Monthly Archives: August 2010

“No, I Didn’t Know George Washington”: Answers to those “Dumb” Questions before School Starts

Whoever said “There are no stupid questions” never had a classroom full of them.

Especially at the elementary level, the post-summer amnesia produces a litany of questions that should seem obvious. 

In fact, you probably answered them all last year.  Guess what?  You’ll be answering them again this year, too. 

Over the years, I collected a lot of these questions, pored over them, wondered about their recurrent nature, and then drank myself into a stupor until the questions drowned in gin.  They’re tough little buggers.

In order to save me some time this year—as well as give some advice on how to handle these questions—I’ve come up with the most common questions that have arisen, along with the answers, so that at least we can be prepared once school starts:










“Who was the first slave?” – I get this one a lot, especially among kids who can trace their ancestry to enslaved persons down South and would like a more complete family tree.  We don’t know the name of the first slave, although in Paleolithic communication a slave could just as easily been anyone forced to do work, like a “husband” or “boyfriend.” (Just kidding.)










“Martin Luther King was President, right?” – Always occurring either around MLK’s mid-January break or during Black History Month in February.  Thanks to the other holidays around the same time, a lot of kids just assume that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a President simply because he’s famous for doing important things.  No, MLK was never President: would Barack Obama’s election have been such a big deal if he was?  Usually that deflates the issue right there.










“Did you know George Washington?” – a huge obstacle to overcome is a child’s lack of understanding of historical time, especially when you explain it a hundred times before.  It still doesn’t get into their heads: George Washington died in 1799.  I was born in 1977, which is almost 200 years after his death, therefore…(cue the confused look on the kid’s face.)  Oh well, you could just mess with the kid, “Sure I knew him…bought three slaves from him once, and what a bargain!” (Cue the parent calling the principal.)








“Did {insert dead white male here} die?” – this is slightly similar to the previous question.  Assume anyone within striking distance of Washington (Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, the three slaves I bought from Washington) are already dead.  Most of history’s bad guys, with the exception of Osama bin-Laden (or so we’re told), Fidel Castro (ditto) and Muammar Qadafi—dead.  For parochial school kids: saints and martyrs are dead (martyrs by definition), as well as every pope but the current one (again, by design).   For further point of reference, take any wall chart of the Presidents of the United States.  Now circle numbers 39, 41, 42, 43 and 44.  The rest are all dead. 










“What was the first war?” – As common and pointless a question as “Who was the first slave?”  Without a documented record of the event, the question is really meaningless.  Therefore, make up a plausible story: It was probably when Gak wanted more mammoth meat than Urg, so he hit him over the head with a club and took the rest of the carcass.  This explains pretty much all wars, from Gak and Urg to World War II (even Iraq, if you substitute mammoth meat for millions of barrels of sweet, sweet crude.)






“Did they have machine guns/bazookas/missiles in the {insert pre-20th century war}?” – ridiculous, but fun to think about.  Imagine the sight of British redcoats running for their lives at the sight of a minuteman raining fire with a Browning machine gun.  Obviously, this plays into the problem of historical time.  Timelines showing different stages of weapons development can help–good luck explaining that to the AP.  Or you can rationalize: do you think the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, even the Seven Years’ War would’ve lasted so long with modern weapons?  One strafe of napalm over northern New York would’ve had the Iroquois running for the British lines in no time flat.

Now we’re really mostly kidding (mostly).  As teachers, it is in the best interests of a child to answer their questions as honestly and directly as possible–or at least direct them to where they can find the answer.  To whit, some of the questions mentioned today are, at least in a child’s mind, perfectly legitimate.  For example, it makes sense to figure out when humans decided to enslave other humans, or the first time people used homicidal violence to solve problems.

Yet sometimes the lesson has to go on.  These questions are, more often than not, used to waste your time.  Make sure to answer the question ONCE, then enforce some rules if they try it again.  Often, I find that the more sarcastic and convoluted the answer, the more confused the kid is.  He’ll never even think of asking that question again.

Even so, I know I’ll be getting these, so let’s be prepared.  If you have any other stories/tips about the questions you always get and always seem ridiculous, let us know.  We’d love to share them.

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Summer Reading for Teachers: Forbidden Love: The Hidden History of Mixed Race America

Frederick Douglass, himself of mixed race, with his second wife Helen Pitt Douglass, and their neice Eva.

The strength and flaw of an immigrant society is its heterogeneity.

The societies that sprouted across the American continent were not one-note masses of people, but rather a chorus of different voices that, for good or ill, must learn to live together.  For the most part, this mix of people has been a boon to the economic, social and cultural progress of our country.

Unfortunately, in the United States, the concept of races—and their “inherent” differences—has led to an uneasy existence.  Different people can work together, live side-by-side, play together.  Yet romantic relationships and racial “mixing” was far too often considered taboo.

Yet according to Gary Nash, history professor at UCLA and a friend here at the Neighborhood, mixed-race relationships have a long history in America—and just as long a history of fighting for acceptance in a society preoccupied with racial purity.

Like a previous book of his I reviewed, Professor Nash’s Forbidden Love: The Hidden History of Mixed-Race America offers a window into a world most Americans know little about.  In this case, it is the often submerged undercurrent of multiracial family relationships.  Nash paints a wide swath, starting with Pocohantas and ending in the multiracial heritage of our current President.  Along the way, by identifying the lives of extraordinary mixed-race Americans, he shows the currents of race and racial identity that have prevailed in this country.

Nash writes that the early history of the United States showed great promise for an interracial society, or at least one where race was less relevant than it would become centuries later.  Yet due to the settler nature of North America—as opposed to the conquistador/exploitation model of Central and South America—the United States would populate itself with whole families who saw survival, especially ethnic/racial purity, as paramount to their existence.

This obsession with racial purity would prevail well into the first half of the 20th century.  It dictated how white America would deal with millions of Africans, once enslaved and later as free persons.  It also determined the relationship between European settlement and Native Americans who predated them on this continent.  Finally, the need for racial purity would affect how America received millions of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Nash’s choice of subjects covers many ethnic groups and various periods of American history.  He starts with Pocohantas’ marriage to the Virginia planter John Rolfe, and also includes maritime entrepreneur Paul Cuffe, the Healy family (also discussed in a previous post), Elizabeth Hulme, Peggy Rusk, and of course Eldrick “Tiger” Woods.  In each, their lives are juxtaposed with the rising and ebbing tide of racial rigidity and consciousness in this country, culminating in the election of a multiracial President in 2008.

One particular area that Nash sheds light on is the 18th century Mexican paintings known as “casta” paintings, and how they reflect racial mixture and hierarchy in Spanish America.  These didactic paintings demonstrate the nomenclature of the union of persons of different racial makeup, i.e. a Spaniard and a black woman make a mulatto; a Spaniard and a native woman make a mestizo, etc.  I remember seeing something similar in a textbook on a visit to Ecuador, yet I was astonished at the bewildering permutations—and labels—that categorized the racial makeup of colonial Mexico.

However, this open demonstration of racial mingling did not mean racial equality.  The lack of Spanish females, larger populations of native and black persons, coupled with a Catholic Church that had a more permissive view of interracial marriage meant a more fluid mixing of peoples.  Yet according to Nash, this mixing would not mean the end of racism:

“The offspring of mixed-race marriages could expect a life of discrimination and thwarted ambition.  And those with African ancestry faced more limited chances than those with Indian bloodlines.  Above all, Spanish blood counted the most.” ~ Gary Nash, in Forbidden Love, Revised Edition, page 48.

Unlike his last book we reviewed, The Unknown American Revolution, Forbidden Love makes a remarkably seamless addition to a high school classroom syllabus.  This is largely due to its imprimatur, the National Center for History in the Schools, of which Professor Nash is director.  NCHS works to connect academic scholarship in history with classroom instruction at all grade levels. 

In the case of Forbidden Love, the book was revised from its original 1999 version to both add a modern prospective and to make it more suitable for the classroom.  Although the book bursts with the hefty research worthy of an academic tome, its tone, vocabulary and short length make this material easily accessible to high schoolers.  Even more impressive are the discussion questions located near the end.  Each chapter contains these useful questions to continue discussion and to offer differentiation for various student groups. 

In the multi-racial populations of students in America, research and biographies like those found in Forbidden Love are more crucial than ever.  Many cities have populations where racial intermingling has been the norm for centuries, and are now coming into contact with American populations where interracial acceptance has been halting, at best. 

People like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, etc. are demystifying what it means to be multiracial in America.  As Professor Nash shows, Americans have been mixing together long before they gained acceptance in the wider society.  Race, says Nash, is an artificial categorization that has no basis in science.  It should, therefore, be natural for humans to accept when races mix and procreate.

It’s a shame it took so long to reach that acceptance.

NOTE: Any teachers and students wishing to read the newest edition of Forbidden Love can order a copy by contacting Marian Olivas, Program Coordinator at the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA —

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This Day in History 8/9: Nixon Resigns the Presidency

It was a day my parents, and probably many of you in the Neighborhood, remember all too well.

On August 9, 1974, after two years of investigation, scandal, cover-up and tumult, President Richard Nixon became the first chief executive in the United States to resign from office.  He did so after the failed cover-up of the Watergate affair, in which members of the Nixon campaign broke into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate hotel in Washington, DC in 1972.

To many people, most I gather, the resignation of President Nixon was a cause of relief, exasperation and even joy. 

I however, take no joy in this event.

I report it and teach it because it was necessary for Nixon to resign to save what was left of the integrity of the office of President.  He was a man of many personal demons, most of which manifested itself in the Oval Office through a culture of surveillance, deception and paranoia.  It is very clear to me, as it was to even his fellow Republicans in Congress, that Nixon brought this on himself and had to go.

Yet what pains me most is what could have been. 

To many moderate conservatives like myself, we saw in Nixon a pragmatic internationalist that we could model ourselves.  His belief in a limited government, yet one that protected basic rights and ensured an opportunity for all, is one we can all get behind–he even supported a health care bill that was even more far-reaching than Obama’s!

On the international stage–where he shined–Nixon saw the clear need for rational, open discussion with leaders on the opposite side of the Cold War, such as Leonid Brezhnev and Mao tse-tung.  Even though he did stumble–as the escalation of the war in Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia suggests–he did keep a blueprint for our withdrawal that culminated in finally leaving Vietnam in 1973.  The Republicanism of his generation was a far cry from the free-spending cowboy antics of Dubya, and a more nuanced version of Reaganism.

I’m a Republican because of Richard Nixon, not because of Ronald Reagan.  I still believe in those ideals–even though the man behind them was so flawed as to self-destruct and almost take the executive branch with him.

This is why I take no joy, no cheer in his downfall.

Attached is the excerpt from his August 8, 1974 speech, thanks to the Miller Centerof Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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Movies for the Classroom: Decisions that Shook the World

“My movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” ~ George Washington

As many here in the Neighborhood are aware, I am not a huge fan of the policies of President Obama. 

However, I do appreciate the difficulties he faces in making decisions that carry far-reaching consequences.  As the above quote suggests, George Washington, our first President, understood this far too well.

In fact, nearly every President since Washington has reached that point: the place where you cannot delegate any more authority, you cannot “pass the buck” any further to a lower-ranking peon.  The President, and only the President, has to make the decision–and people will be unhappy one way or another.

There’s no certainty that the decision he made was the right one.  It may be many years before that decision is vindicated or villified.  Few people can make such leaps in the dark without some sort of mental or emotional breakdown, yet we expect nothing less from our Chief Executives.

I thought about this as I stumbled upon this StarzFilms documentary made in 2004.  Decisions that Shook the World discusses three Presidents who reached a moment of action.  First, Lyndon Johnson, an accidental President thanks to a tragic assassination in 1963, makes a decision to support a Civil Rights bill, even though it meant alienating most of his white Southern base of support. 

Second, Ronald Reagan steadfastly supported a “Star Wars”-like missile defensive program called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), even when a Democratic Congress howled at the expense and pundits rolled their eyes at the folly of such a “fantastic” program.

Lastly, Franklin Roosevelt, in the midst of an economic depression in his own country, decides to provide Great Britain with arms and materials before our entry into World War II.  This was at a time when many Americans thought the United States should maintain its neutrality from what seemed to be a mostly European affair.

In each instance, the consequences were felt long after the decision was made.  Johnson, as it turned out, made the right decision on civil rights–albeit the wrong one when it came to Vietnam.  Reagan’s solid approach to anti-Communism helped ensure that the Cold War would end.  However, “Star Wars” opened up the floodgates for massive spending from the Pentagon that we still cannot control.  Roosevelt’s actions kept Britain going until we did enter the war.  Yet the war we initially entered was in the Pacific, with the European war, in the beginning, as an afterthought.

The documentary works well as an episodic series to use piecemeal in classrooms.  It works well with creating “case study” scenarios where students can make executive decisions using the same information available at the White House at the time. 

Finally, I hope the film will get students to appreciate the extraordinarily difficult position that the President has.  He has the toughest job in the world, and it gets harder with every passing administration.

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Who Wants to Open a Charter School with Mr. D?!

If you can’t beat’em, find a deadlier weapon…one that’ll sneak up on them.

I’ve been bitching ad nauseum about the direction of education in this country: the college-age twits that think they are better than veteran teachers; the ass-minded intelligentsia and their boneheaded theories; machine-like administrators who see problem solving as simply creating an independent entity to figure it out, instead of actual guidance.

Finally, New York State may have the answer to our needs.

On Tuesday, the NY Board of Regents (the same people I’m pissed at over the Social Studies thing) announced the release of its 2010 Charter School Application Kit, which will be used by applicants to open new charter schools in New York State. 

This got me thinking: Why don’t we open our own charter school? 

No, I’m not drunk, if you’re wondering.

We could build a school that actually uses tried-and-true methods of learning, instead of squishy theories.  Real content will be taught, instead of the mushy interdisciplinary crap that’s crammed down our throats.  Probably most importantly, we can hold kids and parents accountable for what they need to do, as well as teachers–because contrary to popular belief, we are not gods.

The more I think of it, the better an idea it sounds.

If anyone has experience in the charter school gig (Steve Evangelista at Harlem Link was a college classmate and taught me as a Teaching Fellow…the whole process, according to him, kicked his ass.) or would like to contribute their thoughts…or even time, if you’re a local educator/administrator…on this matter, definitely let me know.

Again, I’m not intoxicated, and this is not a pipe dream.  We’re actually taking this seriously.  I welcome your comments.

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This Day in History 8/4: Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)

True entertainers are gifts from above.

The best of them have dedicated their lives to their fans, to help spread joy to millions worldwide, and to make us feel, at least for a moment, just a little bit better.

Thus is truly the case with today’s subject.  August 4, 1901 marks the recorded birthday of Louis Armstrong, arguably the single most important artist in the history of American music.  The New Orleans-borne trumpeter—who grew up in an area so violent it was nicknamed “the Battlefield”—became the emblem for America’s musical genius, spreading his influence to almost every genre of our popular music.

Starting with King Oliver’s Band and then to his own ensembles, Armstrong took a local musical form, jazz, into an international phenomenon, introducing new methods of improvisation, phrasing, arrangement and vocal technique.  His “scat” vocals, which intermingled jazz lyrics and improvised rhythmic sounds, became the basis for almost all vocal popular music today, from country to hip-hop.

Then there was his trumpet.  I can hear Armstrong’s loud, direct, brassy trumpet anywhere and know it was his.  Every time I hear it, I weep.  Every time I hear his vocal recording, I’m in tears.  No other artist has that effect on me.

I am not alone.  Up until just before his death in 1971, Armstrong, known as “Satchmo”, “Satch” or “Pops” to his fans, entertained millions of people around the world.  He was adored, often worshipped, as the jolly, magnanimous ambassador of America to places as far as Asia and Africa.  His popularity was evident even as late as 1964, when Armstrong’s recording of “Hello Dolly” dethroned the Beatles from the # 1 spot on the Billboard pop music charts.

Yet he did not forget who he was, and the struggles that people of color faced.  Many blacks in his era criticized Armstrong for being too “cozy” with white audiences, with being too complimentary to white sensibilities.  Yet if you listen to Fats Waller’s lyrics from his famous 1929 tune “Black and Blue”, you may think otherwise:

“Cold empty bed…springs hurt my head.

Feels like ole Ned…wished I was dead.

What did I do…to be so black and blue?

Even the mouse…ran from my house.

They laugh at you..and all that you do.

What did I do…to be so black and blue?

I’m white…inside…but that don’t help my case.

That’s life…can’t hide…what is in my face.

How would it end…ain’t got a friend.

My only sin…is in my skin.

What did I do…to be so black and blue?”

In 1957, as the Little Rock Nine endured torrents of abuse in integrating Little Rock High School, Pops reportedly wired President Eisenhower the following: “If you decide to walk into the schools with the little colored kids, take me along, Daddy.”

Many today would argue that Michael Jackson was more influential, more important to music.  With all due respect to Michael, there would be no King of Pop without “Pops.”  Jazz, rock, rap, hip-hop, country, popular vocals, Latin music—there isn’t a single planet that wasn’t within Armstrong’s orbit. 

Bing Crosby said of him, “He was the only musician who ever lived, who can’t be replaced by someone.”

Fellow musical titan Duke Ellington: “He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone along the way.”

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns: “Armstrong is to music what Einstein is to physics and the Wright Brothers are to travel.”

Miles Davis was more frank: “No him, no me.”

I wanted to include some recordings, some MP3s of Armstrong’s music, but many tracks are not as of yet in the public domain.  If anyone in the Neighborhood has any links to free downloads of Armstrong’s recordings, please let me know.

In the meantime, here’s a video of Armstrong’s 1933 Copenhagen recording of “Dinah”, followed by Pops’ performance of “Hello Dolly” later in his career. 


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Documents for the Classroom: Tom Paine-a-Mania at the Neighborhood

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

Tom Paine was always a guy I admired: honest, blunt, a professional asshole.

He was also one of the most influential writers of the late 18th century, focusing his pen on the problems of liberty, equality, government and revolution.  As for the latter, he helped push unrest on two continents, and had conservatives across Europe and America shitting in their pants.

The latest post from the Social Studies and History Teachers Blog out of Multimedia Learning focuses on Paine’s most famous work in the States, the 1776 pamphlet Common Sense.  In it, he posits a radical idea: that common, ordinary people have a place in government.  Its ideals still ring true today.

I’m also including links to two other of Paine’s works that may not be as famous as Common Sense, or his subsequent The Crisis here in the US, but are just as important in understanding this important author:

Rights of Man (1791) – Paine’s response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, it is his defense of revolution as a tool for regime change and the protection of basic rights.  It caused a sensation in England, forcing Paine to stay in France and work with the revolutionary government–as treason charges were waiting for him at home.

The Age of Reason (1794-1796) – While in the Luxembourg prison in Paris for opposing the execution of Louis XVI, and seeing the institutional atheism of the Reign of Terror, Paine penned this biting screed that took organized religion in general, and Christianity in particular, to task.  Yet he saw the danger in Robespierre’s authoritarian approach to anti-clericalism, fighting instead for religious liberty.

Enjoy these, and let us know of how you used Paine’s work in your lesson planning.


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