Tag Archives: New York

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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A Letter to Andrew Cuomo: Mr. D for New York’s new P-12 Assistant Education Secretary

English: New York State Capitol viewed from th...

English: New York State Capitol viewed from the south, located on the north end of the Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dear Governor Cuomo:

I hear that you’re losing one of your top advisors to…law school?

May I ask, do you recruit from the kiddie pool?  May I suggest your next interview be during adult swim?

When I heard of Katie Campos’ departure as Cuomo’s P-12 Assistant Education Secretary, I wasn’t surprised.  I mean, how much can a 20-something who has NO experience in the classroom, NOR in administering a school building know about New York’s arcane system?

Let me repeat that—she was never in a classroom.

She was never even a principal.

She was never a TFA drone, a Teaching Fellow, a Broad Fellow or any of the other alternative programs that the reform crowd love to tout as “experience.”

Michelle Rhee, Richard Barth, Geoffrey Canada…I have my issues with these people, but at least they had some real knowledge of the trenches of education.

Campos spent her three years between college graduation and her Albany post as nothing more than a political apparatchik, from Democrats for Education Reform to the New York State Charter Schools Association.  That’s akin to letting the late Ted Kennedy be principal of a girls’ high school—probably inept, and possibly disastrous.

And she was your “most experienced” team member?  I hear the lamentations of a thousand pairs of soiled undergarments.

So for Campos’ replacement, I humbly urge you, our esteemed governor, to select someone with experience, commitment, passion and above all a vested interest in education.

Someone like me.

Now, besides being ravishingly handsome, I do bring some important skills to the table.  So before I start sending my resume up to Albany, a few bullet points to strengthen my case:

  1. Classroom experience – I’m up on Ms. Campos by nine years in that department.  In my near-decade in the classroom, I’ve seen special education kids, English Language Learners, kids in trouble with the law, kids experimenting with drugs and sex, foster kids, homeless kids, kids on the run from abusive parents…you name it.  I’ve managed to reach a lot of them (NOT all…I wouldn’t pretend like that) and in the process, gotten to know what works and what doesn’t work for kids, parents, and teachers.
  2. Bipartisanship – Why not appoint a Republican to your team, Governor?  Especially an elephant like me with a long memory and (most importantly) an open mind to new ideas. I may have an “R” next to my name, but I’m not some Tea Party nincompoop, nor am I a Wall Street goon. After four years as an undergrad in DC, crossing the aisle is really no big thing; it’s more of a matter of getting the right mix of ideas that can help solve the problem.
  3. Honest feedback about current reforms – Testing, Common Core, teacher evaluations, class size: the big four in terms of gripes and controversies (if I’m missing something, let me know).  How about getting feedback from someone who has worked with and worked to implement your reforms at its base level?  The reform poobahs will gladly generate the spreadsheets and charts to keep you happy—but are they being upfront with you?  At least I can give an answer based on those who actually utilize these programs, rather than the bean counters who collect whatever data is given to them.
  4. A balanced approach to the Common Core – speaking of the Common Core, unlike many of the opposition, I really have no beef with these standards per se.  In fact, in several instances they serve as a necessary clarifier for benchmarks that were extremely vague and open to interpretation.  The Common Core is not the problem; implementation is.  The inconsistent nature of Common Core adoption—followed by ramrod exams that were clearly shown to be flawed—indicates a more nuanced approach to the problem.  It’ll be slower, but much more effective in the long run.
  5. A “people person” who gets along with teachers, students, administrators, unions and kids – The “carrot-and-stick” approach only goes so far in New York state among certain places: the “stick” might work in those districts where the opportunities are slim and teachers take what they can get.  Yet there are also places (NYC, Rochester, etc.) that just laugh at the stick and whip out a bigger one.  Whatever programs that need to implemented, the initial phases will be painful.  Don’t make it more painful by using ed reform blowhards who patronize teachers and keep harping that it’s all “for the children.”  We all know it’s for the kids—at least it’s supposed to be.  Send someone who can reach the best in all sides, who can bring people together instead of drive them apart.
  6. A good-looking guy – did I forget to mention I’m ravishingly handsome?  I was on TV, for Pete’s sake.

With a CV like that, there isn’t a statehouse in America that wouldn’t want me on their team, right?

If you are interested, Governor Cuomo, my LinkedIn profile is right here, and I can be reached through this blog or at my email ldorazio1@gmail.com.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Give my best to Sandra Lee (that was from Future Mrs. D).

Sincerely,

Mr. D

PS: If per chance you request an interview, please make sure it’s a nice day as Future Mrs. D enjoys the drive to Albany.

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This Day in History 3/11: The Great Blizzard of 1888

Now that spring is coming soon, it might serve as a reminder that the end of winter can be just as turbulent as the rest of the season.

March 11, 1888, was shaping up to be another unseasonably warm day.  It had been remarkably mild for the previous week.  Yet as the rain fell, the temperatures dropped.

By midnight of March 12, the Great Blizzard of 1888 was in full fury.  It would snow nonstop for 36 hours, finally leaving the East Coast on the 14th.  When all was said and done, parts of Connecticut and Massachusetts received 50 inches of snow, while parts of New York and New Jersey had up to 40 inches, with drifts as high as 50 feet.  48 inches dropped on Albany, 45 inches in New Haven, and 22 inches in New York, which recorded a temperature of between 6 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the storm, thanks to wind gusts that reached almost 80 miles per hour.

The blizzard had an enormous impact, even before the age of electricity.  The telegraph and telephone lines were in tatters from Montreal and the Maritime provinces of Canada to Maryland and northern Virginia.  200 ships were grounded or wrecked.  Roads and rail lines were impassible for days.  It even froze the East River in New York so solid for a time that locals walked from Manhattan to Brooklyn across it, bypassing the 5-year-old Brooklyn Bridge which was deemed impassible due to ice.

Attached is a firsthand account of the Blizzard of 1888 by Albert Hunt of Winsted, Connecticut.  Recorded in 1949, he recalls the day the storm first hit as if it were yesterday.  It’s an amazing piece of oral history-and I wish there were more from that time period.

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Making the case for Parochial Schools in the NCLB age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…dare I say…fascist?

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

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

After all, they do answer to a higher power.

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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.

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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.

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This Day in History 4/30: The opening of the 1939 New York Worlds Fair

On April 30, 1939, while New York was still recovering from the Great Depression, the World’s Fair of 1939 opened in Flushing Meadows, Queens.  It was attended by over 44 milllion visitors, and was the second largest Worlds Fair in history (after the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair).

Just as the world was about to explode into another world war, the New York World’s Fair gave its visitors a vision of the future–the “World of Tomorrow.” it featured advances in robotics, television, new gadgets and pavilions from most countries in the world.

It’s a vision of the future that still inspires and frightens us.

Attached is two official films of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  Though they are silent, they contain text cels and provide amongst the best primary source material on this important cultural event.

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