Saturday, October 15, 2016

Love Song to My Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Gov. Wolf's Proposed Budget Affects Your School

How Governor Wolf's Fair Funding Formula Will Work


Pittsburghers protest school closings

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

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Jewish and Confused

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

We can't fix economic inequality without addressing racism.

Posted by Demos on Saturday, March 12, 2016