Monday, May 2, 2016

Landscaper! There's a Weed in My Sod: Why We Need Inclusion in Classrooms and Community

Note:  I wrote this several years ago and had originally posted it at my now defunct Educollab blog.  Special acknowledgement to Alec Couros @courosa who shared this video which inspired this post.   I decided to republish this after seeing the Autism Speaks celebration at Kid O's high school.  Rewatching this video by AM Baggs, I continue to be struck by her strong concluding statement:  ,"Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible."  This is what we all must strive for.

Waiter! There's a fly in my soup! What's a fly doing in my soup?

Looks like it's doing the backstroke.


The homeowner is explaining to the decorator and head of landscape team what colors he wants his rooms painted. Outside the team is putting down sod. As they enter each room the homeowner turns to the decorator and says, "I want this room to be painted (insert color here.) The decorator, instead of acknowledging what his client just said, shouts out the window, "Green side up!" This continues room after room after room. Finally the peeved homeowner turns to the decorator. "Have you heard anything I said? I keep telling you my color preferences, and instead of acknowledging them, you keep shouting out the window, "Green side up! Why is that?" The decorator reddens. "I am so sorry, sir. I have been taking notes. If I do not keep shouting green side up out the window, there's a chance that the (insert derogatory slur for ethnic or racial group of your choice or offensive term like "retard") will not remember to set the sod the right side up."


I have been engaged in doing my usual proto-gardening, as I call it. I have been removing dead leaves and other debris that have been covering the ground. I established two new garden spots last fall, so this is especially important. Much as I love winter, I need to do this out of anticipation of new growth. I get anxious to see, what, if any, of the bulbs I planted the previous fall are starting to come out of the ground. I call it, "coaxing out the green." It's a sacred time for me as my world shifts from darkness to light. When I see a tiny bud start to poke out of the ground, I very painstakingly uncover a bit more soil and remove any debris around the tiny plants. They are not my plants. They belong really to Mother Earth. I treat each tiny thing with a great deal of reverence. "Welcome to the world," I whisper. And, yet, when I see a blade of grass or a tiny bit of clover, I yank it. I have no qualms about yanking gill o'er the ground, as wonderful as it smells, since it would crowd out the rest in no time at all. It is, as gardeners would say, an invasive species. Not to be confused with non-native, which is a different thing altogether.

This past week, as I have been clearing out my garden spots, I have also been haunted by In My Language
written and acted and produced by A M Baggs. I forced myself to watch this three, four, five times, even as I feel myself recoil at another human being who is so very different from me. She is noisy. She moves. A lot. She offends my sensibilities which desire stillness of action and quietness of mind. Every time I watch I want to shout, "stop, stop, stop!" Her perpetual interaction with her environment just about exhausts me. And, yet, in the end, my heart centered self manages to feel empathy, something that I suspect would seem really ridiculous to her and possibly even mistaken for pity. She would probably be just as baffled by my emotional connection to my world as I am by her endless movement. In the end when A M Baggs asserts,"Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible," I am thrown back on my heels. She expresses exactly what I have felt about why kids like Kid O, the child of my heart, need to be included. Both profoundly autistic people as well as severely physically disabled people are labeled as non-persons. So even if A M Baggs wouldn't get my emotions and perhaps be repelled by them, she would understand my desire for others in school and in the community at large to accept my daughter as fully human.
None of us are weeds to be disposed of. We all form an intricate part of the educational ecosystem. We all have our loud humanity that demands attention. And care. And understanding. As we slide into the charter school chasm, we need to remember how individuals make up a community. If gifted children are not exposed to kids like Kid O, then we run the risk of teaching these children that only kids like them deserve a quality education. Kids who attend charter schools may be a racially and religiously and culturally diverse group. But there are certainly no weeds. No intellectual eyesores. Poor tester that I am, it is doubtful even I would find my way to a charter school let alone my beloved Kid O.

When the first ed psychologist placed his stamp on Kid O, he essentially denied her not only a place in a classroom, but a place in the community as well. When the advocate who was helping me, in a nominal way, try to advocate for Kid O's rightful place, he told me that since she couldn't speak, perhaps their assessment was right. I knew he had a special needs son who had received assistive technology. I asked him if this was "I've got mine and the hell with you." He paused. Then he apologized. All along he had been discarding my observations and implicitly siding with people at the school. Because she couldn't speak, he was dismissing Kid O's humanity, sight unseen, perpetuating the narrow definition of who is human and who is not.

Excluding people on the basis of whether or not they had received the gift of speech was never acceptable. With technology it is now inexcusable. It is also inexcusable no to be openminded enough to be generous of heart and spirit. AM Baggs is right. When we do not take the time to learn how someone else is in the world, we do not give them human rights. Should not be easy to deny someone else's humanity. We do that when we label people instead of interacting with them. We do that when we call someone by their disability instead of by their name. Kid O is not cerebral palsy. She is Kid O. We do not do anyone a kindness when we shrug and say, "Oh, that is just them. Just who they are." When we do that, we give them an unacceptable out and us along with them. It is then that we can justify placing one child in Special Ed and one child in the gifted program. I have known kids with CP who have been kept out of gifted programs. They are kept out, not because of lack of demonstrable intellect, but because they are not ablebodied. What impact does being able to walk have on whether or not a person can read or is capable of critical thinking? None. And yet we use disability as a reason to exclude all the time. Would John Milton be rejected from the gifted program? Would Helen Keller?

When we place all the gifted kids into charter schools with the sole aim of preparing them for an Ivy League education, we do them a disservice. We are practicing a form of reverse segregation. Now I am not even remotely suggesting that kids like Kid O belong in the same classroom. But they should at least be in the same building. There is a charter school less than a block away from where Kid O attends school, and `yet those kids and Kid O may as well be worlds apart. It's unlikely their paths will ever cross.

When we segregate gifted kids from the rest of the population, we keep them from learning from people of all abilities and all walks of life. We cheat them out of a life that is richer and fuller because we give them the message, implicitly or explicitly, that "you are better than them," and so close off so many possibilities for many different encounters and interactions. We also do not prepare them adequately for certain curveballs that may be thrown their way. Would they know how to cope with life's disappointments? I am not so sure, when the pressure is for them to succeed at all costs.

When we segregate Special Ed kids from the rest of the school population, we do not allow other kids to learn from them. We also do not allow the Special Ed kids to have interactions they may not otherwise have. When we do not allow for the human element to enter into the equation, then we are left with the freak show that A M Baggs talks about. Gifted kids grow up to go to Ivy League schools and great careers and Special Ed kids grow up and end up in sheltered workshops. We are talking about extremes when we should be talking about happy mediums. We should be talking about community. Not that gifted kids shouldn't go to Ivy League schools, but that Special Ed kids should have the opportunity to interact with them and vice versa. These two populations need each other. Together they thrive. One is not better than the other. Just with different strengths and different weaknesses. They could give each other mutual nurturance. They could accept each other's humanity. Love, compassion and acceptance flow both ways.

All kids need community. We all need to feel a sense of belongingness. When we emphasize competition over collaboration, we perpetuate the idea that someone has got to win and someone else has got to lose. We also perpetuate the idea of us versus them. That is a false dichotomy. There is only us. And together we all need to succeed. We need to bring all of us along, regardless of race, religion, disability and how we perceive all of those things. We cannot have human rights for some and not for others. That cannot stand. By the same token, we cannot have educational opportunities for some and not for others. We cannot have life opportunities for some and not for others.

If we had community then all would learn and all would flourish. All would then learn to the best of their abilities, and none would be left out. We have one planet, one community: the community of mankind. If we were to extend what Dr. King said about not being judged by the color of one's skin but by the contents of one's character to also include regardless of disability, then we could have a really strong community where many more people could be more actively a part and not merely living on the fringes.

When gardens are all uniform, they are not as interesting. When communities are more homogeneous, they may lend comfort to those who dwell within, but there is little to recommend them from the outside. There will always be weeds. There will always be people who live on the fringes. But there are also wildflowers which can lend diversity. When we label someone without examining the whole picture, then sometimes students do not get the help they need.

Some of the best people I have known have been weeds. They do not conform to "sod" standards. We lose much in this society when we do not make the effort to know the weeds and to benefit from them. In other cultures, the witch doctor or shaman knows the benefit of weeds. They use different plants for their healing powers. In some cultures, people who are different are revered. Not shunned. A disabled person is not of any less value than a gifted student. Sometimes they are one and the same.

What is this weed doing in my sod? Giving it nuanced beauty, and much needed character.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Roger, That, or How I Stopped Worrying About Being Breastless

Late September 2014, when I had my breasts removed all I could see was this big ugly scar across my chest.

As women we are valued for our breasts.  Big ones. Small ones.  Regardless of a man's personal preference, women are often considered sexual beings first, and as friends, wives and daughters second. If we have something on top, we are taught to take a certain pride in that.  And if we are more on the flat side, we are given the message that we are somehow lacking in overall desirability.

Because of the residual puritanical overtones regarding breasts, they are considered sexual and not merely functional. There is an uproar when mothers attempt to breastfeed in public.  Men can go shirtless in public and women cannot.  A woman's breasts identify her as a human female in a way that no other part of  a woman's anatomy does.  If I were a man, I'd be able to go about shirtless in the summer and no one would think twice about it.  A neighbor does just that. All summer long he mows his lawn and does other things with his tremendous beer belly hanging out.  If I were to have done that pre double mastectomy, I am guessing neighbors would have yelled at me and perhaps would have called the police.  Post double mastectomy I am guessing I'd receive similar complaints.

Men think nothing about ogling breasts, but no one would want to see my chest, even in its current, nonsexual state.

There have been  times when I have looked at myself in the mirror, and have thought about what a freak show I have become.  I am reminded daily that I look different from other women. Every time I look at Kid O and Kid Q, I am reminded.  Every time I see a woman showing off cleavage I am reminded. Every time I see any woman I am reminded.   Even some women like a flat chested friend of ours who used to say to me, "I sure wish I had some of that," has more there than me.  Hell, even most men do.

One of my husband's cousins turned to me at a funeral luncheon and said, "I thought you were flat like me, " upon hearing another cousin come up to me and congratulate me on beating the cancer rap.  Highly ironic coming from a recently retired desk sergeant.  True, we only saw each other at wakes and funerals, but you'd think she would have noticed the massive breasts that were in front of her on those occasions.   I doubt a man would have forgotten.

I recall many times when I could see that a man was staring at my breasts. Bespectacled men really ought to be more aware of that because the images reflect in their lenses.  Being ogled like that is certainly one thing I don't miss.

Months ago my husband told me that, without my breasts and with my big belly hanging out, that I looked a bit like Roger, the alien who resides with the Smith family in American Dad!

One might think that remark would be grounds for divorce, but, instead, I thought about it for a moment and responded, "Roger, that."

That doesn't mean I haven't grieved the loss of my breasts.  It simply means I have finally come to a place of acceptance.  Do I still feel self conscious about my body image?  Yes.  Many women do.  It's ingrained in our culture.

Although I still have moments of anger and grief, overall I feel less and less like a freak show and more like myself.

So, Roger that.

The Old And The Breastless

Now that I've had scar revision surgery meant to smooth out what was left over from my double mastectomy, I have been wondering if I should still do something artistic. I know that some women choose to have elaborate designs tattooed on their chest. I have seen one, and it was quite stunning.   I've been told that some women simply have nipples tattooed on their chest.  That strikes me as a trifle odd. Occasionally I feel inclined to give into my dark sense of humor and have "Insert Breasts Here," written across my chest.

Unlike most other cancers where the results  are internal, there is no denying that I have had something removed.  One does not go from carrying around 44I breasts to entirely flat and not have it be traumatic. Although the proper medical term is double mastectomy, it ought to be considered a double amputation. The more sterile medical term denies the emotional impact in a way that the phrase "double amputation" does not. While I certainly would not compare losing a breast to losing a limb, the removal is just as upsetting from a physical and psychological standpoint. As I have written previously,  I had hoped some day for breast reduction.  Not breast redaction.

Granted, I could have kept my right breast as the cancer had not spread to it.  But that would have meant months walking around with a prosthetic breast on my left side while I finished up my herceptin treatments.  When the plastic surgeon told me that breast reconstruction would require eight hours of surgery, that sealed it for me.  There was no way I was going through that.

More importantly, I had spent time in the chemo chair sitting next to women who had a recurrence of breast cancer because they only had one breast or part of one breast removed.  I decided right then I was going to do whatever it takes to keep that from happening.
When I consulted with the  surgeon about scar revision surgery,  I finally asked him why I had these skin flaps under my arms.  He told me that they had the highly technical term of  "dog ears,"  and that it was actually skin from my back.  I suppose that when you are flabby that is something you end up with.  Even after scar revision surgery, I still have some of that skin under my arms.  I suspect that insurance would not pay for yet another surgery, and, even if it did, I would likely decide to just live with this oddness, because, say it with me, it still beats the alternative.

Evidently my back hasn't received the memo that I no longer have breasts.  My ribs still rotate in towards my spine.  Apparently my breasts on such a short frame needed extra accommodation.  Sometimes it feels as if someone is jabbing me with a thumb.  Or hammering a peg.  I go in for adjustments, but that only provides temporary relief.  At least I know what it is.  Does hinder one of my most favorite activities, which is taking long walks.

Sometimes my skin feels so tight that I have to remind myself to buckle up when I get in the car because it already feels as if I am wearing a shoulder strap.  I have to remind myself that chest pain I feel is entirely superficial. Literally only skin deep.

Occasionally people hug me too enthusiastically.  Since I no longer have padding, my breastbone and cartilage feel all the impact.  Perhaps someone ought to write a pamphlet about how to hug a woman who has undergone a double mastectomy.  I often find myself having to remind people that they can't squeeze me as tight as they once did, although I am grateful that they are truly happy to see me.

It is a strange feeling to be thinking please don't hurt me when someone reaches out to hug me.  I still enjoy receiving hugs, especially what I call big ol' bear hugs.  I enjoy the closeness.  I just wish folks, including my husband, would be gentler.  Kind of ruins the moment when I have to say, "Not so hard."

Keep those hugs coming.  Just remember that the woman you are embracing is one of the old and the breastless.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Mental Illness Is Neither Black Nor White

We have been told that we are our brother's keeper.  When we lose a member of our community, we feel a sense of failure.  Or, as Ira Socol puts it, "And so we might give up, the impossibility of the task before us. We might descend into depression ourselves, overwhelmed by the hurt."

Perhaps an oldish white man whose last name was  Black being killed by a young black man whose last name was White is meant to be only a perverse cosmic pun.  The fact is that both men ended up in the same homeless shelter because they both suffered from some form of mental illness.  Because of the lack of mental health facilities in this country, this was a murder waiting to happen.  As was reported, the young man had been going around the shelter threatening to kill somebody.  Why weren't these threats taken seriously?  Or were they shrugged off as so much drama?  “We lost two,” Mr. Ricks said. “We lost a young man who needed help and an old man who didn’t need to die.”  The problem is that both men needed help with very little possibility of ever receiving it.

 As Deven's son Jonas said on his Facebook page:

Although (my father) had struggled with mental illness for many years, he was unable to get the treatment he needed, and he fell through the cracks of a severely broken system. It is hard not to hate the man who took my father away from me, but ultimately I see my father’s killer as another victim. Had there been adequate mental health infrastructure in place, this tragedy would not have happened.

Perhaps it wasn't just a lack of facilities that prevented both men from getting the help they needed.  Perhaps in Deven Black's case it was also the stigma or shame of mental illness that stopped him in his tracks.  Ira and others in his community who reached out to him should not be so hard on themselves.

The hard lesson that I have learned over the last few years is that you cannot save anyone.  C., a young man we know, is an Iraqi War vet.  Given the shaky childhood he had as well as his war related PTSD, he will not take himself to the VA for treatment.  Whether it's some form of addiction or mental illness, the fact is he suffers from some altered sense of reality.

Much like you can lead a horse to water but you can't make them drink, you can lead an individual  to the VA or to a mental health facility but you cannot make them accept treatment.  Under such circumstances all you can do is wait and watch and hope that the individual will decide they have hit bottom. Hopefully neither too hard of a bottom nor too soft and sandy of a bottom which would only cause them to sink even deeper.

In her open letter to the president about mental health, Rachel Griffin vividly describes that sinking feeling as she waited on hold to find out about insurance coverage. She continues on to talk about the overall dismissiveness of some of the psychiatrists she sees before finally finding the right one who helps her discover a path to recovery.  Rachel states, "I haven't had any relapses since receiving this excellent care (7 years strong). I am a thriving, happy, valuable member of my community."

Clearly she has enough inner strength that allowed her to continue to stumble over obstacles that many either cannot or will not.  Rachel can advocate not only for herself but for others.  She adds:

People are too ashamed to get care because of stigma. They wait far too long and then when they finally try and it's complicated and hard to access. They finally get it and it's low quality. It's rushed. This all needs to change.

Perhaps Deven Black would still be alive if he had not felt ashamed, or, despite the fact that people reached out, not scared and alone.  Or, worse, perhaps feeling as if he would be a burden. That is what a very dear friend of ours keeps telling me. I have been trying to convince him that not only would he not be a burden, (a challenge, yes, but a burden, no) but ultimately a tremendous asset to our community.

Whether it's PTSD or childhood abuse or some other trauma, we need a way for people who are suffering from mental illness to feel that they are whole.  We need to find ways to prevent tragedies from happening, be it suicide or murder or simply disappearing into the ether.  

We need to do more than just convince politicians to stop closing mental health facilities in order to balance a budget.  Even if more resources are not available, we need to give those suffering from mental illness a way to feel safe. We need to let them know that no one will blame them for being mentally ill.  Although the message of all means all as expressed by Ira Socol is a powerful one, we need to realize that there simply will be people we will lose along the way.  It will never be our choice.  It will be their choice.  

Rachel Griffin invites us to join her on Twitter using the hashtag #iamnotashamed to which I'd like to add, #youarenotalone  And, of course, #itwillgetbetter.  

I don't want either Deven Black or Anthony White to be merely symbols of mental illness.  I want both of them to be remembered as men who struggled and who didn't receive much needed help. 

We need to see to it that everyone knows they are cherished gifts. We, as a society, need to stop both categorizing and dismissing people who we find to be inconvenient.  We need to find ways to form welcoming communities.  We all need safe havens.  We need to recognize that improving access to mental health is not merely a problem for those who are mentally ill.  We are all Black, and we are all White. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Kaddish for Deven Black

I am grieving for my friend, Deven Black.  I met Deven on Twitter back in 2009.  At that time he was a Special Ed teacher.  He came to teaching later in life than most.  We would often kibitz late at night about things that mattered to us.  We talked about our families.  We talked about how things were for us growing up.  Like me, Deven was of Slavic Jewish descent.  Like me, he cared about social justice.  We both wrote about Special Education. We both wanted to turn our small corner of the world into a better place.

A few years ago his principal urged him to train to become a school librarian and modernize the library they had at the school where he taught.  Even though he was no longer a Special Ed teacher, that still mattered to him.  He wanted those kids at that Bronx school to have a chance.

When I wrote about wanting to start a movement towards education equality, Deven told me to sign him up.  Well, I never got that off the ground, but I think he liked my idea of somehow building the educational equivalent of the underground railroad.  I wanted to create an organization and call it something like, "Follow the Drinking Gourd."  Or, at the very least, incorporate that theme into the quest for education equality.

I often felt out of my depth in discussing education.  Although I have a Master's in English and spent several years as a part-time instructor at several community colleges, I never thought of myself as an educator.  I had never taken education courses, and so I never felt qualified to speak about educational practice.  What qualified me to talk about Special Education was the fact that I have two daughters who are in Special Education classes.  I have roughly seventeen years of advocacy under my belt.  While other teachers would tell me to go play on the freeway, Deven took me seriously.  He was one of the few educators on Twitter and in "meatspace" who respected my experience, and, to him, my lack of knowledge in educational theory was irrelevant.  To him I was an equal.  

When I flew to Philadelphia to attend EduCon in late January 2011, Deven took me under his wing.  As soon as my plane landed, Deven was calling me on my cellphone.  He waited for me at the hotel we were staying at, and then whisked me off to a nearby restaurant and bar where teachers were gathering informally to grab a meal and schmooze.  Deven introduced me to people.  He saw to it that I felt at ease.  

Deven accompanied me on a tour of HMS School, a residential school for disabled children, graciously arranged for us by Dr. David Timony, another Twitter friend.  When David dropped us off at SLA, where EduCon is held every year, I didn't see that much of Deven after that.  

Deven and I continued to tweet at each other, but it seemed as if he was around less frequently.   When I was dealing with my cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment in 2014, I don't think it occurred to me that I hadn't seen him in quite some time.  When I emailed him in 2015, he never responded.  I assumed it was because he was busy.  I am now thinking it's possible that he never saw my email, or, if he did, that he was too depressed to care.  

According to this New York Times article, Deven Black went from being a man who, in 2013, was honored by the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences for his exceptional work as a school librarian" to being reduced to being  a substitute teacher in 2014.  And then in 2015 he ended up suspended without pay because of being arrested for grand larceny.  I imagine this is what ultimately caused him to end up homeless and a murder victim.  

The article describes in detail how a mentally ill young man savagely murdered Deven Black.  And concludes with a quote from this resident, Mr. Ricks, "“We lost two,” Mr. Ricks said. “We lost a young man who needed help and an old man who didn’t need to die.”

And that is at the crux of the matter.  The young man, who, ironically, is Mr. White, has a history of mental illness, and needed help.  And, Mr. Deven Black, who lost his life, also had something go wrong.  Both men were failed by society and "the system."  It is inconceivable to me that a man, honored one year was demoted to being a substitute teacher the next.  That is not how we should treat our educational heroes.  If Deven was guilty of the charges against him, I can only imagine that he may have been driven to that through desperation.  And, if guilty, Deven should have been given a way to redeem himself.  We all deserve an opportunity for redemption. 

I do not choose to remember Deven Black as a man who perhaps engaged in some questionable behavior towards the end of his life.  Instead I choose to remember Deven Black for his dedication to his students. I choose to remember a gentle man who nurtured others. I will leave you with this interview which gives a better lasting impression of who Deven Black was and what he cared about the most.  His comment, "I like that I had to learn so much to be able to do this job—learning is really what I like to do most of all," is what made him a valuable member of my Twitter circle. 

Thank you, Deven.  May you be at peace. 

We've Tried Nothing, And We're Fresh Out of Ideas!

Note:  Reposted from my defunct education blog.  Originally posted late January 2011.

In the eighth episode of the eighth season of The Simpsons, "Hurricane Neddy," which first aired on Sunday, December 29, 1996, Ned Flanders becomes filled with rage when well meaning but incompetent neighbors rebuild his house, which is the only one destroyed after a hurricane makes landfall in Springfield. He drives himself back to the sanitarium, where, years earlier, as an unruly little boy, he received spank therapy. His exasperated beatnik parents exclaim to the psychiatrist, "We've tried nothing, and we're fresh out of ideas!" Kid O was eight months at the time. Little did I know how well that line would come to symbolize her education.

Kid O has been a Special Ed student of the Chicago Public Schools since spring 1999. I figure out of eleven and a half years that Kid O has only had five good teachers. Even the better Special Ed teachers have needed way more persistence on my part than I have had psychic energy for. Furthermore, for years, I have been at a distinct disadvantage. I have had neither the language nor the skills to effectively advocate for Kid O.

"They don't listen to you, do they," Dr. David Timony asked me as he navigated Philadelphia traffic on the way to dropping Deven Black and I off at Science Leadership Academy for EduCon 2.3 I answered "No, they don't," but also thinking, do I really need to answer that question?

David graciously had arranged for Deven and I to tour HMS School where his sister used to teach and still volunteers. As I suspected even before we set foot into the building, these teachers and volunteers treat these children and young adults as if they are truly individuals. I asked the women who finished up our tour, as David's sister had to leave, about what the assistive technology options they had. And, as I suspected, was far and away better than what Kid O receives at her school.

While I was happy to see children given one on one attention in terms of therapy and education, I was acutely aware of what a sharp contrast it was to what Kid O receives through the Chicago Public Schools. And will probably continue to receive at CPS even when I report back to the staff at her current school. I am a thorn in their methods side, and so, no, they do not listen to my experience and to my input, as I mentioned here.

There's a sense I have of limited imagination and curiosity amongst teachers and therapy staff, that is excused away by lack of budget. Even of the most progressive thinking educators I have encountered at CPS quickly dismissed my inquiries into better technology for Kid O by saying, "not in the budget." At what expense it is to Kid O's psyche to not be able to fully express, not just what she knows and understands about the world, but her feelings? That is a huge psychic cost to bear.

David's sister spoke about a girl around Kid O's age who sounded a lot like her. Similar behavior. Similar sense of humor, and I bet, similar frustrations in trying to be heard as well as seen in a world that would largely wish her to be invisible. I have always maintained that Kid O would work the room if she could communicate.

The subject of good teachers versus bad teachers was briefly touched upon while we drove from HMS School to SLA and before I could comment we got distracted. Point is and I've said this a number of times to educators they need to pay attention to who their students are and what individual students need. As Holmes said to Watson, "You see, Watson, but you do not observe." Bad teachers only see. They have their curriculum and their methods lessons and they are going to go by that regardless of if it is really working or appropriate. Good teachers will ask why and break rules if they have to. Sometimes, however, good teachers have their hands tied by bad or indifferent administrators.

When I left HMS School, I felt a mixture of grief, rage and hope. Hope that some place somewhere was doing things right, even if I did perceive some possible blind spots. I felt grief because Kid O will never get this kind of an opportunity. I felt profound anger at the indifference of a system where resources are squandered and opportunities as well as time are lost. I felt joy when I saw that at least someone somewhere understood that neither learning nor therapy had to be dreary or regimented. I sat in this chill out chair, and it was surprisingly comfortable and easy to get in and out of. The staffer explained to us how beneficial chairs like that were for kids at the school. Helped them loosen up.

I am left with the hope that someone somewhere sees the benefit of innovation and not just "doing" education and doing it badly or, worse, yet, indifferently. In the middle of writing this post, I stopped to call up my husband and ask him him how to plug in the cellphone to recharge it. I told him about my visit to this school and what a contrast it was to what Kid O receives. He asked, "Don't you want to smack them upside the head?" And then he added, "we've tried nothing, and we're fresh out of ideas." When it comes to our experience with Kid O's education, we are on the same wavelength. We want more than what Kid O has received as an education. We want ideas. We want innovation. We want to see educators who are keen observers, and who teach with heart. What we don't want to see is a continuation of education as badly constructed as Ned Flanders' post-hurricane house. It's ill suited for Kid O and for just about anyone else.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Singing Into The Desert With Hannibal Smith, Or, How the Gift Economy Could Save Public Education

Note:  I decided to rewrite and partially combine two old blog posts from my now defunct education blog because of how education is being discussed as part of the political debates going on right now.

Given the failed education policies we have witnessed over roughly the last fifteen years, we need someone who fights for the underdog, cares about social justice, equality, and good at devising viable plans.  We need  someone like Hannibal Smith to come along and help us do that. That person could beBernie Sanders.   At the very least someone on Senator Sanders' staff needs to pay heed to whatSteven Singer has to say about this subject, especially this warning to appeal to those of us who advocate for true education reform.

The big difference between what I envision and what Singer discusses is that I also include using the gift economy.  In Caveat's post at the Burning Man Journal,The “Gift Economy” isn’t an economy at all, but that’s no excuse for your terrible, terrible gift, he speaks about being given a five foot tall copper staff hand with the only condition being that he hold it high and sing into the desert until the desert answers. Eventually, after he has sung his heart out, the desert did answer.

I have often felt, as I have advocated for Kid O, that I wandered through the desert searching for an oasis. Sometimes when I pour my heart out on Twitter, it feels much the same way. But every so often someone says, "Miss Shuganah?"

I am hoping that the person who calls out next  will be Senator Bernie Sanders.  I am hoping that educators will call out.  I am hoping that many members of many communities will call out.  And more than that, join with me in coming up with a plan for education equality, which would be true education reform.

How do we hold up the banner of education reform, and not have the ghost of George Carlin say, "told ya so." How do we move beyond good intentions? What I'd like to see from Bernie Sanders is a comprehensive plan that does not end up being yet another "terrible gift," that looks good and feels good, but doesn't end up being meaningful, effective and, most importantly, sustainable.

While we should consider federalizing public education as Senator Sanders suggests, we also need to go further than that. We need stakeholders within a community to be more directly involved in how all of our children are educated.

While we should consider federalizing public education as Senator Sanders suggests, we also need to go further than that. We need stakeholders within a community to be more directly involved in how all of our children are educated.

There are MFP (money follows the person) grants that help people with disabilities transition from institutions to quality community settings. What if we could produce this on a larger, more expansive scale and have grants that would lift up entire communities? What if we took the bureaucracy out of this entirely and found ways, within a community, to act as an open stewardship for an entire school district? We could do this through a gift economy, where people donated time and services.

 Think of the meaningful connections we could form. Mentally and physically disabled  kids could help one another. Or an ablebodied kid could tutor a kid like Kid O in math. That may be more of a challenge for most kids, but they would discover that Kid O had, at the very least, the gift of laughter to offer in return, and, at best, an engaged learner. Kid O could benefit from interacting with her peers, and they could gain insight into what life is like for someone who has physical challenges.

The best gifts we can give our children is a well rounded education where we can teach them how to lead authentic, ethical and honorable lives. We could all be enriched by engaging in collaborative efforts to teach all of our children. Some might donate resources. Some may donate time. Some may advocate for a better future for all. The way things are now, school is separate from community. Isn't it time that we reconnected school with the community? We underuse our school buildings. We could turn them into real community centers that served everyone in the community instead of just a certain segment of the population.

Granted, this would take time to develop, but what if communities ran the schools? What if a community took care of a school so that all needs were met? If we could shift attitudes that school is just for kids, then we could rebuild not just schools but entire communities. We are all responsible for the elderly, the disabled and the infirm. Everyone deserves opportunities to be part of a community, be useful and really thrive

Money is funneled into schools in a way that perpetuates inequality. The largest donors get the biggest say, not to mention ego boosts by having charter schools named after them.  That would not happen in a gift economy. As Caveat suggests in his blog post, a lot of people are unclear of the concept. Trinkets are OK. Sandwiches are better .At least they nurture the body.

When Bill Gates throws money at schools, he is allowed to have a say in educational policy that gives him power over communities in a way that is unconscionable. It makes him, as George Carlin would put it, an owner. That places an obligation on schools to produce, ie, capitulate to "owners" by adhering to untenable policies of standardized testing.  In his letter to President Obama,, Bill Ayers reminds us that "Education is a fundamental human right, not a product."

In order to reform education, we need to first strive for educational equality. It's difficult enough for kids in the General Ed population of a school to get ahead, but at least they have a chance. For Special Education students, the game is rigged. The stigma of Special Education is fully in place. Failure is already a given.

All kids could benefit from services to some degree or other. What we need then is a way to match up kids with services. Better yet,provide technology and resources to all kids as needed. This cannot happen under the current system of an unwieldy bureaucracy. We need smaller classrooms in smaller schools for starters. So how do we get there? We need a plan.

While others may be still waiting for Superman, I am waiting for Hannibal Smith.
Why John "Hannibal" Smith? Because, as leader of the A Team, he always seemed able to do the impossible and often with limited resources. Who better to reform education than a man with a vision, raw determination and a keen sense of social justice? Now, granted, he often managed to solve complex problems in less than an hour, but I can just imagine that, if you gave someone like that six months to a year, what they could do with the education system of a given community. Takes someone with ability to analyze, plan, have a passion for equality and social justice and a great sense of humor.

Yes, Hannibal Smith is a fictional character, and he's prone to violence. But there are real people out in the real world who have the necessary qualities. We have them on Twitter. We see them in "meatspace." Reforming education is not impossible. We are not helpless. We simply need to all be dedicated to seeing to it that all children have the resources to ensure for equal opportunities. Instead of waiting for a politician like Bernie Sanders to show us the way, perhaps we should show him.

Oh, one other thing. Hannibal Smith is a quick change artist. Allow me to remove my wig and my mustache. I am Hannibal Smith. You are Hannibal Smith. We are all Hannibal Smith. If we unite with the same steely determination that the A Team used in their fight for all the underdogs, then we can generate the much needed educational equality. We can reform the schools from the ground up. One community at a time. I am determined to ensure that all children have the tools and resources they need to get not just a good education but a great one.  If we all collaborated, we could see a good plan come together.

Imagine if we had a way to support schools without Bill Gates' money and without him and Sam Walton and other "owners" being able to dictate policy. So many schools are spiritually dead. We could, community by community, breathe new life into schools. if we sing into the desert, maybe we will answer one another. Joyfully and Resolutely.