My journal today asked me to make a list of people who have had an influence on me and write one to two words about how they inspired or helped me.
As usual, the process of writing takes it's own direction. This morning as I started making my list with the usual names--Larry James, my mom, my dad, Lisa Nigro...you know, adults who mentored me...I began thinking harder to see who I was missing. I then started listing Jessica, Gary, Monique, and so many others. Very quickly, my list became disproportionately populated with names of children and teens (and now college students) I know.
As I wrote, I began realizing that the large majority of people who inspire, influence, and help me are the children and teens. Though some adults (and a lot of teachers) have inspired me, it is the self-determination of the kids that moves me. Despite their circumstances, they have sheer determination to succeed. They push themselves. They struggle to find their way. Sometimes they call on me, but often they don’t. It is their actions and their self-determination that inspires me.
Writing through that made me realize that it is not my job that keeps me in the position I'm in (though I do enjoy it), it is being able to work with such amazing youth and knowing there's so much more to them than we often see on the outside.What keeps me in my job is knowing them, seeing how self-determined they are and knowing they deserve more. They influence me, they help me understand. They are my inspiration.
A friend brought this article to my attention. It resonated so well that I thought I'd share it.
I, too, have had experiences like Mr. Cowie. I've never taught in a prison, but I have often taught classes and engaged in conversation with people who are not formally educated and/or from low-income neighborhoods where deep, theoretical conversations are unexpected. Yet, when we start talking about books or movies or news that has a concept that affects people in these communities, I have engaged in conversations, mostly with young people (teens and college students) that would stimulate any intellectual's mind. I'll try to write about one of those conversations in a future post.
On Lecturing in a Prison, Where Minds are Free By Jefferson Cowie On a sweltering afternoon last August, I had the professional thrill of giving one of the kickoff lectures of Cornell's New Student Reading Project, an annual effort to knit the entire campus together in the shared intellectual experience of reading a single book. The uncomfortably hot crowd of thousands of students and faculty members assembled in the field house was the largest gathering I had ever addressed, complete with big-screen projections of the lecturers, like academic rock stars, floating over the stage.
The topic was close to my heart: my favorite character, Tom Joad, grappling with the teachings of Preacher Casey, from one of my favorite books, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The issues of migration and family, environment and social crisis, economic calamity and occupational justice, it seemed to me, made the book extraordinarily relevant to the problems of today.
Then in October, I gave the talk again. I shivered more from nervousness than the cool autumn air as I entered another strangely cavernous space—an almost 200-year-old maximum-security prison, Auburn Correctional Facility. Behind fortresslike walls rising above the small, historic town of Auburn, the state of New York incarcerates its murderers, thieves, and gangsters; put the first electric chair to use; and still stamps out license plates. As I worked my way through security to the prison chapel, I couldn't help recalling that the central characters of my talk had done time for murder and spent much of the book in violent scrapes with the law, much like those people I was about to address.
On the Cornell campus, every time I'd attended the huge opening of the reading project, I was struck by the students' indifference and boredom. Whether the book was by Sophocles or Garry Wills, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Jared Diamond, the students seemed incapable of engaging with the lectures. A colleague blogged: "I saw students asleep, milling about, talking on their cellphones, texting, talking and laughing with others, and what seemed to be a precious few engaged by the presentations." The students' restlessness led him to ask them, "What are you doing here at Cornell?"
The inmates who filtered into the prison chapel, on the other hand, knew exactly what they were doing at Auburn Correctional Facility: hard time, often for violent crimes they had committed when they were quite young. I arrived skeptical that my presentation would mean anything to them; I was motivated more by curiosity and civic obligation than grand pedagogic hopes. Clearly, these guys had bigger problems than literature and history.
The 60 inmates enrolled in the Cornell Prison Education Program were, in contrast to the Cornell students, hardly bored, restless, or indifferent. They were on fire. They sat attentively without PowerPoint photos to keep them entertained, autumn walks through the gorges to look forward to, or fancy careers to anticipate. They occasionally tossed questions to me during my talk, testing my mettle. Then, when I finished, their hands shot up. For the next hour, I got a vigorous intellectual workout—an exhausting barrage of questions any teacher would relish.
The questions came from every direction. How could Tom Joad, asked one, be the quintessential American working-class hero (as I had suggested) if Steinbeck had ignored the Asian and Mexican workers who had done most of the agricultural labor in California? Another, responding to how land got used in Oklahoma and California, asked if the constitutional system functioned in a way that enforced inequality. When I showed how Okie iconography was used in advertising and television in the postwar era, another asked if advertising and consumption were designed to prevent popular revolts. An inmate even asked whether the dollar was grounded in human labor, and whether human labor can be considered a commodity like any other.
One prisoner asked a multipart question that I did not fully grasp. I dismissed part of it and moved on, but his hand went back up. Though it was rough around the edges, in academic parlance his question was this: Was the type of civil society that Preacher Casey struggled for ("Maybe all men got one big soul everybody's a part of") possible, given the social atomization brought about by computers and technology?
I turned my head to the program's director, Jim Schechter, with an incredulous look—was this for real?
Before the night was over, the inmates' questions had me delving into constitutional theory, Lockean property rights, spirituality, political dissent, the tensions between civil rights and economic rights, and the use of state power. Granted, there were a lot of grandstanding, polemics, and semiarticulated ideas floating around, but these guys were serious about what they were doing. At one point, carried away with the moment, I even delivered a spontaneous mini-lecture on Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, which had been scrawled on scraps of paper while he was imprisoned in Fascist Italy. Gramsci tried to figure out, I told the prisoners, how market culture creates a common sense that ensures the consent of the governed. They murmured. They nodded. They got it. Rarely had I felt so alive as a teacher.
After each of the big panels at Cornell, a small handful of the several thousand students would come up to ask the panelists follow-up questions. In fact, the open-mike question period of previous years had been eliminated because the bulk of students used the opportunity to make a quick exit. After the prison talk, in contrast, the men filed up to introduce themselves, thank me for coming, and ask if I'd teach a class in the program. Most simply looked me in the eye with affirmation, shook my hand, and headed back to their cells. Their humility was humbling.
I wondered if it was simply the boredom and constraint of prison life that had the prison students so motivated; the well-prepped Cornell kids, of course, had every media device and distraction imaginable to draw them away from us droning professors. Maybe the Cornell students had worked so hard to get in that they now felt complacent, having made the grade. Maybe the Cornell kids were indifferent because the reading project was not a graded assignment.
Yet the prisoners had also studied hard to get into the prison-education program. They were not simply looking for ways to pass time. They had other things to distract them if they chose, and they attended graded classes as well. My lecture had been purely voluntary for them.
The experience at Auburn got me thinking about entitlement, motivation, and the life of the mind. It forced me to ask troubling questions about status and reward in our academic system. It made me wonder what I was doing with my life and my career, now in midpassage. The contrast between the free minds of the imprisoned bodies at Auburn and the imprisoned minds of the free bodies among some of the nation's most gifted college students could not have been more stark.
Marcus Rediker, a visiting scholar at Cornell last year, also gave a lecture at Auburn, on slave ships. I heard that he rocked the house (the inmates do, after all, call Auburn the "slave ship"). Summing up his experience, he reported: "Most of all, I was impressed by the intelligence, the thoughtfulness, the engagement, the curiosity—in short, by the life of the mind—that I found among the people inside Auburn Prison. That mind, I am pleased to report, cannot be imprisoned."
I wondered what the bars were made of that seemed to imprison my Cornell students, and what it would take for them to begin emancipating themselves.
Jefferson Cowie is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. His latest book, Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, is due out from the New Press in September.
Autism...it's something we often think of as a deficiency. However, autistic people are in tune to so many details the rest of us miss.Their skills can be an absolutely amazing asset and benefit (to themselves and us) if we know how to tap into their potential.
Temple Grandin is autistic. There is currently an HBO movie out about her. Though I think we have been heading in this direction anyway, listening to her TED talk (below) challenged me to think harder about how how we engage kids in our After-School Academy. We want to make sure we're tapping into their amazing potential...a potential that may be overlooked if we're not better in tune with them.
I love to travel. It is because of my travels that I have made a wonderful and personal discovery that the practices people undertake all over the world are not wrong, just different. Assuming they are wrong assumes that I am right. And there is no evidence to substantiate that.
Our neighbors all over the world are not that different. As I have learned that, I have also learned that neither are our neighbors who make more or less socioeconomically, those who are darker or lighter than us, those who live in different neighborhoods, who have more or less education, etc. We are not that different...if we take the time to look, see, and get to know each other.
I'm on vacation in Guatemala and have two extra travelers with me. To prepare for my trip, the After-School Academy and the Library/Bookstore began studying about Guatemala and then read Flat Stanley. If you have kids, are a teacher, or just like to read books for yourself, you've either read Flat Stanley or may want to to get your kids interested and connected with people all over the world.
For those of you who haven't and don't have a desire to (spoiler alert!!), Flat Stanley became flat because a bulletin board fell on him one night and completely flattened him. He and his parents found there were advantages to being flat...like being able to save money on a plane ticket because they could put him in an envelope and send him to his cousin's house instead.
So, we have done the same. We have created two flat people--Flat LaMarcus and Flat Tytiana, who are traveling with me this entire trip. It was fun to watch the excitement, laughter, and questions as the kids wanted to read more Flat Stanley and learn more about Guatemala. To keep the excitement going, I am blogging, video blogging, and taking pictures of things the kids have asked about, things I figure the kids might want/need to know about travel, and documenting the things LaMarcus and Tytiana see while here. Since I probably won't do much from my own blog, you can keep up with me through the ASA blog at: www.ourasafamily.blogspot.com.
I am here visiting a college friend so we were able to make it home early enough tonight to Skype with the kids in the After-School Academy. Though Skyping in itself was priceless, I was absolutely amazed at the way the ASA kids greeted Laura, Esteban, and Natalia (my friends' kids here in Guatemala)...and was even more impressed that they were really working hard on the Spanish they never knew before today. "Hola! Me amo es Trinity... Me amo is Kwane... Me amo is Niesha." After getting the tour of my friends house (you've really gotta love technology like Skype!!), Niesha took over and gave the tour of the ASA using as much Spanish as she could gather from Miss Tameshia. To Natalia's question, "What do you guys do?" Niesha answered, "Colore (color), tareja (homework), jugare (games), etc." I was so impressed!
I hope you'll keep up through the ASA blog, it's really cute seeing the videos the kids (and others) have helped me make...and it's fun watching the places LaMarcus and Tytiana are getting to experience. Through technology, we get to close the literal and figurative distance between the cultures. Thanks, technology!
Yesterday it snowed...and it snowed...and it snowed. At 9:00 I was calling friends in Missouri explaining that it had been snowing all day long...and still hadn't stopped!
I woke up this morning to tweets saying we had a record 12 inches of snow! I could hear my neighbors talking outside so I walked outside to see...
When I was invited down the street to take pictures of the fun in the snow, I realized our entire street had been blocked off on both sides by the police trying to protect people from running into the (assumably live) power line laying across the street and sitting in puddles of water underneath the downed tree. I don't think I've ever said this before, but THANKS, DALLAS POLICE DEPARTMENT! They've been stationed out there all day long...and are still there at 8:00 p.m....waiting on Oncor to show up to fix the lines.
So what happens the day after the most amazing snow day in Dallas' history??
I don't pay much attention to the weather reports in Dallas. The "Arctic Blasts" that they dramatically present usually mean something like 40 degree weather and possibly some rain. So, when I heard the prediction of snow, I was under impressed. Yet, when I woke up and opened the blinds, there was already a blanket of snow covering the ground!
It was the best snow ever! It snowed all day, every single minute of the day--9.4 inches by 9:00 p.m....and it is still coming down!
Around 3:30, I ran over to the After-School Academy to watch the kids enjoy the snow. I knew it would be the perfect photo op...and it did not disappoint.
The shoe donation came right after the Haiti earthquake. Terrence’s Teen U kids had been studying about Haiti—looking things up on the internet, having discussions, and seeking to gain an understanding of the tragic event that happened. As the rest of the world, they became very enmeshed in what was happening. Around this time, I received an email from our development department letting me know tennis shoes had been donated for the youth at Roseland. When I let Terrence know, he took the information to the teens and asked them if they wanted to keep the shoes or send them to Haiti. One of the students said they would rather send the shoes to Haiti. All of the students agreed. They then began to seek out places who were coordinating trips to Haiti.
The pictures are of them sorting and packing the shoes. They took it upon themselves to go through the shoes and sort them according to size. In watching them sort the shoes, they seemed to really like the shoes and the different designs. A younger kid came upstairs and said something about wanting a pair of shoes. The other students immediately reprimanded him explaining, “No! These shoes are going to Haiti!”
Their research led them to Prestonwood Baptist church. The shoes have now been taken and, I assume, have already been sent to Haiti. It was a great service project opportunity. It always amazes me how willing the youth are to give and share what they have to help others.
Just like what happened last time, the kids were enthralled. We took Iesha (sister of Niesha and Tatiana, both of whom attended last time), Shamaria, and Xavier. I wish I could have captured the intent stares during the play. Iesha and Shamaria sat next to me. Since I had already seen the play, I stole glances at them to see if they were enjoying it. I ended up watching them more than the play. Iesha sat on the edge of her seat, back straight up so she could see over the person in front of her, watching intently and taking note of every move. Shamaria reacted in a similar way.
Of course, as usual, there were the you-gotta-love-kids stand out moments. This time it was about mid-way through during a scene that was popular with the first group. Iesha turned to Tameshia, "'Off with your head!' That's what he's going to say!" Then she went on (in a very loud whisper) to tell Tameshia the next lines and actions of the play for the next five minutes while Tameshia tried to get her to stop.(Iesha obviously hasn't learned the meaning of "spoiler alert." :) )
Just like last time, the play was interactive. And, just like last time even our shy ones (Shamaria) volunteered to participate in the tug of war.
Once again, Mr. Harold (the director) invited everyone to interact with the cast members and the props at the end of the play. Great strategy to get people (kids especially!) more interested instead of keeping people at a distance. Below are scenes from the play and the interactions after the play.
Lisa Nigro (also see #27 in this link here or see her in a video played during last years' Oscars here) is probably the most unforgettable person in my life. I met her while on a spring break mission trip in college.
I had never been big on mission trips. The mission trips I had always known were “door knocking campaigns” where you knocked on someone’s door and prayed with/for them. I didn’t care for them because 1) I didn’t want someone I didn’t know knocking on my door just to pray with me and leave, and 2) I felt like if people wanted someone to know God, a one-time shot and never seeing them again wasn’t going to miraculously do that; there needed to be an on-going relationship. So, when the opportunity arose to go to Chicago and volunteer in an inner city ministry, that seemed to make a lot more sense.
Once there, we worked primarily through a church. Because of the minister’s relationships, we were able to volunteer at several different agencies around the uptown neighborhood. One of those places was the Inspiration Cafe. I remember walking in and Lisa tried to find us things to do. Cleaning wasn’t what we wanted to do. We wanted to work with people, but there were no people there and she seemed to be trying to accommodate eager college students.
During that time, Lisa and I ended up in a conversation. Somehow she agreed to hire me for a 6-week internship that summer. I went back at the end of May and began working with her. The entire first two weeks I was there, my entire job was to, “get to know the people.” Though that seems to make a lot of sense to me now, I was there for a job. I was there to learn how to run a café that catered to formerly homeless people. I couldn’t believe she would pay me to get to know people. Lisa taught me that people who are homeless have thoughts and opinions. And she taught me that their thoughts and opinions are very valuable and sometimes have insight that we don’t think about.
So, for the first two weeks, I sat with the guests, ate breakfast, and talked about politics, the Bulls, and how life was in the city. I learned about 12-step programs, Alcoholics Anonymous, and many organizations that served homeless people (the respectful ones and the rude ones). The guests of the café (all people who were working toward sobriety, getting a job, and getting off of the street) were my teachers and my friends.
I watched as Lisa interacted with the guests. I never saw pity or a do-gooder feeling on her part. In fact, when someone relapsed (or was on that path) into their drug addiction, I could see that it hurt her. But I also learned from her that holding people accountable was important. They were dismissed from the café, but always welcomed back with open arms if things changed.
I also watched Lisa work with restaurants and funders. She expected everyone with whom she interacted to value homeless people just as much as they valued the other people they served in their own restaurant or interacted with in their own lives. I’ll never forget Lisa’s reaction after a fancy restaurant she had solicited brought sandwiches to serve to homeless people in Lincoln Park. The very next day, Lisa was on the phone speaking with the person in charge at that restaurant. She asked them if they served sandwiches in their own restaurant (which they didn’t), then challenged them and asked them why homeless people deserve sandwiches if that’s not something they serve in their own restaurant. I don’t remember if the restaurant changed what they brought to serve or if they quit coming altogether, but I remember the lesson loud and clear…Just because someone is homeless doesn’t mean he/she deserves “less than.”
I learned many lessons during that short summer internship. And I went back many times throughout the rest of my college career. I don’t stay in touch much with Lisa, Harry, Cooper, Richard, Tommy, or the others I got to know that summer. But when I do reach out to contact them, they always remember me. They always welcome me back. What I learned from all of them was invaluable and impacts me every day of my life and was extremely unforgettable.
As I walked through the After-School Academy I saw several things going on. One group was building with legos. One group was working on homework. A few were at the computers playing educational computer games. It's been my dream that the kids in the After-School Academy become independent learners. Walking through, I couldn't help but think that is quickly becoming a reality.
As I walked out the door to the elevator I saw the scene in the picture above.
Ladaysha (3rd grade) was quizzing Hakim and Jaden (both 1st grade) on their spelling words while they casually molded play-doh. I loved it! They weren't stressed. They weren't sitting uncomfortably in wooden chairs hating homework. Instead, they nonchalantly took turns spelling. If they mis-spelled a word, Ladaysha kindly pointed out their mistake, reminded them how to spell it correctly, asked them to re-spell it, and moved on to a new word. It couldn't have been a more beautiful scene!
Painless and stress-free learning opportunities.
Older students helping younger ones.
Everyone plays a role in progress.
Thanks, Danielle, for making the After-School Academy where this can happen!