Pages

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Renaissance of Courage: On Public School Responsibility

          Who is Dr. Cornel West referring to when he says, “We need a renaissance of courage and a willingness to sacrifice?” This is what he told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! during a discussion on his new book Black Prophetic Fire about the legacy of leading African American voices including Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Malcolm X and Ida B. Wells. He was referring to blacks themselves like when he confessed his fear that we may be witnessing the death of black prophetic fire in our time. Black prophetic fire, according to Cornell West can be summed up as a deep love for justice, love of the poor and working people and a love for black people. He tells us this can best be understood if we consider the four essential questions W.E.B. DuBois wrestled with in his lifetime: How does integrity face oppression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? And how does virtue meet brute force? This fire Cornell West refers to is the very notion of agency and social responsibility and it begs the question- What is the ethical culture driving our conversation about public schools today and what is your personal responsibility in making a difference?

          This past weekend The New School and The Nation magazine hosted a talk entitled Saving Public Schools. It was moderated by Chris Hayes and included a handful of well-known education pundits—Dana Goldstein, Pedro Noguera and Randi Weingarten along with one community-based equity activist, Zakiya Ansari. Opening the dialogue was The Nation’s Besty Reed followed by New York City School chancellor Carmen Fariña, who I knew about but still had not heard speak. When I looked at the panel and around the New School auditorium it first appeared to be a pretty diverse group although in retrospect, I’d have to admit I remembered very few Latino and Asian faces in the room and I’d venture to say there were fewer attendees who would identify themselves as poor. Later when Chris Hayes asked how many of us were familiar with the Common Core Standards over ninety percent of us raised our hands. Chris had to laugh calling us outliers, who else would come out on a Sunday evening to hear a panel talk on public education? My mind flashed to a scene in a dystopian novel I’m reading called The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks that talks about people who are informed:

                “Well, of course I’m a citizen,” he said. “I was born and raised in Britain.”
                “It’s just a label that my father uses. Ninety-nine percent of the population are either citizens or drones.”
                Dr. Bennett took off his gold rimmed spectacles and polished his lenses with a green flannel cloth. “Would you mind explaining this?”
                “Citizens are people who think they understand what’s going on in the world.”
                “I don’t understand everything, Judith. I never said that. But, I’m well informed about current events. I watch the news every morning while I’m on my treadmill.”
                Maya hesitated, and then decided to tell him the truth. “The facts you know are mostly an illusion. The real struggle of history is going on beneath the surface.”
                Dr. Bennett gave her a condescending smile. “Tell me about the drones.”
                “Drones are people who are so overwhelmed by the challenge of surviving that they’re unaware of anything outside their day-to-day lives.”
                “You mean poor people?”
                “They can be poor or trapped in the Third World, but they’re still capable of transforming themselves. Father used to say, ‘Citizens ignore the truth. Drones are just too tired.”

          The talk lasted for about two hours at which point I left the New School auditorium in a semi-apathetic haze. I’m not sure if it was the after effects of the cold medicine I had taken or if it was the actual talk but I couldn’t help think we haven’t even begun the difficult work that lies ahead of us as we face the failure of perennial reform compounded with a decade’s worth of policies that have strangulated the public education system. The numbness I felt reminded me of a NYPR program I had accidentally tuned into just a few weeks earlier called ‘Staring Into The Abyss’ in which Brook Gladstone spent an hour discussing the poignant question: Why is nihilism so trendy and is this really a new phenomenon? I know apathy is not nihilism, but they are definitely close relatives especially when one considers the impact the war on public education has had on teachers and teacher educators.
            
          Digging into the abyss, I was able to pull up one surviving frustration of mine, however mangled and in somewhat critical condition. It had to do with responsibility and agency and Dana Goldstein’s comment about the promise of the Millennials (which contradicted to some extent LaMotte’s argument in her article, Forget the Millennials. Gen Xers are the Future of Work published in TIME magazine online on October 2nd). It had to do with the notion of race and class and does change happen from the inside or from the outside, from those struggling to survive or those who are privileged? Goldstein proposed that with the advent of Millennials investing in urban centers, public schools can be revived. Millennials are educated, have money (equaling choice) and purportedly believe in the promise of diversity and democracy. Chris Hayes and Pedro Noguera conspired around this prospect by sharing a story about a school in Brooklyn in which parents have been actively trying to encourage an equal mix of middle and upper class white kids with poor and blue collar black and brown kids. Zakiya Ansari looked annoyed and asked, “Why do we need white kids to make a school work properly?” At that moment, the white woman sitting next to me mumbled something to the effect of, “Once Millennials arrive on the scene, poor folks can’t afford to stay so how is that going to help?”
                
          Funny, how race and class were interchangeable in this conversation. White is equated with middle/upper class and black and brown folks with poverty. I wonder if New Yorkers can see these two identities as being separate these days.  If not, what does that mean for the children being educated in segregated schools and what does that mean for their educators? Who is driving the conversation? And who is responsible for making a change?  
                
          In response to Ansari’s question, I’d say, it’s not that we need white kids for schools to be good. However, if the professional “successful” world outside school is integrated (as depicted in the media, the movies and TV) children need to see the same demographics in the classroom if we want them to identify themselves as a part of this reality. Otherwise, it’s natural for children to question their place and value in the world, which is what it means to be ‘marginalized’ in society. The question of segregated schools is much less about the quality of education in contemporary society (although this certainly is important and dates back to the pivotal case separate but equal)—but more about how schools need to reflect the type of society we want to live in. Do we want our children to grow up in a divided, racialized and segregated world? How are children going to learn about citizenship, democracy and agency in a segregated setting?
                
          When I was growing up, I had the fortune of attending public schools that were rich in diversity. Today, many of us recognize we were lucky to have a quality public school education with this experience. Just by exposure alone, it was evident to us that American society is a fabric threaded of different colors, ethnicities, languages and religions. That is not to say we had a utopian system back then. My mother, like many others, had to fight to get me into a good junior high school that was just outside my ‘zone’ but was easily accessible to our neighbors with non-Latino last names. The point is, fellowship with children and families from different backgrounds provided us with a broadened perspective of the world, taught us how people coexist and helped us learn important skills about how to negotiate in society—skills that continue to shape how I see and interact with the world today. Regardless of the quality of education, children who have segregated educational experiences are missing out on critical social, emotional and cognitive skills required in a global community. Teachers in segregated schools are very aware of this. It comes out in the academic performance of their students. In my doctoral research entitled, The Impact of Teaching Literacy for Social Justice on Student Achievement (2007), I documented how a teacher was concerned that although the African American students (in a segregated, African American school) were easily engaged and could critically examine and respond to literary experiences that spoke to the African American experience about slavery, oppression and persecution; they couldn’t transfer this knowledge when learning about the Jewish American experience and the holocaust. The challenges of learning multiple perspectives in a segregated school setting as presented by Kozol (2005) are real.
                
          After the event, walking down Sixth Avenue looking for a place to eat, I began to think about how powerful it would be if everyone who attended the talk sent their own kids to the public schools. What would that look like, a school comprised of these folks, the ‘intellectual class,’ or at least purporting to be?  That's when it occurred to me that that’s exactly what a private or selective school looks like. The fact that most education pundits, policy makers, well paid administrators, university professors and white collar professionals opt to send their own children to private or highly selective public/charter schools is a topic rarely brought up in these settings. It’s not that these educators don’t care for ‘other people’s children,' it’s just that like Pedro Noguera said, “educated folks with means regardless of their color will never send their kids to bad (or questionable) schools.” Bad schools where perennial reforms exist can only happen to poor folks struggling to survive. Is it because poor people (now joined by a growing number of ‘falling’ middle classers) don’t have a voice or is it because they really don’t have a choice?  Or is it because they are too tired to even light the fire?
                
          Is there a possibility that we may have created a choice-less “choice” system that in actuality perpetuates quality education for the privileged? How can we expect the down trodden to be responsible for their own uplifting? What are the different levels of courage required to stand up and fight for what you believe in depending on your position in society? What kind of sacrifice can we ask of people who are struggling for their survival? Who is driving the conversation around public education and what is the ethical responsibility of the intellectual community? What is the social and moral responsibility of the private school sector with regards to the public school sector knowing that these are the decision makers and drive public policy? Can we require private schools to collaborate and share resources and social networks with public schools?  How do private schools churn out a citizenry that recycles the same inequitable conditions in society?
                
          Education reform has historically and consistently been about experimenting, examining and dissecting public school kids and mostly poor public schools. Perhaps we need to pay closer attention to how we educate children of privilege and unpack notions of entitlement, elitism, competition and Darwinism. Dana Goldstein stated early in the talk that one of the original purposes behind public education was moral. How can we consider the moral purpose of public schools without considering the ethical culture of our private schools simultaneously? I wonder if it’s possible to reposition education reform. Consider school reform not as a business of fixing the poor but as a holistic endeavor in which we are all implicated in the need to change how we do things for all kids, and that includes all kids, the rich kids too, and the sons and daughters of all the reformers and the intellectuals, too, who sit and talk about wonderful, really big ideas like equitable funding in our country. My guess is that we’d have a very different kind of conversation, one that gets at the true nature of our people, willing or unwilling to sacrifice the benefits of privilege.
             
           

            

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Virtual Learning and Social Currency

There’s a scene in the movie The Internship that really hits home for me. It's when Vince Vaughn’s character (middle aged) is anxiously studying tech terms for the following day’s big Google challenge when the undercover head of talent acquisition (who pretends to be a nerdy, anti-social intern) gives him a pep talk to ease his fear of failure. He tells Vince that he has an amazing way with people and is expert at the fine art of building relationships. In contrast, he says, most young people (like himself) can hardly maintain a conversation without texting. In an age when a young person bursts out in tears for being pulled off the line at an Apple store the day they launch iPhone 6 or when progressive educators advocate for 1:1 Learning Environments (which puts a laptop front and center in the learning process), I have to ask: what impact will this new age techno philosophy have on future generations?
In 2003 when I decided to become a pioneer in a new on-line educational leadership Ph.D. program (designed for the most part for military officials who lived in the field), I was ecstatic to find I could engage in learning and independent research from the comforts of my own home; not to mention connect with others who lived hundreds of miles away and obtain a doctoral degree while still raising two small children without having to hire a nanny. The benefits were enormous back then but upon completion of the degree and reentering the real academic world of my peers, I realized I had lost the opportunity to establish critical partnerships with those in my field that later translates into contacts. The traditional social network in academia leads to jobs, further research and ultimately the much needed “social currency” for anyone who wants to teach at the university.
My personal virtual learning experience in addition to my work as a professional development specialist that has given me the opportunity to work with schools nationally has led me to question the total ‘value-added’ of virtual learning and, furthermore, to consider the complexities involved in making virtual learning meaningful at a time when blended learning, the flipped classroom, on-line educational platforms and home schooling vis-à-vis the internet are becoming popular alternatives to the traditional classroom, and greatly, I might add, in response to the challenges inherent in ‘face-to-face’ learning environments—attendance, student engagement, lack of differentiation, access to quality teachers and up to date information, to name a few. What are we gaining and what are giving up when we consider virtual learning? Should it ever be an all or none approach for education?
I recently read Jeremy Stayer’s dissertation on the flipped classroom (which coincidentally was published in 2007 the same year I finished my on-line degree) where the findings indicated that students in the flipped classroom (flipped means students learn new information on-line at home and come to class to engage in discussion and complete assignments with the guidance of the teacher) were less satisfied and experienced unsettledness or a feeling of being “lost,” as compared to the students in the traditional classroom. He does an excellent job in his dissertation teasing out many of the variables that can be associated with this (sense of self-efficacy, comfortability, structural inputs, amount of reflection imbedded in the course on process and so on) all which contributed to my own thoughts about virtual learning. His article propelled me to reflect about myself as a learner and my proclivity for distance learning. I asked myself what I would have needed during the program and after the program for it to have been completely successful and worth the investment.
Virtual learning requires a tolerance for ambiguity for the process and troubleshooting (we know a lot about what works but compared to best practices in traditional teaching and learning, we are still just beginning to scratch the surface). Much of the frustration students and teachers experience with virtual learning is with the actual technology. For example, in my last position working with schools in Providence where technology is outdated and lagging as compared to many districts across the country, I found it unfair that students (and their well-intentioned teachers) were assessed by how they scored on computer based interventions when the computers were unreliable, the infrastructure in the school lacking and technical support non-existent for the most part. I recall visiting many classrooms to find discouraged teachers who fought daily with recalcitrant laptops that took fifteen sometimes twenty minutes to boot up. Many of them resorted to waiting it out for half the period while some disregarded the computer based interventions altogether. Unfortunately, regardless of the case, students’ performance (and teacher evaluations) were linked to these interventions and aligned with the assessments. Problems associated with technology and infrastructure is crucial to understanding the challenges and benefits of virtual learning. The challenges are clear but we can make an argument that students faced with technical difficulties learn skills in problems solving, persistence and resilience. As for my own personal experience going through a very new on-line Ph.D. program, I remember feeling frustrated when the professors struggled with the presentation format (it wasn’t blackboard at that time). We lost valuable teaching time getting everyone together and on the same page rather than discussing content.
Virtual learning requires that teachers provide encouragement, feedback and positive reinforcement in creative ways, continuously. The feeling of being ‘lost’ or ‘unsettled’ might be a natural feeling when engaging in independent research so I wonder how developmentally ready students in middle and high school are to tenaciously sift through inordinate amounts of information easily gotten from the internet. It’s almost like being in a supermarket and seeing twenty to thirty different shampoos each with a different purpose and package. How do you know which one to choose? Are there really that many viable options when you really just want clean hair? And finally, how does one combat the mere exhaustion of having to read the labels of so many bottles before choosing? Even for many adults, research is difficult. It requires critical thinking skills, the ability to classify and synthesize multiple sources (giving credence to some more than others) and being able to stick with a project long-term independently. Too much choice, too much information, too much freedom may create the problem of saturation and a feeling of detachment in young adults. With the amount of information out there and access to social media, students will need targeted reinforcement and guidance that will help them build the skills, the stamina and motivation to be successful.
Personalized learning refers to student centered instruction, that is teaching and learning is differentiated based on a student’s needs, interests, talents, etc.  A student undergoes several types of assessment activities in order for the teacher or school to determine how to best ‘personalize’ instruction. There is a plethora of research that supports student centered instruction as being advantageous for all students at all ages. However, a personalized approach does not negate the need for cooperative or group learning activities. How can we develop a student centered approach within the virtual learning environment? Virtual learning requires that the teacher devise creative ways to get students to interact with one another and with the community at large. Students need cooperative learning activities that provide them with the opportunity to engage in academically meaningful conversations. A good teacher can’t have a ‘hands-off’ approach and rely on the computer or on-line platform. They have to be open to redefine their role, and in the blended classroom—explore ways  to leverage the face-to-face time. For this reason, blended learning approaches are gaining momentum. In an article written by Harvey Singh published in the Educational Technology Journal in 2003, it suggests that blending traditional learning with on-line learning is most effective because it’s student centered and empowers students to take ownership of the learning process through choice but also provides them with social interactivity, relevance and context. Not surprisingly, most educational advancements point to the need to combine multiple instructional approaches for the greatest gains.
There is power in virtual learning. Virtual learning and the internet have transformed my life and everyone’s life around me. Even as I sit here at my computer at home, I look across the room and see my husband and son on their respective computers doing ‘independent’ searches and investigations that are clearly more interesting and engaging than sitting around talking about the weather (I’m exaggerating, but you get the point).  The possibilities of technology are endless and I’m forever grateful for the access to learning and life experiences virtual learning has afforded me. However, there are challenges and dangers involved in virtual learning. One is the tendency to see it as a panacea for society’s struggle with student achievement. I worry that computers will take over human beings not because it’s personalized but rather because putting a kid in front of a computer is easier. Human beings are complex organisms and in contemporary society laden with inequities, intolerance and growing distrust for our ability as a nation to educate “all” children— I fear we might choose to hide behind the computer rather than use it as a tool for authentic learning.
I believe we have the capacity to interact with each other and create learning communities that are personalized, engaging, relevant and rigorous academically. I don’t believe that building meaningful relationships should be replaced by acquiring a certain number of followers and I certainly don’t think academic inquiry should be limited by the number of characters allowed on a social networking platform. Virtual learning like everything else has its place in the evolution of knowledge exchange. However, we  have to consider the implications of our technological advancements in education and ensure that our faith in human beings as the primary source of knowledge does not falter.

This article was reprinted by Truth Out 


Sunday, September 07, 2014

Raising Children to Believe or Not to Believe

I was at Ikea yesterday buying my daughter a desk. Upon our arrival, my husband and I looked at each other and frowned but quickly got into the Ikea “I’m-cute-even-though-I’m-cheap” mode we loved when we were just starting out. I suppose the initial frown was the reality that twenty years later we might have hoped to be shopping somewhere else, where the furniture is made of solid wood, for example or where we wouldn’t have to come home and put it together. I like Ikea, don’t get me wrong. I liked going there and enjoyed putting my daughter’s desk together with her and my husband even more. It was nice to close the windows on a hot and humid day, put on the AC and do something physical. In the evening, I hugged my daughter as we both stared at the desk and hutch and said, “How exciting is this, huh?” She smiled with happy sleepy eyes and I left her room satisfied. But there was a huge lump in my throat.


Let’s go back for a minute to Ikea so you can understand the lump in my throat.

We were in the ‘Work Stations’ section of the store where you can see all the furniture nicely put together and decorated in neat showcase rooms. The four of us had already spent at least thirty minutes going over the handful of desks and table tops. (We had in all fairness already looked at the one we wanted on line but wanted to be sure and save the delivery fee.) At the last minute, my daughter was considering an alternative style so I told her she could choose either one but should sit at the original desk one more time to be certain.

On the way to the desk, I saw a father and son eyeing the same unit. The son must have been sixteen or seventeen years old and at least six foot three. He was about a foot taller than his father. Both had on flip flops with white tube socks underneath. The son looked like an athlete, or in the very least, an athlete wanna-be. The boy’s hair was straight and slightly oily, his father had the same hair only thinner; the father’s stomach protruding over a similar pair of shorts. I could overhear the father telling his son the unit was perfect and what was wrong with it? The son examined what must have seemed to him a doll sized piece of furniture (that really, I wondered if it was even big enough for my five foot two seventy five pound daughter) while his father described it’s greatness. The son’s face remained straight as his father repeated himself over and over again.

To buy time and give them space, I let my daughter hop around from one unit to another excited about buying her desk for her first year in Junior High. We had given her a budget and had shopped for two weeks on line but after going over all the pros and cons of her small room and the ‘temporal’ nature of the purchase—we had settled on Ikea (she demonstrated just enough enthusiasm to placate any remorse in my mind about wanting to buy something better).

Meanwhile, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the towering young man with his aging father who five minutes later was still trying to convince his son that this small unit was just the right one. I have to tell you, I felt unexplainably tied to that moment as if we were strapped together by some imaginary umbilical cord.  My heart lunged. I was frozen with deep compassion for the moment, I couldn’t stop watching and feeling a broad spectrum of emotions.  As usual, I was probably staring. I wanted to go over there and take them by the hand and show them a bigger desk, one that was also affordable but was just a little further ahead in the showroom. But I couldn’t so I waited and watched to see what the son and father would do.

A few minutes later without saying a word and not changing the expressionless expression on his face, the son walked ahead and found a slightly bigger desk. The father followed behind and when the son pointed it out, he looked at the small tag that dangled on the side. Seeing that the price was about the same as the first, he nodded and starting talking again, the son listening, not saying a word. I knew the father was relieved that there was another option. I swallowed and stared, feeling a heave in my chest as they stood side by side and considered it together, the whole time, the son not changing the expressionless look on his face but standing right there with his Dad, considering. He knew his father wanted to buy him a desk he could afford and he’d make the best sales pitch around it. He knew he was being given a choice in the small window of ‘little to no choice’ but he would act as if he had all the choice in the world.

I have not been able to stop thinking about this father and son moment. In fact, I’m still reeling from the after effects of emotion and I don’t know why really. Perhaps it’s because it makes me examine my own feelings of grief and gratitude and humility. Examine my beliefs around parenting and poverty consciousness, about how to raise children to believe in the midst of scarcity. About what we do for our children (all parents, all children), about the masks we have to put on, about the games we play in order to pretend we’re moving ahead in spite of not having moved ahead very much at all.
I also can’t stop thinking about how that father couldn’t see the size of his son. I know that feeling-- wanting your child to stay small forever so you can shelter them from the world. We have the instinct to protect them and we want them to believe the world is wonderful and exciting and abundant and, and, and, and…. I know what it’s like to want time to slow down long enough for me to catch up because as the adult you want your children to see the greater half of yourself, you want to show them how to move ahead, not stay the same and definitely not fall behind.
But there it is. The first day of school arrived like a clock whether you were ready for it or not. Supplies and desks must be purchased. How do we raise children to believe in abundance when we’re faced with scarcity? How do we act based on trust and in total faith in the silent partner of the universe?
I know that moment in the store where I connected with that family will resonate in my soul for a long time. I was reminded I am not alone. I am in the company of millions and millions of parents in the world. We are raising children at a very precarious time. We are one. We are the same. That father’s pain is my pain, his hopes and dreams for his son are my hopes and dreams. His son is my son. I want him to have a desk he can sit at so he can learn and grow into a thinking man. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Thoughts on Writing: A Blog Hop

After a wonderfully relaxing vacation in Southern Spain, I came home to find an email from Maria Maldonado inviting me to participate in The Writing Blog Tour. As you can imagine, changing the scenery from rustic beaches, majestic mountains spotted with lazy bulls and sunflower valleys to the urban landscape of New York City was not easy. So getting invited to a 'blog hop' was exactly what I needed. I’ve known Maria Maldonado for a life time. Not only is she a clinical associate professor of medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and the program director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program at Stamford Hospital, she is also an integral part of my family. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, the “Narrative Matters” section of Health Affairs, and the Journal of the American Medical Association.  She blogs on medical education, health equity, and other matters pertaining to medicine at http://mmaldonadomd.tumblr.com/. You should visit her site. She’s a wonderfully, deep feeling writer.
            The purpose of this blog tour is to talk about writing so we can learn from one another and connect ourselves with other intellectuals who share in this uniquely personal art form. To me, writing has always been a dance with solitude. Although the audience is always out there, the act itself is an intimate and complex tango with all the demons and angels that make up my identity. Yes, I suppose anyone can write. But few have the tenacity and courage to make a life of it. It requires surrender; an acceptance of success and failure as equals and the recognition that in the silence of the moment writing never fails to enlighten.
            So, with this purpose in mind, here are the questions I’ve been asked to ponder:
            What am I working on? I’m currently working on a novel that was born out of a conversation with my son who suggested I write about a new society. I had been stuck on revising old projects for a while and he proposed a completely new, dystopian novel (I believe he said it was absolutely okay to do what other writers are doing) Then he added, “Write something I’d like to read.” Since I consider my son a philosopher with deep thoughts and big questions about life and existence— I felt compelled by his request. I’ve been working on this novel since and as it turns out, I’m enjoying myself tremendously. The developing story is about an independent community charged with fulfilling a young adult’s vision that makes them question the true nature of leadership & our responsibility to others. The novel is my primary project these days although I will continue to post on my blogs.
How does your work differ from others of its genre? I’ve been told my writing speaks to the intellect and the spirit. This makes sense because I’m an educator with a thirst for knowledge and a respect for research. But, I’m also an artist which makes me a rare breed. On the good days, I like to call myself an alchemist of the soul. Years ago when I attended New York University, I wrote a research paper intermingled with poetry. The professor loved it but she didn’t know how to grade it since it was supposed to be academic writing. Fortunately, she figured out a way to give me credit for the piece without having to throw out her tightly defined rubric. This goes to show you that even back then I had a tendency to mix things up a bit. In sum, my writing is infused with questions I hope will inspire people to examine the world we live in and how we can make a difference.
Why do you write what you do? I write about topics that help me build trust with myself, with God, with people and with the world. I write about themes that matter the most, themes that are universal and integral to our existence. I often use my writing as a platform to rant and rave. Life and living are sorely imperfect and writing is an opportunity for me to make peace with the ugly. I write about topics that stimulate the brain, help us transcend the mundane and rethink ourselves out of the box.
How does your writing process work? I’m a spiral writer and just in case I just made that term up, let me explain. I write and then spiral back to the previous page, edit and then continue on, spiral back a bit, edit and continue on. This is for two reasons. First, I need to revisit what I’ve written so I can get back into the zone. Second, I’m a teacher at heart so I find it painful to write without revising at the same time. I’ve read this is the worst thing you can do as a writer—revise while you write, but after many years of doing it compulsively, I’ve accepted this as part of my personal process. Fortunately, it somehow works out in the end. As for the novel I’m working on right now, I’m experimenting with something completely new. I’m writing without a master plan. I’m allowing the novel to unfold like an onion. The truth is, I have no idea where it’s headed. Each day (and I’ve made a commitment to write at least 10 pages a day), the story reveals itself in the moment. It’s not to say I don’t ruminate about it when I’m not writing (that’s impossible!) but I don’t really have it all charted out. This has been extremely liberating to say the least. When I told my daughter (who is a budding writer herself) she said, “Isn’t that so much more fun?” Yup. It is!
It gives me great pleasure to pass on this conversation to a writer and educator who I met a few years ago while grappling with one of my first writing projects. His name is Jude Hollins. Jude lives in Harlem, teaches in the South Bronx and wakes up around 4:30am to write. His current novel project involves a futuristic NYC with diverse characters that reflect the “majority minority” reality that already exists in many American cities. I highly recommend you visit his blog and website where he discusses the YA genre with all of its peculiarities. Jude’s writing is fresh, inventive and quirky. He effortlessly captures the creative lingo of the young people he writes for. Jude will be posting his Writing Blog Tour on August 21. Check him out at  shuiverse.blogspot.com and http://jude-hollins.squarespace.com


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Monkey Business

Dear President Business:[ii]

When we first met, I was in awe. It was the spell you cast on your followers— the way they’d stay up to all hours of the night waiting to get one moment of your time. Such power could only come from light, I thought.

It’s been said you are brilliant. I, too, was impressed by your ability to hold steadfast to a vision. A wise man in your midst once told me you were like the Wizard of Oz! If truth be told, I wanted to believe in your magic, especially at a time when my beloved field of education is in need of magic.

I told myself there’s nothing wrong with power and control if it can lead to good. What can be wrong with working for a man who has the power to get me back home? 

I put on a Monkey Suit for you, President Business. I did it willingly because I was sure it was the best I could do. I told myself I was President Obama, working with the men on the other side of the aisle.

But, people are afraid of those who know themselves. An enlightened woman cannot be enslaved.[iii] 

The more I believed in myself, the less time I spent at the alter of deference.
The more I spoke up for love, the less time I spent at the alter of workaholism.
The more I participated in conscientious engagement, the less time I spent at the alter of illusion.

Still, I was a willing soldier until the end. Not sure if the fight was right, but I believed I was fighting for what is mine.

Dear President Business:

The time has come to retire the monkey suit.

Perhaps one day you will realize you deserve freedom too.


***

        “Simply with complete conviction, I accept my freedom.” Ernest Holmes

                Dreaming is God’s gift to me. Without dreams, how does one survive? At night, pay attention to your dreams. Dreams are the language of God.[i]
                Last night I dreamed I was visiting a company.
                I arrive late but people are waiting for me in a circle. Amongst them, is my step-father, the man who taught me that conservative action has the most merit. Taking my seat, I pass a full length mirror.  I’m wearing a dress with many colors and I’m carrying a carpet bag shaped like a kidney bean. My hair’s disheveled and my eyes are bright and exciting. I’m a cross between Mary Poppins  and Willy Wonka.
                “You look unique,” my step father said inspecting my outfit.
                I take my place in the circle. I feel confident that what I hold in my bag will astound them, but as the dream progresses, I realize I had forgotten my folder. It was the folder that held all my important papers, education designs and the research I had accumulated over the years.
                At first I get anxious, but when I look around, I see the people in the circle are dressed equally inventive just like me. Each one has on a different color, each one distinctive.  One fellow, for example, wears purple glasses and a tie over a t-shirt. Realizing my audience, I ask, “What exactly do you guys do here?”
                One woman sits at the edge of her seat, listening. I talk to her about my last project and she says “We’re doing that already.” I realize I don’t need my briefcase filled with papers.  All the contents are old and useless. I get the sense she’s looking for something that doesn’t fit in a folder.
                She is looking at me, anticipating.
                 “What do you guys do here, exactly?” I repeated.

***



[i] The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
[ii] The Lego Movie
[iii] “The Rebel,” Osho

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Through the Looking Glass

I was born into this life time with no money but I swear I must’ve been rich before. Not once or twice rich, but a thousand times rich, like over and over. The piss of it is, I've now been reduced to the life of a voyeur. As I peer through the looking glass, I feel my pulse slow down. That familiar calm washes over me. Like when I walk down a super-wide chestnut tree lined street with mansions and manicured shrubbery. I feel perfectly at home. Fancy restaurants don’t scare me. On the contrary! I feel magnanimous. Especially when I get up to go to the bathroom. I glide past onlookers, keeping my eye on the tall windows that overlook the moon lit water, thinking the whole time I'm beautiful and free. Then, when I’m washing my hands with lavender bubbles and dry them on a perfectly folded laundered cloth—I'm a flower and I come out taller and with a sense of purpose. Five star hotels and quiet white sand beaches make me purr like a cat and all I want to do is nuzzle up with someone and think about making love. There, in the riches, the sun is always out even when it’s raining.  

Those are the times when it’s easy to ruminate about God and nature and the art of floating.

My life's not easy now.  I get smacked with guilt because my mind wanders to my past lives with such deep, deep longing. I chastise myself and try to convince myself that I must learn to master the art of compassion for the common man. That in mundane drudgery I'll find God. But, I don’t understand their humor. And if you can’t laugh then you’re just a sorry shit.

The truth of the matter is, being poor makes me angry. Not only are things darker and grey and broken and harder and longer and crowded—poor people are brainwashed, too. They believe that there’s some virtue in suffering. As if to be a better person you have to leave the kingdom for after you’ve died. They seem to think that wanting nothing is the door to spirituality.

That’s bull shit.

Giving up wealth is not the same as never having it. If you think Tolstoy or Gandhi.

The truth is, if you’re worried about the basic things in life, you have no time to think about anybody but yourself. Abundance is free for the taking, folks—I know because I’ve lived it before and it’s simply amazing. I did a lot of good in the world while I was free of debt and free of suffering. I had love to give, endless bounty.

So, what the hell? Why was I born into this lifetime with no money?
It must be one of God’s jokes. Maybe he wants to see how long it will take me to return to the natural state of things. Frankly, I’m anxious to get there quickly because this sure ain’t easy.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Encounter

Beneath the surface lies a past I recognize. It is a pulsating beat, the rhythm of a force field, the web of a thousand spiders glimmering under moonlight. It is more familiar than my husband. Where did it begin and how will it end? Stemming from the cavity I call subconscious wisdom, I am fully aware that I am in The Struggle.
The presence haunts me because it is a call to action. One moment I think its humility and the next I think humiliation. Is it the same thing?
I’m riding a roller coaster. Below my feet, the rumble is the steady. I belong to one destiny. It’s as if hands have already molded me and I’ve awakened to discover I am a sculpture being chiseled out from the mountain that is my surrender. Surrender to who or to what exactly?
I confuse God with the Devil these days. I thought they were two separate entities but now I know that each is the side of the other, both intertwined and engaged in the primordial struggle that is both inside and outside me. Either way, I am thirsty for it now that I know I don’t have to push passion aside to be good.
I recall the moment I realized I was no longer in possession of my soul. I could see the shadow behind him in my dream. He had many arms writhing this way and that, like the Indian Goddess Kali. They say Kali is the Goddess of Destruction, but the Destruction of the Ego is what she means. His legs were crossed at the ankles, which made him innocent and vulnerable but not in a child-like way, but rather the kind of softness a man develops after being devoured by demons but lives to survive.  Like Kali, he is soft, but in an instant can be taut like a black whip.
There was nothing transparent about that first moment, and yet—I was being exposed to more truth than I had in a decade.
Shortly after that moment, my life became more fiction than fact. I know now this is a stage of the soul.