Tag Archives: Publishing

The Treacherous Rainbow of Identity Politics in History

“The thing is, you cannot judge a race. Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit. You take men one at a time.” ~ Sergeant ‘Buster’ Kilrain, in Gettysburg (1993)

I’m always uneasy when government messes with actual classroom instruction—even when it’s for the best intentions.

The day before I left for California, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 48, an education bill designed to acknowledge the achievements of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) individuals in California and American history. Furthermore, the bill thwarts educators, administrators and school districts from advocating instruction or material that discriminates against said individuals.

It’s a law that really only adds to the current law acknowledging women and minorities—an amendment that, at least in California, is a long time coming. Obviously, more traditional sectors of the state are up in arms over this.

Yet I wouldn’t have thought that a metropolitan newspaper not affiliated with Rupert Murdoch would also be fanning the flames.

The Sunday of the 17th, the Los Angeles Times printed a blistering editorial condemning SB 48 as an affront to free expression. While citing the importance of the gay rights movement—and the dangerous right-wing politicization of education in Texas—the Times nonetheless asserts that

“…politicians shouldn’t be dictating what material appears in textbooks. Besides, do we really want textbooks to include the details of a historical figure’s sexual orientation even when it might have nothing to do with his or her role in history? And does it make sense to require that portrayals of gay people focus on “contributions” and not anything that could be construed as negative? Real history is richer and more complicated than feel-good depictions.” ~ Los Angeles Times editorial, July 17, 2011

I know some gentlemen in West Hollywood that will be cancelling their subscriptions.

However, the folks at the LA Times (shrill as they are) may have a point. Let’s look at the new amended law piece by piece:

“51204.5. Instruction in social sciences shall include the early history of California and a study of the role and contributions of both men and women, Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups, to the economic, political, and social development of California and the United States of America, with particular emphasis on portraying the role of these groups in contemporary society.”

Not much of a value judgment here, but who’s to say all these groups actually contributed all the time everywhere? Could it be all those Pacific Islanders that threw spears during the Boston Massacre? The disabled regiment that flung their wheelchairs up Marrys’ Heights at Fredericksburg? The enslaved African on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation that kept admiring women’s petticoats and just wouldn’t mate with the girl of the master’s choosing?

Fine, these are extreme, even silly examples. Yet it gets to the concerns many educators have about things like this: Who is the arbiter of what a contribution is, an achievement, the “correct” or “accurate” role of a group or individual in society? The law gives no indication as to who’s responsible—and the state doesn’t seem to step up to the plate with a curriculum or sample units.

“51500. A teacher shall not give instruction and a school district shall not sponsor any activity that promotes a discriminatory bias on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, sexual orientation, or because of a characteristic listed in Section 220.”

Does this include activities that, on the surface, seem divisive, but are meant to prove a point about discrimination and prejudice—activities like role-playing, viewing/analyzing propaganda films from Nazi Germany, scrutinizing literature from hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, etc.? I use lots of material that California would probably throw me in San Quentin for, but that doesn’t make me a bigot.

“51501. The state board and any governing board shall not adopt any textbooks or other instructional materials for use in the public schools that contain any matter reflecting adversely upon persons on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, sexual orientation, or because of a characteristic listed in Section 220.”

Of course, this includes works by Plato, Aristotle, several Biblical authors, Martin Luther, William Shakespeare, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Voltaire, Rousseau, George Orwell, William Faulkner…get my drift?

“60040. When adopting instructional materials for use in the schools, governing boards shall include only instructional materials which, in their determination, accurately portray the cultural and racial diversity of our society, including:

(a) The contributions of both men and women in all types of roles, including professional, vocational, and executive roles.

(b) The role and contributions of Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups to the total development of California and the United States.

(c) The role and contributions of the entrepreneur and labor in the total development of California and the United States.”

Ok, so we have some direction now. “Governing boards,” i.e. district boards or boards of education, will make the determination as to what is offensive or not.

That means the LA County Schools should be following the same guidelines as those in money-loaded Orange County or the rural hinterland of the north, right?

This is a lot of nitpicking, but it serves to show how politicizing these seemingly innocuous laws can be. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the important roles of diverse groups in our great history—GLBT, white, black or otherwise.

Yet shedding light on a darkened past does not always yield positive results.

First, not every group contributed to American history all the time. We’re a big country, a country of regional contrasts and diverse populations that were both mobile and provincial. Sorry, but that’s the facts: some people just didn’t have a huge impact on certain places. The missions of Spanish California would’ve heard about the American Revolution, but scarcely anyone would’ve actually gone to enlist in the Continental Army.

Furthermore, a group or individual’s achievements often have little, if anything, to do with their identity. Their labels may have helped or hindered them in society, such as Blacks and other minorities, but their achievements are often singular, and can also transcend any petty labels foisted on them.

Also, and this is especially true of GLBT studies, there is a tendency to find and pigeonhole people into groups that (a) don’t really belong, or (b) didn’t do anything that important. I worry that historians and textbook authors will scour for evidence of petticoats and makeup amongst the closets of the Founding Fathers to find anyone—ANYONE—that is both GLBT and important. Even worse, the zeal to “out” historical figures could lead to misapplying or even falsifying evidence to prove a point.

Finally, and definitely most importantly, many individuals of “disadvantaged” groups did some not so nice things—a fact often whitewashed in many textbooks. Many of the slave rebellions in the New World involved gruesome violence on the part of the enslaved people themselves. Native American conflicts also involved acts of butchery at times. Were they justified? They certainly had a reason to be so angry.

Yet a burnt house and a bludgeoned infant cannot be erased from memory—nor should it.

History is not just about the good times. The bad times, the bloody times, the gruesome, gory and horrifying times are often more important. It often takes a crappy situation, an act of weakness or a horrible mistake to show the true depths of human character.

To take into account only the accomplishments of a group negates the very real human qualities of the individuals that, in the long run, probably make more of a difference.

While the State of California probably had the best of intentions with SB 48, the law leaves a lot of unanswered questions—questions that may best be left to the educators themselves, with guidance from administrators and academics.

In the pursuit of historical truth, inclusion is almost always preferable to exclusion. Yet the zeal to include everyone should not blind us to the inconvenient facts…

…and the destruction of the truth does no group any good.

 

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The Dos and Don’ts of the Common Core Standards

Lately, the Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) has taken a good piece of my life.

First, it was the beginning of the year meetings that introduced us to the CCLS (then called the Common Core State Standards, or CCSS) and how they will impact our instruction. Then came the periodic meetings evaluating student work, supposedly using the CCLS (but often not).

Now, in a frantic pace to stay on the CCLS bandwagon, I’m involved with not one, but two taskforces attempting to integrate social studies instruction and museum education into the new standards.

During the whole time, I didn’t even attempt to read the standards. Maybe it’s time that I did.

The Common Core Learning Standards were part of a two-year long initiative by the National Governors’ Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Their goal was to provide a uniform set of standards for reading and mathematics nationwide, supplementing the various state benchmarks and standards that had been implemented in the early stages of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The CCLS was rolled out in 2010, and immediately many states jumped aboard. Washington had much to do with the enthusiasm: Race to the Top grants were determined—de facto, if not de jure—through swift and thorough adoption of the CCLS. To date, 48 of 50 states have jumped on the initative (except Texas and Alaska) and 47 of 50 have adopted the standards (Virginia chose not to).

On the surface, the CCLS is a noble idea. It would be an incredible leap for our educational system if a child were held to the same standards in any part of the country—the same way other, smaller countries handle it.

Looking at the standards themselves, however, leads me to believe they are not the silver bullet everyone makes them out to be.

I decided to see how the Common Core stacked up against the old standards used in New York City up until now. Here’s the first elementary standard for reading in the old system:

“E1a: The student reads at least twenty-five books or book equivalents each year. The quality and complexity of the materials to be read are illustrated in the sample reading list. The materials should include traditional and contemporary literature (both fiction and non-fiction) as well as magazines, newspapers, textbooks, and on-line materials. Such reading should represent a diverse collection of material from at least three different literary forms and from at least five different writers.” ~ NYC Performance Standards in ELA

It’s what we expect from standards: broad, verbose, and so cumbersome that any set of criteria could fit in here. A combination of Marvel comic books, Mad Magazines, the Onion, the history textbook and some selection from the class library should do the trick. By the way, this is what you’re expected to do once you reach sixth grade.

The CCLS addresses this standard differently, as it does with others: instead of one culminating indicator, there are benchmarks for each year from Kindergarten to 5th for elementary, and from 6th to 12th for secondary. In first grade, the similar CCLS standard for reading would read like this:

“RL.1.10. With prompting and support, read prose and poetry of appropriate complexity for grade 1.” ~ Common Core Learning Standards

By fifth grade, the same standard reads like this:

“RL.5.10. By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.” ~ Common Core Learning Standards

It appears that the Common Core has won this round—after all; grade scaffolding seems more palatable than a one-shot deal. Yet look at the old standard compared with the one above: other than the quantity constraints of the old standard, don’t they look suspiciously similar?

Let’s try a writing standard now. In the old standards, we have:

“E2a: The student produces a report that:

• engages the reader by establishing a context, creating a persona, and otherwise developing reader interest;

• develops a controlling idea that conveys a perspective on the subject;

• creates an organizing structure appropriate to a specific purpose, audience, and context;

• includes appropriate facts and details;

• excludes extraneous and inappropriate information;

• uses a range of appropriate strategies, such as providing facts and details, describing or analyzing the subject, and narrating a relevant anecdote;

• provides a sense of closure to the writing.” ~ NYC Performance Standards in ELA

The fifth grade standard in the CCLS for report writing is as follows:

“W.5.2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.

Introduce a topic clearly, provide a general observation and focus, and group related information logically; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

Develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic.

Link ideas within and across categories of information using words, phrases, and clauses (e.g., in contrast, especially).

Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.

Provide a concluding statement or section related to the information or explanation presented.” ~ Common Core Learning Standards

Again, apart from a difference in vocabulary, these two standards bear a striking resemblance.

The Mathematics standards, on the other hand, seem to be a real improvement. Here’s the old standard for 5th grade for using base ten number systems:

“5.N.3 Understand the place value structure of the base ten number system” ~ NYS State Education Department Mathematics Standards

We could all agree that’s pretty lame, even by the already-low standards (no pun intended) of the authors of these standards. The CCLS version gives much more detail:

“5.NBT.1. Recognize that in a multi-digit number, a digit in one place represents 10 times as much as it represents in the place to its right and 1/10 of what it represents in the place to its left.

5.NBT.2. Explain patterns in the number of zeros of the product when multiplying a number by powers of 10, and explain patterns in the placement of the decimal point when a decimal is multiplied or divided by a power of 10. Use whole-number exponents to denote powers of 10.

5.NBT.3. Read, write, and compare decimals to thousandths.

• Read and write decimals to thousandths using base-ten numerals, number names, and expanded form, e.g., 347.392 = 3 × 100 + 4 × 10 + 7 × 1 + 3 × (1/10) + 9 × (1/100) + 2 × (1/1000).

• Compare two decimals to thousandths based on meanings of the digits in each place, using >, =, and < symbols to record the results of comparisons.

5.NBT.4. Use place value understanding to round decimals to any place.” ~ Common Core Learning Standards

So the new standards are pretty hit-and-miss. There’s a lot of good stuff to get out of them, but also plenty of pitfalls along the way to implementation—and especially assessing them.

First, realize that, especially in English, the CCLS is largely a re-packaging of the standards we have already used—standards that lack much substance to begin with. So for all the hoopla of newness and scaffolding, in the end the final benchmarks will not be so radically different from before.

Second, the “Common” in Common Core is a real misnomer. Many states, including New York, are allowed to tweak or alter the standards to meet the needs of their particular groups of students. This is important, to be sure, but then it no longer makes these standards very “common” anymore. How is this any different from the old state standards?

Furthermore, don’t expect to see a massive overhaul of the standardized testing situation because of these standards—at least not yet. It is claimed that full implementation of the standards, with new assessments, curricula, etc., will be in place by 2015 the latest. I’m guessing we’ll see the new assessments sooner than that, because there will be little new about them. If the CCLS is a re-packaging of the old, then wouldn’t the new tests be a re-packaging of the old, as well?

Besides, if you fuck with those tests too much, Pearson and McGraw-Hill will have a serious chat with you.

Finally, the CCLS does not even address content areas, science and social studies, until the 6th grade, and then it is merely a test of “Literacy in Science/Social Studies.” Those standards are a re-packaging of the re-packaging: a reformation of the English standards to make them more content-specific. Yet no actual content standards are addressed: what actual stuff do kids need to know?

It’s nice how we focus on the process, the skills, the strategies, but without the actual stuff of learning the CCLS—like any set of standards—is really meaningless.

So what can we get from this new initiative foisted on most of us in this country?

Not much, but that’s okay.

To those who are getting their shorts in a knot over the CCLS…relax. It’s not as big a deal as even they think it is. These standards are no more rigorous than the personal set of standards any good teacher uses throughout his/her day. It’s simply a new paper trail for what you already do.

Hopefully it’ll lead to changes for the better. Probably, it won’t.

Just grin and bear through the workshops, lectures, symposia and focus groups—knowing that the next “silver bullet” is coming right around the corner…

…and it’ll be just as effective as the last one.

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Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 8: The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal

For educators like me, history books for the classroom come in two varieties.

The first, one all too many of us recollect, is the somber collection of names, dates, events and explanations followed by even more somber illustrations of very upright white men and stately occasions featuring white men doing what white men were thought to do: stand around, prance in short pants, sign documents, and slay indigenous populations without a hair out of place.

The second was a movement to rectify the stuffy white man by using songs, poems, happy pictures and narrative tools to convey historical events.  Many early childhood books fall into this category: the smiling Pilgrim, the smiling Wampanoag (at least before the smallpox), the happy colonists dumping tea while redcoats pout and look cross.  Its cute, but some events just can’t be washed over with sappy narrative: Indian wars, insurrections and tarring and feathering a tax collector just don’t warrant smiling cherubs set to rhyme.

Luckily, today’s book selection finds a unique balance between these two views.  The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal, by Cheryl Harness, highlights the history, construction and opening of the Erie Canal from 1817 to 1825.  Most readers know my penchant for New York history.  But I have a real soft spot for the Erie Canal, and Harness’ work helps bridge that love to the classroom.

There’s no exaggerating the importance of this 363-mile long ditch.  The Erie Canal was among the most important public works projects in American history.  It revolutionized transportation to the Great Lakes and the Middle West of the United States.  It established New York City as a center of commerce, business and immigration.  Thousands of settlers had a way into the interior of the United States.  It was an incredible example of public and private enterprise working together.

Nonetheless, all this impact would fall as flat as your old high school textbook.  This is where Cheryl Harness’ magic comes in.

We’ve seen Harness’ work before, in regards to women’s history and biographies.  She has a real knack for packing lots of important information, while at the same time weaving a compelling narrative that rarely distracts the reader.  Her books are, in a way, like busy local highways: lots of roadside attractions if you need them, but the traffic’s always moving so you can get to your destination.

Erie Canal is no different.  Harness’ highway is the 1825 celebrations that opened the canal.  As the reader follows Governor DeWitt Clinton (The Neighborhood’s patron saint) on the canal from Buffalo to New York City, page after page is peppered with maps, graphs, pictures, and explanatory text about the building, technology and impact of the canal.

One scene is particularly poignant.  As Clinton’s barge, the Seneca Chief, goes from town to town, the townspeople all gather to welcome her.  The old veterans of the Revolutionary War, in fact, put on their old uniforms and medals in salute to this great achievement.  Its a great example to show how Americans of all generations got together to celebrate, even 180 years ago.

A history book on the Erie Canal could have easily turned into a snoozer with portraits and dry writing.  It could’ve also turned into another crappy kids’ pap about that damn song with a mule named Sal.  Harness skillfully managed to avoid both. In The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal, she provided that rare breed of picture history that is both fun to read and rich in detailed information.

As for those old “white man” books, save them for college, so that your professors can rip them to shreds.

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The Civil War Poems of Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman. Library of Congress description:...

Walt Whitman, circa 1860. Photo by Mathew Brady. Image via Wikipedia

As an adolescent, America‘s most original poet was best known as the local mall.

I grew up just a few miles from Walt Whitman‘s birthplace on Long Island, but his name was best known for gracing the shopping center across the street.  If that wasn’t grotesque enough, the Walt Whitman Mall has the words of his famous “Song of Myself” painted across the outer walls, as if shoppers would grace their day with fine poetry while they splurge with their Macy’s coupons.

It really was more as an adult that I could really appreciate the power and uniqueness of Whitman’s words, especially apart from the walls of a suburban mall.  Thus, the Neighborhood is celebrating our greatest poet at the anniversary of a pivotal conflict in Whitman’s life.

By 1861, three editions were published of Whitman’s seminal masterpiece Leaves of Grass.  Like the first two editions, the third did not sell well.  American readers were shocked at his unique meter and cadence, his raw, unflinching verse and his often overtly sexual emotions.

When his brother was wounded in 1863, Whitman went to Washington to help in the overcrowded Union military hospitals.  Though he had no military or medical training, the wounded troops were comforted by Whitman’s poems, stories, songs and chores he would dutifully fulfill well past his appointed shift.

Whitman’s experiences in the hospital stayed with him for the rest of his life.  Towards the end of the war, in 1865, Drum-Taps, a collection of wartime poems, was published.  When his “O’ Captain, My Captain!” appeared after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, it made Whitman a celebrity almost overnight.  Ironically, “O’ Captain” is a more traditional poem than Whitman’s other work–which probably helped readers ease into his more fiery verses.

Here is a link to Whitman’s Civil War poems, but attached below are a few of my favorites.

Beat! Beat! Drums!  ~ from Drum-Taps

BEAT! beat! drums!-blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows-through doors-burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
Leave not the bridegroom quiet-no happiness must he have now with
his bride,
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gathering
his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound you drums-so shrill you bugles blow.

Beat! beat! drums!-blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities-over the rumble of wheels in the streets;
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses? no sleepers
must sleep in those beds,
No bargainers’ bargains by day-no brokers or speculators-would
they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the
judge?
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums-you bugles wilder blow.

Beat! beat! drums!-blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley-stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid-mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the
hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums-so loud you bugles blow.

The Wound Dresser ~ from Drum-Taps
1.
AN old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge
relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d
myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these
chances,
Of unsurpass’d heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally
brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest
remains?

2.

O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking
recalls,
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover’d with sweat and
dust,
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the
rush of successful charge,
Enter the captur’d works-yet lo, like a swift-running river they
fade,
Pass and are gone they fade-I dwell not on soldiers’ perils or
soldiers’ joys,
(Both I remember well-many the hardships, few the joys, yet I was
content.)

But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the
sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up
there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d
again.

I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,

One turns to me his appealing eyes- poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that
would save you.

3.

On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage
away,)
The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through
examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life
struggles hard,
(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and
blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side
falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the
bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.

I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.

I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so
offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and
pail.

I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast
a fire, a burning flame.)

4.

Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,

Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and
rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)

Ethiopia Saluting the Colours ~ from Drum-Taps 

WHO are you dusky woman, so ancient hardly human,
With your woolly-white and turban’d head, and bare bony feet?
Why rising by the roadside here, do you the colors greet?

(‘Tis while our army lines Carolina’s sands and pines,
Forth from thy hovel door thou Ethiopia comist to me,
As under doughty Sherman I march toward the sea.)

Me master years a hundred since from my parents sunder’d,
A little child, they caught me as the savage beast is caught,
Then hither me across the sea the cruel slaver brought.

No further does she say, but lingering all the day,
Her high-borne turban’d head she wags, and rolls her darkling eye,
And courtesies to the regiments, the guidons moving by.

What is it fateful woman, so blear, hardly human?
Why wag your head with turban bound, yellow, red and green?
Are the things so strange and marvelous you see or have seen?

Of course, we must include the poem that made Whitman an international icon, the poem written in tribute to Abraham Lincoln:

Oh Captain! My Captain!

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up- for you the flag is flung- for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths- for you the shores
a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

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Say it Ain’t So, Cathie! The 100 Days of Chancellor Cathie Black

Cathie Black Enters Tweed

“But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?” ~ from Edward II, by Christopher Marlowe

As swiftly as it came, the reign of Cathie the First came crashing down today–and there’s plenty of blame to spread around.

At 11:30 am, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that Cathie Black had resigned as New York City Schools Chancellor, to be replaced by longtime Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott.  According to the Mayor, the split was amicable, in that both agreed that they needed a new direction.  Yet privately, most believe that Bloomberg showed Cathie the door.

So what happened?  Obviously, Cathie never bothered to read the suggestions we gave her when she started.  She never had the support of the teaching corps, who saw her as a meddling interloper and empty vessel.  Furthermore, she never even tried to wade into the treacherous waters of negotiation and budget battles.

It was just that much easier to slug down appletinis with Graydon Carter and Anna Wintour under a tent during Fashion Week.

What followed through the next 100 days was an unqualified embarrassment.  A recent Marist poll showed an abysmal 17% approval rating.  After numerous faux pas and a series of bumbling media fiascos, the rats began to abandon the ship.  One by one the Deputy Chancellors, a veritable Praetorian Guard that shielded Black from the gathering storm, either resigned or were replaced.

It was only a matter of time.

So who was to blame for this 100-day nightmare?  Mayor Bloomberg, for one.  At least he cowboyed up and accepted “full responsibility.”   Like so many education reform bozos, Bloomberg thought that skirting certification and appointment protocols would produce a suitable Chancellor, only to fizzle in a sea of media flops and epileptic leadership.

The other ne’er do wells shouldn’t get a pass, though.   Joel Klein also gets some blame, since his insistence pushed Cathie Black into the Mayor’s eye, especially while he basked in Rupert Murdoch’s glow.  The City Council, who have been impotent for over a decade now, proved its rubber-stamp quality through a feeble attempt to block Black’s appointment.

Yet even the shenanigans of Bloomberg, et. al. would have gone for nought if it weren’t for the connivance of the New York State Education Department–acting with the blessing of the New York Board of Regents.  Predating our constitution, New York‘s education establishment was once one of the noblest, most august institutions of education in America.  That changed when the Education Commissioner, David Steiner, worked with Bloomberg to get Black a waiver from certification–since she had no qualifications whatsoever.

Our once great granite rock of education had become a filthy loofah, used by politicians and billionaire scum to scrape their underlings clean of hypocrisy and criminality.  Even though Commissioner Steiner’s job is now in jeopardy, Governor Cuomo should make a bold, radical decision and fire the entire Board of Regents in one blow.  Only thus would we have anything close to our education department’s former glory.

The Neighborhood’s last words are for our new Chancellor, Dennis Walcott.  You’ve been involved in public education for a fair amount of your life.  We look forward to working with you for the education of our students.  Please take a look at our suggestions we gave to Cathie–just avoid the sarcastic remarks.

Those remarks aren’t meant for you–yet.  You’ve been warned.

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Some Free Advice to New NYC Schools Chancellor Cathie Black—from her friends at the Neighborhood

Cathie Black, New York City's new Schools Chancellor

Chancellor Black, welcome to America’s largest, most Byzantine, and most convoluted school system. We sincerely hope that during your tenure (should I use the word “tenure”?) New York City will also be among America’s greatest networks of learning.

We must admit, in all fairness, that many folks here in the Neighborhood were none too pleased at your appointment. Given the outward business-like nature of the Bloomberg regime (or dynasty, royal house, whatever), we expected a selection process free of the nepotism, cronyism and backdoor dealing that so typified the dark days of the past. Wishful thinking, of course…

Yet we digress. In an effort to bury the hatchet, we wish to open a true dialogue with our new capo. Our hope is that through honest, frank communication we can achieve the best results possible for everyone in our school system.

We won’t belabor you with the nonsense questions so many critics have leveled on you. That would be insulting your intelligence—a well-honed trait of your predecessor. As you settle into your first week on the job, however, here are some suggestions to make your work a little more meaningful:

Visit every school in the system—unannounced

The typical Chancellor’s tour involves an entourage of poobahs parading through a pristine campus while smiling, polite children entertain him with well-worn platitudes about their “reading levels” and “learning processes”. This usually takes place at schools with “KIPP”, “Mott Hall” or “Kappa” in their names, or with suffixes like –Academy, –Charter School, or Blankety Blank School for Success and Entrepreneurial Excellence in Waste Management.

This is not reality—not even close.

Make a point to visit schools in our most distressed neighborhoods, especially those schools that have been deemed either failures or in danger of closure by the DOE in the past. Pop in without the menagerie, and watch as teachers struggle with day-to-day tasks, principals balance inane initiatives with budgetary constraints, and parents tangle with administrators over discipline, zoning and programming.

Also take into account schools that are succeeding, but are bursting at the seams with students from closed schools in the community. Take a good hard look, and tell me if these schools will continue to succeed given the budgetary and population constraints on them.

Teach one class in each grade level—including Kindergarten

You can’t hide from it. We all know: you have almost no experience in a classroom, let alone any educational institution. You might already have it in your head that teachers are lazy and uneducated, do little with their time, and need the stick more than the carrot.

At the very least, that was the vibe we got from your predecessor—as well as his boss. Michelle Rhee certainly put her two cents in, we’re sure.

It won’t make up for it, but walking a short distance in the shoes of a New York City classroom teacher can do you a world of good for giving much needed perspective. Put up a bulletin board with substandard work so your superiors look good for their bosses. Push back art history or science for the umpteenth time to test prep for an exam six months away. Get hands-on with Global History, and its rushed, watered-down, one-year fiasco of a curriculum (and we wonder that our students know little about the world.).

But no cheating, now—you can’t teach at a private school or some Upper East Side celeb-charter academy. Like before, find those schools “In Need of Improvement” or “In Restructuring”, those wonderful NCLB phrases that taste like boiled Auschwitz.

Take the standardized tests the students take—all of them.

We can probably guess that like the mayor and his minions, you are ga-ga over standardized tests and their use in evaluating everything, from the teachers to the lunchroom floor. Oh, the joy of reducing everything to a number! It looks pretty on a mission statement, makes for great graphs that delight educational Neanderthals such as Arne Duncan, and make for great printing material and “culling of the herd.” (Just ask the Los Angeles Times).

Take the time to take each of the tests yourself, from the 3rd grade reading and math tests to the vaunted Regents tests at the high school level. As you plow through the material, ask yourself these questions:

(1) Do these things really measure the ability to read and function as an intellectual being? Will a “4” on the 5th grade ELA guarantee a slot at Harvard in a few years—or a slot on the night shift at McDonalds?

(2) If you find yourself struggling with certain tests (especially the science ones), imagine a kid with half your intelligence, a quarter of your attention span and a thousandth of your resources—a specimen we find a lot of in our system. Do you think he has the right supports to pass a test that you, a middle aged wealthy white woman, are struggling with?

(3) If the teacher is already hamstrung with a motley array of students in an overcrowded classroom with a lack of support and unsuitable standardized assessments to use, how can it be the only measure of a teacher’s success or failure? How can you measure a teacher’s effectiveness on one variable?

We’re pretty resigned to the fact that test scores will factor in teacher evaluation. However, it shouldn’t be the ONLY factor. Taking the tests yourself will convince you of this.

By the way, we’ll cut you some slack on those advanced science and math Regents. Most of us couldn’t tell Planck’s Constant from a plank at the Home Depot.

When cutting the budget, cut the fat, not the muscle.

Times are tough economically, we know. There will, inevitably, be cuts in funding from Albany which will trickle down to the schools themselves.

When you look at the budget for the coming year, remember that the school level—yes, that level that you should’ve experienced firsthand, by now—is the sinew and muscle of our system. Yet why has it been that the knife was drawn closest to this all-important skeleton?

Instead, turn your scalpel towards the people behind you in the mirror. Since you’re a smart lady, you may notice how we chuckle at the juxtaposition of DOE headquarters at the Tweed Courthouse. That courthouse was at the center of the city’s largest political scandal, and its named for the chief culprit. That insult aside, make sure that those people immediately around you are utilized the best way possible.

If not, you can definitely lay-off at the top in a professional manner (We remember the show where you talked about laying off workers effectively—nice job.)

Give Principals real autonomy—in discipline.

Principals bear the brunt of the abuse as our schools are slowly becoming all-encompassing nation-states that are built ass-backwards—a body like an Athenian and a brain like a Spartan. A lot of the hot talk is around whether principals should be given more leeway to hire and fire personnel at will, as well as more control over the school’s purse strings.

Now remember the little bastard in the classroom you were in that was so defiant he would make any classroom cringe with fear? Good luck getting him placed in a different setting. The process for removing or transferring students due to behavior problems is long and convoluted: even teachers who diligently follow up with phone calls and letters find that administrators have their hands tied as well.

So how about this: let the principals admit and expel students as the need arises, especially at the elementary level. We’re not talking about cases where the child acts up due to academic struggles. It’s about the stone-cold bad kids that have reached the end of their rope with students, teachers, parents and principals; those kids that pose a true threat to learning for everyone.

Wondering how to use closed school buildings? Use them for programs that move these “bad kids” in a more productive direction than a regular classroom would allow. If he keeps up into high school, then he can be expurgated without a fuss.

Despite what the knuckleheads think, children are left behind, sometimes by choice. It even happens in (gasp!) Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan—those bastions of academic excellence. You think every kid in Asia is on the board of directors of a car company, construction conglomerate or electronics consortium? Morons are the same the world over.

Want Teacher Quality? Stop the half-measures and go after the source.

It’s something we harp on here at the Neighborhood almost as if in a mantra: the goal is to acquire and RETAIN excellent quality teachers. Don’t listen to Rhee and the morons at TFA who think that alternative certification programs are the “silver bullet” that will finally eradicate the achievement gap.

Teaching gets better with age, and the TFA’ers don’t stick around long enough to reach that level of maturity (if they were ever that mature to begin with).

You want to get good teachers? Make teaching a respectable profession to graduates from the top universities. The only way that can happen is (a) the salaries are commensurate with other professionals. This can only happen if we have (b) teacher training programs at the university level that are as competitive and as rigorous as professional schools and higher academia.

The education programs at New York’s universities must stop becoming diploma mills for any two-bit dipstick that wants the summer off. As schools chancellor, you are in a unique position to correct this problem.

All the education programs love the deals they have with the DOE to provide training, professional development, seminars, etc. Hold their asses to the fire with these sweetheart contracts until there is evidence of major overhauls in their education departments. It’ll be a long process, but we’re willing to bet that out of it will come high-quality teachers who will stay in the system for a long time.

Just remember to pay them adequately, otherwise they will go elsewhere. That’s the price you pay for intelligent, well-trained teachers: they usually won’t stand the bullshit for long.

Stop the “Fear Culture” of communication at the DOE

This may be the most important task you can accomplish as Chancellor.

For a long time, the draconian regime of your predecessor has rhapsodized about the need for greater collaboration, communication and team-building. Yet in private, especially amongst the administrators of all-too many buildings, a culture of fear and suspicion has arisen. Complaints, suggestions, and even legal union grievances have been met with back-stabbing, reprisals and vengeful acts that demonstrate the basest venality…

(Sorry, got poetic with the vocabulary. You following all this, Chancellor?)

You, and only you, can put a stop to this. If we can see you leading by example, taking advice, compliments and criticism professionally and courteously (from teachers, parents, administrators and even students) and offering a sense of safe and fruitful dialogue, it would be a wonderful first step in creating real cohesion within our system.

I keep going back to him, but it bears repeating. Your predecessor cared little about public opinion, nor the opinions of those who toiled under him. He was often curt and even combative in interviews and press conferences. In last year’s testing fiasco, he even pointedly showed up late to community meetings in the ultimate display of cowardice.

Chancellor Black, you seem like a smart, eloquent woman. Only by using that intelligence to understand the system, its flaws, its accomplishments and its future can you succeed. Look at Rhee: she was even more stubborn about her dictatorial ways, and look at where it got her.

We bust our butts for these kids every day. The concerns addressed here have been shouted, mentioned, whispered, e-mailed and texted for many years now. It is high time that we finally find the common ground to create viable solutions to our educational problems.

Chancellor Black, we at the Neighborhood wish you the best of luck in leading this great school system. Thanks for hearing us.

PS. Did Joel leave any booze in the desk? You may need it every once in a while. Hope he left the good stuff.

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The Historic Effect—and Potential Danger—of Julian Assange

Show me a completely honest, transparent nation, and I will show you a nation that will cease to exist.

The Persian Wars. The Peloponnesian Wars. Roman Slave Revolts. The First and Second Jewish Revolts. The Crusades. The Hundred Years’ War. The French and Indian War. The American Revolution. The Napoleonic Wars. The American Civil War. World War I. World War II. The Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Vietnam. Korea.

All of these events would have ended differently had Julian Assange’s Wikileaks existed then and disclosed classified information to the public. Some of these events would’ve ended for the better. Yet most would’ve ended for the worst.

This is the problem. This is the potential impact of Julian Assange’s manic quest.

To be honest, as I perused the volumes—and I mean volumes—of documents released by Assange’s site over the year, there is no one real opinion on their immediate danger. On the one hand, military releases of troop movements, theater tactics, and potential terror targets do pose a current threat; American lives are put in immediate risk.

Yet if you look at the diplomatic dispatches and e-mails, they rarely reveal anything Earth-shattering, at least to those familiar with foreign affairs. To many in the know, it comes as no surprise that China is ready to wash their hands of Kim Jong Il and the failed North Korean state. Silvio Berlusconi’s admiration of Vladimir Putin—and signaling of closer ties between Russia and Italy—was a long time in development. And it should shock no one that the Saudis so loudly exhorted the United States to bomb Iran in order to protect their petro-fueled theocratic fiefdom.

The information itself (barring the military documents) is not really at issue. The real crisis lies in the concept of full disclosure. Assange, at least outwardly, declares that his aim is to combat the lies, deception and dishonesty of government and big business.

Either Assange is a naïve fool—or, more probable, Assange is a canny opportunist ready to cash in on privileged information.

Can a nation-state function effectively if all their cards are on display to everyone at the table? History is not on Assange’s side.

If Wikileaks existed in 480 BCE, the Persians would have known of the other passage around Thermopylae well in advance, thereby avoiding the 300 Spartans lying in wait and heading straight for Athens and Sparta itself.

If Wikileaks existed in 71 BCE, the slave army led by Spartacus would have known of the Apennine passes that could’ve caused Roman armies to outflank him, drawing out the rebellion and depleting Roman power.

If Wikileaks existed in 1776 through 1781, it would’ve released the names and identities of the members of the Culper Spy Ring, a ring of patriot spies on Long Island that were absolutely necessary to George Washington in helping to defeat the British in the American Revolution. Those identities were so secret that the public didn’t learn of them until the late 1930s.

If Wikileaks existed in 1914, it would’ve released the secret dispatches between Germany and Mexico well before the infamous Zimmermann Note, urging the Mexican government to wage war on the United States. Our entry into World War I may have been accelerated, and who knows what would’ve happened.

If Wikileaks existed in 1941, it would’ve released the notes and research from British intelligence at Bletchley Park, especially their work on breaking the Enigma code, a secret German code used to communicate U-Boat movements at sea.

If Wikileaks existed in 1943, it would’ve released the Navajo code used by the US Marines in sending coded messages to our Marines in the Pacific theater—much to the delight of our Japanese opponents.

If Wikileaks existed in 1949, it would’ve released the flight status and schedules of cargo planes dropping supplies on a besieged Berlin during the Berlin Airlift. Don’t be surprised if squadrons of Soviet MiGs were just itching for those schedules.

If Wikileaks existed in 1962, during 13 terrible days in November, God knows what would’ve happened.

It may be unpleasant. It may be distasteful. It may even be undemocratic. Yet the brutal reality is that most of our effective policymaking happens behind closed doors outside of the public eye. If everything were held public, if everything were up for public scrutiny and debate, nothing would be accomplished.

If Assange’s motives are altruistic, then his end result would be a hyper-sized version of the New England town meeting, where every policy decision is debated, re-debated, amended, and voted on by all constituents. Even in New England, this model of direct democracy doesn’t work, especially for larger municipalities.

What then would lead a rational person to believe that this method would work for a planet of 6-7 billion people—especially since a large chunk of them don’t have access to decent electricity, let alone a computer with Internet access?

Yet Assange’s handiwork has an even more dangerous potential. His goal of undermining secrecy and subterfuge is a threat against our individuality, both our own and our respective nations.

As individuals, our identity is based on the fact that there is something about us that is unique from our neighbors. Part of that unique character is our information. Few of us, Assange included, would be willing to let our personal lives be an open book for the world to see.

Yet once our secrets are revealed, a part of our identity is lost. If Assange can create such havoc for governments and companies, what is to stop him from releasing massive lists of IRS tax returns, Social Security numbers, report cards—even e-mail addresses and passwords?

Mind you, this isn’t Facebook, a site where one voluntarily gives up some of their privacy—and can even regulate what is shown to the public. Wikileaks seems hellbent on making every person on the planet a public figure against their will. It’s tantamount to specicide, a murderous attack on all human beings.

Nations and governments, like individuals, also rely on privileged information to set them apart from their counterparts. If Julian Assange thinks that he can create a one-world government just by baring the secrets of the world at everyone’s feet, then he is in for a rude awakening.

Wikileaks will not stop secrets. Wikileaks will not stop espionage. Wikileaks will not stop closed-door meetings. It did-and will continue to-affect the security of national information. Even more ironically, Wikileaks has adversely affected the freedom of access to documents that SHOULD be accessible to all Americans.

Yet the potential dangers of Assange’s mischief are too tragic to ignore. His attacks on secrecy have already caused irreparable damage to our national security. It has embarrassed and dismantled years of diplomacy among nations.

Even more importantly, Wikileaks is an attack on national and individual identity. The nations of the world, not just the United States, must recognize this.

Julian Assange is no fool. He even has masses of followers and disciples; computer hackers, programmers and the like willing to break into any computer for the best information.

This is why his work is so dangerous: his extortion of information (potentially for monetary reasons) amounts to an act of terrorism that could pale in comparison to any missile or pipe bomb.

For the first time in this century, the nations of this planet could finally unite in a common cause: protecting their very individuality against a common threat.

That threat is Julian Assange—a man much more dangerous than Osama bin Laden or Kim Jong Il.

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