Tag Archives: Humour

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

This Day in History 9/12: The Battle of Marathon

Marathon isn’t just a word for a ridiculously long foot race that gives you red nipples, poop-filled shorts and a silly cellophane robe as a trophy.

For the small band of Greeks on September 12, 490 BCE, Marathon was a game-changer.

On this day, the 10,000 valiant Greek hoplites of Athens and Plataea, led by the brilliant general Miltiades, defeated a Persian army at least 30 times their numbers.  In response to the victory, the great Olympic champion Pheidippides raced 26.2 miles (who knew Herodotus had a tape measure) back to Athens, announced the victory, and promptly died of exhaustion.

Cute.

Then again, the main source was never really that reliable.

The only real source about the Battle of Marathon comes from the “Father of History,” the Greek historian Herodotus.  Herodotus was, indeed, among the few people of his time to record the history of the Greeks, and their wars with Persia in particular.

Yet the problem with being among the few is that no one’s around to fact-check when you take liberties.

Old Herodotus loved to spin a good yarn and play fast and loose with the facts when it suited his narrative, and no better thread was spun than that on the dusty plains of Marathon.

Let’s take the numbers, for example.  Here, Herodotus gets it partly right.  The estimate of about 10-11,000 Greeks is even today considered reasonable and probably fairly accurate.  It’s not surprising since he was around to possible interview veterans of the battle.

The Persians were another story.  Herodotus never really claims a number, only that 600 triremes (warships) packed with infantry and cavalry landed ashore.  A contemporary estimate was about 200,000, and later estimates range even over half a million.  There’s no modern consensus to the size of Darius’ army, though the general average is about 25,000 infantry and 1000 cavalry–far lower than the traditional estimates.

Even so, that low number was still an over 2-1 advantage.

Then came the tactics.  Miltiades supposedly arranged the Greek forces to be thin at the center and thicker at the flanks in order to force weaker Persian flanks to collapse and surround the center of the enemy.  The problem is that according to most historians, Greek military tactics were not that sophisticated yet.  It wouldn’t be until well after the Peloponnesian War–over a century after Marathon–when ground tactics would reach that level of development.  More likely, Miltiades stretched his middle lines to match the Persian lines and to prevent himself getting surrounded.

The fact that the weaker Persian flanks–manned mostly by provincial subjects forced into service–collapsed under the Greeks was probably due to dumb luck.

Finally, we come to Pheidippides.  Sorry, distance runners–the first marathon never happened.

In fact, when you see the story in totality, it’s even more ridiculous.

Herodotus’ story goes like this: Pheidippides was sent from Athens to go ask for help from its old enemy Sparta.  He would run about 140 miles and arrive in Sparta a day later (Now THAT’s a foot race).  At the same time, the victorious Greeks ran about 25 miles back to Athens to head off a possible Persian counter-attack as their fleet attempted an end run around the Achaean Peninsula.  From an already rough morning, the heavily armored, exhausted and profusely bleeding Greeks arrive in Athens in the LATE AFTERNOON (Again, that’s some foot race) to catch sight of the Persians sailing away.

Over time, the Pheidippides run and the Greek army‘s run would get confused, with Pheidippides becoming a hero for running the approximately 25 miles from Marathon to Athens.  When the Olympic Games were revived in 1896, the organizers rediscovered the story and re-staged the “marathon” as an Olympic event.  The distance was never fixed, but usually around the 25 mile mark.  Eventually, it would be fixed at 26 miles 385 yards, or the traditional 26.2 mile number we use today.

Even with the embellishment, the Battle of Marathon remained a history-turning event in Greece.  It sent a message throughout the Mediterranean that the mighty Persians could indeed be beaten.  The subsequent final defeat of the Persians a decade later would signal the beginning of Greece’s golden age, when its art, literature, philosophy, government and commerce would bestride the known world like a colossus.

See, no need to mess up the facts…it’s a great story as it is.

Attached is a really cool video about the Battle of Marathon.  It’s in that 300 style that I detest, but at least they didn’t dress the hoplites in ridiculous clothes and have them fight ninjas and monsters.  Enjoy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Ready for Inspection! The Problem with “Quality Reviews”

“No matter how nitpicky, how fastidious a reviewer can be, he (she)’ll never, ever come close to what you actually do in your classroom.”

Some time ago, an acquaintance I knew from the Department of Education, a science specialist, told me this when I was complaining about State Quality Reviews (SQRs).

As true as this is (and he should know—he actually does SQRs for the district), it still doesn’t explain how a two-day beauty pageant defines years worth of expertise and academic achievement.

In New York State, that’s exactly what an SQR does.

For those in the Neighborhood living outside New York, you may have something similar. They come under various names: reflections, reviews, audits, analyses. Here in the Empire State, these inspections are known as Quality Reviews, with the appropriate air of a Dickensian workhouse.

These official reviews are masked as “learning experiences” meant to provide “reflective feedback” on our practice. After you choke a little bit on your own vomit, you’ll realize their true purpose: to make sure schools do exactly what they’re supposed to do in the manner expected from the state education department—or at least to the whims of the pack of inspectors sent to your school.

The reviews come in multiple levels. The peer review, a less invasive but no less insidious device, involves groups of teachers and administrators rating each other. The educational equivalent of a gladiatorial contest, the peer review is usually less intense since fellow teachers and admins rarely want to crap on their own brethren.

The State Quality Review, or SQR, involves a pack of reviewers from a mix of different places, from the district to the DOE offices in Tweed to the state offices in Albany. A two-day affair, the SQR usually is triggered if a school suffers a drop in their rating or is rated a School in Need of Improvement according to No Child Left Behind.

Even this level of review comes in different degrees. For example, if your school dropped in ranking due to poor test scores in targeted areas, such as English Language Learners (ELLs) or Special Education Students, the review will most likely focus on the school’s work in that area. Otherwise, in case of a monumental screw-up, the entire school apparatus is put under the microscope.

My school recently had the former: a review based on our supposed lack of progress in ELLs and Special Education. Even so, the entire school was mobilized. Reams of assessment reports, data reports, student diagnostic reports, spreadsheets, graphs, charts, lesson plans, rubrics, student work, teacher evaluations, curriculum maps—all of it gets collected into a series of massive binders. These binders are designed for a dual purpose: to provide adequate evidence that we’re doing our job even without making educational targets; or to overwhelm the reviewer with work to the point that they just assume the school’s doing a thorough job without cracking open these three-ring behemoths.

Rarely does the review not go past the binder stage.

After a day of sifting through numbers and charts, day two features the classroom visits. In theory, the visits are supposed to be “random.” Therefore, every class is spruced up, cleaned up, papered with new charts and new student work (with appropriate rubrics and task cards). In practice, however, since the visits target certain populations, it is often the classes with said populations that get visited—and are often prepped ahead of time.

The result is a series of visits into model classrooms in the vein of Disney World’s World of Tomorrow rides. Bulletin boards stand as monuments, replete with student work, carefully labeled with comments, a rubric and task card (never mind the mind-numbing hours spent preparing these works ahead of time). The charts around the room carefully detail every minute movement in the academic process (usually after re-doing and sprucing up charts the teacher has used for years).

Even the procedures need procedures—such is apparently a “well developed” classroom. I’m surprised there are no charts detailing how to effectively utilize the lavatory (Lord knows they can use it).

The children sit in their seats (the more impossible ones are either conveniently absent or not-so-subtly convinced/cajoled/threatened to behave) and stage a performance worthy of Broadway. While they are listless, lethargic or outright defiant most of the year, the SQR somehow summons articulate, well-mannered, enthused children gleefully engaging in one of your “A” lessons (a little coaching certainly helps.)

All the while, the reviewers (some blasé, some meticulous, and even a few true-believers with Nazi brutality) ask the teachers and children questions about their learning, mostly to figure out if the little whelps are actually paying attention. It’s a scream when they go off-script. One year, a boy was asked his favorite subject. He replied, “Home.”

Some of the questions teachers get can be downright insulting. One teacher was asked to show her lesson for that day. She was asked to show the lesson’s objective (which is clearly marked on most lesson plan books, which seemed to go above the head of this reviewer). After pointing to the lesson objective in her plan, she was then asked, “Why is that the objective?”

Hmmm…how about because that’s what the phony-baloney curriculum map they had to make (and could barely read) says to do.

Even the tone of that question—and I wasn’t present to hear it—would suggest that the reviewer was not among academic professionals but rather a pack of chimps that still needed Jane Goodall to teach them how to poke at anthills with a stick.

In the end, the review usually comes with a long checklist of positive points and things to work on (NEVER negative points, because the word “negative” doesn’t exist in a well-developed classroom *vomit*). The negatives rarely carry much substance, but rather focus on how to create MORE useless paperwork to make the appearance of learning.

Sometimes, they even suggest to return to methods and theories that were discarded during the LAST quality review.

After coming out of the subsequent scotch fog, I had some serious questions about the SQR process. Why the reams of paperwork? Why collect data that often says little and means even less? Why ask children for answers who are notoriously honest—even in the best schools?

Most importantly…how does a quality review help children learn more?

I’m looking really hard, and I haven’t the foggiest.

The window dressing, the bulletin boards, the charts—they are only as effective as the teacher behind them. Any trained animal can clean up well enough to perform a show.

The “evidence” question doesn’t wash with me. Most of a teacher’s best work is done without a ream of paperwork or forms to complete. Effective professionals know what data works and what data is simply filler for a spreadsheet. More data doesn’t necessarily mean improvement.

Thus, if reviewers are really looking for reams of evidence, are they viewing teachers as professionals? Or are teachers more like Goodall’s chimps, according to the state?

Therefore, maybe that’s how the education reform crowd, the NCLB nancies and TFA fops, views all of us who chose education as a calling: a pack of trained animals that can’t be trusted to make intelligent decisions and need a zookeeper to collect the feces.

Which leads back to the earlier quote. My friend was absolutely right. The quality review can’t scratch the surface of what a teacher does in the classroom. Yet the very existence of such a review undermines the status of professionals whose talents and achievements far exceed any binder of data.

So if the state continues to treat me like a chimp…well, let’s just say chimps are marksmen with their bowel movements.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized