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?