Monday, June 29, 2015

"Pieces" by Baltimore Poet Laureate Derick Ebert

One of my former students and ballplayers, Derick Ebert, was recently named Baltimore Youth Poet Laureate, and was asked to deliver a poem at a TFA gala a few weeks ago. Using an extended metaphor of a house, he wrote a poem that included verses about three colleagues and myself, and honestly it was a great honor to be mentioned as a literary influence by a very memorable student and ballplayer, and who I'm so proud is doing so well for himself. It was so impressive to see Derick charismatically delivering the poem to such a large audience (he was introduced by Wes Moore, and also delivered the poem at a press conference at City Hall with Stephanie Rawlings-Blake), but by this point Derick has been a rather seasoned performer at spoken word events and poetry readings around the city; watch him read powerful poems here (a really moving poem about his father), here (about the great murdered -- still unsolved -- Edmondson baseball player Michael Mayfield, who I wrote about here), and here (about being mixed-race).

Derick gave me permission to publish the poem below, "Pieces," which features verses about my colleagues Tameka Taylor, Sedrick Smith, Patrick Daniels, and myself. It cemented in my mind that James Baldwin is a crucial writer to teach, but what is clear about the poem is that students end up being the construction (to use Derick's metaphor) of many teachers, and I'm appreciative to work with so many fine ones.

Watch and read Derick below:

An Ode to teachers that taught me

Teachers do more than build lesson plans
They build homes
out of boys

Mrs. Taylor -­
you were a wrecking ball
that knocked down
For children
that only knew
as a

where race meant

You got us to read
Toni Morrison’s
Bluest Eye -­

oh my ­-

How I became your little
Maureen Peal ­-
set off
A room full of 9th graders
with a squeal ­-
You made learning,
something we could enjoy,

our daily lunchroom gossip
Filled with  literary devices
We'd say
Mrs. Taylor is just like
A wrecking ball,
Knocking down empty homes
Housed in the minds of students -­
She created
new foundation
And gave us the pieces
To grow,

Mr. Smith
was more like an instruction manual from IKEA ­-
He could never make things easy -­
And sometimes had tacky
in presentations
He’d say
“I always encourage
getting high ­-
Off knowledge”
we would all laugh
at him
and not
with him
but we loved  what he could show us,

As a history teacher,
He revealed
That this is where we come from
But does not mean where we stay
And just like nomads
You should not dwell in one place
The world,
Is no different than a high school textbook
To Iraq,
Play in Egypt's
come back
Teach for America
Mr. Smith was an instruction manual
That taught us how to put the pieces together

Mr. Daniels,
Was every student's
Brick wall
Even when his
needed some rebuilding,
He'd be there
Ready to listen
Ready to feel the pressure of
Heavy heads of students
That didn't know what the future would look like ­

We had him for speech class,
As students
with fear
crept to the blackboard
To begin reciting a personal prose
He'd tell us
feet spread apart
If a hurricane were to come whirling in
You'd better give it eye contact
And not flinch
when things fall apart around you
A brick wall,
your composure
Will be

Then there was
Mr. Miazga,
The one that
opened the door to this passion
As I began etching myself
Into calligraphy
He introduced me
to James Baldwin,
and I began wanting to write my story ever
In hopes that I could teach the
Teach some of
To be open
with truth
Mr. Miazga,
Was like a roof,
And with that final piece
I felt like
A home

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Blogging the Garden

One of the things I love most about the new house is the yard, which has plenty of space to garden in. My old house had a little bit of space, and I got so excited by the prospect of gardening that I really over-planted it. No vegetables, but mostly trees, bushes, vines, and perennials. In a way, I loved the mini-Paradise I had created in Belair-Edison -- I could sit on the front porch and read, and be almost completely ensconced by honeysuckle vines and crepe myrtles. I had this vision that I would make my mark on the neighborhood by having an elaborate and amazing garden, and had some visions of being Adam Trask from East of Eden, conquering my land and making something of it. But by the time I had been in the house for about 5 years, keeping up with the maintenance of all the plants was daunting, and I nearly gave up on it in the last couple of summers I was in the house. 

I've made a pledge not to over-plant my new yard, but have a renewed excitement about gardening. When I first started planting at the old house, I would make frequent -- nearly daily -- visits to at least one of the garden stores in the area, usually the nearby Poor Boy's, but sometimes to Valley View Farms up in Hunt Valley and sometimes to Herring Run Nursery during their weekend openings. Over the last few weeks, I've again gotten into the habit of visiting each of these places as well, multiple times, and though I would document (for the internet, so I could look back) some of what I've planted.

My partner's excitement for planting a vegetable garden was infectious, so we started with that. Unfortunately, it was soon evident that this would be tough. Our yard, though big, is canopied by two beautiful and ancient maple trees, and their roots systems are spread throughout the yard. In addition, the yard seems to sit on top of some sort of industrial site, or at least an old garage, and is full of chunks of cement. That's not to mention the common Baltimore soil problem of clay, clay, clay. It looks like the photo below throughout the uneven yard. (We desperately need to rototill it, although I'm not sure if even that's the best route... one neighbor suggested a little bulldozer.)

The yard is full of holes, unevenness, cement, and roots.
Thus, cultivating the land has been back-breaking work, involving axes, shovels (I've broken one), saws, and lots of hard labor. But, eventually, we got our garden planted, full of tons of vegetables we bought at the Baltimore Farmer's Market. The following are three photos of the garden in its growth over the last three weeks or so:

The garden on June 9th, the day we planted it. There are 12 tomato plants, 12 pepper plants, 2 zucchini plants, 2 cucumber plants, and 2 watermelon plants.
The garden on June 22. Everything making good progress except for two of the little pepper plants.
Another, closer shot from June 22.
The garden, today, on June 28th, after the torrential downpours of the week. Notice that the watermelons are standing in floating water. Next year, we may have to do a raised garden because the standing water can't be good for the plants.
Also on June 9th, we planted three fruit trees, as we have visions of a little fruit tree grove in the back of the yard. At this post-blossom, post-fruit time of year, these trees are really cheap at the garden stores, so we ended up planting an Jonathan Apple Tree from Home Depot (50% off), a plum tree from Poor Boy's (50% off), and a yellow crisp apple tree from Poor Boy's (also 50% off). Poor Boy's recommended this organic soil conditioner LeafGro to use in our heavy clay soil, so we planted them all using plenty of that.

From left to right: Plum Tree, Jonathan Apple Tree, Honeycrisp Apple Tree. Planted 6/9/15.
My next priority was planting a bunch of Black-Eyed Susans and Crepe Myrtles along the fence. Black-Eyed Susans are my favorite flower, from way back when I was a kid; my mom's middle name is Susan, and I always associated the flowers with her, as I think she taught me about them first. I know they're Maryland's state flower, and I know they do really well here. At the old house, I was disappointed that I planted so many different types of flowers all over the place, and, in the new house, I wanted to be a little more simple while still being bountiful; that's why I've decided to line the fence only with Black-Eyed Susans between the trees. And Crepe Myrtles do so well in the Baltimore area; my crepe myrtles at the old house are beautiful. I wanted to combine two of my favorites along the fence, and hope they continue to grow and spread throughout the years. I started off the row with a Knockout Rose Tree, something I've never tried before but my partner really liked; I've given it a prominent place, greeting visitors to the backyard. This is what it looks like starting out (nothing has bloomed yet):

Black-Eyed Susans and Crepe Myrtles.

This shot is from the front, where I have a rose tree.
My next priority was making a bird, butterfly, and pollinator area. My dad loves feeding the birds, as did my grandfather before him, and I've always loved going to my dad's house and watching the hummingbirds, goldfinches, and cardinals zip around his backyard. I even remember sitting in my grandpa's garage when I was 10 years old, waiting for hours to get the perfect shot of a cardinal eating (and, back in those days, you had to wait for your film to develop to see if you got the perfect shot). As an adult, I've made half-hearted efforts to feed the birds, but never was consistent; at this house, I made an entire area devoted to birds. The bird/butterfly garden area could continue to spread out, but already there's 8 flowering plants (7 of them native) along with a bird feeder, a hummingbird feeder, and a birdbath.
Photograph 6/28/15. Hopefully this will attract plenty of birds, butterflies, and other pollinators! 

A: Some sort of pink flowering plant (little hot pink flowers) I got at Valley View Farms.
B) a coneflower I got from Herring Run Nursery
C) a tall Black-Eyed Susan varietal I got from Herring Run Nursery
D) An American Wisteria I got from Herring Run Nursery. It's climbing up the pole.
E) Foxglove I got from Poor Boy's when it was perennial of the week (gallon plant for $5.98)
F) Some sort of yellow and tall coneflower I got from Herring Run Nursery
G) A beautiful oriental lily of some kind I got from Poor Boy's.
H) A Black-Eyed Susan from Poor Boy's.
I'm going to try to figure out the ones I don't know. If you know, please shoot me an e-mail or let me know in a comment.

A closeup of the oriental lily I got at Poor Boy's. Will try to get exact name sometime soon.
We have a nice deck, too, and I wanted to plant alongside it. My old yard was full sun, but this yard, with the two large trees, has some nice areas of shade. This gave me an opportunity to plant hydrangeas (both from Lowe's) for the first time; I've always loved these big blue flowers. In between them is a honeysuckle vine I got from Herring Run nursery; I love love love honeysuckle vines and vines in general, and its placement right across from the bird area should attract more and more pollinators. I've also got a Shasta Daisy here, although it's not very easy to see in the photo. So far, with all the rain, I'm finding the hydrangeas to be a little more fragile than I'd like (notice that some stalks have fallen on the ground) but we'll see how they do.

Two hydrangeas, a honeysuckle vine, and shasta daisy.
This homely looking thing is a climbing rose. The ones at the old house are beautiful. I'm hopeful. To the right of it is a lilac, which I got (along with 3 others) at Home Depot for almost nothing after their blooming season. It's a spring bloomer, so we'll see how she looks next year.
This is a Shrimp Plant I got at Poor Boy's. It was a complete spur of the moment purchase, but I just thought it was so beautiful and unique. Those flowers really do look like shrimp. Apparently it grows to around a meter. I'll be pretty annoyed if this is a tropical plant that won't come back (I'm finding differing views online), but as it is I'm excited by it.

The most recent little garden, this features a clematis (as aforementioned, I love vines), a red perennial that I got from Valley View Farms (wish I remembered the name), and a variety of sedum I got from Poor Boy's. Sedum did very well at my old house; the middle flower is an experiment.
That's the garden and yard so far, for the most part. I'd love advice and feedback!

Friday, June 26, 2015

An Awesome Summer Program, and Having a Front Row Seat to Educational Resource Gaps

This summer, I'm teaching rising 9th graders as part of a 5-week summer program called Bridges, run  and housed by the illustrious St. Paul's School. I'm only a week in, but I've taught several students who have been through the program, which follows Baltimore City kids from the 4th grade all the way through the 12th grade, and feel pretty confident saying it's a really great program that helps a lot of kids who need it.

Here's a clip about the program on the George Stephanopolous show:

Resources in my classroom.
As you can see from the clip, which I really recommend watching (both of the older kids featured in the video are a big part of why I decided to apply), the program does incredible work. Terricka, who is featured heavily in the video, just graduated from City and was one of my IB English seniors who blew me away several times last year; she is a Gates Millennium Scholar, which means that, for the rest of her life, her college education will be covered. She is a first generation college student headed to a great school, Williams College in Massachusetts. There are many other great kids like her who the program has taught, mentored, and prepared for higher education.

As aforementioned, I'm only a week into the program, but working at Bridges has me thinking a lot about privilege. The program caters exclusively to public school Baltimore City kids, but is housed at a nice private school with private school amenities. Teachers are given all the supplies and materials we need. Prior to the summer, I requested a list of books and materials, including three texts (Paper Towns by John Green, The Other Wes Moore, Much Ado About Nothing) for each student, and, upon my arrival last week, they were waiting for me in my classroom, which is also equipped with a Smartboard (which I've never used in my career, and don't know any teacher at my school who has), dry erase boards, dry erase markers, a stapler, spiral notebooks for each student, binders, and notebooks. The room has speakers and an LCD projector mounted to the ceiling. Each of these items, except the Smart Board, I have purchased myself for my own classroom during my career at a some point(s).

I'll always be a public school advocate and am passionate that all kids deserve a great education, that it's the only way our democracy can work. I think an Amendment should be added to our Constitution about Equality of Education. I'm so passionate that it offends me that President Obama sends his children to a private school.

Healthy drinking fountains, unlike in BCPSS.
With that being said, it's really jarring to witness the disparity of resources and facilities between public and private institutions. Not only do my classes max out at 9 students, but the classroom I'm in has a capacity of just 12 or so. The teacher lounge is lined with a dozen different colors of paper to make multiple colors of handouts, as well as all the tapes, pencils, and markers that a teacher might need. The water fountains not only are drinkable water, but awesome posters about the importance of staying hydrated.

I'm so happy that a bunch of Baltimore City kids are able to engage with these resources, not only for the five weeks of the summer, but also with mentorship throughout the school year. However, having a front-row seat to the resource gap makes me sad, and more and more angry at Larry Hogan for withholding funding to Baltimore City schools. It also makes me horribly upset when Baltimore City Schools do things like throw away tons of books into a dumpster. There's so much need for resources in Baltimore City schools, and so much waste as well. Everything needs an overhaul: funding, waste management, disparity between educational resources for the rich and the poor.  Where does it start?

I like to think it's programs like Bridges, at least partly. Read and donate here.

Indeed, everything I've encountered with this program has been pretty fabulous.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Triumphant and Delicious Return of the Baltimore Institution, Walther Gardens (established 1933)

When I first moved to Baltimore back in 2001, I lived on Walther Avenue, a couple of blocks from Walther Gardens. At that point, I had no idea what a snowball was, at least not the Baltimore version, but eventually grew to love Walther Gardens and its wide variety of icy treats.   I moved from Walther Ave. to a different part of city in 2006, however, and, for years, the establishment was out of my daily routes and thoughts. Whenever I did drive by, they seemed to be closed; apparently during that time, management has changed a few times.

A chocolate snowball with marshmallow on Memorial Day.
This year, however, Walther Gardens is back, both in my life and, seemingly based on the crowds I see there, as a favorite place in northeast Baltimore. I have already visited the resurrected institution (it was established in 1933) several times this summer.

Walther Gardens is under new management this year, as Matthew William Wittek -- a Baltimore resident for about 15 years, if I remember correctly from my conversations with him -- has purchased the business, and his gregarious sister, Paula Wittek-Hill, has moved down from upstate New York to help him run it.

The pair have worked tirelessly to restore the business (now technically called Walther Gardens at White Oak) to its former glory. The snowball shoppe always seems to be busy, as far as I can tell. The gardens are growing several crops, and soon will be yielding fresh cut flowers again. They and their staff are renovating the greenhouses and transforming the house on the property to an antiques shop, hoping to interest HGTV in its metamorphosis. 

Matthew Williams Wittek and his sister, Paula Wittek-Hill.

But, so far, it's the return of the incredible snowballs that have excited me most and made our household frequent guests of Walther Gardens. My snowball partner always gets the Baltimore standby, the egg custard, with marshmallow layered through and on top. I've been more diverse in my selections, often choosing my favorite of chocolate, but dabbling into lemon-lime (which tastes like green Koolaid) and creamsicle, and always with marshmallow. I've tried several others as well, because the staff is kind enough to provide samples before you take the $1.50 plunge for a small.
The Baltimore Standard, an Egg Custard snowball with marshmallow.
In addition to their incredible snowballs, which have really hit the spot after softball games or bike rides or the just the end of a long workday or day of gardening, we've found the Wittek siblings -- and their staff -- to be exceptionally friendly, engaging in conversation every visit, even when we visit during their 8:30-9:00 rush. (Note: I hope they start closing at 10 as business grows!)
Hours are 2:00 pm - 9:00 pm on Monday through Friday, and 1:00 - 9:00 on Saturdays and Sundays. Prices are very reasonable: $1.50 for a small, $2.00 for a medium, $2.50 for a large, and $3.00 for a medium. Marshmallow is 50 cents extra and -- if you ask me -- a requirement. 
There are over 60 flavors currently: Banana, Barbie, Blood Orange, Bobby's Lemon, Cherry, Coca-Cola, Coconut, Egg Custard, Fireball, Grape, Ice Cream, Lemon, Lime, Mango, Orange, Bubble Gum, Peach, Pineapple, Raspberry, Root Beer, Scooby Doo, Sky Light, Sour Apple, Spearmint, Sponge Bob, Strawberry, Vanilla, Watermelon, Candy Apple, Tutti-Frutti, Hawaiian Coconut, Hawaiian Vanilla, Almond, Amaretto, Apple, Banana Split, Blackberry, Black Cherry, Blue Hawaiian, Blue Raspberry, Cherry Cola, Cotton Candy, Dreamcicle, Half & Half Tea, Kiwi, Lemon-Lime, Pina Colada, Rum, Sour Apple, Tiger's Blood, Wedding Cake, Whiskey Sour, Pimpe Juice, Butterscotch, and Diet Strawberry, Diet Skylite, Diet Orange, Diet Cherry, Diet Grape, Diet Root Beer, Diet Watermelon, and Reduced Sugar Chocolate.

A lemon-lime snowball with marshmallow

A mid-June evening at Walther Gardens.

Established 1933
Prices and flavors.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Monopolization of Technology by All the Testing: A View From Inside

This week, for the first time in my career, I proctored a standardized test on computers. It wasn't a positive experience. It took nearly an hour and much trial and error to set up each student with a working computer with a working test program, and there were some hiccups throughout with computers resetting and interrupting testing. But we got through it relatively unscathed, and, judging from the confidence the kids exuded afterwards, I bet they did pretty well.

But that was just 30 kids, in one computer lab, taking one assessment. Our school has hundreds of kids per grade level, and only three computer labs available for testing (the others have Technology classes in them). Our library computer lab is also being monopolized by testing. For weeks, in fact, these computers have been dominated by testing: first the PARCC, and now the HSA. Each day, faculty receives e-mails about which students will be testing, and are informed that computer labs will be unavailable. This has been much of the 2nd semester. Our testing coordinators have been working hard to create testing schedules and opportunities for the students to be assessed, but the effect of requiring all the testing be online means that the use of computer labs for actual learning has gone by the wayside. Our 9th grade team can't do the Persepolis research project we have done in past years; my colleagues in Drama and Social Studies have similar stories of the inability to use computer labs for research, projects, word processing, Excel, or anything else. The other effect is that each class period, for a tested grade level, teachers will be missing either a handful or a boatload of kids who happen to be in the section of another subject that happens to be tested that day.

Yesterday, I met with a colleague from a different high school in a different part of town. Her situation is the same. For the entire year, she and her colleagues have been unable to use computers for actual learning. They are used every day for testing. In schools and districts without much technology, computer labs are shifting from tools of learning to tolls of assessment only.

This isn't how it was supposed to be. According to The Washington Post, then-Governor O'Malley asked Dr. Lillian Lowery what the challenge was with IT. After a long pause, she said, "It's the testing, not the IT."

But this isn't the case in Baltimore City Public Schools. In past years, the week of HSA testing -- all done on paper -- was completed in four days. These days were disruptive to instruction, but they were contained. With the new model of testing on computers, assessment from the PARCC and HSA has shifted the breadth of state testing from a contained week to endless weeks, even months, of testing and a drastic interruption to instruction.

During the week of the Baltimore Uprising, our 9th grade team had a two-day field trip (half the students on one day, the other half on the other) to see Romeo and Juliet at the new Chesapeake Shakespeare Company downtown. Our students were so excited about the trip, which was part of our syllabi we passed out in August and part of our summative assessment for the unit (students were going to be asked to compare the performance of their assigned monologue with their own performance choices). However, due to testing on technology, we were ultimately unable to go.

The reason for this is because that week, after the uprising, our CEO (smartly, I think, based upon what was known at the time) canceled all field trips that week (ours was scheduled for Thursday and Friday), and, while the CSC was willing to reschedule with us, we couldn't, because every day after that point had students testing.  And this is not an isolated problem. The testing schedule (due to limited technology) at our school has made many field trips, class performances, and other educational opportunities either impossible or extremely difficult. Testing on technology has spread out the testing season from one week to months-long, making it feel relentless and affecting many aspects of actual pedagogy and instruction.

I'm not sure how schools in more wealthy school systems, like Montgomery County or Harford County, are dealing with this testing and technology situation. I assume their computer-to-pupil ratio is much higher than ours in Baltimore City; however, I also assume that this monopolization of computer labs for the purposes of testing does indeed impact instruction of students statewide. In Baltimore City, though, this is an infrastructure and technology problem, which creates a scheduling problem and a monumental instructional problem.

So, when you hear educators talking about the testing culture, it's not just the fact that we're testing a lot. I actually think the Common Core is a solid educational platform and think the PARCC is a vast improvement over the HSA, at least in English. But the technology is a problem, and it's made the testing culture much more impactful and deleterious on actual education.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Baltimore Struggles Hard, but We Love Harder

A reader sent me an e-mail earlier this past week, wondering when I was going to write about the Baltimore Uprising, but I've struggled with what to say. We all feel like we're living in a historic moment, and sometimes it's hard to pull back and gain perspective when you're living in it. Add onto the fact that all this came during the last week of instruction of my seniors, and the last full week of coaching baseball, and it's even more challenging to take a step back from the situation to allow the proper space to write about it. The week has simply been an emotional and exhausting blur. That being said, others have written about it, like my Baltimore City Public Schools colleague Sean Martin, and very well. Honestly I don't have that much to add beyond what he wrote there.
Prayer circle at Penn-North on Tuesday. That's me in the middle with colleagues and players.
I do want to write a bit about this week though, this last week of April 2015, which I believe will live on for decades. Like many around the country, from my place of white privilege I have been disgusted by cases like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, all young Black men gunned down under the assumption that they are dangerous. When I see photos of these young men, I see my students, and I think about how they are viewed by society, and it breaks my heart. It probably makes sense that Baltimore, which has had tense relationships with police for decades, would be the site of the next tragic showdown between a young black man and police. Watching the video of Freddie Gray was one of the most gut-wrenching experiences I've ever had, mostly for the sound of his wail; since his legs didn't appear to be working when he went into the police van, I'm among those who believe that his fatal injury -- or at least the start to it -- occurred outside. That means it feels like this video is an actual video of a murder.

Now, be clear: not only was my dad a police officer for 25 years (and still works in law enforcement), along with a cousin, but I'm good friends with a couple Baltimore City police officers, including a Baltimore City school police officer who I respect a lot who I have worked alongside for nearly a decade. In addition, I coached two Baltimore City police officers when they were in high school and I remain in touch with them both; both have visited me on the baseball field this year to see how this year's team is doing, one in full uniform. I think being a police officer is a very hard job, one that isn't rewarded with much respect or financial gains (like teachers), and I'm in no way anti-police.
Some of my players and colleague helping with cleanup.
But, like Marilyn Mosby, who comes from five generations of police and whose both parents are police, I can both support police officers as well as hold bad police officers accountable. I'm not absolutely sure if the police officer in the Michael Brown or Tamir Rice cases were guilty of murder. What I am absolutely sure about, though, is that they should have had a trial in court, and the family of their victims deserved it even more. When decisions seem like they're being made by one Prosecuting Attorney rather than an open adversarial trial, it just feels sneaky; it feels like an extension of decades of racist practices by the courts and justice system. So Friday's news -- a sign that the police officers who snuffed the life out of a young man would be held accountable -- felt like a start to justice. I don't know how active or passive the roles of the police officers charged were in the death of Freddie Gray, but it's clear they all bear some responsibility (some, it appears from the charges and description, more than others), and all showed an indifference to the human life that was extinguishing before them. I don't want those kinds of people as police in my city.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. On Monday, the day of Freddie Gray's funeral, a strange, mournful, and nervous energy encapsulated the school in a way I'd never experienced. There was some sort of internet rumor of violence happening at 3pm, and this rumor spread like wildfire throughout the student body, and parents pulled their students from school throughout the day. I've heard this happened at other schools around the system, and we were told that the threat wasn't credible. The bus came to pick the team and I up at 1:30 p.m. for our away doubleheader which began at 2:45, and, frankly, I was glad to be gone for the day away from the strange energy of the school.

Groups of citizens helping with cleanup.
During the game, occasionally I glanced at my phone, and saw some news updates about UMBC and other colleges closing early because of protesters, but I thought they were just being overly cautious, and I was coaching so didn't investigate much. There were definitely times during the game when it seems liked a lot of police cars were going by, but, because the game was being played at Clifton Park, alongside a main road (Harford Rd.), I didn't think that much of it.

We arrived back at school at around 7:30, and it was a ghost town. We were locked out of the building. Eventually, I spoke with the Assistant Principal, who told me not to worry about getting inside the building and to just get the kids home. After I did that -- waiting for the West Baltimore parents to come get their kids and dropping four kids off around east Baltimore -- I headed home to start reading about the news.

At home, I watched videos and read posts for hours, becoming sadder and angrier as I watched, but I eventually got inspired by a few posts -- including one by my former student, Robert A. Douglas -- and made plans to head out into the city the next morning (school had already been canceled due to concerns for safety) to help with the rebuilding efforts. I put it on Facebook, and invited my baseball team. Friends in DC made a bunch of sandwiches for the effort and dropped them off in the morning on my way out.
An ebullient hug as the news is announced.
The discovery, on the way to the cleanup early on Tuesday morning, that my car window (as well as several others on the block) was smashed was a bit of a surprise -- we heard some rioters got to the Erdman Shopping Center, but most of the rioting was miles away from out house -- but it just momentarily deterred us. We vacuumed up the glass and headed to the Liberty Recreational Center, where we heard there were some kids who needed some food since schools were closed. We played some basketball with them, then heard about a homeless teen shelter that needed some supplies after vandalism the day before, and Robert took some of the donations over there while we went to the Penn-North area to assist with further cleanup.
My broken window on Tuesday morning. Cost me $340 to fix.
We headed out to the Penn-North area to help with cleanup, but much of it was done by that time, but we helped where we could. My students wore their jersies -- an idea one of them had so we wouldn't be mistaken for rioters -- and we walked around, seeing all the people cleaning up, sharing food and water, praying, singing, and being part of a community, and it felt incredible. I went to a couple of other community meetings that day, as well; all showed Baltimore coming together to show the national media and each other that we are a community ready for change and healing.

That day around Baltimore with my students, colleagues, and friends was so amazing that it reminded me how Baltimore is a city that comes together and perseveres. I looked forward to getting back to the routine of teaching and coaching the next day, and yearned for improvement to a system that devalues Black lives and leads to the frustration and despair that we had seen the last couple of days. Indeed, Baltimore struggles hard, but we love harder -- something that we will need as we move forward  in healing and justice.

I've been living in Baltimore for nearly 15 years now, longer than I have any other city. Returning to my great kids on Wednesday and Thursday after being engaged in the community cleanup was exactly what my soul needed.
This is why I'll always teach James Baldwin. So prescient.

No one was expecting the news on Friday that came from Marilyn Mosby. It was towards the end of 3rd period, during my very last class with the Class of 2015 (they take their IB exams starting on Monday), when a colleague came in to tell me that Mosby was announcing a "laundry list" of charges against the officers and that she was choked up about it. I told the students, and we all started looking at our Twitter accounts for the news; I then fumbled to my computer and LCD screen to turn on WBAL. By that point, Mosby's press conference was nearing an end, and Jayne Miller soon began reporting. The bell rang, students slowly filed out, happy. The next group came in, and I was able to capture two jubilant kids hugging in front of the screen. We continued to watch the news reports for the first part of class, all impressed with Mosby's poise and her firm stance on justice. I played the entire press conference for my 9th grade classes later in the day; you could hear a pin drop as they saw the young confident woman deliver her speech that, for the first time we've seen in recent years it seems, holds officers accountable for their treatment of a young Black man.

We're still a long way to go, and I'm certain we will have tumultuous times ahead. But things feel better today than they did a week ago. And I'm hopeful that Marilyn Mosby's words continue to ring true and optimistic:

“To the youth of this city: I will seek justice on your behalf. This is a moment. This is your moment. Let’s ensure that we have peaceful and productive rallies that will develop structural and systemic changes for generations to come. You’re at the forefront of this cause. And as young people, our time is now.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

'One City, One Book' Celebrates its 10th Anniversary

One of the things I want to highlight in this blog is some of the great things happening in Baltimore City Public Schools, and our school has been doing something pretty cool now for what this year will be in its 10th Anniversary: a community reading of a book that we call "One City, One Book".

In this annual event, all students, parents, faculty, and alumni are invited to gather together and read a book collectively, and then share in the experience through discussion and a talk by the author. Today, this communal reading of a book by a state or city is fairly common, but it was rarer in 2005, when we launched it; for example, the great "One Maryland, One Book" program is "only" in its 8th year. But when "One City, One Book" was started -- spearheaded by Charles Ellenbogen, our department head at the time, and Amy Sampson, who has been running it ever since, with assistance by students and other department members at times -- it was still a fairly new idea nationally.

Over the last ten years, City has hosted National Book Award winners, a Pulitzer Prize award winner, a Guggenheim fellow, and a Maryland Poet Laureate, plus several other nationally or locally known writers. Each year, Ms. Sampson raises funds (through Donors Choose or The Children's Bookstore Foundation, for example) to subsidize the event and speakers fees, and the event is attended by around 100 students, parents, alumni, and staff.
This year is an especially exciting "One City, One Book," as Ms. Sampson and the student leaders have invited a City College grad, Sheri Booker (City '99), who wrote the acclaimed Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner City Funeral Home, which won the NAACP Image for "Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author." The darkly comic memoir has received national attention details Booker's experience working in Wylie Funeral Home in West Baltimore, and has been praised humor, wisdom, and poignancy. Shortly after the book was released, many in our department went to hear Ms. Booker read at Enoch Pratt Library, and her dynamic and charismatic presentation made us especially excited to hear her present to our students.

This is also an exciting year, because it's the 10th "One City, One Book": a whole decade of bringing in authors to talk to our students, parents, and staff around the reading of a book.

Below is a history of the event at City:

Some History of One City, One Book:
2005: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
Ms. Packer taught at City College in the late 1990s, so she was a natural fit for our inaugural One City, One Book event when she became an internationally known and praised author as a result of this wonderful collection of short stories. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere won Ms. Packer a Guggenheim fellowship and was John Updike's pick on the Today show's Book-of-the-Month club, and our students loved reading her tales, many of which are set in Baltimore. (Writing this has made me want to pick that book up again! Plus ZZ was an incredibly warm and resonant presence with our students.)
2006: The Book of Fred by Abby Bardi
The 2nd pick was a debut novel by Maryland author Abby Bardi, whose book is about a 15-year old protagonist raised in a cult.

2007: Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones
The Known World is one of my favorite novels of all time, so it was a thrill to meet Edward P. Jones, who had won a National Book Critics Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and a MacArthur grant by the time he had come to our high school to talk about Lost in the City, his debut short story collection. Mr. Jones was a reserved man, belying his literary rockstar persona, but was awesome with our kids. 

2008: From the Book of Giants by Joshua Weiner
The first poetry collection for "One City, One Book."

2009: Remembering Eden by Michael Glaser
Mr. Glaser, the Poet Laureate of Maryand, came to our school for an event called "The Paradox of Paradise", looking at both the beauty and danger of the environment. This was a really cool event organized by Ms. Tashjian that also included performances by Caleb Stine and Saleem, a folk singer and hip-hop artist who collaborated on a CD about Baltimore. 

2010: The Beautiful Struggle by Ta'Nehisi Coates
What a treat it was to hear Mr. Coates, one of my favorite contemporary writers and bloggers, speak about his terrific memoir about his dad and growing up in Baltimore. I think Coates has one of the sharpest minds in America, and hearing him speak to our students about his incredible book was a treat. 

2011: Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 
We almost got Ms. Adichie right as she was on the brink of literary stardom, but she had to cancel due to a family emergency in Nigeria. The One City, One Book group still held the event and discussed the book, with several of our Nigerian students leading discussions and presentations about cultural aspects of the novel. 

2013: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
Baltimore County Librarian Paula Gallagher suggested McBride's PEN-nominated debut novel about a little girl growing up in the Cambodian Killing fields. Ratner, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, now lives in DC, and led a riveting discussion of her book with our students and their parents.
2014: Accidents of Nature by Harriet McBryde Johnson
Our student who has Cerebral Palsy recommended Accidents of Nature by the late Ms. Johnson for our "One City, One Book" text. In the funny and moving novel, the protagonist has CP and ends up attending a camp for others with disabilities, and it opens up her world. Because Ms. Johnson has passed away, the guest speaker was Dan Keplinger, the artist with CP who is the subject of the 2000 Oscar-winning documentary short King Gimp Like the film, his speech was powerful and inspirational, and the discussions the school community had about the book were dynamic.
Photos from 2014's event surrounding Accidents of Nature:

Dan Keplinger, the subject of King Gimp

Students listen intently

Crowd shot.

Watching King Gimp short documentary, which won Oscar in 2000.

Small group discussion