Archive | May, 2012

Snoop Sitting

22 May

Underneath the rare New York City stars, with a cold drink on the warmest night of the year I sat with her. And my dog sat nearby staring out at whatever it was that had his attention at the moment. There was a lazy breeze. You could see the path lamps in the park forest. It was as quiet as I can ever remember my neighborhood on a weekend night. I had a secret that I couldn’t tell her. As bad as I wanted to, I couldn’t. Sometimes it can feel like our whole lives are about secrets.

In thirty years of living, working with, learning from, and teaching people; trying to maintain relationships with friends, family, and loved ones I have learned one thing for certain: all of us have something(s) that define who we are and that only we know about. It’s the human condition.

I sat in the park on Saturday morning. A woman had set up several picnic tables for a first birthday party. There was a huge “1” balloon waving in the slow breeze. A man in a sleeveless t shirt slept on a bench in the same area. His hands were over his eyes shielding the sun. A few children ran circles around the swings. Birds called out. It was the most beautiful morning I could remember. Two men began a chess match. The paper was full of garbage. I sighed and closed my eyes and when I opened them I glanced over the park: I wanted to remember all of this. Forever.

When you work in my profession (and as much as some politicians would like to just classify it as a job, it is a PROFESSION) you learn fast that if you want to do this right, you’ve got to dedicate your life to it. It has to be what drives you if you want to be fair. It has to be even more than a profession. It has to become a vision. I didn’t know that coming in to it. I have been blessed to figure it out by observing others. One of whom is a beautiful, intelligent woman.

My dog, Snoop, is sitting on the end of the couch. He is starting out of the rain-soaked window onto the damp trees and street. He is looking out at the world. He knows nothing about the world. I want to tell him just how much I love him and need him. But I would be speaking in a language he would never understand. He’d never know just how I feel or how much it comforts me to watch him stare curiously at the rain soaked window.

Teaching is like this: you see someone who needs to know something. You try to tell them, but you have to try incredibly hard to tell them in a way they can understand. It doesn’t make sense to explain Shakespeare to a reluctant reader using Terry Eagleton. You’ve got to explain the big bang by lighting a match. The thing is, we are constantly teaching whether it is our profession or not. We spend our lives teaching others about ourselves. Learning who we are.

One of my closest friends asked me last week to write a post about her. That’s what this was supposed to be. But I am selfish, and I am in love and so it’s turned into something different entirely. Snoop shifts on the couch as I write, and he looks at me in a way that says, “Tell me.” I am trying.

The other day I was having a rough day. I asked my friend about her newborn daughter. She sent me a picture. This was no regular baby. This was the most beautiful chubby cheeked smile in the world. And the eyes! They really spoke to something. Something about the beauty of life. Something I can’t put into words.

After sitting in the park for a while on Saturday I went on a little adventure. I went somewhere and did something that is a secret. That I wouldn’t want anyone to know about just yet. But I never felt so right about something in my entire life. I felt the way the woman felt setting up her child’s first birthday. The way the man felt resting in the sun, hands shading eyes. The way that beautiful baby in Boston looks out at the world with the most curious eyes, unable to know just how blessed she truly is. I felt entirely certain in my uncertainty. I felt like I finally loved who I had become, who I was, secrets, pleasures, disappointments and all. I felt ready.

We make mistakes. Over and over we do. I have made to many to count. But we also (should) try our hardest. We have to figure out just why there is anything more important than sitting on a roof with the woman we love, looking at the stars, our dog nearby. We have to find out that perhaps there isn’t a damn thing more important.

Snoop puts his chin on my lap. He looks up towards me tho I can’t quite see his eyes. He wants to know what’s up.

When I watched the mother sit back and look over the birthday setup she had put together in the park, I couldn’t help but smile. There will be a one year old being showered with adoration this week. There is a beautiful baby in Boston being raised by beautiful people. There is a man just trying to relax in the park. His hands are shading the sun from his eyes. So many wonderful people I know are doing wonderful things. The beautiful baby keeps blinking.

I am in love. Only one person in the world knows it for a fact: but on Saturday I chose to ignore the secrets of my past. I chose to decide my best possible future. And then I put a couple dollars down on a horse. I made a gamble I didn’t care about, because I knew I had already made a sure bet on the one thing I care about most.

Happy first birthday. Happy nap in the park. Good luck on the game of chess . Be safe around the swings. Happy, happy, happy life with two beautiful parents. Happy blinking eyes. Happy New York City stars. Happy life. I cannot wait to share it with you. No more secrets.


And Know They Love You

9 May

Im starting to get to that age where phone calls from family members at early hours of the morning give me a gut response of worry. It’s 645 am and my mom is calling. This can’t be good. I imagine this is the way parents feel about early morning phone calls for about 15 years of the children’s teen/college/post-collegiate years. At least I imagine this was the case for my parents. I put them through a lot more grief in my time than they ever gave me and for that I can be forever thankful. As a teacher you get reminded time and time again that not every kid can say that.

I had a miserable nightmare again early this morning, only this one didn’t have the tragic-humor element of cloned puppies. It was more personal, more foreboding, and literally shook me out of my sleep at 5 am. I wandered out to my couch where my dog came and attended to me with a head on my lap and “Dude lets go for a walk” look in his eye. So we went for a walk. But I couldn’t get back to sleep so I worked on some lesson plans and watched Matt Lauer talk about whatever Matt Lauer was talking about today. A little after 630 my phone rang and it was my parents number. In the headspace I was in I didn’t like this. But I picked up my phone and it was my mother on the other end. She sounded happy. I exhaled.

My mother is a brilliant “Information Scientist” or Librarians as we once called them. Her work in inquiry research in HS curriculum is impressive. This isn’t just a proud son stoking his mothers ego before mothers day. In a couple weeks she will be meeting in California with the fifteen most noted researchers, who research how kids research. She’s kind of a big deal, especially in Sweden. She is working on her second book detailing the work her library does with inquiry research at the HS level (One in conjunction with the English Department, one collaboration with the Science department at her school.) Recently she has helped my students with their own inquiry research projects and the progress she was able to make with them in two days made weeks of lessons I have taught seem utterly useless in comparison. Their writing since she started working with them has gone from average to impressive in a period of a couple weeks. They actually know how to evaluate and find good sources, cite properly, and incorporate great research into their own style of writing. It has been fun to watch. These are the things that excite teachers. Nerdy of course. But if you think I am being geeky about this you should see how excited she gets. One student still mentions how “hardcore my mom was when she barked on her, ‘I don’t know why you are staring up at the ceiling. I’m over here.'” Yeah my moms a gangster, too.

This morning my mom was calling to ask for a favor. Well not really a favor, payback. I owe her–among a million other things in my life, including my very life itself–a few bucks. She wants me to earn it by helping her out with her current book, by helping her shape the lesson plans with the Common Core Standards included. What a sucker, I would have done that for free! Its funny, how sometimes we give gifts by taking them. An opportunity to work professionally with someone I love and respect so much is a gift for me. But on the flip side I am sure when I said absolutely to her request, my mom mistakenly thought I was being selfless, doing something for her. Good moms are silly that way.

I have been reminded this week–I am reminded, as I said, too often–that even more so than teachers, parents leave a legacy on their kids. This sounds dumb, and obvious of course. But I am also reminded that a lot of people need to be reminded of this as well. Kids, parents, teachers, everyone. And I am certainly in no position to tell anyone how to parent (it would be, more or less the equivalent of a lifelong politician who has never taught a day in his life presuming he could evaluate teachers….
/scrubs Internet history
//looks over shoulders for any cameras.) That is not what I mean to say here. What I mean to say is it’s too damn easy to forget, as adults who have no choice but to have an impact on kids that the reward of doing our job isn’t ours to enjoy. It’s theirs. I think good teachers get this. I think good parents get it. I know in their capacity as both, my parents sure have. That’s an incredible gift to give if you think about it. There’s nothing more selfless than saying, the reward for all of my toils and troubles is YOURS to enjoy, not mine. I’m pretty sure there was a long haired, bearded Jewish guy who lived a couple thousand years ago and got a whole book written about that kind of gift. Good teachers do the same, but they get paid, and get to spend their summers rolling around in their rooms filled with jewelry and coins of gold. Good parents do this and don’t get paid shit for it, in fact they pay A LOT to do it. And they pay a lot more than just money. I know it’s a cliche but in terms of jobs that are hard to do very well, there can’t be any harder than being a parent. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so hard.

In the week that builds up to mothers day, the only thing that will be more persistent than bad commercials and ugly flowers will be my own thoughts of the many different mothers I have known in my life. In 30 years I have been blessed to know: a wonderful mother who worked hard her whole life on top of that unbelievably tough job of being a mother; two dedicated grandmothers who raised large families despite coming from next to nothing; aunts, who like my mother and grandmothers toiled endlessly to raise wonderful families with the tradition of their heritage and the hope of their time; mothers of friends who have taken me in as their own; co-workers who are tremendous mothers; student-mothers who sacrifice the traditional selfishness of teenage years to provide their own kids a life as good or better than theirs; teacher-mothers; and friends who are now becoming mothers. And it has been my gift to know them, and their children’s (even greater) gift to just have such wonderful parents. Maybe a better book contribution would be if I collected all their mothering “lesson plans” and shared them with the world. (Sorry Ma, but it might be a bigger seller than our current project!)

Eight years ago this month I graduated college (Wow that’s nuts.) On a five bajillion degree day in late may, I sat on the university football field, and listened to Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors, tell 100 yards worth of tired, hot, clueless young men and women the few tips he had for them as they prepared for the big bad world. I only remember one: sometimes it is too damn easy to forget, in the midst of a wonderful moment with family (or friends) to take a step back and just say, “This is nice. Isn’t this nice?!” Whether it is at a holiday dinner, walking along in the park, driving in a cramped car to my grandmothers, or listening to my father and I curse voraciously at another Jets blunder, I have been blessed to have a mother who has been saying this since long before Kurt Vonnegut recommended it to her son. Another gift she gave me.

There’s something else Vonnegut once said–er, wrote. He never mentioned it at the graduation, but he did write, many years before a wonderful baptismal for newborn humans: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” I wonder if this would have been equally sound advice for young Americans headed out into the world to begin their own lives, careers and families. That is a legacy worth passing on.

My mother was born with blue baby syndrome, an infant heart disease I don’t pretend to know anything about, but I do know this: if she was born 10 years earlier, before some major advances in medical research, she wouldn’t have lived to be a year, let alone 30 (I think she’s like 31 now.) However many years later, she has become an expert in research herself, both the traditional and the metaphysical. Being a mom is the hardest type of research in the world, after all.

The one thing I have learned about research, through teaching research, and through learning how to teach research better is this: everything we say, no matter how ingenious or innovative, is built on something we already know. I imagine parenting, like everything else is the same: we take prior knowledge, we question, we build something new. We would be fools to do something else. But with parenting, as with all other inquiry, and research, if we are working with shit information it’s going to be hard to produce something new and great. If our life texts don’t provide information to us babies on how to be kind, it’s asking a whole lot of us to figure it out ourselves.

My school’s CBO hosted a wonderful event today. They had a nice quiet lunch after school for the young mothers at our school (one reason many young women attend my school is the access to day care and a social work program to support teen mothers.) For once, I was hard pressed to be cynical, sarcastic, or otherwise flippant as I enjoyed my lukewarm pasta with some of my students and their adorably cute kids. In this room I was (for once) not the person with the most knowledge.

The same way my mother (and all the other mom-figures in my life) have given me the most selfless gift of motherhood, I wish I could give my own students (and future children something similar.) Which is why even though she hasn’t written it yet (and doesn’t even know she has been optioned to write it) I am giving all my past present and future students my mothers third and greatest book: Inquiring Moms Need To Know all about how to survive even the most crazy son.

And then I am going to give a gift of my own, because as much as I love her my mom is still crazy as hell. There will be a follow-up, Inquiring Sons Need to Know, all about how to survive even the craziest mom. All I ask in return is that every student receiving a gratuity copy listen to my parents’ wedding song, “Teach the Children,” and abide by the lyrics.

“And you, of tender years can’t know the fears that your elders grew by. And so please help them with your youth they seek the truth before they can die. Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you they would cry. So just look at them and sigh. And know they love you.”

I love you ma. Sorry for all the crap I gave you when I was young angry and confused. Words or a dumb blog entry will never be thanks enough. Hopefully the best thanks I can give is to do what you and Pete promised to do almost 40 years ago, and have done ever since: Teach the children well. Their parents hell (will) slowly go by.

/Sorry for the curses, ma
//Sorry to everyone else for the journal entry. But give your moms a hug. No matter what they’re teaching you something.

Honey, Can We Talk About the Statistics Kids?

2 May

With a heavy rain falling, and deep in a lengthy sleep, I had a wonderfully vivid dream last night.  Anyone who knows me well, knows I don’t like talking about dreams.  I find other peoples’ dream stories are often long-winded and boring, and I imagine they should feel the same about mine.  So I will keep it simple.  In real life I have a wonderful dog, Snoop.  People who have spent any time with him will attest–he is very unique (right now he has spent the last five minutes sniffing one of my boots, intently.  He may well do this all night.)  In my dream I had managed to clone Snoop.  There was no explanation for how it happened, it just did.  At first this was very cool.  I now had two duplicate copies of the world’s most cool, and unique dog.  Well, I am sure you can see where this is going.  It became very uncool, very fast.  One of the snoops stopped eating, and wasn’t energetic anymore.  He was tremendously sick.  This was incredibly distressing because I didn’t know if this was the original Snoop, which I obviously had a stronger attachment to, or the clone of Snoop.  And I really couldn’t convince myself it mattered.  If I had the ability to (hypothetically) create an infinite number of Snoops, what did I care about the individual Snoops, or should I?  And of course, NOBODY else cared about the Snoops as individuals, they were only fascinated that there were Dupe Snoops.  They could no longer see them as separate entities.  What they cared about was how had I created the clone of Snoop.  They could no longer see the dogs as the dogs, but only the dogs as clones.  As you can imagine, this was a full blown nightmare by the time I woke up.  I had gone from having one dog with a wonderful, unique personality, to two dogs with no personality whatsoever, beyond being a part of the cloned pair.  My Snoop had become the pet version of the most photographed barn in America.  He had ceased to exist as Snoop, at all.

Numbers and Statistics have always interested me.  But not in a way that great sports events, or delicious food, or riding my bicycle along a secluded country road interests me.  Not in a, “Man this is great, and I want to know what it is about this that makes me feel so great and alive,” interest.  More like the interest I have in the way those phenomenally out-there subway preachers, who see absolutely no problem screaming about how we are all going to burn in a fiery pit while I am just trying to commute to work in the morning.  The “I don’t get this, and I never will, but I wish I did,” kind of interest.  I was a crap student in high school math.  I got a C- in the only college math course I took, “Math For Poets” (I shit you not.)  I can barely balance my checking account, and I pretty much know one thing about mathematical equations: the pythagorean theorem (though I don’t know what it is used for.)  I am ok with this.  I had a 300 point discrepancy on my verbal and math SAT, and I probably knew more about math when I was 17 than I do now.  It used to bother me, but the older I get, the more I get a very clear handle on what it is about my learning style, my interests, and my abilities that make me suck at math.  If I am not creating something that has intellectual and artistic value to ME, I’m not interested in it enough to invest the time and energy to learn it.  Straight up.  I don’t pretend to justify this or defend it.  It may be a weakness–I don’t know really–but it is the way I have approached my own education my whole life.  I would spend hours writing short stories for a creative writing course in college.  Stay up for days and nights at a time crafting and redrafting.  But ask me to get around to just about any of the work for that Literary Theory course?  Simple answer: “It’s an essay I don’t give a shit about and will never care about again, that will be read by my professor, and then get lost in my desk, to never be read for eternity.  No thanks.”  It is for this very reason I wrote a half-assed thesis on the political poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Half way into it, I realized I wanted to analyze the political writings of this guy about as much as I wanted to graph parabolas.  What the fuck for?

Look I am not putting down people who geek out over numbers.  I have some friends who have done real well with their lives because they are damn good with numbers.  I have friends who understand numbers in ways that make them more intelligent about sports than I am, and certainly more intelligent about money.  Shit, some of them are even more creative than I will ever be, only they work in numerical figures and not language.  I get it.  But for me, there has always been a distinct and mutually exclusive relationship between numbers and art/creativity.  I could never succeed at math, because to feel success in my life, I have always had to believe I was creating something meaningful and beautiful.  I can’t recall ever having done that with numbers.

Glenn Loury, a Brown University Economist, who HAS created some tremendous work with numbers, has been a part of a positive trend in American academia with regards to numbers: most intelligent people it seems, over the course of the past twenty years or so, have begun urging that we use statistics not to define people, but to show how people are defined.  This is typified in the statement you hear so many people make (almost always in regard to poor, urban, youth):  We don’t want to see you become a statistic!  In this meaning of the word, we mean statistics of young men (and women) dying, being incarcerated, dropping out, becoming an economic drain on society.  Those kinds of statistics, it has been nobly decided are bad.  Loury and others have rightly pointed out that young people become such statistics when they are statistically pigeon-holed to begin with.  When they are offered subpar educations because the numerics of their income dictate they will attend poorer performing schools with less funding, and less qualified teachers and school leaders.  Or because you grow up in a neighborhood with historically high statistics in crime, you will be confronted by a greater police presence, and in turn a higher statistical likelihood of arrest, begetting a higher statistical likelihood of imprisonment, begetting a higher statistical likelihood of a life lived in a cycle of incarceration.  This isn’t theory.  Take a look at the recidivism rates for NYC juveniles.  When we formulate decisions on statistics, when we refuse to address the issues that drive the data, but rather focus on what to do with the data to inform our reaction, we create nothing new and meaningful and beautiful.  We create more numbers.  And more often than not we create numbers we don’t like.  Loury and others are right to decry this trend.  But what of the one corner of the political spectrum where the philosophy is antithetical to this argument?  What about the one realm of American society, where we are trying to take young people–particulary in urban areas–and actually make them statistics?  In America’s schools there is a push (particularly by the “best and brightest”) to turn our kids into numbers.

If you work in a school–particularly a school in a city–the term “data-driven instruction” has surely become such a common part of your lexicon now that you wake up in your sleep blurting it out.  If you sit in department meetings with people from “outside”, or you interview for a position at a new school or a promotion within your own; if you attend a professional development; if you meet with a superintendent to discuss your curriculum and pedagogy, you are FAR more likely to hear the question: “How do you use data to drive your instruction?” than you EVER are to hear the question, “Tell me about a student you have worked with whose accomplishments make you particularly proud.”  I have been asked the first question no fewer than a dozen times in the last two months.  I have never been asked the second question in five years as a teacher.  Something tells me the Glen Loury’s of the world would see this as a problem.  When we have begun to measure our students as measurements in statistical analysis for our own individual growth to the point that we no longer value their individual creations–except as they can be statistically measured–we have set them down the path of being measured as data their whole lives.  Today, they are numbers that measure my awesomeness–or not awesomeness as a teacher–and tomorrow numbers on a roll-call.  When we stop valuing their individual creations we have begun to create the urban youth version of the most photographed barn in America.  We cease to see the individual.

I met Lemmy almost two years ago.  He was the kind of kid I came to my new school to work with: he was basically just like the kids I had taught in the detention centers (had even had his own run-ins with the law) but here he was out in the free world.  I could expect him to attend regularly, especially if I could make a connection with him (along with some of his other teachers) and this is a kid I could make a difference with.  The suppressed “make a difference in the world!” teacher in me was happy.  Lemmy was an average student with average attendance (which at my school is about 60%.)  He came to school high the average amount of days for students that first year (every day.)  But he was funny, and smooth, and behind the gang facade he had the intelligence about him that I knew I could work with.  And that I knew teachers who had an even better touch than me could excel with.  Lemmy got friendly with girl who came to school every day.  Lemmy started coming to school every day.  Lemmy stopped hanging out with his friends getting high every day before school.  Lemmy met his girl, they had breakfast, they came on time, they stayed late.  Lemmy and his girl started working with a video and art program after school, under the guidance of a great mentor and teacher.  Lemmy started seeking me out every day.  Sometimes to work on writing, sometimes to talk about his love of bacon, sometimes to edit video projects in my room and shoot the breeze.  Lemmy is about to graduate, which if you ask ANYBODY who knew Lemmy three years ago if that was a realistic possibility, they would have laughed and said, “We talking about the same Lemmy?”  But Lemmy presents a problem for leaders at my school and schools like mine.  Lemmy–his story, his individuality–makes him what the data-driven monotheists would call an outlier.  There is no statistics or data to describe Lemmy’s transformation.  There isn’t a rubric to measure the impact of having a girlfriend who cares about school.  There is no flawless or objective measurement for the impact of mentors and teachers who committed themselves against odds and reason to a kid left for the statical dung heap.  Indeed outside of the only statistical measurement that almost everyone would agree on–the fairly obvious correlation between Lemmy’s attendance and academic success–and the subjective measurements that individual teachers could measure and track (based of course on individual bias) there is no way to chart the progress Lemmy has made.  And furthermore, there is no way to use his very unique and personal anecdote to inform one’s instructional approach to any other student.  Lemmy is an outlier, who succeeded for reasons particular to his outlier status.  I would submit that Lemmy isn’t actually an outlier, but rather every student is an outlier.  It is extraordinarily difficult to quantify in numbers what happens when different forces come together to create something beautiful and new.  It is impossible to take that quantification and apply it to a completely different experiment.  The education of each student is a new and unique experiment.  We are snowflakes.

Using data (or numerical measurements of students’ results on similar tasks over time) to see what strengths and weaknesses we have as teachers, actually isn’t the worst idea, in theory.  But it would require some proven practice, and to be truly meaningful would be best done in collaboration and not in isolation.  Where it becomes problematic is when we try to use the measurements of success or lack thereof to translate from one student or group of students to another.  And it becomes more dangerous when we begin to have conversations of how we can duplicate a successful approach, whether it is a specific classroom, or indeed an entire school, with a whole different population.  When we cease to look at the individuals to inform approach, because it is easier to look at the numbers.  When we say, I like what we have here, and I want to recreate it.  When we begin to clone.

Call me crazy, but I don’t know how to measure in numbers, and how to chart artifacts that show a person’s growth in the things I value most in education: intellectual curiosity, creation, personal growth, self-satisfaction.  These are statistical outliers.  Plato knew of no measure for them and neither do I.  But I know it when I see it, and I know that try as I might to magically recreate that explosion of brilliance and transmute it from one student to the next, I will never succeed.  Each unit of data refuses to be data, presenting instead a unique and untransferable code of problems, promise, delights and frustrations.  I would hate to come to a point in my career where Lemmy’s position on an excel chart under the “Common Core Stanard E11-12.1” cell means more to me than a discussion about the wonderful “Bacon Candy” his girl gave him for christmas.  At that point I will walk away.  It would indeed be spiritual surrender as a teacher to no longer be able to ask what Murray asks about the most photographed barn in America, every time we meet a new student:

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said.  “What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns,          how was it similar to other barns?”