Tag Archives: New York

A Lesson on WWII Primary Sources; or, how eBay Finds some Educational Value

New websites are like new toys.

We can’t seem to find enough ways to play with them until they either break or get discarded for the next big thing.

In the early 2000s, eBay was my new toy—and a purchase from those early days found an unusual role in my classroom.

One day, while I had some down time at my office, I puttered around eBay looking for whatever crap struck my fancy.  In those days, it was THE place to find hard-to-find knickknacks, doodads, and whatnot—a veritable treasure chest.

I didn’t find treasure, but I did find a map.

For some odd reason, I needed an old map to frame for my den (even though I lacked a den, a yacht, and Sperry Top-sider footwear).  Though there were plenty of old maps of Maine, Bermuda, Aruba and other preppy hangouts, but I was drawn to a 1940s WPA map of New York City given to servicemen during World War II.

Never mind that it was folded, wrinkly, yellowed and with a funny double-print font that’s hard to read; I needed it for $20.

Let’s say I really didn’t need it.  This relic of wartime Gotham sat in my desk for a decade.

A few months ago, one of my fifth grade classes was wrapping up their unit on US History.  World War II seemed as good a finish as any.  A half-decade of Call of Duty games certainly prepared them with enough content knowledge to teach a military history class at West Point.

To end the unit, I decided to whip out this old relic of a map.  It couldn’t be mounted on a wall, since it was double-sided.  Nonetheless, I made copies of it and gave it to the class.  They examined the map, automatically finding the places they recognize (it’s easy since all the sports stadiums use a ballpark icon).

To really analyze the map, I split the class into groups.  One group made a top-10 list of places a soldier would visit on leave.  Another planned out a 24-hour day for a soldier, detailing where he would visit and for how long.  Still another group came up with places that weren’t on the map.

Some of the responses were downright hilarious.

The top-10 list included places like the George Washington Bridge and the YMCA.  One group gave a soldier five minutes to get from the Statue of Liberty to Harlem.  The  list of places not listed on the map ranged from pizza places to bars to…strip clubs and “love motels” (which we decided to lump into the generic term of “adult establishments.”)

The results, though, were some pretty damn good essays.  They covered about not only about what soldiers did on their free time in New York, but also prevailing attitudes about how soldiers were supposed to behave i.e., the lack of “adult establishments.”

All from an impulse buy on eBay so many years ago.

Here is the link to WWII Lesson Plan.  It includes worksheets and graphic organizers.  Try it out in your own classroom.

This is the  Essay Planning Page for the culminating project.

Here’s also a PDF of the WPA New York City Map for Servicemen that goes with it.

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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.

 

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The NEW AND IMPROVED South Street Seaport Museum

Entrance to the South Street Seaport Museum

Rarely am I impressed at any institution that plies me with food and alcohol.

This Tuesday, however, was a rare exception.

It may have been the salmon wraps…the booze…the gentle rolls of the floorboards (more on that later)…or a combination of the three. In any case, the new and improved South Street Seaport Museum is definitely worth a visit—both by your class and on your own.

“New and Improved?” you may ask. “But Mr. D, didn’t you toot SSSM’s horn way back when covering places for field trips?”

Well, things have changed since our last jaunt down to the waterfront.

Built in 1967 in an early 19th century building with musty smells and buckling floorboards (the floors alone gave you seasickness), the South Street Seaport Museum has been, at least in museum terms, something of a Mom-and-Pop operation. It focused mainly on maritime history and New York’s seaport life, and its one dank floor of exhibits brought mostly seafaring enthusiasts and wandering tourists enjoying a summer day at the corner of Fulton and South Streets.

Like the proverbial working girl on the docks, this museum has had a hard life. Apart from the odd school field trip, SSSM’s fairly seasonal clientele could not sustain the place financially. By last year, the museum was in so much debt that a third of the board resigned and half the staff were let go. When the New York Times uses the word “beleaguered” multiple times in describing its status, it can’t be good.

Enter the Museum of the City of New York.

MCNY has risen in recent decades to become one of the preeminent cultural institutions in New York. In my mind, no other museum connects with historians, educators, students, tourists and casual observers quite like it. So it made perfect sense that MCNY took over operations at South Street in the fall of 2011.

The folks uptown gave SSSM the royal treatment, taking charge of the building as well as the fleet of aging schooners, tugboats and barques sitting in the East River. Upon arrival on Tuesday for an Educator Open House (the free food and booze sealed the deal), I was floored at the finished product.

A one-floor dankhole has been expanded to three floors chock-full of exhibits and classroom space. Sixteen galleries now highlight different aspects of the city and the waterfront through a combination of artifacts, photographs, video and multimedia exhibits.

(By the way, the floorboards still buckle—it is an 1812 building after all.)

Some highlights include old Seaport favorites like model ships, old tools and seafaring paraphernalia that survived the overhaul. Other additions include an impressive photo exhibit of the Occupy Wall Street movement, exhibits covering products made in New York, and the highlights of MCNY’s Manahatta exhibit (it’s great that the light-up interactive map of Manhattan made its way downtown).

For school groups, MCNY installed two spacious classroom spaces, with plenty of primary artifacts, text sources and activities that connect students to New York’s maritime past. Furthermore, a number of school programs are available, including a New Amsterdam Walking Tour that used to be offered up at MCNY—guess it just makes more sense to base it here.

Finally, never fear…the Pioneer is still there! I had the pleasure of sailing on this 1885 schooner around New York harbor and even help hoist one of the sails (it inadvertently got me into a short sailing craze which future Mrs. D regrets). The old rust bucket is still there, and still available for tours of the harbor, focusing on history, ecology, commerce and navigation.

Yet all is not well on Schermerhorn Row.

The MCNY experiment is brief, and there is a real danger that the South Street Seaport Museum may not survive once its on its own again. They really need membership (there’s those financial problems again) and a steady stream of visitors to keep the place afloat.

Like it or not, New York’s history is tied intrinsically to the waterfront. We’re blessed not only to have a historic district like South Street, but also a museum that showcases New York’s deep connection to the sea. As commercial and crass as it is, the South Street Seaport offers the only glimpse of what New York looked like before the age of skyscrapers and subways, and the South Street Seaport Museum provides an important educational service in connecting New York’s past and present.

Make sure you give South Street a look, and not just during good weather. Bundle up and get your butt over to Fulton Street—either on your own, or with your class. If you can contribute to becoming a member, great…but come down even if you can’t.

And as always, since we crave attention as much as the aforementioned harbor chick, do tell them the Neighborhood sent you.

South Street Seaport Museum (phone # 212-748-8600) is located at 12 Fulton St., between Water St. and South St.

Take the 2,3, 4, 5, A, C, J,M or Z to Fulton Street Station, then walk down Fulton Street until you see the tall ships. It’s the marine-colored entrance on the right-hand side.

 

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Where Does Journalism End…and Bullying Begin? Teacher Data Reports and the Media

العربية: صورة التطقت عام 2008 لمقر إدارة تعليم...

Tweed Courthouse, headquarters of the NYC Department of Education. Image via Wikipedia

On November 16, 1801, a group of New York politicians led by Alexander Hamilton began a political broadsheet that would eventually become one of the most influential publications in the metro area.

Recently, it decided to cease being a newspaper…and become a tool of propaganda instead.

On Friday, February 24, after a lengthy court battle, the New York City Department of Education was forced to comply with a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request filed by the New York Post, the aforementioned tabloid founded over 210 years ago.  The DOE released the infamous Teacher Data Reports (TDRs)—the rankings of supposed teacher effectiveness based on standardized test scores in English Language Arts and mathematics.

In the days that followed, each of the city’s major media outlets released the teacher scores (with names attached) in varying formats.  Some ranked teachers from highest to lowest percentile.  Others released searchable databases by district, borough and school.  Still others, such as the New York Times, published the data with lengthy addenda explaining that the scores shouldn’t be used to rate or rank teachers, since it was a single indicator based on outdated, faulty data with a ridiculously wide margin of error.

(These explanations, by the way, were provided by the DOE itself, along with a recommendation that the media treat the data fairly as it was intended.)

However, the New York Post, the paper that initiated the FOIL request, didn’t stop at a mere spreadsheet of names and numbers.

After releasing its own version of the teacher data—with language so editorialized it hardly passed as hard news—the Post released a story about the alleged parent uproar over a Queens teacher who received the lowest scores in the city.

The story’s lead paragraph read: “The city’s worst teacher has parents at her Queens school looking for a different classroom for their children.”

In that one sentence, the Post lost the last vestige of journalistic integrity.

The controversy over the TDRs embroils teachers, administrators, parents and political leaders.  The arguments range from the valid to the ludicrous.

The data was flawed. 

It’s impossible to rate teachers based on only one indicator in each subject.

The data doesn’t take into account the myriad of extenuating circumstances.

The DOE secretly wanted the scores released. 

The DOE supposedly encouraged media outlets in their FOIL requests and even expedited the process. 

The DOE got into a devil’s compact with the UFT leadership, the mayor, Fox News, the Republican Party, the Tea Party, the Freemasons, Jesuits, the Vatican, the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderburg Group to publicly tear out the entrails of “ineffective” teachers…

(Okay, that last one was far-fetched—but you get the point.)

The actual release of the data is a moot point.  Until a new law or federal court ruling decides otherwise, the scores are out, and will probably be released again in the future (even if the DOE itself stopped collecting such scores).

The real issue, one that has an even farther-reaching implication than the classroom, is how media outlets use that data.  While it is true that the First Amendment gives newspapers quite a bit of leeway, there are definite boundaries that journalists cannot cross.

When a newspaper publishes a story based on a flawed, incorrect and unsubstantiated source, it crosses that boundary.

When a newspaper uses false data to publicly shame an individual, it is not only unethical.  It is slanderous.

The inaccuracy of the TDRs was acknowledged by teachers, administrators, and even the DOE itself.  All parties agreed that the data was imperfect.  What’s more, the data has such a wide margin of error that any percentile derived from it is akin to throwing a dart at a dartboard blindfolded.

Thus, the TDRs are a flawed, inaccurate, and therefore non-credible source—by open admission from the powers that be.

The papers can print the data, as long as their stories about them have multiple sources discussing the data.  So far, all the newspapers covered this base (in the Post’s case, just barely.)

Yet the labeling of teachers in superlatives, as “best” or “worst”, based on TDR data does not pass the journalistic smell test.  Along the same vein as the Queens teacher’s article, the Post also published a piece about teachers with the highest percentiles.  The following was the lead to the story:

“The city’s top-performing teachers have one thing in common: They’re almost all women.”

Not only does this statement say absolutely nothing (considering the vast majority of teachers in the city are women anyway), but it makes a dangerous classification—the same kind of classifying that drove that Queens teacher to a virtual lynch mob by ill-informed parents.

When news stories throw around a value judgment based on one singular measure—a measure that is so ridiculously flawed even its authors disavow it—the journalists behind these stories used what amounts to false, unsubstantiated information. 

It is, in effect, mocking (or exalting) people based on a probable lie.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is the textbook example of slander and libel.

The New York Post’s editorial pages have attacked teachers’ union and teachers for years now.  Yet this frenzied hatred never hit the news headlines as hard as it did this weekend. 

They have used unsubstantiated, inaccurate data to shame teachers, using the unfortunate quotes of ill-informed parents in the process as they whip up support for their negativity.

Worst of all, they have the gall to couch this journalistic lynching as hard news.

The New York Post should stop calling itself a newspaper.  It is now no better than a common propaganda pamphlet that panders to the lowest common denominator.  At times I even agreed with the Post politically—but their tactics disgust me.

Finally, for those whose reputations have been ruined by this pseudo-journalism, there is a weapon far more powerful than any ordnance.  It usually has a suit, a briefcase, and an avalanche of legal motions.

See you in court, Rupert.

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Good News for New York State Social Studies Tests

English: New York State Education Department o...

Image via Wikipedia

In the last few years, social studies has taken a huge hit in states across America.

So any glimmer of hope–no matter how faint–is worth celebrating.

In late October, the New York State Education Department released a Notice of Intent informing testing companies and providers that the NYSED will be issuing a request for proposals for upcoming science tests in grades 4, 6 and 8 as well as a resurrected state social studies test in grades 6-8.  According to the statement, the tests will be developed in the spring or summer of 2012, with field tests ready for 2013.  The entire system is targeted for launch for the 2013-2014 school year.

A big kudos to New York’s Education Commissioner John King for addressing a major injustice done in 2010 for budgetary reasons.  As followers of the Neighborhood are aware, the fifth and eighth grade social studies tests were suspended in 2010 due to financial constraints.  When I wrote to then-Senior Deputy Commissioner King, he informed me there was no set timetable for these tests to return.

Although it is an initial step, this request for proposals is a definite step in the right direction.

Best of luck to Dr. King and the folks at Albany in creating authentic, rigorous assessments for middle schoolers in science and social studies.  Hopefully, this will lead to an eventual re-instatement of an elementary level social studies test which is absolutely necessary.

That, however, remains for another day.

 

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This Day in History 11/28: The Birth of Lord—or Lady—Cornbury

Lord Cornbury

Painting of a woman alleged to be Lord Cornbury. New-York Historical Society. Image via Wikipedia

History is primarily the business of debunking popular myths.

Yet some myths are so scandalous, so outrageous and so off-the-wall that you sincerely wish they were true—even if you know they’re probably not.

Such is the case with Edward Hyde, 3rd Earl of Clarendon, Viscount Cornbury. Historians know Lord Cornbury as among the worst colonial governors in American history. According to 19th century historian George Bancroft, Cornbury illustrated the worst form of the English aristocracy’s “arrogance, joined to intellectual imbecility”.

Yet his popular reputation rests in a painting.

In the New-York Historical Society hangs a painting of a woman. She is a rather ugly woman wearing a nice blue period dress…and a distinct five-o’clock shadow. For many years, this painting, which is unsigned and unattributed, was believed to be Lord Cornbury himself, sparking the popular myth that he was America’s first transvestite political leader.

Yet looking back, the claim of cross-dressing just doesn’t add up.

To be fair, the transvestitism isn’t what made Cornbury such a dickhead. Apparently his whole life was an exercise in profligate douchebaggery. During an unremarkable spell as a Tory member of Parliament, Cornbury served as a Page of Honour during James II’s coronation. Yet when William and Mary came ashore in 1688, Cornbury was one of the first officers to dump James off—and take a massive load of soldiers with him.

His later career only gets worse. As governor of New York and New Jersey from 1701 to 1708, he earned a foul reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. He favored Anglican churches with vast amounts of real estate, in open defiance of New York’s longstanding religious toleration. £1500 meant for the defense of New York harbor suddenly went missing. Bribes and corrupt payoffs became commonplace. His critics described him as a “fop”, a “wastrel” a “degenerate” and a “pervert.”

Even the little lady at home got in the act. According to Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace in their work Gotham, Cornbury ‘s wife was known as a petty thief, swiping clothes and jewels from New York society ladies: “the sound of her carriage at the door, people said, was a warning to hide anything of value.”

The British didn’t much care for him, either. After his removal in 1708, Cornbury landed in debtor’s prison, where he received the not so welcome news that his father died and he would be the new Lord Clarendon. The title came with some serious money. It allowed him to get out of jail and pay his debts only to piss his fortune away again with the creditors knocking a second time. He finally dies alone and in debt in 1723, to be buried in Westminster Abbey (in what kinds of clothes I’m not sure.)

Yet the story of the cross-dressing governor persists. It has taken on a life of its own: Ric Burns’ documentary on New York states Cornbury’s sartorial transgressions almost as fact. I’ve even heard teachers showing the aforementioned painting as an actual portrait of Cornbury.

Yet as fun as the story is, the historian in me thinks the evidence to support it is not only thin, but woefully one-sided. Patricia Bonomi, Professor emeriti of history at New York University, agrees.

In 1998, Bonomi wrote The Lord Cornbury Scandal: The Politics of Reputation in British America, among the few scholarly works addressing Cornbury’s tenure as New York’s governor. In this work, she debunks the transvestite myth as a rumor started by his colonial opponents in New York.

First, transvestitism was, according to Bonomi, considered a heinous act in the 18th century. The painting purported to be Cornbury would probably not have been him, since such a public display was usually meted out by political cartoons and the like. It would be almost as if a pedophile sat with his/her victim for a portrait at Sears: ballsy, obscene, irrational…but probably unlikely.

Second, the evidence of the cross-dressing comes from four letters dated 1707-1709, all from three colonists bent on removing Cornbury from office. According to the letters, Cornbury opened the 1702 New York Assembly in an elaborate gown reminiscent of Queen Anne, claiming that as the Queen’s power in the colony he needed to represent her in every way possible. During Lady Cornbury’s funeral in 1707 (when the shoplifting was done), Cornbury also supposedly attended in female dress.

However, according to Bonomi, none of his officers, ministers or colonial agents ever mentioned these tendencies. None of the authors of the letters even claim to have seen this, either. It appears it was an attempt to get him out of office by any means necessary—and it worked.

Bonomi also claims (and I’m not totally convinced of this) that Cornbury was not as corrupt and profligate as is claimed. She claims that he was welcomed warmly in England on his return in 1709, and served high offices. I’m not as convinced at this—especially since fiscal malfeasance tends to leave a more verifiable paper trail than sexual transgressions.

What is important in looking at this episode—and what Bonomi gets right—is how sex was used as a political tool even in the early 18th century. The cross-dressing scandal, more than anything else, is what drove Queen Anne to replace Cornbury in 1708. Sexual misconduct, even as a rumor, is still a powerful tool, now as it was in Cornbury’s time.

However, even as one can probably put the transvestite myth of Lord Cornbury in doubt, there is some sense of loss. Without the hoop skirts and corsets, Cornbury becomes just another greedy colonial governor.

Sometimes the myths really do add to the history—even if it isn’t really true.

 

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Some Fun at Parent-Teacher Conferences

This week, schools in New York City will have the first parent-teacher conferences…or as we in the faculty lounge like to call them: “The Crying Game.”

This cartoon showcases not only parent denial, but also teacher intransigence.  Lets hope our conferences this week are more productive.

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