Monthly Archives: November 2009

New York State’s 5th Grade Social Studies Test: A Race to the Bottom!

I’ve been knee deep in short answers and essay questions since before Thanksgiving break.  I really need to vent on this–fast!

If there was ever a situation where standardized test scores were meaningless, it is with the 5th grade social studies test in New York State.  This test makes a court eunuch look like a stud horse.  I won’t go into particulars, since I cannot by law, but I will fill you in on some trends:

(1) You only need a minimal amount of knowledge to pass this test.  Most of the questions are charts, graphs, maps, quotations, pictures, etc.  While these skills are useful, and come in handing in reading and math tests, it doesn’t necessarily test what the kid knows.  And I don’t buy into the nonsense that kids don’t need to know facts.  The next brat that asks me if George Washington is still alive will be thrown out a window.  At this rate, in a few years you can safely pass the state test without knowing ANY history, geography (beyond the basics), or rudimentary civics. 

(2) The parts that require more time–and skill–count little.  The parts that require minimal brain function (like multiple choice) count the most.  This leads to a skewed scale wherein a student can ace the multiple choice, do okay on the short answer questions, and tank the essay completely.  This genius not only passes, but almost achieves superior proficiency, according to New York State.  Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

(3) The rubrics for the short answers and essay make it next to impossible to fail, unless you really want to do so.  For some questions, the acceptable right answers take up half the page, while the strict, non-bending wrong aswers (I’m sorry–incorrect.  Can’t use the “w” word) occupy a measly one or two lines.  I’m all for giving a kid a break when he knows the material but can’t express it in perfect Oxbridge quality.  Yet this system rewards the saps who copy from documents and score high marks using sheer dumb luck.

I’d like to hear if other New York teachers have had similar experiences with this test in particular, or tests in general.  Comments are always welcome.

There.  I feel better now.

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Mr. D’s Guide to the Holidays # 1: Thanksgiving

Freedom From Want (1943) By Norman Rockwell -- could it also read "Freedom from wanting clear arteries"?

Let’s begin with a holiday that’s all American, wholesome, family-oriented, and brings out the best in us.  Or, conversely, a stressful, be grudgingly multiethnic, polyglot, emotionally charged day that get us longing for tomorrow.

Super Bowl Sunday.

Sorry, as a Giants fan, it is wishful thinking.  Of course I mean Thanksgiving, the annual late November ritual where we give thanks to God/Yahweh/G*d/Allah/the Force/etc. for all the good blessings of the year.

This is, obviously, followed by gorging on his divine good bounty until we get the coronary that will ultimately send us to our maker.  God has a funny way of accepting gratitude.

He also has a sense of humor in concocting the myths behind this celebration.  As children, we have all been drilled in the mantra of the Pilgrims.  Let’s recap for those unfamiliar:

In 1620, 102 God-fearing English souls—dressed as if from a Rembrandt canvas—set sail on that grandiose vessel the Mayflower to seek a land where they can worship God in their own way (as long as nobody else says otherwise).  They land on Plymouth Rock (which must’ve done wonders for the ship’s undercarriage) and began the hard existence of life.  The first winter was brutal and cold, and it was not until they met the kindly “Indian” Squanto, who showed them the wonders of maize and hunting, that the little colony was spared.  In 1621, to give thanks for their good fortune, the Pilgrims invite the Wampanoag, led by the kind Massasoit, to enjoy a bountiful meal, complete with turkeys raised with pop-up timers.  They lived together as friends (cue the smallpox blankets) and we have celebrated ever since.

Please wipe your feet to avoid tracking the bullshit on the carpet.

Okay, so like so many things, Thanksgiving is a lie teachers told you.  Not entirely, but it is the case here.  Let’s take this myth and break it apart piece by piece.

Myth # 1—The Pilgrims came to seek religious freedom.

In the 17th Century, there was no such thing—not in Europe, America, or anywhere else.  Even swinging Holland, known for its tolerance, had an official Calvinist religion; one which viewed outsiders as an irritant best avoided. 

The Pilgrims were no exception: they were so radical even Puritans avoided them—that’s fucking radical.

The Pilgrims practiced Separatism, which meant they wanted to completely separate from the Church of England and establish their own theocratic hell in the land of their choosing.  This differed from the Puritans, who wanted the Church of England to be “purified” into their theocratic hell, which was better than the Anglican theocratic hell, which was better than the Lutheran theocratic hell, which was light years better than the idolatrous Catholic theocratic hell and the (God Forbid) Muslim theocratic hell.

They can all go to hell, for all I care.

Anyway, the Pilgrims were getting persecuted, that’s true.  To avoid English rule, they did establish themselves in Leiden, the Netherlands—also true.  Yet here’s the second part of the story: The Pilgrims ultimately left for America for two reasons.  First, to establish a hell as described above.  Second, to make sure their kids don’t grow up Dutch: speaking a phlegm-based language looking like a Vermeer portrait and being all tolerant and such. 

Myth # 2—everybody on the Mayflower were Pilgrims who wanted religious freedom.

There were, in fact, non-Separatists on the voyage, along with the captain and crew of the ship.  Only 27 of the 70 adults on the voyage were Separatists.  The rest were in no mood for Jesus.  On the contrary, their mood was for a quick buck.  Some came to establish a homestead in the New World.  Others came to find the gold that the bozos in Virginia seemed to miss.  All these people would chafe at the Pilgrims’ “religious freedom”—which would actually cause resentment and exits from the colony.

Myth # 3—the Pilgrims were heading to Virginia, but were blown off course.

This is kind of true.  The Mayflower was blown off course, but the course was not present-day Virginia.  The Virginia Company claimed the land north of Jamestown including the mouth of the Hudson River.  The ultimate destination of the Pilgrims would be present-day New York. 

In a weird twist of irony, in 1619 the Dutch West India Company offered to settle the Pilgrims in New Netherland, their colony in North America located on the exact same spot of their supposed landing.  The Pilgrim leaders declined, wishing to not further the “corruption” of their youth with Dutch influences.  Delft tiles, prim black clothing and actually making money doing business is a scary thing, I suppose.

Myth # 3—the Natives welcomed the Pilgrims with open arms.

The Native tribes were suspicious of these newcomers, and with good reason.  Between 1617 and 1619 English fishermen in the area exposed the local people to smallpox, which devastated the numbers of Narragansett, Pawtuxet and Wampanoag populations.  Furthermore, the Pilgrims stole corn stores from villages that were deserted due to the disease, which couldn’t have made the locals pleased.

In fact, the Wampanoag were actually looking for a strategic advantage in befriending the newcomers.  They still outnumbered the new settlers, which meant that any false move and they could quickly dispatch them, as they weren’t much of a threat.  The settlers’ weakened condition after the winter of 1620-1621 further tipped the cards in Massasoit’s favor.  Also, Massasoit knew that these people could be a powerful ally in their constant battles with neighboring tribes such as the Narragansett, the Pequot and the Mohegan—who obviously had not yet learned the pacifying power of all-night gambling.

Over the years after 1621, and especially after Massasoit died, the Plymouth colony would take advantage of the Wampanoag to gain more land for the ever-increasing numbers of settlers that were arriving from England.  By the time Massasoit’s son Metacomet, or King Philip, took over the tribe in 1662, enough was enough.  The subsequent war, King Philip’s War, would ravage New England between 1675 and 1676, and would be among the bloodiest of native conflicts in North America.

Massasoit should’ve gotten that drumstick, after all.

Myth # 4—the first Thanksgiving was a mutual celebration between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag to celebrate their mutual good fortune.

For this, we’ll turn to two primary sources.  The following is an account from a 1621 book entitled Mourt’s Relation, or A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England.  It was primarily written by Edward Winslow, a Separatist who did much of the communication between the colony and the Wampanoag.  This is his account:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” – Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation (1621)

According to Winslow, the whole celebration happened by accident.  The Pilgrims went out hunting for their harvest celebration, found the Wampanoag wandering in their midst, and basically made an impromptu invitation to dine with them.  The three-day event was full of entertaining, feasting, and hunting—apparently the Wampanoag brought five deer to the event.

Here’s another, probably better known account.  The following comes from the now-legendary 1647 work Of Plimoth Plantation, written by acclaimed Pilgrim leader William Bradford.  Edward Winslow was Bradford’s assistant in communicating with the native tribes.  This is Bradford’s account:

“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.” – William Bradford. Of Plimoth Plantation (1647)

Bradford writes of abundance and good fortune, yet no mention of a celebration.  This good fortune may even be contrived—this was published some 26 years after the fact, so Bradford’s eye may be a bit more glassed over. 

The point is the celebratory feast we envision as the first “Thanksgiving” may have simply been an English harvest feast that was crashed by the Wampanoag.  Or it may have never really happened at all.  Nonetheless, whatever happened, it bore almost no relation to the modern holiday, which leads to the last myth.

Myth # 5—America has been celebrating Thanksgiving ever since the Pilgrims.

To honor the real founder of the holiday, kids should be wearing beards and tall hats instead of feathers and buckled shoes.  

Although individual Presidents have proclaimed days of Thanksgiving from time to time, and some states even creating their own Thanksgiving holiday, it wasn’t until the Civil War that a national holiday was created.  In 1863, Abraham Lincoln set aside the last Thursday in November as a day of prayer and Thanksgiving.  Given the national mood of the time, it was sorely needed.

Yet it didn’t stop future leaders from monkeying with the date.

Franklin Roosevelt, in an attempt to stimulate the Depression-era economy, proposed moving Thanksgiving a week earlier in 1939.  Republicans would have none of it, resisting Democratic moves to sully old Abe’s Thanksgiving in the name of economic recovery.  For a number of years, there were two Thanksgivings, depending on your political party.  The mix-up was straightened out by the time we entered World War II in 1941.

You may be asking yourself, “Mr. D, how do we know the information you’re giving us isn’t bullshit?”

Good question.  Here’s some links to back up my bullshit, with more information:

Plimoth Plantation is one of the few historical re-enactments that cut through the crap pretty well.  Their work is thoroughly researched and documented, and actively strives to provide a balanced look at life in the early colony.  Look at their Education sublink for their online education center which features their “You are the Historian” section, which kids will love.

The Plymouth Colony entry in Research Starters from Scholastic provides a great overview of the topic, followed by links to articles and to other websites for further study.

The Plymouth Colony Archives Project was a historical archaeology project started at the University of Virginia, but now housed at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  It is a magnificent repository of primary records about the colony and its settlers.

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Mr. D’s official Guide to the Holidays—an Introduction

The holidays are among the most dangerous time of year for a teacher.

It isn’t enough that you have shopping, decorating, cooking, wrapping and holiday card writing for your own family.  Now you have 25 other little minions on your to-do list—and no socks, please.  Then there’s the recycling of 10-year old garlands and a 70’s era Santa Claus to make the room look “festive” and get the administrators off your back.  The whole room needs to be scrubbed and cleaned for the winter recess, and the regs don’t allow you to use the ready-made labor force of your 25 cherubs.

If this were not enough, there may be an ACLU lawyer ready to pounce on you at any moment.  Still calling it “Christmas vacation?”  Yitzhak, Abdul and Ahmad X would like to have a word with you.

Not only are the holidays a strain on your time, finances, and sanity.  They provide the yearly arena for the most knock-down, drag-out fights about the separation of church and state.  Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, even Ramadan (depending on the year) fight for your attention on the holiday table.

At least one town in America has a good media-fueled circus over a community nativity scene, a menorah, a kinara or some other important object that pisses off somebody—anybody.  The nativity scene features characters straight out of a Nazi propaganda film.  Punks are stealing the bulbs off the menorah again, even after night 4 when the four Jewish families in town couldn’t care less.  There are complaints from the three Black families that the Kwanzaa kinara isn’t as tall as the menorah with the missing bulbs.  Muslims just want to nibble on something—even if it means ticking off everybody to do it.

Mr. D has your solution.  This holiday season, make sure all your celebrations are equally worthless.

I’ve found that the best way to defuse a situation is to make sure that everyone is equally pissed off.  To that end, we here at the Neighborhood are providing some helpful talking points to give you a good laugh—and give your more zealous colleagues some serious heartburn.

Each week, we’ll be skewering a new holiday—and nothing is sacred.  Was Mary simply covering up the fact she was “knocked up”?  Weren’t the Maccabees fighting a foregone conclusion: Hebrew itself was Hellenized, after all?  Does an artificial holiday with cornstalks and dashikis really make up for the 400-year screw job received by African Americans?  Doesn’t Ramadan contribute to the irrational nature of the Middle East?  I’m delusional without a morning coffee.

Please return for our first installment next week: Thanksgiving.

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Movies for the Classroom: With the Marines at Tarawa

I’ve still been a little shell-shocked lately after the grueling test season ended.  I’ll be trying for more original material for later this week, possibly before Thanksgiving. 

This week I’ve been watching the incredible series WWII in HD on the History Channel.  This series is a compilation of newly-discovered color footage of the Second World War, enhanced and spliced with High-Definition graphics to create a unique visual experience.  First-hand accounts are narrated throughout the series in each theater of the war.  Though it may be too strong for your students, definitely take a look for yourself, especially on an HD TV. 

One of the people highlighted on this show is Time/Life war correspondent Robert Sherrod.  He was with the Marines that met stiff Japanese resistence in Tarawa, Saipan and Iwo Jima.  The Marines that filmed the Tarawa operation spliced together a documentary film, With the Marines at Tarawa.  Under the Hays code for film decency, the film was considered too graphic for major Hollywood distribution.  Sherrod persuaded President Franklin Roosevelt that the American public needed to see this film, so that they understood the full price of war.  Roosevelt consented, and the film gained a nationwide release. 

It won the 1945 Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject, and it galvanized the war effort, which had flagged after the casualty counts at Tarawa were released.  Attached above is the actual documentary, which gives you a unique look at World War II that many people today think wasn’t available at the time. 

Americans in 1944 saw graphic images of war, just as Americans in 1968 saw images of Vietnam.  Yet the outcome was altogether different.  I leave it to you to debate why.

WARNING: This film is EXTREMELY GRAPHIC in nature.  DO NOT SHOW this film in your classroom unless you have WRITTEN CLEARANCE from an administrator. 

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Movies for the Classroom: 100 Free Movies Online from

Today I wanted to wish all 5th graders in New York State the best of luck on their state social studies tests.  I think the test this year was pretty good.  If you had issues with the test with your classroom, let me know.

I was drawn to a posting on OpenCulture that had 100 free movies online, many of them true classics.  I decided to embed Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) as an example.  I know, its hackneyed, hokey and anything if not sentimental, but at least it conveys the ideals of what public service should be about.  It makes for a great opening or closing film about U.S. government.

Many of these films will work great in your classrooms.  If you have any suggestions for more free movies, please inform us at the Neighborhood.  We’re here to help.

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Pol Pot is “History’s Greatest A**hole!”


Congratulations to Yonatan Lupu for his entry of Cambodian crazyman Pol Pot as “History’s Greatest Asshole.” Even in a crowded field of philandering autocrats, plundering kleptocrats, a “people’s” plutocrat, and an anger-obsessed Democrat, the freaky guerrilla leader who hated everybody beats out all. 

Thanks to everyone who voted, and here’s hoping for a new contest sometime soon.

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This Day in History 11/9: The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Thefalloftheberlinwall1989The announcement of our winner of “History’s Greatest A**hole” contest will have to wait, as Mr. D needs to wax nostalgic about today’s anniversary.

Twenty years ago today, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall, the most visible and hated symbol of the Cold War, came tumbling down as the East German government flung open its borders.  The opening of the Wall was the beginning of the end for Communism in Eastern Europe, as (mostly) peaceful revolutions swept across the continent, bringing down regime after regime until the great bear itself, the Soviet Union, dissolved in 1991.

Today, most kids have never even heard of the word Communism or anything like a Cold War.  Yet try to be a child seeing these events unfold.  For my generation, those that witnessed the end of an era, we couldn’t even believe it was happening.

For most of our lives, we thought that the great conflict between East and West, the Cold War, the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union had reached a meandering stalemate that could last forever.  If the rivalry did heat up, it was usually every four years during the Olympic Games. 

 I was a precocious kid, and even at that age a rabid anti-Communist.  Most of my friends used words like “Commie” and “Russkie” pretty casually, but I knew the evil they contained.  When Katerina Witt of East Germany won the gold medal in figure skating in 1988, I left the room.  I screamed at my parents that I refused to listen to an anthem from a Communist dictatorship.    No one booed louder when Nickolai Volkoff sang the Soviet national anthem before wrestling for the WWF (now WWE). 

Christ, I made Alex P. Keaton look like Nancy Pelosi.

Yet even I, the great red-baiter that I was, had the inevitable shrug most had when confronting the Soviet menace.  They were there, and they we there to stay.  As long as they don’t move from where they are, and no sneaky stuff with Typhoon submarines, then I guess we can coexist.  It was even a buzzword of the Brezhnev-era Kremlin: “peaceful coexistence.” 

Then I heard about what was happening in Poland.  Yes, I was a wierd kid: the Solidarity movement of Lech Walesa fascinated me. 

I mean, here was a situation that, to a true lover of Marx and Lenin, made absolutely no sense: a “worker’s republic” refusing to let a group of shipyard workers from Gdansk organize into a labor union.  A labor union is the crux of all Communist ideology, and it was turned on its head as Solidarity formed to combat unfair conditions laid down by Warsaw’s Soviet satellite regime.  The authorities fought back brutally, enforcing martial law from 1981-1982.  Yet the movement survived, and it worked to undermine, and eventually destroy, the Polish dictatorship.

The Polish revolution worked because of a gap in the Soviet clinch on power.  By the 1980s, the Soviets were in economic freefall, and badly needed Western capital and technology just to keep up.  Thus, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev began a program of gradual liberalization of the economy (perestroika) followed by a loosening of the authoritarian political landscape (glasnost).  On top of this, Moscow basically allowed its satellites to do what they wanted.  There would be no repeat of the crackdowns of years past–this time the Red Army will not interfere.

The result was a flood of anger and resentment.  Reform movements were going on all over Eastern Europe, mostly among grassroots groups looking for bread-and-butter changes: better housing, higher wages, better working conditions, etc.  The people’s republics simply grew so stagnant that they were completely divorced from the reality of the people, and rebels like Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa were considered heroes.

Yet we never thought that wall would ever come down.  And it did, thanks to massive demonstrations, public media attention, and an East German government willing to say “enough is enough”, and replace the autocratic Erich Honecker with the more pliant Egon Krenz, who summarily threw open the borders to allow East Germans free access to the west.  That hated wall, that son-of-a-bitch wall finally came down.

As with most things, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism seemed inevitable now.  Today, we are still dealing with the aftereffects of the Revolutions of 1989, both good and bad.  But for kids like me, who never thought it was going to happen, the Berlin Wall was a moment we could never forget.  Like the clamoring hordes in Boston in the 1770’s, no one was silencing the will of the people anymore.

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