Tag Archives: Commentary

The Castro Retirement: Passing of the Guard, or a Prelude to Counter-Revolution?

Fidel and Raul Castro (Photo courtesy of AP)

Fidel and Raul Castro (Photo courtesy of AP)

Rare is the tyrant that manages a graceful exit.

In Cuba, the second tyrant in a row is attempting just that.

At the announcement of his re-election as Cuba’s president, Raul Castro, who took over from his brother, former president Fidel Castro, announced that he will step down as leader when his new term ends in 2018.  It is part of the slow process of handing over power over Cuba’s socialist system to a generation of leaders with no connection to the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Yet even more surprising is the follow-up.  Castro planned some serious changes for Cuba’s political system: term limits, age caps (even for president), even constitutional amendments subject to popular consent via referendum.

Have the Castro brothers thrown in the towel?  Hardly.

Over the past decade, as the 26th of July generation have died off one by one, young apparatchiks within Cuba’s Communist Party have been jockeying for position in the new order.  Those disloyal or harboring counterrevolutionary sympathies were cast aside, as young loyalists gradually filled in top jobs in the Politburo, the armed forces and the cabinet.

Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, the new top vice president selected by Raul, is a perfect example of the tumult among the cadres.  An electrical engineer, Diaz-Canel’s 52 years make him a fetus to the gang that fought in the Sierra Maestra toppling Batista.  He rose quickly, as a local party boss in tourist-heavy Villa Clara and Holguin provinces where important connections were made.  Diaz-Canel was formerly minister of higher education, and has already been influential in talks with key ally Venezuela.

So the new blood is simply that…new.  It doesn’t necessarily mean a change in mentality, unfortunately.

This transition reminds me of another blood-soaked tyrant that attempted a gradual fade: Augusto Pinochet.  His conditions to step down were ludicrous in hindsight: commander-in-chief of the armed forces for another ten years, and a senator for life, free from prosecution.  In the face of growing popular opposition, the general wanted to make sure the future governments would be under his ideas, if not his more velvet-gloved iron hand.

It didn’t help him, though.  We saw him for the tyrant he was.

Castro’s announcement, honestly, left me with more questions than answers.  In the end, I’m left with two conclusions:

First, the Castros have an even worse situation than Pinochet.  To be sure, the move to gradual withdrawal seems shrewd.  However, unlike Pinochet’s Chile, which was severely polarized, Cuba’s rank and file has been fed up with the Castros for at least two decades.  The loyalists can hold the socialist line to a point—that point being the end of Fidel and Raul’s funeral procession.  I just don’t see how Diaz-Canel can command the loyalty of a people who were clearly betrayed by two predecessors more powerful—and more charismatic (at least in Fidel’s case)—than he.

Yet even more important, as the list of potential reforms rings in my head, I cannot help but glimpse at Raul’s little sneer.  The whole reform process, even the constitutional changes, seem less a transformation of Cuba and more a stalling tactic to keep the Castros and the Communist Party in power.

The reason?  If these reforms—age caps, term limits, referenda—were so important to Cuba’s body politic, what took the Castros so long to introduce them?  Are the Castros special?  Do they not merit the same guarantees AND limitations placed on all Cubans through their constitution?

Part of the success of the American system is the realization by our founders that dictatorships don’t work—even for those who blaze the trail.  George Washington relinquished command of the Continental Army after the American Revolution.  He only served two terms as President when he could’ve been in office for life.

To make a republican system work, its founders needed to lead by example: an example of restraint.

The Castros are hardly a model in this case.  For most of its history, their regime lacked any hint of restraint institutionally, legally and practically.  Restraint meant a loss of power, at least in Fidel and Raul’s mind.  It ultimately cheapened the Revolution into a personality cult where the Castros were above any law even they conceived.

Therefore, to saddle the future generations of loyal Companeros with institutional burdens the founders lacked makes the whole exercise seem ingenuous.

These so-called reforms will turn the house of cards into a bigger house of cards—one that can fall much more easily.

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More Slavery Math Problems: Another Example of Clumsy Content Integration in NYC

slaverymathditto152acf8d-97a2-4cc7-993a-52fe818552fdToday’s post is proof positive that not every teacher visits the Neighborhood—especially when it’s for their own good.

A year ago, we looked at the plight of a Georgia teacher who made a clumsy and altogether disastrous attempt to integrate social studies with mathematics, using the brutality of slavery to teach word problems.

Not only was the attempt slapdash and insensitive (the latter through no fault of the teacher, I’m guessing) but grossly inaccurate and leaving students with less of an understanding of BOTH subjects.

At PS 59 in Manhattan yesterday, someone (who probably didn’t read my post of a year ago) attempted a similar integration effort, using social studies content with word problems for a class of 9-year-olds—in a neighborhood where many were the children of UN personnel.

Again, slavery was the subject of the day—which was another not-so-bright move given the school’s community base.  Here are two examples:

“One slave got whipped five times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month (31 days)?”

“In a slave ship, there can be 3,799 slaves. One day, the slaves took over the ship. 1,897 are dead. How many slaves are alive?”

And once again, a teacher trying to do the right thing in her mind gets herself in hot water.

Jane Youn assigned these kinds of questions for homework and almost handed them to a second class before a student teacher noticed the inflammatory questions and put the kibosh on the whole thing.

The Chancellor and the DOE displayed the appropriate amount of outrage, and “disciplinary action” will follow for the teachers responsible.  Yet as in the Georgia case a year ago, what exactly is Ms. Youn’s crime?

Was she being deliberately insensitive?  I would guess not.  Slavery is so explosive as a topic that any instruction—of any level—could be construed as inappropriate or insensitive given the audience.  After all, being around diplomat’s kids would give anyone a heightened sense of moral outrage over any perceived slight.  Putting a dinner fork in the wrong place could cause an international incident.

Yet is Ms. Youn at fault for clumsy, irresponsible lesson design?  Absolutely.

It’s not her fault entirely.  Such is the current trend of integration that science and social studies content miraculously show up on standardized tests aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards we hear so much about.  In this frenzy, a teacher with little, if any, time for content instruction would sneak social studies or science in any way they can…even if it means a math problem about slavery or a reading exercise about the discovery of the DNA double-helix.

However, it isn’t an excuse for bad planning.  Real content integration—true integration—uses the vehicles of English Language Arts and math to expand understanding of content knowledge, or the “stuff” you have to know.  A student should hone practical skills in reading, writing and math and also learn more about a subject.

For example, the way Ms. Youn phrased her questions leads me to believe she really didn’t give a shit about teaching the kids about slavery, but would rather assess their math skills.  It’s obvious since her scenarios are so wildly unrealistic: whipping an enslaved man 5 times a day?  Wouldn’t it be easier to sell him?  How often did slave revolts happen during the Middle Passage?  My guess: not very likely.

How about questions that showed how much commerce slave-based industries such as cotton contributed to the growth of Northern industry?  Or if you dare touch the Middle Passage, how much an enslaved African was sold for on the market, and the profits of the slave-merchants per person?

If Ms. Youn really cared about content, she would’ve done enough research on slavery (as well as appropriate math skills) to answer the following:

  1. What do I want the kids to know about (insert content area here)?
  2. How can I use (insert ELA/Math skills here) to help my kids understand (insert objectives about content area here)?

In education today, the debate between content-driven versus skill-driven instruction has devolved into a chicken-before-the-egg argument: do skills drive content, or vice versa?  The reality is that skills are necessary to understand content, yet skills cannot be mastered without basic content knowledge as a foundation.  There’s no good answer to this.

Yet for the sake of Jane Youn and others who simply see social studies and science as a backdrop for their test prep, I do hope future teachers take integration seriously.

There’s too much at stake not to do so.

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Why don’t they want history taught right? A response to a History Commentary on Education Week

Cartoon - Why Study HistorySometimes it isn’t about whether someone is right or wrong.

Sometimes you’re just in the wrong conversation altogether.

That’s the vibe I got as I read a recent article in Education Week about how history is taught.   Even though the arguments in the piece are largely plausible and totally defensible,  I got a sense that the debate was altogether needless: the blame is completely misplaced, and the wrong questions are asked.

The article, by volunteer tutor and grant writer Vicky Schippers, stands as a polemic that history shouldn’t be taught as “a litany of disconnected names, dates, and events to be memorized before an exam.”  Rather, teachers should take her example and make history connect with students.

As a tutor, she has the rarefied opportunity to work one-on-one with a student, in her case a 20-year old named Tony with a four-year-old son.  She uses Tony’s situation, his fears, and his worries as a struggling young parent looking for work to connect with American government, the development of American democracy, the need for taxes, tariffs, and especially the abortion debate, which troubled this young father.

Schippers ends by stating that:

“History is not boring. More important, it is relevant to the lives of every student, but none more than our most disadvantaged. Rather than teaching it as a series of eye-glazing events, it should be presented in a way that affords students the opportunity to delve in; question; and, above all, see in history’s unfolding, how we, the people, have traveled from there to here; and how that journey is relevant to all of us.”

To regular readers of the Neighborhood, this isn’t Earth-shattering.

A slew of comments followed, mostly from history teachers sneering at Schippers’ lack of “real” classroom experience, her rosy-glassed view of history education, her complete lack of understanding of the realities of teaching in the secondary classroom.

I’ve got to be honest.  Both sides are kind of full of shit.

The slew of educators slamming this poor woman are rightfully swamped, but they shouldn’t crucify her simply for stating what all of us history guys already know—that the parade of names and dates is a better  anesthetic than chloroform.

Then again, Schippers really should’ve taken a look around.

If she really took a hard look at how history teachers, good history teachers, are plying their craft today, she would notice that nary a one bothers with textbooks, outlines of dates, events, names of old white men, etc.

We already know how history should be taught.  We’ve been trying to do it for years now, and anyone who hasn’t realized it is either past saving or a complete ignoramus.

The question to ask isn’t “How is history taught?”

The real question is “Why does the education establishment not give a shit about how history should be taught?”

History teachers, often in isolation or in small groups, have been reinventing history education for a while now.  Our classrooms are our laboratories, where lessons, units, projects and assessments are tested, re-tested, evaluated, and celebrated—often to the bewilderment of administrators perplexed at how learning how to think critically could ever get those state test scores up.

The powers that be, the education policy idiots and the talking heads in charge of education administration in this country, were never too swift on the uptake.

Programs that can really reach out and spread our skills and knowledge are first on the chopping block.  Anything related to social studies, especially history, is shoved way to the back burner   History is often forced to “integrate” into other subjects where the content and ideas are buried in reading skills and long division.

We know how the past should be taught.  Why not share the secret so that everyone can teach history the right way?

Schippers herself addressed this in a rebuttal comment on the Education Week site.  Obviously not wanting to shit on veteran teachers, she realized the limitations of the classroom and that “You all do what you must do to get your kids through their coursework. It’s up to education policy makers to make the changes that will allow you to teach history differently.”

Knowing how those policy makers think and operate, I doubt any change is coming soon.  Their conversations will never involve history in a serious way.   They see it as a means to an end—an end that can be charted and graphed.

Again, the wrong conversation is going on…and I’m skeptical about any chance of change.

So…we better teach history the best way we can, as long as we can.

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Making the case for Parochial Schools in the NCLB age

NunNewBedfordGeographyYes, Sister Mary Margaret, there is a place for you and the rest of the “penguins.”

It’s just difficult to see against the tests, the balance sheets, and the armada of charter and magnet schools competing in your home waters.

As much as our public schools take a beating, few institutions have take as severe a scourging as the Catholic Church in the US.

I’m not referring to the sex abuse scandals, which deserve pages of analysis.  The system of Catholic primary and secondary schools in the United States is on an unprecedented retreat.

At the height of the baby boom in the 1960s, roughly 5.2 million students were enrolled at Catholic schools in communities across the country, according to a recent City Journal article by Sean Kennedy, a scholar at the Lexington Institute and co-author of a study on Catholic education.  Today, less than half attend a Catholic institution, only 2 million.  Running without government dollars, per-pupil costs skyrocketed between 1998 and 2010, from $5,600 to $10,800.  Average tuition for incoming ninth graders at Catholic high schools has more than doubled, from $4,300 to $8,800.

The result is a massive pandemic of building closure: between 2000 and 2012, 1,942 schools were either closed or consolidated (combined with other schools).  167 closed or consolidated in 2012 alone.  A recent report by the Archdiocese of New York stated at least 24 local schools will close, affecting over 4,000 students in the area.

How did it happen?  How did arguably the greatest private school system in America take such a beating?

Catholic schools, in a way, are a victim of their own success.

The Catholic parochial school system began in the mid-1800s as a response to the rising public school movement in America.  Early public school systems, in cities and towns, stressed preparation for adult life as farmers and workers—a preparation that included religious instruction.  Public schools encouraged Bible study, particularly the King James Bible used in Protestant churches.  Thus, public education was seen as a vehicle for evangelizing Protestant religious values.

The sea of Catholic immigrants in the mid-1800s, from Ireland and Germany, needed schools that reflected their own values.  Either through the diocese or independently, parochial schools of all levels would spring up right next door to local public schools.  The parochial system would grow to essentially become a mirror of the public school system, with elementary and secondary schools local to each city and town, as well as Catholic schools of higher learning (Boston College, Notre Dame, Holy Cross, Georgetown, etc.) that served as centers of university training for Catholics who still felt discriminated at the Puritan, Presbyterian and Anglican campuses of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia.

Over time, Catholic schools developed a reputation for discipline, spiritual nourishment and academic excellence.  Without government money, these schools provided high-quality, low-cost education for immigrants and their children.  Clergy acting as the faculty kept costs low while instilling rigorous standards of discipline and academic achievement.

When new theories or fads would ravage American public education starting in the 1960’s, Catholic schools were a haven of stability, providing excellence the old-fashioned way: discipline and hard work.

Parochial school would become the true vehicle of upward mobility: many who rose from poverty to positions of power attribute their success to the values and rigor instilled in a Catholic education.

By the 1990’s, however, Catholic schools obtained a serious rival—a rival funded by public dollars.

The rise of No Child Left Behind was parallel to the rise of the charter school movement, schools funded by public monies but operating independently of the public school system.  When parents couldn’t afford rising costs of Catholic school, the charter school became a less-costly alternative.  Many of these charters have adopted norms and values long cultivated in the Catholic school system: high academic expectations, rigorous discipline, school uniforms.

The result is a hemorrhaging of enrollment at an unprecedented scale.  2012 marked the first year that charter school enrollment is higher than in Catholic schools, surging past the 2 million mark.  Currently they account for about 5% of children in public schools, and their numbers continue to rise.

Does this mean the slow death of the Catholic school, though?  Not necessarily.

Competition from charter schools has crippled a longstanding tradition of American education.  The question now is: should it be this way?  Is there a way for Catholic schools to regain lost ground?

Part of the problem is financial.  Catholic schools are playing on an uneven field: charters can, and often do, get continuous funding from public coffers, whilst the local parochial school is kept up largely by the parishioners and the local diocese.  This is a disparity that cannot really be leveled without massive government spending in religious schools—a controversial move on many levels.

Dioceses across America are learning to make do with less—a painful lesson in efficiency that will probably be helpful in the end.  Though the closures are painful, the Catholic system as a whole can still be main sustainable for at least the immediate future.

Yet fiscal discipline is only part of the solution.  To really re-establish its foothold on American schooling, the parochial school needs to emphasize those things that charters often get so wrong, and that St. Mary’s and St. Bernard’s get so right.

In terms of morals and ethics, it’s a no-brainer.  Recent scandals aside, at least on paper, the parochial school is a model for moral education, at least through the lens of Catholicism.  Catholic schools have long opened their doors to non-Catholics, as long as they take classes in religion and sit through the obligatory exercises.  Through this osmosis, many non-Catholics can’t help but develop ethically in this environment.  Historically, this deep moral education has also been coupled with a thorough civic education.  Catholic students also tended to be proud American citizens—which upends completely the discriminating notions of a century ago that equated Catholicism with anti-Americanism.

More importantly, though, parochial schools never mess with what works in education.  It’s a lesson we all know too well.

Charter schools, especially the well-known ones, often pride themselves on being up-to-date with the latest educational trends and theories.  Basically, they tie themselves to a philosophy or theoretical framework, drill their teachers and students to death in it, and if it doesn’t work, they find another theory or fad and start the process all over again.

Catholic schools never had to worry about Danielson frameworks, Bloom’s taxonomy, Understanding by Design, Lucy Calkins, Fountas and Pinnell, or any other fly-by-night notions that catch an administrator’s eye like a shiny toy.  They understood long ago that as long as a dedicated staff is backed up by an administration hellbent on discipline and hard work, no theory was really necessary.

Unlike the twits that dictate education policy today, Catholic schools knew for a long time that the school environment matters a whole lot more than any newfangled theory.

Does that mean parochial schools can’t do a better job with English Language Learners or children with special needs?  Absolutely not.  In fact, many of the ding-dong theories we disparage can work for them on a limited basis.  Yet the majority of kids being sent to Catholic school are not being sent there because of Wiggins or Calkins or Fountas & Pinnell—they’re being sent because Sister Mary Margaret will conjure the fires of Hell if little Johnny doesn’t do his work.

In a way, the strict discipline and focus on work in the Catholic school is a lot more nurturing than even the most liberal-minded charters—places where the chanting, the slogans, and the high fives seem so…antiseptic…artificial…

…dare I say…fascist?

Catholic schools have a role as a viable alternative to the public school system.  They provide a discipline and focus that no charter can dream of providing, combined with a moral compass that makes KIPP look like a Dickensian workhouse.

Once they can get their financial house in order, America’s Catholic schools need to focus on how to compete effectively with charters and stake their ground in the 21st century education landscape.

After all, they do answer to a higher power.

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Democracy Distilled – an Infographic on Voting Rights produced by eLocal


Source: Democracy DistilledbyeLocalLawyers.com

In honor of Inauguration Day, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the folks at eLocal produced an interesting, evocative Infographic video about the history of voting rights in this country.  It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when even white men were restricted from the ballot box–the ones who were poor, that is.  The video follows how far we have come in the 237 years since independence, showing progress by state and demographic group.

This is a great resource for the classroom to show the big picture of American democracy, and to discuss where we need to go in the future.

Enjoy, and make sure to watch the Inauguration on Monday…even if you voted for the other guy.  The process of government is what makes us great, not the people in it.

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The Return to the Neighborhood – Mr. D is back!

I'm Back by popular demand!It took quite a while, but the Neighborhood is back in business!

To be honest, I was really expecting to post at least once a week when I started my new position.  However, this year I learned of a new kind of exhaustion.

My new school, in all fairness, is such a refreshing change from my old situation that my exhaustion was barely noticed.  It’s a charmed life: a K-8 neighborhood school in a Bronx neighborhood reminiscent of my ancestral haunts in Brooklyn, with incredible colleagues and administrators that really back me up to the hilt.  Few teachers nowadays get that kind of treatment anymore.

Yet the Neighborhood had to take a back seat to a cruel mistress-two of them, in fact.  Ancient history was less demanding.  Sixth grade science, on the other hand, has had me doing tricks that would make a Flying Wallenda soil his tights.  Its been rough creating basically a whole new curriculum on the fly, especially in two subject areas.  History was simply a refresher: it was nothing some pyramids, a Hammurabi Code and some gladiators couldn’t fix.

Science…well…let’s just say for years we’ve had an understanding.  We usually stay out of each other’s way.

Yet when the principal asked if I could teach science during my interview, of course I nodded.  I could teach anything.  A superteacher like me only needs a stopwatch and some dry-erase markers to make kids recite Herodotus in the original Greek or do long division while explaining word problems in perfect iambic pentameter.

In other words, I lied.  Sort of.  Hey, I wanted the gig.

So between physics formulas, ancient artifacts and suffering through a broken Smartboard and a stack of paperwork I never had to do before, my life has been pretty much exhausted to the point that the Neighborhood was neglected.

Well, no more.

The Neighborhood will be back to give the usually refreshing, mostly irreverent, oftentimes crass and always honest commentary on American and world history, history education and education in general.

So to start…how about a teaching tool designed by yours truly?

One thing I really needed at the beginning of the year was a good comprehensive, all-inclusive introduction to the ancient history curriculum.  Since I’m known to knock around a decent PowerPoint or two, I created this introductory presentation as a jumping off point for lesson planning, assessments, projects, whatever you need.  It starts with a world map where you click on individual areas and it shows information about the “Big Four” civilizations usually studied (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome).  Each section has maps, pictures, short bios of important people and key contributions of each people.

It isn’t a silver bullet, but the presentation is a good way to get students to think about deeper exploration of various themes.  The link is below:

Introduction to Ancient Civilizations

PS – It has my real name on it…as if it were a big secret LOL.  Enjoy.

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Videos for the Classroom: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Thanks to my new position, The Neighborhood may take a turn towards more world history and a touch less American history.

Today’s video is not only essential in understanding early civilizations, but is also a great storytelling tool.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is perhaps the oldest written story of all time.  There may be older tales, but so far none had been written for posterity before this Sumerian tale.

According to most historians, the epic was first written as a series of five poems about the legendary king of Uruk, four of which were combined to create a cohesive story around 1900 BCE, though the actual poems date well before that date (some as early as 2700 BCE).  Later, a longer 12-tablet version was written between 1300-1100 BCE.  Only a few small pieces of the earlier poems remain, and only about 2/3 of the later version survive.

The story is sweeping in scope and dense in meaning.  Gilgamesh, the demi-god king of Uruk, begins as a despotic, even monstrous figure.  Through various adventures, including fighting mythic beasts, angering the gods, losing his best friend and a journey through the underworld, Gilgamesh gains anunderstanding of himself, his place in the universe and his own mortality.

These adventures, many believe, form the basis to many later myths and legends, particularly the Greek myths and several stories of the Bible–specifically that of Noah and the flood, which owes much to Gilgamesh.  It gives a window as to how ancient Mesopotamians viewed themselves and the universe, and also is a piece of excellent storytelling.

Gilgamesh has been retold numerous times, translated and adapted into several versions.  To date, no good video adaptation of the epic exists.  Of those available, it is difficult to find a version that connects with children.

Today’s film was created by a YouTube user and condenses the epic into an 11 minute animated adventure.  It isn’t perfect: lots of details were missed, some of which critical to the story (where did Ishtar go?  She plays a central role.) but it is kid-friendly, covers the basic tenets of the epic, and is short enough to use in both a social studies classroom and a literacy workshop.

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