Monthly Archives: April 2013

Mad Men and the King Assassination

Some of the cast of AMC’s Mad Men.

Yesterday was that rare instance when television illuminates.

Even so, the light shone by the tube can often reflect on our own mirrors—and the image is rarely beautiful.

Mad Men has been one of my favorite programs for a long time—mostly for superficial reasons.  Sure, the series gets deep once in a while, exploring emotions or lack thereof (the latter in the case of main character Don Draper), but I just love the entire ambiance.  The clothes, the furniture, the hair, the constant booze, cigarettes and womanizing; the show does a great job romanticizing a time and place that, if you had an ounce of humanity in you, shouldn’t be celebrated at all.

Yet yesterday’s episode, which focused on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, gave an interesting window into how this predominantly white establishment dealt with crisis.

Let’s face it; for most of America, the 1960s was still a time of rigid social mores, gender roles, and class divisions that gave more leeway to those males who climbed higher up the food chain (a time we’re unfortunately cycling back to today).  The counter culture image of the Sixties was what America saw on TV, but not necessarily what dictated their everyday lives.

To paraphrase a famous saying, by the time the Sixties really reached middle America, it was the Seventies, and nobody cared.

It certainly seemed that way for the characters of Mad Men, as the episode opened with an advertising awards ceremony in New York.  As the advertising honchos got in their tuxedos and mink stoles, the keynote speech (given by the late Paul Newman as an endorsement to 1968 presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy) was interrupted by a shout that King was killed in Memphis.

As the episode wore on, the emotions of the principal characters ran the gamut.  Megan Draper and Peggy Olsen cried at the news.  Don and Roger Sterling stood as stoic as possible—with Roger cracking wise that he thought King’s famous eloquence would save him.  Old-money scion Pete Campbell lashes out at Harry Crane for thinking of profits on what he calls a “shameful, shameful day!”  Buxom office matron Joan Harris hugs Don’s Black secretary Dawn.  Even Don’s son Bobby starts ripping the wallpaper in frustration.

If there was one common theme in their reactions to the King assassination, it isn’t rage, regret, or even sadness—it is awkwardness.

It’s an awkwardness that captures beautifully the confused mindset of most of white America (at least north of the Mason Dixon) at the time.

The King assassination was one of the defining moments of the decade, and opened a groundswell of emotions.  The survivors of King’s movement tried to keep his legacy and activism alive as best they could.  Stokely Carmichael and others in the Black Power movement called for an end to nonviolent resistance.  Riots sprang up in overt 100 urban areas, including Washington, DC, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and New York.

Again, if you didn’t live in these riot zones, all of this was seen through television.  Most of America, to be honest, really didn’t know how to react.  David Halberstam, the famous journalist, reported callous, even vicious reactions by whites, particularly in the South.  Yet most of America was too stunned…too bewildered…and definitely not sure of what the right reaction should be, especially since the wrong reaction (riots, violence) was sprawled all over the six-o’clock news.

Mad Men was not about to cover the rage and discontent in the Black community, and rightfully so.  Mad Men never has been, and never will be a show about people of color in the 1960s.  It’s about white America, the elite of white America, and how that elite changes with the rise of mass culture and mass communications.  Old-money nabobs like Roger Sterling and Bertram Cooper evolve into the self-made media elites like Don Draper.

As such, it would be extremely stilted, and rather phony, to shift focus from Madison Avenue to the streets of Harlem.  The awkward silences, the phony hugs, the confusion about what to do—all of that reflected perfectly the era and the people of the ruling class of 1960s New York, and nothing else.

Yet even with a clear view, the vista is not always pleasant.  In hindsight, we should’ve known better.

The assassination did not serve as a galvanizing force in America.   On the contrary, it showed how while the activists, intellectuals and politicians moved closer together, the rest of America was still far apart.  Not only were the differences vast, but growing every year as awareness through the media didn’t always lead to acceptance or even sympathy.  Many whites in 1968 still saw civil rights as a threat to their way of life, and not just in the South.

The awkwardness, therefore, reflected a reinforcement of social niceties that mask true intentions.  It’s difficult to know how anyone on Mad Men truly felt about civil rights: even the most liberal of characters, like Peggy Olsen, hasn’t had her worldview tested by a Black family moving next door.

So, in its own way, Mad Men was a lot more realistic about the attitudes of the 1960s than any other show.  The strange silences, stilted apologies and affected shows of affection demonstrate an establishment ( indeed, an entire population) with not only an extreme disconnect to the world around them, but a complete breakdown as the chaos enters the front door.

As our society suffered further catastrophes in the decades since, one must wonder if we ever learned how to react.

What do we do when the world comes crashing down?

Do we make the painful observations that are necessary to make our world better…or just wrap ourselves in the comfort of awkward silence?

 

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This Day in History 4/27: US Marines-led force captures Derne

“Don’t call it a comeback,
I been here for years,
Rockin my peers and puttin suckas in fear…” ~ from “I’m Gonna Knock You Out”, by LL Cool J (1990)

Don’t ever think that we’re new to the regime-change business.  We’ve had over two centuries of experience messing with other countries.

English: William Eaton (1764-1811)

English: William Eaton (1764-1811) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On April 27, 1805, a small force of United States Marines, commanding about 500 mercenaries and supported by three warships, an ambitious diplomat and a deposed former pasha, attacked and captured the city of Derne in modern-day Libya.  It was the first recorded land battle by the United States on foreign soil, and the first time the Stars and Stripes flew in combat in another country.

It was also part of our first war on terror (sensing a pattern here?).

Since the 1600s, pirates sponsored by the Barbary States (Modern day Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya) preyed upon Western ships in the Mediterranean.  The Barbary States were (except for Morocco) nominally part of the Ottoman Empire.  In reality, they stopped listening to Constantinople a long time ago.  Each state quietly sponsored a pirate fleet that pillaged any ship entering their waters, usually for gold, materials, ships and especially captives to be ransomed for big payouts.

To avoid such inconveniences, the Great Powers of Europe did what most Great Powers do: pay off the pirates to leave them alone.  Britain, France and other sea powers paid the Barbary States a yearly “tribute” to let their ships sail the Mediterranean untouched.

By  1801, the young United States suffered a similar problem in the Med.  Unfortunately, it couldn’t afford to pay off the pirate states; thus leading to the rallying cry, “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!”, which actually came from the previous XYZ Affair with the French in 1797-1798, but it seems to fit better here.

For four long years, the US Navy engages in a series of naval and coastal battles with Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli, known collectively as the Barbary Wars.  There were successes and failures on both sides: an American frigate was lost in 1801, the USS Philadelphia, only to have it burned in Tripoli harbor in a daring raid.  It deprived the Tripolitans of their prize and even impressed Lord Horatio Nelson, the great British naval commander who had his hands (or hand, I forgot he lost an arm) full with Napoleon so he couldn’t meddle too much.

Things were seemingly at a stalemate by 1805, when a diplomat, an old veteran of the Middle East, had a crazy idea.

William Eaton was the former US Consul to Tunis, a man with a decent reputation amongst Arabs and Americans alike.  As the war dragged on, Eaton was recalled to Washington and came up with an outrageous way to gain the upper-hand.  Instead of ships slugging it out in the Med, the war could open a second front on land.  The ruler of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, deposed his brother Hamet in a coup ten years earlier.  The plan would involve going to Egypt, where the exiled brother was living, recruit him and hundreds of mercenaries to cross the desert and reinstate him to his rightful throne.  The whole scheme involved naval support from three military vessels and a handful of US Marines led by First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon.

Amazingly, the US government gave full support to this adventure, sending Eaton to the Med with the lofty, if slightly bullshitty, title of “Naval Agent to the Barbary States.” He found Hamet Karamanli, who agreed to the plan and helped recruit about 500 Arab and Greek mercenaries—with Eaton acting as general and commander-in-chief (he appointed himself).  They set up a base in Alexandria, Egypt, where Eaton, O’Bannon, Hamet and squadron commander Isaac Hull laid out their plans.  The objective would be the port city of Derne, capital of the province of Cyrenaica and a base of power for Yusuf.

This motley crew sets across the Libyan desert on March 6, 1805.  It would take almost two months and over 500 miles to cross, and it soon became clear that mercenaries tend to be a handful—especially when they’re two groups that hate each other.  They were promised money and supplies upon reaching Derne, and many weren’t willing to wait that long.  On any given occasion, either the Arabs or the Greeks (sometimes both) threatened to mutiny.  In the first week alone, several of the Arab camel drivers mutinied and turned back.  Things didn’t really settle down until April 25, when they reached Bomba, a city up the coast from Derne where the three naval vessels waited with the appropriate money and supplies to keep the mercenaries happy…for now.

Hull’s squadron bombarded Derne on April 27.  Hamet Karamanli led the Arab mercenaries towards the governor’s palace, cutting of the escape route to Tripoli, while Eaton led the Greeks and the Marines towards the harbor fortress.  Hamet’s forces stormed the western part of the city easily, while Eaton was seriously wounded leading his force over the walls of the defenses.  The defenders left all their cannon loaded as they fled, so Eaton turned the guns on the city and opened fire.  Meanwhile, O’Bannon raised the American flag over the Derne defenses.  The town fell by 4 in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, Yusuf had already sent reinforcements to Derne, only to find that the city had already fallen.  While Eaton fortified his position, Hamet and the Arabs patrolled the governor’s palace and the outskirts.  When Yusuf’s forces attacked on May 13, the Arabs fell back before Eaton’s guns and the batteries of the USS Argus saved the day, driving the invaders back to their original positions.

Feeling confident, Eaton was ready to press on to Tripoli and finish off Yusuf…and then, en route to his prize, his government stabs Eaton in the back.

Yusuf, eager to keep his throne against his invading brother, sent feelers out to the US to sign a peace treaty.  Tobias Lear, George Washington’s former secretary and now Consul General to the North African Coast, negotiated a Treaty of Peace and Amity with Yusuf on June 4, 1805.  Incredibly, the treaty did exactly as the US didn’t want to do: pay a ransom, this time $60,000 for the release of prisoners from the Philadelphia and other ships.  Even worse, Yusuf would keep his throne, with the backing of the United States.

Hamet would return to Alexandria, the mercenaries would never be paid in full, and although O’Bannon and Eaton returned home as heroes, they never forgave Lear for his perceived treachery.

Despite the setbacks, Derne was more than just a pyrrhic victory.  Important lessons were learned, such as:

Never fuck with the Marines – a handful…yes, a HANDFUL…of Marines managed to recruit a regiment of hired killers, march them 500 miles across the Sahara, then attack a heavily fortified position, take possession AND repel ensuing counterattacks.  Derne made the US Marine Corps, plain and simple.  All jarheads trace their ancestry to Presley O’Bannon and his small band of asskickers—and they did it in those hot-as-hell Napoleonic uniforms, making them even more badass.  Finally, the Mameluke sword Marine officers carry today is modeled on the one supposedly given to O’Bannon by Hamet Karamanli as a gift for his service.

Never run a line of credit on mercenaries – The 500 goons hired to take Derne wanted cash, and fast.  Eaton kept dangling the carrot to get them crossing the desert, hyping the riches of Derne if they just got there.  A few mutinies later, it was clear they had to stop short and pay that deposit.  Mercenaries don’t carry plastic, and they don’t take IOUs or even COD.  When they were forced to return thanks to the treaty…let’s just say any town between Derne and Alexandria was fair game.

In a multinational force, the Yanks often draw the shit job – ask the poor guys at Omaha Beach about this one.  Hamet Karamanli takes the Arabs to the west side of town with almost no resistance, while Eaton and O’Bannon slog over the defenses and sustain a lot of the damage, at least initially.  Their offense ground to a halt while Hamet’s Arabs stormed the rest of the town in a walk.

No one fucks over a diplomat as much as another diplomat – or, for that matter, an FBI agent, a spy, a CIA operative, a Senate committee chairman, etc.  Derne was the start of 200 years of half-finished foreign adventures, thanks to the double-dealing, backstabbing, face-saving and ass-kissing of our federal agencies that rarely play nice together for long.

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Earth Day Video: Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006)

Today is Earth Day, and though I’m not necessarily the biggest treehugger out there, I do feel that when something is good for the consumers, the environment and our economy, it should be persued…not buried by the powers that be.

Who Killed the Electric Car is almost a cult classic: a 2006 documentary about the rise and fall of General Motors’ first foray into mass-produced electric vehicles, the EV1 of the mid-1990s.  The film shows how cheap oil and marketing first buried the electric car in the 1920s, and how subsequent resurgences met resistence by a combination of forces–the Big Three automakers, Big Oil, competition from other alternative fuel technologies like hydrogen cells, and consumer marketing.

A sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car, was released in 2011.  It chronicles the new resurgence in electric car technology, both by big names such as Nissan, GM and Ford as well as newer companies such as Tesla, a pioneer in the electric high-performance sports car market.

In my humble opinion, it is simply criminal that at the very least, hybrid low-emission engines with great mileage should be the standard for even the most basic models on the market today.  The 100 miles per gallon car is a reality; it can, hopefully, also be a reality for American car owners.

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Part II of Mr. D at the Education Innovation Summit 2013

“His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. When they had finished the days, as they returned, the Boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem…Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.” ~ Luke 2:41-47

The presentations at the Education Innovation Summit left me with little hope about the future.  Our panel discussion that followed, however, did provide a glimmer of opportunity.

At the very least, it created a buzz similar to the boy Jesus at the temple (again, forgive the Biblical references…I’m on a roll).

The panel discussion that followed the presentations would be in the Palo Verde Room, a space slightly smaller than my classroom with lower ceilings and worse light.  Even worse, the chairs were arranged in the typical convention manner: rows of tightly-packed catering seats facing a speaker of nominal importance.

To make it a true discussion, the seats were arranged in concentric circles, with  my colleagues and I occupying most of the center and the conventioneers taking up space in the periphery.  Even as the minutes started to tick toward our start time, I–and most of us, for that matter–weren’t even sure if we could fill the room.

To everyone’s surprise, the room filled rather quickly.  Seat after seat was occupied, leaving many of the attendees to huddle around the perimeter wall.  Within minutes of the presentation’s beginning, the crowd was so large outside the room that a microphone was needed to broadcast what we were saying.

Believe me, we said a mouthful.

The panel was moderated by Michael Horn, founder of the Innosight Institute and an author on digital learning.  It featured the LearnZillion teachers answering questions about education technology, the new start-ups we saw, and the road ahead for education.  Horn is best known for his book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation will Change the way the World Learns, so his role seemed very apropos to manage a group of educators not happy with things as they are.

I’m not going to critique the comments from my colleagues; it would be unfair, and their thoughts were as varied and as valuable as the people themselves.  One (my friend who loved Bloomboard) who’s very tech-savvy and extremely enthusiastic, hit on the need for a more harmonious development of ed-tech products, using tech buzzwords like “convergence” and whatnot.  Another brought home the need for a more active role for teachers in the product development process—a tenet LearnZillion stakes its reputation on.  Others stressed the need for more content instruction (science and social studies), less reliance on numerical data, standardized testing, and the need to reach all learners.

I was one of a handful of teachers that spoke multiple times—and among the most biting and vicious, at least in my opinion.  Here’s some highlights of what I said:

The “Kid-Friendly” problem – This was really pointed both at ed-tech developers and some of my colleagues who raved about certain programs that provide “kid-friendly” graphics and animation to assist in learning.  Now, most readers of this blog know my thoughts on terms like “kid-friendly” (hint: it has to do with waste products).  It’s a buzzword that too often is used to dumb content down.  Furthermore, it misreads the student population: my kids have grown past most “kid-friendly” content and want real, rigorous, often controversial material to read and analyze.  Developers should not be afraid to let children explore the world in a real, meaningful, grown-up way—they’re more ready than you think.

The “Teaching Experience” problem – In an effort to achieve much-needed credibility from both investors and the education community, many of the ed-tech companies tout their collective experience in education.  Their PowerPoint slides show various numbers of years experience on the team “20+ years K-12 experience,” “Over a decade of experience.”  What that actually means is a mystery, and I made it abundantly clear to them: “We’re not fooled…when your pitch says ’20 years experience’, that could mean one teacher with 20 years experience or 10 TFA nitwits with 2 years in who all jumped into the corporate sector.  Not all experience is the same.”

The Content Knowledge problem – Here I’m harping the Core Knowledge line, but it’s a good one nonetheless: the achievement gap goes hand in hand with the knowledge gap.  Without content knowledge, students cannot translate their newfound language and math skills into results.  The new Common Core based tests are heavy in content, so for those of you who pushed aside science and social studies all these years in order to put in more ELA and math time: who’s sorry now?

Even if the content is difficult (and it usually is, in my class anyway), the key to reaching all students is not changing the content, but the approach to the content.  Break up large documents into smaller texts.  Differentiate activities on a text based on ability and readiness.  Don’t dumb down history and science: make history and science accessible to all your students.

The Teacher Involvement problem – I didn’t introduce this topic, but I did add to my colleague’s discussion of teacher involvement.  Too many products in the education universe have little if no input from teachers in their design and implementation.  It still amazes me that an education technology conference like that one never involved teachers at all until now.  Shouldn’t an end user play a meaningful role in product development, as they are the ones that need to use it for their students?

This is the reason I pinned my star on LearnZillion.  If Eric and Alix (the co-founders) simply cranked out video lessons and sold them to school districts to be shoved down teachers’ throats, I wouldn’t have given them a minute of my time.  Yet they didn’t, to their infinite credit. Their model is, admittingly, more complex, more labor intensive and I would guess more costly.  Yet hiring real veteran teachers as product developers makes sense in ed-tech: end users as developers virtually guarantee a product that is professional, high-quality, necessary and useful.  If other companies really care about their products’ effects on education, then their development requires at least a partial bottom-up approach.  Teachers have to be part of the development process, period.

One audience member asked what they can do to help define the Common Core.  I answered that she was asking the wrong question.  The real question is “How can we turn your ideas about the Common Core into tangible products for the classroom?”

The Teacher Evaluation/Data Collection problem—I really hope Bloomboard boy was in the audience to hear this…I saved my most venomous comments for this part.  Someone had mentioned a trend in the corporate pitches towards different products for data collection.  It was as a follow-up that I shared my thoughts on the Bloomboard presentation with the audience and thus my central point: if these collection and evaluation systems are meant to provide meaningful feedback to teachers, then the systems must be more than a dump of numbers.  A number in a category on a spreadsheet like a box score does not define my practice.  Observational, qualitative feedback does.  Data-based systems simply give administrators a number to (a) give to higher administrators, and (b) fire “bad” teachers.  Any ambulance-chaser of a lawyer can fight these evaluations easily.

On this not, one particular colleague of mine said the quote of the conference, and I want to honor him personally.  Cory Howard is a math teacher from Indiana who seems, at first, like a typical shit-kicking hick.  He fools a lot of folks with that drawl.

He’s far from a typical country boy: getting to know Cory, he’s among the most honest, down-to-Earth, and among the most prescient thinkers I’ve ever met.  When asked about evaluations and the use of data, he brought the house down with the following (and I’m paraphrasing):

“You can measure a pig all you want…but it won’t make it grow any faster.”

Apparently, our panel was the hit of the conference that day.  Twitter feeds were ablaze as the crowd outside our room grew and grew.  Horn mentioned to me that it was the easiest moderating job of all, simply passing a mike to each of us who had loads to say.  The room didn’t empty right away as audience members lingered to speak with us.

This was a good sign…or a bad sign.

Now that I’m in my classroom, reflecting on the weekend, I take stock in that the discussions and feedback we gave could be a huge step in changing the way education technology is created.  If the moneyfolks and the entrepreneurs really took our advice seriously, it could create a shift in process and focus that could finally combat the glut of inferior education products that serve little purpose to classrooms and students.

On the other hand, they could be simply paying us lip service and continuing with business as usual once we left.  After all, despite all the posturing and proclamations of doing it “for the children,” it’s doubtful that a class of struggling students in the South Bronx is getting a profit share in the IPO.  No student in Harlem, Detroit, south side of Chicago, southeast DC or south-central Los Angeles is securing seed money for expansion of these folks.

This is, after all, about making a buck.

My only worry is that the chase for the almighty dollar overshadows the need to educate our children.

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Life Among the Moneychangers – Mr. D at the Education Innovation Summit 2013

“And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them, It is written, ‘My house shall be called the house of prayer; but you have made it a den of thieves.'” ~ Matthew 21:12-13

True, pure education is never about the money.  Yet money can certainly help spread the gospel to the meekest of the flock…

(Pardon the biblical puns…being among venture capitalists made me a touch self-righteous)

English: Hole #7, The Phoenician Golf Club, Ca...

English: Hole #7, The Phoenician Golf Club, Canyon course, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA Français : Trou #7, The Phoenician Golf Club, parcours Canyon, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I kept thinking this as I strolled in with my colleagues into a resort too rich for any of us, to register at a conference many of us never heard of, to talk to power brokers who usually wouldn’t give us the time of day.

This is how it feels to be a TEACHER at an EDUCATION technology conference–now you see how warped this world can be.

I joined my old buddies at LearnZillion in Scottsdale, Arizona for a weekend of pre-conference analysis, test drives of new processes and formats, and nailing down of logistics for TeachFest, our big shindig in San Francisco in a few weeks.  As a second act, we were featured at a panel discussion at the nearby ASU/GSV Education Innovation Summit, a showplace for up and coming ed-tech entrepreneurs to introduce their new products for venture capitalists eager to take a ride on the next big thing.

The first was fun, exhausting, exciting…definitely worth the trip.  It’s the second part of the trip that concerns us today.

The Phoenician, a monstrous resort hugging a rugged desert peak, with golf carts, pools, fountains and lushness everywhere, screamed of moneyed wealth.  Even the toilets practically demanded gratuity for their customer service.  It was the type of place where amongst the hot tubs, golf outings, cocktails and mixers, factories would close, jobs would be lost, lives would be ruined, souls crushed; basically par for the course (no pun intended) for a conference focused on education.

From the first steps in, you could tell who didn’t belong.  Everyone had their blazers, suits, state-of-the-art smartphones and Italian loafers.  Our LearnZillion t-shirts (mine was a size too small…possibly a deliberate move to make me look more menacing) coupled with khakis and skirts of varied tones and wear made us look like pimply-assed pages at a teen clothing store.

It didn’t help that I would go through this sober.

I’ve been to conferences, workshops, seminars, conventions, you name it.  The amount of noise–useless, soul-crushing noise–can only be assauged through copious amounts of alcohol.  I had a full plate of a schedule: presentations and our panel discussion, so a quick trip to the bar wasn’t happening.

The first hour was a series of presentations by start-up companies who openly, and sometimes quite frankly, were shilling for a bite on the tit of a lucky billionaire.  All of them said some blather about how their company has a “proven track record”, or creates “quality data-driven analysis.”  One company (who will remain nameless…nah, I’ll go ahead, it was called A2i) claimed they used “randomized control models” of students to test their work–a claim so ensconced in bullshit it struck me dumb (a rare occurrence).  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that “randomized control model” is (a) an oxymoron, and (b) statistically impossible if you want an ACCURATE representative sample of a large body.  Randomness doesn’t ensure objectivity–it just ensures chaos.

“There goes the next undersecretary of education” I chortled as A2i-Man sauntered off to his seat.

The other presentations continued in the same vein, and unlike my more polite colleagues, I made no bones of demonstrating my pleasure or disgust (at least facially).

Agilix tauts a “learning infrastructure”, a combination of data management, learning system and course registration without actually showing a product.

Aristotle Circle, a fantastic name for a not-so-techy product, is basically a staffing service for tutors, with a Powerpoint so text-heavy the Wall Street Journal would find it verbose.

A teacher training program called Better Lesson showed promise, until a certain founder of a certain charter network (which rhymes with “skip” or “Crip”) showed up on their board of advisors.  No one’s making me shame a kid publicly or clap in unison like a fucking Blackshirt, thank you.

Then came BloomBoard, a company founded by a friend of the LZ founders, Jason Lange.  Now, a friend of mine at the conference, God bless him, is a great teacher, a real motivated go-getter and an invaluable asset to our team.  That said, he was really excited about this product as he saw it on SBSW Edu this year and, to be honest, I didn’t see the value.  Maybe he valued other things than I did.  Maybe it was that cute Midwestern tendency to trust anyone with a clean haircut and a nice jacket.

Whatever it was, something about Lange really bothered me.  He really came across as kind of callous, and by the end I wanted to throttle him.  Lange started with a graph showing that the new frontier was the management of data needed for teacher evaluation systems.  His system would organize data for teacher evaluation and crunch numbers into an evaluation for me based on a numerical score in any number of criteria.  If the price was right, my supervisors could then assign the appropriate support programs for that specific numerical flaw that I have.

People around me saw this as a breakthrough and revolutionary.  Lange certainly was proud of his baby.  Yet…forgive my ignorance, but isn’t this just a system to move a bunch of numbers into new buckets of numbers–buckets that put the livelihoods of teachers at stake without any thought to genuine, REAL feedback?

So I get a 2 in point 4.5, but a 4 in point 4.7.  What determined that?  What determines the system?  How can I know what to actually DO to become better?   This system isn’t helping me at all in this regard.

By the time I left, I not only was bewildered, I was beside myself with rage.  Apart from some rare exceptions, I didn’t see a single individual who gave a shit about education, just a pack of fly-by-night snake-oil salesmen looking to cash in.

What’s even worse…those in charge of education in America are looking to these hucksters for the answer to their problems.

Later that afternoon, we’d get a chance to address these esteemed captains of Edtech industry–and you’ll be shocked at some of our responses.

More on the EIS 2013 tomorrow.

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When the Pagans are Fed to Lions – can Core Knowledge survive as a NYCDOE mandate?

Statue de Constantin Ier, Musée du Capitole, Rome

Constantine: He swapped out one lion meat for another.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Usually, when the conquered becomes the conqueror, the outcome is far from bloodless.

When Christianity became legal through the Edict of Milan 313 under the Roman emperor Constantine, it provided for the religious freedom of pagan faiths as well, the same faiths that worked to persecute Christians for centuries.

Yet over time, as Constantine chose to eliminate his rivals, what was a potentially newly tolerant society simply replaced one orthodoxy for another, as Christianity became THE state religion of the later empire.  Now it was the pagan’s turn to feel the whip and the fire…and no one learned anything.

In education, this cycle of persecution is alive and well—and a good group’s work could be casualty of it all.

Although it took time for me to warm to it, the Core Knowledge Foundation has really become a system I’ve embraced more and more.  Founded by former University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Core Knowledge is a philosophy that strives to improve education not just through how children learn, but on what they learn.  According to their guiding principles:

“For the sake of academic excellence, greater equity, and higher literacy, elementary and middle schools need to teach a coherent, cumulative, and content-specific core curriculum.

The persistent gap in reading achievement in U.S. schools can never be reduced until the knowledge gap is reduced. And the knowledge gap will not be reduced unless broad, rich content knowledge is integrated into the many hours devoted to language arts instruction.”

A long time ago, I did a column on Core Knowledge, critiquing its insistence on certain baskets of knowledge as artificially constricting and inherently subjective—that content needed to drive skills to find further content, and especially critical thinking.    It’s flaws notwithstanding, CK has strengths in advancing content knowledge along with language and math skills.  It is rigid, to be sure, but allows room for growth due to its ability to be woven into literacy blocks and natural progressions into subject areas that the class can pursue independent of the program.

Core Knowledge seems useful—which is why I was dismayed when I learned that New York City will be pushing for Core Knowledge to be the curriculum of grades K-2.

Maybe this was CK’s goal all along: to make their system mandatory district by district until it becomes the new dogma.  I really hope not.  History reminds us that when innovation becomes codified in law, it often loses its original intent for other, more sinister goals.

Ask Lucy Calkins, for example.

Her workshop model, designed at Teachers College, was, like Core Knowledge, considered controversial.  It stressed too much free writing.  It didn’t teach grammar effectively.  It didn’t for children to grow in their  writing, much of it stuck on writing about how children “feel.”

Then came the Bloomberg administration, and like Constantine of old, the persecuted was allowed into the palace.  With little checks from on high, Calkins and her minions had almost free rein in training teachers, designing workshops, creating massive new models of planning and learning that became (and in many cases, still is) the only accepted model of instruction in this city.

What happened?  The original model morphed into concepts, models, plans, curriculum maps—most strayed well enough from the original idea of Calkins that it became something of a joke.  Add to this the new pressure of standardized tests, and the dream of creating child prodigal writers turned into factories of learning rote models of answering essays, writing about poems and fairy tales, anything to drive up scores.

It was not designed to make kids more knowledgeable, to be sure.  But even Calkins has to admit the veneer of official sanction twisted her original goal to the ends of people less than enamored with student success.

This is my ultimate fear for Core Knowledge.

It’s a great system, and used correctly, it can be a lifesaver for kids who struggle with basic skills.  Yet the mandate can very easily pervert Dr. Hirsch’s original intention—and it’s already happening.

The alignment of Common Core-based assessments with the CK program already seems like the handwriting on the wall.  As the first results are released and the stats show less promise than expected, how will Core Knowledge address the problem?  Is it designed to address the problem?

Or worse, will CK be yoked to the Common Core as a beast of burden?

Core Knowledge is too valuable to be left to the education reformers to be slaughtered.

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Videos for the Classroom: Crash Course!

I cringe at the word “kid-friendly” — sounds like a bad Law and Order: SVU episode.

One of the constant missions of the Neighborhood is to find resources that tap into the caffeine-addled brains of young people.   In the quest to find “kid-friendly” material, most of what I find is directed at…okay, I’ll say it…good little white children.  Good little pasty white kids that sit still and believe anything told to them because a happy smiling face in a toga (or bonnet or Abe Lincoln-esque stovepipe hat) tells them so.

Today, even the good little white kids aren’t really that good nor that white–you can thank TMZ, MTV and YouTube for that.

So to connect with today’s kids, we need something a little edgier.  Crash Course! is a series of films about history and science, told in an irreverent, snarky way by brothers John and Hank Green.  The World History series I saw was pretty entertaining, although the producers do make clear that historical people have sex (they get around it with a folksy word that I forgot).  They are, however, loaded with data, facts and historical debate, when necessary–these guys don’t hide their biases, and it’s important for kids to see someone unashamed of their opinions.

If it weren’t for the occasional sex references, I’d recommend Crash Course! to middle schoolers on up.  It’s perfectly fine for high school, but you may need some discretion with younger viewers.  I’ve attached the episode on Alexander the Great to get an idea.  Enjoy.

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