Ferguson Shows That History Class Needs to Question

Posted August 14, 2014 By Dave Thomer

Yesterday I read two articles covering complaints about the revised Advanced Placement U.S. History exam. The National Association of Scholars and the Republican National Committee both attacked the revisions for promoting a negative vision of United States history, such as an emphasis on the racial hierarchy established in colonial times.

Last night and well into this morning, I was constantly refreshing Twitter to see what was happening in Ferguson, MO. If you’re not up to speed on the events, there’s a very good primer on Vox. Since Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer, residents have been gathering to protest, and the Ferguson and St. Louis County police have been very aggressive in their tactics – using tear gas, arresting reporters, and bringing out a lot of guns and armor.

There are a lot of lessons we need to learn from what’s going on in Ferguson, but one of them is that although we should not do so exclusively, we need to emphasize the negative aspects of America’s history, because they are influencing our present and so many people in positions of power do not see this. I have read the AP framework, and it does not ignore the idea that America’s leaders helped create a government that helped move justice and a government of rights forward. But neither does it ignore that they built that nation on territory occupied by other people, or that there has been an ongoing struggle to extend that nation’s protections and privileges to all its people. We need both sides of the story, and we need to understand that for all the positive legacy of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the negative legacy of slavery, racism, inequality, and exclusion also lives on today. Injustice compounds and festers, even after its most obvious signs have been swept away. It creates situations where many people feel ostracized and under threat from the very society that they live in. Then others, who are more comfortable with the status quo, are unable to see where that pain comes from because they believed the problems were all (or mostly) solved in the past and so everyone should just be able to carry on now without having to respond to what went on before.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on the case for reparations earlier this year tried to bring that point home, and a lot of people tried to push it away. Ongoing discussions across social media and activist networks about privilege demonstrate a lack of understanding and empathy. Statistics about the unequal treatment that our criminal justice system gives to Caucasians and minorities pile up until we are numb. And then we see the powder keg explode in a town like Ferguson, where a mostly-white police force is alienated from the largely-black community that it is supposed to serve.

I’ve made no secret of my fondness for John Dewey, and one of his ideas that sticks with me is that education is the process through which society decides what part of itself to pass on to the next generation. Implicit in that is the idea that there are some parts that we do not want to pass on, that the generation to come will build a better society than the one we have today. That means we need to be able to challenge our students’ assumptions and preconceived notions, while we help them develop the skills to critically examine the messages that society sends.

For students who come from a position of privilege (as a lot of AP students are), that is tricky. We will often be challenging things they have learned from their families and their communities. Students may feel like we are trying to make them feel guilty, or accusing them of being biased or cruel themselves because of the biased and cruel actions of others. The idea of a social responsibility may seem at odds with the ethic of individual responsibility that we often want them to assume. This kind of teaching requires us to be challenging and supportive simultaneously, which means we need to create a good rapport and safe environment with our students, and help them establish it with each other.

Students from disempowered groups may not need a history class to help them understand inequality in America, but they need support too. If the classroom can be a supportive and pluralistic environment, then that helps create a model that the students can work to recreate in society. The history of injustice must be married with the stories of resistance to that injustice, and the story of imperfect progress should be brought forward to the present day so that students have a reason to believe not only that present injustice is unacceptable but that something can be done about it. And then we need to help empower students to demand that change. Many of our students are already learning how to harness social media to empower citizens, but that needs to expand to understanding our electoral system, identifying who has political influence, seeing how they use it, and so on.

Together, these students can become the citizenry that demands accountability from their elected officials, that exercises power with empathy and wisdom, and that brings more justice to an ever more perfect union. And as they do, I hope that they will teach us how to do so as well.

(This post was revised several hours after initial posting to add some links and clarifying details.)

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Philadelphia’s public schools are in limbo once again, facing a major budget shortfall with no clear path to sufficient funding. A municipal cigarette tax that would have helped alleviate, although not eliminate, the problem is on hold because the state House, Senate, and governor can not agree on a number of budget particulars. So School Reform Commission Bill Green, District Superintendent William Hite, and Mayor Michael Nutter have been threatening not to open schools in September unless sufficient funding is in place. I think that it’s a good idea to threaten a dramatic gesture, but I don’t think the district’s leaders have chosen the right one. They shouldn’t be threatening to keep schools closed in September. They should be promising to open them.

Right now the best case scenario for September is that the district opens schools at a funding and staffing level similar to last year. This “Doomsday” level of funding resulted in many students attending schools without counselors or full-time school nurses, without necessary supplies, and without many extracurricular activities. Private fundraising helped alleviate some of these problems at some schools, but there is no guarantee that schools will be able to stretch their dollars even to match what they did last year. That’s not an acceptable best case by any stretch of the imagination. The district leadership needs to change the game and change the conversation to make it clear that this is unacceptable.

They took a step in doing so in May, when the School Reform Commission first refused to pass a budget with even more drastic cuts and then finally passed one that assumed that the government would find the funding for at least a Doomsday level. I have seen a number of education advocates suggest that the district go further and pass a budget that assumes an adequate level of funding and open the schools in September based on that budget. Obviously, if the city and state do not provide additional money, the funds would run out before June. If that happens, that is when Hite and the SRC should close the schools.

I have a number of reasons for thinking this is a good plan, but I’ll try to boil them down to three main ideas.

1. It’s election season. There’s an election in November, and right now the odds look pretty good that Pennsylvanians will elect a new governor who has already said that he wants an education funding formula and an increase in the share of education paid for by the state, rather than districts. If there has to be a moment of no return, I’d like to at least have the chance of a sympathetic governor in Harrisburg. Perhapseven more importantly, Philadelphia and other urban districts need support from legislators in suburban and rural Pennsylvania. That is often a challenge, because those areas tend to elect legislators who are less sympathetic to Philadelphia. But if we can highlight the importance of full, fair funding as a regional issue between now and November, it is possible that we might be able to build some coalitions with our suburban neighbors and improve our chances of passing something good.

2. Shared sacrifice. Right now there’s a lot of us-against-them in the funding debate. The governor and SRC have asked for a lot of union concessions, and are threatening layoffs. Staff members criticize district administrators over their salaries and the money spent on consulting and testing, among other expenses. Parents and communities feel that their neighborhood schools are being targeted. If all schools are fully funded and staffed, and we all know that we’re all going to shut down together if there is no solution to the funding problem, than we can all work together to ensure that we achieve an enduring solution.

3. Better results. Let’s be clear: without a lot more money, this is not going to be a great year for Philadelphia students. The “open fully staffed until the money runs out” plan has a best case scenario in which we start the year on solid ground and then get funding midway through to finish that way. The “Doomsday funding for a full year” plan has a best case scenario where lots of kids don’t have the counselors, nurses, activities, and support that they need while school staffs drive themselves crazy playing a combination of triage, whack-a-mole, and marathon running. But if no more money comes in, either way, we’re looking at a worst-case scenario where it may be impossible to get a full year in. If we wind up in that scenario, I would much rather the district put its best foot forward for five to eight months. Let’s focus on quality time, not the quantity of time.

So that’s my pitch. September should be the start of the showdown over funding, not the climax.

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For Me, the Force Was with George

Posted May 4, 2014 By Dave Thomer

So here it is, May 4, Star Wars Day. And if you figured a day that combines celebrating Star Wars fandom with a pun would be right up my alley, you’ve stayed on target. My daughter and I are both wearing Star Wars T-shirts today, and later on we might watch one of the movies, or play the X-Wing Miniatures Game, or maybe a few rounds of Lego Star Wars on the Wii. One thing I won’t be doing, though, is getting hyped up for the start of production on Episode VII. Ever since George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, my interest in the future of Star Wars has waned. It appears that as much as I have been a fan of Star Wars, I was more of a fan of George Lucas and what he accomplished with the franchise.

That’s not to say I’ve liked everything that’s come down the pike since 1977. I could go on at great lengths about the special editions, the flat acting that Lucas apparently asked for and received in the prequels, and the unconvincing Anakin/Padme romance. I think that he made some unfortunate decisions that hurt members of his audience, like the Neimoidian accents in Episode I that sounded way too much like Asian caricatures of the past or the sidelining of Padme in Episode III. But a lot of his choices I did like, and more than that I was happy with the fact that he had the opportunity to make them.

For me, the story of George Lucas and Star Wars is the story of someone who was stubborn enough to bet on himself time after time, and in the process did something incredible. Now, I admit that I picked up a lot of the history from official, Lucas-sanctioned sources, but I have read other sources as well and I haven’t seen anything that contradicts the overall story. Lucas used the money he had earned from American Graffiti to continue preproduction on Star Wars even while 20th Century Fox was delaying on signing the final contracts. With those delays and the success of Graffiti, Lucas could have negotiated a higher salary for himself. Instead, he negotiated for the sequel and merchandising rights. When Star Wars was a huge hit, he decided to finance the sequel himself rather than sell the rights back to Fox. The Empire Strikes Back and the four movies that followed were independent blockbuster tentpole films, a vategory that I think they have all to themselves.

And with the money that came from Star Wars, Lucas built a number of companies that helped to innovate the technical side of making movies and telling stories, such as Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Sound, and THX. Some of the things he launched didn’t become successful until after they left Lucas, such as Pixar and the EditDroid system. Some, like the LucasArts gaming company, flourished for a while and then faltered. But I think it’s an admirable track record, and one that I don’t think any of Lucas’ peers from the 1970s filmmaking scene have emulated. And that’s no knock on them – maybe Spielberg, Coppola, and Scorsese never wanted to be entrepreneurs. But I admire Lucas a lot for forging his own path, which he kept doing right up until he sold Lucasfilm. The last film he produced, Red Tails, was a film he spent two decades trying to make happen, until he decided to put up the money himself. That’s a special kind of stubborn right there.

So my admiration for Lucas mixed with my enjoyment of the Star Wars movies and universe, and each enhanced the other. As a speculative fiction fan, I’m surrounded by creations I love whose creators were ill-treated by the corporations that owned the work. While I know that Lucas was helped by a legion of artists whose work he then owned, he was the creator and the investor, and thus he avoided the fate of Siegel and Shuster or Jack Kirby or Bill Finger or even Gene Roddenberry or J. Michael Straczynski. He didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission to tell the story he wanted to tell the way he wanted to tell it. So even if I didn’t like the story all the time, I respected the storyteller.

Now, Episode VII and any future movies aren’t being made because George Lucas has a story he wants to tell. They’re being made because Disney wants to make a profit. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy plenty of stories that are told from that motivation. But the unique magic of Star Wars is gone now. If I want a Disney-owned media-spanning fictional universe, I already have Marvel. If I want J.J. Abrams to combine old and new actors to revive a space-based adventure series, I already have Star Trek. With George Lucas, Star Wars gave me something I couldn’t find anywhere else. Without him, it’s just another corporate entertainment franchise, and that’s not enough to thrill me.

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Not About Me

Posted May 1, 2014 By Dave Thomer

I remember being in grad school and frequently being frustrated in classes where the professor didn’t say a lot. This was especially true in political science courses, where I was trying to catch up with a lot of literature on democracy and political institutions that was really interesting, but a bit out of my background. (I took a couple of poli sci classes as an undergrad, but decided not to major in it for a variety of reasons.) I figured that the prof had spent a lot more time studying and thinking about the literature and the subject than I had, or than my classmates had, and in that two or three seminar window, I wanted to use that resource to streamline my own knowledge-building as much as possible. I had done the reading, I had my own thoughts and criticisms, and if someone else had either made them or refuted them, that would be very helpful. I had questions about how the research in the reading had been followed-up upon, and the prof was far more likely to know of the rest of the literature than I was. Now, it’s possible that I was, and am, too likely to defer to experts and credentials. But in my mind, that expert with that credential was the reason I was paying money to take that class and not just getting a reading list on my own and finding a discussion group on the Internet.

I think about this a lot these days because now that I am a teacher, I have to make a conscious effort not to simply be the kind of teacher that I liked most when I was a student. Don’t get me wrong, I take a lot of my inspiration from my own teachers and try to steal as many tricks from the good ones as I can. But not every student is looking for an explainer, or a source of lousy puns, or whatever I was looking for from my teachers. And they deserve the best I can give them, too. They might deserve it, and need it, even more than the students who are more on my wavelength. (And I may be going out onto a very thin branch with this whole “deserving” theme, because I don’t want to suggest that some students are less deserving of a good education, but bear with me for a minute.)

The thing is, I kind of hit a certain genetic/environment jackpot, in that the things I was good at and interested in as a kid are the things that society was going to force me to do anyway. And the things that I was less skilled at and less interested in were things that society let me pursue or abandon as I saw fit. I like reading, I like memorizing stuff, I like writing, and so on. So the fact that I had to do this for seven hours a day didn’t bug me too much, and overall society has rewarded me for this. If, on the other hand, I had been forced to spend seven hours a day exercising and learning how to play various sports, I might have been a little crankier and inclined to slack off. When I literally batted .000 during a season playing baseball for the local Y, I just stopped playing, spent more time reading, and that was that. Students who don’t like school or have less developed “school skills” don’t have the option of leaving the history team to spend more time on their basketball homework. It’s important for me to keep a strong sense of empathy, look for ways to make the history team work a little better, and be the teacher that they need, not the teacher that my current vision of my 14-yer-old self wanted.

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I’ve been waiting to write about the mistrial in the Jordan Davis murder trial because I have been hoping to hear something about the jury’s deliberations. The jurors agreed that Michael Dunn was responsible for firing 10 shots at Davis’ car and endangering the three other people who were in the car. They agreed that he was criminally wrong to do so. But they could not agree that beyond any reasonable doubt he was criminally responsible for murdering Davis.

I have so many questions about that. Was there a single holdout on the jury, or an even split? Was there something about Florida’s self-defense laws that proved to be a sticking point? Did the jurors believe Dunn when he said he saw a weapon?

The thing is, all of these questions are technicalities. They’re important technicalities. They’re technicalities that we need to understand so that we can intelligently work to reform self-defense laws, weapons laws, and other parts of the criminal justice system. But they don’t do a damn thing to address the hurt and pain that I have seen on Twitter and commentaries across the web. For millions of people, the fact that Dunn will most likely spend the rest of his life in prison if the guilty verdicts are upheld pales next to the fact that the jury could not deliver the simple, clear statement that Dunn murdered Davis.

That’s the part that hurts me, that has me feeling so lost right now. Because at the moment, I have a lot of sympathy for that jury. Our legal system is not always set up to deliver straightforward statements; sometimes you have to read between the lines. Al Capone went to jail for tax evasion. Plenty of people get busted for obstruction and not for the actual crime they committed. So if there was something that made it hard for the jury to make the specific point about Davis’ death, they were still able to make the point that what Dunn did was horribly wrong and that he needs to pay for his actions. There are people like Martin Longman at Booman Tribune who see that point and accept the verdict as adequate, albeit imperfect, justice.

My initial reaction to the verdict was along similar lines. Based on the evidence that I have read, I am pretty sure that Dunn is both racist and reckless, and that those two traits combined with a gun to result in a horrible death that is Dunn’s fault. I could also see how that same racism and recklessness could lead him to panic, and that in that panic he could suddenly believe that he was the one at risk. I wasn’t surprised that under Florida’s laws, some jurors might find that panic enough to raise reasonable doubt. I thought that this was another example of how our gun laws and self-defense laws can lead to tragic results, and felt relief that the verdict found another route to punish Dunn.

But then there are so many people like Tonyaa Weathersbee who see that verdict as a “hollow victory,” and ask what would have happened if Davis had been alone in his car. The mistrial speaks so loudly to them that no appeal to the end result can take away the pain. The deadlock calls out so loudly that no discussion of technicalities can make sense of the senseless. I did not have that immediate emotional reaction to the verdict, because I did not hear the same thing that they heard. But just because I did not hear what they heard does not mean that it wasn’t there. Indeed, the fact that so many people heard it makes me sure it was there, even if the jury didn’t mean for it to be there.

I’m grateful that Twitter and the educator communities that I belong to helped raise those voices up so that it was easier for me to hear them. I’ve been asking myself why I don’t see the verdict through the same lens that they do. It might be privilege. It might be my philosophical background leading me to view the verdict as an epistemological exercise. It might be my own experiences as a juror, when I have been torn between what I believed happen and what I believed the law required. It’s probably a combination of these and half a dozen other factors.

But beyond any of that, we live in a society that has a legacy of injustice. That legacy infects us in so many ways, frequently with tragic results. We need to confront that injustice every day. I do not know if we will ever get to a point where there are no Michael Dunns with their fear and anger towards others. I do not know if we will ever get to a point where the American justice system is not stacked against a significant part of its population. But we have to try or we will never stop inflicting these wounds on ourselves and each other.

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Educon Presentation: Supporting Democracy Beyond Content

Posted January 26, 2014 By Dave Thomer

I will be leading a conversation about how our schools can support democracy at EduCon in about an hour. I may edit this post with some reflections after the fact, but for now I want to make sure there’s an easily accessible link to the Google documents we’ll be using.

Here’s the slide set.

Here’s a document for sharing visions and definitions of democracy.

Here’s a document for sharing ideas about the skills citizens need in a democracy.

Here’s a document for planning some changes we can make to our schools and communities to help people build those skills.

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As intrigued as I am by the possibilities of crowdfunding, so far my only foray into the waters of Kickstarter and similar sites has been my support of Toad the Wet Sprocket’s new album. I’ve already discussed how much I’ve enjoyed New Constellation, but in November I had the chance to enjoy another fruit of that support. The band was playing at the Keswick Theatre right outside Philadelphia, and not only did I have tickets, but I had the chance to attend the soundcheck and meet the band. This would mark my fourth time seeing the band, but for my concertgoing companion it would be the first. My daughter had taken quite a liking to New Constellation and some of the band’s more famous hits, so this show would be her first pop music concert.

When we got to the theater, a few other Kickstarter supporters were waiting. Shortly after, we entered the theater. It was my first time at the Keswick, which is a very nice theater that feels very comfortable and sounds great. The band was playing “Rare Bird” from the new album, and in the theater it sounded better than I remembered from the studio version. When lead singer Glen Phillips asked if we wanted to hear anything in particular, another fan quickly called for “Throw It All Away,” from 1997’s Coil. I like that song well enough, but I kind of regretted that I didn’t have a lesser-known favorite of my own ready to throw out there.

After another song we moved into the theater lobby and got to talk to members of the band. They were very friendly and open. Phillips talked about his family and fondness for his hometown of Santa Barbara. It’s always good to be reminded that even musicians who have sold millions of records have lives to live when they walk off the stage. He and Alex chatted for a few minutes, and we also had a chance to talk to bassist Dean Dinning. I got to tell the story of how I became a fan of the band in the early ’90s, when the owner of the comic book store that I shopped at gave me the CD single for “Walk on the Ocean.” It was the B-side from that single, “All in All,” that really grabbed me. When I gave my own copy of the CD to Dinning to sign, he echoed my reaction to the song, saying that it definitely would have been a good choice to go on an album.

We left the theater to get some dinner, and when we returned we took our seats two rows back from the stage. When Toad opened up with “The Moment,” one of my favorite songs from the new album, Alex and I sang along. As great as the music was, the experience was even better because I could share it with my daughter. It also helped that she was really enjoying it, and not just consenting to be dragged to some Meaningful Father-Daughter Experience. On that score, by coincidence, Phillips used Skype to play a cover of Paul Simon’s “Born at the Right Time” for his daughter, who was celebrating her birthday. So there was definitely a theme to the evening.

Alex and I saw that other fans were noticing how well she knew the songs, especially the new ones. I think that when you’re a fan of something that’s been around for a while, it makes you feel good to see that people are still discovering and enjoying the thing that means so much to you. That’s particularly true when the zeitgeist seems like it may have moved on; I think that just as the band has been reinvigorated by recording new material, it’s nice for me to feel like I’m not only trying to preserve a moment from my teens in amber. If other fans feel similarly, I’m not surprised that they would smile when they see a younger fan picking up the torch.

Had I been picking the setlist, I don’t think I would have done a better job of choosing songs. (Maybe I would found a way to work “Fly from Heaven” from Dulcinea in there.) Phillips introduced one of my favorites, “Windmills,” by talking up drummer Randy Guss’ intro, which led Guss to cut said intro short and say, “I wish you hadn’t done that.” In my memory, Phillips and Dinning used this opportunity to start bantering about the literary symbolism of Guss’ multitude of drum solos, but that might have happened at a different point in the show. Either way, Phillips was in good form talking to the audience, including a quick recovery from accidentally saying “Pittsburgh” instead of “Philadelphia.” (To establish that he understood the difference, Phillips described cheesesteaks as “world-famous” while saying that Primanti Bros. were, well, we’ll just say less well-known.)

Right after “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted,” which Alex and I both enjoy a lot, Alex called out “Play ‘California Wasted!’” Even from our close seats, I doubt the band heard her, but nonetheless, Phillips promptly said something like, “And now, here’s ‘California Wasted.’” Not only was the band playing one of our favorite songs from the new album, my daughter had successfully called for a song on her very first attempt. I’ve been going to concerts for 20 years, and I don’t think I can remember that happening when the artist hadn’t specifically asked for requests.

After the show ended, Alex wanted to wait in the autograph line because I hadn’t been able to get guitarist Todd Nichols to sign my CD. As we moved past the band and told them how much we enjoyed the show, Dinning greeted Alex and said, “I saw you out there!” We told him about her successful call-out, which he seemed to enjoy. Then, with my autographs in hand, we left the theater.

We did get one photograph with the band, but my iPod camera made it look like it had been run through a couple of Photoshop filters. Then again, the last lines of “Walk on the Ocean,” which also closed out the concert, seem fitting:

Don’t even have pictures, just memories to hold
That grow sweeter each season, as we slowly grow old

Here’s to more music, and more memories, in the seasons to come.

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First Thoughts on Implementing Genius Hour

Posted January 3, 2014 By Dave Thomer

I’ve wanted to emphasize project-based learning in my teaching since before I knew that project-based learning was the term for what I wanted to emphasize. One challenge I have faced is that while my school has been supportive of the use of projects, they have not been a central focus of the administration’s pedagogical philosophy. Combined with the need to cover a certain amount of content to keep up with district’s planning timeline, I haven’t felt like I was tapping project-based learning’s potential to help students build their inquiry skills. This year, with the support of my principal, I’ve started to incorporate an idea I discovered through the educators’ community on Twitter: Genius Hour.

Genius Hour is based on the idea of 20% Time that has become fairly well known in the business world thanks to its use at tech companies such as Google. The idea is that employees are allowed to spend a certain amount of their time on the job using the company’s resources to work on projects that they developed and believe might benefit the company. Google products like Gmail were initially developed as independent 20% Time projects. Educators looked at the idea and figured that if getting to work on projects of their own design was good for employees, why wouldn’t it be good for students? So the idea is to spend one class period a week in which the students do exactly that.

I began keeping an eye on the weekly Genius Hour chats on Twitter, and looked at the Genius Hour wikispace set up by some of the participants. In November, at the start of the second marking period, I introduced the assignment to my students. To provide structure, I had the students complete a proposal that would tie their project area to one of four themes that we have been exploring this year: 1) military power; 2) economic power; 3) political power; or 4) cultural power. This gave students a lot of room, as the proposals I received indicated. One student wanted to explore the history of the Internet, another wanted to write raps about Barack Obama’s career, and another wanted to create a comic book about the Revolutionary War. Over the last couple of months, some of these projects have really developed into a deep exploration of a subject.

The biggest challenge that my students and I have encountered in implementing Genius Hour is that when you are not used to the independence and depth of inquiry that come with project-based learning, it’s easy to feel lost. I had prepared a couple of reference sheets that I thought would be helpful. The first week I asked students to come up with a week-by-week plan that would serve as a set of benchmarks along with the proposal. But a lot of students were not used to taking a big question and breaking it down into smaller questions, so they had trouble taking the big task of an independent project and breaking it down into smaller tasks that were more specific than “I will get information about my topic.”

So I need to raise my game in terms of helping the students form their initial questions and then proceed from there. I may even have a fairly structured week of lessons that leads up the start of the independent time. I’m going to go back to the Teaching for Understanding framework that I worked with when I was getting my certification, because I believe it will help both the students and me to work backwards from our goals to plotting the clearest path to those goals. I was also happy to see this graphic on Twitter:

The second reference sheet I created was to help students keep track of sources. With so many different sources of information accessible through search engines and other references, students often need help developing and navigating a network of trustworthy sources. What I think I will do next semester is combine these reference sheets and add some other resources to create an ongoing journal, and then have the journal turned in as part of the final project.

Overall, I’m pleased with our first attempt at Genius Hour, and looking forward to improving the process for students in the months to come.

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I Can Still See Where I Am – Dada at The Note

Posted January 2, 2014 By Dave Thomer

I remarked earlier in the year that four bands were really important to me in the early 90s as I graduated from high school and went off to college: R.E.M., Matthew Sweet (all right, three bands and a solo artist), Toad the Wet Sprocket, and dada. While I have managed to see the first three live numerous times, for various reasons the closest I got to dada was being able to catch a three-song set that they played at the Tower Records near my house, back when there was a Tower Records near my house. (Since they played “Surround,” one of my all-time favorite tracks, I considered myself lucky.) But when the band announced that they would be playing in West Chester on the day before my birthday as part of their tour to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their debut album Puzzle, I decided that I had to take the plunge and cross “See a full dada show live” off of my Lifetime To Do List.

So I figured out how to get from work out to West Chester via public transit and eventually found my way to The Note, a a bar with a stage and a decent amount of standing room as well as a balcony with couches and chairs. One virtue of not drinking is that I spent no time at the bar and was able to get right up the stage. From there, there was nothing to do but wait. The bar clearly knew its target audience – or at least it knew I was coming. Once upon a time, I would title whichever mixtape had my favorite songs Daves Rich Pageant; now I have a 25-song playlist on my iPod with the same name. Within half an hour of my arrival at The Note, the sound people had played three songs from Daves Rich Pageant among the mix of 90s alt-rock selections. I had come to this show in part because as a 17-year-old, I had been unable to. I was already starting to feel a little bit like the place had been waiting for me.

The opening artist, Anna Rose, was definitely talented, and her opening song “Behold a Pale Horse” still sticks in my memory. Lots of the audience was still trickling in or hanging out at the bar, but those in the audience who were listening seemed to like what they were hearing. At around 10, dada took the stage. I was standing pretty close to dead center so I had a great view of drummer Phil Leavitt as he began to play, followed by bassist Joie Calio and finally guitarist Michael Gurley. As their opening jam took shape, I was pretty sure that they were getting ready to open with “Posters,” but they weren’t in any rush to get there. And that was just fine. I can’t really describe the start of the show and do it justice, but I can share this YouTube video of the band doing a similar intro in Atlanta earlier in the tour:

I’ve said a lot of times that recorded music is one of the greatest cultural bargains we have. I could buy the tracks that were played that night for around the same price as my ticket, and listen to them over and over again. In fact, I have. But to be a few feet away from the band as they made the music happen is an entirely different experience, and before Gurley sang a word I was already chalking that bus ride up as time well spent. I wish I could describe the joy I felt when Gurley, and the crowd, sang the opening line to “Posters.” I’ve said before that being a fan of something forms a bond with other fans; at that moment I was at home in a room full of strangers.

The band segued from “Posters” right into “Dim,” the single that got me to purchase Puzzle in the first place. As they reached the end, I thought to myself that if for some reason the band had to walk off the stage at that moment, I would still be a a satisfied ticket-buyer. Fortunately, they played until around midnight, which surprised me a little bit. When I had checked the setlists for the band’s other shows, they had run to around 14 or 15 songs. What I hadn’t taken into account is how much the band was willing to depart from the studio versions of songs in the course of the live performance. Not only did they insert interludes into several songs, but when Gurley wanted to adjust his pedals or check on something in the sound mix, Leavitt and Calio would just start to jam, and Gurley would join in as he completed his fine-tuning.

When I was younger, I didn’t give nearly enough credit to the actual playing of music. In my head, the musicians had to have the skill to follow the songwriter’s script, but I did not appreciate that the act of interpreting a song and bringing it to life in the moment is a fantastically creative act in and of itself. Fortunately, I had already become wiser in my old age, but if I hadn’t, watching dada play would have kicked the light bulb on for sure. It doesn’t hurt that the members of dada write great songs, of course, but even when they’re doing other material, such as the cover of “California Dreamin'” that they have performed a lot on this tour, you know that they’re a great band.

At a couple of points during the show, Leavitt thanked the audience for the years we have spent following the band. For myself, I can certainly say it’s been my pleasure. And hopefully I won’t wait 20 years before I see them again.

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So in the past couple of weeks, my daughter has discovered Horrible Histories, a British television program based on a series of books. It’s basically a sketch comedy program that takes historical fact as its source material. As a result, my daughter has a far better understanding of the Tudor and Stuart dynasties than I do. My wife has the theme song to one recurring bit, called “Stupid Deaths,” stuck in her head.

My daughter has been watching these episodes on YouTube because they are region-blocked at the BBC’s website. It’s not the first time I have thought to myself that I would gladly write the BBC a check for the television license fee if I could have access to all the stuff they put up for streaming.

It also has me thinking about how effective comedy can be as a teaching device, at least as an entry point. You probably need to have at least some interest in the topic in order to really get the humor, but if something makes you laugh then maybe that will spark your interest in going further. There are jokes or bits of physical comedy that I’ve done in class that students talk to me about later – this year’s seniors have made several references to the song-and-dance I did to They Might Be Giants’ version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” when they were 9th graders. I just wish I were a better, and funnier, writer. Or that I had a staff to help me come up with 180 bits a year. :)

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