Teach Peace. Teach Truth. Correct the Textbooks.

Here’s an email from a colleague I love and respect. She accepted my request to publish her message on the blog. Please respond to her invitation to take meaningful action!

Hey everyone!

I volunteer for the Sikh Coalition and the Coalition is currently working on a Campaign which requests that publishers to print accurate information about Sikhs in Social Studies.

Even though the Coalition is the largest Sikh organization in the country, and even though we worked with the Sikh community in 2010 to get Sikhism in the state standards, publishers just aren’t taking us seriously enough.

As K – 12 educators I am asking for 5 minutes of your time. Please review the social studies books you use in your schools. If you find any mention of Sikhs in social studies textbooks — correct or incorrect, write down some information about the book (title, publisher, date, ISBN #) and snap a picture of the text and upload the information here –


If you know other educators, please pass this message along!

Here is an example of excerpts we have found.

Screen shot 2013-06-03 at 8.49.55 PM

Please let me know if you have any questions.


Please feel free to leave any questions for Amrit in the comments section of the blog. I’ll be sure that she receives any inquiries or comments in response to her message. Solidarity. <3


No One Wants to Know How Smart You Are. Don’t Talk.

I’ve lost count of the jaw-dropping, are you effing serious anecdotes I’ve heard (or personally experienced) concerning the New York City public school system in the last year. Just recently, I ran into a friend who has been teaching in NYC public schools for six years. She has decided she will not return next year. “Listen, I can’t take it.” she said. “No one wants to know how smart you are. No one wants to hear what’s not working. No one is interested in your ideas.” [Insert the sound of yet another teacher's soul being sucked from its host.] In short, she has lost her stamina and can no longer tolerate the brick wall of denial, avoidance, and bureaucratic inertia that make it nearly impossible for educators in this system to function.

Yesterday, a dear friend told me that she was chastised for reporting sexual harassment. She was told “if the girls aren’t reporting it to the administration then there isn’t a problem.” Translation: “It does not matter what you see or hear. It does not matter was is really happening. As long as I don’t hear about it, it doesn’t exist. Furthermore, how dare you tell me this is happening? Now I know it exists! I refuse to recognize its existence until this arbitrary, on-the-spot rule I’ve just now fabricated is met.”

Do I really need to explain in detail how utterly insane, morally base, and downright criminal the author of that rejoinder is? If a population of socially, economically, and politically disenfranchised teenage girls are not reporting sexual harassment to an apparently hostile administration, then there is no problem? Jesus. Christ.

Another friend confessed that she is still struggling to understand the Heller-like absurdities that permeate the system. She was naive enough at a recent professional development workshop to ask questions about a particular policy that is not only non-sensical but also negatively impacting many already vulnerable students across the system. The response to her inquiry? The facilitator called her school, mentioned her by name, and leaned into the administration. In response, my friend’s boss suggested that she “stop talking.” Hmm, I wonder what Charlotte Danielson would say to this.

So, in the current blame-the-teacher climate that too often frames the education debate, where do we situate these anecdotes?

Please share your own experiences with the brick wall.

Substantial Learning Gains–Teaching Seuss to Read

Dr. Seuss Wooden Nickel

Dr. Seuss Wooden Nickel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Graduate school is delicious. I love it. It is especially delightful to take a program that is grounded in practice. Such is my luck. This last semester I was asked to carry out a case study with a student in need of a literacy intervention. I was required to identify the student, administer word inventories and miscue analyses, and to learn as much as I could about the student’s prior schooling. With this information I was then required to design a literacy intervention, carry out that plan, and write up the results.

Well…the student I worked with achieved tremendous learning gains in two months (jumped several levels in the word inventory and moved from the primer level to level 3 in reading comprehension. It was an absolutely transformative experience for both my student and me. Here I am sharing my reflection about what elements I believe made such substantial learning gains possible–in such a short time (from mid-March to mid-May). NOTE: We didn’t do a lick of test prep ;-).

What the above results from pre- and post-assessments do not demonstrate is the tremendous socio-emotional transformation Little Seuss has undergone in the last two months. Indeed, he has transformed into a smiling, confident, participative boy in contrast to the reserved and quiet boy I found hiding in the corner of the classroom in mid-February of this year. In fact, just ten days ago Little Seuss approached me and said, “I want a nickname.” To which I responded, “Hmm. Let me think about it. We need a good one.” A week later I told him, “Hey kid, how about I call you Little Seuss?” He responded immediately, “No, call me Doctor Seuss because I know how to read.” I nearly cried. “Dr. Seuss it is.”

What facilitated such rapid growth?

I strongly believe that this intervention was successful for a variety of reasons, which are not listed in order of importance or degree of impact. First, I benefitted substantially from my colleagues’ collegiality and willingness to collaborate and brainstorm. In particular, one reading specialist at my school was always willing to look at writing samples, listen to my reflections on specific lessons, and to share ideas about what types of intervention were likely to benefit Seuss’s. On the same front, I received tremendous support from my supervisor and  a colleague responsible for overseeing the identification of students in need of special education services. Perhaps most importantly, I was also lucky enough to receive intellectual, emotional, and political support from my university-appointed field supervisor, Myriam, who generously shared her ideas and created space for me to talk through what I was learning throughout the case study process and to situate it all in a social-justice lens. Without Myriam’s insight and support I doubt that I would have been as fired-up and inspired as I was and continue to be.

Second, the miscue analyses provided invaluable insight into Seuss’s instructional needs. Once I had a sense of his instructional and independent reading levels, I was better able to choose appropriate materials for our work together. The miscue analyses also tuned me in to the difficulties Seuss was having in making sound-letter correspondences. As a result, we were able to focus on those particular needs from the bottom up—that is, through direct phonics instruction. However, it is important to note that my intervention used a blended approach, which combined explicit phonics lessons with multiple whole language experiences. Whenever possible I used authentic texts to introduce, clarify, or reinforce specific skills.

Third, from the start I was deeply concerned about the literacy poor environment in Seuss’s home. Therefore, I deliberately assigned him activities that were designed to create a more literacy rich environment in the household. For instance, Seuss and I would read a book, such as The Fine Gardeners together during a one-on-one tutoring session. He was then required to take the book home and read it to his mom in English, and to translate it into his L1 as they moved along. This practice had multiple goals: building a more literacy rich environment at home, building Seuss’s ability to read and retell, and to create opportunities for him to expand his proficiency in his L1. Seuss became an enthusiastic independent reader after successfully reading The Cat in the Hat to me during one of our tutoring sessions. At one point I asked if he wanted me to finish reading the story because there were still fifteen pages to go and we were running past our allotted time. He insisted “No, I want to read this myself.” He did. As we walked together back to his homeroom he told me “I love this book. I’m going to read it a lot.” Two weeks later his mother reported in a meeting with school officials that Seuss was reading everyday after school—a lot more than he had ever done before. If any of the causes listed in this reflection were to be identified as the most important, Seuss’s consistent effort in reading independently is no doubt the strongest factor leading to his dramatic learning gains. I am so darn proud of this kid.

Finally, Seuss benefitted from the constant and compassionate support his classmate provided him. Soon after I arrived to the school in mid-February I recognized that Max, another ELL in Seuss’s homeroom, was a bright, mature, and successful student. I made him an ‘editor boss’ whose job it was to provide support for Seuss and another student in his group. Seuss and Max soon became best friends, which I believe improved Seuss’ self concept and helped facilitate his construction of a new identity as a reader, as a writer, and as an active participant in a learning community.

Now, the million dollar question is: How do I find the time to work this closely with all of my students who are in need of such an intensive intervention? This experience–working with Seuss–has been the absolute highlight of my first year. He has taught me so much! Thank you Seuss!

Department of Mis-Education

Nearly every morning I wake up with a sense of dread. The innumerable structural inadequacies that complicate my ability to teach overwhelm me to the point of despair. However, once I walk into the building and begin interacting with students, I feel a sense of belonging and peace. Then the adults show up and disturb that peace. Politics, bitterness, back stabbing, and gossip. Each day I begin with an earnest desire to provide my students with quality instruction, conversation, and relationship. Each day I am beaten down by the slew of bureaucratic inertia and toxicity that has infested the system at large. It has become clear to me at this tender point in my teaching career that authentic teaching rarely happens in the classroom—and is even less likely to happen during a formal observation.

This reflection is written from the confluence of fear (concerning formal observations), a new awareness of the social politics among teachers, and the deep sense of uncertainty about whether I should remain in my current position next fall—or within the profession itself. Although I am absolutely certain that I have made a tremendously positive impact on many students’ lives, very little—if any—of this is measurable by the instruments used to evaluate teachers. Is it possible to function in a system that is so broken, so malicious, and utterly inhumane? Each day I watch this archaic and mindless machine crush the souls of curious, creative, and intelligent young people. I see the talents and intellect of teachers overlooked, obstructed, and wasted. All of this destruction is in service of what? Indeed, at this point in my experience I do believe that Lauryn Hill’s voice captures the truth most succinctly and completely: This is the Department of Mis-education (D.O.M.).

Late in the school year I narrowly escaped the hostile grip of my first principal. Her irrational compulsion to destroy me was not dissolved by my departure. She made sure to follow me to my new school by going out of her way to contact the main office there and inform them that she would be sending my file, which was filled with her vitriol. It filled me with panic and I continued to feel as if I were on a sniper’s hit list. How can I learn? How can I grow when I am living in a shadow of fear while navigating a maze of structural violence?

This, I suppose, is precisely the danger that Parker Palmer warns against in the final chapter of The Courage to Teach.  Palmer recommends that in order to not only survive the institutional dysfunction but also to actively promote change we must not make the institution our center. He writes that we must find a community of like-minded people who are devoted to creating motion that will promote change and ground ourselves in that community and within that spirit of change. What tears at my equilibrium is the seeming duplicitousness that is required to function within such a system—one that marginalizes the essence of its charges. I’m still processing my position in this institution—the D.O.M.—and how I can work within or against it—or if it is worthwhile to do either.

I wish I could write that I feel rejuvenated and that looking back I see that I have grown. Unfortunately this is not the case. Indeed, I feel deflated, defeated, and consumed by an existential doubt that creates an echoing voice that asks “Why am I here?” A backlog of hostile exchanges, baffling absurdities, and the debris from the tsunami of blind and brute force that swells up from the belly of a terrific beast—the D.O.M.—fighting viciously to preserve its own existence…all of this has left me shipwrecked and seeking cover. My only intention, at this point, is to spend the summer writing. As for my philosophy of education?—by definition, it is something that must happen outside the diseased walls of the D.O.M.

Mapping Public Access to ICT in NYC in Effort to Bridge the Digital Divide

Map: NYC Public Access to ICT

My colleagues and I in the NYCTF TESOL cohort are endeavoring to collaboratively create a map that identifies establishments that provide free public access to ICT. We will begin editing the map in class tomorrow evening during my presentation on Mario Kelly’s article “Bridging Digital and Cultural Divides: TPCK for Equity of Access to Technology” as one of two activities geared toward developing practical solutions for integrating technology in under-resourced teaching contexts.

I’ve initiated the process by mapping the locations of the Computer Resource Centers (CRCs) located in the Bronx. The group will map the CRCs in the other boroughs during our collaborative mapping activity.

Click here for a list of the CRCs in NYC.

Click here for a list of New York Public Library Branches

Click here for a list of YMCA branched in NYC, many of which offer free computer access and classes.

We will then begin identifying public libraries and other community-based organizations that provide free pubic access to ICT. Each participant will begin by mapping the area surrounding his or her teaching context. For example, a fellow who teaches in Sunset Park will search for establishments in that vicinity. Ideally, each fellow will leave the activity with a live resource that he or she can use to direct his or her students to establishments that will provide them and their parents with free access to ICT.

After the presentation and in-class collaborative mapping activity, we will make this map public in effort to crowd source information about CBOs and other establishments that provide free public access to ICTs. This resource should be invaluable to educators in the city who are working to bridge the digital divide.

Letter from a New York City Teaching Fellow

The atmosphere was eerie when I slid my front window open and peered into the night. Sandy was due in about 24 hours. Sadly, yet notably, many of my colleagues in the New York City Teaching Fellows were praying that school would be canceled. Nearly everyone, it seems, is overwhelmed to the point of saturation. Personally, I wave in and out of that sensation only because I’ve been fortunate enough to land a job in a school that is staffed by an incredibly kind, supportive, and compassionate teachers–they have helped me slowly get my bearings as a first year teacher.

There has been little time for reflection since June, when the fellowship kicked off. Throughout June, July, and the first few days of August the fellowship wasted our time and energy by pushing us through a summer training program that was irrelevant at best and utterly ill-conceived and damaging at worst (I should say “more realistically” rather than “at worst”!). The entire summer was spent focused on a militaristic approach to classroom management. There was NOT ONE bit of training related to unit and lesson planning, instructional strategies, assessments, and so on. Just a bunch of clapping for attention and demanding eye contact.
Well, now that all eyes are on me, what shall I do? This is the burning question driving most fellows to absolute sleep deprivation and edging them toward emotional collapse.

Many folks find my blog after searching for information about the New York City Teaching Fellows. For you folks who are interested in the program and considering applying to the fellowship a colleague of mine agreed to allow me to publish a recent email she wrote to me about her experience up to this point.

Hey there Kelly-

How is my most beautiful, justice-seeking, freedom-fighting friend? I hope this week off was productive for you in the sense of rest, rejuvenation, and empowerment. For me, on the other hand, I found that the week off further encouraged my growing discomfort with this program. I could not bring myself to think about work this entire week… I managed to squeeze out some writing for Hunter, but only by a hair, and now facing work tomorrow I am filled with dread.

The job I am being asked to do (and now pressured by my principal to do more effectively) is simply impossible. It is impossible…. I am finding that I am not a solution to the systematic inadequacies within the DOE, but rather I am adding to the problem. Not to mention that this job effectively took a bright-eyed, children-loving, socially active woman and turned her… me… into a morose, angry, impatient, grump who dreads waking up in the mornings.

I am fairly certain that I am going to quit. I do not feel affective, I just feel affected. But, the upside is that my eyes have been opened to the gross corruption, inadequacies, and maltreatment being imposed by the New York City education system and I want to be part of that change.

Can you please refer me to organizations, schools, and/or activists who are actively challenging this system and working towards a fair and just solution? I cannot sit idly by knowing that these things are happening, but I also cannot work under such oppression anymore. It would be great to get involved with some groups who are standing on the frontline with these teachers and students and supporting them in their fight for justice.

Again, I truly hope you found some peace during this week and that your home and family are safe. Let me know how you are doing and I am eager to see you next week in the instance that I am still enrolled in the program.

All the best,

It’s true–the person who wrote this message is by nature a bright-eyed, children loving, socially active individual. The last time I saw her she appeared to be on the cusp of a breakdown. It broke my heart to see her so depleted and distressed. We have lost quite a few fellows already. Surely some readers will be further encouraged by this news. They might think, “I have the chutzpah to soldier through it!” Perhaps you do. The bottom line is this: Each year the NYCTF sends about 1,000 unqualified and untrained individuals into the highest need schools in the city. Every fellow I know is bright, has an impressive academic pedigree, and is committed to the point of insanity BUT we are not qualified for this work yet. WHY not subsidize the training and pair fellows with mentor teachers–similar to the model used by the Teaching Residents @ Teachers College program? Yes it would be more expensive but it will likely result in higher quality instruction and higher teacher retention rates.
I feel called to teach. I love teaching, I love my students, I love my colleagues, I love my school….which is precisely why I am arguing for a different model. Yes, I am infinitely grateful to have been given the opportunity to become a teacher but I feel strongly that the NYCTF program is an irresponsible one–it is unfair to our students, young teachers, and our communities. Yeah…and I hear that Teach for America makes the NYCTF shite storm look look a sun shower.

Learning to Access the Deep Heart

They are the walking wounded. The poorest most vulnerable young people among us. Do we want to forget about them or pretend that they deserve what they are (not) being given? How is it we can stand ourselves–living in this so-called developed nation–knowing full well that we routinely abandon our youth–especially those who are living in poverty and on the increasingly thick margins of privilege. What can we do today and moving forward to reach and teach these young people so that they have the skills they need to not only read, write, and reason but also to access their deep hearts and connect with others in this world? To not only read the world but also to respond to it.

On Thursday I visited a Title 1 school situated in a working poor neighborhood in Brooklyn. The kids walk through security gates each morning before heading to school. They place their book bags on conveyor belts leading to the x-ray examination. Dear kids, come to school and we will remind you each morning that we think of you as accomplished criminals or criminals in training. Dear kids, come join us in the pipeline. Schools starts with a bag search, a body search, and a direct expression of our lack of trust. (As a visitor, I was also required to go through the ‘security’ procedures.)

Many of the young people simply don’t show up to school on time. During the first period class I observed–which was supposed to begin at 8:00am–the majority of the class was absent. As students trickled in, there was no apparent consequence presented or communicated regarding their tardiness. I wondered to myself if this is a case of ‘choosing one’s battles.’

Throughout the day I observed an ongoing detachment among the students–they simply  (there were a few exceptions) weren’t really paying attention or doing work. The phrase “walking wounded” kept appearing in my own mind as I observed young people staring into space, ignoring their assigned tasks, wandering into class late. There appeared to be lots of “assertions of toughness”…that type of affected “you can’t get to me” swagger that I saw from a deeply traumatized young man (12 years old) I worked with in St. Louis. (He kept that up until one day–after months of one-on-one work together–I told him “You know, you’re safe here.”) I wonder, how many of the young people in this school feel safe and settled enough to learn? How many of them are getting their basic needs met?

I was given the opportunity to sit in on a teachers meeting. The teachers were all absolutely lovely and apparently committed. It was clear that they knew the students well: their progress (or lack of) and their particular situations. Too, their was a notable collegiality but also a sort of fatigue–but not cynicism–which was managed by what I perceived to be a healthy sense of humor. As the teachers discussed the upcoming graduation and worked to come up with names for recognition, scholarships, etcetera, I repeatedly heard: “She’s not going to make it. [graduate] She’s on the two-day plan.” And, “He’s not going to make it. He needs credits and regents and he’s on the one-day plan.” These “plans” aren’t plans-they refer to students’ chronic absenteeism.

Each class I observed was taught by a high quality teacher–the lessons were interesting and well planned and presented. The geometry teacher in particular was a brilliant educator. In another class, I was sitting alongside two students who were reading an overview of the Democratic of Congo’s “resource curse.” I engaged them in conversation about the reading assignment and looked at the graphic organizers they were completing in order to prepare for a debate. It soon became clear to me that one of the two students was reading at a very low level. She was able to decode the words but had extremely limited comprehension. My guess is that she was reading at about a third grade level. When I asked her if she understands the phrase “resource curse” she looked at me with the most heartbreaking expression it ripped into my soul–she looked scared, lost, helpless, sad when she said “I know curse is a bad thing so I think it means something bad.” She is in the tenth grade. My heart is breaking and I do not know how we can begin to heal all the damage that has been done. When will me make that change come?

School Visits, Job Fairs, and Deconstructed Champions

In early March I was invited to join the NYC Teaching Fellows. Three weeks later I confirmed my enrollment and immediately got to work on the various administrative tasks required of new fellows: getting my fingerprints taken at the NYC DOE, collecting transcripts and shot records, and completing the first two online courses that were made immediately available to us and which are required for certification. At the same time I established a study plan in order to best prepare for my certification exams (LAST and Multi-Subject) and even started taking a crack at the recommended reading list provided by the folks at fellowship headquarters and venturing out on a few school visits.

Suddenly, it’s May and most of us (if not all of us) have received our university assignments and have begun the online pre-training enrollment course (not to be confused with the two courses mentioned above; those courses were the Mandated Reporter Training/Child Abuse Reporting Workshop and School Violence Prevention and Intervention—a.k.a. School-to-Prison Pipeline 101). We are also—many of us—counting the days until our summer training begins on June 11th. The time is moving quickly and suddenly my day is jam packed—and I know many other fellows are even busier, particularly those who are relocating to NYC in order to participate in the fellowship. Already, it seems, there’s not much time to take a step back and reflect.

Immediately before joining the fellowship I had been conducting research and writing a preliminary draft of a course about reflective teaching practices. I was at a bit of a standstill in the writing and design process because, frankly, I felt that it was crucial for me to have more experience (that is, more than zero) working as a public school teacher in the United States. Although I have a good deal of experience teaching in informal education programs and seven years’ experience teaching ESL abroad…I’ve never had to deal with the infamously contentious, malfunctioning, seemingly in a state-of-protracted emergency United States public school system. “Who am I,” the self-inquiry posed, “to teach public school teachers about reflective teaching practices, when I’ve had absolutely no practical experience with the pressures, constraints, joys, and frustrations encountered by those who belong to perhaps the most crapped-upon profession in the USA today? So, after spending two months reading everything I could get my hands on about reflective teaching practices, I accepted the fellowship opportunity and requested a break from my research to focus on the NYCTF induction, during which I would essentially take notes that would later inform the course design. My mentor supported my decision and provided helpful insight and encouragement.

When I began my internship with Teachers Without Borders I had in place a five-year plan to become a public school teacher, who would be sure to etch out sufficient time on a regular basis (at least weekly) to reflect through writing (in a private journal and on my blog), drawing (sketching in a notebook to simply unwind and process in a wordless medium), conversation with colleagues (to hear different perspectives, share support, and become aware of my own blind spots), etcetera on what was happening in my classroom, school, and community. (That’s only the beginning of the five-year plan!) I haven’t even begun teaching yet and already I must push myself to create space for these reflections.

Here, rather than provide a detailed literature review analyzing various ideas about reflective teaching practices, I’ll say this: It’s necessary to routinely take a step back, look at the big picture, critically examine my own behavior and the ways in which my practice is being received by students as well as colleagues and administrators. It’s important—and will enrich and ‘keep honest’ my practice—if I commit myself to a ritual examination of my own assumptions about teaching and learning, communication, and the people in my learning community. At this point, that is, in this post, I’d like to reflect a bit on my experience in the fellowship to date. It’s still quite early but it’s important to me to establish this practice of reflection from the beginning and I do hope that some other fellows (or anyone else) will find these reflections helpful.

I’m scared. What if my passion, idealism, and sense of being called to teach is squashed, squandered, and squelched by the infamous bureaucracy? (Isn’t alliteration spectacular?) When I read Jonathan Kozol, I feel cozy, inspired, and redeemed—a bit like those late nights with a flashlight reading a book that I’m ‘too young’ to read, in a tent made of my own bed sheets and the strength of my own inherent compulsion to rebel at whatever stands between me and learning. My curiosity will not be strangled. But what about my idealism? Will the ‘system’ eat me up and spit me out half-dead and soul-stripped?

I disagree. With what? (I promise, it’s not with everything and anything.) With the many troubling assumptions that inform Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, a book that all fellows are required to read before the start of our summer training. Assumption number one: the banking method is the only successful approach to teaching and learning (Lemov’s impassioned rants against seating arrangements that stray from the industrial model of single-file rows of students facing the teacher at the blackboard underscore his deep suspicion of student-directed learning and collaboration). Assumption number two: classroom management is based on fear and subjugation. Here’s a quote: “Standing just over a student’s shoulder as you peruse his work or standing at the back of the classroom as a class discusses a topic builds subtle but pervasive control of the classroom environment in order to focus it on learning.” [My italics] Is learning the focus in that scenario? Learning what? It sounds a lot like learning one’s ‘place’ in a deeply disturbing power dynamic. The thing is, there are very successful educators who build classroom cultures that are based on mutual respect not fear and domination. Am I the only one who started humming Strange Fruit when I read this passage?

I am inspired. The fellow fellows inspire me. Teachers I’ve met on school visits inspire me. Students wide-eyed and imperfect inspire me but more than ANYTHING–true to my undying love for and solidarity with the most beautiful courageous rebels who have taught me to stand up and speak out (Martin Luther King Jr., Paulo Freire, Mahatma Ghandi, Sri Ramakrishna, Helen Keller, Nina Simone, Thoreau, the Freedom Riders, Jonathan Kozol, the profoundly radical Jesus, and yes there are MANY many more–I am inspired by INJUSTICE. Inspired to action, inspired to dissent, inspired to speak out and act up but more than anything, inspired to TEACH. Thus, my inspiration is closely linked to my above-mentioned disagreement and fear! Kozol writes in On Being a Teacher: “It seems to be a rule of thumb in the United States, as in most other nations of the modern world, that the only acceptable rebel–certainly the one whose greatness is most certain and unclouded–is a dead one.” (He is writing about the ways in which the words and works of famous radicals are watered down in textbooks. For example, “Thoreau was enraged by several attitudes and actions of the U.S. government, above all our toleration of the slave trade and the war against Mexico.”…yet, most of us encounter Thoreau’s poems about nature when we are students. p 39)

I’ll leave you with some inspiring words from Kozol (also from On Being a Teacher):

The hidden curriculum, as we have seen before, is the teacher’s own integrity and lived conviction. The most memorable lesson is not what is written by the student on a sheet of yellow lined paper in the lesson pad;nor is it the clumsy sentence published (and “illustrated”) in the standard and official text. It is the message which is written in a teacher’s eyes throughout the course of his or her career. It is the lesson which endures a lifetime.

I hereby pledge to look into my own eyes each morning and ask myself, “What message is there?”

Girls Can! But you knew that, right?

Theresa is rich—not so much with money or material assets—but certainly with intelligence, imagination, and a relentless commitment to share. She is my older sister—by adoption, that is; I decided that she should play that role in my life and true to her own character she readily and happily agreed. We met through an ad, which she had written and published on craigslist, calling for volunteers to donate their time to an organization called ByteWorks. The ad, like Theresa, expressed an openness that encouraged anyone, anywhere, of various shapes, skill-sets, and sizes to join in the fun. We’re a community, after all. Let’s join together and collaborate!

Theresa describes herself in less romantic terms. When I asked her what motivates her to spend a substantial amount of time and energy working on grass-roots informal education programs she explained, “I’m a total butthead and can’t work within the system and deal with politics.” She added, “The only way I can know I’m making a difference is to go out and make it.” The thing is though…these days Theresa isn’t just donating her time and energy by joining an already existing program, she is actually in the midst of developing and piloting a program for girls that is designed to give them the opportunity to practically experience their own abilities to explore, tinker, and problem solve. The program: Girls Can!

What is Girls Can!? It’s not about telling girls they are smart and capable, it’s about creating a space in which girls are given the opportunity—including access to mentors—to experience their own abilities. The Girls Can! program links high school girls between the ages of 14 and 18 with adult mentors, who with a very light touch provide the girls with guidance and support as they build their own computers from scratch. Yup, from scratch.

Since its inception in November seven girls have joined the program at St. Elizabeth Academy, where Girls Can! is being piloted. The girls participate when they can—some join for an hour and a half during time allotted for elective studies or study hall, others join after school, and now—Theresa just initiated Saturday hours—some join twice a month on Saturdays. Essentially, despite the girls busy schedules and the limited amount of time they are able to attend Girls Can! sessions, all seven girls have already collaborated to build one computer—which they jointly agreed to raffle off to raise funds to be used to purchase more components—and four girls have built themselves computers. More components were recently delivered and the other three girls in the program will soon build themselves their own computers.

What does this mean? It means that the girls in the program—in a very short time indeed—go from “looking at a box of expensive electronic components thinking ‘I can’t touch that’” to digging into the box of components, tinkering with various parts, and building an operational computer. Most importantly, the girls are developing learning attitudes that enable them to transfer the skills they’re developing to other topics of inquiry. Theresa has noticed this shift in the girls’ thinking, and states that they are learning “the skills to take a good look at it [any problem] and figure it out, get rid of that ‘I can’t do it’ fear. Once they get that it will benefit them wherever they go.”

Any other results? Well, at a time—adolescence—that is infamous for dramatically altering girls’ relationships with their fathers, the girls in the program have reported that “my dad wants to know how I’m building this.” Older girls have told Theresa that their “boyfriend wants to know all about it.” In short, Theresa laughs, “Dads want to know [the computer’s] specs and the boyfriends are jealous.” This is an empowering lesson for girls at a time that is too often marked by a loss of power, as the pressure to be cute and not too smart is pressed onto them. They are learning that “you can be confident, you can be smart, and people aren’t going to think less of you for that, in fact, they may even think more of you.”

One participant told Theresa during her first Girls Can! session that when she is older she plans on being a nurse or working in a hotel. These days her goals have changed substantially. In the short-term she is applying for a part-time job at a local computer center because “she feels confident to deal with and talk about technology.” In the future she plans to attend Washington University, where she intends to study bio-informatics. Eh?! Girls Can!!!!!

Other folks have noticed the tremendous and positive influence the program has had on participants: the school’s teachers and administrators. The principal is so impressed by the difference she has recognized in the participants’ learning attitudes that she is currently working to establish Girls Can! as a for-credit elective course in order to provide more girls with the opportunity to attend the sessions on a regular basis. The program has also caught the attention of another community-based organization that has expressed interest in linking up with Girls Can! to build computers for a women’s shelter in St. Louis.

Telling them “you’re smart” isn’t enough, says Theresa. “I’m not telling them anything. They are learning by doing” and as a result they independently recognize that they are capable, smart, and interested.

If you are interested in establishing a Girls Can! chapter in your school, community center, or living room, or would like to contact Theresa to learn more about the program, feel free to contact her via email at tmk@girls-can.org.

Skating to Kabul~Half Pipes and Whole Hearts

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Erika got to Kabul via skateboard. In 2009 she and a few other women friends were passing around an article they had read in the New York Times. The women—who regularly produced a women’s skateboarding zine—were all avid skaters. Erika’s friend Rhianon got in touch with Oliver and volunteered to join Skateistan. In May 2010 she set off for Kabul to help build a skate park and education programs for boys and girls. She is still involved with the organization today.

As Rhianon sent updates from Kabul, Erika began to understand that the “reality on the ground [in Kabul]” was more complex than the IED-centric news reports. “Hundreds of girls going to skateboard once a week,” Erika said, “I knew that had to be something special.” And so she found herself reminding people in her life—many who strongly opposed her decision to move to Kabul for six months to help provide Afghani youth with opportunities to play and learn—that “the plane flies both ways.”

The pressure to not go was fairly strong. One of Erika’s professors at university wrote her an email in which he strongly advised her to cancel her plan. Her father cried. Her mother, however, supported her choice and wished her the best luck. “My mom really trusts my judgment and knows I know how to take care of myself.”

Once there, she was overwhelmed by beauty and disaster. “Never before in my life had I met kids who had so much energy and so much joy. There were hard times too, which totally broke my heart, but I guess that is the point of the program—to create a space for kids to be kids.” When asked about the pervasive violence in Kabul and how it affected her, the program, and the kids, she told me, “The attacks seemed few and far between but the poverty is widespread and constant.” Living in a “regular house” (rather than a compound filled with foreign diplomats and aid workers) in Kabul and interacting with Afghans day-in and day-out, Erika “found the day-to-day stuff much more difficult to deal with.” The tent cities, abject poverty, and children running through traffic to sell chewing gum to help support their families…this was the stuff of constant suffering and it was hard for Erika to bear.

It doesn’t take too long to see and feel Erika’s expansive heart. She’s open, thoughtful, and powerfully sincere. She’s the rare sort of character who takes in her environment, processes it, and gives back love. Talk to her and you’ll feel it. This wholeness clearly informed her work at Skateistan. She taught “tons and tons of skateboarding” as well as environmental health classes that included lessons about safe drinking water and sanitation and a neighborhood clean up, during which kids collected trash and pulled from it materials to make recycled art objects.

There was also a theater project—kids wrote their own scripts, made their own costumes, and put on their own plays. The theater project was an excellent way for kids—those with and without the ability to read and write—to express their concerns. “The girls wrote a lot about not being able to go to school or to Skateistan and the boys wrote about things like having to work to make money to support their parents’ drug habits.”

As Skateistan’s Education Coordinator, Erika made sure that all programs were accessible to all kids. Most Afghan children have had no schooling at all or have had irregular access to school. Skateistan’s approach to teaching and learning is conversational—it’s built on two questions: What can the international staff teach the Afghans? What can the Afghans teach the international staff? A radically different approach than that taken by traditional aid programs, which implement programs from above and behind the walls of a heavily guarded compound. “I think the fact that people working with Skateistan were amateurs was a good thing. We’re really flexible and we want to learn from our experience.” Erika reflected.

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Before traveling to Kabul in June 2010 to work at Skateistan “I never knew or thought about development—skateboarding brought me there….I did do a lot of volunteer work…but I never thought it was a way of life” or a job. However, after arriving in Kabul, Erika says she realized “what development is doing and how ineffective it is.” Her main complaint was the fact that most aid workers she observed or encountered in Afghanistan rarely left their compound. They would spend months, even years, in country and might know one or two Afghans at work but would rarely interact with Afghans outside the walls of the compound. “They don’t really know the guy in the veggie stand or at the bakery, and they don’t know their neighbors or go to the market. They’re disconnected from the activities and the struggles of daily life.” She says.

Erika’s experience was very different and a powerful testament of what can happen when we deconstruct the walls that divide us and prevent us from connecting with others. “I’m really grateful to have had this opportunity,” Erika cried, “I really love the place and the people. I really had the chance to see not what’s different but what’s the same. I never before met kids with so much love. For a lot of them it’s the one thing in their lives that’s constant and a source of happiness.”

These days Erika is studying for her master’s in Berlin but she continues to support Skateistan and her kids in Kabul. “I’m married to this organization. No matter how upset I get sometimes, my heart is there and it’s something I’ll always do.” She continued, “I learned so many things from it and that’s the best part of education…you learn so much more than you can ever teach anyone else.”

Who needs a schoolhouse when you’ve got a skate park?


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