Tuesday, December 05, 2006

thinking about war & history

In September, the Journal of American History published a really fantastic roundtable discussion, featuring some of the most prominent historians of the U.S. war in Vietnam. There were several bits that i thought were just exceptionally interesting, and potentially useful to folks who think about how to teach history in a time of war. in one section, the group explicitly takes on the question of what we might learn from the history of the war in Vietnam that might relate to our understanding of contemporary events. here are some excerpts from that discussion, featuring the thoughts of Mark Philip Bradley and Christian Appy.

JAH: ...Why or why not is Vietnam an appropriate historical analogy for thinking about current U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Mark Philip Bradley:
I am most struck by how little we know as Americans and American historians about Afghanistan and Iraq as real places with complex and contingent histories, and how much this parallels American understandings of Vietnam. Maybe seven universities and colleges taught Vietnamese history and language during the war. A handful of scholars produced work on Vietnamese history, society, and culture informed by Vietnamese sources. And many of those who did had to look beyond American shores for employment and venues for publication during the war. When we consider the field of United States–Middle East relations in the academy, the parallels to the Vietnam situation during the war are distressingly similar. How many of us have a real sense of Afghan history and society? Or of Iraq's? Or of the complex interplay of relations—political, economic, and cultural—between the Middle East and the United States? For myself, my honest if embarrassed answer is very little. I suspect the same might be said for many American historians and the public at large.

There are also problematic parallels in what passes for "culturally informed" understandings of the Vietnamese and Afghan pasts, suggesting a little local "knowledge" can be a dangerous thing. Frances FitzGerald's 1972 Pulitzer Prize–winning Fire in the Lake quickly emerged as one of the leading popular interpretations of Vietnamese history and society. Whatever its virtues, FitzGerald's book was organized around a concept of Vietnam that obscured as much as it revealed. FitzGerald argued that the "traditional" notion of the mandate of heaven continued to shape Vietnamese political consciousness into the twentieth century and helped explain why Ho Chi Minh rather than the leadership of South Vietnam enjoyed Vietnamese popular support. In doing so, she borrowed from earlier French orientalist scholarship and its static notions of Vietnam as a smaller and reified China, a set of assumptions that ignored the heterodox character of premodern Vietnam (and China!) and the political, social, and cultural transformations that shaped urban and rural Vietnamese societies during the colonial and postcolonial periods…

One could simply decry all this. Or put it down to a more general American parochialism about the wider world. But as historians we can and should pledge ourselves to recognize that these are serious problems and work toward redressing them. Those of us who have learned Vietnamese and French may not be the right people to now take on Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi, or Pashto. But we can encourage our undergraduates and graduate students to do so. And to cast their reading and research in the capacious ways that have increasingly allowed us to explore the complexities of American engagement in Vietnam, ways that depart from exceptionalist notions of United States history. At the graduate level in particular, if we are to encourage such work, we need to give our students some space, time, and institutional support to learn languages and to master multiple local, national, and regional historiographies. These tools will enable a new generation of scholars to craft a richer, more sophisticated narrative of American relations with Iraq, Afghanistan, and other states and peoples in the Middle East.

Christian Appy:
There is a danger that any effort to compare current events with historical antecedents will badly distort both past and present. I agree that Iraq and Vietnam are vastly different, and as Mark rightly argues, comparing those histories in any depth is beyond most historians, never mind commentators and policy makers. But surely there are commonalities, at least in a general sense, in the way U.S. officials justified their policies in the two countries, and these analogies can serve public debate. After all, as David indicates, one important connection is that U.S. policy makers then, as now, believed detailed local knowledge was largely irrelevant except in narrowly tactical terms (that is, where are the "bad guys"?) because Washington clung to the hope (in spite of massive contrary evidence) that U.S. technology and military firepower could hold the line long enough for modernization (or nation building) to draw each country into a stable global system amenable to U.S. economic and political power.

At the risk of gross oversimplification, I'd like to list a few linkages. Then as now, the president claims:

—We face a global threat (Communism/terrorism).
—The enemy we fight is part of that global threat.
—We fight far away from home so we won't have to fight in our own streets.
—We want nothing for ourselves, only self-determination for them.
—We are doing everything possible to limit the loss of civilian lives.
—We are making great progress, but the media isn't reporting it.
—Ultimately, the war must be won by them with less and less U.S. "help."
—Immediate withdrawal would be an intolerable blow to U.S. credibility and would only embolden our enemy and produce a bloodbath.
—Antiwar activism must be allowed but demoralizes our troops and encourages our enemy.

Then, as now, the president does not say:
—The enemy in Vietnam/Iraq actually does not pose a threat to U.S. security, but we're fighting anyway.
—We do indeed have geopolitical and economic interests in the region and will never tolerate a Communist/radical Islamist government.
—We are using weapons and tactics that don't distinguish between civilians and combatants.
—We will stretch and break the law to spy on and sabotage antiwar critics.
—We won't ask the nation as a whole to make a major sacrifice but will continue to send the working class to do most of the fighting.
—The progress we report is contradicted by our own sources.
—Troop morale is going downhill.
—Most of the people over there don't want us in their country.

(from “Interchange: Legacies of the Vietnam War,” a roundtable discussion. Journal of American History, September 2006.)

NCLB and the cutting of social studies

i'm posting, here, a NYT article from last March about how No Child Left Behind strips social studies, arts, and other critical thinking skills-building subjects from public school curricula. its becoming old news, this. and every day, there are new developments developing on this front, new reports, new critiques, new efforts to push back against the de-thinkification of public education that NCLB encourages. but i want to put excerpts from this article here because it captures something heartbreaking.

more soon, on this and other topics. i promise.

NY Times March 26, 2006
"Schools Cut Back Subjects to Push Reading and Math"

SACRAMENTO — Thousands of schools across the nation are responding to the reading and math testing requirements laid out in No Child Left Behind, President Bush's signature education law, by reducing class time spent on other subjects and, for some low-proficiency students, eliminating it.

Schools from Vermont to California are increasing — in some cases tripling — the class time that low-proficiency students spend on reading and math, mainly because the federal law, signed in 2002, requires annual exams only in those subjects and punishes schools that fall short of rising benchmarks.

The changes appear to principally affect schools and students who test below grade level.

The intense focus on the two basic skills is a sea change in American instructional practice, with many schools that once offered rich curriculums now systematically trimming courses like social studies, science and art. A nationwide survey by a nonpartisan group that is to be made public on March 28 indicates that the practice, known as narrowing the curriculum, has become standard procedure in many communities.

The survey, by the Center on Education Policy, found that since the passage of the federal law, 71 percent of the nation's 15,000 school districts had reduced the hours of instructional time spent on history, music and other subjects to open up more time for reading and math. The center is an independent group that has made a thorough study of the new act and has published a detailed yearly report on the implementation of the law in dozens of districts.

"Narrowing the curriculum has clearly become a nationwide pattern," said Jack Jennings, the president of the center, which is based in Washington.

At Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High School in Sacramento, about 150 of the school's 885 students spend five of their six class periods on math, reading and gym, leaving only one 55-minute period for all other subjects.

About 125 of the school's lowest-performing students are barred from taking anything except math, reading and gym, a measure that Samuel Harris, a former lieutenant colonel in the Army who is the school's principal, said was draconian but necessary. "When you look at a kid and you know he can't read, that's a tough call you've got to make," Mr. Harris said.
The increasing focus on two basic subjects has divided the nation's educational establishment. Some authorities, including Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, say the federal law's focus on basic skills is raising achievement in thousands of low-performing schools. Other experts warn that by reducing the academic menu to steak and potatoes, schools risk giving bored teenagers the message that school means repetition and drilling.

"Only two subjects? What a sadness," said Thomas Sobol, an education professor at Columbia Teachers College and a former New York State education commissioner. "That's like a violin student who's only permitted to play scales, nothing else, day after day, scales, scales, scales. They'd lose their zest for music."

But officials in Cuero, Tex., have adopted an intensive approach and said it was helping them meet the federal requirements. They have doubled the time that all sixth graders and some seventh and eighth graders devote to reading and math, and have reduced it for other subjects.

"When you only have so many hours per day and you're behind in some area that's being hammered on, you have to work on that," said Henry Lind, the schools superintendent. "It's like basketball. If you can't make layups, then you've got to work on layups."

Since America's public schools began taking shape in the early 1800's, shifting fashions have repeatedly reworked the curriculum. Courses like woodworking and sewing joined the three R's. After World War I, vocational courses, languages and other subjects broadened the instructional menu into a smorgasbord.

A federal law passed after the Russian launching of Sputnik in 1957 spurred a renewed emphasis on science and math, and a 1975 law that guaranteed educational rights for the disabled also provoked sweeping change, said William Reese, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of "America's Public Schools: From the Common School to No Child Left Behind." But the education law has leveraged one of the most abrupt instructional shifts, he said.

"Because of its emphasis on testing and accountability in particular subjects, it apparently forces some school districts down narrow intellectual paths," Dr. Reese said. "If a subject is not tested, why teach it?"

The shift has been felt in the labor market, heightening demand for math teachers and forcing educators in subjects like art and foreign languages to search longer for work, leaders of teachers groups said.

The survey that is coming out this week looks at 299 school districts in 50 states. It was conducted as part of a four-year study of No Child Left Behind and appears to be the most systematic effort to track the law's footprints through the classroom, although other authorities had warned of its effect on teaching practices.


At King Junior High, in a poor neighborhood in Sacramento a few miles from a decommissioned Air Force base, the intensive reading and math classes have raised test scores for several years running. That has helped Larry Buchanan, the superintendent of the Grant Joint Union High School District, which oversees the school, to be selected by an administrators' group as California's 2005 superintendent of the year.

But in spite of the progress, the school's scores on California state exams, used for compliance with the federal law, are increasing not nearly fast enough to allow the school to keep up with the rising test benchmarks. On the math exams administered last spring, for instance, 17.4 percent of students scored at the proficient level or above, and on the reading exams, only 14.9 percent.

With scores still so low, Mr. Harris, the school's principal, and Mr. Buchanan said they had little alternative but to continue remedial instruction for the lower-achieving among the school's nearly 900 students.

The students are the sons and daughters of mostly Hispanic, black and Laotian Hmong parents, many of whom work as gardeners, welders and hotel maids or are unemployed. The district administers frequent diagnostic tests so that teachers can carefully calibrate lessons to students' needs.

Rubén Jimenez, a seventh grader whose father is a construction laborer, has a schedule typical of many students at the school, with six class periods a day, not counting lunch.

Rubén studies English for the first three periods, and pre-algebra and math during the fourth and fifth. His sixth period is gym. How does he enjoy taking only reading and math, a recent visitor asked.

"I don't like history or science anyway," Rubén said. But a moment later, perhaps recalling something exciting he had heard about lab science, he sounded ambivalent.

"It'd be fun to dissect something," he said.

Martín Lara, Rubén's teacher, said the intense focus on math was paying off because his math skills were solidifying. Rubén said math has become his favorite subject.

But other students, like Paris Smith, an eighth grader, were less enthusiastic. Last semester, Paris failed one of the two math classes he takes, back to back, each morning.

"I hate having two math classes in a row," Paris said. "Two hours of math is too much. I can't concentrate that long."

Monday, October 16, 2006

process drama & social studies ed/october 12 follow up

OK. I promised on October 12 that i'd post notes from the october 12th workshop. Here's the first installment, notes on the drama-based work we did that day--from the warm ups and team building we did at the outset, to the longer drama work we did based on the narrative of a young immigrant from India.

But first, some thoughts on certain important concepts for using drama to teach socials studies topics (with thanks to Dr. Jay Pecora):

PROCESS DRAMA: is an improvisational educational technique for use in the classroom. Less concerned with re-enacting specific plot lines than with exploring the relationships, conflict, and the meaning of key historical events and processes.

ROLE: taking on a voice that isn’t your own, enacting a character from a different time and/or place.

TEACHER-IN-ROLE: The teacher sets up the dramatic world up in character, modeling the method of participation, and inviting students to dialogue.

TABLEAU/TABLEAUX: frozen pictures.

QUESTIONING: should be done in an attempt not to seek specific answers but to generate meaning.

TENSION: drama creates it. It is an important element, motivational.

DISTANCE AND PROTECTION: Process drama allows for it. Very useful for difficult emotional material. But how to make the most of it? Remind your students to focus on the external activity; emphasize that this work is about trying to represent emotion, not the real thing, and; and explain that they can pick characters who are entirely different than they are, that what they say in character isn’t representative of their own actual opinions.

REFLECTION: is essential.

EVALUATION: Also essential. Beware, though: results not always predictable.

FURTHER READING on drama in the social studies classroom:

•Augusto Boal, _Games for Actors and Non-Actors_ (2nd ed., Routledge, 2005)
•Anita Manley and Cecily O’Neil, _Dreamseekers: Creative approaches to the African American Heritage_ (Heinemann, 1997)
•Viola Spolin, _Theater Games for the Classroom_ (Northwestern University Press, 1986)
•Philip Taylor, _Redcoats and Patriots: Reflective Practice in Drama and Social Studies_ (Heinemann, 1998)


Shake out
Big face/Little face
Yawn—Let out sound
Clasped hands, shake together, and let out sound
Tongue Twisters

•THROWING OUT SOUND AND MOVEMENT. In a circle, each student will throw a body movement which is accompanied by a sound into the circle. The first time around, everyone in the circle can echo the movement and sound as each student goes. The second time around, you can do it “wave” style, with each person doing the sound and movement which the first person started in a “wave” around the circle.

•COUNTING. The group will count in order starting with one, and anyone can call out a number whenever they want to (there is no designated starter or set students calling out numbers). If two people say a number at the same time, the group must start over counting at one. The goal is to sense the energy of the group and get to a high number.

•HEE YAH. The group, as a unit, tries to say and move at the same time. A leader can be chosen by the facilitator (with the participants keeping their eyes closed) for the first couple of rounds. After a while, the group must try it without a designated leader. The goal is for the group to come to a silent agreement about when they will move together. Each group member must look, listen, and be aware of their partners, and their partners in this activity is the whole group.

•STEAL THE SPACE. A person stands in the middle of the circle. Those students who make up the circle will make eye contact with another member and negotiate when they will switch places. The person in the middle tries to get the empty space before they switch places.

•HERO/VILLIAN/SHIELD—Walk through the space. Stop. Look at one other person in the room but don’t make it obvious to others who it is. This is a person you want to be like. Mimic whatever they do—even if it’s subtle. Notice their breathing, stance, etc.
Okay, now walk around the space. You want to be near this person—this hero. GO
Stop—notice someone else in the room who is someone you don’t want to be near. This person is an enemy, or villain, to you. Again, don’t make it obvious to others who you chose. Imagine this person has a bomb as you walk walk through the space—GO. You want to stay away from that person but you must keep walking—
You’ve got your villain and your hero—now you want to act as a shield in order to keep your hero away from his enemy. GO!

•STOP/GO/CLAP/JUMP, and opposites. Instruct the group to move about the room at will. At certain random intervals, command them to: a) stop; b) go; c) clap; or d) jump. They must respond to the commands. Then do the opposing actions to what is said---so that stop will mean go, go will mean stop, clap will mean jump, and jump will mean clap.

•HUMAN MAP. This chair represents New York City, and the far side of the room represents Japan. Place yourself where you were born and raised. Now move to where your father was born and raised. Where your mother was born and raised, your mothers' mother, your mothers' father, etc.

•WORD EXCHANGE. Each student thinks about a word or sentence associated with immigration. They then walk around the room, and one person tells another person their word. The second person takes the first person's word, and vice versa. With the new word, each person exchanges words with another person and so on. After several minutes, the teacher asks the student to stand in a circle, and say the last word received. This is a way of stimulating associations with immigration.

•THROWING OUT SOUND AND MOVEMENT REVISITED. Each person can take the word they ended up with (in the last activity to do with immigration) and create a gesture to express that word as it is said. So that this time they’d throw out their words and movement (wave style) based on some of the words they exchanged in the last activity.

using text from _New Kids in Town: Oral Histories of Immigrant Teens_ (Scholastic, 1991)

GOALS: Students will examine the reasons why immigrants left their countries and the challenges and successes they faced in coming to America through looking at the Oral history of a teen and dramatizing pivotal moments of his experience. The story of Amitabh is from New Kids in Town: Oral Histories of Immigrant Teens: edited by Janet Bode (1989)

Hand out section of Oral history of Amitabh. The class reads the following passage aloud, with each participant taking one sentence. (5 minutes)

"I couldn't always understand why we had come here. Why would my parents leave a country where they had been born, where their children had been born? Bhaunagar was a modernized city on the northwest side of India. It had a lot of factories, apartment houses, and private homes. Our home was three stories high and we lived together with my uncle, my aunt, and my grandparents. My grandparents had another house in a small city called Mehsana. Every summer and during other vacations we'd go there.

"The weather was very warm. In the winters it would get cool enough to wear sweaters, but that was it. No snow. It also used to rain quite a bit. There was a dry and rainy season, with monsoons that occurred every year at a certain time. We had a good life there.

"I know that people think that in India everybody is poor, that everything is backward. It's not that backward, and probably improved since I've been here. We had electricity and running water and traffic jams. I went to a good school. They taught the same subjects as over here, like art, general science, and math and also some of the different languages of India. I think there are fifteen or sixteen languages. At home we spoke Gujarati and I learned how to speak Hindi too. I was happy. I knew the way things were done in India. I knew the food. I loved cooked okra, the vegetable, and pouri, the bread. I had a favorite kind of curry. I knew my future. My parents said, though, that we were going to move to America because…"

TURN TO A PARTNER: Why do you think Amitabh's family decided to come to the United States? Participants will discuss possible reasons based on the morning lecture; i.e. lack of opportunity, financial hardship, and the pursuit of better living conditions. (3 minutes)

The facilitator reads two sentences about what really happened to Amitabh's family: "My parents said that we were going to move to American because us kids would have more opportunities for the future. This was a long time planning."

PAIRS are grouped with another two other pairs to form a group of six. Because they have discussed possible reasons why the family left India, they should have enough information to improvise the following scene:

GROUPS IMPROVISE the moment Amitabh's parents tell him and the rest of the family they are going to move to America. In a group of six, there will be the mother, the father, Amitabh, and two more brothers. Groups improvise simultaneously for 3 minutes. Stop. Decide on 10 to 30 seconds of the improvisation you just did to share with the rest of the class. Each group shares their 10 to 30 seconds. This entire section should last no more than 7 minutes.

Give a second hand-out which we read aloud with the following bit of information from Amitabh on it:

"It was really bad for us in the beginning. We were six in a two room apartment. Every day my parents would get up and go out to look for jobs. They knew they had to start all the way at the bottom, that people here didn’t count experience from India. But my father had been a biologist. My mother was a chemistry professor at a University. In India they were both making good money. Now, though, they would come home every evening and they wouldn't have found anything. They would be very, very sad. They didn't know the bus systems or the subway systems here. They'd get lost. They'd get to some place and it would be too late. The job would be gone. They'd go another place and the answer would be no. One day my parents said, "This is a dead end. We can't find jobs. We don't have any more money. Nothing. We're going to have to jump into the river." I want to think that they were not being serious, but I still would feel so sad for us." (5 minutes)

BRAINSTORM what kinds of jobs Amitabh’s parents might be able to get in NYC? Elicit conversation about what factors go into the task of finding and getting a job. Altogether go through the information we have about their educational status, their ability to speak English, and various other things we know about the world at large that might affect the sorts of jobs they might seek and find.

JOB INTERVIEW. In Pairs, (A and B) --- Amitabh's mother or father (A) apply for a job. B is the interviewer. Afterwards, ask the A’s of the pairs to stand up while the B’s remain seated. Ask the A’s to walk to the next seated B partner and sit down next to them. Now, B will be the Amitabh's mother or father applying for a job, while A is the interviewer.

Facilitator says: Eventually both parents got a job. Can we see how this happened? Improvise for another two minutes, and then decide on 10 to 30 seconds to share with the class. This entire section should be no more than 15 minutes.

Discussion—what did it feel like to be interviewed. What were some of the themes or issues that emerged? (5 minutes)

The participants receive a third hand-out and read about what really happened to Amitabh's family:

"My father worked as a messenger, more a job for a boy than a man. He delivered letters and carried packages all over the city. Again, he would get lost the way he had when he was looking for work. He lasted about three or four months doing that until he found another job and another job. All small jobs. Then he met an Indian man who owned a laboratory who hired him. Now he's sort of back in the area of biology, where he used to work. My mothers started working at a store. She had to fold clothes, mostly. Then she got a better job watching patients at a senior citizens' home. Eventually, she became the dietician there. Now we live in a house with four bedrooms. I have my own bedroom and my middle brother and I have a computer. I'm in the tenth grade, and my older brother is in college the University of Maryland. He wants to be a surgeon. My father wants to become a U.S. citizen. My mother wants to stay Indian. Still, we are all changing…." (5 minutes).

How are they changing? Discuss. (5 minutes)

IN GROUPS, CREATE A TABLEAU to show how your group thinks they are changing. Share. (10 minutes)

Afterwards, facilitator hands out a fourth and final passage to read aloud:

"Still, we are all changing. When we lived in Bhaunagar, my mother wore a sari. She used to put a bindi, that little dot, on her forehead. Now only when we go to some festival, like every August 15 is Indian Independence Day and there's a big parade, then she will wear her sari and have a bindi. Mostly, she just wears pants and a blouse. I'm more Americanized than my parents. I still speak Gujarati at home, but now there's English mixed in a lot. I'm trying to get out of my accent as much as possible. And now I have what I guess you could call an American mouth. I have braces. I'd never seen braces in India. I hate wearing them!!! Just like American kids." (5 minutes)

Final reflective discussion (10 minutes).

Friday, October 13, 2006

a little shout out to Region 9 teachers

More to come, but for the moment here are some pics from yesterday's "Becoming Historians" elementary educators' workshop at Legacy High School. The workshop consisted of a talk by Dr. Madhulika Khandelwal (Director, Asian/American Center, Queens College) -- “Thinking about Citizenship through Asian American Histories” -- and a series of exercises in using process drama to teach immigrants' stories, designed and led by David Montgomery (PhD Candidate, Educational Theater Department, NYU).

Stay tuned for notes and other followup materials, which I'll post in the next couple of days.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Flushing, Queens

A few Thursdays ago I took the 7 train to Flushing to meet with Madhulika Khandelwal. I had invited Khandelwal, the director of the Asian/American Center at Queens College and author of Becoming American, Being Indian: An Immigrant Community in New York City (Cornell, 2002), to come to give a talk to a group of public school teachers at one of the fall Teaching American History workshops that its my job to organize. In this talk, which isn’t happening until mid-October, Khandelwal will give a teacher-friendly primer on Asian American history, reflecting, as she goes, on the ways in which this history sheds light on the meanings and history of citizenship in the U.S. context. Its going to be a smash-up. Can’t wait. So but we needed to meet in advance of the workshop to work out various details—and she asked that we hold this pre-meeting in Queens, and so on Thursday I went. It had been over a decade since I’d been to Main Street in Flushing because it 14 years ago my maternal grandparents moved from Flushing to Fort Lee, New Jersey. Already deep into their seventies, they couldn’t hack the five floor walk-up anymore, and plus they wanted to live closer my Great Aunt Fina.

Going out to Flushing after 14 years of not-going gave me the familiar sort of alienated, unresolved, grandchild-of-Croatian-immigrants feeling that I’ve grown accustomed to over the years. It’s a feeling I’m very interested in, it’s the feeling, in fact, that originally inspired me to start thinking about the question of how history feels. I’m still working my way towards being able to write comprehensively about that feeling; and going to Flushing brought a rush of ideas and memories back that I thought were interesting, given the fact that I was going to a meeting to talk about the history of post-1965 immigration to the neighborhood. Given that some of the people I love most in this world are South Asians who moved to Queens (and environs) post-65, right as my family was transitioning from immigrant to native-born types—and doing it in Queens (and environs).

Flushing, in specific, was a central geographical marker and identifier for me in the first 20 years of my life. It inhabited especially large portions of my imagination when I was a small child: it felt like it was a part of me that I had left behind before I was born, before I was moved to the suburbs, where, more often than not, I found myself playing Kick The Can with the neighborhood bullies, or something equally (un)enjoyable. Back then, the word “Flushing” bewitched me. No: “bewitched” is the wrong word. Really it just confused me, and some days this confusion was consuming. I’d sit in the back of my dad’s 1975 Ford Something and say the word over and over in my head. I just couldn’t figure it out. Flushing. Flushing. Flushing. That’s a verb!, I’d think. Not a neighborhood! Moreover, it was the sort of verb you definitely didn’t want to live inside of; it was the sort of verb you barely wanted to think about even when you were enacting it—better just to do it quickly and then get back to the dinner table or the math homework you were doodling on. Why, I wondered, would someone name a place after something unpleasant that happens after you’ve done your business in the bathroom? Why? And then, why did my relatives have to live there? I must have lost hours and hours pondering these questions. It felt like the idea of flushing a toilet soiled all of the neighborhood’s inhabitants—and, by extension, me.

Back then, I wasn’t knowledgeable in the ways of historical research, and we didn’t have Wikipedia. But even if we did, I don’t know that it would have occurred to me to look up the history of the place’s name there. The question itself was only ever half-formed, more a feeling than a thought, as most important things often were in my youth. But it turns out that the reason for the neighorhood’s name lies, as it always seems to in North America, with the history of empire, and displacement, and mispronunciation. In 1645, the Dutch West India Company pushed the area’s existing inhabitants—the Algoquins—aside, renaming the place Vlissingen, after a spot in the southwestern Netherlands. When the English settlers arrived, sometime later, they in turn pushed the Dutch out, and found themselves unable to pronounce the place’s name correctly. “Vlissingen” thus became “Flushing.” This, of course, was before indoor plumbing was invented.

I don’t remember what Flushing was like in my early life, although I’ve heard it said that even into the 1970s and early 80s, at least in the immediate few blocks around my grandparents’ apartment, you could do all your business entirely in the languages of Croatian and Italian, the only two languages that my grandparents spoke fluently. This has to be at least partly true, because until the day they died, neither of my grandparents spoke much English. But in the early 1990s, during their final years in the neighborhood, I remember that driving around we’d always comment on how many Korean signs and businesses were going up nearby.

So I went to my meeting with Madhulika feeling curious. How would it feel now to walk the same streets I hadn’t haunted since my early 20s? How exactly has the neighborhood changed? Madhulika’s work is actually in large part about Flushing and the transformation that it underwent since the 1970s, when large numbers of South Asian immigrants began inhabiting it. But Flushing is now, I think, predominantly neither Korean nor South Asian—its largely Chinese. You can get Chinese produce on every other block and there’s a dedicated group of Falun Gong practioners that has set up a semi-permanent protest table outside the library. And its constantly in flux. The Punjabi-Gujarati restaurant Madhulika had intended to take me to, on Main Street, just past Kissena Boulevard, had just been converted into a nail salon. (But no problem; there was an equally excellent Punjabi-Gujarati establishment two doors down!)

Madhulika has a lot of very interesting things to say about these changes, and in two weeks she’ll be giving a talk about them—and about the history of South Asians in New York, and just what their experiences suggests about the limitations and meanings of citizenship in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries—to a group of NYC public school elementary teachers. After which I intend to post, here, highlights from the talk and the Q & A. And therein, perhaps I will also take up the very important questions of: Why Should NYC Public School Elementary Teachers Be Teaching about South Asians in New York City? There is, after all, the all-important reading test coming up soon! And will this information be on the fifth grade social studies test? And aren’t grade school children too young to be able to understand the complexities involved here?

These are the questions that have to be addressed when one plans a talk for NYC elementary teachers on almost any historical subject other than a round of The Erie Canal Song. Indeed, The Erie Canal Song holds a shockingly large place in NYC official elementary social studies curriculum. Why? No one has yet been able to tell me. Its a fun song, for sure. But its not a social studies curriculum.

Anyhow, for the moment, I’m just going to sit here for a bit, thinking about the sweep of time, and about the way that Flushing seems to be the epicenter of so many important pieces of 20th century US history and my own personal American story. I’ll let you know when I figure something out.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

historians against the war

ok, they've got a terrible acronym-- but, then, how many of us can really say we've never belonged to an organization with a sub-par one? and anyhow, they've got a good plan. and for a bunch of academics, they've managed to put together a decent collection of resources and logistical suggestions. they're trying to get folks to organize


i realize that i have like 6 readers for this blog, but spread the word, y'all: October 17, 18, 19 are days designated as teach-in days. a whole range of university professors and veterans and writers have agreed to make themselves available to come and speak at schools and other groups nationwide, and HAW (yup, there it is) has put together a list of available films, collaborating organizations, and suggestions for advertising and oprganizing an event of this sort at your institution.

in the new york area, some of the people who might agree to come and talk to your group include: Zach Lochman, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at NYU; Ellen Schreker, who has written fantastic stuff on intellectual freedom in the McCarthy era; Bob Vitalis, who's brilliant on the history of oil and geopolitics; folks from Iraq Veterans Against the War and September 11 Families for Peaceful tomorrows; and etc. go to:


for more info. and pass the word.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

i heart public school teachers

This morning the sky is grey, the rain is streaking down, and I’m preparing to run off to a day of meetings and puddle hopping. Perfect setting for the main thing that’s on my mind this a.m., which is: the NYC Department of Education. It’s a gloomy subject, ladies and gentlemen. Doesn’t matter what angle you look at it from. Today I’m thinking about the angle of how many just unaccountably enthusiastic and genius teachers I’ve met over the few years that I’ve been working in the world of public education in this city. And how they get dragged through the mud by the bureaucracy and administration of the Department of Education. I’m thinking about this today mostly because I got an email from a teacher yesterday that practically broke my heart. And definitely made my blood boil. (Sometimes, yes, I feel rage.)

Here’s the story: my roommate works at the U.N., and among the various things he’s working on right now is the development of an educational project directed at youth in the U.S. He asked me if I could recommend any teachers that he might consult as he begins to put this educational project together, and I suggested a few of teachers I know. One of them, a teacher that I’ll call R., wrote him back, saying that she’d be happy to talk to him about the project. R. is an enthusiastic middle school teacher with almost a decade of experience. I’ve worked with her for several years, and in that time, I’ve seen her in action: she barely sleeps, she’s always interested in learning new stuff, and she’s capable of translating complex historical ideas into challenging but fun classroom activities. Most remarkably: even after years of working for the city, she’s got a positive attitude. Not to overstate the case, but I touch her feet in reverence. No way I could do what she does. I’m cranky—and misanthropic. And other things. So anyhow, last week my roommate took the subway to R.’s classroom, and met R. there, among the metal desks and not-too-large chairs that you find in NYC middle schools. They talked. And before my roommate got back on the subway, he pulled out his phone and called me, leaving a message on my voicemail, gushing about R. She’s so smart, she’s got such creative ideas, she totally transformed my understanding of this project. Etc, etc, etc. He elaborated later, over some food in the kitchen. Like me, was struck by her ability to translate complex historical and social ideas into consumable lesson ideas for use with young people.

A few days later, I wrote her a short email, thanking her for being so generous with her time, and telling her just how jazzed my roommate was to talk to her. And yesterday she wrote me back; she wrote the email that almost broke my heart. It was great for me too, she said. “I’m not used to being treated like an expert,” she said. “It's just so great when someone wants to hear about what I do as if it's so important, and [treats me as if] I have knowledge rather than being told what to do.”

Wh-what? I’m not used to being treated like an expert. Its possible that if I hadn’t worked with public school teachers for the past few years, I would have just been confused by that sentence—instead of enraged. How could a fully licensed, enthusiastic, smart, dedicated teacher with years of classroom experience not be treated as an expert? How, you ask. Why. The answer is complicated, probably more complicated than I’ll ever understand, but I think the core of it lives at the Tweed Courthouse, where the bureaucratic power of the DOE resides, and emanates out from there. The bureaucracy that is the NYC DOE is a complicated, labyrinthine mechanism, one that suffers as much from racism and corporate politics as it does from electoral grandstanding and the presence of scores of deadened, cynical hangers-on. Each of those features of the DOE has a hand in creating a climate wherein teachers are treated as if they are simply gears in a machine. They are made to go to professional development seminars where they are either handed scripts dictating what they are to say in the classroom, or monotonically lectured at on subjects of no relevance to their work. They are talked down to by administrators who are often barely qualified themselves to teach or inspire young minds. They are used as pawns by high-ranking officials on all sides of the debate.

Its true that there are bad teachers. There are, indeed, people working as teachers in this city who actually should not be permitted to go within 100 feet of any young person with the spark of life in them. I have met some of these teachers, and I’m here to say: yes, correct. Some of them don’t know what they’re doing. But this is not true of the majority of the teachers I’ve met. The majority of teachers I’ve met are either a)young and enthusiastic (if a little under-prepared for the work they’ve taken on—especially in the area of history education, which gets short-shrift from teacher ed programs, a subject I’m sure I’ll write about at some point on this blog), or b)all-around fantastic people whose dedication and smarts defy explanation. But all of them are used to being treated like they don’t matter, like they aren’t invested, imaginative, hard-working, intelligent souls.

When I told my roommate what R. had written in her email, he said, you know, when I was saying goodbye to her, I said: I want to say goodbye in a way that demonstrates the respect that I feel for you, and for the work you’re doing. I was raised to believe that there is no more important profession than teaching. And R. replied: you weren’t raised in the U.S., huh?

(Nope, he wasn’t.) OK but that gets into a whole other set of things, and that I don’t have time for, people. I gotta get back to work.

Dear R., if you’re reading this: you ROCK. I have no idea how you do it. And I have no idea how to remedy it.

Damn. That’s not an upbeat note to end on.

Monday, September 11, 2006

and another thing: Circus Amok & public history

Another thing I want to do herein is to open up a space for thinking and talking across the various worlds and disciplines that interest and compel me. And hopefully to encourage more collaboration and more dialogue and more experimentation among my various co-conspirators and role-models and inspirations—teachers and performers and scholars and writers and activists and rif-raf of many sorts alike. Also to:

--create some fuel for a real movement to bring critical, engaged, complicated, and comprehensible history into the streets; and to

--consider those places where this is already being done.

Can I be any clearer, you ask? For sure. I'm all about clarity, and anecdote, and specificity. So, now, let me see, what do I got in my bag of tricks?…

OK, here: lets all go to the Circus together, for a minute. C’mon, don’t be scared. The clowns are all very, very, very nice, they’ll buy you a beer if you help them load up the truck… and the elephant is made out of papier mache. The scariest thing about this particular circus is how freaking HOT it is, and how little funding they’ve got.

Those of you out there in blogland whose phone numbers are saved inside my cellphone will know that I’m talking, here, about the great Circus Amok. (www.circusamok.org)

This year, I had the immense privilege and joy of working with the Circus in the role of what Jennifer Miller calls a dramaturg. "Dramaturg" sounds a little too dramatic and a whole lot too turgical, and anyhow, I know very little about any of that. Actually, I was much more of a historical advisor. (If you are reading this post during the month of September 2006 and you’re anywhere near NYC, get yourself to the nearest park to watch the Circus during its one-month all-NYC parks tour. See the website—above—for schedule and details. You won’t be disappointed.) A one-ring extravaganza of the most glittery and grassroots kind, this year’s Circus was organized around the twin themes of immigration and Latin American politics. It was called “Citizen*Ship: An Immigrant Rights Fantasia in 10 Acts.” Miller called me up and said: can you help me figure out some way we can fit something about the history of immigration and naturalization into the Circus this year. And I replied: it just so happens, Ms. Miller, that several square feet of my PhD dissertation was devoted to the history of U.S. immigration and naturalization law. So I actually feel qualified—licensed, even—to speak professionally on such subjects. The result was that one afternoon in—what was it, Miller? June?—of this year, I went over to her place, and we sat around talking history. After that, we exchanged several thousands of emails and I visited Circus rehearsal a few times, and boom, before I knew it, there were professional acrobats and dancing teacups and glittery performers jumping around on pogo sticks and doing flips and standing on their hands to illustrate complicated features of the history of immigration and naturalization law in the U.S. I’m talking about ideas that came right out of books like Ian Haney Lopez’s brilliant work of critical race theory, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race. And in no time, audiences in parks from Coney Island to the South Bronx found themselves watching performer after performer step up to a microphone and talk about the racism embedded in the history of U.S. citizenship laws. And it worked—or at least, audiences didn’t stream madly out in frustration and boredom during these pedagogical moments. This, I think is in part because Miller choreographed it, and Jenny Romaine musicalized it, so smartly—and in part because it was wedged between an insanely hilarious fake-Heidi-themed juggling routine and a glittery acrobatics act. And in part because—what? That New Yorkers are ready to hear that the history of U.S. citizenship law was racially coded? I have no idea. But I am studying it. And I am trying to learn how public displays of history of this sort can be so powerful.

Now, I don’t have any illusions. I don’t think that the Circus is going to singlehandedly change the world, or that the brilliant combination of politics and history and entertainment that it features will mean that immigrants won’t continue to be attacked in the streets, at work, or in state and federal legislatures in the coming year. But I did watch something kind of beautiful happen at the Union Square performance last Thursday afternoon.

Because it was the middle-ish of the day, a fair portion of the audience for that performance consisted of West Indian domestic workers—nannies—with their charges, white children, in their arms. The central narrative thread that organizes this year’s Circus’s is a story about a West Indian nanny who abandons the white family that employs her. Lupita, as she is called, has joined together with a group of her friends and created a circus act. And together they have all decided run away to Argentina—where, as Lupita says, “You can be a circus performer and have health care!” It was impossible not to notice, throughout the totally bold scene in which Lupita tells her boss off, the surprised and delighted laughter coming from a section of the audience where a group of West Indian domestic workers were standing. I don’t know what sort of lasting effects this kind of encounter between circus and audience might have, but it certainly felt a whole lot different than it feels to watch some reality TV absently over a beer at the local bar. And ok, yes. It suggested the possibility of alliances across occupation and class and neighborhood in this city that so often feels hard-core and impossible.

And that's what I mean when I say "public history."
Are you with me, my fellow university-trained and -based public historians?


back-to-school and hi

Hello and welcome to how history feels. I hope you’re not expecting me to solve the riddle for you, or to explain, in each post, just exactly how history does feel. Today history feels like a cup of tea without sugar, sucked through my teeth at 8 am. Yesterday it felt like a phone call. The day before it felt like the screech of fingernails dragged across a blackboard. Its true that I am interested in figuring out how the migrations and labors of generations of my ancestors shapes the way I feel and what I do, what I’m able to imagine and how my body moves and takes form. And probably, or anyway, I think, I’ll write some on that question in this here blog at some point in the near future. But that’s not, in fact, what I consider to be its central purpose. No, its central purpose is to stage a series of collisions between history + education + contemporary life + politics + culture.

There will be observations about history education and the New York City Public schools; there will be interviews with artists who make history-based critical work; there will be tiny investigations into the way memories live on a streetcorner. Stuff like that. There will be links; there will be reports; there will be photos. I feel certain that at some point I will complain about some bureaucracy or other. (I have a hunch you’re feeling me on that one.)

My aim, in part, is to provide resources, ideas and support to the public school teachers that I work with in NYC public school Region 9, and their colleagues. There will be times, I’m sure, that I won’t be able to help myself from getting a little whimsical and poetic on your ear. But I do hope that you’ll find in here good and useful information; resources; and provocations as well. Your comments are MOST welcome.

Happy back-to-school.

See you on the blog, and in the streets.