In the world of espionage, the best recognition is no recognition at all.
The front of the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia have monuments to fallen agents, sculptures on intelligence gathering, and a statue of Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary war spy who got caught and hanged in September of 1776. The fallen agents went down due to numerous factors (possibly including incompetence), the intelligence gathering is nothing to celebrate, especially lately, and Hale is remembered more for supposed valor at the gallows than any real prowess as a spy.
Yet there is little public fanfare for the first successful spy agency in American history.
For most Americans, the recent debut of the AMC series Turn is their introduction to the Culper Ring, a network of spies and couriers that operated in New York City, Long Island and Connecticut during the Revolution. For me, and anyone who went to school on Long Island, the Culper Ring was part of our common knowledge. Part of my American history class was devoted to local history, and the Culper Ring featured prominently–I had to memorize the names and roles of Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, Caleb Brewster and the like.
We even used some of their codes and encryption methods in class–which is especially fun when coding out swear words to your classmates.
Yet beyond the spycraft and 18-century Bond-like gadgetry, the Culper Ring was successful in the quality and quantity of their information (they supposedly discovered the Benedict Arnold betrayal and the British ambush on French troops in Rhode Island) as well as keeping their cover. The original ring kept their identities hidden to the grave, and most of these identities weren’t discovered until the 1930s.
This was a story that just begged to be made for the screen, and AMC has done it right, for now, in releasing their story as a series. Is this new drama worthy of the exploits of the Culper gang? Two episodes in, the verdict is still out, but the results look promising.
The series is based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies and begins in a supposed backwater of the war–Suffolk County, Long Island. Yet it is here, in the north shore hamlet of Setauket, where the ring begins to take shape. Benjamin Tallmadge, a Continental major (and Yale classmate of Nathan Hale) recruits his reluctant friend Abraham Woodhull on a mission to transmit information to the rebel base across Long Island Sound in Connecticut. Woodhull is portrayed as a typical non-committal farmer ala Mel Gibson’s melodramatic Benjamin Martin in The Patriot. His loyalist (for now) father is the local magistrate and friends with the local commander of the British garrison. As a struggling farmer, Woodhull just wants to stay out of the way, until events push him towards Tallmadge and rebel espionage.
After two episodes (including a one and a half hour pilot) I can see where the creators are going with this. It’s great that the show is taking its time in developing the establishment of the spy network. In real life, establishing confidants, sources and “assets” to “turn” (spyspeak for getting an asset to spy on their side) takes time and dangerous planning. The show is also accurate in developing the perspectives and loyalties of everyday colonists of the time. Even among the loyalists, you get a sense that the characters are loyal less out of any sense of connection and more of expediency. The patriots also seem less like the textbook noble heroes and more human, driven by more tangible needs than simply love of liberty.
Another fun feature of the show is its interactive features. The Turn website features an option called Story Sync. Designed to be used simultaneously with the broadcast, Story Sync features information about the historical characters, quizzes, polls, and little asides designed to enrich the experience. There are also links to interactive maps, spy materials, and other resources that an educator can use. I already see how these can create a home Blu-Ray or DVD loaded with surprises.
However, the construction of the basic drama, at least now, seems formulaic. It establishes a clueless British commander in Major Hewlett, a one-dimensional, wooden villain in Captain Simcoe (who reminds me of Colonel Tavington in The Patriot without the charisma), and a somewhat contrived love triangle between Woodhull, his wife, and Anna Strong, a local tavernkeeper who was once engaged to Woodhull and whose husband is in prison for an attack on a British officer. I will admit, I didn’t read Rose’s book yet, but I do think this romance is more a creation of the screenwriters and less a development of actual events.
In terms of dramatic license, there needs to be some slack given. Until recently, there was little evidence as to the existence of the ring at all, let alone their day-to-day operations. So we can forgive the writers somewhat in their zeal to fill in the blanks.
In that vein, Robert Rogers offers a fun way to develop the story. Rogers, a hero of the French and Indian War and a founder of modern military rangers, had serious legal issues in Britain and returned to America as an erratic alcoholic during the Revolution. He offered his services to whoever would pay him: first Washington, who (wisely it seems) didn’t trust him, and then the British. He created another Ranger unit that helped capture Nathan Hale, but Rogers’ behavior got him dismissed the next year, so he probably didn’t have as much involvement in the Culper spy network as the series would like him us to believe.
However, I think Rogers can become the most interesting character in the whole show.
In the series, he is portrayed as a colonial has-been with a hair-trigger temper and a sixth sense for treachery, one who’ll sell his mother for a few guineas. Of all, I see Rogers as developing into an Al Swearengen type of character: a son of a bitch so ruthless and witty you just have to love him. The problem with the show right now is that the British are all universally one-dimensional bad guys. The best villains are those who have something likable about them, and Rogers is definitely someone I would have a drink with. If Rogers emerges as the main antagonist, this might become a really fun show.
In terms of history, Turn is doing its best with the information it has. Again, I didn’t read the source material, and once I do, I can make a more informed judgement. However, as a television show, this has the potential to be fun, exciting and a good starting point in studying espionage in the American Revolution.
If only the show can get away from the cookie cutter formulas, it just might do justice to an important set of patriots in our history. Let’s hope the history wins out.
Why Pain is Necessary: A Response to the Proposed NYS Reading Standards
The late great comedian George Carlin mastered exposing the use of language to control society.
One of his best routines involved the evolution of the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He chronicled how early in the century, in the World War I era, this condition was simply known as “Shell Shock.” Later in the century it evolved into “Battle Fatigue”, with Carlin pointing out how the addition of syllables made the condition seem less frightening. Ultimately, he ends with PTSD, which makes a harrowing condition seem more and more antiseptic and banal.
In a similar way, the proposed New York State Standards, especially in reading, may control events through omitting a phrase. Ultimately, this omission can have disastrous consequences.
In September, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) released new draft New York State P-12 English Language Arts and Mathematics Learning Standards for public comment. These new standards were the work of two committees of teachers and parents who spent two years reworking over half of the Common Core Learning Standards to better meet the needs of New York’s students.
Many praised the new standards, and with good reason. Much of the redundancy of standards, especially among reading informational and literary text, was streamlined to make the standards more flexible and manageable. In mathematics, the distinctions between certain courses, particularly Algebra I and II, were clarified to give teachers better direction. In all, this revision kept the spirit of the CCLS largely intact, which was a relief to many, including myself.
To really understand the changes, I decided to look at the ELA and Literacy (in Science/Social Studies) standards side by side, seeing them evolve grade by grade. The work done in the K-2 grades really hit the mark: It allowed rigor in language foundations while emphasizing hands-on activities and creative play. Most importantly, it emphasized, as in the past, the ability to read “grade-level text”, maintaining the need for a solid grounding in the basics of reading and writing.
After second grade, however, the phrase “grade-level text” disappears.
From third through twelfth grade, the the entire standard for text complexity is stricken altogether. In grades 3 through 5, the phrase “grade-level” was replaced with “a variety of” to describe text level comprehension that would meet the standard. For example, whereas RF.5.4a used to read:
“Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding.”
Under the proposed changes it would now read:
“Read a variety of text levels with purpose and understanding.”
A similar change happens in RF.5.4b, which addresses fluency. It used to read:
“Read grade-level prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression on successive readings.”
It would now read:
“Read a variety of prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression on successive readings.”
(NOTE: The Literacy in Social Studies/Science Standards did not leave out text complexity for grades 6-12. I am not sure if that was intentional or an oversight of the committee.)
The committee’s rationale was “so that the teachers have the opportunity to choose texts that meet each students’ needs effectively in order for each child gain success.” When I looked to find where the old text complexity standard was, usually R.10, it stated that “Text complexity standard to be moved to supporting guidance.” I headed to the anchor standards to find said supporting guidance, where I found the following:
“The ELA Committee decided that this standard would be more appropriate as guidance for instruction instead of a student achievement expectation. The committee would like to see text complexity guidance included in an introduction.”
In that statement, the committee rendered all the reading standards utterly useless.
First of all, this omission of text complexity assumes that grade-level standards are entirely based on skills that scaffold as the child gets older. Thus, drawing a conclusion from Slaughterhouse Five is essentially the same as drawing one from The Cat in the Hat. Identifying a causal relationship in Ramona and Beezus is basically the same as from Hamlet. Nonsense. Since older children are expected to read more nuanced and complicated texts, then text complexity has to be scaled just as much as reading skills or strategies. Having only a partial standard in skills and none in text complexity is just as good as not having a standard at all.
Furthermore, the lack of standards in text complexity presents false levels of promotion and achievement for students. The student who achieves promotional criteria may not necessarily be reading at or even near their grade level. How fair is this for a child who ultimately reaches high school with a literacy rate so far behind that they can never master the texts needed for college and beyond.
This is particularly true for students with special needs. Much of the rationale of omitting text complexity must lie in the need to level the playing field for struggling students by allowing student choice in texts to demonstrate standards mastery. Unfortunately, as admirable as this may sound, it defrauds the student of an authentic assessment of their abilities. Also, those students with Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, that feature grade-dependent text and vocabulary in their annual goals would find their programs essentially obsolete, denying students needed support in the lofty pursuit of giving students choice.
Finally, let us return to George Carlin for a moment.
Carlin’s goal in his routine was to show how language was used to mollify the shock, pain and discomfort of everyday life. “Shell Shock” becomes the less painful “Battle Fatigue” and the even more harmless “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” The problem, as Carlin hints at, is that making the term less painful does not make the pain go away. It simply gives the public enough piece of mind that it can be ignored or handled by someone else.
The lack of text complexity also has to do with such pain, and apologies if I begin to sound like a sadist. Learning, by design, is a change from the status quo, and any change to the human condition is inherently painful. Some changes, like death or war, are more painful than others. Some changes affect the mind or the emotions more than the body. Whatever the form, learning involves a level of pain, however light, that is necessary for student development into functioning adult citizens.
By allowing so much student choice, and placing no standard on text complexity, the committee has in essence alleviated much of the pain of learning. Yes, learning needs to be guided by the needs of students. Yes, learning can and should include elements of joy and fun. However, avoiding needed pain in order to make the experience more effective in the short term will cause that student unbearable agony in the long term:
I humbly ask the Board of Regents, Commissioner Elia, and Governor Cuomo to reconsider removing text complexity. In pursuing the equitable education of today, do not consign our bright students to the agony of a dim future.
That “shell shock” helps more than you think.
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