Sunday, December 15, 2013

My Global Moment

#MyGlobalMoment from The Ubuntu Center on Vimeo.

“And you call yourself an educated man.”

I was having a buffet breakfast in 2006 with two Afghan teachers at a conference for Middle Eastern educators (TARA) in Bahrain.  The man was young, maybe thirty, the woman, Hamaira, more seasoned, with a married daughter of her own. She had told me of her marriage at the age of 11, how she was in the garden playing with dolls when her father came to fetch her to meet her new husband.  While they had grown close over the years, she was quick to distinguish her marriage from her daughter’s, which, with a slight straightening of the spine, she described as a “love marriage.” Her daughter lived in Atlanta, far removed from her but also from the fighting in Kabul. “It is good,” she said definitively.

Hamaira, who had endured refugee camps and had very little in the way of material belongings insisted on giving me her headscarf when we parted, an act of generosity that I could not refuse, but which hurt to accept.  Years later, it still smells of her perfume.

The young man had a permanent look of concern.  He thought the ideas being exchanged at the conference were all good ones, but, he tipped his head, unfortunately not much use to him as his students had neither desks nor pencils.  These were only a couple items on a long list of what had gone missing in Kabul as the result of war.  No electricity. No clean water. His grandmother had no legs as a result of an American land mine.

“And you are sitting here having breakfast with me?” I asked.

“You did not plant this bomb,” he said matter-of-factly, evidencing a maturity of reasoning not present at home where educated folks had actually debated the merits of calling French fries “freedom fries,” a few years prior -- a phrase still in use at that time (and still in use in some restaurants even today).  Americans know how to hold a grudge and spread it with ubiquitous contempt from border to border.

The conference had sponsored the attendance of these two teachers.  They were both classroom teachers and trainers of teachers in a school system in which many children go to school in 2 hour increments because of their work schedules.  Not the teachers’ work schedules, the kids’.  With so many of the men absent from families after decades of war, basic provisions were a joint effort. As we sat trading stories, the young man said something that made Hamaira flare. “Ah, you say these things, and yet when you ask your wife to bring you a glass of water, you do not look her in the eye or speak her name. You wave your hand and say, water.  And you call yourself an educated man,” she sniffed.

“What do you expect?” The young man replied with a shrug. “I live in my father’s house.”

Changing the hearts and minds of people with such deep traditions suddenly looked to me to be a foolish, misguided and painfully arrogant notion, dreamy, magical fiction, transient as freedom fries.

To some extent, we all live in our father’s house.  How we find common ground is never along path carved out by one party.

Do you have a Global Moment?  Post it here and read others:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dostyk American International School, Atyrau, Kazakhstan

“What were you doing in Kazakhstan?’ asks the customs agent in Newark.

“How much time do you have?” I want to answer, but these folks get paid to not know how to take a joke, so I just say, “Visiting.”

He stares me down. 

“Visiting a school.”

“Do you speak Russian?”

“No.” Neither do all Kazakhs, I’m thinking.  They have their own language.  But I don’t say that part.  It was a long trip; I don’t want to add any interrogation rooms to the legs of my journey.  “English language,” I say.

“What are you bringing back?”

The true answer involves memories, smiles, stunning lines of poetry, new friendships, hugs from old friends, new vistas, tacos, home made beer, a muddy market, laughter, and a slight head cold.  But this guy doesn’t want all that, so I just say, “a hat and some alpaca socks from Frankfurt.”

Thump.  Thump.  He stamps my passport and hands it across the counter.

“Welcome back.”

How do you sum up a weeklong trip to the other side of the planet in a single sentence?  Memories are crammed into the data bank like an over stuffed suitcase, hard to contain even if you sit on it.

My best attempt would be, “Spots of brilliance against an otherwise grey landscape.”  Favorite line came out of Cheryl Fullerton's pre-school class where one student said that "snow is water than looks like sugar."  Most laughable line came from the K-1 class where one writer was searching a word and pointed to my eye for me to help her.  "She's not being rude," explained her writing partner, "she just doesn't know the word."  The word was wrinkled.  

Salinger and I spent a week working with the 81 students at all grade levels at Doystk American International School in Atryau.  The skies may have been grey most days, but the kids were brilliant.  Writing poetry can be risky business, but the kids just jumped right in.  This tells me that they are in an atmosphere where they feel safe.

The kids had illustrated some of our poems before we arrived and are active writers, so were open to trying new approaches as they wrote and revised their way to a culminating performance for classmates and parents.

The first couple of days, I taught in borrowed clothes as our bags got hung up in Moscow and flights to Atyau only happen every two-three days.  

Luckily, they arrived before the evening reading we did for parents.  Lots of good snacks and warmth with the ever gusty winds whipping outside.  Once in a while it's good to share poems just for the sake of the words.  Not teaching, just sharing.  

This was the first time we could leave behind a copy of our new book with projectable lessons, High Impact Writing Clinics, with teachers for follow-up, which was exciting.  We never go into a school thinking we know the needs of the students better than their teachers.  What we hope is that we can add a few more lessons for teachers to draw upon as they help kids find their voices through writing.  Sometimes it just helps to have someone back up what the teachers have been saying all year -- draft, revise, be specific, use comparisons.  The normal stuff made more than normal if kids hear it from more than one place.

Atyrau, Kazakhstan is not a well known tourist destination.  But we had fun touring, one day taking a 5 mile walk.  This picture was taking on the bridge where you can cross from Asia to Europe and back again.  The hat is on loan from Konna, the face mask a souvenir of Vietnam.  

Thanks to Principal Raul Hinojosa and his favorite librarian, wife Patsy for the invitation.  Thanks to Konna and Peter Parker and their therapy husky Toshe for opening their home to us.  Special thanks to the parents who made us feel welcome with spectacular meals and conversation. 

To Brent, Cheryl, Lauren and Maxim Fullerton, how great to see you again! Thank you so much for recommending us.

Wanted in Michigan

No one climbs aboard a bicycle and proclaims, “I want to crash and fall on my head.  Bring on the broken bones.” No one puts a cake in the oven hoping it will come out burned black and tasting like a hockey puck. Likewise, people don’t get married because they want to get divorced.  If they did, American Tuxedo would rent helmets. 

When a marriage crashes or turns into a hockey puck, it isn’t because the partners want it to happen.  Divorce is like volunteering for amputation without the anesthetic. Who would ever wish for that?

My parents were divorced. I was an adult when it happened, but that doesn’t mean it was easy on me. My marriage also ended.  Didn’t want either one of these things to happen. Just did.  Today I can say, I am pretty glad things turned out as they did.  I like my life.  But, I can’t say, could never say, that I wanted divorce to be part of who I am.

So this knowing was the impetus for my poem, Wanted.  Today, that poem is wanted by teachers in Michigan as it (unpredictably) is a component in their state standards.  The state didn’t choose to provide the poem to teachers for classroom use, they just assigned it.  Unfortunately the book that originally contained the poem has gone out of print.  So teachers have been writing to me (apologetically) asking for the text of the poem. 

Some would say (and have) that divorce is no topic for kids’ poetry.  Kids’ poetry should be about balloons rising, spinning till you fall over, or castles in the air, in ancient times, in Spain. Anywhere and anything except the dismemberment of the castle in which a kid currently resides.  It’s true that the poems that pop out when pulling your finger out of your nose are funny (perfectly okay with editors) and a (ick) represent a pretty universal experience, it’s also true that divorce happens. 

In my world, real happenings are the stuff of poems. I spent about 15 years writing poetry in my kid voice before I had anything published.  I had never been to a book fair or teacher’s conference where children’s poetry was discussed.  I didn’t know writing kids’ poetry came with a set of rules having nothing to do with iambs, quatrains or free verse.  I didn’t know there were topics that kids’ poets just didn’t write about, like divorce. Death and war are okay topics, but only if they are old news, not breaking news. 

My first editor suggested I divorce all my divorce poems from the others and make a book of poems just on that topic.  My response was a big no to that idea.  I mean, seriously.  Who would check that book out of the library? After I wore that first editor out, the second one suggested that since she had an intact marriage and so had her parents (lucky her, exactly the opposite of my experience) that only certain kids would be able to identify with the topic of divorce and therefore, poems on divorce should not be included in any collection.  “You have a skewed perception based on your experience,” she told me, “Most kids are happy.”

“Not in my neighborhood,” I said.  True, I may be a little askew, but what do I have except my own perception?  From what I could see, divorce had touched the lives of every kid I knew, if not their own parents, then a friend had moved away, a cousin got squirrely, a friend wound up in tears at school, even grandparents have been known to split up.  Besides, nobody as in NOBODY is happy all the time. I got a third editor.

One reviewer suggested when my book Am I Naturally this Crazy was published that I was making light of kids' feelings because I used rhyme in this particular poem.  No rhymes allowed when speaking of divorce to kids?  Who wrote that rule?

Crazy even got banned in one district that I know of because not only did it contain a poem about divorce, but also about a current war (double whammy).  Writing about divorce, a rather tight-lipped librarian explained, meant I was “anti family values.”  Did she mean I didn’t value my family because we spread ourselves over two houses? Where do people get these ideas?

Funny how a few words arranged in shortened lines can take on a life of their own. Since the book this poem first appeared in is out of print, this particular word collection is hard to find.

I may never have wanted to know about divorce, but I do want teachers and kids to have access to this poem. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Freed from Accelerated Reader Stress

I received this email from my daughter Kelly yesterday.  Go Kelly!  Go Danny!  Following in the family tradition of being plain-clothes revolutionaries.


Since the beginning of September the dreaded AR points have been hanging over Danny's head.  At Danny's school 4th graders need 12 points a month to go to the carnival at the end of the year.  The minimum monthly points required at his school for 4th graders is 4 points or you get disciplined by the principal.  She will "cut a corner" off your behavior card.  I'm not sure what that even means but each student has one card and I imagine you only have 4 corners.  What happens when they're all cut off?  Public stoning?  Jail?  No idea but according to Danny, it isn't good.

But Danny has never been the type of kid to just do the minimum to get by, so 4 points was never good enough for him.  He was aiming for 12!  Because that's what our family does.  We don't aim for C's we aim for A's...  right?

During September Danny read some Joey Pigza books do get the points.  But the language, topic and mood of the story was difficult for Danny so he begged me to sit and read with him (or, to be quite honest, to him).  That was hard for me because his younger brother having Autism needs a lot of help with homework and everyone tries to get their homework done right after school.  It was hard for me to help two boys at once so the reading became a stressor and was aIways pushed off until later in the evening when we were all exhausted.  And when Dad came and visited he saw Danny was so stressed out about finishing his book before the end of September (so he could take the test before the end of the month), Dad and Danny sat and finished one of the books together.  Then the same thing happened when you came to visit in October, remember?

After that Danny was done with Joey Pigza and grabbed "The Lightning Thief."  He was aiming high!  12 points for one book.  All he would have to do was read one book for the whole month and take the test and get his points.  One problem, he couldn't get through it.  Not on his own.  He begged me to read with him again because he just wasn't getting into it.  Plus it was taking him a long time to read and that was stressing him out because he needed to finish it before the end of the month to get the points in.

Around the end of October, after he lost the school government election to the kid that ran on the premise that he had the most AR points in their grade, I sat down with a defeated Danny who was absolutely beginning to HATE reading.  And he told me he was feeling "stupid" cause he couldn't get the reading done.  The AR system, the pressure from the school (whether deliberate or perceived), the other kids bragging about their AR points and the carnival were destroying his love of reading.  It was time for something drastic.

I had to have a sit-down with Danny.  I explained to him how absurd and pointless this AR system was and that in this case, we're going to make an exception and just do the minimum required.  What a lesson I was teaching my son but it was time for an intervention.  I told him to forget the carnival and I would let him stay home from school that day and take him to a movie and to ice cream, whatever he wanted.  I told him to aim for just 4 points and month (do we didn't have to deal with the dreaded corner cutting) and only choose the books that he likes to get the points.

It is now 3 weeks into November and he's just about to complete his 4th Diary of a Wimpy Kid book.  The type of books he loves.  Now he comes home from school, reads on his own curled up in the big chair in my family room because he loves the story, the characters, the humor.  He loves reading again.  And now he slaps the book on the coffee table when he finishes and says "done!"  And then walks outside to jump on the trampoline.  :)

The funny thing is he's still on track to get the points he needs for the silly carnival at the end of the year.  But now it's not about that anymore.  He's not reading for points he's began to love reading again.

Today he asked me if he still gets enough points for the carnival at the end of each month, if we can still skip school the day of the carnival and spend the day together.  Of course I told him we could.   

Monday, November 18, 2013

Flatter the Mountain Tops with Sovereign Eye

Myth #2

Deconstructing poetry is an advanced academic pursuit while constructing poetry is child’s play.

Imagine this.  You are called into a classroom and asked to hunch over images of Tiger Woods swinging a golf club.  You answer a set of questions beside the picture.  These questions have been developed not by a golfer, but by one who has mastered the art of writing formulaic questions about golf.  You then compare Woods’ image with the image of another golfer.  You are asked to formulate an argument on why one of their swings is superior, similar or different to the other’s, what makes his grip effective, how his natural talent is reflected in his follow through.  All this and you haven’t picked up a golf club since second grade when you awkwardly whiffed a few balls in the backyard.

So, you read other people’s analyses of Woods’ swing to help unlock the mystery.  You read about his childhood, his daily workout regime, his marital troubles.  You have to fill five paragraphs with your analysis, so you come up with three strong arguments and dig through other people’s analyses to support your observations.  You will be graded on how well you are able to cite the experts, so you include that gifted talker with the 80s blow dry on ESPN, a bald headed black commentator who moonlights as a spokesperson for a golf ball manufacturer, and a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader, evidencing your range, your respect for diversity, and a propensity to think outside the box.

Welcome to the world of literary analysis as set forth by the Common Core (CCSS) which ask students to “demonstrate a knowledge of figurative language” but do not suggest that kids might write a poem to do so. 

NOTE: The standards don’t say you CAN'T write a poem to demonstrate this knowledge, but since it is difficult to evaluate a handmade poem in terms of automated aggregates, the CCSS remain mute on the matter of the construction of poetry, (see above re: they don’t say you can’t).

This is just plain nonsense.  Any golfer knows you can’t perfect your swing sitting under a study lamp just as any auto mechanic knows you can’t learn engine repair without getting your hands dirty.  You can’t learn to swim without getting wet or how to make soup without stirring the pot. (How’m I doing with the figurative language thing?).

You know how I learned to use figurative language?

By writing poetry.

Poetry is powerful language.  It is precise and concise.  The writing of poetry helps kids perfect their communication skills.  Short and (not always) sweet. Poetry, the original tweet. (oops, rhyme, academic points off). Poetry is both an art form and a craft, perfectly suited to be vehicle for learning language and content area skills. Unfortunately, most of us have been schooled to study poems rather than getting into the swing of things, which was why Salinger and I wrote High Impact Writing Clinics, to give teachers some, starter ideas for constructing real (handmade) poems as a means of understanding how language works. And the reason we put these ideas on projectable slides is so that students wouldn't be hunched over in mystified isolation, but heads up, ready for human interaction as they read and discuss poetry as a prelude to writing their own.

So. Can we compare writing poetry to a summer’s day as we proceed through the winter of our CCSS educational discontent and stay focused on what really matters (kids’ thinking and communication skills) and refuse to cloud the splendors of poetry with relentless analysis with no escape hatch for self-expression?

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gliding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to the west with this disgrace;
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant spendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region clud hath mask’d him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.


P.S. I'm not sure I understand all that Shakespeare means here, but I sure like the parade of images. Here's hoping we give each child more than one (alack) hour of poetic sunshine on their brows.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

As Spine Straightening as a Rooster Crow

Thoughtlessly this morning I brushed my teeth with the tap water. I cooked oatmeal over a steady natural gas flame in a heated home and then poured it over frozen blueberries.  When I saw the clock blinking on the stove, I realized we must have had a power outage in the middle of the night, but a quick time check with my cell phone told me that it was for less than a minute.  I stood in my bathrobe and slippers, clothes made in another part of the world just so I have something to lounge around in, and my mind flashes to…mothers bathing their children in littered streams in Bali, bundled up students on benches in an unheated immigrant school in wintery Shanghai, the 14 hours power outages that are common in Zimbabwe, the garment workers in Dhaka, the women selling small bags of grain that they have beaten into flourly submission beside the road in Ghana for whom lounging about is something you save for after you’re dead.  I searched my mind for images of people I saw in Africa who had shared as many mornings with the world as I and came up empty.

What’s it like to travel?  It makes rinsing out the oatmeal pan an act of wonder.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Cape Coast, Ghana

“Do you really want to do this?” Michael asks.  He knows that I hang on to images.  The Hanoi Hilton.  Treblinka.  Hiroshima wiped me out for a week.  I couldn’t eat, close my eyes. Man's inhumanity quite literally makes me sick.


So, we take a cab to one of the castles that housed dungeons that kept male, female and children captive, 200 to a room the size of your average subway (only without the windows, the flush toilets, or the fresh veggies), for periods of a few days to 3 months until the imprisoned Africans passed down unlit stone passageways to The Door of No Return and onto small boats similar to the fishing boats still in use, to ships that would take them through the middle passage to North and South America. It is the same one that the Obamas visited when in Ghana.

“Africans were stronger,” our guide explains.  “They were more able to survive harsh working conditions on the plantations rather then simply enslaving the indigenous peoples.”

I slip and almost fall as we descend into the men’s dungeon.  The floors are slippery, a muddy looking covering over the cobblestone floors as thick as asphalt.  This, she explains, is the caked residual of blood, vomit and feces from the nineteenth century.  I feel nauseous and disoriented by the darkness as she switches off the light for less than a minute. 

In this picture, a young Dane contemplates the magnitude of what we are experiencing and the guilt that all of European descent must bear.

Directly above the cries from the dungeons stood (stands) canons pointed out at sea and a church, where the overseers prayed for peace and redemption.  A trap door is in the entryway so worshipers could look down and check on the status of the imprisoned before taking communion. Redemption indeed.  Were the overseers clinging to guns and religion on this rock thinking they were worshiping on some high ground?  I stand there trying to pull logical thoughts together in the blasting wind. Later she takes us down to visit The Door of No Return, which she unlatches and swings open.  Our little tour group steps out into the blinding sun to imagine what it might have felt like for the departing prisoners of slavery.

Our guide is a soft-spoken volunteer who tells us about the five graves in the open yard of the castle.  These were not for slaves that succumbed to the horrors, those folks were either buried in a mass grave or thrown to the sharks.  Instead, this is the final resting place for four white guys who mostly succumbed to malaria along side the body of one woman.  She was the wife of the head overseer, who arrived at Cape Coast only to find out her honorable husband was getting it on with a local.  There are three theories why she died. 1. She found out her husband had been unfaithful and did herself in.  2. She too succumbed to malaria.  3. Her husband's mistress poisoned her.  “Which do you think?” the guide asks me.

“Murder.” I reply.  Our kindly guide does not agree, She thinks malaria or maybe the woman died by her own hand. 

Later we have a few minutes to ourselves.  She is slight, young, leading our tour with compassion and exquisite detail. A striking beauty with her braids piled high on the back of her head.  She is well educated, her English impeccable.

“I would think the locals would have wanted to kill all the Europeans, they were so wretched to them,” I speculate.  She has already told us how some greedy chieftains had been complicit, trading their enemies and even members of their own tribes for payments by the European slavers.  She patiently reminds me that the Europeans and their clients in the Americas were not acting alone.

“I don’t care,” I say.  “I would have blamed the Europeans and wanted to kill them all.” 

She reaches up to gently take a blond strand of windblown hair that has attached itself to my angry lip and tries to tuck it behind my ear.  She speaks to me of the power of forgiveness.  She says that it was the Europeans who brought Christianity to Africa and for that Ghanaians must always be grateful for that gift.

I have always thought the missionary movement in Africa to be an epic case of presumptive arrogance, but I try and see it from her side, especially since her side comes from such a loving place.

Tonight as I write this I am still trying to digest all that we saw there: the overseer’s bowed bedroom with 14 windows to catch the cross breezes from all directions, the special dungeon with no windows for rebel men who were locked up and usually suffocated within two days, to the special dungeon for women who would not submit themselves to the sexual whims of the guards.  They didn’t suffocate those women, just starved them and kept them cooped up for years as a model lesson for incoming females.  I am digesting, but I am not so sick as I might have been.  I keep thinking of the deep walnut colored eyes of that young woman speaking to me about how we need forgiveness in our hearts in order to progress.

“We must forgive others of course.  But it is just as important to forgive ourselves.  This is how we go forward.”

This picture is from the castle looking north, bare shore similar to what the departing slaves might have seen back then.  It is not a friendly port, but an uneven shoreline with aggressive waves and a vicious undertow.   

The next picture is taken looking out The Door of No Return to the south, onto today's vibrant community of fishermen, tangles of nets and waiting boats.  In order to get the boats back into shore, men must pull them from the shore, tug-of-rope style.  

We used this photo in our writing at the AISA conference and one teacher observed that these people are all living on the edge, trying to subsist on what they pull from an increasingly debilitated ocean.  When I asked stupid question number 1,067, "what is the unemployment rate here in Ghana?" a teacher's response was, "it depends on what you consider employment."  Are these people employed?  If you take coconuts from trees and try to sell them on the side of the road in order to buy a day's meal, is that a job?  This is the way many or most eke out a living in Ghana.  I remember how over lunch our red eyed cab driver told us that his father is a fisherman and how he had been up all the night before helping him.  How his mother pounds grain and sells it beside the road.  How he took my left overs from lunch home in a bag.

It takes a few days to notice that as you walk down the street, through the markets, you see very very few old people.  For the most part, they don't exist here.  

I will remember the sights, the heat, and the kindness and good humor of the people of Ghana. We were made to feel very welcome. I will remember the close quarters of those dungeons and our guide's hand brushing my cheek and her observation that forgiveness is always a component of progress.

Thank you to Lincoln Community School and particularly Rhona Polonsky for helping us plan this side trip.