Category Archives: history

Melanie Wilkes, Feminist

Recently, Richard Brookhiser (an essential follow for history buffs) tweeted:

I had a number of picks, none of which was Gone with the Wind, which I consider excellent moviemaking, but risible history. But naturally, someone mentioned it and Brookhiser opened it to the crowd, appropriately mentioning its “lost cause” ideology, while praising it as moviemaking.

I mentioned that Mellie was one of the greatest feminist characters of all time, and someone caviled. Mellie? Scarlett is the one feminists love.

True, Scarlett is the character more typically celebrated by feminists, at least before GWTW became off limits to praise. But when I first read Gone With the Wind in my teens, I was appalled. Scarlett is a loathsome, selfish, vain, cowardly little monster, a characterization the movie does little to soften.

So for a good decade or more, I shrugged off Gone with the Wind.  Eventually I saw it on the big screen and tempered my dislike; the story is beautifully told, the acting from top to bottom is tremendous, and as spectacle it’s impressive.

I’m not sure when I first realized that Melanie Wilkes, played by the great Olivia De Havilland, was the tremendous feminist model that others saw in Scarlett. I do know that from the first time I watched it to now, I preferred Melanie.  Sometime in the 90s, though, I realized that she, not the tempestuous Scarlett, is the exemplar of a powerful female character. De Havilland’s Melanie is, in my view, one of the five great feminist movie roles of all time (the others: Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, Faye Dunaway in Network, Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.)

You can easily watch GWTW and see only Melanie’s story. She is a happy woman who was given the gift of a man she adored above all others. From the movie’s first moments to the last of her life, her face lights up in his presence. She wants only to give Ashley a home and a family, and to be a mother and wife. But Ashley must  fight for The Cause, so she must  support him and the other brave men fighting for their country and the right to own slaves. She nurses and works endlessly to the extent her body will allow. She gives every bit of her strength to help in the war so that her Ashley can come home. She is warm and accepting based on others’ character and motives, unheeding of social standing.  She deliberately chooses to get pregnant in the middle of a war despite the risk to her health and financial security, because Ashley’s legacy must be carried on. (The movie is quite frank about Ashley and Melanie’s intention on Christmas Eve ; note Scarlett’s reaction as the two of them go up to bed.) She gives up her wedding ring, a cherished symbol of her marriage, to help support the Confederate Army (although Rhett Butler gets it back). And despite Ashley’s helpless infatuation with Scarlett, the Wilkes’ marriage is a strong one. Notice that Scarlett, for all her protestations of devotion, doesn’t waste a second glance on the ex-soldier she thinks is coming to beg. It’s Melanie who instantly recognizes the distant, shabby figure as her beloved husband, in a homecoming ranked second or third to  Sounder’s “running scene” and the two from Best Years of Our Lives.

She’s “just” a wife and mother. What else was possible in the 1860s south?

But Melanie’s onscreen action rarely involves cooking or childcare. She works with Rhett Butler to stage manage a show that gives the wounded Ashley an alibi, protecting him from Ward Bond’s Yankee captain. None of it is planned. She’s using pure wits while following Rhett’s cues. Watch the fine, upright, honest Mellie lie serenely to keep her husband from a Yankee prison, after Ashley, along with Scarlett’s husband Frank Kennedy, went to clear out the shanty town where Scarlett was attacked–“what a great many of our Southern gentleman have been called upon to do for our protection.”

And when those Southern gentlemen aren’t around? Well, notice that same night, when her husband isn’t home, she has a gun nearby to protect her guests. Or, most notably , she grabs her father’s sword to protect her baby from a raiding Yankee soldier who’d fought to free their slaves. Scarlett got there first, of course. But Mellie was ready to fight for her own, despite being “weak as a kitten” from blood loss during child birth.

“Scarlett, you killed him! I’m glad you killed him.”  And then Mellie, still  faint and dizzy, helps Scarlett pilfer his pockets and hid the body, being quickheaded enough to lie about the noise. (She also takes off her nightgown to absorb the soldier’s blood, giving her the movie’s only nude scene.)

After the war, Melanie more won’t hear a word bad about Scarlett,  not from  Belle Watling, who helped save her husband, not from her other sister-in-law India, not from anyone. The only cross word she ever has for her husband came when he tried to escape Scarlett’s attentions and move his family away from Atlanta. Scarlett wouldn’t hear of it and starts to cry. Melanie is outraged at her husband’s ungrateful, ungentlemanly behavior.

Melanie’s staunch, unquestioning devotion to Scarlett leads many to dismiss her as saccharine, but she is manifestly not a a goody goody. When her sister-in-law and husband are caught in a compromising position, and Rhett forces his wife to go to Ashley’s birthday party, Melanie shoves all that social disapproval right back in the town’s face, insisting they recognize Scarlett’s existence.

For some number of years, I considered Melanie’s only weakness to be her bizarre refusal to see Scarlett as evil, conniving, and weak.  Then one day I suddenly noticed that Melanie never once called Scarlett nice, or warm, or loyal, or any of the qualities that she herself had. Instead, she talks about Scarlett’s bravery. Scarlett saved them in Atlanta. Scarlett protected Melanie and her son. Scarlett found a way to help the families survive. Scarlett rebuilt their family’s fortune by marrying her sister’s fiancee.

I realized that all of these things were, well, true. Scarlett could have left Melanie in Atlanta.  She could have been the model of helpless futility through Mellie’s childbirth, running screaming from the house at the sight of bodily fluids just as she did from the hospital during a soldier’s amputation. But she boils water and hangs tough, encouraging the nobler Mellie to scream as loud as she wanted. She could have ignored Mellie’s desire to preserve her father’s sword but wraps it up to give her some peace of mind.  She saved Melanie and Beau, and got them all out of Atlanta, including the annoying Prissie. She could have run away from her family, leaving them all there to starve.  Instead she rebuilt her family’s fortune, which her sister never could have done with Frank Kennedy. She went to Ashley’s birthday party, even expecting Mellie and the town’s society to wither her with rejection. She did almost nothing without a hefty dose of whining. She did many loathsome things, hiring prisoners and hitting slaves. But everyone who hated her benefited from her courage and furious willfulness, and only Melanie understood that.

Through Melanie’s admiration, I’ve come to a reluctant and qualified admiration of Scarlett herself. Scarlett was awful, yes, but her actions do show her to be worthy of Melanie’s trust and support. And yes, precisely because she continually does the right thing even when she longs not to, Scarlett is a great feminist character, for good and bad. (She’s still not in my top five, though.)

****************************************************************************

Gone with the Wind is going through hard times right now.  If in a year or three it’s banished from TCM and movie revival houses and the AFI top 100 (much less the top 10 position it now holds), I won’t be surprised. It’s not a perfect film. But Ingrid Bergman has very little to do in Casablanca, and Diane Keaton even less in The Godfather , both perfect films about men.  It’s another dozen movies down the AFI list until we find All About Eve and Double Indemnity, movies where women as heroes and villains drive the plot.

If I were going to show GWTW in a history class, I would use it as a means of exploring early movie attitudes on race. When I teach US history I focus more attention on the early 1900s than 1965 and beyond. The debate between Booker T. Washington and WEB Dubois is still compelling and relevant to our lives today. Booker and W.E.B. and black society had to build political power during the Jim Crow era, without TV, before the Great Migration had transformed cities and created voting blocs.  We explore the degree to which blacks could simultaneously use their political clout yet be virtually banned from voting in many states.

My students were surprised to learn that in the Jim Crow era, African Americans were able to protest Birth of a Nation in Boston and other cities, leading several states to ban the movie. The NAACP grew its membership considerably during this era, and while the racist Woodrow Wilson may or may not have called the movie “history written in lightning”, the resulting tensions led him to retract his endorsement.  Warren G. Harding was in many ways a terrible president, but his Birmingham civil rights speech, followed by Calvin Coolidge’s open and engaged support also enabled further extension of civil rights, although the Depression and Herbert Hoover led blacks to switch to the Democrats. But by 1938, blacks had sufficient political and ecnomic clout that David O. Selznick sought script approval from the NAACP, and (reluctantly) dropped the use of the n-word. (Selznick thought that it would be okay if blacks used the word.)

I’d be much more tempted to show GWTW in an English class, though. I want my students to feel the kind of passion that leads people to debate and care and argue about fictional characters, and I think this film inspires that kind of passion.

Yes, GWTW promotes the  false “lost cause” view of the Civil War. Yes, the characters hate the Yankees who  died to free the slaves. Yes, Prissie is a terrible caricature. But Hattie McDaniel, who beat out De Havilland for Best Supporting Actress, creates a spectacular character in Mammy, a performance that black actors weren’t really allowed to match until Sidney Poitier’s work in the 50s and 60s. Watch this amazing, single shot up the stairs by Mammy and Mellie. We never see the rage between Rhett and Scarlett as they mourn their daughter’s death. We don’t have to. It’s all in McDaniel’s voice and de Havilland’s muted reactions. How can we show our students the amazing talent of African Americans shining through despite their restricted opportunities if we demand all the movies meet our current norms?

And now, some words about De Havilland who, unlike every other white starlet in Hollywood, wanted to play Melanie, not Scarlett. A much bigger star than Vivian Leigh ever was, de Havilland uses her charisma and presence in service of Melanie’s character, which she  well understood, to create a warm and compelling character out of a role that many other actresses made vapid and sickly sweet.

At 101, she’s still with us. She’s suing the producers and director of  Feud;  her case has survived an attempt to dismiss and begins in November. She changed the history of Hollywood  by suing, so who knows how this will turn out?

She is amazing as Melanie and charming as Maid Marian, but her finest performance is as Catherine Sloper in The Heiress, for which she received her second Oscar. Both movies originate from American fiction to which both stayed amazingly faithful, but while GWTW never aspired to be literature, Washington Square by Henry James is an American classic. The movie is quotable, beautiful, and one of the most psychologically painful movies you will ever run into.  Don’t take my word for it. Ask Martin Scorcese.

 

 

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Statistics of Slaves

I vowed to spend May documenting all the curriculum I’ve built that’s kept me from writing much. But writing up lesson always takes forever, so I don’t know how much I’ll get done.

I’ve revamped a lot of my history course since I first taught it in the fall of 2014,  but this lesson has remained largely unchanged. I was looking for data, originally for a lecture, on the growth of slavery after Eli Whitney went south for a visit.  I found this report with a most gruesome title. After spending an hour or four attempting to capture the information, the horror of it, in a lecture, I suddenly realized how much better it would work to let the kids capture and represent the data themselves.

So after a brief lecture on cotton ginning, before and after, the students get the second page of the report, with the slave census data from 1790 through 1860. I always assign states by group–the eleven eventual confederate, the four border, and New Jersey for contrast, so usually each group gets four states.I then go through a brief review of Percent Change (“change in value over ORIGINAL value”, please) .

The assignment: For each state, calculate the percentage change each decade. Create Create a column graph showing the real change each decade, with the percentage change shown at the top of the column.

Once all four states in the groups are graphed, compare the growth rates.

The work so far has been done on whiteboards. Some of the whiteboards are small, for personal use. In other cases, the students did the work directly on my whiteboard walls.

LASlavegrowth

Student work: Louisiana slavery growth, 1810-1860

GASlaveGrowth

Student work: Georgia slavery growth, 1790-1860

NCSlaveStats

Student work: North Carolina slavery growth, 1810-1860

ALSlaveStats

Student work: Alabama slavery growth, 1800-1860

Right about now, the students realize it’d be much easier to compare the growth rates if they’d used a common scale. Meanwhile, I’d found it difficult to group the states in such a way that each group got a representative sample of growth rates.

In prior years, I’d just lectured through some examples. But my class was much more manageable this year, and for some reason I realized Oh, hey. A teachable moment.

Their “statistics of slavery” handout was doublesided with graph paper. After everyone had finished their group of graphs, I took pictures of any small whiteboard graphs and displayed them on the smart board.

The assignment: quickly graph a line sketch representing the slavery trends in each states using CONSISTENT AXES.  x is year, with  1790 as x=0, or the y-intercept. y is the number of slaves, using 100K chunks through 500K.  No need to capture specific percentage growth, but the graph should reveal it. Something in between “graph every single point” and “just connect the beginning and end value.”

They did really well. A few of them forgot what I said about consistent axes–and mind you, I said this some EIGHTY TIMES but no, I’m not bitter.

SDAInconsistent SDAConsistent

Happily, most compilations got the full 5 of 5, just like the kid on the right (you can see where I corrected his first two).

So these graphs really allowed for informed discussion. (A couple students said “Wow, I actually get slope now.”)  The students were able to identify states that saw tremendous growth vs states with slow or static growth.

Why would states have different growth rates? I reminded them of the national ban on slave trade. Where would slaves come from? And so to the domestic slave trade, another cheerful topic. Unlike the Caribbean slave population, slaves in North America increased their population through natural increase. States that cultivated tobacco exhausted the soil and, as Thomas Jefferson put it  in a letter to Washington, “Manure does not enter into this [soil restoration], because we can buy  an acre of new land cheaper than we can manure an old one.”  People just up and moved, or bought more land, when the productivity dropped, and so the state populations declined. Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, and North Carolina, tobacco states all, sold their excess slaves to the cotton states.

Interesting note 1: Washington and Madison were both passionately interested in saving Virginia’s soil. Washington abandoned tobacco early, converting to wheat and other less damaging crops. He consulted with many English experts on best practices in soil management. Madison tried to spearhead agricultural reform, but ran up against the southern dislike of centralization.

Interesting note 2: Virginia was a southern agricultural powerhouse despite its reduced tobacco crop, but its primary product was wheat, produced primarily by non-slaveholders in Shenandoah Valley, not tobacco or cotton produced by slaveholders. (Remember, Jimmy Stewart’s Anderson clan wasn’t interested in fighting for the Confederacy.)

Studying slavery reminds me of how seemingly obvious goodness probably wasn’t. So, for example, the south had constraints on manumission. Slaveholders couldn’t even free their slaves if they wanted to! Slave states didn’t want them setting a bad example! Except the constraints existed in no small part because slaveholders dumped older slaves incapable of work, putting indigent elderly slaves  with no family and no means of supporting themselves out on the street. Most of the manumission laws specified age and remuneration requirements, and most didn’t ban the emancipation of young, healthy slaves. So manumission constraints were at least in part about protecting elderly ex-slaves. But would a slave  rather be free, even if impoverished, than living as property?

Or the debate about ending the slave trade, during the Constitutional Convention, when George Mason gave a fine speech, accurately laying out the arguments against slavery–it discourages free labor, gives poor people a distaste for work done by slaves, turns slaveowning men into petty tyrants.  And then General Pinckney says, yo, fine talk from a Virginian, whose huge slave population instantly gets more valuable if we stop bringing in new ones.

What was Pinckney saying? The kids were mystified.

“Why would Virginia’s slaves get more valuable?” asked Eddie.

“Well, remember, this is banning slave trade. Not slavery. The Constitution didn’t give the federal government the right to ban slavery. So if slavery still existed, but no new slaves were being imported, the only slaves being created would be here in America.”

“Yeah, but I don’t see what makes them more valuable?” Jia was confused.

I paused. “Think about supply and demand. What would banning slave trade do to supply?”

“It would go….down.” Jun.

“Right. But demand isn’t decreasing. South Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, they need slaves.

“They won’t be able to get anymore, though, because there won’t be any more slave trade,” offered Lee.

I stopped moving, wait until eyes are on me. (Teaching’s all about the performance.)

“There will be more slaves. The slaves themselves are having children, right?” I had barely gotten the words out when Lee figured it out, and he literally gasped.

“Yeah. It’s horrible. When the federal government banned slave trade, Virginia had more slaves than any other state. And thanks to lousy farming practices, its land wasn’t much good for tobacco. But as slaves met, married, and had children, lo! the Virginians had a ready made product for sale.” More kids got it and groaned.

“That’s where the phrase ‘sold me down the river’ came from. The phrase means to betray someone. But originally, it referred to a slave whose Virginia or Kentucky owner sold them to the cotton plantations in the deep south, Mississippi or Alabama.”

“So banning slave trade was done to increase the value of slaves?”

“I’m…pretty sure that’s not true. Remember that before the cotton gin came about, many of the founding fathers really did seem to think slavery would fade out, although they were fuzzy on how that would happen. But certainly, South Carolinians would be the ones to identify the market opportunity for another state.”

Anyway.

Another little data analysis activity, done earlier than the slavery stats above: read a series of Wikipedia entries to determine when Northern states freed their slaves, then create a timeline with color-coded data. “I” was banning importation, B meant banning slavery, (“g” meant ban was gradual).    All students had to color code the dates for importing bans and slavery bans. This student came up with the idea of an identifier for those states that gave blacks the vote, and those that restricted the right to vote, particularly after the fact.

Anyway, I wanted the students to realize that organizing data can lead to insights. In this case, the bulk of the Northern states banned importation and slavery in the same 20 year cluster. New York and New Jersey stand out in sharp contrast. Another oddness: Rhode Island banned slavery earlier than it did imports, for the obvious reason that Rhode Island was the epicenter of the slave trade.

20170307_110109

I never liked all the stories about slaves quarters, and jumping the broom, and so on. Not that they aren’t interesting, but they don’t carry the weight of data, of seeing the huge numbers. Of realizing that manumission might be a way to dump non-productive workers, or that ending slave trade might be a business move to increase property value.

It’s too much like Anne Frank, or the Anne Frank that her loving dad created. Whenever I hear kids say “Oh, I identified with Anne sooooooo much!” I want to smack something. She lived in an attic for two years. She was then sent to a concentration camp where she held onto life for six month and then died of typhus, her body crawling with lice, just a month or so before liberation. Identifying with that level of suffering is well-nigh impossible, so spare me your virtue signaling, you teen drama queen. Hrmph.


Teaching Elections and the Electoral College

I couldn’t be more pleased with my US History class. First, the behavior issues are far less severe. I’m not sure why. Last time I taught, two years ago, each of my two classes had ridiculous behavior challenges of the sort I hadn’t dealt with since leaving Algebra 1 behind, thus triggering PTSD attacks and flashbacks. I had been prepared for that possibility, since US History, unlike AP, has a huge range of abilities, so I thought maybe the occasional unmanageable was just the price of admission.

But this year, I have no major challenges thus far, despite having a few unmotivated students. I don’t think I’ve dramatically improved my classroom management skills. At first, I just thought it was lucky chance, but a month in, it’s clear some students could produce the same challenge of years past. Yet they’re not nearly the hassle.

Tentatively, I’m thinking that my curriculum has helped. Rather than starting with early migration patterns, I kicked off with the 2016 election, and then went back to other elections. Competitions are naturally interesting.

I revamped the Question 1 unit from my original plans. Sectionalism will get moved to Question 2, mostly, with some in Question 3. Colonial history got moved to the immigration section, which I think is now Question 4. I only lightly touched on women getting the franchise–I’m going to put that in Question 3, paying the bills.

So what was left in Question 1:

  1. What is the electoral college?
  2. Why does the electoral college exist? Move from Articles to Constitution, small states vs large states, slavery representation.
  3. Political systems: America is a two party country. To oversimplify, one party has historically represented economic and business concerns, the other representing the rights and interests of the individual. (So, class, which party would you think championed abolition, the end of slavery? WRONG! But thanks for playing. They’re very interested in seeing how that came about.) So periodically, we’ll cover the political systems in effect at the time. This go-round, I covered Federalist-Democrat Republican split purely in terms of its existence, and Democrat-Republican split on tariffs. I’ll bring up additional details each cycle.
  4. Expansion of the franchise in the 19th century–specifically, white men without property and black men, as well as the failure to expand it to women.
  5. Elections: The elections with a EV/PV split, while perfectly legit constitutionally, have all been unusual. Two probably involved fraud or intimidation. I also threw in two early elections and Tyler’s assumption of the presidency.

This isn’t a government class, but we looked at Amendments 12-15.
Elections covered in this order:

  • I used the 2016 election to illustrate, which was a romping success and set the tone for the class.
  • After covering the Constitutional Compromises, we looked at the 1796 and 1800 elections–the first to show the unexpected consequences of “first place, second place” in light of the development of parties, the second to show the results of the 3/5ths Compromise.
  • The Corrupt Bargain of 1824
  • Tyler and the Vice Presidency: I included this because it seemed the right place. It wasn’t obvious that the Vice President would assume the presidential role until he said well, yeah, it is.
  • The End of Reconstruction, Compromise of 1877.
  • Election of 2000–out of order, because I had to take a day off for algebra 2 planning. So they watched (and mostly didn’t understand) Recount and then I finished up with that one.
  • Election of 1888

Methods: varied. I did more lecturing than last time, but still a lot of variety. So for the 1800 election, they read about the 3/5ths compromise and used census data to calculate how many extra votes were handed to Thomas Jefferson and what would have happened otherwise (thanks, Garry Wills!). For the Corrupt Bargain, they evaluated Henry Clay’s predictions and compared them to the actual electoral votes–and then compared actual electoral votes to the House vote. They did a lot of reading, usually in class-led situations (otherwise, they won’t do it), including longer pieces on Reconstruction and the Whisky Rebellion. I covered the 2000 election with a CNN documentary and a NY Times retrospective. Then I jigsawed the election of 1888, giving eight groups a different aspect to cover.

One of my favorite activities was on the 15th amendment–I created a group of profiles–black sharecropper, white female abolitionist in Ohio, white former slave owner, Hispanic Texan, married female ex-slave in Mississippi, etc. Then they considered how each person might feel about expanding the franchise. Would a black woman in Kentucky want women to get the franchise, or would that just increase the number of whites voting against issues that mattered to her? Would a black man in New York have different opinions about giving white women the vote than one in South Carolina? Why might a white woman in Kentucky have different opinions about abolition than a white woman in Ohio? And so on. We focused on the franchise not as a right, but rather as a pragmatic consideration–who’s going to vote for the things I want? Then we revisited the issue in 2000 and 2016 with the different views on voter identification.

Onwards. If you’re interested in the test questions, here you go.

I love building history tests with multiple answers–which, as I’ve mentioned, become True/False.

They did pretty well. This was a tough test. Highest score: 91%. Student performance showed a clear pattern: they knew some topics better than others, but the topics varied. Which means it wasn’t my teaching or the curriculum that determined the variance.

I figured out a way to weight half the results at 2 points, the other half at one point, giving each student more credit for the questions they knew well. This boosted everyone’s grade 10-20% over what a straight percentage calculation would have done (except for the high scorer, who I calculated as a percentage).

I also corrected the tests without actually writing on them, just putting the total correct at the bottom of each page. Students will be able to research the actual answers, write up a brief analysis, and turn in the corrected test. I won’t boost their first grade, but count it as a second 10-point test, which will give another boost.

There were two tests, of course. So in one, Matthew Quay helped Benjamin Harrison (true), whereas in this one below, Quay helped Cleveland (false).

matest1800election

I thought they’d do well on this one. Love the cartoon. But performance on this really lagged.

mattylertariff

The Tyler question saw good performance overall, although some kids clearly had no clue and had blanked it out of memory. The tariff question was designed so that if a student didn’t remember Dem/Rep position, he was guaranteed to get hurt.

matcompof1877

Worst overall performance. Almost all the information for this came from a reading, and clearly a lot of them didn’t retain and didn’t study.

mat2016
mat2000recount

No student got fewer than 8 of these correct. Great performance.

matvotingrights

Generally good performance. This alerted me to students who simply weren’t paying any attention at all, since the questions covered topics throughout the unit.

matcorruptbargain

Here’s something I struggle with on grading: what do I do with students who mark D, E, and F as True? Some of them clearly weren’t random guessers. So were they not sure and hedging their bets? Or did they think each one was true, and in that case, what are they failing to put together? Also sad: the number of students who got everything right EXCEPT they thought Clay wrote this in 1888. I’m doing a lesson on how to order events mentally–I don’t think kids always think this through.
matfrances

In the “jigsaw” lesson, I needed an extra, simple topic for some weaker students and other than Hillary, no woman had been mentioned since the semester began. Frances Townsend was an interesting, off-beat topic to explore, plus she was relatively close to my students’ age when she became First Lady. But this quote was great, because it allowed me to test them on the election results as well.

Dig that Matthew Quay pickup! Hat tip and thanks to Richard Brookhiser, who put me onto the Tammany Hall connection. We covered different perspectives on what, exactly, Quay did. I really had no idea that the election of 1888 involved so much fraud. The AP US History test hasn’t covered it, at least in the years I prepped for it.

matfeddr

Really good performance on both, which surprised me because I taught this early in the semester–at the same time as the first question. I would have thought they’d remember people and results better than political parties and outcomes. Moreover, the Whiskey Rebellion was also a reading, something we only covered in a day. Weird.

It was a tough test, with relatively few clues and a great deal of reading. I also do brief essay questions, but we didn’t cover any issue in enough depth to warrant one. That will come later.


Understanding the 2016 Election, High School Edition

So my new “year” has started with the onset of the new semester. I am, oddly, teaching only 50% math. My school couldn’t find a new English teacher (note, again, the pain point for principals is hiring, not firing). Since I was already teaching a full schedule with no prep, the entire math department schedule had to be revamped to get someone to cover one of my trig classes.  So ELL, Trig, US History, Trig. Busy.

Anyway, I have kicked off my planned US History curriculum and on one day’s experience, it’s going gangbusters. I decided the students would best grasp the significance of the electoral college if we began with the recent election–give them a frame of reference as we then look back.

First, I gave them a copy of Article II, section 1 and the Twelfth Amendment, explaining that the elections we’d be reviewing would use both the original and amended text. But the big takeaway I wanted them to get for the first go-round was:  Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.

This was new information–well, more accurately, it was relevant information, something they’d clearly been wondering about. When we got to the text about the electors meeting to elect the president, I played that Martin Sheen et al video.

“These actors were trying to change the electors’ minds. As we just read, if no candidate receives more than half the electoral vote, the House of Representatives elects the president. So you can see they didn’t have to change everyone’s minds, just enough to push the vote below the halfway mark.”

“And they’re Democrats?”

“No. The House is controlled by Republicans. I have to say I never quite understood the logic of this effort.”

“Why do they keep repeating everything?” Elian asked.

“They must think we’re stupid.” Bart observed.

“I think they did it for artistic effect. But let’s move on. That’s how the president is actually elected. So now lets see how many electors each state gets. Who knows how many Senators we have?”

The guesses were all over the place until I asked for the names of our senators. Then they all figured out it was two.

“Right. Two for each state. Each state, no matter how big or small, gets two senators. And since we have 50 states, we have a total of…..” (I always wait. Are they paying attention? I get 100 back pretty quickly.) “House of Representatives works differently. The House, for reasons we’ll discuss later, assigns representatives based on population. But about a century ago, Congress froze the number of seats at 435.”

“Why?”

“Good question. We’ll explore that later. For now, I just want you guys to get an understanding of the rules on the ground.”

“So every state gets two electors, no matter what, right?” asks Pippa. “Because they have two Senators.”

“Yes, good. They actually get three, no matter what. They elected two senators and one representative, so three electoral votes.”

“That sucks,” Eddie observed. “They only get three people to represent the state.”

“Actually, that three is a good deal. Let’s just take two states: Montana, with a population of about a million, and New York, with a population of 20 million. So New York is twenty times bigger than Montana. Montana gets 3 electoral votes. Any guesses as to how many New York gets?”

“Well, if it’s twenty times bigger, they should get sixty.” Anita.

“That can’t be right, though,” observed Priya.  “New York isn’t the biggest state, and if it has 60, then how many does Texas or California have?”

“Very good.” and I passed out the worksheet I’d cobbled up. One side was an image of the country with electoral votes by state,  the other was a table looking something like this.

“Wait. New York only has 29 electoral votes? Holy crap.”

“Yeah. Now you’re starting to see. New York only gets nine times as many electoral votes, despite having twenty times as many people.”

“That’s not fair to the big states!”

“It might feel that way. However, there was a lot of reasoning that went into that decision. We’ll be talking about it later, and you can judge. For now, here’s a simple task. I want you to mark the map with the winners, as many as you remember or want to guess. Then, on the back, put your guess and then the electoral vote total in each column. I don’t expect everyone to know all of them. I just think it will be a good discussion, get you seeing how much you know or remember. Then I’ll help you fill it in.”

I was pleased to see kids filled in a good bit of the map based on their own knowledge. Many knew the South was mostly Republican. They all, without exception, called Florida for Trump. A cheering number was aware that the Rust Belt states had flipped. After ten minutes or so, I brought up the same map on my Promethean and marked it up with their results, correcting for reality as needed. During the conversation, I added in some tidbits–what the polls in each state had showed, what states Hillary never saw coming, demographic voting patterns, DC’s three electoral votes, and so on.

When we finished marking the map up, Kevin mused, “Jesus. Trump won a lot of states.”

“He did indeed.”

On instinct, I went to a browser and brought up the 2016 electoral results map.

It was a good instinct. The class literally gasped.

“Holy sh**! He won all those states?” Eduardo was aghast.

“Huh.” Eddie, as dedicated a Trump hater as ever existed, had bitterly snarked about borders in an inequalities lesson immediately after the election. I’m hoping he’ll  feel less hardly done by in the future.

Here is something I learned: the kids had been told many times that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. They understood what that meant. But not until this moment had they ever genuinely grasped the visuals of Trump’s win. What Trump’s win looked like. The map was a huge reveal. Minds weren’t changed, but perspectives were.

“Our Constitution gives voice to all citizens, but through the states. It’s a balance. It’s not always perfect. But it exists for a reason. Maybe this map gives you a sense of why.”

I had an extra fifteen minutes, so again on impulse, I brought up the classic youtube compilation of famous and influential people saying, with confidence, that Donald Trump could never win. I pointed out the lesser known ones, but they got the drift and loved it. I will note they were shocked (and not in a good way) at Seth Meyers’ disrespect. Loud applause at the end. I hit pause and got their attention.

“Here’s what I want you to know: not a single person in that compilation lost their jobs. Well. Except Obama, but his term was up. Every person on TV, acting as an expert. Every comedian. Every politician. You just saw pretty much every famous person in America laughing hysterically at the very idea that Trump might win. And none of them were held accountable. None of the media people who confidently predicted Trump had no chance of winning got fired. If you supported Hillary Clinton, you could easily have assumed you could stay home. Why bother voting? Trump couldn’t win. And when Trump won, these same media folk were all aghast. Then they ran all these stories about  devastated people, heartbroken by Trump’s victory. Rarely did you see stories on people who voted for Trump, who were thrilled at his win.”

Silence.

“I want you to go home tonight, turn on cable news–well, except Fox–and you’ll see all those people you just saw and more, talking about the demonstrations against Trump’s new immigration policy. Trump’s naming a new justice, maybe there’ll be more demonstrations. All the people on TV, many of them who are newspaper reporters talking about their own print stories, will talk about how big the demonstrations are, how meaningful they are, how important they are, how the people are speaking.”

“And when they sound certain. When they sound like experts. When they talk to experts who sound certain. I want you to remember that video. Because then it might not come as much of a shock to learn that 49% of Americans polled support Trump’s immigration EO.”

“Yeah. I get it.” Omar nodded. “It’s like the media only shows people who agree with them.”

“It’s like they don’t even realize people don’t agree with them.” said Amy.

” So if all the cool people hating on Trump, maybe no one will want to, you know, be a d*** who likes Trump.”

“But I do hate Trump!” said Eddie.

“Well, I’d like you to think about using a different word than ‘hate’. But sure. LOTS of people disagreed with Trump. More people voted who wanted Clinton, remember? That’s where we started. ”

“It’s like, don’t be fooled. Don’t think that just because all the famous people think the way you do, that everyone does.” Omar again.

” If you surround yourself with people who think just like you do and never associate with people who don’t, you might lose track of what’s normal. It’s called ‘living in a bubble’.”

“You know,” observed Pippa, “I’ve always thought it was kind of cool that Trump won.”

“WHAT???” Eddie, outraged.

“No, I hate him. I mean, I disagree with him. But now that I see that video, I think it’s even cooler. All these famous people were laughing at him.”

“Yeah, mocking him. Nasty stuff.” agreed Lennie.

“And he went out there and ignored them and took his ideas to the people. And won!”

“I swear to you, Pippa, that’s exactly what I love about this election. I said that verbatim to my advisory. I truly believe that only in America, only with our rules, could someone go out and speak to the country and get the votes needed to win the presidency.”

The bell rang.

Good first day.


Teaching US History in the Trump Era

So the first semester is coming to an end, with its three different preps and an ELL class. Up next: three trig classes. Normally, I kvetch at the idea of teaching three classes in a row. By time three, I’m improvising just to relieve the sense of deja vu (which isn’t as bad as it sounds, since it usually leads to insights into the next day). But I’m unlikely to complain anyway, since this semester I came perilously close to burning out. I managed my Thanksgiving break effectively, getting in sleep, grading, gardening, and holidaying in equal measure. I welcomed Christmas in the normal fashion, without the sense of needing it as I did going into Thanksgiving. So apart from the tedium of grading a hundred plus tests at a time (as opposed to 35 each time now), there’ll be no complaints from this quarter.

And! I’m teaching US History again. Whoo and hoo. I never thought I’d see another year when I’d use all my credentials.

When I last taught it, the big challenge was balancing content. I like teaching history in a semi-linear fashion, but there’s always something interesting in the past to bring up, and I forget all about the time. (Ha, ha.) I forgave my failings because we don’t have state tests and all evidence shows kids never remember the details anyway. You know how all the curriculum folk like E.D. Hirsch, Robert Pondiscio, Dan Willingham all say “Teachers today don’t teach knowledge?” They’re goofy. We do. Trust me. We do. But they tend not to remember. That’s another story.

Anyway. I wanted to get past World War II while still teaching my favorite topics of the past, and have been mulling possibilities in my copious spare time without much progress until The Election Happened. That, coupled with some breathing room over Thanksgiving, gave me a framework.

Five Questions:

  1. Wait–the Candidate With the Most Votes Didn’t Win?
  2. Why Black Lives Matter?
  3. What does “American” Mean?
  4. How Will You Contribute to the US Economy–aka, How Will You Pay Your Bills?
  5. What do Fidel and Putin Have to Do With Us?

I’ll continue to wordsmith the questions, but I do want them to be instantly relevant to a high school junior.

Question One

Main Idea: The Electoral College plays an important role in balancing regional tensions, a role that’s remained constant even as we’ve dramatically expanded the voting pool.
I.   History of colonial development
II. Brief (I said BRIEF, Ed!) history of Revolutionary Era
III.Constitutional Convention
IV. Rise of sectionalism and the role the electoral college played in balancing power (Hartford Convention, Missouri Compromise, Nullification Crisis, Compromise of 1850).
V. Expansion of franchise: all property holders, all men (technically, all women (technically), all citizens (really).
VI. Popular Vote/EC Splits a) Jefferson-Adams (Jefferson only won EV because of slave headcount) b) The Corrupt Bargain; c) Compromise of 1876; d) Cleveland-Harrison e) Gore-Bush f) Trump-Clinton, which I’ll probably defer until later.

Question Two:
Main Idea: “Black Lives” matter because the US violated its fundamental values to achieve and maintain unity, and our African American citizens paid the price.

I.   Development of slavery (I go way back to Portugal and kidnapping, the Papal Bull and so on)
II.  The evitable roots of American slavery and its development: Jamestown, South Carolina, Bacon’s Rebellion.
II.  The rise of Cotton
III. Deeper look at sectionalism from slavery standpoint: rise of abolition, range of reasons for opposition, free black role in movement, etc.
IV.  Civil War, Reconstruction
V.    Rise of black intellectual debate (Booker T, WEB, Garvey, MLK,).
VI.  Post-Civil Rights era–I see history past the Voting Rights as rather gloomy. Maybe examine riots in 60s/70s and compare to today?

Question Three:

Main Idea: From the first Beringian wanderers to the desperate migrants hoping for a miracle in Turbo, everyone wants to find a home here. At some point, the United States imposed its will on the process. What does that mean to the world? What does the expanding definition of “American” mean to its citizens?

I.    Early Americans and Corn Cultivation (one of my favorite topics!)
II.  Age of Exploration (again, brief, Ed!)
III.  Immigration Waves and Westward Expansion
IV.   Restriction: 1888, 1924
V.   Expansion: 1965
VI.  I’m still figuring out how to organize this.

Question Four
Main Idea: The United States’ economy has changed in many ways over the years. Many people think Trump’s victory was due in part to regional dissatisfaction with those changes. How do the transformations in the past help us understand the future–or do they?

This is a big section and I’ll have to chop it down. But it’s my favorite, so I’m listing everything to see if I can find any synergies to improve coverage.

I.    Colonial Mercantilism
II.   Hamilton vs. Jefferson (again, a favorite of mine)
III.  Rise of Industry (Eli Whitney! McCormack! Industrial espionage! and so on)
IV.  The “Worker” as opposed to the farmer or merchant (Jackson Kills the Bank will make an appearance)
V.    The Rise of Mechanization and the Industrial Era (immigration will show up again here)
VII. America as Industry Giant (Ford, impact of WWI/WWII on our dominance, the automated cotton picker & Great Migration, etc), including the rise of unions (thanks to Wagner Act)
VIII. Early Computing through the WWW and Information Age
IX.   Globalization and Automation, coupled with the fall of unions.
X.   Growing–and reducing–the work force

Question Five

Main Idea: How has the United States interacted with its neighbors near and far?

As I’ve written before, I’m a big fan of Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence, and will use that as a sort of syllabus to outline key events in American foreign policy: neutrality, acquisitions, native American screwovers, world wars, and cold wars. I don’t have this one fleshed out, but the topic will definitely include the important international alliances that occurred before and during the Revolution, Founding Fathers, John Quincy Adams (you can get a hint of my thoughts here ). Then I’ll pick key events of interest in the 19th century, limiting my scope. Again, some talk of America’s position post-WWI/WWII, but bulk of time will be spent on Cold War and beyond, is my hope.

So.

I have a lot of these lessons done already. I didn’t like to lecture the last time I did the class because it was too tempting to just lecture the entire time. But with this structure, I think I’ll be able to give lectures as well as do a lot of readings and analysis. That’s the hope, anyway.

 

 


In Which Ed Explains Induction

So I’m at a Starbucks with my mentee, Bart. Bart looks like  Jared Leto playing Jesus. Many piercings, tattoos, big puppy dog eyes, long brown hair. We have been friends since his first day as a teacher, when I showed up in a (successful) effort to offer assistance, and I’m now mentoring him in his second year of induction (third year as a teacher.)

Some context: it is 6:15 pm. We both began our day at 7:15 am for a mandatory  75-minute staff development meeting, and not the sort where you’re surreptitiously grading papers while listening to required procedural instructions you’ve heard eight years in a row. No, this is intense department negotiations on curriculum and pacing. Interesting, but high intensity, and no checking out. Then our normal day.  Then we supervised our twice weekly, 90-minute sessions with about twenty kids working on science projects. Now we are at Starbucks, working on Bart’s induction project.  I don’t normally do the “teachers work long days” whine, but it had, in fact, been a long day.

Bart’s a great teacher, much adored by his students. He has his own idealistic values, like he still assigns homework because he wants kids to want to do it. I smile indulgently at such foolish romanticism. The guy spends hours working on lesson plans, writing extensive notes, building meaningful lessons and assessments. Not too much time–he’s not silly about this stuff–but he is a thoughtful person developing his practice, and he is in fact a really good teacher.

Induction is designed to engage and encourage new teachers to think productively about their practice. Bart and I had, up to this time, spent many hours in fruitful conversation, valuable to both of us, designing a year-long induction plan that interested him and would deepen his teaching experience.  He turned in his plan early, asking for feedback. I was pretty confident he’d be praised–my last mentee had done far less work under a different system and had done very well.

But alas, it was not to be. The induction administrator returned Bart’s plan politely, saying it showed real promise, but required a bunch of nitpicky changes.  In many cases, her changes expected Bart to be very detailed about the results of analytical or exploratory work that hadn’t yet happened.

I was very concerned. Bart thought the whole thing was absurd. So we were spending a few hours retooling his plan so that the wording pretended to comply with her demands. My years in corporate America have given me a thorough grounding in this task as well as an acute fear of failure; Bart has no such protection.

“What is the point of rewording all this?”

“Satisfying a bureaucrat without, you know, sex or money or drugs involved.”

“But why? I mean, why do we even have this induction nonsense?”

“Well, it all started with the achievement gap.”

“Induction will fix the achievement gap?”

“Of course not. Nothing will fix the achievement gap. So while there were some early successes, things mostly stalled out about twenty-thirty years ago.  Meanwhile, we started spending far more on education–bilingual education, increased academic requirements, special ed. Increased teachers–while our pay is about the same, we’ve had way more growth in teachers than in students. Many people noticed we had nothing to show for it, but no one seemed to notice that we are making far more demands on our students.”

“Completely unrealistic demands!”

“Of course. ” (Note: my original history here: The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform on this topic is still one of my favorites.)

“But what does this have to do with this crappy makework?”

“Well, back in the 80s, when the Nation At Risk declared that we were destroying our country and Russia would win…”

“A Nation at Risk?”

I sighed. “That’s right, you went to one of those online ed schools. It was this huge report written by conservative Repulicans arguing, basically, that American high schools are destroying the country by making school too easy. So that began a wholesale upgrade of required high school courses–except, of course, many kids weren’t capable of learning advanced material. Schools tried tracking, but they were sued out of it in diverse districts, leading us to try things like differentiation and group work and resulting in the wide range of abilities you see in your classroom today.”

“Anyway, back in the 90s, it finally began to occur to folks that not all kids were ready for this material, but rather than change the requirements, they started a big push for “readiness” at the middle school and elementary school level. This is where charters had a lot of success; it’s how KIPP made its bones. Turns out  that if you cream highly motivated kids of average ability and push testing, you can bump test scores, and back in the 90s, everyone screamed that oh, my lord, this is proof that our public schools are disasters and teachers are morons.”

“Did they have success in high school?”

“No, but of course higher test scores in elementary scores would lead to  better high school performance.”

 

“That’s idiotic. High school is much more difficult. So is that when credential tests began?”

“Well, high school teachers have had difficult credential tests going back to the 70s, a fact conveniently ignored by reformers. High school teachers are well-qualified, so we already knew that boosting teacher cognitive ability doesn’t lead to higher student test scores. But what means these pesky facts in face of enthusiasm and certainty? It’s when credential tests for elementary and middle school teachers began, though. (You can read all about it here.)”

“But induction isn’t a credential test.”

“Yeah, I’m getting there. Because, as you’ve no doubt anticipated, a wholesale increase in teacher cognitive abilities didn’t have the desired result–although it did result in a huge decrease in black and Hispanic teachers, once the fraud ring was discovered and broken up.”

“Fraud ring? Like taking tests for teachers?”

“Yep. Long story. Never mind that, while the evidence for smarter teachers getting better results is fuzzy,research shows a much stronger link for achievement if teacher and student race match…”

“Teacher and student race? You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Particularly low achieving blacks. Sucks, huh.”

“Jesus.”

“Where was I? Oh, yeah. Anyway, at some point in there progressives and conservatives found something they could agree on. It was ridiculous to assume that teachers could just….teach. They sit in ed school, which is widely agreed to be a waste of time…”

“Mine was.”

“…and do a few weeks of student teaching, and suddenly, shazam. They’re teachers! Once all the professionals sat and thought about that, they decided it was stupid. After all, these professionals had insanely great test scores and got into terrific schools, but teachers, who have our nation’s kids’ future in their hands!–go to crap schools, have low SAT scores, and then we just put them in a class. This has to change. Some of them are terrible. Some quit. Let’s  invest in their success!  Give new teachers more support. Improve student achievement.Blah blah.”

“Ah. Here’s how induction comes into it. But hasn’t it always been that way? I mean, we’ve always just put teachers into a classroom. Were they smarter? I’ve heard that in the old days teachers were smart women who couldn’t get other jobs, and now we’re all idiots.”

“In fact, teacher ability has been pretty constant. While it’s true that fewer really smart women become teachers, a whole lot of reasonably smart men did, along with the existing reasonably smart women.”

“And you’re right. It has always been this way. In the very early days, teachers were taught content. But for sixty years or more, prospective teachers have spent a year or so thinking and reading about pedagogy, six to ten weeks student teaching, and then entered the classroom.”

“All so America could invent the Internet and go to the moon.”

“Win World War II, outlast Communism, make AIDS a manageable disease, and elect a black president. But yeah, faced with the choice of accepting cognitive ability or pretending that teachers are ludicrously unprepared for the classroom, it’s an easy pick: spend billions on a useless training program for new teachers.”

“And so here we are.”

“Well, be happy Linda Darling Hammond didn’t get her way. She wants teachers train for three years after graduation before getting a job. And she’s a liberal!”

“What the hell? Here’s what I don’t get. Teaching isn’t that hard…well, it is hard. But it’s not hard in a way that training helps. It’s incredibly difficult but….exciting.”

“Well, of course.  Teaching is a performance job. Teachers have an audience. And as any actor can tell you, facing a hostile audience is a hellish proposition. Facing a hostile audience every day, eight hours a day, can’t long be borne. Facing a hostile audience of 30 or more children? Sane people run screaming if they can’t do the job.”

“So teaching has its own quality control built right in.”

“Exactly. If you are completely inept, you will quit or be fired in the unlikely event you made it past student teaching.”

“But you’re not saying everyone is a great teacher.”

“No. Everyone who continues teaching is at least an adequate teacher. And beyond adequate, no one can agree on the attributes of a great teacher. Manifestly, great teachers aren’t necessary. Adequate to good teachers are sufficient.”

“But we could do better. I mean, I would have loved to have talked to you before I started work, to get a good idea of what I was facing.”

“You wouldn’t have believed me. In fact, you didn’t believe me! Remember when I gave you that assessment test to give your kids the first day, and you were shocked because it was pre-algebra? These were geometry kids, you said. They’d finish it in 20 minutes. Um, no, I said, they’d need at least 45 and my guess more. You were polite, remember? Like who is this crazy loon.”

Bart was chagrined. “My god, you’re right. I doubted you back then. And then the test took them an hour and the average score was thirty wrong.”

“You still doubt me! You shouldn’t, of course, but teaching is hard to believe until you do it. Which is why induction is a waste.”

“Well, at least they pay you to do this. I do it for free!”

“Yep. Teaching is pay to play. Anyway, it’s seven. Let’s send this off and hope it pleases the bureaucrat.”

****************************************************

(It didn’t. The bureaucrat demanded more nonsensical changes. I wrote a cranky note.)

 

 


On John Quincy Adams and His Photograph

Of late there’s been notice that John Quincy Adams was photographed once or twice (the link is to Razib Khan’s thoughtful post). I’m not sure why the meme started; the picture has been around for decades. These articles seemed to have kicked off the trend.

The two original articles I read paid little attention to the man himself.

This is the man who authored the Monroe Doctrine declaring the US closed for settlement, who was probably the greatest Secretary of State in our history at a time when Sec of State was the second most important job in government. When Andrew Jackson overreached by invading Florida, Adams seized the opportunity to acquire the territory. When the US got involved in an ill-advised Second War for Independence and got mostly trounced, Adams negotiated the Treaty of Ghent, giving Britain next to nothing and keeping what the US had. This man, as both president and ex-President, strongly supported American nationalism and growth, but nonetheless had a relatively sympathetic policy towards native Americans and was one of the great early anti-slavery activists in Congress, routinely fighting the gag rule and, of course, defending the rights of African slaves in the Amistad case; both his opposition to slavery and his support of native Americans mark a profound difference from his much lionized successor, slaveowner and Cherokee remover Andrew Jackson.

Many who see the picture marvel that photography was around to capture a man with such a strong relationship to the founding fathers—how amazing it was that we have a picture of a man who knew Washington and Jefferson. One of the founding fathers was his dad, of course, and he knew many of the early leaders well. But arguably, he was a founding father, less than a decade younger than Alexander Hamilton. Washington—the man, not the city—considered him an extraordinary young diplomat after reading his series of articles in support of Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality. Hamilton and Jefferson fought passionately over domestic policy and saw foreign affairs largely in terms of their own ideological preferences (not that this is a bad thing), while their boss listened and decided, usually in Hamilton’s favor. But neutrality was Washington’s own priority, one he developed from his own experience and values, decidedly rejecting both of his key advisers’ advice. That the first president appointed JQA to his first diplomatic position as US minister to the Netherlands on the strength of that series, read his letters home carefully, and used phrases from those dispatches in his Farewell Address speaks to Quincy Adams’ impact on early US foreign policy.

Like his father, JQA was a cranky misogynist and an unpopular but not necessarily terrible one-term president. He shared the founding fathers’ early vision of the country as a republic, in which an elite and well-informed minority undid the will of the impassioned people, hence his acquiescence to the original Corrupt Bargain.

He had a massive stroke in the House Chamber while voting against a resolution to award medals to Mexican-American War generals (he opposed the war and its treaty saying it would only exacerbate sectional tensions and lead to civil war, and by golly, he was right), dying two days later. Abraham Lincoln was part of the delegation escorting his body home to be buried in Massachusetts.

And while we’re mentioning photographs of people who knew the founding fathers, how about a shout out for this lady on the right?

The socialite Dolly Madison carved the path for the ceremonial but none-the-less essential role for first lady, serving in that capacity for the widow Thomas Jefferson as well as for her husband James. While she didn’t personally cut down Washington’s portrait, she was unquestionably the person who identified it for rescue, along with a copy of the Declaration of Independence. She refused to leave Washington until the last minute when the British army was a few miles away, and rushed back to the city as soon as possible, understanding the importance of her symbolic presence.

But I digress.

Is there any tidbit of information in this Atlantic article or the Daily Mail piece even a tenth as interesting as any one of the facts I’ve outlined above? Both pieces are more interested in minutiae about the pebble in the man’s eye, and maybe a brief mention of hey, he knew the founding fathers!

Yes, it is insanely cool that this man lived long enough to be captured by photography—not because of who he knew, but because of who he was.


What I learned: Year 1

I thought I’d capture my big teaching discoveries year by year. In some cases, the learning will be expanded in a later post; I’ll link to any expansions later.

My first school was extremely progressive. We had weekly staff meetings; signature petitions for various Democratic causes were commonly passed around. We had a moment of silence when Edward Kennedy died. The principal met with me and mentioned that I didn’t seem, er, enthusiastic about matters that were important to the school which was unfair because I worked very hard to keep my opinions off my face and my mouth shut. That meeting was one of the few times any administrator acknowledged my existence. Weird, uncomfortable year; without question, I was let go because I wasn’t deemed sufficiently left of center.

Teaching history

I teach an AP US History Survey course every year and have excellent content knowledge in US and European history. But I’d never had to think through units on countries or eras, and my ed school work was all in math. All the discoveries I discuss were my own, although for all I know they’re basic equipment and I was just never told.

  • When studying a country, start with the physical and give the kids a map activity. Coloring in the Khyber Pass does much to help cement India’s vulnerability to invasion, and the Philippines’ placement in Southeast Asia does much to explain the term “strategically located” which, in turn, does much to explain the history of the Philippines. Be generous with the colored pencils and clever with the location activities.
  • Give them the nuts and bolts
    Logistics and economics can be unexpectedly fascinating, and I don’t understand why so many teachers ignore them. I don’t mean formal economics, but the simple nuts and bolts of money, need, and incentives, as well as the interesting unconsidered cause and effects. Male students in particular find this approach interesting. So, for example, when archaeologists found the Globe Theatre, I pointed out what a complete drag it was for the business that owned the location, which had to go through all sorts of negotiations just to get the use of their space back. Or the importance of dung in the Agricultural Revolution, and how the nitrogen-rich plants just happened to be the perfect food for livestock, which thus became more affordable, and so dumped its droppings into the land, providing still more fertilizer. A month later, we were reading a book on post-colonial India later on, in which a character picks up cattle dung to burn for fuel. Bam! Connection. The kids understood why manufacturing alone wasn’t sufficient to grow a new economy, that food production had to become much more efficient, and that using dung for fuel was robbing the land of nutrients. But they also realized that the character had no choice, which led to a greater awareness that England’s success wasn’t necessarily replicable.

  • Give them the gore.
    Trotsky got axed. Magellan got ripped to shreds. The Russian royal family got shot. Bad things happen, baby. (I had them draw pictures of Magellan’s demise. They were a hoot.)

  • Memorization isn’t automatic
    The first quiz revealed that the history facts had simply gone in one ear and out the other for several of my kids. I sat them down and gave them a talk about the importance of memorization and studying. This was news.
    “You mean, we just keep reading them over and over?”

    “Well, you can also work with a friend. Ask questions until you remember them. Come up with memory tricks to help. But here’s what will also help–understand that all that stuff we talk about, in class? It’s supposed to stay in your brain. That’s why you should take notes. But just writing it down isn’t enough–you have to remember what you write down, what you hear.

    Again, this was clearly new information (presumably because they didn’t listen the other 30 times they’d been told). But my non-performers made a quantum leap in performance that year, simply because I told them explicitly to remember what they learned. So, you know, don’t forget to tell them. And give them time to study; early success will reinforce the behavior.

English

As I described here, I designed a content-rich SSR/SSW program that did not involve the kids staring at a book they didn’t care about.

Math

I taught Geometry and Algebra I, using the CPM curriculum.
Most of my “aha” moments were more useful for the following year.

  • What kids learn, they forget.
    I love teaching test prep, but its short-term nature meant I hadn’t yet learned the merciless lack of retention skills that most kids had. And it’s much harder to remember processes (math) then facts (history).

  • Multi-step equations
    It’s May, and I suddenly notice that my kids can’t do multistep equations if I mix and match distribution and combination. This realization was essential to the ephiphany I had early the next year; without it, I might have gone another year without realizing why my kids could handle 3(x+7) = 24 but not 2x +3(x-2) + 3 = 6x + 2.

  • Binomial multiplication and factoring
    While I’m not a huge fan of CPM, I really like the generic rectangle model for this process. I still use the techniques and the documents I developed this year.

Teaching Humanities, History of Elizabethan Theater, (III)

Days 1 and 2, and 3 and 4.

Day 4 part I: Recreating History
Students use their notes and documents from Day 3 to sketch the details of an Elizabethan era theater. Fishbowl discussion: what did they sketch for seats? What about curtains? What did “backstage” look like? How do historians “fill in the blanks” when they don’t have primary evidence to point them in the right direction?

After the discussion, students took a virtual tour of the Globe theater. How would someone go about establishing the source material and accuracy of this tour?

No deliverable here. I just wanted the kids to grasp the choices involved in recreating history, whether it be for a book, a movie, or simply an image. I thought something familiar and specific would give them a better idea of how many thousands of decisions are involved in filling in those blanks. And while I can offer no tangible proof that this worked, I can say that every student had that “aha” moment, when they realized how much they didn’t know, and how every decision in a recreation can further affect our general understanding of history. The discussions were active and everyone was engaged; we had some great exchanges. One of my delightful ditzes suddenly realized she couldn’t assume that there would be bathroom stalls.

“But….the plays could be hours. What would they do? Go back outside? What if they were way up front?”

“Maybe they had pots,” offered a classmate.

I broke in with a brief history of the chamberpots.

Another student’s eyes widened. “Hey, maybe that’s where the phrase comes from–they didn’t have a”

“pot to pee in!” the class choruses.

“What about the actors, though? They had to have at least one bathroom. They didn’t even need girls’ bathrooms, right?”

One of my top historians pointed out, “But look, they didn’t even have running water back then. Did they even have toilets?”

“When did they get toilets?”

I gave them the story of Thomas Crapper and ended the segment during the ensuing hilarity.

Underneath all the fun, they really did get an inkling of the challenges involved in understanding the past. And, of course, some potty jokes.

Day 4 part II: Sonnets
Lecture on the sonnet, including its history and the two major styles (Petrarchan and Shakespearean). Students listen to five sonnets written from Shakespearean to modern times, and write responses to each. They identify the link between one of the sonnets and a modern song.

I am not a cut-and-dried planner. I’d always known that this unit would have a sonnets lesson. I’d vaguely thought of them reading the poems, which seemed unsatisfactory but I figured something would occur to me. The “something” waited until 30 minutes before class time, when I suddenly realized how much the sound of the sonnets would add to the experience, and so spent a frenetic half hour hunting down them all (mostly on youtube).

After all that, though, it went beautifully.

Day 5 and 6: Shakespeare in Love

They got all the jokes. They didn’t giggle at the sex scenes. They were engrossed by the story. They enjoyed the movie, understood the movie, and were completely aware that enjoyment and understanding came from their new content knowledge. I could tell.

So if I have a disappointment, it’s only that I would have preferred they’d be blown away by the movie. I am a film propagandist who shows movies that students would never think of watching and are nonetheless enthralled. I’m very good at this, so when I could tell that they just enjoyed the movie, it felt like a letdown.

In retrospect, though, Shakespeare in Love isn’t really a propaganda film; I’d never deliberately try to sell it to early teens. In this case, it was curriculum. And from that perspective, it worked beautifully.

Note: My kids had all been approved for R-Rated films for health class. I doubt most teachers could get away with showing SiL to freshmen otherwise.

Day 7: Content Knowledge and Art
Students write an essay on this prompt: “To what extent did content knowledge help you appreciate Shakespeare in Love?”

In fact, I had seen the answer in their faces as they watched the movie, but I wanted them to think about it.

SilFinal


Teaching Humanities, History of Elizabethan Theater (II)

See Days 1 and 2, if you’re interested.

Day 3 Part I: Elizabethan Theater Who’s Who
Students, grouped roughly by ability and content knowledge, were given different readings about key figures in the era. After reading, taking notes, and discussing, they created posters about their subject(s). The lesson ended with a “gallery walk” in which the students take notes about the key figures who weren’t part of their reading.

Yes, posters. Given my druthers, I’d have given them all four readings and 25 minutes to peruse, followed by a class discussion. But there you go. Well over half of all students I’ve worked with love making posters, and I always commiserate with the ones who don’t.

This lesson uses a form of “jigsawing”; as I’ve mentioned before, while most trendy math teaching techniques are hooey, I’ve become fond of more than a few used in history and English. Jigsawing is a terrific way to provide content by ability group. In this case, it allowed me to make sure that the students focused in on the content area most appropriate to their abilities.

So my weakest kids got the Shakespeare reading, because I wanted them to get a solid grasp on who he was, what he’d written, and some important quotes. If that was all they got from the exercise, that was a good get. Next group of kids up, I figured would be able to get the key ideas about Shakespeare from the poster, so I had them focus on the other Elizabethan playwrights. That way, they’d get some solid new information on Marlowe, Kidd, and Webster, whilst still picking up the key facts about Shakespeare. Again, if that was all they got, terrific.

Next group up, I knew, would be interested in learning about the new playwrights and would pick up the content from the poster–so they got the actors. The strongest group got Henslowe and Tilney, and the responsibility of figuring out what it was they did.

I know I’ve said this before, but I really wish I’d had an android back then, since the posters were stunningly good—not just in terms of artistic value, but in terms of how the students incorporated the readings into their posters.

In the gallery walk, each group took turns explaining their subject to the others, so they could take notes. I quizzed everyone it later, but I can’t find that document. They all knew enough to laugh at John Webster as the young boy with a violence fetish, and several were sad knowing that Marlowe must die, so the content definitely filtered in.

Day 3, Part II: Theater and its Impact on the Economy
Students reviewed pages of Philip Henslowe’s diary. What evidence did this primary document provide to support the claim that Henslowe was a producer who worked with some of the key playwrights of the day?

Using diary entries, write an essay supporting or contradicting this assertion: “The rise of the theatrical industry probably had a positive impact on London’s economy.”

I’m not sure if the pages in the attachment the pages I actually used. I spent several hours looking for three or four pages that would give them a wealth of evidence for both parts.

This was definitely an activity I designed primarily for the stronger students, and their essays showed they appreciated the challenge. However, all the students were interested. Much chortling when they discovered how much time Henslowe spent with his lawyers and on “copywrighte”.

Day 4: History In Motion
Reading and lecture on the constantly changing nature of “history”. Not only does it keep on building up, but we keep discovering more about our past. Students learn of the Swan drawing, by Johanes de Witt, which wasn’t discovered until 300 years later. Then, 30 years ago, a routine building excavation led to the discovery of Philip Henslowe’s Rose Theatre–and then the Globe was quickly located as well. But is there a cost to these discoveries? Students discuss the impact of living in a historical site.

This is the third really cool “primary” document (well, a copy of one) that I found for this unit, and I spent much of my own time researching it because it’s exactly the sort of tidbit I find fascinating.

What we know of the London theatres of Shakespeare’s age is, to a disproportionately large extent, due to the records such as diary entries left by tourists….Two of these tourists are Johannes de Witt and Aernout van Buchell, friends from the city of Utrecht, the Netherlands….To them we owe the best piece of visual evidence of what an Elizabethan theatre looked like on the inside: the sketch of the Swan theatre on Bankside, along with a brief Latin text describing the London theatre scene….First of all, it is unclear precisely what each of the two friends contributed. We do know that de Witt travelled to London, probably at some time between 1596 and 1598, and visited some theatres there, including the Swan; at some later point, he apparently gave (or sent) his sketch and written ‘Observations’ to his friend van Buchell, who copied the drawing as well as the text–or part of it. It is van Buchell’s notebook that now survives in the Utrecht University Library……There is no evidence that de Witt’s information had an immediate impact on his own culture. Sure enough, van Buchell made a copy of (some of) the information, but he never published it. Not that he was merely a collector of information for his own amusement; the documents he gathered, the facts and impressions he noted down, were made available to fellow scholars on demand for future generations. But for practical purposes, van Buchell’s main function as a go-between lies in transmitting de Witt’s sketch and observations to posterity. For some 300 years, the notebook gathered dust in libraries, until it was discovered by the German scholar Karl Theodore Gaedertz in 1888.

(Source: Renaissance go-betweens:
cultural exchange in early modern Europe
(page 79-81)

So. For centuries, we had no actual image of an Elizabethan theater. Then, for a few generations, the de Witt drawing was all we had, until The Rose was discovered, and once they had that location pinpointed, finding the Globe was pretty easy (hell, my kids found them using a 400 year old map). The past just won’t have the decency to sit still.

And yet, what of the developers? Lucky them! Their business plans had to be postponed; they had to incur additional expense to protect the Rose “until a future date”. Their building had to be suspended over the excavation. and what, exactly, will that do to the retail value of their property? Good, if the rich movie stars propose to buy it out. Bad, if the efforts never get far enough to the purchase level but stay at the annoyance level.

I told the kids about a hospital in my area moving from its old space to an empty lot that held the last orchard in an area that once was devoted to farming. I mean, couldn’t they have moved it anywhere? This orchard had somehow lasted that long, couldn’t we preserve it as the last little piece of heritage in the area?

On the other hand, the hospital can’t move there, it moves to another town, and bye bye jobs and property taxes. Discuss the degree to which we should interfere with business development in order to protect our past.

The essays were great. Heartless guttersnipes all. “Hey, it’s only trees!” “They lasted for 400 years without the theaters. What’s the big deal?”

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