In 2016 Ibram X. Kendi wrote an acclaimed book called Stamped from the Beginning, The National Book Award winning history of how racist ideas were created, spread, and deeply rooted in American society. Now that book has been adapted by Kendi and Jason Reynolds in what they call a remix for young audiences.
You can listen to my interview with Ibram Kendi and Jason Reynolds as broadcast today on the Arts Express program on WBAI 99.5FM NYC, WBAI.org, and Pacifica stations across the country by clicking on the triangle or mp3 link above to listen.
With Joe Kirk as Mr. Bacciagalupe. Here’s are some fun facts: According to ever-reliable Wikipedia, Kirk’s original name was Ignazio “Nat” Curcuruto, his family was from Sicily, and… he was married to Lou Costello’s sister Marie.
Thanks to YouTuber Kovacs Corner
My last day of working in a NYC public school was in June of last year. I had been coaching teachers and working with students the previous four years at a public International High School in NYC, and I had been teaching for two decades before that as well. When I went to tell the principal at the end of the school year that I would not be returning, she asked me what my thoughts were on improving the school. I told her I would write her a letter. Here are some excerpts of that letter I wrote to her.
I greatly appreciated it when you asked me what my thoughts were about how the school could be improved. I wasn’t expecting that, and it shows a real commitment to education and the school to ask that…
As soon as one walks into this school, its greatest strength is immediately apparent: a sense of community and a sense of caring by teachers and administrators… That tone always comes from the top and is transmitted throughout the school, to the teachers first, a sense that their contributions and thoughts and lives are valued. That in turn is transmitted to the students, again, that their lives are valuable and that they are valued, that that is the whole point of this thing. And it’s not easy for the school leader, because in a very bureaucratic structure, one is always pressured to produce results with metrics and standards that are often meaningless to anyone but those in the bureaucracy. And the pressures can be substantial, as you well know. It takes personal courage and conviction to stand one’s ground in the face of those above as to what ultimately and really is most important for one’s school and one’s students, and the development of a democratic, egalitarian society. And when teachers and students sense that this is where the person at the top stands, a true community is born.
We live in the real world, so I must talk about the real world. Particularly with respect to our international students and the current political climate, I think it is important that our school forms alliances to protect itself from the vultures all around. First off, I think it important to build further alliances with the other public schools in the building. [The charter school in the building] is going to try to keep chipping away at any free space in the building it can. I’ve seen it happen elsewhere, we are not immune. I’ve seen it come to the point where schools which once had classroom space were squeezed out of their own homes and facilities. The alliance with other public school principals in the building is so important. We presently have a building-wide sports team; I think it might be worth investigating other areas where we can encourage other programs across schools. For example, we might be able to address the economics of Advanced Placement programs by having building-wide AP programs, one school supplying an AP English class for example, while another school provides an AP Spanish class (wouldn’t that be great for our students to be building on their strengths!) or AP Computer class. And building-wide orchestra and band classes, funded by outside grants…
It’s very important that the Network principals come to an understanding what they stand for, independently of what the Network Superintendent’s official position is. I will be very frank here: I do not know anything at all about the present Network superintendent, so what I am saying is not based on anything personal. I only say that Superintendents come and go easily, it is a politically sensitive position, and there have been times in the past when they didn’t even understand what the mission of our schools was, even while they were supposed to be leading it. It is up to you and the rest of the principals to keep that flame alive, and you can only do that by communicating and working together with the other principals and together taking the lead.
Frankly—and I’m probably over-stepping my bounds here, but here I go—I am very, very disappointed with some of the principals and the principal’s union in this city. Where are their voices??? Why is it only the teacher’s union that you see and hear consistently trying to get money for students and schools? Why is it only the teachers who are the public face of the pro-immigration and anti-charter movements here in NYC? Teachers have been so demonized in the public sphere that our clout on such issues have been lessened; but principals as school leaders should be talking out as a group about these issues and taking strong public stands about what helps to make their schools run best. Instead of fighting among themselves over a dwindling pot of money, dwindling resources, dwindling physical space, dwindling support staff, onerous bureaucratic rules, onerous amounts of standardized testing, and absurd evaluation schemes, principals, too, must stand together and say, “Enough. We are the experts. This is what we need, these are the conditions, money and resources for a school to run effectively, and for our teachers to teach our children effectively.” Which principals are going to speak up at a principal’s union meeting and bring these issues up to the union leadership and ask them to take a public stand for once? The principals should asking—demanding—that their resources and money not be stolen from them by the charters getting free space and disbursements at their expense. Principals could have great collective power, if they used it.
Okay, back to immediate school issues…
One of the most troubling things I have experienced at this school was the way that the boys’ bathroom was treated: continually trashed. Because that to me is a symptom of students not feeling as if they are a part of the community; it is a symptom of feeling that the school and teachers have one set of interests, but the students see their own interests are different. In no small part, the task of staff at most urban high schools is to effect that transition in students’ minds, where they go from seeing the school as an adversary, to understanding it as an ally for their future plans. In most schools in poor neighborhoods I have taught in, that shift does not occur until late junior year or senior year. I am happy to say that here at this school I see it happen more often in 10th grade or early 11th grade. And that is because after a disoriented 9th grade, students soon begin to see themselves as part of the school community. They pick up pretty quickly that we’re here to further their dreams.
But for some students, the idea of a better life just seems too impossible, and they don’t get it, and they try to put themselves outside the community by vandalizing. Our biggest ally in such cases are their older peers. When some 9th grade Yemeni boys were trashing the bathroom, the teachers figured out that we had to get to the 12th grade Yemeni boys, and explain to them, that just as they had matured from being knuckleheaded 9th graders who didn’t understand what the school was about, they had to explain to the present 9th graders how we do things in this school, and how the school has helped them. While it didn’t entirely solve the problem, some of the worst instances abated…
One last thing: one of the best staff building practices I encountered was the tradition we had at my old school to spend a morning set aside at the end of each school year to have staff reflections. Staff and admins would sit in a circle and read out loud their reflections about the year that had just past. They were the joys, sorrows, successes, frustrations, new ideas, hopes, dreams that we wished to share. There was no set format. Some wrote poems, some wrote essays (not as long as this, thank goodness!) most were serious, some were not. But we all did it, even as we complained and scrambled the night before, or morning of, to complete it. And it was one of the most powerful things we did: to sit and go round the circle and take the time to hear each other’s humanness, and understand how hard this thing we try to do is, and see each other and ourselves anew as the year wound down. It gave hope for the next year. The written reflections were all collected, photocopied, and a full set given to each member of the community.
I knew my old school was on the way down when the new admins did away with that reflection tradition “in the interest of time.” If you want teachers to go above and beyond, to do the real thing, then they have to be given a lot of autonomy, support, resources, and their deeper humanity has to be recognized.
Each teacher has so much more to give than may be evident on the surface. They would love to share their talents if given the opportunity, support and resources. Reflections provide a window into who each teacher is as a full human being…
I am confident that you have the strength to stand up for what you know is right in this time: to continue to build a vibrant democratic community of engaged and engaging human beings working to understand this world and each other.
Thanks again for giving me this opportunity to make my last years of teaching real and useful. That is the best gift any principal can give to a teacher.
Yesterday, WBAI’s Arts Express radio show broadcast my interview with Noliwe Rooks, author of the new book, Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and The End of Public Education.
Ms. Rooks argues that the current charter school movement is just one more scheme in a long history of school hustles which go back to the 19th century. What these schemes have in common, she says, is the transfer of education and tax dollars from minority and oppressed groups to the pockets of white entrepreneurs, in a process she calls segrenomics.
You can listen to the interview with Noliwe Rooks by clicking on the grey triangle above.
My friend Mitchel Cohen is writing a book called “The Politix of Pesticides: The Worldwide Fight Against Monsanto’s Glyphosate,” a book about pesticides, including Monsanto’s Round-Up brand of glyphosate, genetically modified food and seeds, and the general perfidy of that multinational monster, Monsanto. He asked some friends to come up with a humorous but accurate SAT-type quiz to help spice up the book. Here was my contribution. In case it is not obvious, the correct answer is always D.
1. Which is NOT a side effect of glyphosate?
A. Destroyed immune system
B. Destruction of the monarch butterfly population
C. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
D. Victory of the working people over the running dog capitalist bosses
2. Which one does not belong?
A. Charles Manson
B. John Wayne Gacy
D. Santa’s elves
3. Who sponsored a 2016 study that showed that Round-up was harmless?
A. International Agency for Research on Cancer
B. The World Health Organization
C. USA National Cancer Institute
4. Monsanto GM seeds led to massive crop failures in which of the following countries:
D. All of the above
5. When Bloomberg Business Week reported that Monsanto scientists were caught heavily involved in organizing, reviewing, and editing drafts submitted by the outside experts of a 2016 study of Round Up, a Monsanto spokesperson responded:
A. “Whoops. My bad.”
C. “Look closely at the shiny object. You are getting sleepy…”
D. “We were only involved in copy-editing.”
6. Which of the following were former Monsanto officers or attorneys:
A. Earle H. Harbison Jr., Central Intelligence Agency Deputy Director
B. Michael A. Friedman, MD—FDA deputy commissioner.
C. Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice who wrote the majority opinion in J. E. M. Ag Supply, Inc. v. Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc. finding that “newly developed plant breeds are patentable under the general utility patent laws of the United States.”
D. All of the above
7. In a 2009 study by Covalence of the ethics of 581 corporations, which corporation was measured as the least ethical:
A. Big Bob’s Used Cars
B. Moe and Joe’s Hit Man Service
C. Kayaks R Us
8. Complete the Analogy.
Food is to GM food as:
A. Butter is to “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”
B. Boxing is to Wrestling
C. Pete Seeger is to Milli Vanilli
D. All of the above
9. The use of GMOs results in
10.. Which of the following is currently the lead article on Monsanto’s website:
A. “Workers of the World Unite”
B. “To Serve Man”
C. “You Can Take The People Out of Their Jeans, But You Can’t Take The Genes Out of the People”
D. “Driving Innovation in Modern Agriculture to Combat Climate Change”
Anna Deveare Smith portrays 17 different people—students, teachers, parents, judges, Congessmen, social justice workers—in her new, almost one-woman play, Notes from the Field. Your intrepid reporter reviewed it for WBAI radio yesterday.
Click on the gray triangle to listen.
Popular high school English teacher Todd Friedman was put on administrative leave from his job after 29 years of acclaimed teaching. Why? Ostensibly, for selling discount copies of Frankenstein to his English classes. Find out the real reasons, and his continuing fight for justice, in this radio interview I conducted with Friedman, broadcast yesterday on Arts Express, WBAI radio, 99.5 FM NYC.
Click on the gray triangle above to hear the full monstrous tale.
I was reminded today, as I stood in front of my students with my aching back, the funniest and most profound statement I had ever heard about the profession of teaching, words uttered by a veteran high school teacher I once knew:
“The amazing thing about teaching,” he said, “is this: each year, you get older, but the students stay the same age.”
I teach mathematics to new immigrants to the United States. Though the students are of high school age, some of them had not had any formal schooling in their own country. Yesterday, one student, a West African girl to whom I have been teaching basic arithmetic, was struggling with her twos and fives multiplication tables. We worked for a while with only some success, and then she turned to me brightly and said, “Ask me 379 times 13.” I was a little skeptical, but I wrote it out on the paper in front of us, the 13 beneath the 379. She looked at the example quizzically, and said, “Are you sure that’s how you write it?” So I wrote it across in a line, and she became much happier. “Ahh,” she said, “that’s 4,927.”
I thought about it for a few moments and realized she was correct. I was stunned. A minute ago she was having trouble with five times six; now she was answering this difficult multiplication problem seemingly in her head. I asked her how she knew.
She smiled at me and said, “I saw it in a movie in my country. In the movie, there was a school, and the teacher in the classroom put that example on the board. I have been waiting for someone to ask me 379 x 13 ever since!”
A first artistic mentor can be like a first love. Everything seems new, extraordinary, larger than life. Your brain, body, soul, emotions are expanding so rapidly that you endow the other with superhuman powers, even if on looking back, you understand that what you had been exposed to were, perhaps, the usual lessons of life. Nonetheless, memories are formed and the lessons learned take on an importance that stay on, years later.
The following story came to my mind today, of a day many years ago that made a large impact on me. It didn’t even directly involve me, but it was something I witnessed. I had just performed a scene in my college acting class with my scene partner, a talented young woman named Dena. We had a wonderful teacher, Lloyd Richards, not only an excellent acting teacher, but one of the finest teachers I have ever had for any subject. Dena was a very good actor, probably the most accomplished in the class, but on this day, after class, she was very upset about something. She went up to Lloyd, and she was obviously a little shaken and embarrassed, and said to him, “I had this awful dream last night. I dreamt that I was having a big argument with you, and I was telling you that every thing that you’ve ever taught us about acting was completely and utterly wrong.”
And Lloyd, whose physical manifestation was similar to a plump Buddha, with great repose and a Cheshire Cat grin, replied, “Congratulations, Dena. You’ve just passed the class.”
Click on the video above for more of Lloyd Richards and Chekhov’s advice.
I just finished reading Red Rosa, a graphic biography of the revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg. (The novel is graphic in both senses of the word.) You probably never read about her in high school, and maybe not in college either, unless you followed things Marxist, but she was an incredibly influential figure in the period leading up to and during World War I. At a time when women’s roles were severely constricted in Western society, Rosa was living the life of a free, committed revolutionary woman. She traveled from Poland (where as a child, she wrote, for a school contest that was supposed to praise him, an essay excoriating the Kaiser ) and on to Germany where she became a key figure in the Social Democratic Party of Germany. She forged her own political views, and produced some trenchant analyses of capitalism. She was suspicious of the anti-democratic line of the Soviet Marxists, but also contemptuous of the socialist-in-name-only leaders of the Social Democratic Party who led the party into war and the arms of the bourgeoisie on the eve of World War One.
The author and illustrator Kate Evans does a very good job of packing in a large life in 179 pages, and one gets a sense of what an extraordinary woman Rosa was. But I’m not really here to talk about politics but rather to fixate on one particular aspect of the times that Rosa lived in. And it is this. The Speed of Thought. How was it that revolutionary thought spread so quickly, and so far in that time? The whole of Russia, England, and Germany were in an uproar, and revolutionaries like Rosa spread Marx’s ideas across large swaths of land with little but words: smuggled in handbills, street corner lectures, and newspapers laboriously set in type in secret. It seems in today’s world an almost impossible feat. No Facebook, Twitter, Internet, Social Media, cellphones. And I don’t mean this in a jocular way. It just seems amazing to me that ideas could have spread so quickly.
I suppose one can say, look at the rapid spread of Darwin and Freud’s ideas in roughly the same period; true, but those were ideas that were circulating in small scientific and psychoanalytic communities, specialized formations. But ideas that actually resulted in the material re-organization of society—well, that seems more impressive to me.
My wife is doing a literacy training, and the teacher said something very interesting to her class: People who can’t read have trouble listening. If you want to teach people to read, you must teach them to listen first. And the flip side of that is that writing is talking. In order to write you must find your voice.
Simple and remarkable I think. And one step more. How do you get people who don’t listen to listen? This: By listening to them. When people feel heard, they can in turn start listening to others. and then they can begin to understand what reading is all about. And after that, they can find their own voices.
Revolutionaries like Rosa arise at certain times in history. They have listened to themselves and the masses who at key moments in history desperately need to be heard. The masses in turn are ready to listen because they have been listened to. The sound of a book is about unchaining oneself. How fast from seeing the words on the page to the lips? How quick is it from the thought to the action? How far from a book to a new society?
These are the questions that came up for me when I thought about the vast stretches of the Earth that were on fire in 1917. I wonder if there could be a comparable experience again today. Because with social media, that experience of worldwide sharing has become both common but also commodified as the most banal mass culture, and hence, unremarkable, and certainly not revolutionary. Can we still be moved in a deep, societal-changing way by a few profound ideas?
Diane Ravitch, that tireless fighter for students and teachers, brought the above video to my attention on her blog. I re-posted it elsewhere, but got some reactions which I had not expected. I’m very curious to hear what you have to say. The high school teacher in the video, Joshua Katz, asks his students to watch the video as their first assignment. What do you think of Mr. Katz? Would you do well in his classroom?
A few days ago I came across a used copy of The Way of the Storyteller by Ruth Sawyer. I had never heard of this 1942 publication before, but as I read the first few paragraphs in passing, I was hooked by its old-fashioned sense of wisdom, practicality, and humanity. There was something about reading this book that made me feel that I was in the presence of a true artist, a master teacher, for the message that runs through the book stands undiluted, even after all these years. I went to look up the book on Wikipedia later, and my instinct was confirmed—I was not the only one so captured by the book. It turns out that The Way of the Storyteller is an enormously influential book in the field, and Ruth Sawyer is the patron saint of storytelling.
The storytelling that Sawyer is talking about here is mainly the storyteller of the oral tradition. And though there has been a resurgence of the modern day griot in some quarters recently, this book from 75 years ago reminds us of just what an integral part of everyday life oral storytelling used to be, intimately woven into the social and educational fabric of the day. Sawyer talks about her storytelling in elementary schools, libraries, reform schools, and prisons all across the country. She talks also about the restorative power of folk tales, and how by telling the myths and folk tales of a culture, one generation raises another.
Sawyer takes her art very seriously and has the aura of a tough taskmaster with no time for foolishness. She warns would-be storytellers that there are no shortcuts available and that telling stories requires lots of hard work. The tale must be chosen with the audience in mind, and the storyteller must be absolutely familiar with the folk tradition of the tale, she warns, otherwise there is no chance of getting to the heart of the story.
And the heart of the story is what is always important. She never lets go of that. She believes deeply in the need for, and nourishment of, folk stories for all children. She believes that if children are told such stories when they are younger, that then they can learn to be full adults. But, she warns, the stories are not for the sake of teaching lessons or morals, but for the sake of imagination, for the sake of inner freedom, for the sake of the sacred bond formed between storyteller and listener.
When I read such a unapologetic humanistic view of education and art, it makes me sad and happy at the same time. Sad, because when I look at the educational system at this point in the US, it is so far from what Ruth Sawyer envisioned. She doesn’t talk about “achievement” or “college readiness” or “testing” or “assessment.” Instead, she talks about how to lead children through delight onward to wisdom by telling stories. On the other hand, I am happy to have stumbled across this classic, because the knowledge that in all times and in all countries there have always been those who have championed the message of true relation, communication, and the importance of art, gives courage and permission for one to be courageous as well. There’s so much nonsense all around us that it’s a blessing to hear from someone who reminds us what it’s all about.
It’s a flashlight beam cutting through the dark, illuminating a pathway. This is a classic book with classic wisdom.
“Do we need to suffer in order to make great art?”
This question was asked the other day. A student actor was disturbed about being in an acting class where the teacher was abusive. The teacher’s theory was that one needs to “break down the students” before they can learn how to be artists. This is not an uncommon theory among acting teachers. I suspect it is pervasive in other forms of art education as well—dance, music, studio art. The theory further posits that one must be hardened to the sufferings of the soul a life of art will inevitably entail.
Please, please, please, let’s dispel a few destructive, though popular myths.
Most artists suffer whether we want to or not. It’s a tough life. No use making it tougher. Certainly, it’s no use putting ourselves in a position where we will be abused by others. So one more time, life for an artist has enough suffering all ready built into it. Don’t be afraid that suffering will pass you by unless you actively put yourself into a miserable situation. You don’t need to seek it out. You’ll have your share of suffering, I promise, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, no need to worry on that score. So don’t allow yourself to be abused in order to experience “suffering.” Not by “teachers,” yourself, or anyone else. There are plenty of great teachers out there who are not abusive.
Is suffering good for art? Well, living is good for art, and so in that sense, we need to know what suffering is. But to dwell there? Then there will be so much else that you are not allowing yourself to feel. It’s giving yourself permission to lead an emotionally constricted life, experiencing the same suffering feeling over and over again.
Look at what Stanislavsky has to say about tension in An Actor Prepares. You can’t have a free body and voice while you’re lifting a piano. He says the very first prerequisite for effective acting is relaxation. Likewise, if you’re living with all kinds of tension and emotional anguish, you cannot give yourself with full availability to the material. Even if the material is about an emotionally suffering person, you must be free to express that artistically. Otherwise, it’s just bad acting.
Stanislavsky talks over and over again about just how tenuous and delicate the thread of the creative state is, and how easily it can be broken. How protective of that thread we must be, exclaims Stanislavsky!
In studying the great actors, one thing always comes through in their work: the great relish they take in their role. Part of what an audience experiences when they watch great acting is the mask slipping ever-so-slightly to where the actor as a human being exists. The audience starts to think not just about the story, but about what a wonderful thing storytelling itself is. The audience members start to think about the malleability of human beings who can show such full empathy for others—human beings who inhabit their characters physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It holds out hope that there is a possibility of being understood by another.
Now an actor should never play that directly, that would just be egotism, but if an actor as a human being is, in fact, living that joy in the profession and the art, then some part of that is communicated to the audience, without the actor indicating it. That is a healing thing for the audience to feel. Art becomes worthwhile, and the audience goes home feeling more human, more connected.
And isn’t that what we are all aiming for?