How To Excite Students About History

Some years ago, I tutored a high school student in history for one semester. We were starting with the Articles of Confederation and the War for Independence on this side of the pond. He truly was not interested in ‘those dead men’ and looking at his textbook I could not argue that the writing was tortured and not aimed to excite a young mind.

Enter my favorite Founding Father.

I brought some copied pages from a book that told the story of the morning Alexander Hamilton and Arron Burr met for a duel that killed one and ravaged the reputation of another. I added the slice of trivia about how Dolly Madison and Hamilton’s widow, Elizabeth Hamilton, waved from carriages at the celebration when the cornerstone of the Washington Monument was put in place.

Bit by bit over the weeks I supplemented the staid textbook with the richer and more colorful aspects of the lives of the ones he was to learn about for classroom discussion. While I am sure the student did not become a history major, I know he passed that class.

Using outside sources to aid in teaching history would seem to be essential for teachers, as I can not imagine the school textbooks have improved to the point where they are engaging for students. Recently that thought came to mind when reading Russian history. (If you think teaching American history is tough—ponder Russian history from the early 1700s!)

Over the decades the caliber of historical writing has grown along with easier ways to research the past. Using the outcomes of such advancements in the classroom (even with the restriction on copyrights) can go a long way in creating the context for students to ‘see the past’, and better understand why it matters.

From The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

My Endorsement Of David Blaska Makes Front Page Of Wisconsin State Journal

This is from the bottom of today’s front page of the Wisconsin State Journal. Please go vote as this is Spring Election day in Wisconsin, Polls stay open until 8 P.M. To read the entire article click here.

Former Madison ‘Mayor Dave’ Endorses David Blaska For School Board

Some speculated it was going to happen. And today it did.

Former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz added his voice of gravitas and endorsed the write-in candidacy of David Blaska for Seat 4 on the Madison School Board. The election is Tuesday, April 6th.

In what can only be termed as direct and unequivocal the former leader of our city summed up the present situation that our school district now finds itself.

People, this is nuts. This is just bat-shit crazy. 

Cieslewicz gets to that point in his endorsement after reminding readers of what we read in our newspaper all too often.

Massive fights involving both students and parents. Kids bringing loaded guns to school. Special needs kids being beaten. An official policy, enthusiastically endorsed by Muldrow, that actually discourages calling police when a child is beaten.

I’m voting for David Blaska. God help me. But God help us all if we continue down the path laid out for us by the current board without at least someone to challenge the status quo.

Yeah, he’s a lot more conservative than I am, but that does not change the simple fact that what he’s saying about school safety is true. He wants to make the basic safety of students and staff a priority. He would return the SRO’s and get rid of the wrong-headed Behavioral Education Plan, which discourages staff from calling the police even when there’s physical violence. These things are just common sense.

Madison’s logical core of voters surely are saying, “Thanks, Dave”.

I have for decades argued for pragmatism in our politics. When first cutting my teeth in politics in Door County up to this moment for truth when addressing violence in our Madison schools. I am so pleased that Mayor Dave is standing resolute for common sense and honesty as we enter the final days leading to our Spring Election.

And so it goes.

Wisconsin Spelling Bee Reason To Cheer For Bright Young Minds

This weekend one of those annual events occurs which just alerts us all to the many bright young minds in our state. With all the harsh headlines that greet us each day this story is one that we can all feel good about and embrace.

Each year I try to post about the Wisconsin Spelling Bee as it proves how much better these kids are with spelling than I ever will be, and also how much we have to be proud of when looking at our younger generations.

To know that a student who was under pressure and being watched could correctly spell “Beethovenian,” an adjective relating to or characteristic of the famous composer, or “himation,” a type of ancient Greek clothing alerts me to their brightness.

I firmly believe that all the contestants are winners. There is no way someone gets to this level of competition without being bright and most able to think their way through sounding out a word and then placing the letters in the proper order.

I have followed one local 11-year-old student over the past years in the spelling competition simply due to the perfectly charming photo that was used in a 2019 Wisconsin State Journal story. Don’t get me wrong, all the kids are worthy of being singled out for this post. But, truly, who can not root for this smile.

Blessed Sacrament sixth-grader Aiden Wijeyakulasuriya was the winner a few weeks ago in the Madison All-City Spelling Bee. We just know that had there been no need to wear a mask due to the pandemic his smile would have been most photogenic. In 2019, he competed in the Scripps National Spelling Bee and placed third in the All-City Spelling Bee last year.


Aiden said he’s been studying words for 30 minutes at a time between school, tennis, tae kwon do and piano. He’s been in the spelling bee since third grade, making Saturday’s win “a buildup of things for the last few years.”

Also in competition this year is former winner Maya Jadhav from Vishva Home School. She was featured on this blog following her win at the Madison All-City contest in 2021.

Wisconsin State Journal photo Gayle Worland

I have been struck, repeatedly, by the effort at learning which these contestants talk about with reporters. Last year I posted the quote from a middle-school student.

Matthew Brock, then 14 and an eighth-grader at Toki Middle School said, “I read a lot and I practiced the study list. Every time I see a word I don’t know, I look up the definition and try to understand whatever the context may be.”

While I enjoy doing crossword puzzles as they are relaxing I would never do many in ink. Having a comfortable feel for words is one thing, but spelling like the champs…well, that is for the top spellers in Wisconsin!

I wish them all the very best as they stand up and do what the vast majority of the rest of us could not do. As always, we also need to send out a thank you to the parents who instill a love of reading and words in their children along with the desire to learn. 

Gosh, there are truly many reasons to smile over these young minds.

And so it goes.

Write-In David Blaska For Madison School Board, Seat 4

I wish to make two points about the upcoming Spring Election, which includes a Madison School Board race of consequence.

In Seat 4 David Blaska is waging a write-in campaign in an effort to drive home the need to talk about some foundational issues of education. I ask that you support his candidacy and vote for him on Tuesday, April 5th.

For me, the curbing of violence at our city schools ranks as issues Number One, Two, and Three. Earlier this year a high school student was beaten so badly on school property that reconstructive dental surgery was required. There is no way I can simply assume that the current school board truly cares about curbing the violence. I do not see any evidence that the board even recognizes the growing frustration of the city due to its lack of concrete measures to deal with the problem.

In a candidate forum, Blaska said what many taxpayers feel.

“I don’t think the police criminalize those kids. I think the kids, through their own behavior, did…. Getting rid of the school resource officers, that was the capstone of a decade-long assault on school discipline. I would initiate a number of programs starting with returning the school resource police officers back to the schools. I would also jettison the Behavior Education Plan. Seven years in, it’s not working.” 

On whether the school board needs to address the use of cellphones in the classroom, Blaska held up a paper grocery bag and said, “cell phones go in the bag and [students] can get them back afterwards.

“This is a perfect example of how we’re running headlong away from [holding] kids responsible. There used to be guardrails for kids called adults,” said Blaska. “And yes, it’s in the kids’ nature to test the limits. But we keep moving the guardrails farther and farther out when they test the limits and what is the result? We have almost daily fights now and not just at East High School.”

It should be noted, and much to the dismay of many folks in Madison, that Ali Mudrow is so removed from just basic common sense she can not even bring herself to call for the end of cellphones in the classroom.

Muldrow dismissed concerns expressed by teachers and parents that cell phones are causing kids to check out while in class and may be contributing to online bullying that leads to high-profile fights that have made headlines all school year.

Clearly, we need some sanity on the school board.

Now, to the second issue, I wish to address.

Muldrow claimed in a separate Q and A column that Balska was a “Trump/Scott Walker supporter”. Using such a label is meant to alert voters in Madison to be wary. As a liberal Democrat, I call that unrelated malarky. In addition, it is not factual.

While it is true that Blaska is an actual decades-long conservative Republican it is also clear from his own blog and spoken words that he can not be lumped with Trump. After all, Trump is not a true Republican as he lacks any regard for fiscal accountability, free trade, or international alliances. Read Blaska’s own words since January 6th if you have any doubt, whatsoever about his views of Trump. I know how opposed Blaska was to Trump in 2016, and know he did not cast a ballot for him in that election.

Why it matters to bore down on this issue for a moment is because it demonstrates how Muldrow goes about her work on the taxpayer’s dime. Wild broad brush strokes at every issue–from rising violence at schools to dismissing cellphones, and assuming everyone within a political party must carry water for everyone else.

Meanwhile, working on board policy requires attention to detail, not just mouthing words to play to the loudest elements in our city. We simply must have a school board tethered to the best interests of our students, but we simply do not have that today. And it is placing students in unsafe classrooms with a reduction in class time learning.

When it comes to this school board race I am confident Balska is the best candidate because he does care about kids getting an education. He is determined to bring back order and discipline to the schools. How can anyone argue in favor of disruptive and violent schools?

Look, history is filled with the best steps occurring, both in our state and nation, when folks from both sides and with competing ideas focus on the mission at hand. No one can say there is not a growing level of violence in our public schools, or that teachers and students alike are not concerned–and at times frightened.

Never should any student have a beating so severe on school grounds that surgery is required and the student decides not to return to that school. To not candidly address this topic has been my reason for being vocal about the need for change on the board.

I ask you for your support and write-in vote for David Blaska for Seat 4 on April 5.

Thank you.

Madison School Board Has Turtle-Like Pacing To Stem On-Going Violence

The Wisconsin State Journal reported a news story that both showed the dangers within classrooms at Madison Schools, while also underscoring the turtle-like process the Board is employing to deal with the violence.

Not for the first time does this blog ask for accountability from the Madison School Board. Given the makeup of the Board, it is not possible to inject the needed solutions to address the violence that concerns parents and creates fear and dread in students.

The paper noted the latest violence that took place Monday.

In the video taken Monday at East and later removed from Facebook, a student verbally confronts another student in a classroom before physically attacking the student, and eventually tackling the student onto a table, which subsequently buckles. Another person is seen in the video attempting to separate the two students, but it’s unclear whether the person who intervened is a student or staff member.

I am sure some gentle coaxing and soothing colors in a ‘time out’ room are all that will be required to bring this violence to an end. Right? Maybe throw in a pizza party, too!

Then the news article reported what is breaking news of sorts given the incredibly stodgy and arrogant way this Board has operated given the mounting examples of violence taking place on school grounds.

The board voted unanimously Monday evening to launch its student safety and wellness committee made up of community members, students, and staff five months after it was first discussed in the wake of multiple fights at East High.

I do hope the Board did not get dizzy from acting so quickly to form a committee. Deep breaths…..deep breaths after all that exertion.

But then true to form Board member and perhaps the weakest link in the chain of command on the Board, Ananda Mirilli, who will co-chair the ad hoc committee along with East student body president Gordon Allen, said board members are still submitting recommendations for committee members, and they’re still searching for students and support staff to take part.

I am not sure what the Board uses for the conveyance of messaging to interested parties, but if it is true that after five months Mirilli is still having board members “submitting recommendations for committee members” we might simply need to install a new dog sled team. I (truly) know of faster back and forth communication between small communities near Barrow, Alaska.

My first concern, as noted often on this blog in relation to this issue, is the needs of the students. First, obviously is safety. But a very close second is the desire of many students to have a well-rounded education so to capture the college of their choice upon graduation. Let us not forget most of the students in our schools wish to lead productive lives and make money with a good job.

Having even that small portion of the student body, however, with only low-brow brutish animal tendencies creating disruptions and utter chaos in the schools puts huge strains on teachers and students alike. It is not fair to the ones who wish to teach and learn. It is also not fair to the taxpayers who fund this district.

It is the last group which I very much believe this Board has forgotten about, over and over. It is pure arrogance for the Board to have pushed off the creation of this much-needed mechanism to deal with the growing violence in our schools. Whatever group this Board listens to, it clearly is not the ones who have pressed again and again for safety and sanity. Perhaps to get the attention of this Board parents just need to attend meetings and stand up, shout obscenities, and pound on the walls.

Because we know this Board is not listening to the polite well-articulated requests to stop the violence at our schools.

It is a lack of leadership and determination from this Board to address the violence in a timely fashion that was reported in this morning’s newspaper. Oh, do not worry if you missed Tuesday’s edition, because thanks to this Board more violence and news headlines are likely coming your way soon.

And so it goes.

Madison’s Thomas Jefferson Middle School Should Keep Name

It is truly sad that the totality of the work and life of Thomas Jefferson in the Madison School District can be summed up by his holding of slaves. Though my classroom years are decades in the rearview mirror the Virginian remains the essential writer of what we still call the nation’s birth certificate.

My mouse pad since 2016 and afternoon at the Library of Congress.

There is no stopping, it seems, the continuing desire to remove the honor accorded to the men responsible for the very creation of our nation and governing system. The latest attempt came this week in the city when Jefferson Middle School principal Sue Abplanalp formally asked the board and the superintendent to launch the renaming process.

There is no doubt that the name change will occur, after all, there is no interest in truly embracing history or actually learning from it. It is far easier just to let liberal guilt guide the school board in making its decision.

Jefferson Middle School was named after the famed third president. Forget the masterful writing of the Declaration of Independence or his guidance and intellect with the crafting of the Constitution. Oh, yes, forget, too, his adroit handling of the purchase of the Louisiana Purchase.

Toss aside the work Jefferson did in his home state which then led to the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting any law which would impede a citizen’s free exercise of religion. Or that as president he throttled the slave trade with a ban on importing people.

Forget all those parts of his life. (Should we assume today’s students in our schools are even aware of such facts?) Jefferson owned slaves. That is all that matters in an age when a whole thought should be no longer than a text message. As such, given Jefferson’s slave-holding past, the current reasoning goes, we should banish his name from the school.

Treating history in such a fashion, and worse having district leadership echo such sentiments misses the glaring central fact about our past.

While the pages of our past are filled with events, more importantly, they are about fellow humans who lived in their time, saw the world from their perspective, and did not know what the future held. They had their social norms, customs, and ideals.

It is that last point that echoes from the pen of Jefferson, and through the words of the Declaration of Independence. He did not create new principles about mankind and liberty but rather so very artfully phrased the ongoing arguments of the era into a document that resonated around the globe.

Jefferson was very aware of the shortcomings within himself as a man, and also within humankind. He knew the experiment with democracy on our shore at that time had as much chance of failing as succeeding. As such, it was the ideals of further progress that anchored his faith–as well as those of the others who signed their names–that we could rise to the calling of the times.

I have never read the Founders ever used the term ‘the arc of history’. It is used continually now, and Jefferson fits the profile of that theme. The striving for a more just society, a more equitable one, a safer and enlightened one was the hope of Jefferson.

While Jefferson owned slaves, he also was able to intellectually articulate the moral poison such a policy had on our nation. The complexity of history is often easier to toss aside than to be grabbed onto and mastered. Instead of focusing attention on better teaching and higher demand for learning from students about such slices of our history, changing the name of a school for politically correct purposes seems easier.

The rest of us know, however, that pretending the Founders can be placed into a neat and politically polite framework of our wishing is a direct slap to the face of common sense.

Near the top of this post is a photo of the mouse pad on my desk. It reflects my love of history, appreciation for the Founders, and a deep fondness for books. While I find my view of a central government more akin to John Adams and Federalists than to Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans of his time, my deep regard for the mind of Jefferson has never wavered.

If only all that could be taught in a Madison classrom!

And so it goes.

Warning Not To Film Violence In Madison School, Bad PR For Administration

A reverse Potemkin village scenario is playing out at one Madison public school.

Instead of seeing something that is not really there, comes an interim principal telling students to not see or do anything about something that is really there.

Welcome to the latest upside-down world of Madison public schools.

East High School’s interim principal said students who filmed a fight between classes at school on Monday could face out-of-school suspension and she called the number of students who watched and filmed the incident “unacceptable.”

Police were called because of the fight between two students between periods 5 and 6 on Monday, interim Principal Mikki Smith said in an email to families. School officials are deciding what consequences the students should face, Smith said. Her email said first responders were also called as a precaution.

Smith added that any students who record and share video of fighting could face punishment up to out-of-school suspension.

Yes, by all means, control the information flow of violence that breaks out at Madison schools. After all, if we treat this behavior as just a PR issue it will go away!

I am stunned Smith sees the problem being the students who would record digitally the violence so that taxpayers who fund the schools could be made aware of what happens in the buildings. While the school is weighing what consequences the fighters could face, Smith was sure those who capture video could face up to an out-of-school suspension.

In this time when everyone everywhere films at will, how are the fights in schools now forbidden to be captured?  Is the real issue the filming of the fight or the fact there are just so many violent acts at Madison East to be filmed?

Perhaps, instead of berating students and threatening their education for filming the continued violence at East High, Smith should consider a film editing class so would-be journalists or videographers would have sharper skills. After all, they will have plenty of content from which to work.

If I sound snarky and peeved then you are reading this post correctly. At what point does the violence in our schools be taken seriously by the ones who sit in the administration or the school board?

Madison schools could simply get tough on the ones who continually disrupt our schools. Because no one, not even an interim principal should need to ponder “what consequences the students should face” when fighting occurs on school grounds.

That we ponder such things, and not have a strict policy in place, is the issue at hand. The problem is not the students who see pure chaos and reach for the camera to record it.

And so it goes.

P.S. Trusting Mikki Smith is not the best Madison East can find for leadership going forward.