Saturday, April 13, 2019

Derrick Nelson

            When you see news trucks in front of a high school, it’s usually not a good sign. This week at my school, the trucks were out in full force. But there was no school shooting, no acts of violence, no arrests, no protests. There was just a lot of quiet mourning in the halls, classrooms and courtyards of Westfield High School.
            Nearly eight weeks ago, I became aware that something horrible and potentially tragic had taken place during a procedure in which my boss, Dr. Derrick Nelson, was donating bone marrow cells to try and save the life of a boy in France for whom he was a match. The complication resulted in Nelson being in a coma for seven weeks, and he passed away last weekend. Nelson was the principal of Westfield High, a proud Army Reservist, a father, fiancé, son, friend, Delaware State alum, Omega Psi Phi fraternity brother, and Plainfield, NJ, native and resident.
            Students and staff have known for weeks that Dr. Nelson was sick, although the specific details were not released to most in order to afford the family the privacy it needed. News of Nelson’s death brought immediate grief, and that grieving will continue for some time. When leaders and selfless givers depart from this world, we are left with holes that don’t fill themselves easily.
            In our school’s journalism program, we discuss and debate the definition of news – what makes a newsworthy story? Is it what the public needs to know, or what it wants to know? Is it informative news? Sensationalism? Partisan politics? Internet-fueled images and videos? While those questions are at the heart of today’s journalism instruction, there are also times when news decisions make themselves, and reporters know instinctively that a story needs to be told.
            That was the case with the death of Derrick Nelson. When the news trucks showed up, they were there for good reason. This man’s story was well worth telling, and his life’s work was well worth sharing. This past week, individuals from throughout the region, country and world have learned about Derrick Nelson. That is a very good thing. There is tragedy, of course, at the heart of why they learned. But to know this man’s story and his unwavering commitment to service is to know something more about the better angels of our nature.
            Dr. Nelson hired me out of the classroom less than a year ago, and I am an assistant principal because, quite simply, he and our superintendent chose me. He asked me, during our midyear review, how I thought he was doing in supporting me. I told him that he was in many ways the perfect boss, because he set clear standards and also gave me the freedom to try my own methods of leadership and learn from them. The Friday before his procedure, he allowed me to give two presentations at a staff in-service day, one on media literacy and the other on social and emotional learning. Before we parted ways for the weekend, he told me who he had chosen for our school’s “Unsung Hero” award, to be presented at a Union County event. A few weeks later, I stood in for him in giving this award to one of our students.
            It was a busy Friday when we parted ways, and as usual the two of us were in the building later than we should have been, getting a bit more work done before leaving. From the moment I learned of his illness, there was a heavy weight associated with carrying a combination of grief, worry, and a desire to support colleagues and students. I’ve done what all of my fellow school leaders have done – worked, worked, then worked some more. I’ve paid attention to the pulse of the building and done what was asked of me as the junior administrator on staff. I would wake up in the night thinking of my mentor and friend, I’d find myself saying his name out loud, and I’d drive up to the hospital to visit. I’d confide in my wife, pastor and fellow assistant principals, but otherwise I just kept at the work, as I know my boss would have wanted.  
            During the week ahead, we will attend the viewing and funeral for our principal. Our students and staff have a week off, and when they return we will continue talking about how we’re doing, how we can support one another, and how we can help his family. The news trucks will be long gone by then, and we’ll have lots to do: state testing makeups, AP exam preparation, end-of-year conferences, class scheduling, final budget orders, and student attendance conferences. More will be added to that list as well; we’ll be busy, as we always are.
            Our school will continue to function, because it has to. Our staff will do its work with a heightened awareness of what our boss would have asked of us. And we will, somehow, keep on going. We will find our way through staff meetings, awards night, prom and graduation without him there, and we will carry his spirit with us in all the ways we can.
            They say that we are the authors of our own life stories, and I agree with this. But sometimes, we are also contributors to others’ life stories. Our own decisions, words, personality or actions slip inside the pages of another’s narrative, and that person’s life is never the same. That’s what has happened this week in Westfield, NJ. I know that Derrick Nelson’s story is now a part of mine, and I will carry that with me always. The students and staff of Westfield High are saying the same. And, thanks to some smart news decisions, so are many others, who have paid attention to his inspiring story and allowed it to resonate.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

A Parent's Education

             I removed all of the tiny screws that held together the base of her Chromebook. When I had taken them out, I used a small flathead screwdriver to pry the keyboard up from the base, revealing the guts of the modest computer. I unfastened the battery’s connection to the motherboard, performed a few more functions that a YouTube video told me to do, then refastened the battery, keyboard and screws. I pressed the power button, and my daughter’s computer was up and running again.
            She is 17 years old, and is in the midst of her first major research paper. It’s a rite of passage at her school, the junior research paper. She loves her topic, because it’s related to health care and she wants to be a nurse. She’s approaching the finish line, and her teacher has applauded her enthusiasm. Perhaps the most valuable part of this experience, however, has been the fact that she’s done it all herself. Her dad, the educator and writer, has not seen a word of this paper. My job is to fix the Chromebook, not to concern myself with the words that the computer produces when used.
            She is 17 years old, and she needs to know that she can get a lot done without parental involvement. She is driving her own car now, joining her own gym, and occasionally making her own dinner. As she visits colleges, she prefers to go with my wife, and my role is to help research the schools and make reservations for visits. I miss the experience of checking out colleges, but understand her need to sort through this decision without too much advice.
            Of course, there are times when she reaches out for help with difficult situations that produce anxiety and stress. My wife and I respond to those requests with whatever level of parental assistance seems necessary. We may have been “helicopter” parents at one time, but that level of involvement is not helpful anymore. Our instincts hold us back from being “snowplow” parents, as we want her to find her own way through the struggles in life. When asked by the school if we wanted to drop a course that she was struggling with earlier in the year, we said no; with independence comes a need for resilience.
            Her research paper is about the current public health crisis stemming from unvaccinated Americans, and the ways in which the internet has fueled opposition to vaccines. We’ve talked about the topic, and I’ve shared with her articles that I’ve found on the topic. It’s hard to read through a paper without stumbling upon another article on this topic, so I’ve shared them and she’s thanked me. But when I’ve asked if she wanted any parental proofreading, she has respectfully declined. This is a grade she wants to earn through her own efforts, and no one else’s.
            My wife and I know that our assistance is still needed; we have a number of parenting experiences and decisions ahead of us with this young adult. But our education right now is one of adjusting to the job description of parent, and stepping back in important ways. It’s not always easy to recognize that this is needed. But we’re trying. And in the quiet of our kitchen late at night, I carefully turn the screws on the kid’s computer, finding my new role and hoping it can help her punch those keys on her own.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Looking Toward the Light

            With so many concerns affecting our nation, world and planet, it can be tempting to lose hope. An overload of vitriol, vendettas and violence threatens to establish volatility as the status quo. In times like this, it takes a deeply concerted effort to stem the tide of negativity.
            So often, we turn to education and the arts in search of solutions to the stresses. We begin by looking for a window into what ails us, through investigation, perspective and reflection. We welcome a reason to breathe deeply, think different, and find a way forward.
Many Americans have turned to podcasts in recent years as trusted sources of information. The 60 Minutes of podcasts remains This American Life, which for more than 20 years has been producing weekly stories based around a single theme. Many of the show’s episodes in recent months have focused on how our government operates today, and many others have looked deeply into immigration. Tomorrow, the show will release a new episode on border walls around the world. I know that I will be listening and learning.
Documentaries are in a golden age right now, as so many filmmakers are experimenting with different ways of crafting nonfiction movies, and streaming services such as Netflix offer new ways for viewers to access these films. Last week, my brother Eric, who writes about documentaries for many publications and also serves as film curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, introduced me to a 10-part documentary series that appeared on Starz last year. It’s called America to Me, and it chronicles a year in the life of an Illinois high school. The series, which was created by Steve James (best known for Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters), is a stunning look into the ways in which teens and teachers learn about one another, society at large, and themselves in the world of American public education.
Young adult books have never been more popular, and agents and publishers have worked diligently to find authors who specialize in connecting with younger readers. Jacqueline Woodson is about as good as it gets in young-adult fiction these days, and her recent book Harbor Me follows a half-dozen students whose teacher gives them a chance to meet, once a week, by themselves in a classroom to talk. They call it the ARTT room (“A Room to Talk”) and in that space, these six students make connections that allow them to gain some amazing degrees of understanding, empathy and compassion. I’m not a young adult anymore, but I couldn’t put the book down.
History books line the bestseller lists today, many of them trying to help us make sense of the chaos in our country and world. Perhaps the most-praised history book in recent months is These Truths by Jill Lepore, an ambitious, 800-page text that chronicles the entire history of the United States. In doing so, the book asks if “these truths” that the Declaration declared to be “self-evident” – political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people – have indeed been met in these past two and a half centuries. I just started the book, and I know it will take awhile for me to get through it. But I’m committed to reading, reflecting and reconsidering my own assumptions and biases.
Teenagers are always pointing a way forward for those of us paying attention. This weekend, I’m helping to chaperone a Model United Nations conference, in which 200 of my school’s students and hundreds more are gathering in a Pennsylvania hotel to present papers, resolutions and amendments in a mini-UN filled with delegations, chairpersons and a down-to-the-minute itinerary. It’s the kind of stuff that takes your breath away and leads you to believe that, if we don’t scar them first, these young people can help us all find a path toward understanding, collaboration and fellowship. I just watched two delegations debating education and refugee issues, and while there was no universal agreement, there was a ton of listening, learning, and respecting.
Most of the educational programs and arts initiatives in this world are beyond my knowledge, so these few examples are just the tip of the iceberg. But they are a reminder, to me, of where I want to spend my energies when considering a way out of the darkness in today’s world. When I learn from these students, artists and journalists, I have one job: To think about the ways in which the stories I’m seeing and hearing can be channeled into my own interactions with the world around me. One person, one step, one day at a time: That’s the most we can ask, but it’s our responsibility to pay attention and look toward the light.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Using the Past to Navigate the Present

            One of the most fulfilling parts of my administrative work this year has been observing classes and learning from my fellow educators. I’ve been assigned to observe teachers in a few different departments, one of them being social studies. As I’ve sat through many classes in this discipline, I’ve realized that students are gaining more than facts and dates in today’s social studies classes. They are gaining, from their teachers, a chance to understand the present through the lens of the past. Never has that been more needed than at this time.

            At their best, social studies teachers avoid the sound bites, the pundits and the social media comments. They focus instead on depth of study and of thought. They encourage reflection, deliberation and collaboration. They help students re-discover the reality that nothing has ever come easy in America, that despite our freedoms and opportunity we often take steps forward and backward at the same time.

            The students in these classes read stories of individuals who have never given up on the promise of America. They study leaders who were unwilling to stop reaching toward the promise of the Declaration, toward a fuller and more just Constitution, and toward an electoral process that represented everyone. They write essays and DBQs and take part in class discussions and presentations about the constant tug and pull of American history.

            The challenges of this divided nation are growing by the day. It’s reached a point where many of us can feel this underlying vibe of stress connected with our national events and political sphere. Even on our best days, many of us still feel the static queasiness of “What’s next?” In relating that feeling to the teens in my school, I wonder if one social studies class per day is enough at this point. These classes, as great as they are, have curricula to cover. Our kids have questions about issues all over the map, literally and figuratively. We owe it to them to answer those questions.

Book groups, discussion clubs and additional humanities-based study are all emerging in my school as well. Some teens are recognizing that as lifelong learners they’ve got a responsibility to deepen their understanding of the challenges we face. At my church, we’ve had teen discussion groups related to race this year, and we’ve combined conversation, video and reading to try and understand America’s history of race relations. My church is definitely not the only extracurricular group offering students the chance to think about American history. Pop culture is doing its part, too, from film to television to music videos. Streaming services like Netflix, YouTube and Spotify offer many volumes of though-provoking media. And yes, there are still books that students are reading – and enjoying – on their own.

Education is grounded in the free association of ideas and the belief that our students can become our next leaders. As we work toward that goal, it’s essential that we recognize that different eras bring different responsibilities. This time period calls for a deep dive into history, journalism, literature and media, to gain a stronger sense of where we are, how we got here, and how we can move forward. As I see this at play throughout and beyond my school, I see many reasons to hope. The only way forward is to keep exploring both yesterday and today.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Decorating the Office

            I’ve never had an office before. Cubicles and classrooms defined the first 25 years of my working life, which was just fine, thank you. But as a school administrator, I get an office. It’s tiny, with most of the floor space taken up by a large desk, file cabinets and a bookcase. But there’s also plenty of wall space, and that’s where I had to make choices upon entering the room.

            What would I hang on the walls of my office? And what would that say about my values as an assistant principal? As students began entering the office during this first week of school, I happily gave them a tour.

            One wall was reserved for a series of Apple “Think Different” posters that my wife gave me during my first year of teaching, 19 years ago. I’ve had them up every year since, so there was no doubt that they would make their way into the room. They feature black-and-white photos of famous innovators, from Mahatma Gandhi to Amelia Earhart to Jim Henson to Pablo Picasso. The “Think Different” slogan has always fit into my core values as an educator, so I want students to see those words as often as possible.

            There are no diplomas on the walls, but there is a teacher award plaque and photos of my students, one of them a framed photo of a journalism class given to me last year by the students themselves. Another photo was sent to me from a just-graduated senior, who is studying abroad in her first semester of college and wanted me to see her enjoying a rugby game in New Zealand. Another photo shows students from the community service club I’ve advised, posing with a patient from Children’s Specialized Hospital during a dance marathon fund-raiser. With these snapshots from my teaching life, I hope to show students how much I care about their lives.

            There is a small, three-tiered table in a corner, which features an old-school typewriter on the top level, a reporter’s notebook and recorder on the second level, and a newspaper drawing on the bottom. The table reminds me of the journalism that serves as the foundation of my work experience, work ethic and work philosophy.

            The bookshelf features texts that support my work in education and adolescent development (from Carol Dweck’s Mindset to Susan Cain’s Quiet to Angela Duckworth’s Grit to Frank Bruni’s Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be), as well as books that encourage dialogue on social justice and community engagement (Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, James McBride’s The Color of Water). There are also books that remind me of how I grew into my role as an educator and thinker, from authors such as Jonathan Kozol, Anna Quindlen, Fred Rogers and Ralph Ellison.

            Outside my door, there are two dry-erase boards: One for students who need to leave me messages, and one featuring an inspirational quote of the day. On the first day of school, I posted a quote from the writer Rainer Maria Rilke: “And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been.”

            Beyond the innovators, snapshots, mementoes, books and words, there’s another piece to this room that serves as perhaps the most visible part of my office décor. On three of the walls, I have hung photos and drawings of bridges. Many of them depict the Brooklyn Bridge, which has long been my favorite New York City landmark. From poster-sized photos to New Yorker covers to a painting by my daughter, I surround myself with the 135-year-old architectural beauty that spans the East River because I find it incredibly inspiring.

But as a writer and English teacher, I also see a metaphor here. Adolescence is, in many ways, a bridge between childhood and adulthood. And administrators are often bridge-keepers who help connect students, faculty, parents and the overall community with one another. Finally, schools themselves are bridges, designed to help learners connect with one another, with academic disciplines, and with their own individual thoughts. We’re constantly building bridges for students as they share information, and also within students as they connect the dots between prior knowledge and new discoveries, between assumptions and reality, and between fact and fiction. In so many ways, educators are the engineers of personal growth, and it is our job to keep the pathways clear for students to make important crossings and to take the risk of reaching for the other side.

There are a lot of quotes out there supporting this metaphor, but I’ll leave you with one. During a lecture 55 years ago, Ralph Ellison said, “Education is all a matter of building bridges.” This seems as true to me today as it was to Ellison in 1963.

So yes, I have an office now. But the essence of my work remains the same as it ever was. In case I forget that, I’ve got the bridges to remind me.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Athlete as Educator

            The public school that LeBron James and his foundation opened in Akron, Ohio, two weeks ago is impressive on so many levels. It goes out of its way to service students who are struggling academically and have had difficult childhoods, and it offers so many layers of support, from small class sizes to daily meals to a longer school day and year. His foundation also offers educational opportunities for students’ parents, and free tuition to the University of Akron for students who have received mentoring in his program. Like Bill and Melinda Gates and other educational philanthropists, James is ensuring that his commitment to education is grounded in strategies that researchers have deemed successful.

            President Trump’s comment about James’ intelligence misses the point entirely, as this is an athlete with more riches than he can imagine, yet he’s choosing to commit significant time and money to students whose futures hang in the balance. James’ school will receive plenty of attention in the years ahead, and he will surely be there to oversee and continue supporting it; in so many ways, this is as wise an investment as any American can make. James’ is by no means the only urban school that is working to turn lives around, but it’s most definitely a model for others to consider following. In that sense, James is an athlete and leader who many of us might consider emulating as well.

            Curtis Granderson, the Toronto Blue Jays outfielder who has played for a number of teams in his baseball career, has taken a similar approach in terms of using his platform as a professional athlete to serve others. Granderson has promoted education, fitness and nutrition throughout his career, from his own foundation to the ballfield he helped build in Chicago. Granderson has won the Roberto Clemente Award, given annually to a major leaguer who has exemplified service and sportsmanship. Like James, Granderson sees his success as an opportunity to bring along younger generations, just as his parents – both educators – did for him.

            Earlier in the summer, there was widespread coverage of James’ decision to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers. Right now, there’s talk about whether or not Granderson will be traded to the New York Yankees or some other team this month, as his Blue Jays are out of contention. While sports signings and trades are interesting, my real question about these 30-something athletes is what they’ll do with their careers after retirement. In what ways will they lead when they actually have the chance to serve their communities full-time? Will James open more schools? Will Granderson run for office? How will they lead?

            In my school, I have a bunch of sports books on hand for any student who’s looking for a nonfiction read. Some of these books focus on athletes who have had impacted both sport and society, from Clemente to Arthur Ashe to Bill Bradley to Jackie Robinson. Their stories are some of the most important American narratives of the last 70 years, as they mark a place where fame and popular success overlap with civic engagement and a much deeper sense of victory. I hope we commit more time in our schools to reading and discussing the impact of sport on society.

In a lot of ways, the most fascinating athletes in society are the ones who add to their highlight reels after hanging up their spikes. Instead of game-winning baskets or home runs, this new footage captures these men and women changing the world, one step at a time. So whoever you play for, LeBron and Curtis, I’m not worried – just keep on following that famous mantra: We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Puppy Days of Summer

            July is a quiet month in most school buildings. It’s a time when administrators, custodians, computer technicians and secretaries do a lot of preparing for the onslaught of activity that will take place in just a matter of weeks. I’ve been enjoying the quiet at school, especially since life at home is a whole lot more hectic than usual. Two and a half months ago, we came home with a rescue puppy, and life has most definitely not been the same.

I was reminded of how this 60-pound, 6-month-old Labrador/Great Dane mix landed in our house just as I was sitting in my serene office this past week. You see, one of the ways I’ve been preparing for my new job as an assistant principal is by studying and reviewing my school district’s Board of Ed-approved policies, so that when issues arise I am better versed in the rules. One of the many board policies in our district is the one regarding live animals. It’s not the most-read policy, of course, and I would imagine it was designed mostly for science classes. But it can apply in other ways as well.

            Take this past April, for instance. One of my colleagues asked if the Community Service Club that I advise would be willing to welcome a visit from a dog rescue organization for which she volunteers, as the group was looking for teens to help them out as well. I asked the students, and they said yes, they’d love a visit. My colleague then asked if we’d be OK if the dog rescue person brought an actual dog with her to class. I said no, that wouldn’t be allowed. She said maybe it would, if the principal agreed to it. I said sure, feel free to ask.

            When my boss was asked about the dog, he dutifully referred to the aforementioned board policy, which stated that in this kind of situation, a live animal could enter a classroom if all students and parents had been informed, and no one was allergic to the animal. I sent out a note to parents, and a few days later, we had our visit. The dog rescue worker entered the classroom, followed by a “foster parent” who held the leash of a 4-month-old Lab/Great Dane nicknamed “Big George” by the rescue group.

            When this black Lab stepped gingerly into the room, he settled on the floor, resting his head on the leg of a student who had knelt down to pet him. He seemed like the gentlest puppy I’d ever met. My students fawned over him, and several of them signed up to volunteer for the rescue group. As for me, I found myself skimming the organization’s website, looking at the writeup on Big George. He was found in a garbage dump in Georgia, it said, and his name came from the theme to this litter – all of them were named after characters from the novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. I emailed my wife the link and wrote, “I don’t know why I’m sending you this.” She responded that she didn’t know, either. She passed the link along to our daughters.

            We had a dog already. Our 8-year-old golden retriever, Daisy, was perfectly content, if a little lonely. But she found her life turning upside down when we brought her to a meet-and-greet with this friendly puppy. And when we brought that puppy home, Daisy was even more confused. It was as if she knew what we were in for before we did.

            We have spent the past 11 weeks raising a puppy – which, in case you have never done so, is second only to raising a child in its degree of difficulty. George is growing about 20 pounds per month, and by the time he’s filled out he will look more like a pony. He likes to get our attention with a howl that sounds like it came from Chewbacca. When losing his baby teeth, he would shake his head to try and free the dangling tooth, thereby sprinkling blood all over the floor. He drinks from his bowl and then walks away while still swallowing, leaving puddles of water all over the place. He chewed his leash in half, and chewed the laces off my running sneakers.

            George is learning to stop pulling on his new leash, which is important because he’s almost stronger than we are already. He wants Daisy to play all the time, but that’s not our older dog’s style. So between growling and completely ignoring him, Daisy is mentoring George on the art of settling down. We take him for three walks a day, and he still has energy to spare. One day he was stung by a bee or wasp, and we had to give him Benadryl. When the medicine knocked him out, we enjoyed our quietest night in months.

            A day in the life of Big George features all kinds of fun. Today, for instance, we had a 5:30 wakeup call, as he howled from inside his crate. I tried to take a nap after work only to have him hop on the bed next to me and start chomping on a bone. While clearing off the table after dinner, I was treated to him dipping his snout in the garbage pail, leaving a trail of couscous across the kitchen floor. And tonight, my wife says we need to order an XXL dog crate since he’s grown out of the 42-inch crate we already have.
            There’s no board policy on raising a puppy; that’s my own riddle to solve, outside of work time. The dog days of summer will be more literal than figurative for us this year. But the family will figure it out together, and George will mature and pay more attention to our rules. Eventually. Meanwhile, I’ll keep sneaking away to work each day, trying to recover from dog education by focusing on the education of teenagers.