Monday, March 5, 2018

Fresh Fruits and Vegetables instead of Sodium and MSG: Perry Food Pantry Refrigerator Fund Raiser

Hello! Last year, the Gender-Sexuality Alliance at Perry High School discussed why kids sometimes come to school angry, tired and ready to fight. We decided that sometimes, it has to be because of factors like food insecurity. As a school group committed to fighting all kinds of intersecting oppressions, we decided to open a student-run food pantry in our school.

With our partner, Mary Shull, and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, we now distribute around 1000 pounds of food a week to kids. However, our goal has changed a bit. We see our peers consuming products that are high in sodium and MSG, and we know our communities are the ones hit hardest by high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, etc. So, we decided we needed to get more fresh fruit, greens, and vegetables into our peers' hands.

That's why we really need a refrigerator. Will you please help us with our goal? This fund-raising project will fund a refrigerator, and keep our food bank running. We are so grateful!

Go Fund Me: Perry Food Bank Refrigerator

Friday, March 2, 2018

#Education Spring


Three students and I just made a plan for how we'll survive a school shooting. It's our first lock-down drill, and at an unspecified time, we are to lock our doors, cover our windows, turn off our lights and computers, get kids away from windows and doors, get everyone to turn off their phones (because a ding from a phone will let the shooter know where a child is hiding.) We are to sit, in silence, and wait for an administrator, security or law enforcement to unlock my door. Because any noise, any light, any movement, any sight of us, could mean one or all of us could die-- if this was real.

I am scared. I know it's a drill. I know there's no shooter. But I'm still scared, because having a drill makes it more real. And even though my kids are very aware that school shootings mostly happen in white, suburban schools, we all know Trump has had an electrifying effect on white supremacists in America.

When the drill happens, I'll need to go out into the hall to lock my door. I'll look for kids in the hall to grab and get in my room. We'll get to a "safe" place. We'll sit and try to be quiet. Here's a few of my fears:

* How do I help kids with PTSD, who are traumatized by this drill? If I can't handle somebody's emotional reaction, and if that reaction imperils my other kids while we are hunkered down hiding, what do I do?
* Once the drill is over, and we are back to this new "normal," how do I help those students in my school who have experienced trauma deal with a continuing cycle of being re-traumatized by this experience?
* We don't have the resources to handle the traumatized kids we have already. We have two social workers, who are extremely busy. We have three counselors. On March 7th, I will be proctoring the new way our District has found to evaluate school counselors: by having seniors do a long, computer-based survey, about how many times they have interacted with the counselors, if they've been helpful with college stuff, paperwork, etc. As far as I know, counselors will be held at least partially accountable to whether seniors in springtime, being forced to evaluate their school counselor, take that survey seriously.

During the drill, there were no kids in the Library (this time.)  But we talked before they left for class about what to do. Don't get bottled up-- don't hide in a place you can't get escape from, if you can help it. Fight and distract the shooter if you have to, but getting out is the best way, probably. l told them I would check first to see if anybody was outside the exit with a gun. If someone was, we could be trapped. I *forgot to tell them: if I get shot, run around me, don't stand there. Don't be an easy target. Don't huddle together. You'll be easier targets that way. Spread out. Next time, I'll remember to tell them all of that.

* I'm afraid my big words about "run around me," (meaning my dead or dying body) are too brave. What if in the face of this kind of danger, I freeze, cry, get hysterical, am entirely useless? It happens to trained, armed people all the time. What makes me think I'm a hero?

* What if we are instructing our next shooter what to do?

* How do children who experience gun violence in communities receive this, beyond my speculations and incidental conversations with kids? Where is the research on the affect these drills will have on my particular children?

I lay down between the Library stacks. I was afraid to sneeze. I was afraid to look at my phone, because even though I had the ringer off, what if a video or something started to play? It was too dark to read a book, and I couldn't concentrate. Security came and rattled the door. Once. Twice. Three times.

I had to pee. I thought of David Hogg at Parkland, who had the presence of mind during AN ACTUAL SCHOOL SHOOTING to interview the kids HE WAS HIDING WITH so he could document the experience. So we can learn from it. This child is someone special. I KNEW it was my own security guards out there, I had nobody to save but myself, and I was too scared to sneeze.

* Florida's Governor wants to put armed guards in every school in his state. Follow the money: what a bump in contributions he'll get from his red-state followers, the NRA, gun manufactures, etc. Ridiculous, and criminal.
* Obviously gun control is the way to solve this problem. We look to the data and experience of our well-educated global counterparts, and this truth is right there. To state something obvious, politicians who will not stand up to the gun lobby devalue the lives of American children. Police violence against people of color is tolerated and even celebrated by the current President. See this: Donald Trump Is Serious When He Jokes About Police Brutality

These politicians, unwilling to protect children, do another thing, which feels suspiciously convenient for this group: they contribute to a sense of chaos and churn for kids in schools. All this time, effort, money and thought, professional development, contracts, training, etc. around active shooter drills, when legislation is a way to fix it. I don't think it is necessarily an unhappy consequence for irresponsible politicians that these policies are all the better to push privatized educational options on families as a "safer" or better way.

Call me crazy if you want to for making that connection. I've watched my own kids' education since pre-No Child Left Behind days, until this moment. I've seen the neo-liberal attacks on public education chip away at what they had in public school, to what my students experience now. I just lived through eighteen months in which my Superintendent called out Pittsburgh teachers' demands for better pay, health care and educational conditions in ways that felt hurtful and disrespectful. I'm watching Butler teachers get ready to strike. I'm in awe of the monumental work the West Virginia teachers are doing to save their entire state from austerity. Teachers, students and families in Chicago battle for their children's schools' very right to exist in Black and Brown communities, (See this: On The Last Day of Black History Month, Chicago School Board Votes to Close 5 Black Schools) and so much more.

What began as a movement by young people in Florida after Trayvon Martin was murdered, was followed by the young adults in Ferguson who rose up against the murder of Michael Brown, to brave activists insisting #BlackLivesMatter, to the Parkland students, who are changing corporate policies, and now teachers battling for their kids across the country-- it feels like an #EducationSpring.

Unfettered school shootings because our politicians put money over gun control, police officers murdering Black children with impunity, and the violence that comes when schools are kept churning and chaotic by austerity measures while we spend $610 billion on our military budget, are all interconnected oppressions our teachers and students have been fighting for a long time-- in the streets. It's time we ALL joined them.

While I was writing this, there was a shooting at Central Michigan University.

NYT: WV teachers' strike

Saving West Virginia

Arming Teachers Will Only Increase the Chance of a School Shooting

Staceyann Chin: All Oppression Is Connected

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Pro-Child, Pro-Teacher

"As adults, it is our responsibility to work together toward this common goal. And while the district and the union may differ on some points, I believe we can move forward in a spirit of mutual respect, setting an example - even now - for the children we serve," said Dr. Anthony Hamlet, Superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools. 

 As adults, Dr. Hamlet, let's level with each other. There is a lot of work to be done in our District. I know you know this. However, there is work I attack daily that I am sure you don't know about, because you simply have not been in my shoes (or in my school) long enough, or authentically enough, to understand what's grittily real here. 
We have a student-run food bank, but no working computer lab. We have a teacher who has been turned down repeatedly for a class set of textbooks for his classroom, so he spends his time copying the tattered remains of the teacher's edition to teach with. We have teachers who do Donor's Choose fund raisers for pencils. 
Today, I spent a lot of my day comforting children facing trauma and need in their lives. That's my job, and I love it, and I love them. One of my colleagues left the building in tears, because she had had one too many classes scream curses and taunts at her, and she just needed a break from the heartbreak. She'll be back tomorrow. She loves her students with all of her heart. She's an adult, and she is committed to her work.  
Firstly: if we, meaning not just you and I, but yourself and all the teachers in this District, are to work together toward a common goal, you are going to have to drop the inflammatory language you are using to shield yourself and the Board who hired you from blame about the break down in negotiations of our contract. 
 In a career such as ours, in which self-reflection is a daily practice, your intention behind the usage of the phrase "as adults" should be clear. Infantilizing teachers in an attempt to make our efforts to negotiate a better deal for the District's teachers and children won't work. Pittsburgh Public Schools' parents know who we are. They know we love their children. They know we don't take the idea of striking lightly. For many of us, an unknown number of weeks off without a paycheck represents a serious financial risk in our lives. But, for a year and half, our union's efforts to negotiate common-sense measures to protect the quality of the classroom experience for children have been met with stonewalling and flat-out denials. 

Here's what we know. Parents want smaller student-to-teacher ratios. They want expert teachers working with the appropriate grade levels and subject areas, and they want teachers who strive to further their own educational levels and masteries. They want the best teachers available in the field, who can choose to work in challenging schools without being financially penalized. They want coaches who know and love their children, and who are compensated well. They want Pre-K teachers who are the top of their field, and who can afford to stay in the classroom as a long-term career. 

These things are ALL pro-child. What they also are, unfortunately for folks who have to be elected, is tax-payer funded. I am sure no Board member or Superintendent wants to discuss raising taxes to fund Pre-K teachers, for example. Why don't we work on elevating public attention to things that undercut funding for public schools together, such as the corrupt EITC system, which allows wealthy folks to fund private and parochial schools with money that could fund public education? Or why our elected city officials seem to have so little interest in garnering equitable funding for our public schools? We know Pittsburgh Public Schools has money in reserve. Let's spend it on the children in front of us, and then work together to secure extra funding we need. 
So, please-- don't stoop to dog whistling with comments such as "as adults," and "set an example for the children we serve," when teachers are the ones getting ready to sacrifice on the grocery bill, and when they are calling their credit card and mortgage companies to discuss the possibility of upcoming late payments, as they prepare for the possibility of a strike.
If we strike, I will be setting an example I will be proud of for the children of Pittsburgh Public Schools, because I will be sacrificing for what I love and believe in: my students. So will ALL of my colleagues. Walking a picket line for no pay, in order to provide smaller classes and better prepared colleagues for my students is pro-child, pro-parent, and pro-Pittsburgh Public Schools.  Let's be adults and agree that nobody has to.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Will the Truth Out? A Strike May Be the Catalyst.

I collect masks. I think they are beautiful, but I only collect masks with open mouths. I like the metaphor, of course: we hide behind them, we use them to become someone else, but for me, an open mouth means these masks demand to be "heard." They need to look as if they are ready to speak, or are speaking, or singing aloud for me to want to hang them on the wall. I like a mask that nobody shuts down.

Mask are symbolically important, and "we," meaning everybody, wears them at times. Teachers wear them, in lots of contexts. We wear them when we are with parents. There's a thing a veteran teacher taught me when I was starting out-- the "teacher head cock." It goes like this. When the parent of a particulary challenging kid asks how their student is doing, you cock your head a minute, and smile. This gives you a second to catch your breath and think before you blurt out something too blunt. In those occasions before I learned it, the non-professional, human side of me wanted to say something like, "Yo, come get your kid! He needs to spend waaaaaaayyyyy less time on an ipad or in front of a screen at home and waaaaayyyy more time outside running around, and then in your lap with a book!" But then I mastered the teacher head cock. So, I would cock my head, smile, and say something like, "Well...Johnny has a lot of wonderful energy that we are working on harnessing toward his goals."

A mask, of sorts. Then there's the mask you wear when you write publicly about your life as an educator. You want to write as bluntly as you think, but to do so, you run the risk of exposing confidentialities of childrens' lives you are professionally and ethcially bound to protect. To state the obvious, those confidentialities must never be broken.

You also run the risk, as our District and union begin the last round of negotiations on January 23rd and 26th before a possible strike vote, of exposing things that could hamper negotiations. Here are a few things that are in the public domain, which I can discuss openly.

A strike means that almost 25,000 children will not be in school during the length of a standoff, which to my mind could and should have been prevented by the District. Some kids will have babysitters, or stay in warm, organized, food-stocked homes during that time, with activities and supervision. In many, many homes, this strike could cost so much more: the safety of kids, ultimately.

True, I'm a passionate union member, but the issues are common sense and should have been agreed to by the District a year and a half ago: pay new teachers the same as veterans, and not based on a silly scale that even the impartial arbiter found to be unfair. Pay Pre-K teachers, bound to have the same education and certifications as every other teacher, the same as every other teacher. Lower class sizes by 5 children so they can get better one-on-one instruction. Give coaches, who sacrifice time with their families, a raise. (They haven't had one in TEN YEARS.) Allow teachers to retain their voice in helping their principals make their teaching schedules, instead of erasing any voice or choice in who, what or when they teach.

Why does that last matter? Because a fifth grade science teacher has a K-5 certification, but might be an expert at dealing with pre-adolescents, and have spent years building their expertise and craft teaching scientific principles and discovery to this age group. A Kindergarten teacher quits, moves or gets rated out, so a capricious, inept or malicious Principal (news flash: THEY EXIST) moves this 5th grade science teacher to fill the Kindergarten hole in the schedule. What happens to the students who lose their expert science teacher? What happens to the Kindergarten children, who have one crack at Kindergarten, now faced with a well meaning, but inexpert teacher of this age group?

The problem might be with how our state certifies teachers. But that is outside of this union-District discussion. And everything these negotiations do must be focused on how it affects CHILDREN, first and foremost. When the District begins to authentically respect teachers enough to place them in decision making roles alongside those principals, you'll know that kids are being placed first and foremost. So much more to say there: but. Teachers are chronically afraid to speak out about what they think could improve in their schools for fear of backlash to their ratings, their schedules, etc. That's me stepping out from behind my mask. There. I did it.

You need to eat. You need to pay your bills. Most importantly, you need to keep going to a job that allows you to work with kids whose lives your life is entwined with. They have one shot at filling out FAFSAs, filling out college applications, writing college essays, choosing colleges they talk about the pros and cons with you about, checking out books that could change them forever,  having somebody to talk to alone about what the hell is going on at home and at work and with boys and/or girls with, writing great papers (maybe with your help), learning NOT to Google sources for papers, having a safe place every day at lunch to be with their friends when everywhere else is unsafe and scary, charge their phone, use the in-school food bank, create an in-school food bank, create committees and clubs and projects. You wear the God-damned mask you hate and that burns you up because you are in love with your students, and you need them as much as they need you.

"But," as Shakespeare said, "in the end, the truth will out." Eventually. If there is a strike vote, I predict that the union members will vote overwhelmingly for a strike. And then some teachers' masks will slip a little. You could hear stories teachers want to tell you about what holds our schools back from being as great as they can be, that we are afraid to share, for fear of backlash, retribution and unfair consequences. And that could be the best thing for public education in Pittsburgh that has happened in a long time. Because while masks can be protective, and necessary, they can also cloud truth. And only truth unmasked can begin to heal what is wrong.

In Solidarity.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Be a Light and Shelter for LGBTQIA Children in a Season of Darkness

When I was an elementary school Librarian, I chose winter to teach Hans Christian Andersen as a long author study. We started with his winter stories: The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Snow Queen, The Little Match Girl. Andersen's tales, as he originally wrote them, and not pre-digested into a Disney remix, are not well known among kids today. That's one of the reasons I taught them. Other reasons are the ambrosial language, the celebration and elevation of the underdog, how Andersen's stories build empathy, sensitivity, and an awareness of others, as well as context and culture, and how they speak to children as if they are real people-- that is, they often express the world as it really is.

The Little Match Girl is a story that does that. A little girl, abused and unloved by her father, is set out in the streets to sell matches. It is freezing, but she knows if she doesn't sell her quota, she'll be beaten and turned out again. She stays in the snow, forlorn, one over-sized slipper lost, as happy Christmas shoppers rush past her. She looks in the windows of the bakeries she passes and remembers dinners with a Grandmother her loved her. She passes homes, in which happy families decorate trees. Finally, she sits and tries to warm herself, and watches the stars. In the morning, the townspeople find her, frozen, and they realize that as they celebrated Christ's birth, among them, a child they despised died because of their neglect.

For gay and trans kids, acceptance at home and school is a matter of life and death. That's what I learned when Project Silk, an advocacy group for young people of color who are gay or transgender, came as guest speakers to Perry Library's Student-Staff Book Club last week. We were wrapping up our second book choice of the year, The 57 Bus, by Dashka Slater. The 57 Bus is a book about an agender teen who is critically burned by another teen on a bus ride home.

Richard and Michael, our Project Silk presenters, told us about a cycle that can too often drag young gay and trans kids of color into a life of crime, sex work and death. It can start in school, and it can work like this: 

Thrown out at home for being gay or trans, harassed and bullied at school for being who they are, kids often have no alternative but to live in the streets. Doubly discriminated against, they can't get hired for a job. This can lead to young people turning to sex work to survive-- some as young as thirteen or fourteen. Picked up by police for doing sex work, they go to jail, where they are often harassed, assaulted, and sometimes even raped.

 Richard said that when fighting to protect themselves, young gay or trans people have a tendency sometimes to "do the most." Who could blame a person who had been subject to so much for so long? Unfortunately, this can place the young person on an additional terrible cycle: discriminated against within the criminal justice system, gay and trans youngsters sometimes are blamed for defending themselves. Without a place to live, transportation or money, it is hard to make it to court dates reliably, on time, dressed presentably, with adequate legal representation, and pay legal fines and fees on time, or at all. This can place a young, now offender, even deeper within the cycle. 

I asked Richard and Michael how we interrupt this cycle. Their response? Do everything you can to make school a safe place. Make it a haven, where kids who are unloved and unrespected at home find a shelter. Teachers, students, and administrators alike: this is our calling within this season of darkness and light. We are called upon to be sheltering place for the unwanted child. We are called upon to light up the dark. No matter what one's religious or ethical training, we are responsible for all of us, most especially children. Love and light to all of us-- especially our LGBTQIA children.

NYT Magazine: The 57 Bus

Project Silk

Friday, October 27, 2017

Break Me On Life's Wheel

I have thought "Break me on life's wheel," would be a good adage for my life, and I have tried to live that way-- so much so that I thought for a long time I'd paint a giant canvas full of cogs and wheels, to remind myself. I try to live as fearlessly as I can-- for my students and for myself. Live so hard, so outside the usual, so big-- that the calendar, the wheel of events itself runs right off its post.

It's good to break. It's good to lean in to pain and tragedy. I'm trying, when things from outside and inside just pulverize me. But it's so much easier to redirect pain into something nicer. 

Today I was in a really low place. I left the Library, to go see teachers and kids, who were excitedly setting up for an after-school Halloween party. I thought I would stay, but I couldn't even manage to help them. I was down, actually heartbroken. Too much tragedy in my kids' lives, a story that I have become aware of that feels too close to home. I took my sour face out of there, and was walking back to the Library when a colleague needed a break in the ISS room. It was on my way. I stopped, went into the ISS room, while he ran out for a second. 

A kid said something dumb. I redirected him. Another kid said-- "Don't disrespect Ms. May. She's like-- the mother of the school." And then the kids started to argue over which powerful, beautiful colleague of mine was the "real" mother of the school, along with me. One kid, the one I had initially redirected, started to passionately argue that the "real" mother of the school is Mrs. Sharon Brentley-- an African-American woman who remembers being spit on, when she and her husband helped to integrate Perry as school children. The one arguing for her? He's been known to use the "n" word toward kids who don't look like him.

I'm not going to say it made everything right. But it reminded me-- there is light in the dark. Much love.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

An Open Letter to the Students of Brooke High School

Hello. You don't know me, but many of you, and your parents, hate my guts. I don't hate you. At all. I understand completely, and fully, that I do not know you. But I do know one thing: you and I have a chance to learn from each other.

I am a high school Librarian. I LOVE my job. I LOVE my school and my students. I think of them as my own children. If I worked in your school, I would think of you as my own children, too. It's a magical thing that happens to teachers: our hearts stretch, the longer we are in a classroom, and we find our capacity for love increases with the number of children we get to know. I hope that in this letter, I can be of some service to you.

I grew up poor, white, and rural. I dreamed of having clean, white leather tennis shoes and pants long enough to cover my skinny ankles. Instead, I had funky Kmart burgundy tennis shoes and hand-me-down jeans, floods--showing off 3 inches of mismatched socks. My immediate family was unabashedly racist. It bothered me. I grew up, somehow made it to college, and learned better, because I liked to read, and the university I attended was a great one. I became a school librarian because I love books, and I love kids.

Several weeks back, a friend of mine messaged me a picture her husband sent her from the Perry football game he was attending. You were the opposing team. Some of you had painted a big banner that read, "Trump Perry." It was in all red, white and blue, and the President's hair was drawn over his name. In the picture, you were behind the banner. You looked like an all-white crowd dressed in red, white, and blue, holding your arms out with a #1, or, in a few cases, flipping the bird.

I gaped at it, stunned. Then I went to Brooke's Twitter account and got a better, more frontal view of the banner, and of you behind it, and had the same reaction: from the gut: like someone had punched me. Irrationally, as I am 50, white, and was far away from where the banner was being held, I felt frightened. Then, I felt incredulous, and sick to my stomach. I thought: "Why are these kids doing something so cruel and heartless?" I tweeted, retweeting the picture your school had put on their account, and wrote: "My mostly Black, inner-city school played this team last night and were confronted w/this. Sickening racism."

The banner became a story that went places. The Pittsburgh paper covered it, the USAToday covered it, some other local and national papers covered it. I started getting hundreds of hate tweets from folks who thought what I had said about the banner was itself racist. Never mind that the definition of racism says this:

  1. prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior.

so--me talking to white people as an example of "racism" is nonsense.

It didn't occur to me until weeks later that I hadn't stopped to analyze what my own reaction to "Trump Perry" meant. Why had I reacted with fear, anger, and the desire to protect my students-- just to the President's name? Why had that image created such an intense response in me-- when people who were tweeting at me, furious, claimed not to have had any ill intent at all? Some of you started tweeting at me-- some openly, some of you privately. Some of you were red-hot angry. Some of you called me names, mocking me, my school, my students. Some of you were polite, and just asking: Why are you saying this is racist? We didn't mean it to be!! We had no ill-intention! More than one of you was ashamed, apologetic.

If we were together right now, this is what I would say to you, face to face: I was scared when I saw your banner. This is why: for my students, there are implicit dangers to living in America. Those dangers are especially pronounced when entering a mostly white community. And my students were a long bus ride away from home.

Many of you may honestly not know that, because you are not Black. You haven't walked through the world as a Black person in America, lived the history of a Black person in America, or grown up as a Black person in America.

That's not meant as a put-down or in any way as an angry statement toward you. I'm white. But the banner your school put up at the football game was a mistake. Whether you were part of it or not, whether you were for or against it, here are some facts:

1. The parents of the only Black player on your team asked the Custodian in your school to take the banner down. The Custodian asked the Principal to take it down. Your Principal refused. It is clear that for at least one person in your community before the game, this banner was a problem. To his credit, your Principal has admitted not listening to the parent was a big mistake. However: this incident should begin to start making you ask: whose voices are elevated in your school? Why? Why not?

2. Every high school team trades film before football games, usually a week in advance. Your football team would have seen film of our team a week before we played. Your team knew our team was primarily African-American. Who knew that, other than the team, is something only you know.
3. It is time for you to understand that Black people have experienced, and experience America differently than white people do, and that to be a good person, and a good American, you individually, and collectively must be sensitive to that fact, work to deepen your understandings about what that means and why that is, and take on your work as an American.

The "Trump Perry" incident happened within an educational setting. The work to set it right can and should be educational. If we all are humble enough to acknowledge the need to keep learning, we will all come out the better. Here are some things I have learned, both while doing my undergraduate and graduate work, and while having the privilege of working in a racially diverse school district.

We white people live in a world where our race is invisible to us. That is a function of a thing, a term, called whiteness. It's related to white privilege, something we all have, if we are white, no matter how poor, how hard we had or have it, where we are from, or where we are going. It's just a fact in America that if you are white-- you have a kind of privilege you didn't earn.

Check this out: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

I had white privilege when I was that ten-year old in my weird shoes and floods, because I wasn't going to be profiled by a racist power structure-- police in the street, teachers, store owners, doctors, Principals-- few of them saw me as a physical threat, followed me around stores, thinking I was going to steal because of how I looked; they didn't assume I was engaging in risky behavior if I wore a hoodie-- they thought I was most likely like their daughter at home. Because I was white.

So what is this thing I am calling whiteness?

Consider Calgary Anti-Racist Education's collection of definitions for it: Understanding Whiteness

Here is an article I like. Check it out, written by Nell Irvin Painter, who is the professor emerita of history at Princeton University. Professor Painter wrote the book, "The History of White People." What Is Whiteness?

Criminally, oppression against our Black brothers and sisters did not end with slavery, or with the Civil Rights movement. It is really important to feel the weight of history when you try to appreciate someone else's experience. For a great introduction to historical injustices suffered by Black people, read Ta-Nehesi Coates' ground breaking essay from The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations." This is a long and kind of difficult piece, but it is worth every word.

Ta-Nehesi Coates is an incredibly important writer for you to read right now. To better understand why some people, not just myself, react to Trump's name alone as a symbol of whiteness, read this: The First White President. It is worth it to find and read a lot of what Coates writes. 

The following articles will give you background on how Trump's name is being used as a threat in schools nationwide: In Some High School Gyms, Trump's Name is a Taunt and this: Bullies Have a New Intimidation Tactic on Campus: The Name "Trump"

I think it is important to read a LOT of fiction from the perspectives of people who do not look like you, or have the same background as you. At Perry, we have a Student-Staff Book Club. Start your own. Challenge your parents, your teachers, your favorite aunt and uncle, to read with you. Here are some great books:

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds
Black Lives Matter by Sue Bradford Edwards
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

This might seems obnoxious to you; some lady from far away, who you don't know, finding something you did or didn't directly do really wrong, then lecturing you about it in a blog, and worse, presuming to give you homework and reading. Like I'm some race expert, right? Like I'm some enlightened being who knows so much about how to be "woke."

I don't. All I know is that I love my students. I am pretty sure that if I knew you well, and if you were my kids, I'd love you, too. That's what teachers do. And the best way I can love you-- from afar-- is to challenge you to be whom I- and who your teachers, administrators, school district, parents, community, and country need you to be-- people who read widely, think broadly, unlearn and relearn ideas, and try on new ways of being in this world. So-- pick up a book, read two or three of these books and/or articles, and write me a long comment about what you think about them. I'll write you back if you promise to truly think about what you read. Let's learn from each other. 

Love, Ms. May

More Book lists:

Oakland Public Library Blog
Black Lives Matter: A Reading List
Book Riot Black Lives Matter Book Video List

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Queering the Ceramics Curriculum

Every year, the Ceramics teacher does a relief-tile project with students. Kids look at the work of a famous artist, choose an image they like, and build a tile with the image in relief.

The Ceramics teacher came in to the Library today, looking for books with color reproductions of art works to take to her Ceramics studio for the project. When I was researching LGBTQIA people of color to help teach about the Day of Silence last year, I came across the artist Kehinde Wiley. I love when Wiley reimagines classical works of art, centering people of color.

When I look at a Wiley, I feel as gorgeously love-drunk as a bee afloat in a jar of honey. Afloat, and free of the material world, and in a zone where color and shapes and design reign. It is delicious. Check him out:

The Ceramics teacher listened to me kvell about Wiley, and flipped through the giant coffee-table book I was able to buy for Perry's Library. She snatched it up, as well as a big book on Banksy's work, also new to the Library, and took them up to her class to introduce to her students.

 So now, kids will have the opportunity to learn about two living artists, one of them a gay Black man who plays with ancient artistic themes and modern African-American culture, the other a mysterious entity who challenges political and cultural norms.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Speak the G-D Truth

Do you remember what it was like to be in high school? I kind of do. Fucking Vietnam. Take that hill with no bullets, Private. Don't tell me you don't have what you need. Go.

Yeah, that's pretty much what it's like. Fuck you if you think I'm exaggerating. I'm there every day. We send our kids into situations we couldn't control and hopefully don't face now, as adults. Being in the same school as a neighborhood you're warring with. Knowing you're going to get jumped. Being isolated, feeling so lonely and alone. Having nobody to sit with at lunch. Having no friends. Having the wrong friends. Being terrible at sports. Being gay and being tortured constantly. Not being gay and everyone thinking you're gay. Not knowing if you're gay. Being weak. Being poor and having terrible clothes. Being homeless. Not having soap, or deodorant. Coming to school after your Dad beat the shit out of your Mom and then out of you. Being raped by your uncle-- then having to come to school. No running water or electricty at your house. Not understanding what is going on in class and feeling unhelpable. Not understanding why the kid next to you acts so loud and wild. None of these problems apply to you? They apply to your classmates, and nobody is helping you understand how to be in relation to your classmates. Not your teachers, not your parents, and not the curriculum.

If we can't avoid this as adults, we do the best we can to deal with it. We send our kids into that situation at school, hoping for the best. We try to manage if we are teachers, and many of us are trying our damn well best. Some of us love our kids.

It's not like I'm only speaking of inner city high schools. Don't kid yourselves, private school parents, suburban parents. Ha! Where do the school shootings happen? Not in inner city schools. Where are the best drugs found? Sure as hell not in Black inner city schools. Some private and suburban parents just blind yourselves to that stuff. You think you've bought your way to safety. You just pretend your way out of the menace, while your kids shoot heroin and steal your Xanax.

Why am I writing this? I'm not trying to terrify or enrage anyone, or worse, jeer at anybody. I'm leading up to this--high school is not always safe, physically or emotionally for kids. It's a jungle, whether your kids have 400 kids in their marching band and win awards for their big-budget musical, or whether Principals threaten children's lives and retain their jobs, like the Woodland Hills case.

I asked my nephew if his friends at his suburban school were watching the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. It is about a girl who kills herself, leaving 13 tapes behind to the 13 people who contributed to her death. My brother said he would never watch something like that-- I told him he should--rape culture, rape, suicide-- all real issues covered in the show were things to talk about with his kids.

If we can't talk about rape, rape culture and suicide in the suburbs, we damn well start. And we damn well better start talking about violence in schools, too. In his ninth grade year, my son went to arguably the most academically well regarded high school in Pittsburgh. That year he told me about the most disturbing and horrible fight he ever saw, in which a kid pounded another kid's head against the pavement over and over and over.

I walked up to check on a colleague after a fight last week, past blood on two flights of stairs. There stood a maintanence man with a mop, erasing the pools of blood that drove those rivers down the stairs. I pushed through groups of kids, excitedly watching and rewatching the fight which has been shot from every angle by their peers on phones.

If you are a parent reading this, or a person who would use my words to prove how public schools are "failing," violent and to be avoided, hear this: suburban and private schools may or may not have violent fights such as this. But as a person who has worked in both suburban and private schools, there are problems that are terrible there, too.

 In private schools, rich parents can set policy to protect themselves, not children. This results in wholesale violations in special education law, grade inflation, the richest kids being able to bully/miss school/etc. without consequences. You may think this wouldn't happen to your child, or be your child. What if it does? And if you think it can't be true: why wouldn't this be true when the school answers to parents, not the state?

Suburban parents may think they have purchased themselves the distance and the resources to have opted out of the problems that beset the inner city. But white privilege is it's own problem. And uber competiveness to get into the Ivies and other prestigious schools, combined with a relative curricular disinterest in social justice and diversity keep suburban kids from a full and rich understanding of the true and real world.

There is an answer. We belong together. All of our resources, human, material, financial-- we belong together. Building moats around ourselves, our resources, our humanity, disucssions about the truths we live-- this is stupid. The truth is the truth. Let's open it up, bring it out and just freaking talk about it. Nobody is better than anybody else. Black inner city kids and adults have resources nobody else has. So do others. We should stop being afraid to speak the truth.

What does that look like explicitly? Public school does a good job of bringing people together. It has FAILED to teach people directly how to DO diversity. We need to teach directly how to live in a diverse classroom and school community. We need to acknowledge explicity how to live in a "beloved community" where we are trained to see some of us have gifts of lived wealth, some of us have gifts of artistic wealth, etc. If we see each other in term of our strengths, not our deficits, we may learn to live together better.

We need to teach diverse curricula. We must teach about LGBT people, Latinix, and all the missing parts of humanity in our curriucula: not just because we got sued by somebody, but because elevating the stories and contributions of the world create and recreate our humanity.

We need to teach about all the issues kids are facing-- rape, rape culture, racism-- let's drive the elevator up Bloom's Taxonomy to Critical Consciousness. If we want our kids to be SAFE-- we must arm them with the ability to THINK.

And EVERY Pittsburgh Public School, IMO, needs to be trained in Trauma Informed Practises. IMMEDIATELY. Because all of us, teachers and students, are traumatized, over and over again, by the violence we see and terrors we hear and know of.

And by the way, DAMN, largely white, rich capitalist pigs need to stop offshoring what should be tax dollars and pay into a democratic society so our country stops circling the drain. But that's for another blog post.

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.