Monday, December 21, 2015

The Jane Heather McKee Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 14, 2015

Facing Evil with Maya Angelou

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

What is evil?

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

Can people make choices about how to respond to evil?

How are responses to evil related to every day survival?

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

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Remaking Learning at Perry High School's Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, October 4, 2015

North Side Voices

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

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

they started shooting

my brothers and sister started running

they dropped the stroller while i was still in there

and left me

in the middle

of the street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 10, 2015


The school buildings in the Pittsburgh city limits are often very old. They are built out of hearty brick, feet and feet thick. Windows often don't open, or only open a bit. This results in extreme heat in the summer in buildings that were built before central air was invented, and in school districts in which budgets don't allow for it. On the third floor, some rooms can catch a breeze. Others swelter and stew, sticky with brutal, unrelenting heat, as palpable and real as a heated blanket on a fevered head. 

My library at Perry used to be the swimming pool. It is a long rectangular room with a low-ish ceiling. There are four windows that open inward and offer some relief from the heat when a breeze blows up Hemphill. However, two-thirds of the room has no windows and no fresh air. It is a brick oven.

The Library houses 20 computers near the circulation desk. It has my office, which doubles as a work room for the staff. In the work room are the servers for the computers and the laminator. This past week, the Library and work room, additionally heated by the technology inside, were at 96 degrees, with at least 40% humidity. Sweat running down my body did not dry, but continued to stream from my head to my toes unchecked. At times I was dizzy, light headed and disoriented. Some of our medically fragile students spent more time with the nurse.

My journalism students are embarking on their first essays. They are writing a story about something that happened to them, good, bad or indifferent, on the North Side where they live. Incredibly, these children, who range in age from 14 to 17 years old, engaged with college level literature, learned how to use Google docs, and are deeply into their personal essays, all within the first 9 days of school. And what a 9 days-- in these 9 days, I've sweated off five pounds. 

The kids have read the title short story in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. They persevered as I clonged a gong each time Sandra Cisneros used sensory information in her vignette "My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn" from Woman Hollering Creek. They discussed story structure while reading the first chapter of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. And then they had to face the evil blinking cursor on the mighty empty white page, and use their own brains to concoct their own stories about their own lives.

It was hard. Kids are writing about things that hurt. Ghosts of physical pain, accidents, brutality, violence. They are also writing about great things: new beginnings, beautiful historic homes, exploring museums and poetry readings. My kids are writing about moves across the country, being the new kid, not fitting in. 

One girl refused to work. She was sitting at a table, refusing to try Google docs, refusing to write. I approached her and asked what was going on. I reminded her she hadn't turned in ANY work at all. We have a policy that when a kid is doing poorly, we call their parents to alert them. I told her about the policy. She told me I was annoying her and that she was not going to write. 

That's when I knew I had to drop the teacher voice and just be a person. I told her I knew she had a story that nobody else knew. I told her that people who look like me in other parts of the city don't know her, probably underestimate her, and often dismiss young people like her. This class was conceived as a way to put her voice on an world stage. Her story will become a script, which will become a short film. That film has the capacity to reach the world. I told her I believe in her. That her story MATTERS. I told her that she only had to write 6 sentences today. And then I walked away. 

She wrote 8 sentences. 

So many kids don't believe in their abilities. We who teach are so blessed to have any positive impact on them. Blessed are the days when we can, even in those brick ovens we teach in, even in those states like mine that undervalue and under resource education for their own kids. Heroic children, streaming with sweat, dizzy, light headed, reaching for difficult and ever more difficult concepts, straining past emotional pain and barriers of shame and fear to get to some shimmering and tremulous achievement. I'm feeling pride today. Pride in our achievement in getting past all those barriers together. Blessed are those children and our strength together. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Millvale Community Library as a Model for Pittsburgh Public Schools

Kidsburgh: Destination Millvale from Sprout on Vimeo.

Do you know about the Millville Library? I think of it as the Little Library That Could. The first library in Millville, it was created by members of its own community. It offers a donated collection, computers, a really beautiful space complete with coffee and tea for purchase, a professional librarian, a community garden with a water garden in the back, and a Maker Space, staffed by professionals by the Pittsburgh Children's Museum.

The MakerSpace, when I saw it, was housed in the coolest wooden cabinet on wheels. It had drawers that pulled out to reveal wiring, soldering irons, switches, cogs, wheels, bobbins, scissors and thread for the sewing machine, LED lights, fabric, clay, and enough who-zits and what-zits to warm a mad scientist's heart. There were complimentary parts to the MakerSpace: a floor to ceiling whirling set of bins that held other stuff for building, creating, imagining and reimagining, for iterations of STUFF that kids could make.

The best part of all of this, of course, was the wry and funny professional guy from the Children's Museum who came out once or twice a week to teach kids how to use iPads and arduinos and LED lights and wiring and switches to make robots that drove, turned, lit up. On other days, kids learned other skills so that their imaginations were linked to real skills, so they could build things that really did drive, light up, turn, speak, obey commands, do work, be useful, or just become the thing the kid wanted it to be.

Here's my dream: Let's have a MakerSpace in each Library in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Let's have our Pittsburgh Public Schools decide that we are ALL going to embrace STEAM, and:

1. Become a District of First Choice by:
A. Partnering with Pittsburgh assets to empower teachers with best practices. That begins with Pittsburgh teachers as assets. Therefore:
B. Libraries are the places in schools best suited and most easily prepared to be transformed into Learning Commons. Learning Commons contain the most up to date information and technology. They also lend themselves to collaboration, which is the best model for STEAM education.  Since the Library is the natural place to center STEAM education as a school-wide model, start by placing a high-quality, licensed and qualified professional Librarian in each Pittsburgh Public School.
C. Work with funders of all kinds to create school libraries as Learning Commons, complete with all resources needed, including updated book collections.
D. Here's the MEAT:

HAVE THE BEST TEACHERS IN BUILDINGS DO THE PD they need to do for each other. Have the best teachers in buildings go to other buildings and do PD for other buildings. Have the Children's Museum embed teaching artists in each Learning Commons to teach kids and Librarians STEAM skills. Keep PD dollars local, for God's sake. Why aren't there teaching artists from the Warhol, the Museums of Art, Natural History, all of the Universities and Libraries in every Pittsburgh Public School? Let's skip the blah blah blah about red tape, its complicated, etc. These things, like all things, are personality driven. Take two people-oriented ego-less, kid-first professionals and put them together and amazing things happen.

I know amazing things happen because I've been blessed to be part of amazing things. The Manchester Miracle was created by Yinzercation Nation and Manchester residents and Neil Gaiman and Laurie Halse Anderson and Pittsburghers. Pittsburgh City Paper writer Allan Smith featured our book drive in a really wonderful piece in this week's Edition of the City Paper. People make beauty happen because they believe in equity. We can create the conditions we want to see for Pittsburgh's school children if we want to. Reality is just our own creation. Local PD. All that's beautiful, strong and good channeled into Pittsburgh Public Schools. Less canned curricula, purchased at great expense from money grubbing multinational businesses with little interest in our kids. Like Millville's  Little Library That Could, PPS can rise from where it is, to be for the whole community, on a 'mission of positive change."

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Outlaw Rides Again

Two years after I wrote this, I accepted a high school Librarian position at Perry Traditional Academy on the North Side of Pittsburgh. Who'dve thunk. I guess you can't keep a good outlaw down.

Back in the educational world, things look quite different. Thanks to Jessie Ramey, Kathy Newman, Pamela Harbin and all the other outlaw King-Makers at Yinzercation, we have a new, pro-public education Governor, swept into office by a blistering roar of angry parents, furious at the starvation of their kids' schools. Governor Wolf promises to reverse his predecessors's grotesque $1 billion cuts to public schools. He promises to bring back arts, music, and yes, SCHOOL LIBRARIES. See this:

The funds are not rolling yet, and my job at Perry is not due to the new Governor. However, it is nice to come back to education at a moment when things are looking up.

I have been at Perry for about two months now. My students make me laugh every dang minute. They are hilarious, and tender and sweet and gifted. Together, we have begun a book drive to diversify our book shelves. We hooked up with the national #WeNeedDiverseBooks folks and tweeted out messages. Sue Kerr, the North Side and national blogger, wrote a great piece about that effort. See more on that here. We were featured on the front page of the Pittsburgh Public Schools website. Today, the Pittsburgh City Paper came out to interview us about the book drive. To date, we have received 63 books from our Amazon Wish List. We hope to get more. The book shelves at Perry are deceptively full. What stocks them are books that desperately need to be updated. To those who have donated, we say thank you. You are making a difference in children's lives. You should know that kids attack the new books like freshly baked muffins.

What an exciting time! What a great place to be in! Much different than two years ago, when as a sub, I was ready to leave education forever. But outlaws aren't easily satisfied. Lord knows I'm not. Not when kids such as Pittsburgh's languish in inequitable situations. Let me tell you a story.

There is a kid at Perry who watches Youtube videos at home of people playing the piano. He carefully watches where they put their fingers as they play. Then this kid comes into school, sits down at one of our school pianos-- and plays what he watched. Really.

What the video above shows is the kid in question playing on one of the three pianos in the Library. My friends and colleagues, Gerald Watkins, the Choir Director and Music ITL, and Richard Lane, the Instrumental Teacher at Perry, had them moved up to the Library with my blessing. Libraries are workshops. They are places for kids to create content, not be containers to be filled. In the age of the Read-Write Web, kids need their school libraries to function as labs. Now kids such as this one have one more place to practice music in school. One more place to build the day in creative joy.

Which brings me to the reason I'm still so unsatisfied. The wonderful young City Paper writer and I spoke today of the Observatory that used to exist at his high school in Mt. Lebanon. You know, an observatory-- for observing the STARS. It worked.

Television stations, raku ceramics studios, oil painting, Latin, robotics, wood shops, Mac labs with Garage Band, etc., Maker Spaces, and mostly-- people. Enough people. Enough Librarians, library aides, books, music teachers, social workers, counselors, teachers, etc. to enable kids to have small classes, and their needs met. These things exist in schools for some kids in the Pittsburgh area, and we know which kids. Just not my kids at Perry.

It's great to have donated books and pianos in the Library. It's a joyous and optimistic start. But nobody with daily access to kids like these would dream that it is enough. Our kids need to have every opportunity, plain and simple. And what drove Jessie Ramey and Yinzercation to get a new Governor elected was a lot of work. A lot of funky, schlepping, sweating, on the bus, sign making, phone call making, unglamorous, risky work. That's what it takes to make change. And that is what I'm calling for when I say-- we Pittsburghers need to choose equity. We need to call our Republican congressfolk and demand they vote for arts and libraries and special ed teachers and counselors and film studies in schools. We must demand they work with this new Governor. And we must demand the new Governor stay on track with what he was put into office to do.

The viral book drives I have been lucky enough to be involved with have shown that Pittsburghers believe in and want equity for children, all of its children. I know that as surely as I have opened a zillion Amazon boxes and cataloged those books. That is why I won't be satisfied-- and I know Pittsburgh won't be satisfied-- until all of the things and mostly, staff and services that matter so much for kids' success--- exist in each Pittsburgh school.

It's either equity-- or more of the gun violence and more jails full of children who could be pouring out art from their fingertips and hearts and souls into the very air we breathe. Like the smokestacks used to pour out smoke. Choose, Pittsburgh. Equity for our school kids. Or jail. For our kids. Each one. Like that child, the one at the piano.

Post script: Pittsburgh Public Schools offers free music lessons this summer for 5th-8th graders!  Call Dr. Kymberly Cruz at 412-529-3518, or sign up at

Sunday, April 26, 2015


"You have to go to SCHOOL to be a Librarian??" is not a unusual question. Always makes me smile. Nobody knows what school librarians do. Our work is largely invisible. We are the only teacher in a school who must, upon being hired, have a Master's degree. Most of us simultaneously earn our K-12 teaching certification with our Master's, but in Pittsburgh, we are categorized as "Non-Teaching Professionals." Those semantics cause a kind of cognitive dissonance.

School librarians do teach. We teach how to build a website, a resume, a bibliography, a stop-motion animation film, a book trailer, how to find vetted information. I'm co-teaching four classes right now with the Head of our English Department. It is divine. It allows me time with each individual student in her classes. I know all their names, and I am beginning to know each of them as people. I am starting to know how to teach each kid-- what motivates them, how to engage them, what they like and don't like.

Why would it matter if a school Librarian knows the kids? Because unlike every bespectacled, bun wearing, shushing, cardigan-rockin' Librarian stereotype you've ever seen, the Librarian needs to be the absolute center of the school. She has to know her kids because what they think, want and want to know are the heart of her work. THEY ARE her work. She has to build her collection around them. Knowing their learning styles, reading levels, interests and goals directly inform her decisions about how to plan lessons and how to use her book budget to purchase resources.

That's why I always ask kids for their input on collection development. If kids can't have a say about what goes on the shelf, why would they care about what's there? Kids at Perry Traditional Academy have not been shy about sharing what they want to read. And they want books and materials that reflect realities they live and know. They want DIVERSE BOOKS. They want books about African-American, urban kids living real lives. They want books about queer kids, pregnant kids, kids in jail, kids in foster and Ward homes, LGBT kids. They want nonfiction about wrestling and football. They want LOTS of comic books and graphic novels and manga and anime. They want books about intellectually gifted Black kids who make it. They want all of these things alongside the canon of Western literature, which they also want.

Working together, the staff, students and myself have started the Perry Traditional Academy Amazon Wish List. It's purpose is to DIVERSIFY our Library shelves to reflect our interests, lives, reading interests and ourselves. #WeNeedDiverseBooks definitely applies to us, and we have adopted it. I hope you might consider helping us by going to the Amazon Wish List and purchasing a book. We are the only high school on Pittsburgh's North Side. We plan on a massive revitalization of our school and by extension, our community. And it might just happen through our school library.

Now some folks might say--KIDS deciding what goes in the school library??? Clutch your pearls, right? Disorder, chaos, ruin and ruination!! Next thing you know, Fifty Shades of Gray will be in every school library!! Wrong. No need to run around screaming. Working with the school Librarian is key. A librarians' goal is to match the right resource to the right purpose. Fifty Shades might be great for a public library. A school Library is different. We collect books that connect to curriculum, build context and fluency, all while engaging kids.

Diversifying children's publishing is a national movement. Let me explain why. Try pulling a Cinderella picture book out of a fairy tale section for your Hispanic niece. Chances are good that the illustration on the cover will not resemble your little girl. And while we can blah blah blah about yeah, but Cinderella is actually a European fairy tale so why are you pulling the race card?-- we would be factually as well as morally wrong. The first known version of Cinderella is Chinese, circa 618. The story didn't show up in Europe until around 1634. Children of all races need to see themselves represented in stories. It shows them what is possible. That they are capable of transformation. That wishes can come true. That there is reason to hope.

That is the work of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, the movement begun this school year by children's authors Ellen Oh and Malinda Lo. Their discussion at a conference about the lack of diversity in children's publishing started others talking. Soon those discussions started folks organizing. We need to get all kids (and all people) reading about the lives of folks who don't look like them-- as well as demand that the publishing world represent all children. This is a pathway to peace and proper citizenship. Purchasing books written about diverse kids is a way to support this kind of movement. It sends a message to the publishing world that an all-white reading list is no longer acceptable. We want our kids to read for fun, for transformation, for hope, for change, to become more thoughtful, creative, broad and humane people. Help make that happen. Bring diversity to the world's book shelves. Share some with Perry's Library. With Love. Always.

UPDATE! Sue Kerr of Pittsburgh Lesbian, wrote a great article about our effort!! Check out her article at: Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Goodbye to my Children and to T

It took me a year to get him to speak to me. He would come in, slight, well, no, slight is far too polite a word. The child was just tiny, tiny for his age, short, light, lithe. He was a master of the slip in and slip out, slip around, wait, watch, absorb. He wouldn't speak to me or to any other adult. He just came in, silent, got on the computers, played games.

In a picture book, T could be a raggedy Pirate alley cat with one eye missing and a torn ear. Every day there was a new scratch, scar, bloody mark or piece of something missing. One day he came in with a truly alarming open wound on his forehead. Probably needed stitches. No stitches happened, so it closed on its own somehow and formed a dark brown mark to join all of the others on his wide forehead. His eyes were wide set and wide open. Not much missed this boy. He was 10 when I met him.

T was like most of the other kids. He showed up as soon as the Library opened during the summer months and stayed until it closed. Hot Cheetos, bought at Ms. Wong's, the Korean store owner across the street, crinkled suspiciously under the keyboard for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He hated programs, wouldn't do art, wouldn't engage. But he did watch. He watched as I painted with A. He watched as I verbally wrastled with Z, laughing and bugging, thumb wrestling, which always made Z so mad. I have freaky double jointed thumbs and I cheat. I beat Z every time, which was a big deal. Z was tall, popular, athletic, magnificently beautiful, beloved of the community. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see T smiling as Z howled when he had to conceed thumb wrestling defeat.

After six months of hovering, begging to join programs, trying to engage him anyway I knew how, I resorted to all out frustrated mania. I began bawling out T's name every time he came into the library like he was Norm on Cheers. I told him that if he didn't say Hi to me when he came in to the Library I would give him "the treatment." Not one to take too many chances with nutsy white women, apparently, T began muttering "Hi Ms. S" when he came into the Library. I shouted out responses as if the Epoch of the Golden Alien Monkey Kings had begun and T's greeting had announced their arrival.

And then he tried it...he decided to see what "the treatment" was. He didn't say hello. And I was on that boy like white on rice. I leaped to my feet. I smooshed him. I hugged him. I swarshed him around. I washed his face with my hands and pretend soap and water. I did crazy bugs and ants with my long nails in his hair and all over his shoulders and arms. I schmongered him all over the place until his was dizzy and he yelled, "HI, MISS S.!!!" I threw professionalism and the child's right to his space and all that out the window.

And after that he talked to me sometimes. He always said Hi Ms. S. unless he wanted a treatment, which he did, at least once a week. He came to programs and watched and ran away. He let me feed him sometimes, but not often. He liked the food he liked, and he had his weekend backpack of food from school, which he asked if he ought to try to line up and sell on the cheap, marketplace style, in the Library. He matter of factly told me that he is messed up, can't read, is in a special classroom and still can't read. He never lied. EVER. T was completely honest. Always. Even when he knew it would get him in trouble.

And tomorrow I have to tell him that I have taken another job and that I very likely will never see him again. I've thought about how to say goodbye to this boy, the one I love the most, out of all the children at my Library whom I love. How to say that I wish I could have helped him be a better reader. How to say that even though I am one of many people who comes in and then disappears forever-- that he impacted me-- that he will stay with me--- that he is a Young King, an important and beautiful person, that he matters. That his life is precious. That I value him. That he is valuable to others and vital to the world. That all that time spent in making him acknowledge me wasn't about me but about him-- helping him know that he is not invisible.That he is seen and known.

I'm leaving the pubic library to go back to the Pittsburgh Public Schools to be a high school Librarian. I am going to bring the gospel of love with me-- to remember to try hard to be the adult I needed as a kid, wherever I land. And so I go on-- as always, heart full of all my children at the Hill District Library forever-- and especially with that boy-- that one-- that boy I made say hello. T. My Pirate Alley Cat, prayers for peace and blessings. For him and for all of us.