Monthly Archives: June 2010

Last Day of School!: “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper

Here in the NYC, it is finally the last day of school.  To celebrate this day–a day long in coming–I present an old classic.  Alice Cooper performs “School’s Out” at the Montreux Festival, and his rocking energy speaks for thousands of teachers heading for a much needed rest.  Enjoy.

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This day in History 6/22: The 1944 GI Bill

It can safely be said that modern American culture began on June 22, 1944.

On that date, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law P.L. 78-346, or the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944—commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights or simply the GI Bill.  This massive program, more than any other program save the interstate highway system, would shape and define postwar America.

The bill was begun under the shadow of tragedy.  In 1932, during the height of the Great Depression, thousands of World War I veterans marched on Washington, demanding bonuses promised to them by the government at war’s end.  The “Bonus Army” was brutally suppressed by US cavalry units—a shameful episode that Roosevelt’s cabinet did not want repeated after the next conflict.

It was important for a nation as militarized as the United States during World War II to readjust to a civilian economy as quickly and painlessly as possible.  Furthermore, returning veterans needed, if not deserved, government support in the often brutal readjustment to civilian life.

 The 1944 bill contained three important programs.  The most famous of these was its education program: the initial bill allowed returning servicemen access to a college or vocational education at no cost.  It is estimated that by 1956 (the year the 1944 bill expired) almost 8 million veterans, 51% of all returning service personnel,  took advantage of education or training programs subsidized by Washington. 

For many returning soldiers, it was the first, and only chance, to get a college or university education.  This led to an academic flowering in postwar America, creating some of the most important minds at our service.  Engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, politicians, judges, and even actors and directors were created thanks to the largesse of the GI Bill.

(An important note, the 1944 bill provided that the government reimburse colleges directly.  This led to universities hiking tuition bills to Washington, widely perceived as tuition fraud.  Since 1952, the education program consists of stipends paid directly to veterans for their expenses.)

Notable GI Bill beneficiaries included Johnny Carson, Johnny Cash, Bill Cosby, Bob Dole, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gene Hackman, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Frank McCourt, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Tito Puente, Rod Steiger, James Wright, and even former Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

If the first provision provided the “glamour” of the bill, the second would broaden its influence to every family in America.  Returning veterans were entitled to low-interest, zero-down payment loans for homes and businesses—an unthinkable prospect today considering the cause of our current economic woes.  For the first time, veterans can buy a home for their families and start businesses with help from Uncle Sam.  From 1944 to 1956, 2.4 million veterans had home loans backed by the Veterans Authority (later Veterans Administration, or VA) Though many factors contributed to it, the rise of the suburbs as a middle-class bastion can be directly attributed to these programs created by the GI Bill.

The last provision is notable not for its use, but for its lack of use.  Known as the 50-20 clause, the third provision provided servicemen with $20 once a week for 52 weeks a year while they were looking for work.  Remarkably, less than 20 percent of returning servicemen opted for this program, as most already found employment or used their GI benefits in higher education. 

Today few areas of American life aren’t touched by individuals who benefitted from the GI Bill—even though many servicemen and women today do not take full advantage of this opportunity.

Subsequent expansion of veterans’ benefits were enacted in 1952, 1966, 1984, and 2008.  Korean War and Vietnam veterans made even more use of their GI benefits: roughly 72% of Vietnam vets used education benefits under the GI Bill.  From 1940 until the end of the military draft in 1973, as many as one third of the population (when both veterans and their dependents are taken into account) could potentially have benefited from the programs created by the expansion of veterans’ benefits.

In 2008, Congress enacted a Post 9/11 GI Bill designed for veterans serving after September 11, 2001.  The new program greatly expanded previous endeavors, especially in regards to education.  It provides free education to any public college in the state that a veteran resides.  Furthermore, housing stipends and $1000 yearly allowances for books are available, among other benefits.

Even for a fiscal conservative like me, the GI Bill was, and continues to be, an important element not just for American education and economics, but also as a measure of our values.  Many naysayers simply don’t see this.

Some opponents of these bills use the same argument for welfare reform.  Handouts induce indolence, laziness, and dependence on government benefits.  Programs should be designed for a “hand-up”, not a “handout.”  If this were other populations, I would agree to an extent. 

This is not any other population.  Veterans, especially those who’ve seen heavy combat, are not bums on the street looking for spare change.  Believe me, they worked for those benefits.

For centuries, the battlefield soldier was cannon fodder, often literally.  After the smoke cleared and the army disbanded, a veteran had no options other than to pick up the pieces of his life.  Often, the long absence and horrors of combat were so unbearable that a former soldier could never function in society as he did before—and no one was there to help.

Yet here, we saw things differently.  I have yet to see another country devote so much of its public funds to the support and readjustment of its former defenders. 

The United States, for better or worse, is a country derived from the blood of its veterans.  It was borne in the fires of the Revolution.  It was baptized in the slaughter of the Civil War.  It achieved manhood on the battlefields of two world wars.  It suffered, often needlessly, in far-flung places such as Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan.

The GI Bill, and its subsequent revisions, was a remarkable step in our history.  It spurred generations towards a remarkable transformation from militarism to domestic tranquility.  Even more importantly, it demonstrated that our soldiers will never simply be considered fodder for enemy guns.

A soldier, thanks to the GI Bill, can serve his/her country just as much in peace as they can in war.

For today’s veterans, take a look at the Veterans Administration’s website about the GI Bill for further information about benefits and applying.

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World War II Posters: Another Classroom Resource from the Neighborhood

Here’s a collection of World War II posters and advertisements to use in your classroom. A big thanks to my friend Phil Panaritis for compiling these images. 

Enjoy these images.  Tomorrow the Neighborhood will commemorate the anniversary of the 1944 GI Bill, the effects of which we still feel today.

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Spoofing History: Don Cheadle as Frederick Douglass

As your finishing your last-minute paperwork before summer, the Neighborhood revisits an old theme with a new installment sure to “inform” and entertain.

The Drunk History franchise, seen on Funny or Die on HBO Comedy, has featured Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and even Nikola Tesla.  This most recent installment, whereas the cast acts out the drunk narration of a plastered host, features Don Cheadle as Frederick Douglass and Will Ferrell as Abraham Lincoln.  It’s probably too expletive-laden for the classroom, but fun to share with the faculty as you get those records in order.

Enjoy the video–hopefully it’ll kill enough time before vacation.

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Teachers are too valuable to be “Fair Game”: A Response to David Brooks

Cover of the Atlantic's 2010 "Ideas" Issue, from http://www.theatlantic.com

“Fair game – noun. Open to legitimate pursuit, attack or ridicule.” – Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictonary

In 18th Century England, animals that were legal to hunt, either with shotgun or pack of rabid dogs, were considered “fair game.”

In the frontier wilderness of northern New York, American rangers harassed John Burgoyne’s British army by doing the unthinkable—hunting officers as if they were animals, or “fair game.”

In 1917, the German navy declared open season on all Atlantic shipping.  Unarmed ocean liners and cargo ships were considered “fair game.”

So in the 21st Century, according to David Brooks, author, New York Times columnist and contributor to the Atlantic, teachers are also to be subject to the hunting dogs and shotguns, as we are now “fair game.”

The recent “Ideas” edition of the Atlantic had an interesting—albeit provocative—piece by Brooks, a liberal-turned-conservative who has recently joined the education reform crusade.  He has penned column after column of Times opinions lambasting teacher unions, exalting charter schools and school choice, and glorifying the current trend towards “data-driven” instruction.

To wit, Brooks breaks no real new ground in his article “Teachers are Fair Game.” He also says little that is new in terms of the changing reaction to teacher unions: anti-union bias has usually stood ascendant in times of economic distress i.e. the 1930s, and the immediate postwar recession.

Yet what sets this piece apart is its tone: not of someone willing to work with others, but that of a hunter stalking its prey.

That prey is us.  We are that game.

His arguments are hardly original: improving teacher quality, the cessation of tenure and other teacher protections and the perceived intransigence of the education establishment.  That establishment, according to Brooks,

“is both softhearted and hardheaded.  They put big emphasis on the teaching relationship, but are absolutely Patton-esque [interesting adjective there] when it comes to dismantling anything that interferes with that relationship…union rules that protect bad and mediocre teachers, teacher contracts that prevent us from determining which educators are good and which need help, and state and federal alws that either impede reform or dump money into the ancien regime.”

[quiz your high school students about where that last term comes from.  Hint: it involves a giant “razor.”]

Yet Brooks errs on two huge factors.  First, he sees the unions in it of themselves as a problem, without leaving any opening for those union leaders willing to work with administrators to find real solutions.  This is where Brooks the rabid union-hunter aims for his kill.  He remarks with unrestrained glee about the shift in opinion amongst the media and political leaders against perceived union abuses.  “The unions feel the sand eroding under their feet.”  Brooks states. “They sense their lack of legitimacy, especially within the media and the political class.  They still fight to preserve their interest but they’ve lost their moral authority…”

Tally ho! Let's hunt an algebra teacher, boys!

Moral authority?  The authority a union has is to its membership, and the use of morality has all too often been used by administrators to abuse and harass such members.  It does education reformers absolutely no good to attack a union per se.  Unions are here, and unions will stay into the foreseeable future.  Even the vaunted charter schools have unionized to some extent, by consent of their faculty.

There is room for reforms that benefit instruction, and there are unions and union leaders who are willing to work together with school districts to reform education.  Putting unions in a corner with attacks, however, is not only fruitless, but counterproductive.  By placing unions on the defensive, without reaching out an olive branch of cooperation, nothing will get done.  Cooperation will get results: not all the results you want, but that is life.  Something is better than nothing.

Brook’s second error involves his argument about teacher quality.  He correctly states that a core issue of education is the relationship between teacher and student.  Like Brooks, I too have issues with teacher quality, particularly in teacher training.  In a post last year, I lamented the ease with which I earned my masters degree in education, stating that for teachers to gain respect their education should be of a competitive caliber.  My guess is Brooks and I are in full agreement on this.

Yet his solution involves more than just tweaking graduate education.  As if he released a pack of rabid lions on Christian martyrs, Brooks exalts that “aided by the realization that teacher quality is what matters most, a new cadre of reformers have come to the scene, many of them bred within the ranks of Teach for America [oh brother].  These are stubborn, data-driven types with a low tolerance for bullshit.”

I will not rehash my feelings on Teach for America, the institution.  Let’s just say it’s less than positive.

That last sentence, however, bears the obvious taint of hypocrisy.  “Data-driven” types with a “low tolerance for bullshit.”  In the past few years, I have been knee-deep in the use of standardized tests to guide instruction.  You can even say I’m the poster boy for “data-driven” instruction.

In my experience, the entire exercise of using data, as it is now, is bullshit.

If you look at standard assessments and practice assessments in many school districts, you may see a disturbing pattern.  The state exams tend to be much easier than the practice tests.  The practice tests, for the most part, exhibit an eerie upward trajectory in scores as test time gets closer.

A more naïve soul, an earnest “no-bullshit” TFA-er, for example, would see this as proof of instruction driven by data from the previous assessment, thus an upward sloping path.

Your veteran teacher, however, isn’t fooled so easily.  When a rookie teacher sees achievement, a veteran sees manipulation.  What is to stop states, school districts—and the test-prep companies in their pocket—to engineer a series of tests so that it seems that students are doing better?

The federal contest for Race to the Top funds doesn’t help in this regard at all.  In fact, it allows for more manipulation and outright fraud in student data than ever before.  Because of the need for increased test scores, school districts are more open to the temptation of test-rigging—with the often-tacit approval of state education departments.  After all, doesn’t everyone win in this scenario: teachers “look good,” administrators “look good,” feds see that the kids are “doing better” and reward states that “sustain student achievement”?

The students don’t win: not by a long shot.  Sometimes when I assess them, their scores fall, often far below other previous tests.  This is natural: new material and new concepts often make this happen, as well as normal student jitters about tests.  To me, it does the student little use to give them a false sense of achievement.  They may have stumbled, but at least I can get an authentic view of what they know and don’t know—at least as authentic as possible using a test.

What does Brooks really want?  “No-bullshit” types that really use data in a fruitful way, regardless of the results?  Or does he want teachers that make sure students do “well” on tests at all costs?  Higher education, for example, is only “data-driven” in the case of admissions: the SAT and AP scores, etc.  Colleges and universities require thinking, reasoning, and research skills that often cannot be quantified.

If students are only taught “to tests”, doesn’t this give them a disadvantage in higher education?  Do education “reformers” really even care about disadvantaged students if their methods effectively bar them from higher education, leaving it to better prepared, richer and “whiter” students?

[Oh dear, did I let the cat out of the bag?  Did it slip out that the current craze of education reform is simply a ruse to create a permanent underclass that is educated just enough to show that disadvantaged students “can learn” and “make academic progress.” Aren’t these “data driven” students still woefully ill-prepared for much-needed college and university education?...that’s for another post.]

Brooks may have the best of intentions, but his methods and ideologies do nothing but entrench established interests on both sides.  The TFA, data-driven method is flawed—in some cases dreadfully so.  Attacking unions as the ultimate problem alienates and immobilizes those teachers (like me) who still feel educational reform can still happen with a strong union and administration in partnership.

Lastly, what better way to make teachers—among the hardest working Americans out there—feel like subhuman carrion than by labeling them as prey for the hunters.  If Mr. Brooks wants to play that game, here’s my announcement for my fellow teachers:

Those TFA “data-driven” types with a “low tolerance for bullshit”?  They’re “fair game.”  Unleash the hounds.

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This Day in History 6/10: US Marines land in Cuba, 1898

US Marines hoisting the colors at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 1898

It’s an often-overlooked period in history, but the Spanish-American War had long-reaching consequences for the United States.

On June 10, 1898, the first US ground forces would land in Cuba, at Guantanamo Bay on the eastern side of the island.  Their landing site would give rise to an American military station that still exists today, albeit under clouds of controversy due both to our usage of it as a terrorist dumping ground and our not-so-wonderful relations with Cuba. 

The war itself would drag on until the Treaty of Paris on August 12, 1898.  The Spanish got rid of the costly remains of a burdensome empire (to the tune of about $20 million), and the United States, the country that staked its reputation as a beacon of freedom against colonialism, suddenly adopts colonies of its own.  It led to troublesome relations with Cuba (occupied by us until 1902, and you know plenty about the rest), Puerto Rico (where the parade comes from, and which we still have) and the Philippines (which after a bloody insurrection and surrender to the Japanese, we finally gave independence to in 1946). 

I included two clips from the 1997 TV movie Rough Riders, about the exploits of Theodore Roosevelt and his volunteer cavalry in Cuba.  The clips depict the battles for Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill, respectively.  Something to note about the movie: it’s sickeningly hokey and sappy.  Yet it does show two anachronisms that deviate from the popular version of these historic battles:

(1) The real hero of San Juan was not Theodore Roosevelt, but rather Lieutenant “Black Jack” Pershing and his Buffalo Soldiers.  Fresh from the Indian wars, these black soldiers were among the ONLY US military personnel in Cuba with any combat experience.  If they weren’t covering Roosevelt’s right flank, the battle would ended very differently.

(2) Our naval forces were modern in 1898, but our land forces were a different story.  While outnumbered, the Spanish had Model 1893 Mauser rifles and Maxim machine guns that would be used less than 20 years later in the trenches of World War I.  Our boys were equipped with the Krag-Jørgensen Rifle, a complex, one-at-a-time loader that was difficult to clean and put together.  It served the shortest period in the US Army, until 1903.  As for automatic weapons, we still slung around 1862-model Gatling crank guns, but we also had M1895 Colt-Browning guns that spit out casings through a weird lever action.  It wasn’t until after this war that the US Army did a drastic overhaul of weapons, tactics and uniforms, finally putting the blue jackets to rest.

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The Educational Legacy of John Wooden

John Wooden (1910-2010)

For each of his practices as coach of UCLA’s mens basketball program, John Wooden used a set of 3 x 5 index cards.

On those cards was the sequence and duration of each drill he wanted to practice.  It was the same practice every day, and everyone worked on the same skills—there was no need to differentiate.  Wooden saw no need to mess with what worked, a system in development since his earliest coaching days at Indiana State in the 1930s.

It is one of many lessons Coach Wooden has for us as educators—especially since he himself saw himself as a teacher more than a coach.

Former players, coaches, and sports pundits will be busy expelling reams of print on the legacy of John Wooden, who died this past Saturday June 5 at age 99.  They will laud his 10 national championships, his 88-game winning streak that still stands as an NCAA record, as well as the stars under his tutelage such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. 

Many more will praise his impact beyond the basketball court as an educator and motivator.  They will extol his timeless virtue and humility; his steadfast beliefs and conservative demeanor that were at once folksy and endearing.  His legacy on this front is ironclad: the Seven-Point Creed, the Pyramid of Success, and the endless maxims that made him an icon to millions of Americans beyond the confines of sports.

 Along will all his usual parade of well-wishers, the Neighborhood is not alone in celebrating the life work of one of the most remarkable men in America’s last century. 

Yet in the spirit of our journal, we seek the virtues of Wooden as teacher, educator, and mentor. 

To that end, I’ve selected a few of Coach Wooden’s most poignant and perceptive maxims so they can be applied to our own practice as educators.  Wooden, like any good teacher, believed in the learning power of self-reflection, and it would do us good—and honor him—to reflect on our practice this last month before summer.

“Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

Probably one of Wooden’s most famous, if not the most famous quote.  Its complexity is in its apparent simplicity.  How many times do we get bogged down on lessons based on needless minutia?  On the other hand, how often do we rush into covering a unit while many of the students still have trouble grasping the concept?  Timing is based on both the needs of the teacher and the needs of the students.  The material has to be covered, yet one should never go so fast as to leave students behind. 

“Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.”

His other well-known maxim, this quote is fairly obvious to most teachers.  It’s been paraphrased in numerous ways by numerous characters, including a Navy officer that alluded to Slavic toilet habits.  The results are always the same.   We can ad lib all we want, but the best learning experiences are those that are planned and managed in advance.  Even if you have to change things on the fly, the plan will always keep you oriented towards the learning goals of your students.

“Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do”

Every classroom has the kid that doesn’t want to learn.  Often, a student doesn’t want to perform due to shame at their lack of ability or comprehension.  The above maxim is the basis for special education: use your abilities to their utmost, and with proper training you can overcome those shortcomings.

“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”

We all mess up once in a while.  Teachers, students, administrators: we all have times when we come up short.  That lesson didn’t come out as planned.  You did poorly on a test.  That conflict wasn’t resolved in the best way.  Mistakes happen—it’s how we react to mistakes that really matter.

“Never mistake activity for achievement.”

So much can fit into this category: those hackneyed homemade greeting cards used to waste time.  A busy assignment used to discipline an unruly child.  Standardized tests designed to derive meaningless data to make the suits feel better.  Just because things are happening does not make it meaningful.  True achievement involves activity and purpose, focusing work toward a real, organic end.

“Young people need models, not critics.”

This is especially true where the role models are few and far between—the South Bronx, for example.  My students have plenty of people hassling them, harassing them, even abusing them.  Yet so few of those adults that get on their case actually model the right form of behavior themselves.  Boys need to see men act as gentlemen.  Girls need to see smart, confident professional women.

 “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

One of the sad casualties of modern education is the dearth of moral or character-building education among young people.  In a media-driven world where reputation is not only easily attained, but easily disposed, today’s students need ethical guidance more than ever.

“Learn as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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