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Videos for the Classroom: Disease! from CrashCourse World History

I know that it’s been quite a while since I post anything on here anymore.  Let’s just say the multi-headed hydra of life keeps ensnaring me, allowing less and less time to devote to the Neighborhood.

This year, with a lot of the bulk of lessons and materials already developed, it’s important to get back on the horse and do what I do best: pontificate on history and education…and possibly say something intelligent in the process.

It’s baby steps, though, getting back into things, so let’s start (or re-start) with a recent favorite of mine.  Crash Course World History by John Green–the author of The Fault in our Stars among other works–has been an interesting and entertaining series of web videos condensing the large ideas of history into manageable chunks with just enough insight to keep high school students engaged.  I’ve attached a recent episode on Disease for your enjoyment.

Don’t worry: more substantive posts will be coming soon.

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Did the Culper Ring get its due? A review of AMC’s “Turn”

From the poster of AMC's "Turn"

From the poster of AMC’s “Turn”

In the world of espionage, the best recognition is no recognition at all.

The front of the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia have monuments to fallen agents, sculptures on intelligence gathering, and a statue of Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary war spy who got caught and hanged in September of 1776.  The fallen agents went down due to numerous factors (possibly including incompetence), the intelligence gathering is nothing to celebrate, especially lately, and Hale is remembered more for supposed valor at the gallows than any real prowess as a spy.

Yet there is little public fanfare for the first successful spy agency in American history.

For most Americans, the recent debut of the AMC series Turn is their introduction to the Culper Ring, a network of spies and couriers that operated in New York City, Long Island and Connecticut during the Revolution.  For me, and anyone who went to school on Long Island, the Culper Ring was part of our common knowledge.  Part of my American history class was devoted to local history, and the Culper Ring featured prominently–I had to memorize the names and roles of Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, Caleb Brewster and the like.

We even used some of their codes and encryption methods in class–which is especially fun when coding out swear words to your classmates.

Yet beyond the spycraft and 18-century Bond-like gadgetry, the Culper Ring was successful in the quality and quantity of their information (they supposedly discovered the Benedict Arnold betrayal and the British ambush on French troops in Rhode Island) as well as keeping their cover.  The original ring kept their identities hidden to the grave, and most of these identities  weren’t discovered until the 1930s.

This was a story that just begged to be made for the screen, and AMC has done it right, for now, in releasing their story as a series.  Is this new drama worthy of the exploits of the Culper gang?  Two episodes in, the verdict is still out, but the results look promising.

The series is based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies and begins in a supposed backwater of the war–Suffolk County, Long Island.  Yet it is here, in the north shore hamlet of Setauket, where the ring begins to take shape.  Benjamin Tallmadge, a Continental major (and Yale classmate of Nathan Hale) recruits his reluctant friend Abraham Woodhull on a mission to transmit information to the rebel base across Long Island Sound in Connecticut.  Woodhull is portrayed as a typical non-committal farmer ala Mel Gibson’s melodramatic Benjamin Martin in The Patriot.  His loyalist (for now) father is the local magistrate and friends with the local commander of the British garrison.  As a struggling farmer, Woodhull just wants to stay out of the way, until events push him towards Tallmadge and rebel espionage.

After two episodes (including a one and a half hour pilot) I can see where the creators are going with this.  It’s great that the show is taking its time in developing the establishment of the spy network.  In real life, establishing confidants, sources and “assets” to “turn” (spyspeak for getting an asset to spy on their side) takes time and dangerous planning.  The show is also accurate in developing the perspectives and loyalties of everyday colonists of the time.  Even among the loyalists, you get a sense that the characters are loyal less out of any sense of connection and more of expediency.  The patriots also seem less like the textbook noble heroes and more human, driven by more tangible needs than simply love of liberty.

Selections from the Culper spy code, courtesy of the Three Village School District.

Selections from the Culper spy code, courtesy of the Three Village School District.

Another fun feature of the show is its interactive features.  The Turn website features an option called Story Sync.  Designed to be used simultaneously with the broadcast, Story Sync features information about the historical characters, quizzes, polls, and little asides designed to enrich the experience.  There are also links to interactive maps, spy materials, and other resources that an educator can use.  I already see how these can create a home Blu-Ray or DVD loaded with surprises.

However, the construction of the basic drama, at least now, seems formulaic.  It establishes a clueless British commander in Major Hewlett, a one-dimensional, wooden villain in Captain Simcoe (who reminds me of Colonel Tavington in The Patriot without the charisma), and a somewhat contrived love triangle between Woodhull, his wife, and Anna Strong, a local tavernkeeper who was once engaged to Woodhull and whose husband is in prison for an attack on a British officer.  I will admit, I didn’t read Rose’s book yet, but I do think this romance is more a creation of the screenwriters and less a development of actual events.

In terms of dramatic license, there needs to be some slack given.  Until recently, there was little evidence as to the existence of the ring at all, let alone their day-to-day operations.  So we can forgive the writers somewhat in their zeal to fill in the blanks.

In that vein, Robert Rogers offers a fun way to develop the story.  Rogers, a hero of the French and Indian War and a founder of modern military rangers, had serious legal issues in Britain and returned to America as an erratic alcoholic during the Revolution.  He offered his services to whoever would pay him: first Washington, who (wisely it seems) didn’t trust him, and then the British.  He created another Ranger unit that helped capture Nathan Hale, but Rogers’ behavior got him dismissed the next year, so he probably didn’t have as much involvement in the Culper spy network as the series would like him us to believe.

However, I think Rogers can become the most interesting character in the whole show.

In the series, he is portrayed as a colonial has-been with a hair-trigger temper and a sixth sense for treachery, one who’ll sell his mother for a few guineas.  Of all, I see Rogers as developing into an Al Swearengen type of character: a son of a bitch so ruthless and witty you just have to love him.  The problem with the show right now is that the British are all universally one-dimensional bad guys.  The best villains are those who have something likable about them, and Rogers is definitely someone I would have a drink with.  If Rogers emerges as the main antagonist, this might become a really fun show.

In terms of history, Turn is doing its best with the information it has.  Again, I didn’t read the source material, and once I do, I can make a more informed judgement.  However, as a television show, this has the potential to be fun, exciting and a good starting point in studying espionage in the American Revolution.

If only the show can get away from the cookie cutter formulas, it just might  do justice to an important set of patriots in our history.  Let’s hope the history wins out.

 

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Videos for the Classroom: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Today marks the 149th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  Maybe outside of the JFK killing, it is probably the most documented single homicide in American history.  It has been written about to death–and also in reel after reel of film.

Sometimes it’s difficult to weed out the grain from the chaff.

Attached is a PBS documentary about the assassination that gives a pretty good primer about the basics: the planning, the conspirators, the moment at Ford’s Theatre and the aftermath.  Just in case the film doesn’t download (as often happens with YouTube) I’ve downloaded a copy: Please email me if you want one.

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Machiavelli’s advice to Mayor DeBlasio on his recent education defeat

“…there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” – The Prince, Chapter 6, by Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi di Tito, courtesy of Wikipedia

Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi di Tito, courtesy of Wikipedia

How does a state function when its prince has a mountain of moral and ethical rectitude and not an ounce of political sense?

New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio learned this lesson the hard way this Friday, as the far more politically adept princes of Albany reached a bipartisan budget deal that slapped the mayor in the face.

Earlier, DeBlasio acted on a campaign promise to put a leash on the charter movement in New York; a movement run rampant under his predecessor.  This was following his earlier push to tax rich New Yorkers to pay for universal pre-kindergrarten programs for all city children.   In the latter, DeBlasio went at odds with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who introduced his own Pre-K program into the state budget that didn’t require additional tax revenue.  At any rate, DeBlasio would get what he wanted, albeit through more capitalist means.

Then he decided to get personal—and stupid.

Blindsiding just about everyone, the mayor on February 27 announced the closing of three charter schools.  The three were part of about 12 that were approved in a frenzy of activity in the waning days of the Bloomberg administration, of which two were in the Success Academy network run by former city councilwoman and frequent education critic Eva Moskowitz.  DeBlasio made a point of singling out Moskowitz during his campaign, making her the poster child of everything wrong with education reform and the charter movement.

In the wake of the decision, Moskowitz staged a rally in Albany with the support of the Governor, an act that crowned her with legitimacy that DeBlasio wished he had.  The Albany minions quickly moved to silence the new mayor’s power by creating a budget deal that not only forces the city to provide space for charter schools, but also orders it to pay rent for the private building that house charters.

Andrew Cuomo comes off as the savior of New York schoolchildren, Eva Moskowitz as the Virgin Mary, and Bill DeBlasio as the demon out to unravel the whole sanctified process.

DeBlasio did not lose because he didn’t have right on his side.  He lost because he didn’t have enough political might to buttress his right.

As an Italophile of the first order, the mayor obviously overlooked the writings of the foremost political philosopher of the Italian Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli.  Therefore, let’s look at DeBlasio’s failings through the pages of The Prince, the seminal work of power politics, and see where he can do better:

“…the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”  – Ch. 6

DeBlasio woefully underestimated the forces that benefit from the charter school movement, from the parents to the operators to the businesses that fund them and the civic institutions that make their bureaucratic process easier.  Under Bloomberg, these people have always been at the table of power—putting them at the kids’ table requires political finesse and (dare I say) Machiavellian subterfuge.  The mayor exhibited neither.

“A prince being thus obliged to know well how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from snares, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize snares, and a lion to frighten wolves.”  Ch. 18

You have to hand it to Eva.  As much as she makes many peoples’ blood boil, she is an astute political operator.  The minute she heard of the closings, she made sure her kids (along with their parents) were ripped from school and sent straight to Albany for a rally.  The sea of cute children and weeping parents was a PR masterpiece.  The addition of the governor sealed the deal; it neutered the DeBlasio narrative of any righteous indignation.

“…the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.” – Ch. 3

Andrew Cuomo, contrary to what DeBlasio might think, is not running for re-election.  He is running for the Presidency.  Thus, he doesn’t need to—nor does he have to—listen to his constituency: a people who will vote Democrat even if their candidate is caught in bed with farm animals.  Cuomo is pandering to the swing states, where the education reform movement has been in full swing and maintains a solid popularity.

So when Cuomo saw what he thought was a power grab by the mayor, his action was swift, shady and merciless.  A bipartisan deal is like two stab wounds, in the front and in the back…and you’re not sure which hurts more.

“The first opinion which one forms of a prince, and of his understanding, is by observing the men he has around him.”  – Ch. 22

The mayor conducted a campaign that used commercials and live broadcasts to great effect.  Yet upon his administration, why was there not a single coherent ad campaign to “prepare the ground” in military terms?  Not a single ad, bulletin board, radio spot, etc. to whip up support.  DeBlasio’s PR machine in the campaign didn’t make a dent when confronted with the charter closings, and it speaks volumes of the people who work under the mayor.

“…it should be borne in mind that the temper of the multitude is fickle, and that while it is easy to persuade them of a thing, it is hard to fix them in that persuasion. Wherefore, matters should be so ordered that when men no longer believe of their own accord, they may be compelled to believe by force.” – Ch. 6

This battle could have been won, and won easily.  The DeBlasio administration made the assumption that the goodwill generated from the campaign and the election still carried over into the spring.

What happened was the thaw that unleashed the fickle multitude.

DeBlasio never made a point to win the hearts and minds of his supporters.  This was largely due to going into battle without a wellspring of hate towards Eva Moskowitz in general and charters in particular.  He was haranguing the masses without the masses.

The smoking guns are there, and they are plentiful: The recent allegations that Success Academy cherry-picks students and excludes students with special needs.  The studies that show charters don’t really outperform other public schools when measured accurately.  The high rates of student and teacher turnover.  The uneven distribution of resources, funds and support.  The bully tactics used when charters share space with public schools, only to see public schools swallowed up by charter monoliths.

DeBlasio never even bothered to launch a campaign for support of charter closures.  On the other hand, campaigns funded by fronts for the Koch brothers, et. al.  sprang up all over the television dial, showing smiling, happy children of various ethnicities with teachers who were just integrated enough…all praising the value of charter schools and tearfully pleading with the mayor to not take that away.

The counter argument is there, and well documented.  So why no buildup of support?

The people need to be reminded, or “persuaded by force” in Machiavelli’s words, of the supposed evils of charter schools.   This episode shows just how fickle New Yorkers can be when it comes to the education of our children.  It took some well-placed media ops to overtake the message and the battle.

Mr. DeBlasio, you got played, plain and simple.

If you want to institute the reforms you think are necessary, learn from this debacle.  Line up your allies.  Whip up support by any means necessary.  Use the resources at your disposal.  Win the PR war.

Most importantly…be ruthless and merciless to your enemies.

The time for congenial debate and finding “common ground” is over.  The opposition doesn’t bother with such niceties, and neither should you.  Play the game, and play it well.  Play to win…at all costs.

In other words:

“Hence it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed.” – ch.6

By the way…I have a spare copy of The Prince on my bookshelf if you need it.

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This Day in History 11/19: The Gettysburg Address

This two-minute speech from November 19, 1863 has been reposted ad nauseum today, but once more won’t hurt.

Thanks, Abe.  We need you now more than ever.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

 

~ The “Bliss Text”, the fifth version of the Gettysburg Address, the only version signed by Lincoln himself, and considered to be the authoritative version in classrooms and texts.

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Videos for the Classroom: What is Social Studies?

It’s been a while, I know.   The added burden of teaching ELA has placed an undue strain on my time.  In the meantime, I found this neat video on the definition of social studies.  It’s kinda lame at first, but it gets better as it goes on…and the instrumental of “Welcome to the Jungle” doesn’t hurt either.

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This Day in History 10/1: The first Tonight Show appearance of Johnny Carson

I don’t usually watch late night television…and mostly because Johnny Carson isn’t a part of it.

On October 1, 1962, temporary host Groucho Marx introduced the new permanent host of NBC’s Tonight Show, a shy midwesterner named Johnny Carson.  For the next 30 years, Carson ruled late night as his own personal empire, and in my opinion, was the greatest late-night host of all time.

Looking back at old Tonight Show episodes, you can see not only how good he was, but how incredibly dumb today’s late-night hosts have become.  Carson was crude, dirty and lewd without uttering a word.  His very mannerisms could cause a filthy snicker.  Carson also had a knack for letting the guests shine, inserting himself only to help the guest or as an affable comic foil.

Most importantly, the guy was cool.  He was real, real cool.  Even with among the most controversial intellectuals of the twentieth century, he was cool.

I attached the first appearance of Ayn Rand on the Tonight Show in 1967.  Rand was invited back two more times to the show.  It’s basically a conversation between Carson and Rand on objectivism, capitalism, rationality…even Ed McMahon joins the conversation.

Forget about your own opinions on Rand: I’m mixed on her, to be honest.  Just name one show on late night today that would have such an intellectual conversation for over 20 minutes of airtime.

…and we wonder why our kids can’t think critically.

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