Tag Archives: Jesus

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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Eggs, Bunnies and a Dude on a Cross: The Problem with Easter

The Easter story is the central tenet of Christianity. It also reads like a nightmarish B-grade horror film.

A poor, disheveled mystic–who claims to be descended from the divine–attracts a following with feats of power and thoughtful wisdom. He runs into problems with local authorities that fear his ministry will “rock the boat” with both the local priests and the powers that actually run the joint.

After a meal where he makes his followers consume his “flesh” and “blood”, he is arrested and beaten within an inch of his life. The mystic then carries a wooden beam through town, amongst jeering crowds and impatient soldiers to a hill where his is stripped and nailed to this hunk of wood. Hanging in horrific agony, he calls on everyone but the kitchen sink before he finally tunes out—only to “rise again” like a beatific zombie a few days later.

If the movies are to be believed, his hair is perfect.

In a nice addendum, the same dude rises to heaven, promising to come back and go medieval on all the fools who wronged him: a divine Charles Bronson, if you will.

Of course, this is a crude, even blasphemic retelling of what is considered the “Passion” of Jesus Christ, the story of his torture, death and resurrection as told through the Gospels of the New Testament. It is impossible to understand Christianity without this story—gory and fantastic as it may be.

Yet the Easter story can be very troublesome in a classroom, particularly in the elementary setting. That said, it’s probably best to avoid it altogether.

“Not so fast!”, you say, “What about Christmas? That’s a religious holiday that’s at least given lip service in most American classrooms!”

If you think Easter has been made tame by bunnies, chocolate and hard-boiled eggs with paint on them…you better look again, because Big J’s horror story will always reel its thorn-laden head.

Here are a few reasons to bypass the Easter story in your class:

1. The Religion is still Center Stage. – the bunny just won’t cut it. There’s no Santa Claus, Frosty or tits at Mardi Gras to drown out the Bible here. Jesus really IS the reason for this season, and the minute you talk about him is the moment the First Amendment and the ACLU come to whip you in the ass with an organically-grown hickory switch.

2. There’s too little secular material to tie in. – You can even date when Christmas was stripped of its Christianity: 1843. This was the year Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published. It became a best-seller, and completely remade Christmas as a secular family gift-giving holiday. To date, no such transformation has occurred with the opposite end of Jesus’ life.

3. The story is gruesome. – There’s no way to candy coat torture and crucifixion. It was a painful, agonizing death that was suffered by thousands during Roman rule. In fact, Jesus had it easy: his loincloth was kept on for modesty, and only his limbs were nailed down. Scholars have discovered remains of naked victims nailed in some bizarre areas: the armpits, the neck, even the genitals. Makes you feel sorry for the Roman legionary who drew the short straw for nail-in-the-junk duty.

4. Competition from another important religious holiday. – As much as it galls the religious right, Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover seder, as he was an observant Jew. Passover and Easter are forever tied together, both by Scripture and history. Passover, the celebration of the beginning of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, is not the most important Jewish holiday religiously, yet the most influential historically. The Passover story reverberates throughout Jewish history, as the dispersal of God’s Chosen People harkens back to those first movements from Egypt. Furthermore, in places with large Jewish populations, like New York City, a long spring recess has more to do with Jewish than Christian religious tradition. Easter can’t exist without Passover, and both stories need a lot of context to be explained.

5. No good secular entertainment. – Rankin-Bass and Charlie Brown aren’t exactly kosher on Easter (no pun intended). All the movies associated with the season have to do with the season literally. There are plenty of Jesus movies—and Moses movies, for that matter—to fill an afternoon, but they come dangerously close to evangelizing. Even Monty Python’s Life of Brian won’t cut it, although I would love to meet the high school teacher with the balls to show it in class.

6. The whole story is such a downer. – When Christians celebrate Easter, they rejoice in the very end of the story. Most of the narrative of Jesus’ last days on Earth is tragic, violent, gruesome, blood-curdling and altogether depressing. It only gets good at the very end (the “zombie” phase). Hence the pastel suits and chiffon dresses: wearing that on Good Friday is akin to showing up at the funeral in a red dress.

I’ve seen decent, God-fearing teachers make a point to sneak in Easter activities like egg-dying, Easter bunny-coloring and the like. It’s cute, I know, but the minute one kid asks why they are doing this, the teacher plays with fire.

That fire—from constitutional law and the courtroom—is far more painful than any conjectured netherworld. You can avoid Hell. You can’t get out of a subpoena.

In high school classes, this shouldn’t be an issue. Jesus is a historical figure, and his death should be treated as such—you can even go nuts on the crucifixion thing. The scripture complicates things, but teenagers should figure out what is history and what isn’t.

With little kids, however, the scripture is the history. It’s the only narrative that a kid will understand at that level, and in a public school that’s construed as religious instruction. Avoid Easter, avoid Jesus, heck avoid the bunnies and eggs (they bring about too many questions).

Leave that for a later time when the gruesomeness of the Passion has a slightly cool quality. You gotta love teenagers.

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Merry Christmas from Mr. D’s Neighborhood

Nativity Creche, Naples 18th Century, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

“Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth…and everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child…and she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

“In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.”

“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’”

“And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Gloryto God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.’” – Luke 2:1-14

A very Merry Christmas to everyone in the Neighborhood.

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The High Price of Fame: Quotes on Celebrity and Stardom

Tiger Woods (AFP via Yahoo! News)

Jesus, the Prophet Muhammad, Tiger Woods—quite possibly, three of the most famous people on the planet (and not necessarily in that order).  

That fame, however, does not necessarily bring peace and tranquility.

Tiger Woods may be miffed that his “transgressions” came under public scrutiny, but students of history know better.  Fame has been a blessing and a burden since the beginnings of civilization.  Muhammad’s growing popularity (and opposition) forced him to flee his native Mecca to Medina.  Jesus had a similar brush with fame and popularity, with a more grisly end.  So it should not be a surprise to any celebrity that their lives are under the microscope.

Here in America, celebrity has been valued, as well as criticized, since the colonial period.  Benjamin Frankin was perhaps the first true American celebrity: his fame as a scientist, author, diplomat and all-around American workaholic spread across Europe.  Franklin was also among the first, ironically, to write on the dangers of celebrity.  In 1725, in his Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, he wrote:

“Mankind naturally and generally love to be flatter’d…Geese are but Geese tho’ we may think ’em Swans; and Truth will be Truth tho’ it sometimes prove mortifying and distasteful.”

Later, in his unfinished autobiography he famously wrote:

“Most people dislike vanity in others, whatever share they have of it themselves.”

In a sense, Franklin is pointing out the paradox of fame in America: we crave attention, yet hate it when others crave attention.  Yet even though we may crave stardom, it’s difficult to mask the underlying truth to our being.

Davy Crockett, the Indian fighter, frontiersman, Congressman and martyr at the Alamo, was another early superstar, according to many historians.  By the 1830s, his frontier persona, thanks to massive marketing through stage plays, books and merchandising, had become a caricature of the real person: an often uneasy celebrity who, like Tiger Woods, often craved anonymity in areas outside of public life.  Crockett once stated that:

“Fame is like a shaved pig with a greased tail, and it is only after it has slipped through the hands of some thousands, that some fellow, by mere chance, holds on to it!”

In retrospect, Tiger Woods has some pretty impressive company, and a certain match for prowess in the boudoir (if the accounts of Dr. Franklin’s escapades are true).  Here are some other quotes about fame and celebrity.

“He who pursues fame at the risk of losing his self is not a scholar.” — Chuang-tzu

“The best people renounce all for one goal, the eternal fame of mortals; but most people stuff themselves like cattle.” — Heraclitus

“What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little.” — Lord Byron

“Fame is like a suffocating castle sieged by the enemy. “ — Mehmet ildan

“All the fame I look for in life is to have lived it quietly.” — Michel de Montaigne

“When once a man has made celebrity necessary to his happiness, he has put it in the power of the weakest and most timorous malignity, if not to take away his satisfaction, at least to withhold it. His enemies may indulge their pride by airy negligence and gratify their malice by quiet neutrality. “ — Samuel Johnson

“No true and permanent fame can be founded, except in labors which promote the happiness of mankind. “ — Charles Sumner

“A sign of celebrity is that his name is often worth more than his services. “ — Daniel J. Boorstin

“A celebrity is a person who works hard all his life to become well known, then wears dark glasses to avoid being recognized. “ — Fred Allen

“A celebrity is one who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn’t know.”  — H. L. Mencken

“The nice thing about being a celebrity is that when you bore people, they think it’s their fault.” — Henry Kissinger

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Holiday Wishes and Random Thoughts

I’d like to wish everyone in the neighborhood a happy Easter and a joyous Passover.  Whether its celebrating the resurrection of Big J, the exodus of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, or the fact that we may finally leave winter sometime this month–remember that every day is a celebration.   Party on!

Some random thoughts today before the holiday preparations:

  1. My call for help with my children’s book is still open.  I have received some feedback, but could use more opinions out there.  Any thoughts on this is welcome.  Even if you want to berate me for continuing on this quixotic quest for publishing glory–that way I have something to read as I whimper in the fetal position.  So, to repeat, any help on this would be much appreciated.
  2. My Las Vegas trip is coming up, and the Neighborhood can also assist here.  I need to take future Mrs. D out to dinner at a nice restaurant when we sojourn in Las Vegas this week.  I’d like any suggestions sooner rather than later, as I’d like to reserve a table while I’m here.  Furthermore, I’m looking for a NON-Cirque du Soleil show to attend while I’m there–future Mrs. D doesn’t care for half-naked Quebecois leaping to New Age music.   I’d be much obliged for suggestions.
  3. Lastly, I’ve been intrigued by this pirate situation as of late in the Horn of Africa.  This has been going on for quite a while, and it makes a very good teachable moment for those kids still enamored with Johnny Depp mincing in pirate gear.  Pirates are not cool.  In fact, they are no better than drunken criminals.  As the students can see by the news stories, real lives are at stake.  Keep it in mind for a quickie lesson after your break.

It’s a short one today, as I have relatives to see and shopping to do.  Have a great holiday, and I’ll see everyone on Monday.

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Hollywood and History: the perils of film in the history classroom

cecil-b-demille_paramount-pictures-cropHollywood is truly the serial rapist of history–and it doesn’t use protection.  Ask my friend here, the great film director Cecil B. DeMille.  His record of historical rape could make you reach for a sharp object.  It would make the real-life Moses reach for a firearm, without Chuck Heston having to spot his NRA card. 

Like a serial rapist, Hollywood writers and directors seduce certain types, be it war heros, flawed minorities or enigmatic outsiders.  After gaining their confidence, they force their will on them–sappy plotlines, out-of-place romances, needless sidekicks, and set pieces that have nothing to do with reality.  After the rapists have had their fun, they make a point to display to the world how they humiliated these poor saps.  The result is reams of celluloid and digital memory cards of pseudo-historical nonsense.

Yet students today are obsessed with movies; they even read history like a storyboard at Miramax.  I make it a point to find movies that can augment lessons wherever I can.  Yet it is difficult to sort out the gold from the garbage.  You don’t want to spread Hollywood lies, but  history can often grind at a snails pace without special effects and a Hans Zimmer score.

Recently, I tied the Civil War to our local communities by spending a lot of time on the 1863 Draft Riots, the anti-war, anti-draft and anti-black violence that erupted in Manhattan in the week after Gettysburg.  It would have been great to have a movie with this, but my choices were both extremely flawed.  I had Ric Burns’ New York: A Documentary History (1999) which covers the riots very well but in that slow, schmaltzy Burns style that puts kids to sleep.  I also had a real problem piece, Gangs of New York (2002), a disappointing film that has so many flaws too numerous to count, particularly since half a century of Five Points lore is squeezed into a few months in 1863.

I chose the documentary, and my students were not happy.  “Gangs” had a great violent scene about the riots, too.  I really didn’t mind the gratuitous violence.  What I did mind was the ridiculous preparation for a gang fight, where each gang is wearing similar colors and clothes–as if gangsters actually color-coordinated for the occasion.  That whole thing looked like a scene from The Warriors if it took place at Colonial Williamsburg.  So tough, the kids had to learn–and this time, it was boring.

In order to not get caught in a similar situation–and to save my fellow teachers in the neighborhood some grief–here are some flicks to avoid and some that can be used with the right lesson:

MOVIES TO AVOID:

300 (2006) – NEVER use a movie that’s a retread of a comic book about a historical event.  This tasteless, unnecessary farce about the Spartan defense against the Persians at Thermoplyae in 480 BC has as much value as Hannah Montana.  Real Spartans would have made mincemeat of these bozos.  The Persians look like the villians in a Scientology cartoon.  Just thinking about this garbage makes me want to impale someone.

The Patriot (2000) – This one loses out on a number of counts.  The main character, Benjamin Martin, is a composite of three actual guerrilla fighters of the American Revolution, none of them nearly as virtuous as Martin.  The battle scenes, though life-like and action-packed, fall into gratuitous segments that only a self-loathing ultra-Catholic can bestow–like the guy getting his head ripped off by a cannon ball.  And what’s with the pussy-footing around the slavery question?  He’s a planter…in SOUTH CAROLINA…if he had no slaves, I assure you nothing would have gotten done.

Pearl Harbor (2001) – World War II never looked so precious.  Or clean, for that matter.  Yes, the special effects are worth seeing, especially if you have a great home theater system.  But it is yet another rape by the Hollywood establishment.  I’s see, the Japanese are sent home by the determined downtrodden sailor of color who weeps at his captain’s death as if he’s on the plantation.  Throw in a couple of good-looking all-American lads in Hawaiian shirts–both of whom are tipsy for the same gal–and you have the recipe for a massive distortion of the facts.

Gone With The Wind (1939) – Don’t get me wrong, this is a great movie…possibly among the greatest movies.  It was a classic, and continues to be a classic today.  Nonetheless, don’t use GWTW in the classroom as history: the story doesn’t even try to be accurate.  It’s also too long–your kids will be heaving a brick at you after the eleventh “fiddle dee dee” or so, which coincides with Clark Gables umpteenth smirk.

Any Biblical epic from the 1950s and 1960s, including C.B.’s old beauties Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Ten Commandments (1956), William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) and Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961) – Besides treading on the First Amendment, these fun films were not meant to show the ancient world as it was, but rather as Hollywood thought it should be.

MOVIES TO USE:

Gettysburg (1993) – Perfectly suited for a classroom.  The film uses actual Civil War reenactors that are fastidious in their accuracy.  The violence is of the PG kind, which makes it classroom-suitable without being wuss-like.  Finally, who can find a better hero for kids than Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain charging his 20th Maine down Little Round Top?  It still makes me cry.

Glory (1989) – Another Civil War classic, Glory is a great film both because of its action and its unflinching honesty about racism on both sides of the war.  The whole film is really a ball of tensions and antagonisms that culminate in one brave futile charge on Fort Wagner, South Carolina.  Two talking points for the class–the relationship between the northern Boston black man and Denzel Washington’s runaway, as well as the Irish drill sergeant (“Oh look at this, Bonnie Prince Charlie! Are you a gentleman? Are you a member of Congress or something? Or are you the bloody Prince of Africa?”). He’s still a riot.

John Adams (2008) – This sweeping HBO miniseries is somewhat uneven, but the defining moments of this series are its first two episodes, which deal with the period from the Boston Massacre to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.  Get the students to focus on the Preston trial, the trial of the soldiers involved in the massacre.  It opens up great discussions about justice, fairness, the use of violence, etc.

Gandhi (1982) – This is a film as big as India itself, and often as complicated.  Be VERY careful when using this movie, and be selective in the scenes you show–don’t worry, there’s lots of good material to choose from.  Definitely use the Amritsar massacre of 1919, as well as Gandhi’s march to the sea to make salt.  When it comes to more modern subjects, the authenticity of the background, costumes, etc. is not the issue, but rather the events themselves.  The scene where the Muslim and Hindu refugees get into a melee across the border is one example of this.  The film works because it sets a mood, a tone, that reflects the important events of the period.

The Right Stuff (1983) – This is similar to Gandhi in that it works best as setting a tone for an era–in this case, the beginnings of the space race in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Although it is long, the film is worth seeing, especially if you tie science lessons on space, rocketry, aerodynamics.  I would see this film in two shifts: focus first on the early jet pilots and test pilots after World War II, then look at the Mercury astronauts.  Note similarities and differences between them, especially their media attention.

This list is by no means exhaustive, so any other suggestions and comments are welcome.  At the very least, you can kill time on a Friday when actual work is the last thing on your mind.

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The Jesus Problem: How to teach about “you-know-who”

“Religion is a great force: the only real motive force in the world; but what you fellows don’t understand is that you must get at a man through his own religion and not through yours.” – George Bernard Shaw

I was discussing with another teacher about the projects her students were doing.  For their exit project, her students were doing biographies of people that were a force for changing history–an admirable topic, to be sure.  Many chose typical but important people, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and the like.  Some were less than serious.  I’m still at a loss as to how Chris Brown was a shaper of history–he certainly re-shaped Rihanna’s face, the bum.

Yet one girl strived to outdo all the others, picking the one guy that everyone can either love or hate, the one dude that probably caused both the most joy and the most misery in the Western world.  Yeshua Bin-Yusuf, or to us non-Aramaic speakers, Jesus of Nazareth.  Yeah, that guy.

This girl had recently been taking catechism classes for her confirmation, so I can understand her enthusiasm for Jesus.  The miracles, the stories he told, his way with crowds–how can you not love the guy.  Then came the following: “Did you know that Jesus had a wife?”  Apparently, either Dan Brown was teaching her catechism class or she caught a late viewing of The DaVinci Code on her TV.  In fact, it was a Discovery Channel special that piqued her interest.

She then became confused when she cross-referenced some of the particulars of our cultural tradition with the Bible.  Where do they mention Christmas?  Why is there no date?  What about Easter?  How come it doesn’t say to not eat meat on a Friday?  Granted, this was an 11 year old girl, so she had every right to be confused…and excited.  She couldn’t wait to get started.

I have deep reservations about this.  I don’t want to crush her enthusiasm, but Jesus is a complex guy to cover in a public school.  The line between reporting and prostyletizing is razor thin.  Plus, there’s that pesky First Amendment to worry about…oh, this would all be much easier if we were all Puritans feeling guilty about whistling on the Sabbath.  There are a number of non-Christians in the school, and their parents would be none too pleased about Big J crashing the secular party.

On top of all that, Jesus is both “too big” a topic with “too small” a base of source material.  Can anyone really describe Jesus’ impact on our world in one book, let alone a sheet of paper?  His teachings formed the basis, both good and bad, of Western civilization as we know it.  More people died in his name than anyone else.  His followers number in the billions, and even they can’t agree on who gets the big guy’s seal of approval–the Catholics were first on the block, but the Lutherans and Calvinists thought the Papists “got soft” and claimed they were his true representatives.  This has morphed into denominations too varied and numerous to count.  Even the Mormons claim the guy, although I wonder if they got their dogma from the Bible or from Joseph Smith smoking too many bricks of opium in his hookah.

If we were to study Jesus as a historical figure, which he is, there is a grand total of one, count ’em, one secular research source that is even close to Jesus’ time period. The author wasn’t exactly unbiased, either.  Yosef Ben-Matityahu was a military leader in the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 AD against the Roman Empire.  He was cornered in a cave, and convinced his fellow rebels they should draw lots to kill each other since suicide was a Jewish no-no.  Somehow, he was the last one standing (surprise, surprise) and nonchalantly bargained for his life with his Roman conquerors, who then took him to Rome and gave him the Emperor’s Package (and not the Ceasers Palace kind, either).  Now re-christened Flavius Josephus, he proceeded to write two of the most important historical texts of the period: The Jewish War (75 AD) and The Antiquities of the Jews (94).  Jesus is mentioned in the first work, as well as his early followers.  However, remember that this is a guy that went to war with the Romans, was captured by the Romans, had his life spared, and was granted Roman citizenship with a pension.  Josephus was not going to crap where he ate, so don’t count on a completely fair view of Jesus (“And so he was crucified, but he probably had it coming.  A guy like that is just asking for it.”)

Historical research in education, particularly for students, has centered more and more on the use of primary source materials.  This is great for U.S. history, for World War II and the civil rights movement, but ancient history is a lot trickier.  The Bible is no help; most of it was written well after the fact, and all the Evangelists had an agenda: some wanted to tell the straight story, some wanted to brown-nose the Man Upstairs (Apostle John, I’m looking in your direction).  Roman records only have a notation that someone named Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem somewhere between 26-33 AD.  And we see how Josephus has his problems.  Furthermore, with the texts of Jesus’ life heavily censored by church authorities to show him in all his awesomeness, the bits about his “failings” (if any…did the thunderbolt come down yet?) were safely discarded.  Nobody needed to know that at the wedding at Cana, Jesus could only create white Zinfandel, which most Jews found pedestrian at the time.  Nor was it helpful to have the eyewitness accounts of the Romans who attended to his death (“He just wouldn’t stop squirming.”).

Finally, I think I would recommend that my student should choose a more modern person with a more limited scope of greatness.  Jesus taught the world that all human beings had value.  It’s a gigantic concept, one that an adult has trouble understanding, let alone an 11 year old.  For all her enthusiasm and drive, I think its best to leave Jesus to the biblical scholars and archaeologists.  Instead, maybe she should pick a person that will incur Jesus’ wrath.  Like Hitler, Stalin, or Bernie Madoff.  That way, at least she’s clear about his message.

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