Monthly Archives: April 2012

This Day in History 4/30: The opening of the 1939 New York Worlds Fair

On April 30, 1939, while New York was still recovering from the Great Depression, the World’s Fair of 1939 opened in Flushing Meadows, Queens.  It was attended by over 44 milllion visitors, and was the second largest Worlds Fair in history (after the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair).

Just as the world was about to explode into another world war, the New York World’s Fair gave its visitors a vision of the future–the “World of Tomorrow.” it featured advances in robotics, television, new gadgets and pavilions from most countries in the world.

It’s a vision of the future that still inspires and frightens us.

Attached is two official films of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  Though they are silent, they contain text cels and provide amongst the best primary source material on this important cultural event.

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A Lesson on WWII Primary Sources; or, how eBay Finds some Educational Value

New websites are like new toys.

We can’t seem to find enough ways to play with them until they either break or get discarded for the next big thing.

In the early 2000s, eBay was my new toy—and a purchase from those early days found an unusual role in my classroom.

One day, while I had some down time at my office, I puttered around eBay looking for whatever crap struck my fancy.  In those days, it was THE place to find hard-to-find knickknacks, doodads, and whatnot—a veritable treasure chest.

I didn’t find treasure, but I did find a map.

For some odd reason, I needed an old map to frame for my den (even though I lacked a den, a yacht, and Sperry Top-sider footwear).  Though there were plenty of old maps of Maine, Bermuda, Aruba and other preppy hangouts, but I was drawn to a 1940s WPA map of New York City given to servicemen during World War II.

Never mind that it was folded, wrinkly, yellowed and with a funny double-print font that’s hard to read; I needed it for $20.

Let’s say I really didn’t need it.  This relic of wartime Gotham sat in my desk for a decade.

A few months ago, one of my fifth grade classes was wrapping up their unit on US History.  World War II seemed as good a finish as any.  A half-decade of Call of Duty games certainly prepared them with enough content knowledge to teach a military history class at West Point.

To end the unit, I decided to whip out this old relic of a map.  It couldn’t be mounted on a wall, since it was double-sided.  Nonetheless, I made copies of it and gave it to the class.  They examined the map, automatically finding the places they recognize (it’s easy since all the sports stadiums use a ballpark icon).

To really analyze the map, I split the class into groups.  One group made a top-10 list of places a soldier would visit on leave.  Another planned out a 24-hour day for a soldier, detailing where he would visit and for how long.  Still another group came up with places that weren’t on the map.

Some of the responses were downright hilarious.

The top-10 list included places like the George Washington Bridge and the YMCA.  One group gave a soldier five minutes to get from the Statue of Liberty to Harlem.  The  list of places not listed on the map ranged from pizza places to bars to…strip clubs and “love motels” (which we decided to lump into the generic term of “adult establishments.”)

The results, though, were some pretty damn good essays.  They covered about not only about what soldiers did on their free time in New York, but also prevailing attitudes about how soldiers were supposed to behave i.e., the lack of “adult establishments.”

All from an impulse buy on eBay so many years ago.

Here is the link to WWII Lesson Plan.  It includes worksheets and graphic organizers.  Try it out in your own classroom.

This is the  Essay Planning Page for the culminating project.

Here’s also a PDF of the WPA New York City Map for Servicemen that goes with it.

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How to Evaluate Online Sources, thanks to NCSS

It’s high time students stop mining Wikipedia for their research projects.

Without adequate library resources, the Internet is often a kid’s only avenue for research. Yet even teachers get frustrated trying to figure out what sites are useful and what are simply fronts for extremist groups (a certain website about Martin Luther King comes to mind).

In this quarter’s edition of Social Studies and the Young Learner, published by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), Rindi Baildon shares how her fourth class at the American School in Singapore developed a rubric to evaluate sources. According to Baildon, it’s important for students to develop a healthy skill at determining useful websites, as it also develops their skills at critical thinking and analysis.

Using a series of exercises through an interdisciplinary research unit, Baildon gets the students to question accuracy, trustworthiness and usefulness in a multitude of sources. In that way, they can look at any online resource through a critical eye, which in results in more authentic, meaningful research.

The result of these exercises is a Research Resource Guide that summarizes how students should view online sources. They are a series of questions each student must ask when examining a website. They are scaffolded based on accuracy, readability (since a doctoral dissertation doesn’t due a fourth grader any good) and usefulness.

Below is the resource guide developed by Baildon’s class. Please let me know how you use it in your classroom. ;)

Research Resource Guide for Evaluating Online Sources

Readable

• Can I understand the information on my own, or with a little help?

• Is this resource “kid friendly”?

• Is this a “just right” resource for me?

Trustworthy

• Does this resource list the name of its author and publisher?

• Do I recognize the author or publisher?

• Is the publisher one person, or is it an organization (like a museum, university, or government agency?)

• Is the information current? (Is there a date showing when it was written or posted?)

• Can I find other sources with the same information?

Useful

• Does the resource have what I am looking for?

• Does it follow my research plan?

• Do I need it?

~ Baildon, Mark & Baildon, Rindi. “Evaluating Online Sources: Helping Students Determine Trustworthiness, Readability, and Usefulness.” Social Studies and the Young Learner, March/April 2012: pp. 11-14.

 

 

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This Day in History 4/6: Matthew Henson and Robert Peary Reach the North Pole…in THAT order

Matthew Henson, American explorer.

Matthew Henson, American explorer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For years, we have attempted to correct a myth held in many classrooms.

Textbooks, history books and the like have propogated the myth that on April 6, 1909, Commander Robert Peary was the first man to reach the North Pole.

He wasn’t.  His colleague–a master of sled dogs, Arctic travel and Inuit languages whom Peary considered a mere servant–got there first.

His name was Matthew Henson.  He was black–which made for an incovenient truth in the racist United States of the turn of the century.

Henson was a skilled sailor and navigator and had joined Peary on numerous expeditions since 1887.  On Peary’s eighth attempt at the pole in 1909, Henson was selected as one of six who would make the final push to the pole.

By the finish, Peary could not continue on foot, either due to frostbite or exhaustion.  Henson was sent ahead as a scout.  On April 6, he made the final run–a run so hard by the time he got his bearings, Henson had overshot the pole by a couple of miles.  Here’s what Henson said in a newspaper interview:

“I was in the lead that had overshot the mark a couple of miles. We went back then and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot.”

When he backtracked to the spot he crossed, Henson realized he reached the pole.  He planted the American flag as the rest of the team, including Peary, followed.

Peary, the white naval commander, received numerous honors for the expedition.  Yet the man who actually accomplished the goal worked in obscurity as a clerk in the federal customs house in New York City, only receiving recognition near his death in 1955.

Below are some links to find out more about this great African American explorer:

 

 

 

Henson’s 1912 book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole - via Project Gutenberg

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Ready for Inspection! The Problem with “Quality Reviews”

“No matter how nitpicky, how fastidious a reviewer can be, he (she)’ll never, ever come close to what you actually do in your classroom.”

Some time ago, an acquaintance I knew from the Department of Education, a science specialist, told me this when I was complaining about State Quality Reviews (SQRs).

As true as this is (and he should know—he actually does SQRs for the district), it still doesn’t explain how a two-day beauty pageant defines years worth of expertise and academic achievement.

In New York State, that’s exactly what an SQR does.

For those in the Neighborhood living outside New York, you may have something similar. They come under various names: reflections, reviews, audits, analyses. Here in the Empire State, these inspections are known as Quality Reviews, with the appropriate air of a Dickensian workhouse.

These official reviews are masked as “learning experiences” meant to provide “reflective feedback” on our practice. After you choke a little bit on your own vomit, you’ll realize their true purpose: to make sure schools do exactly what they’re supposed to do in the manner expected from the state education department—or at least to the whims of the pack of inspectors sent to your school.

The reviews come in multiple levels. The peer review, a less invasive but no less insidious device, involves groups of teachers and administrators rating each other. The educational equivalent of a gladiatorial contest, the peer review is usually less intense since fellow teachers and admins rarely want to crap on their own brethren.

The State Quality Review, or SQR, involves a pack of reviewers from a mix of different places, from the district to the DOE offices in Tweed to the state offices in Albany. A two-day affair, the SQR usually is triggered if a school suffers a drop in their rating or is rated a School in Need of Improvement according to No Child Left Behind.

Even this level of review comes in different degrees. For example, if your school dropped in ranking due to poor test scores in targeted areas, such as English Language Learners (ELLs) or Special Education Students, the review will most likely focus on the school’s work in that area. Otherwise, in case of a monumental screw-up, the entire school apparatus is put under the microscope.

My school recently had the former: a review based on our supposed lack of progress in ELLs and Special Education. Even so, the entire school was mobilized. Reams of assessment reports, data reports, student diagnostic reports, spreadsheets, graphs, charts, lesson plans, rubrics, student work, teacher evaluations, curriculum maps—all of it gets collected into a series of massive binders. These binders are designed for a dual purpose: to provide adequate evidence that we’re doing our job even without making educational targets; or to overwhelm the reviewer with work to the point that they just assume the school’s doing a thorough job without cracking open these three-ring behemoths.

Rarely does the review not go past the binder stage.

After a day of sifting through numbers and charts, day two features the classroom visits. In theory, the visits are supposed to be “random.” Therefore, every class is spruced up, cleaned up, papered with new charts and new student work (with appropriate rubrics and task cards). In practice, however, since the visits target certain populations, it is often the classes with said populations that get visited—and are often prepped ahead of time.

The result is a series of visits into model classrooms in the vein of Disney World’s World of Tomorrow rides. Bulletin boards stand as monuments, replete with student work, carefully labeled with comments, a rubric and task card (never mind the mind-numbing hours spent preparing these works ahead of time). The charts around the room carefully detail every minute movement in the academic process (usually after re-doing and sprucing up charts the teacher has used for years).

Even the procedures need procedures—such is apparently a “well developed” classroom. I’m surprised there are no charts detailing how to effectively utilize the lavatory (Lord knows they can use it).

The children sit in their seats (the more impossible ones are either conveniently absent or not-so-subtly convinced/cajoled/threatened to behave) and stage a performance worthy of Broadway. While they are listless, lethargic or outright defiant most of the year, the SQR somehow summons articulate, well-mannered, enthused children gleefully engaging in one of your “A” lessons (a little coaching certainly helps.)

All the while, the reviewers (some blasé, some meticulous, and even a few true-believers with Nazi brutality) ask the teachers and children questions about their learning, mostly to figure out if the little whelps are actually paying attention. It’s a scream when they go off-script. One year, a boy was asked his favorite subject. He replied, “Home.”

Some of the questions teachers get can be downright insulting. One teacher was asked to show her lesson for that day. She was asked to show the lesson’s objective (which is clearly marked on most lesson plan books, which seemed to go above the head of this reviewer). After pointing to the lesson objective in her plan, she was then asked, “Why is that the objective?”

Hmmm…how about because that’s what the phony-baloney curriculum map they had to make (and could barely read) says to do.

Even the tone of that question—and I wasn’t present to hear it—would suggest that the reviewer was not among academic professionals but rather a pack of chimps that still needed Jane Goodall to teach them how to poke at anthills with a stick.

In the end, the review usually comes with a long checklist of positive points and things to work on (NEVER negative points, because the word “negative” doesn’t exist in a well-developed classroom *vomit*). The negatives rarely carry much substance, but rather focus on how to create MORE useless paperwork to make the appearance of learning.

Sometimes, they even suggest to return to methods and theories that were discarded during the LAST quality review.

After coming out of the subsequent scotch fog, I had some serious questions about the SQR process. Why the reams of paperwork? Why collect data that often says little and means even less? Why ask children for answers who are notoriously honest—even in the best schools?

Most importantly…how does a quality review help children learn more?

I’m looking really hard, and I haven’t the foggiest.

The window dressing, the bulletin boards, the charts—they are only as effective as the teacher behind them. Any trained animal can clean up well enough to perform a show.

The “evidence” question doesn’t wash with me. Most of a teacher’s best work is done without a ream of paperwork or forms to complete. Effective professionals know what data works and what data is simply filler for a spreadsheet. More data doesn’t necessarily mean improvement.

Thus, if reviewers are really looking for reams of evidence, are they viewing teachers as professionals? Or are teachers more like Goodall’s chimps, according to the state?

Therefore, maybe that’s how the education reform crowd, the NCLB nancies and TFA fops, views all of us who chose education as a calling: a pack of trained animals that can’t be trusted to make intelligent decisions and need a zookeeper to collect the feces.

Which leads back to the earlier quote. My friend was absolutely right. The quality review can’t scratch the surface of what a teacher does in the classroom. Yet the very existence of such a review undermines the status of professionals whose talents and achievements far exceed any binder of data.

So if the state continues to treat me like a chimp…well, let’s just say chimps are marksmen with their bowel movements.

 

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