Monthly Archives: January 2011

Power to the People’s History

My wife likes to tell this one story from when she was in high school, and she asked her U.S. History teacher why the class wasn’t learning more about the Indians. “We don’t have time for the Indians,” he responded. “We have an AP curriculum to get through.”

Had I been as inquisitive as my wife was when I was a teenager, I would have received the same answer. So, I suspect, would most of you; indeed, for too many of us, the study of American history ended up being little more than a linear, logical march through the years – filled with neat plot lines of cause and effect, victors and enemies, and a whole lot of white men.

Like so many others, I didn’t realize there was another way to imagine the chronicling of the American narrative, or the construction of history itself, until I first read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Once I did, my understanding of the world was forever changed.

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America’s Political (Dis)Harmony

I know it’s still January, but I’m already looking forward to March 26, when I’ll visit the fabulous National Constitution Center and participate in a program on Civility & Democracy. During that event, which will culminate in a public Town Hall discussion, we’ll have the chance to consider some essential questions of American identity and organization — questions that have been made even more timely in the wake of the public debate following the shootings in Tucson:

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To Honor King, Embody Our Ideals

Today, Americans will pay tribute to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. with school assemblies, community programs and — to the delight of students and adults alike — a national holiday. Yet few if any Americans, at this crucial time in our nation’s history, will directly connect King’s heroism and accomplishments to his faith in — and use of — our primary tools of democracy, the five freedoms of the First Amendment.

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How to Really Teach Like a Champion

What does it mean to “teach like a champion”? Can great teachers be reduced to, and developed by, a discrete set of tools and techniques? Or is teaching ultimately an art form so individualized, so magical and elusive, that it can never be codified?

If I had to sum up the problem with our current efforts to improve teaching and learning in this country, it would be the illusion of this false choice, and the tendency of too many of us to feel we must pick one path. So before we get any deeper into 2011, I’d like to recommend we all read two books that, taken together, just might have the power to light a middle path between the extremes.

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Education Inception

I just watched Christopher Nolan’s remarkable new movie Inception, a futuristic film about a group of people who, through a variety of means, plant a thought so deeply in the mind of one man that it grows naturally and becomes seen as his own. In the opening scene of the movie, protagonist Peter Cobb rhetorically asks the audience: “What’s the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? No. An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea’s taken hold in the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. A person can cover it up, or ignore it – but it stays there.”

Cobb’s movie-based challenge is not unlike the reality-based one being faced by today’s advocates for public education reform – how to seed an idea so simple and powerful that it can mobilize public opinion, inspire policymakers, and improve the overall learning conditions for children. And yet after reading Michelle Rhee’s two newest efforts to launch her own form of “inception” – an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal and her organization’s inaugural policy agenda – I see further evidence of both her well-intentioned vision for massive educational reform, and her fundamental misunderstanding about the power of ideas.

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Robots in Classrooms?

You know you’re a little obsessed with an issue when a news story about artificial intelligence in the prisons of today gets you thinking about robots in the classrooms of tomorrow.

But there it was — a weekend piece in the New York Times about a training exercise at a penitentiary in West Virginia, at which artificial intelligence (AI) software was being used to recognize faces, gestures and patterns of group behavior. “When two groups of inmates moved toward each other,” we learn, “the experimental computer system sent an alert — a text message — to a corrections officer that warned of a potential incident and gave the location.” Then I read the lines that concerned me: “The computers cannot do anything more than officers who constantly watch surveillance monitors under ideal conditions. But in practice, officers are often distracted. When shifts change, an observation that is worth passing along may be forgotten. But machines do not blink or forget. They are tireless assistants. . . At work or school, the technology opens the door to a computerized supervisor that is always watching. Are you paying attention, goofing off or daydreaming?”

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