Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Little Bit Goes A Long Way

I left my school in Newark back in 2012, but I never really "left".  I stayed in touch with my old teacher friends, and went to visit the school regularly.  Last summer the ruling in the George Zimmerman case was handed down regarding his shooting of Trayvon Martin.  As we all know, Zimmerman was found "not guilty" and this pissed me off.

In that time period I thought a lot about my old students.  Far too many of them are not aware of who they are or who they can be.  I saw too many of them in Trayvon Martin, and the thought of these bright young men going down the wrong road or being on the wrong end of a gun made me sick.  I decided to do something.  Last Friday I returned to my old school in the capacity of a mentor.  I will be going every Friday to just sit with some of the boys and talk to them.  My goal is to make them aware of their potential, and keep them on the right track.

Last week I saw two old students, and they made me so proud.  The last time I went to visit, these two were not doing so well (one was under house arrest and wearing an ankle bracelet).  But after sitting and eating lunch with them, I soon discovered they were back on track.  At the end of lunch they even expressed concern about another classmate, and asked me to speak to him.  This boy is in a bad way, but the fact that two others wanted me to help him says something.

I sat down with the other boy, and I could see the frustration in his eyes.  He looked tired and almost worn down.  This is a fourteen year-old child.  To my shock, he remembered my name - even though I had not seen him in two years.  I asked how he was doing and he shrugged.  Conversation did not come easy.  Finally at the end, I got a glimmer of hope, when I asked "Do you want to sit and talk next Friday?" he looked right at me and nodded yes.  Clearly he needs someone.

If I can help those three boys, that would be great.  That's my goal: Three.  If I can get more...?  It would be unreal, but I have to start slow.  Just saying a few kind words, and letting these young, black men know someone cares could change their lives.

We'll see...

Friday, February 28, 2014

Step One

Yesterday President Obama held a press conference to announce the launch of My Brother' Keeper, a Federal program aimed at giving young American men of color more opportunity.  In essence, this program is about building up young black and Latino men - something that has needed to happen for decades in our country.

President Obama spoke candidly and emotionally about his own experiences.  How he grew up without a father, and the subsequent anger and frustration he felt.  These emotions led to his making of "bad choices" and "...not taking school as seriously as I should have".  The biggest statement he made was "Sometimes I sold myself short."  These were powerful words from a man of color - the first to be elected President.  What made it even better was he stated these things with a group of young black and Latino men standing behind him.

This is a great first step.  When I was teaching in Newark I was an eyewitness to the anger and frustration the boys and young men in my school had.  I had countless conversations with them in my classroom about their lives.  Many told me about fathers in jail or who were just absent.  The ones who did have men in their lives didn't just differ emotionally and intellectually, but also physically.  It was unreal.

My Brother's Keeper is a first step.  President Obama himself said "It's going to take time.  We're dealing with complicated issues that run deep in our history, run deep in our society, and are entrenched in our minds."  In addition to complicated issues faced by our young men of color, there is also poverty as well as mass incarceration.  Trying to get a handle on improving self esteem as well as responsibility and potential, again, is a great first step.

We will see what happens.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What Are the Most Important Things?

According to section one of the Fourteenth Amendment:
"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.  No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of the law; nor deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

If you notice, the word "person" appears three times within the text.  That word is key as it caused much debate in the post-Civil War era.  What is a "person"?  Who is a "person"?  When you read that you tend to think of a "person" as someone like you - a living, breathing human with a job and/or hopes, dreams and goals.  Perhaps you have a family or a wife.  Maybe you have neither and are single.  If you do have a family, they are also "persons" and therefore are entitled to the same rights listed above.  What you may have not known is that corporations are "persons" as well.  They, like you, are entitled to the privileges and immunities that we - the citizens of the US - are.  This means that Walmart, Goldman Sachs, and Citigroup are, in the eyes of the Constitution, "persons" like you and me.  This is known as "corporate personhood".

This is a strange thing.  A corporation like Goldman Sachs (as one example) has access to teams of lawyers and, I'm assuming, much more money than most people reading (or writing) this.  They also have access to lobby groups, "super pacs" and government officials just because of the aforementioned money and legal professionals.  This means that, at the end of the day, corporations have many more rights and liberties than the average "person" here in the United States, and they have taken significant advantage of this.  They are now the most important "persons" in this country.  They control the media, due process of law, our electoral process, our system of government, and the food and drugs we put into our bodies.  Now, they also want to control our schools.

On February 27th, 2012 there was a shooting at Chardon High School in Ohio.  An assistant football coach and teacher named Frank Hall is credited with saving the lives of many students that day.  He chased the gunman out of the cafeteria and into the parking lot preventing further shootings.  He then went back into the school to comfort three young male students who had been shot as they lay dying on the floor.  Frank Hall stated recently: "We need to make a stand right now that our schools are the most important things we have in this country, not Wall Street, not Capitol Hill, our schools.  We need to determine that in our minds and heart that our school and our children need to be the most important thing we have.  That's the bottom line."

Sorry Goldman Sachs, but Frank Hall is correct.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Made In Their Own Image

In the latest issue of Time magazine the cover depicts the back of a graduate's head with the words "Just Hired" taped to her mortarboard.  The accompanying headline reads The Diploma That Works.

The cover story is about Sarah Goode High School on Chicago's South Side, which is a very poor section of the city.  The South Side is also infested with gang violence as well as failing schools.  Sarah Goode is new in many ways including the fact that it is a six year school.  The students take courses that focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) classes and when they graduate, they do so not just with a diploma, but also an Associates Degree.  This is an amazing idea as well as a way to get kids in our inner cities out into the world earning money using skills that are severely lacking.

There is just one problem: Sarah Goode is a school whose "corporate partner" is IBM.

I don't have a problem with inner city kids being educated in ways that will accommodate our economy.  In fact, I am gung ho on the idea.  How ever, I must ask the question: Why can't state, and/or  Federal education create these schools and programs?  Why does corporate money have to be involved?  How deep does IBM's influence run?  Do they mandate the curriculum?  Do they sell books and materials directly to the school?

The idea of six year High School is not new.  In fact, there has been a rallying cry in terms of the way we are educating our kids for the future.  But again I have to ask: Why do corporations need to be involved?  As I stated yesterday, Newark Public Schools are now embroiled in the issue surrounding the fate of their public schools.  Superintendent Cami Anderson (along with Gov. Christ Christie) is attempting to turn the entire district into a "public charter" system.  Like Chicago, they have committed financial help from a corporation: the Walton Family Foundation who own Walmart.

Back in 2010 Rupert Murdoch's News Corp (owner of Fox news) hired former New York City School's Chancellor Joel Klein.  A few weeks later, News Corp purchased Wireless Generation - a New York based education technology company.  Murdoch has stated his "interest" in helping improve public education, but in the wake of the Wireless Generation deal he also stated "When it comes to education, we see a $500 billion dollar sector alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed..."  In other words, he sees dollar signs.

Do we want corporations making American kids in their own image?  Large corporations already run our government through special interest and Lobby groups.  They have their grubby fingers all over our electoral process and have ruined our media.  Now they want to run our education system?  I thought we were supposed to be a country of free thinkers and innovators.  The men and women who built this country were rebels at heart who also chose to color outside the lines and think outside the box.  Now Rupert Murdoch is telling our kids what to study?  Do you want Walmart - a company who won't pay American citizens a living wage and imports most of its inventory from overseas - shaping the curriculum of our children?  And while IBM has a massive amount of insight into what skills are needed today, that doesn't mean I want them walking the hallways of our schools making sure the "individuals" who come out are cookie cutter and ready to go to work...for them.  How do we know that IBM or Walmart or News Corp won't make our schools "too big to fail" and then threaten to pull their money unless we adhere to their standards?

This is all getting a little too Big Brother for me.

Monday, February 24, 2014


Right now in the city of Newark, school superintendent Cami Anderson is trying to systematically dismantle their public schools.  She is trying to turn Newark Public Schools into a "public charter" system.

Believe me when I say that Newark Public schools need work.  Yes, student test scores need to be raised as do the standards for most students.  But, what also needs to be addressed is: poverty, violent crime, the gang element, the needless incarceration of young black men, and the horrible self image many inner city children suffer from.  These things play a huge role in what inner city kids do, and do not learn.  I know from teaching in Newark that a young boy whose uncle was shot and killed over the weekend will never be in the right mindset to take a state mandated test.  I know that a young girl who is sleeping in a cold, bedbug infested public housing project will not be able to focus on school work.  I know that poverty does awful things to grown adults.  Imagine what it does to young children?

It was recently reported that the city of Newtown, CT would be applying for Federal Grant money.  According to an AP report, they are asking for $8 million dollars, and this money will go towards "...mental health counseling for hundreds of victims affected by the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre" as well as "...local school security and other non-profit groups."  This money will "...come from the Antiterrorism and Emergency Assistance Program, which has awarded money to victims of the September 11th attacks and other school shootings across the country."

By September 5th of 2013 the city of Newark had suffered 10 fatal shootings in 10 days.  The victims ranged in age from 14 to 24 years old.  Families and friends were devastated as they returned to school.  I wonder how much grant money Newark has received to comfort those victim's families?  Newtown suffered one shooting - which was a horrific crime - and received massive national press coverage.  They are now applying for millions in grant money.  I wonder if they will get it.

The Walton Family Foundation (Walmart) is apparently giving grant funding to the city of Newark.  Their money will go towards the hiring of over 300 Teach For America teachers who will replace those public school teachers who get fired.  What the hell does Walmart know about public education?  One thing Walmart does know about is having workers earn a minimum wage that keeps them within the definition of "working poor".  It has also been reported that Walmart employees receive (on average) over $1000 dollars in public assistance.  They need these subsidies because Walmart won't pay a living wage.

So now Cami Anderson is going to take money from them and for what?  To better improve Newark children's education?

Our corporations now have more rights than we do.  They run everything and/or have their hands in government, rule of law, campaign finance, and now the education of our children.  Does that make you comfortable?

Thursday, January 23, 2014


I think it's safe to assume that most have seen how the San Francisco 49ers/Seattle Seahawks football game ended this past Sunday.  If you have not, you missed Seattle corner back Richard Sherman tip a pass in the end zone in the final seconds of the game.  The tipped ball ended up in his teammates hands sealing victory for the Seahawks.  Then, in a post-game interview, Sherman spoke to on field reporter Erin Andrews and stated (rather loudly) that he was "the best" at his position and that Michael Crabtree (the 49er player he was defending) was a "sorry receiver".  In addition, right after making the play, Sherman went up and offered to shake Crabtree's hand.  Crabtree pushed Sherman away (by his helmet face mask).  As he walked off the field, Sherman made a "choke" gesture towards the 49er bench.

What followed was no less than craziness.  The Internet, Twitter and blogs exploded with people referring to Sherman as a "thug", "gangsta", "loud mouth" and, of course, the "N" word.  I don't know why I am shocked by this, but I am.

The amazing thing is that Richard Sherman pulled himself out of one of the toughest ghettos in the United States: Compton, California.  This is a community mired in gang violence, crime, and poverty.  With the help of his amazing parents, Sherman graduated number two in his High School class and went on to attend and graduate from Stanford University.  He was then picked in the fifth round (155th overall) of the 2011 NFL Draft, pretty much as a nobody, and has since become a league superstar.  As Sherman will tell you - pulling yourself out of a neighborhood like Compton is an unbelievable feat.  The rest makes for what should be considered a great American success story.

The sad part is so many people chose to call Sherman a "thug".  The people making this accusation have no idea what they're saying.  I agree with Sherman who said that "thug" has become a safe way of saying the "N" word.

Sherman spent his whole life trying to get himself out of a community where actual thugs live and breathe.  He worked his tail off to get away from that, and then in his moment of redemption is called what he has fought his whole life to avoid being.  I look at Sherman and I see every young man I ever taught in Newark.  Sherman is a young African American man who was lucky enough to be made aware of his potential.  Imagine what could happen if entire communities of young men are given the same opportunity?

Sherman has said that his story is "remarkable".  He often returns to his High School and tells other young people from his neighborhood that nothing is impossible.  He is trying to make these inner-city kids aware of what they can accomplish.  This type of action and behavior coupled with a Stanford degree is not that of a "thug".  It is of a young scholar/athlete who is passionate about his work as well as what opportunity has given him.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Bridge

Here in New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie is knee deep in what has become known as "Bridgegate". If you don't know, the Governor's staff apparently gave permission for lane closures on the highway leading to the George Washington Bridge.  These caused massive traffic jams particularly in the town of Fort Lee.  Not by coincidence, their mayor is a democrat and did not support Governor Christie in his re-election bid and the closures appear to be some kind of cockeyed retribution.

With the media focused on this inane event, the Governor made his State of the State address in the midst of the circus.  In it he (of course) commented that New Jersey schools are "failing" and highlighted the inner-city schools of Newark and Camden.  I was struck by the fact that no where did he mention the word "poverty".  Regarding Camden, in particular, he spoke of how only two (2) students in the whole city graduated "college ready".  Again, no where did he mention the word "poverty" and the role this may have.

The children of Newark and Camden live lives of significant, abject poverty.  In addition, they live amongst extreme violence.  How is a child supposed to go to school and reach their fullest potential when they can't get a decent meal?  How is a child supposed to focus on school Monday morning when their cousin, brother, uncle or sister was shot and killed over the weekend?  How is a child supposed to reach their fullest academic height when they don't know if they're going to make it to school (or back home) without being shot...or mugged?

The politicians (and most of us citizens) who choose to comment on what's "wrong" with our inner-ctites have never spent any significant time there.  Maybe they have driven past one or stopped briefly to shake a hand or two, but they have never sat down for an extended period of time and spoken to a child.  I'm going to say that if they did, the bridge that everyone would be talking about would be the one that's being built to connect our inner-cities back to the "mainland".  This is something that needs to happen.  I will say it again: The children who live in our cities are not "minority" children nor are they "urban" or "ghetto" children.  They're American children and deserve the opportunities and rights that all of our children have.