Tag Archives: United States

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.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Bring Back Social Studies – From the Pages of The Atlantic

President Bush signing the bipartisan No Child...

The beginning of the end: President Bush signing NCLB at Hamilton H.S. in Hamilton, Ohio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even if you’ve said it a thousand times, it doesn’t hurt to say it again.

Mr. D’s much more industrious little sister, Dr. D (yep, she finished that doctorate!) drew my attention to this recent article from The Atlantic.  The article advocates stopping the current trend towards neutering social studies as a distinct discipline in American education.

While the article itself breaks no new ground, it encapsulates the history and status of the issue well so that newbies to the struggle get an eye opener–whilst the veterans get a refresher course in the shitstorm that is No Child Left Behind.

Jen Kalaidis opens with the decline of student time spent studying social studies, to a whopping 7.6 percent.  More importantly, she details the history of this decline–and contrary to popular belief, it didn’t happen in the Cold War.

Kalaidis does mention the 1957 Sputnik launch as a “Pearl Harbor” moment in American education.  From that point on, millions of dollars poured into math and science programs to keep up the space race against the Commies.  Yet to assume education was a zero-sum game at the time would be false: social studies did maintain its status through the Cold War, in fact peaking in 1993-1994 at 3 hours per week on average in US classrooms.

The reasoning is simple: the Cold War was more than just a technological race.  It was a battle of ethics and morals, of hearts and minds.  Social studies was at the center of that struggle, for better or worse.  At its worst, social studies channeled jingoistic American patriotism into half-truths and propaganda.  At its best, social studies provided the historical foundations, civic structure and critical analysis that helped shape a better America–one that could hopefully achieve that moral high ground against the Soviets.

The real decline came with No Child Left Behind–and here is where the article gets mundane.

To old-timers of the education wars, Kalaidis’ retread of the decline of social studies–the sacrifical lamb at the altar of Common Core, ELA, and STEM–is an old argument shouted out in hundreds of teacher lounges, conferences and workshops across the country.  The emphasis on reading, math and science pushed social studies to a secondary discipline–one that was often not subject to standardized testing.  If you couldn’t use a number 2 pencil, it wasn’t worth knowing.

We also all know how important it is to develop critical thinking and analysis skills, something social studies was designed for.  If taught well, social studies makes students take ownership of history, of civics and economics, leading them to their own ideas, conclusions and opportunities.

One aspect of this decline that Kalaidis did mention–and should be mentioned more–is the “civic achievement gap.”  The lack of civic education has created an underclass not only ignorant of their own government, but wholly unable or unwilling to vote, to participate in local politics or pursue careers in public service.   As much as we rag on the government, we need one–a competent one–and that involves competent people working in all levels.  To ignore the civic gap in low-income Americans is tantamount to disenfranchising them.

Lastly, Kalaidis does mention steps to move social studies back to the forefront.  Obama has decried the lack of civic education in NCLB.  So has Arne Duncan in a half-hearted article in the NCSS journal in 2011 (I ripped him a new one about it).  Yet most of this is lip service, or that dreaded word integration (as in subject integration, not race).

The reality is that there is no concrete move to make social studies important again in American schools.  And I hate to admit it–but the conspiracist in me thinks the decline of social studies is deliberate.

When the lunatics run the asylum, they make sure no one figures out they’re really lunatics.  Without proper social studies education, there’s no way to tell the difference.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Constitution Day – Here’s what all the hubbub’s about

The San Marino constitution of 1600

The San Marino constitution of 1600. The only thing it has going over ours is its cool cover page (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Attached below is the whole document for your fun perusal, but chew on this:

Of every country in the world with a written constitution, only San Marino, little San Marino, has a constitution older than ours (theirs goes back to 1600).

Dominican Republic – 32 Constitutions, the most of any country.

Venezuela, that bastion of “liberty” – 26 constitutions.

Ecuador, another bastion of “anti-imperialism” – 20 constitutions.

Haiti, the second oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere – 24 constitutions.

The Great Satan, the U.S.of A – just 1 (which we managed to change only 27 times in over two centuries).

Happy Constitution Day!

The Constitution in full via the National Archives.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Education War – Who is winning?

TrenchThe word “quagmire” gets thrown around pretty casually these days.

Civil unrest.  “Nation building.” Revolutions. Economic crisis. Natural disasters.  The Q-word has been used repeatedly for so many of the dangerous, sticky situations we find ourselves as a society.

Yet does the education war—the clash of “reformers” that has stretched over a decade—deserve the dreaded label?

It depends on what you hear.

Many news outlets, in print and online, picture the education reform movement as clearly on the defensive.  Attacks on charter schools have increased as never before, viewed as undemocratic, tyrannical and ultimately ineffective.  The latest report on how Eva Moskowitz’ Success Academy charter schools were caught on record attempting to push out a special-needs student is particularly galling.

New tests based on the Common Core Learning Standards showed massive drops in scores, giving a giant raspberry to all earlier reform attempts.  Companies cashing in on the testing craze—Pearson, McGraw-Hill, etc.—are under the microscope for botched questions and poor scoring in state after state.  The Common Core itself is under attack, as state after state elects to opt out of the supposedly nationwide initiative—regardless of the DOE carrot-and-stick policy about Common Core adoption.

Even reform stalwarts like Teach for America, Michelle Rhee and the Gates Foundation find themselves under siege as critics wail on their status and perceived impact on public education.

Yet if you look at actual policy, it paints a very different picture.

Education reformers, backed bipartisanly, have pushed standardized testing into almost every classroom in America.  Teacher evaluation systems across the country are aligning teacher effectiveness with student scores on state tests, with unions knuckling under in the process.  The Common Core, though embattled, is now the rule in reform strongholds like New York, California and Massachusetts.  Governors from both parties are backing more draconian measures to shut down failing schools.

Even worse, the media machine of education reform has recently launched a counter-offensive.  Long criticized for not developing effective veteran teachers, TFA and other reform movements are now saying it is BETTER to have short-term teachers who won’t become veterans because their enthusiasm, their innate intelligence and God’s good graces are enough to provide a quality education for children.

This conflict looks like it qualifies as a quagmire… and part of fault lies with the opposition.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of standardized tests, TFA, charters, etc.  Most readers here already know that.  However, I am a very big fan of improving teacher selection and preparation, which is high on the education reform agenda.   I don’t like that it’s relatively easy access into our profession, and it hurts our reputation in the process.

I have feet in two very different parts of the swamp.  They shouldn’t be.  Both sides should be having real, meaningful policymaking sessions by now.  Why aren’t they?

The education reform movement does not take the opposition seriously.

This is a similar problem with the Occupy Wall Street movement.  It was a grassroots movement, to be sure, but there was no definition of victory: no goals, no leadership, no direction.  It “started a dialogue”, and you know how much J.P. Morgan and the like shake in their wingtips over that.

Occupy Wall Street failed because Wall Street itself never saw them as a threat.  They didn’t become an electoral force, backing candidates allied to them for Congress and Senate.  They didn’t become a fundraising power, soliciting funds so that candidates from both parties kowtow to them in alternating order.  They didn’t become a lobby, oiling and adjusting the rusty gears of the filthy gearbox called legislative politics.

The Tea Party, on the other hand, though still disorganized nationally, managed to become a force because it knew how to monopolize the conversation and the ballot box.  It wasn’t just Koch Brothers money that put the Tea Party boot on the throat of the Republican Party.  The Tea Party quickly moved from “starting a dialogue” to “kicking the shit out of anyone in their way.” Moderate republicans fell like dominoes.  Their candidates, whether they won or lost, made sure the Tea Party was firmly at the big boys table in the RNC.

The Tea Party became a threat.  They became feared.  Occupy Wall Street didn’t…and the education reform opposition isn’t much of a fear either.

As much as the opposition boasts numerous media outlets, a lightning-rod leader in Diane Ravitch, and numerous movements like Save Our Schools, etc., there is little to show for their efforts other than scathing editorials, page after page of incendiary blogs, reams of online petitions and packed comments on Facebook pages.

Victory is not “opening a dialogue.”  It is when the policies of the state and nation are changed.  That does not happen with a spirited debate.

If the opposition wants a seat at the education table, rightly placed across from the reformers, it has to fight for it.

Like Wall Street, the only thing many of these reformers will listen to is their wallet and the ballot box.  The opposition needs to attack both, ferociously and brutally.

It must out-Koch the Koch brothers and out-Gates the Gates Foundation.  It must attain its own billionaire allies to fund PACs, lobbies, and candidates to state and national office.  It must push their agenda by any means necessary.

It has to turn the media conversation forcefully, repeatedly and effectively to counter the sound-bites of the reformers.   The phrase “for the children”, co-opted by both sides, is both tired and unrealistic.  It ceased to be about children a long time ago, unfortunately.  This fight is about the adults, and hopefully the policies will serve children best.  But to say that each side is exclusively serving the children is to be in an extreme state of delusion.

More than anything, however, the opposition needs to get its hands dirty with the business of politics.  I know many in the opposition, and they are smart, savvy, earnest people who genuinely want to make a difference.  They want to “maintain the moral high ground” and not stoop to the level of the Broads, Kochs, Gates and the rest.  Their methods, frankly, will do nothing but create coffee-house chatter.

To change policy is a filthy, brutal, demoralizing and demeaning business.  Only by beating the reformers at their own game can the opposition sit with them and negotiate as rivals to pound out the policies that best serve everyone.

As for maintaining the moral high ground…that only works when your opponent has morals to maintain.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Cool Link for the Classroom: The Periodic Table of the Presidents

Periodic Table of the Presidents, courtesy of Periodicpresidents.com

Periodic Table of the Presidents, courtesy of Periodicpresidents.com

A huge thanks to P.J. Creek for sharing his amazing work here at the Neighborhood.

P.J. is an eighth grade social studies teacher and came up with a fun new tool to look at the American Presidency.  Noticing that the traditional flashcards and reference pages didn’t give a complete picture, he decided to borrow from the science department and create a tool that isn’t simply to look at inert gases and carcinogenic radioactive compounds that last a split second.

The Periodic Table of the Presidents is just that: an ordered, logical snapshot of the last two centuries of the executive branch.  It’s numbered 1 to 44, and I don’t have to tell you who’s 1 and who’s 44 (do I really?).  Like the other periodic table, the PTOTP gives each president a two-letter designation, color based on political party, years in office, number of times elected, and other info such as assassinations, resignations, etc.

(Again, do we need to go over who got shot and who quit before they did?)

If it were simply a table, the PTOTP would be a nifty little poster for the classroom.  Thankfully, P.J.’s website includes information on each president, links to further information, electoral maps, a portrait gallery and even his own articles on interesting tales such as “Tecumseh’s curse“, or the death in office of any President elected in a year with a zero at the end (probably since debunked by Reagan and George W. Bush).

You can order the poster for your classroom for 10 dollars–but buy before July 11 and get 2 posters for one.  The PTOTP is a really neat way to explore the American presidency.  It shows the flow of parties, terms in office, important facts and especially how the transfer of power has endured pretty smoothly for two centuries.

At the very least, you can fool all those folks in the STEM departments into thinking you’re teaching science…hey, anything to save a good social studies teacher their job!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

New Posts Coming – End of Year Madness

schools-out-1wripf7Hey guys, sorry I haven’t been as productive as before.  The usual end-of-year wrap ups and such are keeping me extremely busy.  It also doesn’t help that I’m creating video lessons again for LearnZillion and I want as much of them done before the break as possible.

However, no fear.  A new post will be released this week, where I critique the US History Overview video lessons from Khan Academy.

(Isn’t it pretentious to name a school after a Star Trek supervillain?…oh wait, sorry, my bad ;)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized