From Newtown to Newark and Back: The Always Ongoing Cycle of Despair

Not since 9-11 has a country mourned as it is now following the overwhelming, mindless violence that occurred in Newtown.

Twenty six innocent children and six innocent adults were martyred on the crucifix of insanity. We have to accept, as Yeats says in Easter 1916, that we’ve finally been Transformed utterly. All, indeed, has changed — Yeats says it and we must see it as well.

There will be a lot of talk in time — the Second Amendment to the Constitution, violence in America, assault weapons, the NRA, mental health. The list can be endless since Newtown — this new town — to many of us a new spiritual place, is now every town in America; everything that ails us crushed Newtown’s innocence.

Why? Why have we come to this?

A shadow of cloud on the stream/Changes minute by minute, Yeats tells us. The long-legged moor-hens dive,/And hens to moor cocks call;/Minute by minute they live:/The stone’s in the midst of all. How prophetic Yeats is about our problem: those common folks living in Eighteenth-century houses, we pass them by, nod and give Polite meaningless words. We move around and through people, not with people. We ensnare rather then enable. We are suffocating. We suffocate because we take meaning away, not work to understand.

But in the middle of all this, our constructed struggles, our foibles, is The stone, the grave, death. It’s inevitable so we try to move past it too. “These tragedies must end,” said President Obama. But in order to begin to address the problem we have to first acknowledge our inconsequentiality in the face of Nature. It has a power that brings us to our knees — Katrina, Sandy, now Adam Lanza. He, too — there is no doubt — is a force of Nature we don’t understand. He, too, is a storm of destruction.

Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart, says Yeats. Is this who we are? Was this Lanza, his heart so cold, so lost? O when may it suffice? wonders Yeats. President Obama wondered the same thing in Newtown. He told us all that Newtown reminds us of what matters. Why do we have to have violence of such magnitude to remind us of what matters? Why?

What matters are the simplest things: Why are we here? What is the purpose for our lives, given that time is fleeting, our lives ephemeral? This is the terrible beauty that is born, says Yeats. The dull, almost empty sound that comes when we ask these questions. There’s no response. We turn to education and religion, exercise and excess, mediated sports and consumerism to find ourselves. We never turn inward, towards ourselves, our inner being.

Adam Lanza is the extreme example of an outward manifestation of a harrowing malady. Newtown is his response to his darkness. How can we evolve if we don’t embrace these frightening questions about ourselves, the shadows in Plato’s allegorical Cave, and face these together?

When President Obama read the names of the innocent children, I turned to Yeats and whispered, Now and in time to be, …/Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.

We are a culture that harbors anger against our inconsequentiality — …the birds that range/From cloud to tumbling cloud,/Minute by minute they change, while we run past each other, never taking the time, never asking, never wondering, watching, learning what ails us.

Nature’s indifference against our need to be seen and heard, to have relevance in a short life requires that we have systems of checks and balances that help us address questions of the soul, the mind, the spirit because we will each find ourselves, from time to time, in the darkest of places.

Of course, the change we need — one that also coincides with Nature’s insistence that we are merely part of its scheme, that’s all — must address the deepest, darkest aspects of our American existence. We must face our hand in evolving a world in which life is cheap, inconsequential.

As we turn to Newtown, as we should be, as we mourn, let’s not forget the hundreds and thousands of children that are killed yearly in places like Newark, New Jersey — not Newtown, which is a random brutal tragedy. Newark has been spiraling for a long time. A few years back a mother cried to me, in a Newark elementary school, to help make education better in the city because she lost a son to the streets and illiteracy as the system promoted him blindly — until at age 16 when he was shot dead in front of her.

Newtown didn’t need our attention because all the American signs of perfection were self-evident. Newark we bypass because, even though little school age children are killed every year, due to a harrowing street violence that, like Lanza, has no conscience and will use incredible fire power regardless, the people here are not like us. We push by Newark — and its people. There are far too many communities in America we bypass, leaving them to face incomprehensible violence on their own, leaving them to face questions about their existence in the shadows of our illusory splendor.

We all suffer equally. We all suffer. Some have more resilience then others; however, we have nothing in place to help those that might be lead down a destructive path — no mechanisms are available to diagnose, analyze and engage those among us who live troubled lives.

Questions of the heart and the soul have been relegated to prayer and service, once or twice a week; they’ve been sidelined in our daily actions, our close and sometimes intimate exchanges. Speed is privileged over contemplation; the quick fix over meaningful deliberation. We are desperate but we don’t have the means by which to express our anxieties. Some respond to their despair with gruesome violence — and we faciliate this by embracing an amendment to the constitution that was adopted on December 15, 1791 when we were new, fresh and worried about the shackles of a heartless government. Then, a well regulated militia was necessary; the security of a free state fundamental, as was the right of the people to keep and to bear arms. But now we have a fat Defense Department, and in States, we have militias — the National Guards. States differ, but in most states people can keep and bear arms — as Mrs. Lanza did.

Given these realities, what is the necessity of arming ourselves with assault weapons? Fear of government? Any local community police force can overcome any citizen militia, even if the citizens are armed with assault weapons. So what is the point of such armament? We know where it leads, particularly if we don’t have a robust system to work with our anxieties, our very human stresses, our discontents.

From Newtown to Newark, and back, the needs of a Nation are the same. The terrible beauty is that we can’t escape our place — life and death in a brief moment in time, the raw awesomeness of Nature, and our sense of a beleaguered self. All this requires one thing: mindful education early on. When it skips people, when we rush by it, even as change happens all around us, some will find no recourse but to continue down a dark and violent abyss whose only end is to spread pain and suffering to as many innocent people as possible because the despair is so overwhelming that it’s unspeakable.

Pass or Get Out of the Way: Defining the Future for Our Students

As we awaken to a new dawn in the US, about half of all state schools in England and Wales are being affected by a strike by UK public sector workers.  The right to work will be the single most important issue affecting the public sector — all of us working today.  In the US, as in the UK, the assessment and control methods that are politically sanctioned to evaluate teachers are unprecedented.  And the most Draconian aspect of this almost universal (in the West) re-evaluation and castigation of teachers is that those who will suffer most are the children: their world, particularly if these kids live in socio-economically challenged areas, will fall further into the abyss of the cyclical nature of poverty.

An approach that’s being tactfully admired by the powerful in many US states is the “Impact,” in name and approach more reminiscent of a Terminator movie then a subtle teacher evaluation system.

Sam Dillon, writing for a New York Times that’s more comfortable covering the “accepted” mainstream methodologies of any system of power rather then investigating the reality of things, does a credible job of lining up, for the careful reader, what the challenges this method of evaluation pose for parents, students and teachers.

In his Teacher Grades: Pass or Be Fired Dillon tells us that, “Spurred by President Obama and his $5 billion Race to the Top grant competition, some 20 states, including New York, and thousands of school districts are overhauling the way they grade teachers, and many have sent people to study Impact.”

The Impact is “a centerpiece of the tempestuous three-year tenure of Washington’s former schools chancellor, Michele Rhee.”  This detail is enough to raise concern.  But it hasn’t.  Blindly we march on, seduced by Obama’s Race to the Top, rather then careful criticism of what will likely cause a lot of collateral damage.  I warned against this in Education Stimulus Package: In Duncan’s Hands, Hope is on a Tightrope.  But, just as the right to work will be the defining issue of our times, collateral damage will be the defining metaphor. Does anyone care?  Why are we so silent? At least in the UK, teachers are taking to the streets.

The Impact is best described as an efficient sorting system.  Some educators  describe Impact this way — efficient  and sorting.  These are accounting terms, not terms mindful of teaching and learning.  The terms follow a trend in education that moves away from a pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment and  towards a business model.  Impact is a business model, not an education model; it aligns with the current goals of many governors and mayors, particularly in New York and New Jersey, two hostile states to the right to work: privatize education.

What’s the problem?

Educators “note that the system does not consider socioeconomic factors in most cases and that last year 35 percent of the teachers in the city’s [Washington] wealthiest area, Ward 3, were rated highly effective, compared with 5 percent of Ward 8, the poorest,” says Dillon.

Impact relies heavily on classroom observation — a good thing.  It has 9 criteria: explain the content clearly, maximize instruction, check for student understanding are some examples used to rate a lesson.  These are good, solid criteria.

The problem with this methodology — and the problem with most if not all methods for evaluating teachers and, at the college and university level, for advising students and, likewise for evaluating professors — is that it measures the students’ capabilities simply from the shoulders up.  That is to say, the whole student is not being evaluated; only reasoning skills, computation and understanding according to a system that leans favorably to accepted classical methods of teaching and learning — delivery and acquiescence in silence — are privileged.   In essence, what is being evaluated is the teacher’s ability to transmit traditional pedagogical methodologies.  But these methods may be way too abstract for some students, particularly if these students come from poorer communities.

We are in fact assessing how well teachers transmit traditional forms of social mobility, negating the realities of certain students’ lives. Before we begin, then, in the assessment model — Impact — we are already rejecting the student.

The Harvard sociologist, William Julius Wilson, in More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, says,

It is important to remember that one of the effects of living in a racially segregated, poor neighborhood is the exposure to cultural framing habits, styles of behavior, and particular skills that emerged from patterns of social exclusion; these attributes and practices may not be conducive to facilitating social mobility … These patterns of behavior are seen as a hindrance to social mobility in the larger society.

A system such as Impact comes about, as Wilson tells us, this time using the work of Eliot R. Smith, because “most Americans believe that economic outcomes are determined by individuals’ efforts and talents (or their lack) and that in general economic inequality is fair.”    We could argue that Smith’s pronouncement is now the politics of the day — the attack on the right to work, the dismantling of unions, and the Draconian measures of teacher performance.

“Indeed, living in a ghetto neighborhood has both structural and cultural effects,” says Wilson, “that compromise life chances above and beyond personal attributes.”

Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers Union, speaking to Dillon for his NYT article, said, “Teacher have to be parents, priests, lawyers, clothes washers, babysitters and a bunch of other things” in schools in poor and challenged neighborhoods.  “Impact takes none of those roles into account, so it can penalize you just for teaching in a high-needs school.”  Saunders echoes Wilson.  And I’ve describe this phenomenon quite clearly in Newark’s  South Ward: The Miller Street School and the American Paradox.

The solution to our education problems, as I’ve described it, actually lies in Saunders’ description of what teachers are called to do when working in poorer neighborhoods.  In these communities, as I’ve said in Newark’s South Ward, the school, as is The Miller Street School, are an oasis pushing against the chaos found in the streets.  If teachers are parents, priests, lawyers, clothes washers, babysitters and a bunch of other things, as Saunders says, then we must create, in each school, a hub of support for all these things.

Right now, parents have to move to multiple locations and work through multiple human services departments, filling out form after form, seeing multiple people, more often then not being shoved to yet another office and more forms, more interviews and never really voicing their concerns and problems. This is costly — and it agitates the notion that it’s their fault, that if they worked harder people would be better off.

What if all social and professional services were under one roof?  What if all aspects needed to enable a more graceful, dignified and cogent approach to social mobility were in one place, a hub or mall for social mobility? Isn’t this efficiency? Wouldn’t this cut costs?

I’d argue that not only is this a cheaper approach, but then it would allow us to pool together resources, including the tracking of a student through this system so as to better get a sense of how the student learns — the obstacle and challenges, the conditions for study at home, and so on.

Of course, this would thwart the interest of many governors and mayors to privatize; it would run against the desire of many corporations to extract the poverty dollar from the most needy; it would, in fact, work against today’s trend towards the newest form of governance, inverted totalitarianism. (There are so many examples of inverted totalitarianism, today, that I’m thinking of changing my blog’s title! I’m getting exhausted constantly having to explain it!)

What we need is less Impact.  We need to realize — and accept — that schools in poor neighborhoods are an oasis of hope.  It is this realization that can lead to a conflation of resources — child care and health care, nutrition, family counseling, on the job training, study skills training, even community colleges — under one roof, held together by technology and carefully trained experts — nurses, social workers, first year general practitioners, counselors and teachers — working together.  From this vantage, we can create teacher assessment vehicles that will include master teachers, parents in the community, student evaluations and outcomes and all read against what today we call social mobility. Anything else is failure. Anything else is a genuflection towards the powerful elite that seek to define our lives for us.

The Politics of Newark: The Miller Street School and Hope — Part 5

During one visit to the South Ward, Maria Ortiz found out that Newark’s Mayor, Cory Booker, would be attending a local school “holding meeting” that the mayor schedules monthly and consists of many 10-minute face-to-face conversations with individual members of his constituency. The purpose of these meetings is to show the community that the mayor is indeed one of them, that he cares and he’s listening, though he comes from the kind of privilege completely that is completely unimaginable to most of the city’s population.

Cory Booker is the son of African-American trailblazers Cary and Carolyn Booker who were among the first African-American executives at IBM. He was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in the predominantly white, affluent town of Harrington Park in Bergen County, New Jersey; he went to Stanford University, earning a B.A. in political science and a M.A. in sociology. He played varsity football — made the All–Pacific Ten Academic team — and was elected to the council of (four) presidents. After Stanford, Booker won a Rhodes Scholarship and studied at The Queen’s College, Oxford, where he was awarded an honors degree in modern history and became friends with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. At Boteach’s direction, Booker, a practicing Baptist, became president of Oxford’s L’Chaim Society, an Orthodox Jewish student group, to the chagrin of the Chabad-Lubavitch leaders. L’Chaim was controversial. Initially the society was part of the Chabad movement; then it evolved to become an inter-faith group. Rabbi Boteach, however, was not a member of the Oxford faculty; he was simply a person free to set up an inter-faith group outside Oxford’s domain. Rabbi Boteach and the Chabad-Lubavitch organization in England did not agree on all the issues regarding how to teach Jewish students at Oxford and the role of non-Jewish students. This tension grew when Booker was appointed president of L’Chaim, and Rabbi Boteach left the organization. Rabbi Boteach was further criticized by the British government after an investigation showed that he was funding a lavish lifestyle from charitable donations. Booker went on to graduate from Yale Law School where he operated free legal clinics for low-income residents. He lived in Newark during his final year at Yale, making his way into the political scene, and served as staff attorney for the Urban Justice Center in New York. He became program coordinator of the Newark Youth Project after graduation.

In 2006, Cory Booker was one of the last remaining tenants in Brick Towers (after living there for eight years), a troubled housing complex in Newark’s Central Ward, where he organized tenants to fight for improved conditions. He has since moved to the top unit in a three-story rental on Hawthorne Avenue in the South Ward. In late 2009, Booker was criticized for not owning property in Newark, choosing to rent. The Brick Towers were razed in July, 2008.

Barack Obama, Corey Booker, Michael Steele, Alan Keyes, Deval Patrick – none of these political figures of color emerged from any social movement; they joined their party of choice during college; but they moved quickly up the ranks, and are not race rebels. None of them represent a threat to the power structure of America. Is Corey Booker too good to be true? Is he an honest advocate for the poor and marginalized or just another politician?

Maria Ortiz and I drove to the Luiz Muñoz Marin Middle School in the North Ward, a facility distinctly better than the Miller Street School – grass and open fields, large auditorium and gym, trophy cases. We placed our names on the “meeting roster” to speak with Mayor Booker, then waited in a large auditorium facing a wide stage where cheerleaders practiced their routines. Eventually, we were called and walked down a wide corridor lined with student lockers and were ushered into a classroom with long tables stretched end to end. Mayor Booker was working the room, sitting next to one person, then another, patting people on the back, shaking hands while an aide wrote things down.

Cory Booker is a big, athletic man sporting a bald head, a signature look; he resembles a forward on a basketball team or a tight end in football. He’s charismatic, easy with people, soft spoken but direct and has a wonderful smile. He’s a media darling.

He recognized Maria immediately and asked how she was, and we shook hands. Between Mayor Booker and me sat Jennifer Stone, a stern looking black woman, who didn’t show a hint of a smile when we introduced ourselves. She is the South Ward liaison for the mayor’s office.

I leaned forward and asked the mayor, “What are your plans for the South Ward?”

He leaned forward, too, resting on his elbows on the table, and clasped his large hands. Looking puzzled, he said incredulously, “That’s what you want from me?”

I couldn’t tell whether his reaction was because of the question or whether he was expecting to hear about the usual things – corruption in Newark, the plan to combat homelessness, violent crime that his office says is down but still unacceptable. My question was oddly out of the context.

“Yes. What are your plans for the South Ward? That’s all I want to know.”

Mayor Booker didn’t respond. He looked over at Jennifer Stone as if signaling her to intervene, which she did.
“We have meetings. We put out flyers. We ask people to come. No one shows,” she said. “I’ve lived in the South Ward for 38 years—I just moved out—and I can tell you, it’s the people (her emphasis). They don’t come out. They don’t trust us. They don’t participate. We try everything, and they just don’t participate.”

Mayor Booker stepped in again. “Please schedule a longer interview with Mr. Vila. Have Desiree schedule it.” He then got up from the table, shook my hand, and Maria’s, and said, “Thank you for your interest.” And walked to the next table.

I called Desiree S. Peterkin-Bell, director of communications for the mayor’s office, three times. The first time she asked what publication I was writing for and the nature of my work and told me to call back. I did, thinking that I would receive an audience with the mayor. I was wrong. Ms. Peterkin-Bell wanted to see a rough draft – “an outline,” she said – for the mayor’s office to approve, something she said they had done with Gwen Ifill of the News Hour on PBS and several other writers she did not name. I declined, of course. When I called the third time, they said that if I couldn’t meet these conditions, I wouldn’t be able to speak to the mayor. I wondered whether Mayor Booker’s early move to show his credibility – living at the Brick Towers, establishing legal services for the poor – were meaningful acts or gestures to pad his resume?

What I wanted to say to him was simple. Many of the South Ward residents are Latino immigrants that come from Central and South America where government is seen as life threatening; people are jailed without reason, or worse, they disappear. I wanted to tell him that Miller Street School held a literacy night this past spring and over 200 parents showed up at the school to celebrate their children’s education. I wanted to know if there were plans to create a community to support these parents and sustain these children. Isn’t this where government and the community should come together in a spirit of collaboration? I also wanted to share with him the obstacles that Shakirah Miller confronts while trying to keep hope from becoming ether. And I wanted to tell him about Khalid Tellis, a Miller Street success story.

Khalid Tellis, now a freshman at Middlebury College, was the 2004 salutatorian of Miller Street School. After his graduation from eighth grade in 2004, the Wight Foundation gave him a scholarship, based on merit and need, to The Eaglebrook School, a private boarding school for boys in grades 6-9 in Deerfield, Massachusetts. His mother had her heart set on Science Park High, one of the better public schools in Newark’s troubled system, but Khalid wanted more, something better. He had to leave Newark to get it – he knew this. He also knew that he needed to repeat the 8th grade to be academically stronger, so he convinced his mother to let him go to Eaglebrook. Khalid continued on to the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut, thanks to a need-based scholarship; after that, another need-based scholarship allowed him to attend Middlebury. Khalid found a small keyhole in the chaos and pulled himself through it; he learned to find equal footing with strangers from the “other America”. This is the tragedy of the South Ward, and what the Miller Street School works to reverse – one or two students, with plenty of help and lots of luck, make it to a place like Middlebury, the rest remain on the dark side of the American paradox: life and liberty for some, the vicious cycle of inescapable economic degradation leading to environmental degradation that begets social degradation for others. Hope requires escape routes – there are none here, not even one leading through the dim beacon, the Miller Street School.

I wanted to find a way to tell this story and, just maybe, begin to make a difference – but I had no idea how to do it, where to begin. So I gave myself to the school, opening myself up to learn from their experience. I now ask myself how we might work together to ensure other students can attend our colleges and universities.

“Anything can happen in Newark,” Khalid said with a grin across his round face, cradling his books against his chest. In his final essay for our writing class at Middlebury, he wrote,

“As I prepared to write this paper, I thought of two things, freedom and responsibility. Freedom, as I see it, is the opportunity to think about your rights. That is Freedom. You have a voice. There are no repercussions for speaking out and intellectualism is encouraged. Then, I read Obama’s Nobel Prize speech and thought to myself, Obama is right, but his hope is impossible. According to President Obama, “true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.” There can never be freedom from want. If so, how could we as a society gauge what is “good enough”…I see peace as possible only after inequalities between those who want can be reversed by those individuals who have lived in both worlds. People like me. I now see where my life is leading me, back to Newark, to help save a new generation from hopelessness.”

I now see that Maria Ortiz was right all along. We can’t reform education from a distance, through contests and slogans delivered by politicians focused on the next election. It doesn’t take much to lend a hand, Maria said to me several times. Miller Street has taught me that I have to be more involved, more engaged outside the ivied halls of academe; it has taught me that Shakirah Miller and Maria Ortiz and Juan Ramos and little Ana have answers – and plenty of questions. No one in the South Ward is asking for a handout; they are asking for cooperation and collaboration. Residents of the South Ward are telling us that they’re relevant and have ways out of the chaos and the depravity. The American paradox is a manufactured reality – we can reverse it, though. But first we have to admit that we’re supporting a “separate but equal” society – and blame those who are deprived access to good schools, health care and work for not achieving what we want. In urban centers, particularly in places like the South Ward, the school of the future will be a community hub. College professors, public school teachers, students and their families have to engage in collective knowledge building to re-imagine themselves and construct this nucleus where hope can be nurtured and secured.

The Miller Street School: “Today, an angel came into my life” –Part 4

Another challenge Shakirah must face is Marlin Nevens. Mr. Nevens was reading out loud to a class of fifth graders when I observed him. He was having a hard time with the fifth grade level reader. He read slowly and with difficulty. He was tripping over words, having to say them twice, sometimes three times. The class was sleepy and unfocused.

On the board behind Mr. Nevens were sentences he’d written. One caught my eye because it was a prompt meant to show students how to respond on a standardized test, which, in turn, becomes synonymous with essay writing. The directions said, “For every open ended response the first sentence should be: To begin with, Johanna Hurwitz, short story, ‘The Hot and Cold Summer,’ there are several values such as…” Several other sentences contained misspelled words and poor syntax. Mr. Nevens had been warned, given an unsatisfactory review and was receiving coaching from Maria Ortiz. But I wondered how he could overcome his own educational deficits. Mr. Nevens came into the Newark educational system through what is called the “alternative method”: he didn’t attend a graduate school of education; rather, after receiving his bachelor’s degree, he agreed to take courses towards his degree, receive coaching and mentoring, and after a trial period become licensed. In the meantime, he could teach.

After his reading lesson (there was no point to the lesson, he just read to the class), Mr. Nevens sat down with Maria Ortiz to discuss it.

“I want to work on skills,” Mr. Nevens said right away. “I need some material to work with.” He was nervous, perhaps because of my presence.

Ms. Ortiz asked, “What do you mean, material? This is your material, the kids. Come up with something.” Ortiz was visibly agitated.

“Oh,” he said leaning back in a chair usually occupied by a much smaller student. All three of us, Ms. Ortiz, Mr. Nevens and me, looked out of place, our bodies bulging over a small desk meant for 11 and 12 year olds.

“You’re asking me what am I going to be teaching? Oh.”

“Teach me something now,” said Ms. Ortiz leaning towards Mr. Nevens.

“I don’t know what you’re asking,” he said.

“What’s your forte, your strength – show it to me.”

“I don’t have one.”

Ms. Ortiz changed her tack. “What do you feel the most comfortable teaching?” she asked and paused.

“Anything,” Mr. Nevens said quickly, shrugged his shoulders and darted his eyes towards me, then grinned nervously trying to get the message across.

“Fine. Teach me one of those things. Tell me one lesson you’ve done that you were successful with.”
Mr. Nevens thought for a minute, then said, “I enjoy when we work on projects together.” And he smiled towards me again – he could teach anything.

“Okay. That’s extrapolating material from a text. Dr. Vila is going to show you how this is done,” said Maria looking at me and nodding, granting me access to the classroom. “He’s going to teach a lesson in your classroom tomorrow.” (In public schools and in colleges in NYC and New Jersey where I’ve taught, I’m usually a “doctor”; at Middlebury, where I teach now, I’m simply Professor, but students who know me for a bit simply call me by my first name.  Either option is open them.)

That was it, without warning I was going “in,” called off the bench to teach Mr. Nevens’ 5th graders and hopefully instruct him as well.

This was Maria Ortiz’s counterinsurgency plan. Maybe this is an answer: teachers from elite institutions contractually obligated to work in schools such as Miller Street, perhaps bringing along our students, too, committed to a national service for education – a pre-Teach for America program where elite and urban institutions collaborate. It’s never been done.

Maria Ortiz gleaned this from her studies: the progressive and populist counterinsurgency manuals of John Dewey and Paulo Freire’s notion that the oppressed can regain their humanity and overcome their condition as long as they are creative participants in their own growth and development. I went with Maria’s idea.

The next day, I gave students copies of Shel Silverstein’s poem, Where the Sidewalk Ends.

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows back
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

I read the poem slowly, carefully, as I moved about the room, in-between tables, each with four to six children. They followed my voice with intent eyes on the poem. When I was done, I kept walking about for a few seconds and allowed silence to take over. Then I asked the students to circle words in the poem that popped out for them: “Sidewalk” and “ends,” “moon-bird” and “dark” and “winds and bends,” and of course “peppermint.” They also circled “children” and “they know” and “place.” I asked students to define one of these words for themselves, in writing, which they did without a problem. One student wrote that a “moon-bird is a bat,” and everyone laughed – and I let them chatter and joke a bit. Another student said a “moon-bird is a star flickering in the night.” After sharing definitions, I asked for three volunteers, and we re-read the poem, each student taking a stanza. They read fine, not missing a beat. I asked each table of students to talk among themselves and come up with one idea that came from the poem. In no time, five to seven minutes, kids were eager to share: “It’s about us,” said one group. “The streets are bad and your life can end,” said another. “No one listens to us.” “We have to be careful how we walk the streets.” “We know things.” “Things end so we have to do the right thing.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Nevens never got it. He was more interested in the steps I took, rather than how I may have known that the children would understand the poem, quite easily, though I was warned by Ms. Ortiz that it might prove difficult for them. He was insistent that I relate the time I allowed for each piece of the lesson, which took approximately 45 minutes in all, rather than ask me to explain the relationship between reading and writing and learning. Beginning in the fall of 2009, Mr. Nevens was moved down a couple of grades. He began the year in Tier 1. There’s little hope he’ll make it, though he has a big heart, great rapport with the kids, and they like him because he’s warm, and he always has an ear for whatever a student may need. But even with support, he has not been able to progress. The deficits in his education may be too much.

At the end of the class, Ana, the little girl with long black hair that had been smiling at me all week and that had asked whether I was going to be with them, handed me a piece of paper folded in half. She was all smiles looking up at me with big brown eyes as I opened the paper. She had drawn an angel with big wings and written, “Today, an angel came into my life. Thank you.” Tears came to my eyes, and I fought to hold them back. I placed a hand on her head and said, “Gracias, Ana. Muchisimas gracias.” She grinned and said, “You gonna be here all year? Are we going to do this some more?” I couldn’t move, the weight of the separation between our worlds was paralyzing because it seemed to me so simple to overcome.

“No, Ana,” I said softly. “Not all year. But I’ll be back, here and there, I hope.”

The Miller Street Struggle: Part 3


“You have to see what we do here,” Maria Ortiz, the literacy coach at Miller Street, said to me.  “Only by experiencing their frustrations can you possibly understand. You have to get involved.  It doesn’t take much to care.”

I was there to chronicle the Miller Street struggle and lend a hand.  Maybe she was right, and this is what it will take – more of us, PhDs at schools like Miller Street.  Nothing else is working – not high stakes testing, not the approximately $84 billion in Education Recovery Act grants, not Obama’s Race to the Top, which unfortunately links “race” with “learning.”

Learning takes quite a bit of time, especially when we consider the developmental stages of children – it’s not a race.  And learning is not about getting to “the top,” but rather, about understanding one’s place in the world, about finding an emotionally and spiritually satisfying place to work so as to give the imagination full use.  Race to the Top is the antithesis.

I wasn’t sure how to begin to unravel the disorder I was experiencing.  On my first visit to Miller Street in March of last year, 10 out of the 39 teachers were absent, and most hadn’t bothered to make sure a substitute covered for them, a contractual requirement.  If an absent teacher doesn’t replace herself, then an automated “subfinder system” is supposed to kick in.  But the system was broken – and it remains broken.  Office personnel had to go to the phones to find last minute subs, and Principal Shakirah Miller had to orchestrate new class configurations, pairing two grades into one, for instance.

Amalia Dejeno, one of the absent teachers, was scheduled for observation that day.  Ms. Dejeno, a stout Puerto Rican woman in her early 50s, told me that she was “legally sick,” meaning that “illness” – flu, a sudden cold, fever – is an acceptable excuse. Amalia Dejeno is “Tier 1,” a final stage after all other reviews – Tiers 2 and 3 – had already been exhausted for her and she was consistently found “unsatisfactory.”  Tier 1 is where teachers are about to lose their license.  It can take anywhere from 3 to 5 years to dismiss a teacher, if documented properly.  In Amalia Dejeno’s case, it’s taken over 20 years, which is more along the lines of how this really works.  Some unsatisfactory teachers are never dismissed, but rather, moved from one school to another and never given an unsatisfactory rating.  Critics of education blame the teacher’s union for the collusion, a “blue flu” – an internal, never discussed protectionism.  For twenty-nine years Amalia has received “satisfactory” ratings – until she came to the Miller Street School.  She’s been marred by a system that’s refused to qualify her “unsatisfactory” early on when she might have been able to turn her performance around; she’s never been given guidance either, she told me.  Instead, she’s just been moved on.  Ms. Dejeno is harsh on the kids, always short and angry, scolding them at the slightest infraction, like speaking while walking in line to lunch.  She knows very little about teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), her presumed area of expertise.  In personality and knowledge of her stated field, she is unqualified to be in a classroom.

“She’s trying to get rid of me,” said Ms. Dejeno, in a halting English, referring to Miller Street’s principal.  “I’m fighting it.”

When I first looked into Shakirah’s office, prominently displayed on her desk was a long wooden plaque that read: John 3:16: For God so Loved the World that He gave His one and only Son.  Shakirah lost her father to a drunk driver when she was thirteen, which in part has made her who she is – strong, driven, intense, physical.  (She plays basketball, volleyball, runs track, and goes to the gym several times a week.)  Her mother became a drug addict soon after her husband died, relinquishing all responsibility for her 13-year-old daughter.  A car hit her mentally handicapped younger brother at the age of ten.  In four months, Shakirah lost five members of her family – a father, an aunt, her brother and two male cousins, 19 and 22, shot dead in the streets.  Yet her fondest memories are of Newark, growing up in the 17th Avenue projects and attending the 18th Avenue School.  Although life in Newark was not easy for her, she did well in school.

“I guess you could say that my mother was in the house,” Shakirah said.  “Some of my aunts helped me then.”

Now Christian Love Baptist Church in Irvington, New Jersey, is her respite; prayer gives her clarity, a sanctuary that gives her peace.

“The job is emotionally draining,” she told me.  “I take on everyone’s energy.”

She spends endless hours documenting poor performance — probation, withholding pay, no advancement—and creates teams for each grade, pairing weaker teachers with stronger ones and moving weaker teachers to lower grades from the higher ones where higher order thinking is required.  It’s like a military operation.  She estimates that 10-15% of the school’s teachers are incompetent. Maria Ortiz, Miller Street’s literacy coach, estimates much higher, more like 30-40%.

“Dejeno isn’t going to make it,” Shakirah informed me.  “We have all the documentation we need.  Now I can turn to others. “