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.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Lessons from a Neighbor

            As I begin my career in school administration this week, I’ve been paying attention to the many mentors in my life. While there have been plenty of role models on the job and outside of work, I’ve also found inspiration from mentors whom I have never met – writers, public servants, activists and storytellers, to name a few.

            Recently, I got the chance to learn again from a childhood mentor. My wife and I saw the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which revisits the life and work of Fred Rogers. If a theater near you is playing this film, I strongly recommend seeing it.

            It’s been a long time since I watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and this documentary illustrates the degree to which Rogers combined his training in ministry, child development and television to offer a program that was unlike any other show before or since. Rogers offered deep commentary on the world while also speaking directly to children about the most basic of human emotions and behaviors.

The core of Rogers’ message was not complicated, yet it is so difficult for many of us to adhere to with consistency. He offered complete support to the children with whom he was speaking, both on screen and in person, without any judgment. He told children that they were all special in their own way, and did not ask for their back stories in order to believe this to be true. He encouraged them to care for one another, and to use love as a guiding principle in life.

He opened each show by inviting his TV friends into a community of neighbors, and closed each show by reminding us that “it’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.” When I observe the stress that so many students experience today, as they try to figure out how to succeed in highly competitive academic, athletic and social media environments, Rogers’ words seem almost radical in their simplicity and importance. And when I learn of children and adults struggling in so many ways both in my own neighborhood and far beyond it, Rogers’ message seems to be about the most important one I can think of.

            Rogers also dove directly into the most controversial issues of the day, and spoke with children about violence, family separation, race, intolerance and disabilities. When he dipped his feet into a children’s swimming pool along with François S. Clemmons, an African-American actor who played the role of “Officer Clemmons,” the two men did so at a time when many public swimming pools were still segregated. When Rogers’ puppet character King Friday XIII built a wall around his castle in 1968, he did so during a period in which many Americans were worried about the changing makeup of their neighborhoods (a sentiment that continues in many places to this day). The stunning sight of this puppet leader “building a wall” 50 years ago is not lost on viewers.

When Rogers’ puppet Daniel Striped Tiger asks what the word “assassination” means, he is speaking right after Robert F. Kennedy’s murder. One can imagine Daniel doing the same today with terms such as “terrorism” or “migration” or “school shootings.” And in a different episode, when Daniel asks another character if he is a “mistake,” we see Rogers going straight at the essential issue of childhood self-esteem and self-love.

            Fred Rogers was so compassionate that he lives on as a caricature to some of us. We think of the opening song, where he changes into his sweater and sneakers, with the traffic light and the trolley rolling around the bend. Some of us smile at the memory, and leave it at that. But this film reminds us just how much was going on inside that 30-minute program, and how real the Neighborhood of Make Believe really was. Throughout the film, director Morgan Neville interviews former crew and cast members, but as the film nears its end, he slices together images of each cast member crying. It’s been 15 years since Rogers died, but his work and his love left such a profound impact on these individuals that they are moved to tears in discussing the man. And that’s just the adults.

Despite the many struggles around us today, there are still a lot of great role models in this world. But it can be hard to focus on selfless giving, on true service toward others, and on the need to talk through the tough stuff. Fred Rogers did all of those things, pretty much every day of his adult life. I can’t say I’ll be able to do that as a school administrator. But if I can reach for just a sliver of the impact he had, I will at least be on the right track.

In an archival interview shown in the film, Rogers puts it this way: “Love is at the root of everything – all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.”

Here’s to the love, and not the lack. Time to get back to work.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Endings & Beginnings

            This is a story about change. It’s a story about new journeys, and about goodbyes. It’s not a sad story at all, but it’s not an easy one, either.
            In a matter of a few weeks this spring, I learned a few things: One, that a student of mine had been named high school journalist of the year for the state of New Jersey; two, that I’d been given a distinguished teaching award from my school; three, that I’d been hired as the newest assistant principal in my school; and, lastly, that this new job would preclude me from continuing to serve as the adviser of our school’s newspaper.
            It was a lot for one spring, and it definitely kept me on my toes. I joined my award-winning student and her parents in late April at the New Jersey Press Foundation’s spring banquet, and watched as journalists from across the state applauded her ambitious reporting on teen e-cigarette smoking. She had covered this topic so well that a reporter quoted her and her article in a New York Times story. In the days that followed, I shared the news of her success with anyone who would listen, and there were a lot of people excited to hear about it.
            As April leaned into May, I found myself moving through the detailed interview process for our school’s open assistant principal position. Just as that position was offered to me, then approved by the Board of Education, I also learned of the teaching award. It might have seemed strange to some that a “distinguished teacher” was leaving classroom teaching. For me, though, the goal was clear: To see if some of the cool stuff that goes on in my classroom can be passed along on a school-wide level. I can only learn if this is possible by trying it out, and this seemed like the ideal time to give it a try. So I did.
            Once I became an administrator-in-waiting, it was also time to find a replacement for me as newspaper adviser, due to the justified concerns over an administrator having any prior review over an uncensored, student-run newspaper. My students were crushed to learn that I wouldn’t be their adviser, but students and staff have worked through this together, through communication, determination and aggressive hiring. I’ve spent hours making sure all the pieces of our journalism program are detailed on paper, and will continue communicating the nuts and bolts of our program to those replacing me throughout the weeks and months ahead.
            While I will continue interacting with students every day, I’ve willingly taken on a position that removes me from classroom teaching. Earlier in my career, I vowed that as long as I remained in education, I would never leave the classroom. Now, as I prepare for my 20th year as an educator, I am willing to broaden my definition of “the classroom” to include the school as a whole. It feels bittersweet right now, of course, but that’s because goodbyes can be hard.
            When I left reporting for teaching in the summer of 1999, I moved to a different state, and worked in an entirely different venue. I missed reporting, but I was surrounded by all the stimuli of education. Now, as I embark on another career switch, I will not be moving far. In fact, I’ll walk past my classroom every day and will see all that I left behind. It will be like looking out the classroom door back in 1999 and seeing the newsroom across the hall. Change is tough, but it’s even tougher when the pieces of your goodbye remain in your line of sight. Of course, that classroom – and the newsroom that preceded it – will also serve to remind me of what I’m aspiring to do, and why my experience as a reporter and teacher might just translate into an effective school administrator.
            June is a bittersweet month for students; they draw the logos of their colleges on graduation caps, then toss those caps in the air with glee – only to retrieve the caps in tears, hugging those friends to whom they must now say goodbye. I usually stand on the periphery of that scene every June, retrieving a few stray beach balls and packing my things for the summer. This year, though, I’m right in the midst of the bittersweet. I’m ready for what’s next.
            After our seniors tossed their caps in the air this past Friday at the football stadium down the street from our school, I wasn’t sure what to do. I found some car keys that a student had left behind, and held onto those until a teacher said he could bring them to the kid. I helped the custodians fold some chairs. I smiled for some student photos, and even took a snapshot of a family. As I prepared to leave, a student with whom I’d worked throughout the past four years ran over to me. He’d been the president of our school’s Community Service Club, and I’ve been that club’s adviser for a dozen years. This young man has grown into the type of leader who can change the world, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of him. In some small way, I’ve tried to help nurture his leadership and compassion for the past four years. Wishing him the best was bittersweet, but also a reminder of the reason I’m making this transition: To try and make more of those connections, in as many ways as I can.
            Educating children is a leap of faith: You don’t necessarily get to see the end results of the impact you’re trying to make on students’ lives. They may not recognize it, and certainly may not run across a field to give you a goodbye hug. But you do the work anyway, modeling the kind of thinking, caring, leading and inquiring that you hope they’ll take with them into this crazy world. Sometimes we get a bonus, and some students tell us we made a difference in their lives. But we don’t ask for that. We just ask for the opportunity to step into the school and do our best.
            After departing the graduation, I walked back to the school and stepped into the classroom that is no longer mine. I packed up some boxes and brought them to my car. In one hand, I carried a small bag with a few gifts and cards from students. I would read the cards when I got home, and the tears would be there. But for now, I was just clocking out on my 19th year of teaching, ready for
another chance to make a difference in September.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

A Family Education

            I can’t yet remember all their names. Give me some more time and I will. But my, I am glad I met them.
            During our Spring Break this past week, my parents brought my daughters, my wife and me to Ireland for a week. Most of the trip consisted of sightseeing, from Dublin, Galway and Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway, Cliffs of Moher and Dingle Peninsula. But toward the end of our trip, we gathered in a pub in Castlewellan, just outside Newcastle in Northern Ireland’s County Down. Greeting us were some 30 members of our family – people my dad had connected with in researching his family tree.
            He’d been at this for a while, and my parents had met several of these relatives before. My dad’s cousin Arthur, who lives in the U.S., has been his partner in research. They’ve shared family information, photos and discoveries. Several years ago, my parents had visited the Hynes homestead, grave site and stained-glass window, as well as the quarry where my dad’s grandfather, John Hynes, worked before emigrating from Ireland and becoming a well-respected granite worker in Brooklyn. But now, my dad was introducing these relatives to his own son and granddaughters.
            And they taught me so much in one night. From Thomas, I learned that it now costs more to sheer a sheep than it pays to sell the wool, so the family’s farming business now focuses on raising lambs to sell for meat. From Martin, I learned that the farm is a side job for most in Ireland, as it typically doesn’t pay enough on its own. From Peadar, who teaches Irish language classes and coaches Gaelic football, I learned that his secondary school doesn’t allow any smartphones or tablets in class.
            From Kathleen and Malachy, I learned how much life has improved in Belfast over the past two decades, as years of sectarian violence have given way to a booming tourism scene. From Mary, I learned that anniversary masses play a major role in many Irish families, as a means of honoring those who have died. And from young Odhrán, I learned a new nickname for our family, as seen on the back of his Gaelic football jersey: “Hynesey.”
            My dad was two generations removed from his ancestor who left Ireland. Now, the two generations following my dad have connected with those roots, just as he has. I’m a mutt whose ancestors emigrated from various European countries. I had met a couple of relatives from Iceland 40 years ago, and that’s been it. But now my older daughter is following her Irish cousin on Instagram, and I’m in a Hynes family Facebook message group.
            There are, of course, plenty of family members here in the U.S. whom I know and love, yet have not seen nearly enough of lately. In our ever-hectic lives, extended family members often find ourselves promising to get together more often than actually doing it. Then, someone passes and we see one another, wishing it were under better circumstances. The Hynes family members in Ireland expressed similar sentiments.
            But be that as it may, it was truly a special night. They walked into the pub, shook our hands, and introduced themselves. Family. Now I’ve met them. Not a bad education for one Spring Break. Thanks, Dad.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Talkin' Baseball

            The two Syrian men smiled at me from across the table. I was their ESL teacher on this Saturday morning, and they were ready to learn.
            We began with a review of basic conversation; I’d write down the phrases, and they’d repeat them out loud.
“How are you?” / “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?”
“Can I help you with anything?” / “Yes, I need a job.”
            We moved on to verbs (to be, to have) and nouns (desk, table, chair). I am an English teacher, which is not the same thing as an ESL teacher. Many of the regular ESL teachers at this refugee-assistance program were absent on this Saturday morning, as it was also the day of the March for Our Lives. So I was doing my best, and these men were working hard.
            At one point, I decided to write another conversation question on our yellow legal pad. It was a simple query:
“How about those Yankees?”
The men said the words aloud with me, but had no idea what they meant. I wrote down the word: “Baseball.” They pronounced it together: “beis – bol.” I asked them if they enjoy football, or soccer as we call it in the U.S. They said yes, they do. Baseball, I told them, is America’s original sport. Our national pastime.
            I showed them video clips from baseball games, and they were intrigued. We didn’t have time to review all the rules and terms, but I told them to keep an eye out for baseball. And if someone asks them “How about those Yankees?” or, dare I say, “How about those Mets?” I advised them to respond, “I hope they win this year.”
            It’s spring, and this weekend brings us the start of baseball. So dare to dream. Every team is technically in the pennant race as April approaches. It’s the season of opportunity.
            These two Syrian men didn’t know a thing about baseball, but they know a lot about starting over. They’re familiar with new seasons in life. They’ve lived that, for sure.
            We finished our ESL session, and one of the men gathered up the notes we’d written together on the legal pad. He tapped his pencil to the paper. “Baseball,” he said. That’s right, I told him. Baseball.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Thirty Minutes

            It was just 30 minutes. There and gone in an instant. But in a newsroom, so much can happen in a half-hour.
            On this Friday afternoon in March, after two snow days and a delayed opening, the student-reporters for our school newspaper hadn’t met since they’d sent out this week’s paper to the printer on Tuesday night – a half-day ahead of schedule, in preparation for the snow. The paper had been printed on Thursday, and we had somehow managed to get it in our hands and deliver it during our shortened Friday homeroom. But now, at 2:15 on a Friday, we had a half-hour to focus on the stories that lay ahead of us.
            Two of my students were hard at work on an in-depth inquiry into why so many schools in New Jersey and America are still segregated by race. Another two students were planning interviews for a story about the different positions parents take with regard to substance use by their kids. Still another pair were working on a follow-up story to our coverage of teens and e-cigarettes, with plans to interview adults who profit financially from teen use of these devices.
            Another student had written a first-person essay on what this school paper means to her, to be published in a new local magazine that had asked for contributions from us. And another student was working on the latest in her podcast series on immigration.
            And, of course, there were the sports. Two of our sports editors were creating a giant NCAA Tournament bracket on the staff whiteboard to keep track of the men’s basketball tourney throughout March Madness season. And they were planning to preview the games in our paper, along with a story on how the recent NCAA basketball scandal has impacted the outlook fans have toward the annual college tournament.
            Another student was taking photos, some to accompany the magazine piece, and others to be used for publicity. Publicity was in order because one of our staff members had just been named New Jersey High School Journalist of the Year, with a nice scholarship to go along with the honor.
            Still another student was preparing to cover the event taking place this Wednesday morning at high schools across the nation. The nationwide organizing body is calling it a “walkout,” while others are using different terms: remembrance, assembly, protest. Either way, it’s been prompted by the shooting in Parkland, Fla., and is part of the powerful student dialogue on gun control taking place around America. The student covering this event will have just an hour to write her story, as it’s taking place during our Wednesday morning deadline. She’ll follow that story by traveling to Washington, D.C., 10 days later to cover the nationwide march for gun control.
             So, as I was saying, 30 minutes. There’s a lot to do. A lot to talk about. A lot to plan. But my, that newsroom was humming. You could feel it.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Unarmed Teacher

            Most schools have not had shootings, but all schools have had students with struggles. These struggles range from family crises to student stress to mental illness to harassment and bullying. As a teacher, I know that part of my job is to be available and supportive to students who need to talk about their difficulties.
            That’s why I make sure my classroom is a safe and inviting place for students. My walls are covered with inspiring artwork, I welcome everyone who walks into the room, and I make sure my room is used for school clubs and activities, so there is always a bit of a buzz in the area as students come in and out to check in with me about after-school events.
            Over the years, it has never occurred to me that my room would be safer for students were I carrying a weapon. In fact, I am certain that the presence of a gun in my room would have deterred some students from stopping by to talk. A gun would not have added to the kind of emotional and physical security that these students sought. They wanted to learn from me, teach me something, talk with me, and enjoy the learning environment that we’d created together. They needed a smile, a song played in between classes, and photos on the wall depicting Malala Yousafzai, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Kermit the Frog. Not guns.
            There are some students and adults who argue that arming teachers would help bolster school safety, but these arguments fall short on many levels. For one, they lack clarity on where the guns would be stored, and how they would be accessible in moments of crisis. In addition, they fail to address our nation’s deep struggles with racial profiling, and how that might affect students and teachers of color. And they also don’t address how guns would make a classroom more inviting for that student who is struggling and needs to talk.
            Like many teachers, I have visualized what my actions would be should an active shooter enter my school. My thoughts have always been that I would do everything in my power to keep my students physically and emotionally safe. I’ve treated every lockdown drill seriously, and have taken the time for mental preparation. I’ve established in my mind that I would take a bullet to protect any student in my care.
            But holding a gun in my classroom would be different: It would require a major shift in my own demeanor, moving me from nurturance to enforcement. This shift would turn some kids away, and it would alter my own approach to the job. I can’t see a benefit in that. In fact, it seems to undercut the purpose of an educator, as part of the teacher’s job is to help students envision a more just and peaceful world. Our job is to help them see a way to make things better; adding guns to the classroom seems more like surrendering to the darker side of human nature. Teachers don’t specialize in despair; we prefer to work with hope.
            On Friday, about an hour after school had ended, a student of mine stepped in the room to talk. A family crisis had made it impossible for her to complete a story assignment for me, and her red eyes and tears revealed how upset she was about it. We talked it over, I listened and I did my best to offer words of support. There was no easy solution, and we’ll talk again tomorrow. But in that moment, she needed to hear from someone that it would be OK. I did my best to provide that.
            Nothing about this conversation would have been enhanced by the presence of a gun. As we consider measures to improve school security, let’s remember the true purpose of the teacher – as a source of instruction, guidance and encouragement. Teachers offer safety, but it’s not the kind of safety a weapon provides. It’s the kind that comes from the heart and mind. The kind we can’t live without.
            If we change our societal view of what we want from a teacher, we will have to live with the consequences. Because once you change it, there’s no going back.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

After Parkland

            My students are in the midst of a five-day weekend, and their well-deserved break began at about the same minute that a 19-year-old began shooting ex-classmates and staff at a high school in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday. It soon became clear that this was another school shooting with multiple fatalities, yet also a shooting in which students had used their phones and social media platforms during the event to document for the world just what a school shooting looks and sounds like.

            I’m aware that nearly every media platform has been a forum for gun-control debate over the past four days, and I’m also aware that many students at this Florida high school have been speaking out, channeling their grief toward gun-control activism. It’s a teachable moment, so what does a journalism educator do?

            First, you respond to the messages you’re sent. The first journalism student who reached out to me about the shooting sent an email at 1:30 a.m. on Friday. She had stayed up late writing a powerful opinion piece about guns in America. I responded to tell her she had done what she needed to do, which was to get her words down on paper. I followed up with emails to the editor-in-chief and business managers to see if they were interested in adding more pages to next week’s paper, in order to cover this issue. They said they were up for it, and other students began volunteering to write and lay out pages for our coverage. My advice to the writers was to do what that first student had done – write what is on their minds. We’ll have time to do more reporting on this issue in the weeks ahead, but for now the kids seemed to need an outlet for their emotions.

I have witnessed the powerful emotions this debate produces. Twenty years ago, I was a reporter for the Staten Island Advance, and I was assigned to the gun-debate beat. School shootings were on the rise, and so were protests. I traveled with a group of protesters to Springfield, Mass., the home of gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson. The protesters placed pairs of shoes belonging to individuals who had died from gun violence in a local park, then traveled to Smith & Wesson’s headquarters to march.

One of those protesters had lost her husband to a gun murder, and she had become a nationwide leader in the cause. Another had lost her son when a neighborhood child got his hands on a gun left unattended in a home, and accidentally shot the young boy. This protester told me about her commute to work, and how it took her past the cemetery in which her son was buried. She would drive into the cemetery each morning, mourning her son’s death before continuing on her way to work.

I also interviewed gun advocates at the local sportsmen’s club. As they gathered for dinner and fellowship, these avid hunters told me what I’ve heard time and again over the past two decades: Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. I listened, took notes, and thanked them for their time.

The following year, two young men shot and killed many of their classmates at Columbine High School in Colorado, and now school shootings had become part of our national parlance. I interviewed Staten Island students who had been questioned in their schools because they, like the Columbine shooters, wore trench coats. They were confused as to what a coat had to do with gun violence. So was I.

Two months after Columbine, I left full-time reporting for full-time teaching. My working life, since the summer of 1999, has been devoted to teaching first, and writing second. I have taught writing skills to many students, and over the years the classrooms and schools in which I’ve taught have become more and more protected from the outside world. The Newtown, Conn., shootings of more than five years ago led to stricter security in schools across the nation. The school shootings, however, have continued.

At no time during these two decades have federal legislators passed any laws regulating the Second Amendment rights that Americans have. When nothing happened after Newtown, it seemed as though federal gun regulations were simply an impossibility. Now we have Parkland, with Snapchat videos documenting the violence. We have students appearing on the Sunday-morning talk shows to challenge their legislators.

As an educator, my job is typically to keep my own political views out of the classroom. My role is to ask good questions, support students in their journeys of discovery, and remain present for all voices that arise. I’ve had students conduct projects on safe gun use, in which they documented the ways in which they and their parents used guns safely at shooting ranges. I’ve also had students write passionately about the need for stricter gun control. And just a few months ago, I helped a student as she wrote a news story about her peers’ views on gun control, featuring students on both sides of the issue.

When we resume school on Tuesday, I will remain dedicated to helping my students feel safe and protected in finding their own voices on this issue. But I also want my students to feel safe and protected in the literal sense, and that’s where it becomes difficult for teachers like me to remain truly objective on this issue of school shootings and guns. I have a very hard time understanding why we can’t regulate a guaranteed right more closely. Full background checks, a national gun registry and bans on semiautomatic weapons seem like common sense to me. Laws like those passed in Connecticut after Newtown seem completely reasonable, and in keeping with the Second Amendment rights that many Americans treasure.

I’m happy to share those views with students if they ask. But back in the classroom, I will encourage them to talk and listen and find their voices. I am a teacher who views gun control as a must. But I am also a teacher who must support his students. I’ll start by encouraging my student-reporters to go after it, both in their opinion pieces and in their own reporting. Their peers in Parkland have experienced a nightmare, and instead of hiding their heads these teens are inviting us all to a serious and necessary conversation. I’m going to encourage my kids to take part.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Teacher Dad

            I had known for a few months that I’d be teaching my daughter. I just didn’t know what she should call me.
            Not Dad. And definitely not Mr. Hynes. Ideally, also not any of the names she might have mumbled under her breath throughout the past 16 years.
            But like it or not, here we were together. At my high school this year, I am the only journalism teacher. Katie goes to this school, and she wanted to take Journalism I. So on the first day of school, I looked out upon my class of ambitious young reporters, and among them I saw my own flesh and blood.
            I introduced the class to them, talked about my own journalism experience, and asked them if they could identify the terms “journalism,” “news” and “media.” They were interested, and we were on our way.
            At some point in that first class period, Katie raised her hand. “What should I call you?” she asked.
            I thought to myself, “Didn’t I have an entire summer to think this over?” I did, and I had not considered it. Searching for an answer, I flashed back to my previous job, an alternative school in Boston at which I had taught for three years. At that school, teachers were called by their first names, to deepen the sense of community among students and staff. “That will work,” I thought to myself.
            “OK,” I said to the students, who were actually quite interested in where this was going, “I don’t want Katie calling me ‘Mr. Hynes’ in class, so I’m going to give everyone in this class complete permission to call me ‘Warren.’ ”
            The kids smiled; some of them even let out a “Yes!” or a fist pump. When class ended, one of the students walked up to Katie and said, “Man, I really thought he was going to say that we could all call him ‘Dad.’ ”
            Over the next few weeks, a few students tried out “Warren” to see how it felt, and they ended up going back to Mr. Hynes. As for Katie, it’s kind of a funny thing; she calls me “Warren” all the time at home, along various other “W” first names, such as Wally and Wendell. That’s all done in a loving attempt to get under my skin. I can handle it, as I’d much rather she call me by a nickname than not talk to me at all.
            At school, though, she really couldn’t avoid “Dad.” It just came out that way, even in class. In moments when life is busy and stressful – which school can often be – we need to call our parents what they are to us. I’m Katie’s dad, and her brain couldn’t take the time to consider my first-name suggestion. She just needed me to be her father.
When school was over, and she was Face-Timing a friend on the phone while I walked by, it was back to “Hello, Warren.” When I called her down to dinner, she’d respond with “Yes, Warren.” But during those journalism classes, she’d call me over with a question by waiting until I walked past her desk, then whispering, “Dad.”
We made it through the semester-long class in one piece, and now she’s off to other activities. But as the second semester began, I scanned the rosters for my spring blog writing class and saw something even more terrifying than teaching my daughter.
I’m now teaching her boyfriend. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

We Get the Job Done

            It happens every time, I’m sure. But this was our night to see it. As two men rap six short words, a Broadway show is drawn to a halt mid-song by the audience’s response; actors and orchestra wait out the cheers before continuing.
My wife and I were celebrating our daughters’ birthdays (16 and 13) by taking them to see Hamilton, the smash-hit show whose soundtrack they’d been listening to for many months. Who would think that the perfect Sweet 16 gift would be a hip-hop Broadway show about a Founding Father?
            Toward the end of Act One, the cast performs the electrifying song “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” in which they depict the Revolutionary War’s final conquest. When Alexander Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette meet on the battlefield, they can see that victory is at hand. As they open the song, the two men use their shared experience as outsiders to America (Hamilton hails from the British West Indies, Lafayette from France) to explain their success. “We’re finally on the field. We’ve had quite a run,” Hamilton says. Lafayette responds with one word: “Immigrants,” to which Hamilton joins him in rapping, “We get the job done.”
            That’s when the audience starts roaring. They know that when Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote these six words, he wasn’t just talking about the immigrants of 1781; he was, of course, arguing that immigrants are still getting the job done in America as we speak.
            Debates over immigration have dominated American discourse throughout the past year, and it doesn’t seem to be letting up. As I review the news accounts of our immigration debates, I think back to my experiences as an educator. In my 19 years as a full-time teacher, I’ve worked with many immigrant students. Some were in my classroom because their parents had fled violence in countries such as Kosovo, Ethiopia, Venezuela and Afghanistan. Others were there because their parents were hoping for better opportunities than they had in Vietnam, Nigeria, South Korea, the Dominican Republic or Haiti. Still others were here because their parents had taken job opportunities, moving their families here from China, France, Egypt or Canada.
            I’ve taught a Dreamer who went from the top of her high school class to babysitting because she couldn’t apply for admission to college. I’ve taught a teen who worked 12-hour graveyard shifts at a parking garage before coming to school. I’ve welcomed students into my school’s Community Service Club from Haiti, Iran, Venezuela and China, all of them looking for opportunities to serve. In recent months, I’ve watched my service club students volunteer their time at a program that serves refugee families, most of them from Syria and Iraq.
            Whenever a student from a new country arrives in my high school in central Jersey, inquisitive American students pepper that student with questions: What was it like growing up in your native country? What’s the difference between there and here? How are you doing with schoolwork? Have you been to Manhattan? When it started snowing one December day a few years back, a student of mine from Egypt told me she’d never seen snow before. Without hesitation, the entire class led her outside, where she looked upward, spread out her arms and caught all the snowflakes she could.
            I think the American students are so eager to learn from their immigrant peers because they understand something fundamental about this country: Immigration is a sign of our nation’s overall health. When people want to come to America, it means that our country is doing some things right. It means that the freedoms, economic opportunities and sense of community we’ve built are inspiring people from around the world. It means that our tradition of welcoming others has built us a level of global respect that is beyond measure. It means that for every individual who takes advantage of America, there are countless others who are giving America even more than they’ve gotten. So when you see a new student from another country in your class, it’s a sign that you were blessed with your place of birth. And you’re willing to share that blessing with others.
            This is the way it’s gone in this New World for four centuries now. I hope that as we debate the specifics of immigration laws, we find a way to hold onto this idea, which a certain copper statue in New York Harbor tries to remind us of every day.
            When the audience finishes cheering for that line in Hamilton, the song resumes. “So what happens if we win?” Hamilton asks. “I go back to France,” Lafayette says. “I bring freedom to my people if I’m given the chance.”
            And that’s the other thing about immigration: When people have the chance to see America up close, it also can give them the motivation to bring that torch of liberty back home. But when we wall ourselves off from the world, that chain reaction becomes impossible.
            So as the government debates continue on, I’m going to follow the instincts of my students, the words of Hamilton, and the observations I’ve made over two decades of teaching.
            It really is true. Immigrants, and those who welcome them: Together, we get the job done.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Words Matter

            On Friday, I took a moment from my 11th- and 12th-grade journalism classes to make sure my students knew of the editorial decisions that newsrooms across the country had been faced with the day before. My students know that news media outlets all have their own style manuals, which includes a guide to which words the outlets consider vulgar and inappropriate for print. But sometimes, those rules must be broken.
            Thursday night, many news outlets decided to temporarily reverse their style rules regarding vulgar language by reprinting some words attributed to the president of the United States. According to numerous sources, the president had referred to certain nations as “shithole countries” when negotiating immigration law with other lawmakers during a Thursday meeting. He also had asked why we would want people from Haiti here in the U.S.
            This was not the first time that President Trump has spoken derisively of individuals from developing countries during immigration talks, according to sources who have attended meetings with him. In addition, the president has used incendiary words regarding other ethnicities and nations many times, particularly during his campaign speeches. His administration’s travel ban was developed to target a particular religion, as he had promised it would during his campaign. And his words after the Charlottesville tragedy revealed, at the very least, a clear concern with offending white supremacists.
            Due to the president’s dedicated track record of demeaning individuals who are not white or European, the news media was aware that it had a responsibility to continue reporting his approach to diversity and immigration. This included coverage of the president’s words. So when he took the shocking step of calling other nations a vulgar term on Thursday, most news outlets decided that reporting the exact words was essential to giving readers the full story. The president’s words serve as a reflection of the country he leads, and it was deemed essential that you and I know our leader is now comfortable with using “shithole” to describe would-be allies. Media outlets felt they owed us that level of specificity.
            I asked my students if they agreed with this choice, politics aside. Everyone who raised their hand said they did. The details mattered immensely here, they said. I encouraged them to keep following this story during the weekend.
            Tomorrow, we celebrate a man whose words inspired a nation and world, and whose leadership led not only to American freedoms but also to worldwide admiration for the promise of America. That promise, of a nation where all men and women are created equal, has not been fully realized, of course. We have seen this on numerous fronts, from race relations to immigration to sexual assault to educational segregation to voting laws. We have so much work to be done, which is part of the reason why Martin Luther King Jr. Day has become more and more a day of active service and reflection. But on that third Monday in January, we also have the chance to listen to King’s words and remind ourselves of just how much potential our nation has.
            And no matter your politics, it has typically been the case that the president of the United States uses words of maturity and dignity when speaking to that promise of American liberty. You could criticize the president’s agenda and executive orders, but you were likely to find no problems with his words when it came to representing the nation’s ideals.
            President Trump has promised, throughout his campaign and his presidency, to be a disruptor. That has involved clear challenges to laws that he disagreed with, but it has also involved a shift in the president’s use of language. He has used spoken word, social media and official statements in a form more befitting a barroom brawler than a chief executive. That is troubling to many, for sure, but in journalism it’s also news. It’s a shift whose impact we can’t assess quite yet, but which we must cover thoroughly. When someone chooses to alter the way in which the most visible country in the world presents itself to the world, that is a news story of the highest order. It means that for nearly every word Trump utters, reporters must share with us the policy details, the politics and – often most of all – the degree to which his words are taking us into unchartered territory.
            So yes, today it’s “shithole.” And tomorrow, we’ll see what’s next. My students get it. The words matter, and they must be covered.