Monday, February 21, 2022

Presidents' Day 2022

Zachary Taylor, our nation's twelfth president, only held that position for less than a year and a half. As such, his presidency ended up being of little consequence.

Source: Library of Congress via National Park Service
(public domain)

Cherries have often been a symbol of Presidents' Day due to the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree that first appeared in Parson Weems' A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington. The book, filled largely with falsehoods, was one of the most influential books of United States history through the first half of the 19th century. In fact, Historian Charles M. McPherson has said that it is likely the only U.S. History Abraham Lincoln studied as a young man. The fabricated cherry tree story was shared with generations of students through its later publication in the McGuffey Reader. It goes as follows:

The following anecdote is a case in point. It is too valuable to be lost, and too true to be doubted; for it was communicated to me by the same excellent lady to whom I am indebted for the last. "When George," said she, "was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet! Of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was constantly going about chopping everything that came in his way. One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother's pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don't believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning the old gentleman, finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the by, was a great favourite, came into the house; and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time, that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him anything about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. "George," said his father, "do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?" This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, "I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet." "Run to my arms, you dearest boy," cried his father in transports, "run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold."

Parson Weems' Fable by Grant Wood, 1939
(Public Domain)

Although it is a charming story, there is no evidence to support it. Yet it was taught for years in school. I even think I read a version in contemporary language when I was in elementary school. That sort of myth-making definitely makes for a feel-good lesson, but real history is so much more interesting. As a teacher, I strive to give my students the truth as we can best understand it after the passage of time. It is important to draw the line between history and historical fiction if we are to prepare students to think critically and make up their own minds about our societal past, present, and future.

Why do I spend half of a blog post about Zachary Taylor talking about Parson Weems' made up story about George Washington's honesty? It is only prelude to the superior Presidents' Day story of cherries, the Washington Monument, and Zachary Taylor (no hatchets required.)

On July 4, 1850, President Zachary Taylor, sometimes referred to as "Old Rough and Ready" for his exploits in the Mexican-American War and his long career in the U.S. Army spoke at the site where the Washington Monument would soon be constructed. To beat the scorching heat of the day, he ate a large amount of raw cherries along with iced milk. Upon returning to the White House, he drank multiple glasses of water. Either bacteria present in one of the foods or the combination of acidic cherries with the milk caused severe stomach pains. Five days later, he died. His last words are reported as “I am about to die. I expect the summons very soon. I have tried to discharge all my duties faithfully. I regret nothing, but I am sorry that I am about to leave my friends.” Although he didn't say it, I bet he regretted his Fourth of July dining choices as well.

Taylor had opposed expanding slavery into the territories added to the United States following the Mexican-American War. For many years after his death, rumors grew that Southern proponents of slavery had poisoned the president. Nearly 150 years later in 1991, Zachary Taylor's body was exhumed to investigate the cause of death. Although trace amounts of arsenic were found, Tenessee coroner George Nicols concluded Taylor's death was caused by any of “a myriad of natural diseases which could have produced the symptoms of gastroenteritis.”

Although this story does not have a simple lesson about a virtue such as honesty, it is a good reminder to watch what you eat and drink, especially in areas where cholera is often present in the water (Washington, D.C. had terrible sewage problems at the time).

In addition to the fascinating story, the exhumation of Zachary Taylor makes his the only presidential skull viewable in a photo. If you want to see it, visit the site for the William M. Maples collection at Florida Gulf Coast University. That is not a presidential photo I plan to emulate.

If you need all the gory details of my long-standing Presidential portrait series:

This year, as always, Sarah Windisch deserves thanks for her photography and editing. Notice the digital wallpaper behind my portrait. That hand-made, cherry damask: all Sarah's work and talent!

Monday, February 15, 2021

Presidents Day 2021


Our 38th President, Gerald Ford, happens to be our only president who was never elected to either the position of President and Vice President. That isn't the only thing that makes him, and the photo I emulated this year, complicated. 

One of Gerald Ford's first actions as president was pardoning his successor, Richard Nixon. Ford became president upon Richard Nixon's resignation. The country was deeply divided with many wanting to see Nixon punished for his role in the Watergate break-in. Announcing the pardon, Ford said, "[The Nixon Family's situation] is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must." Today it is impossible to know whether his decision allowed our country to move on or if it sowed seeds that contributed to the great division we feel today.

When I first saw this photo of Gerald Ford receiving the swine flu vaccine on October 14,1976, I knew it was the only photo I could do when Presidents' Day 2021 fell on the day of my vaccine appointment for COVID-19. However, the story behind this photo is not one of medical triumph. After a young soldier at Fort Dix died of swine flu in February, Ford called for a national swine flu immunization program. The rush to deliver a vaccine resulted in some vaccine doses containing the wrong viral strain. The feared pandemic never materialized and many people feared the vaccine was responsible for dozens vaccine recipients contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome. The vaccine program ended after nearly a quarter of the U.S. population (including President Ford) received the shot. However, the damage to the credibility of vaccines was long lasting, and still affects us.

"When the U.S. Government Tried to Fast-Track a Flu Vaccine" by Christopher Klein is a worthwhile read if you want to learn more.

Ford's official White House portrait

Although he is often remembered as the "accidental president" since he never publicly aspired to that office, he is also remembered as a man of integrity. After leaving the White House, he put aside his differences with Jimmy Carter, who beat him in the 1976 election, and the two eventually became close friends. 

In learning about Gerald Ford this year, I was struck by the parallels between some of the challenges of his presidency and the problems we face today. It is those connections that have made history endlessly fascinating to me. I hope that you will work to find the connections between history and the present as well. When it comes to President Ford, a good start is his address to the nation upon pardoning former President Nixon.

Ladies and gentlemen:

I have come to a decision which I felt I should tell you and all of my fellow American citizens, as soon as I was certain in my own mind and in my own conscience that it is the right thing to do.

I have learned already in this office that the difficult decisions always come to this desk. I must admit that many of them do not look at all the same as the hypothetical questions that I have answered freely and perhaps too fast on previous occasions.

My customary policy is to try and get all the facts and to consider the opinions of my countrymen and to take counsel with my most valued friends. But these seldom agree, and in the end, the decision is mine. To procrastinate, to agonize, and to wait for a more favorable turn of events that may never come or more compelling external pressures that may as well be wrong as right, is itself a decision of sorts and a weak and potentially dangerous course for a President to follow.

I have promised to uphold the Constitution, to do what is right as God gives me to see the right, and to do the very best that I can for America.

I have asked your help and your prayers, not only when I became President but many times since. The Constitution is the supreme law of our land and it governs our actions as citizens. Only the laws of God, which govern our consciences, are superior to it.

As we are a nation under God, so I am sworn to uphold our laws with the help of God. And I have sought such guidance and searched my own conscience with special diligence to determine the right thing for me to do with respect to my predecessor in this place, Richard Nixon, and his loyal wife and family.

Theirs is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must.

There are no historic or legal precedents to which I can turn in this matter, none that precisely fit the circumstances of a private citizen who has resigned the Presidency of the United States. But it is common knowledge that serious allegations and accusations hang like a sword over our former President's head, threatening his health as he tries to reshape his life, a great part of which was spent in the service of this country and by the mandate of its people.

After years of bitter controversy and divisive national debate, I have been advised, and I am compelled to conclude that many months and perhaps more years will have to pass before Richard Nixon could obtain a fair trial by jury in any jurisdiction of the United States under governing decisions of the Supreme Court.

I deeply believe in equal justice for all Americans, whatever their station or former station. The law, whether human or divine, is no respecter of persons; but the law is a respecter of reality.

The facts, as I see them, are that a former President of the United States, instead of enjoying equal treatment with any other citizen accused of violating the law, would be cruelly and excessively penalized either in preserving the presumption of his innocence or in obtaining a speedy determination of his guilt in order to repay a legal debt to society.

During this long period of delay and potential litigation, ugly passions would again be aroused. And our people would again be polarized in their opinions. And the credibility of our free institutions of government would again be challenged at home and abroad.

In the end, the courts might well hold that Richard Nixon had been denied due process, and the verdict of history would even be more inconclusive with respect to those charges arising out of the period of his Presidency, of which I am presently aware.

But it is not the ultimate fate of Richard Nixon that most concerns me, though surely it deeply troubles every decent and every compassionate person. My concern is the immediate future of this great country.

In this, I dare not depend upon my personal sympathy as a longtime friend of the former President, nor my professional judgment as a lawyer, and I do not.

As President, my primary concern must always be the greatest good of all the people of the United States whose servant I am. As a man, my first consideration is to be true to my own convictions and my own conscience.

My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed. My conscience tells me that only I, as President, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book. My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquility but to use every means that I have to insure it. I do believe that the buck stops here, that I cannot rely upon public opinion polls to tell me what is right. I do believe that right makes might and that if I am wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference. I do believe, with all my heart and mind and spirit, that I, not as President but as a humble servant of God, will receive justice without mercy if I fail to show mercy.

Finally, I feel that Richard Nixon and his loved ones have suffered enough and will continue to suffer, no matter what I do, no matter what we, as a great and good nation, can do together to make his goal of peace come true.

Now, therefore, I, Gerald R. Ford, President of the United States, pursuant to the pardon power conferred upon me by Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, have granted and by these presents do grant a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from July (January) 20, 1969, through August 9, 1974.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand this eighth day of September, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and seventy-four, and of the Independence of the United States of America the one hundred and ninety-ninth.

President Gerald R. Ford - September 8, 1974

Of course you could always learn the history of my strange Presidents' Day tradition as well.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Presidents Day 2020

Calvin Coolidge A.K.A. The Sphinx of the Potomac or Silent Cal, became president upon the death of Warren G. Harding*. He is known for restoring trust in the presidency as the many scandals caused by the unethical dealings of Harding and his inner circle came to light. Although his reputation as a man of few words comes from the numerous parties he had to attend as vice president, he is quoted as saying "The words of a president have enormous weight, and ought not to be used indiscriminately."

President Coolidge was a snappy dresser, as well. He preferred big hats and double-breasted suits. Taking this year's photo was a good chance to take advantage of a boldly-printed vintage tie and a rarely-used chapeau. This year I also enlisted my barber's help in achieving the Calvin Coolidge look. 
This is a presidential look I can only dream of pulling off.

In learning more about our 30th president, I came across a number of interesting facts and amusing photos. Some of the best are collected in the Thrillist article "Calvin Coolidge: Best President Ever"

If you're new to my Presidents' Day tradition (or just can't get enough of it), check out photos from past years.
2019 George H.W. Bush
2018 Richard Nixon
2017 Grover Cleveland
2016 Ulysses S. Grant
2012 - 2015 Lincoln, Arthur, Hayes, Taft, Garfield, and Theodore Roosevelt

*My Warren G. Harding photo will require a live elephant. If you have access to one, please contact me immediately.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Presidents Day 2019

When George H.W. Bush passed away at the end of November, I saw this picture for the first time. It was such a joyful president photo I immediately knew that I would need to recreate this one when we had a particularly snowy February. This year delivered: we just came out of our area's longest stretch of days with measurable snow in over 80 years.

Camp David has a rich sledding tradition beyond
the 1991 outing that inspired my picture. 

George H.W. Bush's presidency coincided with my middle school years when I really developed an interest in politics. After purchasing a President Bush mask (with moving mouth!) and watching Dana Carvey's impersonation on Saturday Night Live again and again, I begin making appearances as President Bush. I even tried out for the talent show my freshman year of high school taking an old George Burns and Gracie Allen routine and adapting it for President Bush and Vice-President Quayle impersonations. For some reason, it wasn't the type of act they were looking for.

Someday I'll share a George Bush picture
from my middle school yearbook.

This picture represents a few firsts for the series. This is the first picture I've done of a president from my lifetime. It's my first color photo. It's also the first time I've had to seek help outside my family to get the picture. A friend from community band loaned me the army cap, and I met a number of families from my school at the local sledding hill where parents of my students graciously provided the toboggan, served as Arnold Schwarzenegger's body double, and took the photo. This photo also represents my most significant photo editing. Arnold's children do not attend my school, so Sarah did some face swapping. The only previous photo trickery involved stretching Rutherford B. Hayes's beard. Who knows what firsts (if any) next year's photo will bring?

Stay out of the cold and enjoy the rest of the series:
2020 Calvin Coolidge
2018 Richard Nixon
2017 Grover Cleveland
2016 Ulysses S. Grant
2012 - 2015 Lincoln, Arthur, Hayes, Taft, Garfield, and Theodore Roosevelt

Friday, November 23, 2018

Book Review - The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp
by Kathi Appelt
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Paperback - May 20, 2014

Deep in the Sugar Man Swamp, Audie Brayburn's rusted 1949 Chrysler DeSoto has become home to raccoon brothers Bingo and J'miah. As brand new swamp scouts, their job is to monitor the swamp and wake up the mysterious Sugar Man in the event of an emergency. Their first five days on the job coincide with an ominous rumbling created by an animal threat drawing near.

Meanwhile Audie Brayburn's grandson, Chap, is learning what it means to be the man of the house following his grandfather's death. His family's way of life is in danger as their home and bakery at the edge of the swamp stands in the way of a proposed Gator Wrestling Arena and Theme Park. He needs a boatload of cash or a visit from the Sugar Man to stop this human threat.

From beginning to end, this was a fun book to read. I really enjoyed getting to know the characters. J'miah's nervousness at Bingo's death-defying tree climbs, Gertrude the giant rattlesnake's itchiness, and Coyoteman Jim's late-night thoughts at the local radio station made the characters feel real. Chap was the star of the story, though, as he longed for a message from his grandpa that would help him save the Paradise Pies Cafe. I was moved by the mixture of hope and longing as he revisited Audie's birding sketchbooks to search for ideas and advice.

When a book knows it's using terrific vocabulary!
As great as the characters were, the author's voice is what really makes this a special book. The frequent perspective changes between the human and animal world are often separated by chapters full of facts about topics ranging from the history of the Polaroid camera to the behavior of alligators that quickly tie in to the story's big picture. In addition, the book often draws attention to its own beautiful vocabulary. After one character proposes that the Sugar Man is no longer extant the author places the message "Extant. What a great word that is" in parentheses. It's one of many times that the narration pops off the page.

This was one of the 2019 Idaho Kids Vote Book Award nominees I had not read before this year's program began. When I started reading, I thought the Deep South setting was an unusual choice for our state book award. Wouldn't Idaho kids relate to a book about life in the mountains better? Even though we don't have bayous, our wilderness faces threats, too. I think the unfamiliar setting gives readers in Idaho just enough distance to consider the message of finding harmony with nature. Not only will that message stick with me, I think the laugh out loud moments and touching relationships in the book will have me remembering the residents of the Sugar Man Swamp for years to come.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Book Review - Mac B. Kid Spy: Mac Undercover

Mac B. Kid Spy: Mac Undercover
by Mac Barnett
Illustrated by Mike Lowery
Orchard Books
September 11, 2018

I received a free copy of this book through the Scholastic Insider program, but the opinions in this review are my own

What happens when a kid growing up in late 80s California gets a call from the Queen of England asking for help? He becomes Mac B. Kid Spy!

Mac is tasked with retrieving an interesting item stolen from the Crown Jewels. The Queen believes that the President of France has taken it, but Mac discovers the truth is much more complicated. He travels through Europe in order to find the Queen's missing item as well as some other items that have disappeared along the way.

This was a fun book and I loved the humor throughout it. As a kid who grew up in the 80s, I loved the references to the disappointing graphics of the Game Boy and comments like "Phones had cords. You can look that up." Those bits might lead to some fun conversations between parents and kids as they read. Mac's situations throughout the book definitely led to a few laughs, and I hope I'm not the only reader to suspect that he has a karate battle with a future world leader.

Although it was fun to read, it was a very simple book. The plot was straightforward and the vocabulary was basic. I think this would be a great choice for kids who are just entering the world of chapter books. More advanced readers may have a good time with this book, but it is not one that will give them a lot to think about. That being said, I gave this to my son as soon as I finished it. He was over halfway through less than a half hour after picking it up and I heard him laugh out loud as he read. It's not one that I will be recommending to the grade 3-5 students in my advanced learning program, but I do think it's one that many will enjoy finding in our school's library!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Innovation vs. Expectations

My podcast diet typically consists of the fun kids' science podcasts my son can't get enough of, like Wow in the World and Brains On. On a rare solo drive this week, I listened to Rough Translation, a more mature offering, and it has filled me with questions. I strongly recommend listening to it (or reading the transcript) before you read the rest of this post.

What does this mean for all of the changes and innovations that are necessary to keep improving my practice as an educator? When I know that I am making improvements for my students, I need to have the courage to stick with it. I can't let the questions and scrutiny that comes with change cause me to roll back into the old way of doing things.

A few years back, I ran across a quote from Brian Tracy that basically said one hour of professional development reading per day could make someone an expert in their field within seven years. Most Americans spent seven hours a day going to school for at least 13 years. After all that time, they feel like experts in schooling and have definite expectations of what education should look like.

Innovation, by definition, doesn't conform to expectations. Education stakeholders are going to ask questions and have conversations about the innovations that don't conform to their expectations. Even if it isn't the intention, this scrutiny can lead teachers to have cold feet with their new ideas. In the case of Ghana's preschools, teachers continued to put up colorful posters and move out of the traditional rows of seats, but they stopped asking students the important questions that led to the gains in personal expression.

Students investigate
the concept of area
I've seen it in my community, too. All Idaho teachers are required to take a mathematical thinking course. Although teachers have been taking the course for around a decade, there hasn't been a big shift to the type of mathematical learning that the course advocated. I think a lot of this is due to subtle pressure from parents and the community to teach kids math in a familiar way.

Educating parents is difficult. My school hosted a math night last fall where I gave an opening talk to the families that attended. The big messages of my presentation were that anyone can learn math, counting on fingers is positive and helpful, and it is good to make mistakes. As soon as I was done talking, I sent the parents off to their children's classrooms. I now wonder what type of conversations happened in those classrooms as a result. It leaves me wondering how to best involve parents without creating anxiety about new approaches.

How can we engage all of our stakeholders in a way that allows innovation to thrive? Communicating with parents is an important part of the job, but all of the change and innovation over the last few years makes their expertise and expectations from their time as a student obsolete. I think this dichotomy between outdated expectations and moving forward quashes a lot of innovation in our schools. What is the balance between expectations and innovation? How can we honor all of our stakeholders while trying new and unproven ideas?

If you have thoughts and answers, I would love to hear them. I will continue to experiment and refine as I seek answers to my questions.