heard, Hirsch believes that American education needs to rediscover the importance of identifying and presenting a specific body of knowledge. He offers an alternative to the fact-free focus on "self-esteem" and "critical thinking" and other nebulous "educational objectives." In Hirsch's view, there must also be a solid base of information, an educational foundation, each of which has identifiable content, and builds on previous knowledge.

For instance, by the end of your first year of schooling, you should know the name "Rumpelstiltskin." You should understand subtraction through the tens. You should have been introduced to the notion of the food chain, you should be familiar with the names George Washington, Copernicus, King Tut -- and so on.

So what's the point? Well, there are four points.

First, Hirsch writes that "shared background knowledge makes schooling more effective." If everybody gets the same information, class time can be focused on moving that information forward. If some students aren't up to speed, then parents can help, because they know exactly which subjects to tutor their children, and how much information has to be covered.

Wow! There it goes again! This time, that woman (?) ran closer to my southernmost window. Really fast, though. Whoever it is, I think she must be sick. Her face looked kind of green. I hope I shut the front door when I came in. And her purse looked more like ... nah. Couldn't be.

Second, Hirsch writes that "Shared background knowledge makes schooling more fair and democratic." The Core Knowledge Curriculum gives all kids the same data, in the same sequence. It doesn't matter if you're poor, or your parents didn't have a lot of books around. In class, everybody talks about the same things.

Third, "Defining a specific core of knowledge for each grade motivates everyone through definite, attainable standards." Lately, there's been a lot of talk about American student achievement against the achievement of other students around the world. Here's a way to define the goal, figure out how to teach it, and measure the results.

Hey! The, well, whatever, just picked up a branch the size of my thigh and broke it with one quick snap. Must be a man. A bum, maybe jumped from the train. Strong, though.

Okay, FOURTH, "Shared background knowledge helps create cooperation and solidarity in school and in the nation." Is it just me, or is the whole sense of America as melting pot, as something larger than place of origin or religious background, beginning to fade away, to be replaced by an ever more fragmented sense of "cultural diversity?"

Don't get me wrong. I'm a big believer in tolerance, in the ability of some of us to learn from the rest of us. But to have really informative talks, we also need to speak a common language, with common reference points. Is that what is missing from modern education?

Maybe that's the problem with my mysterious guest outside. Maybe he just doesn't know how to ... whoa!

So help me, I just saw somebody in some kind of ape mask lean against my window, look me right in the eye, WAVE A CHICKEN OVER ITS HEAD, then lope off toward the Plum Creek Country Club.

That's it. I'm getting the column in. Hope to see you next week at the talk.

But don't even mention anything about a Plum Creek Monster. I don't believe it.