Video for the Classroom: A Tour through Ancient Rome, courtesy of Khan Academy and Rome Reborn

This is the type of history video Khan Academy needs!

A Tour Through Ancient Rome is a collaboration between Khan and the Rome Reborn project, an initiative to create digital models of Rome from its foundation settlements to its depopulated self during the 6th century CE.  This tour is narrated mostly by Rome Reborn director and University of Virginia professor Dr. Bernard Frischer.

The video juxtaposes a magnificent digital rendering of ancient Rome around the year 320 to various modern and ancient images of artifacts, buildings and ruins.  Dr. Frischer’s narrative contains none of the boring, linear, rote stock pedantics of other Khan humanities videos.  In fact, for a 14-minute video lecture, it’s surprisingly fun to watch.

Khan Academy had better take note: if it wants its history and humanities videos to get the same hits as its math and science films, it had better quit the light-pen Chinese takeout menu-look that it thrives upon and make the videos actually ENGAGING.

…I mean, God forbid kids actually ENJOY learning about history.

 

 

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Can We Keep it This Simple?: A Response to Amy Weisberg’s Huffington Post Article on Education

shutterstock_109809197The simplest solution may be the best…unless it really isn’t that simple at all.

Recently, a 32-year veteran teacher, Amy Weisberg, wrote an article for the Huffington Post outlining five necessary steps for improving education in this country.  She never claims that the solution is simple, and rightfully so.  Furthermore, her claims are based on her long experience as an educator, watching the ups and downs of the fads in educational theory.

Lastly, she points the finger of blame squarely at the so-called “experts” outside of the field of education, as she begins her article:

“It seems that everyone has an opinion about what is wrong with our educational program today…but few have solutions that are organically designed to meet the needs of the student population we currently teach in our nation’s public schools.”

That a blueprint for solving our education problems would come from a veteran teacher makes all the sense in the world.  Yet as she explains her necessary 5 steps for improvement, you can just sense that each one seems a little too easy:

“1. Start Young. Early Education is a fundamental factor to children’s school success and funding it adequately gives more children a chance to learn curriculum, early skills and about the world of school. Smaller class size has a profound impact on both classroom dynamics and the amount of attention a teacher can give to students and by reducing class size in kindergarten-3rd grade to 20 or less, and grade 4-12 to 25 or less we could see a dramatic improvement. Private schools and privately funded Charter schools provide this. We cannot compare public and private schools until the class size issue has been resolved and the scales are even.”

This is really two solutions, not one: funding early education and limiting class size.  Early education funding has had an extraordinarily rocky history in this country: starting with Head Start in the 1970s, controversy has raged about the funding, curriculum, scope and accountability of early childhood programs.  Pumping money is one thing: establishing the right atmosphere that allows a young child to thrive in the school environment is another matter—one that isn’t so easy to solve.

Class size is one issue where I echo Ms. Weisberg’s concerns.  This year, I taught close to 90 kids, three sections of at least 30 kids a pop.  To be honest, some kids fell through the cracks, not because I was mean or malicious, but because I had so many kids to keep track of I had to prioritize between those who really needed a lot of help and those who needed less.  It’s a tough balancing act with ONE classroom, let alone three.

“2. Treat Teachers as Professionals. Respect the training, education and experience teachers have in the field of education and pay them accordingly. A student’s test scores are not the sole indicator of a teacher’s worth and teachers are not motivated to further their education solely for the joy of learning. Most professionals are compensated for their expertise and given opportunities to further their knowledge in their professional field. Teachers have an extremely important job and huge responsibilities and we like to be respected, taken seriously and able to afford the cost of living in the cities we teach.”

This really is beating a dead horse.  Yes, teachers are underpaid.  Yes, teachers should be compensated for the education and training we receive and utilize.  Yes, teachers should be treated like professionals.

However, this can only happen if the teaching profession treats ITSELF like a professional.  Today, education is prone to self-abuse; the land of broken toys for those who can’t hack it in the real world.  This is the common myth because teaching treats it that way—if anyone can be a teacher, with lax rules of admission and lack of rigor in instruction, then it is NOT a professional career choice.  Professions develop by weeding out the chaff at the VERY BEGINNING.

This can only be done through massive reforms at the university level, propelled by government guidance.  How many education schools in this country are willing to change their diploma mill status—and take the requisite revenue cut—to make teaching a truly professional calling?  You tell me.

“3. Hold Parents Accountable. Parents must be held responsible for meeting their childrens’ basic needs and supporting their children in their educational program. We need to teach those who do not know, how to become better parents, in order to provide a supportive home environment that complements the educational program. Parenting is a life long responsibility and providing education and training for parents can have a positive impact on our students.”

In the areas that are struggling the most, this is absolutely important.  Many parents are barely kids themselves, and struggle raising children not out of any malice, but out of sheer ignorance.  They never learned about real parenting, sometimes never had real parents as role models, so they do the best they can with the knowledge that they have.  To bridge this gap is essential to keeping a home life that supports school.

However, the role of the parent as educational partner with the teacher is often ill-defined.  In today’s universe, it has come to mean that parents have final say in everything, no questions asked.  If teachers are to be professionals, they must be treated as masters, absolute experts whose advice may be ignored, but should be questioned openly.  If # 2 is implemented and teacher training made more professional, then the parent-teacher partnership can be most effective.

Both parents and teachers require a little more professionalism, in that sense.

“4. Fund Education. Our priority must be education because our students are our country’s future wage earners and tax payers. By funding education we are insuring our own future. We need to establish a permanent source of government funding for our public schools to take the stress off of the parents and individual schools currently forced to fundraise endlessly in order to provide a basic, quality educational program. Funding should include the arts, sports and physical education, and trade skills as well as the academic program.”

A permanent fund for education?  Wow.  Now were you thinking one national fund or 50 separate funds for each state plus one for DC?  Where would the revenue come from?  Property taxes, as they are now in many states?  Payroll taxes?  Direct government expenditures?  Oil money?  Gold bricks from Fort Knox?

The funding issue is NEVER as simple as it sounds.  The tie between schools and property taxes, in particular, is problematic.  To give an example, certain districts in Rockland County, NY are populated by Hasidic Jews who send their children to private religious schools.  The public schools are populated by Hispanic, black, Asian and some white families.  However, the school boards are often packed with Hasidic residents with little or no stake in the public school system, and they are determining education spending.

These situations where spending is misaligned and mismanaged need to be addressed.  Permanent funds, for the immediate future, seem like a pipe dream.

“5. Provide Support. Financial and personal support is needed to educate special needs students, lower class ratio and size, and to support the physical, intellectual, emotional and social development of all students. Schools need full-time nurses, psychologists, counselors and support staff to allow equal access to education and academic success for all students.”

See all of the above, particularly numbers 2 and 4.

I don’t want to belittle Ms. Weisberg: after her many years as an educator, her recommendations, on the surface, should be Gospel by now.  The sad fact is that they are not, and they aren’t because the microscope shows the complex and often nasty realities that need to be addressed that have no clear solution.

It shows school districts packed with children from broken homes, teen parents and families hovering the poverty line.

It shows diploma mills where teachers are cranked out regardless of intelligence or ability, along with alternative programs that throw idealistic young people to the lions of high-needs educational reality.

It shows parents that are confused, frustrated, underinformed, overinformed, brow-beaten, and talked down to when they should be seen at eye level.

It shows teachers that are treated the same way, if not worse.

It shows an incredibly misaligned funding scheme where property taxes are tied to education, even if the property owners have little if any stake in the public education process.

It shows issues of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, socioeconomic class, and political affiliation.

Can these issues and others be addressed using these five points?  Ms. Weisberg seems to think so in her closing, where she states that governments must “own these suggestions and form working committees to dedicate time and energy to developing a funding method that begins with our youngest students, limits class size, educates parents, compensates educators, and provides the support needed for all students including those with special needs.”

I really wish it were that simple.

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Cool Link for the Classroom: The Periodic Table of the Presidents

Periodic Table of the Presidents, courtesy of Periodicpresidents.com

Periodic Table of the Presidents, courtesy of Periodicpresidents.com

A huge thanks to P.J. Creek for sharing his amazing work here at the Neighborhood.

P.J. is an eighth grade social studies teacher and came up with a fun new tool to look at the American Presidency.  Noticing that the traditional flashcards and reference pages didn’t give a complete picture, he decided to borrow from the science department and create a tool that isn’t simply to look at inert gases and carcinogenic radioactive compounds that last a split second.

The Periodic Table of the Presidents is just that: an ordered, logical snapshot of the last two centuries of the executive branch.  It’s numbered 1 to 44, and I don’t have to tell you who’s 1 and who’s 44 (do I really?).  Like the other periodic table, the PTOTP gives each president a two-letter designation, color based on political party, years in office, number of times elected, and other info such as assassinations, resignations, etc.

(Again, do we need to go over who got shot and who quit before they did?)

If it were simply a table, the PTOTP would be a nifty little poster for the classroom.  Thankfully, P.J.’s website includes information on each president, links to further information, electoral maps, a portrait gallery and even his own articles on interesting tales such as “Tecumseh’s curse“, or the death in office of any President elected in a year with a zero at the end (probably since debunked by Reagan and George W. Bush).

You can order the poster for your classroom for 10 dollars–but buy before July 11 and get 2 posters for one.  The PTOTP is a really neat way to explore the American presidency.  It shows the flow of parties, terms in office, important facts and especially how the transfer of power has endured pretty smoothly for two centuries.

At the very least, you can fool all those folks in the STEM departments into thinking you’re teaching science…hey, anything to save a good social studies teacher their job!

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School’s Out by Alice Cooper – Welcome to Summer Vacation

School officially lets out for me tomorrow, and it couldn’t come fast enough.  Here’s a great classic from Alice Cooper, as performed in 1972 for the BBC’s Top of the Pops program.

If you’re a teacher, a student, a parent…even a principal…this song never gets old.

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This Day in History 6/20: Kazimierz Piechowski escapes Auschwitz through the front door

On June 20, 1942, a Steyr 220 sedan rolled out of the gates of Auschwitz, the notorious extermination camp in Poland.

In the sedan were four men, apparently members of the SS-Totenkopfverbande, or “Deaths Head” units, SS soldiers charged with administering the camps.

What seemed to be a routine jaunt by four Nazis was in fact an incredible escape from the infamous killing factory–an escape right in front of the camp itself.

Kazimierz Piechowski was a captured Polish resistance fighter who had bounced around different Gestapo camps doing forced labor.  In fact, he was merely a teen Boy Scout–apparently the Polish Boy Scouts were considered a resistance movement by the Germans, thus targeted by the SS and the Gestapo.  He arrived at Auschwitz as a political prisoner (not marked for extermination) in June of 1940, where he was assigned to carry corpses to the crematoria.  

On June 20, 1942, Piechowski led three other prisoners in an escape attempt: Stanisław Gustaw Jaster, a Polish army officer, Józef Lempart, a priest from Wadowice (which was the hometown of Pope John Paul II, so they may have known each other), and  Eugeniusz Bendera, a Ukrainian mechanic in charge of vehicles on the camp lot.

They first go through the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei gate (“Work will set you free“) disguised as a haulage detail pulling a cart.  Then Piechowski, Jaster and Lempart went to a warehouse where they stashed uniforms, machine guns and grenades, while Bendera went to the motorpool to fetch appropriate transportation.  When Bendera showed up with the car, he casually went into the warehouse and put on his SS “uniform.”  The four then go to the car, with Bendera driving.  Piechowski was in the front passenger seat, as he had the best working knowledge of German.  As they approached the gate, the doors wouldn’t open.  Nervously, Piechowski opened the door enough so his SS rank insignia was showing, and barked orders in German to open the gate.

The gate opened, and the four drove off, never to return to Auschwitz.

The Nazis subsequently hauled Piechowski’s parents to Auschwitz in reprisal, where they died.  They even convened a special investigation in Berlin to see how such a brazen escape was possible.  It is believed that after the Piechowski escape, inmate numbers were tattooed on arms to better identify runaways.

Piechowski himself continued in the Polish resistance, and became an engineer after the war.  He even served 7 years in a Communist labor camp for his alleged anti-Communist role in the resistance–which was more than double the time he spent imprisoned by the Nazis.  After the Cold War, he quietly retired and refused all honors bestowed on him.

Bendera, according to Piechowski, was the real mastermind, as he conceptualized the plan and the logistics.  He would live in Poland until his death in 1970.  Lempart, the priest, would leave the priesthood, marry and raise a family before getting hit by a bus in Wadowice in 1971.  Jaster’s end remains a mystery: a book claims that he collaborated with the Nazis and was executed by the resistance in 1943.  It has since been refuted as lacking evidence, and is believed Jaster died in Gestapo activity sometime in the fall of 1943–the circumstances are still unclear.

Attached is the 2006 Polish documentary Uciekinier (“Man on the Run”), an award-winning film about the escape.

 

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Review of Khan Academy’s “American History Overview Part 1: Jamestown to Civil War”


I had not been a huge fan of Khan Academy.

Even before I started working with one of its competitors, I generally took a dim view of anyone that thought they could do better than a teacher with just a computer and a voice recorder.

However, Salman Khan’s little creation, originally meant to help his own cousin in math, has been a founding father of today’s explosion in virtual pedagogy. Practically everyone, including my own kin at LearnZillion, has a patch in the virtual quilt—from reading to math and even science and social studies.

When I heard that Khan Academy had ventured into history, again, I was skeptical. His approach seemed to work in math, and somewhat with language. History, however, is a massive, multi-headed monster that can go very wrong very fast if not handled properly.

Its just natural that I had to see if Salman went off the rails in his history videos.

There were quite a few to choose from, but I decided to start on American History overview Part 1, Jamestown to the Civil War. This is a typical spread for the first year of a two-year cycle in US history, and such an intro film made perfect sense.

Let’s start with the video itself.

Virtual production has come a long way since the first Khan videos. Yet here, they still stick with the crude visible cursor and neon handwriting reminiscent of a specials menu in a Chinese takeout restaurant. At least they’re consistent in their design—not thrilling, but consistent.

The voice, while familiar and somewhat relatable, doesn’t give me confidence. He doesn’t sound like he knows what he’s talking about. It feels like grad school when I basically corrected the poor adjunct they threw at me for two hours at a stretch.

Now for the facts. Honestly, Khan is not half bad here, since it is an overview. Just some notes as you use this video:

  • The first successful settlement in North America was St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, not Jamestown in 1607.
  • Jamestown was not originally settled as a commercial colony. They wanted to find gold like the Spanish in Mexico and Peru. When there was nothing but oysters and rebellious natives, then they decided to make money with tobacco.
  • The original Spanish and Portuguese settlements in the Americas are mentioned. Yet the Dutch are absent. Never mind that they founded one of the largest cities in the hemisphere.
  • The period between 1620 and 1754 is fast-forwarded. Fair enough, but what happened in between included slave rebellions, wars against natives, the French, the Dutch and the Spanish, the Navigation Acts that tied the knot between colonies and mother country, several popular revolts against colonial government, and religious hysteria not once, but twice.
  • 1754 is really the wrong date for the French and Indian Wars (YES, I mean Wars, plural). They really begin in 1689, and continue off and on until 1763. All these wars (between Spain, France, and Britain mostly) were European conflicts that spilled into the colonies. The last war, the “real” French and Indian War, was a colonial war that spilled into Europe, as the Seven Years War.
  • Speaking of “Indians”, why does the narrator still use the now-defunct term Indian or American Indian to refer to native people of North America? As a descendant of “real” Indians from the subcontinent, Khan should know better.
  • The narrator jumps straight into the Stamp Act without mentioning neither the Navigation Acts nor the 1764 Sugar Act—an act which actually affected the colonial and British economy on a much wider level.
  • The company was the British East India Company, not the East India Tea Company. Believe me, tea was only one of their many rackets.
  • Revolutionary War coverage – not bad, but should’ve highlighted 1777 Battles of Saratoga (Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights) as an important turning point bringing France into the war.
  • Constitution, new government and Louisiana Purchase – not bad. Louisiana mentioned the Haiti problem, which is surprisingly comprehensive.
  • The War of 1812 is dismissed entirely too casually. It had major implications for the United States. The last hope for Canada joining the Union died—from then on Canada developed its own identity. The US Navy established itself as a formidable opponent to the great powers. Native Americans would lose their last ally on the western frontier as the British troops withdrew from the Mississippi and Ohio valleys. Lastly, it established American sovereignty to the world once and for all.
  • The war did NOT end with the Battle of New Orleans. It ended in 1814 with the Treaty of Ghent months before. New Orleans happened after the fact.
  • The Texas Revolution is pretty much spot on, although the first President of the Republic of Texas was Stephen J. Burnet, not Sam Houston.
  • The explanation of the Mexican War wasn’t bad either, although the gap from 1848 to 1860 is dismissed a little too casually.
  • The slavery issue was summed up well, and it culminated in Lincoln’s election of 1860.
  • Lastly, the Emancipation Proclamation was mentioned without the little fact that it only declared those slaves in rebel states to be freed—in actuality not freeing a single slave until the 13th Amendment of 1865.

Apart from that, it’s not a terrible summation of the early years of the republic. I wouldn’t base a final report on this, but it’s a good introduction to the year, provided some of the gaps are covered in better detail.

In coming weeks, especially after my summer break begins, I’ll be looking at other Khan videos—as well as their competitors—to see how useful they can really be to serious history students.

By the way…the constant use of the word “Indian”, by a company named after an actual one, is really inexcusable.

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New Posts Coming – End of Year Madness

schools-out-1wripf7Hey guys, sorry I haven’t been as productive as before.  The usual end-of-year wrap ups and such are keeping me extremely busy.  It also doesn’t help that I’m creating video lessons again for LearnZillion and I want as much of them done before the break as possible.

However, no fear.  A new post will be released this week, where I critique the US History Overview video lessons from Khan Academy.

(Isn’t it pretentious to name a school after a Star Trek supervillain?…oh wait, sorry, my bad 😉

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