Tag Archives: Children’s books

Videos for the Classroom: Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book

In our belated homage to Dr. Seuss on his March 2nd birthday, the Neighborhood presents a video of one of Seuss’ greatest–and most controversial–works.

In 1984, Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book caused a sensation in classrooms, libraries and especially the corridors of power in the Reagan administration.  A satirical parable about the arms race, militarism and especially nuclear war, The Butter Battle Book was so controversial that public libraries across America banned the book over its  viewpoints.

Given the Cold War hysteria of the early Eighties, the book’s content was rife for discussion.

The book chronicles the long-simmering conflict between the Yooks and the Zooks, two cultures at war over breakfast food.  The Yooks butter their bread on top, while the Zooks butter theirs on the bottom.  This innocuous difference leads to an escalating arms race, culminating in the development of an “Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo”–a weapon designed to wipe out all life with no counter-defense.  The book ends as both generals hold their tiny Armegeddon devices, ready to drop at any moment.

Like the Lorax, Seuss’ other well-known political work (then about the environment), The Butter Battle Book is not your traditional feel-good children’s story.  A cliffhanger is left as we don’t know what happens with the Yooks and Zooks and their factories of death.

Yet Seuss’ nuclear fable differs in that it feels much more hopeless, more helpless–and thus much more sinister.

Attached is the 1989 animated special of the book by TNT.  It was created by an equally controversial animator in Ralph Bakshi, who created a work very close to the wording and intent of the original book.  Narrated by charles Durning, the special was so well made that Seuss himself considered it the most faithful adaptation of his work ever made.

This is my all-time favorite Seuss work, and is brimming with classroom debate and discussion at any age.

Enjoy…and stay away from butter altogether.  It’ll kill you in the end :)

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Movies for the Classroom: A Christmas Carol (1971)

The holidays are never complete without Charles Dickens‘ immortal Victorian morality tale–and now you can show among the best versions of the story.

In 1843, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was not only a wildly popular bestseller.  In so many words, Dickens defined the modern definition of Christmas in Britain and especially in America.   Practically overnight, A Christmas Carol re-introduced the English-speaking world to a holiday that had been largely forgotten for almost two centuries.

Ever since the ban on Christmas during the Cromwellian era, the holiday was looked down upon as an idolatrous Catholic vice.  Even in America, only Anglican Virginia and outlying German Lutheran and Catholic settlements on the frontier really celebrated it.

Dickens’ work practically re-oriented the holiday from its more religious underpinnings to a secular, family-based celebration of comraderie and goodwill.  Even the most dour Calvinist couldn’t argue with those sentiments.  As the novel became popular, the markings of the celebration as noted on the pages–gift-giving, trees, pine wreaths, holly, carols, food, etc.–started to sprout in Britain and the United States (Puritan New England was slower in adopting it: many parts of the region wouldn’t allow Christmas celebrations until the 1870s.)

Thus, the holiday we see today comes almost directly from this 1843 novel.

Like any popular story, A Christmas Carol has been adapted for stage and screen numerous times.  The version attached today is among the best.  This 1971 animated film won the Academy Award for best animated short film: the only version of the story to be honored with an Oscar.  Directed by Richard Williams and produced by legendary animator Chuck Jones, the film’s style is lifted almost directly from 19th century illustrations, as well as 1930s illustrations of a popular reprint.  The tone is sufficiently dark to suit the somber Dickensian world of mid-19th century London: you can smell the smog and misery.

I think its among the best adaptations of the story around.  The mood of the story is sufficiently dark and upbeat to satisfy all audiences–but particularly older students.  This definitely lends itself to discussions of Victorian society, values, social welfare and government policies to the less fortunate.

Or it just could be a great Christmas yarn (which it is).  You can decide.  Enjoy.

 

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Videos for the Classroom: Election Day on Sesame Street

This was, honest to God, the very first time I ever heard about voting.

When I was a kid, it was shows like Sesame Street that introduced me to a lot of the basics of American life.  This video is still a great one to use with young students who still can’t participate in Election Day.

The best part is when David goes apeshit on Big Bird and Snuffy about voter registration.

Enjoy this classic clip of a great show before it was ruined by Elmo and the big purple dinosaur.

 

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The Treacherous Rainbow of Identity Politics in History

“The thing is, you cannot judge a race. Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit. You take men one at a time.” ~ Sergeant ‘Buster’ Kilrain, in Gettysburg (1993)

I’m always uneasy when government messes with actual classroom instruction—even when it’s for the best intentions.

The day before I left for California, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 48, an education bill designed to acknowledge the achievements of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) individuals in California and American history. Furthermore, the bill thwarts educators, administrators and school districts from advocating instruction or material that discriminates against said individuals.

It’s a law that really only adds to the current law acknowledging women and minorities—an amendment that, at least in California, is a long time coming. Obviously, more traditional sectors of the state are up in arms over this.

Yet I wouldn’t have thought that a metropolitan newspaper not affiliated with Rupert Murdoch would also be fanning the flames.

The Sunday of the 17th, the Los Angeles Times printed a blistering editorial condemning SB 48 as an affront to free expression. While citing the importance of the gay rights movement—and the dangerous right-wing politicization of education in Texas—the Times nonetheless asserts that

“…politicians shouldn’t be dictating what material appears in textbooks. Besides, do we really want textbooks to include the details of a historical figure’s sexual orientation even when it might have nothing to do with his or her role in history? And does it make sense to require that portrayals of gay people focus on “contributions” and not anything that could be construed as negative? Real history is richer and more complicated than feel-good depictions.” ~ Los Angeles Times editorial, July 17, 2011

I know some gentlemen in West Hollywood that will be cancelling their subscriptions.

However, the folks at the LA Times (shrill as they are) may have a point. Let’s look at the new amended law piece by piece:

“51204.5. Instruction in social sciences shall include the early history of California and a study of the role and contributions of both men and women, Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups, to the economic, political, and social development of California and the United States of America, with particular emphasis on portraying the role of these groups in contemporary society.”

Not much of a value judgment here, but who’s to say all these groups actually contributed all the time everywhere? Could it be all those Pacific Islanders that threw spears during the Boston Massacre? The disabled regiment that flung their wheelchairs up Marrys’ Heights at Fredericksburg? The enslaved African on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation that kept admiring women’s petticoats and just wouldn’t mate with the girl of the master’s choosing?

Fine, these are extreme, even silly examples. Yet it gets to the concerns many educators have about things like this: Who is the arbiter of what a contribution is, an achievement, the “correct” or “accurate” role of a group or individual in society? The law gives no indication as to who’s responsible—and the state doesn’t seem to step up to the plate with a curriculum or sample units.

“51500. A teacher shall not give instruction and a school district shall not sponsor any activity that promotes a discriminatory bias on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, sexual orientation, or because of a characteristic listed in Section 220.”

Does this include activities that, on the surface, seem divisive, but are meant to prove a point about discrimination and prejudice—activities like role-playing, viewing/analyzing propaganda films from Nazi Germany, scrutinizing literature from hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, etc.? I use lots of material that California would probably throw me in San Quentin for, but that doesn’t make me a bigot.

“51501. The state board and any governing board shall not adopt any textbooks or other instructional materials for use in the public schools that contain any matter reflecting adversely upon persons on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, sexual orientation, or because of a characteristic listed in Section 220.”

Of course, this includes works by Plato, Aristotle, several Biblical authors, Martin Luther, William Shakespeare, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Voltaire, Rousseau, George Orwell, William Faulkner…get my drift?

“60040. When adopting instructional materials for use in the schools, governing boards shall include only instructional materials which, in their determination, accurately portray the cultural and racial diversity of our society, including:

(a) The contributions of both men and women in all types of roles, including professional, vocational, and executive roles.

(b) The role and contributions of Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups to the total development of California and the United States.

(c) The role and contributions of the entrepreneur and labor in the total development of California and the United States.”

Ok, so we have some direction now. “Governing boards,” i.e. district boards or boards of education, will make the determination as to what is offensive or not.

That means the LA County Schools should be following the same guidelines as those in money-loaded Orange County or the rural hinterland of the north, right?

This is a lot of nitpicking, but it serves to show how politicizing these seemingly innocuous laws can be. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the important roles of diverse groups in our great history—GLBT, white, black or otherwise.

Yet shedding light on a darkened past does not always yield positive results.

First, not every group contributed to American history all the time. We’re a big country, a country of regional contrasts and diverse populations that were both mobile and provincial. Sorry, but that’s the facts: some people just didn’t have a huge impact on certain places. The missions of Spanish California would’ve heard about the American Revolution, but scarcely anyone would’ve actually gone to enlist in the Continental Army.

Furthermore, a group or individual’s achievements often have little, if anything, to do with their identity. Their labels may have helped or hindered them in society, such as Blacks and other minorities, but their achievements are often singular, and can also transcend any petty labels foisted on them.

Also, and this is especially true of GLBT studies, there is a tendency to find and pigeonhole people into groups that (a) don’t really belong, or (b) didn’t do anything that important. I worry that historians and textbook authors will scour for evidence of petticoats and makeup amongst the closets of the Founding Fathers to find anyone—ANYONE—that is both GLBT and important. Even worse, the zeal to “out” historical figures could lead to misapplying or even falsifying evidence to prove a point.

Finally, and definitely most importantly, many individuals of “disadvantaged” groups did some not so nice things—a fact often whitewashed in many textbooks. Many of the slave rebellions in the New World involved gruesome violence on the part of the enslaved people themselves. Native American conflicts also involved acts of butchery at times. Were they justified? They certainly had a reason to be so angry.

Yet a burnt house and a bludgeoned infant cannot be erased from memory—nor should it.

History is not just about the good times. The bad times, the bloody times, the gruesome, gory and horrifying times are often more important. It often takes a crappy situation, an act of weakness or a horrible mistake to show the true depths of human character.

To take into account only the accomplishments of a group negates the very real human qualities of the individuals that, in the long run, probably make more of a difference.

While the State of California probably had the best of intentions with SB 48, the law leaves a lot of unanswered questions—questions that may best be left to the educators themselves, with guidance from administrators and academics.

In the pursuit of historical truth, inclusion is almost always preferable to exclusion. Yet the zeal to include everyone should not blind us to the inconvenient facts…

…and the destruction of the truth does no group any good.

 

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Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 8: The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal

For educators like me, history books for the classroom come in two varieties.

The first, one all too many of us recollect, is the somber collection of names, dates, events and explanations followed by even more somber illustrations of very upright white men and stately occasions featuring white men doing what white men were thought to do: stand around, prance in short pants, sign documents, and slay indigenous populations without a hair out of place.

The second was a movement to rectify the stuffy white man by using songs, poems, happy pictures and narrative tools to convey historical events.  Many early childhood books fall into this category: the smiling Pilgrim, the smiling Wampanoag (at least before the smallpox), the happy colonists dumping tea while redcoats pout and look cross.  Its cute, but some events just can’t be washed over with sappy narrative: Indian wars, insurrections and tarring and feathering a tax collector just don’t warrant smiling cherubs set to rhyme.

Luckily, today’s book selection finds a unique balance between these two views.  The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal, by Cheryl Harness, highlights the history, construction and opening of the Erie Canal from 1817 to 1825.  Most readers know my penchant for New York history.  But I have a real soft spot for the Erie Canal, and Harness’ work helps bridge that love to the classroom.

There’s no exaggerating the importance of this 363-mile long ditch.  The Erie Canal was among the most important public works projects in American history.  It revolutionized transportation to the Great Lakes and the Middle West of the United States.  It established New York City as a center of commerce, business and immigration.  Thousands of settlers had a way into the interior of the United States.  It was an incredible example of public and private enterprise working together.

Nonetheless, all this impact would fall as flat as your old high school textbook.  This is where Cheryl Harness’ magic comes in.

We’ve seen Harness’ work before, in regards to women’s history and biographies.  She has a real knack for packing lots of important information, while at the same time weaving a compelling narrative that rarely distracts the reader.  Her books are, in a way, like busy local highways: lots of roadside attractions if you need them, but the traffic’s always moving so you can get to your destination.

Erie Canal is no different.  Harness’ highway is the 1825 celebrations that opened the canal.  As the reader follows Governor DeWitt Clinton (The Neighborhood’s patron saint) on the canal from Buffalo to New York City, page after page is peppered with maps, graphs, pictures, and explanatory text about the building, technology and impact of the canal.

One scene is particularly poignant.  As Clinton’s barge, the Seneca Chief, goes from town to town, the townspeople all gather to welcome her.  The old veterans of the Revolutionary War, in fact, put on their old uniforms and medals in salute to this great achievement.  Its a great example to show how Americans of all generations got together to celebrate, even 180 years ago.

A history book on the Erie Canal could have easily turned into a snoozer with portraits and dry writing.  It could’ve also turned into another crappy kids’ pap about that damn song with a mule named Sal.  Harness skillfully managed to avoid both. In The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal, she provided that rare breed of picture history that is both fun to read and rich in detailed information.

As for those old “white man” books, save them for college, so that your professors can rip them to shreds.

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What’s your Favorite Book for Presidents’ Week?

Seal of the President of the United States

Image via Wikipedia

Like so many parts of American life, our holidays lend themselves to self-gratifying aggrandizement.

Presidents’ Week nee Presidents’ Day nee Washington‘s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday have taken a strange path through American education.  At first, the days were merely milestones to remember two of our most important Presidents.  Then, in some odd spirit of inclusiveness, the holidays were combined to form Presidents’ Day, thus including all Presidents–even James Buchanan, and that’s a stretch.

Today, the mere day just won’t do: retailers and car dealerships require a WEEK to find an excuse to dress two schmucks as Washington and Lincoln so they can hawk their crap while the kids are home on their winter break.

For teachers, the days leading up to Presidents’ Week inevitably involve books concerning our chief executives.  As a nifty way to share resources, The Neighborhood is now asking its readers to submit their favorite book for the holiday.  They can range from the tried and true childrens’ biographies of the past (Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire‘s incredible 1939 classic Abraham Lincoln comes to mind) to the modern tomes that deal more realistically with the office (Such as Judith St. George‘s So You Want to be President?).

Please leave your suggestions in the comment box.  I’d love to see the different resources our readers use and share them with fellow teachers.

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Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 7: The Boisterous Sea of Liberty

 “The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

Rarely did a teaching workshop produce such a valuable resource as my first.

Around my second year teaching, I was at a low ebb.  I had a terrible class, nothing was getting done, and my room was a mess.  Curiously, it was at this point that I signed up for my first Teaching American History grant seminar.  There was little else I was doing on Saturday mornings in the fall, anyway. 

It would be an experience that changed me forever, as a teacher and as a historian.

Over the course of five years, I have listened to incredible history professors, sitting with like-minded teachers who also felt frustrated in the current educational environment.  Furthermore, the TAH program helped to ensure that the concepts learned could be applied to any classroom–and that means ANY level, from elementary to high school.

TAH was also a fountain of resources, books, videos and classroom materials.  Yet none would be more cherished than a black-covered book, now dog-eared and bookmarked to death.  It has become, quite literally, my Bible in the classroom.

In 1998, distinguished Yale professor David Brion Davis, along with University of Houston historian Steven Mintz, co-edited an anthology of primary sources called The Boisterous Sea of Liberty: A Documentary History of America from Discovery through the Civil War.  The book is much more than an anthology–it is exactly as the title states: a history of the United States as told through the primary resources of the period. 

 One of the most important movements in history education, at least at the K-12 level, is the move away from scripted textbooks (at least a lessened reliance on them) and an increased emphasis on primary documents: the artifacts from the past that give a window to history without the filter of the textbook editor or the teacher.  Davis’ introduction says as much in that:

“Nothing can overcome apathy, boredom, or contempt for the past as quickly and effectively as primary sources.  Eyewitness accounts of a battle or bitter legislative debate can have the power of a fax or e-mail just received, evaporating the gap between past and present.  Such sources enable readers to identify with men and women long dead and to suddenly understand how decisions made in the past continue to haunt our lives.  No less important, as we learn to listen to these voices we gain a growing sense of the complexity and contingency of past events.” ~ David Brion Davis, Boisterous Sea of Liberty, page 1 “Introduction”

Yet this book could be simply a set of primary documents bond together.  Thankfully Davis and Mintz included their own commentary and created a straightforward, dense, comprehensive narrative of the American story, using the primary sources as a the driving force. 

This is where the “textbook” aspect of this book is done right: often, teachers lack the context or background knowledge behind such famous documents as the Mayflower Compact, Columbus’ Letters to the Sovereigns or the Emancipation Proclamation (all included in the book, by the way).  Davis and Mintz provide a refreshingly nuanced, evenhanded view of events that doesn’ t create sacred cows, yet won’t necessarily jump on the Howard Zinn-esque revisionist bandwagon.

One example of this is their treatment of Columbus’ first voyage.  In their introduction to the Columbus letters, Davis and Mintz mince few words: the European encounter decimated the indigenous populations of America, raped their resources and introduced enslaved African labor in large quantities.  Yet they end this passage with the following:

“Columbus’s (sic) first voyage of discovery also had another important result: It contributed to the development of the modern concept of progress.  To many Europeans, the New World seemed to be a place of innocence, freedom and eternal youth.  The perception of the New World as an environment free from the corruptions and injustices of European life would provide a vantage point for criticizing all social evils.  So while the collision of three worlds resulted in death and enslavement in unprecedented numbers, it also encouraged visions of a more perfect future.” ~ David Brion Davis & Steven Mintz, Boisterous Sea of Liberty, page 32 “First Encounters”

The same instinct pervades the book in other areas.  The concluding discussions about the end of the Civil War, for example, involve a frank exploration into the shifting patterns of race and class distinctions in the South following the conflict.  To be sure, Davis and Mintz argue, the new order did not necessarily mean complete freedom.  Blacks would be restricted in public places, in employment and in the exercise of their new constitutional rights to vote in elections.  Furthermore, many rural Blacks were trapped in the sharecropping system that bound them to the land of their former white overlords.  Yete even here there is a glimmer of hope:

“Nevertheless, the sharecropping system did allow freedmen a degree of freedom and autonomy greater than that experiences (sic) under slavery.  As a symbol of their newly won independence, freedmen had teams of mules drag their former slave cabins away from the slave quarters into their own fields…incredibly, about 20 percent of African AMericans in the South managed to acquire their own land by 1880.  Real gains had been won, though full freedom and equality before the law remained unfulfilled promises.” ~ David Brion Davis & Steven Mintz, Boisterous Sea of Liberty, page 559 “Toward Reconstruction”

This approach is perfect for average readers who see this book as a narrative that explains, guides and instructs the reader on the events, concepts and ideas of American history.  As an educator, the real treasure is the primary documents themselves.

The commentary is important and very well written.  However, the primary sources are what make this book an integral part of any history classroom.  Most of the primary quotes I use in this blog, if not all, come from Boisterous Sea of Liberty (at least those quotes pertaining to before the Civil War).  These documents have been printed and reprinted and recopied and reused ad infinitum for classroom exercises, tests, lesson plans, assessment portfolios and even professional development.

Even in the classroom itself, Boisterous Sea of Liberty holds a certain allure.  My students always know that when I whip that book out, something important, shocking or interesting will be shared today.  In fact, they have given it a nickname: “The Book of Sadness”, since I have a tendency to use it for tragic or horrible events. 

Case in point: the Schenectady massacre of 1690.  During the ongoing wars between the French and English, the New York settlement of Schenectady was attacked by French soldiers and their native allies.  Robert Livingston provides a particularly grueseome account, full of wailing victims and children’s brains getting bashed.  The scene is hard to read, even for a teacher well divorced from the situation.  Yet this account allows students to live their history in all its gory details.

 Boisterous Sea of Liberty has become a backbone of my curriculum design, lesson planning and assessment.  The results are truly remarkable: students are, often for the first time, thinking critically not only about events, but the authorship and authenticity of primary accounts.  My kids are making important connections between historical events and current situations in our world. 

Most important for me, though, is that for the first time, my students are actually excited about social studies.  It stimulates their brains, forces them to think, encourages them to look for their own solutions.  Primary sources have “emancipated” students from the shackles of textbooks and test prep workbooks.

Boisterous Sea of Liberty is a must-have, in fact one of the few must-haves that a social studies teacher should own.  I can’t imagine teaching without it–and neither will you.

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