Still Fighting the Civil War

A couple of days ago, Smithsonian published an article by Keri Leigh Merritt criticizing the Ken Burns Civil War documentary Why We Need a New Civil War Documentary  It’s a worthwhile read, here’s the thesis:

The documentary had an outsized effect on how many Americans think about the war, but it’s one that unfortunately lead to a fundamental misunderstanding about slavery and its legacies—a failing that both undergirds and fuels the flames of racism today.

Along with her criticism of the principal focus on the military aspects of the war and minimization of the slavery that caused it, she went after Shelby Foote, whose 45 minutes in the series (as opposed to historian Barbara Field’s 8 1/2 minutes) had him pontificating in “an accent as thick and sweet as Tupelo honey” though he had no training as a historian. Her piece was not well received by the “Civil War Enthusiast” crowd.

The real gem of the story of Merritt’s piece and its reaction on Twitter was a post by Trae Wisecarver, a PhD student at Texas A&M University.  It’s a priceless 2 1/2 minutes.  Students should know that all historians are not all hermits hidden away in dusty archives, some are passionate warriors for the truth.  On another note, what did you think of Trae when you first saw him and heard his voice?

Fake News Friday Lesson Idea

Below is an idea for a brief four or five-minute lesson on fake news that teachers can consider using in their classes this Friday, right before the weekend when we “spring” our clocks one hour forward for Daylight Savings Time.

Somehow float the story that the president is issuing an executive order dictating that agencies of the United States government are no longer going to observe Daylight Savings Time and will not be moving their clocks forward this weekend.  Tell students that he just tweeted that he sees daylight savings as just another government regulation burdening American business – part of a liberal European agenda to tell people what time it is.  Speculate that you don’t know what the cell phone networks like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint will do because it is their networks that send the time to people’s cell phones.  Google and Microsoft will have to decide to either listen to the president and update their systems or not.

You can back the story up by dropping in a few authentic references to show that you know what you are talking about.  Mention that White House lawyers have been ordered by the President to draft an Executive Order that mandates that agencies controlled by the President will no longer observe the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (which amended the Uniform Time Act of 1966).  This will change the office hours of the every federal government office in the country, including the Immigration & Naturalization Service and Veterans Affairs, etc.

You can tell them that fundamentalist groups are hailing this as a return to “God’s Time”.  (This has a shade of authenticity as well – God knows more about time than [the government] does.)

What about TV networks?  What about college and professional sports?  Will the entire NCAA Final Four tournament have to change their schedule?  And what’s going to happen to flights on Sunday when the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t move their clocks forward?

This story should sell itself, it has just enough fact and believability to take advantage of students’ slight knowledge (ie. the President tweets and is making lots of waves with summary judgments and announcements), ignorance (they don’t really follow current events), and naivete (they will believe anything their teacher tells them).  A little creativity in how you start the discussion and a dash of embellishment should get them going.

If the ruse launches well, the students should they start talking about it, throwing around their own insta-judgments, asking questions and making comments.  Let it stew for a bit, answer a few of their questions, speculate yourself, spice up the stew of their conversation to rile their interest.

Then tell them that they’ve just been played.

Explain how you have taken advantage of their slight knowledge, ignorance, and naivete to sell them a story that you just made up.  You’ve shown them how easy it is to do.  In the process, you’ve helped show them why our public discourse seems to be drowning in news stories, headlines, tweets, posts and updates that are a tangled mess of truth, half-truth and complete falsehood.

Tell students that asking questions, checking for sources, and thinking will help them untangle that mess.

If you are interested, TimeandDate offers a quick timeline summary of Daylight savings time. Shouldn’t take more than a minute or two to scroll it., it’s a super-quick read.  Snopes does this as well.

Time magazine offers a two-minute video. of the history of DST.

The Pedagogy of Video Game Tutorials

Who teaches more skills to children – teachers or the video game industry?

For those of us whose childhood game experience wasn’t much more complicated than the four blinking colors of Simon or the slowly creeping aliens of Space Invaders, the current childhood experience of video games is more than just alien, its inexplicable.  When I hear my four boys trading their gaming exploits like my friends used to talk about baseball, I can’t even follow what they are talking about.  Their games are vast, complex universes, overflowing with creatures and characters.  Each with its own layered narrative of challenges, embedded within the unique context unlimited by anything but the human imagination.  Which is by definition, unlimited.

Imagine a teacher designing lessons for 9th graders on the causes of the Civil War, and in the process having to teach close reading, synthesis of primary and secondary sources.  How should she approach that process if her students have to write a well-reasoned and organized essay that proves its thesis with adequate evidence?

Most of us wouldn’t have to think too long about that process before we find ourselves trapped in the world of traditional pedagogy, blending our own variations of plans and programs, or picking a flavor-of-the-month technique we saw at our last conference.  

Now imagine yourself in a back-office of the $40 billion a year behemoth of the video game industry, designing a series of tutorials and lessons that will not only introduce twelve year-olds to a vast, complex universe, but capture their interest in the narrative so well, that they commit themselves to hours of self-instruction to navigate their way through it.  

How are you going to tell them about the “laws of nature” in the world of the game?  How about the characters, their abilities, and their goals?  How about the inventory of “physical” objects in the game, what players have to get, how they keep track of it?  Not only do you have to teach your player-students the “soft” knowledge of the game’s world, but you also have to get them to master the “hard” skills of navigating the game’s countless screens, consoles, and button clicks.  

To keep the hypothetical in context, you have to also imagine that the company you work for already invested $30 million in game development and it’s success or failure rests on your shoulders alone.  By the way, you can’t really “teach” the lessons you design, you embed them in the game and walk away – they have to teach the players completely on their own. Your player-students must succeed in reaching the learning objectives without getting confused, bored or giving up.  They must be so enthralled with your teaching that they don’t even notice it because they’re so immersed in the game’s narrative. They have to leave your classroom triumphantly punching their fists in the air and begging their parents to buy your sequal. 

One last thing, the “school” you’re competing with, just sank $265 million into their “course”.  With a team of developers and an entire company-floor dedicated to player instruction and tutorial design, how can you expect to compete with them?

Well, that tired teacher trying to put together the Civil War lesson is competing with both of those companies and the entire video game industry at the same time.  Not to mention, facebook, YouTube, teenage angst and hormone infections.  Instead of overweighting her PD sessions with the edu-babble of our industry’s latest book-of-the-month, why don’t we show her how to break the shackles of traditional instruction and do it like the best in the business?

Do yourself a favor, and watch the 7 minutes of this tutorial development video. The professional development advice it provides to game developers designing player tutorials would serve teachers well.

Faster than a List Serve

faster than a list serveNo one likes the condescending sneer of an officious computer nerd, impatient with anyone who lacks the god-given graces of their endless technical knowledge and intemperate enough to dare ask them a simple question. You know folks don’t you? It is their lack of people skills which drives everyone else to your door to ask you technology questions rather than submit themselves to ridicule and scorn.

On the other hand….it’s 2011. At what point is it fair to cross the field and join the other side? I’m not saying we have to get macs and lose our common sense of decency and politeness, but there are some tech questions that beg disdain. What the best approach here?

Online courses that require textbooks, F2F classes that don’t

If the Diigo flashback wasn’t weird enough for me, the irony I’m confronting this morning can send the cognitive dissonance needle straight into the red zone.

The Social Studies department at my school is embarking on a three year process of re-writing each of the core subjects courses.  When we are finished, World Studies, USI and USII will be taught without textbooks.  If you don’t need to have students mindlessly restate definitions and facts to prove they are learning, you can kick those brain-numbingly boring encyclo-sedatives to the curb.  With primary documents, innovative lesson plans and a curriculum that stresses developing cognitive skills and learning rather than memorization, textbooks are superfluous. And in the age of economic uncertainty, cost-prohibitive.

At the same time however, my school is becoming a member of Virtual High School, on online collaborative school.  I worked with VHS eight years ago when I was teaching in North Carolina.  They have one of the best models for online education I’ve encountered.  Because I will teach a course with them

and I can't help myself either!
and I can't help myself either!

online as part of my teaching responsibilities, 25 students at my school can take any course in the VHS catalog.  I’ve been offered the chance to write an AP European History course for VHS, and that’s where it get’s weird.  As a teacher for VHS, my school is responsible for distributing the materials used in connection with my course.  Which means this….

The face-to-face classes at my school no longer use textbooks, but the online course I teach will use a textbook.  Go figure.

Unless there is some kind soul out there who will let me know if anyone has had success passing the College Board’s audit with an AP History course based solely in online materials.

Proofreading anyone?

Nets for teachers


I wanted to finally get to reading the new NETS for teachers and found that there was another lesson to be learned.  Proofread everything a dozen times before it goes public.

njvsThis reminded me of another example of a lack of professionalism in the form of outright plagiarism.  Two weeks ago a principal told me about the New Jersey Virtual School, which is a division of the Monmouth Ocean Educational Services Commission.  It is a summer school alternative for students that costs their parents $350.  Looking through the demonstration courses on their site, I noticed that they seem to have lifted the course material directly from Florida’s Virtual School.  Did they have permission to do this?  Or are they like the students who don’t even bother to take the urls of the printouts they hand in as their own work?

The Tyranny of Cursive

He tried sitting at the dining room table, he tried at my desk. He even tried while lying down in bed. Yet he failed every time and got more and more discouraged with every fruitless attempt. My third grade son has a bright, curious mind, but last week his homework was wearing it down with frustration.image

For this particular assignment, he had to pick out three syllable words from a list, which he can do easily. However, he must then write the words on a tiny, 1.5 inch line on a worksheet His cursive writing is much better than his print, but he still couldn’t fit his answers on the line. As much as I encouraged him to keep trying, he was erasing what little was left of the line and getting more and more angry. He knew that my feeble argument that he has to complete his work just like I have to do my job didn’t have my heart in it.

Am I wrong in thinking that asking children to write with a pen and pencil on tiny little lines on a piece of paper is about as relevant as teaching them to ride a horse?

They will have to commute one day, and therefore need to get around town and go to the store. Why not teach them to ride a horse? Yes, everyone uses cars now, but we used to use horses, it was an essential skill for the 19th century American. Yes, everyone writes with a keyboard now, but we used to write with pens and pencils so let’s force the kids to do it.

Eventually my son finished his homework, but it wasn’t pretty. His younger brother wasn’t as lucky, he did not finish writing every word on this week’s spelling test five times each. And for such an egregious irresponsibility he will have to sit with Mr. McChoakumchild in lunch detention to finish his homework.

Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?