Tag Archives: Education Reform

WHY MARY THORSON’S STRUGGLE IS OUR STRUGGLE

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Readers of this blog should be familiar with the story of Mary Thorson. She is the Illinois physical education teacher who took her own life on Thanksgiving Day, 2011. As the film Dying to Teach shows, as well as the piece I wrote last year entitled The Killing of Mary Thorson, Mary’s suicide was an outgrowth of harassment she faced at her school. Her harassment came not from the students she loved but from administrators who seemed bent on making her life a living hell.

Her family and friends have been devastated by the loss. While nothing will bring Mary back, some compensation might lie in exposing the circumstances behind what drove Mary to suicide. In this age of education deform, the systematic harassment of teachers is widespread. There are no accurate statistics on the rate of teacher suicides across the country. The best Mary’s loved ones could hope for, and the best anyone who dares to dedicate their lives to teaching could hope for, is to call attention to her story as a way of shedding light on what is happening in our public schools. Indeed, if the responses to my piece regarding the offensive math questions is any indication, teachers have not seen such a hostile environment since the day Socrates was forced to drink hemlock. Any teacher worth their salt knows exactly what drove Mary to such depression.

The first step was when Myra Richardson made the film Dying to Teach. Things improved when, at the last minute, I was invited to Washington, D.C. to give a short speech introducing the film at the annual Save Our Schools conference.These things, combined with my modest article, were small steps in calling attention to Mary’s story.

It has been a struggle ever since to get a major media outlet to really dig deep into the events leading up to Mary’s death. Then, not too long ago, a breakthrough occurred when CBS reporter Pamela Jones of Chicago started to take an interest in Mary’s story.

Ms. Jones saw Myra Richardson’s film, spoke to Mary’s parents and, by all accounts, wanted to give some honest coverage to this tragedy. She went to Mary’s school, Cottage Grove Middle School in Ford Heights, Illinois, to speak with the superintendent, Dr. Gregory Jackson. As we might recall, it was Dr. Jackson’s actions that seemingly played the major role in the misery Mary faced at work on a daily basis.

However, Ms. Jones was greeted with an unpleasant surprise when she arrived at the school. Nobody would grant her an interview: not a teacher, not a secretary, not a principal and certainly not Dr. Jackson. Instead, she was intercepted by someone speaking legalese who warned her to back off lest people’s jobs be endangered. Whose jobs would be endangered and why remains a mystery, although we can take a few guesses.

For my part, I find the actions of Cottage Grove Middle School to be bizarre to say the least. After all, they lost a member of their community, someone who, by all accounts, was loved and respected by her students. Regardless of Mary’s standing at the school at the time, what happened was a tragedy for them. The very least they could have done was to make a brief statement about how the loss of Mary Thorson devastated both students and staff.

This is what someone with a heart might expect anyway. However, as we know, school districts are not places with heart. They are cold, inefficient bureaucracies. They become even more so when they have something to hide. This seems like the most logical explanation for the cold shoulder received by Ms. Jones.

If she was not going to be able to get anything out of the school district, Ms. Jones was at least going to speak with Mary’s parents. She invited the Thorsons, who live in Indiana, to make the 5-hour drive over the border into Chicago for an interview. The Thorsons arrived, gave their heartfelt side of the story and Ms. Jones then spliced pieces of the interview with clips from Myra Richardson’s movie. It was supposed to air that very evening.

The key word is supposed to. At the last minute, Ms. Jones was told by an angry editor that the piece was not going to air. All of Ms. Jones’ legwork, all of the Thorsons’ time and emotional energy, was wasted for no good reason. There still has been no explanation for why her editor nixed the piece.

Perhaps the editor was worried about painting Dr. Jackson and the school district in a bad light, opening them up to a defamation lawsuit?

Perhaps, just like here in New York City, the media was afraid of upsetting the school district and, therefore, losing their privileged “access” to information and future scoops.

As someone who knows his fair share of reporters in the Tri-State area, this seems to be the number one concern of those working the education beat here. No matter what the issue is, or where the truth lies, their number one concern is not to alienate those with power within the school district. That is why sensationalized stories about teachers are rampant, the same types of stories about administrators are less rampant and stories about the educational malpractice practiced by Bloomberg, Walcott and Tweed is barely covered at all.

We can only speculate as to why CBS Chicago pulled the plug on the story. We can only speculate as to why Cottage Grove was so silent about the death of one of their own. What we do not have to speculate over is how difficult it is for teachers to get a fair hearing in the media. The Killing of Mary Thorson, much like the killing of Rigoberto Ruelas, is not an isolated incident. They are symptoms of a much deeper problem. These tragedies were outgrowths of the same environment that led to the termination of Christine Rubino and the hateful comments left by the supporters of Aziza Harding.

America hates teachers because America hates learning. How can anyone who tries to instill ideas in the next generation stand a chance in this country that brought us Fox News and reality television?

America hates teachers because America hates unions.  How can a nation of workers, most of whom are vastly underpaid, hate unions so much? It is because we also hate learning. We do not see how attacking one group of workers leads to attacks on all workers. We do not see it because we do not know how to think.

America hates teachers because Americans hate taking responsibility for things. Why hold ourselves accountable for rearing our children or alleviating poverty if we can just pass it all off on teachers?

The battle to shed real light on the true story surrounding Mary Thorson’s murder continues. Mary’s parents will never give up. Mary’s loved ones will never give up. Myra Richardson will never give up. As long as eyes are on this website, I will never give up. I sincerely hope that Pamela Jones of CBS will not give up either. Her heart is in the right place. Even though she has been temporarily cowed by her bosses at CBS she is in the right and, I like to think,  the right always triumphs in the long run.

The Killing of Mary Thorson is a tragic microcosm of the killing of our public schools, the killing of the next generation, the killing of the working class and the killing of our nation. This mass murder is taking place at the behest of very powerful and very wealthy interests who wish to subjugate the rest of us under the boot of unaccountable private power.

We can only fight back against this with enlightenment and education. We can enlighten others on an individual basis everyday. We can also hope to enlighten by getting the media spotlight for a split second and, like a bolt of lightning, illuminate the darkness around us ever-so-briefly.

The struggle of the Thorson family is our struggle. Together we can ensure that Mary Thorson was not killed in vain.

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WHAT DO MOTHER THERESA AND MICHELLE RHEE HAVE IN COMMON?

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A recent study out of Canada casts doubt on the saintly reputation of Mother Theresa. Their essential thesis is that, despite the fact she took in millions of dollars in donations, the dying people for whom she cared in Calcutta were subjected to horrible conditions. Part of this, they contend, is because Mother Theresa saw beauty in suffering.

The study is really not saying anything Christopher Hitchens did not say many years ago in his documentary Hell’s Angel:

Out of the many convincing arguments Hitchens makes the one that sticks out is that, while primitive and unsanitary conditions were good enough for the people in Calcutta, Mother Theresa herself took advantage of the best medical care the western world had to offer when she got sick. That right there is enough for me to be skeptical of her motives.

To be clear, I do not mean this to be an attack on the Catholic Church. The media hyped her up way before the church did, even though the church did nothing to dispel the hype. If anything, the church saw Mother Theresa as a useful public relations tool to help prop up dreadful church attendance around the world. The blame for Mother Theresa’s undeserved reputation for purity and virtue rest with the media and the woman herself.

Mother Theresa was comfortable hobnobbing with the world’s political and financial elite. She sung Ronald Reagan’s praises, even as he was funding illegal wars in Central America that killed many members of the Catholic Church, including clergy. Her organization pulled in millions of dollars from banksters with questionable ethics, including those associated with the infamous Keating Five. All of her photo-ops provided moral cover to people who killed, swindled and oppressed millions.

What I say here is unpopular and will most likely offend many true believers. It really is no different from the way the education debate goes in this country. The media seizes upon people associated with the elite, like Michelle Rhee for example. They attribute to her selfless motives in trying to “help” some of the most downtrodden people in society. Meanwhile, what she provides to those downtrodden people is of questionable value. The question arises: what happened with all of those millions if it is obviously not going to help people?

Yet, even suggesting such a question will elicit a fair share of vitriol. How dare we question people who have made it their life’s mission to help people? We must have our own selfish motivations. Either we are anti-religious bigots of union hacks who fear accountability.

The fact that so many believe the hype about something is the biggest reason why we should be skeptical. Instead of falling into line because it is the popular thing to do, we need to be the voice in the wilderness that brings people back down to earth. Otherwise, we run the risk of group-think, tyranny of the majority and out-and-out mob rule.

Both Mother Theresa and the education reformers want for other, usually poor, people things of which they do not avail themselves. If that does not raise a red flag then nothing will.

THE ANATOMY OF A CHARTER TAKEOVER

Eva is at it again. This time she is hell bent on invading my community. NIMBY!

Eva is at it again. This time she is hell bent on invading my community. NIMBY!

The neighborhood in which I live is called Astoria in the borough of Queens, New York City. It is culturally diverse with predominately middle and working class families. There is a heavy Greek accent to the neighborhood, even though the Greek influence has certainly waned over the years. It is one of the few neighborhoods left that is both reasonably priced and near Manhattan.

In short, our neighborhood has been getting along just fine. The public schools, generally speaking, have also been getting along just fine. Our largest high school, Long Island City, has a beautifully modern facility built by the same people who did the new Stuyvesant High School campus. The DOE has done everything in its power to destroy LIC, since such a wonderful building is prime real estate for charter school operators.

While LIC teeters on the brink, the DOE is going out of its way to set the other schools in the community on the road to ruin. Take the example of P.S. 122. It is a Kindergarten through 8th grade school that has served the Astoria community for the past three decades. The middle school portion has one of the best gifted and talented programs in the city, known as the Academy for the Intellectually Gifted. Using the DOE’s favored standard of judging schools (test scores) the Academy has been flourishing since its inception.

So, in the world of the DOE, it makes sense to get rid of it.

The DOE wants to reduce the Academy’s share of the middle school from 11 to 3 classes. They then wish to increase overall enrollment, which would turn the Academy into a miniscule  rump of a program. 122’s facilities will be taxed to the limit. Some students would have to be scheduled for lunch as early as 9:30 am. If the DOE does not provide the extra resources necessary to deal with the increased student population (and there is no reason to believe they will), enrichment programs like art, dance and health will be the first to suffer. In short, the DOE is on a mission to destroy 122.

However, the destruction of 122 is not the endgame. These new students will be siphoned off from the other public schools in the area. While 122’s facilities will be pushed to the limit, the other schools will be underutilized.

Underutilized…. Why would the DOE want to create a situation where certain schools will be underutilized?

Word around the campfire is that Eva Moskowitz, head of the Success Academy chain of charter schools, has put in an application to co-locate a couple of schools in the district. Her minions have been seen handing out their glossy fliers to passersby. It is not going out on a limb to say that the DOE is clearing out space for Eva’s Success Academy.

The upshot of this is that the students of 122, who come from working class families, will have their best ticket to a great educational future choked off. Eva can then swoop in and act as their savior by promising “better” schools. However, all that she will provide are inexperienced teachers who are trained exclusively in test prep. Meanwhile, she can line her pockets some more on the backs of working class children.

The PTA of P.S. 122 is having an open meeting tomorrow. They will figure out a plan to fight back against Eva and her merry band of privatizers. I will be there as well representing MORE.

It will be 6:3o pm at 21-21 Ditmars Boulevard. If you are in the neighborhood, or can get to the neighborhood, come on out and be on the front lines against the destruction of public education.

HOW MANY INEFFECTIVE TEACHERS ARE THERE?

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This is a question we hear being asked with greater frequency. The structure of the question is telling about the climate of teacher bashing in which we currently live. It assumes that there is some sort of numerical answer, either in a percentage or an absolute value. It assumes that we can reliably arrive at this answer. Most importantly, the existence of the question itself assumes that the “ineffective teacher” is a problem, one that presumably has a solution.

Let us say that we can arrive at a numerical answer. What do you do with that information? Do you identify the “ineffective” ones so they can be better trained? Do you merely fire them? A bit of both perhaps?

Assuming there is a core of intractably awful teachers who should be fired, what do you do next? From whence is the next generation of superstar teachers coming? This is the problem. The question of how many ineffective teachers exist is part of a wider discourse that has been inhospitable to teachers. Teacher unions are breaking, if not totally broken. We have a proliferation of new standards, uniform exams and other measures designed to hold teachers “accountable”. And make no mistake about that word “accountable”. It is not being used as a promise to better inform our practice or the quality of service we deliver to our communities. Instead, it is being brandished like a noose by a lynch mob, a mob that has been stirred into an anti-teacher frenzy by a well-funded media campaign orchestrated by so-called “reformers”. We will be held “accountable” right up until the moment our necks snap.

In an environment like this, who in their right mind would want to be a teacher? What kind of person with a 4.0 GPA would want to dedicate their life to a profession accorded so little respect? Where are these great teachers for whom the way will be cleared once we fire all the ineffective ones?

Those today who ask the question “how many ineffective teachers are there” automatically disqualify any plausible solution. It is born out of a teacher-hating environment  that discourages the potentially “effective” teachers of tomorrow from entering the profession. Add to this the rising cost of college and the raising of the bar of entry into the teaching profession (including a teacher “bar exam” here in New York State, an idea that has been supported by Randi Weingarten) and you have an environment perfectly suited towards driving anyone in their right minds away from the profession.

The foregoing assumes that there is a way to identify ineffective teachers to begin with. Reformers like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan assume they have found a way: teacher evaluation schemes that rely on student growth on test scores. Despite the fact that this has been tried in major cities like Washington, D.C. with disastrous consequences, Duncan has been scaling up the standardized testing regime with his Race to the Top program. States like New York will now judge their teachers’ effectiveness with “value added” data that have such wide margins of error as to make them useless.

The consequences of this are predictable. Teachers will merely “teach to the test”. Those who dare teach students with learning disabilities will be at greater risk of being rated “ineffective”. Teachers in Long Island will be held to the same standard as teachers in the South Bronx, despite the fact that they receive generally less funding and have more “externalities” to overcome. There will be an exodus of teachers to school districts with lower rates of poverty, crime and learning disabilities.

So why the narrative of the ineffective teacher? If we don’t even have reliable ways of identifying ineffective teachers, how do we know there are any in the system, let alone an amount that warrants wholesale reform of teacher evaluations?

It has currency with the general public because most people have been to school at some point. This fact alone seems to cause people to believe that they are some sort of authority on matters of education. Moreover, everybody is a taxpayer and, therefore, the boss of every public school teacher out there, or at least the teachers in their district.

Sadly, most of these people in the general public seem not to remember their teachers with fondness. They probably did not learn a whole heck of a lot in school, or only did so despite their teachers. I can say that, throughout my public school career, I did not learn much myself. In these instances it is easy to blame the teachers. People brandish the accountability noose in revenge for all of the crappy teachers they had when they were in school.

However, just because we did not learn much in school does not mean our teachers were ineffective. First off, I have been a student in many schools and I do not really recall any teachers who did not try to teach. There are people who seem to think that teachers drink coffee and sleep at their desks all day, even though this clearly runs counter to even their own experiences. Therefore, our not learning anything certainly was not due to our teachers not trying. So if they tried to teach us, why did we not learn? Sure, it is easy to say that they were boring. Their methods did not capture our attentions. They did not seem to care about us as people. Maybe this is true to an extent but it leaves out one thing: our own complicity in not learning.

I did not learn in school because I did not pay attention most of the time. I did not pay attention most of the time because there were other, more exciting things in the world to think about other than grammar and algebra. My mind was swirling with so many disorganized thoughts and so many fleeting desires. After all, I was a kid. Furthermore, I was a kid growing up at the end of the 20th century. There were all types of toys, commercials, television shows, popular music songs and technology out there geared specifically towards me. These were usually the images and the sounds that were dancing in my head while the teacher was talking about stuff like the Declaration of Independence. It is no wonder I did not learn anything.

Yet, here I am typing away using vocabulary, sentence structure and organized paragraphs. If I did not learn anything, how did I learn how to communicate in the English language at all? I know that it was at some point in kindergarten that I was introduced to the alphabet and how to use it. I will be damned if I remember how it was taught to me. But something stuck. Many things apparently stuck because I somehow ended up knowing stuff by the time I graduated high school. Sure, maybe I did not learn the type of detail that some of the gifted students learned but there was and still is stuff in my head. I learned and I did so despite myself.

It would be easy to chalk up my ignorance to my teachers. They did not “get” me. They were “lame”. Maybe there is some truth to that. Maybe there is also truth in the idea that I was a spoiled brat who took for granted an education that children in other nations would die to have. Alas, it is uncomfortable for people to actually believe that they once were, or still are, a bunch of brats. Politicians and education reformers certainly are not going to tell them that. So blaming teachers is easier. It lets us off the hook for our own shortcomings.

The other part to the teacher -bashing has to do with unions. Apparently, most Americans are miserable at their jobs and have the fear of being fired dangling precariously over their heads. They believe that teachers, these lazy and ineffective bums that did not “get” them when they were in school, are not miserable or insecure enough. Coming from a school of thought that holds the specter of poverty and homelessness makes workers better, people have had an obsession with eliminating “tenure” under the false impression that it means a job for life. Somehow, if teachers do not have the protections that allow them to advocate for their children and are held to accountability standards that measure how many bubbles their students fill in “correctly” over the course of 3 hours, schools will “improve”.

It is a sign of a selfish, petty and downright fearful society when one group of workers does not feel that another group of workers is suffering sufficiently. Apparently, they see no connection between stripping one group of workers of its due process rights and the deterioration of their own working conditions. It used to be that teachers were pitied because they pulled in long hours without making much money. Now they are envied because they make too much money and have some tepid job protections. Rather than attempting to get “tenure” for their own lines of work, they would rather engage in a race to the bottom where nobody has any job protections anywhere.

And this is supposed to keep the “effective” teachers while attracting more “effective” teachers in the future? I hope that people eventually think about the implications of what they are saying and realize the reformers are prescribing educational poison. You think schools sucked when you were a kid? Just wait until every teacher in America has to turn their classroom into a 180-day test-prep session.

SALMAN KHAN TRIES HIS HAND AT AMERICAN HISTORY

That's right, another big thumbs down for the Khan Academy.

That’s right, another big thumbs down for the Khan Academy.

As a glutton for punishment, I sat down to watch a brief Khan Academy video about the end of the Civil War. It is six minutes long and entitled “Appomattox Court House and Lincoln’s Assassination.” The video exemplifies many of the major problems with Khan Academy videos that have been echoed by teachers in other fields.

To be fair, Khan and his team seem to be more knowledgeable of, and focused on, math and science. From what I understand, history is one of the more undeveloped parts of the Khan Academy repertoire. Therefore, I will be criticizing Khan in one of his most vulnerable areas.

As a history teacher, I would certainly not encourage my students to use this video as a primer or a refresher on the end of the Civil War. The one thing that jumped out at me about it was how it seemed like a spoken textbook. It is probably not a stretch to think that Khan, who narrates the video, read a few paragraphs from a textbook about the end of the Civil War and summarized it in spoken word. I threw out the textbook years ago for some of the very same deficiencies found in this video.

Appomattox Court House, as you may remember from high school, was the place where Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. This is mentioned in the video. The only problem is, Khan assumes that the watcher knows who these men are. He has pictures of them and writes their names next to each of the pictures. What side they represented or what their roles were he never says. Perhaps his previous videos on the war go into a little more depth about these men. It still doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have taken an extra 30 seconds to clarify who they were in this video, especially if he meant it to be something of a primer or review.

One of the major weaknesses of the piece is how he characterizes the events of April 9, 1865 at Appomattox. He says that even though Lee surrendered, it wasn’t the “official” end of the war. There were other Confederate armies in other parts of the country that fought on beyond this date. Khan correctly points out that this was due to the slow communication technology of the era. However, it was pretty clear to anyone alive back then that the surrender of Lee meant the surrender of the south. Lee led the main Confederate Army whose role it was to protect the Confederate capital of Richmond by that point in the war. His capitulation to Grant was rightly seen as the end, as “official” an end as anyone was going to get.

It is a shame how mechanical, how stale, how dry the whole surrender was presented. He basically says that Lee (whoever that guy was) surrendered to Grant (whoever that guy was) in the city of Appomattox Court House. To his credit, he explains that Appomattox Court House was an actual town and not a building. What he did not explain was that towns back then with “Court House” in their names usually signified that they were the seat of county government. A minor detail but one he could have taken 10 seconds to explain so things could make just a little more sense.

What’s missing from his Appomattox story? First, the fact that Lee’s men were starving and deserting by that point. Grant had been burning down large swaths of the Shenandoah Valley, a major food source for Lee’s army. Desertions in the Confederate Army were a relative rarity, since Johnny Reb tended to be a motivated soldier with a fervent belief in the cause. There is no explanation of why Lee felt the need to surrender. Second, he doesn’t describe the respect both men had for each other. This is more than just a minor detail. Grant had one eye on the future. He knew he needed to treat Lee with mercy since, once again, they would be countrymen. The last thing Grant wanted to do was treat Lee’s army like a conquered people and engender more animus between North and South that might sabotage any effort to Reconstruct the Union. Indeed, the term “Appomattox Peace” has come to characterize any charitable treatment of a defeated army. Khan mentions none of this. Less importantly, there were the stylistic differences between the two men. Lee, the southern gentlemen in his finely pressed and cleaned uniform, laying his sword at the feet of the dirty and disheveled Grant, the man who was once kicked out of the army for drunkenness. If one did not know any better, it would look like Lee was the victor. Also, in one of the most memorable scenes of the war, the victorious Union soldiers raised their guns in salute of the Confederate boys who were laying down their arms. It was a show of respect between newly reunited countrymen and proof that, contrary to what Khan states, this was in fact the end of the war. These details that Khan left out are the stuff of history. These are the things that make history come alive for students. The lack of these details turns the telling of history into a rote series of events with no wider significance. Khan’s video is just as bad as a textbook in this way.

Probably the biggest deficiency in the video is his retelling of the Lincoln assassination. He claims that the war was not over the day Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater, despite the fact that Lee had surrendered 5 days before. If Khan bothered to do serious research, he might have learned that the sheer fact that Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater was proof that the war was pretty much over in his mind. For the previous 4 years, Lincoln had spent all of his waking hours at the War Department or the Oval Office keeping meticulous track of the goings-on at the battlefield. He had neglected himself in the process and certainly had no time for frivolities like plays. Because of his dedication to saving the Union, he and Mary Todd had drifted apart. Going to Ford’s Theater shows that Lincoln believed he finally had some breathing room. It was also a way to spend an evening with the wife he had neglected for 4 years.

Khan then introduces John Wilkes Booth. He correctly points out that Booth was an actor sympathetic to the south who had conspired with some buddies to pretty much decapitate the federal government. On the evening Lincoln was killed, there were plans to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. What he did not mention, and what he probably does not even know, is that Booth had originally planned to kidnap Lincoln. The kidnapping plot was the result of one of the lesser-known stories of the Civil War.

Booth had a brother in the Confederate Army who was being held as a prisoner of war in Elmira prison in upstate New York. The reason why his brother and so many soldiers of both sides were languishing in POW camps had to do with Lincoln’s changing views on the status of black people. It was customary in warfare at the time to swap POWs. You release my men, I release yours. However, the south had refused to release black prisoners they had captured from the Union Army. The Confederates considered these men contraband, or captured property, and intended to use them as slaves. Lincoln refused to agree to any POW exchanges unless the south released blacks and whites equally. The south did not budge on this, neither did Lincoln, and POWs on both sides stacked up as the war went on. Lincoln took much heat for this decision from northerners who had relatives in the south’s POW camps. At the Georgia prison in Andersonville, northern POWs were suffering from malnutrition and neglect. Many people blamed Lincoln for consigning these men to horrible fates just so he could “coddle the black man”. It was one of Lincoln’s most controversial, if not courageous, decisions as president.

Therefore, Booth had planned to kidnap Lincoln so he could exchange him for Confederate POWs, including his brother. However, as the war got progressively hopeless for the south, Booth and his cabal went for a full-fledged assassination conspiracy to throw the north into disarray. Perhaps this was the thing that could turn the war around for the south. Khan doesn’t mention this. He turns one of the most fascinating stories in American history into a dry, semi-factual rundown.

Booth was one of the nation’s most famous actors who had played Ford Theater many times in his life. He had pretty much unlimited access to come and go as he pleased. After all, who would tell Tom Cruise today that he could not walk into a movie theater when he felt like it? The name of the play that Lincoln was scheduled to see was Our American Cousin, a comedy with which Booth was very familiar. His plan was to pull the trigger at a point in the play where the crowd would be laughing, a line where one of the characters calls another character a “sockdologizing old mantrap”. Khan correctly mentions that Lincoln’s security detail, stationed at the feet of the steps to his balcony, had disappeared. No president had ever been assassinated before, so the lax presidential security during the 1860s was understandable. Booth made his way up the stairs, waited for the line and pulled the trigger to his derringer. Mary Todd screamed. Lincoln’s guest, Major Henry Rathbone (Lincoln originally invited General Grant), wrestled with Booth, only to be stabbed in the arm. Booth jumped off the balcony onto the stage, breaking his ankle when his boot got caught on the American flag draped over the presidential balcony. He yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannus. The South is Avenged!” before hobbling off the stage and making his way outside to his horse, where he immediately pistol whipped the poor peanut vendor who was good enough to be holding it for him. Booth was on the run for two weeks before being shot up in a blaze of glory out in the Maryland woods. Khan doesn’t mention any of these details, details that bring life to the story. He does mention that people thought it might have been part of the play, which accounted for why nobody rushed to tackle Booth. Lincoln was brought to a house across the street where he died the next morning.

Khan sort of glosses over the rest of the story. He says the other conspirators were not as successful in killing their targets as was Booth. What he does not mention was that the guy slated to kill Johnson got drunk and chickened out instead. He does mention that Seward got stabbed in the face but never explains why. Seward had been in a carriage accident and was bedridden in a body cast. Lewis Powell, one of Booth’s co-conspirators, knocked on Seward’s door telling the butler the doctor sent him to drop off some medicine that he needed to show Seward how to administer. The butler let him. Powell then walked up the stairs where he encountered Seward’s son, who was suspicious of the stranger. He was going to tell Powell to take a hike when Seward’s daughter popped her head out of the bedroom saying “Papa will see you now.” This gave away the room in which Seward was staying. He struggled past Seward’s son, ran into the room, jumped on top of Seward in the bed and began stabbing at him. Seward’s cast deflected most of the blows. Powell could only stab Seward in the face, which was the only uncovered part of Seward’s body. Powell was then subdued.

The only real story Khan tells is the one of the man whose house was used as the spot for Lee’s surrender. This man had lived near Bull Run Creek and the first battle of the war was fought on his property. In order to avoid future battles, he moved further into Virginia to Appomattox, where the last battle would also be fought on his property. It is a nice story but it is found in every single history textbook as one of those cute little side columns they put in order to make an otherwise stale retelling of history somewhat interesting. Khan does the same exact thing in this video, which leads me to think he actually did just read out of a textbook.

These are the things that Khan left out. One can argue that mentioning these things would have made the video longer and less accessible. I argue the video is inaccessible as it is now. Not only is it a sterile retelling of incomplete facts that he fails to connect to each other, it is boring as all bloody hell. It is the type of “teaching” a novice does when they are one chapter ahead of the class in the textbook. It is the type of “teaching” to be expected from someone with no knowledge of the subject.

Why not get an historian to tell the story? Why not do more research to make the story alive? Barring these things, why do the video at all? It teaches very little and in the most boring imaginable way. If you wanted to turn someone off to history or have a student write off history as nothing more than disconnected and useless facts or dates, this is the video I would use.

I know Khan fans will chime in with their defenses. You can save your apologies. Neither me nor any other real history teacher needs any help from Khan and his band of non-educators. I never asked for his videos or tools and I see absolutely no value in them. On top of it, I see it as insulting that Khan believes it is sufficient to read a few paragraphs out of a textbook, gather some pictures and draw some dates and names on a screen and pass it off as a history lesson.

You want history? Read a book. You want to teach history? Know your subject. Anything else is merely shortchanging the people you claim to want to help.

AIN’T NOTHIN’ LIKE THE REAL THING

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This blog started two years ago as a labor of ignorance. Certain things were going on around the country and in my career that I felt needed exposure. Little did I know that there was an entire universe of teacher bloggers who were so eloquently describing many of the things I was thinking, feeling and experiencing. I am thankful to have come across them. Writing this blog has opened up more doors and introduced me to more fantastic people, both online and in person, than I ever thought possible.

After almost 300 posts into my blogging career I can say that I have no intention of stopping. Being banned by the Department of Education really showed me that I was onto something. As far as I know I am still banned on DOE servers because, 9 times out of 10, I cannot access this website from work during lunch. I get the feeling that this website, combined with my foray into education activism, has made me a marked man. Without totally giving away why I think this way let’s just say that I can pick up on non-verbal cues very well.

I have a big mouth both online and in person. The lengthy pontifications you read here are just polished written versions of ramblings to which my coworkers and students have been subjected. They also take a great deal of effort on my part and have seriously cut into my sleep time. The posts that go up here at 6 in the morning were usually completed just 4 hours prior, this one being no exception.

To mitigate some of the damage this is doing to me, and since I cannot be trusted to shut up of my own accord, I have been harassing a few choice people to act as regular guest bloggers here. I targeted these people because I envisioned each of them bringing something new and unique to this site. “Target” is the correct word here since it is no easy task to convince people with their own lives and responsibilities to commit to writing for no reward, no recognition and no tangible benefit. On top of that, they have to deal with an arrogant egomaniac like myself who will be constantly on their case.

Yet, I have managed to get assurances from them that they can be somewhat regular contributors to this site. I will introduce each of them with a separate post.

So I would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to the first of the guest bloggers who will be coming around these parts from time to time. We’ll call her Ms. Ortiz.

I first met Ms. Ortiz 7 years ago at the high school in which I currently teach. She was an incoming freshmen starting a new school and I was a younger (less old) teacher getting a fresh start in a new work environment. That first day of school is still clear in my memory. I was sitting in my classroom a half-hour before the first period of the school year was scheduled to start. In walks this freshman wanting to know if the room she just entered was where she was scheduled to be. After I answered in the affirmative she took a seat in the front row and we spent the next half hour in awkward silence. She was the first of my new students that I met in my new school and we were off to a heck of a start!

Little did I know that this was an adumbration of the rest of the school year for Ms. Ortiz. I should have known that a freshmen who shows up a half-hour early on the first day of school and sits in the front row voluntarily was going to be trouble. Over the course of the school year she would prove to be an incredible student. She was always raising her hand, asking questions, handing in 3-page homework assignments and generally spoiling me as to the type of student I could expect in my new school. I thought “who are these strange creatures who do all of their work and are genuinely interested in the topic”?

But this was nothing compared to the research paper she turned in. The assignment called for a 3-page biography on a historical figure pre-1600. What Ms. Ortiz handed in was a learned tome on the life and career of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Until this day she swears it was only 6 pages but I distinctly remember flipping through at least 14, not including cover page and bibliography. There was no way I could have given her anything less than an “A” despite the fact it was a classic case of overkill.

After her freshmen year with me Ms. Ortiz went on to have a bright future in history. She went into the Global Honor’s class, then AP U.S. History and, finally, AP European History.

This is why I was surprised when, after she graduated, she said she wanted to be an elementary school teacher. Something did not seem right about that. She was a brilliant person with an expansive mind who loved history. I could not imagine her  finding fulfillment in either a k-6 education major or a career in teaching rudimentary skills to young children. She would barely be able to use the history she loved so much.

So I lobbied vigorously to try to get her to change her mind before it came time for her to declare a major. Why not be a history teacher? I don’t know if it was a result of my harassment or not but she eventually did decide to go with her love of history. She is now in the latter part of her junior year and coming by the school to observe classes. Next year I will mentor her for her student-teaching internship.

While I am proud that Ms. Ortiz is taking this path I am also concerned. The last student-teacher I mentored was never able to find a job and ended up going into law instead. Even if she does land a job, how long will it be before Ms. Ortiz gets her first taste of harassment? Will she work her fingers to the bone in the first three years of her career only to have some maniacal, incompetent principal deny her tenure? At every step of the way I second guess the advice I gave her to go into teaching at all.

The good thing is that Ms. Ortiz knows what is happening to the education system. She will not be one of these reformy Tweed drones who mindlessly accept every policy and directive handed down to them. Not only is she too smart for that, she has a conscience. If the DOE ever starts hiring again, we would all be well served for them to take on new teachers as tuned in as she is.

Ms. Ortiz will be coming around from time to time to share her experiences on what it means to metamorphosize from a student into a teacher in this age of madness. How does a young teacher adapt to this ridiculous system? How does a young teacher view her prospects for the future? What lessons are there to be learned as a young person trying to break into our thoroughly “reformed” public schools? What lessons can we learn from her?

We hear so much from people who want to break into teaching because they want to “save” the world, “save” the little poor kids from the inner cities and, above all, “save” themselves. The internet is awash in the sanctimonious musings of arrogant, privileged brats who think the most important career to which you can dedicate your life is some sort of charity work. They swoop in like marauding Vikings, plunder all that they can and leave the students they claim to want to “save” still stuck in the inner cities while they go off to make six figures in their “real” careers. But, hey, at least they get lots of pictures for their tumbler account so they can prove to all of their privileged friends that they were “there”.

Finally, with Ms. Ortiz, we can hear an authentic voice. We can finally know the “journey” of a person who wants to teach because they love their subject and loves the idea of getting other people to love it too. We can hear from someone who is not in a rush to show everyone back home that they were “there”, since “there” is home for Ms. Ortiz

I will not tell you exactly when Ms. Ortiz will post her first piece. I will just let you come to this site one day in the near future to be pleasantly surprised to find it here.

Please welcome Ms. Ortiz to the Assailed Teacher blog, an authentic voice for the next generation of authentic educators.

ARGUING WITH IDIOTS

Sadly, I think I might need to join Bart.

Sadly, I think I might need to join Bart.

A few days ago I broke one of my own cardinal rules of internet usage: never argue with people.

It was around 10pm. Being the lazy, overpaid, union bum of a public school teacher that I am, I decided to grade piles of homework after an evening of writing lessons.

To maintain my sanity, I decided to visit Youtube to play The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman in the background. After an hour or so of grading homework I scratched what has become a common itch for me: I read the comments section.

Whether it is a story on a popular news site or a Youtube video, I always make sure to read through as many comments as I can. The ignorance can be quite funny if not thoroughly scary. But I never comment myself. There is no discussion to be had with ignorami, especially ignorami protected by computer screens.

However, I expected the comments under The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman to be informed and/or enlightened. After all, it is a very well-done piece of independent journalism, the type of journalism thinking people seek out and watch.

Unfortunately this was not the case. All of the comments on the first page were either bashing teachers or bashing the movie or both. Maybe it was the fact that I know personally many of the people featured in the movie that was being bashed, but I felt a need to respond.

The following is a rough recreation from memory of what it was like for one public school teacher and edu-blogger to take on a gaggle of very stupid people. Enjoy:

Idiot 1: This movie runs the same old line of needing more money for public schools.

Assailed Teacher: That’s not what the movie says at all. Did you even bother to watch the movie before commenting?

Idiot 1: You’re a teacher so of course you would say that we need more money for schools. Why don’t we do what Europe does and allow students to choose their schools? It’s because the UNIONS are stopping it.

AT: Neither me nor the movie said anything about more money. You want a European system? Well, guess what they have in Europe? That’s right: teacher unions.

Idiot 1: How come so many American students are failing then? We are behind China! (Notice this has nothing to do with his original point.)

AT: Failing based on what? Test scores? Guess what else America has that most of the countries we’re “behind” don’t have: childhood poverty. When you compare middle  class and wealthy American students to their foreign counterparts, they actually do quite well.

Idiot 1: The United States spends more money per student than any other country and that’s a fact! (Again, is he defending any point here? Has this person ever had a discussion before?)

I keep indulging him by addressing and dissecting the points he brings up, only to have him skip to other, unrelated points. Then he crosses into this territory:

Idiot 1: Why are so many teachers having sex with their students? It is rampant in the schools! (Yes, he used the word “rampant”.)

AT: Why are you asking me? Do you even know what the word rampant means?

Idiot 1: Everyday there is another story of a teacher being arrested. Most teachers are having sex with their students.

AT: Do you know the difference between anecdotal and empirical evidence? Do you know what the words “rampant” and “most” mean?

Idiot 1: *posts a news story about a teacher being arrested*

AT: and?

Idiot 1: *posts another story*

AT: Ok, so you obviously don’t know the difference between anecdotal and empirical evidence.

Idiot 1: *this comment has been flagged as spam*

Idiot 2: Waiting for Superman proved (yes, they said “proved”) teacher unions are destroying education and all this movie does is say “give unions more power”.

AT: You didn’t watch this movie and I highly doubt you even watched WFS.

Idiot 2: That’s right, I didn’t watch this movie (lol?) I’m one of the millions who watched WFS compared to the hundreds that watched this piece of crap.

AT: Yeah, because the true measure of something’s value is based on how many people consume it. That’s sound reasoning right there.

Idiot 2: Look, you’re a teacher so you’re blinded by your position in the system. You’re obviously not open to alternative viewpoints like WFS.

AT: Have you seen/read anything else about public school besides WFS? Have you seen any “alternative viewpoints”?

Idiot 2: I don’t need to. It’s all there in WFS. We need to get rid of teacher unions so parents have a choice of where to send their kids.

AT: Did you know that the highest-performing countries like Finland have strong teacher unions? Did you know that the states with no teacher unions have the worst schools in the country?

Idiot 2: Like I said, you’re not open to alternative views because you’re blinded by your position in the system.

AT: Check my comments here. Check my blog by the same name. Does it bother you at all that I have forgotten more about education policy than you can ever hope to know in your entire life?

Idiot 2: I saw your blog and you’re not as smart as you think. You know very little and you’re part of the system. People like me on the outside bring a fresh perspective and see things you can’t see.

AT:  I guess that settles it then. I can’t be trusted because I’m too deep in the system. You therefore have the luxury of writing off everything I say without an iota of thought or refutation. There is no arguing with someone who believes ignorance is a virtue.

Idiot 2: That is typical of people on your side of the debate. You demand proof from the other side without providing any yourself.

AT: I actually never demanded any proof from you. I don’t care if you provide proof of anything or not. My comments to you and others here, as well as my website, shows that I am informed. I have taken the time and courtesy to provide you with facts as well as direct you to places you did not know about so you can learn more facts. Meanwhile, all of your beliefs and talking points come from one movie. Plus, what is my “side of the debate” anyway? What debate?

Idiot 2: Like I said, you know very little. Outsiders bring fresh perspectives to the system. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go to a job tomorrow where I actually have to perform, unlike you union teachers.

Idiot 3: Government monopoly on schools needs to be replaced by giving parents choices. Right now, parents have no choices. Make every school a charter school and have them compete. (Does this have anything to do with the movie?)

AT: Whether you have public schools or charter schools, there is no “choice”. All children must go to school. Replacing public schools with charters puts you right back in the same boat from which you claim you want to escape. Instead of forcing children into public schools you want to force them into charters. Where is the choice in that? You want to eliminate a civic institution that, for all of its faults, has to serve all students for the greater good. In its place you want a corporatized model that can do with children as it sees fit, even it means denying them any education or needed services at all, without any accountability to the greater good because they serve their own bottom line only.

Idiot 3: Nice try but you still did not convince me. Choice is better than having the White House control the system.

AT: Don’t flatter yourself. I am not out to “convince” the all high and mighty Idiot 3 who doesn’t even understand that the White House doesn’t “control” schools or even fund them or even set education policy, since those things are mostly done by state governments. You claim to want to get the White House out of schools and yet the “choice” model you want is being pushed by the very same White House who is using the limited influence it has over ed policy to force “choice” on everyone. You don’t want schools being controlled by the “White House”? Then you are against the “choice” for which you speak. Now do you see why I don’t care whether or not you’re convinced? You don’t even know what you’re talking about.

Yes, these are the types of people commenting under TITBWFS. These are the types of people commenting around the internet on education policy. Those of us mired in the education world are so busy talking to each other because we have a common frame of reference and background knowledge about public schools. Yet, it is easy for us to forget how incredibly stupid, ignorant and uninformed people are about education in this country. What is even sadder is that they wear their ignorance as a badge of honor and hold the knowledge and experience we have against us as if it is some sort of liability.

You can’t make this type of stuff up. Ignorance is considered knowledge and knowledge is considered ignorance.

Maybe they are right about the school system being crappy. They are certainly Exhibits A, B and C for how badly schools have failed to teach people how to think, research and reason.

God help us.