Celebrating West Virginia’s Country Roads

On this day in 1863, the great state of West Virginia was formally admitted into the Union. While Eduflack may consider himself a Jersey boy, it is hard to forget that I am also a proud graduate of West Virginia public schools (Jefferson County Consolidated High School in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia, to be exact).

And while I left “By God” West Virginia for college, going across state lines to attend Mr. Jefferson’s University of Virginia, I went on to serve my adopted home of West Virginia. For years, I served as an aide to Senator Robert C. Byrd, a tremendous leader who shaped me in many ways. From the history of the Senate to the intricacies of the appropriations process to a thorough respect for the voters, Senator Byrd taught me the foundations that my professional life is built on today. He also inspired me to be the writer that I am today (spurred when he asked me to write him an hour-long speech linking the rhetoric of Aristotle and ancient Greece with the celebration of July 4th).

But I started my career in public service as a staffer to U.S. Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the then “junior” senator from the Mountain State. Twenty five years ago this summer, to be exact. It was as an intern for Senator Rockefeller that I penned my first congressional floor statement, a statement that Rockefeller read on the Senate floor on June 19, 1992 to commemorate West Virginia’s 129th birthday. It seems appropriate to share that statement today, delivered far better by Senator Rockefeller than Eduflack’s still developing writing deserved.

Mr. President, today I rise to speak to you in honor of the people of the great State of West Virginia in recognition of our State’s 129th birthday.
On the 20th of June in 1863, the State of West Virginia was born.  The product of a crisis between the States, West Virginia earned its place as the 35th State to join the Union, through incredible bravery and initiative.
This spirit of initiative has remained with our fair State since its inception.  The proud people of West Virginia have consistently served this country through the good times and the bad.  We have fought valiantly for our country, we have provided for our families through hardship and prosperity, and we have worked to establish the greatest community, State, and country that we possibly could.
Mountaineer pride is evident still today, throughout the State.  This pride has attracted hundreds of thousands of vacationers to our fair State.  They have fallen in love with our majestic mountains ideal for skiing, our racing white water rivers, and our beautiful national parks.  One only needs to open any local West Virginia newspaper to see the numerous letters written from vacationers commending the State on both its attractions and its people.
THis feeling has led many people to continue to visit the Mountain State and has brought many more to relocate permanently in our fair State for good.  Thanks to the hospitality and kindness of West Virginia’s native residents, our Mountain State quickly becomes home for her new citizens, and remains a place where pride and hard work thrive.
So, on this, the 129th birthday of our State, I ask you, Mr. President, and my other colleagues, to join me in recognizing this important day for West Virginia, and for all her citizens who have made West Virginia a State that I am proud to represent and call home.

Blocking Jeffersonian Lessons at Mr. Jefferson’s University

Loyal readers of Eduflack know that I am a proud alumnus of the University of Virginia. As a Wahoo, I spent my college years believing the University’s founder was a deity. We spoke of Mr. Jefferson has if he had just stepped away to grab some lunch on the Corner. We revered the Jeffersonian ideal and what we thought it stood for.

In recent years, it hasn’t been so popular to be a fan of Thomas (nor has it been particularly popular for Eduflack to have many of the heroes he has, as I wrote about last year.) In our zeal to judge leaders of the past by today’s standards, we are quick to condemn.

I get that Thomas Jefferson is a complicated figure in our history. And I get that he is completely dissed (and mischaracterized) in the smash Broadway hit Hamilton. But Jefferson is a Founding Father. He was our third president. He helped expand the fledgling United States into the country that we largely recognize today.

Despite all of that, he noted three accomplishments on his tombstone, which reads, “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.”

Yes, founding U.Va. was one of the Jefferson’s top three accomplishments, more significant to him that serving as president. Thomas Jefferson is the University of Virginia, and U.Va. is TJ.

So it was shocking to see a group of University professors write to U.Va. President Sullivan asking that she stop quoting the University’s founder and father. My alma mater, The Cavalier Daily, reports that these professors noted:

We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it. For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey.

Almost a year to the day, I wrote about how college campuses need to stop being so cavalier about First Amendment rights. That we needed to stop promoting this “do as I say, not as I do” approach to free speech, recognizing that such rights are absolute and not based on what an individual may find in contrast to their personal life mission or sensibilities.

I’m not naive. I get that many these days would not put Jefferson on their personal Mount Rushmores. But I would hope that those individuals would also recognize that Jefferson’s stands as one of the most influential writers and thinkers in the founding of this nation. I’d particularly hope that college professors, particularly those at Mr. Jefferson’s University, could respect the words of Jefferson helped establish this nation, helped shape modern thinking on political liberty, and that cemented the divisions between church and state.

I’d also hope that those who take no issue in drawing a paycheck from Mr. Jefferson’s University yet take every issue with his words would be a little more open-minded about reading some of the words he wrote nearly a quarter of a millennia ago.

As a student at the U.Va., I spent more hours than I can count working at The Cavalier Daily, the independent daily student newspaper of Mr. Jefferson’s University. Each morning, we would publish a new edition under some poignant words written by Jefferson:

“For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

These words become particularly important in light of President Sullivan’s letter and her message of bringing the University community together. It is unfortunate that the sensitivities of some professors would seek to shut down such a dialogue by finding offense in the words of one messenger, the most important messenger in the University’s history.

We can only hope that reason continues to thrive at the University of Virginia, and that the lessons of its founder can be used to lead important discussions and guide equally important actions.

Seeking to restrict speech by removing Jeffersonian quotes from communications is an affront to the lessons of freedom and liberty that the University of Virginia was built on, and of ideals we would hope college professors were teaching on campuses throughout the country.

School Board Elections Shouldn’t be MMA

Over at Hechinger Report, I have a new commentary on how our local school board races can often reflect the worst of our national political discourse … and how that can do a true disservice to the kids and communities our school boards are seeking to serve.

While the job of a school board member isn’t necessarily to serve as a rubber stamp for a superintendent, it is a job that requires working with a disparate electorate. It requires finding common ground with everyone from a headstrong superintendent to the most vocal of activist parents.

One simply cannot begin that service through a political campaign of blame, scare tactics, or fear. And it cannot be done by pitting one part of the community against the other in the hopes of cobbling together enough of the community to secure the necessary votes to win.

I hope you’ll give it a read. It becomes an important topic of discussion as more control is returned to the localities.



History Can Be Fun and Games

While we may look to the history books to see the chronicling of the past, we don’t have to limit how we teach history (or civics or social studies, or any subject, for that matter) to those same books. New technologies, new instructional approaches, and even the embrace of the old role-playing styles, have opened up new doors when it comes to how we teach — and learn — history.

Over at Medium this week, I write on how history instruction can be transformed through a gaming approach to teaching. USA Today reporter Greg Toppo has literally written the book on the topic, with his The Game Believes In You telling some incredible stories of how educators are using games to better reach their students.

In my piece, I look at some of the specific efforts to use gaming to bring social studies instruction alive, everything from iCivics to the teacher-focused simulations at Ted Kennedy Institute to the new Woodrow Wilson HistoryQuest Fellowship program.

As I write:

Simply put, we cannot expect 21st-century students to truly learn from history — and civics and social studies in general — in the same way and through the same approaches that may have worked for Santayana, Winston Churchill, and others concerned about repeating history. The methods of old, those with experienced educators lecturing in front of a class of students all sitting at desks in straight rows, is quickly becoming a thing of the past. If the students of tomorrow are to truly “learn from history,” they require instructional approaches that better reflect their own interests, learning styles, and experiences.

And as I conclude:

And that is the role gaming now plays in my kids’ classroom. I want a teacher who has been part of the HistoryQuest program to make social studies come alive for my kids in a way a paper-and-ink textbook simply can’t. I want a music teacher that is channeling my son’s love of Minecraft to help him appreciate his grandfather’s love of opera. And I want an educator who can use the simulations of the Kennedy Institute to help my daughter better understand what I did all those years when I worked on Capitol Hill.

Give the piece a read. Think of it like a game …

It’s Constitution Day!

Today, September 17, is Constitution Day. It recognizes the date that the U.S. Constitution was officially adopted as the law that governed our land.

As kids, many of us learned the Preamble:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

As adults, we often forget the content of the seven Articles or even how many amendments there have been since its passage. Hopefully, we are aware of the Bill of Rights (those first 10 Amendments.)

As it is Constitution Day, I can’t help but think of my first job out of college. I was fortunate enough to work as an aide to U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd (WV) both while at the University of Virginia and after graduation. Those who know the Senate know that Senator Byrd was one of the Constitution’s staunchest defenders. In his decades on the Hill, he never was without a pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution. He was known to pull it out during committee hearings, referencing our Founding Fathers’ words when witnesses would forget the basis on which this nation was founded.

I still have the pocket version of the Constitution Senator Byrd gave me when I worked for him as a foolish 20-year-old communications intern. Can’t think of today without thinking of the senior senator from the great state of West Virginia, who gave me my first job in communications.


(And thanks to Anne Barth, another former Byrd staffer and state director extraordinaire, for the great photo reminder this AM.)

“The function of education …”

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.  Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I Have a Dream” — August 28, 1963
Letter from Birmingham Jail” — April 16, 1963
Where Do We Go From Here” — August 16, 1967

A Teachable Moment on Columbus Day

So Eduflack comes from a proud Italian-Amerian family (at least on my paternal side).  My paternal grandfather, the man I was named after, was born Ponzion Ricciardelli.  He was first generation American.  His family came in through Boston, instead of Ellis Island, and you can still find a slew of Ricciardellis stomping around Beantown.

He changed his name to Patrick Riccards in the 1950s, but the pride in our heritage never changed.  My father’s mother is both a Finelli and a Peron (yes, our family is partly responsible for Evita’s 15 and a half minutes of fame).  And as the genealogy goes, I am also descendent of proud Italians who fought on Garibaldi’s right hand in the liberation of Italy itself.
Over the weekend, my princesa, now in the first grade, began telling me all she learned this week about Christopher Columbus.  Typically, Columbus is another one of those pride points for an Italian-American family.  She told me about the three ships and how he sailed, and how he came to America to “discover a land for you and me.”
Those who know me know that both of my children are adopted from Guatemala.  And they know how proud we are of that, as a family.  Both my kids know they are adopted.  They both know about Guatemala  And they both fight us each week as they have to get up extra early for their weekly Spanish class before school starts.  We want them to be proud of their heritage, both that which they were born into and that into which they were adopted.
So imagine my surprise as I took this lesson as a teachable moment to remind my princesa of where she comes from.  First, I congratulated her for all that she had learned and the poem she had written about Columbus.  I then explained to her how she is descendent of the Mayan civilization, and the advances they achieved and how much they had done well before Columbus ever set foot on North America. 
We talked about what descendent meant, about what the Mayan did, and to remind he of where she came from.  She seemed to get most of it.  Asked a few additional questions, then went back to playing with her horses.
In years past, Columbus Day was always one of those great points of pride.  It is still true.  And while I am one of the last people who would ever be called “politically correct,” I found the need to explain, to make sure my kids shared the same pride about their heritage that I do, and understand that there is often more to the story than they might originally hear.
Heritage in an adopted family can be a tricky thing.  By blood, my kiddos are Guatemalan with Mayan ancestry.  On my paternal side, I have my proud Italian-American family.  On my maternal side, I am German-Irish-Scottish, with the Scots bringing a family tie to William the Bruce (of Braveheart fame) and of an alleged witch who was stoned to death in the village square.
The edu-wife offers up a paternal side of Russian Jews.  On her maternal side, she is descendent of an actual signer of the Declaration of Independence (from the Commonwealth of Virginia) and a pirate of the same era.  
We are the American melting pot.  So on this Columbus Day, I am proud of my heritage and equally proud of where my children come from.  I am proud of the Ricciardellis immigrating through Boston, and of my two kiddos immigrating through Houston as I helped them get sworn in as citizens in the bowels of Bush International Airport as they were seven and 13 months old.
Life is full of teachable moments.  I’m glad I was able to take advantage of this one and hope my kids will be able to share the same moment as they explain where they come from and what makes them who they are today, be it Mayan Guatemalan, Italian Catholic, Russian Jew, and pirate.