Monthly Archives: December 2009

fence posts

My colleague Paul LeMahieu is the former superintendent of schools in Hawaii.

During a recent conversation, he recalled that in Hawaii his schools often dealt with huge influxes of students moving in from out of state. In order to be proficient in the Hawaii high-stakes tests, these recent transplants had to learn Hawaiian history which was a mandated part of the curriculum. This despite the fact that they may have learned a different state’s history in an earlier grade when they lived elsewhere. (I believe it’s often the fourth grade curriculum that focuses on state history.)

Parents and guardians, he said, would complain. Why must my child learn yet another state’s history? they would ask. He didn’t have a good answer.

During our conversation, Paul came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea. Why not ditch the current learn-about-your-own-state navel-gazing curricula nationwide and in its place have each state decide that its students will learn about another, different state?

Better yet, why not give each kid the opportunity to learn about whatever state he or she wants to and then test them, if we must, with some kind of analytical essay question or questions, perhaps even a hands-on demonstration of knowledge?

I like this option best. For pedagogical reasons. But, to be honest, for self-absorbed reasons, too. When I was a kid I had a minor obsession with South Dakota. The reason? It’s capital, Pierre. I knew the name of South Dakota’s capital because of a little red rectangular pencil box I owned. Two gear wheels that sat just under the lid of the pencil box. One wheel had the names of the states, the other had the names of the states’ capitals. They were aligned so that when you turned one wheel, the other spun appropriately; the corresponding names then appeared in little windows on the lid.

Low-tech, but effective.

I loved my pencil box. I also loved the Maurice Sendak book Pierre and was amazed to find out that a state had a capital with the same name. Who names their capitals after stupid kids who annoyingly say “I don’t care” over and over again? I wondered. Of course, I never as a young kid found out much about South Dakota, it’s rich history of Native resistance, the Badlands. I learned about Mount Rushmore and dimly recalled being told it was in South Dakota. But that was it.

As a professor I once worked with described it, I learned history in grade school and junior high horizontally – survey courses strung together, like a long fence, with each fact a rail and the connections between the rails only vaguely understood.

I was exposed to lots of rails.

What this teacher of teachers of history encouraged, instead, was giving kids the chance to dig fence posts. Spread far apart, perhaps, but drilled down deeply, with authentic purpose and primary source material as the foundation. With fence posts, kids bring their inquiry to one particular moment or episode and then try to interpret and analyze and ultimately make sense of a time period.

Fence-post history might have been hard to manage back when I was a kid, when we had World Book encyclopedias for our reports (use the encyclopedia but don’t copy word-for-word, our teachers told us – so, does that mean we can copy every other word, we fifth graders asked each other? every third word?), when we relied on mechanical-wheeled pencil boxes. Now, though, I have the ability to do a google search of Laura Ingalls Wilder and find primary source documents about her life in the Dakota Territory and examine those while I read the Little House on the Prairie series.

I say we give kids a chance to learn about South Dakota … and Alaska and any other state they want to know more about. Knock over the fences. Sink down the fence posts.


Filed under education


On my way home tonight, along Lake Merritt in the very-cold-for-the-Bay-Area night chill, I came across a man who was sitting up against one of the barrier logs that line the asphalt walkway. He was slumped slightly backwards, at an awkward angle, and seemed to be in a daze. I asked him if he needed help. I thought I heard him say “ambulance,” though his voice was badly slurred. I called 911.

Meanwhile, several people stopped, too, most notably an African-American woman who began talking to the man and covered him with her coat. As I answered the questions of the dispatcher – “I would say he’s in his late 40’s.” “Yes, he’s conscious.” “I don’t know if he’s in pain.” – the woman disparaged others who had walked by the man, also African-American, without stopping.

Another woman did stop, bent low to stroke the man’s forehead, and talked to him soothingly. By this time, he had slid down so that he was completely prone. His eyes were glassy, his mouth slightly ajar. The woman, who wore a scarf, gently stroked his head and said quietly “This is my worst nightmare” to no one in particular. I could not get over the kindness of that very human gesture – touch, contact, in a time of need.

Eventually, the fire truck arrived. The walkway is slightly lower than street level, so another of the passersby who had stopped waved down the wailing vehicle. Pretty soon all of us were on our way home again, dismissed by the firefighters. I was the last to go since I was the one left to respond to the firefighters questions, being the first on the scene. But that didn’t take long, and soon I was walking not too far behind the woman with the scarf. The man who had flagged down the firetruck, I noticed, walked slightly behind me. He must have been waiting til the very end, too, unnoticed by me.

He got to his turnoff and at that moment, he said, “Thank you for stopping. You’re a good man.”

I didn’t know what to say. So I shrugged my shoulders.

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My colleague and friend Brent Williams left a copy of the New York Review of Books at my cube just before Thanksgiving. He specifically wanted me to read a review of the book, The Last Days of Shea: Delight and Despair in the Life of A Mets Fan.

Written by Michael Kimmelman, the review is titled At the Bad New Ballparks. Essentially, Kimmelman argues that new stadiums, like CitiField, the park built to replace Shea Stadium, are simulcra. Though they look like stadiums long-since relegated to photographs – CitiField, in fact, is meant to evoke the old Ebbets Field – they come complete with shopping malls and dining centers and scoreboards that tell us when to stand, when to cheer, where to look.

There is no space for silence, no time for the contemplative moments. And let’s face it, there has always been the potential for a lot of contemplation at baseball games. Or at least there used to be.

As Kimmelman points out, the spaces in baseball allow room for disconnected, though completely relevant, thoughts. He points to the now-famous story involving the novelist, Haruki Murakami, who while watching a baseball game realized he could write a novel. This from wikipedia:

Murakami wrote his first fiction when he was 29.[14] He said he was inspired to write his first novel, 1979’s Hear the Wind Sing, while watching a baseball game.[15] In 1978, Murakami was in Jingu Stadium watching a game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp when Dave Hilton, an American, came to bat. According to an oft-repeated story, in the instant that Hilton hit a double, Murakami suddenly realized he could write a novel.

More importantly, these ersatz stadiums, as Kimmelman calls them, though architecturally evocative of the past, don’t honor the complete history of our teams – the blemishes, the failures, the faults, the things that make many of us want to root for a team.

I read the review with fascination. I have to say, I love AT&T park, one of these new stadium simulcra. I’m sure I would on some level enjoy CitiField, too. I know I’ve often described the now-demolished Shea Stadium as a huge concrete parking garage with the center carved out and a grassy area plopped down in the middle, so in my thinking, any replacement would be better.

But after reading the review, I realized that my memories of Shea are not about designated play areas or luxury suites or television lounges. They are of rain delays and huddling under the overhang if we were lucky enough not to be in the upper deck; embarrassment at having to pee in troughs next to old men; the garish mets colors, blue and orange, that hung in huge patches on the exterior walls of the stadium; singing Meet the Mets, Meet the Mets, Come on out and greet the Mets, before every game, along with the freakish-looking, baseball-headed Mr. Met mascot.

I realized that as much as I malign Shea, it was flawed. Just as the team I loved was. Just as I am. Just as the game is.

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