Book review: Between father and son

511ktu-msbl-_sy346_Between the World and Me

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book is an earnest and fervent warning from Coates to his son and in reading it, I felt his urgency in trying to protect the life–“the body” — of his teen-aged son. Three long essays detail why being black in America is dangerous in ways that those who are not black can never fully appreciate.

Coates understands the reality. He could spend years educating himself, developing a career, acquiring assets, being responsible, and one racist act could end it all. He cites examples from history, the news, and from his own life.

Rather than trying to summarize his thoughts, I’ll let Ta-Nehisi (tah-nuh-hah-see) speak for himself.

The big message:

“…you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know… Indeed you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you… You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”

Race is a social, not a biological construct:

“As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissident; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”

No sudden moves:

“Each time a police officer engages us, death, injury, maiming is possible. It is not enough to say that this is true of anyone or more true of criminals… It has nothing to do with how you wear your pants or how you style your hair.”

 “Should assaulting an officer of the state be a capital offense, rendered without trial, with the officer as judge and executioner? Is that what we wish civilization to be?”

No escape:

“When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing.”

  “We could not get out. The ground we walked was trip-wired. The air we breathed was toxic. The water stunted our growth. We could not get out. …my father beat me for letting another boy steal from me. Two years later, he beat me for threatening my ninth-grade teacher. Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not escape.”

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic.

I recommend this book as a brief walk in another person’s shoes. I think you’ll find it both troubling and enlightening, as I did.

Book review: It ain’t over till it’s over

confedsConfederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

By Tony Horwitz

Think you understand the Civil War? Think you understand its causes and the influence it still holds on America? This book may cause you to think again, especially about why some folks can’t let it go, 150 years later.

As a boy, the prize-winning war correspondent Tony Horwitz was fascinated by the Civil War, particularly the books of old photos he studied with his Jewish immigrant grandfather. That passion is rekindled when, after returning from assignments in Bosnia and the Middle East, he is awakened one morning by the musket fire of Civil War re-enactors just outside his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Those shots signaled the beginning of a quest.

Throughout his travels, Horwitz demonstrates his curiosity and courage, his sense of humor and of history as he introduces readers to a host of characters including a band of “hardcore” re-enactors who diet just so they can look like starved Confederates and who spoon to keep warm on long cold nights. At every stop, he chats up bartenders, bikers, store-clerks, elected officials, teachers, home-schoolers, park rangers, as well as the staff at small museums and visitors centers. He even embarks on a marathon odyssey (dubbed a “Civil Wargasm”) from Antietam to Gettysburg to Appomattox with the super hard-core Robert Lee Hodge (pictured on the cover) as his guide. Horwitz covers a murder provoked by the display of a Confederate flag. He searches for Tara and meets a young woman who makes a living as a Scarlet O’Hara look-alike. He spends a day with Shelby Foote, as well as time with the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

What emerges defies easy description.

“In the neo-Confederate view, North and South went to war because they represented two distinct and irreconcilable cultures, right down to their bloodlines. White Southerners descended from freedom-loving Celts in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Northerners—New England abolitionists in particular—came from mercantile and expansionist English stock.”

“For the past several weeks people had been talking to me about ‘heritage.’ But like the flag, this obviously meant very different things to different people. For the Sons of Confederate Veterans I’d met in North Carolina, it meant the heritage of their ancestors’ valor and sacrifice. For <others> it was the heritage of segregation and its dismantling over the past forty years. Was it possible to honor one heritage without upholding the other?”

Tony Horwitz

The result of Horwitz’s inquiry is a complex mosaic–sometimes funny, sometimes frightening–full of irony and contradiction.  He sees a hardening of attitudes on both sides from the mid-1980s onward. They are more contentious and less interested in facts. While this book is nearly twenty years old now, the conflicts Horowitz exposes resonate even louder today.  Modern battlefields are “classrooms, courts, country bars” where the past and the present rub up against each other, in sometimes deadly ways.

“While I felt almost no ideological kinship with the unreconstructed rebels, I’d come to recognize that in one sense they were right. The issues at stake in the Civil War—race in particular—remained raw and unresolved, as did the broad question the conflict posed: Would America remain one nation? In 1862, this was a regional dilemma, which it wasn’t anymore. But socially and culturally, there were ample signs of separatism and disunion along class, race, ethnic and gender lines. The whole notion of a common people united by common principles—even a common language—seemed more open to question than at any period in my lifetime.”

After this last election, the half of us on the losing side can perhaps feel at least a little empathy for those who can’t let it go.  Americans again face a bitterly divided country. Friends and family members find themselves at odds. And once again our survival as a free nation is at risk. That alone is worthy of our consideration and a look back at what happened last time.


Sadly, education testing is BIG business

This column for the Nevada Appeal is from five years ago when I saw school budgets erode when it came to things like class-size reduction, teacher salaries, counselors, and enrichment programs. At the same time, budgets grew (and grew!) for testing. Look around your state, your district, your school and tell me if anything has changed. Are we still spending more on testing than we are on teaching?




Reading is antidote to toxic stress of childhood poverty

read aloud 4 Low income children suffer stresses that would buckle our knees and yet we expect them to learn and grow and develop at the same rate as their higher income classmates.

My Fresh Ideas column published this morning in the Nevada Appeal. Click here to read why Reading is the antidote.

Invest in Children, Not Testing. It’s That Simple.

“Children don’t magically do better when we test them more or raise the bar higher, they do better when adults back up higher expectations by creating supportive and enriched learning environments, that nurture and nourish children as whole human beings, with social, emotional and creative needs, not just as data points and test scores.” ~Christopher Chase at Creative by Nature

Christopher writes a great summary of what scholars and researchers (rather than politicians and test publishers!) know about what children and schools need.

Creative by Nature

“The best schools keep their eye on the prize—the kids—not just whether they are pleasing higher civil authorities. They see the job of adults as one of nurturing intelligence and empathy, openness to the world, while cherishing their children’s uniqueness. They stay close to families, and see teachers and parents as allies not adversaries.” ~Deborah Meier

kids drawing

Here is what the research tells us: We don’t need more money for state testing and national standards, what is needed is greater investment in successful teaching approaches, support services and innovative programs, so that high quality learning opportunities can be provided to all children. Money for teachers, dental and medical care, books, school trips, community building, lunch programs, arts programs, sports programs and whole school reform- not for Pearson, PARCC, private charter school investors and Common Core.

Decades of research has shown that solutions to education problems are not unknown or complicated, they just require a shift of priorities, and a willingness to put money into innovations…

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“You might be a kindergarten teacher if…”

This was originally published in the Nevada Appeal on January 9, 2006. I’m re-posting it here in honor of kindergarten teachers and one very special girl who is starting kindergarten today, my granddaughter.

kinder classAlthough I’ve been an educator most of my life, I came to kindergarten rather late in my career. Perhaps it is for that reason I have noticed that kindergarten teachers are really quite different from other teachers. However, I haven’t been able to put my finger on precisely what that difference was. Until now.
You might be a kindergarten teacher if:
• You buy two pairs of running shoes a year and you don’t run.
• You put 10,000 steps a day on your pedometer without leaving your classroom.
• “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and the “Hokey Pokey” are part of your daily exercise routine.
• You wear seasonal clothing and jewelry that no “normal” adult would wear. An apron is part of your “professional attire.”
• You use hand sanitizer before and after every activity.
• You find yourself humming the days of the week song in the shower.
• You ask, “Did you flush?” and “Did you wash?” at least one hundred times a day.
• You wash your own hands 100 times a day.
• You thank God for whoever invented baby-wipes, Mr. Clean Magic Eraser and Velcro shoes.
• A daily review of coughing, sneezing and nose-blowing etiquette is appropriate and necessary.
• You have to remind your students not to write on the carpet. Or each other.
• You have added “booger flicking” to the list of classroom misdemeanors.
• You’ve used one of those little toilets in the last week.
• You fall asleep at 8:30 every night.
• You show up for your manicure with tempera paint, Play-Doh, and glitter under your fingernails.
• You go to every grocery store in town looking for alphabet macaroni and get excited when you find alphabet cookies at Costco.
• You buy zip-lock baggies by the gross.
• It takes you three times longer to prepare a lesson than to teach it.
• Your carefully written—and rewritten—lesson plans bear only a slight resemblance to what actually happens in class.
• You can sing a song, recite a poem or name a picture book to teach every standard in the kindergarten curriculum.
• You spend part of nearly every weekend and vacation at school.
• Your average sentence length has shrunk to five words and you repeat every one of them—every one of them—at least three times.
• You easily decipher those cryptic personalized license plates.
• You’ve made your own peppermint- or gingerbread-scented Play-Doh.
• All twenty-nine of your students snap to attention when you say, “I like how Elliott is sitting.”
• All your pants have one or more of the following: paint stains, bleach spots, faded knees or dusty footprints from students putting their foot on your leg as you tie their shoes.
• Your first thought when the weatherman predicts rain is, “Oh, no. Indoor recess.”
• You recognize the irony in rewarding a large class for good attendance.
• You realize–too late–you didn’t learn how to say, “Don’t eat the glitter!” in your Spanish class.
• You stock up on Airborne, Echinacea and vitamin C every winter.
• You know it’s easier to go to work with a cold than to prepare for a substitute.
• You believe almost any art project is better with glitter.
• You’ve decided against Botox injections because then you couldn’t give “the teacher look.”
• When a student with limited English calls a book’s dust jacket a “sweater,” you understand the confusion and smile as you explain it.
• You know precisely how many days you have been in school. And how many days you have left.
• You’ve resorted to puppetry to hold your students’ attention.
• You spend at least as much time tying shoes as teaching the alphabet and it’s not even on the report card.
• You know what standards are covered by stringing colored macaroni on a necklace.
• You know kindergarteners need blocks, paint, Play-Doh, songs, stories, and patience. And outdoor recess.
• You are so accustomed to modeling good manners that you thank your dog for not barking. You even thank the police officer for your speeding ticket.
• A trip to a book store always begins and ends in the children’s section.
• You never go to the grocery store without buying at least one thing for school.
• During the course of your day, someone shows you— and you get to compliment them on–their new underwear.
• You work with the most spontaneous and deliciously unpredictable people in the world–five-year-olds.
• Little voices singing “Home Means Nevada” can make you cry.
• You consider it a privilege to be a child’s first teacher.
• You witness small miracles every day.


Three things I learned about the lifesaving power of kindness and learning

shakespeareShakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard  by Laura Bates.
1. Doing good–even for those who have done bad–is a good thing. We all benefit from kindness and compassion because…
2. Human beings tend to become who the world tells them they are. If we treat others—even prisoners—like animals, we shouldn’t be surprised when they act like animals. Whereas, if we treat others with respect and recognition of our shared humanity, they may begin to see themselves in that way.
3. Not all prisons have walls. Some are of our own creation. When we tell ourselves we can’t do something, that is a prison in a very real sense. And even in an actual brick and mortar prison, the mind can be free.
This book tells the true story of the transformation one teacher made in the lives of desperate, dangerous and hopeless prisoners. Larry Newton is one of those prisoners. He was sentenced to “life without” at the age of seventeen and spent a decade in solitary. When Larry began to study Shakespeare with Dr. Bates he began to see life from a different perspective. He could see that others have felt what he felt, faced what he faced. And while still challenged by a life in prison, he learned to set himself free with learning and passion and purpose. It saved his life. Read it to discover why he believes that learning has the power to save a lot of other lives as well.
Powerful stuff here. Highly recommend.