Archive for January, 2011

“What do you think of that idea?”

January 28, 2011

What’s more, we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea — the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny. That’s why centuries of pioneers and immigrants have risked everything to come here. It’s why our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like “What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?”
–Barack Obama, 2011 State of the Union Address

I found it ironic from a personal standpoint that the President highlighted this freedom of thought as a bedrock of the American system of education, embedded in its history, when right around the corner from his place in Downtown, DC, that very history is being stripped of the basis for even asking the question “What do you think of that idea?”

As I noted in my last post on this topic, while our elementary school teachers have the responsibility to make social studies into something interesting, they are not trained historians.  In short, I think they need help—both the raw materials and the support from the school system to make history class into a real place of learning.  On the first item, the raw materials, our textbooks are failing our teachers and our students badly.

You're singing it right now, aren't you?

As example I return to my punching bag and look more closely one of the sections left untouched in the “corrected” version of Our Virginia.  In the section titled “A More Perfect Union?” regarding the founding of the Constitution, crucial omissions and historically inaccurate statements turn one of the most fascinating turning points in American history in which Virginia was at the epicenter into a mélange of lies and half-truths.  This robs students of real chances to learn, and teachers from real chances to make this history alive and relevant to their students.  Here re two particularly apt examples:

Quote from Our Virginia: “The issue of slavery was on everyone’s mind as the Constitution was being written.  Many Northerners wanted slavery ended or at least limited.  People from the Southern states did not.”

The Issue: So where did Virginia stand?  Well, the text sort of assumes (but does not say) that Virginia is a Southern state, but unlike the states of the Deep South, Virginia’s leaders were far more conflicted.  Indeed, George Mason and Patrick Henry both argued vehemently against any extension of the slave trade, something that fellow Virginian James Madison pushed into the Constitution as a compromise between North and South to secure a strong federal government.  What would have happened if Mason and Henry had gotten their way?  Might it have helped a transition away from slavery that could have avoided the bloodiest conflict in American History, the Civil War?  Well, our students will never know, because according to “Our Virginia” there was no debate.

Quote from Our Virginia: “Two Virginians, Patrick Henry and George Mason, felt that the Constitution did not go far enough in promising personal freedoms, so they refused to vote for it.”

If you treat our founding fathers like this, you make it boring

The Issue: This is simply not true.  Indeed Peter Wallenstein (author of the book Cradle of America: Four Centuries of Virginia History, the great book I’ve been reading to try and keep up/debunk Our Virginia) expertly debunks the common myth that Mason didn’t sign the Constitution because of individual rights.  Indeed, Mason called Madison’s Bill of Rights amendments to the Constitution that we hold so dear “Milk and Water” measures—ignoring what he considered the most important issues of the day—two of which were the aforementioned slave trade, but also the power of the new federal government to potentially put a tax on slave-owners that would unfairly burden Virginians.  These two rationales seems in direct contradiction to each other—wanting to move toward an end to slavery on one hand, but fighting to protect slave-owners economic interests on the other.  So who was George Mason—emancipator or defender of slavery?  Both could be argued, but our students never get a chance to even be asked the question.

So, “what do you think?” doesn’t get us very far if the material is devoid of anything meaningful to think about.  Gus and I got into a very interesting discussion about the fact that two of the major known figures in his book, Nat Turner and John Brown, both used the bible as justification for their actions to end slavery.  But my book, Cradle of Virginia notes other figures, such as Thornton Stringfellow, a Baptist minister that was essential in the split between Northern and Southern Baptists.  He used the bible as justification for slavery, saying that in the Old Testament, slavery was accepted, and Jesus made no mention of the subject in the New Testament and directed all Christians to accept their stations in life.

I asked Gus “do you think the Bible is for or against slavery?”  Gus really mulled it over, and responded that if God worked so hard to free the Jews from Egypt, there is no way he thought slavery was a good thing.  It was a fantastic answer, and it led us to a great talk about how people could see different things with the same set of words.  That, to me, is the kind of “what do you think?” that we are missing in our history classrooms.

So, how do we get this back?  I think there are some changes to the way primary school textbooks are written that could be helpful, and perhaps make the job even easier for those putting together these texts.  I’ll posit some of those in my next post.

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The Review: Wii Party

January 28, 2011

I have to hand it to Nintendo.  Even though the Wii’s major competition, the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 both now have wireless motion gaming, and better graphics capabilities to the Wii, Nintendo itself continues to come up with ways to maximize the potential of their product.

Once again incorporating the “Mii” personalized characters into their game, Wii Party combines dozens of addictively fun “mini games” – most far more creative and fun to play than anything found on its somewhat similar, but far more limited “Wii Play” title – famed within a number of larger games; the mini games used to determine relative position within the larger game.

Those larger games include “Board Game Island” where mini games determine who roles to go up a virtual game board on a volcanic island.  Then there’s “Globe Trot” which involves a far more strategic eye as you play and purchase your way to global hot spots in a race around the world.  “Swap Meet” features trying to swap out Miis to be the first one to get two rows of Miis all in one color (harder than it sounds).  “Spin Off’ is a Wheel of Fortune derivative where your luck and the pot of money is determined by the spin of a wheel.  Finally there’s Bingo, where instead of letters and numbers, Miis stand in for the spots on the card.

"Derby Dash" -- simple but strategic

The nice thing about both the larger frame games and the mini games is that they are designed to help keep less advanced players in mind while not being completely about luck.  While some of the games do favor more control and dexterity, my favorite example being “Zombie Tag” where you use the direction bad to run away from zombified Miis (not too scary, and in the end, everyone ends up back-to-normal, which was a nice touch to keep it not-too-frightening for little ones), there are others such as “Lucky Launch” where you choose a firework and hope yours goes up highest, that helps to level the playing field.  Some of the most fun mini games are ones that are very easy to play, such as a horse-racing game where you have to flick the remote to urge the horse forward, but each time you flick you lose some stamina, so you have to use it wisely.

Dinos and Dante-like descents stand in the way of intrepid adventurers on Board Game Island

The boys seem to like “Board Game Island” the best out of all the frame games,  I think because it is a nice blend of strategy, skill, and luck. After a month solid of playing, they are going back to this game time-and-time again.

As a tool for cooperative teamwork, this is where I do have a beef with this game, as I think it wasted its potential significantly here.  When you are playing with less than four players, the CPU picks Miis at random to help fill out the playing cast.  In those situations, you can create some cooperative feel, as we always have a “beat the CPU” doctrine where we work together to make sure the computer doesn’t win.  It’s a bit “power over” but does get some cooperative ethos into the game.

Cooperative games are great, but they have to have a point to engage kids

Where it really falls flat is the fact that it has over a dozen “pair games” – mini games where you work cooperatively with the computer or a partner to try and get a high score.  There are some really fun ones, but, unlike all the other mini games, these have absolutely no baring in the larger games.  In other words, other than playing them just to play them—there’s no point.  In the Wii Sports series, you can earn medals and are tracked for your progress in specific events.  Such a system might have made the pair games more appealing.  None is offered.  Some kind of really fun frame game could have been created that could have pit pairs vs. pairs or all four players together to complete a larger task (say a scavenger hunt?), but again, nothing there.

So while I’ve urged my boys to play the pairs games, they resist saying “what’s the point?”  I have a hard time coming up with a good answer.  So while I do highly recommend this game for kids and adults alike, I would urge Nintendo programmers to put as much thought into how they make their team-oriented games fun as they do their competitive ones.  That’s a lot of good programming that has pretty much gone to waste around my house.

* Note: Whoops!  I didn’t realize that there really IS a “frame game” for cooperative play.  Check out my apology and further review here.

Three Questions That Make History Fun

January 23, 2011

Not my Virginia, that's for sure

So I begin this post with a bit of a lament.  My hopes for Arlington County raised so high when it decided to pull the Our Virginia textbook from my son’s classes has turned into an exercise in band-aids and blame.  Arlington County’s public education system is the envy of much of the country.  So much so that it’s now facing an impending capacity crisis—a victim of it’s own success that is obviously of concern to me.

It is because of this that I am particularly disappointed in what County and State officials are doing in reaction to the controversy over my son’s fundamentally flawed textbook.  Five Ponds Press said that they have hired a historian (though they won’t say who) to correct all the problems.  But rather than use the fact that the author used internet research to insert the lie that African-Americans willingly served in the Confederate army as a sign that this book may be full of perpetuated myths, Arlington School Board Chair Linda Garvey was quoted as saying that “There have been mistakes in the past—this is not the first time” and that she and the School Board “want to make as much lemonade out of the lemons as we can.”

But her idea of lemonade seems to be “Okay, they corrected it, let’s move on.”  The list of corrections are mostly some typo corrections, and some flaws as to terminology and dates.  You can see them here (.pdf) if you’d like.  While I’m glad the book now knows it Constitutional Convention from its Continental Congress, the book, and our School Board is once again turning a blind eye to the fundamental flaws in the way we tech history.

Not happy that my guy is living proof for Loewen's thesis

Unfortunately, the way elementary-to-high school history is written and subsequently taught strips the “why” and white-washes the controversy that makes history into a fascinating subject and powerful civics tool.  This is why, as James Loewen laments in his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, history has become the least favorite subject of today’s students.

Indeed, our primary school social studies education system seems exclusively, myopically focused on “who, what, where, and when?”  Those questions in a vacuum make history into a cold and distant regurgitation of facts.  There is a reason that the word “history” has in it the word “story.”  And the fun of discussing a story is answering “why” “what if” and, especially “what do you think?”  Without those questions, even those that “learn” the facts of history will in no way retain them.  The learning is devoid of meaning. 

An interesting point on this comes from the blame-game on Our Virginia that state Board of Education Member David Foster weighed in on.  He noted that we should not blame teachers for not catching the errors in the textbook because, “teachers at that level are not content experts in each subject.”  To that I say, darned skippy they’re not, and I’m glad.  Their job at the elementary school level should be teaching the fundamentals of learning—and most teachers are well-prepared, and very good at just that.  What seems to be lost is that the fundamentals of learning history is not how to word-vomit factoids, but how to take a common set of facts to make an argument on why things happened as they did. 

But, more fundamentally, it is to learn that different people can form different opinions based on a common set of facts.  History and social studies are in essence the first incubators of civil political discourse in our country.  Neither the teacher, nor the student needs to be expert in the subject to learn these lessons.  They simply need the text willing to raise the questions, and then the will to let history teach our kids to think.

And isn’t that exactly what we are talking about needing in our modern political discourse?  For while the tragedy in Arizona seems not to be about partisan rancor, it has awoken the debate about the way we debate the issues in our country.  Social Studies give us the opportunity to give our kids the gift of perception—the ability to see different points of view even when presented with the same information.  That, to me is far more valuable than making sure that students know that South Carolina left the Union in 1860, not 1861 (the p.125 correction in Our Virginia, by the way).

Next, I put my money where my mouth is and show where even the “corrected” Our Virginia is getting it wrong, and some modest opening proposals on how this can be done right.

A Difficult First Blog Back

January 9, 2011

Happy New Year to everyone.  I apologize to my loyal reader(s) for my absence from this blog.  As most of you know, it’s not for lack of anything to say (be it of quality or no, I pretty much always have something to say).  It was a pretty crazy fall and winter so far for the Nathanson household, mostly good stuff like unexpectedly coaching two fall baseball teams, and putting a lot of time into giving my amazing wife the best 39+1 birthday I could muster.  But even great stuff takes time, and that took all of mine and then some.

Now that I’m back, I was going to begin the New Year with a fun little post about what I did to entertain my boys and their friends for New Year’s Eve, but that’s going to need to wait.  I think any blog speaking to non-violence (and frankly, any blog for that manner) needs to speak of the tragic shooting that happened in Tucson on Saturday.

Of course, my thoughts and prayers go out to Congresswoman Giffords and her family, as well as all who were affected by this unconscionable act.  As a Mets fan, my deep condolences to former Mets manager Dallas Green, who lost his 9-year-old granddaughter in this spasm of wanton violence.  My great and fervent hope that Giffords can survive this, and become a symbol of hope, reconciliation, and progress for this nation.

Of course, when there is an attack on a politician, it will inspire a political discussion.  The vitriol of certain elements of the Tea Party disturbs me, the histrionics of Fox news commentators demonizing “liberals” that plays to the mob worries me, and Sarah Palin’s “bull’s-eye” on Members of Congress has always been to my mind, shameful.  But all of these thinks may have had absolutely nothing to do with the actions of a disturbed young man.  To this, only time will tell, and I really have little of value to add.

I think where I might have something to say is when it comes to this ultimate horror in this affair, the death of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green.  This, even more than the others, hits me hard.  My big guy Gus is the same age as Christina was.  He, too, has just been elected to student government for the first time, and is showing a fledgling interest in politics and public service.  This girl, who was born on 9/11, was a face of hope for our future who’s voice is now lost to us forever.  I simply cannot imagine the profundity of utter loss that her parents must be going through.

And so it is for her, and for Gus, Gunnar and all the kids out there that I want to posit and idea to you all.  No, not “let’s all get along” – though that’s not a bad one.  But can we find a way to teach our kids from the time that they are very young a way of debating that, from the first, focuses them on looking at the many sides of an argument?  More than anything else, I believe that basic skill is what we have lost in our society.

My answer is a decided “yes” – but the place we can do that is where we are failing our kids most miserably in American education—Social Studies.  The American way of conceiving, studying, and thinking about history from elementary school through high school, is, to my mind, one of the greatest wasted efforts in American academia.

In my next post, I’ll start a discussion as to why I believe we are getting it so, so wrong, and how teachers, publishers, and parents could make history into the most powerful teaching tools for conflict-resolution, and, I think, fundamentally change American discourse in the next generation.

Next, thinking about history as only starting with the facts.