Monthly Archives: May 2009

Wendy Kopp, why is TFA abducting so many Hoyas?

This weekend is Mr. D’s 10-year college reunion.  It’s been a while since I visited old Georgetown University, and it’ll be good to catch up with my old gang.  We’re all older, fatter, balder, on more medication–but probably not wiser.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Reading a recent article in Education Week, it appears that the old alma mater is getting recognized in another category: recruiting for Teach for America. 

For my casual readers in the Neighborhood, let me just say that TFA and I have an understanding.  Ever since my last rant at the institution, it may be best that we stay out of each others way.  You wouldn’t want to see me at Wendy Kopp’s cocktail party, that’s for sure.  The johnny-come-latelys of the TFA crowd, who cry that I’m a tool of the unions and unsympathetic to the plight of children, can cram it, for all I care.

I don’t like holding a grudge, though.  First of all, TFA is too easy a punching bag.  Many of the blogs linked on my page and on others do a far better job of deflating the Kopp Reich than I.  Second, it does my readers little good to hear me complain about an institution with which I have little, if any, connection.  So I’m offering an olive branch to Wendy Kopp.  Let’s play nice, shall we?  We can have a drink, a few laughs…we can both torture kids with standardized tests.

I just have one condition.  Please stop taking so many students from Georgetown.

The sidebar of the Education Week article, which covers the record number of applications from college seniors for TFA, also gave some stats on the class of 2009.  4,100 young people will be invading classrooms next year–which is little assurance to me, as my school may lose a couple of positions.  Georgetown University’s class of 2009 had 11 percent of the seniors apply for TFA.  It is considered the largest employers of graduates on campus, joining the likes of Brown, Emory, the University of Chicago and the University of Connecticut.

Now I’m not against my fellow Hoyas pursuing a career in education.  I worry because I know my own classmates.  Whereas most are pretty decent people, I don’t see a lot of them with the stamina for a classroom in a high-needs area.  Sorry, Chip, but teaching Algebra I at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx is not like tutoring your 4th Form chums at Groton.  Also, a lot of my class was downright insufferable–the teachers’ pet type.  My kids would have a field day with these prizes.  It would be great to see that smarmy prick from my US Political Systems class get the heave-ho out a classroom window.

It must be a dismal economy that so many of my fellow Hoyas are opting for the TFA experience.  This, also, is a problem.  The economy is driving lots of people to service, but for the wrong reasons.  The teacher you want to keep is not the accounting major who’s waiting to ride out the unemployment numbers before landing the next seat at Goldman Sachs.  It’s the student who has the choice of any corporate cush-job in America, yet CHOOSES to join the noble profession of teaching. 

So Wendy, I have to ask: What’s with so many Hoyas?  Is the economy really that bad?  Or did Duke and Harvard send you to steal away talent so that their schools can get the plush jobs?  Is this payback for us taking John Thompson III away from Princeton?  Were you a Villanova fan in a past life?

I don’t know if we can ever have the answer.  Maybe it’s too complex for my union-addled mind.  What I do know is that the high rate of Hoya participation makes us look bad.  It makes us look like do-gooders and missionary-pariahs.  Its bad enough Georgetown alums are in positions at every level of government and business–positions that allow us to fuck things up in spectacular ways.  Now they’re marshalled into classrooms to teach children badly until the economy improves.  If societal destruction is your aim, we can do more damage in other sectors of society, like the White House.   

If you let in any more Hoyas, Wendy, make sure they really want to make a difference.  Otherwise, these kids will be wasting my kids’ valuable time–time they should be spending on their projects on the civil rights movement.

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This Day in History 5/27: Sinking the Bismarck

We haven’t done one of these in a while, and since we’re covering the Second World War with my older students, this seemed appropriate.

Today is the anniversary of the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck in the North Atlantic on May 27, 1941.  The ship was Germany’s latest big weapon in attempting to stop American relief shipments to Great Britain.  A veritable terror in its time, the Bismarck had engaged and sunk the British battle cruiser HMS Hood in the Battle of the Denmark Strait on May 24. 

With the loss of the venerable Hood, the British Navy vowed to “Sink the Bismarck!: by any means necessary.  Finally cornered in the North Atlantic, the Bismarck went down after a ferocious 3-hour shelling.  The wreckage of the Bismarck has since been excavated by Robert Ballard as well as Titanic director James Cameron.

Above is a video featuring Johnny Horton’s rendition of the song “Sink the Bismarck.”  Horton had a knack for historical songs, as he’s best known for “The Battle of New Orleans”, referring to the 1815 encounter featuring Andrew Jackson.  Definitely use the video as a welcome break from the end-of-year hubbub.

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Hold Your Gavels!: Our Top Supreme Court Rejects.

Like those of yore, Barack Obama’s  infant Presidency is filled with firsts:  first press conference, first foreign trip, first missile attack into a pesky Third World pariah. 

Now he can add his first Supreme Court nominee, with the appointment of federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor to the country’s highest bench.  Bronx-born, Puerto-Rican, female–Sotomayor is all things good Democrats smile about.  I like her as well, being that my students can have someone from the projects they can actually emulate who isn’t on MTV or in Rikers Island.  Plus, her vague voting record on hot-button issues can turn her into her predecessor, David Souter–a moderate in conservative clothing.

Before we pop the bubbly, however, there is a chance–a slim chance–that Sotomayor may not get the nomination.  If she does not, Sonia will not be alone.  34 nominees have been rejected since the first batch appointed by George Washington.  Let’s look at the memorable high court duds that have graced, or disgraced, our headlines, thanks to David Holzel’s article at Mental Floss, as well as the good folks at CQ Press and other sources.







Robert Bork – Children of the Eighties remember the facial hair alone–it made him look like an Amish villain in a James Bond film.  It wasn’t the only strike against him.   Ronald Reagan’s most famous appointee–after Sandra Day O’Connor–Bork lost largely because he voted and talked exactly as he thought, and he did it a lot.  A US Court of Appeals judge and a legal scholar, Bork produced reams of conservative opinions and legal reviews.  This didn’t mean he was a bad guy, but his liberal enemies made him out as a beast who eats minority children.  So the Amish Goldfinger lost after 12 days of contentous hearings.







Alexander Wolcott – We’re a year away from Revolution Round Two, or the War of 1812, and James Madison appoints the single most unpopular guy in the New World to the court.  Wolcott was defeated by widest margin of any nominee in history, 9-24.  The Connecticut customs inspector lost for two reasons: (1) he was a customs inspector, and never set foot inside a courtroom; and (2) He openly enforced two of the most unpopular laws in history, the Embargo and Non-Intercourse Acts.  These 1807 measures designed to prevent our getting sucked into the Napoleonic Wars actually caused widespread financial ruin, especially in his native Connecticut.  They were glad to see this bozo gone.










John Rutledge – Signer of the US Constitution, brother of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Rutledge had Chief Justice written all over him in 1795, when Washington appointed him to replace John Jay.  It was a recess appointment, and Rutledge had a few months to sit on the bench before the Senate would appoint him.  During that time, he decided to self-destruct.  He gave controversial speeches against the 1795 Jay Treaty, which normalized relations with Great Britain.  Rutledge also had been fighting alcoholism and bouts of insanity since his wife’s death.  When the Senate saw the rum-swilling, insane troublemaker in December, they made quick work of him, and rejected him on December 15. 








Douglas Ginsburg – After the Bork fiasco, Reagan attempted to quietly insert Anthony Kennedy as the nominee.  Conservatives in the Senate weren’t buying it, thus the Ginsburg situation.  Douglas Ginsburg was a conservative appellate judge with a solid record and one vice–marijuana.  Now, if this had been as a student, the Senate may have looked the other way, as they did with Clarence Thomas’ disclosure of pot use in law school.  The problem was that Ginsburg admitted to drape-smoking as an assistant professor at Harvard–thus, as a grown-up.  Grown-ups put away such childish things, Douggie (wink, wink) and the Senate agreed.










Ebenezer Hoar – The late 19th Century’s answer to Mike Hock and I.P. Freely.  Besides having an unfortunate name, Ebenezer had the altogether bigger problem of NOT being his namesake.  Ulysses Grant’s Attorney General lost his nomination approval because he was honest–pretty much the only honest man in Washington besides poor General Grant, himself.  A staunch advocate of civil service reform and merit advancement, Hoar was reviled by the Senate for not lining up to line their pockets with pork.  Hoar just couldn’t stoop to being a whore.








Wheeler Hazard Peckham and William B. Hornblower – These two poor guys were the victims of senatorial courtesy.  One of many unwritten rules of the Senate chamber is that a senator has the right to reject a court nomination simply because the nominee is from the senator’s home state.  In 1894, these New York attorneys were appointed by Grover Cleveland.  Just as quickly, Senator David Hill invoked his privilege to kill both nominations.










Caleb Cushing – Some nominees fail because they’re too conservative.  Some because they’re too liberal.  Cushing lost because no one could figure out where he stood on anything.  A former US Attorney General in the 1850s, Cushing was appointed by Ulysses Grant at the ripe old age of 74, which didn’t help matters.  During his career, Cushing was a Whig, a Tyler Whig, a Democrat, a Johnson Constitutional Conservative, and a Republican.  Being a political chameleon is okay today (think Bill Clinton) but political poison in the 19th Century.  Cushing made so many enemies on both sides that Grant just withdrew his name before the Senate could even vote. 

Maybe he should smoke a fat one with Ginsburg.  They could light their doobies with a flaming copy of the Dred Scott decision–finally putting it to good use.


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Spoofing History: Jack Black as Benjamin Franklin

Another installment in College Humor’s Drunk History series, this time with Jack Black as Benjamin Franklin.  No, I’m not being lazy.  The last four installments of the Jeopardy! cycle took a lot out of me.  Enjoy.

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Mr. D and the Jeopardy! Experience, Part IV

Todd Covert, who ended my reign as champion.

Todd Covert, who ended my reign as champion.

The Tuesday of my second show was bright and sunny.  It did not take long for storm clouds to gather.

I entered Sony Studios with the confidence of Muhammad Ali after dancing with George Foreman in Zaire.  Whatever was coming, I was ready.  Let’s see what this new batch of contestants had in store.

As we did the usual rigamarole of last session, I perused the group.  All of them, in my mind, were beatable.  By the rehearsal, however, there was one wild card–a local contestant named Todd Covert.  If anyone was capable of taking me down, it was him.  But that would have to be decided later.

The contestants for my first title defense were drawn.  The first was a demure, retired teacher from Groton, Connecticut named Mary Tuohy.  The second was Todd.  Crap.  Oh well, maybe the board will break my way, as it did last week.  Hopefully, even the Daily Doubles will finally work out to my advantage.

The entire show was a joust between Todd and I.  Mary didn’t even buzz in the entire first round.  By Final Jeopardy, we were both neck and neck, with Mary finally chiming in for some questions.  The category: “Historical Shakespeare.”  I owned this.  Even if you didn’t read all the plays, a cursory knowledge of the plotlines of the histories, coupled with an extensive knowledge of medieval British history–both of which I had–could get you clear.  Yet once again, it was unsure whether Todd or Mary could handle it, too.

“In ‘Henry VI, Part I’ this woman is described as ‘a holy prophetess new risen up'”


The one goddamn history that I never even glanced at.  Screw these late Lancastrians.  So I guessed.  If I reasoned it out, especially the time period, I should have written the right answer, which was Joan of Arc.  I used my balls, and went with Isabella of Spain.  I bet the farm.  Do the math.  In all fairness, Todd would’ve beaten me anyway since he could bet $1 more than my doubled score.

So I lost.  Todd ended up becoming a multi-day champion, so it was no slouch on my part to lose to him.   I had a great time, and its an experience I carry everywhere, especially my classroom.  One thing I like to do is create Jeopardy!-like games for my students to play–culminating in a 5th-grade trivia contest attended by much of the school.  We didn’t have time for it this year, but it is happening again next year. 

So that you can do the same, below are some links to Jeopardy templates you can use in your classroom:

Amy Johns at Fayette County Public Schools has a great site with game show templates:

You can also try Elaine Fitzgerald’s site at:

The following website has links to templates that are both browser-based and PowerPoint-based, in case you want to work outside of Powerpoint:

If you want to see how I did question by question on Jeopardy!, go to  It has all the games cataloged since the first syndicated game in 1984.  My games were the 25th season, Oct 10 and Oct 13, 2008.  See if you can do as well.

Anyone who wants to discuss the game show process further, especially people in the Neighborhood who will appear or plan to appear on Jeopardy!, can certainly post or e-mail with any questions.

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Mr. D and the Jeopardy! Experience, Part III

Jim Davis, the two-time champion I played against that fateful afternoon.  A great guy.

Jim Davis, the two-time champion I played against that fateful afternoon. A great guy.

Mr. D, for those who missed last week's post.

Mr. D, for those who missed last week's post.

The beginning of my television debut did not go well.

To start, Johnny Gilbert mispronounced my name.  He had to retape my intro during the break.  Not an auspicious beginning.

Since it was the end of the taping day, the lights and audience had increased the studio’s temperature considerably, and I was flopping sweat all over my clothes.  The makeup people placed tissues on my podium so I can strategically daub my forehead when the camera was not on me.  For the first ten minutes, I needed them.

After answering the first question, I went on a cold streak.  By the first commercial break, I was $1400 in the hole.  It was no longer a matter of winning.  It was now a matter of getting out of this in the black, with some degree of dignity.  The last thing I wanted to do was talk to Alex Trebek.  Besides, the years have not been kind to him–his makeup looked almost clownish at close glance.  Must be a lot of divots to fill in.

Yet I returned Alex’s banter about my die-cast Ferrari collection, which got a laugh.  It relaxed me, somewhat. It was just a game, I remembered.  Don’t look at the score and have fun.  By the end of round 1, I managed to pull myself to $400, with returning champion Jim Davis (a really nice fellow, by the way) with $2200 and Hannah Lynch with $8000. 

The hardest category had to be about Thomas Hardy.  We hardly got any of those right.  The only reason I had a correct answer of “Return of the Native” was because I remembered the Monty Python sketch about Hardy writing it as a sports event.

By the second round, I was in a zone.  The sweat had subsided, and I only flubbed on one question early.  By the end of the second round, I was in second place with $13,600.  Jim had $12,400 and Hannah had the lead with $17,200.  Now it was more like it.  Even if I lose, I can lose with dignity and not look like a complete ass. 

Yet, as I was doing the math, it dawned on me…I could actually win this.  It all depended on the Final Jeopardy category: “Biblical AKA.”  I knew a thing or two about the Bible.   The problem was that I was Catholic, and Catholics have a distinct disadvantage to our Protestant brethren when it comes to Biblical knowledge, insofar as Protestants actually read the darn thing.  So it had to be something that was not the Psalms or the Beatitudes or any of Paul’s letters–an obscure, yet knowable Old Testament factoid that could flub anyone.  

Plus I had to bet the farm since it was the only way I was going to win.

Up came the question, “This second king of Israel was the ‘sweet singer of Israel.'”  Easy, it was David.  Yet it seemed too easy: any half-practicing Episcopalian or lapsed Catholic could figure this one out, I thought.  So it was up to the final showing, and hopefully things will break my way.

When Jim’s response was read–“Who was David?”–two things happened.  First, I sighed relief.  Then, I heard Hannah quietly click her tongue.  Holy shit.  Had she flubbed it?  Is she faking it?  Alex came to me next, and my massive wager which put me in the lead, for now. 

Last was Hannah, and she answered “Who was Solomon?”  I didn’t hear anything from then on.  Not even the fact that Alex Trebek just announced that I was the new Jeopardy! champion.  It seemed too matter-of-fact, too easy.

The crowd exploded.  As Alex shook my hand, he told me that after my poor start, they were thinking of calling an ambulance for me.  Funny.  At any rate, there I stood, next to Hannah and Jim and Alex Trebek, while people were hurredly getting forms for Jim and I to fill out.  Jim didn’t leave empty handed–he was a two-day champion with over $62,000.  It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, and we chatted all the while afterward, as my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, and Jim’s wife all gathered with me at the door to the green room. 

That day was a roller-coaster ride, and my win was probably the most dramatic of the day.  Even watching it now, it seems so odd.  But it happened.  I was a Jeopardy! champion.   The rest of the week, until my next taping day on Tuesday, was a victory tour in my mind.  Even though I couldn’t, it was hard to not tell everyone my good fortune.

Part IV, and the last, will be my dramatic exit as champion, and some sites so teachers can play game shows in their classroom.

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Mr. D and the Jeopardy! Experience, Part II

Mr. D on Jeopardy!  Ain't he a handsome devil.

Mr. D on Jeopardy! Ain't he a handsome devil.

Los Angeles is still a different planet to me. I can still remember going to my sister’s wedding, sitting next to my father. After numerous trips to visit her, Dad had only this to say:

“These people are weird. They’re pretty stupid, too.”

It’s hard to argue with that.

Take the roads, for example. On the day of my appearance on Jeopardy!, I was in my sister’s apartment, the home base of the morning’s operations. Since she lived in the northern part of the city, just south of Griffith Park, getting to the Culver City studios would be a hike. So I Googled the directions, as I normally would. It showed a logical, straightforward path using highways and one local street.

My sister gave me this look, a look which said, “Why not nail yourself to a hunk of wood and hang suspended over Los Feliz Boulevard. That would be less painful than the route you have in your hand.”

So we took PhDini’s route, which looked like a staircase to Hell. Left here, Right on Sunset, Left on La Brea, Right on Pico, Left on Crenshaw, Right on Venice…I forgot the rest, but somehow I made it to the Sony Pictures lot. Sis alleges this was faster than the freeway. According to most Angelenos, EVERY route is faster than the freeway.

As I got to the gate, the casting director who called me the month before greeted me and we boarded a tram bus to the Jeopardy! lot. I have to admit, it was really cool to be on a working studio and not on the little tram tour–although I expected more noise. The hanger-like sound lots are eerily quiet from the outside. The casting director was, like me, from Brooklyn. Insert California transplant cliché here.

Apparently, since I elected to stay with PhDini instead of fork up dough for my accommodations, I did not arrive with most of the other contestants. They were waiting for me, but they didn’t seem to mind. I missed a lot of the pre-show harangue from the casting team–the same team with the Hollywood smiles from June. I hung up my extra wardrobe (we’re mandated to bring three wardrobe changes) and helped myself to coffee in the green room.

Each of us then went for makeup. The makeup people were gushing over my tanned complexion, which I worked on assiduously on a beach vacation in Rehoboth, Delaware. One of them said I had the perfect skin for television. Made up, dressed and caffeinated, I chatted with my fellow contestants.

In all honesty, I was expecting hyper-intelligent, yet hyper-competitive Ivy-League types and Ph.D candidates from MIT, the kind that would slit their mother’s throat to get the A in the economics class at Harvard. You remember those guys—they sat at the front of the class, kept answering inane questions to show their paper-thin intelligence or the fact that they sacrificed their social skills for doing all the month’s readings ahead of time, and always seemed to hang around the professor after class. I would’ve preferred the weird dictionary lady from the audition.

What I got was the exact opposite. On the whole, my fellow contestants had to be the nicest, friendliest people I’ve met here. They came from all walks of life and all over the country, and the last thing they were thinking of was beating you. They were pleasant, warm, pretty relaxed, and in a really fun state of mind. This was a game show, after all, and we were all in the same boat, so there was no point into finding an “edge.”

Rehearsal came next, and we were all escorted to the stage. It was cold, empty, and a lot smaller than I thought. The game board was showing cartoons as test patterns. I got up to the podium and felt the paint–cheap paint job, I thought. Maybe this was due to the High-Definition broadcasts. I sneaked around to Alex Trebek’s podium, just to see from his vantage point–he wouldn’t show until the actual taping. This was the point when it became real: I’m going to be on television, so I better not look like an ass. Maybe another browsing of the Norton Anthology would do me good.

It took some time to get used to the timing of the buzzer. The buzzers are activated by a guy offstage with a button. He waits for Alex to finish speaking, then presses a button to light up white Christmas lights around the board (you can’t see them on TV). My button technique took some doing, yet I felt confident enough that I could manage. It also helped that we joked around during rehearsal, doing our best Sean Connery impersonations. I chimed in with “An Album Cover” (“Anal Bumcover”).

Before each game, two names were drawn to be the contestants against the returning champion, this time a grad student from Boston. He was good, and we were all waiting for him to go down because no one wanted to tangle with his buzzing prowess. I did not get called first, which was a relief. The remaining contestants sat in a sectioned off corner of the audience while the three combatants down, Johnny Gilbert, the announcer, makes his windup speech, introduces the contestants, and out comes our hero Mr. Trebek.

It amazes me how many mistakes are made in the course of taping. Alex must be getting old because he flubs on a number of questions. Yet what really impresses is what you don’t see. On commercial breaks, Alex re-records these questions so that the editors can splice together a clean, finished product. Johnny Gilbert also re-records some contestant introductions. It’s not just clean-cut white kids anymore—all those Asian, Indian and Eastern European names have gotten poor Johnny tongue-tied.

What isn’t so clean is Alex’s extemporaneous banter with the audience, which he uses to relax and maintain his flow. Most of his responses are rather mundane: personal details, what it’s like to work on the set, does it ever get tiring, etc. He handles these easily enough. Sometimes, though, his inner voice gets the better of him:

Little Girl: “Do you have any pets?”

Alex: “Do I have any pets? What pets do you have?”

Little Girl: “Two kitties and a bunny!”

Alex: Two kitties and a bunny?! Why don’t you bring them over to my house and feed them to my dogs!”

This was among the tamer comments he made. If for nothing else, Alex’s off-color remarks and dark humor kept the taping session moving along.

Five shows were taped that day. I sat through four shows, growing more nervous by the hour. Plus it was getting warm in there. By the time my name was called for the last show, I was sweating like a hog and couldn’t button my coat. The makeup people—the same people who complemented me on my skin—were daubing frantically while I was getting miked up.

The Alan Shepard prayer kept ringing in my head, “Lord don’t make me f**k up.”

Part III will cover the show and the aftermath.

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