Monday, August 29, 2011

Some New Yorkers React Predictably to Hurricane Irene Response

Article first published as Some New Yorkers React Predictably to Hurricane Irene Response on Blogcritics.

New Yorkers were in a real funk over this past weekend, mostly because Mayor Michael Bloomberg had the nerve to react proactively to the arrival of Hurricane Irene. I have lived in New York all my life, and I never remember the mass transit system being completely shut down. Yes, blizzards have a way of doing that after the fact, but this is the first time I can recall subways, buses, and commuter railways being shut down prior to an event. New Yorkers were predictably lost especially without their lifeline beneath the ground, and everything closed including Broadway shows, fancy restaurants, and sporting events.

Once Irene passed over us inflicting much less damage than expected, the armchair quarterbacks were quick to complain about Bloomberg's "over reaction" to the hurricane. I guess if people didn't wake up and see the torch from the Statue of Liberty sticking out of a skyscraper and the Brooklyn Bridge broken into chunks floating in the water, they felt they were robbed of a Saturday night in the city unnecessarily.

Well, I applaud Bloomberg and Governor Andrew Cuomo's handling of the event. Let it suffice to say that they learned from President George W. Bush's debacle with Hurricane Katrina, and yes that was a much more powerful Category 5 storm, but the same fears of flooding and devastation came with Irene too. Bloomberg and Cuomo really took the steps that were necessary, and the evacuations of low lying areas, the cancellations of transit service, and the closing of bridges and tunnels created a virtual lock down of the city that no doubt saved many lives.

I guess it should be expected that people would complain about this, but the bottom line is that the eight million plus residents of the Big Apple survived relatively unscathed. Yes, about 900,000 people lost power in the five boroughs, in Westchester, and Long Island, but only one person lost his life (a City Islander who fell into the water as he was trying to secure his boat), and credit has to be given to the mayor and governor and all those cops, firefighters, and transit workers who made the operation a success.

So, thank you, Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Cuomo. New York survived and your leadership made certain most of the populace survived as well. To quote GWB, "you did a heckuva job" but in this case the praise is well deserved.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hurricane Irene Is A Spoiled Sport

Article first published as Hurricane Irene Is A Spoiled Sport on Blogcritics.

Well, if you spent your hard earned money to visit New York City this week, you probably are grumbling right about now. It's not bad enough that you had to experience our earthquake, but now we are throwing a hurricane your way. What's a tourist to do but stay in the hotel room and watch CNN, at least until the power goes out?

This weekend is especially bad news for local sports fans. The New York Mets have cancelled today and tomorrow's games against the Atlanta Braves at Citi Field, so if you came into town for this and have to be back at work on Monday, you are out of luck.

The Yankees did not escape Irene's wrath even though they are out of town. Their doubleheader against Baltimore is postponed today, and the games will definitely not be rescheduled in any way that is good for the Yankees since they will lose one of their two remaining days off to make them up.

Irene also postponed the New York Giants and Jets showdown at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. This game was perfectly scheduled for 7 PM tonight, but now it will be played on Monday night. Too many viewing parties were disrupted because of this, and if the power goes out, all those six-foot heroes and other party snacks are not going to last until Monday. Many dejected hosts and hostesses will no doubt have their knives and forks working overtime this weekend to take care of that.

Irene has also disrupted the action at the Barclays at the Plainfield Country Club in Edison, New Jersey. It seems like Sunday's final round will be washed out, and conditions are not likely to improve enough to do anything on Monday.

Other sports events that have been canceled or postponed include the Red Bulls game against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday, The Staten Island Yankees Sunday home game, the Brooklyn Cyclones Sunday home game, and racing at Monmouth Park and Yonkers Raceway.

Finally, and probably the saddest thing to report is from the US Open, where Arthur Ashe's Kids' Day had to be cancelled. This includes all activities and the stadium show. This is a great day that promotes the sport and also gives children opportunities to meet the players and see some of their favorite musical artists perform.

Hurricane Irene is turning millions of people's lives upside down this weekend, and she has obliterated the sports schedule. Oh, and don't think you're going to be able to sit down and watch games being played out of Irene's reach, because in all likelihood Irene is going to knock down trees and cut out power.

I have already planned to do what good old Abe Lincoln used to do: read some good books by candlelight. Hey, I wanted to catch up on my reading anyway.

Photo Credits-
Harrison Frazar - AP
Arthur Ashe Kids' Day - Getty Images

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hope Springs Eternal for Old Brooklyn Dodgers Fans

Article first published as Hope Springs Eternal for Old Brooklyn Dodgers Fans on Blogcritics.

For old Brooklyn Dodgers fans, 1957 is not long ago and far away; it is like yesterday. That is when their team packed up and went to Los Angeles. To them these last fifty-four years have been sort of a long hiatus. Some became NY Mets fans in 1962, and others chose to pull up stakes and follow their Dodgers to California, but there still are those who cling to the mystique of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who believe that a new field could spring up somewhere in the borough and that their Dodgers will be coming home.

Admittedly, they will tell you it is a long shot, but they still keep dreaming of that day. Recently, with the financial troubles of Dodger owner Frank McCourt in the news, these fans have something to stoke the flames of their kindled dream. They hear rumors of Major League Baseball taking over the Dodgers, and some will come out and tell you that is the beginning of the Dodgers coming home to Brooklyn.

While I don't take much stock in these fantasies, I have learned that these Dodgers fans are sometimes so earnest and determined that perhaps anything is possible. They talk about the Dodgers building a new field on the spot where Ebbets Field used to be. The existing housing on the site is not seen as an impediment; they are certain eminent domain can be used to get that new stadium built.

Others think the Dodgers could share Citi Field with the Mets. "Why not?" they ask. The New York Mets and The New York Yankees once shared Shea Stadium for two seasons while the old Yankee Stadium was being rebuilt, so anything is possible. They see the fact that Citi Field was built to resemble Ebbets Field as an omen, yet another reason why the Dodgers will be coming home.

Even if MLB does take over the Dodgers, I doubt that Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig would ever condone having three teams in one town. A long time ago New York had three teams, but these days I don't imagine that would work for most people. New Yorkers might be pleased, but there are many other towns looking for a MLB franchise.

It does break my heart to listen to these old Dodgers fans talking. In between hearing them mention names like Branca, Hodges, Reese, and Robinson, they will discuss the "what ifs" they have been discussing since 1957. They know what happened but still can't believe it. As a Mets fan, I kind of understand their hopes and dreams and know what it is like to be kicked in the teeth again and again by the team you love.

So for the record, Brooklyn Dodgers fans, your team is not coming home. It is staying in LA for now and I am sure for many years to come. Hold on to the dream if it makes you happy. I still keep thinking about the Mets being in contention this year, so I know all about impossible causes.

If it makes you feel any better, there is the one thing we Mets fans and Brooklyn Dodgers fans have in common: the hope of next year. Mets fans can dream of an injury free season and a chance for the play-offs; Brooklyn Dodgers fans can keep hoping for that miracle of a return engagement. It probably will never happen, but back in 1955 after Brooklyn beat the Yankees in the World Series, did anyone ever think their team was moving to LA?

Keep dreaming, old Dodgers fans, and hang in there!

Photo Credits:
Ebbetts Field -
Citi Field - NY Daily News

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What About Art for Art's Sake? NYC Board of Education Plans to Test the Arts

Article first published as What About Art for Art's Sake? NYC Board of Education Plans to Test the Arts on Blogcritics.

As a parent and as an educator, I am annoyed by the assessments that are thrown at public school students here in New York. The students are tested across the board every year in math and English (and science in fourth and eighth grades). They also must endure standardized testing during the course of the year, and in some cases still also have to take midterms and final exams.

Now the NYC Board of Education has made it known that, starting this October, some eighty public schools in New York City will begin testing fifth and eighth graders in the arts (dance, music, theater, and visual arts).
The French term l’art pour l’art comes to mind here.  This term, coined by French art critic Théophile Gautier, was meant to free art from any purpose that was not about the art itself. In other words, the art is not for pleasing the public or earning awards or for any reason than the art itself: art for art's sake.

That makes sense to me. As a writer I more or less feel the freedom to write whatever I please on topics that interest me. The same should hold true for artists in all areas. More importantly, students should experience fine arts in the same spirit. I wouldn't want my child to think that every picture drawn, every song sung, every composition played on the piano, or every play that she participates in will be subject to an assessment. It is not only bizarre but it is also counter-productive to the nature of the arts in the first place.

As an educator I have seen how students who may be struggling academically can flourish in the arts. Much of this has to do with nascent talent, and the right teachers then come along and help these kids bloom. So yes, talent has a lot to do with it, but it is not about finding the next Mozart or Picasso here. Even the kids who just draw stick figures or sing off key experience a release, a feeling of freedom, that only the arts can offer. Now, if we start categorizing and assessing these things as if they were just like work done in any other class, then it may as well be just that. I fear the arts will no longer offer students the unbridled sense of freedom of expression that they have enjoyed in these classes. Sadly, teaching to the test will no doubt rear its ugly head and that is truly a pity.

By 2014 the BOE plans to assess all students in all schools to determine whether they are receiving a quality education in the arts. I understand that they believe this to be a way to improve instruction, but this is also a thinly veiled attempt to work toward a place and time when they will be able to remove teachers whose students perform poorly on the arts assessments  (as they want to do with teachers in academic areas). Besides this reality, the simple fact is that teachers and students do not need yet another set of assessments to worry about.

The problems with assessments already in place are clear: they are time consuming, they require training for teachers (which means they are pulled from classrooms for it), and they also need to be graded (once again pulling teachers from classrooms). The loss of valuable instruction time is obvious, and the more insidious aspect is making children feel that every facet of their scholastic experience is now under scrutiny.

With this plan in place, a dance or theater or art class will be assessed. Will this include the painting a child draws or the sculpture made from clay? Or will it be even more invasive, asking a child to decide whether he or she can understand a work of art? One student can look at Van Gogh's Starry Night and see something different than the next, as it should be. But now we are moving into a very gray area, with it quite possibly being that the assessments will qualify the arts and force students to all see the same thing.

Art and music history can be taught, of course, but what are we going to start expecting them to be tested on: Impressionists and great composers? Are we going to take art and music appreciation to a level that will actually lessen that appreciation. Truthfully, I have seen students turned off to literature because of being over tested on it, so the danger is real and worrisome.

One thing I have learned over my years as an educator is that you can't fight City Hall, so in essence this is no doubt a done deal now. I fear the impact it will have on instruction in theater, dance, music, and art. More importantly, it could be a case of losing something that has always been an outlet for those less than academically gifted students who shine in the arts. If this happens, it will be just another case of ignorance on the part of those who think they know better or want to improve something at the cost of ruining or
destroying it. What a sad day that will be for New York City public schools and the children they serve.

Photo Credits:
Starry Night-

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Tiger Tanks at the PGA

Article first published as Tiger Tanks at the PGA on Blogcritics.

You could ask who was afraid of Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club? The answer is only the fish in the ponds, as Woods was looking as lost as those balls he was driving into the drink.

Woods was seven-over par during the first round on Thursday, and he shot three-over-par on Friday; the once dominating Woods finished ten-over and missed the cut by six strokes. This is not what he must have expected as he came in to try to regain his standing in the golf world after a tough year of physical and emotional disappointments.
With Woods out at the PGA, it is a fair question to ask what is actually wrong with him? Is it that at thirty-five that his body is just not bouncing back from the injuries as he would have hoped? Or is it something more insidious, like something akin to writer's block for a once prolific author?

Obviously, there are some people who may be enjoying this situation a little too much, but what can we expect after what has happened to Tiger Woods these last two years? With the scandal that cost him his marriage behind him now, and with long-time caddie Steve Williams out of the picture, Woods may have thought he was embarking on a fresh new voyage into success, but he is looking more like a lost kid in a department store out there now.

I am not sure if I feel sorry for Woods, or I just think that his fall from grace and poor performance are lamentable because of the greatness he once displayed. Most fans of any sport enjoy seeing a master at work, and an inevitable part of every game is that eventually even the best grow older and their powers fade.

There is no question that there is time for Tiger to get back on track, if not this year then maybe in 2012; still the PGA is less thrilling without him at the top of his game. It is sad to see Tiger gone so soon, but perhaps he can use this extra time he now has to get himself straightened out for his own sake and, more importantly, for golf's sake. He owes it to the fans and most of all to the game that he loves.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Nation Still at Risk: Real Education Reform Needed Now

This article first appeared in The Apple on July 18, 2011.

In 1983 the landmark publication of the report A Nation at Risk seemed to shake our nation from its slumber regarding the scary truth about education in America. It detailed how there were serious problems in schools in this country and recommended fixes for what ailed schools. Unfortunately, twenty-eight years later there are still many things that are wrong in education, despite George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind program and President Barack Obama's drive to improve our nation's schools.

Recently Mr. Obama said, "In the 21st century, it's not enough to leave no child behind. We need to help every child get ahead. We need to get every child on a path to academic excellence." Of course, that is a terrific sound bite, but we have to wonder if it has teeth. We have to see real proactive measures taking place here and now, not in some nebulous and undefined future place.

The problem now is that there are too many schools seen as "failing" schools. This number continues to rise. Here in New York City, there have been schools closed because of failing grades. New ones (especially Mayor Michael Bloomberg's darling charter schools) have risen to take their place, but students are still struggling. Statistics are not conclusive about the effects of smaller schools (like charters), but the reality is that more schools than ever before are seen as failing here in New York (and across the country). As the state looks to make evaluation of teachers more stringent, and with the new Common Core Standards looming, it is likely that more than ever before we will be faced with schools that are seen as lacking or failing.

What is actually wrong with our schools? An easy out is for one to look to the classrooms and blame teachers. For me, this is what is wrong with what has been happening for years. Instead of addressing many other larger and more important concerns, the easy fix has always been to target the teacher and look for ways to replace him or her. Things like "merit pay" or tying teacher evaluations to standardized test scores only exacerbate this problem.

"Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world." Sound familiar? These are the opening words of the 1983 report. It is worth noting that this was a time before the Internet connected world of today; the time of the Soviet Union and other supposedly nefarious countries and people wanting to destroy us. This was pre-September 11th and all the concerns of terrorism that haunt us now. If I didn't know those words were written in 1983, I'd wager they were composed yesterday about our current state of education and place in the world.

And things are not getting better. A Nation at Risk cited some very mind-numbing statistics, including 23 million functionally illiterate adults, 13 percent functionally illiterate 17 year olds, 17 year olds lacking "higher order" thinking skills, and American students many times placing last amongst the nations of the world in achievement (based on data from other industrialized nations). Today about 45 million adults are functionally illiterate, so despite an increase in the nation's overall population, it is apparent that the warnings of this Reagan-era report were not in any ways tangibly effective, nor has No Child Left Behind and the current efforts of President Obama's administration.

Why is this happening? If standards are increasingly more stringent, shouldn't we have an upturn in achievement? Where is the smoking gun in the death of what once was the finest education system in the world? The answer is that American education has been undone by endless bureaucratic minutiae, the drive for testing without a concern for other meaningful instruction, and a feeling like the baby has already been thrown out with the bath water, so why not just give up on the baby?

The most terrifying thing about No Child Left Behind wasn't that it didn't work very well, but rather that it worked at all. While it seems Bush's mandate on the surface should have been a good thing (who can argue with an "all children can learn" philosophy?), the problem is that while all children should learn, many of them learn differently. The core problem is that differentiated instruction is not at the heart of many of these initiatives, and the only way that all kids are going to learn is via it.

The reality is that now students are not reading, writing, listening, or speaking any more than they did in school back in 1983; in fact, with the Internet, video games, i-Pods, cell phones, and a host of other electronic distractions, they are probably doing much less of this. Reading a story? Reading a poem? Reading a complete book? The harsh reality - and I have asked students about this - is that many students have not read a book from cover to cover by the time they are in eighth grade. This slap in the face may be news to some of you, but couple that with less time for homework due to more time needed for texting and video horseplay, and you can get an idea of how high the deck is stacked against us.

Some teachers are definitely the problem too. Many are not comfortable with reading long selections (let alone writing long responses). I have spoken to English teachers who have never taught writing because they are intimidated (or too afraid to mark the papers because they themselves are not sure about grammar). That is indicative of the greater problem: teacher preparation is not what it should be in this country, and because of that prospective teachers, students, and current teachers continue to suffer.

Since we are still indeed a nation at risk in terms of education, what can we do to turn things around? There are no easy answers, but someone has to be honest here. It is one thing to say a child is going to learn; it is another thing to get him or her to do it. Overwhelming teachers with standardized tests that are unrealistic, poorly constructed, and yield terrible results is one of the biggest issues. Making teachers drop their normal curriculum to teach to the test is another. Of course, in a world ruled by the test makers, the exception is becoming the rule: teaching to the test has become a normal part of the day in many classrooms.

Teachers want to keep their jobs, so they understand the game, but there is much more at stake than districts being able to gush about their high test scores. High test scores are nothing more than window dressing. You can very likely dig under them and find nothing of substance beneath. This is because in teaching to the test teachers are training students to take that instrument and succeed. This has nothing to do with higher order thinking, with true understanding of concepts, or a lifelong affinity for the learning process. When a teacher is done grinding the students into standardized test robots for one year, they are not going to retain much of anything for next year, which means the rote process of teaching to the specific test has to start all over again. In that type of scenario, when does the real teaching ever get accomplished?

If so many adults are functionally illiterate, there must be a way to stop things and say, "This is criminal and this system is corrupt." Of course, I am not expecting that to happen today or tomorrow, or maybe even when all the agreements with standardized testing companies expire for these districts. But someone has got to stop the express train to disaster that we are all riding on right now. We will never stop being a nation at risk until people like the president and many others shake the education system to its core.

The best thing we can do is try to find time to teach instead of trying to find time to test. We need to stop beating teachers into becoming slaves to the test scores, and we need students to be opened up to a wide range of possibilities beyond assessments. As a teacher I always loved teaching the subject; I never enjoyed sitting there and watching students take tests. We need to move away from that testing obsession and move toward multiple types of assessment that extend over weeks, months, or even whole semesters. We need to get back to grammar, punctuation, and spelling. We need to teach phonics and math and art and music and science, and then after all that the kids need to get on their gym clothes and run and play and compete on the field.

I have so much hope for American education because I know at the heart of this whole thing are the good teachers, the ones who want to make a difference. That's why any of us went into teaching in the first place. It was because we cared and we thought that the way to help the bigger picture was to smart small, in the classroom, one child at a time. In fact, that should be the name of Mr. Obama's new education initiative: One Child at a Time. In that way no one is left behind, everyone will be taught based on individual needs, differentiated instruction will be dynamic and meaningful, and we can move away from worrying about test scores.

Maybe we can one day say, "We are no longer a nation a nation at risk," but until that time we must do something meaningful about education and it has to be done now, not tomorrow or next month or next year. Now is the time, and the proverbial clock is ticking.