Sunday, December 29, 2013

Poor People and Billionaires

When I was a kid the word millionaire brought to mind something that was not - nor would ever be - part of my life.  That word described someone who had more money than I could ever imagine and lived a life of luxury only afforded to few.  With that said, I also grew up in a time when the distance between millionaires and those who were not - while big - was not insane.  In other words, people were millionaires but then there was the middle class, the blue collar working class and then in the far distance - poor people.  That has changed.

Forget millionaires because today our country, and society in general, is minting what are now called billionaires.  The funny thing is, many of these billionaires are under the age of 40.  The other funny thing is that the gap between billionaires, millionaires, and the rest of us has gotten pretty big.  We have also seen the emergence of another social class: the working poor.  These are people who at one time made up the blue collar, working class sector.  Those blue collar jobs have since been shipped overseas to India and/or China, and these people are now forced to work at McDonald's, Walmart, or Burger King for minimum wage and no health benefits.

We live in a country where people are given the opportunity to become billionaires.  In some cases, individual Americans will make more money than an entire third world country's entire GDP, but yet, there are people in America who say our economy is "slow".  These same people also prefer to call our working poor "takers".

When I was a kid there was also a mentality of giving back.  People saw their good fortune as a blessing and felt the need not only to give back to those less fortunate, but also to a country that provided and gave them opportunity.  President John F. Kennedy summed up this mindset when he stated in 1961: "...ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."

I know what we can do for our country: go into our inner-cities and fight poverty.  Tackle it with the innovation and vigor that made America great.  Imagine inner-cities that are not places of blight and struggle, but rather, are places of innovation, creation, and ideas.  Imagine if all of the children emerging from our inner-cities did so with their full potential.  Imagine what we could do!  The cure for cancer or the next great source of alternative energy could be sitting in a child's mind in a Newark housing project - we need to get that out.

Within that same inaugural address in 1961, president Kennedy also stated these rarely quoted words: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assume the survival and the success of liberty."  Kennedy was reminding us that we need to give back - always.  Not walk away.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Being An American Male

I am currently reading an amazing book by Sebastian Junger called "War".  It's about a platoon of American soldiers stationed at a remote outpost in Afghanistan, and is an unbelievable account of combat.  It's also an amazing look into the lives of combat soldiers.  There are stories that highlight the lives of soldiers and detail everything from brotherhood, courage, and death, as well as the strange boredom combat soldiers suffer in between battles.

Within all of these tales, there was one piece of information that hit me hard: Junger talks about death statistics - and not just in war.  When speaking of young men in America, Junger writes: "They are killed in accidents and homicides at a rate of 106 per 100,000 per year, roughly five times the rate of young women.  Statistically, it's six times as dangerous to spend a year as a young man in America than as a cop or a fireman, and vastly more dangerous than a one-year deployment at a big military base in Afghanistan."  Just being a young male in America is dangerous.

The city of Newark, New Jersey is engulfed in violence right now.  On Christmas day two High School students were shot and killed for no reason.  One of them - a 13 year-old girl - was shot as she was taking out the garbage.  The other was a 15 year-old boy.  Another boy was seriously injured - he is 14.  The two deaths brought the total in Newark to over 100.  That's over 100 people killed in one single year in an American city.  That's disgusting.

A lot of people are trying to figure out what's going on.  Lots of questions have been asked like why?, or how come?, or what's going on?  There's a lot of things going on in our cities and Newark is just one example.  One of the main reasons for this mess is abject poverty.  People are living a third world existence in America and some are doing this not too far from you (in my case, it's only ten miles).  In addition to this poverty there is crime, violence, and corruption.  It's embarrassing.

Another recent story that's relevant took place not too far from Newark (and not too far from my town).  A few days before Christmas at an upscale shopping mall (where I worked at one point in my life) a young man came out of the mall with his wife.  As they got into their car four men appeared, pulled the wife from the car, then shot the husband dead at point blank range.  The men got in the car and drove away.  The car was found a few days later in Newark.  A few nights later (in an unrelated crime) two more men were shot and killed outside of a bar in Newark.

Many people I know are shaking their heads and/or asking one of the aforementioned questions.  The thing is, no one seems to be doing anything about it.  There is no effort to address the poverty in Newark or in any other American city.  Many of the crimes being committed are perpetrated by poor,  frustrated men or boys who have no idea what a life is.  They don't understand anything except frustration and embarrassment.  They turn to an easy way "out".

I am not making excuses for what's going on - believe me.  How ever, I spent a year working in a school where most of my students had nothing.  I watched them get upset at Christmastime instead of happy.  I watched young children as well as adolescents suffer at the hands of poverty.  I've seen first hand what poverty does to people and it's not pretty.  If we really want to address violent crime in Newark, begin by addressing poverty.  Give people opportunity and the rest will come.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

One Year Later

The Newtown school shooting happened nearly one year ago.  It doesn't seem like that long ago when the awful news and horrific images were on the news, our computers and even phones.  The reaction was an overall stunned nation.  Questions about gun control and violence erupted into debates, and the issue was again given life on the floor of the government.  We also asked questions about mental illness, in particularly for children with mental disabilities and how we deal with both within our public schools.

What has changed since then?

We still live in the same country as December 14, 2012.  There have been no new amendments or legislative changes to our national gun laws.  Since the shootings at Sandy Hook elementary, numerous other shootings have occurred at schools, colleges, and public places - and continue to do so.  As I have written here numerous times, the community where my old in school in Newark, New Jersey is located is engulfed in extreme gun violence.

Decisions being made about our children's safety and the safety of our communities are being made by lobby groups.  They are not being made by elected officials.  These officials look at the horrific things that continue to take place at the hands of guns and then turn to lobby groups - not to us.  This is what ultimately affected the outcome of the Manchin-Toomey Background Checks Bill in the US Senate.  The vote had nothing to do with the safety of you, me, or your children but about receiving funding from a very powerful lobby group.  That's it.

There are people who are fiercely opposed to any type of gun legislation.  Having a background check performed when buying a gun would not hinder any one's "right" to own a weapon...unless they were suffering from a mental disability or had committed some prior offense.  I don't understand the need and/or want to disagree with something so simple that could effectively save lives.

The NRA's response was to suggest armed guards inside of our public schools.  Is that what we want our kids to see on a daily basis?  How about doing something so that we don't have to worry about it getting into the schools?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Those Who Do Not Know the Past...

I have been out of my old school in Newark for almost two years.  But, as you know from the posts on this page, I was deeply affected by my experience there.  In fact, it changed my life.  I formed relationships with the teachers as well as many of the students and therefore am still in touch with what's going on at the school as well as Newark in general.

I can tell you that Newark, as a city, is a mess.  The gun violence is out of control.  Young people are getting fatally shot or wounded on a weekly if not daily basis.  Most of this seems to be gang related which means the gang violence is also out of control.  The schools are a wreck.  I still talk with many of my old teacher friends as well as administrators, and they all tell me the same thing: the powers that be are trying to turn Newark Public Schools into a charter school system.  They are more focused on dismantling the union and taking power away from the teachers instead of focusing on the kids.

My old school is a micro-example of what's going on.  Some of my old students have completely lost their way and are caught up in drugs and gangs.  One student was caught smoking marijuana in the bathroom and received in-school suspension.  Nothing else.  The gym teacher - who is over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds - was recently threatened by a student and no disciplinary action was taken.  Students run the halls and disrespect the teachers.  Kids are living in poverty and come to school stressed, anxious and angry...but let's focus on dismantling the teacher's union because that's the problem.

The former mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, ran for a US Senate seat and during his campaign no one ever asked him about the gangs, poverty, or crime in his city.  Here was a man on the national stage with national appeal and popularity and no one in the media ever stood up and questioned the status of the city that he was about to leave behind.  Why?

I was speaking with a friend of mine the other night who is a principal in a Newark High School.  He proceeded to tell me stories about students who had punched administrators, and cursed at teachers.  He told me an unbelievable story about a disabled student.  He stood there shaking his head but, like all of the educators I know in Newark, was going to go back.  These people are not turning their backs on the kids or the city for that matter.  They are working within to try and make a difference.  I post on this blog and other writings as my way of trying to help.  I may have physically left Newark (not by choice) but my spirit, beliefs, and passion for the kids will never leave.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Knocked Down but Not Gone

II read how the town of Newtown, Connecticut recently bulldozed Sandy Hook Elementary School, sight of the horrific shootings in December of 2012.  While I understand the want and need to knock the building down, I think it speaks volumes about our national mindset when it comes to violence, and our schools.

Yes, a school and the horrific memories of what happened there can be knocked down, but that's not going to change anything related to the crime.  As I am writing this, there have been a number of shootings in public places (LAX in California, the Garden State Plaza Mall here in New Jersey) within a week of each other.  Also, a school in Colorado was just broken into by two young boys dressed in black and carrying what turned out to be bebe guns.  Two weeks ago (October 21) there was a shooting at a middle school in Nevada and of course the horrible killing of a teacher in Massachusetts. We can keep knocking buildings down or trying to move on in other ways, but what we really need to do is change policies.

A school is a structure that is home to our children for an average of thirty-five hours a week.  Our kids spend more time at school with their teachers than they do with us - their parents.  Don't you want to send your children to school knowing there are national policies in place to protect them while they're there?  Or do we just want to sit around and wait for the next one?

I grew up in the 70's in what was a rural part of New Jersey.  So rural in fact, there was no daily mail delivery.  We would all gather and stand in line at the Post Office on Saturday morning to retrieve a week's worth of letters, bills, etc.  My middle school was at the end of a farm road and was surrounded by woods and farmland.  Like many middle schools, we had clubs and organizations of which the most popular was the Hunting and Fishing Club.  This club had so many members, that it almost filled the entire cafeteria.  Now here's the crazy part: when clubs met, kids in the Hunting and Fishing Club would bring their guns to school.  If a student forget their gun - their parent would come and drop it off.  I have vivid memories of walking past the cafeteria and seeing about 75 kids sitting down with assorted weapons on the table.

When I tell people about this I always ask "Is this a commentary on how naive we were or how crazy our society has gotten?"  The thing is, when all of those kids had their guns in school the thought or idea of someone taking their gun and killing students and/or teachers never crossed anyone's mind.  The thought of that happening was insane.  I am not saying this was a smart move by my school and am not defending it.  In fact, maybe it was a bit nuts.  But again, is this a commentary on where we were or where we've gone?

I think it's safe to say the current gun laws and policies in our country are severely outdated.  The fact that background checks were voted down seems almost as crazy as...allowing kids to bring guns to school.

If you ask me, it's time to knock down current gun laws so we can stop knocking down schools.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Stay Away

"Don't even bother."

That's the message I feel I was given while I was working in the public school system.  I entered the public school arena as an Alternate Route candidate.  This essentially means that while teaching, I was to be mentored and/or advised by a colleague as well as monitored by the school Principal.  The time that I put in teaching, writing lesson plans and - well - being a teacher would all go towards me earning a teacher's certificate.

The school I went to work in in Newark was on the brink when I arrived.  The community around the school is completely dysfunctional (plagued with violence, drugs, and poverty) and most of my students were coming into the building in the same resultant condition.  The Principal was losing his grip on the school and by the time December rolled around, he had lost complete control.  By January, teachers were leaving and substitutes refused assignment at the school.  By March and April, the school resembled more of a battlefield than a place of learning.

Despite these difficulties, I stayed.  Like I said, many teachers left - or were forced to leave due to stress induced medical reasons - but I remained.  I wrote and submitted lesson plans; gave individual music lessons before school; collaborated on concerts; staged concerts; created a school drum line; formed great relationships with some of the toughest students; and filled in when substitutes left in the middle of the day.  I was choked by a student during a fight.  I helped council young boys through the violent death of uncles and brothers.  Finally, my 3rd grade strings class was chosen to go play at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center ("NJPAC") with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

I did all of this and at the end of the year was told I would not be returning.  Newark closed six public schools and while mine wasn't one of them, they took a tenured teacher and moved him to my spot (he quit at the end of last year).  Oh, and I never received any professional credit towards a teacher's certification.  The Principal was dismissed at the end of that year (thank god), and I found out that all of the work I did was essentially branded as meaningless.

Last year I spent the entire year as a substitute in my own hometown suburban district.  One day I worked as a sub at the High School in a special program for diverse learners - not an easy class to walk into.  After just one day, and the teaching of one class, I received a note from the head of that program saying he'd never heard anything about a sub like that before in his entire career.  I was called to work all the time.  I made an impression on the kids as well as teachers, administrators and Principals.  I was encouraged to apply for openings in the district and did so with recommendations from teachers and Principals.  I was never hired.

The overwhelming message for me - as a public school teacher - has been "Stay away."  They don't want people like me.  It's funny because while subbing I had (too many) students tell me You're better than our real teacher or PLEASE be our teacher for the rest of the year...please! 

Despite the kids begging me to stay, and making an impact in the classroom, the "powers that be" didn't care about classroom effectiveness and, instead, told me to go.

That's a problem.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Two In One Week

Last week we saw two American teachers die at the hands of their students.  One teacher was shot at point blank range on school property and another was stabbed in a school bathroom.  Of course the biggest question to come out of these two things is "Why?".

For the past few years there has been a national discussion going on here in the US regarding our education system and its problems.  We have become a nation obsessed with test scores as well as our standing compared to that of other industrialized nations throughout the world.  Within this discussion the job of teachers is often questioned.  Most people tend to have the opinion that teachers have an "easy" job, and many also believe that because teachers don't really work a full year, they don't deserve the pay or the benefits they get.

According to the web site for the National Education Association (NEA), the national turnover rate for teachers is 17%.  In urban school districts that number is 20%.  One third of all new teachers leave after three years, and 46% of new teachers are completely gone after five.  In an earlier post, I quoted a New York Times op-ed piece that spoke about mediocre talent in the teaching profession.  When you see the stats above it's no wonder that this is a prevailing opinion (and one which I agree with).

Why do the good ones leave?

Well first off, contrary to popular belief, teachers actually put in long hours.  A 2012 report  ( by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that teachers work 10 hour days.  Now, I am not saying that this is special or abnormal.  There are many jobs that involve 50 + hour work weeks, but the big difference is many of these jobs have overtime pay and/or a higher annual salary or bonus.  The NEA says that the average annual salary for an American teacher is just over $56,000.00 dollars.  That's pay for someone working a 50 + hour week who has at a minimum a Bachelors degree and in many cases a Masters.  Add in the now daily threat of violence or even the possibility of death.  Does that seem like the type of pay that is going to attract top tier talent?

I know from experience a new hurdle to overcome - in addition to violence, death and other in-school difficulties - is parents.  Parents are sending disrespectful and/or entitled children into classrooms who feel that they are either smarter or better than their teachers.  They see themselves as above the process. Many students today are bi-products of the endemic cynical view on teachers that is held by their parents.

These are all problems that need to be discussed and/or addressed in the national education discussion.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Another Shooting

There was yet another fatal shooting in the Newark neighborhood where my old school is.  I am still in touch with many of my old colleagues and they have told me that due to neighborhood violence, all after school activities have been put on hold, or just outright cancelled.  Another heartbreaking thing I've learned is that the music teacher who replaced me (who was the reason I was let go from the school) left at the conclusion of last year.  He didn't like the kids and the feeling was mutual.  As a result, the school just lost its music program.

I read about the recent school shooting in Nevada and the poor teacher who bravely gave his life.  That made national headlines - as it should.  Meanwhile in Newark the streets are filled with gunfire and innocent people are getting killed almost every day and yet - not a peep in the national media.  It's almost like gun violence in the inner-cities...well that's expected.

Cory Booker was just elected Senator in my home state and I must shake my head.  The entire time he was campaigning the national media never confronted him on the gun violence in Newark.  No one grilled him on that.  Again, it's like it's just supposed to be that way.

Imagine what the possibilities could be for those young people in our inner-cities if they could just walk to school and then back home safely?  Most of the kids living in Newark (and cities like it) are already living in poverty.  Add the fear of violent death to that, and what kind of expectations can we put on them to learn?  What kind of expectations can they put on themselves?

I just wish someone would ask these questions loud enough for everyone to hear.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Seven Steps Back

George Zimmerman was found to be not guilty in the killing of 17 year old Trayvon Martin.  This case was significant in more ways than most people want to think about.

When Martin was first killed, I was working in Newark.  I could not help but see many of my students in the photos of Trayvon that were all over the news.  Many of the young black men in my school were already growing up in difficult circumstances.  When they saw what happened to young Trayvon - one of their own - it truly scared them.

What has blown my mind pos-verdict is people's attitude when it comes to profiling.  I have always taken the stance that if Trayvon weren't black and wearing a hoodie, non of this would have happened.  Many friends, neighbors and acquaintances have addressed profiling in a very "matter of fact" tone.  Someone even went as far as to say to me "If a young black kid in a hoodie was walking down your street in the middle of the day, that wouldn't freak you out?"  When I answered "No" he said "I don't believe you".

Too many of us live lives of separation.  Most of us live in "white" or "black" neighborhoods and some of us never leave either.  I spent a year working in an inner-city school and became a part of the community.  It changed my life forever.  The biggest result of my work was the sense of empathy I developed for African American children.  I also developed a deep emotional connection to my male students.  I can't imagine what it's like to be a young black man in America today - especially now that the Zimmerman verdict has made it perfectly acceptable to openly and aggressively profile them.

Too many of us live sheltered lives and that needs to change. 

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Going Back

This past Friday I returned to my old school in Newark, New Jersey to attend the 8th grade graduation ceremony.  The students made a point of asking every teacher that had ever been a part of their lives to attend.  I was amazed - even though I only taught the kids for a year - that I was asked.

As I walked down the street towards the school I was immediately greeted by former students.  Many of them hugged me and did so just as - if not more - tightly as my own children.  Many were excited to tell me how much they had improved.  Some students just smiled and waved to me from a distance.  Once inside the school, the energy filled the air.  I saw more students (more hugs) as well as teachers and could not stop smiling myself.  Mind you it was not all peaches and cream.  Many of my former students were distant.  Even though they were graduating, they did not seem excited.  In fact, they seemed upset, and I initially could not figure out why - until the ceremony began.

Here, in the Land of Make Believe, parents can't get to their child's graduation ceremony fast enough.  In fact, one parent told me the doors to our middle school graduation didn't open until 6:00 PM.  Parents were told not to get to the facility before that designated time.  Well, LOMB parents simply ignored the request and almost all of the seats were taken before the doors even officially opened.

This past Friday in Newark, there were plenty of empty seats.  The ceremony was initially scheduled to take place in the evening, but due to the mass number of shootings in the neighborhood, it was moved to the morning, and this more than anything else, contributed to the empty seats.  Unlike in the LOMB, taking a day off to see your child graduate is too costly an option for parents.  When you have three children, and work a minimum wage job, missing a day of work could be the difference between dinner and hunger.  Because of this, many parents in Newark missed their child's middle school graduation.

The ceremony was beautiful.  Many students said or sang beautiful things.  I was especially proud of one former student - Ameenah - who was the Salutatorian.  When I was teaching her, she (like all of us) had a rough year, but had since turned herself around.  Another student - Brianna - was the Valedictorian.  She was so proud of herself.  When I saw her backstage before the ceremony, the first thing she told me about was her accomplishment, and she did it with a beautiful smile on her face.  The second thing she said to me was "Thank you for all of those piano lessons last year.  I missed them this year."  The third thing she said: "I was your favorite student...right Mr. P?"  I could not help but answer with a loud and proud "Yes!".

To see a stage filled with inner city kids moving onto High School is amazing.  It's also a little scary.  I found myself worried about them all over again as if it was the 2011/2012 school year.  I looked at their faces sitting on stage with their caps and gowns.  So much potential, but how many of them will be able to fulfill it?  They live in a community where most adults could not survive one day, and here they were receiving their first diploma (they should also be handed a Purple Heart) and getting ready for the next phase of their lives.  Many of the students still had that distant look as they transferred their tassels from right to left and walked off the stage with diploma in hand.

At the end of the ceremony I made my way out into the hallway and saw many more students.  One of my favorite students, a bright, talented dancer named Tanisha, greeted me with the joke she did every day I worked at the school "Hey Mr. P., I still have your comb if you need it" (I'm bald), and we both broke into laughter.

On my way home I cried.  I couldn't help it.  Seeing some of those kids again reminded me of the year I had in Newark.  It all came back like a flood.  I was shocked at how many kids and parents remembered and/or thanked me.  Far too many asked me to come back.  I will never forget those kids, their families, the school or Bradley Court public housing right behind the school.  I thought that Friday would be my last appearance there, but as I was leaving I heard Tanisha's voice yell out into the parking lot "Mr. P!  Mr. P!" I turned to see her smiling face as she waved and said "See you next year for my graduation!  You better be here!  I mean, I was your favorite...right?"

Friday, June 21, 2013

Yeah but...

Imagine that a business has a new employee come in and he/she is highly effective in their work.  Not only are they dedicated to the job, but also show an immediate affinity.  In addition, colleagues and co-workers enjoy having him or her around and the overall performance is just outstanding.  In addition, the bottom line of the company begins to experience positive results.  Now imagine - at the end of the quarter the CEO steps forward and says "Yes, this new employee is doing everything right.  We all love working with him/her and our profits have increased.  How ever, I am sad to say that he/she has not passed a specific test and therefore can no longer remain here as an employee.

Now imagine that a new substitute teacher arrives at your child's school.  That teacher is effective immediately and has an instantaneous rapport with the students.  In fact, if one was to interview the students they would all say (without hesitation) "We want him/her to be our teacher!"  The children go home and talk to their parents about this teacher with high regard.  When the teacher walks down the hall students come up to him/her and say things like "I learned more from you today than I have all year" or "You should be our teacher" or "You're the best teacher I've ever had".  Despite all of this, the principal of the school - as well as the local board of education, and even the state all say "I'm sorry, but the teacher has to pass a test in order to teach."

This is my life.  My intelligence lies in the ability to get in front of a roomful of kids and teach them better than any teacher they have ever had in their entire lives.  The problem is - I can't pass a test.  I know my subject matter mind you, and can teach it better than anyone.  For some reason - and I don't know why - my intelligence has never been able to transfer over to a test.  You want to talk about Epicurus and the impact he had on the evolution of modern western thought?  I can talk about it, teach it - AND make it interesting.  Want to talk about blues guitar player Robert Johnson and the impact he had on the evolution of American music?  I can talk about it, teach it - AND make it interesting.  Want to talk about why music - in this day and age of sensory based disabilities as well as lack of overall physical movement - should be taught kinesthetically as well as artistically and emotionally?  I can do it AND teach it that way as well.

The point of this rant is that - despite having years of varied teaching experience as well as three years of study at the best music conservatory in the world (Juilliard) as well as almost ten years of professional performance experience as well as kids of all ages walking up to me in the hallway and saying things like "That's the best class I've ever had in my life" - the state is telling me I can't teach.

Teaching is an art form and in many cases the ability as well as intelligence to master an art form lies above and beyond what any question on a fucking test can tell you.

Sorry - but I had to get this off my chest.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Last night I had the annual year end recital for my private music students.  All of my students have been blessed with great families and, generally speaking, wonderful home environments.  Twenty-two students performed and they were all amazing.  The recital is not only a way for my students to see the results of hard work, but also see what they are capable of.  The reason they are able to accomplish this is because of the expectations they have of themselves - and these expectations are a direct result of the opportunities they are given.

When I worked in Newark one thing that amazed me was the extremely low level of expectation the kids had for themselves.  Many had no expectations at all.  This was all because of how they were growing up.  The community they live in lacked any form of inspiration.  It was (and still is) severely affected by crime, gangs, drugs and poverty.  When a child grows up engulfed in a haze of discouragement - how are they supposed to have any self expectation?  If they are constantly exposed to poverty and violence how are they supposed to succeed?

The school where I worked was very symbolic in the community.  It was brand new (less than 2 years old when I arrived), and stood as a beacon of hope in a community ravaged by poverty.  Directly behind the school is one of the most notorious housing projects in Newark representing one choice.    Directly up the street is a cemetery representing an all to familiar reality.  Across the street is a beautiful park perhaps representing the vast opportunities all of the kids held deep inside.  Passing through the middle of all of this: the Garden State Parkway.  A giant artery running north and south representing the ability to move wherever you wanted.

The problem was the kids only saw the housing project or the violence or just the cemetery.  Very few were made aware of the vastness of their potential.

Saturday, June 15, 2013


Today my wife and I went into a local deli to get some sandwiches for lunch.  The man behind the counter was friendly as well as conversational, and as he took our order, he engaged us in typical customer/employee conversation.  This continued as he made the sandwiches.  He asked about the weather and if we were married and had children.  He followed that by wishing me a happy Father's Day.  I thanked him for the kind gesture and then it came:

"You know, they say Father's Day in Harlem is the most confusing day of the year."

He said it with a grin on his face and his grin held anticipation as if he was waiting for me to laugh in agreement or even follow it with a similar "joke".  I just turned away.

Why do people say things like that?  I don't expect him to know that I used to work in a city school and knew many boys and girls whose father and/or mother were not a part of their lives.  This was due to a number of things like incarceration, absenteeism or work.  The man behind the counter didn't know that I have seen first hand what he chose to make fun of.  He also didn't know that I have African American people in my family.

What upset me the most about his comment was that he expected me to agree with him.  He assumed that I would find such a "joke" funny, and perhaps come back with something similar.  That infuriates me.

This is part of the problem.  Our society sees a place like Harlem or Newark or the South Bronx as something separate from the world they live in.  They see our cities as someplace else.  This place is in their blind spot and they choose not only to ignore, but make fun of it.  Those places and the people who live there don't matter.

We have to change that.  We have to make sure people know that these cities are American cities.  They're not "inner" cities or "urban" cities - they're our cities.  And the people who live there are American just like you, me and the man behind the counter.

Friday, June 14, 2013


I think that my teaching experiences the last two years account for an almost sociological experiment/observation.  Last year I was in a rough inner city school where a majority of the children were living in significant to severe poverty.  Every day was an adventure in terms of not just the behavior of the children, but also the parents and adults.  This year I worked in an upper middle-class suburban school district where the children don't want for anything.  They all pretty much have or get whatever they need.

The one thing that blew my mind the most (aside from the vast economic disparity) is the role the parents play within both populations.  In the inner city (generally speaking) the parents were non-existent in their child's lives and you could see the impact this had.  In the suburbs (again, generally speaking) the parents almost smother the children.  They seem to be shadowing every step their child takes and have a say in practically every facet of their lives.  In both cases, the parents are hurting their children.

I plan on going into this subject in more detail, but I will summarize my feelings by saying (sadly): I have come to the conclusion that parents are really messing it all up.  I look at the way the kids were in Newark (rudderless ships) and the way the kids in the Land of Make Believe are (overindulged and not allowed to see or discover things for themselves) and I'm sad and upset with both.

Somewhere this whole experience could be a PHD thesis.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

It's Not Important

Here in New Jersey and extraordinary amount of time and energy is spent preparing students for the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge test ("NJASK").  In fact, most teachers are forced to begin preparations for this test beginning on the first day of school and continuing right on through to April.  Of course the subjects covered on this test are math, science and language arts/reading.  These tests - and the subjects - all take place at various grade levels.

I was recently speaking with someone at a party and casually asked "Why aren't the arts part of any state test?"  The reply surprised me "Because they're not important in what matters in a child's learning."  Not only did this person's response shock me, but then many other friends chimed in with similar - if not exactly the same feelings.

By no coincidence, I have recently read a number of articles where business leaders and/or executives cite the severe lack of critical thinking skills in college graduates today.  This is no surprise being that there is a glut of people with degrees, but not many jobs to accommodate them.  A skill like critical thinking is an intangible separating the haves from the have-nots.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the arts are a great way not only to teach, but to learn critical thinking skills.  Music is just one example. It's an art form that not only demands the ability to work within a group, but also the ability to take a solo.  It also requires you to listen and follow.  It also, at various times, asks you to interpret and maybe even just take a rest.  There are multiple ways to play one song or as I like to tell my music students "There is more than one way to count to four".  Think about how dance, drama, drawing, painting and even poetry can impact how a child looks at life and/or thinks through a problem.

There are many forms of intelligence, but our education system is one that has always told us art is not important.  It's not thought of as "academic" but is rather seen as "extracurricular".  Perhaps in this day and age - where the world seems to change daily - it's time to critically reexamine that idea. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Blind Spot

For years, America's inner cities have been in the blind spot of our national rear view mirror.  We drive down the road fully aware of the violence and poverty that plagues these communities, but we pretend that it is all out of view.  That all changed with the killings in Newtown, Connecticut.  Up until that point it didn't matter that hundreds of young, black children were being killed - or were suffering the violent death of a family member - on their way to, or home from school.  Then the image of white children and their mothers and fathers in tears changed everything.  For many of us, it brought it home.

We tend not to identify with the violence and death plaguing the inner cities because many of us have never been to these communities.  We look at them when we drive by, or as we quickly drive through, but make no mistake - they remain in the blind spot.  Forget about the fact that inner cities are made up predominantly of black families.  Think of them simply as "families".  Their children have hopes and dreams just like yours.  They love life just like your kids and are smart, bright energetic kids.  They just live in a world plagued with violence and poverty and these things prevent them from becoming who they are.

It's time to take these communities out of the blind spot and put them on the road ahead.  Give them a chance to reach their potential and even change lanes in they want to.  After all, just like your kids - they deserve it. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

"I don't Know"

When I was a student at The Juilliard School, my teacher told me a story I'll never forget.  He explained how he was called into a school where the students were not reaching their potential.  The teachers at the school - as well as administrators - were frustrated and could not figure out what the problem was.  No matter what strategies they tried, they could not get the students to improve.

When my teacher arrived, the first thing he noticed was the children's behavior.  In many classrooms students were seemingly allowed to do whatever they wanted.  There was no control, no order, and certainly no respect.  After seeing a few classrooms like this he sat all of the teachers down and collectively asked "What is your job?"  As expected most of the answers were a variation of "Teach the kids."  He then took all of the teachers into various rooms and after (finally) getting the kids to settle down said "These are your teachers.  It is their job to teach you.  Can anyone here tell me what your job is?"  He was greeted with silence.  Finally, a girl raised her hand and said "To be students...?".  "What does that mean?" he asked.  "I don't know" came the response. 

What does it mean to be a student?  What is their job?  After all, being a student is a "job" isn't it?  There is work involved as well as responsibility.  The ability to work with others and take instruction are crucial and there is even "pay" - although not monetarily.  Are our students being told what's expected?  Are they being made aware of their work?  We often here how poorly our students are doing and maybe it has nothing to do with education and more to do with a poor job description.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Mess

I only spent a single year teaching in Newark, New Jersey, but that experience changed my life forever.  When you teach in an inner city school you quickly learn how education truly is a holistic experience.  It's not just about getting information across to young minds, but also making sure the young people you work with are aware of their potential.  You also need to make sure you inspire them to reach that potential.  Finally, you also need to show them love.  Many kids in the inner city have a severe lack of love in their lives and I think that was the one thing that stuck with me.  I ended up loving many of my Newark kids like they were my own.

In the past few weeks, the community where I worked has been severely affected by over six shootings that all resulted in fatalities.  Three of those shootings took place within a block of my old school.

The inner cities in our country are a mess.  What if three shootings took place within a month of each other blocks from a suburban school?  The country would be up in arms and the media coverage would be huge.  But, shootings in the inner cities are "expected"?

Newark is not an "inner" city - it's an American city.  This city, like others, is not inhabited by "minority children" or "black children" but American children.  When are we going to realize this and treat our cities as such?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Another Example

The news from Steubenville, Ohio is just the latest example in how we continue to fail our young people.  If you did not know, two High School football players were found guilty in the rape of a 16 year-old girl.  The victim was intoxicated at a party last summer and passed out.  That's when the two boys apparently took advantage of her.  While the story of a young girl being raped is horrible, what's even worse is that other party goers, as well as classmates, knew what was happening and did not come to the victims aid.  Instead they chose to take out their cell phones and snap pictures and/or videos and text and Tweet about it...while it was happening.  In addition, other students discussed and gossiped about the crime openly online while never bothering to contact authorities.

In addition, three other football players watched what happened and recorded it on their phones.  They received immunity for their testimony.  Some of the most damning evidence were sexually explicit text messages sent by students and classmates who were at the party.  The judge delivered a Guilty verdict and in the process stated "Many of the things we learned during this trial that our children were saying and doing were profane, were ugly."

Again I have to ask: Why isn't Internet common sense and/or technology ethics a part of our young people's education?  Our children have the most advanced technology known to man at their disposal and are given an unprecedented amount of freedom as well as exposure through social media and Internet technology.  Yet, nowhere are they being taught how to use it.  How many more Manti Te'o's or High School incidents like this do we have to see?  We have all seen and read about the absurd number of teen suicides as a result of cyber-bullying.  What more do we want?

I have been working with middle school and High School aged children for many years and in that time have come to realize that, while being unbelievably technologically savvy, they are extraordinarily ignorant regarding consequences.  We now have a national story where educated High School kids stood by and filmed/photographed a girl being raped instead of trying to stop it.  They even went as far as to post some of their material on Youtube so other people could watch as well.

Maybe this case will get the wheels moving...?  I think the victim's mother summed it up best in what she said to the accused at trials end: "You were your own accuser, through the social media that you chose to publish your criminal conduct on."  

Friday, February 1, 2013

Flashback Newark, New Jersey

This is a journal entry I found that was dated July 12, 2012.  It was fairly close to when my school year in Newark had ended.  I had managed to get through to some pretty tough kids and also made headways with some kids I really had to build trust with.  At the time I wrote this, I had no idea I would not be going back to the school.  You will see the impact the kids and their surroundings had on me.

Lights come up in the morning almost the same in every house.  Young mothers walk into babies rooms to pick up little bundles with smiles and greetings.  Shadows are cast across the wall in morning angles.  Mothers with older children ease into rooms, turn on lights and gently break the bad news: “Time to wake up”.  Regardless of where or how - it’s morning and children are beginning their day.  The sun is barely up, the smell of coffee fills the home and dad is upstairs getting ready for work.  Breakfast is prepared and the mindset of school begins to set itself.
Up the road ten miles it’s a different story.  It’s still morning and children are still waking up but in this house it’s three to a bed.  There may not be a mom but an Auntie or maybe a Grand-mom.  There is no father.  It is time to get ready for school but there will be no breakfast and perhaps no encouraging words.  New clothes will not be laid out but rather the ones worn yesterday will be worn again or maybe the ones that were slept in.  Some of them will go to school dirty and unclean although washed of inspiration and encouragement.  
They are still children, and they are waking with innocence in their eyes.  There is hope and even some dreams but there is also reality.  That gets pushed to the back though and with any luck there will be something that looks like a smile - even if it’s forced.  Tiny shoes are put on tiny feet, hands are held and the door opens to a new day.  Opportunity looks different to some children and to others it’s not even opportunity but survival.  Again, it’s only ten miles from you but you pretend it’s not there until you have to see it every day.  You touch their lives and they touch yours.  In many ways they make you feel guilty for your life.  You want to save all of them and even take a few home but you know you can’t.  They are children but you have to remember that they’re not your children and that - yes that - is the worst part. 
At some point it becomes clear that it has everything to do with love.  They don’t know love and you have to show them.  In the process of doing that you begin to love some of them despite your best efforts.  Even the worst ones: the thugs, the playas, the knuckle doesn’t matter.  You see the light in all of them and they know this about you so they begin to show themselves to you and this only makes it hurt more.  They let you in and you can’t believe what you see and hear.  Some of the stories are too sad to be true others are too awful to even be a part of someone’s reality - but they are.  These realities are now yours and you can’t help but think that this is not fair.  This life that these children are forced to live.  How could they be living these lives, here?  Here in this country?  
I drive ten miles from my house but it feels like ten-thousand.  I leave a community that has safe streets, grass to play on and hope.  My community gives its children a chance and I’m not quite sure why the children I teach can’t have those chances.  The children I teach are not dumb.  They are not stupid.  In fact, they have hopes and dreams just like my children.  The problem with the children I teach is that no one is there to tell them this.  No one reminds them of the vastness of their potential and what it can bring.  My children leave the house and will discover things they didn’t know.  My students leave their homes and are simply reminded of what is coming.  
Some of the children write poems and they make you cry when you read them.  You cry because they are so honest but are coming from a place that no child should be coming from.  The poems ask “Why?” and “How come?”  Some of the poems simply want the violence to stop.  It seems like such a simple request especially when it comes from a child but no one listens to the child nor the simplicty.
If you’re not careful you’ll get angry and then cynical and that’s not good.  You want to make sure that the children never see cynicism.  No one likes that, not even a child and these kids, well, they’ll see right through it. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

January 17, 2013

It has been just over a month since those horrible shootings in Connecticut and we have already lapsed into the same old mindless banter in its wake.  Of  course the issue of gun control has come up and some idiot spokesman from the NRA has found it necessary to make numerous moronic public statements regarding the matter.  My personal favorite was something along the lines of "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

What really bothers me is that no one is talking about one of the key issues at hand and that is the how we treat children with mental disabilities in this country.  As I said in my last post, we all knew a variation of the young man who committed that horrible crime: a very bright, socially awkward, somewhat disaffected individual who was ignored, bullied or both.  There are kids just like that in class with your children now.  Perhaps you know that child.  Think about how he or she is being treated at the school.

There is a boy in class with my son who falls into the above category.  This young man has been through some tough emotional things and has some issues.  He has engaged in some pretty questionable acts at school and as far as I can tell, is not receiving proper care or attention.  This scares me.

Again, our schools are truly the first line of defense.  At some point it has to stop being about money and being about what's right.  In the midst of this retreaded and ridiculous gun control discussion, why hasn't anyone stepped up and mentioned the care and treatment of young children with special needs?  Why aren't our procedures and protocols being questioned?

Think about that while you're thinking about your children.