Monthly Archives: March 2013

On Hiatus until After Easter

Beach, Dominican republic

Beach, Dominican republic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Folks, the Neighborhood will be taking a much needed vacation on the sunny shores of the Dominican Republic.  Consequently, history or the classroom will be the last things on my mind.

I’ll be back after Easter for an update April 1.  See you all then.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

How “Philosophy Bro” Helped me Corrupt the Youth, Socrates-style

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nothing excites me more than a student proving the ignorance of the powers that be.

On Monday, my room was visited for the great beauty pageant of education, the quality review.  It wasn’t to observe me, though: the technology teacher had the class that period and it was mostly to observe her.  I was sitting in the front of the room, doing some paperwork as if nothing was happening.

The reviewers entered the room, along with the four assistant principals, packed at four corners of my room.  They observed, gawked, took notes, asked questions of some of the students.  The technology lesson was supposed to be the focus.

My students, of course, stole the show.

As the teacher asked the students about the student surveys they would be taking online, one of my students rose his hand and explained, quite calmly, how the results can be manipulated to show students doing worse than they really are, so that it looks like they’re making progress.  My supervisor laughed nervously.  The other reviewers gasped.

I couldn’t be prouder.  There was my kid thinking critically—with NO coaching—and noting the glaring flaws in the system.

Furthermore, it looked like the review team was looking less at the lesson and more at my room.  Charts of Athenian democracy and Alexander the Great’s empire.  Student-produced definitions of “civilization.”  Projects about energy, including a provocative poster stating that nuclear energy “will blow your mind.”  Quotes by Plato and Aristotle above the blackboard.

My supervisor darted to me as I was working at my desk.  Usually very calm, she had a look of abject horror: “They want to know about what’s written on the whiteboard.”  I had done an introductory class on Greek philosophy the periods before, and we came up with a list of philosophical questions, “big” questions that have no right answer.  At the very top right was the ominous “Is God real?”

“It was a philosophy lesson, “ I explained.  “Those are examples of philosophical questions they came up with.”

There was no reason to panic.  A cursory look at the board would have given that clue: questions like “Where did the universe come from?”, “What happens when we die?”, “What is reality?”, etc.  Yet questioning like this makes administrators panic—even as such thinking is critical to becoming a successful adult.

This is why I love philosophy.  It makes kids smarter and scares the shit out of adults who think they know everything.

I’ve wanted to teach intro philosophy for a while, but I never found the right avenue: too many “kid-friendly” sites on ancient history are just that: too kid-friendly and not challenging enough.  I wanted to use real texts, Plato’s dialogues and whatnot, but the translations were simply too inaccessible for my young kids.

In a weird way, my problem was solved through a rather profane little blog I came across by accident.

Philosophy Bro seems, at least on the surface, to be simply a Cliffs Notes of the great philosophical texts of Western civilization.  It includes ancients, Hume, Locke, Voltaire, Russell, Marx, Hegel…you name it.  If it were simply that, it would be a great place to get a snapshot of the works that shape Western thought.

Yet for classrooms, especially those in middle and high school, Philosophy Bro is much more.

P-Bro, for lack of a better pseudonym, could’ve easily just given a summary of the main points  of each piece in a factual yet dry manner ala Cliffs or SparkNotes or any other study guide on the market.  Yet he goes one step further.  In a saucy, irreverent, often obsene manner, P-Bro gets at the essence of the text AS A TEXT, not simply as a repository of philosophical thought.  He gets the cadences, rhythms, moods and style of each author—which makes his blog special.

Take Plato, for example…an example I used in class, after all.  I could’ve easily gotten some thrown-together kid-happy reading piece about how Socrates made people think, and said things that weren’t popular and made people sad and forced him to die.  Bullshit.  I wanted to find an accessible text of Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ defense at his trial in 399 BCE.  Mostly direct transcripts at first (which would make any middle schooler pass out after page 2), but then I stumbled on Philosophy Bro.

Now, to understand my enthusiasm: my intro to philosophy class at Georgetown was basically a boot camp in Plato and Aristotle.  We read almost every dialogue, wrote a report on each one, tore it apart line by line.  P-Bro nailed it.  What’s even better, I got a two-fer: he also summarized the Crito, where Socrates talks his friend out of getting him sprung from jail.  In both, Socrates’ zest and venom roll pure, even if the language can be puerile at times.

(Apparently, according to P-Bro, philosophy is naked without F-bombs.)

So I took his summaries, cleaned up the language a bit (quite a task) and presented to my students.  They got it immediately.  It was amazing how Socrates’ method, his ideals and his worldview rang true in a funny, bawdy way that kept the kids rolling.

The quicker you get students to think for themselves and to question the world around them, the better you’ll feel as an educator.  Philosophy Bro was a great tool in allowing my kids to enter the world of Plato, Aristotle and the other thinkers of our civilization.

…and nothing feels better than scaring the shit out of pencil-pushing administrators.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Videos for the Classroom: The Western Tradition

As regular followers of the Neighborhood can tell you, I was a pretty dorky kid.

It wasn’t enough that I sat and read the encyclopedia cover to cover.  Nor was it enough as a precocious 8 year old explaining human reproduction to my mother–on a crowded city bus.

I actually got up early for school…to watch school on TV.

Especially during middle and high school, I would get up at a ridiculously early hour.  Most of the time, it was simply to unwind and have some time to myself before I go off to the drudgery of classes.  Usually I could watch a movie on the VHS, or an old show I taped the night before.

Eventually, I was hooked on the most surprising of programs–a college lecture.

Produced by the Annenberg Foundation and broadcast on PBS, The Western Tradition was a 1989 series of 52 televised lectures given by UCLA history professor Eugen Weber.  It covered the development of Western civilization from the dawn of agriculture to the technological age, and wove many common themes together into a unified theory: trends in technology, social movements, government, economics, religion and art.

For me, it was an early entry into the world of higher education, and I was hooked.

Not only were the lectures rich, informative and compelling, they were delivered by a professor whose cadence even today is the benchmark for a great college history professor.  Dr. Weber was born in Romania and educated at Cambridge, so his Eastern European Oxbridge lilt was both comforting and erudite.  His pronunciation of names was impeccable–I thought all professors should sound like that.

Its not really for kids younger than high school age, but these lectures give a great overview of the main topics of Western civilization.  They also give kids a heads-up on what is expected of college students–it sure isn’t “accountable talk” and Common Core, is it?

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

This Day in History 3/11: The Great Blizzard of 1888

Now that spring is coming soon, it might serve as a reminder that the end of winter can be just as turbulent as the rest of the season.

March 11, 1888, was shaping up to be another unseasonably warm day.  It had been remarkably mild for the previous week.  Yet as the rain fell, the temperatures dropped.

By midnight of March 12, the Great Blizzard of 1888 was in full fury.  It would snow nonstop for 36 hours, finally leaving the East Coast on the 14th.  When all was said and done, parts of Connecticut and Massachusetts received 50 inches of snow, while parts of New York and New Jersey had up to 40 inches, with drifts as high as 50 feet.  48 inches dropped on Albany, 45 inches in New Haven, and 22 inches in New York, which recorded a temperature of between 6 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the storm, thanks to wind gusts that reached almost 80 miles per hour.

The blizzard had an enormous impact, even before the age of electricity.  The telegraph and telephone lines were in tatters from Montreal and the Maritime provinces of Canada to Maryland and northern Virginia.  200 ships were grounded or wrecked.  Roads and rail lines were impassible for days.  It even froze the East River in New York so solid for a time that locals walked from Manhattan to Brooklyn across it, bypassing the 5-year-old Brooklyn Bridge which was deemed impassible due to ice.

Attached is a firsthand account of the Blizzard of 1888 by Albert Hunt of Winsted, Connecticut.  Recorded in 1949, he recalls the day the storm first hit as if it were yesterday.  It’s an amazing piece of oral history-and I wish there were more from that time period.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Teacher “Bar” Exam is no solution to teacher quality

American Education is in the Dumpster

The Sad truth about Education programs in the US (Photo credit: brewbooks)

When a cat and a dog start howling at the moon together, something is terribly wrong.

With Randi Weingarten and Arne Duncan howling in unison over the need to overhaul teacher training, I get immediately suspicious.  These two never seem to howl together for anything, and when they do…it is usually more self-serving than selfless.

Recently, Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has been touting the need for a streamlining of teacher certification, so that all teachers are held to the same standard.  This new system is meant to replace the multiple certification systems in place in all fifty states, geared toward making sure that “an individual teacher walking into her classroom the first day is confident and competent.”

(Name one person who’s “confident and competent” on their first day on the job, and I’ll show you someone who’s neither.)

Part of this would be a teacher “bar” exam similar to a bar exam for lawyers or a medical board exam for doctors.  According to Weingarten (a trained lawyer, not a teacher), a combination of clinical experience in the field, academic preparedness for the subject(s) in his/her license, and training in child cognitive development would culminate in a national board exam that would create a teacher ready for the first day.

Everyone seems to be on board, from Arne to Andrew Cuomo…and that really scares me.  They see another silver bullet, but I know otherwise.  How is a national exam going to fix—or even try to fix—a system that suffers due to its participants.

With all due respect to my colleagues, the problem still lies at the very beginning: entry into the field of education is too easy.

Years ago, I got a slew of feedback both positive and negative from my previous diatribe on teacher education.  Many of you cheered my call for an admission process just as stringent as law and medical schools.

Others took me to mean education itself was an “easy” profession and took me to task—which further proves my point about ease of entry into this profession.

We all know that education is among the toughest jobs to do.  I, for one, work long hours above and beyond my workday to research, plan, grade, analyze and organize for my students—work that usually gets foisted off to nurses, paralegals and first-year associates in other professions.

Yet even those in education itself agree that the law and medicine have barriers to entry that education lacks.  Unfortunately, prestige and especially pay are determined largely by these barriers, whether you like it or not.

Sandra Stotsky, who oversaw teacher certification in Massachusetts, stated that “You have more problems today with ineffective teachers because we’ve had virtually open admissions into the profession.”  Since the bar is set so low (no pun intended) many teachers with an education degree and a teacher’s license still lack the stills to become effective in the classroom.

Medicine and law both started as apprenticed crafts that developed professional institutions.  Due to prejudices about teaching, education never reached the level of “official” professionalism of the other schools.  For teachers to garner the respect we richly deserve, education programs need to catch up and develop a rigorous framework that includes high admissions standards.

Of course, the raising of admission standards is no silver bullet.  Certification requirements vary widely, from state to state and even from college to college.  Some colleges focus too much on academic theory, some too little.  Some spend countless hours analyzing fieldwork and classroom routines at the expense of theory and concepts.  Even in a field with few barriers of entry, the quality of preparation is a complete crapshoot.

The need for a new way to train teachers is important at many levels.  Education programs, certification programs and school districts need to realign and synch their resources to create a useful, rigorous, and productive teacher training program.

Yet as long as anyone can be a teacher, then our schools will still be flooded with those who have no business being teachers.

Much of the god-awful education reform agenda—the data collection, the constant forced collaboration, the constant assessment to collect data—is designed with a simple premise: that most in the teaching profession are stupid.   Even the collaboration, the common planning and “inquiry analysis”, is built around the supposition that in any group of idiot teachers there must be at least one person who’s competent.

Teachers in the past were never subject to such scrutiny because their word was law, in every way.  Now, because of a veritable free-for-all system of hiring and licensing, competent teachers must suffer the yoke of the grossly incompetent.

It’s insulting to any hardworking teacher, and wouldn’t be necessary if the idiots weren’t allowed in the classroom in the first place.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized