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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