Tag Archives: Opinion

David Letterman – Top Ten Reasons I’ve Decided to Become a Teacher

I’m knee deep in LearnZillion work as I came back from my long break.

The Gilder Lehrman conference at USC was great–wonderful professors, cool colleagues, and a special shout out to the folks at Tiki Ti’s for making things just a little bit better on Wednesday night.

My stopover in Colorado was even better.  So much fun to be with my western kin.  It was a blast, and the mile-high altitude didn’t faze me one bit.

I saw this video of David Letterman’s Top Ten List on my Facebook feed and wanted to share it for two reasons:

A. the satirical reasons Letterman comes up with may be fresh and new to his juvenile audience, but we teachers have heard enough of it.

B. Isn’t it a tad insulting when TFAers, especially those who HAVEN’T EVEN STARTED THEIR TERM YET, are brought out for this little stunt?  If Letterman really wanted to thank teachers he would’ve included some veterans who know there way around the classroom.

Personally, I want to see those ten kids in two years…all glassy eyed, strung out and ready for their Morgan Stanley/McKinsey/CitiGroup/PWC/etc. job they really wanted in the first place.

Comments are always welcome.

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Video for the Classroom: A Tour through Ancient Rome, courtesy of Khan Academy and Rome Reborn

This is the type of history video Khan Academy needs!

A Tour Through Ancient Rome is a collaboration between Khan and the Rome Reborn project, an initiative to create digital models of Rome from its foundation settlements to its depopulated self during the 6th century CE.  This tour is narrated mostly by Rome Reborn director and University of Virginia professor Dr. Bernard Frischer.

The video juxtaposes a magnificent digital rendering of ancient Rome around the year 320 to various modern and ancient images of artifacts, buildings and ruins.  Dr. Frischer’s narrative contains none of the boring, linear, rote stock pedantics of other Khan humanities videos.  In fact, for a 14-minute video lecture, it’s surprisingly fun to watch.

Khan Academy had better take note: if it wants its history and humanities videos to get the same hits as its math and science films, it had better quit the light-pen Chinese takeout menu-look that it thrives upon and make the videos actually ENGAGING.

…I mean, God forbid kids actually ENJOY learning about history.

 

 

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Can We Keep it This Simple?: A Response to Amy Weisberg’s Huffington Post Article on Education

shutterstock_109809197The simplest solution may be the best…unless it really isn’t that simple at all.

Recently, a 32-year veteran teacher, Amy Weisberg, wrote an article for the Huffington Post outlining five necessary steps for improving education in this country.  She never claims that the solution is simple, and rightfully so.  Furthermore, her claims are based on her long experience as an educator, watching the ups and downs of the fads in educational theory.

Lastly, she points the finger of blame squarely at the so-called “experts” outside of the field of education, as she begins her article:

“It seems that everyone has an opinion about what is wrong with our educational program today…but few have solutions that are organically designed to meet the needs of the student population we currently teach in our nation’s public schools.”

That a blueprint for solving our education problems would come from a veteran teacher makes all the sense in the world.  Yet as she explains her necessary 5 steps for improvement, you can just sense that each one seems a little too easy:

“1. Start Young. Early Education is a fundamental factor to children’s school success and funding it adequately gives more children a chance to learn curriculum, early skills and about the world of school. Smaller class size has a profound impact on both classroom dynamics and the amount of attention a teacher can give to students and by reducing class size in kindergarten-3rd grade to 20 or less, and grade 4-12 to 25 or less we could see a dramatic improvement. Private schools and privately funded Charter schools provide this. We cannot compare public and private schools until the class size issue has been resolved and the scales are even.”

This is really two solutions, not one: funding early education and limiting class size.  Early education funding has had an extraordinarily rocky history in this country: starting with Head Start in the 1970s, controversy has raged about the funding, curriculum, scope and accountability of early childhood programs.  Pumping money is one thing: establishing the right atmosphere that allows a young child to thrive in the school environment is another matter—one that isn’t so easy to solve.

Class size is one issue where I echo Ms. Weisberg’s concerns.  This year, I taught close to 90 kids, three sections of at least 30 kids a pop.  To be honest, some kids fell through the cracks, not because I was mean or malicious, but because I had so many kids to keep track of I had to prioritize between those who really needed a lot of help and those who needed less.  It’s a tough balancing act with ONE classroom, let alone three.

“2. Treat Teachers as Professionals. Respect the training, education and experience teachers have in the field of education and pay them accordingly. A student’s test scores are not the sole indicator of a teacher’s worth and teachers are not motivated to further their education solely for the joy of learning. Most professionals are compensated for their expertise and given opportunities to further their knowledge in their professional field. Teachers have an extremely important job and huge responsibilities and we like to be respected, taken seriously and able to afford the cost of living in the cities we teach.”

This really is beating a dead horse.  Yes, teachers are underpaid.  Yes, teachers should be compensated for the education and training we receive and utilize.  Yes, teachers should be treated like professionals.

However, this can only happen if the teaching profession treats ITSELF like a professional.  Today, education is prone to self-abuse; the land of broken toys for those who can’t hack it in the real world.  This is the common myth because teaching treats it that way—if anyone can be a teacher, with lax rules of admission and lack of rigor in instruction, then it is NOT a professional career choice.  Professions develop by weeding out the chaff at the VERY BEGINNING.

This can only be done through massive reforms at the university level, propelled by government guidance.  How many education schools in this country are willing to change their diploma mill status—and take the requisite revenue cut—to make teaching a truly professional calling?  You tell me.

“3. Hold Parents Accountable. Parents must be held responsible for meeting their childrens’ basic needs and supporting their children in their educational program. We need to teach those who do not know, how to become better parents, in order to provide a supportive home environment that complements the educational program. Parenting is a life long responsibility and providing education and training for parents can have a positive impact on our students.”

In the areas that are struggling the most, this is absolutely important.  Many parents are barely kids themselves, and struggle raising children not out of any malice, but out of sheer ignorance.  They never learned about real parenting, sometimes never had real parents as role models, so they do the best they can with the knowledge that they have.  To bridge this gap is essential to keeping a home life that supports school.

However, the role of the parent as educational partner with the teacher is often ill-defined.  In today’s universe, it has come to mean that parents have final say in everything, no questions asked.  If teachers are to be professionals, they must be treated as masters, absolute experts whose advice may be ignored, but should be questioned openly.  If # 2 is implemented and teacher training made more professional, then the parent-teacher partnership can be most effective.

Both parents and teachers require a little more professionalism, in that sense.

“4. Fund Education. Our priority must be education because our students are our country’s future wage earners and tax payers. By funding education we are insuring our own future. We need to establish a permanent source of government funding for our public schools to take the stress off of the parents and individual schools currently forced to fundraise endlessly in order to provide a basic, quality educational program. Funding should include the arts, sports and physical education, and trade skills as well as the academic program.”

A permanent fund for education?  Wow.  Now were you thinking one national fund or 50 separate funds for each state plus one for DC?  Where would the revenue come from?  Property taxes, as they are now in many states?  Payroll taxes?  Direct government expenditures?  Oil money?  Gold bricks from Fort Knox?

The funding issue is NEVER as simple as it sounds.  The tie between schools and property taxes, in particular, is problematic.  To give an example, certain districts in Rockland County, NY are populated by Hasidic Jews who send their children to private religious schools.  The public schools are populated by Hispanic, black, Asian and some white families.  However, the school boards are often packed with Hasidic residents with little or no stake in the public school system, and they are determining education spending.

These situations where spending is misaligned and mismanaged need to be addressed.  Permanent funds, for the immediate future, seem like a pipe dream.

“5. Provide Support. Financial and personal support is needed to educate special needs students, lower class ratio and size, and to support the physical, intellectual, emotional and social development of all students. Schools need full-time nurses, psychologists, counselors and support staff to allow equal access to education and academic success for all students.”

See all of the above, particularly numbers 2 and 4.

I don’t want to belittle Ms. Weisberg: after her many years as an educator, her recommendations, on the surface, should be Gospel by now.  The sad fact is that they are not, and they aren’t because the microscope shows the complex and often nasty realities that need to be addressed that have no clear solution.

It shows school districts packed with children from broken homes, teen parents and families hovering the poverty line.

It shows diploma mills where teachers are cranked out regardless of intelligence or ability, along with alternative programs that throw idealistic young people to the lions of high-needs educational reality.

It shows parents that are confused, frustrated, underinformed, overinformed, brow-beaten, and talked down to when they should be seen at eye level.

It shows teachers that are treated the same way, if not worse.

It shows an incredibly misaligned funding scheme where property taxes are tied to education, even if the property owners have little if any stake in the public education process.

It shows issues of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, socioeconomic class, and political affiliation.

Can these issues and others be addressed using these five points?  Ms. Weisberg seems to think so in her closing, where she states that governments must “own these suggestions and form working committees to dedicate time and energy to developing a funding method that begins with our youngest students, limits class size, educates parents, compensates educators, and provides the support needed for all students including those with special needs.”

I really wish it were that simple.

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Review of Khan Academy’s “American History Overview Part 1: Jamestown to Civil War”


I had not been a huge fan of Khan Academy.

Even before I started working with one of its competitors, I generally took a dim view of anyone that thought they could do better than a teacher with just a computer and a voice recorder.

However, Salman Khan’s little creation, originally meant to help his own cousin in math, has been a founding father of today’s explosion in virtual pedagogy. Practically everyone, including my own kin at LearnZillion, has a patch in the virtual quilt—from reading to math and even science and social studies.

When I heard that Khan Academy had ventured into history, again, I was skeptical. His approach seemed to work in math, and somewhat with language. History, however, is a massive, multi-headed monster that can go very wrong very fast if not handled properly.

Its just natural that I had to see if Salman went off the rails in his history videos.

There were quite a few to choose from, but I decided to start on American History overview Part 1, Jamestown to the Civil War. This is a typical spread for the first year of a two-year cycle in US history, and such an intro film made perfect sense.

Let’s start with the video itself.

Virtual production has come a long way since the first Khan videos. Yet here, they still stick with the crude visible cursor and neon handwriting reminiscent of a specials menu in a Chinese takeout restaurant. At least they’re consistent in their design—not thrilling, but consistent.

The voice, while familiar and somewhat relatable, doesn’t give me confidence. He doesn’t sound like he knows what he’s talking about. It feels like grad school when I basically corrected the poor adjunct they threw at me for two hours at a stretch.

Now for the facts. Honestly, Khan is not half bad here, since it is an overview. Just some notes as you use this video:

  • The first successful settlement in North America was St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, not Jamestown in 1607.
  • Jamestown was not originally settled as a commercial colony. They wanted to find gold like the Spanish in Mexico and Peru. When there was nothing but oysters and rebellious natives, then they decided to make money with tobacco.
  • The original Spanish and Portuguese settlements in the Americas are mentioned. Yet the Dutch are absent. Never mind that they founded one of the largest cities in the hemisphere.
  • The period between 1620 and 1754 is fast-forwarded. Fair enough, but what happened in between included slave rebellions, wars against natives, the French, the Dutch and the Spanish, the Navigation Acts that tied the knot between colonies and mother country, several popular revolts against colonial government, and religious hysteria not once, but twice.
  • 1754 is really the wrong date for the French and Indian Wars (YES, I mean Wars, plural). They really begin in 1689, and continue off and on until 1763. All these wars (between Spain, France, and Britain mostly) were European conflicts that spilled into the colonies. The last war, the “real” French and Indian War, was a colonial war that spilled into Europe, as the Seven Years War.
  • Speaking of “Indians”, why does the narrator still use the now-defunct term Indian or American Indian to refer to native people of North America? As a descendant of “real” Indians from the subcontinent, Khan should know better.
  • The narrator jumps straight into the Stamp Act without mentioning neither the Navigation Acts nor the 1764 Sugar Act—an act which actually affected the colonial and British economy on a much wider level.
  • The company was the British East India Company, not the East India Tea Company. Believe me, tea was only one of their many rackets.
  • Revolutionary War coverage – not bad, but should’ve highlighted 1777 Battles of Saratoga (Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights) as an important turning point bringing France into the war.
  • Constitution, new government and Louisiana Purchase – not bad. Louisiana mentioned the Haiti problem, which is surprisingly comprehensive.
  • The War of 1812 is dismissed entirely too casually. It had major implications for the United States. The last hope for Canada joining the Union died—from then on Canada developed its own identity. The US Navy established itself as a formidable opponent to the great powers. Native Americans would lose their last ally on the western frontier as the British troops withdrew from the Mississippi and Ohio valleys. Lastly, it established American sovereignty to the world once and for all.
  • The war did NOT end with the Battle of New Orleans. It ended in 1814 with the Treaty of Ghent months before. New Orleans happened after the fact.
  • The Texas Revolution is pretty much spot on, although the first President of the Republic of Texas was Stephen J. Burnet, not Sam Houston.
  • The explanation of the Mexican War wasn’t bad either, although the gap from 1848 to 1860 is dismissed a little too casually.
  • The slavery issue was summed up well, and it culminated in Lincoln’s election of 1860.
  • Lastly, the Emancipation Proclamation was mentioned without the little fact that it only declared those slaves in rebel states to be freed—in actuality not freeing a single slave until the 13th Amendment of 1865.

Apart from that, it’s not a terrible summation of the early years of the republic. I wouldn’t base a final report on this, but it’s a good introduction to the year, provided some of the gaps are covered in better detail.

In coming weeks, especially after my summer break begins, I’ll be looking at other Khan videos—as well as their competitors—to see how useful they can really be to serious history students.

By the way…the constant use of the word “Indian”, by a company named after an actual one, is really inexcusable.

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When the Pagans are Fed to Lions – can Core Knowledge survive as a NYCDOE mandate?

Statue de Constantin Ier, Musée du Capitole, Rome

Constantine: He swapped out one lion meat for another.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Usually, when the conquered becomes the conqueror, the outcome is far from bloodless.

When Christianity became legal through the Edict of Milan 313 under the Roman emperor Constantine, it provided for the religious freedom of pagan faiths as well, the same faiths that worked to persecute Christians for centuries.

Yet over time, as Constantine chose to eliminate his rivals, what was a potentially newly tolerant society simply replaced one orthodoxy for another, as Christianity became THE state religion of the later empire.  Now it was the pagan’s turn to feel the whip and the fire…and no one learned anything.

In education, this cycle of persecution is alive and well—and a good group’s work could be casualty of it all.

Although it took time for me to warm to it, the Core Knowledge Foundation has really become a system I’ve embraced more and more.  Founded by former University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Core Knowledge is a philosophy that strives to improve education not just through how children learn, but on what they learn.  According to their guiding principles:

“For the sake of academic excellence, greater equity, and higher literacy, elementary and middle schools need to teach a coherent, cumulative, and content-specific core curriculum.

The persistent gap in reading achievement in U.S. schools can never be reduced until the knowledge gap is reduced. And the knowledge gap will not be reduced unless broad, rich content knowledge is integrated into the many hours devoted to language arts instruction.”

A long time ago, I did a column on Core Knowledge, critiquing its insistence on certain baskets of knowledge as artificially constricting and inherently subjective—that content needed to drive skills to find further content, and especially critical thinking.    It’s flaws notwithstanding, CK has strengths in advancing content knowledge along with language and math skills.  It is rigid, to be sure, but allows room for growth due to its ability to be woven into literacy blocks and natural progressions into subject areas that the class can pursue independent of the program.

Core Knowledge seems useful—which is why I was dismayed when I learned that New York City will be pushing for Core Knowledge to be the curriculum of grades K-2.

Maybe this was CK’s goal all along: to make their system mandatory district by district until it becomes the new dogma.  I really hope not.  History reminds us that when innovation becomes codified in law, it often loses its original intent for other, more sinister goals.

Ask Lucy Calkins, for example.

Her workshop model, designed at Teachers College, was, like Core Knowledge, considered controversial.  It stressed too much free writing.  It didn’t teach grammar effectively.  It didn’t for children to grow in their  writing, much of it stuck on writing about how children “feel.”

Then came the Bloomberg administration, and like Constantine of old, the persecuted was allowed into the palace.  With little checks from on high, Calkins and her minions had almost free rein in training teachers, designing workshops, creating massive new models of planning and learning that became (and in many cases, still is) the only accepted model of instruction in this city.

What happened?  The original model morphed into concepts, models, plans, curriculum maps—most strayed well enough from the original idea of Calkins that it became something of a joke.  Add to this the new pressure of standardized tests, and the dream of creating child prodigal writers turned into factories of learning rote models of answering essays, writing about poems and fairy tales, anything to drive up scores.

It was not designed to make kids more knowledgeable, to be sure.  But even Calkins has to admit the veneer of official sanction twisted her original goal to the ends of people less than enamored with student success.

This is my ultimate fear for Core Knowledge.

It’s a great system, and used correctly, it can be a lifesaver for kids who struggle with basic skills.  Yet the mandate can very easily pervert Dr. Hirsch’s original intention—and it’s already happening.

The alignment of Common Core-based assessments with the CK program already seems like the handwriting on the wall.  As the first results are released and the stats show less promise than expected, how will Core Knowledge address the problem?  Is it designed to address the problem?

Or worse, will CK be yoked to the Common Core as a beast of burden?

Core Knowledge is too valuable to be left to the education reformers to be slaughtered.

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Videos for the Classroom: Crash Course!

I cringe at the word “kid-friendly” — sounds like a bad Law and Order: SVU episode.

One of the constant missions of the Neighborhood is to find resources that tap into the caffeine-addled brains of young people.   In the quest to find “kid-friendly” material, most of what I find is directed at…okay, I’ll say it…good little white children.  Good little pasty white kids that sit still and believe anything told to them because a happy smiling face in a toga (or bonnet or Abe Lincoln-esque stovepipe hat) tells them so.

Today, even the good little white kids aren’t really that good nor that white–you can thank TMZ, MTV and YouTube for that.

So to connect with today’s kids, we need something a little edgier.  Crash Course! is a series of films about history and science, told in an irreverent, snarky way by brothers John and Hank Green.  The World History series I saw was pretty entertaining, although the producers do make clear that historical people have sex (they get around it with a folksy word that I forgot).  They are, however, loaded with data, facts and historical debate, when necessary–these guys don’t hide their biases, and it’s important for kids to see someone unashamed of their opinions.

If it weren’t for the occasional sex references, I’d recommend Crash Course! to middle schoolers on up.  It’s perfectly fine for high school, but you may need some discretion with younger viewers.  I’ve attached the episode on Alexander the Great to get an idea.  Enjoy.

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This Day in History 3/11: The Great Blizzard of 1888

Now that spring is coming soon, it might serve as a reminder that the end of winter can be just as turbulent as the rest of the season.

March 11, 1888, was shaping up to be another unseasonably warm day.  It had been remarkably mild for the previous week.  Yet as the rain fell, the temperatures dropped.

By midnight of March 12, the Great Blizzard of 1888 was in full fury.  It would snow nonstop for 36 hours, finally leaving the East Coast on the 14th.  When all was said and done, parts of Connecticut and Massachusetts received 50 inches of snow, while parts of New York and New Jersey had up to 40 inches, with drifts as high as 50 feet.  48 inches dropped on Albany, 45 inches in New Haven, and 22 inches in New York, which recorded a temperature of between 6 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the storm, thanks to wind gusts that reached almost 80 miles per hour.

The blizzard had an enormous impact, even before the age of electricity.  The telegraph and telephone lines were in tatters from Montreal and the Maritime provinces of Canada to Maryland and northern Virginia.  200 ships were grounded or wrecked.  Roads and rail lines were impassible for days.  It even froze the East River in New York so solid for a time that locals walked from Manhattan to Brooklyn across it, bypassing the 5-year-old Brooklyn Bridge which was deemed impassible due to ice.

Attached is a firsthand account of the Blizzard of 1888 by Albert Hunt of Winsted, Connecticut.  Recorded in 1949, he recalls the day the storm first hit as if it were yesterday.  It’s an amazing piece of oral history-and I wish there were more from that time period.

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