What Wisconsin Kids Do Not Know About History, Civics, Geography

There are a number of themes that run over and over on this blog.  I push for equal rights, gun control, and in various ways a better informed electorate.  One of the first steps to be taken with the last item is to demand higher educational standards in our schools when it comes to history and civics.

Like many of my readers I was not pleased to read the news report this week about the lack of knowledge too many of our students have when it comes to some basic subjects.  For decades I have been speaking out for higher standards and better ways to educate our nation about history and civics.

The latest study released on this matter is nothing to be proud of when it comes to our schools.  While the numbers in the study reflect a nationwide result  there is no reason for Wisconsin residents to think we fare any better when it comes to not knowing things we should.

Only about a quarter of eighth graders showed solid performance or better in U.S. history, civics and geography on tests known as the Nation’s Report Card.

Among the findings: Less than half — 45 percent — of eighth-grade respondents were able to correctly interpret time differences using an atlas with time zones. Only about a third knew that “the government of the United States should be a democracy” is a political belief shared by most people in the U.S.

Only 18 percent of students demonstrated solid performance or better in U.S. history. The results for geography and civics were slightly better, 27 percent and 23 percent, respectively.

A large share of the eighth graders who took the test scored at the “basic” level, meaning just partial mastery of the subjects. Only 1 percent of test takers in U.S. history, 3 percent in geography and 2 percent in civics scored in the advanced level.

White and Asian students performed better than their Hispanic and black peers. Although the scores overall were similar to 2010, Hispanic students made gains in U.S. history and geography and white students made gains in U.S. history and civics. The scores of black and Asian students didn’t budge in the three categories.

About two-thirds of the eighth graders were able to use a map to locate a country on the Horn of Africa, but only a quarter successfully completed a two-part question that involved explaining how the participation of African-Americans in the Civil War affected the war’s outcome.

So what needs to happen to make our students more proficient in history and civics?

Having thought at one time about becoming a history teacher means that I also have given some thought on how students could be better informed and excited about the past.  The first requirement is a good series of texts from which to work.  While I much agree that a good solid textbook with the dates, places, and themes is essential, the class will soon tire if not given other exciting and relevant reading sources.  Using modern-day historians and recent research found in such captivating reads as Ron Chernow’s  Alexander Hamilton or Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency or The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin are just a few examples  that would allow gripping narratives to add flavor and dimension to the topics at hand.  A chapter here and there from books of this type would serve many purposes.  (I understand there are requirements about how much of a book can be copied and used in a classroom setting but all these issues can be dealt with.)

Second, I would use people in my community to tell the story of their lives.  For instance, we still have very energetic and verbal men who fought in World War II who could enliven a discussion on how people felt about the war, being sent over-seas, and about the role they served for their generation.  My partner, James, and I discuss the people from our neighborhoods while growing up who could have served a role like this in our classrooms.  He has often mentioned a woman who decades ago attended “huskings’ in Maine.  Connecting with the past in these ways provides for a lively discussion and also makes clear that history is not just about old deceased men and women.  History in many ways is very much alive.

Third, I would use texts from the past to show how our country has grown and evolved.  For instance, in 1930 Professor Thomas Marshall wrote in American History that slaves were usually happy.  It is simply a most stunning statement to make, and yet he even amplified on the idea. He wrote that slaves were fond of the company they kept, liked to sing, dance, and admired bright colors.  He wrote they were loyal to a kind master, never in a hurry, and always ready to put things off until “morrow”.    We would find this type of thinking unacceptable, but what happened in the nation to move us away from such ideas that once were more common to hear and read?  Confronting why the usage of the ‘N’ word in Tom Sawyer was once common practice  may raise ire among some but this type of honest approach to talking about history is not only more engaging but also will produce better results among students who need to understand that past.

Fourth, the computer has made history colorful and accessible.  Goggle Earth is but one great site where history and its ever-present companion, geography, are connected and overlapped for students of all ages.  Teachers in most classrooms now have computers for students to learn from and should take advantage of every such opportunity.  The way kids learn is changing and teaching must adapt to how the process plays out for our youth.

There is no reason to have a country that can not locate places on a map, name the three branches of government, or talk at least in broad terms about how a bill becomes a law.  We must do better at every level when teaching history and civics.

Elvis Presley’s Planes To Stay At Graceland


I had expressed concern about the matter of Elvis Presley’s planes earlier this year and am now delighted to report some great results that will allow these memories of ‘The King’ to remain at Graceland for fans worldwide to enjoy.

It looks like Elvis Presley’s airplanes are staying at Graceland after all.

Graceland released a statement Sunday saying the Lisa Marie and the Hound Dog II, two custom-designed airplanes once owned by Presley, will remain permanently at the Memphis tourist attraction centered on the life and career of the late singer.

The announcement ends confusion about the future of the planes, once used by the King for travel to performances after he bought them in the 1970s.

The larger plane, a Convair 880 named after Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie, is like a customized flying limousine, complete with a large bed, a stereo system, conference room and gold-plated bathroom fixtures. It was renovated after Presley bought it from Delta Air Lines. Presley took his first flight on it in November 1975.

When Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977, Presley’s pilot flew the Lisa Marie to California to pick up Presley’s ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, to bring her back to Memphis.

The smaller jet, a JetStar named the Hound Dog II, was also used by Presley.

Saudi Arabia Succession Shakeup

This is most interesting, and has caught my full attention.    There are two separate articles posted below.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia issued a series of surprise royal decrees early Wednesday, shaking up the line of princes slated to succeed him to the throne, replacing a number of ministers and further enhancing the power of his own line.

In moves announced on Saudi state television, Salman replaced Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz and named the powerful interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as next in line.

He also named his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as deputy crown prince and relieved the long-serving foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, who has shaped the kingdom’s foreign policy for nearly four decades.

Of all the changes, the reordering of the line to the throne is likely to draw the most scrutiny inside the kingdom because of competition between branches of the sprawling royal family for positions leading to the throne.

The removed regent, Prince Muqrin, was close to King Abdullah and named by him as deputy crown prince, a position that had not previously existed.

So far, all of Saudi Arabia’s kings have been sons of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is the first grandson to be in line for the throne. He is widely respected in the royal family for cracking down on Al Qaeda in the kingdom and has played an active role in foreign policy.

Prince Saud’s departure from the Foreign Ministry is a watershed because he has been in the position for so long.

The reasons for this series of moves will allow for more corporate expertise to guide the kingdom.

The promotion of the king’s son, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, 35, to the position of deputy crown prince – or second-in-line to the throne – looks in part like a reward for his recent work as defence minister overseeing the Saudi-led coalition’s controversial military campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Both Mohammed and Bin Nayef, the king’s nephew, are grandsons of the kingdom’s founder monarch, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud.

The replacement of the veteran foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, 75, by a younger non-royal, Adel al-Jubeir, who is currently the Saudi ambassador to the US and a long-time Washington insider, strengthens the sense of generational change. By dismissing his half-brother and Abdulaziz’s youngest son, Prince Muqrin, 69, as crown prince, Salman has performed the equivalent, in British terms, of defenestrating Prince Charles and installing Prince William as the Prince of Wales.

At the age of 79, King Salman may not expect his reign to be lengthy – which is one reason for imposing his will and establishing a clear, undisputed succession early on. The changes mark the first time that power has passed beyond the control the numerous sons of Abdulaziz, who died in 1953. However, as when he launched a less extensive reshuffle in January, Salman’s royal decree stressed continuity “on the basis of service to faith, the nation and the people”. This was a sop to Saudi Arabia’s powerful religious establishment, the self-appointed guardians of the status quo and the Sunni Muslim tradition.

18 Beers Later….(Shocker)…A Car Crash

Like so many others across Wisconsin I am so very tired of drunk drivers.  They are stupid, thoughtless, and very dangerous.  The latest example is a Madison man who admits to drinking 18 beers and then getting behind the wheel to drive.  Making this case even more brazen the fool also did not have insurance.

Gustavo Delarosa-Viades, 20, was tentatively charged with his second drunken driving offense, operating while revoked and operating without insurance, Madison police said.  

According to police:

A police sergeant discovered a car in a ditch along South Stoughton Road at about 12:15 a.m. Wednesday.

“He went to investigate and found the driver was asleep behind the wheel,” said police spokesman Joel DeSpain.

The car was not running and the headlights were off, but there was enough front-end damage to activate the air bags.

“After the driver was awakened, he acknowledged he had consumed a few beers prior to the crash, 18 to be exact,” DeSpain said.

Madison Homeless Have Responsibilities, Too

My Dad always told the stories of those folks who would stop at his parents farm back in the days of the depression.  The farm was located not far from the train tracks in Coloma (Waushara County).    The ones who rode the rails were like so many others then in the country.  Seeking something better somewhere else, not sure of the future but looking to find it.  My grandmother–a woman I would never know personally–would offer some food and the men who stopped by would work on this or that project for a day or two on the farm.

I have thought about those stories often over the past week as Madison seems embroiled in yet another spasm of news stories about the homeless that deserve our attention along with some of their actions which deserve our scorn.

We all understand that people are homeless for a variety of reasons.  Some lose their jobs, health insurance, and hope.  Some have medical issues ranging from depression to drug addictions.  There is no end to the sad stories.    There is also, it seems, no end to the attempts to create a homeless shelter in Madison that will impact this segment of our community.  That in spring 2015 we are still only talking about this matter is truly upsetting.

But having said all that there is also another part to the story of the homeless in Madison.   They too must play their part in making sure we all can move forward on this issue.

No one can be pleased to hear–as we all did last week–of the problem inside the city-county building where feces is too often found and now infestations of vermin are reported due to the collection of bags and debris that is piled up.    No one can be content with the garbage or worse yet the number of used hypodermic needles left on the streets by homeless people.

Mayor Paul Soglin, after waiting what some would argue was too long a period of time, has finally said conditions are so bad that enough is enough.  Last week the mayor restricted the homeless to only sleeping outdoors at the city-county building.   That makes sense so to reduce having problems spread throughout the downtown area.  Soglin also called for an end to street feeding programs, and limiting the use downtown of park benches to an hour.

I applaud the actions of the mayor.  It is not heartless to implement some common sense measures to make sure that while Dane County and Madison grapple with how to effectively combat homelessness that our city not suffer from the increasing numbers of those who come here to live on the streets.

While some are snarling at Mayor Paul Soglin for his crack-down we also need to keep in mind that there is an array of services that can make the life of those who are homeless somewhat better.  But for those who turn down drug and alcohol counseling or find ways to get thrown out of affordable housing once given the chance to live off the streets should alert us that sometimes there is never going to be an answer to every case.    But that does not then mean the entire city must endure bad behavior from those who can not find the path to self-responsibility.

We have long been a nation where we reach out to help one another be it my grandmother giving bread and vegetables to the ones from the train tracks or Madison taxpayers who truly want to fund a homeless shelter.  But between the giving of help and the receiving of it must also be a sense of how to act responsibly.

Racial Riots In Baltimore And Chicago

That I would be reading about such madness from nearly a century ago and then just hours later be watching insanity play out in real time from a similar thread is truly sad.

While it made for gripping television last night’s rioting in Baltimore was also mind-numbing for its outrageousness.   For all the anger that should be felt over the needless death of Freddie Gray it was the senseless act of rioting, looting, burning of cars and buildings, and destroying infrastructure for the sake of madness that made for chilling television.     The fact is a sick element was in control of the streets last night that had nothing to do with racial tensions in that city.  Instead it had everything to with a group of people that did not have the proper raising from parents, an education that allowed them to think in constructive ways, and a legal system that perhaps had allowed their past actions to be too easily forgotten.

There was no way to watch the burning of a huge living complex for elderly people that would have made a great difference in the lives of many and not feel disgust at those who set it ablaze.

Now I strongly believe in citizen input into making sure that social issues or public policy that needs to be addressed or highlighted can be brought front and center.  I recall the massive demonstrations where well over 100,000 people marched around the Wisconsin State Capitol and demanded their union rights.  The day of the largest rally from over a many-week period not one single arrest was made.  There was no reason to even think about arresting anyone, and not because they were mostly white but because they used their head about the matter and did not act recklessly.  They protested for a cause, not for criminal gain.

There are ways to proceed with differences we have with one another without acting thuggish and looting a liquor store!  The last thing anyone needed last night among that crowd was more mind-altering substances.

All the madness from Baltimore took place hours after the rioting in Chicago.

Now if you think that there is a page missing from your morning paper about the race riots in the Windy City let me assure you that all is fine in that great Midwestern city.  Just a few hours before I turned on the news to watch Baltimore light the night sky I was turning the pages of the book by Gary Krist.  City of Scoundrels is one of the most compelling narratives that you can read.  The race riots of 1919 makes for hair-raising drama as the Black Belt erupts and the white ‘Athletic Clubs’ score resentments and racial anger with thuggery and meanness that stuns the senses.

I have been consumed by the book which starts with the nation’s first aviation disaster in 1919—a blimp that catches fire, buckles and crashes into a bank located next to the Board of Trade Building near La Salle Street. The colorful and shady tales of  Mayor ‘Big’ Bill Thompson, stunning elections, racial tensions, bombings, union strife, and so much more are all set in the month of July 1919.  The book reads as if one is picking up the morning newspaper and living the events.  I read lots of history and find many authors most worthy of attention.  Gary Krist rises to that level and I just wanted to alert fans of history to this gem of a book. 

It is worth noting then Mayor Thompson was also slow with dickering about the use of national guard troops to quell the violence in Chicago.  The mayor of Baltimore is now also neck-deep in controversy about not making sure her city was better prepared for the rioting that has made news nationwide.

That I would be reading about such madness from nearly a century ago and then watching insanity play out in real time from a similar thread is truly sad.


Lazy Sunday Musings

I have been outside most of the day enjoying the sunshine and very light breeze.  Along the way two things have come my way that make for great trivia.

New use of a word. In Gary Krist’s in City of Scoundrels I came across a new use for the word alderman. If means to have a paunch. So an alderman can have an alderman!

The book “Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain was the first book to be composed on a typewriter.

Odd things one learns on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Touching Story As Michael Ray Debuts On Grand Ole Opry Tonight With Grandpa’s Guitar

If mental images and emotional tugs are all one needs to conjure up the magic of a moment than what happens tonight when many around the nation tune into the Grand Ole Opry will be just about perfect.


Long-time readers to this blog know my love of the Opry.  Who can not feel the emotion of the story of Michael Ray as he takes the famed stage this evening in Nashville–all which can be heard on AM-650 WSM radio?

Country newcomer Michael Ray has his first Top 20 hit at country radio “Kiss You in the Morning.” He’s in the studio recording his first album for Warner Music Nashville and Friday night he’ll make his Grand Ole Opry debut.

It’s a trio of long-held dreams come true. But, the Opry dream may be the most precious — it’s one he shared with his grandfather Amos Roach. Roach headed the family band and Ray was on stage with them from time he was a toddler. Roach taught him to love and play classic country music. They listened to “The Grand Ole Opry” together, watched videos of Minnie Pearl and Grandpa Jones and shared a love of Porter Wagoner.

“We would just talk about how cool it would be, one day, if one of us ever got to play on it The Opry,” Ray said. “The fact that it’s here is a very surreal thing.”

The heart-breaker for the Florida native is that his grandfather isn’t here. Roach passed away of a heart attack one month before Ray found out he was going to play the Opry stage.

“It was like, ‘Damn, we almost made it,'” Ray said. “So I thought the next best thing to having him on stage was to play the guitar that he backed my family’s band with since I was 9 years old.”