Feb 16

Again.

Jordan Davis – a 17-year-old young black man – was shot and killed by Michael Dunn – a 47-year-old white man.

This is not in dispute.

Jordan Davis was shot and killed by Michael Dunn.

And while Michael Dunn was convicted several of the charges against him, he was not convicted of the murder of Jordan Davis.

It happened again.

I think of the many young black men I teach and have taught who could have been Jordan Davis… who could have been Trayvon Martin… and those are the cases that made the New York Times, and be sure, there are too many that did not penetrate mainstream consciousness.

I think of the many conversations I have had with students of color who have talked to me about “Walking While Black” and the many struggles my students face on a daily basis.

I want to write about how Tuesday we will go back to work at SLA at trying to do the work of listening to each other, of trying to make our corner of the world better, of talking explicitly about issues of race and how they affect us all.

I admit that right now it is hard to do that. Right now, I simply feel for Jordan Davis and his family. I simply worry about my kids — the ones I teach and the ones who are mine — who grow up in a world where this can happen.

But that is right now.

Tuesday, I will redouble my efforts to teach the world we live in.

This verdict must serve to remind us that there is no such thing (to quote SLA teacher Pia Martin) as passive anti-racism. This verdict must remind us that institutional racism is the norm in this country and therefore we have to actively work to do better. This verdict must remind us that we are nowhere near being the country we need to be for our citizens of color — and, therefore, for all of us.

 

Feb 13

Teaching Kids: Good For Teachers Too

[One of the cool things about being willing to talk through what you actually think about teaching is that sometimes you stumble across new ways of thinking about the things you think. This post stems from one of those conversations.]

Anyone who has ever heard me talk about what I believe about teaching has probably heard me talk about the difference between the statement, “I teach English,” and “I teach kids English.” It is at the core of what I believe about how we can make schools more caring, human places. Most of the time, we talk about this in terms of how this can make school so much more powerful for kids, but it’s also an idea that can make school so much more powerful for the adults as well.

One of the things that we worry about in our profession is teacher burn-out. It’s real. The job is exhausting, and there are any number of factors that can cause teachers to lose their effectiveness and lose their passion. One of those reasons is that it can be very difficult to keep finding the energy to teach the same thing over and over again for a forty-year career. And if you think of your teaching as “subject first,” not “student first,” maintaining love of the subject can get really hard. But our students are forever new, often (to me) fascinating, and as infinitely variable as we can imagine. When we focus on always learning who are students are as the first and most important thing we do, we can find one more way to sustain our energy for the work we do.

 

Jan 20

Both/And, Priorities and Working Toward Anti-Racist Schools

Earlier this week, Melinda Anderson wrote How Long Will We Tolerate Racial Profiling In Our Schools for Good Magazine. It’s an excellent piece that uses an experience her son had in school where an administrator chose to deal with a less-than-fantastic moment her middle-school aged son and his friends had in the lunchroom as a springboard for talking about zero-tolerance policies and the negative effect they have on all kids and especially on children of color. (For the fortunate record, the administrator in her son’s situation chose a far more appropriate way to deal with the kids’ behavior.) Go read her piece – it is outstanding.

What is interesting and frustrating is that many commenters, both on Twitter and on the site, have pushed back that this had to be about race. “Zero tolerance,” it is argued, “is bad for all kids, so why is this about race?” To make that argument is to ignore that zero tolerance — and policies like it — have created the environment where black students – primarily boys – are suspended at disproportionately high rates. And what was so wild to me was that her piece pointed out more progressive disciplinary policies such as restorative justice are good for all kids and good for kids of color… and that led to this exchange on Twitter:

And that led me to blog, because she’s right, and I wanted to explore that in greater detail.

There seems to me to be a difference between saying, “This is good for all kids, and it happens to be good for kids of color too…” and saying, “This is good for kids of color and good for all kids too.” The first doesn’t make inclusively humane practice the focus, rather putting it as an after-thought. The second recognizes that we have to understand that school – as an institution – too often is authoritarian in nature and those authoritarian practices, while bad for all kids, have disproportionately affected students whose existence is already on the margins of the dominant white culture in America.

Karen Mapp, in writing about ways schools can create better parent-school relationships, writes about the idea that parents bring the ghosts of their own experiences into their children’s school with them. We have to understand that our students do that as well. More than that, they bring all that they are — all their experiences — with them as well. For students who have reason to believe that the overarching society is not one that supports them, school cultures where punitive disciplinary policies are the norm can — and quite likely will –serve to further alienate them. We must actively work to ensure that does not happen.

As educators, therefore, we need to be cognizant of the work we have to do to create more equitable schools. It is of the utmost importance that we examine our policies, procedures and structures to ensure that they do not reinforce the worst of what we see around us in the world. Restorative justice and other progressive disciplinary policies are powerful moments of “Both/And.”  In doing so, we can make great strides to ensure that the work we do is good for students of color. What’s pretty cool is that we’ll create schools that are better for all children, too.

Jan 10

The Restorative Powers of ‘My Bad’

All over the internet lately, folks have been making very public mistakes and making apologies of varying degrees of effectiveness and watching all of this happen very much in public has made me think about how we deal with mistakes and pain and hurt in our schools.

We all make mistakes that end up hurting other people – and most of time the hurt we cause is unintentional. In schools, that happens all the time. Teachers are dealing with four or five classes a day with 30 kids in them. Administrators juggle the needs and wants of teachers, students, parents and districts. And students, in addition to all of the school-based content they are learning, are learning what it means to be human in a rather confusing world. All those folks in close quarters every day… it is a wonder that we get through the day at all.

So inevitably, we hurt one another.

One of the things we should learn is how to deal with it when we do that.

Randy Pausch gave us a pretty good roadmap in his last lecture when he outlined the steps for a real apology. His steps:

  1. What I did was wrong.
  2. I am sorry I hurt you.
  3. How can I make it better?

You don’t even have to say that you didn’t mean to hurt the other person. You don’t have to get defensive. You just have to simply say, “My bad.”

As educators, this can be really hard to do when students are trying to tell us that we hurt them. Kids don’t always tell us that we’ve hurt them in the best way. They get angry, they act out, they compound our mistake with their own. And as teachers (and certainly as principals), we can get hung up in their reaction rather than in our initial action or we can think that we might appear weak by saying, “I’m sorry” or we can worry so much about our over-work, our exhaustion, our sacrifices – our ego – that we lose sight of the people in front of us.

I wish I could say that I’m great at this all the time. I’m not. I’m plenty prideful, and I can think of far too many moments where my own mess got in the way of really listening to the other person and making the best apology I could make. But I try. I endeavor to be a person that the students and teachers of SLA feel comfortable coming to and saying, “Here’s how you screwed up today…” or worse, “Here is how you hurt me today,” secure in the knowledge that their concerns will get listened to openly and honestly, and that they can feel that I am willing to apologize, mean it, and work hard to do better.

All of this is to say, there is incredible power in the words, “My bad.”

We should all get more comfortable with owning our shared, flawed humanity and be willing to say them more often.

Dec 29

We Still Need Arts Education

Theo at the Leger Exhibit

Theo at the Leger Exhibit

I know this post is not exactly espousing a radical notion, but it’s still worth putting words to the page.

Theo loves to draw. He’s got an amazing imagination that translates to the page in ways that astound his mom and me. And our house is rapidly becoming the Theo Gallery.

And we live four blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

As a dad, I’m incredibly fortunate to have the financial means to afford a family members to the museum so I can expose Theo to the world of art inside the museum’s walls.

But not every family can afford membership to their local art museum, and even fewer families live within walking distance of a world-class museum.  But every child can be exposed to the world of art – both creating and appreciating it – through school. And every child should be.

And yet, with all of the cuts to education and all of the time and energy expended on preparing for high-stakes tests, art education has been cut in many districts and many schools – and disproportionately in our neediest schools where parents may not have the money to afford a family membership. That’s criminal.

I was raised in a house with tons of artwork because of my mom’s love of art. My mom first fell in love with Leger on a school trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art when she was in 6th grade. She grew up in Camden, NJ which wasn’t a well-funded district even then, but they had art education. No one ever took her out of art class to make sure she could pass some test. Presumably, no one ever told her teachers that field trips to a Philadelphia museum took the student away from “time on task.”

I want every child to have the opportunity to have a rich art education. As Gary Stager has said often, “We are the richest country in the world, our schools should be able to afford a cello and a computer.” I want kids to go to museums, I want them to sculpt and draw. I want them to listen to jazz and classical and play instruments and sing. Here in Philadelphia, private organizations are trying to fill the gap. The Philly Stamp Pass program does an excellent job of giving kids access to museums and Stanford Thompson and the folks at Play On, Philly are doing amazing work with music education in Philadelphia.

But we should never have to rely on private philanthropy to fund what should be publicly funded in our schools.

The exhibit Theo and I went to today was entitled “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” — it is just wrong that so few students in our metropolis were able to see it… or even had a class where they could have learned about it.

Dec 08

Fragility

For many students (and teachers), this is a wonderful time of year. Families are together, presents are given, food is eaten, and generally, joy abounds. But for our most fragile students, this time of year can be a painful and powerful reminder of everything their lives are not. This is the time of year when lost parents are often most missed, when family pain is accentuated, when pain is at its most acute.

It’s important this time of year to understand that there are students who are quicker to anger, quicker to sadness, quicker to withdrawal right now. We need to be doubly mindful about asking “What do you need?” right now. We need to help our students to develop the resiliency to make it through this season while also acknowledging the pain they are working through. And we need to make sure that our communities — the adults and the kids — have enough empathy to be mindful that not everyone finds the holiday season to be, to quote the song, the most wonderful time of the year.

None of this is to say that schools should not be festive places this time of year — they should. The Santa hats are already popping up at SLA, and I’m having to ration my calories closely, given all the baking that seems to be making its way into the school, but we need to remember that we have an obligation to remember our ethic of care this time of year and make sure that we are taking care of all of the kids so that we can all celebrate together.

 

 

Nov 10

Movember

That's one itchy beard.

That’s one itchy beard.

As many readers know, my father passed away a year ago this month from prostate cancer. My dad’s battle with cancer taught my entire family a great deal about men’s health in general and prostate cancer in specific.

So this November, I’m growing a beard along with thousands of other men across the world as part of the Movember movement. This movement has already raised over $26 million dollars worldwide, and I’m hoping that I can do my part in contributing.

You can help by contributing to my page or by contributing (or joining) Team Sid. And I promise to keep posting silly pictures of me with a beard all month long.

Oct 10

Dear Gov. Corbett – How Many Kids Must Die?

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this.

Laporshia Massey died on September 25th after having an asthma attack at school. According to the article in City Paper, it was close to the end of the day, the school called home for advice, and dad told his daughter that they’d deal with it when she got home. She got home, and Dad realized how serious the problem was, and rushed her to the hospital. It wasn’t enough, and Laporshia died later that day.

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this.

Bryant Elementary doesn’t have a full-time nurse, and the 25th wasn’t one of the days their nurse was staffed at their school. The school called home, a teacher drove her home at the end of the day, so it is not as if the school did nothing. And in case anyone thinks they could have / should have seen this tragedy coming, you should know how hard it is as a lay-person to make the call to call 911.

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this. But you should be outraged by it.

I read the article and thought about the many times we’ve had kids in crisis, and I have had to make the judgement call to call 911 or not because we don’t have a full-time nurse for our school of 490 kids. In many of the cases where it hasn’t been obvious to call, I did what the school did, I called the parents. I tried to explain to the best of my ability what I was seeing with their child, and then I tried to work with the parents to make an informed decision about what to do. After one of those times, I was reviewing the case the next day my school nurse was in, and ever since then, I’ve included calling her for a consult as part of my procedure, but I didn’t think of that until she told me. But even if part of the procedure was that every principal had a nurse at another school on speed dial, that wouldn’t change how important it is to have a school nurse every day.

I’ve been a coach for many years. I’m CPR and First Aid certified. I’m a parent myself. I have a pretty good head on my shoulders. And yet, I am scared to death that I will make the wrong call one day. At the height of the School District budget, we had a nurse three days a week. With the cuts we have endured over the past several years, we are down to two days a week. We have medically fragile children. We have dozens of kids with asthma. And three days a week, I – with my First Aid and CPR certification and my Masters Degree in English Education – am the person responsible for making the decision if a child needs to go to the Emergency Room.

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this.

And while the nursing services have gotten worse in the current budget crisis, this is a long-standing problem for Philadelphia District schools for a long time. Our city schools have been under-resourced for years, which makes the current crisis all the more painful.


View Larger Map

The arterial road you see in that map is City Line Avenue. It is, quite literally, the city line of Philadelphia. Above Philadelphia is Lower Merion School District. One of its two high schools is Harriton HS. Harriton HS has 1188 kids and four full-time nurses. Science Leadership Academy has 490 kids, and we have a nurse two days a week. This year, the average per pupil expenditure in Philadelphia hovers just under $10,000 per child while Lower Merion is able to spend over $25,000 per child. The way we fund schools in this state is criminal, and it has to change.

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this.

The way we fund schools in Pennsylvania quite possibly cost Laporshia Massey her life, and yet Governor Corbett is holding up $45 million dollars of state money until he gets the work rule concessions he wants from the teachers’ union. $45 million dollars translates into 400 more professional employees (teachers, counselors and nurses) to work with our kids. When schools have no counselors, when schools don’t have full-time nurses, that is the equivalent of blackmail.

And it has cost at least one young woman – Laporshia Massey – her life. I wonder if Governor Corbett even knows that she died.

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this. But you better be outraged by it.

Sep 26

SLA @ Beeber in EdWeek

Ben Herold is doing a year-long series on the SLA @ Beeber expansion for Ed Week. His first piece is on the cover of this week’s issue, and it is a powerful piece about what it has been like to launch SLA @ Beeber in the climate we’re in right now in Philly.

It’s behind a subscription-wall, but the article is here: Philadelphia Seeks Salvation From Model School.

In some ways, getting to where we are with SLA@B has been more taxing than when we started SLA because of the incredibly challenging times in which we are trying to do this, and in some ways, seeing a second group of educators, students and parents breathe life into a dream we’ve shared is actually even more incredible than doing it the first time. And in all ways, it remains kind of incredible to me that all of us at both SLAs get to do this with our lives.

Sep 22

Kurt Vonnegut, Facebook and the Teaching Life

 

SLA Ultimate

SLA Ultimate

 “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Slaughterhouse Five was one of my favorite books when I was younger – and it probably deserves a re-read now – and I was always struck by the idea of being able to live and relive the moments of one’s life at all moments of one’s life as the Tralfamadorians do, seeing life across four dimensions rather than three.

I am starting to think we all have become unstuck in time.

The other day, I posted a photo of the SLA Ultimate Frisbee team warming up before our first game of the year. Within an hour or two, there were “likes” and comments from former players, folks I used to coach against, former students and, of course, members of the current SLA community. What is incredible about that is that it connects the generations of my coaching and teaching life in some really amazing ways.

The teaching life is a strange one… as educators, we have these incredibly powerful relationships with kids at a moment in time in their lives and then they go on their way… and we do that over and over again. And over time – at least for me – it becomes harder to remember who overlapped with whom in the time they spent with you, especially because the time line is less important than the time spent.

And now, with Facebook, the teaching life overlaps more. Former students interact with current students with comments on photos like, “I remember 6:30 am…” and such.

My teaching life has become unstuck in time, and all of the students of my life can interact regardless of the moment in time we were teacher and student.

What a wonderful evolution of the teaching life.