Monthly Archives: March 2009

Slogans – The Un-Learning

Rebranding Wisconsin

Like Japanese people on powerboats and Germans singing in unison, slogans give me the creeps.

On the one hand, slogans are a quick, direct way to convey a message to adults and children without the need for nuance and explanation.    Most of our advertising is really just re-packaging of slogans:

“The UnCola”  “Built Ford Tough” “Shaefer.  The one beer to have when you’re having more than one.” – That last one’s my favorite.

Even schools have slogans.  My school works under the motto “Learning…Let’s Make it Happen!”  Although in truth you should replace “Learning” with “High Test Scores” and “Let’s Make it Happen!” to “Let’s Make Sure They Keep Going Higher So The Bosses Don’t Hassle Us!”

However, slogans can also intimidate, indoctrinate, and even brainwash.  The totalitarian regimes of the 1930s in Europe were chock-full of slogans: Germany’s were well thought-out (“Deutschland Erwache” – Germany Awake!) while the Italian versions were so silly even the Fascists laughed at them (“Credere, Obbedire, Combattere!” – Believe, Obey, Fight!).  However well meaning or silly, their impact is no less destructive–and that groupthink mentality continues today.

Look at the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), a charter school system that has drawn both praise and criticism.  Their slogan is “Work Hard.  Be Good.”   Their extra-long days are filled with pep talks, slogans, and chanting in unison.  Sound familiar?  Did George Orwell write the student handbook?  Maybe the brochure should state how they’re educating inner-city children to conquer Poland and supervise ethnic cleansing.

Enough knocking KIPP, they’re too easy a target.  Let’s move on to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, an earnest, well-meaning bunch just like all Wisconsin folks, I’m sure.  I’ve met quite a few and they’re great people–which is why they deserve better than the hackneyed slogan unveiled Monday March 16 by the governor and other state dignitaries.  As you can see by the logo on the post above, it states “Wisconsin.  live like you mean it.” and features what appears to be a mental patient doing a cartwheel.  So this means that only in Wisconsin do they “mean it”?  The other 49 states are living a lie, and should enjoy a life of brutal cold winters, summer sausage, high per-capita beer consumption and a side of grilled bratwurst?

Just as a helpful hint to other states in the Union, here are some new slogans to choose from:

“Florida.  Live One Kilo at a Time”

New York. Live Like You got a Pair”

“Massachusetts.  Live with the fact that David Ortiz won your World Series juiced like a mango (There I said it!)”

“Texas.  Live with the safety on”

“Louisiana.  Live to show your t**s”

“Colorado.  Live above the tree line.  We dare ya.”

“Hawaii.  Live with Barack Obama’s ‘birth certificate’ (wink, wink)”

“California.  Vive con gente que todavia hablan ingles…hasta ahorra”

These sound just as serious as “live like you mean it”, don’t they?  Maybe Wisconsin was just a little too hasty.  Sling back a Schlitz and think it over.  If you are going to use a slogan, try to tie in something about the state.

I would use bratwurst.  And not in that way,  you sickos.

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Parent Teacher Conferences – How to laugh at the lunacy

WARNING!  This particular conference may be a little risque.  Just remember to accentuate the positive points before dwelling on areas of improvement.  Then watch the child cry his/her head off.  Enjoy!

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Let’s Start with Standards

1991000177_a658462f6dIn life, we are full of standards.

We should dress appropriately for the occasion.  Uniformed personnel require certain standards of dress and conduct.  Military standards are rigorous to the extreme.  Even fast food must live to certain criteria; if the special sauce is missing, then it’s no Big Mac, just another fatty sandwich.

As educators, we also have standards that dictate who we are and what we do.  As rebellious as I can be, I actually like standards.  They provide a basic body of requirements that all teachers should strive for in their classrooms.  They protect teachers and students from missing out on a full education.  Finally, standards help students, teachers and parents set goals and benchmarks to meet that student’s learning needs.

However, there’s a fine line between comprehensive standards and strapping a kid to that Clockwork Orange learning machine.  The New York City Department of Education Social Studies Scope and Sequence for Grades K-8 may swing more toward the latter.  Its goals and intentions are great, and the scaffolding of early grades is phenomenal.  Yet grades 5-8 can only work if every droogie in the public school system gets strapped to one of these things and becomes a Yale history professor.

The opening statement has much to admire.  “Social Studies is the integrated study of history, geography, economics, government and civics. More importantly it is the study of humanity, of people and events that individually and collectively have affected the world.”   I couldn’t agree more.  The study of humans, the story of us–that is what the social studies are about.  Furthermore, students today have the most superficial grasp of our history.  Even time is an issue; I still get students who think that the Founding Fathers are still alive–except for Hamilton, who “got snuffed.”

Page 17 of this document, though, provides with one of the true problems of this program.  Up until 5th grade, the curriculum has been about building up students research, reasoning and writing while slowly including actual historical content.  5th through 8th grade was obviously bought at Home Depot–the kitchen sink included.

One problem is the 5th grade state test in November.  That means Unit One on Geography, scheduled for September/October, is out the window because that’s when the students are trying to cram everything they forgot in 4th grade.  Well, GPS can take care of that, right?  Now let’s see–November.  The United States.  The whole damn thing.  Everything from the Natives crossing over the land bridge in Alaska to Lee’s surrender to everything in between.  In one month.  By the way, I usually stay on this topic all year.  Call me crazy, but Native Americans alone takes up a month and a half.  I think next time I’ll condense all of U.S. history to a baseball stat card with wins/losses, on-base percentages, etc.  The Iroquois gave up a lot of earned runs in 1779.  Too bad the Confederacy did its best stats before free agency.

If that’s not enough, the rest of the year is taken up with the rest of the hemisphere, which the Department of Education (DOE) thinks of as America’s asterisk.  Two months are devoted to Latin America–the whole thing.  This covers everything from the Mayans to Eva Peron.  Students can produce a decent timeline of coups and juntas that look very nice on a bulletin board.  El Salvador’s is particularly useful.  If a student does the Argentine military juntas of the 70’s, remind him/her that dropping a Communist from a plane is not the best diorama subject.

Next up is Canada, from February to April.  Isn’t this a disordinately long time to dwell on our neighbor to the north?  I can usually end this in a week and a half–Canada was offered to join the Revolution, they didn’t, they played nice with the British Empire and were rewarded with a freezing cold federation of wacky right-wing nuts out west and a separatist Francophone population back east with an extension of Michigan in the middle.

Canadians do have hockey, a good point of entry for those students with behavior problems.  Show a class the grinning toothless wonders of the 1960 Montreal Canadiens and just see if that kid flings a ruler again.  If that doesn’t work, call the NHL to see if Bobby Clarke or Mike Milbury can scare your kids straight with a stiff crosscheck to the gut, or a good beating with his own overpriced Nike hightop.

6th grade isn’t much better.  Again with the hemisphere theme, this time on early civlizations of the Eastern hemisphere, which covers everything from Portugal to New Zealand.  I’d love to see the papers out of this class: Spartacus leads a revolt of Maoris, Ashanti and Gauls against the Ch’in Dynasty with the help of early Mesopotamians.   Their battle plan was whatever they remember from watching  300 for the umpteenth time on cable.

All of this is, of course, to be forgotten as 7th and 8th grades provide the United States depth and detail you needed in 5th grade.  You can picture that 8th grader now, thinking, “Thank God Mr. D stopped our U.S. history cold in December so we can cram about Fidel Castro and Gordie Howe.  That’s really useful for our U.S. history exam coming up.”  (flips finger in my direction)

To be fair, I’m familiar with a few of the creators of this plan, and they did the best they could under the circumstances.  The problem is that you may want students to know everything about something.  However, that student will have so many things in their head at the same time that the Teapot Dome Scandal and the Battle of Thermoplyae may be fighting for space with reading comprehension strategies and Pythagora‘s Theorem.  They shouldn’t–since social studies requires reading and math–but it happens, especially in upper grades where compartmentalization is still the norm.

Don’t look to me for an answer, either.  These standards will probably be tweaked over time, to be sure.  Hell, you don’t want me designing a curriculum anyway.  It’ll probably include the Draft Riots of 1863, methods of medieval torture, a study of Fijian dining habits with roast Caucasian and a history of the NCAA basketball tournament.

And not necessarily in that order.


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This Day in History 3/14: Albert Einstein

Today I’ll highlight a moment in history from March 14.  This doesn’t happen very often so don’t get used to it.

A big old Happy Birthday goes to Albert Einstein, born today in Ulm, Germany in 1879.  The great German physicist who obliterated previous notions of how we see time, space and energy has been lauded by so many people in so many ways that for me to continue doing this would be a waste of space.  The guy was the wiley-haired usher that led us to our seats for the Modern Age.

If students need a good biography similar to the assignment in my previous post, then Einstein would be a fantastic pick.  Not only was he a brilliant scientist, but also a prescient thinker on spirituality, pacifism, and philosophy.  Plus, he has a face that’s custom-made for a posterboard.

Happy Birthday, Herr Professor.

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The Jesus Problem: How to teach about “you-know-who”

“Religion is a great force: the only real motive force in the world; but what you fellows don’t understand is that you must get at a man through his own religion and not through yours.” – George Bernard Shaw

I was discussing with another teacher about the projects her students were doing.  For their exit project, her students were doing biographies of people that were a force for changing history–an admirable topic, to be sure.  Many chose typical but important people, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and the like.  Some were less than serious.  I’m still at a loss as to how Chris Brown was a shaper of history–he certainly re-shaped Rihanna’s face, the bum.

Yet one girl strived to outdo all the others, picking the one guy that everyone can either love or hate, the one dude that probably caused both the most joy and the most misery in the Western world.  Yeshua Bin-Yusuf, or to us non-Aramaic speakers, Jesus of Nazareth.  Yeah, that guy.

This girl had recently been taking catechism classes for her confirmation, so I can understand her enthusiasm for Jesus.  The miracles, the stories he told, his way with crowds–how can you not love the guy.  Then came the following: “Did you know that Jesus had a wife?”  Apparently, either Dan Brown was teaching her catechism class or she caught a late viewing of The DaVinci Code on her TV.  In fact, it was a Discovery Channel special that piqued her interest.

She then became confused when she cross-referenced some of the particulars of our cultural tradition with the Bible.  Where do they mention Christmas?  Why is there no date?  What about Easter?  How come it doesn’t say to not eat meat on a Friday?  Granted, this was an 11 year old girl, so she had every right to be confused…and excited.  She couldn’t wait to get started.

I have deep reservations about this.  I don’t want to crush her enthusiasm, but Jesus is a complex guy to cover in a public school.  The line between reporting and prostyletizing is razor thin.  Plus, there’s that pesky First Amendment to worry about…oh, this would all be much easier if we were all Puritans feeling guilty about whistling on the Sabbath.  There are a number of non-Christians in the school, and their parents would be none too pleased about Big J crashing the secular party.

On top of all that, Jesus is both “too big” a topic with “too small” a base of source material.  Can anyone really describe Jesus’ impact on our world in one book, let alone a sheet of paper?  His teachings formed the basis, both good and bad, of Western civilization as we know it.  More people died in his name than anyone else.  His followers number in the billions, and even they can’t agree on who gets the big guy’s seal of approval–the Catholics were first on the block, but the Lutherans and Calvinists thought the Papists “got soft” and claimed they were his true representatives.  This has morphed into denominations too varied and numerous to count.  Even the Mormons claim the guy, although I wonder if they got their dogma from the Bible or from Joseph Smith smoking too many bricks of opium in his hookah.

If we were to study Jesus as a historical figure, which he is, there is a grand total of one, count ’em, one secular research source that is even close to Jesus’ time period. The author wasn’t exactly unbiased, either.  Yosef Ben-Matityahu was a military leader in the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 AD against the Roman Empire.  He was cornered in a cave, and convinced his fellow rebels they should draw lots to kill each other since suicide was a Jewish no-no.  Somehow, he was the last one standing (surprise, surprise) and nonchalantly bargained for his life with his Roman conquerors, who then took him to Rome and gave him the Emperor’s Package (and not the Ceasers Palace kind, either).  Now re-christened Flavius Josephus, he proceeded to write two of the most important historical texts of the period: The Jewish War (75 AD) and The Antiquities of the Jews (94).  Jesus is mentioned in the first work, as well as his early followers.  However, remember that this is a guy that went to war with the Romans, was captured by the Romans, had his life spared, and was granted Roman citizenship with a pension.  Josephus was not going to crap where he ate, so don’t count on a completely fair view of Jesus (“And so he was crucified, but he probably had it coming.  A guy like that is just asking for it.”)

Historical research in education, particularly for students, has centered more and more on the use of primary source materials.  This is great for U.S. history, for World War II and the civil rights movement, but ancient history is a lot trickier.  The Bible is no help; most of it was written well after the fact, and all the Evangelists had an agenda: some wanted to tell the straight story, some wanted to brown-nose the Man Upstairs (Apostle John, I’m looking in your direction).  Roman records only have a notation that someone named Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem somewhere between 26-33 AD.  And we see how Josephus has his problems.  Furthermore, with the texts of Jesus’ life heavily censored by church authorities to show him in all his awesomeness, the bits about his “failings” (if any…did the thunderbolt come down yet?) were safely discarded.  Nobody needed to know that at the wedding at Cana, Jesus could only create white Zinfandel, which most Jews found pedestrian at the time.  Nor was it helpful to have the eyewitness accounts of the Romans who attended to his death (“He just wouldn’t stop squirming.”).

Finally, I think I would recommend that my student should choose a more modern person with a more limited scope of greatness.  Jesus taught the world that all human beings had value.  It’s a gigantic concept, one that an adult has trouble understanding, let alone an 11 year old.  For all her enthusiasm and drive, I think its best to leave Jesus to the biblical scholars and archaeologists.  Instead, maybe she should pick a person that will incur Jesus’ wrath.  Like Hitler, Stalin, or Bernie Madoff.  That way, at least she’s clear about his message.


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How Debunking Myths has become my “Call of Duty”

The 1940’s are making a comeback  in the South Bronx.

Gang-bangers are foregoing their Roca Wear and Akademiks for zoot suits.  Little Dominican girls are listening to Tommy Dorsey and wearing bobby socks.  One kid was suspended for jitterbugging into the principal, known as a “real square” among the children.

Okay, none of that is actually happening, but one part of the decade is a huge hit…the Second World War.  And it’s all thanks to “Call of Duty.”

This franchise has almost literally caused me to torch certain classrooms with a flamethrower.  It has become the bane of my existence.  There are days when I cannot complete a single lesson without some smiling urchin piping up about Guadalcanal or the body count at Bastogne. “Mr. D, when are we going to learn about the Pacific theater?  Were there Bangalores in the Revolutionary War?  Did the Native Americans trade for Browning Automatic Rifles?  How would Martin Luther King have done at El Alamein?”

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, “Call of Duty” is a series of games for the Playstation, XBox 360 and the PC that follow first-person accounts of Allied soldiers in WWII.  The games themselves are incredibly lifelike, and have expanded to an extent that you can experience almost any battle from Stalingrad and Kursk to El Alamein, Kasserine Pass, Iwo Jima and so on.  In the beginning , I was really pleased that the game has affected my boys this way.  It really got them excited about history, and it was really fun to hear them talk about campaigns of long ago.

Pretty soon, though, that euphoria turned into exasperation, as every waking minute was spent deflecting their focus away from “COD“.  When we covered the Constitution, their minds were outside Leningrad.  When we studied the Iroquois, they imagine what colonists could’ve done with Sherman tanks.  Believe me, it would be pretty cool to see natives fleeing from the business end of a “Purple Heart box,” but it has gone too far.

Parents, please…I try to cover (and I MEAN try) World War II at the end of fifth grade.  Keep “Call of Duty” out of sight until then.  Who knows–it could make for decent resource material for a project.  A lot happened before 1941, however, and they need to know that first.

And damnit, no more machine gun noises!

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Funny enough, I have the distinction of stopping and starting more blogs than I care to remember.  This blog, in particular, is about the perils of public education, as well as the successes.  Let’s just say that in my world, anything can happen.

What is my world, you ask?  A public school in the South Bronx, where 800 students hang on to my every word, especially about William Pitt’s strategy for the Seven Years’ War (Okay, this is probably where they fall asleep, but who cares.)  Through my own experiences, I hope to show what is happening…and what needs to happen…in public education.  Wow, I should stop pontificating; I sound like a Teach for America alum.

Anyway, I hope this blog is not only resourceful, but also humorous and enlightening.  Any suggestions are welcome.

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