Monday, February 27, 2017

Perry High School's in-school Food Pantry: By Kids, For Kids. By K.



Ten of Pittsburgh Perry’s student body are in the beginning stages of something truly great and inspirational.  We are creating a food pantry within our school. We began a committee to create a food pantry when we realized there are a lot of students who are going hungry at home. For example, we know of a family with twelve members and eight children who gets less than $200 in food stamps a month. Families every day are struggling to get by, even on public assistance. When students don't eat they tend to be very angry and irritable and this causes a lot of fights at school.


Some of us get the backpack program. Your parents have to sign up for the backpack program, which allows you to take home blue plastic Giant Eagle bags with non-perishable food in them on the weekends. The problem with the backpack program is that  those bags are not enough to satisfy the hunger of a growing teen,  let alone them and their family. So, two of our ten food pantry members met with the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank, the head of Oliver High School's Backpack Program and Mary Shull, a community activist,  to see how we could work together to get our program off the ground. We discussed why we wanted to have a food pantry within our school. We showed them our plans up to that point, which included giving students choices about what kinds food they wanted to have in Perry’s food bank. We think if you have more of a choice between foods,  it won’t be a waste. We showed the Food Pantry people the space Mr. Cooper has designated for us.


The Greater Pittsburgh Food Pantry told us they are willing to work with us, and would give us a list of foods and hygiene products they could possibly provide for us.


Since then, with they help of Mary Shull, we created a survey for the student body to take. The survey lists what the Perry Food Pantry might be able to supply, and allows students to choose what they want in the pantry. When students take the survey, it will help us determine both how many kids might use the Perry Food bank and what items they want.


If the students come to our student-run food pantry, they will be more comfortable because it is not random people there judging them nor is it the staff there, it is their peers that are there. Our 10- members are very respectable and trustworthy. This is something small that could turn into something nation wide all we need is faith and a little help. -K.
Please support our GoFundMe campaign, which will allow us to purchase items we need for our Food Pantry. Thank you! Go Fund Me: Perry's Food Pantry Campaign

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Starving Students: and how we might respond



My friend told me her 7th-grade daughter just passed the Algebra Keystone our 10th graders at Perry keep failing. She was morose about it, because she teaches at Perry, and she gets beat over the head with A+ Schools' "Report to the Community" every year, and the PowerPoint presentations at every faculty and Parent-Community meeting. The data, the data, the data, the data that says our kids are underperforming on math and reading, math and reading, not to mention their dismal Biology Keystones, and God only knows, when the folks at the PDE come out with a standardized test for Social Studies and Home Ec and PE and everything else but what our kids are doing great at: surviving, and being every kind of beautiful in a world bent on destroying them. 

It's not just hyperbole. Our city may be the "most livable" for some, but it has one of the highest levels of Black poverty, our schools are some of the most segregated, our state offers zero aid to homeless children, and our public schools are made to do more with less, and less, and less and less. While white, suburban, socio-economically segregated schools roll and drip with cutting-edge technology and professional-grade scoreboards with video screens and marching bands 400-kids deep, replete with a glistening fleet of trucks to haul the brand-new instruments they play. 

In our school, children arrive so hungry that they ask teachers for food. They sleep in class. After long weekends in homes without food, or with food insecurity, they return to class angry, they can't pay attention, they have stomach and headaches, their chronic illnesses are flaring or are in crisis. We have not had a full time school nurse in many months, and so finding a nurse in her office to help is catch-as-catch-can. If we had a doctor on site, her prescription would be food, healthy food, a steady stream of it, and lots of it, as needed. 

Since we don't have a doctor on site, Perry students have decided to come to their own rescue, and this is how: they are working on a plan to develop an in-school Food Pantry. Working with community activist Mary Shull, and Oliver City-Wide teacher Holly Sousa, an 11-student Perry committee will soon meet with the Pittsburgh Food Bank. The idea is to have students create, manage and run a Food Pantry inside Perry in co-operation with local funders and resources that will serve their peers. Agency, choice, voice, some kind of food security, a reason to come to school beyond learning: to serve others. To make a difference in the lives of your peers. To help yourself, to learn how to run an "agency" in your school that might just calm your school. That might just heal your school. That might provide a measure of peace, for you and for your friends, and your not-friends. Food heals. It literally and figuratively nourishes a body, in this case a student body. There is nothing Perry students can't do. Watch this space to learn how you might support their effort. Love.





Saturday, October 15, 2016

Love Song to My Students



"When my Dad sees this," C said, holding his first report card, "I'm going to be the new IronMan." 
"How?" I said.
"Imma have a hole punched right through my chest."

I howled. He laughed, too, but it clearly wasn't that funny to him. He was the one, after all, who had to go home to face his Dad with bad grades.

C. is one of my favorites. Last year, when he was a tall, skinny freshman, he performed at City of Asylum with my film students and the music kids. He sang Am I Wrong by Nico & Vinz in a wide-brimmed black felt hat, with a three-foot red pheasant feather hanging out of the back. The kid can sing, beautifully, one thin wrist raised high, imploring-- "AM I WRONG???"-- and he moonwalked all over the stage, bumping the pretty girls, upperclassmen, who were his backup singers. Poor C. Even during his glory moment-- during his actual moment in the spotlight-- he was annoying girls. 

M. joined the Gay-Straight Alliance this year, but not easily. I turned him away. I actually threw him out, several times, thinking he was joking, or being a jerk, or just wanted to chow on the pizza I order every week for the club I sponsor for our school. He kept coming back, asking to join, refusing to touch the pizza. I let him in. He's made some crazy suggestions-- let's raise money for the GSA by having a Powder Puff football game!-- but when somebody talks about being harassed for being LGBT, or different, or weak, or whatever-- M.'s eyes go cold. He is as hurt and angry as the rest of us.

We designed Little Free Libraries last year for the neighborhoods on the North Side, and M.'s was stunning. This big kid, for whom football is vitally important, spent hour after hour painstakingly drawing-- freehand-- the Roberto Clemente and Andy Warhol bridges, and then painting them in exquisite detail, each plate girder and eye-bar in place.

I'm a morning person. Every day, I stand in the hall at Perry with Library passes, greeting kids as they walk in. I am there, inevitably in a dress, wearing a crazy, bright shiny necklace (it's kind of my thing) doing a stand-up routine like a caffeinated Effie Trinket.  I don't know where it comes from, but as kids walk in, I have to bleat like a sheep at them. There's a kid whose name sounds like part of a Hebrew prayer. So I sing the prayer to her. Every day. I tell kids they look good. I tell them it's good to see them. I say Yo a lot. I say Hello, Perrrryyyyyyyy! If they are wearing blue I congratulate them on wearing the school color. I don't know. Having an excess of personality in the morning is definitely a character flaw, and I'm not working on it. It's loud. It's obnoxious. I can't help it at all. 

A. walks in everyday in a Star-Wars hoodie, bleary eyed. She gets her breakfast from the cafeteria, then stands in the doorway where I stand and observes the May-Stein show, perhaps as a way to wake up. It's unclear. But every day, she's there, and she won't share her breakfast with me, which is definitely uncool. 

A. is as stalwart, hardworking, and trustworthy a person I think I've ever met, and she's not even a senior in high school yet. She worked for two weeks straight to make a power point to explain the differences between genderfluid and intersex, asexual and ally, transgender and bisexual: these terms and others the GSA needs to master in order to teach teachers and students at our school. 

Every day she breaks minor rules all other students are made to follow at Perry because she simply can. Why? Because she's the kind of kid who does everything right, who teachers trust implicitly, and who can get away with it because she deserves it. A. captains the sports teams she plays, gets good grades, is a great student leader, and basically is the President of the GSA. Here's what makes me worry: when, oh when, is A. going to cut loose? I worry: am I doing enough to help her know that she doesn't have to be perfect? Does she know that she doesn't have to be perfect for me? That even though I do count on her-- she doesn't have to be the one everybody counts on all the time? That she can figure things out, too? That she's allowed to be wild and crazy? To make mistakes? Be a goofball? 

When school started, I told myself I was going to make a note of every time something beautiful or funny or good or lovely happened-- a time a child revealed their vulnerability, or their goodness, or their gifts, so that I could hold on to how much beauty is part of my daily life and chosen field. But I have given that up. There's too much. I'm inundated with beauty, where I work. My kids shoot me through with it, all the time, just breathing the same air. They fill me up. 

So when I read the article about the folks in Bethel Park who showed their hatred of kids like mine, I felt sad for them, especially since their acts are getting national coverage. Their ignorance and shame stand before the world now as another example of what happens when Americans willingly segregate ourselves from each other. 

When I go to work, I see the enormous privilege I have because I work in an urban inner city school. Suburban school districts may have purchased themselves an illusion of socioeconomic uniformity and privilege, but in doing so, they won't know C.'s ability to draw. His humor. How he sings, and dances, his world-class wit. If they ever see an athletic young Black man like M., they'll never assume he is capable of intense sensitivity, or know his mammoth talent, acting ability, or how multi-faceted he is. They won't know he pushed his way into a club to protect his vulnerable classmates. Bethel residents may not be able to imagine that a student like A. is teaching an inner-city staff and student body about LGBTQIA diversity and needs, but she is. 

A love song to my students. You give me life. I'm so grateful to you, and to each one I didn't name. You know who you are. I love you. You know I mean it. Ms. May.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/10/13/crowd-shouts-racial-slurs-at-all-black-youth-football-team-when-some-players-kneel-during-anthem-coach-says/


http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/real-time/Racial-slurs-heard-when-youth-football-team-takes-a-knee.html




Wednesday, June 29, 2016

PA Budget Cuts have UNMADE Education: and our Voices must REMAKE it


The Reel Teens: Pittsburgh Episode 3 from Steeltown Entertainment Project on Vimeo.


As an eighth grader at Reizenstein Middle School, I had an art teacher who gave me the coolest assignment ever. She handed out drafting paper, a nice, sharp charcoal pencil, an artist's eraser, enormous pieces of thin cardboard, the kind of rubber cement with the brush on the lid, and actual Exacto blades-- with extra blades when yours got lost, or dull. Can you imagine that kind of trust now?? Anyway! Our assignment was to imagine, then plan out and draw our dream home. The next step was to BUILD it, based on our plans. Mine had a conservatory, a library, a Scarlett O'Hara staircase, and three floors. It looked like a bad wedding cake, listing heavily to one side, and it won no beauty contests. Who CARED? The fun, the process- the swoosh of the glue from that awesome, fat brush, struggling through the cardboard with the blades, trying for a clean edge-- the process, it was the process that was so. much. fun. 

I'll never forget that project, although what the clear details of the class, the teacher, the grade I got on the project are? Long forgotten. It only occurs to me now, as an educator, that the art teacher had collapsed boundaries between art, math, technology, and engineering in that assignment, and all I knew as a kid was that I wasn't going to miss that class-- ever. And my best friend from the time, Jami Rosen, can tell you that she and I missed classes on occasion to do crazy things-- like.... well, never mind. 


Anyway--- again! Hands on learning-- that's the kind of stuff that brings kids to school. I had a kid in my Film class this past year who only showed up on Tuesdays and Thursdays because those were the days the teaching artists from Steeltown came to class. On those days, she was going on field trips to interview people on the North Side, eating food she hadn't tried before, learning about RandyLand, the Mattress Factory, the Warhol, City of Asylum, Manchester Craftsmans Guild-- and filming it all herself with professional equipment. Her other teachers were so angry at the situation that they talked to me about it, and asked for help, which I tried to give. But I understood. Because when kids are excited about doing things with their minds/hands/hearts all at once, it is hard not to identify with them.


My film class was featured in The Reel Teens Pittsburgh, which stars one of the former students of the Film class, Hazell Azzer. The third episode of the show focuses on ReMake Learning, which is the brainchild of Gregg Behr, the Chairman of the Grable Foundation.


ReMake seeks to put an emphasis on hands on, student-driven learning like I did at Reizenstein, like the kids of Reel Teens do, like the Film class does. Some of the other hands-on learning that happens at Perry High School is also featured in this wonderful television show, created by kids from across the city and produced by my partner for Perry's Film class, Steeltown Entertainment Project. 


As you saw if you watched the episode (and you should) ReMake is a big deal in Pittsburgh.  A representative from the White House came to congratulate the effort, Gregg Behr was honored by the President for his leadership, and millions of dollars have been pledged to help bring STEAM and project-based learning to schools and out-of-school providers across the region. And all of that is a huge boon to our area, and I am so glad, and grateful. But there is one elephant in the room, and I need to talk about it, with the hope that all of us ReMakers can work together now in this time of real educational crisis. 


Reizenstein had a great woodshop, possibly a metal shop (I did't go in there, so I don't know for sure), an enormous swimming pool, a gigantic library, a drama department (I was in Babes in Arms with THEE BILLY PORTER!!) What's my point? Bear with me for a minute more.


Connelly trained high school kids in machinery, welding, HVAC, carpentry. South Vo-Tech fought closure to add a vocational-technical training program to their school in the 80's. Home Economics. Computer Class. Keyboarding. Art. Musical Instruments. Music. Ceramics. How many of these classes are STEAM skills, and cut to the bone, or non-existent in Pittsburgh Public Schools, because we don't have any money to fund them? Perry used to offer jewelry class in a fully equipped metal shop, with the ability to weld. We have a greenhouse in disrepair that is not functional (but could be.) We used to have a woodshop, but it is not used any more. 


How many other Pittsburgh Public schools have un- and under-utilized spaces for the kinds of learning that are now offered by Tech Shop, the Children's Museum, the Carnegie Libraries, the Science Center, et al? This is not to say that the immaculate Maker Spaces in those facilities shouldn't exist-- they should, and they are doing beautiful work. But here's the elephant in the room: not everybody has transportation, admission fees, and/or an adult to accompany them to out-of-school facilities. 


I understand that one of the purposes of ReMake Learning is to provide some of the enrichment that suburban and private school kids get outside of school inside of school. That won't happen until the brick-and-mortar investments in our public schools are made (and remade.) It is lovely that the Manchester Academic Charter School has been given residence in the Children's Museum, but to my knowledge, no traditional public school was offered this opportunity. Until public schools are actually given the chance to co-locate inside world-class (and partially publicly funded) museums with Maker Spaces inside of them, we'll have to go begging to make or remake our own facilities, inside our own walls. Or, preferably, our constitutionally guaranteed right to a "thorough and efficient" education will be safeguarded by Pennsylvanians who care about kids.


As a group of educators, innovators, philanthropists, community leaders, and stakeholders, we have to work together not only to restore funding for pubic schools, but to ensure there is a fair funding formula. According to the Education Law Center, "Pennsylvania is one of only three states that creates a budget without using a statewide education funding formula. As a result, the quality of a child's education often depends on their zip code. High-poverty public schools in Pennsylvania spend an annual average of $3000 less per student compared to wealthy schools, adding up to a funding gap of $75,000 in a classroom of 25 students." 


Governor Wolf and the House have proposed a state budget that would almost restore education funding to the pre-2011 level, before Governor Corbett made $1Billion in cuts that decimated our schools. We have to call our state legislators, have lunch with them if we have that kind of access, lean on them, and say that school funding in our state is not a political football, but a first priority. While state Republicans have unmade Pennsylvania education budgets, it is incumbent upon us all to REMAKE it, and remake it in the way it should look for all children. Please ask the Senate to pass the budget our Governor and House have proposed. Because we stand united in the belief that they all deserve it, equally. 


How Gov. Wolf's Proposed Budget Affects Your School

http://www.elc-pa.org/fighting-for-fair-school-funding/

How Governor Wolf's Fair Funding Formula Will Work

For-70-years-Connelley-school-did-A-work


Pittsburghers protest school closings


http://remakelearning.org


Although Corbett has been voted out, his disastrous educational policies have not. Read this excellent blog post by my friend Jessie Ramey to learn more about why we're in the place we are in in our state, and how to talk to your state legislator about change: /top-10-education-reasons-to-vote-corbett-out/













Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Jewish and Confused



It is a confusing time to be a Jew in Pittsburgh. It is an election year, and a year in which more and more parts of Pittsburgh are "transforming," I have lived here all of my adult life. I am blessed to know Jewish people from all walks of life, rich, poor, urban, suburban, unpolitical, left, right, center, Marxist, and Tea Party Republican. I have been a member of two Reform congregations, worked in a Conservative Day School, have a cousin who is an ordained Hebrew Priestess, more than one who grew up Orthodox, and I myself converted. It is a lovely swirl of viewpoints, but a swirl.

Add social media, where voices intrude at all times of day and night if you let them-- boiling with election madness, with people talking about gentrification, with my own thoughts-- OY! So much to think about and so much to hear.


And as we know, there is a season for everything. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. I would like to frame this as an open letter to my community, in a way, because I am so confused right now about what it means to be a Jew, both in America and in Pittsburgh. Things are happening close to home and in our country that seem so upside down that I feel as if I am living inside Chagall's shtetl paintings. When Louis Farrakkan "likes what he sees" when he hears Trump, because "Trump isn't taking Jewish money" in his election, (Farrakhan) and my Jewish friends say they'll vote for Trump if they have to-- you can see why I feel so fershimmiled that writing to you and to the world and to the cold, dark, remote bright stars seems like a good option.




So many voices are speaking in an election year, in a year in which we must transition from the now-known era of the first Black President and the rise of a new kind of opposing Republican party.


What may have started with turning Southerners against the Democratic party during the Civil Rights movement has become something else in 2016-- in fact, as Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have argued, perhaps what we are witnessing now is the unfought and unwon parts of the Civil War. When we are still arguing whether or not to fly the rebel flag of the Confederacy over state buildings, the point sort of makes itself.


In fact, the 2016 Republican party is perhaps not what is new, but what is newly allowed to be out in the light. And for that, maybe we have Trump and Cruz to thank, as well as our first Black President, who together have blown open a festering dark place in America's soul. This election cycle gives voice to it.



Of course the voices given the most time and volume are those Republican voices like Cruz's and Trump's, the current Republican front runners for President. 

Cruz proudly is endorsed by Mike Bickle, an evangelical pastor who preaches that Hitler was sent by God to be a hunter of Jews because they wouldn't convert to Christianity. See him preaching here: Mike Bickle Preaching Hunters to Kill Jews 

Cruz believes America is a singular Christian nation, and he will strive to keep and make it that way. He is anti-gay, anti-women's rights, and plans to eliminate the IRS, and the Departments of Education, Energy, Commerce and Housing and Urban Development.

Trump is openly supported by the KKK and other hate groups, an endorsement he has refused to repudiate. Trump cannily plays on the anti-immigrant, anti-Brown people (for lack of a more specific term) undercurrent and enthusiastically encourages supporters to mistreat opposition voices at his rallies, which do not bring visions of Brown Shirts to my mind alone. 





Both Trump and Cruz are proudly supported by many Jewish people, which to me makes about as much sense as a chicken who wants a fox in charge of the hen house. Which of course-- exposes a big conundrum. When I look at my Tea Party or right-wing Jewish friends' Facebook or Twitter feeds, I see mostly pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian, anti-terror posts. 
Increasingly, some of their posts say things like, "anybody but the Socialist." Huh? Because National Socialism and Democratic Socialism have anything in common? 


These are people whom I respect, who are smart, kind, good people making statements on social media about how they will vote for Trump or Cruz over the first viable Jewish candidate for President the United States has ever run. Bernie Sanders has spoken for 35 years about things like health care for all. A living wage. Choice. Respect for immigrants and "other." His platform could have been written by Emma Lazarus herself, the young Jewish immigrant who gave voice to the identity of the American ideal.


Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"



Forgotten are those words now, apparently, by American Jewish supporters of Cruz and Trump, some of them children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims who may have survived had they been welcomed to our "golden door." Those folks are slathering over themselves to write checks, or holding their noses while they write checks, whichever it is-- for surely, checks are being written by Jewish hands-- to build giant walls to keep out new generations of wretched masses in the name of the same "security" that kept out forefathers and mothers.

I hear those Jewish voices who support Trump and Cruz. I read their words in the news and I wonder about those I know. And I think about those Jewish people I know or know of in my own city who own successful businesses or whose children I have known or taught, and the choices they are making in different ways here. Not choices about for whom they will vote necessarily, but political choices nonetheless. Their voices and their choices puzzle me too, and confuse me and concern me. To be a Jew is never to feel alone, at least not in my experience. The community is always a part of me, and I feel part of it. But that was not always true.


The first time I met a Jewish person I was aware of as a Jewish person was at Reizenstein Middle School. I was put into advanced classes by kind teachers, and with me in those classes were a few quiet and very reserved African-American kids, most of Squirrel Hill's kids, and me, white trash from Highland Park. We were let out for recess on a giant green space, most sadistically before lunch, across from a Nabisco factory that scented the air with chocolate chip cookies. Today that Nabisco factory has been turned into Bakery Square, the home of Google Pittsburgh and many high-end retail stores and restaurants. Reizenstein and the glorious green space that surrounded it was purchased for a song from the Pittsburgh Public Schools for an unknown reason, and was promptly torn to the ground.


As everyone in Pittsburgh knows, the advent of the Google age in Pittsburgh has been loud. "Transforming" is one verb that has been used, but the word "gentrification" is louder among the voices I hear most often. Googlers have come, and they have needed places to live. So Walnut Capital and other companies have built new housing. One of my students at Perry actually asked me if the special skywalk that bridges Google Pittsburgh to the new building going up on ashes of Reizenstein is so "Google people" won't have to see Black people." Micro-apartments, that is, one-bedrooms of 510 square feet costing $1340-$1600 per month are available in this new development.




Of course all of this is nestled into and surrounded by Homewood, where I did my student teaching. Where this happened. Where this is. Where in 2006, the infant mortality rate was 40.7%, while Pittsburgh's as a whole was 9.6%. (Allegheny Dpt. Human Srvcs) So what, right? Businesses coming to poor neighborhoods can bring everybody up, right? Pointing a finger at one specific business or at several is nonsensical, right?


Is it? Last week a glamorous party was held at Bakery Square, a fund raiser for a non-profit with the laudable goal of raising funds for communities hard-hit by natural disasters. At the party, one party-planner "took partygoers on a decadent journey with a nod to Versailles. Green balloons floated on the ceiling, glittering bonbons were nibbled as the “Queen” and “King” of Versailles picked lucky guests out of the crowd for delicious chocolate treats that the Queen, herself, poured chocolate sauce over as a finishing touch." (P-G


If it raises funds for poor communities, who cares who pours chocolate on what, you might ask, but you'd be lame to ask, and you'd know it, because that juxtaposition stinks. The geopolitical reality of dying infants and reenactments of Marie Antoinette within the same neighborhood, if you are aware and alive to it, is too gruesome and too much. 


Bakery Square is 2 miles from Wilkinsburg High School, which is closing and sending its entire student body, along with all of its middle school kids, to Westinghouse next year, a Pittsburgh Public school 1.3 miles away. Wilkinsburg (nicknamed "We'll Kill Yinz Burg" because of neighborhood violence) can't afford to educate its own children, you know....2 miles away from Google. But-- uplift. Great things. Progress. The recipient of the fund raiser at Bakery Square? New Orleans.


Bakery Square, Google, East Liberty, the fundraiser-- not all the work of Jewish people and/or Jewish business, of course. However, some major players there were-- and because this is my place to think out loud, and to wonder what it means to be a person and a Jew-- I have to say-- what the hell is going on? 


Moving a little further into East Liberty, or as some developer tried unsuccessfully to rebrand it, "East Side,"--How can the owners of Pennley Park South give their impoverished, sometimes handicapped and elderly residents $1600, 90 days and "get thee out so," so their home can be "redeveloped to residential and retail space?" Even worse--how can our city give these owners 2.2 acres of publicly owned land as a bribe to even do this much for the owners, thereby privatizing park land that previously belonged to all Pittsburghers? See: Pennley Park South 


I hereby claim the right as a Jewish resident of this city to call out fellow Jews I've never met on this bullshittery. Throwing the old and the weak out into the street for profit? For profitable bribes? When do "Torah" and "business" intersect? 


If you tell me they don't, you have your answer as to why the world sucks. And how in the world can we Jewish people act astonished when African-Americans have some historical anger at us? How can we continue to self-righteously point at pictures of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King? It's been a long road since those days-- and perhaps no road longer than here in the 'burgh.


Can we stop looking to vote for somebody who would be the one to protect us from our worst fears, and start looking to vote for somebody who would be our partner in making the world less to be afraid of? Can we start talking to our friends, even knowing what could be lost, when they make choices we think are weird or wrong? How is possible to get closer to living our values?


Maybe trying to be an upstander--taking those risks-- is the price of being a Jewish person in a small town in an election year during what feels like the Civil War. Maybe in writing all of this---that person could be me. 


why-in-the-world-would-american-jews-support-trump/


jews-for-trump-maybe


For an alternative viewpoint of Jewish person writing in support of Bernie Sanders for President, see David Harris Gershon's excellent Daily Kos article: The-First-Jewish-President


For a tremendously impactful look at gentrifiation, see: wilkinsburg-the-side-of-americas-most-livable-city-pittsburgh-doesnt-want-you-to-see/



We can't fix economic inequality without addressing racism.

Posted by Demos on Saturday, March 12, 2016

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Jane Heather McKee Library

When I was in fifth grade, I went to a tiny school in Delmont, Pennsylvania called Mamont Elementary. There was a room in the basement with books, and that was our library. No librarian, of course. One day I checked out a book called Girls Can Do It, Too! It had a picture of a girl in a cape making muscles. When I showed my teacher, my beloved Mrs. Silvis, whose pet I kind of definitely was, she said, "Uh-huh. I've been trying to get that out of the library for some time." She arched her eyebrow over her tortoise shell glasses. I felt bad for taking the book out. I don't think I read it.

Having the courage of my convictions is a daily struggle for me. That is why my friend Jane McKee is such an inspiration. She drives a huge, taxi-cab yellow monster truck with a license plate that says, EXPLORE. No money for exotic vacations? No problem. She worked as a maid so she and her daughter could summer in Maui. Fascinated by the Iditarod, Jane taught her 800+ students at Colfax K-8 about it, then drove to Alaska to work with a professional musher. Who DRIVES TO ALASKA alone with her 11-year old daughter? A brave woman, that's who.

Jane loves Assateague, the little island in Maryland where wild ponies roam. She spent so many days and night camping there, waking to gulls crying and waves crashing. I hate beach camping. Sand in cracks it shouldn't be in. Blah. But not Jane. Wild ponies. Crashing waves. Blue sky.

Jane dresses up each year in a different costume to make kids want to read more. She's the school Librarian. And what a Librarian. Believing mightily in the power of the sound of stories, Jane read stories aloud to thousands of kids. She started an international collection for the children from Mongolia, Japan, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Korea. With the help of her loving, supportive and mighty PTSO, she started a lending collection of American Girl dolls. She refuses to let kids be bullied. We call Jane the Pirate Librarian Queen.

But now Jane is in the hospital in serious condition. And a dream has started to form in my mind. And I thought, if I shared it with you, we might be able to think about it together and you could add your thoughts, and the kids could add theirs, and teachers could add theirs, and parents could add theirs. And since we are COLFAX, we could make miracles happen. Because that is what Colfax does. So here it is.

The Library at Colfax is too small. It does not function well as it is. And the space on the second floor is greatly needed as classroom space. So: let's build the Library the school deserves. For all the students. For Jane. For when she gets better.

You know where the garden is right now? Off of the art room? Great, sunny, beautiful space. Let's build a Library there, a 2-story space, with a courtyard in which the garden still is, and which an apiary and a bird watching space is. Let's put a star gazing space on the roof. Let's build a Young Adult Library inside it, with computers and a place to build films and robots. Let's make a story circle worthy of Jane's stories. Let's put a Maker Space in there. Let's endow it with a book budget worthy of the children who go to Colfax--- the East Hills children, who don't have a Library in their community, the Squirrel Hill children who may not have a Mom or Dad who can get them to the Library. Colfax is the experiment in public education, in desegregation-- in multiculturalism-- THAT WORKED. THAT WORKS. It is proof to all the Donald Trumps out there that the American Dream can be real. That it isn't just a lie.

Colfax is a crucible of the haves, the have nots, the Blacks, the whites, the browns, yellows, blues and greens. Colfax is the youngs and olds, the bused in and the walked over. Colfax is the place where the multicultural fair is attended by the whole neighborhood, where Orthodox kids come to play-- and sometimes come to school. It's the place where difference works. Can we build a LIBRARY, a treasure house of stories that opens children's hearts to this difference, to this value system? That will live forever in brick and stone, growing high with sunflowers inside and Jane's name over the door?

Can Colfax kids design it? Can Colfax parents build it? Can the District approve it? Can her friends be the mortar and the brick that help to make the miracle real? Prayers for Jane. Prayers for Colfax.


Post Script:
A teacher-leader at Colfax told me privately that she thought a building project at Colfax was a bad idea. She said that she thought there would be little support for such a project within District leadership, because Colfax is considered by some to be a privileged school full of privileged kids, and building in Squirrel Hill when schools in other parts of the city are struggling so mightily with much less that Colfax already has would be a poor political decision.

Maybe there are ways to make a library at Colfax, worthy of its many children, from all over the city and all over the world, possible. That will be something that the adults both inside and outside the school will have to do-- the staff and students and parents who loved Jane. I will join whatever effort is decided upon by this learning community, in any way I can.

In the meantime: I miss my friend. I keep her picture on the desk I use to get ready for work in the morning, and I talk to her every day. When somebody brings her up, I am startled, because I remember again that she is gone. I can't assimilate that very well. She is such a strong living force. I am still crying. But, Jane is a strength in my heart, too. She is and will always be the Pirate Librarian Queen for me-- a strong, independent woman who was kind, and loving, and righteous, without being self-righteous, or bitchy, or mean. She was the kind of woman I'd like to be more like. I am holding on to her example as a literal light out of the dark. Maybe the night we had the impromptu vigil for her at Colfax-- the night, it turned out, she passed away-- maybe that night her soul didn't fly to heaven, but nestled close to us, in each of those fragile, but glowing lights we held close. I love you, Jane.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Facing Evil with Maya Angelou




My Dear Students. Today I am asking you to watch the 22 minute video, above. It is of a great journalist, Bill Moyers, interviewing Maya Angelou after a conference called Facing Evil. After you watch the video, I would like you to think about these questions:

What is evil?

What are some of the ways people choose to face evil?

Can people make choices about how to respond to evil?

How are responses to evil related to every day survival?

Please write a thoughtful response to one of these questions or to one of your own-- or to any of your thoughts about something related to the video.




Sunday, October 11, 2015

Remaking Learning at Perry High School's Library





My ex-brother in law works at Google Pittsburgh. Let's call him BIL. BIL gets to work each morning and is greeted by a hearty breakfast cooked for him by a gourment chef. The meals are healthy, locally sourced and delicious, with Google's own egg-laying chickens and honey-bearing bees on the roof. If BIL doesn't want what the chef cooked that day, he can go to one of a few stocked mini-food bars, where there are cold drinks, coffee and tea, piles of fresh fruit and islands which hold tall glass containers of candy and snacks.

If BIL needs a break, he can go to the music room, sit down at the keyboard or pick up an instrument and jam with his friends. He can go to the video game room and relax, shoot some bad guys in a bean bag chair, and let his mind go in a differnent way for awhile. He can untangle the problem he was working on while playing, or chat with a coworker. If that doesn't work-- he can go to the massage room for a nice massage. At Google Pittsburgh, there is a net that hangs over part of the work space. It has large pillows in it. You can take a book and lie in the net, spider-like, dangling 30 feet above everybody else, and rest. There is a beautiful gourmet dinner for you waiting-- and you don't have go home until you want to. What a great way to work! What a great way for a company to treat valued employees! What a terrific way to encourage mind-body connection-and help good thinkers continue to think, collaborate, engage, create!

Wouldn't it be nice for school children to be treated like the computer software engineers at Google Pittsburgh? Our world certainly needs kids' brain power at least as much as it needs BIL's. It's not just the beautiful food and massages I'm talking about. What I find most important about Google's approach is their willingness to create an environment in which people can back up, rest, relax, and engage with others at work. I believe relationships and engaging with others is the way to truly be productive in the 21st century.

So let's do that! Let's remake what learning looks like at our schools! And guess what? It seems we may have some catching up to do.

A group of folks in Pittsburgh have been thinking about project-based, hands-on, creative, engaging, collaborative type education for a long time. Almost a decade ago, a group of smart folks got together to think about how the internet age had changed the way kids thought and learned. They wanted a new way to engage kids. They began to meet at Pamela's for pancakes (proving as always that where there is food, there is good thinking) and brain storming about how to better meet the needs of a different type of learner-- one who didn't want to be lectured to-- who wanted to make, create, do, be something-- who demanded to be heard, listened to, who wanted to move around, build stuff, learn from other kids, find their own ways. A kid who needed new pathways to excel. This group became Kids+Creativity--thought leaders who wanted to improve how kids learned in and around Pittsburgh.

Almost 10 years later, the group has become Remake Learning. Their mission statement reads:

Representing more than 200 organizations, Remake Learning is a professional network of schools, museums, libraries, afterschool programs, community centers, higher education institutions, education technology companies, philanthropies, and civic leaders working together to inspire a generation of lifelong learners in Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and beyond.
Pretty damn cool, and pretty impressive. Like I said--Pamela's pancakes will take you a long way. But-- all kidding aside-- when the right, creative people are in the room-- awesome things happen. 

And that's what the video you watched at the beginning of this blog post showed, too-- awesome things happening in Perry's Library, because great people came together. Daniel Brown, one of the Teen Librarians from the Allegheny branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, brought music technology from The Labs, a technology and arts Maker Space they have at their branch. Five volunteer/therapy dog owners from Animal Friends brought their dogs. And our kids-- our kids. Some of our music students prepared instrumental and vocal pieces to perform. And they were brilliant.

That gorgeous stew of folks remade learning for Friday, October 8th. We had a veritable salon in the Library of kids, mixing and experimenting with sound and music technology. We had others listening to peers perform, gaining new knowlege and respect for North Side kids across social groups, academic abilities, races. There were the dogs, which brought sparkle, calm, joy and interest to the whole room. The best thing? The creative, artistic, safe, engaging and positive place this group of people (and beasts) made the Library into. And guess what?! WPXI's Courtney Brennan came to film our event!! We were so pleased that they cared about sharing good news out of a pubic school!



Dogs and music combine for touching moments for students at...

Here are ways my learning community and I are working to remake learning in Perry's Library: my Journalism class is working with Steeltown Entertainment to teach our kids film making skills. The kids wrote essays about their lives on the North Side, some excerpts of which I published here. Based on the power of their published work, the kids have been invited to perform at the City of Asylum on October 23rd, at 813 Sampsonia Way on the North Side from 7-9PM.

We begin work on framing our essays into spoken word performances with the music and instrumental teachers and their students this week. We are taking our kids and following their interest and then chaperoning them and their work out into the wider world. What a great way to learn! What a great way to teach!! Our kids might be getting ready for you, Google Pittsburgh! Watch out! Make room in that hanging net! We have collaborative meetings to schedule with you!














READ REMAKE LEARNING'S PLAYBOOK: http://remakelearning.org/playbook/




Sunday, October 4, 2015

North Side Voices



Growing up on the northside is not very easy
there was a lot of shootings everyday especially when i was a little kid

one day me, my two brothers and my older sister was coming from the park
they had me in a stroller and my sister was strollering me

they started shooting

my brothers and sister started running

they dropped the stroller while i was still in there

and left me

in the middle

of the street

five minutes after   that    my mom came    and got me
i could of   got   shot but thank god i did not
we moved off of the northside after a while
and moved to the southside
there were shootings over there too
but we moved from over there back to the northside
on woodland ave as they like to call it woodland block
when we first moved on that street there was a shooting
cause of the northview and manchester beef
the shootings stopped for a couple of days and we all went back to having fun
you know doin what teenagers do
then i hear on the news
that a fourteen year old boy died

I am teaching a Creative Nonfiction class. My kids are writing personal narratives about growing up on the North Side of Pittsburgh. I have to grade them this weekend, which means today, because I put it off yesterday. The stack of papers to be graded were glowing with a kind of negative energy in my mind, like Kryptonite. I was avoiding them mightily. I have to face them.


I'm stronger now. I saw friends last night. I slept long. I'm fresher, better today. 

But I'm still afraid, because the pain of reading my kids' experience, of facing the realities they are forced to live, is makes my blood stop and the bile rise in my throat. Tears prick thinking about it.


Growing up on the North Side is not the easiest thing in the world. But growing up as an African American homosexual male on the North Side isn't any easier. You can often find it one of the harder things you ever do. You are already a minority being African American, but then being homosexual puts you at the bottom of the totem pole. Most people find homosexual men loud, flamboyant, blunt, and too gay for their own good. Most of us are actually chill. But because they don't see that side of the community, we are not set aside from the stereotypical homsexual men in the world. I found many times in my life where I was treated different for being gay on the North Side. It's not fun, amusing or emotionally healthy. Acutally it's stressful, worrisome and judgemental.


I remember many times where I found myself being taunted for being gay. But the most memorable moment of all was at a dance competition on the  North Side. ...I knew that it was going hard for the team I was on because typically dance teams are all female squads. But we had three males on the team; including me. I just wanted to perform and take the the title as Best in Pittsburgh. So I hope they would look past the fact.


...The first song we danced to at the competition was Michael Jackson's Remember the Time. We reinacted the breakdown of the song where all the Egyptians were coming from all sorts of places of the set and danced. Now this is where things started to get out of hand. All of the choreography that was on the team was made for men but we did it anyways. And Nicki Minaj's song Anaconda started to play. There was booty popping that we all had no choice but to do. But it wouldn't take a genius to figure out, and you could have guessed not too long after; I found that several men and WOMEN were leaving. They left the stand and went out the door like roaches when you turn on the light. Some even got water and brought it to the dance floor yelling, "WE HAVE TO GET RID OF THE PARASITE, GET OUT THEM DEMON, and THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU." I never felt so hurt, so embarrassed, so unwanted ever. Not only did the guys on the dance but I felt for the dance team and all homosexual men everywhere. It had me thinking: this is how the world perceives homosexual men. As some sort of PARASITE or DISEASE.


I knew when I took this job that a large percentage of my students would come from hard circumstances, and that there would be suffering and difficulty in some of their lives. I have spent most of my career working with kids in those circumstances, so these things are not surprises. And being personally triggered by the stories of the children I serve is not new either. Placing grades on kids' stories IS new. I could take the easy way out and give everybody an "A" for effort. But not all of my kids gave the same effort. And some of them, like the young writer above, are gifted writers with inborn talent. How do you differentiate grading for that? I owe my students the help I can give with mechanics and writing conventions and improving and improving, which they can do. Don't grades have something to do with that?

      I went to visit my Dad on a Friday, I had just got there. I asked my Dad to order me food from the bar downstairs. My dad had just moved into this apartment on top of a bar. So he ordered me my usual food, chicken fries. About a half hour after he called, he told me to go downstairs and get my food and a Pepsi. 
       I walked into the bar and there weren't many people there. There were a few people in the back playing pool and a few people sitting at the tables and the counter. I paid for my food and a drink and walked out the front door. 
       Once I got outside I heard two people talking from the side of the bar. So I walked around the corner, which was only a few feet. I peeked around the corner and saw two middle aged white men holding a needle into their arm. I was only 11 at the time, but I knew what they were doing.
I stood there thinking about what was going on and what I could do about it. I slowly walked away and went up the stairs to the apartment.
      I told my Dad I saw two guys outside with a needle and his face dropped. I could tell he was mad. I sat down and ate my food while Dad called up my older cousin and went outside. My cousin was someone I spent a lot of time around, and he was like a father figure to me.
      About 5 mins later I walked outside and the two guys were gone. My dad and my cousin were standing where they had been and had on gloves picking up the needle. My cousin yelled at my dad for letting them get away and then he yelled at him for letting me witness this. I could tell my Dad felt bad beause he got a sad look on his face. He told me to go inside and finish my food. So I did. I never talked to my Dad about that again.

Many of my students speak in defense of their neighborhood. They want to be clear that tragedy, darkness, shootings, and crime don't completely define where they live. Although this student began an essay about gun violence several times, and her own experience with it, she ended up beginning her final narrative this way:

I love living on the North Side. It's fun. I have friends I can go outside with and have fun with. Everyone thinks the North Side is full of mean, dangerous people, but its not the whole North Side. Yes, the North Side has its days where somebody is dying but killings isn't all on the North Side. The North Side is also full of fun, bright and caring people. The schools on the North Side tend to help the bad students stay in school and stay off the streets.

The students' humor, agility in returning and showing love and ability to recognize goodness in others proves they live with love in their lives. It isn't the darkness and pain that draws me to this kind of student. It is their intrinsic light. Their superhuman ability to create art in the face of a world that under resources, under utilizes, underrates and underestimtes them at every turn. A world that seeks to break Black bodies as a national birth right, as Ta-Nehisi Coates says. These children, my children, no different than Michael Brown or Rekia Boyd, capable as anybody, given the opportunity. But.

My house is right up the street from train tracks and around the corner from a prison. I had two little sisters at the time and one brother that was living with me. So every time we asked to go outside or anything, my Mom would be kind of afraid that one of my little sisters would get snatched up because of the guys leaving the prison. My neighborhood is very quiet, I only have five houses on my street, a church and two bars at the very end. I would be afraid to walk past bars to either go to the store or go to my bus stop because I was but so big and people drunk a lot. I also have a halfway house down the street from mine around the corner. My next door neighbor said he had a little girl or niece of his got raped in that house so my Mom doesn't trust around there. One day my whole power went out on my whole entire street and it was literally pitch black to the point where you could see lightning bugs floating in the trees. Up to this day I still don't like that area.

***

Growing up on the Northside wasn't easy. I moved to the Northside when I was 7 or 8. I am now 14 years old. My mom especially struggled having to pay bills as a single mother of 4 with 1 job. Times were tough. 
I remember sitting at the top of the steps in the dark. My brothers sound asleep in their beds, and I am sitting there listening to my parents arguing. Nothing but cruel words coming out of their mouths, "I fucking hate you," "You lazy fat alcoholic!" I hated hearing my parents argue like this.

Then I remember waking up the next morning just looking at the two of them, remembering last night, but they had no idea I knew. The funny thing is that they tried to play it off like nothing happened, but they knew what was going on.

We know that poverty is not a natural position of people, but the result of choices made my others. There is enough money in America, and in Pittsburgh, for all of us in the city to live comfortably, in health, with the time, comfort and opportunities to learn and be productive. 

We know if UPMC paid its fair share of taxes, if the EITC program didn't exist, if the Delaware tax loop hole was closed, if the Pennsylvania Republicans would hold the Marcellus Shale accountable for a modest severance tax, and if a million other tax swindles were mended-- if people lived the values they claim to believe in-- my students would have the same chances as kids in the North Allegheny School District, whose high school just digitized their $90,000 PLANETARIUM. People over GREED. These are just choices, made by individual people.

We know that there are ways to mend gun violence and mental health problems, to decriminalize drugs and treat their use as a public health problem--- ways to put out of work people in underresourced neighborhoods to work so that hopelessness and despair are quashed and replaced with hope and productively and life. Can we work together to make those things happen? Can we work together to help all of our children have a basic sense of safety where they live? Can Pittsburgh be the most livable for it's thirteen and fourteen-year old residents on the North Side as well as it's 20-something "Creative Class" imports in the "East Side?"

I may be only fourteen but I was not raised this way. I've been raised with respect and its sad that I or other kids can't just go outside and play kickball, jump rope, hide and seek, things children should do. Instead I'm in the house with the door locked because of all of the shooting and drug activities. It's not getting any better, just worse. I've experienced a lot of good times on the North Side as a younger child. I used to love to visit the Aviary, the Children's Museum, and the Zoo. I used to love the Regatta but its hard to do that now due to the negativity in the community.

And to be quite honest with this essay I can write a book not only on the North Side but about the City of Pittsburgh. I would stand and speak and pray that someone cared and hear my voice or my opinion. The sad truth is I see everyday on the news and in my neighborhood all the killings, the parents crying, or cyring because they are going to jail for killing their own children. I was taught in Pittsburgh elementary school about African-American history in the first grade how Martin Luther King Jr. fought for his life for his freedom. How and where is the freedom when you don't know when you are going to be a victim?