Thursday, September 30, 2010

Let the Stones Speak

Sometimes the words don't come.
They get stuck deep inside the gap
between the pieces of your divided heart.

When that happens,
it's best to let the stones speak
and tell their long lost stories.

Put your ear to my heart and


Monday, September 27, 2010

Breaking Glass

I am taking a mosaics class. I don't know if I consciously chose this class because I am in the process of falling apart, or, if as unconsciouses are want to do, mine selected it for me from a random list of classes at Main Line Art Center.

When I was a girl, I made things - pretty objects out of clay or yarn or fabric. I molded beads and pots, knitted sweaters and knotted macrame necklaces, I batiked pillows, and wove blankets and wall-hangings.

Then, one day, I stopped. No longer using my hands, I ceased living in my body and began spending all of my time in my head.

Pure mind is how I saw myself. Cool, crystal clear thought and theory. I could think my way out of my body, not feeling or sensing the concrete world around me.

Jung says that in the process of building our persona in the first half of our lives, the version of ourselves we create to interact with the outside world, if we ignore particular aspects of our psyche, say our sensory perception or our emotions, we do so at great peril. The shadow craves the light, he says, and that which we keep in the darkness of our unconscious will one day come to us as fate.

When I entered the mosaics class that first morning, I was still feeling a bit shaky. This fall marked the first semsester in thirty-six years that I wasn't teaching and it was the first time I had been in an art studio. There were three long tables lined up in a U and women were unpacking large canvas bags and laying their tools, materials and works in progress out in front of them.

One woman invited me to sit beside her and another took me out into the hallway to show me the large boxes of tiles, dishes, cups, bowls, vases, mirrors that were available for us to use.

The women continued to greet each other as they entered, catching up about their children, their families, their summers. I was the only newcomer to the class, but the others all made me feel welcome, eager to share the variety of projects they were working on and the interesting materials they were using like broken tiles, beads, fused glass, ceramics, bone china. Some worked small reassembling delicate pieces of shattered china; others worked large piecing together huge shards of colorful smashed pottery. Some were making useful objects like flower pots and bird houses; others were creating intricate pictures as detailed as a fine water color painting.

"I've been doing this for three years," the woman to my right said. "I've been doing it for five," said the woman to my left. She moved in and said a little more softly, "It's my therapy."

I was starting to relax, feeling like I'd made a good decision in selecting this course, but my anxiety returned when the teacher called roll and got all they way to the end without saying my name.

"Who are you?" she asked, looking at me with not unkind eyes.

"Marsha Pincus," I replied just as she was saying, "Oh! You're registered for the 1 o'clock class."

I panicked. It was just like this newly broken down fragmented version of my self to screw up the schedule -- I had been doing this a lot lately --- missing appointments, mixing up times -- my not so unconscious rebellion against decades of rostered structure: 8:09 to 8:54, first period; 10:13 to 11:01, lunch; 3:03,dismissal.

I was about to start walking towards the door when I heard her musical voice say, "They must have made a mistake in the office. I'll tell them you're in this class. I see you already feel at home with this group. Stay."

The process of individuation which one can experience in mid or post mid-life involves the total breakdown of the persona. It cracks and crumbles, no longer able to contain all that is going on in the psyche. And presumably, or so I have read, after the breakdown and fragmentation, one becomes whole.

I wonder how this happens. Will there be a soft whoosh one day followed by a ka-chung when all of the pieces fall into place? Or will it be more gradual and painful, like the knitting together of broken bones?

The teacher, Carol, has us go around the room and introduce ourselves, each woman saying what brings her here, what she is working on in her mosaics and where she is in her life. When it is my turn, I say my name and start to tell my story --- the one I have been telling lately about my life --- how I taught writing for 36 years, how I spent most of my adult life supporting and inspiring others, how this class is going to be a turning point for me, an new begining, but before I could finish, the friendly woman who'd offered me a seat beside her exclaimed, "You're that famous English teacher who taught all of those kids to write plays!!!"

"I used to be," I managed to say starting to shake.

Later, she told me her name is Judy and that she taught for 39 years at Community College and that she knew my friend Adele Magner- the founder and director of Phildelphia Young Playwrights. Before her death on January 6, 2000, Adele had been my closest friend, mentor and advisor. Ten years older than I, she was my guide and I could always count on her to show me the way through whatever was coming next in my life.

I reached over to touch Judy's arm after sharing our stories and memories of Adele. A warm current pulsed through me as I felt Adele's loving presence beyond the grave.

In the Jewish tradition, a groom breaks a glass beneath his foot, right before the couple's marriage is officially declared. There are lots of interpretations for this ritual, but the one I like the best goes like this - the breaking of a glass marks an end to what was and points simultaneously to a new beginning. After the breaking of the glass, the crowd erupts in joyous cheers. "L'Chaim!" To Life!"

After the class was settled in, after all of the announcements and introductions were completed, I went into the hall and gathered dishes from the bins of offerings on the shelves. I stacked them neatly at my spot on the work table.

And Carol, with the kind eyes and musical voice, came up beside me, put a dish in one of my hands, and a pair of tile nippers in the other, then holding me steady she said,
"Okay Marsha! Let's break some glass!!!!"


Still Moving

Our faces blur as we whirl past each other, like beams of light in caves of darkness -

Moving too quickly for an eye to take shape, a mouth to form words, or a kiss.

Sometimes a sweet scent of another wafts past us like a soft touch we must have imagined.

We're startled awake for but an instant, until the swirl reclaims us.

Not a long lost memory; still[ness] busy being born.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Just Sayin’!….. But Who’s Listening??

“I just want to be heard!” my students would yell, when the discussions in class got hot and contentious. Their voices would get louder, the tension in the room would mount.

“I want to be heard too!”

“Me too!”

“And what about me?”

Often, these discussions were about race and/or gender, sometimes in response to the literature we were reading, like Beloved or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Others were sparked by current events --- those moments that erupt in our culture from time to time – exposing the raw underbelly of our divisiveness - the O.J. Simpson trial, the Clarence Thomas hearings, or the Mike Tyson’s rape conviction, the Rodney King verdict.

One time, in the midst of one of these cacophonies, in desperation I did an experiment.

“Okay,” I said. "I get it. You all want to be heard. Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to think what you need to say. What words you need to have heard. Then close your eyes and wait for the next instruction.”

I waited a few moments, letting the energy that had been set loose in the room settle back inside of the students. It took some longer to become still, to stop looking at others. But soon all of them had settled into themselves and appeared to have gathered their thoughts.

“When I say, 'okay, now,' I want you all to keep your eyes closed then yell at the top of your lungs all of the things that you want to say about this issue. All of those things you NEED other people to hear.”

"Ready? Go!”

What followed was a thunderstorm of sounds, a torrent of emotion, words rising and falling, bumping into each other, banging off walls, exploding in mid air.

What a roaring!

After it reached its crescendo, an eerie calm filled the room.

We all sat in stunned and profound silence - spent and a little bit ashamed.

It was hard, but I resisted the didactic urge to explain what had just happened and how it connected to what I was hoping they’d learn about creating the spaces for real dialogue across our differences.

But I didn’t have to explain anything. They got it.

In the quiet moments that followed, we had a very different kind of discussion than the one we were having before. When the time felt right, I asked, “What just happened here?”

And this time, when they answered, their words were softer, more measured. They were careful to make sure no one else was speaking before beginning to speak. They apologized when their words collided, when two people started to speak at the same time.
And they remained on the edge of their seats, listening intently to what each person had to say.

The traditional English curriculum is divided into 4 parts: reading, writing, speaking and listening. I am not going to go into whether I think we do a good job with the first three. All I will say here is that at least we are trying to teach them.

We do not teach children how to listen, unless of course we are using the word synonymously with obey. We do not teach them how to attend to the words of others, or how to hear the meaning that others are trying to make. We do not teach them how to engage with others in a way that allows for everyone’s tentativeness, everyone’s uncertainty and unfinishedness, even the teacher’s.

In the years that followed, I learned and created new ways of structuring my classroom to encourage different ways for students to learn how to listen to each other, raise questions together and explore answers collaboratively.

This meant taking a very different stance taken towards classroom discourse than the two which dominate the American classroom: recitation and debate. In recitation, the teacher asks the question and the students answer. The teacher says whether the answer is right or wrong.

Debate is more complicated and while it seems to empower the students to express their voices on a particular issue, it does not teach them to listen to the points of view of others -except to try to discern weaknesses in their arguments for the purpose of counter-attack. And while I can see the benefits of debate, e.g. the research involved in preparation, the public speaking skills that get honed, the engagement with important issues, what I find most objectionable is that the goal of debate is to vanquish one’s opponent and to win.

Truth, real meaning, multiple perspectives, new ideas and points of view all get lost in the fray.

Recently, I wrote two blog entries about a controversial topic – President Obama’s choice to deliver his back to school address to the nation from Masterman, a high performing magnet school in Philadelphia where I spent the final ten years of my teaching career.

In Part I of the blog, I was very passionate about the hypocrisy of School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman in taking credit for Obama’s choice to come to Philadelphia because of her reform policies – the irony being that Masterman is successful because it is exempt from the District's oppressive curricula. That blog, picked up by the Philadelphia Public Schools Notebook and quoted in a Philadelphia Daily News column touched a nerve and incited dozens of responses, including personal attacks, defenses, and revealing many of the fissures and fault lines present in our city and schools. Very little thoughtful dialogue occurred, and I felt that many of the people posting comments missed the major point I was trying to make about equity in educational curricula and programming.

Subsequent to the President’s speech, I wrote a follow up blog, in which I laid out my arguments for being upset with Ackerman, researched former speeches Obama had made about education that I thought were more on point, shared my philosophy of teaching and learning and urged for a multiplicity of voices, complexity, and nuance in a sustained dialogue about public education.

That post received three comments.

The blogosphere has made it possible for everyone with access to the Internet to have their voices heard.

But who’s listening?? And how are we hearing each other’s words?

Just sayin’.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Masterman, Obama and Ackerman: Part II - Looking for Nuance

In a wonderful talk posted on, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the “danger of a single story.” “Show a people as one thing over and over again, and that is what they become,” she says, talking about her own experiences growing up in Nigeria and reading Western accounts of Africa. “You cannot talk about the single story without talking about power,” she goes on to say. The single story creates stereotypes and "the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

It was my graduate student, Neena Pathak, a former Teach for America Corps member and English teacher at Martin Luther King High School, who first made the connection for me between this talk and the way we think about schools in her brilliant Master's Thesis entiled "The Pedagogy of Nuance."

So I listened to this lecture again this week in the wake of the responses I received, public and private, to my recent blog post about President Obama’s choice to give his Back-to-School address at Masterman, as a way to help me make sense of the ensuing discussion and to look for nuance.

Personal attacks and defenses aside, I was struck by the deep schisms, passions and misunderstandings evident in the range of positions this event evoked.

Last week, I was prompted to write this blog, not because I had any animus about the President’s choice of Masterman. It IS a remarkable school, and I enjoyed my many years teaching there and the relationships I established with colleagues and students. It was Arlene Ackerman’s claiming credit for that choice that sparked my (and my colleagues’) ire - stoked by the fact that despite the proximity of the school to her office, Tuesday marked the first time she’d set foot into the building.

It is interesting to note how few of the responses addressed what was the key point in the blog - the question of equity in access to excellent curriculum - and my concern that the students in the schools where Ackerman has a iron hold on the curriculum are not being offered the same kinds of respectful, complex and exciting learning experiences as the students at Masterman.

I know some will respond by saying that the students in other schools aren’t ready to write their own plays, develop their own experiments for science fairs, create school-wide political campaigns and mock presidential elections. They will say most students in our neighborhood schools lack the skills necessary to express their own thoughts and opinions about historical and contemporary events,prepare multimedia presentations, or conduct original research - to name a few of the projects that Masterman students of all ages are able to do in their academic classes.

This doesn’t even include all of the co- and extracurricular activities available to Masterman students, subjects and activities such as art, instrumental and vocal music, theater, a student-run newspaper, a literary magazine, a chess team, and a full array of sports including swimming. Because so many of the students are identified as “mentally gifted,” they are entitled by state law to a wide range of excellent and exciting enrichment classes and activities as well.

The dangerous "single story" being told here is that students must first master basic literacy and math skills before being able to think critically about themselves or the world. That learning occurs neatly and sequentially, and one must “master” certain skills before being introduced to complex content. That thinking is comprised of hierarchical processes, and one must show that one “comprehends” before one is given a chance to analyze, synthesize, evaluate or create. That only those students who have proven themselves through their performance on a standardized test can and should have the opportunity to make meaning for themselves. And that the ones who have not yet proven themselves do not want to learn or have had poor teachers and disinterested parents.

What if we told another story? One that posits that students can learn basic skills in the context of exciting real world learning experiences. One that has faith that the students will become motivated to master the skills in the process of reaching beyond their current grasp because they feel an intrinsic need to do so.

I saw this for myself when my Simon Gratz students participated in the Philadelphia Young Playwrights program and paid attention to ( some for the first time) capitalization and punctuation in their writing, worried about the points they were making about life or the ways they were representing their families and communities in writing because they knew that their words were being read by others, and as such, had to be comprehensible. Think about your own learning experiences and how you struggle when you are learning something new. Don’t novice athletes get to practice fouls shots AND play a full court game while they are learning to play basketball?

I wonder how many other of our single stories go unquestioned?

When I was a very young teacher in the 1970’s, I believed what some of the older teachers told me. “You can’t save everyone,” I was told. “You’ll burn yourself out if you try. Just pick one or two of the really talented and motivated students and help them get out.” This advice became my “single story,” and I am sad to say that unquestioned, it shaped my teaching for a long time. It was not until I had been teaching at Simon Gratz for a number of years that I had a life-changing conversation with a student – a young man who was at the top of his class – who sensed that he had been selected to be “saved.” He told me that while, of course, he wanted to go to college, he did not want to “get out” of his North Philadelphia community. He wanted to remain there, where his entire family resided, and he wanted to make it a better place. And then he asked the question that has stayed with me ever since. “And why should there even be places in this city that people need to get out from?”

With this one question, this young man sparked a change in my approach to teaching and proffered a challenge to me that has guided my thinking ever since. How would the picture look if we approached education with the belief that ALL students are capable of learning? What would it mean to create a system in which there are NO schools from which anyone needs to “get out?”

Would such an approach be called “Race to the Top?”

Which brings me to my disappointment with the content of the President’s address. Yes, it was inspirational. And yes, it was down to earth and personal. It was like listening to the “First Dad” and in that sense, it was comforting and reassuring. But he only told a “single story” - the one that promises success as the pay off for personal responsibility and individual commitment to hard work and sacrifice.

I was hoping to hear at least some of the complexity which he expressed in his 2005 speech as a senator, where he urged the public to abandon our either-or thinking about school reform and adopt one that embraces a “both-and” approach. I was hoping he’d mention how important writing had been to him in his life, and how keeping a journal enabled him to get to know himself well enough to tell his story in his first book, Dreams From My Father, as he did when he addressed a group of Virginia Writing Project teachers while on the campaign trail.

By not acknowledging the systemic inequities, the President served to reinforce the “single story” which dominates much of our collective thinking about urban schools - kids don’t want to learn, teachers are burned out, parents don’t care, more money won’t help.

Asking why other students do not get the same kinds of challenging and engaging programs or why teachers in other schools are not free to deviate from scripted materials (or given the professional support to better challenge and engage their students) does not diminish nor devalue the talents and efforts of Masterman students, parents and teachers. Praising those students without acknowledging the school’s privileged position in the District serves to reify a single story which by nature is polarizing. When there is no room for multiple stories, people feel compelled to take a stand on either side of the dominant one.

In this fast- paced age of 24 hour news cycles, events like this one come and go very quickly. This Presidential visit will soon be forgotten by all except those who witnessed it in person; but, perhaps the issues it raised and the public conversation it sparked will lead to the kind of constructive dialogue that’s at the heart of systemic change.

Here's hoping.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Teshuvah - [Re] turning to Ourselves

In the Jewish calendar, it is the year 5774. This is a fact but I no longer remember (if I ever did know) when the counting started nor the significance of year one, though I know the months of the year have something to do with the moon.

Today is also one of the Ten Days of Awe, the holiest days in the Jewish calendar that mark the time between Rosh Hashanah - The New Year - and Yom Kippur – The Day of Atonement. During these days Jewish people are required to reflect on the way we’ve lived our lives the previous year, take stock of our wrong doings and through tefillah ( prayer that strengthens one’s connection to God) tezdukah ( redistribution of one’s possessions that strengthens one’s connection to his fellow man) and teshuvah, make peace with God and ourselves to be a better person in the new year.

Teshvah is the hardest of the three to understand. It's often discussed as repentence, but Iam learning that it is more complicated than that. I have sometimes seen it translated as turning, other times as returning. Lately given my post modern bent, I have been thinking of it as [re]turning – to turn to something once again.

But to what?

In the new highly anticipated High Holiday Prayer Book, Mazhor Lev Shalem, in addition to the traditional liturgy printed on the right page with Talmudic commentary in the margins, the English translation appears on the left page surrounded by an eclectic assortment of related ancient and contemporary texts. Last Thursday I saw a poem by Denise Levertov, excerpts from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s On Death and Dying along with translations of Medieval Hebrew songs and letters found in the Warsaw Ghetto. All were fascinating and enlightening, expanding the reach and meaning of the prayers being recited.

But one text pulled at me so hard I had to take out a small notebook and pen in the middle of services and write it down.

It was printed on the side of the page next to the translation of the most awe-filled prayer in the service: the U'Netanah Tokef.

Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

I remember trembling as a child as the congregation recited these words together, all of us standing before God in collective judgment of our souls.

None was exempt from His decree.

B'Rosh Hashanah yika-teyvun,
Uv-yom tzom kippur yeychateymun.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

In the margins of the left page of the prayer book, the one in English, I found the following words - the ones I had to write down. They were from Kalonymous Kalmah Shapira the grand rabbi of Piaseczno, Poland written while he was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941:

Teshuvah is a creative act,
not a simple return
We return to who we were meant to be
but have not yet become
Growth and possibility
Dormant, a sculpture lies hidden
in a brute block of stone
That is why the process of teshusvah,
as painful and
even as humiliating
as it can be
is in fact
a very joyous,
hopeful act.


To the self you have always been meant to become.

Hard to get the tenses right in this complex interplay of past, present and future.

Judaism is such a time-bound religion. Prayers mark the time of day. Holidays mark the time of year. Rituals mark significant times in the cycle of life.

But here, during these Ten Days of Awe, time conflates into eternity – God time, not man time – and who we are is once again who we were and who we are now in the process of becoming.

In his ancient, Jewish voice, Leonard Cohen sings, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Shine a light on the dark places inside ourselves and know that what one human being is capable of, all are.

It's a choice.

To everything, turn, turn, and turn again.
We can choose to [re]turn – teshuvah – to the light.

And we know that even if we are our best selves, now and every single day next year, we or those we love may still suffer and die.
But not alone.
And not in darkness.
And as our best possible selves.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Masterman, Obama, and Ackerman. Part I

Ever since I heard that President Obama had decided to make his "Back to School" speech to the nation from the auditorium of J.R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia, the place where I spent the final ten years of my thirty four year teaching career before retiring in 2008, my head has been spinning with questions.

Why Masterman? Who chose this school for him? Masterman, a magnet school for academically talented and mentally gifted students from every neighborhood in Philadelphia ( though in truth, more prosperous neighborhoods, filled with well educated families are home to a disproportionate number of its students) is not a typical Philadelphia school. It is a unique environment that serves pre-selected, high performing students from grades 5 to 12. So when I first learned of this upcoming event, I did wonder whether the president had been informed by his advisers about the special relationship Masterman has with the city of Philadelphia. After all, two recent mayors, other public figures, and many school district administrators have sent their children to this top school. Mayor Nutter's daughter is currently in the 10th grade there.

My questions turned to shock, then ire this morning when I read the account in the Philadelphia Inquirer in which (the controversial-to-teachers but highly praised by the media) Superintendent of Schools, Arlene Ackerman took credit for Obama's choice of Philadelphia as the site for his national address. She asserted that he had selected Philadelphia for its highly publicized and (overstated?) increase in PSSA test scores and (in a sleight of hand naming gambit that would make George Orwell cringe) her Renaissance Schools Plan. This plan displaced experienced teachers at thirteen district schools, replacing them with different teachers from within the district, along with new recruits, including Teach for America rookies ( straight from their six week long summer "training institute" that served as their teacher preparation program) and spending massive amounts of money on "scientifically proven" scripted curricula that alienate teachers and students alike and line the pockets of text book conglomerates who shamelessly peddle these materials as the "answer" for all that ails underfunded schools in economically struggling communities -- all decisions made without the professional input of teachers.

I have quite a bit to say about this hypocrisy and travesty and my friends who are still teaching in the district are urging me to speak out, now that I am far enough removed from the vindictive arms of administrative retaliation which they fear were they to do so. On Tuesday, you can trust that I will be watching this speech as it is streamed live on the White House web site. ( I have given up any hopes of being invited to my former school to see him live.) And I will be listening closely to what he has to say about the issues that students, parents and teachers hold close to our hearts.

Last year Obama was criticized for making a back to school address directly to students. Many parents put pressure on schools not to air his speech, fearing that his words would be partisan and political and that having them broadcast in school, would be coercive. This is an interesting point and one that speaks more to the kinds of discourse happening (or not) in schools today and by extension, in our society,than it does to the actual content of the president's address.

No one seems to know how to create spaces for open, ethical and generative dialogue about the serious issues that are facing us today. The media no longer even tries, giving air-time to entertainers who fashion themselves as serious journalists, and sensationalizing the antics of fringe lunatics for the sake of ratings. The parents who objected to their children's hearing the president's address assumed that the students would be forced to listen to that speech without any critical discussion afterwards. And perhaps this is true in many schools today.

For herein lies my strongest criticism of Ackerman's pedagogical programs - they do not allow for critical engagement of the hearts and minds of young people. Programs and teaching methods geared towards finding "right answers" for decontextualized test items do not promote critical thinking nor leave room for exploration of nuance, paradox, contradiction, multiplicity, shifting perspectives and complexity --skills that are needed in the fast paced, interconnected global world in which they live.

One needs only to look at the current circus surrounding the "minister" in Florida and his threat to burn copies of the Qu'ran or the knee jerk reaction to the building of an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan to see how few people in this country are capable of the kind of nimble, complicated and ethical thinking necessary for a working democracy.

So yes, I am fired up about this. I will will be listening very closely to President Obama on Tuesday when he addresses the nation from a place where I spent ten years as a teacher and taught hundreds of the "best and brightest" students in Philadelphia. I will also be thinking about the thousands of students I taught at Simon Gratz High School for twenty years, a comprehensive neighborhood high school that did not have the luxury of pre-selecting students who already had high test scores, that lost many of its resources during he 1980s to the establishment of magnet schools, that continues to lose resources in the 2000s to the proliferation of public charter schools. And I will be hoping ( yes Mr. Obama, I have not yet given up hope) that I hear our president say that what's broken about the system is neither the teachers who can't teach nor the students who refuse to learn, nor the parents who don't care. Those statements, while they carry some truth in a few circumstances, serve as canards and ways of keeping the public from looking at the structural inequities in the system itself which is not designed to make available to ALL students in Philadelphia or anywhere in this nation the kind of respectful, rigorous, and critically engaging education to which the students who are lucky enough to attend Masterman have access.

Masterman shares its reasons for success with other excellent schools. Caring, hard working teachers. Involved parents. Students who are fired up to learn. But there are two inextricably connected characteristics that make Masterman unique which cannot be dismissed in any analysis of the current system: 1) the students enter the school having already mastered the skills to d well on standardized tests and 2)
the teachers at Masterman are treated as professionals respected enough to modify and design their own curricula to engage and inspire their students.

Masterman "works" because it is not forced to follow the same restrictive and repressive rules as the other schools which cannot select their students nor teach in ways that will challenge and engage them.

I will be listening on Tuesday, hoping that I hear in the president's words some understanding of this reality and the implications his support (tacit or otherwise) of Ackerman's policies has for all of our young people as well as the future health of our democracy.

Let me know what you're thinking about this.. and stay tuned.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Teaching Life Revisited

Teaching in Philadelphia: In Retrospect

Maybe This Year

Buried beneath the test scores, the rosters, the class lists, the attendance statistics, the roll sheets, the interim reports, the report cards, the serious incident testimonies, the counseling referrals, the truant officer’s legal briefs, the probation officer’s assessments, the lesson plans, the behavioral objectives and the specific learning outcomes, Bloom’s taxonomy of critical thinking skills, Directed Reading Activity, and the 5-step writing process, the think-pair share activity, the split page note-taking method, the SATs, the APs, the PSSAs, the benchmark tests and the core curriculum, real people are gasping for breath. Sometimes it is hard to come up for air. Often it feels as if we are living in a place that the rest of the world has forgotten. Except of course, when the bureaucrats, careerists, reporters and statisticians descend upon us like a post mortem team, to dissect the numerical indicators of our adequate yearly progress or to count up the number of school children who have lost their lives to the violence that makes parts of Philadelphia more dangerous than parts of Iraq.

I have been a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia for over thirty years. I have stood in front of almost 5,000 different teenagers, in fifteen different classrooms in five different schools in 8 different grades. I have been known as Miss Rose, Miss Frozenfrogs, Miss Rose Twig, Mrs. Pincus, Pink-Ass, Yo, Marsh! Marsha Marsha Marsha, Hey teach, Pinky-poo and Teacher of the Year.( twice 1988 and 2005).

I have been called a racist bitch, a moron, a loser, a pussy. I have been punched, pushed, screamed at and stolen from. My car has been broken into three times. Three different cars in three separate school parking lots. Curse words and threats have been scrawled on my classroom walls, doors and blackboards. I have been locked inside a classroom with 30 14 years olds from 9:30 in the morning until 2:00 in the afternoon, while crime scene investigators from the Philadelphia Police Department marked every drop of blood that had fallen on the floors of the corridors and stairwells, following the trail left by a terrified dying boy with a kitchen knife dangling from his neck. He died in the nurse’s office.

I have sat in a darkened classroom room with a teen-age girl as she showed me pictures of her still born daughter whom she named Angel. I have hugged another teen-aged girl, comforting her after the death of her grandmother then one month later, listened as she told me of her dream where her grandmother welcomed the child she had aborted into her arms in heaven. I once helped a teen-aged boy select a name for his yet to be born daughter from a book of baby names, a girl, it turns out wasn’t even his.

I have heard the pop pop pop of gunshots outside my classroom window. I have heard the urgent blare of a frantic fire alarm and the words, “This is not a drill. I repeat this is not a drill!” as the halls outside my classroom turned white. I have huddled with a dozen teen-agers under one umbrella in the pouring rain as the Philadelphia Fire Department extinguished a trash can fire whose flames had jumped the can and engulfed the wooden floor beneath it. I have heard a principal lose her mind over the PA system after that very same system had been hijacked by a student who dismissed school and sent everybody home in the middle of the day.

I have read their stories of abuse, rape, incest and murder. I have seen the marks on their bodies from childhood diseases, acne, bullets, knives, razor blades and scalding water and I have seen the other scars which are much more difficult to discern. I have taught the daughters of policemen and sons of cop-killers. In the same class. I have taught children whose only contact with their fathers has been through the armored glass in a prison visiting room. I have listened to the stories of girls who have sold their young bodies in exchange for a place to live after their crack addicted mothers threw them out of the house in a jealous rage and boys who were abused and trying desperately not to give in to the violent urges bubbling up under their skin.

I have been laid off, transferred, written up, reprimanded and left to fend for myself. I have been praised, awarded, documented, televised, published and ignored.

But through it all for the past thirty four years, I have been more learner than teacher and my classroom, filled with the children that many people outside of their communities have already written off, has been the center of my intellectual, emotional and spiritual life. And it's shaped the parent and the person that I am today.

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I retired from full time teaching two years ago, but the lessons I have learned and the people I have encountered remain with me. I carry their stories in my heart.

Two years out, here is what I know. That hope springs eternal and with faith all things are possible. Even in the darkest moments there is always a light shining through to the classroom. Even the angriest, most recalcitrant child, harbors a spark of possibility buried inside of of his despair. And that human beings have the capacity for enormous resilience.

I have been given one of the greatest gifts any teacher can be given -- I have had the privilege to continue to know so many of my students after they left my classroom. I have been to their college graduations, their weddings. I have seen them earn graduate degrees, become teachers and principals, businessmen and community leaders. I have seen them with their own children and watched as they became role models for other young people in their communities. Yes, I have also been to funerals. More than I want to remember. But such is life in all of its complexity.

Every child, no matter old or seemingly jaded, starts the school year with the hope that maybe THIS year will be the one.

Maybe THIS year I will finally love school like I once did, when I was little and the teacher put smiley faces on my papers and my mother packed me lunch in my Peter Pan lunch box.

Maybe THIS year, people will see me for who I am and value what's inside of me.

Maybe THIS year, I will connect with a teacher who will help me understand the ways to realize the dreams I barely let myself imagine except late at night, right before I fall asleep.

Maybe this year.

Hope you all have a generative, positive, healthy and loving year.