Monthly Archives: April 2009

Sad News in the Neighborhood

Sorry that I haven’t been my usual diligent self, but there’s been a death in our family.  My grandmother passed away Sunday morning, succumbing to a long illness.  She was 87 years old and was a trooper until the end.  The family is obviously in mourning and the arrangements are occupying our time.

I have been responsible for a large deal of the arrangements, and it has taken a toll on me physically and mentally.  If I can get another post out this week, then I can.  If not, then an update may not be up until next Monday the latest. 

To those in the Neighborhood I have already spoken with, our heartfelt thanks for your kind words and prayers.  Thanks for understanding in this trying time.

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Play Ball! Baseball in the History Classroom

It’s spring, and there’s nothing like baseball to get a listless young man to actually do some work in May and June.

Getting a boisterous lad engaged in the classroom is a bit like landing a marlin.  You have to hook on, sit in the fighting chair, be prepared for long periods of exhausting tugs and maneuvering until your prize finally tires out and succumbs to the inevitable. 

Boys are notoriously difficult to focus when delivering instruction.  Heck, I was a boy myself, and I had a million things on my mind–the new episode of Thundercats, how to finally get enough hearts to pass that level in Zelda, whether to smile at the girl in front of me or pull her hair, and imagining the ample bosoms of the young teacher across the hall, just to name a few.  Boys often require a little extra effort in engaging discussion, and this is where America’s pastime comes in.

In the Bronx, my boys are rabid baseball fans.  Most are Yankee fans, some quietly root for the Mets, while a few lost souls root for the Red Sox (well, we can’t all be perfect).  Baseball happens to be a great way to connect with America’s past, at least within the last century and a half.  It is a dynamo of archival information: few sports are so heavily accounted, ranked, analyzed and recorded as baseball, which also can give you infinite amounts of mathematics instruction. 

Furthermore, baseball has often intertwined with the seminal events in American history.  The Civil War involved armies that regularly played the game to pass the time.  The game was definitely a showcase for many Americans who were on the lower rungs of society, especially blacks, European immigrants and Hispanics.  The national game was a propaganda tool in two world wars.  It served as the nonviolent battleground for American issues of race, poverty, labor relations and our consumer culture.

One very tangible connection between baseball and history is the Presidency.  According to Baseball Almanac, almost every U.S. President has had some contact with the game, either as a player, a fan or even simply through their presidential duties.  What follows are some interesting facts found on Baseball Almanac about the Presidents and the old ball game.

– Thomas Jefferson stated that “Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind.” Unlike diddling with enslaved girls, which builds lots of character–little brown characters to be exact.

– Abraham Lincoln had an actual baseball field called the ‘White Lot’ constructed behind the White House for games. It was well known that he often played ball with his boys on the lawn.

– Chester Arthur was the first President to invite a professional baseball team to the White House when he invited the Cleveland Forest Cities of the now-defunct National Association on April 13, 1883. Too bad this didn’t get him a second term.

– Benjamin Harrison was the first U.S. President to attend a Major League baseball game and the first to see an extra inning game as the contest remains undecided until the eleventh inning. How could you leave to beat the traffic if the President’s still there?

– In 1907, the National League presented Theodore Roosevelt with a lifetime pass to any game, made of 14 carat gold. The funny thing is he hated baseball, calling it a “mollycoddle” game.

– In 1910, William Howard Taft becomes the first President to throw out the first pitch at a ballgame, throwing to Washington Senators legend Walter Johnson. Not sure if the bullpen teased that Taft threw “like a girl.”

– Woodrow Wilson, our President during World War I, never used his Presidential Pass. He paid for every game he attended, including the first time a President attended a World Series game.

– During World War II, many Americans thought baseball should be cancelled. Franklin Roosevelt said “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.” So baseball was played, although Major League players were not exempt from the draft. Some of the worst baseball was played between 1942 and 1945.

– In Dwight Eisenhower’s early years, he played semi-professional baseball for money under a false name. According to Mel Ott, that name was “Wilson.”

– Lyndon Johnson had to miss the home opener of the 1968 season, due to the recent assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Vietnam War left LBJ with little time to attend games, though he did dedicate the Astrodome in Houston, Texas.

– Richard Nixon is considered the most rabid Presidential baseball fan. Even after the Watergate scandal, Major League Baseball offered him the job of commissioner of baseball. Too bad he declined: Barry Bonds and mark McGwire could’ve used his cover-up expertise.

– Ronald Reagan was the only President to portray a Hall of Fame ballplayer on the silver screen. He played Grover Cleveland Alexander in the 1952 film The Winning Team.

George W. Bush was the managing general partner of the Texas Rangers from 1989 to 1994.  His presidency proved to be just as successful.

Please feel free to post your own baseball tidbits, or any other baseball-related classroom content.

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Calling all Critics: Need Help with Monday’s PBS series “We Shall Remain”

Tecumseh (1768-1813)

Tecumseh (1768-1813)

I feel bad about welching on a promise, but unforeseen circumstances limited my viewing of “We Shall Remain”, the PBS miniseries detailing the Native American experience in the United States. 

Monday’s episode featured Tecumseh, the great Shawnee leader who created a Native confederacy in the Old Northwest Territory to combat encroaching white settlement in the early decades of our Republic.  Inspired by visions from his older brother, known as the Shawnee Prophet, Tecumseh would lead a 30 year long guerrilla struggle against white American settlers, culminating in his death in 1813, during the war of 1812.

Now, based on all that, it would look like I saw the whole thing.  Well, because of the inclement weather in the Tri-State area, my local PBS affiliate blacked out for extended periods of time during the broadcast.  Thus, I cannot in good conscience provide a review of the episode.  I’m now opening to my fellow amateur historians in the Neighborhood.  If any of you would like to post your reviews of this week’s episode, please feel free to do so.  I hope we can have some great opinions on this, as the series is shaping up to be a good one.

Next week’s episode encounters the forced removal of the Choctaws, the Seminoles, and most importantly the Cherokees from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States during the early 1830s.  Hopefully PBS/Thirteen in New York will get its act together by then.  Until then, I’m looking forward to your opinions.

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Rotisserie Teaching: Tests, Stats and Teacher Tenure

In a few years, teaching will be a lot like fantasy baseball.

Principals will be selecting their draft picks, organizing their order to fill difficult slots, like math, science and special education.  As for myself, the stats show I’m a solid .700 hitter, with an 80% pass rate last year.  I’m a good pick for power and distance, although I may fade down the stretch into June.  As long as the bullpen comes through in the clutch, I should be alright.  God help those teachers on the waiver wire.

It would be incredible if every aspect of our professional lives can be effectively reduced to a number.  Classifying and ranking would be much simpler.  A simple graph would tell who was pulling their weight and who couldn’t hit out of a paper bag.  How many principals would love to shove a chart into a failing teacher’s face, bellow out “the number’s don’t lie!” and give the unfortunate loser the boot.

If education were only that simple.  It isn’t.

Recently, the New York Post ran a story about the teacher’s union, the UFT, allegedly obstructing efforts by Mayor Mike Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein to include student test scores as a factor in determining teacher tenure.  The State Assembly recently killed any hope of even creating a commission to investigate how test scores can fit into the process–a commission supported by UFT president Randi Weingarten and the larger umbrella group New York State United Teachers.  The commission was seen as an olive branch in the feud between the Department of Education and the Union over the test scores issue, and was even included in this year’s controversial budget.  Yet the chair of the Education Committee in Albany, Catherine Nolan, refused to even allow a vote on the matter.

Teacher tenure is an issue that really bothers me.  On the one hand, many teachers who have long since proven a disservice to students are protected by the tenure system.  I won’t name names, but i’m familiar with a number of teachers in various schools that probably do more harm than good, yet are protected by the system.  Even if they are excessed by a principal, these teachers are guaranteed a salaried position by union contract.  While this is helpful to most, it can also be detrimental by keeping bad teachers in play.  Just like the Yankees who are obligated to keep and pay for useless players based on contract (Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, etc.), the system of tenure, when abused, can create a class of benchwarmers that drain resources for next season.

However, tenure is also an important safeguard for teachers against the lesser natures of administrators–especially those with no experience in the classroom.  An administrator without classroom experience can quickly turn into a bean counter.  Statistics, numbers, charts, graphs–the quantifiable data that is so useful in the business world makes little sense in education.   If your supervisor had no experience handling children in a classroom, he/she will probably not be sympathetic to your terrible class forged by Lucifer.

Like baseball, teaching also has those “intangibles” that cannot necessarily be controlled.  Who knows if Ted Williams would have hit a .406 batting average in 1941 had there not been a ridiculously shallow right field in Fenway ParkSandy Koufax, the great Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher of the 1960’s, had the benefit of a concrete monolith in Dodger Stadium, where home runs were few and far between.  In public schools, we cannot cherry-pick our students.  Nor can we adjust the facilities.  Our schedules are often held hostage by meetings, workshops, common planning periods and the like.  Test day is also stressful; not everyone is a great test taker, even the really bright children.  There’s also the home to consider: not everyone lives in an environment conducive to achievement.  If Daddy is playing Grand Theft Auto with his son during homework time–which is sometimes the case–you can be sure that school isn’t much of a priority.

So let’s assume that test scores will play a factor in determining tenure.  How much weight should they carry?  Will the criteria include just tests, or a basket of assessments (portfolio, written work, observations, etc.)? Should all tests be used, just State assessments, or a selection of subjects?  How will one set of scores compare to another?  Should the raw score be used or the scale score?  Are we looking for set targets, or windows of progress over time?  Can we adequately assess a teacher’s skills based on the work of previous teachers in previous years?

Test scores may be numbers, but the factors surrounding them are anything but tangible.  This is why using them to determine teacher tenure can become a volatile issue.  If student work is to be used in assessing teachers, then that assessment should be done within a framework that fellow teachers can understand.  Test scores must be viewed in context to a holistic learning experience that includes various assessments, observations and data.  Scores alone cannot determine performance, since it is but one indicator of a complex process.

Let’s return to baseball for a moment.  If Alex Rodriguez were to be assessed based on cumulative, one-shot annual state exams, he would be considered a failure.  Look at his record in October and see if you doubt me.  However, he is not judged merely on his October stats (though maybe he should be) but rather on a season-wide scale.  This would include slumps, tears, injury periods and the like, producing results that look good on a stats sheet, even though he can’t perform during the playoffs.

I was actually looking forward to a commission studying how test scores can be used.  It would have provided some form of closure to a contentious issue that mistakenly blames teachers as being against student acheivement.  It would have also provided some real data to see how reflective are test scores to actual student learning.  For now, I guess we will have to live with tenure as it is.

Funny, I would’ve gotten a kick seeing my principal watch some kindergarten teacher getting swamped, then make a call to the bullpen.  Make sure you’re loose.

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Musings on the Buffet line: Las Vegas in the American Psyche

035Did you miss me? Be honest.

I must say I missed the Neighborhood, even from the sunny confines of Las Vegas.  I would’ve posted earlier had there not been a ghastly fee for internet access.  On the whole, I can’t complain–Mr. D would like to thank the nice folks at the MGM Grand Resort and Casino for their excellent attention.    Just as a note: stay away from Yoshe at the blackjack tables.  She can fleece you with a string of 21’s in no time flat.

No matter how many times I go, Las Vegas continues to amaze me.  It epitomizes the best and worst of American society.  I will have skeptics, but I truly believe that to understand the America of the early 21st century, look no further than a once-barren truck stop in the Mojave Desert, now one of the fastest growing cities in the United States.  If ever there was an America in miniature, this would be it.

Like early American cities, Las Vegas’ sprawl is due to the relentless drive of unbridled capitalism, in this case fueled by the gaming and tourism industry.  In an area where the original meadow (Las Vegas means “the meadows” in Spanish) was long since swalled by the desert, there exists an explosive energy of constructive and destructive forces driven by innate passions and desires.  Much like the New York of the 20th Century, Las Vegas is driven by the future.  Modernity means bigger, taller, faster, more exciting resort destinations that take up every inch of available real estate.  The main drag, Las Vegas Boulevard, or “The Strip”, is now so choked with development that hotels must now reach higher and higher, eventually to dwarf the 1,149-foot Stratosphere tower, the tallest free-standing tower in the United States.

Another similarity to early America is both the use of unique design and imitation.  If visitors think that the faux-landscapes of New York-New York, Paris Las Vegas or the Venetian are simply elements unique to Las Vegas, they are sorely mistaken.  Nothing is more American than the imitation of elements from the European past: look at Washington’s neoclassical buildings if you don’t believe me.  Furthermore, sometimes design imitation is taken to new levels of innovation, such as the Luxor, an Egyptian-themed hotel shaped like a gigantic black pyramid.

Who inhabits these glass and steel monoliths?  Apparently, all of America and a good part of the rest of the world, too.  The “Oceans 11, 12, 13″ movies have done much to spread the Vegas myth.  Las Vegas’ mystique is driven by a uniquely American mindset that anything is possible.  The biggest mistakes were telling “Bugsy” Siegel, Howard Hughes, Kirk Kerkorian, Steve Wynn, or the Maloof brothers–all pioneers in the Vegas story–that it couldn’t be done.  The casinos, restaurants and nightclubs today are monuments to possibility.  The possibilities themselves are as American as the buildings–anyone can be treated like a king.  Anyone is one slot machine pull away from millionaire status.  This is where the small can feel like a big shot–at least until the plane ride home. 

Things aren’t always so rosy in Sin City.  It’s nickname is part of the mystique–and part of the problem.  In an America where more and more families are driven to vacation together, Las Vegas’ “adultness” can be very off-putting.  The city’s casual attitude toward malfeasance, vice, gluttony and general indulgence is not exactly fodder for family entertainment.  Countless times, I’ve seen a happy family walking down the strip, and seen Junior looking down in astonishment at the cards of undressed women advertising their “services.” Like I’ve said in previous posts, I’m no prude.  However, Vegas is not for families, enough said.

The downside of unbridled development is that you get what you pay for.  Las Vegas’ transportation infrastructure is woefully inadequate for the city–try driving south on the Strip between Treasure Island and the Bellagio and you’ll get my point.  As you go north into the city proper, tourist meccas often collide with appalling squalor, as I witnessed in the shantytown located just north of Charleston Boulevard, if memory serves.  Indulgence, especially Vegas indulgence, is ultimately self-destructive–doesn’t this sound like our own America and its consumer-driven culture.  As Las Vegas grows, it faces problems many American cities have already faced at least a century ago: crime, poverty, corruption, transportation, civic infrastructure, and environmental concerns.  Priority one is the last one: Las Vegas is in a desert, after all, and water is scarce.

Yet if you see it for what it is, then Las Vegas is certainly an enjoyable experience.  It’s a place I love to visit, though I doubt I could ever live there.  After all, who can subsist on half-price buffets and comped rooms all their life?  Well, not for lack of trying.

I’ll try to get a Flickr account going to show all the pictures from our trip.  For now, enjoy the view from our suite.  Awesome.

This was the view from our suite.  You can see New York-New York, the Monte Carlo, and the new CityCenter project, a joint effort of MGM-Mirage and Dubai World.  Jealous?

This was the view from our suite. You can see New York-New York, the Monte Carlo, and the new CityCenter project, a joint effort of MGM-Mirage and Dubai World. Jealous?

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Vegas, Baby! Vegas!

2932092800_bd620bfb96Well, I’ll be off to Las Vegas tomorrow morning. 

Between now and Sunday, the Neighborhood may not be updated as often as I would like, due either to my enjoyment or to the fact that I lost my laptop in a hand of baccarat.

Here’s hoping that my sojourn will be enjoyable and relaxing.  And if I do lose my laptop–I hope to get comped for it.  Just make sure that the pit boss is watching.

Hopefully the weather will comply, although I heard that rain is in the offing for Wednesday when I fly in (only when I come does it rain in the desert!).

Anyway, I’ll be back in the Neighborhood soon, I promise.

PS: If I see you hit on a 14 with the dealer showing a 5, I’ll cut you.  I mean it.

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Review of Yesterday’s PBS series “We Shall Remain” Part 1

From reading the reviews on other news outlets, it would seem that part 1 of the PBS series “We Shall Remain” was supposed to be the weakest.  If this is the weakest, then the rest of the series must be incredible.

I was impressed by this portrayal of early colonial interactions between Native Americans and incoming English settlers.  For once, a show focused on the interdependence between the Wampanoag and the English, and how this relationship would evolve as their populations change.  As I said in my previous post, the Native Americans had an upper hand on the early settlements, largely due to population.  This would change as the English settler population grew, much to the detriment of the Native peoples of New England.

I am particularly pleased at their treatment of events leading up to King Philip’s War (1675-1676).  What was important to notice is how the early interdependence of these two peoples led to a mingling of cultures that was both genuine and unsettling.  Metacom, the aforementioned “King Philip”, was a Wampanoag who lived in two worlds, enjoying prestige and respect in both English and Native circles.  This was not uncommon–many early settlements involved close interaction between cultures, such as the Mohawks and settler colonies in northern New York.

When it comes to whites, the facts are meant to speak for themselves.  The groups that came to America came with different motives and different experiences when encountering Native peoples.  One this is absolutely clear, however: they were here to stay, and more were coming.  This fact, the numbers game, is the crux of the argument: although Native peoples were able to share the land with a few hundred English settlers, the tide of colonization meant that that this arrangement could not continue long.  What drove the Natives from their lands were the desire for land from a people who valued land as a measure of societal status.  

I’ll be looking forward to the next part of the series, which deals with Tecumseh and his Native confederacy.  Even though I understand the need to select particular stories in this narrative, there are stories that are missing.  As a New Yorker, I would’ve liked to see more of the Haudenosaunee confederacy, the Dutch interaction with Native Americans, and their role in the French and Indian War.  Maybe I ask too much…I’m no director, after all.

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