Saturday, December 9, 2017

Through Troubled Times

            We’re living through a moment in which all of us around the nation and world are in desperate need of ways to come together. When leaders are not focused on finding ways to deepen our understanding and acceptance, we cannot wait for them to decide that these things matter. We must step forward and take the lead in whatever ways we can.

            In my job as a teacher, I teamed up this fall with an inspiring colleague to host a “one read” program in which we invited students, parents, staff and community members to read and discuss the book Outcasts United, written by Warren St. John. The book chronicles a soccer team near Atlanta made up of refugee teens and the extraordinary coach who helps them grow and find their place in a new land. At our book discussions, we invited Syrian and Iraqi refugee families to talk at the school, and also heard from one of our school’s teachers who fled the war in Bosnia more than two decades ago. These conversations provided a depth of awareness that many of us did not have. We left one session inspired by with the words of 16-year-old Abdullah, who has been in America for a year after fleeing both Iraq and Syria: “I have something to fight for,” he said, “and that is my future.”

            As adviser of my school’s community service club, I’ve worked with students in volunteering at an extraordinary refugee assistance program hosted in a Jewish temple in town. I’ve also helped my students rake leaves and sell candy to raise money for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico and Texas (our donations to Puerto Rico support a nonprofit that provides solar energy to residents, and it was founded by a 15-year-old). And I’ve joined with these amazing teens on Friday nights as they make lunches and deliver meals to homeless and other low-income individuals in Manhattan.

            As co-coordinator of a peer-mentoring club, I’ve helped train juniors and seniors to lead freshman discussion groups on issues such as friendships, bullying and stereotypes. In their last discussion, the freshmen and upperclassmen discussed the “bystander effect,” and pondered the reasons why we often fail to step in when others are in need. We compared stories of people who have not stepped in with the story of Wesley Autrey, who more than a decade ago dove onto a subway track to cover a man who was having a seizure as a subway car passed above them. The students read and asked themselves: What does it take to find the strength to help someone in need?

            As a journalism teacher and adviser, I’ve steered my students toward a close study of how the words “fake news” have evolved over the past year, and what this issue has meant to our own sense of media literacy. I’ve also advised ambitious student reporters who have taken on meaty issues such as mental illness, gun control, political involvement and sexual harassment for their stories in our student-run newspaper.

            At our annual state teachers’ convention, I attended workshops on Islam, opioid abuse, sexual orientation, gender identity and culturally responsive classrooms. At my church, I’ve joined an anti-racism committee formed by one of our church pastors. At home, I’ve read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power to consider the ways in which America’s outlook toward race changed throughout the previous presidency. I’ve started reading Isabel Wilkerson‘s The Warmth of Other Suns to better understand the impact of the Great Migration on our country. And I’ve continued reading Nikole Hannah-Jones’ New York Times Magazine stories on school segregation, to gain a clearer view of how this issue has deepened instead of lessened over the past half-century.

            I know I’m just a teacher, writer and citizen with a few areas of influence, and I can’t change the world. But I can do my part to help. And I’m ready for more. After years of considering it, my wife and I are finally looking into solar energy. I want to read the new John Green novel that delves deeply into mental health. I have a student reporter who wants to do a story in which she gives $10 to a few people with the requirement that they find unique ways to give the money away, inspired by a New York Times story we read. And those service club kids are still raising money for hurricane relief, and they want to spend some time with senior citizens at an assisted-living center before the holidays.

            In his song “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” Nick Lowe asked questions more than 40 years ago that seem more than relevant today:

As I walk on
Through troubled times
My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes
So where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony

I don’t know all the answers to Lowe’s questions. But I do know that I’m not giving up. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Tree Grit

           One of the key buzzwords in American education today is “grit.” It stems from the research of Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, whose bestselling book Grit and popular TED Talk have helped spread the word about the importance of resilience and determination in kids today. The pushback on standardized tests has led many educators to argue that character – in particular, a strong sense of self and a refusal to give up – can mean more when it comes to success in life than any report card or SAT exam.
            I have always agreed with this philosophy, as I’ve seen it play out in both the successes and failures in my life and in the lives of those around me. I have worked very hard at all my jobs, and I’ve seen that work bear fruit. I also have memories of job interviews early in my career in which I exuded more entitlement than grit. Those interviews did not lead to job offers, for good reason.
            At 46, I’m now old enough to know that the best way for me to succeed is to put my head down, get to work, and let the grit guide my own development as an educator, writer, learner and colleague. In preparation for the school year that begins tomorrow, I’ve taken some time to rest – but I’ve also had some decidedly gritty moments under the summer sun.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

This Land of Journalists

            The president of the United States has taken the additional step of calling journalists “sick people” who “don’t like our country.” He has continued to use the term “fake news” to describe the reporting being done about him. He is encouraging supporters to turn their backs on American journalism as we know it.

            This is important to note, and important to refute, no matter what one’s political views might be.

            The role that journalism has played in American history is profound and in many ways as important as the role of government itself. Strong investigative reporting has repeatedly led the government to make critical changes that benefit the American public – at the federal, state and local levels. We would be nowhere near the country we are today without the work of our most skilled reporters.

            There are several biased news media outlets in existence today, especially on TV and on the internet. There also are several examples of fictional news, particularly from the entrepreneurs who are crafting false stories online in order to gain income from the ads sold on their much-read and much-shared websites. These businessmen know that their false, highly partisan stories will be retweeted and shared without many folks checking the facts. This is the true “fake news,” and it’s being created by people with no journalism background.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Teacher's Take on Charlottesville

           Like most Americans, I have had many thoughts and concerns over the past day and a half, after learning of the violence and murder connected with yesterday’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. I pray for those who have died and been injured, and for all who are diligently working toward a country that prizes the acceptance and equality that our Declaration promises.

            But as someone who often seeks out the difficult questions, I have to raise this one: What if I had a student who was one of those alt-right marchers yesterday? Or what if I had a student who was a vocal sympathizer of their cause? As I type these words, I am seeing a Washington Post article in which a history teacher of the young man who ran his car into a crowd yesterday said the young man had expressed white supremacist views in school.

            This is a tough call for any teacher. Teenagers don’t respond well to shaming and being told what to think. So while I strongly hope that those who marched or spoke out for white supremacy will take on new points of view, I don’t think it will happen because they’re told they are wrong. Only through educated dialogue will teens and young adults feel empowered to change their minds, through their own volition. If I started a conversation with a student who had alt-right tendencies, it would be essential that I let him or her know that I was listening.

            But I’d also take steps to ensure that this student – along with all of those in my class – hears and considers other points of view. The decisions teachers make on reading materials, conversation format and class environment all can play an essential role in this. Teens pay close attention to the opinions of their peers, so it’s important that classroom dialogue on controversial issues be thoughtful and respectful. The classroom also provides a kind of structure that social media does not. So while this student would likely have had many online debates with others already, the classroom and a teacher’s own experience facilitating discussions would likely be a welcome change for the student and for those who disagree with him or her.

            Before class, I’d reach out to that student’s guidance counselor to see what was happening in other classes and in the hallways, to try and get a sense of what that student was experiencing in all the other periods of the day. I wouldn’t duck the topic in class if I learned that he or she was being shamed out loud and on social media; I’d just alter the tone of how we discussed it.

            When it came time for dialogue, the goal would simply be for us to read, think deeply, and converse. I would seek out a variety of reading materials, from the Declaration and Fourteenth Amendment to the facts about what happened during the march, to excerpts from different opinion pieces on the issues at hand. I’d seek out diversity in the persuasive writing, perhaps sharing Michael Eric Dyson’s New York Times op-ed piece on repeating America’s history of bigotry, while also selecting The Wall Street Journal editorial board’s piece on the dangers of identity politics. We’d have a lot to talk about, and I’d make sure that students had the chance to read, write down their thoughts, share with a partner, talk in small groups, and eventually discuss with the larger class. Critical conversations like this require teachers to ensure that every student feels heard, and going straight to a full class discussion will likely turn into a debate among the three most extroverted students in class, while the rest squirm uncomfortably.

            I can’t promise that any class conversations will change this student’s mind. I can promise that I would follow up with one-on-one conversations that are respectful and offer another ear as this student considers his or her point of view. I’ll never forget the interview Michael Moore conducted with singer Marilyn Manson in Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine. When Moore asked Manson what he would say if he could have a conversation with the two boys who massacred their schoolmates at Columbine High School in 1999 or with the community members, Manson answered immediately: “I wouldn’t say a single word to them,” he said. “I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.”

            We want our young people to develop into responsible citizens who care deeply about their fellow men and women. When we sense that this is not happening, it’s of great concern. Educators in particular can feel a heavy responsibility to help make things right. The question they face is how to address a student’s concerning behavior without losing that student’s trust and respect. I can only imagine the guilt that the Ohio history teacher must feel over what more he could have done to help this young man reconsider his views. In essence, he may have done all he could. But he’s not seeing it that way right now.

            “This was something that was growing in him,” the teacher told The Post. “I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country.”

If there’s one takeaway for teachers, I think it might be to head directly toward those difficult topics. Sure, the class might be less controversial if we avoid it. But our children, our society and our country sorely need respectful conversations about the issues that matter. Teachers have the opportunity and skills to lead these talks. Let’s not waste it. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

A Tree Stump Summer

           We can turn on the cable news channels. We can scan the internet. We can read the papers, listen to the radio, and scroll through the barrage of tweets, posts and snaps.

            In this age of information overload, the messages before us exceed the time we have available. With that in mind, another option beckons: Walking outside, starting an outdoor project, and letting the world come to us.

            For the past few weeks, I’ve spent a number of days standing on the hill in front of my home, trying to take down a tree stump that’s been in place since we had our giant oak tree removed four years ago. The stump was four feet tall from the front, and at least three feet in diameter (I forgot to measure before I started hacking away at it).

            I have pretty bad allergies, so a chain saw was not in the cards for me. And as a teacher who isn’t working this summer, I didn’t want to spend more money hiring someone to do the work. So I gave it a shot, and used all kinds of tools – an ax, a hatchet, a sledgehammer and wedge, two handsaws, a shovel.

            Call me what you wish – stubborn, na├»ve, a glutton for punishment. Guilty as charged on all accounts. But I can tell you that in my days chipping away at this stump, I learned some cool things about the world, from a different angle.

            Up on the hill that fronts our house, I was visible to all who passed by. As a result, many people had things to say from the road and sidewalk. First there were the people on my block – the next-door neighbor who told me I had no chance of getting that down, then gave me an ax to borrow when he saw I wasn’t giving up. The other next-door neighbor who offered me burgers from her grill. And the neighbor who walked by with his dog and said, “If you need a real ax, let me know.”

            As laborers passed by during the day, some wanted to chat. There was the Verizon man who stopped his truck in the middle of the road and told me I’d be there for 30 years. There was the man walking home from work who shook his head, looked over his shoulder and said, “Three years, man.” The trash collector, public-works truck driver, and landscaper all had advice as well, and the landscaper handed me his business card.

            The mailman would tilt his head, study the stump and give me some feedback each day – “It looks a little different today,” he’d say, or “I think you should carve the presidents into that.” He said if it were his to do, he’d have tied a chain to the tree and the bumper of his car, started the car, then watched the bumper fall off and onto the street.

            My most insightful conversation was with Pierre, a neighbor I’d never met who was born in France in the 1930s and also lived in Italy before moving to America. He told me about harvesting sugar beets in the south of France so that he and his dad could afford a new wood-burning stove. He said that in Italy after World War II, cutting down wood for your stove took a unique twist. Explosives were easy to come by, Pierre said, so his dad would blow up a tree and bring the wood home. I told him about the World War II novel I was reading, All the Light We Cannot See, and we talked about how difficult life was during that time.

            Some passersby just gave me encouragement as they walked with friends, family, or on their own for exercise. After a number of days, drivers started honking their horns or calling out from their cars. The next-door neighbor who had first discouraged me had become a full-fledged color commentator, chiming in about the difference he saw each day while telling me I have a job waiting for me when he finally starts the landscaping business he hopes to get off the ground.

And it wasn’t just people I encountered: The plethora of organisms I saw in the tree and soil, and the mulch I created and used, told me volumes about the environment. The shadows and sun angles helped me tell time without a watch or phone nearby. The glass bottle pieces, blue button and old-school aluminum can tab I dug up from the soil offered a glimpse of consumer product evolution. And the iPod I hooked up to a speaker taught me that outdoor work is best suited to the music of Prince and Queen.

            After more than 20 lawn and leaf bags had been filled, and more than 50 hours had been spent on the tree, I still had the solid core of this stump left. Pierre hopped up on the hill and tried to help me some more, but he could see how hard this wood still was. I dug down below the roots, called the company that had cut down our tree to begin with, and got a reasonable estimate for sawing off the rest of the stump. When the mailman passed by, he said, “I’m just remembering, I was 18 when you started this.” We laughed, and that sealed the deal. Time to stop.

                I’ve got other things to do in the second half of summer. The tree man will arrive next week with a chain saw in hand. But after two years of nonstop educational leadership college courses and a very busy year of teaching and newspaper advising, I sorely needed some time away from the laptop this past month. Manual outdoor labor was a good release, and I enjoyed my transcendental July.

            And while I was outside, I took in more than just the sun and the chirping of birds. I listened to people as they gave me advice, told jokes, and shared stories. It felt a little bit like that oldest form of media – word of mouth. I didn’t learn more about health care or immigration or foreign policy outside this summer. But I connected with others, and learned from them.

            When I had finished digging yesterday, I took a couple of photos – perhaps the first “stump selfie” in history – and put away the tools. I felt good about stopping, but also felt a pang, as though I might miss this a bit.

            But no worries – once the stump is gone, there’s dirt to fill in, and ground cover to plant. I’ll be back out there again. And I’ll be ready to talk and listen.  

Monday, July 24, 2017

Bring on the Books

            One of the best things about summer for an English teacher is having the time to read. A perfect summer afternoon for me involves a few hours of uninterrupted reading on the beach, with the book of my choice in hand. After two years of educational leadership classes, having the time to read whatever I want has been most welcome this summer.

            When I read a summer book, my primary concern is not whether or not this will be a good fit for the classroom. I may find a text that I’d like to teach once in awhile, but that’s not my priority. I choose summer texts that I’m genuinely curious about, because that’s what readers do. And then as I’m reading, I think about the ways in which that text might help me in some way through my work as a teacher.

            After all, the whole point of reading in school is to help us develop our own outlook on the world and ourselves. In addition, positive school-reading experiences can help students develop into adult readers. I’m living proof of that, and I read over the summer in the hopes that I can help inspire my students to be independent agents of personal growth through their own reading choices.

            Earlier this summer, I read two young-adult books, Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon and Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. Both have been runaway bestsellers, and I read them so that I can discuss the books with students who have also read them. I don’t teach the age group that would read these texts in school, but I teach students who may wish to connect their own learning to them in some way. And now I can help them do that, and we can discuss the text-to-life connections we see in both novels.

            I also read James Baldwin’s classic The Fire Next Time, because its discussion of race was clearly an inspiration for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Many students are now reading Coates’ award-winning book, which like Baldwin’s is written in the form of a letter to a loved one and is designed to address race in America with complete honesty. Baldwin’s book helps me put Coates’ modern classic in historical and literary context.

            I checked out Sherman Alexie’s new memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, as well as George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo and Dave Eggers’ novel Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? All three of these authors dare to write in ways that are radically different from traditional prose – Alexie by mixing poetry and prose, Saunders and Eggers by relying heavily on dialogue and dark humor, and Saunders by also mixing in excerpts of historical texts with his own fiction. I seek out authors who choose to write differently because so many of my students are doing the same today. For them, a day’s writing consists of Snapchat captions, Instagram posts, text messages, emails and traditional homework, both printed out and submitted online. There is no single path for them today, so why should their reading consist solely of traditional sentences and paragraphs? In addition, they take on so many different voices depending on the media they’re using and the audience they’re speaking to. I see value in helping them discuss the different ways great writers do this.

            I read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air because a memoir by a doctor who is dying of cancer just seemed fascinating to me. And why do we read if not to quench our own thirst for specific knowledge? The same applied to my reading of Harvey Araton’s Driving Mr. Yogi, a book about New York Yankees Yogi Berra and Ron Guidry, and the deep friendship they forged. I like reading and writing about baseball and life, and this one fit the bill. When I assign independent-reading projects to my students and encourage them to choose something they want to learn more about, I can bring up the choices I’ve made to model that process for them.

            I have read more during this past month than I usually do during a summer month, as the list of things to read had built up a lot over those two years. As the summer progresses, I’ve got more on my list – two longer novels, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I anticipate both books will help me view the direction literature is taking at its most influential level. I’d also like to read a nonfiction book by my favorite New York Times reporter, Dan Barry, and an autobiography that addresses baseball and race, written by former player, broadcaster and National League president Bill White. I find it really helpful to lean my humanities-oriented mind into the sciences as well, so I’m eyeing the book I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong. After that, we’ll see how much time is left and what I can fit into the summer.

            When September begins, and I step back into the classroom, these texts will most assuredly be in my mental backpack, and will help me find ways to connect with my students and colleagues. Books help us deepen our understanding of the world and ourselves, and that’s kind of the point of education as well. So yes, I am an English teacher. And yes, I read a lot over the summer. As far as I see it, this is part of the job – and part of a fulfilling life.  

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Breaking Down Borders

The state of New Jersey has not been the most welcoming of places for refugees in recent years and months. Several states have opened their doors to individuals fleeing war-torn countries during this time of widespread migration, but my home state is not accepting nearly as many as you might expect from a state of nearly 9 million people. According to the Department of State’s Refugee Processing Center, the Garden State’s refugee arrival total between Oct. 1 and May 31 was the same as that of North Dakota, a state with fewer than 800,000 residents. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced in April of last year that the state government would no longer take part in the federal government’s refugee resettlement program, leaving that to nonprofit groups such as the International Rescue Committee.
So while New Jersey has accepted less than 1 percent of refugees in America since the fall, there are still 327 new refugees living in this state, and many of them have settled in Elizabeth. While I do not teach in that city, I have paid close attention to this issue, both as a concerned citizen and as adviser of Westfield High School’s Community Service Club. When my friend Jenny, a Westfield parent, told me that she was interested in establishing a weekly tutoring program for refugee families at her temple in Westfield, I eagerly shared that information with my students. They responded immediately, and we have been active members in the program since it began in late February.
The program has become a bustling hub of activity on Saturday mornings at a local temple. Adults and students gather for tutoring sessions in ESL and math, while more teens and tweens play Uno and other games, and younger children play with toys, take karate lessons and engage in art activities. There are clothes available for adults and children to take, and there is a spread of food in the hallway. Jenny and her friend Alissa have done an extraordinary job of reaching out to our most vulnerable new residents, and they are constantly sending out emails with supply items that the refugee families could use.
I have stopped by the temple to help on a half-dozen occasions since it started, and I’ve met some fascinating individuals. Wafa, who is a volunteer for the families, considers herself a “one-man band” of helping refugees in Elizabeth settle and integrate in America. Wafa knows what it’s like to be a refugee, as she said she is a “fourth-generation refugee.” Her great-grandfather fled the Armenian genocide in Turkey, while her grandfather was a refugee who left Palestine. Her parents fled the Lebanese civil war in 1974, moving to Libya. After living in Libya and Italy, Wafa said she came to America. Wafa brings adults to job fairs and job counseling, and brings families to the supper clubs that have been sprouting up in recent months, in which American families break bread with refugee families. She said the Westfield program is valuable because it combines tutoring with games and overall integration.
I asked Wafa how the families felt about coming to Westfield, where the median household income ($146,734) is more than three times that of Elizabeth ($43,568). “It’s inspirational,” Wafa said. “They know that’s where you need to be and you have to strive for it.” Looking around at the Syrian, Iraqi and Congolese families in the building, Wafa said, “Don’t underestimate determination.”
            Lana is a 16-year-old 10th-grader, and her family came to America from Iraq five months ago. At the temple, she likes to stand in the hallway and chat with people. “I love everyone here,” Lana said. “They’re like family. They understand me.” She said her ESL teacher helps her a lot in Elizabeth High School, and she wants to attend Kean University after she graduates. Lana said she wants to be a doctor, and wishes to travel (so far, she’s only seen Iraq, Syria and the U.S.).
            When I met Mohamad, it was in an ESL tutoring session. He said he was a craftsman, and he was trying to learn the words for different tools. We reviewed the words for hammer, screwdriver, tape measure, saw, wrench, screws and nails. I drew, we looked at photos, and we talked about the difference between a flathead and a Phillips-head screwdriver. When I asked Mohamad if he had any tools, he said no. Later on, I spoke with some of the volunteers and told them this. A week later, a volunteer named Agnes walked in with a bag full of professional-grade tools. We gave them to Mohamad, and he smiled and thanked us. He held the tools in his hands as he continued a tutoring session with a volunteer named Steve, who helped Mohamad with counting (using the tape measure) and with height, width and depth.
            When I met with Abdullah, I was helping the 10th-grader with his English skills. I worked with him and his dad, Mohammed, on question words. We worked on examples of sentences that feature Who, What, When, Where, How, Which and Why. I drew again, to try and help Abdullah visualize the reasons he’d use each word. Mohammed seemed to understand when I explained that “Why?” typically requires a much longer answer than the other question words.
When I got home from the session, I received an email from Jenny featuring the link to a Huffington Post story about Syrian refugees living in Elizabeth who are struggling to find work. Mohamad and Mohammed are both featured in the story, which features photos and interviews with both men. The story answered some of the questions I wasn’t able to ask in my tutoring sessions, due to the language barrier and the fact that I was actively teaching them. Mohamad was actually an interior designer in Aleppo, and he owned his own business, focusing on living rooms and children’s bedrooms. He had been in Jordan for nearly five years before being selected for resettlement in the U.S. As he sets his sights on starting a business here, he knows that he must learn English first, and is preparing for classes at Union County College. As for Mohammed, he was a newspaper editor in Daraa, and has been here for less than a month. With five children at home, he told the Post that he would take any job, and that he could not afford gas for his home.
            In recent sessions, I’ve talked with Omar, a former businessman and attorney from Iraq, who has spent a lot of time working with a volunteer tutor named Mike, and they have developed a strong rapport. Omar knows how to hold a basic conversation in English, but he wants to deepen his vocabulary in order to grasp the more detailed, subtle meanings to various English words. I suggested he follow the “five-finger rule” of reading books and newspapers, in which he reads only those texts for which there are no more than five new words per page, to avoid overwhelming himself. I also suggested that he keep a vocabulary notebook for new words (and gave him a marble notebook in case he wishes to try), I made sure he had a public library card, and I advised him to read the newspaper (which he and Mike had already been doing together). “I can talk with anyone,” Omar said. “I increase my language, my ability to speak.”
            There are a lot of people finding their voices in these sessions. It is an extension of the work being done in Elizabeth’s public schools, albeit in a different town. But for people who have had to cross far too many borders already in their lives, it’s important for these refugees to take part in an activity that doesn’t concern itself with borders. Volunteers pick the families up at their mosque in Elizabeth, then drive them over to a temple in Westfield, where individuals of various faiths, denominations, ages, genders and ethnicities help them learn and feel welcomed in New Jersey and in America. This is essential community engagement, and it shows no signs of letting up. As a teacher, citizen and human being, I am so proud to be a part of it. I know that my students and the refugee families I’ve met feel the same.
              “If you have no hope for the future, you won’t get where you want to go,” Lana said, smiling all the way.