Tag Archives: New York Times

This Day in History 4/6: Matthew Henson and Robert Peary Reach the North Pole…in THAT order

Matthew Henson, American explorer.

Matthew Henson, American explorer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For years, we have attempted to correct a myth held in many classrooms.

Textbooks, history books and the like have propogated the myth that on April 6, 1909, Commander Robert Peary was the first man to reach the North Pole.

He wasn’t.  His colleague–a master of sled dogs, Arctic travel and Inuit languages whom Peary considered a mere servant–got there first.

His name was Matthew Henson.  He was black–which made for an incovenient truth in the racist United States of the turn of the century.

Henson was a skilled sailor and navigator and had joined Peary on numerous expeditions since 1887.  On Peary’s eighth attempt at the pole in 1909, Henson was selected as one of six who would make the final push to the pole.

By the finish, Peary could not continue on foot, either due to frostbite or exhaustion.  Henson was sent ahead as a scout.  On April 6, he made the final run–a run so hard by the time he got his bearings, Henson had overshot the pole by a couple of miles.  Here’s what Henson said in a newspaper interview:

“I was in the lead that had overshot the mark a couple of miles. We went back then and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot.”

When he backtracked to the spot he crossed, Henson realized he reached the pole.  He planted the American flag as the rest of the team, including Peary, followed.

Peary, the white naval commander, received numerous honors for the expedition.  Yet the man who actually accomplished the goal worked in obscurity as a clerk in the federal customs house in New York City, only receiving recognition near his death in 1955.

Below are some links to find out more about this great African American explorer:

 

 

 

Henson’s 1912 book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole – via Project Gutenberg

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Teachers are too valuable to be “Fair Game”: A Response to David Brooks

Cover of the Atlantic's 2010 "Ideas" Issue, from http://www.theatlantic.com

“Fair game – noun. Open to legitimate pursuit, attack or ridicule.” – Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictonary

In 18th Century England, animals that were legal to hunt, either with shotgun or pack of rabid dogs, were considered “fair game.”

In the frontier wilderness of northern New York, American rangers harassed John Burgoyne’s British army by doing the unthinkable—hunting officers as if they were animals, or “fair game.”

In 1917, the German navy declared open season on all Atlantic shipping.  Unarmed ocean liners and cargo ships were considered “fair game.”

So in the 21st Century, according to David Brooks, author, New York Times columnist and contributor to the Atlantic, teachers are also to be subject to the hunting dogs and shotguns, as we are now “fair game.”

The recent “Ideas” edition of the Atlantic had an interesting—albeit provocative—piece by Brooks, a liberal-turned-conservative who has recently joined the education reform crusade.  He has penned column after column of Times opinions lambasting teacher unions, exalting charter schools and school choice, and glorifying the current trend towards “data-driven” instruction.

To wit, Brooks breaks no real new ground in his article “Teachers are Fair Game.” He also says little that is new in terms of the changing reaction to teacher unions: anti-union bias has usually stood ascendant in times of economic distress i.e. the 1930s, and the immediate postwar recession.

Yet what sets this piece apart is its tone: not of someone willing to work with others, but that of a hunter stalking its prey.

That prey is us.  We are that game.

His arguments are hardly original: improving teacher quality, the cessation of tenure and other teacher protections and the perceived intransigence of the education establishment.  That establishment, according to Brooks,

“is both softhearted and hardheaded.  They put big emphasis on the teaching relationship, but are absolutely Patton-esque [interesting adjective there] when it comes to dismantling anything that interferes with that relationship…union rules that protect bad and mediocre teachers, teacher contracts that prevent us from determining which educators are good and which need help, and state and federal alws that either impede reform or dump money into the ancien regime.”

Yet Brooks errs on two huge factors.  First, he sees the unions in it of themselves as a problem, without leaving any opening for those union leaders willing to work with administrators to find real solutions.  This is where Brooks the rabid union-hunter aims for his kill.  He remarks with unrestrained glee about the shift in opinion amongst the media and political leaders against perceived union abuses.  “The unions feel the sand eroding under their feet.”  Brooks states. “They sense their lack of legitimacy, especially within the media and the political class.  They still fight to preserve their interest but they’ve lost their moral authority…”

Tally ho! Let's hunt an algebra teacher, boys!

Moral authority?  The authority a union has is to its membership, and the use of morality has all too often been used by administrators to abuse and harass such members.  It does education reformers absolutely no good to attack a union per se.  Unions are here, and unions will stay into the foreseeable future.  Even the vaunted charter schools have unionized to some extent, by consent of their faculty.

There is room for reforms that benefit instruction, and there are unions and union leaders who are willing to work together with school districts to reform education.  Putting unions in a corner with attacks, however, is not only fruitless, but counterproductive.  By placing unions on the defensive, without reaching out an olive branch of cooperation, nothing will get done.  Cooperation will get results: not all the results you want, but that is life.  Something is better than nothing.

Brook’s second error involves his argument about teacher quality.  He correctly states that a core issue of education is the relationship between teacher and student.  Like Brooks, I too have issues with teacher quality, particularly in teacher training.  In a post last year, I lamented the ease with which I earned my masters degree in education, stating that for teachers to gain respect their education should be of a competitive caliber.  My guess is Brooks and I are in full agreement on this.

Yet his solution involves more than just tweaking graduate education.  As if he released a pack of rabid lions on Christian martyrs, Brooks exalts that “aided by the realization that teacher quality is what matters most, a new cadre of reformers have come to the scene, many of them bred within the ranks of Teach for America [oh brother].  These are stubborn, data-driven types with a low tolerance for bullshit.”

I will not rehash my feelings on Teach for America, the institution.  Let’s just say it’s less than positive.

That last sentence, however, bears the obvious taint of hypocrisy.  “Data-driven” types with a “low tolerance for bullshit.”  In the past few years, I have been knee-deep in the use of standardized tests to guide instruction.  You can even say I’m the poster boy for “data-driven” instruction.

In my experience, the entire exercise of using data, as it is now, is bullshit.

If you look at standard assessments and practice assessments in many school districts, you may see a disturbing pattern.  The state exams tend to be much easier than the practice tests.  The practice tests, for the most part, exhibit an eerie upward trajectory in scores as test time gets closer.

A more naïve soul, an earnest “no-bullshit” TFA-er, for example, would see this as proof of instruction driven by data from the previous assessment, thus an upward sloping path.

Your veteran teacher, however, isn’t fooled so easily.  When a rookie teacher sees achievement, a veteran sees manipulation.  What is to stop states, school districts—and the test-prep companies in their pocket—to engineer a series of tests so that it seems that students are doing better?

The federal contest for Race to the Top funds doesn’t help in this regard at all.  In fact, it allows for more manipulation and outright fraud in student data than ever before.  Because of the need for increased test scores, school districts are more open to the temptation of test-rigging—with the often-tacit approval of state education departments.  After all, doesn’t everyone win in this scenario: teachers “look good,” administrators “look good,” feds see that the kids are “doing better” and reward states that “sustain student achievement”?

The students don’t win: not by a long shot.  Sometimes when I assess them, their scores fall, often far below other previous tests.  This is natural: new material and new concepts often make this happen, as well as normal student jitters about tests.  To me, it does the student little use to give them a false sense of achievement.  They may have stumbled, but at least I can get an authentic view of what they know and don’t know—at least as authentic as possible using a test.

What does Brooks really want?  “No-bullshit” types that really use data in a fruitful way, regardless of the results?  Or does he want teachers that make sure students do “well” on tests at all costs?  Higher education, for example, is only “data-driven” in the case of admissions: the SAT and AP scores, etc.  Colleges and universities require thinking, reasoning, and research skills that often cannot be quantified.

If students are only taught “to tests”, doesn’t this give them a disadvantage in higher education?  Do education “reformers” really even care about disadvantaged students if their methods effectively bar them from higher education, leaving it to better prepared, richer and “whiter” students?

[Oh dear, did I let the cat out of the bag?  Did it slip out that the current craze of education reform is simply a ruse to create a permanent underclass that is educated just enough to show that disadvantaged students “can learn” and “make academic progress.” Aren’t these “data driven” students still woefully ill-prepared for much-needed college and university education?…that’s for another post.]

Brooks may have the best of intentions, but his methods and ideologies do nothing but entrench established interests on both sides.  The TFA, data-driven method is flawed—in some cases dreadfully so.  Attacking unions as the ultimate problem alienates and immobilizes those teachers (like me) who still feel educational reform can still happen with a strong union and administration in partnership.

Lastly, what better way to make teachers—among the hardest working Americans out there—feel like subhuman carrion than by labeling them as prey for the hunters.  If Mr. Brooks wants to play that game, here’s my announcement for my fellow teachers:

Those TFA “data-driven” types with a “low tolerance for bullshit”?  They’re “fair game.”  Unleash the hounds.

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This Day in History 12/21: The Birth of the Crossword Puzzle

If you’ve ever thrown down a pencil at frustration at the New York Times, today’s post is right up your alley.

Today we celebrate the birthday of the crossword puzzle, that criss-cross table of craziness and insanity that has distracted commuters and early risers at Sunday breakfast for decades.  There are two stories to the birth of this puzzle: the first involves an Italian magazine in 1890.  The Italian puzzle had a grid with no diagram i.e. no black squares, so it’s a puzzle, but not really a crossword.

The modern puzzle began on December 21, 1913. when Arthur Wynne, a journalist from Liverpool, Scotland, created a puzzle for the New York World called a “word-cross”.  The names were reversed and a legend was born.

Yet the crossword was not without its critics.  It exploded in the 1920s, and many conservative pundits viewed it as a sign of the loose morals of the period–a passing fad.   According to a 1924 New York Times article, a clergyman called the working of crossword puzzles “the mark of a childish mentality” and said “There is no use for persons to pretend that working one of the puzzles carries any intellectual value with it.”  Some thought the craze would end with the decade. 

Even the New York Times itself, which would become famous for its crossword, was a critic.    In 1924, the Times complained of the “sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex. This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport… [solvers] get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development.”

Funny how the Times would start a crossword itself by 1942, and would be the most well-known of puzzles in America and the world, along with the Times of London’s puzzle.

Almost every daily newspaper, including web editions, has some form of the crossword puzzle.  Many, like Will Shortz’ acclaimed Times puzzles, become progressively harder each day of the week, so that by Saturday you just look at it and whimper like a small child about to get paddled.  Crosswords are also a great way for students to stimulate vocabulary–by using common definitions or clues for complex words, students can build their word power and make new connections in their brain, allowing them greater cognitive function.

Here are some websites to some more crosswords fun at home or in the classroom:

Puzzles from USA Today, including Crosswords – okay, so its USA Today; we’re not dealing with the varsity.  Still it’s good practice.

Washington Post Crosswords – these kept me going in college, and are pretty good.  They hold up well to the NYT standard.

Yahoo! Daily Crossword – great to pass the time.

Crossword Puzzles – This one is a great clearinghouse for US and UK crosswords.

New York Times Crossword – The one by which all are measured.  It’s a pay site, so getting the print edition may be cheaper (maybe not).  The ultimate in crossword practice.

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Standards Revisited – A Response to E.D. Hirsch’s recent New York Times article

Given my political leanings, I am usually not a fan of the New York Times.  Sometimes the very mention of its name would give me bloodshot eyes and a thirst to torch a coffeehouse.

Yet today is an exception.  E.D. Hirsch, former teacher and now professor emeritus of education at the University of Virginia, wrote an article in today’s New York Times advocating that the much-maligned standardized tests for reading comprehension be revised to include content necessary for a well-rounded education for the grade.  While I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Hirsch in the need for integrating content into literacy studies, there may be problems with children as they grow older, especially with new experiences.

Dr. Hirsch has been a pioneer in education since the 1970’s, when he introduced the concept of cultural literacy.  Unlike many conventional theories about reading, which stress sets of skills and strategies irrespective of the reading material, Hirsch believed that true comprehension can only be achieved through a combination of reading skills and, at least, a cursory background knowledge of the subject being read.  His Core Knowledge Foundation was founded to establish basic baskets of factual knowledge necessary for each grade level.  His work has been controversial in that he has often attacked more modern, ethereal educational methods that promote “critical thinking” in favor of a more rote, conservative teaching style.

In the Times article, Hirsch states that “The problem is that the reading passages used in these tests are random. They are not aligned with explicit grade-by-grade content standards. Children are asked to read and then answer multiple-choice questions about such topics as taking a hike in the Appalachians even though they’ve never left the sidewalks of New York, nor studied the Appalachians in school.” Not only does this hinder growth in reading, according to Hirsch, but will also affect their achievement in content areas later in their schooling.

To that end, Hirsch posits a simple strategy: “If the reading passages on each test were culled from each grade’s specific curricular content in literature, science, history, geography and the arts, the tests would exhibit what researchers call ‘consequential validity’ — meaning that the tests would actually help improve education. Test preparation would focus on the content of the tests, rather than continue the fruitless attempt to teach test taking.” Thus, an integrated curriculum would require standardized testing to be similarly integrated.

Hirsch is not alone in this thinking. In T.J. Willingham’s recent book Why Don’t Kids Like School?, he notes that critical thinking and problem solving cannot take place without factual knowledge.  According to Willingham, “Most people believe that thinking processes are akin to those of a calculator.  A calculator has a set of procedures available that can manipulate numbers, and those procedures can be applied to any set of numbers…The human mind does not work that way…the critical thinking processes are tied to the background knowledge.”

Hirsch does make an excellent point about testing: we are often wasting time with fruitless strategies when the test material is so random that true effective data is hard to retrieve from year to year.  It is important, therefore, that students have a base of knowledge that can be used as a springboard for understanding.  I see this in my own students.  I have had teachers and adminsitrators comment that my social studies instruction is often too slow and methodical–not necessarily aligned with Teachers College’s precious “Workshop Model”, a study in wasting time that is exalted to the point of orthodoxy.  My response is that you cannot often have group work when it comes to memorizing or understanding events and names and dates–I have to do the boring stuff before I can even begin to have students think critically.

It is frustrating when I see teachers ask children to give opinions on subjects when they haven’t the slightest clue what is going on.  It isn’t the kid’s fault–he/she was not prepared to think.  You have to give the brain something to think about before it can start working its magic.

However, I differ with Hirsch in his view of each grade having a basket of knowledge that is necessary for a well-rounded education.  Establishment of such a standard can either be too specific or too broad.  If, for example, a student acquires a very local body of knowledge, it will limit him/her in their future opportunities if that student chooses to see the wider world outside of the home community.  If that basket of knowledge is too wide, then he/she may miss out on detailed, focused content in areas that interest the student.  Thus, the establishment of content standards leads to inevitable questions of who sets curricula, who decides the standards, and whether or not these standards are useful to all children or just in that locality.

Finally,  I see critical thinking as a vital component that must be used with content knowledge.  It is important to have children gain a well-rounded base of knowledge, as Hirsch explains, but it is equally important for children to have ownership of that knowledge.  That ownership comes right after comprehension, as students begin to dissect and question the knowledge they have learned. If we are to create a class of independent thinkers and actors in our society, it is vital that we hone their thinking in tandem with expanding their content knowledge.

The Founding Fathers did not help to create this nation simply by knowing about Locke, Hume, Aristotle and other philosophers.  They used that knowledge to frame new arguments for concepts like liberty, democracy and government.  I agree that our children have a weak body of knowledge.  However, using a weak vessel for learning–the standardized test–as  a way to enhance that knowledge does not create a nation of thinkers.  It creates a nation of test taking trivia buffs.

America needs more than just a nation of professional test takers.

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