Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Remains From Lincoln’s Last Day

Imagine him in the last week of his life, 150 years ago this month. Shuffling, clothes hanging loosely on the 6-foot-4-inch frame, that tinny voice, a face much older than someone of 56. “I am a tired man,” he said. “Sometimes I think I am the tiredest man on earth.”
Springtime in Washington, lilacs starting to flower. The Capitol Dome finally free of its scaffolding. His month began in triumph against the largest slaveholding nation on earth. Richmond fell and was set afire by its retreating residents. On April 4, Abraham Lincoln, with his 12-year-old son, Tad — his birthday! — walked the smoldering shell of the rebel capital, walked a mile or so, pressed by a throng of liberated blacks, to sit as a conqueror in the seat of the Southern White House.
“No day ever dawns for the slave,” wrote a man who had once been owned by a fellow man. In Richmond, thereafter, all days had dawns.
On the dawn of his final day, April 14, Lincoln rises as usual at 7 a.m., breakfasts on coffee and an egg. He meets with his cabinet, confers with an ex-slave, lunches with the unpredictable Mary Todd. They have plans to attend “Our American Cousin.” In the box at Ford’s Theater that evening, a white supremacist fires a single shot from a Derringer. The bullet penetrates Lincoln’s brain and lodges just behind his right eye. The most significant casualty in a war that took more lives than any other in the nation’s history dies the next morning — the first president to be murdered.


Abraham Lincoln with his son Tad. CreditAlexander Gardner, via Library of Congress

Now think of the legacy on this anniversary of the American passion play. Think of free land for the landless, the transcontinental railroad, the seeding of what would grow into national parks, the granting of human rights to people who had none.
And think of how much the party of Lincoln has turned against the expansive political philosophy of Lincoln. Not the emancipation of four million people — Northern Democrats who died on southern battlegrounds, and certainly the Republicans who held power then, get their share of credit for ending the Original Sin of the United States.
But beyond: Could the Republicans who control Congress in 2015, the party of no, ever pass a Homestead Act? That law, which went into effect the very day, Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln’s wartime executive order to free slaves in the breakaway states did, carries a clause that very few Republicans would support now.
Former slaves, “famine Irish,” Russian Jews, single women, Mexicans who didn’t speak a word of English — all qualified to claim 160 acres as their own. You didn’t have to be a citizen to get your quarter-square-mile. You just had to intend to become a citizen.
In that sense, the Homestead Act was the Dream Act of today. It had a path to citizenship and prosperity for those in this country who were neither citizens nor prosperous.
Consider the vision to stitch a railroad from east to west, an enormous tangle of infrastructure. In 1862, Lincoln signed legislation spurring construction of the transcontinental railroad. That same year, he approved a bill that led to the creation of land grant colleges.
Today, Congress will not even approve enough money to keep decrepit bridges from falling down, and has whittled away funds to help working kids stay in college. It’s laughable to think of Republicans’ approving of something visionary and forward-looking in the realm of transportation, energy or education. Government, in their minds, can never be a force for good.
In 1864, Lincoln signed a bill that allowed California to protect the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoias — wild land that would eventually become part of the National Park system. Republicans of today are openly hostile to conservation, a largely Republican idea.
The great, nation-shaping accomplishments of Lincoln’s day happened only because the South, always with an eye on protecting slavery and an estate-owning aristocracy, had left the union — ridding Congress of the naysayers.
Today, the South is solidly Republican and solidly obstructionist. The party is also solidly white. No, they’re not slave-apologists, though many fail to recognize the active, toxic legacy of the Confederacy. And no, their insults of President Obama — calling him a king, an incompetent, an outsider, echoing some of the slights against Lincoln — do not in any way make Obama the Lincoln of today.
But you can say this with certainty: what unites the Republican Party, on this 150th anniversary of the murder of Lincoln, is that they are against the type of progressive legislation that gave rise to their party. Lincoln is an oil painting in the parlor, to be dusted off while Republican leaders plot new ways to kill things that he would have approved of.
Nothing in politics is static. Things will change. Party philosophies will flip, new alliances will emerge. What we know for sure again comes from Lincoln: “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.”

(via NYT)

Monday, April 13, 2015

To the Parents of New York City Public School Children (by Melissa Browning)

Letter by my friend & public school teacher, Melissa Browning, which appeared today -- edited & shortened -- as a column,  in the New York Daily News)

Opting Out is An Act of Courage

To the Parents of New York City Public School Children:
I must preface this letter by stating that I am not a risk taker. I have played by the rules my entire life and prefer it that way. Follow directions, work hard, get rewarded. But what do you do when you feel as if you are playing fair and square against an opponent who isn’t? I’ve been a teacher in the New York City Public School System for 10 years. I’ve watched the emphasis on and stakes attached to standardized testing in New York State increase each year. Simultaneously I’ve witnessed the tests becoming longer and more challenging. And yet each spring teachers are expected to proctor these tests without being able to contest or debate them. I can no longer do that. It is my time to speak up on behalf of the students and teachers of New York.
Many proponents of testing argue that these state assessments allow schools to follow students’ progress and watch how they are growing each year. The New York State Department of Education claims that it has “embarked on a comprehensive initiative to ensure that schools prepare students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and their careers.” Part of this initiative is testing students in grades 3 through 8 each year to measure what they know and can do relative to the grade-level Common Core Learning Standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics.
So let’s look at the tests themselves, starting with the English Language Arts Tests. When New York State introduced the new Common Core tests three years ago, they argued that “high-quality, grade-appropriate texts” would be used to assess students’ reading ability. What teachers and school administrators have found is that more and more of the reading passages and questions asked on these tests are actually above grade-level standards. On last year’s third grade test, many of the questions were examined by a teacher and former test maker who normed them at a seventh and eighth grade reading level! The same is true of the math tests, where the language is so tricky that many teachers argue that these assessments test reading comprehension rather than problem solving and mathematical ability. Too often, these tests are really focused on whether students can decipher the meaning of convoluted and confusing questions, not on showing actual reading or mathematical understanding.
When students have to select their answers to multiple-choice questions, they have yet another challenge. The State argues that “answer choices will not jump out; rather, students will need to make hard choices between ‘fully correct’ and ‘plausible but incorrect’ answers that are designed specifically to determine whether students have comprehended the entire passage and are proficient with the deep analyses specified by the standards.” At our school, to prepare students, teachers emphasize healthy debate, where students are encouraged to prove that their answer choices are correct, using evidence from the text. On the test, however, students are only rewarded if they circle the correct answer choice. Thus, the student who grapples with an answer for 10 minutes but makes the wrong choice is not rewarded for his/her deep thinking and analysis. Not only is the test unfair but it does not promote the critical thinking that teachers emphasize in the classroom.
Then, of course, there is the issue of time. Both the ELA and Math tests are administered over the course of three days in each grade. That’s six days of testing for a total of six hours and 40 minutes for third graders. By fifth grade the total testing time is increased to eight hours and 40 minutes. To put this in perspective, aspiring lawyers must sit for the LSATs for three and a half hours. Why is it that eight-year-olds must be tested for nearly twice as long? One has to wonder: are we really testing reading and math skills, or the ability to sit still and focus under pressure for long durations?
The issues of time and appropriateness, both developmentally and linguistically, are further exacerbated when we consider our special education students and English language learners. Most special education students get extra time to take these tests, which means that they could be sitting for up to 18 hours over the course of six days! English language learners are often recent immigrants but are still required to take the tests in English. One has to wonder if we are truly supporting these students.
But this is just the beginning. Test scores are also being used to evaluate teachers, principals, and schools. Tests that we know are not fair can influence decisions about whether or not to fire teachers and principals or close schools. Governor Cuomo has even proposed that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on state test scores alone. As a result, more and more schools are increasing the amount of time that is spent on test preparation instead of real learning. While the New York State Department of Education and advocates of standardized testing do not support these “rote test-prep practices” in place of quality instruction, teachers and principals often feel as if they have no other choice when faced with an unfair test and incredibly high stakes. In my ten years of teaching I have seen the toll that these tests take on even our best schools. Our curriculum becomes watered down, and learning becomes a passive act. Thus, one cannot ignore the impact these tests are having on classroom culture and content of the curriculum.
As a teacher, my vision is for the classroom to be a learning laboratory, where students spend their days discussing and analyzing books with their peers, debating current events and social issues, solving real-world math problems with tools and visual models, conducting hands-on science experiments, diving into historical research with open-ended questions, writing stories, speeches, letters, informational articles, and poetry, exploring the worlds of drama, music, art and dance, and taking field trips around the city we all call home, all the while linking such rigorous instruction and activities to standards. As a parent, you have to ask yourself what type of education you want your child to receive. It is imperative that we all work together to ensure our students receive the education they deserve and that teachers can teach in a way that fosters true engagement, independence, and the desire for lifelong learning.
Some smart people in our City’s school system are waking up to the fact that these tests are not fair and cannot begin to measure everything a child learns in school. Chancellor Fariña has discontinued the usage of these tests as the sole criterion for student promotion to the next grade. Many middle schools are no longer using fourth grade test scores for admissions. This is a start, but I fear that the stakes for teachers and schools will only increase if we do not speak up as a collective force. Change happens when individuals rise up, gather together, and let their voices be heard.
Last year 60,000 parents opted out and refused these tests for their children. They took a stance against the New York State Tests and hoped that in solidarity, they could make change come. This year the movement is growing across our state.
However, the State Department of Education is not favor of opting out and is working hard to convince parents that it is a bad idea. At a recent superintendents’ conference in Albany, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch argued that “Test Refusal is a terrible mistake because it eliminates important information about how our kids are doing.” Ask most teachers if the test truly gives valuable information about students’ growth and progress and you will get a much different answer. One of the biggest frustrations for educators is how time-consuming these tests are and yet how little we learn from them about how our students are actually doing in school. We don’t get any useful data that tells us what skills each student knows and what we need to teach for students to be successful in school and in life. Instead, we learn whether or not our children are good test takers. After 10 years of teaching, I can tell you that I learn most about my students by conferring with them on a daily basis and by looking at the work they produce in the classroom. All of these in-class assessments are standards-based and linked to a rigorous curriculum.
I understand the dilemma that parents are faced with when they make the decision whether to opt their child in or out of the tests. I understand the concerns about going against the grain— as I said, I’m not a risk taker either. I believe that opting your child out of these tests is an act of courage and the single most powerful thing a parent can do to change the future of testing in New York State. When you opt out of these tests, you make your voice heard. You stand up to demand a test that is fair and developmentally appropriate. You stand up so that teachers can teach and engage kids in rigorous discussions and debates instead of test prep. You stand up for English language learners and students with special needs, teachers and
principals who are being unfairly evaluated, and schools that are being closed because of failing test scores.
To those of you who are worried that if you opt out, you are sending the message to your children that they can just get out of doing things that are hard, that they can give up before trying, remember that there is a difference between hard and unfair. It’s not that the tests are too difficult; it’s that they are developmentally and cognitively inappropriate. To those of you who say, “What’s the big deal? Kids are going to take tests for the rest of their lives anyway, why not get an early start preparing?”—remember: this stance implies that testing as we know it is acceptable. Is that really what we want and value in our system of education? Is there nothing we can do to change it? To those of you who say, “My child is a good test taker, what’s the big deal?”—think for moment beyond your child. Think about all of the children, teachers, and schools who are affected by these tests.
Ultimately, you have to make the best choice for your child and your family. And as you make that decision, talk with other parents, engage in a dialogue about these tests, weigh both sides of the debate, and do what you feel is right. Think about the education you dream of for your child and how to make it a reality.
Melissa Browning
New York City Public School Teacher

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Roof at Facebook’s New HQ

Facebook's new headquarters in Menlo Park, California has a 9-acre green rooftop.  Awesome.

Happy Passover!

“Introduction to a Haggadah” was written in 1984 and
published in Just as I Thought 
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999).
[print from culturaljudaism.org

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

How to retire (by HoNY)

“I retired six months ago. I moved from five acres in Texas to a small apartment in Harlem, and I just love it. I can do whatever I want, all day long. This morning I explored the Garment District. Right now I’m going home to eat some chicken and waffles with my neighbor. Tonight I’ll probably smoke some pot.”


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