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?