Tag Archives: Publishing

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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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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Where Does Journalism End…and Bullying Begin? Teacher Data Reports and the Media

العربية: صورة التطقت عام 2008 لمقر إدارة تعليم...

Tweed Courthouse, headquarters of the NYC Department of Education. Image via Wikipedia

On November 16, 1801, a group of New York politicians led by Alexander Hamilton began a political broadsheet that would eventually become one of the most influential publications in the metro area.

Recently, it decided to cease being a newspaper…and become a tool of propaganda instead.

On Friday, February 24, after a lengthy court battle, the New York City Department of Education was forced to comply with a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request filed by the New York Post, the aforementioned tabloid founded over 210 years ago.  The DOE released the infamous Teacher Data Reports (TDRs)—the rankings of supposed teacher effectiveness based on standardized test scores in English Language Arts and mathematics.

In the days that followed, each of the city’s major media outlets released the teacher scores (with names attached) in varying formats.  Some ranked teachers from highest to lowest percentile.  Others released searchable databases by district, borough and school.  Still others, such as the New York Times, published the data with lengthy addenda explaining that the scores shouldn’t be used to rate or rank teachers, since it was a single indicator based on outdated, faulty data with a ridiculously wide margin of error.

(These explanations, by the way, were provided by the DOE itself, along with a recommendation that the media treat the data fairly as it was intended.)

However, the New York Post, the paper that initiated the FOIL request, didn’t stop at a mere spreadsheet of names and numbers.

After releasing its own version of the teacher data—with language so editorialized it hardly passed as hard news—the Post released a story about the alleged parent uproar over a Queens teacher who received the lowest scores in the city.

The story’s lead paragraph read: “The city’s worst teacher has parents at her Queens school looking for a different classroom for their children.”

In that one sentence, the Post lost the last vestige of journalistic integrity.

The controversy over the TDRs embroils teachers, administrators, parents and political leaders.  The arguments range from the valid to the ludicrous.

The data was flawed. 

It’s impossible to rate teachers based on only one indicator in each subject.

The data doesn’t take into account the myriad of extenuating circumstances.

The DOE secretly wanted the scores released. 

The DOE supposedly encouraged media outlets in their FOIL requests and even expedited the process. 

The DOE got into a devil’s compact with the UFT leadership, the mayor, Fox News, the Republican Party, the Tea Party, the Freemasons, Jesuits, the Vatican, the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderburg Group to publicly tear out the entrails of “ineffective” teachers…

(Okay, that last one was far-fetched—but you get the point.)

The actual release of the data is a moot point.  Until a new law or federal court ruling decides otherwise, the scores are out, and will probably be released again in the future (even if the DOE itself stopped collecting such scores).

The real issue, one that has an even farther-reaching implication than the classroom, is how media outlets use that data.  While it is true that the First Amendment gives newspapers quite a bit of leeway, there are definite boundaries that journalists cannot cross.

When a newspaper publishes a story based on a flawed, incorrect and unsubstantiated source, it crosses that boundary.

When a newspaper uses false data to publicly shame an individual, it is not only unethical.  It is slanderous.

The inaccuracy of the TDRs was acknowledged by teachers, administrators, and even the DOE itself.  All parties agreed that the data was imperfect.  What’s more, the data has such a wide margin of error that any percentile derived from it is akin to throwing a dart at a dartboard blindfolded.

Thus, the TDRs are a flawed, inaccurate, and therefore non-credible source—by open admission from the powers that be.

The papers can print the data, as long as their stories about them have multiple sources discussing the data.  So far, all the newspapers covered this base (in the Post’s case, just barely.)

Yet the labeling of teachers in superlatives, as “best” or “worst”, based on TDR data does not pass the journalistic smell test.  Along the same vein as the Queens teacher’s article, the Post also published a piece about teachers with the highest percentiles.  The following was the lead to the story:

“The city’s top-performing teachers have one thing in common: They’re almost all women.”

Not only does this statement say absolutely nothing (considering the vast majority of teachers in the city are women anyway), but it makes a dangerous classification—the same kind of classifying that drove that Queens teacher to a virtual lynch mob by ill-informed parents.

When news stories throw around a value judgment based on one singular measure—a measure that is so ridiculously flawed even its authors disavow it—the journalists behind these stories used what amounts to false, unsubstantiated information. 

It is, in effect, mocking (or exalting) people based on a probable lie.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is the textbook example of slander and libel.

The New York Post’s editorial pages have attacked teachers’ union and teachers for years now.  Yet this frenzied hatred never hit the news headlines as hard as it did this weekend. 

They have used unsubstantiated, inaccurate data to shame teachers, using the unfortunate quotes of ill-informed parents in the process as they whip up support for their negativity.

Worst of all, they have the gall to couch this journalistic lynching as hard news.

The New York Post should stop calling itself a newspaper.  It is now no better than a common propaganda pamphlet that panders to the lowest common denominator.  At times I even agreed with the Post politically—but their tactics disgust me.

Finally, for those whose reputations have been ruined by this pseudo-journalism, there is a weapon far more powerful than any ordnance.  It usually has a suit, a briefcase, and an avalanche of legal motions.

See you in court, Rupert.

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Videos for the Classroom: Interview about “Slavery by Another Name”

A few nights ago, PBS showed a documentary that chilled me to the bone.

Slavery by Another Name is a documentary based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.  It details an often-overlooked chapter in African American history: the  “convict lease” system that placed thousands of Southern Blacks in a state of virtual slavery after the Civil War.

When the Reconstruction occupation forces left the South in 1877, Southern whites retook state governments and forced Blacks into a secondary status.  Part of this process was a series of laws that entrapped Black men under seemingly innocent conditions, such as looking at a white woman, walking on a railroad, etc.

Once in custody, these men faced exhorbitant fines and were forced to pay for the cost of their arrest.  Unable to pay such “debts”, these prisoners are leased out to plantations, mines, brickyards, railroads, quarries, steel mills and road building contractors.  State governments made millions in revenue leasing prison inmates to private companies as a source of cheap labor.

These men endured brutal conditions and backbreaking labor in a state of bondage thanks to a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which does not bar slavery in the case of punishment for a crime. 

It was a system that persisted until World War II.

The video is a conversation that takes place at the National Museum of American History between Blackmon and Bernard and Shirley Kinsey about the book.  For those unfamiliar with the period, the conversation is a real eye-opener to Blackmon’s award-winning research.

Also, read his book and watch the documentary.  You’ll be just as shocked as I was.

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Website Review: Mission 2 of Mission: US – “Flight to Freedom”

All video game franchises attempt to improve with time. With PBSMission:US, however, the delays were making us question whether there was going to be a second mission after all.

It has been a long time coming, but the second installment marks a solid improvement on the original.

The Neighborhood last visited this PBS interactive history game with its inaugural mission, which dealt with a young Boston boy dealing with the events leading up to the American Revolution. While we found it a worthy start, the mission was somewhat flawed with excessive dialogue, cartoonish, anime-like characters and lack of visceral action.

In this second mission, “Flight to Freedom”, the game moves to the mid-1800s as the slavery issue divides Americans. Lucy is an enslaved girl on the King plantation in northern Kentucky, near the Ohio River and the free state of Ohio. The story follows her daily life on the plantation, assisting fellow slaves escape north, escaping to freedom, being recaptured and sold at an auction, and hopefully fleeing again to freedom. Along the way, Lucy encounters abolitionists, free blacks, other slaves, overseers, haughty masters, slave catchers and others in American society with varied views on slavery.

Many of the flaws of the first mission have resurfaced. The Japanese-like characters and the excessive dialogue have remained. Also, certain aspects of the background seem somewhat sanitized. The slave quarters seem a little too spiffy (they look so well-built they resemble Levittown tract-housing), the fields seem a little too tidy, and the overseer and slave catchers seem a little too diplomatic (I’m sure they probably cussed more in real life).

The choice of crop at the plantation, furthermore, is interesting. Instead of cotton, tobacco or rice, the King plantation grows hemp, a once-valuable crop used in making bags, coarse clothes and especially rope.

I just wonder if my more street-savvy students would snicker at such a harvest, given hemp’s more potent and illegal cousin. Is that Snoop Dogg hanging out a little too long around those burning leaves?

Yet besides the cartoons, the sanitation and the subtle references to illicit drugs, Mission: US’ second mission does have marked improvements on its predecessor.

“Flight to Freedom” now allows the main character Lucy to say and do a wider variety of things. Unlike previous missions, which tend to move the story forward a little too linearly, Lucy can now be sneaky, aggressive, persuasive, obedient…even violent if she wants to. The game allows you to collect badges based on how you interact with characters and the situation. The badges also help you finalize the ending of the story the way you want it to end.

This makes the action more human and realistic—making the story all that more relatable to today’s students. After all, to make all enslaved people and free blacks look and act the same is a gross disservice. These people reacted to their situation in varied ways. It was a fine line between a seemingly obedient house servant and a Nat Turner-like insurrection.

Also, the dialogue is remarkably apt for the period. The first mission had colonists that sounded more like Nebraska than Boston. This time around, you can hear the twangs of the Ohio valley, from the drawls of the Kentucky planters and slave catchers to the Midwest nasal airs of Ohio abolitionists.

Lastly, the developers added a nice feature called Think Fast! About the Past for each mission. It’s a timed trivia game that allows you to learn more background information about each time period. Thankfully, the second mission game includes brutally honest information about the nineteenth century.

No, most northern whites were not abolitionists. Most abolitionists didn’t necessarily believe in racial equality. And life for free blacks in Canada was not exactly peaches and hockey sticks.

I hope in the future, PBS will develop missions with more action, longer plotlines and more realism. Yet “Flight to Freedom” is a great leap forward for the Mission:US franchise and it bodes well for upcoming installments.

Let’s see how long it takes to release Mission 3…let’s suppose by the end of the decade ;)

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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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A Dear John Letter to my Textbooks

Dear NYC Social Studies Core Curriculum Textbooks published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

This is a difficult letter for me to write…and an even more difficult letter for you to read, so I hope that you are sitting down.

Remember when we first met? I trembled in excitement upon hearing of a textbook option for New York City’s social studies curriculum. Once I had you (or the fourth grade version of you at the time), it was as if a great weight was lifted from me—finally, a concrete guide to instruction.

I was smitten just by looking at your spine…the glow off your glossy cover…the sharp color photos that littered almost every page.

Those first few months were incredible, weren’t they? Every day was something new, something exciting. We were so wild, so adventurous…we could take on the world. To be honest, we were into some really kinky shit, but that was all in the fun.

Each year, another book would await me, and my love affair renewed. The roller-coaster ride we shared made the mundane phone order to the central office in Tweed so—dare I say—exhilarating. The maps, the optional activities, the worksheets and games: at last, I thought, I found the one.

Yet, something changed.

At first, I thought it was just me. After a while, we settled into our routine. Occasionally, you provide a surprise to spice things up—a game on the Internet, or a music selection. That, however, was the exception to the rule. To be fair, that routine suited me fine…for a while.

Then, maybe it was my weakness…but I started to feel restless. The chapters and units weren’t doing it for me anymore. I felt trapped.

It was then that I met someone else…more like some other people, plural.

There were some websites on the Internet. I was leery, at first. But then, they lured me with their siren song of primary source documents, streaming video and interactive games. Once I saw the ever-changing and ever-expanding volumes of media, lesson plans, worksheets and graphic organizers, that old excitement, that feeling of adventure exploded over me again.

I had mentioned that I was attached, that I couldn’t turn my back on my beloved. They, in turn, mentioned some shocking things about you: that you don’t fact-check your information that well, that there are numerous mistakes in historical maps, that terminology and vocabulary are often misstated.

Worst of all, they said that by watering down the content for the sake of “readability”, you were holding me back—and even worse, holding my students hostage to shoddy literature.

I wouldn’t believe it. They were just jealous, after all, I thought. How could they appreciate the passion, the connection we have…besides, if there were flaws, you would have told me, right?

Right?

Well, I did some digging myself. On page 161 of the grade 3 book, this is what you say about the Roman Empire:

“The Roman Empire lasted about 500 years, but then broke apart. It had grown too large for its rulers to control. However, ancient Rome still affects the world with its ideas about government, architecture, and more.”

Fair enough, it is only for 3rd graders, but sometimes you water down way too much. Look at page 163:

“In the mid-1900s, World War II broke out. Many countries fought in this war, including Italy. Italy was on the side that lost.”

Umm, that’s it? No mention of the nightmare of a 21-year fascist dictatorship that preceded it? No mention of the other countries that bear more responsibility for losing—the ones that had more blood on their hands. Those kids can get that…why do you treat them like morons?

If that’s not bad enough, I found outright lies—lies that you should’ve told me about. Why did you keep it a secret that the leaders of the New Netherland colony were incorrectly called “governors” instead of the correct “directors-general”?

Why does a map of North America in the 18th century use flags from another century? I see an 1801 British flag, a 1793 French flag, and a 1981 Spanish flag.

I’m not even going into the problems in the 5th grade book.

Why? Why did you hold me back so many years? Why the lies? The deceit? The lack of clarity and depth of content?

I’m sorry, but our relationship has really run its course. It’s over.

Please, no tears…it’s not entirely your fault. I was too stupid to realize how badly written you were. I didn’t see your limited vision and lack of depth.

Basically, we’ve really grown apart these past few years. I expanded my base of knowledge and resources through the internet, seminars, grants and lectures.

You just can’t grow past your binding.

You were suffocating me, and screwing my students in the process. There’s nowhere else for this to go.

Believe me, it’s better for both of us.

Goodbye, and good luck. Perhaps we’ll see each other again… that odd day that I need to waste a period with busywork in June.

Just don’t wait up for my call. Sorry, babe.

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