Tag Archives: Curriculum

Review of Khan Academy’s “American History Overview Part 1: Jamestown to Civil War”


I had not been a huge fan of Khan Academy.

Even before I started working with one of its competitors, I generally took a dim view of anyone that thought they could do better than a teacher with just a computer and a voice recorder.

However, Salman Khan’s little creation, originally meant to help his own cousin in math, has been a founding father of today’s explosion in virtual pedagogy. Practically everyone, including my own kin at LearnZillion, has a patch in the virtual quilt—from reading to math and even science and social studies.

When I heard that Khan Academy had ventured into history, again, I was skeptical. His approach seemed to work in math, and somewhat with language. History, however, is a massive, multi-headed monster that can go very wrong very fast if not handled properly.

Its just natural that I had to see if Salman went off the rails in his history videos.

There were quite a few to choose from, but I decided to start on American History overview Part 1, Jamestown to the Civil War. This is a typical spread for the first year of a two-year cycle in US history, and such an intro film made perfect sense.

Let’s start with the video itself.

Virtual production has come a long way since the first Khan videos. Yet here, they still stick with the crude visible cursor and neon handwriting reminiscent of a specials menu in a Chinese takeout restaurant. At least they’re consistent in their design—not thrilling, but consistent.

The voice, while familiar and somewhat relatable, doesn’t give me confidence. He doesn’t sound like he knows what he’s talking about. It feels like grad school when I basically corrected the poor adjunct they threw at me for two hours at a stretch.

Now for the facts. Honestly, Khan is not half bad here, since it is an overview. Just some notes as you use this video:

  • The first successful settlement in North America was St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, not Jamestown in 1607.
  • Jamestown was not originally settled as a commercial colony. They wanted to find gold like the Spanish in Mexico and Peru. When there was nothing but oysters and rebellious natives, then they decided to make money with tobacco.
  • The original Spanish and Portuguese settlements in the Americas are mentioned. Yet the Dutch are absent. Never mind that they founded one of the largest cities in the hemisphere.
  • The period between 1620 and 1754 is fast-forwarded. Fair enough, but what happened in between included slave rebellions, wars against natives, the French, the Dutch and the Spanish, the Navigation Acts that tied the knot between colonies and mother country, several popular revolts against colonial government, and religious hysteria not once, but twice.
  • 1754 is really the wrong date for the French and Indian Wars (YES, I mean Wars, plural). They really begin in 1689, and continue off and on until 1763. All these wars (between Spain, France, and Britain mostly) were European conflicts that spilled into the colonies. The last war, the “real” French and Indian War, was a colonial war that spilled into Europe, as the Seven Years War.
  • Speaking of “Indians”, why does the narrator still use the now-defunct term Indian or American Indian to refer to native people of North America? As a descendant of “real” Indians from the subcontinent, Khan should know better.
  • The narrator jumps straight into the Stamp Act without mentioning neither the Navigation Acts nor the 1764 Sugar Act—an act which actually affected the colonial and British economy on a much wider level.
  • The company was the British East India Company, not the East India Tea Company. Believe me, tea was only one of their many rackets.
  • Revolutionary War coverage – not bad, but should’ve highlighted 1777 Battles of Saratoga (Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights) as an important turning point bringing France into the war.
  • Constitution, new government and Louisiana Purchase – not bad. Louisiana mentioned the Haiti problem, which is surprisingly comprehensive.
  • The War of 1812 is dismissed entirely too casually. It had major implications for the United States. The last hope for Canada joining the Union died—from then on Canada developed its own identity. The US Navy established itself as a formidable opponent to the great powers. Native Americans would lose their last ally on the western frontier as the British troops withdrew from the Mississippi and Ohio valleys. Lastly, it established American sovereignty to the world once and for all.
  • The war did NOT end with the Battle of New Orleans. It ended in 1814 with the Treaty of Ghent months before. New Orleans happened after the fact.
  • The Texas Revolution is pretty much spot on, although the first President of the Republic of Texas was Stephen J. Burnet, not Sam Houston.
  • The explanation of the Mexican War wasn’t bad either, although the gap from 1848 to 1860 is dismissed a little too casually.
  • The slavery issue was summed up well, and it culminated in Lincoln’s election of 1860.
  • Lastly, the Emancipation Proclamation was mentioned without the little fact that it only declared those slaves in rebel states to be freed—in actuality not freeing a single slave until the 13th Amendment of 1865.

Apart from that, it’s not a terrible summation of the early years of the republic. I wouldn’t base a final report on this, but it’s a good introduction to the year, provided some of the gaps are covered in better detail.

In coming weeks, especially after my summer break begins, I’ll be looking at other Khan videos—as well as their competitors—to see how useful they can really be to serious history students.

By the way…the constant use of the word “Indian”, by a company named after an actual one, is really inexcusable.

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How “Philosophy Bro” Helped me Corrupt the Youth, Socrates-style

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nothing excites me more than a student proving the ignorance of the powers that be.

On Monday, my room was visited for the great beauty pageant of education, the quality review.  It wasn’t to observe me, though: the technology teacher had the class that period and it was mostly to observe her.  I was sitting in the front of the room, doing some paperwork as if nothing was happening.

The reviewers entered the room, along with the four assistant principals, packed at four corners of my room.  They observed, gawked, took notes, asked questions of some of the students.  The technology lesson was supposed to be the focus.

My students, of course, stole the show.

As the teacher asked the students about the student surveys they would be taking online, one of my students rose his hand and explained, quite calmly, how the results can be manipulated to show students doing worse than they really are, so that it looks like they’re making progress.  My supervisor laughed nervously.  The other reviewers gasped.

I couldn’t be prouder.  There was my kid thinking critically—with NO coaching—and noting the glaring flaws in the system.

Furthermore, it looked like the review team was looking less at the lesson and more at my room.  Charts of Athenian democracy and Alexander the Great’s empire.  Student-produced definitions of “civilization.”  Projects about energy, including a provocative poster stating that nuclear energy “will blow your mind.”  Quotes by Plato and Aristotle above the blackboard.

My supervisor darted to me as I was working at my desk.  Usually very calm, she had a look of abject horror: “They want to know about what’s written on the whiteboard.”  I had done an introductory class on Greek philosophy the periods before, and we came up with a list of philosophical questions, “big” questions that have no right answer.  At the very top right was the ominous “Is God real?”

“It was a philosophy lesson, “ I explained.  “Those are examples of philosophical questions they came up with.”

There was no reason to panic.  A cursory look at the board would have given that clue: questions like “Where did the universe come from?”, “What happens when we die?”, “What is reality?”, etc.  Yet questioning like this makes administrators panic—even as such thinking is critical to becoming a successful adult.

This is why I love philosophy.  It makes kids smarter and scares the shit out of adults who think they know everything.

I’ve wanted to teach intro philosophy for a while, but I never found the right avenue: too many “kid-friendly” sites on ancient history are just that: too kid-friendly and not challenging enough.  I wanted to use real texts, Plato’s dialogues and whatnot, but the translations were simply too inaccessible for my young kids.

In a weird way, my problem was solved through a rather profane little blog I came across by accident.

Philosophy Bro seems, at least on the surface, to be simply a Cliffs Notes of the great philosophical texts of Western civilization.  It includes ancients, Hume, Locke, Voltaire, Russell, Marx, Hegel…you name it.  If it were simply that, it would be a great place to get a snapshot of the works that shape Western thought.

Yet for classrooms, especially those in middle and high school, Philosophy Bro is much more.

P-Bro, for lack of a better pseudonym, could’ve easily just given a summary of the main points  of each piece in a factual yet dry manner ala Cliffs or SparkNotes or any other study guide on the market.  Yet he goes one step further.  In a saucy, irreverent, often obsene manner, P-Bro gets at the essence of the text AS A TEXT, not simply as a repository of philosophical thought.  He gets the cadences, rhythms, moods and style of each author—which makes his blog special.

Take Plato, for example…an example I used in class, after all.  I could’ve easily gotten some thrown-together kid-happy reading piece about how Socrates made people think, and said things that weren’t popular and made people sad and forced him to die.  Bullshit.  I wanted to find an accessible text of Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ defense at his trial in 399 BCE.  Mostly direct transcripts at first (which would make any middle schooler pass out after page 2), but then I stumbled on Philosophy Bro.

Now, to understand my enthusiasm: my intro to philosophy class at Georgetown was basically a boot camp in Plato and Aristotle.  We read almost every dialogue, wrote a report on each one, tore it apart line by line.  P-Bro nailed it.  What’s even better, I got a two-fer: he also summarized the Crito, where Socrates talks his friend out of getting him sprung from jail.  In both, Socrates’ zest and venom roll pure, even if the language can be puerile at times.

(Apparently, according to P-Bro, philosophy is naked without F-bombs.)

So I took his summaries, cleaned up the language a bit (quite a task) and presented to my students.  They got it immediately.  It was amazing how Socrates’ method, his ideals and his worldview rang true in a funny, bawdy way that kept the kids rolling.

The quicker you get students to think for themselves and to question the world around them, the better you’ll feel as an educator.  Philosophy Bro was a great tool in allowing my kids to enter the world of Plato, Aristotle and the other thinkers of our civilization.

…and nothing feels better than scaring the shit out of pencil-pushing administrators.

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The Teacher “Bar” Exam is no solution to teacher quality

American Education is in the Dumpster

The Sad truth about Education programs in the US (Photo credit: brewbooks)

When a cat and a dog start howling at the moon together, something is terribly wrong.

With Randi Weingarten and Arne Duncan howling in unison over the need to overhaul teacher training, I get immediately suspicious.  These two never seem to howl together for anything, and when they do…it is usually more self-serving than selfless.

Recently, Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has been touting the need for a streamlining of teacher certification, so that all teachers are held to the same standard.  This new system is meant to replace the multiple certification systems in place in all fifty states, geared toward making sure that “an individual teacher walking into her classroom the first day is confident and competent.”

(Name one person who’s “confident and competent” on their first day on the job, and I’ll show you someone who’s neither.)

Part of this would be a teacher “bar” exam similar to a bar exam for lawyers or a medical board exam for doctors.  According to Weingarten (a trained lawyer, not a teacher), a combination of clinical experience in the field, academic preparedness for the subject(s) in his/her license, and training in child cognitive development would culminate in a national board exam that would create a teacher ready for the first day.

Everyone seems to be on board, from Arne to Andrew Cuomo…and that really scares me.  They see another silver bullet, but I know otherwise.  How is a national exam going to fix—or even try to fix—a system that suffers due to its participants.

With all due respect to my colleagues, the problem still lies at the very beginning: entry into the field of education is too easy.

Years ago, I got a slew of feedback both positive and negative from my previous diatribe on teacher education.  Many of you cheered my call for an admission process just as stringent as law and medical schools.

Others took me to mean education itself was an “easy” profession and took me to task—which further proves my point about ease of entry into this profession.

We all know that education is among the toughest jobs to do.  I, for one, work long hours above and beyond my workday to research, plan, grade, analyze and organize for my students—work that usually gets foisted off to nurses, paralegals and first-year associates in other professions.

Yet even those in education itself agree that the law and medicine have barriers to entry that education lacks.  Unfortunately, prestige and especially pay are determined largely by these barriers, whether you like it or not.

Sandra Stotsky, who oversaw teacher certification in Massachusetts, stated that “You have more problems today with ineffective teachers because we’ve had virtually open admissions into the profession.”  Since the bar is set so low (no pun intended) many teachers with an education degree and a teacher’s license still lack the stills to become effective in the classroom.

Medicine and law both started as apprenticed crafts that developed professional institutions.  Due to prejudices about teaching, education never reached the level of “official” professionalism of the other schools.  For teachers to garner the respect we richly deserve, education programs need to catch up and develop a rigorous framework that includes high admissions standards.

Of course, the raising of admission standards is no silver bullet.  Certification requirements vary widely, from state to state and even from college to college.  Some colleges focus too much on academic theory, some too little.  Some spend countless hours analyzing fieldwork and classroom routines at the expense of theory and concepts.  Even in a field with few barriers of entry, the quality of preparation is a complete crapshoot.

The need for a new way to train teachers is important at many levels.  Education programs, certification programs and school districts need to realign and synch their resources to create a useful, rigorous, and productive teacher training program.

Yet as long as anyone can be a teacher, then our schools will still be flooded with those who have no business being teachers.

Much of the god-awful education reform agenda—the data collection, the constant forced collaboration, the constant assessment to collect data—is designed with a simple premise: that most in the teaching profession are stupid.   Even the collaboration, the common planning and “inquiry analysis”, is built around the supposition that in any group of idiot teachers there must be at least one person who’s competent.

Teachers in the past were never subject to such scrutiny because their word was law, in every way.  Now, because of a veritable free-for-all system of hiring and licensing, competent teachers must suffer the yoke of the grossly incompetent.

It’s insulting to any hardworking teacher, and wouldn’t be necessary if the idiots weren’t allowed in the classroom in the first place.

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