Tag Archives: Curriculum

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

This Day in History 9/12: The Battle of Marathon

Marathon isn’t just a word for a ridiculously long foot race that gives you red nipples, poop-filled shorts and a silly cellophane robe as a trophy.

For the small band of Greeks on September 12, 490 BCE, Marathon was a game-changer.

On this day, the 10,000 valiant Greek hoplites of Athens and Plataea, led by the brilliant general Miltiades, defeated a Persian army at least 30 times their numbers.  In response to the victory, the great Olympic champion Pheidippides raced 26.2 miles (who knew Herodotus had a tape measure) back to Athens, announced the victory, and promptly died of exhaustion.

Cute.

Then again, the main source was never really that reliable.

The only real source about the Battle of Marathon comes from the “Father of History,” the Greek historian Herodotus.  Herodotus was, indeed, among the few people of his time to record the history of the Greeks, and their wars with Persia in particular.

Yet the problem with being among the few is that no one’s around to fact-check when you take liberties.

Old Herodotus loved to spin a good yarn and play fast and loose with the facts when it suited his narrative, and no better thread was spun than that on the dusty plains of Marathon.

Let’s take the numbers, for example.  Here, Herodotus gets it partly right.  The estimate of about 10-11,000 Greeks is even today considered reasonable and probably fairly accurate.  It’s not surprising since he was around to possible interview veterans of the battle.

The Persians were another story.  Herodotus never really claims a number, only that 600 triremes (warships) packed with infantry and cavalry landed ashore.  A contemporary estimate was about 200,000, and later estimates range even over half a million.  There’s no modern consensus to the size of Darius’ army, though the general average is about 25,000 infantry and 1000 cavalry–far lower than the traditional estimates.

Even so, that low number was still an over 2-1 advantage.

Then came the tactics.  Miltiades supposedly arranged the Greek forces to be thin at the center and thicker at the flanks in order to force weaker Persian flanks to collapse and surround the center of the enemy.  The problem is that according to most historians, Greek military tactics were not that sophisticated yet.  It wouldn’t be until well after the Peloponnesian War–over a century after Marathon–when ground tactics would reach that level of development.  More likely, Miltiades stretched his middle lines to match the Persian lines and to prevent himself getting surrounded.

The fact that the weaker Persian flanks–manned mostly by provincial subjects forced into service–collapsed under the Greeks was probably due to dumb luck.

Finally, we come to Pheidippides.  Sorry, distance runners–the first marathon never happened.

In fact, when you see the story in totality, it’s even more ridiculous.

Herodotus’ story goes like this: Pheidippides was sent from Athens to go ask for help from its old enemy Sparta.  He would run about 140 miles and arrive in Sparta a day later (Now THAT’s a foot race).  At the same time, the victorious Greeks ran about 25 miles back to Athens to head off a possible Persian counter-attack as their fleet attempted an end run around the Achaean Peninsula.  From an already rough morning, the heavily armored, exhausted and profusely bleeding Greeks arrive in Athens in the LATE AFTERNOON (Again, that’s some foot race) to catch sight of the Persians sailing away.

Over time, the Pheidippides run and the Greek army‘s run would get confused, with Pheidippides becoming a hero for running the approximately 25 miles from Marathon to Athens.  When the Olympic Games were revived in 1896, the organizers rediscovered the story and re-staged the “marathon” as an Olympic event.  The distance was never fixed, but usually around the 25 mile mark.  Eventually, it would be fixed at 26 miles 385 yards, or the traditional 26.2 mile number we use today.

Even with the embellishment, the Battle of Marathon remained a history-turning event in Greece.  It sent a message throughout the Mediterranean that the mighty Persians could indeed be beaten.  The subsequent final defeat of the Persians a decade later would signal the beginning of Greece’s golden age, when its art, literature, philosophy, government and commerce would bestride the known world like a colossus.

See, no need to mess up the facts…it’s a great story as it is.

Attached is a really cool video about the Battle of Marathon.  It’s in that 300 style that I detest, but at least they didn’t dress the hoplites in ridiculous clothes and have them fight ninjas and monsters.  Enjoy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Website Review: Dr. Seuss Went to War

During World War II, everyone played a part.

Everyone…including Dr. Seuss.

Before Theodore Giesel gained worldwide prominence as a childrens’ book author, he was the chief editorial cartoonist for the New York magazine PMBetween 1941 and 1943, Geisel drew over 400 cartoons for the magazine, and also for other publications.

It is a rare moment when an iconic figure shows his political colors–and a unique website allows us access to this part of his career.

The Dr. Seuss collection at the Mandeville Special Collections Library at the University of California, San Diego houses all the original drawings and cartoons by the famous author.  About 200 of these cartoons were reproduced in the 1999 book Dr. Seuss Goes to War. 

UCSD has digitized its entire collection and provided it for general use at its website Dr. Seuss Went to War.  All his wartime cartoons for PM have been categorized by year, battle, geographic area and personality covered by Seuss.

It provides an excellent resource for teachers making connections between the complexities of war and a beloved childrens’ author.  Seuss was always political, and these cartoons show the political mind that would later create such controversial works as The Lorax and The Butter Battle Book.

As exemplars of political cartoons, this database is second to none.  The obviously excellent artwork provides hours of analysis, critical thinking and classroom discussion.  Because they were made as events occurred, the Seuss cartoons have an immediacy that is often overlooked by students today.

Finally, as a historical artifact, the Seuss cartoons allow students to see the war as readers at home saw it–through the eyes and pens of the writers and artists of the press.

Enjoy these cartoons and please let us know how you used them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Petition to keep the Global History and Geography Regents as a Graduation Requirement

World map - Produced in Amsterdam First editio...

World map – Produced in Amsterdam First edition : 1689. Original size : 48.3 x 56.0 cm. Produced using copper engraving. Extremely rare set of maps, only known in one other example in the Amsterdam University. No copies in American libraries. In original hand color. Français : Carte du monde – Créée à Amsterdam Première édition : 1689. Taille originale : 48,3 x 56,0 cm. Eau forte. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m so late to this party that it isn’t fashionable anymore.Yet some parties are so important it’s just as important to just show up.

As it broke in April, The New York State Board of Regents is considering a measure to make the Global History and Geography Regents examination optional for graduation with a state-endorsed diploma.  Instead, students would opt to take another math or science course or another vocational course.

However, you still have to take the global history course…because it makes so much sense to take a class but not the final exam (cough, cough).

Never mind the obvious age-old agendas of gutting social studies to create automatons proficient enough in math, science and literacy to be submissive cogs in the corporate machine, yet ignorant of the workings of government, history, economics and geography so that they will be ill-equipped to participate fully in American democracy.

The motives for this one are both sinister and silly.

It is done under the guise of offering more educational options—more options at the expense of the hardest exam in the Regents system.  The Global exam had a passing rate of about 60%, the lowest in the state.

So the move is less about well-rounded educational options and more about artificially boosting graduation rates.

Even more incredible, the test is mostly a test of reading comprehension, and less of a trivia contest.  The low passing rates have little to do with the content.  It has everything to do with students with subpar reading skills—often at or below 6th grade level for 10th graders.

The irresponsibility, deviousness and outright stupidity of this move is so self evident, I won’t waste any more words on it.

Below is a petition from Change.org to try to reverse the decision.  The Board of Regents will make their final decision at their June meeting, so it’s important to sign soon.

The link is here.  Make sure your voice is heard.   Also, be sure to read Alan Singer’s column on the matter in the Huffington Post.

It’s bad enough our kids can’t find where they live on a map.  Let’s at least teach them where the rest of the world is located.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Videos for the Classroom: Becoming American-The Immigrant Experience

Immigration and the immigrant experience is a key element of the American experience.

Yet to get a real look at what it means to be an immigrant, it helps to look past the steerage section, the Statue of Liberty and a flood of Jacob Riis photographs.

Becoming American: The Immigrant Experience is a documentary created by the Merage Foundation for the American Dream. Part of its American Dream series, the film covers close to the entirety of the immigration experience, starting with the early European colonists of the colonial period up through the early decades of our century.

It includes the experiences and hardships of many groups who came to this country, even involuntary immigrants such as enslaved Africans and isolated populations such as Chinese contract labor on the railroads.

It’s a film geared toward high school students, but it can certainly be adapted for younger viewers.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized