Monthly Archives: January 2012

Website Review: Mission 2 of Mission: US – “Flight to Freedom”

All video game franchises attempt to improve with time. With PBSMission:US, however, the delays were making us question whether there was going to be a second mission after all.

It has been a long time coming, but the second installment marks a solid improvement on the original.

The Neighborhood last visited this PBS interactive history game with its inaugural mission, which dealt with a young Boston boy dealing with the events leading up to the American Revolution. While we found it a worthy start, the mission was somewhat flawed with excessive dialogue, cartoonish, anime-like characters and lack of visceral action.

In this second mission, “Flight to Freedom”, the game moves to the mid-1800s as the slavery issue divides Americans. Lucy is an enslaved girl on the King plantation in northern Kentucky, near the Ohio River and the free state of Ohio. The story follows her daily life on the plantation, assisting fellow slaves escape north, escaping to freedom, being recaptured and sold at an auction, and hopefully fleeing again to freedom. Along the way, Lucy encounters abolitionists, free blacks, other slaves, overseers, haughty masters, slave catchers and others in American society with varied views on slavery.

Many of the flaws of the first mission have resurfaced. The Japanese-like characters and the excessive dialogue have remained. Also, certain aspects of the background seem somewhat sanitized. The slave quarters seem a little too spiffy (they look so well-built they resemble Levittown tract-housing), the fields seem a little too tidy, and the overseer and slave catchers seem a little too diplomatic (I’m sure they probably cussed more in real life).

The choice of crop at the plantation, furthermore, is interesting. Instead of cotton, tobacco or rice, the King plantation grows hemp, a once-valuable crop used in making bags, coarse clothes and especially rope.

I just wonder if my more street-savvy students would snicker at such a harvest, given hemp’s more potent and illegal cousin. Is that Snoop Dogg hanging out a little too long around those burning leaves?

Yet besides the cartoons, the sanitation and the subtle references to illicit drugs, Mission: US’ second mission does have marked improvements on its predecessor.

“Flight to Freedom” now allows the main character Lucy to say and do a wider variety of things. Unlike previous missions, which tend to move the story forward a little too linearly, Lucy can now be sneaky, aggressive, persuasive, obedient…even violent if she wants to. The game allows you to collect badges based on how you interact with characters and the situation. The badges also help you finalize the ending of the story the way you want it to end.

This makes the action more human and realistic—making the story all that more relatable to today’s students. After all, to make all enslaved people and free blacks look and act the same is a gross disservice. These people reacted to their situation in varied ways. It was a fine line between a seemingly obedient house servant and a Nat Turner-like insurrection.

Also, the dialogue is remarkably apt for the period. The first mission had colonists that sounded more like Nebraska than Boston. This time around, you can hear the twangs of the Ohio valley, from the drawls of the Kentucky planters and slave catchers to the Midwest nasal airs of Ohio abolitionists.

Lastly, the developers added a nice feature called Think Fast! About the Past for each mission. It’s a timed trivia game that allows you to learn more background information about each time period. Thankfully, the second mission game includes brutally honest information about the nineteenth century.

No, most northern whites were not abolitionists. Most abolitionists didn’t necessarily believe in racial equality. And life for free blacks in Canada was not exactly peaches and hockey sticks.

I hope in the future, PBS will develop missions with more action, longer plotlines and more realism. Yet “Flight to Freedom” is a great leap forward for the Mission:US franchise and it bodes well for upcoming installments.

Let’s see how long it takes to release Mission 3…let’s suppose by the end of the decade ;)

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Slaves, Oranges and Arithmetic: The Dangers of Too Much Content Integration

In that ever-growing list of educational untouchables, the enslavement of African Americans is among the most sensitive and nerve-rattling.

So why in Hell would a teacher build a set of math problems based on slavery? The misguided belief that social studies can—and should—be integrated into everything.

One of the offending questions, courtesy of ABC News

If ever there was proof that social studies deserves to remain a separate and distinct subject, it is the recent “slave math” controversy. Luis Rivera, a third grade teacher in the Atlanta suburb of Gwinnett County, Georgia resigned when he assigned math homework that included problems involving slavery and beatings. Samples of the controversial work include:

“Each tree had 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?”

“If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”

The story made headlines across all the news outlets and provided prime fodder for the early morning gabfests. Many clearly found the incident offensive, and others thought one careless act shouldn’t mar an entire career in education…and so on, and so on.

Bullshit. The guy should’ve known better: both as a tolerant American and as a teacher of sound pedagogical practice. Rivera gets an “F” on both accounts.

The use of such a sensitive topic is appalling in it of itself. As a teacher, however, it is the casual, even careless use of history that is most repulsive. The teacher claimed they were attempting a “cross-curricular” activity, supposedly integrating social studies and math.

If this is what passes for “integration” or “multidisciplinary”, then here come the division problems using cattle cars and European Jews (prepare to use high numbers), probability questions involving Christians thrown to lions (advantage: lions), and fractions involving Crusaders slaughtering Muslims in the Holy Land (i.e. “What fraction of a merchant in Jerusalem is left after Sir Godfrey cleaves him to pieces with a broadsword?”).

Not only are these examples equally disgusting, but teach absolutely nothing about the content being used.

As much as it twists in my gut like a rusty bayonet, districts will still be pushing for integrating social studies and science into reading and mathematics. Understandably, each content area fits better with a certain skill set: social studies is basically just focused reading and writing, scientific analysis rarely doesn’t involve at least basic math skills.

Yet when the subjects are reversed, the integration can be a little tricky—and no more so than with social studies and math. The Georgia example, to be honest, was more of an example of lazy, slipshod integration than any real malice. It was probably based on the notion that the content itself doesn’t matter so long as the skills taught are understood.

Thus, in Rivera’s mind, the slaves being beaten and picking cotton and oranges could have been anything and anyone, so long as the math algorithms were internalized.

This in not integration. It is the hijacking of one subject to further another.

If true integration is the goal, the student materials, assessments and lessons should:

1. Align with content material or units that are either being taught at the time or previously covered. According to the Georgia Performance Standards in Social studies for 3rd Grade, students should be covering the impact of various important Americans. Even if the American in question was a slave (i.e. Frederick Douglass) the content was inappropriate and didn’t really tie into the curriculum at all. The content you use has to make sense to the students in some way; otherwise both your math and your social studies objectives will be lost.

2. Utilize settings, actors and scenarios appropriate to the historical period or unit. This sounds a lot easier than it is. Many times, problems are created that in no way resemble the reality of the time. Even amongst the offending problems, the second one makes no historical sense: if Frederick needed two beatings a day in order to work, he would have probably been sold. A little research into primary sources can go a long way in justifying your use of historical content.

3. Enhance understanding of BOTH the skills/standards and the content area. Okay teachers and administrators, I’ll say it: social studies and science are not your personal call girls designed to fleece students for their respective pimps, reading and math. If you create a division problem involving the supplies of a pioneer family, students should learn a thing or two about the hardships of frontier life in the process. That reading assignment about volcanoes should not only enforce main idea, author’s purpose, etc. but also the scientific concepts of volcanic eruption and its role in land formation on Earth.

Since the remorseless monolith of integration is with us for the foreseeable future, educators have to learn to effective join content and skills together for mutual benefit. With so much time in the school day devoted to reading and math—plus that ever-growing period of test prep—many find it hard-pressed to even find time for social studies and science. Thus, integration often becomes the only way content is taught in many classrooms.

The best way to find great material for integrating social studies content into your lessons is to amass a vast library of primary source materials. Many of the websites featured here have incredible databases and clearinghouses of newspapers, diaries, account books, ledgers, captains’ logs, ship manifests—all with enough numerical data to torture your students for months.

Use common sense, fit them into your lesson plans where appropriate, and if you’re in any doubt as to whether you’ve crossed the “Rivera Line”, as we’ll now call it, ask a colleague.

Ideally, these subjects should stand alone. Certain things can only be taught in the isolation of a period devoted to social studies or science. Yet the NCLB monster squeezes the day to the point that integration has become a necessary evil in our everyday lessons.

Just use your head, unlike poor Luis Rivera. The only job he’ll be doing now is picking oranges and cotton for slave wages.

(…pun was completely intended.)

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This Day in History 1/23: The Founding of Georgetown University

English: The proposal to establish an academy ...

Image via Wikipedia

Sure, this isn’t exactly Earth-shattering history for most of you, but it certainly is to me.

On January 23, 1789,  John Carroll, Robert Molyneux and John Ashton completed the purchase from Threlkeld and William Deakins, Jr. for “seventy five pounds current money” about an acre and a half of land at Georgetown Heights in Maryland for construction of an academy.  Carroll, a former Jesuit who was the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States, wrote that  

“We shall begin the building of our Academy this summer. On this Academy are built all my hopes of permanency and success of our holy religion in the United States.”

Carroll had succeeded beyond his wildest expectations.

Founded simply as a school to foster Catholic education in an overwhelmingly Protestant nation, Georgetown University is the oldest Catholic university in the United States.  Its programs in government, international affairs and law are world-renowned.  Its alumni include numerous members of Congress, Senate, and Supreme Court Justices.  It includes heads of state from over a dozen countries and one US President (Bill Clinton).

It was the site of numerous movies and television shows, such as The Exorcist and St. Elmo’s Fire.

Oh yeah, it also has  a pretty good basketball team, too.

Yet most importantly, it is my alma mater, and I do mean it literally.  I learned an awful lot at the Hilltop, and not just about government and history.  My four years at Georgetown were an exercise in self-determination and discovery, and I will never forget my time here.

So if I’m being selfish with this Day in History, I really don’t care…especially if you’re an Orangeman.

…and if you are, I have a certain finger lifted for you ;)

Georgetown University today

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