On Kimani

14 Mar

I did not know Kimani Gray. I never taught him, never met him. When the 16-year old was gunned down by police for suspiciously reaching for his belt on Saturday, I had no idea who he was. I likewise do not know Bob McManus. Before today, I had never read one of his articles, never met him. I do know for certain that Bob McManus never knew Kimani Gray, nor did he know the youth of East Flatbush, who out of anger, frustration, and certainly some mob mentality stupidity, went on to start a small riot, resulting in the looting of two businesses and theft of a cellphone in the aftermath of Kimani’s killing. I am certain he has never met or spent a minute with Ronald or Queenie, two of the young East Flatbush residents who shouted at police officers and let their anger at the murder of their friend bubble over into violent behavior. I know he doesn’t know these two people because I asked them. They are my students (one a former student, but more on that later.) In Bob McManus’ defense of Ray Kelly, the opinionist claims the cops were doing their job by shooting an armed “aspiring sociopath” as they “stared down the barrel” of his .38 revolver. Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good temper tantrum, Bob. Not a single piece of evidence (outside of the department’s slowly developing reports on behalf of the two officers involve) confirms that Gray was pointing a gun at the officers. The police officers’ own statements suggest the boy was armed (something that is still under dispute) and that he had reached for his belt in a suspicious manner, as he was parting from a crowd of other men. They claim he then pulled out and pointed the revolver at police, when they shot him 11 times (although apparently, during this time, he didn’t fire at all, which seems like a waste of brandishing and pointing a gun.) If someone was shooting at me, and I had a gun in my hand (which I wouldn’t, as I don’t own a gun) I imagine my reflex would be to shoot back. Witness statements, of course, refute much of what the department has claimed on the officers’ behalf. In fact, there is still no clarity exactly where the source of the “pointing his gun at the officers” claim came from. But this isn’t about whether Kimani pointed a gun at officers before he was shot, it’s about what much of my writing is about: the dual nature of being human. The fact that humanity is a grey area, and that when people like Bob McManus try to make it a matter of black and white, it becomes an argument that cannot be solved, instead of a dialogue. It’s another step further away from finding a solution, and it’s dangerous. When people like Bob McManus think they know everything about a story that has two (or more) sides, even if they were never there and not involved, and they share that story (including the slander of a dead young man) with thousands of also-uninformed readers, you get the kind of populist trash rhetoric that leads to divisive hate, less empathy and understanding, and more situations like Saturday night on Church Avenue.

Kimani Gray may have been a member of a Hats set of the Bloods gang, or as McManus so hilariously simplifies it “an apparent gang member with a hefty criminal record” (petty larceny; and inciting a riot, which is generally an in-school offense as simple as tossing food in the lunch room.) He may also have been–as friends, family, and my students who knew him well have described–a thoughtful, kind, and decent young man, who had the street smarts, and general smarts to do great things in life. F. Scott Fitzgerald once described intelligence as “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in one’s head at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” I would say to be human is the nature of holding many disparate ideas, behaviors, and principals while retaining the ability to function. Just as the moral, principled leaders of government and members of the law can at once be wonderful fathers and husbands, and capable of committing immoral acts like adultery or abuse of power, so too can a young man from East Flatbush be at once affiliated with a gang or crew (most young men and women in Brooklyn will tell you this is the easiest way to stay safe) and be a serious student or athlete, great friend and son. Because it makes for easier argument to simply ignore Kimani’s humanity, McManus chooses to describe the one side of the young man he felt he knew: “an aspiring sociopath” (he fails to cite a source for this insidious claim.) It’s easy to ignore the humanity of a young man you did not know (just as easy as it is for liberals to ignore the human nature of the police, who may well have been acting reflexively in a moment of tension. For what it’s worth the NYPD has identified both as minorities.) But just because it is easy, and makes for better argument, doesn’t make it right. Certainly, the students I spoke to this week so a more complex side to Kimani Gray. At once boasting about his (and their own) rank within their crew, and bemoaning the loss of such promise in a young man with talent and personality, his friends showed off pictures from facebook, the last one of Ronald at the memorial where Kimani was killed, a red flag over his shoulder, tears on his cheeks, is particularly poignant for me. It says of Ronald, what I am trying to say is true of Kimani, and all of us humans (Bob McManus included): it speaks of complexity. On the one hand, we see the Ronald who was enrolled in my school for the reasons students end up here: his gang colors are evident, his thuggish clothes and demeanor reflect a life he values (which I do not, but also cannot comprehend). However, his eyes and the look on his face reflects something I can value, and can comprehend: hurt, confusion, and profound sadness at the loss of a friend whose life he cherished deeply. Ronald was asked to leave our school a few weeks back, after he was caught stealing from a staff member. My frustrations with Ronald that day, as well as many other times he found himself in trouble, do not obfuscate the fact that he was also charming, clever, and intelligent. In fact, it makes him, like Kimani, and like the officers who pulled the trigger, and (I assume) like Bob McManus, a human-being: fallible; capable of good and bad, and also redemption.

In his long rant, bouncing from blaming a 16 year-old for getting shot but grown and fully trained adult men, to claiming that stop-and-frisk is somehow responsible for a lower murder rate in New York City than Detroit and Baltimore, McManus said a lot that didn’t make sense to me. But he did say one thing that made a lot of sense: he suggested that before we blame the police commissioner or the police, we should start by blaming “the culture that created the initial confrontation in the first place.” Now, by this McManus may have meant the culture of Kimani Gray’s world (one he may well have simplified to hip-hop, gangs, guns, and a few other buzzwords), but I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he means American culture at large. And I agree. One of the essential factors of this culture that “lead to the initial confrontation” is an inability to understand–or even try to understand–people who’s lives are opposed in experience and value to ours. Police struggle to understand kids on the street, and paint them with a single brush, and the kids in turn do the same for police. A journalist describes a kid he has never met as being “lethal beyond imagination” because he may (or may not) have pointed a gun on a late night, in a dangerous neighborhood, at two men, in plain clothes, whom he may (or may not) have fully processed were officers of the law. We simplify the other into black or white (no pun intended) and we yell on our soapboxes about being right. Mr. McManus, I’d like you to meet Ronald, he was a friend of Kimani’s.


Turner School of the Global Village

28 Feb

Over the weekend, I sat in my parents living room, munching on bagels and quiche, sipping a nice hot coffee, and listening to some of the most influential educators in my life discuss myriad things: ranging from mosquito nets in Africa; to who will finally copyright the photon, making solar energy a truly valuable enterprise; and the recent loss by my high school boys basketball team.  Such is the life of the son of educators. As my parents friends were preparing to leave, a very close family friend who happened to be my high school history teacher leaned over and said: “Geoff, I love your blog. But your entries…they’re too long.”  He’s right.

Two weekends ago, my parents travelled to Missoula, MT where my dad was a presenter, largely because he had recently won a contest in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The contest was to design a proposal for the ideal college/university of the 21st Century.  You can read the full text of my dad’s excellent, winning proposal here.  As an homage to both of these men, as well as another huge influence, here it is: my proposal for the ideal high school serving struggling students in the 21st century (in 500 words or less) “The Turner School of the Global Village.”

In a society where only 53% of urban teens graduate from High School, and only 71% of all students graduate, a drastic shift is called for in the way we attempt to educate those left behind by a system that neither tries, nor wants to accommodate their unconventional needs, strengths, and deficiencies.  Turner School of the Global Vilage will target students who are 15-17 < 10 credits and have been identified by their school (due to drug use, court involvement, or home environment) as being at risk to drop-out.  TSGV will utilize unit-based experiential-learning programs to immerse students in cultural engagement, learning activities, and assessment of the broad knowledge-base necessary for today’s cosmopolitan world. With the goal of equipping every graduate with the self-awareness and intellectual capacity to choose for himself the most appropriate college or career path to contribute to society, TSGV facilitates throughout three years, 8 units of group study (a 3-3-2 cycle), and two independent summer internships.  During the first cycle (“Immersion”) students will take part in three intensive study programs within the NYC area.  In the first unit students will study the history/culture of NYC (with particular focus on arts, literature, demography, and cuisine of the city); followed by a unit on the ecology of the tri-state area, and one on the economy of the tri-state area.  Within these intensives, students apply the skills learned in traditional history, literacy, math, and science courses to a broader understanding of their environs.  The first cycle culminates in presentation of cohorts portfolios to members of the school, their families, and surrounding community.

Following a summer internship within the city that the student has pursued and secured with the help of their staff advisor (all members of staff from teachers to support and admin. will act as advisors) students enter the second cycle, “The Greater Village.”  During the three interrelated but unique units of this second year, the students expand their horizons to include three diverse experiences.  The cohort spends one unit studying the inner-workings of the American Government in Washington, DC; another studying and fully participating in the development and traditions of a unique small community (such as the Amish of Pennsylvania, or fisherman villages in Maine); and a final unit ensconced within one of the school’s partner colleges auditing individual college courses while continuing their curriculum as a group.

In the final cycle, students will be part of a study abroad program, “The Global Village and Beyond.”  Students will travel each year to a new cosmopolitan area (and surrounding communities) of international intrigue and import.  Here they will explore a new, foreign culture and history, while simultaneously engaging in the community’s present concepts of learning, and research (as well as social and economic programs.)  In doing so, students will be exposed to the global realities of the 21st century world they will be asked to unify and lead in the years to come.  A unit may include staying with host families, or in small groups at schools, churches, or other community establishments.  Learning will include researching the social effects and economy of the diamond trade in an African nation, or the economic and social tumult in Greece.  The second unit of this final cycle will be dedicated to the students developing a multi-media capstone, to be presented to a large community of peers, family, and scholars at the graduation ceremony.  Students will work closely with an advisor, and a small team within the cohort, known as a Peer Review.  The capstone project will include a lengthy research dissertation, personal reflection, and letter to one’s own community, as he sees it upon graduation.

In addition to the radical shift in curriculum delivery, the greatest aspect of the socially-situated units lies in the understanding that all members of the TSGV community are also fully incorporated members of their host communities during this time.  If members of a host community are expected to take part in chores, meetings, activities, or traditions, the students of TSGV have the same expectations.

TSGV and its supporters recognize that students who struggle are often stygmatized by adults who do not understand the students’ culture and life experiences, providing curriculum and an academic approach that neither values the students’ experience, nor allows them access to material that seems increasingly detached from “the real world,” and struggling students’ needs as they develop into productive members of society.  By valuing all communities, cultures, and individual life experiences equally, the school will facilitate each student’s navigation of his needs and strengths, academically and socially.

Supported by an array of research from James Gee’s studies on experiential learning, to the concepts put forth by Sugata Mitra, and ideals regarding democratic learning communities of scholars, introduced by  Paul Goodman, the creators and education facilitators at TSGV believe students learn best when they direct their own learning and study while submerged in new environments where learning new skills and content is both necessary as a tool for survival and an inevitable byproduct of adaptation and understanding. Every student who graduates from TSGV will be equipped with the wealth of knowledge of self and society to ensure their continued success as responsible citizens of their neighborhoods, societies, and the Global Village.

Jeez, 869 words. Sorry guys. I tried!

Feel Good Friday

15 Feb

“This is why we fight/Why we lie awake/This is Why/Why we fight/

Come war/Come the infantry/Come the archers of hell/This is why/Why we fight.”  —  The Decemberists

In June, among the rolling fields of Somerset County, New Jersey, the noise is constant but welcome: a chirping of birds and buzz-croaking of insects whose names we do not know, and laughter, and the swinging open of doors and murmur of groups of young men and women bursting out into the warm.  The weeks of my graduation approaching were like the weeks before the Super Bowl, a building up to some major event, that would be epic and grand, and signify triumph at the end of many, many months of hard work…years…a lifetime.  In the world where I grew up, graduation was something immense: a moment celebrated with lavish parties stock full of shrimp cocktail and hand-served salmon cakes.  Fathers of the graduates lit big cigars, and the mothers had one too many glasses of wine, raising toasts to their little babies of whom they were all so proud, who were bound for the Bucknells and Boston Colleges, or following in dad’s footsteps to Princeton.  It was the kind of celebrations more modest men would withhold for the coming of some major miracle: winning the lottery, say…or defeating the cancer that doctors said you’d never overcome.  It was also, sadly, a celebration of the inevitable, a guarantee.  At a school where 0% of students drop out, and only one or two kids get “the boot” every year for trying to sell nickel bags, or stealing 100 dollars from an unattended backpack, a high school diploma from a well-respected school was a “birth right” of acceptance freshman year, and timely payments, thereafter.  It didn’t need to be earned so much as “waited out.”  Of course with the waiting came some work, and turmoil, and challenges and struggles.  No man’s life is perfect.  But to celebrate the way we did, to have attended the parties where young men and women were treated as royalty for having maintained a B-average and played on a soccer team for four years with little other distraction…well looking back on it, it all seems a bit gauche.

Over 30 months have gone by since I began teaching at the school where I previously taught.  Over 2.5 years.  It was a new school (in it’s second year) and–in case you have never read my blog before–served students who were 16+ and still had minimal or no H.S. credit.  As a new school we struggled as staff and students to find our identity, and trying to do this while providing a fair and decent education to the students enrolled was probably an unfair thing for all of us.  The school was not perfect, but we lived up to our mission.  For the students we could get into the building, I truly believed we provided an education on par with the average city public school, although it was no different, not radical, which played a large part in my leaving this year.  But it was certainly a guinea pig situation for all of us.  And while guinea pigs are considered pets for some (I had two: Guzzle and Scratch!) most people associate them with experiments, and indeed many experiments do not net the same result one had hoped.

Despite coming into school behind, and despite the fact that the school meant to help catch them up was imperfect, I was fortunate enough to be in attendance a couple weeks back for the graduation of 17 young men and women (including my boy Nate) whom I had taught there.  Before a back-drop with the theme of “Oh the Places You’ll Go” (one of my all-time favorite books) they spoke about their moments of pride, listened as they were congratulated for a truly great accomplishment.  Then they walked across the hall, ate a buffet, and went off into the night.  Students who had every cause to celebrate big sat quietly, sipping soda in plastic cups, and taking pictures with their proud parents.  And quietly for me, it was a great source of pride too.

After congratulating the students, I bundled up against the cold, and made for the exits.  As I was walking towards the door, a young man named Joseph, who rarely spoke to anyone the entire time I knew him (but had a great sense of humor, and would always email me hilarious jokes, even if he wouldn’t say a word to me) approached me as I was reaching the door.

“Hey, Mr. Schmidt.” I heard the quiet voice behind me and turned.

Joseph was there with his hand already held out towards me.

“Oh, hey Joseph.”

“I just wanted to say thank you.  You helped me a lot.”

I couldn’t say honestly what Joseph felt I had helped him with. But here he was speaking to me, holding out his hand.

I shook it firmly. “You should be really proud of yourself, Joseph. What’s your plan now?”

“A computer technology program.”

I told him I thought he’d be great at that, and to keep in touch.

I walked out into the cold, swallowed hard, and went around the corner to my old haunt for a private celebration.

Fear: a Journal Entry

13 Feb

Ever since I was a kid I have had an irrational, and quite frankly, debilitating fear of dying. I can recall being no more than a toddler: lying on a couch in the living room of my childhood home, literally paralyzed with fear as I would cry, my chest would tighten, and I would follow my mind down this rabbit hole. The first fear was death, other people dying, the ones who logically might, any time soon. Grandparents, older relatives and friends. Following this, I would think about the inevitable truth that everyone close to me would eventually be gone as well…maybe not in my life, but with virtual certainty, every life I knew and would come into contact with would terminate. Then my own death, the unstoppable nature of it, the fact that just like everyone else’s death, I would likely have no prediction of where, how, or when it would happen. And then, as if I hadn’t tortured myself enough, I would begin to think about the fact that even after I am gone, the world will still be here, me in the ground, for who knows how long, before–wouldn’t you know it?–even the earth would cease to be. I literally remember being like 5 years old, and curled up (usually on a Sunday evening in winter) thinking about this. What a weird kid.

These days, ironically, though each level of this spiral certainly cycles closer, I think an awful lot less about death as a simple matter. I certainly don’t get anxious to the point of immobility about it. The last time I was in a fetal position like that it was because I ate a bum tuna sandwich at a professional development. But in a very real, I suppose more mature way, I spend a lot of time wondering about the end of it all, and more than anything…”legacy.” What am I going to leave behind, and what will I have contributed that will really matter? I guess it is thoughts like these that make a lot of people turn to religion, or commit themselves to major civic undertakings, or quit their jobs and start scratching off a bucket list. I don’t know: am I too young for a midlife crisis?

I thought for almost all of my young adult life I would actually make it in this world as a writer of some import (let’s guesstimate age 14 or so until very recently, though I have been writing “stories” and “poems” since I could form a sentence.) I guess I just sort of woke up one day realizing I had completed a Masters in Education, an MFA in writing, and measuring my qualifications in each of the field: a smattering of small-time publications, a degree with no admitted financial value; vs. 5 years of teaching in a niche of urban public schools, having made some professional strides therein. I realized, I had pretty much slept-walked my way into a living aphorism: “Those who can do. Those who can’t teach.” Mind you, I don’t really agree with the tone or meaning of the aphorism…it is incredibly demeaning to teaching as a profession. But I certainly never “made it” as a writer, either because I wasn’t good enough, didn’t try hard enough, or didn’t want to make the sacrifices in life I would likely have to make to accomplish that particular dream. It’s hard to walk away from a decent salary and a marriage to go find some cabin in the woods in which to write…no matter how tempting the idea may have been.

It’s always the doldrums of winter–this wretched misleadingly “short” month of February that makes me feel some malaise that isn’t quite remorse or regret, but is definitely bred of curiosity, and makes me wonder if I couldn’t do better. Is there still some move to make or some “dream” to follow? Would I have what it takes if there was? Will I end up a 50+ year old teacher in a school I don’t deeply believe in? Will I just get by, and maybe, when I retire there will be great things? Will my legacy be “a darn good teacher” and if it is, is that good enough? I tell myself, “It’s only February,” but then I wonder if I just say this to placate myself, or justify my role in a system that I do not believe is fair, or decent. “If you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” And do I want to wake up one morning living out that aphorism as well?

The dream of writing for me was just that–a dream. I wanted it, and would work on it in fits. But I never made enough sacrifices for that dream to come to fruition. I wasn’t diligent or disciplined enough about it. I would make schedules I was determined to keep, only to make it a couple days before some other interest or responsibility would wrest the time from my hands. I would begin stories, or outlines, or draft lines that I was certain were the perfect and beautiful beginnings of something wonderful. And then they would sit on a desk untouched for days or weeks or months, until the idea itself was gone, or seemed unimportant. They turned into literally nothing. I don’t really know that I am ashamed of that, or disappointed in myself, because often the sacrifices were for things that seem to me to be worthwhile: becoming a teacher who was proud of his contributions in the classroom; growing professionally; working in a school where I could spend extra hours helping a hard-working student complete a college application essay, or prepare for a regents test he had previously failed; joining the staff of a new charter school, as a founding teacher, where maybe, finally my voice and ideas would be heard by people with the power to change.


It is 11pm a week ago Monday, and I am sitting on the couch in my apartment, my beautiful new wife having fallen asleep beside me. I am contemplating going to bed because the funny part (read: the first 15 minutes) of The Daily Show is over, but then Jon Stewart announces tonight’s guest. It is Michelle Rhee. I am at the end of a long and frustrating Monday, one spent experiencing first hand the deficits in social and academic norms that are the result of this system of American schools that Rhee and I both believe is unfair and broken (though our visions of how to improve it couldn’t be more vastly different.) I am tired, and I know that it will upset me to watch, because I have heard too many times the same rant from Rhee and others of her camp (many of whom are really not bad people, and certainly more genuine in their interest in education than Rhee herself.) But I watch. I don’t know why but I do. And I sit there, as this woman, who is pitching her book (which will certainly make some good hay) talks to me in the audience about why she is ok with “being considered a radical” for doing “common sense” things like closing low-performing schools and firing ineffective teachers. I listen as Stewart’s supposedly enlightened liberal audience erupts in applause, wondering how many of them have ever heard of Rhee, or paid any attention to her career. I listen as she then dodges a question from Stewart about the ineffective methods of evaluating teacher and school “effectiveness” (essentially the now-proven meaninglessness of evaluations based on standardize testing.) She does so with the age-old “I’m-not-racist-I-have-black-friends” routine, by mentioning she LOVES teachers because her aunt and sister-in-law, and perhaps a third uncle twice removed were all teachers. I listen as she talks about a balance between testing, principal observations, and “fairness”. She talks about how she and other “reformers” want to look at a balance of test scores, grades, observations, and parent and student surveys to evaluate teacher quality. But if every “reformer” (which is really just a buzz-word for policy maker who hardly ever steps foot in a real classroom) is saying this, how exactly is she a “radical,” I wonder. I listen as John Stewart asks a very keen question about whether or not throwing around “reform” and changing expectations and practices every three years isn’t indeed detrimental to teaching and learning. Rhee responds with an anecdote that somewhat confirms Stewart’s statement, but then connects that somehow to why her idea of reform needs to be adopted….I hear: “so, yes, it is messed up that we keep throwing different spices in the pot, so we should throw the spice I am selling in the pot.” And I listen as Stewart makes another great point about the fact that schools no longer reflect the real-world. That what we are teaching and learning in schools is no longer applicable to the workforce and society; to which Rhee responds that “this is why we need great teachers” another connection that fits her argument nicely but doesn’t really respond to a damn good question. And I listen as another interview with the radical “rockstar” of education reform ends with little or no conversation about kids and learning…but a whole lot more about teachers, and the best ways to evaluate them. And I go to bed on a cold February night, looking up at the ceiling, and wondering again…why do it?


In the second part of the interview with Rhee, which can only be found online, Stewart closes the segment by using the word “chronic” and then joking he doesn’t mean “The Chronic like that…which is street for ‘pot.'”

Rhee responds, “I don’t know what that means.”

This leads to an incredulous Stewart asking, “You worked in DC for three years, and you don’t know what ‘the chronic’ means?”

This, believe it or not, is exactly the problem. Rhee worked in DC public schools for three years the same way David Stern has been in the NBA for almost 20 years. Which is to say, she did not. She never has and she never will.

Neither has Arne Duncan, Dennis Walcott, Mayor Bloomberg, or so very many (most) of the self-proclaimed reformers. If you don’t know what “the chronic” means (or piff, sour, loud, Molly, “soo woop”, or anything else that is culturally relevant to the students you proclaim to want to put first) then you don’t understand the complexity of the universe you are trying to ‘fix.’ It sure sounds well and good to say “Every kid deserves a great teacher” because even the cynical audience at the daily show is going to root for that. It even sounds nice in theory to say every parent should have the right to send their child to a great school, never mind that this ignores the sad reality that students who suffer in the failing schools I have seen rarely have parents whose phone lines can be reached, and have parent teacher conference attendance below 20%. “Failing schools,” by a vast majority exist in areas of social and economic disarray. They are designed, often paradoxically, to serve a population where the academic good life is not valued. In class surveys I have given at the beginning of each semester (all at schools designed to serve the population Rhee wants so badly to target) I ask a simple question: “What is one thing you want from your education?” The answers invariably run in 4 ranges.

1. The generic/heartwarming response students think an adult wants to hear: “Be the first in my family to go to college,” or “Graduate and make my mom proud.”
2. The selfish and defiant: “Just do me,” or “Make it in the NBA and stack my bills,” or “I don’t give a fuck.”
3. The scary and sad: “Make it out of my hood alive,” or “Live to be a father.”
4. No answer or “IDK

Now, I am not certain which of these is most frightening. In their own way they all are, I suppose. The bottom two reflect a hopelessness and despair that no teenager should already hold so deeply engrained that it becomes hard to believe that any teacher or any school can make a “good life” for them. The top two reflect a selfishness and commodification of ‘education’ that reflects not only skewed values but a complete corruption of what education and learning is for. But if you think about it, is the language that much different from the reformers like Rhee? What is being promoted in their language is individual success on tests, and “college” readiness. Though many strong educational minds, including the president of Harvard, remain unconvinced that the reformers methods are getting any of these students truly college ready. There is no talk of social responsibility, importance of democracy, or pursuit of community and personal intellectual growth.

The origins of education have become lost in a wilderness of test scores, evaluation, and teaching that is reflective of a type of knowledge applicable to neither students current lives and pursuits, nor the ones we should hope for them beyond HS graduation. Good teachers can persuade some impressionable minds, even in the most dire circumstances. But they cannot recreate values for every student who walks through their doors, not when schools place a premium on the kind of learning and teaching that is so irrelevant to them and to the world beyond.

We keep looking for the easy fix. Every three years as Jon Stewart claims. We point the fingers at teachers or talk about increased instruction time (let me tell you how that goes over!) or we give convolutions of the same instruction in block schedules. Rhee is right in her response that to say its unfair to the parents of kids in schools right now to say “give us five years” and it will get better. But it’s also unfair to skew numbers and make a hugely successful career talking about changing schools, while at the same time making little visible change; merely railing against the status quo by insisting your way is the only way towards change so others better get on board. But isn’t that what radicals do?

So I can hear you now Ms. Rhee: “What’s your solution, 1090?!”

Like you (I imagine) I stay up nights thinking about this. It terrorizes me the way thoughts of dying once did, the way leaving no legacy that will ever match your own often does. I spend my free hours (sparer and sparer these days) brainstorming ideas. And it comes to me that perhaps, like so many good lessons, curricula, schools, and even models for education, perhaps I needn’t rebuild the wheel.

A couple months back, during hurricane Sandy, with a few days off, my father sat down to take on a challenge. A high school teacher, administrator, and college trustee member who has worked in education longer than Ms Rhee or myself have been alive, my father wanted to respond to a call from the Chonicle of Higher Education to develop the ideal college for the 21st century. In less than 500 words. He did so. His entry was chosen by the editors as one of 5 finalists, and then by the general public as the winner. Here is my proposal in the form of a question: is an approach like this (one that allows students to inquire and learn about their own pursuits while also pursuing their role in a democratic society; a school where learning truly happens beyond a classroom and preparation for a test) an impossibility? Must every school look the same? Must we all be prepared for the same tests and why? When else in life is that really the case? Couldn’t a student and his family be given real choice? One like Ms Rhee’s ideal school where we prepare students for a test and “college readiness” at it is currently defined? One like my fathers proposal? One where a young man learns to be a small-business farmer? Is this so impossible? And why?


Very near the end of Stewart’s interview of Rhee, he asks if she had the power (“draconian” he lets slip) to change any one thing about education, what would it be. “Make sure every classroom has a great teacher.”. I keep replaying this over and over. The woman whose organization is entitled “Students First” who taught for 3 years (2 of them under the guidance of a Veteran co-teacher) before fleeing to make a career in which she constantly focuses on teachers and not students or schools, has made a legacy for herself. Love her or hate her she is the woman who will have a legacy of being a “Radical.”

My father will not be on the Daily Show tonight. He will be at the University of Montana preparing for a speech he will give at a colloquium tomorrow before a few hundred students and professors.

I imagine if he ever had the chance to respond to Stewart’s question–if he ever had the audacity to imagine what one change he would make in the education system given the chance–my father’s answer, like his ideal school would revolve around the student. It would actually put the students first. Maybe something like this: “Create a community where we aren’t afraid to pursue a legacy that is less about us and more about that very community.” I don’t know for certain this is what my father would say, but I’m going to imagine it so. And if indeed it was, this is a legacy I would much rather live up to (and have my students live up to) than the one the reformers have sculpted for themselves and then imagined for my students.

Nothing short and sweet to say to sum it up. No revelations. It is another February Tuesday. After a day of more downs than ups and I am looking for an answer, and it’s not there. I should go home and just breathe. But it’s time to close the grade book, finish the “behavioral reports,” update the power standards database, and (I suppose) get a hair cut, if time allows. If time allows.

You Run With the Devil

28 Sep

Authors Note: This post was originally much longer, more detailed, and more a work of genius.  It got deleted when I went to publish.  Welcome to my week.

2:30 a.m., the streets of crown heights are rain-damp and quiet.  Occasionally a car speeds down Bedford, or a man stoops over a garbage can looking for bottles and cans.  The lights of the Homeless Shelter for Men on Franklin blaze, some 100 panes of furnace-fire light shredding the mist and clouds that obstruct the view of the tops of skyscrapers in Manhattan.  It is the first night that I cannot see the many-colored peak of the Empire State Building.  Two policemen patrol their beat on the street below me.

I am thinking–for the first time–in six years, about the question I suppose I have been running from: is this all a waste of time?  Are some students so broken by the adults in their lives, by the lives they have been given, or chosen for themselves, too young to know better, that they are simply beyond help?  Is my career a task even Sisyphus would let roll away.  I am hoping, at 2:30 to look out into that mist, those empty streets–and, I suppose, find some kind of answer.  A light, blurred by rain, flashes from red to green.  A man walking one way, makes a sudden turn for no apparent reason.  Someone–even at this hour–is jogging along the sidewalk.

One of the characters in Samuel Beckett’s odd and perplexing novel Waiting for Godot said in a moment–among many similar moments–of frustration, uncertainty, and existential crisis: “I must go on.  I cannot go on.”  I wonder if indeed, these six long years I have merely been Waiting for Godot.

I felt last night as if I had been run over by a train.  As if, for the first time in six years, I was clearly seeing the impossibility of the mountain I have chosen to climb, the sheer absurdity of such a trip to the summit.  I stared at the ceiling, and listened to the rain, steady at first against the windows, and then intermittent, then gone, as it turned to mist and fog.  What am I doing, why am I doing it? Is this pointless? Am I an awful teacher? A fraud?  And then I found myself standing on the roof, watching the lights of Manhattan shimmer in the haze.  Down Bergen, a few blocks off, a light went off on the steps of an apartment building.  A block closer, another turned on.

How does one respond to a week like this? How does one go on? Fights, a student with a medically diagnosed mental disorder tearing my room apart.  A stapler flying past my head.  More fights.  Explosions in the hallway.  Police, police, police. Horror stories of home lives.  Homeless lives.

A 16 year old student comes up and says, “Mr. I don’t mean to act up in your class, it’s just…I don’t want them to know I can’t read.  At all.”  I cannot go on. I must go on.

They Fightin’!!

27 Sep

Back when I taught in the secure facilities, there was an ancient and eccentric old lady who taught Career and Life skills named Ms J. Ms J was a bit of an oddity on the staff, old school, a shrill disciplinarian, and though perhaps the students never made the connection, she always saw herself as a wise grandmother figure to them. She was also, I must mention, crazy. The woman would do things like writing skits for the students to perform at assemblies (she wrote them, not the kids) in which the young men grew up to be successful lawyers, doctors and businessmen, returning years on to buy her a Jaguar and a Mansion in Long Island. The kids would grudgingly read the lines at assembly, other students snickering, while she cackled and slapped her knees with delight. Some days I would pass her room and the students would be doing word-searches, only to hear her proudly telling a rookie teacher about her lesson-planning and classroom management skills. Then, like clockwork, she would be spotted the next period running out of her classroom screaming: “They fightin’!!” at the top of her lungs, hair frazzled, bangles chiming as she tossed up her hands and just screamed it over and over while at least two boys were, indeed, fighting in her room. Everyone who worked with me those years, and everyone who has ever worked with Ms J (I feel confident assuming) has a “They Fightin’!” story. Whether it was the time she literally crumpled in a heap outside her room while wailing it, or the time she disrupted the entire floor with one of these fits, only to find out she had actually just seen two students “play fighting” in another classroom. Some of her fits were epic, each unique from the others.

There are people in education who will tell you every fight can be avoided. That given better instruction and more effective intervention on the part of the teacher, no fight would ever break out, even in a school designed for court-involved kids. Even in a school in jail. Those people are wrong, and have never worked full-time in that environment, and never lived in the neighborhoods that perpetuate the populations that fill those environments. They are idealists, and there is nothing wrong with idealism, unless of course it blinds you to reality.

Schools like mine, and like the much less functional schools I have worked in previously, exist within a culture that, unfortunately, has redefined the meaning of the word “Respect”. I don’t just say that in a bourgeois, pseudo-intellectual way. I literally mean it. When I asks my students how they define respect it is entirely different from the definition I think most people my age have. In its meaning in their lives, “Respect” has no sense of being a mutually given and received sense of reverence, but rather it is an earned item that has the value of having proven that I am your superior. Elijah Anderson describes this much more thoroughly in his interesting book Code of the Street.

Anderson provides a much more in-depth (and more clearly articulated) description of this theory, and its ramifications in that book.  But the short and long of it is this: respect has been redefined as something that is not to be bestowed upon others who deserve it.  Rather it is a force to be waged on someone, often with physical force.  It is no longer about “Respect those who came before you,” but “You gonna learn to respect me!”  Furthermore, because of the value and status it carries in geographic areas otherwise depleted of monetary wealth, it becomes a false economy.  This is a dangerous proposition for two reasons:

  • First, if, indeed, respect is a force that is leveled upon others, and is also a commodity of great value, it stands to reason that we are going to practice force to establish it, and do so over and over and over.  This means violence is We are, after all, a greedy species.
  • Secondly, as a false economy, and given our tendency to celebrate “success,” it stands to reason that one thing is inevitable: when people “fight” to establish respect, its going to become a spectator sport.  If we watch bad girls clubs to watch them pull one another’s hair out, why shouldn’t we enjoy it as much when our classmate’s pull one another’s hair out.

I wish I had audio of the moments leading up to every fight.  The fighters all say the same thing: “You gonna learn to respect me.” “Fuck that, she gonna find out I’m not pussy.” “I don’t respect you, anyway.” It’s the same lines over and over.  It’s like the pre-fight version of a TV laugh track.  It sounds exactly the same no matter who says it, because the truth is all fights are about the same thing.  You DISrespected me, and I DISrespected you, now one of us is going to make the other (and everyone else watching) RESPECT my shit.

So what does this mean for teachers who choose to teach in an environment where this false economy and false celebrity are firmly established; with students whose lives have been altered by it–schooling devalued, credits lost, freedom arrested (literally) for periods of time that interrupt their education and social maturity?  Well it means two things largely: first, it means that in a classroom with 25 students, more than 15 of them have not been in a formal classroom in a year or more.  Therefore even the best instruction and classwork may not keep their attention and address their needs, regardless of whether a fight is brewing.  Second, it means you had better be prepared to see a fight.  Simply walking through the doors of a school-building is not going to undo a behavior–or lifestyle–that has been borne years prior, and reinforced daily, for all those years.  A teacher can plan the best unit in the world, piece together a fabulous lesson plan, and practice every strategy and intervention in the world.  But when you are in the middle of group work, and a girl you don’t know charges in your room barking about “respect” and throws a crate full of notebooks at a girl in your class, before flipping over a desk and grabbing her by her hair–well, it’s your 5-minute mini-lesson about an ancient text (the most ancient text we have, ironically enough, which happens to be about violence and vengeance, itself) vs. a world and a lifetime of learning.

So what do you do next?  If you are Ms. J?  You run down the hallways and scream and kick walls: “They fightin'”.  If you are me, you wonder if perhaps the walls of school are just too thin a barrier from the heavy push of the world outside.  Then you hope you’re just having a bad day.  And post a blog, I guess…

Bricks, Waves, Waging War

21 Sep

“And here comes a wave. Here comes a wave. And here comes another wave.” –The Decemberists

Not every day is perfect. I have received two sage nuggets of wisdom, early on in my career, that I like to share with new teachers. “Not every day is perfect,” a wise man once told me, resting a hand on my shoulder. And another: “If you ever lose the ability to laugh with these kids, hang up the clipboard and walk away. You’re done.”

Today was a calamity. And then there is this: as my fourth period walked out of class today (and let’s be super clear, “walked” is a tremendously generous adjective) I mumbled only loud enough for myself to hear, I thought, “Congratulations guys, you just provided me with the most frustrating 50 minutes of my career.” The response was universal. Literally almost every kid laughed and put a hand over his or her mouth, pointing out the others and claiming “He just violated y’all.” Everyone in the room was so blind to his part in the chaos, they were blaming someone else. Myself included.

I get a moment at the end of a long day to sit back and reflect, after venting and eating, and I see it: everyone is entitled to a bad day. Myself included. The handful of students who are typically great but were confrontational rude, and darn near despicable today, included. Today we all stunk.

The nice thing about working in education is it’s not really a career of streaks. Unlike athletics, economics, business, and even typical corporate jobs, things don’t trend neatly. The pattern and rhythm of schools are interrupted and changed and rock back and forth rapidly because there are too many people with too many different concerns, balancing too many different elements for every period or day or unit to follow the pattern of the one before it (regular readers know I refuse to accept the “school in a bubble theory”.) This means (and it is a blessing and a curse) the rhythm of schools is more like that of a pounding of waves than a smooth changing of tides. Had a great class? here comes a bad one! Had a rough day? here comes a great one! Just heard wonderful news? GET READY! Here comes a wave.

Todays number: 78. That is the percentage of students at my school who placed at an elementary reading level on entrance exams (6th grade or below). I knew and anticipated that number. And I chose not to handle it with kid gloves. I chose to swim against it. Our first book is the Iliad. I want my students to begin World Literature the way world literature began, despite that number. Maybe it was a tragic flaw. I hope not. Today’s lesson was on one of the major themes: “Free Will vs Predetermination.” While I tried to follow a pre-determined path, they exhibited their free will. GS this is borig. GS nobody cares today, it’s Friday. GS give me a pen and shut up. GS stop breathing or existing in real time and space, it’s bothering me. And so we clashed like the Greeks and the Trojans. Monday’s lesson? Conflict and resolution.

So get ready kids, Mr GS is breaking out the loud speakers for “Another Brick in the Wall” on Monday morning. Here comes another wave.