Thursday, August 21, 2014

So is this what manic depression looks like?

On the one hand, Taney Dragons.  On the other,  Ferguson.  My twitter feed is a mess of contradictory emotions. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


           I'd been vaguely aware of the Stanford History Education Group (or SHEG as they call themselves) and the work of Sam Wineburg.  Wineburg's work in Perspectives, for example, was useful for helping me as a TA for college students, and later, as a high school teacher.  Wineburg emphasized articulating the thinking I was doing in my head to explain how historians think and act and do history.  Wineburg's work massively improved my own teaching as I became able to clearly articulate for students what I was doing and then enable them to do those same things on their own. 
             I follow SHEG on twitter and they show up at #sschats.  Bur recently, due to this assessment that they posted on twitter, I got a closer look at SHEG and I'm not happy.  If you follow the link you get a stereoscopic image from 1907 of a bunch of rocks with three traditionally dressed peasant looking people for scale.  The image is labelled  "'The fort where native chiefs held off the 16th century Spaniards,'" American Stereoscopic Company, 1907."   What follows are questions about what the image does and not does not tell you about Inca resistance.
            On the surface, I suppose this is okay.  In a perfect world, students and teachers would have lots of resources to draw on to know about the Inca resistance.  There are first-hand accounts, several excellent histories, artwork, archeological digs and reports, oral histories, church records, and so on.  One crummy slide that recreates a very specific, racialized narrative of Inca resistance that conforms to early twentieth century racialist notions isn't really disastrous.  But, it's unlikely that students spend more than a day or two on the Inca.  This is likely the only view they'll get.
           And it gets worse.
           I went in and looked at the number of documents about Native Americans in their lesson plans.  I counted 14.  Of those, two were authored by Native Americans.  So the Inca document isn't an isolated problem or a one-off.  They've consistently had white voices speak for indigenous voices.  Lets take a closer look at the unit on Indian Removal.  They talk about "the Five Civilized Tribes" only sometimes putting "Civilized" in quotes.  Of the two documents they build the lesson on, one is by Andrew Jackson and the other by Cherokee politician Elias Boudinot.  Both documents support removal.  The question they ask is:  "why did people support removal at the time, why are our reactions to removal different now?"  They don't note that massive resistance by whites and Native Americans to removal took place (they do note that the Supreme Court found for the Cherokee).   The whole things a clusterfuck of 1960s historiography.  There's no acknowledgement of the incredible work done by Theda Purdue.
           And it gets worse.
           The key question for their unit on the Civil Rights Act?  "How committed to Civil Rights was President Kennedy."  Because the Civil Rights Act is about powerful white people.  Sigh.

Yet more proof that you can have the best methods in the world, but if you ask the wrong questions, you're still a dope. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

How to write almost anything Part 2: Getting to a thesis

        The key to any good paper is a good brainstorm.    I don't think most adults understand this.  I know that as a student, I rarely (okay-never) brainstormed my papers and generally I did just fine in high school.    Even in college, my brainstorms were really more like cursory outlines of a few sentences.  It worked fine on blue book exams, but for longer papers it wasn't that successful.   It wasn't until I was working on a museum exhibit after college that I learned the importance of brainstorming.  It was also here that I learned that I'd been thinking about  brainstorming all wrong.  And judging from the pre-made materials I've seen most people are making the same mistakes I did as a student.  So here is the secret to good brainstorming:

Brainstorming is a two-step process.

First you collect the information.  Then you organize it.  For years, I'd tried to collect and organize simultaneously.  That's hard and it doesn't work well.    So, break your brainstorming into two steps.

1.  Collect.  No piece of information is discarded at this point.  Write down everything you know, then go find more.  If it might be relevant put it down.  After you've exhausted all the possibilities, put the information away for a while.  Then come back to it and....

2.  Organize.  Generally you want to use categories of analysis to organize your information.  You can do this with a chart, a diagram, an idea map, a big piece of blank paper and colored markers, index cards, - really whatever you want that works.  Another important thing to remember here is that a piece of information can go into multiple places.  Let's say you are writing a paper on the origins of the US Civil War.  Something like the Bleeding Sumner episode might go under both differing ideas of masculinity in North and South" and the "failure of politics".  After you've organized into lots of categories pick your best four and see how they are related.  Is there one that seems to dominate the others, whose information keeps showing up everywhere?  Most of the time that's your thesis.  To see how this works, it's important to know what a good thesis.

A good thesis is:  Argumentative
                             Answers the question

Let's look at these individually.  A good thesis is:

Argumentative - as opposed to descriptive.  It takes a position that does more than tell the reader what happened, it seeks to prove something:  a cause, a relationship, significance, a role.

Clear - it's better to be smart than to sound smart.  Clear writing trumps convoluted writing any day.  Theses are no place for ten dollar words.

Overarching - This is a tough one for students.  (And we'll be talking about it more in later posts in the series).  Consider our question about "What caused the United States Civil War?"  Many students will default to "The Civil War was caused by economic, social, and political causes."  The problem is, that works for everything.  The past is complex and causation is always tied to multiple factors.  You could say the same thing about the American Revolution.  Or the New Deal.  You're hitting a checklist not making an argument.  And your essay will be a description of the causes not an argument about how they led to the Civil War.  Compare:  "The Civil War was caused by slavery."  It seems obvious, but that's actually pretty complex because you have to work through slavery in multiple categories of analysis.  For example:  "Slavery led to different economic ideologies in the North and South."  "Slavery led to different ideas about government in the North and South."  "Slavery led to different ideas about gender in the North and South."  "Slavery caused conflict over the role of expansion between North and South."  And so on.  Pick three.  They all tie back to slavery as a cause of the Civil War.

Doable -  There has to be evidence.  No faith based arguments about providence.  Faith is faith because you can't prove it.  That's what's beautiful about faith.  But Doable also means "doable in the space allowed."  You might have a great idea, that's truly original, but if you are doing a blue book exam, you only have an hour.  Save that original idea for a 30 page research paper.  Likewise, if you are writing a 5 paragraph essay and you only have one paragraph, you need to broaden that idea out.

Answers the question - This seems obvious but you'd be surprised how many folks mess this up.  Quick check.  If the question is a "why" question the answer has "because" in it.  If the question is a "How" question the answer has "by" in it.

Now that you've got your thesis and a brainstorm, the next step is the body paragraphs.  That will be our topic for the next post in the series.  

Part 2 of a series.

Part 1 is here 

Monday, July 14, 2014


Comments in this thread at LGM, remind me of my favorite food axiom.

There are five kinds of bagels:

Bagels with seeds (poppy, sesame, or salt)

Bagels from the allium family (onion or garlic)




That's it.  Anything else is a pastry.   Blueberry - pastry.  Cinnamon-raisin - pastry.  Green chile bagel?  - Not only is it a pastry, but it is an abomination against God and man ... and woman... and child. 

The test is:  would you put fish on it?  If the answer is no, it's not a bagel.

UPDATE:  RAF's Facebook discussants point out that I left salt off the list.  In the past, I included salt in the "bagels with seeds" category since the salt is kind of like the poppy and sesame on the outside of the bagel.  My tastes have changed over time (or it's harder to find Nova that isn't too salty) and thus I dropped salt from the list, but this is a personal preference.  I have restored salt to it's proper place.  I am interested in feedback on rye bagels. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Brief Hiatus

I've been laid low with strep, and am now at the House of Mouse with the family.  Let me tell you, it's a rough place for historians but a great place to vacation with Nana and the family.  Regular programming will resume shortly. 

PS.  While I was laid low, the blog crossed 8,000 page views.  Very exciting.  

Monday, June 30, 2014

How to write almost anything (argument edition).

            One of the most important jobs that History teachers are tasked with is the teaching of argumentative writing.    Through writing, students learn that history is an argumentative discipline and more than just a list of disconnected facts or a description of what happened.  Historians – and history students – make active decisions about what to study, how to study it, and what counts as history.  This is especially evident in the argumentative essays.  Building on methods taught to me by my first department chair and history teaching mentor, Helen Grady, I have developed a system for essay writing.  This post is an overview of the system, and I’ll be breaking down each of the component parts in the subsequent four posts. 

            Today’s post is simply an overview of the system, which I call the ACRE system.  ACRE is an acronym.  It stands for: 

A rgument
C larity
R epetition
E vidence 

If you can master these four elements: argument, clarity, repetition, and evidence, you can write almost any argumentative essay. 

“But wait,” I hear you cry across time, space, and the intertubes, “how can good argumentative writing be so easy that it only requires mastery of four simple elements?”  It’s simple. 

First, an argumentative essay has to have an argument.  Second, the reader needs to be able to recognize the argument and follow it.   Finally, an argument needs to backed by good, solid evidence.  If we look at the four ACRE elements, we see that the argument part is covered by the A.  The reader being able to follow the argument is covered by C (for clarity) and R (for repetition). Evidence is, of course, E.  Anybody who masters these four elements will be able to write clear, persuasive arguments. 

“But wait,” I hear you cry across time, space, and the intertubes (because my hearing is excellent and let’s face it, you are kind of predictable), “what about style?” Style is not an element in this system.  High school students are often overly concerned with style.  In trying to sound smart, they use convoluted language and their poor readers have to struggle to understand what the high school authors are saying.  Also, high school students are often writing under time pressure.  I tell my students they can work on the style of the paper only after they cover the other bases first.  They rarely have the time to do this.  Finally, someone, somewhere invented the awful notion of “the hook” and told students to start their papers with it.  For my students, that often means writing the hook first and building their paper around it.  This is entirely backwards.  The argument should dictate the hook and not the other way around. 

The next post in the series will cover how to construct an awesome argument through a two-step brainstorming process. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Talain Rayne... still good

I saw Talain Rayne last night at WXPN's Live at the World Cafe Upstairs.  Here's my review of the first time I saw him slightly edited for context: 

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I'm not much of a music junkie.  I rarely get to listen to new music, and when I do it generally comes from the radio or from the teenage girls I teach (which led to me being huge Ke$ha fan, if only so that I can strut into Room 233 five minutes late and say with my best Cali girl accent, "the class don't start til I walk in ").  ... One of my jobs is head of assembly board, the group that does the programming for our flex periods.  The girls really wanted to book a music group, but we had no budget.  So I charged them with finding someone local. "Try singer-songwriters," I told them, "they're cheap." "How about this guy?" said Dena after about 10 minutes of Googling.  And she showed us this video:

There was a murmur from the girls.  "Catchy," "He's cute."  "Book him!"

And so we wrote him an e-mail.  And he wrote us back and pretty soon we had him and his band booked for a 10:30 AM show.  I had downloaded his album, Facebook friended him, the usual deal to make sure he was PG 13 and would understand the rules about performing at a girls high school.  (I still haven't lived down the time I brought in Ursula Rucker and she said she was anti-feminist).  It wouldn't be a problem with Talain.  He's a Born Again Christian and former youth minister who gave serious thought to going the Christian recording group, but he didn't want to limit  himself that way.  I liked his album, Attic Lights, which you can also find for free.  I got some of his backstory.  French dad, American mom.  Divorce.  Learning differences.  Discovered music and it changed his life.  College dropout.  He's not real great at writing coherent sentences or spelling.  His voice has a super nasal twang that comes from a Francophone Dad and growing up in the Philly burbs.

At 10:30, 200 still sleepy girls walked into a converted barn that's sometimes used for plays and sometimes for wrestling matches.  Most of them don't even know they are going to see a concert; we've kept it a surprise.  The lights go down and out comes Talain and his band, two bearded guys who kind of look like hippy Jesuses.  They launch into Family Wall and most of the girls are so shocked they don't know what to do. "It's Assembly," they're thinking,  "Where's the speech about drunk driving, the solar ovens for Africa, the girls' school in South East Asia?"  They're not sure what they are supposed to do.  And after the first song, Talain says,  "You can get up and dance if you want" and 200 girls are on their feet and for the next 35 minutes he has them sit, dance, and sing along.  The too cool for school North Philly black girls in the back call me over "Who is he, we love him, is he on the radio?"  The Mt. Airy girls with the PC inter-racial or same sex couple parents (or maybe hipster white parents who just like living around the other two groups)  the ones who buy organic at the coop are dancing up a storm in the front row taking pictures with their phones.  The suburban white girls are simply so stunned that they are allowed to stop thinking about their futures for a minute and have fun that they are starting to lose themselves in the music.
       And between songs Talain's preaching up a storm.  Not about God, but about the power of music.  It's power to heal the pain and make it better.  Talain's songs are pop, but the subject matter is all wrong.  He's got love songs, but they are to his Dad and his sister about healing past hurts or recovering lost innocence.  In Dear Sister, Your Brother he sings: "Please say, everything is ok, tell me we can go play, like we did when we were younger."  Before he launches into 16 he tells the story behind the song, about the day he was leading a youth canoe trip and one of the kids fell out of the canoe, and how instead of pulling the kid out of the water, he reached in and pulled out the body of a 16 year old raped and murdered girl. 
           The girls are rapt.  As I help them pack up after the show, I ask one of the Jesus look-a-likes, "Is he aware of the affect he has on teenage girls?"  "Nope."  "Geez, that's some powerful stuff to not be aware of"  "Yup." They come to lunch.  Girls line up for autographs and to buy CDs. He goes to the songwriting class and talks about how his songs aren't really narratives, hell they're not particularly coherent, he works more from feelings than from a structured relationship to language. He gets 50 new FB friends that night.
             Since he performed, I've seen him a couple of times.  Never as the headliner.  He's won over the crowd every time.  He cut a track for the WXPN Christmas album.  He got a name check on MTV.  I think he might get signed soon.  I think he's going to be big.  But right now, I'm just happy to have seen him play to a barn of teenaged girls and know that he was there preaching the gospel of music and for 35 minutes or so, the congregation was an Amen chorus.

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That was four years ago.  Talain was the headliner last night.  He's going to have an EP this summer.  He's got the theme song for a new MTV show.  He's able to make a living making music (and doing music related things).  I still think he's going to be big someday.  Check him out.