Monday, May 09, 2016

Let us praise Sly Stone, while he's still alive

Noah Berlatsky:

Stone may not be much thought about, but his music still sounds startlingly current. More than George Clinton, more than James Brown, more even perhaps than Prince, Sly and the Family Stone’s hits foreshadow the bricolage construction and magpie eclecticism of hip-hop. The first track on Sly Stone’s first album, 1967’s A Whole New Thing, opens with what is effectively a proto-sample: a horn riff from, of all things, Frère Jacques. ...

Maybe Stone would be a little more discussed or acknowledged if his message wasn’t so insistently political and uncomfortable. Still, the real reason there aren’t a bazillion Sly Stone think-pieces whooshing through the net isn’t because of that. It’s just a marketing failure. “Ain’t nobody got the thing I can hear / But if I have to I will yell in your ear,” he sang in one of his 70s tracks, Time for Livin’, but he’s been singularly bad at shouting in anyone’s ear for decades. The media needs a news peg, and when an artist isn’t releasing music, or performing, or maintaining the brand, it’s difficult to generate interest.

The one exception, of course, is that final news peg, death. If you’re not in the spotlight, nobody looks at you – until you die, at which point think piece writers are all given one last chance to consider your legacy. “You only funky as your last cut / You focus on the past your ass’ll be a has-what”, as Sly-and-Prince-disciple Andre 3000 said, back when he was still relevant and people wrote think pieces about him. Time and the media chug ahead, and Stevie Wonder’s career is less important at the moment than whatever Justin Bieber happened to say yesterday on Twitter. That’s pop, and there’s not much point in being bitter about it. Still, it’s worthwhile to take a moment now and then to think about the legends while they’re here, rather than waiting for that arbitrary online instant when everybody all at once will be allowed to remember, after Sly’s left, how important it was for him to have been here all along.

One thing I like about Sirius XM (satellite radio) in the car is that when someone like Bowie or Prince dies they dedicate a channel to his or her music for several weeks playing deep cuts and allowing me to go through the appropriate stages of semi-grieving for a great artist I've never much cared for: indifference, questioning of one's taste, guilt, remembering that 90% of the artist's work is not your thing and the rest mostly sounds dated outside of the handful of cuts you started thinking of in phase 2, smug reassurance.

Anyhow, point is the article in the Guardian is right on -- Sly Stone sounds as current and as perfect as ever. Sign me up for the Praising Sly Before He's Dead movement.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Exciting Start to Opening Day

Very clever of the ICC and MLB to have the T20 Cricket World Cup championship match end pretty much exactly as the first pitch of the Major League Baseball season was thrown. Baseball will be lucky to come up with as dramatic an ending to the World Series as the West Indies getting four sixes in a row in the final over to overtake England.

I wish I'd picked up on the T20 World Cup sooner -- it is really the only cricket tournament I'd even half-way be able to follow, unless I add some channels to our FIOS package and somehow develop a rooting interest in one of the clubs in the Indian Premier League.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Meanwhile, back in the ancestral homeland...

Kylie Hawn:

A heated argument over free expression versus racial intimidation regarding the Confederate flag took place at an emergency public meeting called by administrators of the Southern Huntingdon County Middle/High School Wednesday evening.

Superintendent Mike Zinobile said the meeting was called Wednesday afternoon when unrest started brewing in the community after nine students were suspended for displaying the Confederate flag on their vehicles.

He explained to the approximately 60 parents, students, board members and community members who attended the meeting, at which state police were present, the suspension stemmed from more than just students displaying the flag.

“We had a recent issue that was reported in the Police Log of The Daily News,” said Zinobile. “A couple of weeks ago, a student constructed a noose while he was on a district bus and hung it on the ceiling. While that was done, there were also racial slurs and comments directed at two minority students indicating they should be hanged.

OBE -> SBE -> CBE -> ?BE

I mostly agree with Peter Greene's on the malign take on what we now call "competency-based assessment." He sees it more as the return of "outcome based assessment" 20 years later, whereas I see the standards-based era as a continuous evolutionary thread of the the same theme, with slight rebranding.

The underlying problem is that there is no real theory underpinning the action. I mean, people have probably written some theory about the nature of standards, competencies, etc., but it is not cited or used in K-12 education. Nobody actually refers to it. You can never definitively say that someone's competency list is incorrectly designed, for example, because there is no recognized authority on the question of competency design.

Beyond that, there's not much alternative theory. That is, nobody really wants to defend assessing learning by Carnegie units instead of directly tracking student learning, although one can probably empirically show that it works well enough in various high performing systems around the world, despite its apparent logical flaws.

Put another way, when has anyone decided not to send their child to an elite prep school because it tracked graduation requirements by course credit, not competency?

When it comes to the administration of justice, I am in favor of legal systems based on written law, with the caveat that the efficacy of the system is entirely dependent on the quality and fairness of the laws, not to mention the many details of their implementation. Being generically in favor of outcome/standards/competency/skill-based education is equivalent to being in favor of a law-based justice system. Yes, of course! But if you don't have a good set of laws, based on a foundation of legal theory and scholarship, it doesn't get you far, and even then, the success of the system is entirely dependent on administration and implementation. In this metaphor, we're trying to write "laws," or competencies, without a constitution, law library, legal scholars or firm theory of law.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Ethnic studies and revising PPSD's history curriculum

I wrote a long piece on the Providence Student Union's campaign for the PPSD to offer ethnic studies courses in the February Common Ground (en Español).

Going a bit beyond what I could fit in the article, the PPSD history curriculum just strikes me as a universally unsatisfying document. Here's the basic breakdown, grades 6-12:

  • Grade 6: World History: early hominids -> 300 CE;
  • Grade 7: US History: Pre-columbian world -> 1790's;
  • Grade 8: US History: US Constitution -> 1900;
  • Grade 9: World History: 300 CE -> 1750;
  • Grade 10: World History: 1750 -> today;
  • Grade 11: US History: 1900 -> today.

This curriculum was put together rather quickly after the arrival of Tom Brady as superintendent of the PPSD circa 2008. At the time the Dana Center was doing a lot of consulting with the district, and they helped coordinate the process, despite their core competence in math, not history. It is closely aligned to world history standards, and follows the chronology of the Pearson textbooks the district bought at the same time. The curriculum is very standards-driven, despite the relative unimportance of history and social studies standards, compared to reading and mathematics standards.

One thing that it is important to understand is that it is not, by design, a particularly Western or Euro-centric curriculum. I don't think it is very good, and it is hard to say how different the taught curriculum is than the written curriculum, but look -- there is no Western Civ., and the world history standards are, you know, meant to reflect a global perspective, whether or not that is perfectly implemented at all times.

In fact, traditionalists or conservatives should hate this curriculum. In addition to having no Western Civ., there is no American history prior to 1900 in high school at all, no civics, no study of our foundational documents outside of English class, as required by the Common Core ELA standards.

If you try do do world history chronologically, it is going to seem rushed no matter what. There is a lot to cover! You're pretty much focusing on global trends, at a cultural or imperial level, entire nations just step in for cameos as they rise and fall. It is probably one reason kids feel like "their" history isn't in there. Hispaniola has a supporting role to Columbus, but you're not going to hear much about Germany before WWI either, except as "barbarians" vis a vis Rome. Regions like Southeast Asia are inevitably going to be described in terms of the waxing and waning influence of global empires, if at all. It is the nature of the beast.

Despite the rush, there are a few glaring redundancies in the high school curriculum. Many of the tent-poles of 20th century American history (11th grade) are also global events (10th grade), meaning the whole WWI, Great Depression, WWII, Cold War sequence is repeated in consecutive years. 19th century America is fairly interesting, but I'm not sure why it rates taking up all of 8th grade.

In short, it is hard to imagine anybody coming up with or liking this curriculum who wasn't preoccupied with meeting a standards alignment rubric. It should be re-written from scratch, yet the overall emphasis on world history should be acceptable to multi-cultural minded critics, including the PSU.

This process would be complicated by the fact that the PPSD does not have anyone in charge of History/Social Studies with a History/Social Studies background. As I recall, the same person -- with a literacy background -- is now in charge of history and ELA/Literacy, but I can't figure out who this person is from looking at the new PPSD website.

Here is a rough outline of a new curriculum:

  • A serious one or two semester ethnic studies course for all 8th or 9th graders (one or the other). This needs to be framed as an intervention that is going to help students understand their identity and place in the context of the world, America, Providence, and their school.
  • A one semester civics and government course in high school. This should be active, relevant, and participatory.
  • The world history sequence has to be reorganized and redesigned to connect to Providence's students. Arranging the whole thing chronologically does not seem to be working. A thematic, "less is more" approach could be a big improvement, particularly if it gives students and teachers more flexibility to explore a given theme in a geographic or cultural context that is more relevant to the students on hand.
  • US history needs new textbooks -- or no textbooks -- and a stronger and more varied set of instructional resources.

Monday, March 14, 2016

I need a publicist

My wife would never blog because it seems too self-aggrandizing. I've never had that problem, but I can't take it one step further and cross-promote my own writing.

As you may know, one (of several) reasons my blogging has finally nearly stopped here is because I've been editing -- and writing most of -- Common Ground, a monthly free labor paper here in Rhode Island. It is mostly distributed through union halls and more or less random (and inconsistent) drop-offs at shops, restaurants, etc.

Since this pays as a very part time job, it has taken me about a year to find the time, energy and motivation to get the website into what I would consider a usable state.

So... have a look at the new Common Ground website at cgri.news.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

How broken is the American labor market?

Joseph Scott:

My normal schedule is 6 A.M. to 6 P.M. — twelve hour shifts. I’m on seven days, but every other week, we take what’s called a “fatigue day.” The plant requires that every contractor have a fatigue day. I get two days off a month.

That is noted in passing in an interview about the guy's skateboarding (after his 12 hour shift doing heavy labor), not some socialist muckraking.