What I learned about learning during the filming of “Max’s Gift”


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When you want to make a film about a 12-year-old special needs kid who excels in sports, you just naturally jump at the chance to shoot a whole tournament. And that’s what we did this past winter in Rollinsford, New Hampshire. The resulting film is still framed around sports – this is Max’s passion and it’s a fun, remarkable thing to behold – but what we saw in the classroom turned out to be every bit as rewarding…

Tina Demers, para-professional at Rollinsford Grade School, with Max Blackwin

Tina Demers, para-professional at Rollinsford Grade School, with sixth-grader Max Blackwin

When you separate children into categories – whether it’s “special needs” or “gifted and talented” – no one actually gains. The kids who get separated lose because they’re not interacting with the “regular” kids. And it turns out that the regular kids lose something, too. They miss out on the opportunity to lend a helping hand to someone who could really use it. They miss out on learning how to be a little more patient, a little more generous with their time, a little more empathetic – in other words, learning how to be better people. But if that’s a little too touchy-feely for you, if you’re looking for something more substantive, you need to meet Kate Lucas, the principal of Rollinsford Grade School.

Kate Lucas, principal, Rollinsford Grade School

Kate Lucas, principal, Rollinsford Grade School

Kate thinks the educational system needs a serious overhaul – not to fix what we do for special needs kids but, rather, what the rest of the class gets.  “I think we should provide the same services we provide for special education kids for all kids. Why aren’t we differentiating it for all of them? Why don’t they each have personal goals and progress monitoring and reflection and growth?  I think that should be for all kids.”

The reason for doing this isn’t just to make nice, Kate insists. It’s to make education work the way the human brain functions. “Fifteen years ago we couldn’t study the brain; we didn’t have the technology to really study what was active and what was not active, and how things were stored, and synapses of all of those chemicals. Now we have that ability, and what we’re learning about it, what we now know about it, is we’ve got to change what we do.

“We have this antiquated system of 181 school days – and they start after Labor Day and they end in June and they’re seven hours long – and what we know about learning and the brain is that it doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t just decide to learn seven hours of the day and it doesn’t just decide to learn these days of the week.

“All kids don’t have to be doing the same thing. And not all of them understand at the same time and they’re not all going to want to invest in the same topics. So… that’s okay. Let it be messy and convoluted, and let them explore and fail over and over and over again, because then they’ll learn to persevere.”

It’s not that the curriculum as Kate envisions it is less structured; it’s that it’s organized differently; it’s organized around the needs and interests and passions of the students. That’s why Kate believes strongly that special education can function very effectively within any class. Yes, some kids will be slower, some will be faster, but the resulting dynamic will truly enrich everyone’s experience.

“I think uninformed people worry that the students in the class that can move forward at a quicker pace, their needs won’t be addressed because it takes time to get all kids moving quickly or moving at all, really. My argument to that would be that what they learn on the flip side of that. If you really want to understand something well, you can sit with someone who doesn’t understand it and explain it to them. And that’s a skill those kids wouldn’t know they had if they weren’t forced to explain it to someone that didn’t know it.

“When they do that, that’s a much deeper level of thinking, which, from what we know from brain research, means it goes from our short term memory to our long term memory, and forces our brain to form synapses and connections.  So in fact, it’s much deeper learning. It may not be the same breadth of topics, but it’s much deeper learning.”

In “Max’s Gift,” Kate Lucas and her incredible team at Rollinsford Grade School have a lot to say about learning and teaching and making the system better for all of us. To learn more about the film – and how you can help make it happen – click here to visit our crowdfunding campaign.


Crowdfunding “Max’s Gift”


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Now in motion: Our crowd-funding campaign to finance the completion of post-production for our feature documentary has just launched. Please click here to visit the campaign page and see what we’re doing with this incredible story.

Still Ahead: Miles Davis-Gil Evans concert – New Jersey Performing Arts Center, October 20th


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I was invited recently to write an article for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s season promotion campaign. The goal was to appeal specifically to non-jazz types who’ve probably heard of at least one of these records and with a bit of a friendly push just might get out to the concert. Here’s what I did…

p.s. If you’re even remotely close by, there’s still time to get your tickets.

Three Masterpieces. Two Legends. One Night Only.

Few jazz artists manage to produce a true break-out recording – something that transcends jazz and connects with diverse audiences the world over. But in the 1950s, with the help of his friend Gil Evans, Miles Davis did just that – three times in a row.

Miles and Gil were consummate artists but also great innovators: once these recordings were done they moved on and never looked back. Consequently, except for one concert (Carnegie Hall, 1961), they were never to perform it together again. Decades later, it would take no less a figure than Quincy Jones (another personal friend) to get Miles to finally reconsider. For these reasons alone, getting to actually hear this music now, performed in its original form, is an opportunity that’s about as rare as it gets.

There would be other landmark achievements from this dashing, daring trumpeter – that’s why he was honored earlier this year with a commemorative stamp by the US Postal Service. Likewise there is much more to the Evans legacy, as evidenced this year by the many tribute concerts celebrating the centennial of Gil’s birth in 1912.

But that’s another story. Let us concern ourselves with Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958) and Sketches of Spain (1959-60): Let us consider what makes this music so special, and what you can expect to experience – emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, viscerally – come this magical night in October.

The musical landscape

Long before words like fusion or world music became fashionable, Gil Evans had mastered the art of listening, synthesizing and reinventing. He ignored all labels and boundaries, looking only for what he called the music’s “living spirit.” He drew freely, and with impeccable taste, from Duke Ellington and Joaquín Rodrigo, George Gershwin and Kurt Weill and Charlie Parker. He transported us from 19th century Europe to post-war 52nd Street, from Catfish Row to the Royal Palace of Aranjuez.

The vision and the voice

As elaborate and breathtakingly beautiful as these orchestral settings are, they are just the beginning. All three works were conceived as concertos, in which the orchestra’s primary role is to spotlight a single voice, in this case the trumpet, and to showcase not only these great melodies but also the melodic variations of a true jazz master. Enter Miles Davis, the foremost improviser of his time. For countless musicians, and millions of listeners the world over, the love affair with Miles’ sound began right here – and to many ears, he never sounded better than he did in these spectacular Gil Evans arrangements.

The master works remounted

This concert was developed with the original Gil Evans charts. Its music director is Vince Mendoza, a six-time Grammy-winner often cited as “the clear and natural successor to Gil Evans.” The featured trumpeters are Terence Blanchard, another Grammy-winner (known to many for his numerous Spike Lee film scores) and Sean Jones, one of today’s fast-rising “young lions.” Two other guests were there at the beginning: drummer Jimmy Cobb played on both Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. Tuba virtuoso Howard Johnson was with Gil for over two decades, including Gil’s work with Miles in the late 60s. All the other players, too, were hand-picked not just for their technical ability but for their attitude, their energy.

The You-Are-Part-Of-It experience

Such energy, as Vince Mendoza found, starts right in the charts. “What’s most striking to me is how Gil’s treatment of the orchestra continues to be inspiring to the improviser. There are a lot of details involved with the proper performance of this music – dynamics, phrasing, ensemble playing – but in the end the music needs to remain spiritually exciting and fresh for the soloist. With these arrangements it happens every time, and the energy is different every time.”

In much the same way, Terence Blanchard took his cue from Miles Davis. “Miles was my hero, of course. But the way to pay homage to Miles is not to play like Miles. Miles’ whole thing was, do your own thing, be yourself.”

Best of all, Terence adds, the energy that animates this music is a two-way street: “It was special not only for the musicians but the audience. The audience was really enthusiastic, which propelled our energy and helped us put more energy into it, so it was a beautiful thing all around.”

Beautiful indeed, and very rare. “This music becomes more precious with time,” says Howard Johnson. “It’s never been equalled, really, and the way to celebrate it is to keep it being played.” We are fortunate that musicians of this calibre will go out of their way to do just that. They do it because it matters so much to them personally. And, as Terence Blanchard puts it, because it matters so much to all of us: “This music is a part of Americana. It’s part of American history. It’s one of the great moments in time that makes the rest of the world respect our artistry.”

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Indie publishing: Impressions and confessions, #2



Just a brief update on the logistics of setting up for distribution, which could be of interest to would-be indie types or the just plain curious…

The print side of the distribution was relatively straightforward; the e-book side, not so much. Initially I elected to sign on with Amazon (Kindle Direct Publishing), mainly because I couldn’t see the value of paying a higher margin to the distributor. The Kindle setup was as smooth and seamless as you would expect, coming from Amazon. (Despite their increasingly scary power, which they are not shy about wielding, I remain a big Amazon fan in terms of just how incredibly together they are.) On closer examination, however, I saw that my agreement with them was not so cool after all.

Yes, I would earn a higher margin but they pay separately for each of their international divisions; they only pay once your sales reach a certain threshold (for each market), and to top it off, for us non-Americans they deduct a 30% withholding tax for the good folks at the IRS. In other words, the earnings are stretched out over god-knows-how-long and the paperwork just keeps looking nastier. Oh, and to top it off, non-US residents get checks in the mail, not direct deposit…

As a result, I’ve canceled my account with KDP (yeah, they were super-efficient and hassle-free with all that, too) and signed up under an all-inclusive deal with my original distributor. I get a single statement issued regularly covering all sales, all markets, and one payment – that’s it, that’s all. I’m thinking that most indie publishers, like me, will opt for the path of least resistance…

Indie publishing: Impressions and confessions, #1


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By definition, indie publishing is about doing everythiing yourself. Once the book is ready to go – in my case by way of a U.S.-based POD (print-on-demand) and distribution company – the focus is then on getting the word out, a.k.a. marketing.

Step one in this regard was to simply send an announcement email to everyone I could think of, asking them not only to check out the book via this blog but also to pass the news on. That email, which went out last weekend, has generated a visit count of more than double the number of emails sent out, so I’ll take that as a good start. I also got a number of personal responses – congrats and good luck messages – also encouraging.

Next up is the Facebook page, which is coming shortly. Although many of my FB friends already got the email, many others didn’t. Stay tuned for the FB page – and then a follow-up on how it plays out…

Availability update

I’ve just created a new page listing the online booksellers that are carrying the print version of the novel – which you can see here.

The print edition has now been cataloged for distribution pretty much around the world, so right now it’s a matter of watching for the new retailers (online and otherwise) to come on stream.

e- is for everywhere: Please note that the e-book edition is being released within the next 2 to 3 weeks, except for the Kindle edition, which is available right now, right here.

I will keep the where-to-buy page up to date as the business end of this adventure unfolds…

Publication schedule for This Brother is Free


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To those who’ve already been asking about the book, thanks for your interest.

The print version is available online now via Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and can be ordered online or in person at many other American bookstores and chains, and in many other countries (just ask for it by name). Some Canadian booksellers are listing it, but the distribution here is not quite set up yet – should be within a week or so.

We also expect to be announcing the release of the e-book version fairly shortly. More on that later…