Monthly Archives: August 2011

A Long Overdue Update Before School Starts

It’s been a crazy summer.  After LA, the SOS March in DC, and a week in Delaware cut short by Hurricane Irene, it may do me some good to get back in the classroom.  Here’s some odds and ends to take care of:

  • The “conversion” experience post has generated quite an interest.  James Boutin and I have collected a few stories already, and we might have a website in the works to showcase these courageous teachers speaking out.  Other bloggers/activists are also interested in the project. Please PLEASE keep the stories coming!
  • In all the Irene hoopla, we forgot about the upcoming September 11 anniversary.  The 10th anniversary of 9/11 comes just as school years start, so its kind of a downer.  Still, its an important one.  Make sure you cover this with your students–and include any personal experiences you can.  The more personal, the better the connection with your kids (Many of whom might not remember, or weren’t born yet!)
  • My school is in flux this week…some new administrators, possibly new staff.  I’m going to post probably one or two more times before school starts up after Labor Day.  But if you don’t see me for a while, you know why.

Have a great school year, everyone!

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A Dear John Letter to my Textbooks

Dear NYC Social Studies Core Curriculum Textbooks published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

This is a difficult letter for me to write…and an even more difficult letter for you to read, so I hope that you are sitting down.

Remember when we first met? I trembled in excitement upon hearing of a textbook option for New York City’s social studies curriculum. Once I had you (or the fourth grade version of you at the time), it was as if a great weight was lifted from me—finally, a concrete guide to instruction.

I was smitten just by looking at your spine…the glow off your glossy cover…the sharp color photos that littered almost every page.

Those first few months were incredible, weren’t they? Every day was something new, something exciting. We were so wild, so adventurous…we could take on the world. To be honest, we were into some really kinky shit, but that was all in the fun.

Each year, another book would await me, and my love affair renewed. The roller-coaster ride we shared made the mundane phone order to the central office in Tweed so—dare I say—exhilarating. The maps, the optional activities, the worksheets and games: at last, I thought, I found the one.

Yet, something changed.

At first, I thought it was just me. After a while, we settled into our routine. Occasionally, you provide a surprise to spice things up—a game on the Internet, or a music selection. That, however, was the exception to the rule. To be fair, that routine suited me fine…for a while.

Then, maybe it was my weakness…but I started to feel restless. The chapters and units weren’t doing it for me anymore. I felt trapped.

It was then that I met someone else…more like some other people, plural.

There were some websites on the Internet. I was leery, at first. But then, they lured me with their siren song of primary source documents, streaming video and interactive games. Once I saw the ever-changing and ever-expanding volumes of media, lesson plans, worksheets and graphic organizers, that old excitement, that feeling of adventure exploded over me again.

I had mentioned that I was attached, that I couldn’t turn my back on my beloved. They, in turn, mentioned some shocking things about you: that you don’t fact-check your information that well, that there are numerous mistakes in historical maps, that terminology and vocabulary are often misstated.

Worst of all, they said that by watering down the content for the sake of “readability”, you were holding me back—and even worse, holding my students hostage to shoddy literature.

I wouldn’t believe it. They were just jealous, after all, I thought. How could they appreciate the passion, the connection we have…besides, if there were flaws, you would have told me, right?

Right?

Well, I did some digging myself. On page 161 of the grade 3 book, this is what you say about the Roman Empire:

“The Roman Empire lasted about 500 years, but then broke apart. It had grown too large for its rulers to control. However, ancient Rome still affects the world with its ideas about government, architecture, and more.”

Fair enough, it is only for 3rd graders, but sometimes you water down way too much. Look at page 163:

“In the mid-1900s, World War II broke out. Many countries fought in this war, including Italy. Italy was on the side that lost.”

Umm, that’s it? No mention of the nightmare of a 21-year fascist dictatorship that preceded it? No mention of the other countries that bear more responsibility for losing—the ones that had more blood on their hands. Those kids can get that…why do you treat them like morons?

If that’s not bad enough, I found outright lies—lies that you should’ve told me about. Why did you keep it a secret that the leaders of the New Netherland colony were incorrectly called “governors” instead of the correct “directors-general”?

Why does a map of North America in the 18th century use flags from another century? I see an 1801 British flag, a 1793 French flag, and a 1981 Spanish flag.

I’m not even going into the problems in the 5th grade book.

Why? Why did you hold me back so many years? Why the lies? The deceit? The lack of clarity and depth of content?

I’m sorry, but our relationship has really run its course. It’s over.

Please, no tears…it’s not entirely your fault. I was too stupid to realize how badly written you were. I didn’t see your limited vision and lack of depth.

Basically, we’ve really grown apart these past few years. I expanded my base of knowledge and resources through the internet, seminars, grants and lectures.

You just can’t grow past your binding.

You were suffocating me, and screwing my students in the process. There’s nowhere else for this to go.

Believe me, it’s better for both of us.

Goodbye, and good luck. Perhaps we’ll see each other again… that odd day that I need to waste a period with busywork in June.

Just don’t wait up for my call. Sorry, babe.

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This Day in History 8/15: The Beatles’ 1965 Concert at Shea Stadium

Who brought out Shea Stadium‘s biggest crowd in 1965, perhaps in its history?  Well, it certainly wasn’t the hapless Mets (with all due respect to Mets fans).

On August 15, 1965, Beatlemania reached on of its true zeniths, as the seminal British rock band The Beatles played in Shea Stadium, the Mets’ home field, for their second US tour.  The band would play once more there the next year, and would never play in public again after that tour.

Over 55,000 people packed into Flushing to see the Beatles play on a small stage below center field.  The noise was deafening, but not due to the music: the fans’ shouts and screams–as well as the distance of the band from the audience, meant nobody really heard much of anything.  It was only when Ed Sullivan released a documentary of the performance that anyone actually heard the setlist.

Furthermore, the Shea concert began a revolution in live music, for both good and ill.  Its massive profits proved to promoters that massive outdoor arena shows can indeed be good business.  The subsequent decade, particularly into the 1970s, saw the rise of “arena rock” as bands with giant speakers and screaming guitars blasted their way through stadiums and outdoor venues.

However, the “arena rock” phase would often be criticized as formulaic, sterile and commercial.  Ironically, it would prove to be the catalyst of a countermovement, punk, that re-captured the indoor rebellious spirit of rock.

Attached is Ed Sullivan’s introduction of the band, and their rendition of “Twist and Shout.”  Believe me, be lucky this documentary exists: you would’ve heard nothing but the white noise of screaming adolescents if you were there.

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Staples Back-To-School Commercial

School may be a few weeks away for me, and it may be sooner for many of you.  Yet I still get a kick out of this commercial–one of the best ever made.  There’s a poetic justice in the misery of those children, don’t you think? ;)

Here’s to a great beginning of a new school year.

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Calling out all Teachers “converted” by Public Education!

Like St. Paul on the way to Damascus, many of us undergo a “conversion” experience.

We enter the world full of lofty goals, high-minded principles and some complex vocabulary. Sometimes, we even attempt to make those goals real, entering the “real world” to “inspire young minds” and “do some good in the world.”

Yet when the cold backhand of reality comes crashing across our faces, the sting often exposes a greater truth—a truth often masked behind the rhetoric.

I am not immune to this. When I began as a teacher, visions of gleaming charter schools and smiling faces with vouchers to private academies danced in my head. I couldn’t sing the praises of privatization and Teach for America loud enough—as well as shout my disdain for veteran teachers “not doing their job.”

It didn’t take long into my first year for reality to sink in. The magic bullets, the fab theories and the rhetoric of the NCLB crowd were smoke-and-mirrors in the everyday grind of an inner city classroom. The handbooks—TFA, NYC Teaching Fellows, or otherwise—had no answer for the problems I faced each day in that place. The best help I got was from (Surprise, surprise!) veteran teachers who long ago discarded the guidebooks to best educate their students.

My mind changed when I encountered the realities of public education. And I am sure I’m not alone.

At the recent Save Our Schools Conference, I had spoken with fellow blogger James Boutin about our experiences, and we got to thinking about people like us—people who “crossed the floor” as it were on public education. One workshop we attended involved two Teach for America alums. They quit the organization over their tactics and approach in regards to teacher training.

Surely, we thought, there are many others like them—and us—who also had an epiphany about education and the real problems in our public schools.

There’s a very public example of this “epiphany” in Diane Ravitch, the former assistant Secretary of Education and co-author of No Child Left Behind who saw the dangers of the monster she helped bring to life.

However, what could be even more powerful are the stories of everyday teachers—be it from TFA, Teaching Fellows, or anywhere else—who had once bought into the rhetoric of education “reform” and have been transformed by their experiences in today’s classrooms.

James and I are collecting stories of similar individuals, those with similar transformative experiences as us. If you have a story to share, please contact James or myself. Include your contact info, as we’re not sure how to best use your information, and we want to keep in touch with you.

Finally, please send this to anyone whose life was changed by teaching in a public school classroom. Your stories are important and incredibly valuable. We look forward to hearing from you.

 

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Burns, Booze and Sweat: A Recap of the 2011 SOS March in DC

Matt Damon at the SOS March, July 30, 2011 - Taken with my crappy Blackberry camera

Nothing is more awkward than confronting about a thousand people with nametags…and you don’t have one.

To be honest, I didn’t get to the SOS Conference at American University until Day 2, on Friday. Careening into the AU parking lot at quarter to ten in the morning, my mind was awash with witty remarks to excuse my lateness…

(“After the trooper guffawed in laughter, I got a warning and here I am!”)

Yet I just caught the end of the opening remarks as a wall of people collided with me. A mix of earnest do-gooders, professional malcontents, old gray-haired 60’s Bolshies, young teachers confused about education, old teachers distraught about education, as well as assorted writers, journalists, bloggers and support staff.

This was my introduction to the Save Our Schools Conference and March. It was a whirlwind of a weekend, exhausting, exhilarating, exasperating all at once.

And yes…there was heavy drinking involved.

Other journalists and bloggers—many far more creative than I—have already written volumes about the weekend. To wit, take a look at James Boutin’s posts on An Urban Teacher’s Education to get a good overview of the daily flow. So, rather than go over a blow-by-blow of the happenings over the weekend, here is a summary of the good, the bad and the embarrassingly ugly of this past weekend:

The Good

Meeting New Folks (and cyber-folks in the flesh) – The great part of this weekend, for me anyway, was the people. I met so many concerned teachers and parents that my head was spinning. Although there was an overwhelming number of folks from Wisconsin (for obvious reasons), there were pretty much marchers from all over the country. In a short list, I met Floridians, Chicagoans, Californians, Ohioans, Wisconsinites, Bostonians (and other Massachusetts folks), Carolinians (North and South), Coloradoans, Washingtonians, New Jerseyans and New Yorkers.

Also, it was wonderful meeting people I only knew in the cyber world, such as Jonathan from jd2718, James Boutin (mentioned earlier) and Sabrina Stevens Shupe, who I knew only from Twitter and whose posts actually roped me into going in the first place. It was a blast meeting all of you.

Sharing reports about the state of education – In our own districts/neighborhoods/towns, we can get very insular about our issues. It was good to see that certain gripes and problems were universal across the US. Overcrowding, overtesting, micromanaging, and lack of support seem to be recurring themes from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon.

One particularly great workshop I attended (I went to only one…the drive forced me to the pool and the bar later) concerned Teach for America. It featured two former TFA-ers who left the organization due to differences between the TFA doctrine and the realities of urban education. This is the kind of information that needs to be more widespread. I even gained some sympathy for those TFA-ers struggling through their tenure while their students suffer.

Trading New Ideas – Mind you, this was an activist conference/march, not one about pedagogy. There was very little in the way of new teaching ideas, but a lot of new thought in the realm of activism and publicity about education. In particular, Boutin and I came up with an idea I will share next time—an idea that could really help the cause.

Some of the Speakers – At the march, the usual cast of characters showed up: Linda Darling-Hammond, Deborah Maier, Jonathan Kozol, and of course Diane Ravitch. They spoke with the usual verve and academic command of material. As the patron saints of the anti-NCLB movement, Kozol and Ravitch got a huge pop, even though Diane seemed a little out of place rabble-rousing—like the Duc d’Orleans inciting the Paris mob during the French Revolution. Hope she doesn’t suffer the same fate.

Yet two speakers in particular struck me. One was a superintendant of a school district in Texas (I forgot his name—I must’ve been hung over and sunburned) who railed about the need to teach all children. It was great to hear such passion from an administrator for a change. The second, funny enough, was Nancy Carlsson-Paige’s son, Matt Damon (yes, that Matt Damon). He gave a heartfelt, down-to-Earth speech rallying the troops and demonstrating support for teachers. It wasn’t completely polished (remember he started at Harvard and never finished) but it didn’t have to be. Great job.

The Bad

Some of the Other Speakers – this is where the cynical, jaded Mr. D rears his ugly gin-soaked head. As much as I appreciate music and poetry, there was a whole lot of it going around on Saturday—a little too much for this Republican. Some of the truly great poems were the topical ones: a testing rant by Jose Vilson, Taylor Mali’s ode to teachers, and Marc Naison’s rap on education “reform.” Yet the rest…well…let’s just say it wasn’t my taste.

Some of the other speakers on the docket, however, seemed to submarine the cause more than uplift it. One or two speakers in particular called for creating a new party of “workers”, the kind of talk that drives most parents in Middle America into the arms of the Tea Party. Some of the speeches kept straying from the “combating poverty” script and were creeping precariously close to the “class warfare” script.

I know the organizers wanted a variety of ideas and viewpoints, but their goal of 50,000 participants may not be reached with rhetoric like this.

The “Fringe” groups – this is a common phenomenon: whenever a demonstration is held in DC, fringe political groups swarm the outskirts peddling their wares. Socialists, anarchists, Marxists, even the LaRouche people came out of the woodwork. Now I have a trained eye and can spot (and avoid) these guys pretty easily. Yet they did a good job bombarding the other marchers with rhetoric and material, something that Fox News or Reason.com can easily use as an excuse to pigeonhole the movement as a leftist pipe dream.

Furthermore—and I know this was in the best of intentions—the decision of the organizers to allow a certain number of tables to these groups was not the wisest move. It presents the Save Our Schools movement with a big image problem. Even if the goal was to allow the most voices to be heard, the perception (and perception is EVERYTHING in DC and beyond) is that SOS is allied with the “lunatic” fringe.

The Interviews – I took a look at the taping of a few interviews by different media outlets. The CNN interviews were actually pretty refreshing, and somewhat even handed—painting the march as a lighter, festive affair. Others, like reason.tv, took a different approach. They were asking tough, often leading questions about the financial aspects of educating a child—much like a libertarian outlet would be doing.

I’m not knocking the interviewers. Reason.tv has a point of view, and they were looking at the march through their lens. Same with CNN, though they are loathe to admit it. The problem, for the most part, is the interviewees. God bless them, they really showed their passion and drive to save public education. Unfortunately, they also showed their lack of chops when confronting a camera, and it played right into the hands of the enemy.

Reason.tv’s coverage was a case in point. If you looked at their interviews, the crew made a point to find those folks with the most provocative posters (it makes for good TV, after all). Yet often the reasoned argument stopped there. When an interviewer asked an exasperated marcher how much should the government spend on a child’s education, she exclaimed “There should be no limit! A billion dollars…”

Sure, there shouldn’t be a limit on a kid’s education. But an emotional response is what these people want—to paint the Save Our Schools movement as a bunch of ideological intellectual blowhards without common sense. Matt Damon, as heated as he was, I think gave a better response to reason.tv. It was more measured and ultimately more instructive to those who will make the real decisions on education.

The Ugly

The weather – Even the Founding Fathers knew better than to stick around the malarial swamp of the District in July and August. Unfortunately, this is no fault of anyone, just a sad accident of history. Thomas Jefferson convinced (or cajoled, or hoodwinked, or bamboozled) Alexander Hamilton over dinner in 1790 to move the capital to the pestilent shores of the Potomac in exchange for Hamilton’s debt-assumption plan (always about debt).

Since most teachers can only travel in the summer, any march for education usually occurs at the worst time in DC—the true dog days of summer. It was great that the local teachers union provided fans and water for the event. True to my word, I sweated my nuts off—and some other body parts, too—along with adding an additional layer of carcinogen to my West Coast-sunkissed exterior.

The previous night’s tippling certainly didn’t help. Some advice for next year: bring water, sunscreen, and a stiff hair-of-the-dog to chase the shakes away before marching on the Mall to the White House.

Like I said, this wasn’t exhaustive. Yet it pretty much covered my thoughts and observations on the weekend. Next time, we’ll look at possible “next steps” in moving forward from here.

Whew, that was a lot. Another drink, everyone?

 

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