Monthly Archives: July 2009

The Never-ending Debate on Charter Schools – Clara Hemphill in Huffington Post

The Huffington Post today has an opinion piece by Clara Hemphill, senior editor at the Center for NYC Affairs at New School University, entitled “Do Charter Schools Help or Hurt?”

Ah, the charter school, that bastion of capitalist educational theory.  Let’s give a choice to students who otherwise would be doomed to a life of baggy pants, welfare and drive-bys.  Seems like a worthwhile cause, doesn’t it? 

While I see the importance of charters in providing an individualized environment for children and often improving student achievement, not everyone can go to a charter school.  Lots of kids are left in the lurch.  So what do we do?  Kill the charters or make so many as to render the public school system meaningless? 

I’ll let the Neighborhood dwell on this question.  Hemphill’s column is reprinted below or can be accessed through the Huffington Post.

When officials at P.S. 123, an ordinary neighborhood school in Harlem, were forced to call the police this month to keep a charter school from taking over its classrooms, I was reminded how charter schools make it harder for neighborhood schools to succeed.

Some time ago, I visited P.S. 42 in the Bronx, just a block away from a charter school, the Carl C. Icahn Charter School. Both schools serve poor children, and neither school has an entrance exam. However, the charter school gets children whose parents know enough to sign up for a lottery in April – and who know in the spring where they will be living in the fall. The neighborhood school gets lots of children from nearby homeless shelters, who come and go during the year. The charter school has a majority of African-American children, most of whom speak English at home. P.S. 42 has a majority of Latino children, many of whom speak only Spanish. Teachers say children who can’t meet the academic or behavioral requirements of the charter school are encouraged to leave and wind up at P.S. 42, which has a large number of children receiving special education services. Despite these challenges, P.S. 42 received an “A” on its latest school report card. Still, teachers say their job would be a lot easier if all the schools in the neighborhood took their fair share of the most needy and vulnerable kids.

P.S. 123 in Harlem – where the skirmish over space broke out — is a fairly successful school that benefits from strong leadership, an active parent body, and support from a number of elected officials. When the Harlem Success Academy II, a charter school that shares the P.S. 123 building, hired movers to remove furniture from several P.S. 123 classrooms so the charter school could expand, teachers occupied the classrooms and halted the takeover, as reported in the New York Daily News. A Department of Education spokeswoman says there was a misunderstanding and the charter school was ordered to stop.

In poor neighborhoods with terrible local schools, charters may serve as an escape for some children whose parents can navigate the admissions process, much as “gifted and talented” programs serve middle class parents who want to escape what they consider inadequate local schools. But what we need is a strategy to improve schools for all children – not an escape for a few.

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Mr. D’s Bastille Day Flashback: “Citizen Smurf” from 12/7/2002

The following is by special request of a friend of the Neighborhood, and appropriate given today’s holiday, Bastille Day.

I wrote this in late 2002 for the now-defunct Flak magazine, an internet magazine that featured the likes of Clay Risen, an author, classmate of mine and former editor of the New Republic, as well as sports commentator for NPR Bob Cook.  This was among my first stabs at web writing.  Have fun.

Citizen Smurf

The recent death of French publisher Charles Dupuis, who introduced the world to the Smurfs, is cause for an assessment of the legacy of the three-apples-high community that captivated youths in the ’80s. The Smurfs, the happy blue creatures on our television screens on countless Saturday mornings, looked harmless enough: Happy, cute, loveable, content, ready to help each other in times of trouble, especially when the evil wizard Gargamel was lurking. A loving, functioning community.

Baloney.

Behind this community of loveable little elflike creatures lurks the sinister machinations of the French Revolution. Finally, in one collection of animation cels, the culmination of the Republic of Virtue as illustrated by Maxmilien de Robespierre, the architect of the Reign of Terror. A pseudo-democratic society that values freedom, it is in reality an authoritarian regime that is neither democratic nor free, and prizes uniformity, obedience and civic virtue over all other ideals.

“But wait,” you protest. “This is a cartoon. It’s for kids! C’mon, you can’t tell me that this is ‘Tale of Two Cities.'”

It may be a cartoon, but it is by no means innocent. Let’s start with the attire. All the Smurfs wear essentially the same garment: white pants (similar to the attire of the sans-culottes of the radical Jacobins) with a hat that strangely resembles a liberty cap from the revolutionary period. Sure, there are some specialty garments, by Smurfette (the slutty little Girondist Charlotte Corday), the miner, the doofy yokel (The peasants of the Ile-de-France who suffered the brunt of the Terror) and of course the painter, who was the only Smurf with a French accent.

Their very own Jacques Louis David, the painter must do heroic portraits of none other than Papa Smurf, the de facto leader of the Smurfs. Papa Smurf, like Robespierre, has no official title as head of the republic. He, and only he, wears the virile and virtuous red pants and cap, thus painting him in the colors of the French Tricolor. One can almost picture this little blue citizen singing “Le Marseilleise.” Although the community had the trappings of a democratic society, with open discussions, arguments and debate about what to do (usually led by the one-Smurf intelligentsia Brainy Smurf), ultimately all power rested on the primary Smurf characters, a Committee of Smurf Safety (the only ones we know by name) and, ultimately, Papa Smurf, first among equals.

How did Papa Smurf come into power? He was not a king, he had no title to rule. At one time (although the series never elaborated on this), the Smurfs were under Gargamel’s more direct control. However, they banded together and cast off the chains of tyranny to form a democratic Smurf republic. Yet the royalist threat still loomed, and to ensure the safety of the republic more power ended up in the more radical Papa Smurf faction of Smurfette, Brainy, etc. They would ultimately shape Smurf society to what we now know.

And what kind of community did Papa Smurf envision? A uniform, outwardly happy society based on strict morals and ultimate obedience. Why didn’t any Smurf ever have the audacity to countermand Papa Smurf? Robespierre envisioned an orderly, virtuous proletarian republic based on imposed equality through direct democracy, punishment and violence. Now, this was a G-rated cartoon, so we, as children, saw no tumbrels filled with traitors to the Smurfs heading to Madame de Smurf-etine. However, it is safe to say that Papa Smurf had to have dealt with anonymous troublemakers here and there. In a population of a few hundred, one Smurf disappearing here and there would not make much of a difference in our eyes, especially if its of the nameless masses of Smurfs we never heard from anyway.

Where was God, or some supreme being in Smurf society? The Smurfs apparently never worshipped anything but maybe nature and a nationalistic warlike fervor against perceived attacks by the royalist Gargamel. Again, like Robespierre, Papa Smurf chose to keep the Smurfs on a permanent war footing (Their outwardly peaceful demeanor doesn’t fool anybody.). This, to me, is the only explanation as to how a three-apple-high community can outfight a wizard. Let’s not forget that Gargamel is a wizard, his Divine Right bestowed by his magic powers (ineptly used, but Louis XVI was no brain surgeon, either). The only way the Smurfs could combat enemies from without and within (Brainy was the most willing to collaborate with Gargamel) is complete suppression of dissent, instillation of uniformity in thought, word and deed, and a subtle martial demeanor to keep the community on a high state of alert. Only then could republican government in the forest be maintained.

This society, like all authoritarian societies, could not last. In the later stages of the show we saw the introduction of characters like Sassette, who eschewed the uniform whiteness of the imposed order in favor of more colorful, Directoire garb. Ultimately (It is a pity the series did not last this long), the primary Smurf characters would kill themselves off, first Brainy and his supporters, who saw no need for more Smurf bloodshed. Papa Smurf would succumb to the Smurf-etine. The younger characters would reform the government and rule in moderate, inept fashion over Smurfs who increasingly use colors in their garments.

That is, until a new leader emerges to take the Smurfs on a path of conquest. If anyone has an idea as to which Smurf works best as Napoleon Bonaparte, let me know.

–see it at http://www.flakmag.com/rejected/smurfs.html

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The Devil Uses a Venn Diagram: The weird world of “Professional Development”

We could all use a little improvement now and then.

A ballplayer in a slump gets sent to the minors to “regain his focus.”  A golfer goes to the driving range to “improve his form.”  Couples go to a therapist to “work through their problems.”  I am learning ESP in order to read my girlfriend’s mind so I can “be a good boyfriend.”

So it’s no surprise that teachers often participate in programs designed for improvement, or to “establish best practices” in the local lingo.  We call it “professional development”, and the universe of “PD” is as diverse and dangerous as a Marine outing in the Mekong Delta.

In the world of No Child Left Behind, PD has become an industry in it of itself.  Since the NCLB world assumes all teachers are “deficient” or “need support”, the solution is a legion of “experts” from academia, other districts and the Byzantine array of companies that sell schools everything from textbooks to the tests that decide the future of your little darlings.

Like so many heads of the hydra of education, PD can be subdivided into various categories:

(1)    The “pseudo” PD –this is when your principal decides to call teachers together for what seems like PD.  Actually, it is meant to inform teachers about more work they have to do, thanks to what the “experts” suggested to the administrators at their PD—principals need improvement, too.  It’s never couched as a mandate, but rather as a “strong suggestion” for “more accountability.”  In other words, not doing it can lead to “temporary reassignment”—often to a class full of maladjusted toddlers who like to stab each other with pencils. 

(2)    The unveiling of a new product—look at what the school pissed its money on now!  Like a two-hour infomercial, this PD involves the local rep from some new-fangled company “introducing” a product that makes teachers’ lives easier.  The “facilitator” (no one leads anything in education, they “facilitate.”) is often a kid a few years removed from college, full of whiz-bang enthusiasm and cute phrases like “teachers have such a tough job” or “technology should be your friend.”  He/she usually responds to your questions with “excellent question” followed by a circular answer further enforcing the facilitator’s lack of preparation.  Try not to stab this person with a pencil.

(3)    The “follow-up” of a new product—even more insidious than #2, the follow-up usually occurs when the school gets a large grant for a new reading/math/writing/multicultural dodgeball program.  Instead of that plucky kid, the company sends a snotty automaton in their late 20s-early 30s who “models” how to use the system “correctly.”  This person will assume he knows more than you because of an Ivy League education or equivalent.  If you do not have such an education, it’s best to let the blowhard finish his work and exit quietly.  Since my education is at least equal to Mr. Know-it-all, I have every right to stab him with a pencil.  Besides, with that education comes plenty of classmates who are lawyers—you’re off the hook.

(4)    The “in-house” PD—this is also known by the sinister term of “turn-keying,” as if we’re all morose Yalies entering the secret building and getting inducted into Skull and Bones.  It’s less exciting and only slightly less demeaning.  A teacher who had the gumption/bad luck/lack of an excuse to go to another workshop now has to present what they learned to their fellow teachers.  Everything that can go wrong will go wrong—the lights won’t work, the projector burns out, the computer crashes.  Most yawn through it, to be followed by a private bitching session about why they have to present this crap in the first place.  Never stab them with a pencil, for that unfortunate soul can be you someday.

(5)    The District-mandated PD—like a Hezbollah hostage, sometimes a teacher is forced to go someplace that is uncomfortable for a torture that is excruciating, and usually involving a long negotiation before he/she can be released.  This is the district-mandated PD, where teachers are forced to hear the local “expert”, either from a company, the district administration, or some university’s education department that peddled their bullcrap-du jour on the top brass.  That expert can range from a weathered retired teacher to a fresh-faced lad who claims his two years in Teach for America make him “experienced.” This balloon head is usually shadowed by a district bigwig, to make sure no one stabs the “expert” with a pencil out of blind rage or sheer boredom.           

There is no doubt that the knowledge, skills and strategies imparted through PD are supposed to improve a teacher’s practice.  One common failing amongst educators, me included, is developing an entrenched, stubborn attitude toward innovation.  Teaching has to change with the times; otherwise we’d still be reading from hornbooks in one-room schoolhouses.  We’d still shame children into a corner with a “Dunce” cap for not knowing their arithmetic or the timeline of the Civil War—a practice much too maligned, in my opinion.

However, if you wrap a diamond in shit, the gem is rarely memorable.  The problem with PD is that it’s presented in a way that doesn’t convince teachers of its value.  Too often, most workshops are shown as just more work piled onto a teacher’s already burdened schedule, hence the apprehension.   The administrators are no help, either—their misinterpretations of your PD often lead to wild-goose chases.  No wonder most PD audiences sit catatonic and glassy-eyed: they have the best anesthesia in the world, with a Powerpoint presentation and charts, to boot.

Yet even with the best workshops available, it’s never useful if it’s forced upon you.  The mandatory nature of most PD has the effect you would expect of anything you “have” to do.  The younger faculty takes notes, sitting wide-eyed and asking all sorts of questions, just like they did when they annoyed the shit out of you in college.  The older teachers know better; they won’t perk up until the words “free lunch,” “early dismissal” or “happy hour” are announced.  At least some people have their priorities in order.

How can teachers improve their practice and still maintain their sanity?  By picking workshops that interest them, not by having others force improvement on you.

 This summer, many teachers will be doing some form of PD.  Most will do it for some extra money, which is nice.  It’s more important to choose programs that you find useful for your classroom.  The best PD experiences I’ve had were in programs that suited my interests and needs.  Thankfully, they also had knowledgeable facilitators and eager participants with similar concerns to mine. 

And if you don’t like your PD experience, let them know about it.  Instead of pawning some useless scribble on that evaluation form, let the facilitator feel the rough edge of your pen.  Here’s an idea of what to write at your next workshop:

“This workshop stimulated my ideas about improving my practice and better differentiating my instruction to meet the needs of all learners…in an effective PD, I’d have written that.  This was not one of them.”

There’s a term for ineffectual seminars and workshops that are self-serving, condescending and a waste of time.  Watch cattle after a large meal to find the correct terminology.

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Clash of Cultures: PJ O’Rourke pokes fun at the British for British Airways

I’m sometimes asked about influences, people that have inspired or driven my writing.  There are quite a few, I’m sure, but probably two stand out.  The first is the American journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken, who was both unabashedly arrogant yet witty and erudite in his polemics on the state of American society.

The second is, funny enough, the H. L. Mencken Research Fellow at the Cato Institute, a well-known think tank in Washington, DC.  P.J. O’Rourke has been one of my favorite authors since college.  It seems that I’ve read almost every book he wrote, including his most recent Driving Like Crazy, a collection of automotive essays done over the years.  A former editor of National Lampoon, former foreign affairs correspondent for Rolling Stone, and contributor to publications as diverse as Car and Driver and the Weekly Standard, O’Rourke espouses a rollicking, seat-in-the-pants conservatism that I have come to identify with. 

Nowadays you can often see him as Bill Maher’s conservative punching bag on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.  Back in the 1990s, however, he was known in the UK as the face of British Airways.  The video here is one of these ads, where O’Rourke picks apart British culture, from the weather to cricket to their prejudicially demure attitude toward sex.  It demonstrates (a) how an institution like British Airways can poke fun of itself for the sake of customers, and (b) how good satire actually works.

More video of O’Rourke will probably be coming this summer.

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The Complex Nature of Assimilation—Should Immigrant Children be “Americanized”?

I knew I hadn’t a clue about immigrant children today when a student in a bilingual classroom once said, “My parents hate the United States.”  It knocked me senseless. 

The student volunteered this information, not as a shameful admission, but as a statement of warning.  The warning was loud and clear: “Do not make us love America or American democracy, because we don’t.  We are here because we have to be here, not because we want to be here.  We can’t wait to leave.”

For someone like me, who came from immigrant parents that love this country, with family members that have served in foreign wars for the United States, this was incredible. 

How can you hate a country that gives you so much?  You’re getting free education, free breakfast and lunch, probably public assistance, and free medical care.  That’s more than I get, and I’m supposedly middle class.  How can someone be so ungrateful?   Would you trade this for, Cuba, for example?  Maybe Iran, or North Korea?  You think they’re better than here?  Would you like living in a potato sack all your life, or starving in a “re-education” center?  How about constantly getting spied on by your neighbors while trying to start that ’56 Buick for the umpteenth time?

This student was probably not alone in her sentiments.  It seems the Melting Pot Express lost some baggage along the way, especially in the immigrants of the last few decades.  The rush to become “American” is no longer a fait accompli, but a process that educators need to understand in order to deal with immigrant children.

 Assimilation, the process of integrating immigrant groups into mainstream American society, hit some roadblocks when it came to many of my Bronx students.  This new generation of immigrants is not the huddled masses in steerage class yearning to learn English and be Americans—it was probably not that simple even then.  According to a 2006 report for the Manhattan Institute, conducted by Jacob Vigdor of Duke University:

“The current level of assimilation remains lower than it was at any point during the early 20th century wave of immigration.”

Vigdor also points out that even though aggregate assimilation is low, the patterns and depth of integration varies by ethnic group.  For example, Mexicans tend to assimilate at a slower rate, yet Cubans, Filipinos and Vietnamese tend to assimilate faster.  Furthermore, the rate of assimilation is, on the whole, faster, even though current immigrants have often bore little resemblance to the native population. 

Even with this data, there are disparities even in the process of assimilation, let alone assimilation itself.  According to Susan Brown and Frank Bean at the University of California, Irvine, assimilation theory has evolved into three groups:

(1)    Classic Assimilation—this is the yarn you were told in the classroom since you were little.  The European immigrants came to this country, lived in ethnic neighborhoods, learned English and the values of hard work, democracy and the primacy of the capitalist system, and within a few generations moved to the suburbs to send kids to college and join country clubs.  This linear view forgets an important caveat: even though the immigrants looked “foreign” in the beginning, white America figured out pretty quickly that they were also white.  That meant excluding those who were not white—a lesson learned very quickly by that early generation.  Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927) is a perfect example: to become “American”, he needed to ridicule blacks.

(2)    Racial/Ethnic Disadvantage Model—Al should’ve studied this pattern more closely.  This can also be viewed as the “Man’s Keepin’ me Down!” model.  Made popular by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer in their work Beyond the Melting Pot, the racial/ethnic disadvantage model states that some immigrant groups can never fully assimilate because of institutional barriers and lingering racial/ethnic prejudices.  No matter how hard they try, some groups can never fully become “Americanized” due to their skin color, their ethnicity, religion, etc.  Immigrants from Latin America often fall into this category, as their multiracial makeup can often lead to outsider status, even among the most upwardly mobile. 

(3)    Segmented Assimilation—this pattern is the most complex, and probably the most accurate of the three.  Simply stated, the multiple avenues to employment, acculturation, communication and education have created multiple patterns of assimilation, depending on socioeconomic factors, age, education, etc.  The immigrants of the inner city, for example, will encounter more structural barriers and have a rougher time assimilating and can lead to a heightened ethnic consciousness, even as others of the same ethnic group go through a different process.  Other more advantaged groups, however, may use traditional values to bolster advancement and progress.  This explains why so many Asians are at or near the top at spelling bees, science fairs and college enrollment, while other groups lag behind.

Patterns of assimilation have clear implications for the classroom.  As different groups gravitate through the process of integrating into American society, their mindsets will differ based on that process.  This process channels into the natural prejudices of students.  We can’t expect every child to come in as Jose and to leave as Joe.  It’s a heck of a time for Jose to figure out who Jose is, let alone to embrace a culture and system that is alien to him.

That being said, there is still a value to incorporating American values, ideals and cultural traditions in the classroom.  This is their country now, after all, and their success in America will depend on their familiarity and knowledge of American institutions and systems.  There are certain things Americans need to be familiar with in order to be American: basic laws, government, traditions, holidays, ideals, institutions, etc.

Today’s educational model, however, does not lend itself to the old methodology of “making Americans.”  There are a myriad of cultures and conditions to consider–conditions that often serve as barriers to assimilation.  What’s important is to take account of the factors that are holding back assimilation and work with them.  The trick is to not be as heavy-handed as the teachers of old, the ones who’d report any child not saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the FBI.

First of all, it’s important to know your students.  With the aforementioned student, I didn’t take into account that her path to America, while similar to my parents, was also vastly different.  For one, my parents are white.  Even if they came from Italy and Ecuador, my mom and dad never had to deal with the double standard based on their appearance.  They were also legal immigrants, so the risk of deportation was never there.  My mom had a different mindset, more like the upper-middle class bourgeoisie she came from, which didn’t mesh with the backgrounds of an inner-city classroom.  Hard work, education and respect for authority were paramount in our house.   Many of my students, especially those from Central America, came here because the authorities prevented them from a decent living.   

When we teach about American civics and citizenship, it’s important to make the individual ideas universal, while stressing the unique Americanness of the aggregate of our ideas.  There is nothing particularly American about capitalism, individual rights, the rule of law, representative government, trial by jury, and the democratic process.  Point out how these ideas have existed in other times and by other groups.  Yet as a whole, the United States is one of the few places where ALL these ideas work as a successful system. 

To understand our institutions, students need to know the history behind these institutions.  Often, this history involves people who are unlike themselves, yet stress the commonality between their struggles and the problems we face today.  The American Revolution is a great example.  The themes of the struggle—justice, representation, tyranny, freedom—are things any kid can relate to if presented in the right way.

The most important thing to remember is to actively make your students part of the American story.  The saddest existence on Earth is to be a stranger in your own country.  I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating: this is the only country that allows immigrants to take an active role in its history.  Even with the challenges of the world outside the classroom, your students are part of a unique family—an American family. 

The events and ideas that built this country are a part of them now.  Make it an active part.  Stress that their active participation is what makes America important.  Only then, when students can take full ownership of American culture—on their own terms—can true assimilation really take place.

For further information, here is Jacob Vigdor’s 2006 report on immigrant assimilation.

Also, here’s an article from Susan Brown and Frank Bean on the theories behind assimilation.

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This Day in History 7/8: The “Black Ships”: The 1853-54 expedition of Matthew Perry

It is a term still used in Japan today.  “Black Ships” refers to any threat to Japanese culture from Western technology.  Yet without the original “black ships” of 1853, we would not enjoy our Hondas, Nintendos or Sonys.  It took a pudgy naval officer to bring Japan into the modern world–kicking and screaming.

To understand the reluctance, you must understand Japan.  This was a place that literally was “closed for renovations” for centuries.   For approximately 250 years, the Tokugawa shogunate, the dynasty of military rulers that held de facto rule on the islands, decided to sever almost all ties with the outside world.  After centuries of internal strife and outside interference by missionaries, traders and Chinese invasions, Japan decided to close up shop so it can get its act together. 

It allowed one port, Nagasaki, and one Western country, the Netherlands, to trade with Japan.  This suited the Japanese well: the Dutch wanted no part of colonizing Japan, Japan had no need for the Dutch spreading Calvinism and personal freedoms to the island.  Although other influences were able to sneak in here and there, particularly in relations with China, Japan would be in relative isolation for the next two and a half centuries.

Yet sometimes the renovations take too long.  It was time for Japan to open up shop.

The Dutch knew it, as they sent a letter in 1844 to the Japanese asking to open up trade.  The Americans knew it, too, as they sent unsuccessful missions to Japan in 1837, 1846 and 1849.  There was also technology to consider: a lot has changed in 250 years, especially in warfare.  The Japanese army and navy was woefully underdeveloped to withstand any conflict with a Western power, let alone an all-out war.

So on July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry (No relation to the Friends actor, by the way) sailed into the Uraga harbor near Edo, now Tokyo to present a letter by President Millard Fillmore issuing terms for a treaty.  The Japanese government told him to head to Nagasaki, as that’s where the trading post is.  Perry was having none of it, insisting on delivering his message and returning for a reply. 

The Japanese have fended off these attempts before.  Yet the business end of an 18-pounder, multiplied by several hundred, makes anybody whistle a different tune–especially if your capital city is made of mostly wooden buildings.  Since these fearsome warships were pitched with tar to keep them watertight, they were referred to as the “Black ships”.  The Japanese had no choice but to receive his message and consider a response.

Perry returned in February of 1854.  He heard that the Japanese treaty would satisfy all American demands, but Perry was sure to hedge his bets.  So he brought twice as many frigates as before, to make sure the Japanese keep their end of the deal. On March 31, 1854, the Convention of Kanagawa was signed, allowing US ships to trade in Japanese ports and the establishment of US diplomatic relations with the Japanese government.  Perry came home a hero in 1855, only to drink himself to death in 1858. 

Although the approach was a bit heavy-handed, Perry’s expedition became a watershed in world history.  Japan, long isolated from the world, now had access to Western ideas, technology and military might.  It would cause major internal conflicts, culminating in the removal of the shogunate in 1867 and the establishment of a semi-constitutional monarchy.  In Japan’s hunger for new things, however, they managed to step on a lot of toes–let’s not forget World War II.  Yet in the modern age, Japan has become a technological, financial and industrial power in full openness with the international system.

The fear of the “black ships” always remains, however.  Japan is a society that struggles to maintain its own distinct culture in the overwhelming onslaught of technological innovation–mostly its own doing.  It is a struggle many societies face in the 21st Century, as streams of communication reduce or obliterate the barriers that made Japanese isolation such an enduring institution.

Come September, the fear of “black ships” and the cross-connections of cultures is definitely a theme to build on with your students.  How do we reconcile our own cultural identity with the modern world? 

Or, at the very least, stress that those Sony Playstations and Nintendo DS systems didn’t just spring from the Earth by themselves.

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Mr. D’s Tips for a Responsible Summer Vacation

Is there ever a time when teachers are despised more than during summer vacation?

When the rest of America toils on their regular work weeks, we get to get up at the ass crack of 12 noon (if we’re lucky) for a strenuous day of…well…okay, there isn’t much to do, but that’s fine.  We’ve been busting our rears cramming centuries of knowledge into the brains of Satan’s minions, so we more than deserve these months of R and R.

Still, we at the Neighborhood are loath to allow the fine educators of America to veg out completely–we may get year-round school, heaven forbid!  Let’s not remind our local political leaders of the inefficiency and backwards agrarian nature of summer vacation.  To that end, Mr. D has some tips to keep teachers busy at this most “strenuous” time.

(1) Travel–If ever was a reason to take up education, it’s the free time for extensive travel.  Sure, it’s off season for places like the Caribbean and Mexico.  Sure, Las Vegas reaches a balmy 117 degrees in the shade.  But you have loads of other places in the world to visit.  Try different kinds of herring in the Norwegian fjords.  Head up to Maine and force people to pronounce the letter “r” at gunpoint.  Furthermore, thanks to the digital camera, you can create a collage to cover the first week’s lessons, adding more to the illusion that you’re “working.”  Just don’t show the kids that late night photo of you sandwiched between Jorge and Ramon at that dance club in Ibiza.

(2) Take up a hobby–During the year, there’s scarcely any time for breathing, let alone a hobby.  Now you have plenty of time.  Golf has become a popular pastime, since it involves those great educator traits of patience, frustration and unwritten rules of etiquette.  Gardening is also fun, especially if you enjoy sitting in the sun knee-deep in animal manure.  It doesn’t even have to be outdoors: simply keeping up collections can pass the time.  I have a teacher friend that collects old fraternity paddles.  You can guess why.

(3) Home Improvement–Male teachers often have the chores for the summer to look forward to.  Almost as a rite of passage, men are given a “honey-do” list, a list of the repairs, improvments and projects that were never finished during the year, thanks to your devotion to America’s children.  These lists come in two varieties.  The first is the list of chores that your wife thinks are time-consuming, but can be accomplished in an hour and a half.  Try to pace those chores through the summer–“back aches” and trips to Home Depot help.  The second is the list of Robert Moses-sized public works that usually are done by contractors in normal households.  Here, the best solution is to get the simple foundation of the work out of the way, then claim that “I don’t have the tools for this” and hire a contractor that will undo all the damage you did.

(4) Exercise–It’s easy to spot a teacher; they’re the ones that got so flabby over the year that they make up for it with Marine-like stress tests for the first weeks in July.  Luckily, Mr. D maintains the same exercise regimen he had all year, so I’m in no mood for self-sacrifice.  Furthermore, I get in a lot of beach time, so that counts.  Still, insisting on “taking care of your body” is a good way to justify not doing things on your lists for fear of cutting into your gym time.  However, we won’t vouch for you if you’re caught with a cheeseburger and a cigarette later.

(5) Write a book–Last summer, I wrote a children’s book, and am still looking for a publisher.  It looks like I’m not alone in this endeavor, as many educators turn to their laptops in hopes to create the next great American novel.  The summer months are when you can become a “serious” writer, honing your craft and creating the next Harry Potter book while you delude yourself into thinking you can actually publish this crap.  It’s not until months later, when the rejection letters come, that reality sets in.  That’s when Simon, Shuster, McGraw-Hill, HarperCollins and the rest take you, and your worthless drivel, and give you a swift knee to the nuts.  In a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

(6) Take Workshops–the most obvious way to look like you’re “working” when you’re not.  Many teachers scoff at the idea of workshops,  but I find them loads of fun.  If done through your district, then you get paid for them.  They rarely are as intense as the school-year workshops.  Plus, you get to see educators, administrators and professors in a laid-back setting–with their natural, salty tongues.  I remember a workshop years ago where a prominent history professor called George Washington “chicken shit”.  That’s cool.

(7) Teach Summer School–thanks, but no thanks.  Any more school during the year, usually with the worst numbskulls imaginable, and that would lead me to # 8, which is:

(8) Drink–Whether you know it or not, teachers will be doing a lot of this during the summer.  With more time on their hands, many teachers (especially English and art teachers) have the opportunities for day-long benders, rampaging toots, the occasional Scotch in the bathtub, the whiskey breakfast, and of course the liquid lunch, dinner and midnight snack.  Please guzzle responsibly, by which I mean to not let administrators or children see you hammered.  Furthermore, for your own safety, take a gander at Larry Miller’s “Five Stages of Drinking”, linked above.   

Well, that’s about it.  I hope all my educator friends at the Neighborhood have a splendid summer.  I hope the administrators in the Neighborhood can salvage their summers after the hellfires of summer school.

Finally, to those politicians who want to abolish summer vacation, I have one action in mind.  It involves a quart of whiskey, a fraternity paddle, and your nuts.

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