The most recent iteration of Wonder Woman (2017) on the big screen has received much attention because of its woman director Patty Jenkins and its attractive and agile star at her most womanliness. Actress Gal Gadot admitted she was 3-5 months pregnant for the role of Diana during much of the filming. The film also offers a similar message to the one that reverberates from the young adult novel, A Wrinkle in Time by one of my favorite woman authors, Madeleine L’Engle

Sitting in the dark, above the explosive noise in an action packed sequence, I heard the argument posed by the villain of the film, Ares, the god of War. At the climax of the film (and I do not believe the following is much of a spoiler), Ares admits to seeding treachery into the souls of mankind and bellows for Diana to destroy mankind, to give into her rage saying:

Ares: “They do not deserve your protection.”

But, remembering the sacrifice of others, Diana makes a different choice:

Diana: “It’s not about what you deserve, it’s about what you believe, and I believe in love.”

That same argument Ares makes is the argument made in the climax of A Wrinkle in Time. Teen-aged Meg, the awkward nerdish heroine, confronts IT, a grotesque villainous mass that has taken a sinister control over the mind of her beloved younger brother Charles Wallace:

Mrs. Whatsit hates you,” Charles Wallace said.
And that was where IT made ITs fatal mistake, for as Meg said, automatically, “Mrs. Whatsit loves me; that’s what she told me, that she loves me,” suddenly she knew.
She knew!
Love.
That was what she had that IT did not have. (12.135-140)

Of course, Wonder Woman has supernatural powers that help her defeat her foe. She is also not above using violence to achieve an end….she is an Amazon after all.

Meg in contrast is bookish and insecure; without sword, shield, or lasso. Meg realizes that she is incapable of directly defeating IT:

 But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it. (12.141-143)

Meg must use her wits rather than physical strength, and she cleverly defeats IT in a confrontation with lines so deeply etched in my literary memory files that I can still recite them, as I did watching the film:

But she could love Charles Wallace.
She could stand there and she could love Charles Wallace. (12.144-145)

Perhaps it is not surprising that in both stories, and against impossible odds, Diana and Meg find the same elixir on their hero’s journey to be the power of love. Their stories follow that archetypal journey: the call to adventure, leaving the known world, meeting the mentor(s), the test, the sacrifice, the ordeal, and the return with the elixir.

Please understand that although I enjoyed the film, I am not elevating the screenplay, production, or even the performances in Wonder Woman to the high regard for which I hold A Wrinkle in Time.  Although they are both fiction, the D.C. Comic heroine does not hold the same place in my literary heart as does Meg.

My 9-year-old self identified with Meg, and I longed for a Mrs. Which to blow into my life with an adventure. My own copy of the novel, a mottled blue hardcover signed by L’Engle, is a treasured possession.(see story here) In my current role as an educator, I continue to encourage others to read the book. L’Engle tells a wonderful story.

I do not think, however, that L’Engle would be unhappy with my comparison. The similarities in comparing the message of Meg’s story to Diana’s story in the film is what Madeleine L’Engle meant when she said:

“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.”

There are different ways to become familiar with our nation’s founding documents: reading, memorizing, studying, reciting are a few. But in our keyboard- swipe-click-centered world, rewriting by hand is not one that immediately comes to mind.

A story feature in the NYTimes The Constitution, By Hand (6/30/17) written by Morgan O’Hara explained her process for copying the United States Constitution out by hand with a few sharpies. She noted that:

Hand copying a document can produce an intimate connection to the text and its meaning. The handwriter may discover things about this document that they never knew, a passage that challenges or moves them. They may even leave with a deeper connection to the founders and the country, or even a sense of encouragement.

Whatever her original intent for deciding to hand copy the lengthy document, her explanation for discovering things about a text echoes the arguments put forth about close reading that were initiated with the Common Core. Close reading requires students to read and reread a text several times; each time for a different purpose.

The first reading is to understand what the text says. The first reading is for comprehension: Who (character); What (events); Where/When (setting); Why (plot or information) questions asked.

It is the second reading, however, that asks a reader to become familiar with how the text operates:

-What does _____ this word mean in this context?
-How is the text organized? (sequence. cause and effect, compare/contrast, description)?
-What ways does the author use punctuation to control the reading of the text?

Asking students to write out by hand the  United States Constitution with the Bill of Rights is akin to having them perform a second close read. In copying the words and the punctuation and imitating the structure (sequence),  they could, like O’Hara, focus on how the text operates. How this particular text operates is exactly what constitutional scholars, lawyers, and judges debate regularly in courts.

How the Text Operates

For example, if you copy out the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, you will notice that the framers used three commas and two semi-colons in order to to separate clauses:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Recently, the first semicolon after thereof was at the heart of the case (January 2010) Citizens United . The Supreme Court determined that this semicolon links the free exercise of religion and the free exercise of speech and that the framers did not mean that each clause of the First Amendment should be interpreted separately. The decision gave corporations the same free speech rights as people, and that corporations should have the same free religious exercise rights as people as well.  Handwriting the First Amendment and pausing to consider that semicolon can bring attention as to how the author(s) or Founding Fathers used punctuation to control the reading of the text.

Punctuation in the Declaration of Independence is also recently under scrutiny. Danielle Allen, then a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., caused a stir when she located an extra period on an original copy of the document at the National Archives after the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (see photo clip)

National Archive copy of the Declaration of Independence (with questionable period)

Allen suggested that this period -which could be an ink blot- might be misinterpreted to mean that that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Ink blot or intentional sentence stop, Allen argues that Thomas Jefferson did not intend to separate the phrase using a period, but had intended a continuation with the phrase that follows:

“— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

In an article that followed in The Atlantic, Have We Been Reading the Declaration of Independence All Wrong?Allen explains,

“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights…You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

Legislators and scholars have argued about the intent of Thomas Jefferson since the release of the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Students should have the opportunity to add their voices to the impact of different interpretations on their lives as well.

Muscle Memory

Outside of noting the punctuation in primary source documents, there is a fair amount of research that promotes the writing by hand as a great instructional tool in developing muscle memory, which is described on the Logic of English research blog as meaning “the students can write quickly and legibly with little conscious attention.” Writing by hand helps students as a multi-sensory approach to reading and spelling. This understanding contradicts long held beliefs that copying does not improve understanding. There may have been examples of monks who copied Ancient Christian manuscripts who were unable to even read, but in these cases the goal was artistic, not  literacy. Moreover, in the 21st Century, there is an increase in attention being paid to the loss of writing by hand in our tech obsessed culture.

New research shows that a multi-sensory approach that combines the finger movements (kinesthetic) with the sensorimotor part of the brain shows how writing by hand helps us recognize letters. Researcher Anne Mangen (The University of Stavanger-2011) explained the connection between reading and writing and how the sensorimotor system plays a role in the process of visual recognition during reading, saying:

“The process of reading and writing involves a number of senses. When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These kinds of feedback is significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.”

Feedback like this may be helpful to students. Of course copying the primary documents such as the United States Constitution or the Declaration of Independence in their entirety would be a lengthy commitment. Copying entire sections or even phrases, however, can give students that same kind of motor action and brain feedback and help them better appreciate a passage for what it says (meaning) and how it says it (text structure).

At the very least, they will experience the same process of duplicating these documents in the authentic way they were created by our Founding Fathers….by hand.

My letter to the Social Studies Department Chair at West Haven High School

Dear Mark …and to every other Civics or AP Government Teacher in the USA:

Sorry to interrupt your well-deserved summer vacation.

But I have a resource that I think you should use next year in the Advanced Placement American Government class. You should share this resource with the Issues in Government classes.

This Sunday’s NY Times (7/2/17) magazine has special section devoted to a single spread layout, four pages long, that features an annotated United States Constitution.

 

How could this be used in your classroom?

You will note that on the front of the section is the editors’ statement about the Constitution, that “Schoolchildren are sometimes forced to read it.” You have mentioned several times that students at every level sometimes have difficulty reading a primary source document like the Constitution. They are not alone. The editors of the section also note that scholars “pore over it,” inferring they too are reading the text to better understand this primary source document:

“For most Americans, the United States Constitution remains a distant and archaic text, a relic to be revered but rarely consulted.”

In presenting this annotated document, the editors have given teachers a tool to help students better understand our country’s basic rules. They have implemented a literary strategy known as “chunking the text” which means breaking down a difficult text into more manageable pieces so that students can close read for better comprehension. Chunking helps students identify key words and ideas, develops their ability to paraphrase, and makes it easier for them to organize and synthesize information. Close reading requires students to read and reread a text multiple times for what the text says and how the text works in order to determine how the text has an impact on their lives.

Several sections of this annotated Constitution have commentary from a lawmaker or a scholar or an author or a NYTimes editor. Over 30 individuals offered commentaries printed in the margins including: Representative John Conyers (Michigan), Representative Adam B. Schiff (California), Senator Mike Lee (Utah), Senator Lamar Alexander (Tennessee), Senator Patty Murray (Washington) Janet Napolitanto (former Secretary of Homeland Security), Jamal Green (Columbia Law Professor), Lawrence Tribe (Harvard Law Professor) as well as staff writers Adam Liptak and Emily Bazelon.

Each short commentary, about one or two short paragraphs long, serves as a model for students to follow. Students can be asked to imitate what the contributors have done and chunk the text of the Constitution in order to rewrite text in their own words. By chunking the text, students are better able to identify key words, to analyze ideas, to paraphrase, and to synthesize information.

Each commentary is connected by an arrow imposed on the section being annotated. For several sections Amendment 14 -Civil Rights) there are several commentaries. In total, there are 40 commentaries offering multiple points of view on our founding charter.

For example, Senator John McCain writes about the “common defense”(Article I: Section 8):

“With the powers given to us by our founders, it must be the urgent work of Congress to meet our sacred obligations to give our service members everything they need to defend our nation and our liberty.”

Vanita Gupta, former assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice writes about the 14th Amendment,

“The struggle to realize the promise of this brief but important clause has been at the heart of every movement for civil rights in this country and continues to animate social justice activism of today.”

Their examples serve as models to show students how to analyze and to synthesize the language of the document.

What teachers have with this annotated Constitution are 40 mini-lessons they can share with students sequentially or by order of a trending topic (capital punishment, freedom of the press, etc.)

But that’s not all!

There is a prologue to the inside spread, a two page essay by author  Garry Wills, who has written about James Madison, framer of Constitution. His essay, titled “Child of the Enlightenment,”  discusses the principles derived from the the Age of Reason that guided the “secular miracle” of the Constitutional Convention over the course of a year: convened in 1787 and ratified 13 months later in June 1788.

Wills considers what he calls the “myth” of the checks and balances built into the Constitution, suggesting that:

James Madison was not so much as wanting to encourage “competing interests but to arrive at a ‘disinterested’ view of a common purpose, what Enlightenment philosophers call ‘virtue’ – or public spiritedness.”

Wills argues that such virtue was-and still is -the key component of all government.

Finally, at the the bottom of Wills’ prologue, there is a timeline marking several Constitutional milestones, beginning with its origins in Ancient Greece and ending with today.

Taken as a whole, the special section this Sunday eliminates the need for civics textbooks, which I have often suggested are dated. We both know that students are more motivated when they respond to the issues being discussed today.

This four page spread of newsprint is an entire civics course. ..you just have to get a copy! (or you can borrow mine).

Stress: That tension we feel mentally or physically when we must deal with demanding circumstances.

Not all stress is bad. Some stress is good for problem solving. Too much stress, however, is unhealthy.

For the past year, I have worked ( painted, cleaned, packed) in order to downsize, move, and place my house on the market. That stress was physically demanding…and is ongoing.

This March, my mother’s five year battle with Alzheimers/dementia finally consumed her, and she passed away shortly after we relocated her to my sister’s home. That stress was emotionally demanding.

How much stress is too much?

I researched a test for stress that was developed back in 1967 by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe.

That same year, in April of 1967, the Beatles released the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

How are these two events related?

Reports about the The Beatles at that time indicate that they were frustrated by the screaming crowds at their live performances. According to their producer, George Martin, the Fab Four “wanted to spend more time in the recording studio.” Paul had asked his fellow band members, ‘We need to get away from ourselves – how about if we just become sort of an alter ego band?”

It was stress, the demanding circumstances of touring, that drove The Beatles into the studio. In this case, stress proved to be positive force for making music.

That same year, psychiatrists Holmes and Rahe released the results of their research using surveys of more than 5,000 medical patients. The patients were provided a list of 43 life events they had experienced within the previous two years. They labeled each event as a Life Change Unit (LCU) and assigned each LCU a different “weight” for stress. Adding up the weights gave a patient a score; the higher the score, the more likely the patient was to become ill.

Holmes and Rahe scaled the top 5 LCUs and their weights (_) as:

  1. Death of spouse (100)
  2.  Divorce (73)
  3. Marital separation (65)
  4. Jail term (63)
  5. Death of close family member (63)

While most of these LCU events are associated with negative stress, there are a few on the list that could be seen as positive stress creating events such as taking a vacation, weighted at 13.

One example of positive stress associated with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the release of the album as an outstanding personal achievement for The Beatles, a positive LCU, weighted at 28.

From November 1966 through April 1967, The Beatles spent over 400 hours in EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in London. This dedicated studio time gave them the chances to experiment and try innovative recording techniques.  They had the time to work together and share what McCartney described as “a huge explosion of creative forces.”

Within the album’s catalog, there are songs with explicit references to life changing events, both small and large. A few examples are listed with their weights according to the Holmes and Rahe stress test.

They included a song that referred to everyday stress:

“Woke up, fell out of bed,
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,
And looking up I noticed I was late.”

A Day in the Life

Being late could contribute to stress or trouble with boss (23) and maybe change in responsibilities at work (29).

They included a song that referred to a LCU event such as a son or daughter leaving home (29) with a heartbreaking narrative:

Wednesday morning at five o’clock, as the day begins.
Silently closing her bedroom door,
Leaving the note that she hoped would say more,

She goes downstairs to the kitchen clutching her handkerchief.
Quietly turning the backdoor key,
Stepping outside, she is free.

She’s Leaving Home

And they included a lighthearted address to the worries of aging:

“When I get older, losing my hair
Many years from now,
Will you still be sending me a valentine,
birthday greetings, bottle of wine?”

When I’m Sixty-Four

Stress from aging could be measured on the scale as retirement (45) or change in social activities (18).

In 1967, The Beatles met the challenges or the causes and effects of stress on their lives through their music. They wrote songs abot the stress in everyday life, the ordinary and the extraordinary.

That same year, Holmes and Rahe laid out their rating tool to measure the cause and effects of stress on their patients’ health.

I determined my own personal stress level after totaling the Holmes and Rahe scale weights for my mother’s death, my downsizing, and my hip replacement- all within the past two years. I was relieved to see a total of 141 because that score leaves me into the lowest category with “a low to moderate chance of becoming ill in the near future.” To provide sense of their scale, Holmes and Rahe highest score is a 600.

Perhaps the best way to deal with personal stress of any kind is the suggestion that comes from the lyrics in Sgt. Pepper as well. The album may be 50, but the advice from The Beatles is timeless:

“Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends.
Mmm, I’m gonna try with a little help from my friends.”

A Little Help from my Friends

Every school year, students in hundreds of freshman English classes nationwide read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

They are learning about meter and experiencing the rhythmic patterns of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter:

  • Ten syllables in each line
  • Five pairs of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables
  • The rhythm in each line sounds like:
    ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM

In the play, the pattern of  iambic pentameter sounds like:

Juliet: o NOW be GONE, more LIGHT and LIGHT it GROWS
Romeo: More LIGHT and LIGHT, more DARK and DARK our WOES

Studying the meter of Shakespeare’s poetry in English class is akin to practicing the Common Core Mathematical Practice (MP7) which asks students to “look closely to discern a pattern or structure.”

Students can find language patterns everywhere.

Now, some freshmen English classes might be reading Romeo and Juliet during the week of Valentine’s. They might already be familiar with some of the iconic images of the holiday: roses, Cupids, or those candy conversation hearts.

But did they notice that the conversation hearts associated with Valentine’s Day have a specific pattern?

According to Necco, the maker of the candies, the pattern to the conversation heart: five letters on the top line, and four on the shorter line:

 

cartoon-heart

Necco, or the New England Confectionery Company, has produced candy conversation hearts since 1901, and the flavors traditionally include: Lemon, Apple, Blue Raspberry, Strawberry, Grape and Orange.

While the language on the conversation hearts are no substitute for Shakespeare’s genius, they can be helpful when “sometimes you don’t have the words to express your feelings.” Every year from February to January, Necco produces almost 100,000 pounds or 8 billion pieces of sugary sentiment. There are hundreds of suggestions submitted each year to the company with new sayings. Many of these are sayings that reflect cultural shifts: From “Call me”, “Email me”, or “Fax me”, to “Tweet Me.”

Asking students in classes that are studying Romeo and Juliet to create new conversation hearts to accompany the play could be a fun assessment, especially on Valentine’s Day!

The standard pattern of these conversation hearts could be used as a way for students to summarize several of Shakespeare’s speeches.

For the line:

  • But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. (2.2.1-3)
  • Conversation heart summary: Romeo to Juliet: You’re a Sun

For the line:

  • ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy; (2.2. 38)
  • Conversation heart summary: Juliet to Romeo: Enemy Mine

Students could also use the conversation hearts as a way for students label characters:

  • Tybalt: Angry Ally
  • Mercutio: Amigo Poet

Students could also try other patterns on the conversation hearts such as:

  • six letters on top line, three letters on the bottom line;
  • four letters on the top line, five letters on the bottom line;
  • Punctuation could be used as well.

Students could string the phrases from a few conversation hearts together to create a new line of sweet poetry. In that case, they might choose to include the most popular conversation heart, “Marry Me”…which is more positive for celebrating the Valentine’s holiday than than the more tragic “Kiss-I Die!”

If music be the food of love,” as Shakespeare suggests, then the food for the mind is vocabulary.

The term vocabulary is defined as “a list or collection of words or of words and phrases usually alphabetically arranged and explained or defined.” There are a number of reasons to think about these lists of words and phrases as things that are consumable. Consider how often references to words or phrases are framed in metaphors of food:

  • Food for thought;
  • Digesting what was said;
  • Chew on it for a while;
  • Difficult to swallow.

These metaphors continue in today’s digital age, where words and phrases are encoded over “feeds” or electronic transmission of news, as from a broadcaster or an Internet newsgroup. screen-shot-2017-02-05-at-9-06-49-pm

 

All these food metaphors signal how important vocabulary is to a student’s developing academic life. Just as food is metabolized and turned into the building blocks and fuel that the body needs, educators should see vocabulary to be part of the building blocks of critical thinking. Just as any student must internalize food for energy, research shows that for vocabulary to be effective, students must internalize words to use them correctly in both receptive and verbal language. And just as food is necessary every day for physical growth and stamina, vocabulary is necessary every day,  in all subject areas, for a student’s academic growth and stamina.

These food metaphors also support the idea that vocabulary should not be an isolated activity, but a daily requirement that teachers need to incorporate in all lessons. The teaching of vocabulary is too important to be left to workbooks or worksheets; teaching words and word meanings must be part of speaking, listening, reading and writing in every day’s lesson.

While the first step in a successful vocabulary program is explicit instruction, the steps of continued exposure and direct practice are also important. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in teaching vocabulary educators should:

Use repeated exposure to new words in multiple oral and written contexts and allow sufficient practice sessions.”

In their article posted on Adlit.org, Explicit Vocabulary Instruction, researchers have found that “Words are usually learned only after they appear several times.” Words that appear infrequently may not be the words that should be targeted for explicit instruction.

This research is supported by Robert Marzano who outlined a six step process for educators in Education Leadership Magazine, “The Art and Science of Teaching / Six Steps to Better Vocabulary Instruction” (September 2009). These six steps outline how repeated exposure might be accomplished:

  1. Provide a description, explanation, or example of the new term.
  2. Ask students to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words.
  3. Ask students to construct a picture, pictograph, or symbolic representation of the term.
  4. Engage students periodically in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the terms in their vocabulary notebooks.
  5. Periodically ask students to discuss the terms with one another.
  6. Involve students periodically in games that enable them to play with terms.

There are many ways that students at every ability level can be independently engaged on digital platforms that support vocabulary activities. There are multiple software programs with “feeds” that can help student practice vocabulary with games or flashcards on different devices. Examples of these platforms include:

Research suggests that it is the repeated exposure to words that is most effective, especially if they appear over an extended period of time. Researchers estimate that it could take as many as 17 exposures for a student to learn a new word.

This kind of repeated exposure echoes the practice of the Pulitzer Prizewinning Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, who is featured in the (2015) documentary City of Gold. In the film, Gold explains that before writing a review on its food, he will visit a restaurant sometimes a dozen or more times, often tasting the same dish several times “to make sure I get it right.” Gold’s multiple visits to a restaurant “to be sure to get it right” can serve as an example of how educators need to recognize the need for repeated exposure in vocabulary so that students can “get it right” as they ingest and digest vocabulary words.

Students must regularly read their vocabulary words the same way they eat three meals a day, and a possible snack before bed. They must write their vocabulary words, listen to their vocabulary words, and speak their vocabulary words.  In offering an academic diet that is rich in vocabulary, educators should know “students are what they eat.”

Click bait headlines, such as the one above, may not have been “liked” instantaneously around the 13 original American colonies, but the spreading of fake news and misinformation was still a factor in the news cycle of 1776.  A close look at American history reveals that fake news has been around since the country’s inception, and even the honorable George Washington had to confront the repercussions of intentional misinformation.

There are forgeries at the New York Historical Society known as The Letters from General Washington to Several of His Friends, written by a British sympathizer who planted the letters to create doubts about Washington’s commitment to the cause of the American Revolution. One of the circulated letters, included the following statement:

“Thus circumstanced, can you point out a way in which it is possible for me to resign, just now, as it were on the eve of action, without the imputation of cowardice ? I think not.”

The discovery and then release of this misinformation in these documents would have certainly delighted the hearts of British loyalists. In fact, the timing of this faked correspondence as news in November of 1776, soon after the disastrous military decisions Washington made in New York, was meant to encourage Tories in America and in Britain.

A Forgery: "Contemporary Letter from George Washington to Martha

A forgery: “Contemporary Letter from George Washington to Martha Washington, June 24, 1776” on exhibit at the NY Historical Society.

These forgeries, reported to be in Washington’s hand, were supposedly found in a large trunk, a portmanteau, that had been left behind while during the General’s hasty retreat to Fort Lee, New Jersey. The crafted propaganda pieces were intended to question the integrity of that upstart who was leading the American revolution.

Circulation of this fake news and misinformation was furthered when a London bookseller published the contents of the handwritten fakes in a pamphlet titled Letters from General Washington to Several of His Friends in the Year 1776. According to Edward G Lengelmarch  (

“British reviewers panned the clumsy fraud, but it sold moderately well, and a year later the letters reappeared in newspapers in British-occupied New York City.”

These letters portray Washington very different from how he is viewed today. While historians acknowledge that Washington was keenly aware of the many obstacles the faced in opposing the British, they are unanimous in saying that he was unwavering in his commitment to the American Revolution. In contrast, the forged letters suggest Washington was a man plagued with doubt. One fake letter states:

“At length, however, when a Continental army came to be voted for, my fears returned with redoubled force; for then, for the fifth time, I clearly saw our aims reached farther than we cared to avow. It was carried with an unanimity that really astonished me; because I knew, many who voted for it were as adverse to the independency of America as I was.”

The forgeries also impugn Washington as an individual who secretly remained loyal to King George:

“I love my King; you know I do: a soldier, a good man cannot but love him. How peculiarly hard then is our fortune to be deemed traitors to so good a King! But, I am not without hopes, that even he will yet see cause to do me justice: posterity, I am sure, will.”

The letters may not have had the desired effect at their release, but they caused considerable problems when they resurfaced again twenty years later in 1795. In that summer, Washington was in his second term as president when the Jay Treaty, which sought to normalize the new government’s relationship with Britain, turned into a political hot topic. Federalists Alexander Hamilton and the architect of the treaty, John Jay, supported the treaty. They were fiercely opposed by leading Republicans Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who believed the treaty was betrayal of America’s relationship with France, who was at war with Great Britain.

According to Lengelmarch,  Republicans wanted to “humiliate the president” and in a move that was calculated to “shatter the air of noble authority”:

“…they reprinted the fake letters from 1776 and cited them as proof that Washington had always been a British sympathizer. What had been a half-forgotten old joke now became a dangerously real slander.”

In his retelling, Lengelmarch suggests that Washington initially underestimated the power of such misinformation. Even though there were Federalists who decried the letters’ authenticity, the letters were repeatedly reproduced in Republican sympathizing newspapers. Washington finally broke his silence and repudiated the letters on March 3, 1797, his last day in office.

In 1799, Congress posthumously decreed that Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” We also know that he was the first American president who had to confront fake news and misinformation.

Other American presidents have had to deal with fake news. During his Presidential reelection campaign in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln was challenged by the news circulated by  The New York World that claimed Lincoln and his Republicans advocated intermarriage between the white working class and blacks. Later that year, the Journal of Commerce ran a story that Lincoln was going to conscript a number of men. The origin of the fake news was a Brooklyn speculator who was trying to move the money markets, and a frustrated Lincoln had to shut down the Journal of Commerce for a couple of days.

The difference today is that the fake news and misinformation that Washington and Lincoln had to confront in their lifetimes was somewhat limited to the platforms of print media. They did not have to compete against a 24 hour news cycle fed by an increasing number of platforms that disseminate a crush of raw or unvetted information daily.

What is the same, however, is the challenge any American president faces in countering the efforts of a single individual, who with a handwritten letter, a text, or a tweet, can create fake news. Whether it be the pen or the keyboard, such misinformation can undermine the processes of democracy.

We should know that fake news and misinformation in American history is not a recent phenomenon. Therefore, we need to train ourselves -and our students- to be more skeptical. We need to consider who may benefit from a salacious headline or tempting tagline. When the clickbait seems too promising to resist, we must be ready to stop and ask who is promoting that information… and why? Without healthy skepticism, we may be just like those British sympathizers who were duped by tools of propaganda.

Washington reportedly never told a lie, but as for the charge of being a coward? History has the evidence to prove that charge was most definitely fake news.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were released in 2009. They are now seven years old.

I will admit that I was not initially enthusiastic about the English Language Arts literacy standards. (see post)

I felt they were heavy in non-fiction…(no, wait.. heavy in “informational texts”).

The CCSS suggested a typical student should have a reading diet filled with informational texts because of the authentic kinds of reading they would do once they graduated, in the real world. The CCSS recommended that a ratio of 50:50 of fiction and informational texts in elementary school should shift to a 30:70 ratio of fiction to non-fiction by grade 12th. These ratios made me concerned that fiction would disappear.

I should not have worried.

The year 2016 has proven that the genre of fiction, a genre of invented or imagined stories, is thriving in the real world. Sometimes certain fictions are posing as informational text.

The year 2016 has been marked by the rise of fake news, hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation that has circulated on news and social media platforms, fictions that have been developed intentionally or spread unintentionally.facts-not-fiction

The growth of this kind of fiction may explain the decision of dictionary editors to award the word  post-truth as the 2016 word of the year. According to the Oxford Dictionary, post-truth is is defined as

“an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.”

The decision by the editors of the Oxford Dictionary to chose the word post-truth is a decision that also highlights a phenomena studied by by Troy Campbell and Justin Friesen. Their experiments tested the relationship between facts, bias, and untestable beliefs.

The March 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published their paper titled The Psychological Advantage of Unfalsifiability: The appeal of untestable religious and political ideologies. This research examined the circumspect methods people use to get away from fact(s) that contradict a deeply held belief.

Participants in the Campbell/Freisen’s experiments used facts to support or dispute a position. The experiments revealed that when the facts opposed a deeply held belief, the participants argued that facts did not matter but moral opinion did. But, when the facts were on their side, they more often stated that their opinions were fact-based and much less about morals.

“In other words,”Campbell/Freisen’s noted, “we observed something beyond the denial of particular facts: We observed a denial of the relevance of facts.” They concluded,

“…when people’s beliefs are threatened, they often take flight to a land where facts do not matter.”

One example of a land “where facts do not matter”, was the radio booth for the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio (NPR) on November 30th, 2016. Guest Scottie Nell Hughespolitical editor of RightAlerts.com and contributor to CNN appeared midway during the Diane Rehm’s show. Hughes was discussing the effective use of social media in bypassing more traditional media outlets to direct message. At 10:20, she made the claim that looking at facts is  “kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true.” Then she stated:

“There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.”

Her statement was greeted with immediate derision by other journalists on the show. James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine shot back, “First I’ve got to pick my jaw up off the floor here. There are no objective facts? I mean, that is — that is an absolutely outrageous assertion.”

Hughes statement was hardly original; she may have been channeling her inner Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche who had also claimed (1887), “There are no facts, only interpretations.” But Fallows dismissed such philosophies on air, concluding:

“I believe that the job for the media and civil society now is essentially to say there are such things as facts.”

In contrast to Hughes, the use of facts as supporting evidence is essential to the CCSS. The CCSS recognized that 21st Century students would need to deal with an exponential growth in information, a future where rote memorization of facts cannot keep pace with knowledge that is doubling every year. As a result, the CCSS at each grade level outlines the skills students need to identify and to incorporate relevant facts they will use to write argumentative or explanatory responses.

For example, CCSS writing standards require students to:

“Develop the topic with well-chosen, relevant, and sufficient facts, extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples appropriate to the audience’s knowledge of the topic.” CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.2.B

In addition, the Common Core promotes the use of text-based evidence , gathered when  students “read closely” (aka: “close reading”):

“The Common Core emphasizes using evidence from texts to present careful analyses, well-defended claims, and clear information. Rather than asking students questions they can answer solely from their prior knowledge and experience, the standards call for students to answer questions that depend on their having read the texts with care.”

Prior knowledge or experience are no substitute for evidence. For the past seven years a common teachers’ refrain has been, “Can you show me where that evidence is in the text?”

All this hunting for text-based evidence may be the best training our students could have received as preparation for this post-truth world where pundits dismiss facts as unnecessary and media platforms promote factual inaccuracies through fake news.

Seven years ago, I could not imagine that I would be pleased about the Common Core, but the push for text-based evidence may be exactly what our students will need if educators are ever going to fulfill all those mission statements in student handbooks that outline how to make students into productive citizens and life-long learners.

 

John Glenn-Spaceman and Lollipopimage

A few days after John Glenn orbited our Earth three times, Mrs. Murphy gave each of us a lollipop to make an astronaut.

I was in kindergarten when she counted out three pipe cleaners and showed us how to carefully, carefully, carefully wrap them:

one fuzzy wire around the middle, three times for arms;

one fuzzy wire around the bottom, three times  for legs;

one fuzzy wire bent in circle around the top for the space helmet.

We were a classroom of John Glenns in different favors, with white pipe cleaner arms waving, cheering, pointing, celebrating.

We could not understand the vastness of space or the feats of engineering that had launched him into history, but we all imagined with our spacemen.

We were six; we understood the world was suddenly different.

My John Glenn, spaceman and lollipop, was orange, and I gave him to my father,

My father took this tribute and put it in his brief case, a high honor for a craft project. For years after, I would look to find my John Glenn in the brief case, buried beneath files and papers.

His arms and legs were always bent in celebration, and he still wore his space helmet.

Only his candy head showed his age, the clear cellophane wrapper protecting the orange-white powder and tiny shards of sparkling sugar.

“Space dust,” my father assured me, “he is made of space dust.”

 

 

Continue Reading…

If you Google the explorer John Cabot, you could get a web page from the website All About Explorers that states:

“In 1484, the explorerJohn Cabot moved back to England with his wife and eleven sons. He developed his own website and became quite famous for his charts and maps depicting a new route to the Far East. At this time he also introduced his half-brother Richard (whom the family always called “Ringo”) to his best friends, John, Paul, and George.”

While some facts in this information that might set off bells and whistles to educators-  or fans of The Beatles- there is recent research to suggest that many students in our middle school, high school, or college would not question the intrusion of technology into the life of this 15th Century explorer. After all, this website looks like a great source!

Stamford History Education Group (SHEG) report

A report released November 2016 tracked the research skills of students in middle, high school or college using a series of prompts. The study was conducted by the Stamford History Education Group (SHEG)  that “prototyped, field tested, and validated a bank of assessments that tap civic online reasoning.” The report, titled Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning, details the methods SHEG used in order to test civic reasoning as well as:

“…the [students’] ability to judge the credibility of information that floods young people’s smartphones, tablets, and computers.”

The results of SHEG’s study indicated that many students are not prepared to distinguish accurate from inaccurate accounts or decide when a statement is relevant or irrelevant to a given point. SHEG noted:

“Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to fit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

The report concluded that students at all grade levels were unable to distinguish well-evidenced accounts from those unsupported by reasons and evidence or to tell good reasons from bad. In short, SHEG pronounced pronounced our nation’s students’ ability to research as “bleak”:

“For every challenge facing this nation, there are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not. Ordinary people once relied on publishers, editors, and subject matter experts to vet the information they consumed. But on the unregulated Internet, all bets are off.”

Educators should be concerned about this growth of fake information and how to keep this misinformation from spreading into student research. Even if the Internet gets better at shutting down fake news or inaccurate information, there will always be some bogus websites that will escape being shutdown.

screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-9-07-52-pmBut that  AllAboutExplorers website is one bogus website that should not be shut down.

AllAboutExplorers website for Research Practice:

Yes, there is plenty of misinformation on site. For example, on the Christopher Columbus page:

“Columbus knew he had to make this idea of sailing, using a western route, more popular. So, he produced and appeared on infomercials which aired four times daily. Finally, the King and Queen of Spain called his toll-free number and agreed to help Columbus.

Turns out that the misinformation on AllAboutExplorers is INTENTIONAL and all the misinformation on the site was created to serve an important educational purpose. The Aboutpage on the site states:

“AllAboutExplorers was developed by a group of teachers as a means of teaching students about the Internet. Although the Internet can be a tremendous resource for gathering information about a topic, we found that students often did not have the skills to discern useful information from worthless data.”

The educator authors Gerald Aungst,( Supervisor of Gifted and Elementary Mathematics in the Cheltenham School District in Elkins Park, PA) and Lauren Zucker,(Library Media Specialist in Centennial School District) created the site in 2006. Their collaboration has proven to be a prescient effort given the SHEG findings this month.

They created AllAboutExplorers, “to develop a series of lessons for elementary age students in which we would demonstrate that just because it is out there for the searching does not mean it is worthwhile.”

These educators wanted to make a point about finding useless information on a site that was designed to look believable. They note that “all of the Explorer biographies here are fictional” and that they purposefully mixied facts withinaccuracies, lies, and even downright absurdities.”

Some of the absurdities that have been mixed with facts on famous explorers include pages for:

  • Lewis & Clark Their dream didn’t become reality right away, however. It wasn’t until 1803, when Thomas Jefferson saw an intriguingly brief posting by Napoleon Bonaparte on Craig’s List for a large tract of land;
  • Sir Francis Drake: here he discovered an uncharted island called Java. The local drink, kofie (which we know as “coffee”) was rich and strong, and Drake soon fell in love with it. The locals also baked a cinnamon cake that was often paired with the drink;
  • Ferdinand Magellan: In 1519, at the age of only 27, he was supported by several wealthy businessmen, including Marco Polo, Bill Gates, and Sam Walton, to finance an expedition to the Spice Islands.

The authors have provided cautions not to use this site as a source of reference for research. There is even an “update” on the site that satirically mentions a lawsuit settlement on a claim that the information unfairly caused failing grades for students who used the information via the website. The authors can be followed on Twitter: @aaexplorersTheir website confirms SHEG report’s that states there “are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not.” There are also lesson plans designed to introduce students to the skills and concepts of good Internet researching:

The SHEG report should set off alarms for all educators who ask students to “look something up” in any discipline. The AllAboutExplorers website provides educators, particularly social studies educators, an opportunity to helping students to learn how to negotiate the Internet in research. Teaching students to explore the web appropriately and accurately can be improved by introducing students to the AllAboutExplorers website.