Monthly Archives: October 2010

This Day in History 10/26: The Opening of the Erie Canal

DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828) Mayor, Governor, founding father of the Erie Canal, and avatar for Mr. D's Neighborhood.

A few folks in the Neighborhood ask occasionally about my avatar.  Who is that dignified gentleman sitting next to your URL?  It’s far too proper for a blog this profane.

Today we give my avatar its due.  The dude in the little square on your browser is DeWitt Clinton, a New York politician described once by Columbia professor Kenneth Jackson as “probably the single most important person to ever live in the city of New York.”  His achievements helped shape the modern city: the numbered streets, our school system, the development of public museums and civil services.  Yet his greatest opus was a 363-mile ditch–a ditch that changed America forever.

On October 26, 1825, after 8 years of work, the Erie Canal was finally completed.  Clinton was the mastermind of the canal, pushing for its construction long before funds were earmarked and work began in 1817.  This huge artificial river spanned across New York State, making New York City the funnel through which all the resources–and products–of the middle West could pass through to Europe and beyond.  From then on, New York would begin a century and a half of almost unstoppable growth, becoming the biggest city in the United States.

It also changed the state itself.  Today 80% of the New York State’s population live along the path of the canal, either along the canal itself or along the Hudson towards New York City.  Looking at a map, one can see the accumulation of highways, airports, and metropolitan areas all along this early trade route.  It was this ditch, this “insanity” of a project (in Thomas Jefferson’s words) that created the modern state.

Finally, the Erie Canal proved how business and government could work together to create great public works for the good of all.  In our partisan politics, our crumbling infrastructure and our increasing resentment of the perceived power of our government, it is important to note this incredible event in history, when Americans could put partisanship aside to do monumental things.

Here’s a Powerpoint unit presentation on The Erie Canal that I designed.  It includes essential questions, activities, interesting primary quotes and culminating projects.  Feel free to use in your classrooms.

Just make sure you credit the Neighborhood for your fine resources.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

How’s this for “Full Disclosure”? A Counterproposal for Publishing Teacher Data

It seems my worst fears have been realized, albeit in a delayed form.

Last year, like so many others, I sounded the alarm on the so-called “rotisserie league” system of teacher evaluation, using stats like baseball cards to determine effectiveness.  At the moment, I thought my lesson had been learned, at least when using Alex Rodriguez as an example.

(By the way, he again is a failure this season, according to NCLB standards)

The recent release of teacher data by the Los Angeles Times has shown the ghastly effects of such unscrupulous shaming.  Morale is at a new low.  Attrition is rampant.  Few would want to enter a school system where taking the courageous stand of teaching children with special needs could land you on the front page with a noose over your head.  Most shockingly, one teacher committed suicide over perceived low scores, even though colleagues and administrators alike touted him as an exemplary teacher.

Now, the grand poobahs in New York City want the same thing.

Last week, the UFT went to court to stop the New York City Department of Education from publishing Teacher Data Report scores for 4-8th Grade teachers in the city.  The TDRs, as they were called, were a program designed to show teachers—and only teachers—how their students have done over time via standardized testing and other assessments. 

The move is so controversial that even the CSA, the principals’ union, broke ranks with the DOE and sided with the teachers.  When the TDRs were implemented last year, principals explicitly told their teachers that the data would be for their eyes only.  Publishing these scores would not only undermine teacher morale, but also the integrity of administrators citywide.

Yet even with the injunctions, motions, stoppages, etc. teachers may probably still face the prospect of public data reports.

Harping about the validity (or lack thereof) of the data or the data collection will do little good.  Nor will the constant chirping of union reps and teacher advocates, since the education reform crowd has already labeled teachers as the enemy.

What’s needed now is a counter-proposal. 

If the city is going to publish teacher data, it must publish student and parent records alongside each teacher’s evaluation. 

If the city wants to make everyone accountable in education, then all the cards should be face-up on the table.  Let’s make data evaluation truly public—after all, we know all the intangibles and background that surround the stats in baseball, basketball, football, etc.  There’s the differences in field surfaces, in flooring, in wind directions, fan attendance: all of which add up to some effect on the overall performance of the individual athletes.

The same could be said for teachers.  If a teacher has a class that cannot read at their grade level, show the records that indicate their improvement, as well as any individual needs, problems, situations that help or hinder the classroom experience.  If a teacher misses some phony cutoff in test scores for bonuses or whatnot, make sure the record shows the anecdotals of the little bastards who never do squat in the room.

Parents shouldn’t be off the hook, either.  Alongside the data reports should be the page upon page of meeting notes with parents—parents who never show up for meetings, parents who get belligerent, parents who “yes” the teacher to death in order to get her off their back.  Yet also show that parents who genuinely try to help, but are often frustrated with the curriculum themselves.  The problem rarely just stops at teacher and student.

Thanks to privacy laws, this proposal will probably never see the light of day.  Yet what makes teachers so worthy of exemption from professional courtesy?

 It can’t be because of our status as public employees: no other public agency would allow such open pillorying of their staff.  Nor is it because of our special relationship with children: parents have an even more intense bond, yet their results are hardly scrutinized in public.

Perhaps it’s because the inhuman, artificial nature of data allows administrators to show that they care about children without ever being involved with children.  It’s like the old line about the imperious city planner Robert Moses, “He loves the public, but he hates people.”

Publishing student and parent data, while a pipe dream, can be an even better way to evaluate a teacher’s performance.  It provides a holistic, broad-based picture of the circumstances each teacher must deal with.  Then, and only then, should test data be considered.

After all, how can you score a baseball game if you haven’t watched a single inning of it?

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Videos for the Classroom: BBC’s “Conquistadors” – The Conquest of the Inca

Today we continue the BBC Conquistadors series with episode 2, chronicling the Inca Empire of South America and its conquest by the Pizarro brothers, who seemed to fight everybody–the Incas, the neighboring tribes, and each other.

From 1528 to the 1570s, the Spanish would engage in a long, protracted period of conquest over the most vast empire in the Western Hemisphere.  When Francisco Pizarro and his brothers Gonzalo, Juan and Hernando arrive in Peru, the timing was perfect: the last emperor of the Inca, or Sapa Inca,  had died from smallpox, and a civil war raged between his two sons, Atahualpa and Huascar

The Pizarros exploited this division of power, taking sides in the civil war and capturing the victor, Atahualpa.  Their subsequent reign was marked by widespread bloodshed, corruption, massive exploitation of gold and silver reserves in Peru and surrounding areas, and internecine warfare between the Pizarros and the subsequent Spanish officials sent to calm the situation.

As before, Michael Wood uses the lens of modern Peru as his focal point in retelling the Inca tragedy.  Enjoy this episode with your students–and definitely give a loud Bronx cheer to the Pizarro brothers, a few of the truly bad guys in history.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Videos for the Classroom: BBC’s “Conquistadors” – The fall of the Aztecs

Today’s video is Episode 1 of Michael Wood‘s 2001 BBC documentary The Conquistadors.  This episode covers the first post-Columbus push into the American continent: Hernan Cortes‘ 1519-1522 expedition into Mexico.

In 1519, Hernan Cortes led a band of adventurers and treasure-seekers into the flourishing Aztec empire.  By utilizing resentment of imprisoned tribes, as well as exploiting Aztec legends of the god Quetzalcoatl, the Spaniards managed to penetrate Mexico all the way into the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan and the embattled Aztec emperor Montezuma II.  Within a couple of years, the Aztec empire collapsed, and the Spanish would establish the colony of New Spain, with Mexico City built on the ruins of the old Aztec capital.

Wood’s movie is important, in that it not only chronicles the Cortes expedition and its aftermath, but also views the events through the lens of modern Mexico, highlighting how the conquest has affected this area even today.  As so many students are now studying the first European encounters in the Americas, this film would make a worthwhile compliment to your unit planning.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 7: The Boisterous Sea of Liberty

 “The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

Rarely did a teaching workshop produce such a valuable resource as my first.

Around my second year teaching, I was at a low ebb.  I had a terrible class, nothing was getting done, and my room was a mess.  Curiously, it was at this point that I signed up for my first Teaching American History grant seminar.  There was little else I was doing on Saturday mornings in the fall, anyway. 

It would be an experience that changed me forever, as a teacher and as a historian.

Over the course of five years, I have listened to incredible history professors, sitting with like-minded teachers who also felt frustrated in the current educational environment.  Furthermore, the TAH program helped to ensure that the concepts learned could be applied to any classroom–and that means ANY level, from elementary to high school.

TAH was also a fountain of resources, books, videos and classroom materials.  Yet none would be more cherished than a black-covered book, now dog-eared and bookmarked to death.  It has become, quite literally, my Bible in the classroom.

In 1998, distinguished Yale professor David Brion Davis, along with University of Houston historian Steven Mintz, co-edited an anthology of primary sources called The Boisterous Sea of Liberty: A Documentary History of America from Discovery through the Civil War.  The book is much more than an anthology–it is exactly as the title states: a history of the United States as told through the primary resources of the period. 

 One of the most important movements in history education, at least at the K-12 level, is the move away from scripted textbooks (at least a lessened reliance on them) and an increased emphasis on primary documents: the artifacts from the past that give a window to history without the filter of the textbook editor or the teacher.  Davis’ introduction says as much in that:

“Nothing can overcome apathy, boredom, or contempt for the past as quickly and effectively as primary sources.  Eyewitness accounts of a battle or bitter legislative debate can have the power of a fax or e-mail just received, evaporating the gap between past and present.  Such sources enable readers to identify with men and women long dead and to suddenly understand how decisions made in the past continue to haunt our lives.  No less important, as we learn to listen to these voices we gain a growing sense of the complexity and contingency of past events.” ~ David Brion Davis, Boisterous Sea of Liberty, page 1 “Introduction”

Yet this book could be simply a set of primary documents bond together.  Thankfully Davis and Mintz included their own commentary and created a straightforward, dense, comprehensive narrative of the American story, using the primary sources as a the driving force. 

This is where the “textbook” aspect of this book is done right: often, teachers lack the context or background knowledge behind such famous documents as the Mayflower Compact, Columbus’ Letters to the Sovereigns or the Emancipation Proclamation (all included in the book, by the way).  Davis and Mintz provide a refreshingly nuanced, evenhanded view of events that doesn’ t create sacred cows, yet won’t necessarily jump on the Howard Zinn-esque revisionist bandwagon.

One example of this is their treatment of Columbus’ first voyage.  In their introduction to the Columbus letters, Davis and Mintz mince few words: the European encounter decimated the indigenous populations of America, raped their resources and introduced enslaved African labor in large quantities.  Yet they end this passage with the following:

“Columbus’s (sic) first voyage of discovery also had another important result: It contributed to the development of the modern concept of progress.  To many Europeans, the New World seemed to be a place of innocence, freedom and eternal youth.  The perception of the New World as an environment free from the corruptions and injustices of European life would provide a vantage point for criticizing all social evils.  So while the collision of three worlds resulted in death and enslavement in unprecedented numbers, it also encouraged visions of a more perfect future.” ~ David Brion Davis & Steven Mintz, Boisterous Sea of Liberty, page 32 “First Encounters”

The same instinct pervades the book in other areas.  The concluding discussions about the end of the Civil War, for example, involve a frank exploration into the shifting patterns of race and class distinctions in the South following the conflict.  To be sure, Davis and Mintz argue, the new order did not necessarily mean complete freedom.  Blacks would be restricted in public places, in employment and in the exercise of their new constitutional rights to vote in elections.  Furthermore, many rural Blacks were trapped in the sharecropping system that bound them to the land of their former white overlords.  Yete even here there is a glimmer of hope:

“Nevertheless, the sharecropping system did allow freedmen a degree of freedom and autonomy greater than that experiences (sic) under slavery.  As a symbol of their newly won independence, freedmen had teams of mules drag their former slave cabins away from the slave quarters into their own fields…incredibly, about 20 percent of African AMericans in the South managed to acquire their own land by 1880.  Real gains had been won, though full freedom and equality before the law remained unfulfilled promises.” ~ David Brion Davis & Steven Mintz, Boisterous Sea of Liberty, page 559 “Toward Reconstruction”

This approach is perfect for average readers who see this book as a narrative that explains, guides and instructs the reader on the events, concepts and ideas of American history.  As an educator, the real treasure is the primary documents themselves.

The commentary is important and very well written.  However, the primary sources are what make this book an integral part of any history classroom.  Most of the primary quotes I use in this blog, if not all, come from Boisterous Sea of Liberty (at least those quotes pertaining to before the Civil War).  These documents have been printed and reprinted and recopied and reused ad infinitum for classroom exercises, tests, lesson plans, assessment portfolios and even professional development.

Even in the classroom itself, Boisterous Sea of Liberty holds a certain allure.  My students always know that when I whip that book out, something important, shocking or interesting will be shared today.  In fact, they have given it a nickname: “The Book of Sadness”, since I have a tendency to use it for tragic or horrible events. 

Case in point: the Schenectady massacre of 1690.  During the ongoing wars between the French and English, the New York settlement of Schenectady was attacked by French soldiers and their native allies.  Robert Livingston provides a particularly grueseome account, full of wailing victims and children’s brains getting bashed.  The scene is hard to read, even for a teacher well divorced from the situation.  Yet this account allows students to live their history in all its gory details.

 Boisterous Sea of Liberty has become a backbone of my curriculum design, lesson planning and assessment.  The results are truly remarkable: students are, often for the first time, thinking critically not only about events, but the authorship and authenticity of primary accounts.  My kids are making important connections between historical events and current situations in our world. 

Most important for me, though, is that for the first time, my students are actually excited about social studies.  It stimulates their brains, forces them to think, encourages them to look for their own solutions.  Primary sources have “emancipated” students from the shackles of textbooks and test prep workbooks.

Boisterous Sea of Liberty is a must-have, in fact one of the few must-haves that a social studies teacher should own.  I can’t imagine teaching without it–and neither will you.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

This Day in History 10/13: The Birth of the United States Navy

I don’t know what it is, but I always had a soft spot for the Navy.  They had the spiffiest uniforms–at least the officers, anyway.  Their ships went to exotic ports of call.  A US aircraft carrier could stop international incidents just by sticking itself in a foreign port.

Few recognize the naval contributions to medicine, particularly pathology.  Sailors are medical wonders, world experts at such subjects as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis (at least their transmission, of course).  Yeah, that went a little too far, but at least I didn’t go the “don’t ask, don’t tell” route.

And if you’re asking, no.  I will not put the lyrics to a certain Village People tune.

Today, on October 13, 1775, the Continental Congress passed a resolution creating the Continental Navy, the forerunner of today’s United States Navy.  The original resolution is below:

“Resolved, That a swift sailing vessel, to carry ten carriage guns, and a proportionable number of swivels, with eighty men, be fitted, with all possible despatch, for a cruise of three months, and that the commander be instructed to cruize eastward, for intercepting such transports as may be laden with warlike stores and other supplies for our enemies, and for such other purposes as the Congress shall direct.
That a Committee of three be appointed to prepare an estimate of the expence, and lay the same before the Congress, and to contract with proper persons to fit out the vessel.
Resolved, that another vessel be fitted out for the same purposes, and that the said committee report their opinion of a proper vessel, and also an estimate of the expence.”  — Resolution of the Continental Congress, October 13, 1775

The original provision called for construction of one or two ships.  A subsequent resolution upped the number to 13. 

It was an incredible case of wishful thinking.  The fledgling United States did not have that kind of dough, and its infant navy relied heavily on privateers: essentially pirates for hire who would attack British ships for their cargo and prize money. 

By the 1790s, the Navy would begin a more structured development, in that 4 large frigates would be constructed: The USS United States, the USS Constitution, the USS Constellation and the USS President.  Through the War of 1812, the young Navy with its four flagships would create among America’s first naval heroes, and establish a fighting reputation well in excess of its small size.

Attached is three filmstrips from the US Department of the Navy‘s series on naval history from the 1950’s.  Its done in that tried-and-true high school filmstrip style, which may put off some students.  At worst, do what I do: make fun of the hokeyness while highlighting the important information.

Have fun.  Anchors aweigh!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Will the Real Christopher Columbus please stand up?

“So Columbus said, ‘somebody show me the sunset’ and somebody did and he set sail for it,
And he discovered America and they put him in jail for it,
And the fetters gave him welts,
And they named America after somebody else.” ~ Ogden Nash

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) by Sebastiano del Piombo. There are no portraits of Columbus made during his lifetime.

Columbus Day, for me, is a complex and conflicting event.

On the one hand, Italian-Americans get only one day a year to celebrate their heritage, as well as their contributions to American society.  For years, Columbus was the only Italian in any social studies textbook—I mean the ONLY one.  In a world where others saw us through Don Corleone, Tony Soprano and the Super Mario Brothers, Christopher Columbus was our shining model. He was proof that Italians need not be criminals to succeed on this continent.

Yet the decades of historical revision about him cannot be ignored.  Few individuals have had such a pummeling in the historical narrative as Columbus.  In academia, Columbus-bashing is a cottage industry: you’re not even considered a credible historian if you don’t rough up old Chris at least a little bit. 

Like an incoming tide, the knocking of Columbus involved numerous waves and relentless advances.  First came Leif Ericsson: the red-headed Viking who was supposedly the “true discoverer” of America. He set up a small encampment in Newfoundland around the year 1000, only to be summarily drummed out by the natives.  My dad thought Ericsson was a conspiracy by WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) to undermine Columbus’ legacy.  In my house, you couldn’t even say his name. 

Next came the Chinese theory—specifically the voyages of a Ming-dynasty explorer named Zheng He.  The story goes that Zheng led the Chinese fleet to the American continent in 1421, well before the Columbian expedition.  It received even more attention in 2002 with the release of 1421: The Year China Discovered the World by former British submarine commander Gavin Menzies.  The book is largely discredited by historians today, since Menzies has no command of Chinese and therefore no knowledge of the primary source material—material Menzies claimed was destroyed by subsequent emperors due to financial difficulties.  Yet the idea will not die.

Even the stone-cold fact of Columbus’ first voyage has been downgraded from a “discovery” to an “encounter”, as if Chris and the Taino were matched up on eHarmony using their ridiculously long questionnaire.   

Yet nowhere has Columbus’ reputation suffered more than with his treatment of indigenous peoples.  He’s pretty much persona non grata on every Native American reservation in the Americas.  Dartboards have him next to such Native-loving luminaries as Hernan Cortes, Francisco Pizarro, Andrew Jackson, and George Armstrong Custer.  Worst of all, the historical record supports this negative view.

The following is from Columbus’ journal entry of October 14, 1492 (NOTE: I use Columbus’ journals and not his Letters to the Sovereigns, in that in the latter he has that innately human quality of candy-coating the situation for his superiors).

“I wished to give a complete relation to your Highnesses, and also where a fort might be built…. However, I do not see it to be necessary, because these people simple in armaments…. With fifty men I could subjugate them all and make them do everything that is required of them.”

Furthermore, he writes on December 16, 1492:

 “…your Highnesses may believe that this island (Hispaniola), and all the others, are as much yours as Castile. Here there is only wanting a settlement and the order to the people to do what is required. For I, with the force I have under me, which is not large, could march over all these islands without opposition. I have seen only three sailors land, without wishing to do harm, and a multitude of Indians fled before them. They have no arms, and are without warlike instincts; they all go naked, and are so timid that a thousand would not stand before three of our men. So that they are good to be ordered about, to work and sow, and do all that may be necessary, and to build towns, and they should be taught to go about clothed and to adopt our customs.”

And it goes downhill from there.

From 1492 to 1503, Columbus’ administration of these emerging Caribbean colonies was an unmitigated disaster.  The economy was mismanaged.  Administration was often arbitrary and tyrannical.  No one wanted to leave Spain for a mismanaged shithole island 3000 miles away.  The natives were being abused, to put it mildly.  The native populations of Columbus’ “Indies” would die off within a generation, a feat nearly genocidal in its size and scope.

Most importantly for Spain, the gold wasn’t coming.  No spices, either.  Jewels?  Silks? Tea?  Nope on all three.  It won’t be until the subsequent adventures into present-day Mexico and Peru that the Spanish could finally pester the natives into profitable labor: hauling gold and silver to fill the galleons of the treasure fleet.

So in the wake of the savage beating that history has given to Columbus’ reputation, who is the real Columbus?  And is there enough good to salvage Columbus’ holiday from total irrelevance?

When looking at Columbus as colonial administrator, there is little that can help his case.  Most of the atrocities that occurred under his jurisdiction really did occur. 

Yet it is important to understand an integral aspect of most great men of history: they are both ahead of their time and of their time.

The abuse, terror and corruption on Hispaniola would prove to be par for the course.  Columbus’ successors in Spanish America were no prizes, either: reading Bartolome de las Casas’ accounts of native atrocities would make anyone cringe.  So it’s fair to say that even though Columbus failed, his contemporaries probably couldn’t do much better either given the circumstances.

Yet despite his shortcomings—and they cannot be ignored—Columbus’ courage, tenacity and seamanship in directing such an unprecedented voyage do cement him a place in the history of our civilization.

Whether you admire or abhor the man, this much is true: Columbus’ first voyage was a world-changing event.  A barrier that seemed impossible was now breached; in fact multiple times, by Columbus himself.  Two worlds once isolated now formed a new and transformative connection, for good or ill.  The development of two continents, and subsequently the world at large, could have taken a far different course had the voyage not succeeded.

Furthermore, even if you don’t believe the age-old canard (and I don’t) that Columbus proved the Earth was round, you cannot deny his chutzpah.  Nobody, and I mean nobody, was taking his place as being brave (and crazy) enough to sail west across the ocean.  It took some real cojones to sail towards the horizon with only a vague idea of where to go, how to get there, and how long it will take—especially when his measurements were wrong.

So as teachers, we should make sure Columbus gets his day in the sun—warts and all.  Please, no more crappy wall decorations with three pathetic sailboats and what looks like Buster Brown in a funny robe saying hi to what appears to be Sitting Bull and the Hekawi tribe from F Troop.  Give your students the real deal about the voyage, the dangers, and the historical significance of reaching the Americas.

Yet make sure to not hide Columbus’ shortcomings under the rug, so to speak.  The guy made mistakes—some royal mistakes.  He set a pattern for colonial mismanagement unprecedented in world history.  Acknowledge the situation he faced and see if your students would have handled governing the Indies differently.

Finally, to all those who view October 12 as a day of genocide, sadness and horror: I know.  You don’t have to repeat it.  However, anyone else wouldn’t have done much better (just ask his successors).  Certainly, no one else was ready to take the enormous risk Columbus did to sail the ocean sea to parts unknown.

 So from one crazy Italian to another, I salute you.  Happy Columbus Day!

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized