The Lessons of Independence

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Independence Day always brings out the history teacher in me.

Don’t worry; it’s safe.

Schools are closed so I can do the pure stuff instead of social studies

Not that there’s anything wrong with social studies,

Today I heard the Declaration of Independence read on the radio.

I’ve read the Declaration of Independence many times and I will read it many more times, but there is something special about hearing it read.

Back in the day, hearing the Declaration read is how most people learned of its content.

Most of the time, when people read it to themselves, they rarely get deep into the meat of it.

For example, when was the last time you read beyond “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Heady stuff, that, but not the meat and potatoes.

Not like:

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

Many think that the next sentence has particular meaning these contentious days.

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

Detail of King George III (in coronation robes).

Image via Wikipediahe forms to which they are accustomed.”

The next 18 paragraphs all start with the word “he”.

Pop Quiz (my students hate when I do this): who is this ‘he’?

Okay, there were plenty of complaints and they’re all laid out. Now what?

“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” [Italics added]

Free and Independent States.

That means a nation called Delaware and one called Georgia.

Another nation calling itself South Carolina and it borders on the nation of North Carolina.

There were to also be Independent States, aka sovereign nations, called New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York, Massachusetts and Maryland, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia.

I know. It is hard to think of tiny Rhode Island as a sovereign nation, but Monaco, Tuvalu and Nauru all seem to do okay even if no one can find them on a map or recognize their flag.

And we’re not even going to mention that other tiny powerhouse, Vatican City.

When you think about those 13 colonies these days we hardly ever realize that in 1776 almost no one was thinking, much less talking, about anything called the United States.

The only reference to anything of the sort, “…the Representatives of the united States of America…” is not the same as ‘…Representatives of the United States of America….’

The lower case ‘u’ was not a typo, it was a deliberate reference to 13 separate colony/countries that just happened to be working together for this one task: taking on the most powerful nation in the world at that time.

That we are a country today and celebrating the 234th anniversary of that treasonous declaration is a doubly unlikely.

That the rebellious colonialists were successful against the forces of the King was unexpected even by them.

But the bigger victory is that despite sharp disagreements about philosophy, despite competing economic interests and despite religious differences, those 13 now independent sovereign states were able to come together.

Philadelphia - Old City: Independence Hall - T...
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They argued long and hard, but in the end they figured out how to compromise and come together as United States for the greater good of all the citizens they represented.

That, not the pursuit of happiness, is the lesson we need to focus on today and in the future.

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An update on “Please don’t call my mom”

Fisher 500 AM/FM hi-fi receiver from 1959. Cou...
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The post I made in reaction to seeing the film “Precious” and talking to my students about what happens when a teacher calls home has gotten a lot of attention.

Today I was a guest on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC radio to discuss the post and to get feedback from his listeners.

Thirty years ago I worked in radio doing a talk show very similar to Mr. Lehrer’s so being on air was not that big a deal, though it did feel a bit odd being on the other side of the table from the host.

A lot of people called into the show and others commented online. You can hear the broadcast and read the comments here.

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One Down, Thirty-three To Go

old classroom (Mie Prefectural Normal School)
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I’m still struggling with my 8th grade class.

I’ve written about them before, and I’d like to be able to say the situation has gotten better and I guess it has to some degree. I have about ten higher performing students who actually try to do the work and tell the others to be quiet so they can. It works for about five minutes.

I have some of the middle level kids dropping into my Read 180 room in odd moments and after school just to hang out and chat. This is very important to me. It tells me they’re trying to get to know me and also show me that they’re not like the real troublemakers.

One of the boys who dropped in last evening was the one who I had to drag out of the classroom by his collar to stop him from banging another boy’s head on a desk. He did not resist and when he came to my room I told him it was not my intent to embarrass him but that “I could not have that shit going on in my class.”

I almost never curse.

Spending my early years working in radio cured me of using what was already a very minor part of my vocabulary.

Many of my students curse all the time. They need jobs in radio.

Anyway, the boy was stunned by what I said and while his mouth was still agape I offered him my hand to shake. He took it, smiled, shook his head and said,

“Man, you are so different from what I expected.”

I didn’t ask what he meant by that. I’m not sure I want to know

Today that same boy dropped by my R180 room as I was getting ready to leave at 3:15. Yesterday I stayed until 5:00 so he seemed surprised and disappointed that I was on my way out. I explained I had an appointment with the doctor for my knee. He wished me luck.

I smiled going down the elevator. I’d already had my luck for the day.

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Putting Context Into Context

CBS News January 22 1973

I used to be a radio news reporter and talk show host. I worked on Cape Cod in the mid 1970s. Walter Cronkite once sent me a fan letter. He would listen to me while he sailed in the waters off his summer home in Martha’s Vineyard.

Getting a fan letter from Walter Cronkite was, as you might imagine, pretty heady stuff for a twenty-two year old who grew up watching him nearly every evening.

As nice a place as Cape Cod is, it is a small radio market; I was not making much money even though my talk show had fantastic ratings. I would regularly apply for jobs in bigger markets. I would get invited to send in tapes of my broadcasts and, if the station were nearby, I’d get invited for a visit and interview.

I never got hired.

I had a hard time figuring out why not. After all, I was good. Walter Cronkite was a fan. WALTER CRONKITE! He was MY FAN!

Of course I never mentioned that in the job interviews, but this thought always popped into my mind when I got the rejection letters.

“If I’m good enough for Walter Cronkite, how can I not be good enough for this job?”

What I know now, that I didn’t know then, is that I was a fantastic radio news reporter, anchor and talk show host on WCOD-FM in Hyannis. That was my most favorable context and that’s where Mr. Cronkite was my fan. I apparently was not as good in Framingham, Boston or Worcester, Massachusetts, Chicago, Dallas, Pittsburgh or all the other contexts I hoped to move into.

Cut to about ten years later.

Walter Cronkite and his wife, Betsy, sit down at the bar I manage. He orders a single malt whisky; I forget what Mrs. Cronkite ordered. I introduce myself and told him how much I treasure the letter he’d sent me. He asks me what station I’m on and I tell him I am the manager of the bar. We chuckle, I introduce my wife and he his, and I leave them to enjoy their drink.

I managed that bar for eighteen years before it closed.

I had a sterling reputation in the business so I got offers. I worked in one place for four months, the next for three and the last for a bit over two.

I was a creative and enlightened manager of North Star Pub for 18 years. That was the right context for me. I was the wrong person for the three jobs that followed, and they were the wrong jobs for me.

The students I teach are labeled hyperactive, learning disabled, behavior challenged, emotionally disabled.

But the more time I spend with these students I see that, in most cases, there’s not really anything wrong with them; they are intelligent, talented, creative and, mostly, articulate, just not in the ways compatible with the context in which they have to function.

Because of that contextual incompatibility they are called lazy, made to feel stupid, led to think of themselves as damaged in some way that separates them from other students their age.

I wish I could tell them to change their surroundings, change their context. Unfortunately, their context is called school, and attendance is mandatory.

So I make a promise to my students. I promise them that if they can manage to get through school they will have the tools to find the context that is right for them.

I know it is true. I wish they believed me.

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Paul Harvey


Paul Harvey died the other day. He and I did not agree much on politics, but I did like his broadcasting style.

I liked his style so much that when I had a radio talk show on WCOD-FM in Hyannis, MA in the mid 1970s, I blatantly imitated it. I “borrowed” his pauses to set up the kicker line, the little rise in pitch for impact, even the type of stories he would pick. I, too, looked for the odd or unusual item to pique interest.

I still use some of the tricks I learned from Paul Harvey in my classroom delivery.

I haven’t listened to Paul Harvey much in the past 30 years, and this morning, when I heard of his passing, it took me back to being a 23-year-old novice trying to sound like the old pro, but I never really got close.

Never got close at all.

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