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What’s Good About Githens?

25 Aug

What’s Good About Githens?. Bryan Proffit, the newly elected president of the Durham Association of Educators, is crowing about the great things happening in public schools all over Durham. Contrary to the message that public schools are failing – here is proof of the good things happening.

Please consider this – teachers and administrators and parents are having to fight harder and harder to get wha they need to provide a quality education to every student. Would it not be easier of the elected officials in Raleigh to just fall out prioritize education? And consider this – Durham and Wilmington and Raleigh – these places are chocked full of people with the resources to prop up what the legislature won’t do. Imagine the difficulties of districts with few affluent citizens. The state legislature has a duty to provide adequate funding. Let’s hold them to it.

Two Fashion Designers, One Serial-killer

17 Apr

ImageThis piece is hanging at the National Portrait Gallery in London.  I find it captivating – it reminds me of people I am friends with.  People who I find incredibly artistic and fun and who I don’t get to spend near enough time with.  I guess it makes sense that my reactions to art have to do with relationships.

Art history and fashion design – these are not things I know about.  My expertise lies in pedagogy, human experience, relationships, and children.  I know a lot about children.

Art history and such things have never interested me and I have never been required to study them – so it is somewhat ironic that this amazing opportunity to frequent some of the best museums in Europe has been laid in my lap.  I have seen Monet, Manet, Rodin, and Cezanne. I recently saw a special exhibit of Degas’ Nudes at the Musée d’Orsay.  I have learned about the Pre-Raphaelites and awed over the work of those who idealized subjects and those who were dedicated to realism.  I was struck by Ophelia and the Lady of Shallot, and Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose moved me to the extent that I have been back to see them multiple times.  Photos and reprints of these magnificent works do not do them justice. But this image of Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen, I couldn’t resist snapping it during my third viewing last week.

Just to the left of the picture is the most gripping and disturbing piece of artwork I have seen yet. The silhouette is of Isabella Blow, head thrown back laughing, crazy trademark hat.  But what is that casting the shading?  Yes, taxidermy.  Crows, rats, lipstick all wrapped in a revolting tangle.  It is fascinating.   I had to take these pictures so I could share them. My iPhone shots are weak.  When I got home, I did a quick web search about Blow.  Her story is tragic. She took her life in 2007 after battling depression.  McQueen followed suit in 2010.

Oddly enough, in addition to admiring and ruminating over this metaphoric sculpture about the image cast vs. the monstrosity within, I have been watching Dexter.  If you don’t know about the ShowTime series, it is about a sociopath serial-killer.  He leads a double life.  The image he casts is of a forensic detective, a loving boyfriend, dedicated brother.  His monster within, a monster born of childhood trauma, forces him to kill.  If you have not seen it, it is worth the time.  Smartly written and brimming with ethical dilemmas about good vs. evil.

What has gripped me so about Dexter and about Isabella Blow is the idea of intervention.  Does intervention work?  Are some things just too powerful to fight against?  Can the effects of childhood trauma be diminished with enough therapy?  Can medication take away the damaging urges without also quelling the artists’ drive?   Are any of our institutions equipped to deal with these problems?

Lots of questions, but I don’t have any answers.  I just know that in the last two years of my work in education, I encountered way too many children that I feared could not be helped.  Is it too much to hope that art might some way provide an answer?  Perhaps we are failing our children because we are failing to focus on art.  Just a thought.

Tolerating Durham

2 Feb

A couple of weeks ago, in honor of MLK Day, the Daily Beast (a part of the Newsweek online publication) ranked Durham, NC as the Most Tolerant City in America. Wow! As they say in Britain, I was gobsmacked. As a North Carolinian and Durhamite, how could my town – the one I worked in and lived around – be thusly ranked?

At the heart of my issue lies this: the first paragraph of the story boldly states “while segregated schools and lunch counters may be things of the past…” Hold on!  Did anyone from Newsweek actually step foot in Durham before making this declaration? So they skipped straight ahead to measuring other criteria.  By so doing, I am afraid that the Daily Beast is leaving readers with a false impression of an implied harmony that exists in the Bull City, at least from what I have observed and lived. All you have to do is step into the school where I worked in the heart of Durham, W. G. Pearson Gifted and Talented Magnet School, and see that the racial make up of the school’s children is predominantly black and brown. According to the Daily Beast article, Durham is nearly 85% white, yet Durham Public School are only roughly 68% white.

Is this what desegregated schools look like? So where are all those other white kids in school?

They are at Durham Academy, the Carolina Friends School, the Duke School for ChildrenTriangle Day School, or anywhere but Durham Public Schools, if their parents can manage it. Schools are segregated and getting to be more segregated each year that we suffer under No Child Left Behind. Charter schools, private schools and home schools are draining away families with means from the public school rosters in Durham and many other schools systems as parents become more convinced that public school is not good enough for their children – and unfortunately most of these parents are right. Magnet school configurations have attempted to lure affluent parents to struggling schools; and in some places, where a commitment to socio-economic diversity has been a driving force, the programs have thrived. Wake County is a great example. (Raleigh was number 18 in the Daily Beast’s rankings).

Many public schools have become a quagmire of testing, retesting, and remediation, all surrounding performance scores on standardized tests. The dominant emphasis is on test-taking skills and test scores not on the needs, abilities, interests and gifts of individual children. True child-centered public schools (even individual classrooms) have become as scarce as hens teeth. Public schools represent, on the micro-level, the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots in America. The percentage of black Americans living in poverty continues to be gravely disproportionate to the number of white Americans living in poverty. This plays itself out in the housing sector; even though there are strict laws about equal housing, most neighborhoods remain segregated. And churches in most of America – well, that’s another issue all together. My point being: the Daily Beast’s quick little declaration that segregated schools are a thing of the past helps us all feel a little better about the true state of things.

This accolade is a great example, also, of how research and solid fact finding can fail to tell the story accurately. The Daily Beast used statistics from reliable sources – empirical data, quantitatively ranked to place Durham ahead of San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. But then, if tolerance means live and let live, then okay; I can let Durham have the number one slot. If progress means that we all live side-by-side and don’t really bother each other, it works; but somehow, I don’t think this is what Dr. King had in mind. Since the rankings were posted in his honor, I must take issue. I don’t think “sitting down at the table of brotherhood” meant that we would have separate tables. In the Durham where I worked, the folks were sitting down at the Chicken Hut while the Durham they were talking about in the article, most of those folks were sitting down at Nana’s, or maybe Four Square. These two sides of Durham may tolerate each other, but they rarely intersect. Maybe that is why the superintendent of the Durham Public School, , Eric Becoates, along with the Board of Education have made the mission statement of the school district “One Durham.” I wish them well in this endeavor because where the two Durham do intersect, like at W. G. Pearson Elementary, there is discord, dissent, and resentment  – anything but tolerance- but that is the topic of my next post. If Durham schools can become One Durham, then and only then will I agree that Durham is deserving of the Daily Beast ranking.

Is love stronger than fear? – a commentary on public education

21 Oct

Do parents love their children more than than they are afraid for them? Do children love learning more than they are afraid of not being liked by their peers? Do teachers love children and teaching them more than they are afraid of “getting into trouble” with their supervisors for speaking out? What does it take to be brave and stand up for the right thing?

I work with a whole bunch of people who are scared. They are scared that they will get pushed, punched, kicked, slapped, or worst of all – ignored. These are the fears of children, but I also work with a bunch of frightened adults. My colleagues fear that they will be judged, misquoted, verbally attacked, sued, fired, or worst of all – ignored. And last, but certainly not least, I work for a whole bunch of scared parents. They are terrified that their children will come to school and get bullied – by either other children or by the teachers, treated unfairly, or worst of all – ignored. For parents with resources, this is frustrating at its worst, but they can find ways around it with private tutors, lessons, or simply by providing enrichment activities for their children. Many parents with means have found a way around it by choosing private or home schools. But for parents with no resources, this fear is blinding because if their children are ignored, what chance do they have to learn? Children who cannot read by the time they leave elementary school are astronomically more likely to never graduate high school, never have a decent paying job, and most frightening of all – to go to prison. These parents at my current school, most of whom are black and brown, know that if their children get ignored at school, the price is huge. The saddest part about my job is this: all these fears are totally warranted. Our prisons are full; our school systems spend thousands on lawyers; teachers and administrators are exhausted and leaving the profession in droves.

After 13 years in this business, I chose to work in an inner-city public school in Durham. Durham is in the heart of North Carolina in the deep South of the US. When people think about the South, especially people who are not from the South, they immediately think something along the lines of “Gone with the Wind” – or so I have been told. There is an awful lot of baggage that comes with having been a former slave state that seceded from the Union and then lost The War. And in some small part, all that is here, but there is much more to the story and certainly much more to the complexity of the current state of public education. The “much more” or remaining part makes NC just like every other state in the US. We are struggling to fund public education; struggling to fight crime; struggling to employ our citizens; struggling to trust our politicians in a very disparate reality where those with money (and power) are arguing very loudly that we cannot increase government revenues; that we should not regulate banks, but we should absolutely regulate the hell out of public education – which is just what the No Child Left Behind Act did. In a way, the NCLB legislation shined a bright light on the shortcomings of public schools who were failing to educate children with disabilities, on children from low economic status, and especially on children of color. What it did not do was provide answers to the institutional racism that plagues public schools. Yes, I said it – racism. While most will argue that the issue is about poverty and generational illiteracy, blah, blah blah. Study a little slice of African-American history and you begin to understand why the number of blacks who are poor is so disproportionately high. Discrimination lives on and it plays itself out daily in public schools everywhere. The Achievement Gap is about race and it is the water we swim in. With a black man in the White House, at least people are starting to have the race conversation openly, but effective action still feels unusually far away to this public servant.

When I decided to go into public service, I did it to serve all children. I love teaching and learning. There is nothing more exciting to me than to watching the ah-ha moment when someone “gets it.” I have two degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel. I studied Middle Grades Education back in the 80’s, and I earned high marks in my Master of School Administration program, which was ranked 5th in the nation the year I graduated (2008). I am Highly Qualified (HQ) in three areas and licensed to be a principal. I know what I am doing in public school. Yet, like everyone else, I am afraid that I am being ignored or that I will “limit my career” by speaking out about its current state. In fact, I am sure my fears are true.

The parents’ fears that their children are being ignored, are true, too. The children are being ignored by their teachers because the teachers are overwhelmed by their plethora of duties which include trying to keep the children safe. These children are literally punching, kicking and slapping each other. Why is this behavior so rampant? Well, the children have been taught by their parents, aunts, uncles, peers and in some sad cases even their teachers, that they must stand up for themselves and not take anything off anyone. “If somebody messes with you, hit’em back. Don’t let yourself be bullied.” They make sure they enforce the street rules that you hit back and never “snitch.” Yes, it is craziness. sadly, all this fear is fueling the reality that the original fear is based in. The kids all have hair-triggers. Every time they have to line up, if someone gets jostled, there is an incident. The punching and kicking happens. It takes all kinds of time to sort it out. There are forms to file and phone calls to make and not to mention, getting bags of ice for the bruises – and all this time, no one is learning. And to me, there is an even sadder part: no ones is teaching these kids to use their words. When you ask the kids about ways to handle their conflicts they offer, “Walk away” or “Tell a teacher.” When I asked “But what can you say?” a strapping young boy came up with, “Please don’t hurt me” in a soft and apologetic voice. I laughed out loud. That will not keep you safe here in an inner-city school. It is ludicrous.

What is not ludicrous, though, is saying those words forcefully, with conviction and volume so that everyone turns around and takes notice – especially the grown-ups. “Don’t hit me! Get out of my space!” Yet, no one is teaching the children to do this to simply stand up for themselves without making threats. Ironically, I learned about this tactic in a parenting class about how to keep my own precious and privileged children safe from sexual predators. Sexual predators, like all bullies, rely mostly on coercion and manipulation. Direct refusal, showing personal strength, standing up and saying, “No!” like you mean it, works 99% of the time. The problem is, in a culture of fear – and fear is the basis of racism – no one is standing up for themselves effectively. Everyone is afraid to stand up and say “No!” in a loud and convincing voice. Instead they just take it until they snap. Children snap with a push or a punch. Parents snap with a call to a lawyer or a supervisor, or the Board of Education. Teachers snap with a letter of resignation or a demeaning remark to a child. School leaders snap with another mandate and more testing. Wouldn’t a loud a convincing NO! be easier?

The children need to stand up and say NO to being bullied and NO to being ignored. All children deserve a quality education. They deserve to love school and to love learning. Love needs to win.

The professionals need to stand up and say NO to unnecessary testing; NO to bullying from parents; NO to bullying from colleagues and supervisors and especially NO to bullying from politicians, especially those who really don’t know anything about education. Teachers deserve to love their jobs because their jobs are so hard and so important. When teachers do their jobs well, everyone, our whole country wins. Changing a young person’s life for the better is the most fulfilling work there is. Love of teaching needs to win.

Parents need to stand up and say NO to overcrowded classrooms, to underpaid teachers, to substandard facilities, and to out-dated curriculum and techniques that leave children feeling ignored and depersonalized. Should your child’s teacher have to hold a second job just to be able to afford to drive a car to work? Parents need to say NO to testing that relegates their children to more of the same ineffective instruction that is punishing their children out of elective classes in the arts and humanities and places them in “remedial classes.” Parents need to love not only their own children but other’s people’s children enough invest in and support public education. Believe me, these children who are not finding success at school are angry and hurting. They exist and they will grow up and be part of our society one way or another. Love of children needs to win.

We all need to stand up and say NO to a society that continues to create a gulf between the haves and the have-nots. A society that does not put children first and allows precious resources to be lavished on certain groups of children but not on others is just plain wrong. The wider this gulf gets, the less safe we are all. The haves cannot continue to keep the poverty out of sight and out of mind. This current path is not sustainable for a peaceful society. Love for one another must win.

I don’t have any answers about how to help love win. I just know it has to. For the first time in a long time, I am short on hope for the state of the Union. I do know that for me personally, when I have searched my heart and said YES to love and NO to fear – things get better – a whole lot better.