Monthly Archives: October 2009

This Day in History 10/19 – The battle of Yorktown 1781



Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, by John Trumbull  (Wikipedia)

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, by John Trumbull (Wikipedia)

We all have plenty of days when nothing goes right.  Today, however, we celebrate one of the few days when things went according to plan.


Today is the anniversary of the historic Battle of Yorktown, which resulted in the surrender of Lord Cornwallis and his British army on October 19, 1781.  It ended the major fighting of the war, and forced the British government to the bargaining table, resulting in the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War.

That was the easy part.

George Washington’s army met the French forces under the Comte de Rochambeau at White Plains on July 6, 1781.  This was the help the Americans needed so desperately, yet many feared the French would be bossing around the Continental Army.  Rochambeau was an aristocrat, after all, with 40 years experience–Washington was a rank amateur in comparison.  Yet despite their differences, Rochambeau made it clear he was there to help, not to lead. 

Washington was in no mood to mince words.   He wanted New York.  Rochambeau, being more level headed, talked him out of it, saying the necessary naval support would not be there.  Instead, he suggested an attack south toward Lord Cornwallis’ southern army in Virginia.  The French fleet in the Caribbean under the Admiral de Grasse was on its way north and could cut Cornwallis off from any escape.

The march south began on August 19.  A small American force was left behind to fool the British that an attack on New York was imminent.  On the way the Continentals decided to get paid.  The army basically hijacked the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and decided they wouldn’t leave until they received a month’s pay.  Congress wisely agreed–and the money issue would not end there, but that’s a later story. 

The attack began on September 29.  For the next ten days, the French and Americans would close a vice on the British forces pinned on the peninsula facing Chesepeake Bay, as the French fleet arrived–just in time.  Any change in the wind, any bad entanglement with British ships could have derailed these plans.  It worked like clockwork, and the bombardment upon the British positions was relentless.

By the morning of October 17, the British situation was hopeless.  A lone drummer appeared above the British defenses, along with an officer waving a white hankerchief.  The French, Americans and British worked out the terms for two days, and the British finally signed the articles of capitulation on October 19, 1781.  According to legend, the British band played a tune called “The World Turn’d Upside Down.”  8,000 troops, 214 cannon, thousands of muskets and supplies were suddenly the property of the Americans.

Within two years of the battle’s aftermath, the Treaty of Paris would officially end the Revolutionary War.

The effects of Yorktown go far beyond the battlefield.  The interplay between France, Britain and the United States would be a major factor in world politics up through the 20th century.  The incident with the Army hijacking Congress would also reverberate: in 1782, the Continental Army threatened a military coup due to back pay.  Washington bravely stopped this from happening, seeing full well the dangers of military dictatorship. 

Yorktown enjoys an endless wealth of scholarship, due to its complexity and its positive outcome, at least from the American perspective.  Here are some resources for the classroom:

The text of the Articles of Capitulation at Yorktown.

An insight into the battle from a British perspective.  Great pictures to use.

Information about the Yorktown Victory Center, a museum located near the battlefield.

Yorktown Battlefield, administered by the National Parks Service.


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Videos for the Classroom: BBC’s The Battle of Midway

Yesterday was the anniversary of the US Navy, a fact I had forgotten but was reminded by a newcomer to the Neighborhood.  Tony runs Adventures in History, a cornucopia of websites, images and information for the history enthusiast.  Please take a look, and tell Tony that Mr. D sent you!

In honor of the Navy’s birthday, I’m attaching the BBC documentary about the 1942 Battle of Midway.  It’s in six parts, so be patient.  A great overall view of the battle, and one of our navy’s greatest battles.  Enjoy.

BTW, There’s still time for your entry for “History’s Greatest Asshole.”  Submissions are coming in, but we still need more!  Get them in by next Friday!


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Nero’s Rotating Dining Table – from Neat-O-Rama

REMINDER:  10 Days until the End of “History’s Greatest Asshole.” We’ll be tracking using the horse on the top right.  Get those submissions in!

Interesting article from Neat-O-Rama concerning Roman debauchery.  It seems that archaeological evidence has been found to support claims of a rotating dining room for the Roman emperor Nero in the mid-late first century C.E.  According to the historian Suetonius, Nero had a room which rotated either by canals or by slaves using cranks and pulleys.  The link on the page continues to Socyberty for more info.  Definitely look at both sites for some wierd, wild stuff, to paraphrase Johnny Carson.

And now, time for my treasure bath!

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Mr. D’s First Ever Contest: “Who is history’s greatest a**hole?”

Author’s Note: The asterisks in the title are for those readers that might catch this on spam filters.  Check all your boxes before deleting as a rule.  Thanks, Mr. D

71276407As today is a national holiday to celebrate a truly controversial figure in history–part hero, part visionary, part scumbag–Columbus Day is also the day the Neighborhood launches its first contest. 

I’m sending this to all readers and would-be readers.  We need suggestions as to who was history’s greatest asshole.  Who was mankind’s greatest douchebag, bastard, son-of-a-bitch, etc.?  Who in the annals of humankind would you want to kick in the nuts, smack in the old kisser, and dance a Charleston on their grave?

Mr.D’s Neighborhood wants to know.  And there’s prizes involved.

E-mail or post a comment with your suggestion.  The top five will be selected, by me, to be placed on a poll on this blog.  Then the readers decide.  If your entry wins, you get the following:

(a) A one-on-one web interview showcasing your “asshole,” why you chose him/her, and some free publicity about your biz/site/blog/upcoming feature that will broadcast here at the Neighborhood.

(b) A free copy of Gotham, the must-have history of New York City from its founding to 1898, by Edgar Burrows and Mike Wallace. 

(c) A free copy of one trade/academic book featuring the latest research on your “asshole.” 

Sounds good?  Let’s get those suggestions in.  Here are a few ground rules:

  1. Your entry should include the name of the “asshole”, the dates of birth and/or death, and a short paragraph as to why this person is an “asshole.”  Please include your name, your e-mail and your website, if you have one.
  2. Your entry can be from any place, at almost any time.  However, we will include only people active up until the fall of the Communist bloc (1989-1992).  No recent personalities.  No Bush, no Obama, no bin Laden.  Got it?   I’M BEING VERY STRICT ABOUT THIS.   
  3. Do not include deities, mythological beings, or any folk hero/talltale hero/legendary figure who has little concrete connection to an actual person, i.e. Robin Hood, El Cid, Achilles, etc.
  4. Please include factual information about your “asshole.”  When possible, state a source.  I’m not looking for MLA or APA stylebook shit, but I do want some real info to back up your claims of asshole-ity. 
  5. Do not include the unholy Trinity of evil: Hitler, Stalin, or Mao.  They belong in a different category entirely.
  6. All entries are due by FRIDAY, OCTOBER 23, 2009. 

All entries will be reviewed by me.  You will only get an e-mail response if your entry was chosen for the top five.  Winner of the poll will be notified on this website once dates for the poll are finalized, soon after the entry deadline.

Any questions or concerns, please let me know.  You can submit your entry either by e-mail or by posting a comment to this post.

Please spread this to anyone you know.  Let’s make this a great contest to find our number 1 “asshole” in history!


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Where the Environment Matters: the legacy of the Milton Hershey School


Courtesy of Milton Hershey School

Sometimes those ideals that have been ignored for years can still work—in spite of efforts to undermine them.

I was privileged to attend a screening of Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Cynthia Wade’s newest film, a documentary about the Milton Hershey School.  The film, at least partially, proved two things for me: (a) there are people in corporate America who actually care; and (b) the old-fashioned way can still work in education.

 MHS is a PreK-12 school for underprivileged children in Hershey, Pennsylvania, just across the street from Hershey Park.  Milton Hershey, the founder of the Hershey chocolate empire, and his wife founded the school in 1909.  Since they were unable to have children, the Hersheys founded a school where children in desperate economic or family situations can learn and grow in a safe nurturing environment.

The school is comprised of over 1800 students sprawled across buildings throughout the town.  The school is funded by the Hershey Trust Company, which owns the controlling shares of stock in the Hershey Company.  This is particularly helpful when similar ventures are struggling due to lack of funds: it’s nice when a school has a blue-chip company for a piggy bank.

Regardless of these resources, MHS does not pride itself on its riches, but rather its people.  The core of their philosophy is the house parenting system.  Students who enroll in MHS live in single-gender family houses run by house parents.  These parents act as the authority figures these children often lack: chores are done strictly, discipline is assertive and effective, and studies are monitored rigorously.  Furthermore, these parents are the students’ principle cheerleaders and advocates: they form a liaison with the school and their biological/legal guardians, to ensure the best interests of the children are met.

As I was watching the film, the emphasis was almost exclusively on the house parents and the student house system.  As interesting as it was, I was a little skeptical.  This is an academic institution, after all.  I didn’t see a whole lot of teaching.  Yet when the scenes in the classroom did appear, I was astonished.

Students were not in guided reading groups, but in rows. 

Old fashioned tests and essays. 

No mandated time for this or that, as far as I could see. 

The school seems almost entirely devoid of the theoretical nonsense that has clouded public education for the last two decades.  Calkins, Fountas, Pinnell, Wiggins, Marzano—the heavy hitters of educational theory for the last twenty years seemingly ignored.

Milton Hershey School teaches a valuable lesson.  Theories don’t work unless children feel safe and secure in their home environment.  MHS doesn’t need Teachers College or Bank Street to tell them what to do.  As long as the home environment is monitored and nurtured, it doesn’t matter what pedagogy or curriculum design you use.

To say Milton Hershey School is a success story is a severe understatement.  According to MHS, 90% of their graduates go on to some form of higher education.  MHS graduates have gone on to become CEOs, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, even high ranking officers in our armed forces.  I also had the pleasure of meeting some MHS students at the screening.  If these kids came from troubled homes, it sure didn’t show.  The alumni assembled look like a gathering of Ivy League swells: there’s not even a hint that these successful people were once in desperate situations.

The biggest concern is that the fruits of the MHS experiment seem lost on the grand poobahs of education.  To them, the opposite is true: the teacher makes the student, regardless of their background.  Simply train the teacher better in the newest theories—not necessarily the best ones—and that teacher can work miracles.  This is the thinking behind a lot of the methods coming out of the large schools of education.

What’s more frightening is that the wrong people, the people in power, take these theories seriously.

Public school teachers must deal with children as they come, with whatever baggage they take from their home life.  As such, teachers have to adjust their practice in order to connect to children that see the school as the only real form of structure in their life.  This is where the theories come in: it places the onus on the teacher almost exclusively since it is assumed nothing is provided at home.  The public school does not have the luxury of altering the environment of children as MHS does. 

Yet if the MHS experiment shows the value of a stable home life, regardless of the academic theories or methods used in the classroom, shouldn’t there be some effort on the part of school districts to help smooth out the rough edges of these kids’ lives?

The MHS experience shows how environment matters.  Districts across America should use this example and reach out more to families and homes–and work with teachers as a partner, not as miracle workers.  Many community programs exist that help parents to become successful along with their children.  These programs provide a huge help in changing what in many public schools is another intangible obstacle. 

Milton Hershey School is a place that’s going in the right direction.  More administrators in this country should take its example–and less from the academics who seem to go in every direction.

For more information about the school, visit

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The Khaki-clad Elephant: The Dangerous Waters of Teaching Politics

The minute I said it, the gasp from the class was overwhelming.

Some stood open-mouthed.  A few were clutching their mouths in a wretch of fear.  Still another student hid under his desk, not willing to withstand another onslaught.

All because I said I was a Republican. 

I didn’t say who I voted for.  Nor did I indicate my own disagreements with the policies of the previous administration.  The admission was enough to send students into a state of shock, dismay, and, in some cases, outright anger—although they wouldn’t hit me, out of respect.  I think one kid made a crack about it being obvious because I was as “big as an elephant.”

I was now the khaki-clad, L.L. Bean shirted elephant in the room (no pun intended), and I had to get used to it.

The question of politics is a tricky one in situations like the south Bronx, an area that has been overwhelmingly Democratic for decades.  As students, my children have to know about government.  One cannot divorce today’s government from politics, which dovetails into a discussion of the two dominant political parties.  It’s important to understand the sometimes fluid ideologies of both parties, as well as the histories of their development.

Yet how can a person teach effectively and accurately about our political system when one side of the political spectrum is immediately painted as a monster?

This was especially true this past winter on Inauguration Day, a day we should all celebrate as the beginning of a new Presidential administration.  This inauguration was even more significant, as the first African-American chief executive was about to be sworn in.  The students were wild with excitement, as they should be.  This was a day where we could all stand proud and watch our process continue to work as it began 222 years ago.

The ceremony inside the auditorium, however, really bothered me.  Some of the teachers had the students chanting Barack Obama’s name, almost in a Nuremburg rhythm complete with drums and jackboots.  There were songs, speeches, poems from children praising the new President.  None of this was particularly bad—how can an 8 year old think of foreign policy beyond “saving the world” and “make people happy.” 

Yet the prospect of hero worship, even if it’s somewhat deserved, was anathema to my sense of democratic fairness. 

You cannot have a hero without a villain—that’s the cardinal comic book rule.  Someone had to play the heavy (again, no pun intended).  After all, the heroes are defined by the villains they pursue, be they the Joker, Lex Luthor or Dick Cheney.  Luthor would’ve made a great CIA director.

On top of this was the tingling sense that these children were not getting a complete picture of American political reality.  We do, after all, have two political parties–with each party enjoying a sizeable electorate.  I wasn’t sure that my students were getting a fair representation of government.  As a child, I knew Ronald Reagan had faults–he couldn’t be right all the time, even if he could fill out a suit well.  As much as the liberal establishment cringes at the thought, Obama deserves the same scrutiny.

I had to provide some sort of sanity to the whole situation.  If this goes any further, there may be Obama youths walking around with multi-colored neckerchiefs.  Students may start roasting elephants in effigy.  Piles of Babar books could go up in flames.  Dumbo would be banned from the library.

After the celebrations, I was meeting with some of my older students: the same students that cringed in fear about my political affiliation.  To them, I represented everything Obama campaigned against: the war on terror, Iraq, big oil, Wall Street, the Patriot Act, all in one bald, chubby package (not unlike many leading Republicans.).

 It was then that I stiffened up and said the following:

“Guys, I’m really glad you’re excited about Obama becoming President.  You should be, and it was an important moment in our history.

 I just want to make sure that you’re realistic about what the President can and cannot do.  Remember that we learned that the President does NOT run this country—we do.  We elect a Congress and an executive to write and administer laws.  They work together, so no one person can do what they want.

Let me be clear.  You know I’m a Republican, and you may also know that I did not vote for Barack Obama…”

(another gasp from the students)

“I felt that my ideas were better represented by Senator McCain.  That does not mean, however, that Mr. Obama deserves less of my respect.  Even if I did not vote for him, he is the President of the United States.  He holds the highest office in our country, and I respect whoever is elected to that office.  Right now, that person is Barack Obama.  Who knows who it will be in four or eight years.   No matter who it is, they deserve our respect.

This leads me to my last point.  Remember that Barack Obama is a man like anyone else.  He will make mistakes—even George Washington made some.  So did Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.  Don’t expect him to make miracles.  There were 42 men who were President before Obama, and there will be many more after him, God willing.  We may even see a woman in the White House. 

The people in our government come and go.  It’s the Constitution, our plan, our engine of government that lives forever.  It was this plan that made us a great nation, and will continue to make us a great nation.  There have been good and bad people in our government, but the system they served still survives.  That’s what’s most important.”

I thought I’d be crucified at this point–or lynched, at the very least.

Instead, most of the students nodded in agreement.  Many understood how Obama fit into the context of our system.  Still others were grateful that I was so honest in my opinions.

It was incredibly satisfying to see that students, even students in a highly partisan community, can open up to different points of view.  I felt ecstatic, as if I had slain the Democratic PR machine with my use of doctrinaire constitutional policy. 

All I really did was deflate the Obama balloon and bring it that much closer to Earth. 

Flash forward to a few weeks ago.  I opened my unit on government with a new set of students.  We had discussed the heated debate over health care reform, and one of the students asked:

“I heard from an older kid that you were Republican, is that true?”

I nodded.

“Does that mean you’re one of those weirdo white people that yell and scream at one of those meetings?”

Nope.  I’m too busy correcting your terrible essays for that nonsense.

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Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 4: New York’s Bravest

New York City is not known for its folk heroes.  There are few Paul Bunyans and Peco Bills in the local vernacular. 

Yet we still had one, and it is fitting that New York’s tall tale hero happened to be a firefighter.

Mose Humphrey was a name bandied about in the early 1800s.  The original person was a printer for the New York Sun, as well as a member of a local fire company.  Stories circulated of Mose as a fire fighter who was especially heroic and strong, though it is not certain if they are true.  Furthermore, He also was quite a Bowery Boy, a form of local tough guy that had an unsavory reputation. 

Over time, the Bowery Boy aspect of Mose’s story diminished, and Mose himself grew bigger and more fanciful, reaching eight feet tall with “hands as big as Virginia hams.”  The stories about Mose focused more on bravery and his selflessness to help others in need. 

Mary Pope Osbourne, in a tribute to the firefighters who died on September 11, 2001, decided to rework the Mose legend for younger children.  The result is New York’s Bravest, a book that students young and old will find thrilling, heartbreaking, and packed with moments for study, research and discussion.

Osbourne gears the book for younger readers, from 1st to 3rd grade, and her writing is beautifully clear and direct.  Mose is shown at his heroic best, fighting fires and saving babies, even when facing his inevitable demise.  His “death” is probably the best scene in the book, and Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher’s illustrations add a wonderful exclamation point to the drama.  This book is read every year in my classrooms, and many students have cried and cheered at the end.

Yet despite its reading level, New York’s Bravest can be used on any age in any classroom.  Younger children will grasp the moral aspect of Mose’s good deeds and good heart.  Children of an older age can note the illustrations of 19th Century New York, contrasting them with the look of the city today.

For high schoolers, though, this book can take students in an altogether different direction.  Mose’s story is a great way to discuss the often wide disconnect between mythology and reality.  Firefighters are among the most celebrated and respected professions today.  Yet it wasn’t always this way, especially during Mose’s time.

New York City did not have a professional fire department until 1865.  Volunteer fire companies dotted the city, where local boys and men would join up, drink and carouse, and occasionally fight fires.  Each of the companies had territories they protected from rivals, especially through violence.  Often, fire companies attracted the lowest criminals, and were no better than gangs of thugs who were manipulated by corrupt politicians to fix elections and beat up opponents.

Case in point: William Tweed, the famous boss of Tammany Hall in the late 1860s, got his start with his own fire company, the Americus Fire Company.  Its symbol was a Bengal tiger, which became the symbol of Tammany Hall as a whole.  The scene in Gangs of New York where the two fire companies brawled in the street while a fire raged is quite close to reality–one of the few scenes Martin Scorsese got right.

However you use it, New York’s Bravest is a fantastic read, and a fitting tribute to the firefighters of New York–from the brawling 1800s to our professional companies of today.   Please let us know your thoughts on this or any book reviewed here at the Neighborhood.

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