Thursday, December 27, 2012

Rant Alert! Dear Mr. Obama

This is a picture of an-all-but empty supply cabinet in a school. Where's the glue, paint, scissors, construction paper in a rainbow of colors, rolls of colored paper for displays, rainbow chalk, raffia, colored pencils? 

I blamed Republicans and conservatives for the decline of public education in my article, 2012: The Year of the Embattled Public School Child. My good friend, sister librarian and in-the-trenches public school teacher Kipp told me off a little for that in a comment she made on that article. Duh. Of course she was right.

In the article itself, I reference No Child Left Behind's co-authors John Boehner and none other than the Lion of Congress himself, Mr. Liberal-- Edward Kennedy. I can privately think Mr. Boehner had nefarious reasons, and Mr. Kennedy had altruistic ones-- but even if I'm right-- which I'm possibly not-- the fact remains that the single most egregious legislation to wound, maim and slam public schools to bleeding in a desert of test-prep came from this brotherhood of left and right. OY! Why does it matter? Because the LEFT bears just as much responsibility for public schools' decline as the right.

And that, Mr. President, is where you come in. You, sir, are an educational policy train wreck. Race to the Top is WORSE than No Child Left Behind. No child should have to COMPETE for needed resources in their schools. But don't worry: I can fix it for you. 

Recipe for Better Public Schools:

Appoint Diane Ravitch as your secretary of education. Beg Jessie Ramey of Yinzercation fame and Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teacher's Union to join her. Make these three women an important part of your Cabinet. Educational policy is a National Security issue. Kick Arne Duncan out of Washington with a spiked boot. Rethink your support of charter schools, which by nobody's reckoning are generally out-performing publics, but are re-segregating and miseducating kids, as well as busting unions and leaving special needs kids out in the cold.

Demand state Departments of Education take down their charter-boosting language on their websites unless they fully account for their finances-- publicly-- and while you are at it, make them follow the same rules as everybody else. If charters are public schools, make them take every child who applies. Give Rahm Emmanuel a public spanking. That dude is an absolute educational Vlad the Impaler. His policies in Chicago are criminal. Or should be. Invite teachers to the White House on a regular basis to discuss the reality in the trenches and how you can help. Get Michele involved in boosting the country's tone when discussing the work teachers do. By-pass the leadership of the American Federation of Teachers. That woman has sold her sold to the Devil. Standardized testing for teachers now? What??

Sasha and Malia don't have to swelter under the dictates of No Child Left Behind, and I'm glad. If those two beautiful girls and their exquisite mother can teach you about how wrong you were not to support LGBTQ marriage equality, maybe they can teach you about education policy too. Walk through a public inner-city school twice a month, your honor. Check out the lack of resources there. Come visit our shuttered and empty school libraries, our mouldering, inadequate buildings, our bright and shining Kindergarteners packed 30-deep in a room with no air conditioning on the third floor. It's December and they don't know their classmates' names yet.

Watch the test prep, test prep, test prep, ask where their gym is, how often they have music and art, where the violins and flutes are, what kinds of art supplies are in the storage room. You'll be met with a big, fat, echoing NOTHING. Because those vital things aren't there, Boss. They've been sucked up with the need for more test prep to help kids made Adequate Yearly Progress.

Increasingly, this is the message being shouted by educators all over the country. LISTEN, Mr. Obama. Consider the effect of the current state of public education on your Presidential legacy. End of rant.

Except this: read it. /the-hardest-job-everyone-thinks-they-can-do/

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Libraries and Miracles In Haiti

Access to knowledge is the superb, the supreme act of truly great civilizations.  Of all the institutions that purport to do this, free libraries stand virtually alone in accomplishing this mission.
--Toni Morrison

America the great and wealthy, stretching from, as she says, "sea to shining sea," hangs above a tiny island nation like a gated mansion next to a favela. We Americans look down on scenes of great wealth next to abject poverty in places like Brazil without recognizing the irony of our scorn. 

Two years ago a devastating earthquake hit Haiti, destroying an already supremely needy nation. Television news blared about Haiti being the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. I sat next to a very wealthy philanthropist at a meeting who said that no matter what others did to help, Haiti was a hopeless cause. I should learn to love bleak thoughts like that-- they enrage me. And that rage burns me to action. 

Fired by what I was seeing on the news and by that man's nihilism, I started to wonder: what else was Haiti? Truly unknown to me at that point, an itch to know started to bug me. What was Haiti? Were there strengths there we didn't consider? 

I began to talk to my students about Haiti, the earthquake, the questions in my mind about the news coverage, their questions. I told them we were going to do a research project, from fourth through six grade on Haiti to answer the questions we as a group had. 

Here are some of the things we found out, in no particular order:

* Haiti is the world's only democracy founded by a slave revolt. 

* Columbus didn't discover America. He landed on Haiti- and tried to rape it to death. But from the beginning, the Taino fought back. Like the ancient Israelites, they were a tough bunch to conquer-- and didn't stay conquered for long.

* Touissant L'Overture, a brilliant strategist and statesman, led the slave revolt against Napoleon-- one of the greatest dictators in the world-- and won.

* Haitians make art out of trash: they punch sculpture out of steel drums and get around in tap-taps: old buses covered in beautiful bright paint and French or kreyol proverbs.

* Haitian culture combines aspects of French, Catholic, African, tribal and Vou-Dou roots, making a gorgeous and exotic stew.

* Anacoana was a Taino queen who tried to make peace with the invaders. She is remembered as a mother of the nation.

* There's a Vou-dou mermaid goddess that adorns some flags, covered in sequins! 

We began to see there were two ways to look at Haiti: the poverty view or the strength view. We learned that news reporters banged away with the poverty, tragedy, horror-- but the more we dug into the music, art and culture, the more inspired we became. We used the picture books of renowned children's author Karen Lynn Williams as a starting place, including Painted Dreams, Circles of Hope and Tap-Tap. Gorgeous, wonderful books! 

We carefully planned out how to show facts from the strength perspective of Haiti-- facts our research had taught us. We painted cardboard tap-tap buses with things like mountains and the word "Ayiti"-- the Taino word for "mountainous land"-- Haiti's native name. We used brilliant colors, jewels, glitter-- we soaked our art in the richness and diversity we were so inspired by. We meant to auction them as a fundraiser for Haiti, but a fundraiser at the school I worked at was worried the school's own fundraising would suffer. Disgusted and hurt, I kept the tap-taps for a better day.

That day is today. I am going to begin to work with educators across Pittsburgh to enlarge and broaden our original ideas about Haiti research. I want to bring the strength view of Haiti-- and poor countries in general-- to kids and educators across Pittsburgh. Why? 

From a personal perspective-so I can be strengthened and broadened by the historical heroism of the Haitian people. I want to grow to be like them. I want my students to know that in the face of unspeakable privation the human spirit finds a way. And the Haitians' way seems to be with color, music, art-- what could be more glorious? Who wouldn't want to be close to that? 

How? Here's one idea: do mini-research lessons on Haiti in Pittsburgh classrooms with teachers who have the time and interest (and curricular room.) Brainstorm with them about how to show what we know after we research Haiti. The art teacher at Carmalt thought of buying actual windows from Construction Junction, a local construction reuse store, and having kids decoupage on them in the style of Haitian-American artist Jean-Michele Basquiat. She wants to call her unit, "Windows Into Haiti." Brilliant! Then- I go to Haiti in February. I bring a ton of art supplies with me, partially paid for by donations from my First Giving site (Libraries and Miracles in Haiti) I invite Haitian kids to tell their stories, express themselves, create picture books. With the children's permission, I bring some of those back. 

There's a deeper "why," and it isn't about me. It's about empowering Pittsburgh and Haitian children. If we present an idea to kids, let them figure it out, then show what they know via art, film, digital storytelling, whatever--we show them they matter. Their voices, thoughts, feelings, intellects, talents-- these things will instruct and inform the broader world. And when we add a Pittsburgh art show, with all the Pittsburgh and Haitian kids' art on display for auction to benefit the building of a children's library in Haiti-- we have let kids build a fundraiser-- and a library-- with their own hands, hearts and minds. It's a great idea. 

Please support my donation site. Please direct message me if you want to get involved. And thank you. Dr. King said, "Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the presence of justice." 2013 is going to be a year we move mountains toward justice and Dr. King's version of peace. Together, with our strength vision, in love. 

Strength and beauty in Haiti

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sparks in the Dark

You hold on to the joy you can find. Here's some:

Casey, the funniest middle schooler I know. We had an unexpected Library class, one that needed to happen on the fly because of a scheduling issue. No plan was possible.

A week before I made 500+ salt dough ornaments in the shape of animals for my younger students to paint and glitter. To those classes, I read Patricia Polacco's The Trees of the Dancing Goats, about a Jewish family that brings hope and joy to their Christian neighbors during an outbreak of scarlet fever. The family decorates tiny Christmas trees with little, brightly painted animals and gives them to Christian families who are too ill to make their holiday for their children. The salt-dough ornaments were a literature extension, and a way to build fine motor skills as we carefully wielded paint brushes, glue bottles, glitter glue. Ultimately, the project was mostly to romance the kids. You do that when you are in a school one day a week. You want kids to associate fun and excitement with libraries and books.

Back to my on-the-fly middle school class. I figured, what the heck, I had a zillion extra unpainted ornaments, and the middle schoolers don't get to do crafty stuff as often as the little ones. Do it with them. So I read the book and turned over the supplies. You could have heard a pin drop as my usually racous middle schoolers, even while some of them poo-pooed the project, got to work. Their hearts were in it. They carefully painted rainbow stripes, glittered intricate patterns, and wrote their names on the paper plates that the projects were to dry on. Nobody but them was going to take their particular ornament home.

This week I again got my schedule mixed up. (Don't judge. I'm juggling over a thousand kids and many, many classes.) Casey showed up, asking where I was. Why wasn't I up in the class with the ornaments? Wasn't I going to let them finish them? I quickly packed up all the stuff and hiked up three flights with him. They pounced on their ornaments, this time to bejewel, string and gift-wrap. Wanting to be sensitive to differing family configurations, I said to the kids that they were now free to give their gifts to their "Moms, Dads, grandparents, foster parents, or Great Uncle Fred." Casey says, rubbing his chin, "Um. I don't have a Great Uncle Fred. But I have an Uncle Sam. You know-- the rich guy with all the money." I raised an eyebrow at him. Huh? Casey grinned his beautiful bright smile and said, "He takes most of your pay." How does an eleven-year old get so funny, so bright and so quick?

I had a first period class in a room with 3, 4 and 5-year olds. These tiny ones. Bright brown eyes, long eyelashes, little braids. Tiny pink tutus over polka dotted tights. Shoes smaller than my hand. They shout when they see me. A great wall of joy passes between us, reciprocal, symbiotic. The run to the story carpet and sit down in eager rows. I'm grinning. I sit in front of them and jump a little, alert. "Did you hear that?" I ask them. They shake their heads. "Oh! It's the invisible Library phone! It's ringing!" My pinkie and thumb extended, I put the "phone" to my ear. They squirm with delight. "Hello?" I ask. "SANTA!" I cover the "phone" and say to the kids in a loud whisper, "It's Santa." Back to the conversation. "Hi, SANTA! You're watching the class? You want them to know you are proud of them? That they are very polite? Oh-- okay. Hold on a minute." I turn to the kids. "He wants you to know he's watching and he's so PROUD of you! What good manners!" Every little eye is dancing-- every little mouth is smiling. They are adorable. We are so happy to be together.

We read Lon Po-Po, the Chinese Little Red Riding Hood. Next semester we are going to study Asia-- so this is a taste of what is to come. We add magic dust (sparkly glitter) to our cards that go home. I teach them to spell "China" in American Sign Language. We sing as we work on our art-- Jingle Bells, I Have a Little Dreidel, Frosty the Snowman. A child starts a new song and we all sing along.

More sparks:

The teacher in a different class who dims the lights and plays Tchiakovsky while the children work. She has released them to their chairs only after they name a fact about Australia-- the last continent they studied. Marsupials. Continent. Aboriginal. They have the vocabulary down.

The art teacher who stays late to re-fire the pottery kids made with her. The colors aren't bright enough for her liking. She wants them to be proud of their work.
The second grader who told his mother, "No bad guy could come in to Carmalt. Dr. Och would wrastle any bad guy to the ground." Dr. Och is about 90 pounds and female-- but everybody at Carmalt's Christmas concert laughed when she told that story. Not because it was improbable-- but because everybody there, Black, white, Asian, middle-eastern, grandparent, foster parent, teachers, Pre-K through 8th grade student--knew it is true. A trembling, tender, dear moment.

The parent who remembers you, the one-day-a-week librarian, with a family photo Christmas card and a lottery ticket-- and a thank you.

Thank you, God, for the opportunity to serve tiny people. They are such a source of joy and light. Sparks in the dark. After Newton, in this age of assault on the noble and, sure, I'll say it-- holy act of teaching-- you hold on to each one.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Year of the Embattled Public School Child

"What a school thinks about its library is a measure of what it thinks about education." 
                                   --Harold Howe, former U.S. Commissioner of Education

This morning on the Today show, Matt, Al et. al discussed picks for Time's Person of the Year for 2012. Malala Yousufzai, Aung San Su Kyi and others were floated as good choices-- but for me, the obvious choice is the embattled public school child. Here's why.

Remember Angel from my previous post Outside the Lines-- of the Standardized Test Bubble? She's a grain of sand in a vast desert of kids sweltering under No Child Left Behind policy-- the wandering African American child in the halls of public schools, kicked out of class for disruption, rudeness, teacher's irritability--that kid was probably an Angel. In almost every school I've been in (and as of today, since September, I've been in nine) these kids are a fixture, angry ghosts haunting the halls. It is not because teachers hate Black kids. It is not because Black kids are troublemakers. It's because public schools are at Defcon 5. 

We have, as one of my Uncles likes to say, "one foot in the grave and one foot on a banana peel." No Child Left Behind was co-sponsored by now Speaker of the House Boehner and Senator Edward Kennedy. As a result, schools, teachers and most importantly, children are being crushed to death by 11 years of what Fordham University Professor Mark Naison calls, [an] "education reform policy [that] will be judged by future historians as one of the most destructive and immoral social policies introduced under the aegis of a bi-partisan consensus since the Vietnam War.."

My dark angels roaming the halls didn't get there by accident. Unengaged students in class aren't there by accident either. Connect the dots: teachers' unions vote Democrat. Kill one of the last standing major unions and you help the big businesses who eye the enormous amounts of money to be made in a newly structured education model. These businesses buy politicians, who abdicate their responsibility to write legislation for the common good to for-profit charters, "consulting groups" and Pearson, the standardized test company...who see public education as a tasty morsel to be gobbled up for their own profit. Think I'm nuts? Want some  peer review? Check this out: pearson multinational and its influence on education policy and this out: It's All About the Money, Money, Money and this: Excerpt: The Life and Death of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch. 

So-- how to kill teachers' unions? Thoroughly. Start by branding teachers as lazy, whining, overpaid kid-haters. Fund movies like Waiting for Superman and Won't Back Down. Portray teachers as union thugs who sit heavily at desks and torture children. Move in for the kill: demand 100% of kids achieve on a test that is rigged for failure, and control how the test is given. (NOTE: If you are a Congressperson, be sure to send your kids to a private school that would never rely on this policy. Even if you aren't a Congressperson, be sure that your kids' private school doesn't take mentally ill kids, pregnant kids, kids with mental retardation, etc. and pretend it is because "your school doesn't have the resources to help those kids." Be sure, however, that your kids' private school has state-of-the-art technologies, small class sizes, new auditoriums, art and theater departments and beautiful facilities.)

 Control who scores the test. Make teachers' and administrators' jobs rely on those scores-- and punish them with fewer resources if the kids don't achieve. Publish teachers' names in the paper, like the L.A. Times did, branding them as "FAILING." In essence, take most things worth doing and knowing and absent them from public school days--and ensure teachers are weakened and disparaged enough to frantically try to comply with your catastrophic educational policy. Roll up the carpet of failure and, "for the kids' sake," offer your carefully crafted, astonishingly-ready-already new "delivery model:" charters, for-profit charters, racial segregation and unelected officials in charge. 

The bad news for education deformers, as Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan are widely called-- is that we are on to them. The good news for them is that they have at least a 12-year jump on us-- and by "us" I mean educators, parents and of course-- the embattled public school child.

Policy, politics-- who cares, right? What's the brass tacks? Here it is:

My own children's Pittsburgh Public elementary school experience pre-dated No Child Left Behind. They had a full time music teacher who taught them songs like "Siyahamba," the South African freedom song. They had a full time art teacher in a huge art room with a working kiln, and time for oil painting tutors. They had a full time French teacher, a librarian who read Greek myths to them, a fourth grade teacher who integrated sign language into lessons. Their second grade content areas were enriched with art history-- my oldest, Sarah, studied Bruegel, Monet, Keith Haring-- and made an edible self-portrait in the style of Picasso for FUN. Remember fun in school?

My kids benefited from a cranky but truly expert science teacher who hatched chicks every year in the science lab and helped to build a nature walk around the school. Their social studies and language arts classes were enriched by artists in residence who played up-right bass in school, explored the work of Langston Hughes, Thomas Jefferson, Pakistani ghazals. They had gym every day, recess every day, they slept over at kids' houses who didn't look like them.

The common denominator here is that teachers were allowed to TEACH. They weren't consumed with test prep, or Common Core Standards. They were enriching the children in front of them with the best humanity has to offer--with art, literature, music. They were accountable to a highly involved PTA and a demanding principal who was universally beloved. Did I mention that all of this took place in the middle of a crime-ridden, impoverished area surrounded by public housing? That my son's favorite teachers were two African American women-- Ms. Benjamin and Mrs. Stevens? That my daughter's first best friend was African American? That the school was totally integrated? That the staff was racially diverse?

Show me the charter school that can touch that experience. Show me the PRIVATE school that can touch that experience. You know what I'm fighting for? You know why I nominate the embattled public school child as Time's Person of 2012? Because you would be hard-pressed, 11 years after No Child Left Behind, to show me that experience in a public school today. That racial diversity, that level of teacher engagement, that integration of arts, that availability of resources, that thrumming, gorgeous school life my own kids loved, that shaped them into the gorgeous souls they are today-- it is DYING. Gone but for a few hold-outs where parents have enough disposable income and time to get involved, volunteer, advocate, talk to the members of the Board of Education...where there are administrators with epic courage who support teachers who act for the benefit of the whole child.

One of my current four schools has warned the staff that any teacher taking her students to recess will get an instant critical incident filed against her. There isn't enough staff for recess. Each child there gets one box of Prang crayons per semester. The supply cupboard is bare. If there is any integration of art-- which there generally isn't, because they have been doing test prep since September-- it relies on the money teachers can spare to fund it--since they have to buy their own supplies. I haven't seen 8th grade in that school in the library, and I probably won't. Seeing their almost 600 kids in one day a week as their librarian is impossible. I'll see them a few times a year, at most. The school is coming apart at the seams. Teachers have stopped putting up displays in the halls because our hall angels tear them down. A science teacher hadn't received her curriculum yet-- and it is December. Broken technology and no tech staff to fix it in a "data driven" world. These poor teachers just can't educate 600 kids, all of them so poor they require free or reduced lunches-- with no resources, too few counselors, social workers, school nurses, a curriculum strangled by test prep, too little art, music, library, little administrative support and an uninvolved group of parents.

My hall angels. Our children who NEED music, art, technology, who NEED teachers who aren't driven almost to breakdown with central office and state demands-- it is these children who deserve our attention now. As Karen Lewis, the hero from Chicago, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union showed in her successful CTU strike this year: teachers' concerns are kids' concerns. Some of their most important requests, requests that required a STRIKE to get the District to agree to were: more counselors for needy kids, textbooks guaranteed on the first day of school or before, a "better day," not just a longer one, including art, library, etc. What other professional has to take an unpaid leave to stand in all weathers with a sign to get supplies to serve their clients or patients? When has an attorney ever had to stand on a sidewalk for free to access a law library? When has a doctor ever had to hold a rally to beg for surgical equipment? Don't believe me? Read the facts: community-group-has-a-rally-for-better-school-day

Time's Person of the Year for 2012 should be The Embattled Public School Child. My hope is that the tiny faces of the victims of the shooting in Newton, CT will drive us toward a national discussion of the importance of teachers and teaching. It can be noted that the Sandy Hook music teacher and librarian's jobs were on the chopping block right before the shooting. Thank God that music teacher and that librarian were there- they saved children's lives. Teachers, in the most extreme circumstances, save children's physical lives. In less extreme circumstances, teachers can save children's spiritual, academic, social, artistic and emotional lives every day. Let's let them.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Outside the Lines-- of the Standardized Test Bubble

When I was student teaching, I had an experience that left me in tears and immoblized for days afterward. It started well enough-- with what I thought at the time was a cultural difference I didn't fully understand. It ended badly. Let me tell the story.

I student taught at a new construction school in what folks called "Crack Row" in the historic Pittsburgh neighborhood of Homewood. 100% African American, free and reduced lunch, a terrible academic record. I had asked for an urban setting- the rougher, the better. After having taught poetry at my kids' school, East Hills International Studies Academy, I thought I was well prepared. That school was in the middle of the projects. Our poetry club went from 30 kids after school to culling grad students from Pitt and other parents to teach Kindergarten-Fifth grade. We were a huge part of the school culture, the Principal loved us, the kids loved us, we got grants from Heinz Endowments-- it felt a lot like success in an inner city school. I got this, I thought.

Now getting ready for my student teaching--I had some education classes under my belt, I had lots of experience working with kids, I even had read Keith Gilyard's Voices of the Self. This book was highly influential. I was on fire to save children from deciding by second grade that school was not for them, as Gilyard's work described so eloquently. I was going to make the difference in their lives with my training, my love, my passion and my sheer will.

Fast forward to a week into student teaching. Breaking up fights every day multiple times between children who sometimes seemed to these very white eyes as feral, managing hungry kids, homeless kids, angry kids, mentally unstable kids-- this was terribly hard-- but not as hard as dealing with the adults in the building. Some of them were motivated, excited to be there, loving. Some of them were motherly, professional, highly talented, academically prepared. Some of them were racist and some of them were hopeless complainers-- and of both races. The Principal was a terrible manager. Some of her teacher favorites strolled up to get their kids from lunch duty 15 minutes late-- fully 1/3 of our Library period-- while we held that teacher's kids outside the library with our own incoming class in line, waiting to go in. I was overwhelmed and disillusioned. Nothing had prepared me for kids with PTSD and adults such as these. A week in, I wasn't sure I had anything to offer inner city kids.

And then it was time for the PSSA's-- the standardized tests that are part of No Child Left Behind. Our school had not made AYP, the Principal's job was imperiled, as was the entire staff's-- and the pressure for the kids to do well was ON. The Principal ordered extra food that week so all kids were fed a bigger breakfast and had unlimited access to fresh fruit, crackers, cheese, etc. between and during classes. Immediately the poor behavior came under better control. The kids were hungry-- I knew that-- but I didn't know how hungry, or remember how food insecurity can affect one's mental state from my own childhood. The Principal also had the staff plan an enormous rally to get the kids pumped for the tests.

On the day of the rally, there was a guy in a costume, blaring hip hop music, dancers, a play of sorts-- a really big production to try to get kids to understand the importance of the test. I thought this kind of thing was an expression of a cultural difference between myself and the African-American staff. I hoped it would help. It did the work of getting us all more on edge than ever, that I will say. We clearly understood the high stakes going into testing. The kids seemed to clearly understand what was at stake should they perform poorly. They were amped. It wasn't clear how they felt about the tests- but they knew how we felt, how the Principal felt- how the state felt. I was taken out of the library for the week of PSSA's to help "proctor" the exam. I was paired with a second grade teacher I didn't know.

The first day of the PSSAs I showed up, coffee in hand, dressed up, bright eyed and ready to do anything I could to be part of the team and drive up test scores. The reality was that I sat at the edge of the room while a teacher scalded the kids- really scalded and flayed them-- with frustrated, shrill instructions interrupted by screaming reminders not to ask questions. She said she wasn't allowed to answer any of them. Children were seated with their cardboard test-taking "privacy screens", their extra #2 pencils, their mints. She read the instructions and told them to take their tests. She called them "beauties," pretty incongruous to her task and her tone.

 One child kept moving the table he was sitting at. The teacher shrieked at him to quit distracting others-- didn't he know how important quiet was for concentration? Did he want others to fail? Fail their school, their families, their teachers? The tension in the room, already high, made the children and I sweat. I went to the kid who kept moving the table, to try to quietly encourage him to stop. He couldn't. His legs were too long and didn't fit under it. He wasn't trying to move the table-- he was trying to sit there quietly. But he didn't fit-- and he couldn't-- and each time he tried, the teacher, really at this point a terrifying witch stereotype from a badly acted Hansel and Gretel film-- shrieked at him.

Many of the kids weren't doing the test. The teacher would read the instructions, allow the time to run out, and then read the instructions for the next section. Those kids who weren't doing the test couldn't read the test booklet. You read that right. They couldn't read the friggin' test. They couldn't read the answers. The test was a joke from beginning to end for this group-- totally inappropriate-- but the teacher had to give the test, in the manner proscribed-- whether or not the kids could do it. She said she wasn't allowed to explain or clarify questions, and there were test monitors in the building that day to be sure each rule was followed to the letter. I was frantic. How could I be sitting in a room while this kind of situation occurred? I didn't know what to do.

And then a child named Angel, most inappropriately named, solved the problem and broke the tension. She turned over her desk in the middle of the room, spewing papers, pencils, mints and the cardboard privacy screen onto the floor. It hit the hard floor like a canon and echoed like thunder. She stood there, defiant, smiling. The teacher turned blue and screamed. Angel did. not. care. She clacked her hair beads around, stuck out her little behind, and danced in a circle. She sang, "Go pee-pee! Go pee-pee! Go pee-pee!" while twirling her little self around in circles. Sometimes she'd stop and do a huge, all over booty shake. Sometimes she'd just make faces and clack her beads. The other kids watched her, smiling, awed. She got louder, the clacking beads more frantically bashing around her head, her dancing crazier. Papers settled in corners of the room, swishing under her feet.

The teacher yelled at the kids to ignore Angel and do their tests. We all knew sending behavior problems to the office resulted in a triumphant and quick return of that kid, smiling knowingly, having had a "talk" and a piece of candy with the person in charge. Some kids tried to resume their test, but most just watched. I was awed, too. Angel's response was the only one that made sense. Here I was, a 40-something teacher, and I was cowed by the teacher, the high stakes, the tension, the repercussions, the need for acceptance, you name it. Not 7-year old Angel. She just flipped over the desk and essentially gave the whole thing the finger. She knew bullshit when she saw it.

I cried in the parking lot after school. What had I signed up for? At the end of my student teaching, I was absolutely sure I did not want to-- could not-- work in an urban setting. I felt-- still feel-- that student teachers need a full semester devoted to nothing but working with a type of inner city child: the child who lives in a food desert, whose parents are in prison, whose family members are shot in front of their eyes, whose parents sling drugs, who live with grandparents or in homeless shelters or with family friends. The children who jump behind cars to avoid being hit by a drive-by shooting, which happened during my student teaching. Babies-- shaken, almost hit by flying bullets, having saved their own lives on the street by hiding-- now coming to a school where their performance on a standardized test-- devised to make them fail, requiring none of their intellect or gifts--was used to judge them, their teachers, their community.

You've heard all this kind of thing before. What you may not have heard, so far even from me-- is the joy of the kids. The kids like Kristopher, a quiet fourth grader who wrote a poem off the cuff beginning with the line, "the faces of my people" about how beautiful his neighbors were. The joy of those children and parents who somehow triumphed: the grandmother who adopted two little boys born addicted to crack who worked nights, but still found time to volunteer in the cafeteria, iron the boys' uniforms, and visit the school library daily to get new books to read to them. She had her boys report out to us each morning about what they had read the night before--and ask probing questions about the books. The way the kids-- lots of boys included-- could double-dutch. The talent the kids displayed at critical thinking-- the ways they questioned stories, authors' intentions, instructions to assignments, above all, us. The way the kids made incredible poetry, visual art, and were grateful if you remembered their names, remembered them-- their beauty. Their minds. Their ability to solve problems that had nothing to do with canned tests. Their ways of answering questions that hadn't been asked, that were 10 steps ahead of anything we had thought to ask. I thought of them then-- and still do--- as uncharted rainforests full of things that could cure the world, if only we could find a way to nurture them, protect them, get out of their way. We were trying to make them into bonsai trees--carefully controlled and shaped to our specifications--when each one was a wild growing forest, full of blooming.

Here's to Angel and the brand of wild fight she had in her. Here's to the kids at that school who saw us for what we were: frightened sheep more concerned with keeping our jobs than walking the hell out, saying we refuse to give PSSAs-- fire us now, we won't do it. And here's to the kids who won't end up in jail or slinging, but making art, writing poems, nurturing younger ones, finding a way- and who knew deep down I loved them, I cared for them-- but didn't know how to teach them.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Let's Get Ugly and True

Another day, another dismal library to fix. The Manchester Miracle is almost over. The Library was redone by Sam's Club. Truly. I know-- its strange: Sam Walton, the Wal-Mart goon who oppressed millions with his Carnegie-esque gospel of wealth philosophy fixing up a public school library. But let's face it: Sam is dead. The good Sam's Club did here was because of a community organizer named Kezia Ellison, who started a foundation called Educating Teens About HIV, Inc. and a solid group of working-class Sam's Club managers.

Kezia lives a few streets over from Manchester and became aware of the library situation there because of the media push Jessie Ramey and I engineered. She showed up the Monday after the front page article in the Post-Gazette and asked me what I wanted for the space. This is what I told her:

* new paint
* new carpet
* a gorgeous, fancy author's chair
* new blinds
* clean everything: windows, wooden shelves, etc.
* more bookshelves
* a story circle carpet
* a bank of computers for kids to search the catalog on
* a new circulation desk
* more books
* giant, good quality bean bag chairs
* a SMART Board
* a wall-sized political map of the world

Kezia took notes, the map I drew of where everything should go, and left. I didn't think anything of it until she came back, telling me she had spoken with the entire North Eastern region of Sam's Club and had gotten them to provide everything on my list for the library. In a matter of five weeks, the Manchester Miracle Library went from prison block hell to professional designer-designed (Perlora Furniture donated professional interior designers and a pale green wool author's chair) heaven. The pale warm yellow walls reflect the sunshine. A 6'6" ficus tree spreads out behind the author's chair, which sits on the enormous story circle carpet. A political map shows computer surfers the world while they work the three new laptops. An enormous and brand-new YA section faces the bean bag chairs. We have had the first meeting of our first middle school book club.

Our miracle, begun via social media and made true and real by the good hearts of people all over the world, broadened, expanded and grew into a glowing jewel, a gift: a gorgeous community center for teachers and underprivilged kids inside a poor school. A sanctuary in the middle of a struggling neighborhood that is beautiful, rich and full of resources.

You know what it doesn't have? A librarian. Seriously. Theoretically, one day a week kids can get in their gorgeous sanctuary, when the librarian comes. But in reality she doesn't come once a week: she's on a 6-day schedule and comes when her schedule allows. So, the most beautiful room many of us will ever see sits empty and echoing while kids go book-less, library-less, sanctuary-less. Welcome to my freakin' world.

Other posts by me and by better writers like Jessie Ramey of Yinzercation explain in detail why this is. In short, our state has an incredibly corrupt governor and state system that instead of protecting public education as a public good, gives it away to the highest bidder. In the name of supporting his largest campaign contributor, Tom "Corporate" Corbett cut $1 BILLION from our schools this year and is relaxing PSSA and other standards for charter schools. This is killing the public schools. The Philadelphia system is dead, and now he's coming for Pittsburgh. Dr. Linda Lane, our Superintendent, was left trying to run a school system with less money and teachers than ever. She set up a system where schools have library service once a week-- the best she or anybody could do under the circumstances.

The problem is that many libraries in the public schools hadn't had librarians for years prior to this mess. So-- now that each library must serve children once a week, somebody was needed to "redd up" the libraries and get them in shape to see kids. That's where I come in. I'm paid as a sub three days a week to rehab unloved libraries.

And my newest library is Pgh Carmalt K-8. The poor thing. It's filthy, sad and bereft of books. Broken book shelves, empty bookshelves, bookshelves with torn, dirty and worn out books, stained carpet, a storeroom more than a classroom, with TV-VCR carts crowding aisles between bookshelves and old curricular materials where the biographies should be. For 100 bucks a day I'm paid to clean out the back rooms, clean out the library, and try to bring some light and organization to the collection. So I'm schlepping boxes of books, tossing old crap, dusting, cleaning. With a Master's Degree and five years' experience, this is what I'm doing. Not that there isn't some professional expertise needed: there is. What you throw out and what you put on the shelves draws on training and experience and can't really be done by anybody but a professional librarian. It's the dimming light down the tunnel that kills me: the lack of resources with which to enliven these libraries. Miracles don't happen all the time. And the fact that I probably won't have a job at all next year in any capacity within my chosen field.

Mismanagement and poor allocation of resources makes me crazy. Put a really talented and motivated teacher like me in front of kids full time. Provide each library with a full time librarian and a part time aide so that each library becomes what Manchester is: a gift, a gentle light for good, a sanctuary, a place of growing. Give each librarian an iron-clad book budget so she can build her collection free of the fear of that money being grabbed to pay for other needed supplies in school. Quit being so damn stupid, world. Do the right thing. Demand library service for kids. NOW.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dreams Fulfilled and the Manchester Miracle

Last Tuesday night I dragged home, completely exhausted and despairing. I had spent the day sweating in a cement block room painted a peeling institutional and hideous mint green. Dirty windows, spider webs, piles of trash and discarded supplies, and a less-than-enthusiastic music teacher shared the space with a piano, untouched African drums and all the music teacher's lists of rules all over the walls. The long-gone Librarian's office was stacked to the ceiling with old boxes of uncataloged books, that when opened, offered little to be excited about: culled from closed schools a decade ago, they were dirty, outdated and had broken bindings. But that wasn't what I was despairing about. When I looked at the fiction section, sandwiched in between music text books and health text books-- both classes are taught in the until-my-arrival defunct library, there were only 40-60 usable books. For a Kindergarten-8th grade school. With many special needs classrooms, kids with differing and important needs, in a struggling and sometimes violent and dismal neighborhood. Walking to the public library is sometimes too dangerous. And, with No Child Left Behind, kids with low reading scores generally don't make AYP, which puts them in danger of losing more resources. Inequity, thy name is politics meddling in education. Anywho--

I had recently been placed in the Pgh Public Schools as a Librarian sub. I would have 1 day to serve a school of 300 and 1 day to serve a school with 2 campuses and over 500 kids, and the other three days a week, I'd serve as a rehab specialist of sorts for those libraries that hadn't had a Librarian for a long time.Our current Superintendent, Linda Lane, is making an effort toward equity in our city. She passed an educational delivery model that demands a librarian in every Pittsburgh Public School. Great, right? Yes, except that there wasn't money to hire a librarian for every school- with the end result being that each Pgh Public Schools K-5 and K-8 librarian still standing now has 5 schools a week to serve, with only a few exceptions. This is a terrible situation for everybody. But of course it is part and parcel of the current political movement toward making publics so untenable for parents and children that they are forced to consider either private schools (funded by vouchers) or for-profit charter schools. These for-profits are making CEOs rich. So are the test-making, checking and implementing companies stuffing themselves like pigs with the cash No Child Left Behind's obsession with testing spews toward them. Who is losing? Children. Poor children especially. And people who were truly born to be educators. Nobody wants to damage children, least of all people like me who have gone into excessive debt to gain the education and training necessary to devote myself body and soul to a low-paying career nurturing them.

So-- back to being despairing. I posted a picture of the empty library shelves on Facebook with a status about my state of mind and why. Then I made a Wish List on Amazon. (Amazon Wish List for Manchester K-8) And the magic started. Jessie Ramey, one of the most important voices on public education and equity writing today, is the author of the Yinzercation blog and my friend on Facebook. She wrote a wonderful blog article about what I experienced at Manchester (library-books-and-equity) and people started commenting, sharing, and buying books off of the Wish List. I spent some time tweeting to friends, people I admire, people I thought might care, and Pgh community organizations, referencing the list and Jessie's article.

 The thing went viral. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette came out to do an interview and on Saturday, they published an article about what was increasingly becoming a miraculous regional and national miracle. ( The Amazon list was going CRAZY. Every time I checked it, another 20-30 books had been purchased from it. Besides my full time job, keeping books on the list was literally my full-time occupation. I was staying up late and getting up at 4AM to wrack my brain for books that would well serve the Manchester population, poring over on-line "Best Of" lists and begging Librarian friends to log on to Amazon as me to help me keep the list full.

Jessie Ramey worked her magic behind the scenes. Emailing, following up with emails sent to me and to her, tracking down radio shows to talk to, writing additional blog articles, ( reaching out to people she knows and knows of, Jessie was and is the driving force behind the Manchester Miracle, as I've called it. To date, we've been offered grants, offers of help from far and wide, and almost 800 books have been purchased from the list. Plus there are thousands-- I mean it, thousands-- of books in boxes on my front porch and turning my living room into a book warehouse.

The world is good, people are good, and people Black, White and every color care about equity and kids. That's good to know, because getting our schools and our libraries to the place they need to be is going to require the back breaking work of all of us. I'm proud to be part of it.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

iTunes U

iTunes U is such an amazing resource that every person and every educator needs to know about it. I'm sure it's well known to many, if not most, but the resources there continue to amaze me. For the last three days I've been listening to Say It Plain: A Century of Great African American Oratory. I wouldn't have known about this wonderful series of podcasts if I hadn't been perusing the iTunes U selections. Here is the link for this great resource, and it comes with written transcripts of great speeches. Awesome!

Minnesota Public Radio: Say It Plain: A Century of Great African-American Oratory

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Roaring Back From the Dead

Recently, amid much chaotic, heart rending anguish, tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth from ex-pats, alumni and current students alike, the school mascot at my childrens' school, the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, was changed from a unicorn to a phoenix. Kids still give the index-finger-to-the-forehead salute to each other in solidarity with their past unicorn-y days. I suspected the unicorn was too "gay" a symbol, and that some folk wanted to de-rainbow CAPA's image a bit by picking a more "macho" mascot. I mean, phoenixes burst into flame. Anything associated with fire has a bit more manly panache than a mythical creature only accessible to virgins. (Sorry-- but that's the story. Don't believe me? Check it out: Unicorns and Virgins) For that reason, I was disappointed in the change...but lately, I've been feeling much more inclined toward the phoenix.

Why? Because the Pittsburgh Public Schools are going to have to rise from the ashes of our Governor's policies to continue to excel. Something needs to finally scorch some damn sense into the general public to turn them into a Wisconsin-style mob on the front lines, soldiers protecting their children's right to a great education. Because like a shrieking bird of prey ON FIRE, outrage needs to flow throughout the state's plumbers, housewives, EMT workers, garbage collectors, teacher's aides and all other ordinary citizens, turning them into marching, voting, screaming, occupying, sit-in-ing, representative-calling, activated advocates for education against the insanity of the Corporate Corbett regime..ESPECIALLY in the Republican-voting "T" middle section of our state not-so-affectionately referred to by Pittsburghers and Philadelphians as "Pennsyltucky."

Today the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's article outlining Corbett's proposed BILLION dollar give-away to oil and fracking interests in the wake of his BILLION dollar cuts to education in Pennsylvania is the best thing that could have happened. (Check it out: Post-Gazette 6/5/2012 Billion Tax Break for Shell )Who could possibly miss this Governor's true interests now? Oh-- let me tell you-- plenty of people. LOTS of misguided folk, with little to no interest in the public welfare, and even less in public education-- that is, those who will profit by the continued effort to privatize public education, break the teachers' unions and make money from the burgeoning prison profiteering movement, among many other things. And those who blindly vote Republican. And those who blame immigrants, poor people, etc. for the worlds' ills. Those who want to stick it to the fat-cat teachers and their paid vacations, union salaries and lazy ways.

Do I sound bitter? I am. Let's make the political personal. I am not the only one who feels about ready to explode in flames about the war on education in America. I became a Librarian with all my heart. I was molded to the Gospel of School Libraries and the good work to be done there, although certainly I couldn't do this work if I wasn't born for it. I have given my literal soul to doing my job well, and in the process, I have helped kids who hated to read find books they love, turned as many lessons into celebrations of childrens' beautiful artistic, intellectual, spiritual and creative selves as I possibly could, braved angry colleagues as I challenged things I felt could be done differently and better, emailed and called a million parents about their kids' behavior, good, bad and especially indifferent, sweated and hurt myself as I schlepped thousands of boxes of people's old books to Used Book Sales to earn money for new books for my library, gotten into grave trouble with supervisors advocating for kids and services to those kids, neglected my personal children because of the outpouring of love, attention and physical energy necessary at work, tried to make magic-- literal magic-- for my students, sometimes 800 strong in single year. This is a tenth of what my job requires-- and this, my friends, is what teachers do every. damn. day.

 So, yes, I am bitter that this profession- one for which a person is born, not made, that demands one sacrifice the richer salary, benefits and personal glory available to other professions--so one can teach first-graders how to tie their shoes, say thank you, say "please," teach parents that their adolescent IS different at school than at home, impose limits, demand excellence-- is under attack by the oligarchy that our country has become. I am angry that my friend Kari, a brilliant math teacher, for whom middle school students use their last few cents to buy presents at the Used Book Sale, who coaches sports and cheerleading and does administrative duty on command-- is furloughed now and will have to look out of state for employment. Oh, wait-- there are no teaching jobs. Anywhere. But there continue to be plenty of children who need people who love them-- who can teach them math-- and who invest in them everyday.

FLAMES. They should burn in our hearts. We have to fight against this war on our kids. NOW. And send Corporate Corbett and his buddies in search of the long-extinct, mythical unicorn in the Land of You're-Over. The good news is that, like Katniss in Mockinjay, by Suzanne Collins says, "Fire is catching!" And parents are starting to organize. I daily read the wonderful blog of Jessie B. Ramey, Ph.D, mother of two Pittsburgh Public School students.This blog, I've decided, is required reading for education advocates. Yinzercation is gaining followers and notoriety, and has been noted and quoted by national and international press. Read it. March. Teach your kids about the cuts happening now. Watch the Upper Darby videos I've linked to, below. All of the beauty of students engaged in gym, music, library, art, marching band-- the beauty of talent and hard work and community and effort and lessons such as: sacrifice pays off, others can be learned from/especially if they are different from you, turning frustration, fear, anger, boredom, aggression, ambition into art-- all of this will be LOST if the Upper Darby system has to follow through because of Corbett's cuts and eliminate ALL of the specials it offers. This is coming to a school district near you. And if you aren't frightened by the specter of poorer kids than yours missing their library, art, gym and music at school, you will be. Because the streets you, your kids and your elderly parents walk on will be filled with those same kids when they haven't learned the lessons arts teach. What happens to a dream deferred? It explodes.

Save Upper Darby Arts

Upper Darby Drum Line

Public Education Under Attack