We Are All Individuals

The world gets dangerous when we start to think about people in terms of generalizations rather than individuals.

My father once told me that if you had told him as a teenager that one day he would marry a white woman, he would have told you that you were out of your mind.

Then look at how happy his love for a “white woman” made him.

My father once told me a story about something that happened to him and my mother in the mid 1970s just before I was born.

My parents were driving home from somewhere in the early evening. Not quite dark yet, but getting there I believe. My dad turned to my mom and said, “I think those ladies behind us are following us.” My mom didn’t believe him and said he was just being paranoid. But as they kept driving, it became evident that there were two “old ladies” following them.

My father turned down a few side streets and the car followed. So he turned into a gas station and they followed. After a few minutes of this game of cat and mouse, my mom said, “I am tired; let’s just go home.” So they drove home forgetting about the ladies.

My father sat down to watch television and my mother went upstairs to wash her face and change into her pajamas. After about 10-15 minutes, there was a knock at the door. My father went to answer it, and on the front porch stood a police officer. The police officer began questioning my Dad. Had he recently driven his car anywhere? Where had he gone? How long had he been home?

Finally, my father said, “Officer, is there a problem? It is late, and I would like to go to bed.” Finally the officer asked, “Was there a white woman with you in the car?” My Dad, an elementary school physical education teacher (not that that really should matter here) turned and yelled up the stairs, “Paula, would you please come down here.”

My mother joined him at the front door and my father put his arm around her and said, “Officer, this white woman is my wife.”

It is hard for many to imagine that a black man just driving in a car with a white woman can be suspicious to some people. Our media and society tell us repeatedly that racism is a thing of the past, but the reality is that it thrives now probably stronger than ever.

Does that mean that #blacklivesmatter is an essential and productive rallying cry? Or that whites need to be schooled in the pitfalls of #whiteprivilege?

No. I don’t think hashtags have anything to do with it.

The hate will stop when we start seeing people as individuals, not as a race, a religion, a socioeconomic status, a gender, a sexuality, or even a profession.

The notion that police officers are power-hungry racist pigs is just as damaging to our collective psyche as racial slurs. These days there is so little respect and reverence given to those in what were once considered prestigious positions: police officers, teachers, doctors, and even the president. Just as so little respect is given to young black men in particular as the world seems to approach them as guilty until proven innocent.

Why?

Why did we as a society let a few bad apples spoil the bunch when it comes to these generalizations?

Why are we raising children to think that most police officers are not driven to protect and serve, that teachers are only in it for the pension and summers off, that the internet knows better than most doctors, and that most presidents are figureheads that only push corporate agendas?

There’s more to life and more to people than these generalizations.

Most terrifying to me is that police officers now have to walk with the added fear that much of the public they serve is skeptical at best.  But if you turn off the television, radio, and computers and just look around, you will find goodness in these people, in all people even.

I was so deeply moved looking at the photographs again from that horrific moment in American History: September 11, 2001. But this time, after 14 years, I was most captured by the first responders. I saw a photograph of a member of the NYPD comforting a bleeding ash-covered woman. His care and concern amidst the chaos was so beautiful.

We, as a country, continue to heal from the September 11 attacks and from the train of questionable police killings. Yet it is important to remember that as we work to root out police officers, who do not deserve the uniform that they wear, that there are far more police officers that serve with pride and deserve our respect for the sacrifices they make for others.

I want to thank Sergeant Tim Devine from the Linwood Police department in Linwood, NJ for giving my four children the royal treatment this week during a tour that I scheduled just for my four children, whom I now homeschool. Sgt. Devine and the other members of the Linwood police did not blink an eye showing a 2,4,6, and 8-year-old the fingerprinting machine, offices, holding cell, and even a very dangerous reindeer Christmas decoration rescued from the town bike path.

He popped his hat on the kids and let them sit in the police cruiser, while I took photos. They didn’t just see the radar gun, but got the chance to use it to clock the speed of an officer who drove in a circle 6-8 times to give everyone a turn, including me. The kids went home with a smile and a copy of their fingerprints to boot!

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I don’t write this to belittle the cases of Eric Garner,Freddie Gray or Michael Brown or any other black man or woman treated unjustly by police officers. (Everyone deserves just treatment under the law.)

I write this as a reminder that we are all individuals.

Maybe too if we stopped scaring our urban youth straight as teenagers and showed them this kind of care and attention at a young age…things could be different…for everyone.

Career and College Ready?

From the first moment I heard the catchphrase “career and college ready”, it bothered me, though I couldn’t easily put my finger on why.  The notion that school is a place to prepare students for life beyond school is certainly not revolutionary.

We teach children how to add and subtract so that one day they can work a cash register or balance their checkbooks. We teach children how to read so that they can fill out applications and follow written instructions or directions. We teach children about the world around them so that they can understand how things work and why people act the way that they do.

The now of education is inextricable from the later. Right?

Well, consider this quote:

“Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” -John Dewey

Perhaps, in focusing so much on preparing them for later, education has missed the boat in capitalizing on the now of the process of learning. Setting benchmarks and piling on assessments to make certain that children are on a track that will guarantee success might actually be derailing students from ever reaching that success.

If we teach children to enjoy learning, the process of it (the reading, the computing, the exploring, the writing, the thinking, the creating, the debating) they will learn more than if we teach children to be focused on the measurable results of learning. If we excite children about the act of learning, the pursuit of knowledge will become a self-propelled race rather than a proscribed march through pre-determined checkpoints.

Ask a college professor or an employer, what makes a great student or employee.

I am certain that they will not answer with a list of skills and knowledge, but rather a type of character.

Successful people excel in careers and college because they can think, they like to think, and they have within them the desire and fire to achieve.

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The kids completing observation journals after a nature walk at Huber Woods. Ages 3,5, and 7 learning together.

A Highly Personal Decision

Politics.

Activism.

Social Change.

Since my high school days, these are the things that have excited and inspired me.

During my freshman year of high school, I read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by, Dee Brown and found the band Rage Against the Machine not long after. I was shocked by the accounts of how the American government dealt with Native American tribes and fascinated by the sheer anger in lead singer Zach de la Rocha’s voice. His lyrics told a story that ran against everything that I had learned and the rage to make me believe it had to be true.

I wrote a lot of poetry in my teenage years and read even more books. My parents were not really into traveling (the farthest we traveled was Florida every year to visit my grandparents), so I fed my wanderlust with books like The Dharma Bums by, Jack Kerouac and A Clockwork Orange by, Anthony Burgess.

In college, my world view continued to open up, though through literature instead of travel as my parents vetoed my desires to study abroad. I started taking classes in World Literature and minored in Politics all while pursuing my passion for photography in the darkroom at Rutgers that is now extinct.

Then I stumbled upon Bruce Robbins, a professor whose interest in the place where literature and politics collide fueled my own leanings in that direction. As a senior, Bruce served as my adviser for my Honors Thesis, which was an exploration into whether books could use text and photography to achieve real social change. This was not just a scholarly pursuit, but also a very personal one. I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do after graduation. I loved college. I loved the reading, the thinking, the arguing, and the writing. But would delving into issues of inequality and poverty intellectually be satisfying enough for me? Would I be able to change the world that way?

Well, my Honors Thesis took me into flophouses in Manhattan and led me to interview David Isay the creator of NPR’s StoryCorps, a project that records the amazing (and often lost) histories of everyday people. But it wasn’t my Thesis that led me to my next move. It was a poster. The poster was recruiting college graduates to apply to Teach for America. I read the statistic at the bottom about how children in poverty are reading an average of 2/3 grade levels behind their wealthier peers. But I think it was the photograph of a young African-American boy looking back at me with big eyes that drove me to head to the computer lab and find out how to apply. That poster, in an instant, achieved social change. My dream of getting a PhD. at Harvard fell dead on the ground behind me, and since then I have only glanced back at that dream a few times.

The story here gets more complicated, emotional, and well…long. So I will zoom ahead, past my 12 years of inner city and suburban teaching experience, through the births of my four children to this summer when I finally decided to turn my back on public school for awhile to homeschool my children.

Those of you who follow my blog know how hard I fought against testing and for quality, dynamic, and developmentally-stimulating education. You read my editorials, speeches, petitions, and pleas. You know I fought and fought hard.

My decision to homeschool was not a giving up on public schools as one teacher recently accused me of, but rather a giving in to my children and their needs and fulfillment. For many years, I worried about the world, now it is time for me to focus on my children. I believe that by giving them the best that they will in turn affect the world for the better. In just a short 10 years my oldest will be 18. And judging from what I hear from those parents who have gone through it, I too will wonder where the time went.

My decision to homeschool is a highly personal decision, not to give up on quality education for all, but to give in and commit myself to giving that gift to my own children while I can. There will be time to return to that bigger fight.

But for now, I will focus on them. I will honor my short time with them and give them every bit of what I want to give to all children. I will stop thinking about what I wish public schools would do and just do them without fight or argument. I will appreciate my opportunity to take this time with my children, knowing that one day (in the blink of an eye) it will be over, and then I can return to trying to solve the world’s problems.

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Monkey in the Middle

“One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong.”

Hopscotch.

Double dutch.

Kickball.

Catch.

Flip flop.

One of these games has no place in the schoolyard. One of these games is hurtful to children and impossible to play fairly.

Flip flop.

A game suited for politics not education.

Education has become the playground for politicians. They change policies and stances on a whim trying to appeal to voters, when the winds of favor begin to shift. A scant few of these decision-makers have any experience or knowledge in the field of education, yet every single one has the confidence and often ignorant audacity to make grand statements and enact sweeping changes without a minute’s hesitation.

Sure, one can argue that politicians have advisers. They assemble commissions. They hold public town hall meetings. They fill in the gaps of their experience and knowledge with the wisdom and experience of others.

However, this system of communication is broken. The advisers do not possess the knowledge or experience base specific to K-12 education and the voices of the public are simply not heard.

Take NJ for example. Governor Chris Christie appointed David Hespe to Commissioner of Education. Hespe has some experience in education (see his bio), but it is limited to mostly the college level except for a stint as Assistant and Interim Superintendent in Willingboro School District. He also did some work with STEM activities at Liberty Science Center. However, the vast majority of his experience is political.

So we have Commissioner Hespe, who headed the Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in NJ. I was able to attend two of the three public hearings held by this Commission and witnessed students, parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members speak about the damaging effects of the PARCC tests and the implementation of Common Core. Yet, after each of these public hearings, Hespe published an Op-Ed piece continuing to laud the benefits of Common Core and PARCC in the state of NJ. He did not acknowledge the experience and knowledge of the public who took the time and energy to prepare and deliver testimony. Read my testimony here.

In fact, Commissioner Hespe cared so little about what the public had to say that during the third public hearing he walked out during a short lunch break and did not return. Hespe never gave an excuse or an apology, nor did he or Governor Christie, who appointed him, respond to my petition asking to replace him as the head of the Study Commission.

So when Governor Christie came out suddenly against the Common Core, I knew his decision run for president would not be far behind. Why? Because it was purely a political move. If it had any educational weight at all, then it would have stemmed from those public hearings, from the town hall meetings, from the growing opt out movement in the state, or from the droves of frustrated students, parents, teachers, and administrators.

Flip flop.

In an article by Amanda Oglesby in App.com, Christie appears to be one with the people of NJ.

“I have heard from far too many people — teachers and parents from across the state — that the Common Core standards were not developed by New Jersey educators and parents,” Christie, who is running for president, said in a May speech at Burlington County College. “As a result, the buy-in from both communities has not been what we need for maximum achievement. I agree. It is time to have standards that are even higher and come directly from our communities.”

The problem is that he hasn’t heard anyone really. He tells teachers to shut up. His own Commissioner walks out of public hearings.

Under his direction, NJ has spent millions on the conversion to Common Core Standards and the Common Core-aligned PARCC tests through the tests themselves and the new curriculum, technology, and countless hours of professional development that they have required. He already has what he calls “buy-in”, because our tax money has already been spent and wasted.

Flip flop.

When this new imagined set of community-created standards hits the ground, who will pay for all of those changes? Will Pearson, the company cashing in on all of the flips and flops refund the money spent, so that NJ can invest it in mythical standards that are even ‘higher’?

Maybe politicians like Christie ought to learn a new game.

Just for a moment stop the lip service and take a look at the monkey in the middle.

Our children.

Except for them this is more than a game and they are the ones losing.

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The Magic of Childhood

Discovery

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Cooperation

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Safety

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Wonder

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Adventure

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Imagination

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Love

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Sadness

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These are just some of the ingredients that make up the incredible magic of childhood. This magic is something to be revered and respected, like the power of an ancient sorcerer. It is a recipe that mere mortals cannot follow like a recipe from Pinterest. It is more than measurements and arithmetic. It has a life of its own.

When this magic is free, it is like nothing else on earth, boundless in what it can give. Far too much time is spent trying to contain it, train it, and mold it into what we adults want it to be, or think it should be.

But no, childhood is not a composite of please and thank yous and inside voices and pushed in chairs and sharing and good report cards and goals scored and homework completed and vegetables eaten before dessert is even considered.

Childhood is not a series of milestones completed and tracked on some sort of unwritten scorecard judging parents and teachers alike.

No, childhood is magic.

Period.

And we should learn to let it be and watch it color our world with joy.

Take a Small Step

All rights reserved by the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

All rights reserved by the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

All rights reserved by the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

All rights reserved by the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

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All rights reserved for the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

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All rights reserved by the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

Callandra S, Cook, or Callie as I always knew her, and I met in 2001. (I know the year because I still have my Teach for America t shirt that says 2001 corps member.) When we met, we both were recent college grads. We both were passionate. We both had signed on to do one of the most challenging jobs in the world: an inner city teacher.

But one thing I know now for certain is that we had not the slightest clue what we had gotten ourselves into nor how much it would change the very fabric of who we were. We had big hearts, sharp minds, and a sense of adventure.  TFA had chosen us well, but the choosing was only the beginning.

We sat on the campus of SUNY Maritime in the Bronx beneath the Throgs Neck Bridge in the sun. We stared at the water and chatted about where we had been, who we thought we were, and what might lie ahead. It didn’t matter that we were strangers. It didn’t matter that she was from Ohio and I from NY. It didn’t matter that we had different sexual orientation or racial background. Our paths crossed, and I still remember how fresh and new we were sitting on that concrete wall staring at the great blue expanse of water dotted with a million high rises of the city.

Callie and I did not end up teaching the same grade, or in the same school, or even living in the same neighborhood. Over our two year TFA commitment, we saw each other  quite a few times at various events, but our paths drifted apart. She stayed on after the two year commitment and my life took me to Brooklyn, where I continued to teach.

Callie and I stayed loosely connected through Facebook. I admired her dedication to the students of Baltimore from afar. Commenting on her beautiful daughter and her amazing photos of her family hiking in the woods. But most recently, I noticed her photography project and have been transfixed. I love her vision and her experience with inner city education that fuels it.

Right now education is like a minefield. A war that has polarized our country and pushed the argument far from what the children so desperately need from their schools and teachers.

Whether you love or hate TFA, charter schools, Common Core, testing, homeschoolers, public schools or private schools….I hope that you take a moment to consider supporting one amazingly dedicated and talented teacher’s project. For I believe that the only way education will get better is one visionary person at a time.  Callie is certainly a visionary.

If she does not meet her fundraising goal, she will not get any of the donations. So please check out her kickstarter site and consider taking a meaningful step in education reform.

Sure it is a small step in the face of all of the reforms, but every journey is made up of thousands of small steps.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1163253366/work

Dear Star Ledger Editorial Board, Dial Yourselves Down

For many years, I did not read the newspaper. I was busy balancing a teaching career and a new, growing family. All a newspaper subscription was to me was more stuff that I had to squeeze into our overflowing recycling can.

I am also stubborn and literally pay for nothing that I read or do online. No iTunes. (I use free Pandora, ads and all.) No extra lives or power-ups on Candy Crush. No book downloads unless they are free, which is part of the reason why I am reading Oliver Twist. No online news subscriptions. Okay fine, we do pay for Netflix, but I feel like that doesn’t count since we have been members since the days of mailing the DVD’s back in those little red envelopes.

But in October we moved to a town in a different county in NJ, and I wanted to get to know our new area. I ordered daily delivery and at least skim the Atlantic City Press every day.  Overall, I find it a great way to get to know local politics, businesses, and events. However, the more I get involved in education reform, the more I become infuriated with the lack of balance in reporting both locally and across the state. Few reporters ever question those they interview with any questions that challenge their views or politics. Therefore, the media becomes a platform that allows them to stand upon and control the message that reaches the public. This is exactly how Education Commissioner David Hespe got away with spreading his pro-PARCC message just days after he walked out in the middle of a public hearing.

The last straw for me though was an editorial published by the Star Ledger Editorial Board yesterday telling the public in reference to the “collective freakout” about the PARCC test, “Let’s try to dial it down.” Should the public really be taking advice about how to feel about education from the editorial board of a newspaper? What sort of authority or education do they have regarding education?

The editorial begins by saying, “…Of course, no kid should be forced to sit for hours and stare at a blank computer screen while other students take it.” Well, clearly the Editorial Board missed the fact that before parents started to fight back, many school districts were implementing sit and stare policies. The “of course” was not so obvious to many school administrators and school boards across the state of NJ.

Secondly, yes, it was a bit rash to call Pearson’s surveillance of social media “spying” but the hysteria that surrounded that discovery should not downplay real legitimate questions about transparency, the internet, and our children. The public has a right to know what their tax dollars are paying for, what exactly these companies are looking for and in turn doing with the information that they collect.

Finally, the most ridiculous claim of the entire editorial came late in the article.

Remember that there is a broader public purpose here, one much more important than taking pot shots at the PARCC. One of the main reasons we need this standardized test is for parents in struggling districts like Camden or Newark, who would otherwise have no way of knowing whether their kids are in a failing school.

“Pot shots”? Yes, that is why so many people traveled to Jackson and Camden to present testimony to Commissioner Hespe…to take a pot shot. That is why thousands of people refused the test for their children…to take a pot shot. That is why 500 early childhood experts signed a statement calling the Common Core Standards, upon which the PARCC test is based, developmentally inappropriate for young learners…to take a pot shot. That is why so many parents and teachers are concerned about the impact on learning time the PARCC creates by requiring two full testing periods a month apart….to take a pot shot.

But the lowest of the low is the assumption that the poorest communities of NJ desperately need the  PARCC test, because without it they can’t figure out that their kids are failing.

WHAT?!

Seriously, has anyone on the Star Ledger Editorial Board ever been to Newark or Camden? I would love to take a field trip to one of these cities with the Editorial Board. I would ask them to find one single parent that has no idea that their kid is failing or that more importantly that their schools are failing their kids. All they hear is about failure. They know the graduation rate is low. They know the incarceration rate is high. They know that crime, violence, and drugs threaten their children at every turn. They know that their schools are nothing like the schools that their Governor went to in Livingston, NJ. Every test has come back that the schools in these areas are riddled with failure and the PARCC test will be no different.

These communities do not need a test. They need learning. They need their schools to be safer. They need to use funding for quality, engaging curriculum and support services rather than meeting the expensive demands that an online test puts on the budget through technology and training requirements. They need lessons that inspire students rather than prep them for tests. They need gardens, playgrounds, field trips, science experiments, and after school clubs and sports. They need mentors. They need love, patience, and an understanding that poverty is a real influence on education and can not be cured by a test.

The Star Ledger Editorial Board has some of their own improving to do. Maybe they should ask Pearson to design a test for editorial boards so that maybe they can look around and see that they are not doing anyone any good by writing editorials like this.