Archive for the 'Information Literacy' Category

Plantagenetics

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

In which I defend the honor of the Queen…

The DNA reports are in, and the skeleton they found in that Leicester parking lot is now confirmed to be that of King Richard III. Analysis also shows he had blonde hair and blue eyes.

Somewhat overshadowing the exciting news is a discovery that came from the research team’s comparing the old king’s DNA to that of his present-day relatives. It turns out that there is a break somewhere in the male-line continuity of the Y-chromosome, the collection of genes that are only passed from father to son, suggesting a false paternity event somewhere in the timeline.

The news media, with its trademark restraint, has jumped all over this, trumpeting that the already much-maligned Richard has infidelity in his family tree, with some even suggesting that this means that the Queen may not even be the legitimate heir to the throne anymore.

Okay, let’s all take a breath now. Her Majesty’s reign is in no danger here.

I spent a lot of time this past summer with my nose buried in the Plantagenet family tree, and may be able to add a modicum of perspective.

You can read the science team’s original report here, but a brief summary should suffice. Richard III and his distant cousin Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort are both direct male-line descendants of King Edward III. The Duke has five male-line descendants alive today who agreed to participate in the study, and four of them share the same Y-chromosome, presumably inherited from Beaufort. The one who doesn’t suggests a false paternity event (or “cuckolding” in the parlance) at some point along the way, but that’s not the infidelity that made the headlines. Richard III’s Y-chromosome also doesn’t match the Duke’s, which means that at least one of them is not actually a male-line descendant of Edward III.

Okay, so that’s pretty saucy news in itself. But it’s an overreach to drag Queen Elizabeth II into this story for several reasons.

First of all, what is the probability that the break in paternity is even in Elizabeth’s line? Here is the family tree for the relevant players (scroll down to the “Geneology of the Y chromosome lineage” graphic). It shows fifteen paternal links between Edward III and Beaufort, and only four between Edward III and Richard III. Assuming only one false paternity (which is all that’s been established here) and that all paternity events are equally likely to be false, the odds are 15:4 in favor of Beaufort being the non-heir rather than Richard. Also, if Richard III’s own parentage is the false one, it doesn’t affect Elizabeth, as she is descended from Richard’s older brother King Edward IV. So the odds of the break even being in Elizabeth’s lineage is 16:3 against or just under 16%.

Still, a 16% chance the Queen is illegitimate would indeed be headline-worthy, but let’s examine this claim more closely. Here it may be helpful to refer to the family tree I put together for Shakespeare’s King Richard III. In the column all the way to the right, close to the center of the column, you can find Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. This is the future King Henry VII. Five slots down, you can find Elizabeth of York.

Henry and Elizabeth will wed, and their offspring will include King Henry VIII and his sister Margaret Tudor. If you look one column to the left, all the way at the bottom, you will see Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester. This is the future King Richard III. From here on, I will use “Richard Plantagenet” to refer to his father, the Duke of York, who is also on the chart.

Queen Elizabeth II is descended from Margaret Tudor, which means that she is a descendant of Richard III’s brother Edward IV. Edward became king as a result of the Wars of the Roses, which were fought between the houses of York and Lancaster. His claim comes from his father, Richard Plantagenet.

Richard Plantagenet does indeed inherit his surname from his paternal lineage through the York line, being the grandson of Edmund of Langley, the First Duke of York. However, Richard Plantagenet stakes his claim to the throne from his mother’s side, as Anne Mortimer is descended from Edmund of Langley’s older brother, Lionel, Duke of Clarence. What’s more, Richard Plantagenet’s wife, Cecily Neville, who is mother to Edward IV and Richard III, is the granddaughter of John of Gaunt, who is also an older brother to Edmund of Langley (though younger than Lionel, Duke of Clarence). Henry VII is also descended from John of Gaunt.

What all of this means is that even if the Y-chromosomal break is in the 16% that would make Richard Plantagenet illegitimate, it would not affect Edward IV’s claim to the throne. It would therefore not affect Margaret Tudor’s legitimacy, nor would it affect the current monarch.

More to the point, it’s been almost one thousand years since William the Conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Hastings, beginning the dynasty of which Queen Elizabeth II is the current representative. What else don’t we know? It seems very unlikely that, were a complete set of the genetic data magically available to us, Elizabeth would emerge as the clear genealogical winner. Not only do we have a millennium of regal shenanigans to wrangle with, but there is also the human element to consider. A lot of the lineage disputes from the past have been settled by people’s decisions and actions: who had political power, who was a bastard, who won a war, who was the right or wrong religion, etc. The question of whether women could inherit the crown changed the equation at several crucial junctures, so applying a single standard throughout English history would certainly change the outcome.

The bottom line is that we basically don’t know anything about anything, and we certainly don’t know much more today than we did yesterday. Queen Elizabeth shouldn’t start packing her bags based on this new revelation.

UPDATE: In the post, I claim the odds of the false paternity event being in the Queen’s lineage is 16:3 against. However, she is also descended from two other candidates: John of Gaunt and his son John Beaufort, the Earl of Somerset. So the odds of the break being in her ancestry would actually be 14:5 against. But she doesn’t derive her claim to the throne through this line either, so the rest of the argument still stands. See the comments for a clearer explanation.

Shakespeare Anagram: Netflix

Saturday, June 28th, 2014

I just did a Netflix search for Shakespeare. About half of the top results are Shakespeare movies; the other half of the results merely include words that look kind of like Shakespeare.

One entry on Page 2 deserves an anagram:

See Sharknado teed up?

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Not Shakespeare, dude.

Shakespeare Clickbait

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

How far should we go to get people to read Shakespeare? I say we do whatever it takes.

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Shakespeare Follow-Up: Nature vs. Nurture

Friday, November 8th, 2013

The term “nature vs. nurture” is a poetic turn of phrase that refers to an ongoing reexamination of the roles that heredity and environment play in determining who we are as individuals. The expression was popularized in the 19th century by Francis Galton, though the debate and the phrase had been around much longer than his day. In fact, Shakespeare himself juxtaposed the two words in The Tempest, as Prospero describes Caliban thusly:

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick;

Shakespeare was not the first to contrast these two words, but Galton is known to have been a Shakespeare fan, and it seems reasonable to imagine this was his source.

Shakespeare’s plays are filled with models of the intricate workings of human nature, depictions of how individuals are influenced by external factors, and the complicated interplay between the two. As we will soon see, Shakespeare was also an early voice in this conversation, and an often-quoted source by later thinkers as well. Therefore, our Shakespeare Follow-Up will focus on the development of the nature vs. nurture debate from Shakespeare’s time to ours today.

But please note that this is a very large topic, and I’m going to sweep through it rather quickly, so feel free to do your own follow up on any topic here that interests you.

Political philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are often grouped together as “social contract theorists,” because they presented ideas about how and why humans form societies. But when considering their impact on the nature/nurture question, it’s more illustrative to focus on their differences.

In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes argued that human beings, existing in a state of nature, are savage and brutal. Therefore, we willingly surrender our autonomy to a sovereign unconditionally in order to gain security from our murderous brethren. John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), lays out the idea that we refer to today as tabula rasa, or “the blank slate.” Rather than seeing human beings as being innately evil, as Hobbes does, he sees us as being neither good nor evil naturally, but rather open to influence from our environments. Jean-Jacques Rousseau presents a different view of the natural state of the human in his book Émile (1762). For Rousseau, humans are born innately good, and it is society that corrupts.

Naturally, the choice of which of these three views to adopt will have a profound effect on how a culture views education and child rearing. We can’t control the nature, but we can structure the nurture to make the best use of our understanding of it. If we believe that human beings are born evil, we’ll want to make discipline the backbone of our educational system. If we believe that children are blank slates, we’ll seek to fill those slates with our best models for citizenship and morality. If we believe that our students are innately good, then maybe the best thing we could do would be to just get out of the way and let them explore the world they find themselves in. You can hear echoes of these debates in today’s conversations about education.

In the post-Darwinian era, psychologists began to codify the progression of human development into various stages. The progression was determined by nature, but profoundly impacted by environment. Sigmund Freud described five psycho-sexual stages of development in childhood. The eight psycho-social stages outlined by Erik Erikson were strongly influenced by Freud, but extended to adulthood.

But wait! A lifetime of human progression divided into stages? Why does that sound familiar? Oh right…

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel,
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

It seems that Jacques in As You Like It was on the right track, centuries ahead of his time. Freud famously wrote about Hamlet, and Erikson even cites Shakespeare’s “ages of man” in his 1962 article “Youth: Fidelity and Diversity,” which also provides an in-depth discussion of Hamlet.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) developed a set of four stages of cognitive development that have been profoundly influential in our understanding of human nature. Piaget believed that these stages developed naturally, and that new levels of learning become possible at each stage. Score one point for nature! Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) built on these ideas, but demonstrated that learning could actually encourage cognitive development. There is a zone between what students are capable of doing on their own and what they can do in an environment that includes guidance and collaboration. Stretching into this zone can assist children in progressing developmentally. There’s one point for nurture, and it’s a tie game.

In fact, it will always be a tie game. Everyone agrees that both nature and nurture are significant, and we can argue about various degrees. Noam Chomsky (1928 – ) revolutionized the field of linguistics by describing, in Syntactic Structures (1957), the innate ability of the human brain to acquire language. This was a challenge to the behaviorist philosophy that was dominant at the time. In Frames of Mind (1983), Howard Gardner describes a system of multiple intelligences that different people seem to possess in different measures. The rise of theories such as Chomsky’s and Gardner’s would seem to move the needle towards nature, but the fact that they continue to influence our educational practices demonstrate the importance of nurture in the equation all the more powerfully.

Shakespeare, of course, didn’t know any of this. Nevertheless, his understanding of the complex interplay between nature and nurture was nuanced enough for him to create models that still have us debating the actions and motivations of fictional characters as though they were real people. Why, for example, does Macbeth kill Duncan? Is it because he’s ambitious? Or does he succumb to pressure from his wife? If it’s the former, would he have done so without prompting from the witches? And if it’s the latter, what elements of his nature make him susceptible to his wife’s influence?

I give up. What do you think, Lady Macbeth?

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promis’d. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way; thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it; what thou wouldst highly,
That thou wouldst holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win; thou’dst have, great Glamis,
That which cries, ‘Thus thou must do, if thou have it;’
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone. Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crown’d withal.

A lot of these Follow-Ups are about how much Shakespeare didn’t know. This one is about how much he still has to teach us.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Age of the Earth

Friday, October 11th, 2013

When, in As You Like It, Orlando threatens to die of unrequited love, the disguised Rosalind has some words of wisdom for him:

The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love-cause.

Whether or not one could actually die from love will be beyond the scope of this Shakespeare Follow-Up. But we do want to examine how close is Rosalind’s estimate of the age of the planet to what we believe today.

Almost 6,000 years was a good guess for Shakespeare’s day. But today, scientists believe the Earth is over 4,500,000,000 years old, give or take. How can we account for such a breathtaking discrepancy?

Early estimates for the age of the planet were based on Biblical scripture. God created Earth “in the beginning” which puts its origin on the first day of creation. Adam was born on the 5th day, and then the begetting began. Genesis actually goes into quite a bit of detail about how old each begetter was when he begat, so a literal interpretation and little bit of arithmetic was all that was necessary to trace how much time passed since the first day of creation and pinpoint the age of the earth.

Dating creation at 4000 BC was a popular estimate during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Shortly after Shakespeare’s death, Bishop James Ussher published a chronology that placed the creation of the universe on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. Hey, someone has a birthday coming up!


But how many candles?

Still, nature was rife with clues that were ready for us when we were ready for them. As early as the 17th century, Nicolas Steno noticed the questions raised by fossil evidence and rock stratification, and other naturalist scientists would find reason to revise the Earth’s age gradually upwards.

In 1862, Lord Kelvin (before he was Lord Kelvin) used the cooling rate of the Earth to place its age at around 98 million years. That’s not quite there yet, but Lord Kelvin was getting warmer!

In the 20th century, scientists began measuring the decay of radioactive isotopes for dating objects that are very old. This is called “radiometric dating” or “radioactive dating,” but I’m only going to call it radiometric dating because I already have something that I call radioactive dating. Radiometric dating puts a rock native to Quebec, the Acasta Gneiss, at over 4 billion years old, and certain zircons found in Western Australia turn out to be over 4.4 billion years old. Based on non-terrestrial evidence, scientists put the age of the solar system at around 4.567 billion years, meaning the Earth can’t be any older than that. This gives us a window between 4.4 and 4.567 billion years to place our best guess.

Although science is long past the time of an Earth whose age could be measured in the thousands, the general public is not as unified. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 46% of Americans believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” Now, there is a difference between the age of the Earth and the age of the human being, but there is a lot of scientific evidence that humans have been around a lot longer than 10,000 years. Suffice it to say that the first homo sapiens are believed to have evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago.

But whether, in all this time, there was any man who died in a love-cause, I leave as a question for the reader.

Don’t Be Rotten to the Core

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

I thought I’d take this opportunity, while the federal government is shut down over the question of its own power to legislate, to talk about another somewhat controversial initiative, namely the Common Core State Standards.

It should be noted that this is not a simple left-right issue. At a recent conference, I heard Kim Marshall joke that he never thought he’d see national standards because “the right doesn’t like national, and the left doesn’t like standards.” So, as you might expect, the Common Core seems to be embraced by moderates in both parties, while being attacked by extremists on both sides. Teachers and parents, who are the most directly affected by the changes, express the same range of opinions as policymakers and pundits. So, the discussion continues.

To get a sense of the issues involved, as well as the general tone, check out this New York Times editorial by Bill Keller, and this response by Susan Ohanian.

For the record, I agree with the Bill Keller editorial (you can just change that “K” into an “H” and we’re good). I’m a fan of the Common Core, though I have a number of concerns about the way it’s being implemented. But I respect the opinions of many who oppose it, and understand the quite valid reasons why they do. Unfortunately, most of the rhetoric that I encounter against the initiative is either focused on areas that have very little to do with the standards themselves, or are based in a fog of misinformation.

Now, if you’ve read the standards, and you honestly believe that we should not want our students to be able to cite evidence from informational texts to support an argument, I’m very willing to have that conversation. If you think the Common Core shifts aren’t the right direction for our students, I’m very willing to have that conversation. If you have a problem with emphasizing literacy in the content areas, I’m very willing to have that conversation. That’s just not the conversation I’ve been hearing about the Common Core, and if we’re going to discuss these very large-scale changes in the way they deserve to be discussed, we need to clear the air of distractions and distortions.

With that in mind, I present the Top Ten Most Common Objections to the Common Core, and my responses to them. This is meant to be the beginning of a conversation and not the last word, so please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments section below.

1. The Common Core is too rigorous. The standards are not developmentally appropriate.

I think we’re feeling that now because we’re transitioning into these standards from a less rigorous system. If students come in on grade level, what they’re being asked to learn in each year is very reasonable. The problem is that we’re so far from that “if,” that the standards can often seem very unreasonable. Add to that a rushed implementation, complete with career-destroying and school-closing accountability, and the Common Core expectations can leave a very bad taste in our mouths.

What’s more, the Common Core includes qualitative shifts as well as quantitative shifts, so students will be as unfamiliar with the new ways of learning as their teachers are. The good news is that each year we implement the Common Core, students will become more used to Common Core ideas such as text-based answers and standards of mathematical practice, and will be better prepared for the work of their grade each year. It will likely get worse before it gets better, but I do think there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it will at least become visible in the next year or two.

2. The Common Core is not rigorous enough. My state had better standards before.

Well, the standards are meant to represent only the minimum of where students need to be in their grade level in order to be on track for college and career readiness by the end of Grade 12. So if you can meet these standards and then exceed them, more power to you. States that adopt the Common Core are also free to change up to 15%, and to add additional standards as well.

So here in New York State, we added Pre-K standards that aren’t in the national version, we put in additional standards throughout the documents (including Responding to Literature standards in ELA and teaching money in early-grade math classrooms), and we still retain the state-wide content standards in social studies and science that students need to pass their Regents. And even where states are slacking, a high-performing school won’t suddenly lower their standards just because they can. That’s not how they became high-performing schools in the first place.

3. The Common Core is a mandated top-down program that infringes on state control of schools.

The Common Core is not mandated by the federal government. States can choose to adopt the Common Core or opt out. I hesitate to present the most blindingly obvious of proofs, but here we go: not all of the states adopted the standards. Some states chose to opt out. That should suffice as proof enough that states can choose to opt out if they want to.

Did the federal government sweeten the deal by adding Race to the Top incentives for states that adopted the Common Core? Yes. But that’s bribery, not coersion. You can say no to a bribe, even if you need the money. And this wasn’t even that much of a bribe, as everyone knew there were only going to be a limited number of states that won Race to the Top funding and Common Core adoption was far from a guarantee.

Whether you love or hate the Common Core, it was your state legislature that adopted the standards, and the credit or blame should be placed there. States are just as capable of having cynical self-serving politicians as the federal government is, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But some states may have genuinely adopted the Common Core to improve education for their students, even if you don’t think it will.

Frankly, I’m no more a fan of Race to the Top than I was of No Child Left Behind. I don’t think states should have to compete for education funding. And there were other incentives in the Race to the Top formula I had issues with, like the charter school expansions. But these are criticisms of federal education policy, and not the Common Core standards themselves.

4. The Common Core is a result of the corporate reform movement that’s undermining public education.

Maybe.

I don’t think the standards do undermine public education, though, and I believe the people who actually put them together are earnest in their attempts to improve it. I’m not blind to some of the strange bedfellows involved with the process, but if an idea leads to good things, I don’t care where it comes from. This is an argument that just doesn’t work on its own. Just because Bill Gates funded it, it isn’t necessarily Windows 7. Zing!

5. The Common Core is only about testing and accountability.

I hate to break it to you, but the testing and accountability movement has been around a lot longer than the Common Core. We’re already teaching to the test, so it makes sense to design a better test, one worth teaching to. You can read about early attempts to align New York’s state-wide exams to the Common Core in this article, and I’m quoted towards the end, but the bottom line is that they didn’t go very well.

Two multi-state consortiums are now hard at work to build a better test, though this turns out to be a tougher job than they originally thought. They are talking about having students take the state-wide (actually, consortium-wide) tests on computers, which means that every school needs to have computers. That could be a logistical nightmare in itself, but it could also mean more funding for computers in schools.

In New York City, teachers are being evaluated through a system that uses test scores, in one form or another, as 40% of a teacher’s score, while the other 60% will be based on the Danielson Framework. In my opinion, that’s a vast improvement over using test scores alone, which even the Gates-funded MET study doesn’t endorse.

6. The Common Core is a conspiracy to keep the poor uneducated.

No, that’s what we have now. There is a strong correlation between socioeconomic status and academic achievement. Having a set of common standards is one step in the process of attempting to close that gap.

7. The Common Core replaces literature with government manuals.

That simply isn’t true. There is an entire section of the standards that covers Reading Literature. There may be a government manual listed somewhere in the examples of informational texts, but it’s disingenuous to hold that up as the centerpiece of Common Core expectations for student reading. Anyone who makes this argument is either unfamiliar with the standards, or uninterested in engaging in a serious discussion about them.

8. People are making money from the Common Core!

This is true, in as much as we need people to write tests, publish classroom materials, and train teachers. But we would have needed this anyway, Common Core or no.

Liberals tend to think that everyone should do their jobs with the purest of motives, and if someone’s profiting from something, it must be an evil conspiracy. Conservatives tend to believe the opposite: that if you made money from an idea, then that proves the idea had market value, and those who improve the system deserve to profit from their innovations. I take a more neutral view of profit’s correlation with good in the world. I work in teacher training, and the Common Core affects what I teach, but not how often I teach or how much money I make. I have no financial interest in defending the Common Core.

Keller’s editorial estimates the costs of the new tests at about $29 per student, in a system that spends over $9,000 per student in a year. You might not like the Common Core for other reasons, but cost alone can’t be the only reason to oppose it.

9. These Common Core-aligned materials I have are bad.

I don’t doubt it. But just because a product claims to be “Common Core-aligned,” it doesn’t mean that it is Common Core-endorsed. I have no end of problems with the range of “Common Core-aligned” curricula being rolled out by New York City alone. This is not a function of poor standards, but rather poor implementation.

By the way, a lot of the Common Core-aligned materials were delayed getting into schools this year, even as teachers were required to start using them. You don’t have to convince me that we’re having implementation problems.

And I spent last summer modifying my own organization’s social studies curricula to be Common Core-aligned, and I feel strongly that our products improved immensely because of it.

10. The Common Core is untested, and shouldn’t be implemented on such a large scale without a pilot program.

This is from Reign of Error author Diane Ravitch, and she makes a fair point. But nothing’s written in stone. The standards will work in some ways and need mending in others. And where they need mending, we’ll mend them. Ten years from now, we may come to see the current version of the Common Core as a really good first draft. Or we may remember it as New Coke. There’s no way to know until we try it out. That can be used as an argument for it as well as against it.

I do think that we should do everything we can do to make it work. That’s the only way we’ll really know if it doesn’t.

Honorable Mention: President Obama is for it, and therefore I must be against it.

Hey, look! Someone over there is getting health care.

I really do see a lot of parallel between the Affordable Care Act debacle and the Common Core controversy. Tea party Republicans want to talk about how Obamacare will destroy the economy and force the government between you and your doctor and lead to the apocalypse, but they really oppose it on ideological principles. If they would talk about their principles, we could have an honest debate, but they know these principles sound cold and selfish, so they obfuscate. Common Core opponents dance around the actual changes being made in education because most of them make sense. The real concern, as I see it, is the danger of the larger corporate-funded movement to use testing and data to prove the ineffectiveness of public education in order to move to a privatized free-market system.

That’s a concern worth discussing directly, and I’m very willing to have that conversation.

Shakespeare Anagram: Measure for Measure

Saturday, June 15th, 2013

From Measure for Measure:

Hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Push Obama, he now feels huge secret sweeper plans were heroic.

How Real is Richard?

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

It’s been exciting to see Shakespeare so much in the news lately. The confirmation of the discovery King Richard the Third’s skeleton last week has thrust our beloved Bard back into the international spotlight. But just how relevant is Shakespeare to this discovery? How closely related is Shakespeare’s classic villain to the original owner of the bones found under the Leicester parking lot?

Shakespeare wrote that which we call History plays, but these are plays and not histories. Shakespeare often wrote about “real” people and events, but he always put his unique take on it. He could change any details that he wanted. Did you know that the real Hotspur was 23 years older than Prince Hal, even though the two men were portrayed as contemporaries in Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV? That Rutland, killed as a small child in Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI, was actually older than his brothers George and Richard? That there were two different men named Edmund Mortimer, conflated into a single character by Shakespeare? And obviously, no matter how historical his characters, we all understand that he certainly was willing to put words in their mouths.

None of this matters, of course. Saying that Shakespeare got it wrong misses the point entirely. Shakespeare’s intent was to create entertaining theatrical plays. And Richard III is one of the most enduring and popular works of art ever to spring from the human imagination. So, yeah, I’d say Shakespeare actually got it right, wouldn’t you? An archeological discovery can tell us about history, and this is a particularly exciting discovery at that, but it sheds no new light on Shakespeare’s work. We already knew that Shakespeare based his work on Tudor historians, and that he shared their bias towards the Tudor view of history.

So when we ask whether characters from Shakespeare are “real” or not, it may not be such a binary question. I would prefer instead to think of it as a spectrum. More specifically, I have created a seven-point scale to compare how real the characters from Shakespeare actually are.

Enjoy!

* * *

Level Seven
Historical Characters Doing Historical Things
Examples: Henry VIII, Henry V

Even at the highest level of Shakespeare’s reality-based characters, there is still a lot of spin-doctoring going on. Shakespeare doesn’t just write about his country’s greatest heroes without a little glorification. But the stories Shakespeare tells about characters at Level Seven are fairly consistent with their historical accounts. Shakespeare himself must have been at least somewhat impressed with his own account of the life of Henry VIII when he originally gave his play the title All is True.

* * *

Level Six
Historical Characters Doing Speculative Historical Things
Examples: Julius Caesar, Cleopatra

I wanted to make a distinction between historical figures that Shakespeare wrote about from relatively recent time periods, and those from antiquity. There are numerous historical accounts of the lives of the ancient Greek and Roman leaders, so Shakespeare was actually writing from sources, but there is only so much faith that we can put in them. The primary difference between Level Six and Level Seven is the amount of time that has passed since the historical figures lived.

* * *

Level Five
Historical Characters Doing Highly-Speculative Politically-Convenient Historical Things
Examples: Richard III, Joan La Pucelle

Here we can put the characters that Shakespeare had a political reason to vilify. We see a version of history, but it’s a version that’s unapologetically slanted in the direction that Shakespeare’s audiences or benefactors would have appreciated most. Shakespeare is still writing mostly from sources, but the sources may themselves be politically biased, or Shakespeare just felt free to add his own spin to events as he wanted to portray them. The character of Richard III can go here.

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Level Four
Historical Characters Doing Non-Historical Things
Examples: John Gower, Macbeth

There really was a historical Macbeth, but it’s doubtful he did many of the things attributed to him by either Shakespeare or history. Sure, Shakespeare was writing from a historical source, and had political reasons to vilify Macbeth, but the story is so far divorced from reality that we really need a new category to describe it. Level Four is for a character who really lived, but isn’t necessarily portrayed doing the things the original historical figure would actually have done.

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Level Three
Legendary Characters Doing Legendary Things
Examples: Agamemnon, King Lear

Did any of these people really exist? And if they did, are the stories about them true? Probably not. But the stories were passed down from generation to generation, either in oral traditions or written texts, as though they were true. We can’t prove that there wasn’t some actual human being in the dark backward and abysm of time that inspired the legend. Level Three quantifies the precise amount of benefit-of-the-doubt I’m willing to give to that possibility.

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Level Two
Characters Doing Fictional Things Who Couldn’t Possibly be Based on Real People (*snicker*)
Examples: Falstaff, Polonius

These are fictional characters, but audiences at the time would have understood the public figures they were based on. Maybe. If Polonius was based on William Cecil, Lord Burghley, then he could be placed one step above a completely fictional character. This is Level Two. Shakespeare expressly denied that Falstaff was meant to be John Oldcastle to satisfy one of Oldcastle’s noble descendants. But what was Shakespeare’s original name for the character Falstaff? It was John Oldcastle.

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Level One
Fictional Characters Doing Fictional Things
Examples: Puck, Shylock

These are purely fictional characters, invented by Shakespeare or his literary sources. They are not real people. They are not based on real people. We will not be finding their bones under any parking lots. We are not worried about pleasing their descendants. If Shakespeare had simply confined himself to his own considerable imagination, we would still have an impressive panoply of Shakespearean characters to entertain us. But the conversations and controversies surrounding his plays would not be nearly as interesting.

Danny and the Death Ray

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Once upon a time, there was a small town that was attacked by space aliens.

Why this one town should be attacked by space aliens was unclear. But what was very clear was that these were space aliens, and they were attacking.

The townspeople fought off the space aliens as best they could, but… come on, space aliens. They knew that more drastic measures would be necessary.

They gathered together, pooled their resources, and built a giant Death Ray right in the middle of the town square. It was three stories high if it was an inch, and thicker than any tree trunk in the southern woods. And, believe it or not, the Death Ray did the trick. The space aliens were sent scurrying back to their own galaxy, or wherever it was they had come from in the first place.

The people rejoiced. Their ordeal was over, and it was all thanks to the Death Ray! They left the weapon in the town square as a monument. The townspeople decorated the Death Ray all the colors of the rainbow. Parents would bring their children to come see the Death Ray, and tell stories about how it repelled the space aliens. The children liked to imagine themselves at the controls of the Death Ray, firing on the aliens and saving the town again and again.

Mind you, the Death Ray wasn’t perfect. It was a quite an advanced piece of technology to begin with, and it was a pretty impressive thing to be built in a small town. But every now and then, the Death Ray would discharge a stray beam, sending an unexpected burst of destructive force into some random part of town. Usually, it didn’t do much harm, but occasionally it would hit one of the townspeople. Good old Bob who worked at the town market was the first to go. Some time later, little Sally Jenkins was also hit. Ironically, the third victim of the random shots was a drifter named Ray.

Still, three random accidents, tragic as they were, seemed a small price to pay for having such an awesome piece of weaponry like the Death Ray in the town square. Sure, everyone missed old Bob, and it was hard not to feel for the Jenkins family, but it wasn’t every town that could boast such a marvelous display of power. The Death Ray was what made the town special. Some people were even talking about naming the town after the Death Ray, though not everyone could agree on how the new name would be spelled or pronounced. Others didn’t like the idea of changing the name of the town at all.

In fact, there was a small group of people who wanted to dismantle the Death Ray altogether. Nobody paid them any mind, of course, but they were usually pretty vocal at the Town Council meetings. Usually, folks just rolled their eyes and waited for the speeches to be over. And the group was always the most vocal just after the town had suffered one of its losses to the Death Ray. The townspeople didn’t appreciate that; if ever there was a time not to talk about the Death Ray, surely it was just after it had killed someone. How could you have a rational conversation about the Death Ray when emotions were so high? And even at other times, dismantling the Death Ray was just not a topic for polite conversation, not if you loved the town.

Until one day, when the Death Ray happened to fire a shot into the local hospital, which created a disaster unlike any the town had ever seen. Now, the idea of dismantling the Death Ray seemed worth discussing. Before this, most people had not considered the idea that having a malfunctioning Death Ray in the town square could be so dangerous, but recent events had made the fact undeniable.

The townspeople gathered in the Town Hall. For the first time in years, every seat was filled! The people were angry and wanted to vote the Death Ray right out of the town. Speaker after speaker warned of the dangers posed by the Death Ray. The town seemed to come together like never before.

The last speaker was a young boy named Danny. Danny had been listening to all of the speeches, and couldn’t believe his ears. His whole life, he had been taught to love and honor the Death Ray. He explained, in passionate tones, how the Death Ray was the town, and any attempt to dismantle it would undermine everything the town stood for. He understood that people were emotional about the hospital, but this was not the time to be carried away by our emotions. The space aliens could come back at any moment, and when they did, the town needed to have that Death Ray. Besides, he noted, Death Rays don’t kill people; people are killed by Death Rays. The townspeople could not argue with this logic.

Danny insisted that dismantling the Death Ray was not the solution. Instead, he proposed building a Safety Shield, so that the next time the Death Ray had a random discharge, the beam would hit the Safety Shield instead of the hospital. Everyone loved the idea, and voted overwhelmingly to keep their beloved Death Ray. Some people suggested simply turning the Death Ray off, and then turning it on again if the space aliens returned, but of course nobody paid them any mind. Folks just rolled their eyes and waited for the speeches to be over. Eventually, anger over the destruction of the hospital faded, just as Danny had said it would, and life returned to normal.

The citizens of Dethravia never actually got around to building that Safety Shield, but this didn’t really seem to matter very much at all. Danny had saved the Death Ray. Danny had saved the town!

Science!

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Today, I worked with science teachers on their performance tasks. Actually, I’ve been doing a lot of consulting this year on performance tasks, which is the hot new trend in assessment.

A performance task is an opportunity for students to demonstrate that they can independently apply the skills they’ve learned in a real-world context. So it’s like a post-test, only instead of multiple-choice questions, students have to do an authentic activity. Teachers examine the resulting student work with a rubric to measure whether or not students have learned the skills, and they can then use this information to plan future instruction. It’s much more effective than standardized-testing data in diagnosing student needs, though I do admit it is much more time-consuming.

This year, I’ve been working a lot with social studies and science teachers. Because of the Common Core shifts, these teachers are now required to teach literacy skills. There are no actual content standards in social studies or science in the Common Core; all of the standards for these subject areas are literacy standards. There are science content standards currently under development by Next Generation. When they are completed, states will have the option of adopting them in the same way they adopted Common Core. But until then, science content standards come from the states, and literacy standards from the Common Core are applied across the curriculum.

Now, I actually like the idea of literacy across the curriculum, but it is a big adjustment for science and social studies teachers, and so the schools where I consult have asked me to work with these teachers to help them infuse literacy skills into their curriculum and their assessments, particularly the performance tasks that New York City is requiring them to administer this year.

I have had a lot of experience working with social studies teachers in the past, but I’m probably working more with science teachers this year than I ever have before. And that’s fantastic, because I get the opportunity to learn a lot of new things. I also get the chance to yell “Science!” like Magnus Pyke a lot. No, I don’t really do that, but it would be fun.

One of the science teachers I worked with today swears by a website for an organization called Urban Advantage. It has some great resources for teaching middle-school science with an inquiry-based approach. I like the way that their materials scaffold scientific writing, which is my focus this year.

Another science teacher I worked with today showed me the PhET website, which has some really compelling interactive simulations in the sciences. I watched 7th-grade students run a simulation on density, in which they had to determine the mass and volume of various mystery substances and identify them from a list of materials and their densities.

Science!