Saturday, December 22, 2007

Optional Over Break

Hey AiSers,

While you're enjoying your well-deserved break, please consider sending us a link to the post of which you are most proud. Remember, as the end of the semester approaches, your blogs will be evaluated based on:

  1. The quality of writing in your chosen blog post
  2. The quantity of posts on your blog
  3. The comments you have left on the blogs of your peers

The best way to send the link is to go to your own blog, click on the title of the post you want to submit to us, and copy the address from the browser window. Paste that address in an email sent to this address.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Comma Triggers Gun Debate

What does a comma have to do with gun rights? Aside from the eerie likeness of a comma and a trigger, the two may have more in common than we ever realized. In fact, the Supreme Court is currently deliberating over a key test case of gun rights (i.e., the 2nd Amendment)—and the decision will rest largely on how they read commas.

Here's the 2nd Amendment as it appears in the US Constitution:

“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

Three pesky commas—and how to read them? Before reading on, make up your mind.

Gun rights advocates read the commas as "throat clearing"—front porch, if you will. They believe the first two phrases—up until the word "state" are unrelated to what follows. Therefore, they argue, the framers of the Constitution clearly protect the "right to bear arms."

Gun rights opponents read those first two phrases as modifying the right. In other words, they translate the Amendment this way: because militias are necessary for a free state, individual people must keep and bear arms. Since we have a well-funded militia, there is no need for—no necessary guarantee of—people bearing arms.

Wherever you come down on this issue, the pen—the lowly punctuation mark—may, indeed, be mightier than the sword. Maybe that's what the Irish poet Seamus Heaney had in mind when he wrote his poem "Digging" which opens this way: "Between my finger and my thumb/This squat pen rests, snug as a gun." (At least I think there's a comma in that last line!)

For a further explication, read the link of a recent New York Times Op-ed on this issue.

Did he get what he deserved?

While watching Werner Herzog's documentary, Grizzly Man, we noted the words of one man interviewed who claimed that Timothy Treadwell, someone who studied and lived with grizzly bears, "got what he deserved".

What do you think of this statement?

In Roger Ebert's review of the film, he quotes the director, Herzog, as saying, "I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder."

Ebert goes on to reveal his own opinion of Timothy Treadwell:
I have a certain admiration for his courage, recklessness, idealism, whatever you want to call it, but here is a man who managed to get himself and his girlfriend eaten, and you know what? He deserves Werner Herzog.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


In New York City a billboard emits highly focused sound that resonates within the skulls of passersby. It’s a novel way of advertising, a potentially terrifying intrusion and, according to technology writer Clive Thompson, the leading edge of a new civil rights battleground – the right to privacy in your own mind.

Have you seen Minority Report? Do you remember the scene in the mall when Tom Cruise's character is bombarded with advertising messages inside his own head?

If intrusive ads don't seem that worrisome to you, consider this: there are scientists currently working on a device that shines an infrared beam on your forehead, a sort of remote MRI, that can "read" your mind to determine if you are in "mental anguish". What this means, for example, is that before we tell a lie, a simple brain scan can reveal it. Imagine the antiterrorist uses for this at airports.

What do you think about any/all of these issues? For more information, listen to this excerpt from NPR's On the Media, which is the source of today's post:

Friday, December 07, 2007

Into the Wild (short essay prompt)

In the book we are reading, Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer admits that Chris McCandless was rash, but he insists he "wasn't a nutcase, he wasn't a sociopath, he wasn't an outcast. McCandless was something else -- although precisely what is hard to say. A pilgrim, perhaps" (85).

Your question:

What precisely was McCandless? Use one of Krakauer's terms or invent your own term. Choose your term carefully, and note passages as you read. Your answer to the question is your central claim. Support this claim with evidence from the text and explain how the language of the quote -- the connotations of individual words in the quotes you cite -- prove your claim to be valid.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Political Compass

Where do you stand on the political spectrum? Who will you vote for in the next election? Try this quiz, mentioned in class today. Go to the Political Compass website and test your beliefs.

Think about what this famous adage means: "If you're young and not a liberal, you're heartless. But if you're old and not a conservative, you're foolish." Do you agree?

One more question: where do you think Chris McCandless would be on the compass?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

We Are the Stories We Tell

A new piece I wrote for WBEZ concerns some of the main topics of our first semester -- Puritans, storytelling, character, and identity. (I even mention our class by name!). The essay is about two pages long:

It turns out the stiff-collared Puritans of Salem may have understood the current college essay process better than any of us could have imagined. I made this discovery earlier this fall when I taught a college essay workshop for nervous seniors one period and taught an American Studies class the next. That’s when it hit me: the college essay process is eerily similar to the Puritan conversion experience.

In order to enter the “community of the saved” Puritans believed in the power of the "Conversion Experience", a story told before a community of elders who are already saved. To join the saved community, young supplicants were asked to tell a story about an epiphany – a time when they were made aware of their prior ignorance or depravity and how they had subsequently come to see the light. Sound familiar?

Most college essays follow the same pattern. “I never really noticed homeless people until I spent a day at a soup kitchen with my scout troop.” Or: “I never defined myself as an athlete until I lost my starting spot on varsity. Now I know see that sportsmanship matters more than playing time.”

I don’t mean to sound cynical about my students’ essays, but they do follow a predictable pattern. It’s a story type Kurt Vonnegut called “Man in Hole.” And, according to Vonnegut, it goes like this: “Somebody gets in trouble, gets out of it again” and winds up better than they were before. This is not an accident, Vonnegut says, since “this is encouraging to readers.” This formula leads hopeful students to scramble for worthy conversion experiences of their own – deep enough holes they’ve climbed out of.

Last summer in a college essay workshop I was leading, Elizabeth lamented that other students had it easy. Jun-Young had worked with AIDS orphans in Ethipoia; Tyler had picked nits out of a homeless man’s hair in downtown Managua. Marnie’s mother died last year. Though Elizabeth’s complaint sounds absurd at first, it also raises profound questions.

Without experiencing such loss and destitution first hand, how can Elizabeth demonstrate her essential goodness, her worthiness to join the collegiate ranks, our community of the saved? Can the conventions of college essay writing allow Marnie to write about her devastating loss honestly without the pretense of being better and stronger for having lost her mother? Or should she choose a less significant topic in order to satisfy the narrative trajectory a college might want to see?

Essays are just one factor in college admission. Yet, while many teenagers spend weeks or even months fretting over their college essays, admissions officers tell me they spend an average of 3 minutes reading them. Some schools, such as the University of Iowa, have eliminated personal essays altogether since the manpower required to read the essays, even briskly, is staggering. The University of Wisconsin, for example, will receive around 25,000 applications this year. So, they quickly scan each piece to “measure writing competence and to glimpse the applicant’s character.” But is a storyline – especially one mediated by an army of writing tutors – a true glimpse of character?

Elizabeth, the girl who couldn’t find a suitably heroic topic ended up writing about a surprise win in a summer camp kick ball game – not a momentous topic, but the upset win satisfies the trajectory of triumph. Marnie, on the other hand, struggled with authenticity. She rejected an early draft in which she “became stronger” as a result of her mother’s death, but she also shied away from admitting she was still a wreck. Her essay now ends with Marnie’s hope that she can “find the strength [her] mother showed.”

Will these essays -- these glimpses into students’ character -- help their bid for admission? The students I’ve coached this year will need to wait a few more months to find out whether they, too, can join the community of the saved.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

U.S. Constitution Assessment

Please watch this video, used with kind permission from Stanford Law Professor, Lawrence Lessig. A link to a transcript of this portion of his talk should appear on the right. Note any vocabulary words you struggled to understand and please bring them to class.

We will be discussing and critiquing this provocative argument, along with an excerpt from Gore's book, The Assault on Reason as one way to better understand the US Constitution.

Do you agree with his thesis? In order to answer that question, you will need to bring your textbook to class, or at least bring an unabridged copy of the US Constitution with you every day this week. What parts of the Constitution seem most relevant to this inquiry?

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Each of the Perilous Presentations thus far has drawn parallels between the events of The Crucible and latter day witch hunts: critics of the government, Communists, Japanese-Americans, gays in the military, etc. (You might be interested to learn, by the way, that the phrase "witch hunt" was first used with political connotations by George Orwell -- author of 1984 and Animal Farm -- in the 1930's).

Today's New York Times features a horrifying front page article on actual witch hunts going on in Africa right now. Think about who is targeted/accused and how they are dealt with.


As you enjoy your days off due to Parent-Teacher Conferences and the Institute Day, pay special attention to these news stories that were the subject of previous postings by our entire AiS community, including parents.

Moment of Silence: "A federal court judge Wednesday found that a new state law ordering a moment of silence for prayer or reflection at the start of the school day was 'likely unconstitutional.'"

Morton West Expulsions: "Finally, reason has prevailed at Morton West High School. The students who protested against the Iraq war and military recruiters at their school will not face expulsion.

This week, they will finish serving suspensions ranging from five to 10 days for locking arms in their school cafeteria and singing "Give Peace a Chance" and "Kumbaya." They learned that civil disobedience sometimes requires sacrifice."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Textbook Tug-of-War

This week's On the Media features a report on an ambitious textbook analysis at Stanford University that asks some of the same questions we've asked in AIS. Project directors wonder why, for example, American textbooks offer extensive coverage of Pearl Harbor; whereas, Korean and Japanese textbooks offer a single sentence of coverage. Similarly, the Japanese textbooks ignore or grossly downplay atrocities they perpetrated on the Chinese.

The project hopes to offer "a comparative examination of high school history textbooks in China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States, focusing on the period from 1931-1951. This will be followed by a second comparative study of popular cinema dealing with historical subjects from roughly the same period."

Can a multi-national examination of history from multiple perspectives arrive at the truth? Can projects like this bring about reconciliation between nations? How long should nations wait before undertaking such projects? How long is too long?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Perilous Times/Can It Happen Here?

A recent anti-war protest at Morton West H.S. in Berwyn (a school I taught at for two years) has met with severe repercussions including suspensions and expulsions. I am pasting a report of the incident I found on-line beneath my words here. (A follow-up report appears in today's Tribune)

Ask yourself if you think the students' civil liberties were violated, and more locally, how you feel about the punishment. Here are some other questions I've been asking myself: What would happen at New Trier if a similar protest were held? To what extent is the war being discussed and debated here, and is this level of discussion and debate sufficient?

According to this morning's New Trier News, only six of some 1000 graduates from the NT class of 2007 joined the military after high school. At Morton the numbers are much greater. Some of the students I taught felt college was well beyond their means financially and many told me they felt they were "not college material" since no one in their family had ever gone to college. To what extent does social class determine not only who joins the military but also who discusses the war?

Now the article:

Morton West High School Expulsion
Over 30 anti-war protesters at Morton West High School in Berwyn face expulsion for a demonstration at the school on Thursday.
Scores of Students Face Expulsion Due to Sit-in Berwyn, IL

November 06, 2007

Over 70 students participated in a sit-in against the Iraq War on All Saint's Day, Thursday, November 1st. It began third hour when dozens of students gathered quietly in the lunchroom at Morton West High School and refused to leave. The administrators and police became involved immediately and locked down the school for a half hour after class ended. Students report that they were promised that there would be no charges besides cutting classes if they took their protest outside so as not to disturb the school day. The students complied, and were led to a corner outside the cafeteria where they sang songs and held signs while classes resumed.

Despite a police line set up between the protestors and the student body, many other students joined the demonstration. Organizers say they chose November first because it is the Christian holy day called the feast of All Saints and a national day of peace. They wrote a letter and delivered it to Superintendent, Dr. Ben Nowakowski who was present at the time, stating the reason for their protest.

Deans, counselors and even the Superintendent tried to change the minds of a few, mainly those students with higher GPA scores to abandon the protest. The school called the homes of many of the protestors. Those whose parents arrived before the end of school and took their students home, or left before the protest ended at the final bell, received 3-5 days suspension. All others, an estimated 37 received 10 days suspension and expulsion papers. Parents report that Nowakowski stated those who are seventeen will also face police charges.

Parents who are frantically trying to spare their child's expulsion flooded the school yesterday to file appeals on the matter. So far, Superintendent Nowakowski has held firm on the punishments. They are expected to find out the results of the appeals on Tuesday. Parents and students report and the school's videotape shown to some of the parents confirms that the students were non-violent in their action.

The protest came on the heels of a recent incident on October 15th, when a student reported hearing that another student had a gun on campus. The story of the eyewitness was deemed unreliable and the school was not locked down. Later that week (October 19), the Berwyn police, acting on a tip arrested one of the youths originally questioned for gun possession and he allegedly confessed to carrying an unloaded semi-automatic handgun that day. All these issues, plus the expected announcement of whether uniforms will be established in the school should make the next Board of Education meeting on Wednesday at 7:00pm at the Morton East campus very well-attended.

Click HERE for the Superintendent's statement on the matter.

Monday, November 05, 2007

AiS - "The Searchers"

Wednesday is a special day for American Studies. We are visiting the city of Chicago to see a stage version of The Crucible. (photo on left)

But first we will return to a theme discussed at the beginning of the semester: the Native American presence in American history. Through various works of public art (see slideshow on right), we will search for the "hidden" images of American Indians among the most travelled and viewed places in the city of Chicago. Use the map below to prepare for your search. Click "View Larger Map" in order to navigate this map more easily.

As you view these works of public art, think back to our analysis of the National Archives photos during the first week of school. Do you remember what types of questions you asked of these photos? Based on what you've learned about perspective and viewpoint, will you ask the same types of questions?

View Larger Map

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Why Does a Salad Cost More than a Big Mac?

Here's a related issue to Doc OC's Omnivore's Dilemma post. It has to do with the so-called "Farm Bill" making its way through Congress. This issue was recently explored by a public interest group called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

What types of foods does the US government subsidize?
Meaning, what kinds of farmers or agricultural corporations receive financial aid from the government? The answer actually lies in a question: "Why Does a Salad Cost More than a Big Mac?"
Relatively recently, my family and I have been trying very hard to eat healthier. For years, it was just cheaper to eat fatty, calorie-laden foods, and it showed in its effects on our health and weight. I was 50 pounds overweight, and when I decided to change my poor eating habits, I could hardly believe how much money we had to spend at the grocery store in order to eat well (fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean meats). And I'm not talking about shopping at Whole Paycheck, um...Foods, either!

Want proof? The next time you go to the grocery store, check the price of 99% extra lean ground turkey, and compare it to an equivalent amount of regular (fatty) ground beef. What other odd pricing structures have you noticed?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Connotation: A Not So Terrible War

This week's Onion (a satirical newspaper) features a hilarious parody of "damage control" — euphemistic speech designed to sell people on the war. It reminded me of our earlier conversations about connotation, and it relates to our discussion of civil liberties in perilous times since reports about the hideous violence of the war are seen as "unpatriotic" by some people.

Click on the title of this post for the link to the Onion article or just click HERE.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Stuff of Thought

Steven Pinker's book, The Stuff of Thought, focuses on a major thread we've been following in class this year: namely, the connection between our choice of words and the thoughts behind them. He opens with an on-going law suit concerning the World Trade Towers. The suit concerns the definition of a single word -- "event." If the fall of the two towers is seen as one event (one plan master-minded by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda) then the lease holder of the WTC is entitled to 3.5 billion dollars. However, if the fall of the towers is seen as two separate events, then the leaseholder will receive 7 billion dollars. See how important language is?

Here's a second example he cites. In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush used the following sentence to help justify the American invasion of Iraq that began later that year: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Shortly after the invasion it became clear that Hussein had no nuclear capabilities, nor did he ever explore the possibility of buying yellowcake [uranium] from Niger.

Many headlines screamed, "Bush lied." But did he? Pinker wants us to pay close attention to the language which, in his mind, rests on the word "learned."

Can you find an example of a headline or a news or sports story where a single word determines the way in which the event is understood?


Dear AiS Parents,

Mr. O'Connor and I are pleased to have you contribute to the online portion of our course. We realize how busy your lives are so we are very appreciative of the time you take to add to our ever-evolving discussion.

Please feel free to comment on any of our previous postings, taking care to identify yourself by either your last name or your child's name. Eg., "Mr. Jones" or "this is Gabriel's Mom".

If you have any questions before or after posting, please email one or both of us at the New Trier Home Page. Click on -Quick Links- then, "Staff Directory". If you have any technological issues, however, ask your kid! ;)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Moments of Silence

Illinois legislators have passed a new bill requiring public school teachers to hold a period of silence at the start of each day. Opponents call the law a thinly veiled attempt at requiring prayer in school. Proponents insist that silence is necessary to calm students as they begin a hectic day of study. What do you think of the law? Read this linked article critically.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Whitewashing the Present Day Away

In December, 2004, the Justice Department stated: "Torture is abhorrent both to American law and values and to international norms." However, according to the New York Times, that same department, in 2005, secretly:
provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.
The White House did not deny the allegations; instead, spokesperson Dana Perino stated, no less than four times: "we do not torture". And believe me, when Dana Perino says it, I count each time!

Dana, are you sure about the White House's policy? Because here are some basic descriptions of these and other techniques utilized by the CIA:
1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.

2. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.

3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.

4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.

5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.

6. Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.
The sad part about this is how little TV news time is devoted to covering these issues. Listening to National Public Radio's "On the Media", I was surprised to hear that the three major news networks virtually ignored these stories. ABC never mentioned it all, CBS decided to report on how expensive airline tickets would be this holiday season, and NBC opened with another piece regarding the toe-tapping Senator in the bathroom! Then they (and only they) covered the 'torture' memo. Listen here:

While our class has talked about the whitewashing of the past, what do we know about whitewashing the present? Can you think of any other stories that seem to get less attention than they deserve?

Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Great American

I just saw a great movie: Pete Seeger: The Power of Song. Pete Seeger probably means more to me than any other living singer. My wife -- then my college girlfriend -- and I went on our first date to a Pete Seeger concert. But Pete's not just a folk music hero to me; he's worshipped by many important singers who've followed him -- Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Steve Earle just to name a few. (Earle's terrific new album, Washington Square Seranade, has a song called "Steve's Hammer for Pete").

Seeger is a man of tremendous principle. He married a Japanese woman in the 1940's when our country was throwing many Japanese-Americans in prison camps. He fought for civil rights, singing with Paul Robeson when it nearly cost him his life. He inspired many famous civil rights leaders, including Julian Bond, who credits Seeger for opposing Jim Crow laws before the Movement really got underway. Pete even wrote some of the lyrics to We Shall Overcome. He fought for unions and common working men (and women since he also advocated equality among the sexes). He traveled the world and recorded world music like no one had ever done before.

For all this he was branded a Communist and banned from appearing on TV for 17 years at the height of his popularity. When the ban was finally lifted he shocked everyone by singing an anti-Vietnam War song called "The Big Muddy." Since then he sang to end apartheid in South Africa and almost single handedly cleaned up the Hudson River. He's 88 now and he gets my vote for "greatest living American." Who are your heroes?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Jena 6

An op-ed in yesterday's New York Times made my head spin. It's called "Justice in Jena" and was written by a small town lawyer named Reed Walters who is the local district attorney in the case. Briefly, he says, "I cannot overemphasize how abhorrent and stupid I find the placing of the nooses on the schoolyard was mean-spirited and deserves condemnation. But it broke no law." My first response was, "Well then we need new laws." The nooses seem like a tacit death threat to me -- especially in the south. (Hate crime legislation, he says, does not exist in Louisiana law).

But what surprised me most was Walters' main point: "The victim in this crime...has been all but forgotten." He's referring to Justin Barker -- the white boy who was attacked by the Jena 6 -- even though he "was not involved in the nooses incident." This shocked me since every tv report I saw clearly suggested he was involved and at least one suggested he was the inventor of the noose idea. Further Walters says the boy was "knocked unconscious and kicked" -- a more severe beating than other media suggested. (The tv reports I heard said he was treated for minor cuts and bruises and was not hospitalized).

Is Walters whitewashing the events? He does have access to more evidence than reporters in the case? Are the media using the story for their own agendas -- ratings, publicity? What of the protesters?

Walters ends his piece by saying, "In the final analysis I am bound to enforce the laws of Louisiana as they exist today, not as they might exist in someone's vision of a perfect world." I know this is his legal obligation, but it struck me as sad somehow. Is there any place for idealism, or is the judicial process all about compromise?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


I'm reading a novel now called Under the Glacier -- a funny book written by Iceland's greatest writer, Halldor Laxness. (No, that's not the funny part). An old woman in the novel, who lives in a VERY small town, says, "I myself have never seen anything one could call seeing. And nothing has ever happened to me" (25). She spends all her time in the kitchen making layer cakes. It's funny -- and sad at the same time -- to think that a person can live a life without experiencing anything.

Yet this kind of response is similar to what some students said when we started the Personal History assignment: "I haven't done anything" or "Nothing big has ever happened." Is it that some people think of history as an ancient subject, not a present tense activity we are creating right now? Our lives are surely part of our collective history even if they don't become a part of other people's histories. Or is it then that we are just not doing what anyone would call seeing? Writing about our lives truthfully and specifically may be our only way of learning to see and learning to see others.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Supermarket Stories

I've been reading a book called "The Omnivore's Dilemma," by Michael Pollan. It's an amazing book about what we eat and where it comes from. Turns out almost everything we eat comes from corn -- and our diets are getting cornier all the time. When I saw a commercial for Kraft Cheese during a football game, I was sort of outraged by the image of cows eating grass behind the actors. That is how cattle should eat -- but it is not how Kraft cows (and most other cows eat). Instead cows are force-fed corn to fatten them up quickly, even though it causes them to get sick and requires that they be given massive antibiotic shots. I'm no vegetarian, but I was struck by the "natural story" that Kraft advances when they clearly practice factory farming. One other quick point from the book: the words "free range" (which we use to describe chicken and cattle) were hotly debated over the last decade. The watered-down compromise definition now reads "Animals have to have access to the outdoors during some part of their lives" in order to be considered free range. Not the story most of us conjure up when we buy these products at the Whole Foods.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Questions About 9/11

Yesterday was the 6th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Since the members of our class were relatively young at the time of the event, we spent some time writing questions related to the event and its immediate and long-term impact.

At first it might seem like a waste of time just to ask questions, but I am reminded of this quote by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner from Teaching as a Subversive Activity:

Once you have learned how to ask questions —- relevant and appropriate and substantial questions —- you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.

Here are just a few of the questions some of our class members posed:
  • Why exactly did it happen?
  • How is it that people can go about their days so easily like nothing happened...?
  • How would our country respond if it happened again?
  • Were there any events that occurred not too long before 9/11 that were related?

Friday, September 07, 2007

School as Business?

The new head of schools in New York City is an economist, not an educator named Roland Fryer, a founder of the American Inequality Lab. His bold new plan is to pay students -- in some low income, low performing schools -- for attending school, earning perfect scores on tests, and for taking the PSAT exams. I think this is a terrible idea and wrote an essay for NPR on the topic (I'm an occasional contributor to the show 848). The essay aired on 9/5/07. Here's a LINK if you'd care to listen.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

What's going on here?

On the continuing topic of "Secret Messages", I offer the following two photos which appeared side-by-side in the Monday, September 3rd issue of the Chicago Sun-Times. The image on the left features Dana Perino, the new White House press secretary, and on the right appears President Bush, both from their "surprise" visit to Iraq.

To add a little bit of context: remember that next week, General David Petraeus, the US Military Commander in Iraq, will be delivering a report to Congress detailing whether or not the 30,000 troop "surge" has had a positive effect on reducing the violence in that country.

What's the obvious message of these photos? What's the secret message? 

Your interpretation may depend on your political views or whether or not you supported the war from the beginning.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Another Labor Day?

Although for most of us, it's just another day off or an extended weekend, Labor Day is an excellent time to reflect on those men and women (and children!) who came before us, helped build this country, and whose lives continue to reverberate in this new century.

The people at The National Archives have designed some wonderful virtual exhibitions that pay tribute to American laborers and many others. From their website:
Imagine working in a coal mine.
Or in a steel mill.
Or at a telephone switchboard.

Work and workplaces have gone through enormous transformations between the mid 19th and late 20th centuries. You can view these changes through photographs held by the National Archives and Records Administration.

My own contribution was to download a video from their site, and make it into something new and more compelling. Although the video was completely silent, I changed the work by simply adding a soundtrack. This video now features a soundtrack by Thievery Corporation, who remixed a song from the Doors, a band popular many years ago. See the parallels?

Hopefully you'll understand this "secret" message: don't be afraid to respond to media that usually is intended to be one-way. The internet and computer technology has made it possible for anyone to become a creator and to "talk back" to media. Work such as this can be very fulfilling and meaningful. Hopefully, this small "labor of love" will encourage you to think about today as more than just "Another Labor Day".

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Secret Messages

Oftentimes, the things we see and hear convey two messages simultaneously. A critical thinker is in tune with this.

For example, if I were a person who drives a HUMMER, the obvious message is that "I drive a large SUV."

However, what is the secret message I am trying to communicate? It might be something like, "I enjoy feeling superior to others" or "I believe that driving is an act of war".

As we observe the world around us, it benefits us to observe critically, as opposed to simply accepting what we see at face value. What additional lessons can we learn from reading our history textbook or a novel like Reservation Blues?