Monthly Archives: January 2013

Why don’t they want history taught right? A response to a History Commentary on Education Week

Cartoon - Why Study HistorySometimes it isn’t about whether someone is right or wrong.

Sometimes you’re just in the wrong conversation altogether.

That’s the vibe I got as I read a recent article in Education Week about how history is taught.   Even though the arguments in the piece are largely plausible and totally defensible,  I got a sense that the debate was altogether needless: the blame is completely misplaced, and the wrong questions are asked.

The article, by volunteer tutor and grant writer Vicky Schippers, stands as a polemic that history shouldn’t be taught as “a litany of disconnected names, dates, and events to be memorized before an exam.”  Rather, teachers should take her example and make history connect with students.

As a tutor, she has the rarefied opportunity to work one-on-one with a student, in her case a 20-year old named Tony with a four-year-old son.  She uses Tony’s situation, his fears, and his worries as a struggling young parent looking for work to connect with American government, the development of American democracy, the need for taxes, tariffs, and especially the abortion debate, which troubled this young father.

Schippers ends by stating that:

“History is not boring. More important, it is relevant to the lives of every student, but none more than our most disadvantaged. Rather than teaching it as a series of eye-glazing events, it should be presented in a way that affords students the opportunity to delve in; question; and, above all, see in history’s unfolding, how we, the people, have traveled from there to here; and how that journey is relevant to all of us.”

To regular readers of the Neighborhood, this isn’t Earth-shattering.

A slew of comments followed, mostly from history teachers sneering at Schippers’ lack of “real” classroom experience, her rosy-glassed view of history education, her complete lack of understanding of the realities of teaching in the secondary classroom.

I’ve got to be honest.  Both sides are kind of full of shit.

The slew of educators slamming this poor woman are rightfully swamped, but they shouldn’t crucify her simply for stating what all of us history guys already know—that the parade of names and dates is a better  anesthetic than chloroform.

Then again, Schippers really should’ve taken a look around.

If she really took a hard look at how history teachers, good history teachers, are plying their craft today, she would notice that nary a one bothers with textbooks, outlines of dates, events, names of old white men, etc.

We already know how history should be taught.  We’ve been trying to do it for years now, and anyone who hasn’t realized it is either past saving or a complete ignoramus.

The question to ask isn’t “How is history taught?”

The real question is “Why does the education establishment not give a shit about how history should be taught?”

History teachers, often in isolation or in small groups, have been reinventing history education for a while now.  Our classrooms are our laboratories, where lessons, units, projects and assessments are tested, re-tested, evaluated, and celebrated—often to the bewilderment of administrators perplexed at how learning how to think critically could ever get those state test scores up.

The powers that be, the education policy idiots and the talking heads in charge of education administration in this country, were never too swift on the uptake.

Programs that can really reach out and spread our skills and knowledge are first on the chopping block.  Anything related to social studies, especially history, is shoved way to the back burner   History is often forced to “integrate” into other subjects where the content and ideas are buried in reading skills and long division.

We know how the past should be taught.  Why not share the secret so that everyone can teach history the right way?

Schippers herself addressed this in a rebuttal comment on the Education Week site.  Obviously not wanting to shit on veteran teachers, she realized the limitations of the classroom and that “You all do what you must do to get your kids through their coursework. It’s up to education policy makers to make the changes that will allow you to teach history differently.”

Knowing how those policy makers think and operate, I doubt any change is coming soon.  Their conversations will never involve history in a serious way.   They see it as a means to an end—an end that can be charted and graphed.

Again, the wrong conversation is going on…and I’m skeptical about any chance of change.

So…we better teach history the best way we can, as long as we can.

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Making the case for Parochial Schools in the NCLB age

NunNewBedfordGeographyYes, Sister Mary Margaret, there is a place for you and the rest of the “penguins.”

It’s just difficult to see against the tests, the balance sheets, and the armada of charter and magnet schools competing in your home waters.

As much as our public schools take a beating, few institutions have take as severe a scourging as the Catholic Church in the US.

I’m not referring to the sex abuse scandals, which deserve pages of analysis.  The system of Catholic primary and secondary schools in the United States is on an unprecedented retreat.

At the height of the baby boom in the 1960s, roughly 5.2 million students were enrolled at Catholic schools in communities across the country, according to a recent City Journal article by Sean Kennedy, a scholar at the Lexington Institute and co-author of a study on Catholic education.  Today, less than half attend a Catholic institution, only 2 million.  Running without government dollars, per-pupil costs skyrocketed between 1998 and 2010, from $5,600 to $10,800.  Average tuition for incoming ninth graders at Catholic high schools has more than doubled, from $4,300 to $8,800.

The result is a massive pandemic of building closure: between 2000 and 2012, 1,942 schools were either closed or consolidated (combined with other schools).  167 closed or consolidated in 2012 alone.  A recent report by the Archdiocese of New York stated at least 24 local schools will close, affecting over 4,000 students in the area.

How did it happen?  How did arguably the greatest private school system in America take such a beating?

Catholic schools, in a way, are a victim of their own success.

The Catholic parochial school system began in the mid-1800s as a response to the rising public school movement in America.  Early public school systems, in cities and towns, stressed preparation for adult life as farmers and workers—a preparation that included religious instruction.  Public schools encouraged Bible study, particularly the King James Bible used in Protestant churches.  Thus, public education was seen as a vehicle for evangelizing Protestant religious values.

The sea of Catholic immigrants in the mid-1800s, from Ireland and Germany, needed schools that reflected their own values.  Either through the diocese or independently, parochial schools of all levels would spring up right next door to local public schools.  The parochial system would grow to essentially become a mirror of the public school system, with elementary and secondary schools local to each city and town, as well as Catholic schools of higher learning (Boston College, Notre Dame, Holy Cross, Georgetown, etc.) that served as centers of university training for Catholics who still felt discriminated at the Puritan, Presbyterian and Anglican campuses of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia.

Over time, Catholic schools developed a reputation for discipline, spiritual nourishment and academic excellence.  Without government money, these schools provided high-quality, low-cost education for immigrants and their children.  Clergy acting as the faculty kept costs low while instilling rigorous standards of discipline and academic achievement.

When new theories or fads would ravage American public education starting in the 1960’s, Catholic schools were a haven of stability, providing excellence the old-fashioned way: discipline and hard work.

Parochial school would become the true vehicle of upward mobility: many who rose from poverty to positions of power attribute their success to the values and rigor instilled in a Catholic education.

By the 1990’s, however, Catholic schools obtained a serious rival—a rival funded by public dollars.

The rise of No Child Left Behind was parallel to the rise of the charter school movement, schools funded by public monies but operating independently of the public school system.  When parents couldn’t afford rising costs of Catholic school, the charter school became a less-costly alternative.  Many of these charters have adopted norms and values long cultivated in the Catholic school system: high academic expectations, rigorous discipline, school uniforms.

The result is a hemorrhaging of enrollment at an unprecedented scale.  2012 marked the first year that charter school enrollment is higher than in Catholic schools, surging past the 2 million mark.  Currently they account for about 5% of children in public schools, and their numbers continue to rise.

Does this mean the slow death of the Catholic school, though?  Not necessarily.

Competition from charter schools has crippled a longstanding tradition of American education.  The question now is: should it be this way?  Is there a way for Catholic schools to regain lost ground?

Part of the problem is financial.  Catholic schools are playing on an uneven field: charters can, and often do, get continuous funding from public coffers, whilst the local parochial school is kept up largely by the parishioners and the local diocese.  This is a disparity that cannot really be leveled without massive government spending in religious schools—a controversial move on many levels.

Dioceses across America are learning to make do with less—a painful lesson in efficiency that will probably be helpful in the end.  Though the closures are painful, the Catholic system as a whole can still be main sustainable for at least the immediate future.

Yet fiscal discipline is only part of the solution.  To really re-establish its foothold on American schooling, the parochial school needs to emphasize those things that charters often get so wrong, and that St. Mary’s and St. Bernard’s get so right.

In terms of morals and ethics, it’s a no-brainer.  Recent scandals aside, at least on paper, the parochial school is a model for moral education, at least through the lens of Catholicism.  Catholic schools have long opened their doors to non-Catholics, as long as they take classes in religion and sit through the obligatory exercises.  Through this osmosis, many non-Catholics can’t help but develop ethically in this environment.  Historically, this deep moral education has also been coupled with a thorough civic education.  Catholic students also tended to be proud American citizens—which upends completely the discriminating notions of a century ago that equated Catholicism with anti-Americanism.

More importantly, though, parochial schools never mess with what works in education.  It’s a lesson we all know too well.

Charter schools, especially the well-known ones, often pride themselves on being up-to-date with the latest educational trends and theories.  Basically, they tie themselves to a philosophy or theoretical framework, drill their teachers and students to death in it, and if it doesn’t work, they find another theory or fad and start the process all over again.

Catholic schools never had to worry about Danielson frameworks, Bloom’s taxonomy, Understanding by Design, Lucy Calkins, Fountas and Pinnell, or any other fly-by-night notions that catch an administrator’s eye like a shiny toy.  They understood long ago that as long as a dedicated staff is backed up by an administration hellbent on discipline and hard work, no theory was really necessary.

Unlike the twits that dictate education policy today, Catholic schools knew for a long time that the school environment matters a whole lot more than any newfangled theory.

Does that mean parochial schools can’t do a better job with English Language Learners or children with special needs?  Absolutely not.  In fact, many of the ding-dong theories we disparage can work for them on a limited basis.  Yet the majority of kids being sent to Catholic school are not being sent there because of Wiggins or Calkins or Fountas & Pinnell—they’re being sent because Sister Mary Margaret will conjure the fires of Hell if little Johnny doesn’t do his work.

In a way, the strict discipline and focus on work in the Catholic school is a lot more nurturing than even the most liberal-minded charters—places where the chanting, the slogans, and the high fives seem so…antiseptic…artificial…

…dare I say…fascist?

Catholic schools have a role as a viable alternative to the public school system.  They provide a discipline and focus that no charter can dream of providing, combined with a moral compass that makes KIPP look like a Dickensian workhouse.

Once they can get their financial house in order, America’s Catholic schools need to focus on how to compete effectively with charters and stake their ground in the 21st century education landscape.

After all, they do answer to a higher power.

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This Day in History 1/25: Idi Amin takes power in Uganda

At first, many thought that the jolly general from the King’s African Rifles was a droll African joke.

Today, few are laughing about him.

On January 25, 1971, Idi Amin deposed president Milton Obote to become Uganda’s most notorious leader.  A veteran of the British colonial forces, Amin’s delusions, his lust for riches and power, and especially his brutality would create a figure both fascinating and horrifying in the public imagination.

In a nutshell, Amin was a stone cold bad guy.  Estimates range from 100,000 to 500,000 deaths during his eight-year regime from 1971-1979.  His wrath spread to ethnic minorities, Asians (whom Amin expelled in 1972 amid an ill-conceived program of reappopriation), religious leaders, journalists, artists, senior bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, students and intellectuals, criminal suspects, foreign nationals, and pretty much anyone who stood in his way.

How did he dispatch so many people at will?  Don’t ask.

Amin was also fond of pissing off pretty much everybody.  An early supporter of the United States and Israel, he did an abrupt about-face in 1972, siding with Muammar Quaddafi’s Libya, the Soviet Union, and East Germany, which supplied arms and helped in interrogation and torture.  The expulsion of the Ugandan Asians didn’t sit well with India, which severed relations with Uganda, as did Great Britain.  By 1973, even the US had to jump ship.

This, of course, didn’t prevent Amin from taking top billing in a notorious international incident.  In 1976, Amin allowed an Air France airliner hijacked by two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations (PFLP-EO) and two members of the German Revolutionäre Zellen to land at Entebbe Airport.  Once landed, the non-Jewish hostages were released, and another 103 hostages were held at the airport.  Amin took to the cameras to play the diplomat, but Israel wasn’t fooled.  A group of Israeli commandos seized the airport and freed all the hostages, killing seven hijackers and 45 Ugandan troops.

As time went on, Amin would further dip into madness.  His official title became, “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular” The VC, by the way, was the Victorious Cross, which he made up after the British Victoria Cross (The real VC).  His doctorate was one he conferred on himself.  He never got a real DSO (Distinguished Service Order) or an MC (Military Cross), but Amin was never one to worry about the facts.

He also didn’t have to worry about atoning for his sins, neither.

After he was deposed in 1979, Amin would first live in Libya, then Saudi Arabia.  The Saudis, in a twisted sense of generosity, bankrolled his sorry butt in order that he stay out of politics.  He lived out the rest of his days not feeling one ounce of remorse for what he did, right up to his death in 2003.

The attached film is a 1974 French documentary  named Idi Amin Dada.  It shows Amin at the height of his power, and you can almost taste the crazy coming off the screen.

WARNING: It’s probably too violent for classroom use.

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ORBIS: The Coolest Map of the Roman Empire Ever, thanks to Stanford University

Orbis

ORBIS view, courtesy of Stanford University

If all roads led to Rome, then how many roads must a man walk down to get to Rome…

or Athens…or Alexandria…or Jerusalem for that matter?

The folks at our west coast Ivy, Stanford University, came up with one of the most interesting solutions to this problem.

Meet ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Model of the Roman World.  In layman’s terms, meet the Google Maps of the Roman Empire.

ORBIS was designed by a team of historians, classicists and IT specialists.  Walter Scheidel, a Roman historian in the Classics and History departments, painstakingly mapped out roads, routes, sea lanes, settlements, obstacles, mountain passes, and anything else used for transportation in the Roman world.  His research further helped calculate distances, travel times, travel costs, adjustments for wind currents, altitude, population…just about anything you need to travel around 200 CE.

With IT experts Elijah Meeks, Karl Grossner and Naomi Alvarez, Scheidel and company created a model that calculates time and cost for various transportation routes  throughout the Empire.  According to their website, ORBIS uses about 751 sites (cities, towns and prominent landmarks), of which 268 are sea ports.  There are 84,631 kilometers (52,587 miles) of roads and desert tracks, 28,272 kilometers (17,567 miles) of navigable rivers and canals, as well as 900 sea routes which averages a total distance of 180,033 kilometers (111,864 miles).

Never mind all that.  I had loads of fun playing with the ORBIS mapping application.

One of the tabs is Mapping ORBIS, which allows someone to map a distance between Roman settlements using various forms of transportation.  For example, to travel from Rome to Londinium (today’s London) in January, on foot or on riverboat, would take about 41.8 days covering 2436 kilometers.  It also gives shipping and travel costs in denarii, or Roman currency, per kilogram of wheat by donkey (25.53), by wagon (31.46), or per passenger in a carriage (a whopping 1624.24).  ORBIS even provides the settlements where you stop along the way.

I cannot wait to use ORBIS in my class when the Ancient Rome unit gets around.  This application is an incredible tool for the classroom, especially for students that still cannot get around the complexities of travel in the ancient world.  ORBIS provides, using the most accurate research, a first-hand look at travel in the Third Century CE.

Please let me know how you’re doing with it…and make sure to tell them the Neighborhood sent you.  Enjoy.

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Democracy Distilled – an Infographic on Voting Rights produced by eLocal


Source: Democracy DistilledbyeLocalLawyers.com

In honor of Inauguration Day, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the folks at eLocal produced an interesting, evocative Infographic video about the history of voting rights in this country.  It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when even white men were restricted from the ballot box–the ones who were poor, that is.  The video follows how far we have come in the 237 years since independence, showing progress by state and demographic group.

This is a great resource for the classroom to show the big picture of American democracy, and to discuss where we need to go in the future.

Enjoy, and make sure to watch the Inauguration on Monday…even if you voted for the other guy.  The process of government is what makes us great, not the people in it.

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The Return to the Neighborhood – Mr. D is back!

I'm Back by popular demand!It took quite a while, but the Neighborhood is back in business!

To be honest, I was really expecting to post at least once a week when I started my new position.  However, this year I learned of a new kind of exhaustion.

My new school, in all fairness, is such a refreshing change from my old situation that my exhaustion was barely noticed.  It’s a charmed life: a K-8 neighborhood school in a Bronx neighborhood reminiscent of my ancestral haunts in Brooklyn, with incredible colleagues and administrators that really back me up to the hilt.  Few teachers nowadays get that kind of treatment anymore.

Yet the Neighborhood had to take a back seat to a cruel mistress-two of them, in fact.  Ancient history was less demanding.  Sixth grade science, on the other hand, has had me doing tricks that would make a Flying Wallenda soil his tights.  Its been rough creating basically a whole new curriculum on the fly, especially in two subject areas.  History was simply a refresher: it was nothing some pyramids, a Hammurabi Code and some gladiators couldn’t fix.

Science…well…let’s just say for years we’ve had an understanding.  We usually stay out of each other’s way.

Yet when the principal asked if I could teach science during my interview, of course I nodded.  I could teach anything.  A superteacher like me only needs a stopwatch and some dry-erase markers to make kids recite Herodotus in the original Greek or do long division while explaining word problems in perfect iambic pentameter.

In other words, I lied.  Sort of.  Hey, I wanted the gig.

So between physics formulas, ancient artifacts and suffering through a broken Smartboard and a stack of paperwork I never had to do before, my life has been pretty much exhausted to the point that the Neighborhood was neglected.

Well, no more.

The Neighborhood will be back to give the usually refreshing, mostly irreverent, oftentimes crass and always honest commentary on American and world history, history education and education in general.

So to start…how about a teaching tool designed by yours truly?

One thing I really needed at the beginning of the year was a good comprehensive, all-inclusive introduction to the ancient history curriculum.  Since I’m known to knock around a decent PowerPoint or two, I created this introductory presentation as a jumping off point for lesson planning, assessments, projects, whatever you need.  It starts with a world map where you click on individual areas and it shows information about the “Big Four” civilizations usually studied (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome).  Each section has maps, pictures, short bios of important people and key contributions of each people.

It isn’t a silver bullet, but the presentation is a good way to get students to think about deeper exploration of various themes.  The link is below:

Introduction to Ancient Civilizations

PS – It has my real name on it…as if it were a big secret LOL.  Enjoy.

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