Monthly Archives: August 2009

Read what you want? NY Times article about the Reading Workshop

Today’s post will be short and sweet, as I just came to the realization that school starts next week and I haven’t a clue what to do.

Today’s NY Times Education section had an interesting article about the “Reading Workshop”, something many teachers are already familiar with.  In a nutshell, this concept allows students to shape their own reading lists, while teachers facilitate dicussion, instruct on elements of grammar, syntax, writing skills and the like. 

It’s a slacker’s dream.  No more Silas Marner, or Great Expectations, or Great Gatsby.  Let’s open up comic books, trashy romance novels and children’s ditties in order to learn the wonders of the English language.

There are many variations on this, from a small selection of books to a whole-hog gutting of the classic liberal curriculum.  Basically, I’m against the whole-hog approach, which is covered in the article, for two reasons.  First, to understand English is to understand the exemplars by which the English language is based.  Many of these authors–not all, but many–offer students valuable lessons in language structure, usage, plot development and overall good writing.  Just don’t use James Joyce for sentence structure or e.e. cummings for punctuation.

Second, and the one that really counts, is that if your students are upwardly mobile, this curriculum will place them at a severe disadvantage.  The kids in wealthier school districts who are heading to Ivy League schools and their equivalent are reading the boring stuff–they don’t bother with new-fangled theories on reading development.  The kid who worked his/her way out of a working class or poor district may get to Harvard on their pluck and determination, but they will need the base knowledge of those boring books for at least the first year. 

To get the keys to the kingdom, you need to read the books by dead white males.  It sucks, but that’s life.  Deal with it. 

As always, comments are welcome.

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This Day in History 8/27: Lyndon B. Johnson

LBJThe Neighborhood today honors a President that has provided more legislation, more controversy, and more belly laughs than many other chief executives in our history.

Happy Birthday to Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973), 36th President of the United States.  LBJ was a lot of things–a high school teacher, a Congressman and Senator who powered his way into prominence, Vice-President and then President.  He was not an easy man to figure out, either.  He was a vestige of the “Solid South”, the Democratic bloc of White Southerners that were for the New Deal but against desegregation.  Yet ever the wheeler-dealer, Johnson worked (brutally, at times) to get legislation passed in many areas, including civil rights, health care, welfare, and space exploration. 

Under his guidance, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became a reality–even though he had to make it look like Martin Luther King forced him to do it, in order to save face.  The Great Society, a massive expansion of the federal government, included a slew of programs both white and black Americans use today: Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, etc. 

LBJ wanted the Great Society to be his legacy.  Yet a thin little country in Southeast Asia will forever define his presidency.  Starting in 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the Johnson Administration deployed more and more troops to the Vietnam conflict.  By 1968, Johnson’s popularity was so low that he retired from politics rather than suffer the humiliation of an almost certain defeat in the next election.

The LBJ I love, however, is the casual Texan who cusses and laughs and cracks off-color humor.  I’m ending today’s post with a link to one of Johnson’s most famous phone calls.  On August 9, 1964, LBJ calls up the Haggar clothing company in Houston to order some pants.  I’m still amazed that the salespeople on the other end could keep a straight face.  It’s linked below:

I’d love to know if anyone else has ever described a tight inseam as “riding a wire fence.”

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Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy – A Life full of Lessons

Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy (1932-2009)

I was never a huge fan of Ted Kennedy, even when he was useful in the classroom.

When I teach about the U.S. Congress to my classes I often use Ted Kennedy’s book, My Senator And Me: A Dog’s Eye View Of Washington, D.C.  It’s a children’s book about Teddy’s daily life as a U.S. Senator, narrated through the voice of his Portuguese Water Dog, Splash (Yes, conspiracy fans, that’s no joke.).  The book offers a thorough yet kid-friendly look at the often tedious nature of lawmaking.

Once I finish, I ask, “You want to hear about a very bad thing Senator Kennedy did?  Jose, close the door.”

Then I regale the students about a fateful night in Chappaquiddick.  We know it too well—that infamous incident in 1969, the drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne in Teddy’s car, while the senator from Massachusetts saved himself and waited eight hours to file a police report.  The kids love it, as most of us love when powerful people do bad things.

However, his passing last night places me in a more forgiving mood—not too forgiving, but a little more conciliatory.  Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy leaves behind a complicated legacy, one of great highs and even more spectacular lows.  His life and work prove to be a useful teaching tool for students.  Kennedy’s personal failings, especially earlier in his career, can show students how even the greatest men are fallible—in Teddy’s case, stupendously so.  Yet it can also show that even when dealt a crappy hand, we use what we are given to make a difference in our world.

Kennedy’s career in the U.S. Senate is spectacular by any measure; even the most conservative Republican must concede this point.  With 46 years under his belt, only Robert Byrd of West Virginia had more seniority in the chamber.  He authored thousands of bills, guiding over 300 of them into law.  His advocacy in civil rights, education, equal housing, and especially health care reform were unparalleled.

Much of this success stemmed from how Kennedy dealt with events that would have destroyed other individuals.  Two of his brothers were assassinated.  He nearly died in a plane crash.  He battled alcoholism and wild living.  His family was the object of constant scrutiny.  His own son, Patrick Kennedy, Congressman from Rhode Island, was just as wild as Dad.

Because of these events—many of which were his own fault—Kennedy knew that his destiny was something different.  Kennedy decided long ago that the way to make his mark was to essentially forget he was a Kennedy and become a great senator.  Nobody could close a deal like Teddy; his colleagues on both sides of the aisle applauded his mastery of political dealing.  Even with a steadfast liberal ethic, Kennedy understood that compromise gets things done in Washington.

Yet Kennedy’s personal life cannot be ignored.  Indeed, it has made him a figure of fun by liberals and conservatives.  My personal favorite is comedy songwriter Bob Rivers’  “Teddy, the Red-Nosed Senator”, where Kennedy drives Santa’s sled and gets it wrapped around a maple tree.  Only Teddy could manage a DWI with a team of reindeer.

The Chappaquiddick incident, his alcoholic past, the scandalous behavior of himself and members of his family all hang like an albatross over the senator’s legacy.  As an American worthy of study, teachers should not—indeed, must not—overlook Kennedy’s shortcomings.  His mistakes alone warrant two days of lessons on “correct” behavior in the public and private arena.   Should we hold public officials to the same standards of behavior as ourselves?  Are celebrities, politicians and other public figures often “given a pass” for their misconduct?  Can a community condone a severely flawed public servant, even when that servant does good things for the community?

Yet Kennedy should not be seen simply as a drunken, lecherous buffoon.  Even this exaggeration has fallen off the mark in recent years; his last marriage to Victoria Reggie was among the best 17 years of his life.  Kennedy should be remembered as a complex character that rose above his failings to make an indelible mark on American politics.  His senatorial career stands as one of the yardsticks by which all legislators should be measured.

I was often at odds with Ted Kennedy.  In fact, rare is the moment when I actually agreed with the senator on any position whatsoever.  Yet I recognize a great lawmaker when I see one.   Ted Kennedy, I’ll miss kicking you around.  But I’ll miss your command of the senate chamber even more.

Tonight, I’m having a scotch in your honor.  Cheers, old man.

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The Complex Legacy of Stanley H. Kaplan

Stanley H. Kaplan (Photo from Kaplan, Inc.)

Stanley H. Kaplan (Photo from Kaplan, Inc.)

Teachers today, for good or ill, work in a world that was shaped, in part, by Stanley H. Kaplan.

As much as teachers carp about the emphasis on standardized tests, they are an unavoidable reality.  Yet there was—and still is—a good, thorough and efficient way to prepare for those bubble monsters.

Stanley H. Kaplan, test prep pioneer and founder of what is today Kaplan, Inc., was proof that the right preparation was the driving factor in great test scores.  His passing on Sunday at age 90 is a milestone in the standardized testing world.

It’s a shame, then, that his most important lessons remained unlearned.

A little disclosure is in order.  I was a Kaplan instructor and tutor for a few years, teaching SAT preparation classes to high school students.  Through my teaching, I became involved in curriculum development, writing and editing instruction material for Kaplan’s new programs for SAT and the Specialized High School Admission Tests.  In fact, I was a contributing editor for the first major overhaul of the SAT program in 2004, leaving to start my teaching career.   It was a lot of fun and the people there were the best.  So no, I’m not exactly unbiased.

Yet five years removed from the Kaplan universe has shown me where Stanley Kaplan’s vision has gone and, more importantly, where it went wrong.

Kaplan’s basic tenet changed the way we look at tests.  Tests, according to Kaplan, follow certain patterns and methods.  Therefore, preparing for a test was more than simply reviewing the content, but also learning the strategies embedded in the natural patterns of a test.  Test writers are human, thus tests are not inhuman monstrous machines.  Every test is beatable.  It simply takes a review (emphasis on review) of the content followed by useful tricks and methods that help counter the traps often found in testing material.

The legacy of Kaplan’s work extends beyond his company, which grew from a few students in his Brooklyn basement to a company with at least $250 million in revenues and over 100,000 students over 120 teaching centers worldwide.   The test prep course has become a rite of passage for students ranging from middle school to graduate school.  The current educational landscape is littered with test prep companies, methodologies, books, instructors, and software that seek to emulate Kaplan’s results, if not his techniques outright.

Even the makers of tests, including schools, education departments, and government agencies, have provided test prep for their own material.  It’s amazing considering the fierce opposition Kaplan received from the College Board and the Federal Trade Commission, which questioned his claims of student success and the need for test preparation in the first place.

However, in the wake of Kaplan’s success comes the seed of its own perversion.

One thing that Kaplan insisted was that test prep is no substitute for learning the material.  Test prep courses are not meant to TEACH any content.  Rather, they are designed to reinforce content already learned in school using effective testing strategies.   He even de-emphasized the test’s importance, stressing that in most cases, a test is but one factor in a basket of variables that determine acceptance, promotion or graduation.

The education establishment, particularly the architects of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) did not get the message.

Accountability means measured, scientific data, in the NCLB world.  Standardized tests are that instrument to measure student progress.  In most instances, it became the ONLY instrument to measure a child’s achievement.  Since the entire emphasis for federal funding, teacher rating, and school rank centered on these tests, every waking moment is spent preparing for these tests.  Instead of test prep supporting or augmenting the curriculum, it replaced the curriculum.

The results will really show in a few years, when the NCLB youngsters begin high school and college.  Students will be dumbfounded at research, debate, analysis and exploration—things not easily quantified on a scan-tron sheet with a # 2 pencil.  I personally know of many students who “rise to the occasion” on test day, yet could barely function in a classroom setting under more rigorous circumstances.

Furthermore, through the NCLB lens, Kaplan-esque techniques and methods are driving, rather than abating, stress levels on tests where the stakes are ever higher.  Kaplan himself was once questioned that his methods caused more anxiety at test time.  He replied that it was the test administrators, not he, that established the stress level.  The Kaplan methods were designed to ease stress, to make the test more straightforward and manageable.  Yet the quantity and stakes of these tests now trump any relief found in test prep methodology.

NCLB has corrupted Kaplan’s vision.  It made test prep, inadvertently, the driving method of content instruction, flying in the face of everything Kaplan stood for.   The higher stakes of these tests has added to an anxiety level that was never meant to exist in the Kaplan universe.

Stanley Kaplan stood for giving students the tools to succeed in a world with roadblocks made by others.  Yet Kaplan also understood that education is more than a series of roadblocks–it is training the mind to reconceive the world, and the roadblocks themselves.  Anyone can learn how to take a test.  No course in the world, however, can teach someone how to think.

Let’s hope the world shaped by Stanley Kaplan does not choke on the perversion of its ideals.  By the looks of things, though, it may be a foregone conclusion.

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This Day in History 8/21: Hawaii becomes the 50th State

Iolani_Palace_%281328%29Most of us think happy thoughts when Hawaii is mentioned.  Yet today is a day many Hawaiians mourn rather than celebrate.  Today marks the 50th anniversary of Hawaii joining the union in 1959, and not everyone is happy about it.

Palm trees, beaches, surfing, loud shirts, luaus, hula dancers, an inordinate use of Spam in their cuisine–these are some of the things we consider when confronting our 50th State.  Yet others would also add greed, quasi-slavery, colonial domination, exploitation and fraud, especially in the development of an independent Polynesian kingdom into a territory of the United States.

By the mid 1800’s, a series of American and European settlers, missionaries and businessmen had settled on the Hawaiian islands.  They lived as subjects of the Hawaiian monarchy, yet many of them worked to undermine the authority of native peoples through land exploitation and monetary influence on local politics.  Among these “subjects” was a businessman named Sanford Dole–cousin of the pineapple magnate James Dole–who would play an integral part in the story.

In 1887, the settlers, practically at gunpoint, forced the monarchy to adopt a constitution that stripped the monarchy of much of its power and dinsenfranchising Asians and poor Native Hawaiians.  When Queen Lili’uokalani attempted to re-assert native authority on the island, the settlers overthrew the government in 1893–with not-so-subtle backing from the US military–establishing a “republic” with Sanford Dole as president.  The 1898 annexation of Hawaii completed the conquest, as Hawaii became America’s Pacific outpost for resources, commerce and naval defense.

By 1959, the Hawaii Admission Act was proposed in Congress.  Opposition popped up in all corners: southerners who feared a state governed by nonwhites would flout their efforts against segregation, conservatives that questioned Hawaiian patriotism, red-baiters who felt Hawaii was a Communist haven.  One of the most vocal, though, were the Hawaiians themselves.  Many Hawaiians felt the territory shouldn’t be American to begin with, let alone apply for statehood.  Furthermore, there was a fear that non-Hawaiians, particularly Asians, would control the state upon admission.

Upon passage of the act in March, the referendum was put to Hawaiian voters in August.  There were two options on the ballot: remain a territory or join the United States as a state.  140,000 votes were cast out of about 155,000 registered voters, and 93% of the vote was in favor of statehood.  Less than 8000 opted for the territorial option.

Ballots cast in the 1959 Referendum on Hawaiian Statehood

Ballots cast in the 1959 Referendum on Hawaiian Statehood

Yet the independence movement had an ace up its sleeve.  There was no option for independence, an oversight that has fueled the charge that the referendum was illegitimate.  The subsequent anniversaries of Hawaii’s admission have been anything but peaceful.    In 2006, for example, pro-and anti-US demonstrators clashed in Honolulu outside the Iolani Palace, seat of Hawaii’s government. 

The state government, meanwhile, has acknowledged the tumultuous path to statehood, recognizing Queen Liliuokalani and other Hawaiian leaders as important in the story of the islands.  They are cognizant of the vocal nature of the independence movement, yet stress the important progress on the islands as a result of statehood.

While the independence movement will probably not succeed (too much is invested in Hawaii for the US to just give it up), its history since the mid-19th century should give pause and allow us to reflect on the meaning of settlement, or establishment.  Greed and exploitation started the path toward statehood.  However, Hawaii is a major destination today, and is a strategic link in the Pacific for American military and diplomatic missions.

Hawaii became American for all the wrong reasons.  It remains American for all the right reasons.


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A Master’s Degree Can’t be This Easy! A Proposal to Improve Teacher Prestige

577736727_0ca0e96070Maybe I was the exception, but the easiest time I had at school was the two years when I earned my Masters Degree.

Coming out of an elite northeastern college, I had expected graduate education to be of the “Beautiful Mind” type: overcompetitive scientist/historian/scholar types with stuffy professors that smoke pot and screw their teaching assistants–oh, wait, that was college.  Well, grad school school was supposed to be more of the same: rigorous academic research, meticulous papers, brutal feedback, tweed jackets.

“Rigorous” would not describe my teaching degree program.  Papers that would have gotten belly laughs at the Georgetown sociology department were getting plaudits and “A’s.”  I coasted through many of the classes without reading any of the books.  By the last semester, I hadn’t bought a single book.  Classroom discussion descended into bitching sessions about students, administrators, parents–definitely important, but not entirely suitable for a graduate classroom.

This wouldn’t be much of a problem twenty years ago.  Yet today, with the insistence of higher teacher standards, accountability, and especially the inevitable demise of summer vacation, education has to take a hard look in the mirror.  We need to get our own house in order so that we can demand the concessions we deserve, such as commensurate pay and benefits.

I know I won’t make friends with this column, but it is necessary for the future of our profession.  Teaching, for all its rewards, has a severe image problem.  Teachers get into the profession because it is “easy.”  They only work 10 months a year.  If they were smarter, they’d make more money in a “real” job.  In short, teaching has very little respect in America.

Much, though not all, of the blame has to do with one aspect of this profession.  Getting an education degree is entirely too easy.

Historically, teacher education has gotten the shaft because of its evolution as a “woman’s” job.  Unlike other professions such as the law or medicine, teaching has not had a long history of focused professionalization.  The first teaching schools were called “normal schools” meant to teach women (and some men) the ins and outs of education and working with children.  As they developed into the first education schools, these institutions still carried the “stigma” associated with a female-oriented profession.  Thus their lack of resources, funding and respect.

This still exists today, and it revolves around two key issues.  The first is ease of entry: aside from a handful of select programs, such as Teachers’ College (TC) at Columbia University, education programs are not known to be particularly selective, at least from an academic standpoint.  This is why many people who have not found much success in other areas come to education.  If education is filled with the leftovers of economic progress, it is no wonder teachers lack respect in the wider community.

Once a person is in a graduate program, though, the experiences vary in terms of rigor, focus and utility.  Many of the older, more established programs such as TC have coupled the classical methods of theory and analysis with workshops of curriculum development and classroom management.  The vast majority of programs, however, are moving toward the workshop model.  This gives needed help to the rookie teacher, but it can’t be described as academically rigorous.

In fact, if there was a word that described education programs, it would be “tedious.” There is a lot of work, but none of it is truly of the hard-nosed, rigorous research that would merit an academic journal.  Take my final project, for example–a hodgepodge of papers, lesson plans, and “reflections” meant to show my “growth” as an educator.  This task of accumulation and cataloging was a pain in my ass, but not intellectually stimulating.  In fact, it was more of an exercise in bullshit, as many of my colleagues never even did their lesson plans, having students write out “work” hastily to show “evidence” of classroom instruction.

In any other setting, such work would merit expulsion.  That’s the problem.  If teachers want to argue for a pay on par with our academic credentials, then we should have academic credentials worth fighting for.  Our profession has more graduate degrees than almost any other, people like Harry Wong like to crow.  Yet degrees work on supply and demand as well; if everyone can get one, it isn’t worth anything.

Doctors, lawyers, even MBAs get more because society values their work more.  Its harder to enter these professional schools, and the work is often more rigorous.  Teachers work much harder, in many cases.  Yet they will never get the respect of these other professions if training is so easy to obtain and complete.  It isn’t fair, but it’s the truth.

One might argue that this will lead to severe teacher shortages.  This may be true, but ask yourself this: do you want to risk a classroom of children with someone who is underqualified and undereducated?  Believe me, if education programs become more rigorous and selective nationwide, all teachers will benefit.  Salaries will soar.  Opportunities will abound.  Our profession will enjoy a respect it has never had before.

All comments and critiques are welcome.


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On Assignment: Mr. D from wildest Maine

Okay, I’m exaggerating.  The lakes region that’s an hour north of Portland is not all God’s country. 

How thrilled was I that I was able to find a wifi connection on this lake.  Thank you, b83f, for allowing me to access the rest of the world–considering my cabin has no cable, and no digital converter box.  We’re confined to watching PBS.  Another terrible British comedy and my significant other will bash my brains in with a scone.

With this new development, the posts should be a little more available than before.  Now it’s off to the lake.

PS: Anyone from the Lakes region of Maine or familiar with the area (Bridgton, Harrison, Naples, Norway, Paris, Windham, etc.) could suggest some cool things to do without the use of a lake, I’m all ears.

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