How to Find the Answer: A Crayon, an Inquiry Board, and a Pre-Schooler’s Journey

 

An inquiry board helps our son to formulate and formalize creating questions and seeking answers. It’s also become a means through which we build a community invested in investigating both our interests and world. 

 

Inquiry Board hanging in our sons' room.
Inquiry Board hanging in our sons’ room with Keith’s first set of recorded questions, December 2014.

 

 

Kids ask a lot of questions. From the abstract to concrete, their mind is always turning and churning new ideas about their circumstances, experiences, and environment.  My oldest toddler son, turning three, is always peppering me with questions. I try to answer as many as I can, but I also realize that what I know is finite. I am not the only or absolute source for answers. Knowing my limitations, I have begun thinking of ways to affirm Keith’s inquisitive mindset, while also figuring out ways to equip him with mental tools and physical resources that help him investigate answers to his questions.

To begin, I introduced Keith to a book called What is a Scientist? by Barbara Lehn. An informative and accessible book, it breaks down the scientific method in kid friendly language and application, with pictures illustrating the different parts of the process (“a scientist is a person who asks questions and tries different ways to answer them,” “A scientist learns from her senses,” for example). Knowing he won’t grasp the concept of inquiry or the scientific method as a means to an answer in their entirety just by reading about them, nor wanting to just leave the support of his understanding at the “just read about it” level, I have begun exploring ways to affirm his questions, and to make his inquiry tactile, interactive, and responsive. To this end, I created an inquiry board.

I got the idea of an inquiry board from observing Keith’s particular interest in cartoons that are based in problem-solving. From very early, Keith loved the Word World series, in which characters solve problems through identifying what words best fit as a solution, and Super Why, where a team of friends explore answers to personal problems through examining the characters in famous books facing similar situations. Other problem-solving characters that intrigue him include Luna from Earth to Luna, Peg from Peg + Cat, Sid from Sid the Science Kid, and Steve and Joe from Blue’s Clues. Each character identifies a problem, applying particularized ways and innovative means to solve them.  Luna imagines herself in particular situations and reenacts them.  Peg employs such things as mathematics, geometry and pattern recognition.  Sid uses facets of the scientific method and employs his familial community of parents, friends, teacher and classmates.  Steve and Joe use investigative strategies, visuals and writing to figure out problems.  Keith admires them, constantly talking about the questions they explore, even emulating how they pursue solutions.  Witnessing this, I thought an inquiry board might be a great way (and buy-in) to get him invested and involved in not only asking questions but becoming an agent and participant in answering them.

The inquiry board comprised of a 2’ by 3’ whiteboard, decorated with various characters mentioned above, placed there so Keith could see his “fellow inquirers.” Attached are several large post-it notes where we record his questions for the week. Each week I listen for different questions he asks, and ask if he would like to include them on his board.

Recent questions include the following:

 

Why do we play?

What is a highlighter?

Why do we have to brush our teeth?

Why does Daddy go to work?

Why does paper rip?

Why do Leap, Lily, and Tad stay on Leap Frog? And Professor Quibly and Dad?

How come Scout doesn’t work?

How come our Sippy cups don’t have juice?

 

Several questions that piqued his own inquiry originate from the Earth to Luna show, with some examples including the following:

 

Why does yellow and blue make green?

Why do butterflies rub their feet?

Why do things sink?

 

Just a few weeks in, the inquiry board is a hit. Keith has bought into the idea full heartedly. We have moved from just me directly asking if he has any questions he wants to put on the board. He takes initiative, taking ownership of identifying, recording and exploring his questions. Periodically he will be in thought and then excitedly request, “Can we put that question on my board?” In fact, while writing this post (5:30 am), I went to change Keith, and while doing so, he asked, “Why are your hands so cold, Mommy? Hey, let’s put that question on the board!” Keith extends his community of inquiry to include his dad, who he will ask if they can put questions on the board together. A recent question they wrote together is “Why do we have to let waste go?” Keith also has taken initiative in wanting to write his questions. Gravitating away from asking either me or his dad to write them, he will ask one of us to guide his hand in writing his question, or try to write it all on his own (which, as a by-product, feeds his pursuit of learning to write his letters and numbers). Daily Keith goes to his board, interacting with it, whether through reading questions aloud, or selecting a specific post-it and using it as fodder for us to have a conversation.

While I don’t have specific measurable learning outcomes to report, I can say that thus far that the board and the social experiences we have around it are impactful.  It is a tool that I find useful in helping Keith formulate and formalize how to seek out answers to questions.  It has also become a means where we as a community invest in and value inquiry. As a parent, I feel this tool and the experiences it has created situates me less as having to be a “know it all” and more of a facilitator of methods and possibilities.

I am not just giving a man a fish for the day, but how to fish to feed himself for a lifetime.

 

Update, February 2015.  Here is a snapshot of recent questions Keith asked:

Why do we have to brush our teeth?
Why does soapy water make bubbles?
Why do baby teeth fall out?
Why do planes fly?
Why is there snow?
Why is there dust on the floor?
Why did the TV fall down? Why does the TV not work? (Sadly, the flat screen TV, like Humpty Dumpty, had a bad fall).

 

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Building a Home Library: An Autobiographical and Intergenerational Bridge

The chairs

 

A fondness for reading, properly directed, must be an education in itself. –Jane Austen

 

Readers have been a part of my life since birth. I cannot remember a time when I was not around someone reading a newspaper, analyzing the Bible and taking notes, or curling up with a good book simply for pleasure. From these experiences, books have become for me tools for excavation, solace in a stormy world, and a portal into possibilities.  Family and friends have impacted my experience to become the lover of reading and books that I am today.

And why I am passionate about creating a library and leaving a similar legacy to my two sons.

When I was growing up, my parents made it a point to surround us with books.  Dad amassed religious texts, books about the Bible and Biblical figures, as well as those related to his job as a supervisor for the NYCMTA. These included tomes of manuals and large “maps” illustrating circuit systems.  When I got older, he gave me several books; Billy Graham’s book Angels (which I still have today), books about astronomy, and an encyclopedia. Dad collected books and texts from numerous sources, spanning from the Strand Bookstore, a particular favorite, to dumpster diving, once salvaging a well-kept composition notebook with copious notes about solving equations (which I found real helpful in middle school).  Tuesdays were an important day in our household, because that is when the Science section of The New York Times was published. Dad and I would comb through it, cutting out articles (particularly about astronomy, my favorite subject) and pasting them in my scrapbook.

Mom too kept books and texts circulating throughout the house. She housed philosophical collections by Gibran, Greek tragedies by Sophocles, famous texts by African American writers (Ellison’s Invisible Man and Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots, which I still have), as well as texts about Black consciousness. Mom was an avid reader of newspapers, scouring the current events sections to keep abreast of new developments. She read different local newspapers (Daily News and New York Post) to gain different perspectives. As a member and past Grand Matron in the Order of the Eastern Star, several books were part of the bookcase she and dad had in their bedroom. Although a mystery to me as a kid, I would see her reading from these sacred books, practicing the delivery of their texts and her positioning as she read them, with dad observing and helping her practice (him being a Mason).

My childhood friend Carla grew up around masses of books. Her dad was a voracious reader, historical scholar and herbal enthusiast. I was always impressed by his learnedness about so many things, with facts and data literally at the touch of his hands and tip of his tongue. Creating an environment of scholarship and insight has profound implications. If you meet Carla, a prolific protégé of his intellectual investment, she is a walking library. She is facile with relaying information that in ways pertinent and personable.  His commitment to surrounding his two daughters with a plethora of information, and their facility in relaying and applying it, leaves an indelible impression to this day.

I want my children to be like his.

My husband is also an avid reader. A lover of political history, screenplay writing, film and film scores, and “old school” music aficionado, he has amassed volumes of books. Books to guide his revisiting and revision of drafts (now his fifth screenplay), topical texts to help him bring depth to a character (one such book titled Movies and Mental Illness), the history of favorite movies (The Making of the Empire Strikes Back and Bond on Bond: Reflections on 50 Years of James Bond Movies), and books about the history of music (The New Blue Music).  To name a few. He also keeps abreast of the entertainment industry via periodicals too.

 

Some of my husband's books.
Some of our books pertaining to writing and screenplays.

 

Sharing these bibliographic biographies of how text surround and inform the lives of people I care about is to illustrate the impact of the word on their lives and mine.  It is why we as parents are investing in creating for library for our two sons. A place where we can expose them to myriad topics, agitate their curiosity and instigate investigation.

Our evolving library is divided into different sections. One whole bookcase is devoted to the boys’ books, texts specific to their evolving interests and responsive to their emerging questions. Keith, my oldest, is a fan of the rhythm and musicality underlying words (such as in books Jazz AZB and Chica Chica Boom Boom), abstract ideas represented visually (Perfect Square and One), humor (any book by Sandra Boynton, his favorites being But Not the Hippopotamus and Hippos Go Berserk), picture dictionaries, phonics (Preschool Prep Series), and books that show him how to explore creating a question and finding its answer (What is a Scientist? and Telling Time). The youngest, Maceo, burrows in a corner between the bookcase and closet, pulling down several different books, burrowing in, then studying their pages.  Books he gravitates toward the most are flip books, books with rhyme (a book of Sesame Street songs as well as Martin and Carle’s Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What do You Hear? ), and with other favorites about shapes, letters, and numbers (particularly the Metropolitan Museum of Art Series).  As the boys show interest in different topics and genres, we add them.

 

Keith reading in the home library.
Keith reading in the home library.

 

Keith reading in the park.
Keith reading in the park.

 

Our library is also being built by the loving investment of others.  Diane, upon Keith’s birth, sent a huge box of children’s’ books that have been some of our kids’ favorites (so much so, like Catalina Magdalena Hoopensteiner Wallendinger Hogan Logan Bogan Was Her Name, disintegrated).  Linda bought a picture book without words, which makes a great experience for us to co-create a narrative with the kids.  Melissa, with children older than ours, has generously given several of her kids’ books they have outgrown. They are full of great ideas (exploring the world through the senses), morals and lessons (saying sorry is a hug given through words), and books about the precious relationship between a mother and her children.  Victoria and Virginia sent several books for the boys, books that delightfully travel the spectrum from interactive to comical to familial to educational. Our library has become a project with familial investors extending the confines of our walls and personal experiences.

 

Maceo reading in the local park.
Maceo looking through one of his favorite books in a local park.
Maceo looking through a book in his room.
Maceo looking through a book in his room.

 

A curious thing has begun to happen. Periodically Keith gravitates to one shelf of the library, where I have housed my two favorite authors, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. He takes down the whole group of books by each author, spraying them across the floor.  Saying nothing, he leaves them there.  I am impressed how he unknowingly knows two authors who have informed my writing and life.

The shape of things to come…

 

Books 1
Sample of our books pertaining to issues in education.
Sample of my books by African American writers.
Sample of our books by African American writers.
Sample of my books pertaining to religion.
Sample of our books pertaining to religion.
Sample of our "self help" books.
Sample of our “self help” books.

 

 

 

 

 

Strength, Courage and Wisdom: The Makings of an Urban Teacher

In this article, Carla Cherry shares her personal and professional evolution, divulging how she helps students actualize their humanity and academic success.  It’s an intimate look into the makings of an English/Language Arts teacher, and the difference she is trying to make in students’ lives within the NYC educational system.

Fundamental to her familial fabric was first acquiring knowledge of self.  Her mother taught her to read at age 2 ½. Later obtaining his Bachelor’s degree in Black Studies, Carla’s father surrounded the family with resources centering on African and African American culture and history.  For Carla, school “didn’t really emphasize African American heritage,” becoming an impetus to read widely, serving as “a catalyst for me to get into education, to share what I learned.”

Carla as an infant.
Carla as an infant.

Several experiences ministered to Carla choosing teaching as a profession.  Attending a lecture with her father, Carla met Dr. Adelaide Sanford, Vice Chancellor Emeritus of the New York State Board of Regents.  A phone conversation with Dr. Sanford informed Carla’s ethos of giving back to the community.  “I always admired her activism in the field of education.” “If she could give the best of herself to our youth, why couldn’t I do the same?”  She tutored while a teenage member of Co-op City chapter’s of the National Council of Negro Women.   She attended the prestigious and selective Bronx High School of Science, but recalls constantly defending people of color in class discussions; such insularity she did not want her future students enduring.  Attending Spelman College further inspired her career choice. She credits two professors, Dr. Donna Akiba Harper and Dr. Judy Gebre-Hiwet, with her literary acculturation and instigating within her the passion to hone her writing, namely to be exact with her words and employ the formal writing process in designing well supported effective arguments.

Carla in high school.
Carla in high school.

In 1993, Carla graduated Spelman College, returning to NYC as a single mom working part time.  Enrolling at New York University in 1995, she completed her Masters of Arts in Public Education, and began teaching in 1996.  Serving 17 years within the NYC Department of Education, she taught in middle and high schools, currently teaching at Innovations Diploma Plus High School, a transfer high school model targeting over-aged and under-credited students with educational opportunities and social support.

Carla's graduation picture from Spelman College.
Carla’s graduation picture from Spelman College.

Pedagogically, Carla fosters and facilitates students in (1) interpreting texts, (2) using writing as a tool, and (3) participating within various audiences and media. Students are (1) generating group reactions to quotes excerpted from a text, (2) selecting quotes and interpreting them individually in double entry journals, (3) responding on a discussion blog about themes within a class text, (4) creating monologues in the persona of a character, (5) crafting a poetic character sketch modeled on William Carlos William’s “This is Just to Say,” (6) arranging in small groups fragmented excerpts from a novel into dada poems,  (7) discussing characters’ actions from different perspectives and (8) constructing and writing formal literary arguments.  Her methods prove successful; annually the majority of her students pass the NYS ELA Regents exam.  It’s important to note the particular population with whom Carla is experiencing success; the majority of her students have previously dropped out of other high schools, range in age from their late teens to early twenties, and have struggled with reading and writing.

Students read books “they would not otherwise be exposed to.” Included are African American titles A Piece of Cake, Sula, and My Daddy was a Numbers Runner, international works The Kite Runner and Persepolis, and books about tense family dynamics including When I Was Puerto Rican and Bastard out of Carolina.  Her classroom is a place to explore and contemplate the world from divergent points of view, some not always palatable or comfortable, sometimes winning students over, sometimes experiencing their opposition. “If I am preparing them for the real world, you can’t always run away from something you might think is boring or uncomfortable.  Sometimes you have to face it and open yourself up to other ideas and other people.”

Carla’s classroom brokers connections across social and technological contexts.   Recently she participated in a study group offered by the New York City Writing Project using the online forum “Youth Voices.”  Her students discussed class texts, recorded their writing processes and progress, and shared obstacles encountered in their research, culminating in posting their essays online “so that they can see the evidence of the work they have done in a public space.”

Also a poet, writing poetry is “a way for me to understand my life, the world and my place in it.”  Inspired by her cousin giving her a book of self-published poetry after her father’s death, Carla self-published her first book, Gnat Feathers and Butterfly Wings, and a compilation CD with her cousin, jazz musician Eric McPherson. Proceeds from her book and promotional goods were donated to charity.

Carla 3

As a single mom Carla balanced work with remaining active in her son’s school activities while cultivating his evolving writing interests.  He was a semi-finalist in the Knicks annual poetry slam, a student in a black male initiative supporting young men writing poetry resulting in a performance at the Nuyorican Café, and a participant in the Urban Word Summer Institute.  He is currently a sophomore at SUNY Purchase.

Carla learned from her family to use knowledge to emancipate self and others, which she is passing on onto her son and generations of students.  Hers is an unsung narrative.

Below are two poems from Carla’s publication Gnat Feathers & Butterfly Wings (© 2008, Wasteland Press).

To order Carla’s book and audio CD, please go to Amazon.com or BN.com.

Anike

As she models her

brand new brand name

dress

in the mirror,

I watch.

She gives her chocolate brown

kinky twists

a toss

so her hair can fly.

She spins

to feel the wisp of cool air

against her butterscotch skin.

She smiles

and calls herself

the cutest girl in the world.

Shielding my eyes

from her sparkling aura

I shake my head

and my index finger.

Stop that, I say

Thinking modesty is noble.

But then again,

As I look at my life

I am glad my niece believes.

Maybe she won’t end up 

with her self-esteem all black and blue. 

The Anteroom

Baby, I must tell you

I can’t be the type

to eat

a plum, or a 

peach,

or an apple

before it’s ripe.

Though you desire my dainty meats,

a pure heart and motive is what I seek.

Love is more than honeyed lickings,

strawberry cream,

and appetent sighs.

I do want you,

but caress my thoughts before my thighs.

Fondle my aspirations,

my breasts won’t disappear.

The small of back can wait,

knead my doubts and fears.

Explore my world,

Then, take me to heaven.

This article is also featured in the recent online edition of Bronze Magazine (except photos and poetry).   Please go to http://bronzemagonline.com/strength-courage-and-wisdom-the-makings-of-an-urban-teacher/

Woman, Wife and Mother: An Evolving Intersection

As a new wife and mother, I experience jubilee and juggling.  I receive constant fulfillment yet expend breath and best guesses finishing challenges.  I stand in an intersection of past/present/future.  This triptych daily positions me to negotiate divergent responsibilities, prior obligations and new undertakings, obliging yet unifying them all.  Hopefully my intimacies, epiphanies, and suggestions offer footstools into your own possibilities.

Professionally, my career spans being a high school ELA teacher, assistant professor, educational consultant and fledging writer.   I’ve enjoyed fortune and mistakes on my own terms. Then I met my husband, and with him anticipated blessings and unanticipated compromises unfolded.

While single, we’ve been rightfully selfish with our lives, doing what we want to do when we want to do it and how we want to do it.  Consequently, we’ve come to this goal of incorporating flesh and future with dissimilar tastes in music, different perspectives on how to manage money, divergent expectations on best uses of time, disparate notions around planning for the future, etc. You get the picture.  It’s a clumsy walk.  Now we have to collaborate in little and big decisions.  Identify priorities for our relationship and agree upon ways to fulfill them.  Budget money for immediate expenses AND allocate it toward long term goals.   Learn what it means to be a partner while also honoring and providing space for each other’s independence.  Accept flaws and mistakes without later using them as leverage against one another.  Work in partnership raising our first child.

After the marital oath of cleaving as one flesh, our grafted limbs are evolving to thrive collaboratively.  But we have to share in creating answers.  What do we need to do to prepare for the future?  What are the best approaches to solve problems?  How do we nurture interdependence and maintain independence?  What do we lose in order to gain? As woman AND wife, a pressing duality I constantly address is how to prosper us AND be true to myself?

Here’s what I am discovering . . .

Being a wife is a new role. Grow into it.  You don’t simply step into the role of a wife like a wedding dress. You evolve to fulfill it.  So don’t clutter your growth into this role with assumptions or comparisons.  Let go of ideals and magazine exaggerations.   Explore and invest in what it means for you to be a wife for yourself and to your partner.  Give yourself permission and time to experience, evaluate, and even revise accordingly.

Dialogue.  Devote space and time to broach and disclose fears, concerns, and dilemmas.  Uncomfortable topics that go undiscussed (like money, parenting, a need for quality time alone, etc.) eventually fester.  Making them transparent and in the open diffuses their cancerous potential to leach from your primary goal to grow as allies.  But be careful not to bulldoze your partner into meetings.  While I thought it efficient to have weekly conference calls while planning our wedding—agenda and all—my husband thought these meetings at times were burdensome overkill.

Preserve what is personally important to you.  It is very easy (and implicitly expected) that upon becoming a wife to sacrifice personal happiness for the “greater good” of marriage and family.  Yet if you are not happy, what fruits of yourself can you offer others?  Marriage and parenting WILL impact the amount of time you can devote to fulfilling your passions, but foregoing and sacrificing them altogether is an unhealthy solution.  Find ways to maintain what feeds your core.  While now I have to fit writing in between schedules I have with my child and husband (like writing blogs at 2am), doing so maintains my wholeness.

I wasn’t tooled with blueprints to structure this marriage.  At times I fray at edges and peel at margins. What I am learning from the daily walk is that I unfold the answers through folded hands (physical and spiritual).  Surrendering to the unfolding helps me carry out and accomplish these roles as best I can.

(This blogpost occurs simultaneously in MBAMOM’s May 2012 newsletter as “Wife and Mother: What I Wonder”).

(Artwork: Woman Thinking by Stephanie Clair)

To read others’ responses, or to write your own, please click the red button below.  

To read previous posts scroll to bottom right side of page and click on title of choice.


From Native Son to Invisible Man: Reflections on Trayvon Martin and Rearing a Black Man-Child in America

Early this morning I was drafting a guest blog post about what it is like to be a new wife and mother. The wife version I completed, and just when I was to start drafting the part about raising a son, I read several posts and articles about Trayvon Martin’s murder. And I read Sheree’s FB post that ignited my heart and fright. 

What a tragedy of life and travesty of justice.

I then heard my son crying and went to check on him. He drifted back to sleep, except for grabbing my thumb which he would not let go of even while sleeping. After reading of this event, it moves me even more that my son trusts me to comfort him, even in his sleep.

But I don’t trust the world to protect him. Or my husband.

I asked hubby while eating breakfast today to be careful, for he is someone’s son. And he is someone’s father.

George Zimmerman’s father advocated on his behalf, yet I wonder if George thought of the impact of his actions on Trayvon’s mother and father who would be affected by what he was about to do to their son. About the dangerous stereotype he was about to reinvigorate and perpetuate because of his skewed vigilantism (how can you claim self defense when you pursue someone despite the police dispatcher’s admonishment to not do so?). About the permission he took that was not his to take in the taking of life.

As he walks free. While many of us hold sons, husbands, fathers, uncles, and brothers tighter in our grasp.

It’s 2012, and black men continue to be a hunted endangered species.

I think I will be writing a different piece about what it is like to be a mother . . .

For the weeks and months to come, many will write about the tragedy of the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the travesty of justice they foresee as imminent.  The contemplations, discussions, and emotions will be broadened to encompass indignation toward Geraldo’s flippant “hoodie” defense (what happens when you dress a certain way), the desired resignation of the neophyte Sanford Chief of Police and examination of his department’s shoddy execution of investigation and due diligence, and musings over how long the slaying of a yet another Black youth will dwell in the nation’s conscious after mainstream media no longer broadcasts it.  Yet what’s begun to stir within me is an investigation of me, of the inner workings of the new intimate space within me called parent, of what I am responsible for doing in rearing my newborn son to endure (and survive) a current and post-Trayvon Martin era.

The excerpt above was the first of two Facebook posts I wrote emotively on March 19th after hearing about this young son’s death.  The holding of my own son, who arrived just a few short months ago, has suddenly become more intense, an honest reaction to a hellish circumstance.  But while my arms can for now shield his growing body, the eventuality is that he will outgrow them.  Although he will practice his first steps within the preparation, guidance, and sanctuary of my arms, the eventuality is that he will walk away from me into and within the world outside them.  If I have done my job well, he will be learned and equipped in how to stand on his own.  On his physical legs, yes. Yet I contemplate how best to support his standing with strategies for straddling his inherited duality; although he is spiritually and ancestrally a temple, he is a target socially, culturally, and historically.

The scrimmage fought between being a man-child of great potential and the caricature misinterpreted as being executable is a stark reality. It is alarming that prisons are built at a rate proportionate to students’ performance on elementary literacy tests, the notorious cradle-to-prison pipeline.  And many of us are now resorting (rightfully) to practicing with our sons how to interact with law enforcement (how to speak, how to posture, how not to exude being a “threat” or “menace”).  The gravity of protecting and harvesting a son (both my own and our collective) weighs on me.  I vacillate between which should “weigh” more—helping him to harness his holiness and hopes, or conduct regular drills with him on how to interface with the outer emboldened and armed law enforcement representatives and fanatics.  For this brief moment, I feel parenting duties prioritized to preserving his physical life, and once out of my arms’ reach how to effectively (ideally) do so on his own.  As my role as a parent daily unfolds, so does my quandary and question over what takes precedence in what to teach and educate.

Without Sanctuary, Lynching Photography in America, chronicles the epidemic lynching of yesteryear and its commercialization through postcards (yes, people could send well wishes to family on one side with the image of an incinerated and castrated body on the other).  Lynching, this cultural attitude legitimizing the denigration and objectification of black males and the abhorrent act manifesting from it, seems to be rearing its ugly head, with strange fruit again populating our nation’s fatigued trees (Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, and those  whose lives ended suspiciously as chronicled by filmmaker Keith Beauchamp in “The Injustice Files: At the End of a Rope” to name a few, regrettably).   Trayvon’s death eerily echoes and harkens back to this era, as Zimmerman’s 911 calls serve as the prelude to the semi-automated lynching he was about to conduct.  Or has the era ever left us?

This is my initial reaction as a parent.  To save my offspring  from harm.  To guard what is of my flesh, my incubation.  To prepare him for a hostile world.  We know the risks of bringing forth a man-child in this land of promise (though not always of promises kept).  He is a native son, born into the milieu of fear, flight, and fate that is disproportionately slated for our young men.  He will have to make strategic decisions in his navigations and negotiations as an invisible man in these states.  Therefore, I wonder how much I must teach my son how much his body is and is not his.  What places he can and cannot be (and at what times).  What he can and cannot wear.  How he can and cannot speak.  I feel the pressure of teaching him that daily he will have to walk and breathe in duality.  To know it is his right to live by his own construction, but that such living will intersect and conflict with, as well as disrupt, others’ construction of him (and how people may consequently act on those constructions regardless of his innocence or best intentions).

Though Trayvon’s parents did not will his son to be a sacrificial lamb or martyr (nor would any parent of their lamb), they took the risk to release their son into the world; an innocent who went into the world alone was returned to them in a body bag.  However, his life and death harnessed and galvanized an insurrection and reflection bigger than himself.

But I/we as parents must be and remain brave and bold.

My infant son’s favorite position is being perched on my shoulders.  There, he steadies himself, hands and forearms braced against my shoulders.  His routine is first to peer over my shoulders, then emboldened, begins his ritual of incessantly searching out the world around him. Rapidly rotating from side to side, his eyes and head venture then fixate.  Venture, and then fixate.  Quickly that shoulder’s geography becomes a bore, and like a rock climber ambitiously leaping to a new rock, so does he.   I catch and cradle his search, support his navigation, lest he lose balance and fall from pursuing and practicing his ambition.

But this is the point.  Instinctively, he trusts (and ideally all children trust in their guardians) I will support his ambitions and protect him in his pursuit of them.  Though in these recent weeks I feel intimidated by the possible taking of my son’s life by others armed myopia, faith reminds me that the most selfish thing I can now do is cage my son.  It is important to teach him what Jesse Washington dubs “the Black Code” of conduct (1) when having to deal with law enforcement representatives and in situations that challenge his life, but he was not born or purposed solely to fulfill his or anyone else’s fear.  I would be less than a parent to teach him to cage himself because of the cowardice and inner conflict harbored and festering in others.  He trusts me that while in my arms and upon my shoulders I will bolster his investigations of the world, and support him venturing into it.

The second post I wrote on March 19th is my ideal, my illustration, of how I am trying to raise my son.

After playing on our alphabet playmat, my son in exhaustion drifts to sleep. Resting his head on my thigh, he found his comfortable spot and relaxed. Both of us breathing heavy. Him as he descends into deep sleep. Me as I descend in thinking about Trayvon Martin. 

Will he grow from “native son” to “invisible man” (pun intended on Wright’s and Ellison’s seminal works)? Are sons and statistics interchangeable? Synonymous?

I am thinking on the world in which my son is born into, and what we will need to do to steel, strengthen, prepare and guard him. And also what we will need to instill in his imagination as chords for an (ideally) melodic world he will have to create.

And I wonder what fellow parents raising sons are wondering too . . .


(1) http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gNZGRWMd7msShtng3-UP3YcivEuw?docId=cf76e46b87df4e90bbf77cbbbabce150

Motherhood as an Act of Social Justice

As an expectant mother, I am ruminating on how I want to raise our child. Observing how my friends and family members raise their children, and culling from my own experiences, provides me a plethora of options.  Now I am just trying to shape ideas and options into a core and foundation. After having a profound discussion with Tiffany, an admired colleague and friend about her framework for motherhood, I begin  launching questions for my own exploration.  She detailed the facets of her motherhood as an act of social justice, framing it in historical, racial, economic and gender contexts.  Her insightful and incisive framework had me thinking for days.  I wondered if others conceptualized motherhood as an act of social justice, so I asked them.  Three peers, whom I grew up with from the old neighborhood, shared their insights and perspectives.  This post explores the ways these four women contemplate motherhood as an act of social justice, as well as my pondering. The goal of this post is not to provide an absolute singular definition, but a space for mothers and mothers-to-be to ponder, contemplate, and collaborate regarding the responsibilities, challenges, and questions each of use contemplate in defining and situating motherhood as an act of social justice.

 

Entering my fifth month of pregnancy.  Rife with questions and blank spaces, saturated with checklists and preparation, in awe of my body transforming and the life within it transforming me.  I am wondering about motherhood.  Among the well wishes, positive affirmation and advice, one admonition resonates.  Write a journal.  Record what you are experiencing.  But it’s been stop and start.  Like putting key in ignition and flicking it to turn over the engine.  The potential is there, yet getting the car engine to turn can be difficult.

The spark was ignited the past week chatting with Tiffany.  While catching up on old times and new ventures, Tiffany began detailing her newest happiness—that of raising her one year old son.  She is an accomplished woman, one who I admire professionally and personally.  She is a former corporate lawyer and director of human rights initiative in housing, and current founder and director of an international nonprofit organization.  Tiffany approaches life with a spiritual scope and thoughtfulness of her actions as having global implications.   She is together.  If you know Tiffany, you know she works with a high level of focus and devotion.   She is committed to changing the world by advocating the social and economic rights of people.  Through her organization, she empowers the young to be agents of social change.  When it comes to her work in human rights and activism, she brings margins to focus, margins to center.  She is deliberate in what she does so as to touch many, empowering them to touch eternity.

As our chat forged deeper into conversations about motherhood, Tiffany shared her journey on the road converging motherhood and professional duties.  She disclosed her battle in toggling her roles and responsibilities as a director while simultaneously being a new mother.  Wanting to balance her career choice with maternal responsibilities, she shared her joy and frustrations evolving from this duel of dual commitment.

Tiffany’s experience resonates with me.  I am at a crossroad in making a pivotal decision, whether to remain in the workforce and balance it with motherhood, or leave the workforce altogether.  My dilemma unfolds from mingling professional responsibilities with now making decisions on how to lovingly and fairly fulfill what I believe to be my maternal responsibilities.

But this known world of work is one I cherish.  My work as an educator fulfills me.  It completes me, a calling that I invest intellectually and spiritually in fulfilling.  Just this past July I trained several teachers in a local school district in classroom management strategies.  The joy came through several strands: (1) fostering a safe space for them to share frustrations and dilemmas, (2) build intimacy with colleagues as individuals and as a group, (3) introduce several strategies and support their practice of them, and (4) support them in building collegial relationships across classrooms and school buildings (PreK-12) to continue fostering their network of support after the training.  I share this example to say that the core of my world is in helping others help others.  And I invest a lot in positioning myself to do such work.  Fifteen years of schooling (from bachelors to doctorate) and ten years in the work force as teacher, assistant professor, instructional coach and now consultant.  But now, as did Tiffany, I now find myself deliberating how to toggle this old work world with the new commitment of motherhood, deliberating whether the two can meet, harmonize, and thrive.

During our conversation about work and motherhood, Tiffany introduced a premise that became the impetus for her decision to leave the workforce, and for me to write this post.  After toggling both responsibilities through working at home and part-time, she began contemplating whether the combining of these two worlds was aligned with her calling or possibly conflicting with it.  She resolved that the dual responsibilities positioned her to duel with her center.  She resolved to make the conscientious decision in leaving the workforce to raise her son.

Framing her decision through historical, racial, economic, and gender lenses, Tiffany gave sound rationale and justification for choosing to solely devote her time and efforts to motherhood.   Recount in the days of slavery when economics and racism minimally permitted Black women to raise children within intact nuclear families (or choose to stay at home to raise children), placed no value on their child rearing and instead bastardized it into a commodity, exploited and divested rightful income to sustain a household, and situated slave mothers to have to work in harsh agricultural conditions with babies in tow.  Yet despite the historical ashes a phoenix can still arise.  She shared that as a descendent of the African Diaspora she had a responsibility to remember how Black motherhood was displaced and disregarded.  She was real clear that because of historical afflictions and lack of choices, she now as a descendent, would pay homage to ancestors by doing what we were not allowed.

Tiffany also raised concerns about the duplicitous benefits of the feminist movement.  While rightfully advocating for equality, she also felt it positions women to take on what she identified as a fragmenting of self to prove one’s worth.  To her it situates women to do work as inexhaustible dynamos, obligating us to balance working and motherhood “for the cause” of economic and gender equality.  And considering the ethnic factor (are all women equated equal within a feminist movement?), she brought up that as a woman of color there is inequitable pressure to oblige this liberating banner yet contradictory harness.  She admonished me that as professional women we are in an advantageous position to make different choices in the rearing of our children than our ancestors—we actually have a choice in how we want to proceed.  Thus, we have a duty to make informed decisions in how we plan to raise the future for our children and raze obstacles to it.

Tiffany shared that raising a Black son takes on particular significance for her.  With the phenomena of the cradle to prison pipeline, and statistics about Black male incarceration, employment and educational experiences, Tiffany is mindful that black males face an uphill challenge to prosper within this country.  So she, as an agent of change, wants to ensure that her manchild knows a promise land. And so, she shared that she made a deliberate decision in how best to do that, by being readily available to commit to fighting on the frontline by being a stay-at-home mom.

It is these factors to which Tiffany attributes her motherhood as an act of social justice.

I am digesting Tiffany’s profound framework.  She impresses me on the clarity of her purpose and mission as a mother, unfettered by agendas not aligned to the promotion of her son from margin to center.  Her motherhood is aligned with her work ethic in emancipating others, with the focus now on making provisions to emancipate paths for her son.

At my own crossroads, there are things I know I want to enact; it is just now thinking through how to do them.  My own mother, a woman of accomplishment and deep thought, also left the workforce to raise me.  I admire her, and want my method of motherhood to model hers.  While not defining it as an act of social justice, she invested in me by making sure I was surrounded by books and resources,  pushed me to step into voids and created new things within them, and held me responsible for taking care of others. I think I manifest these expectations in my personal life and professional work, as I witnessed her doing as she raised me.  My quandary is whether I can merge these roads as well as she did, and how my friend Tiffany is resolute to fulfilling.

I also wondered if working moms share in similarly align their work as mothers, and what challenges they meet in fulfilling such a framework.  I wrote several of them on Facebook and through email, asking them to describe in what ways they define their raising of children as an act of social justice.   I wanted to know what factors and experiences inform their decisions, and the questions they ask themselves too.  The three shared here are my contemporaries. We grew up in the same neighborhood and attended many of the same schools.  From a generational perspective they offer insight in how they define motherhood as an act of social justice and confines within which they try to exercise it.

Marjorie, a school classmate who is an educator, shared how she frames her motherhood as an act of social justice by empowering her two daughters to thrive in cultivating their individuality, standing up for themselves, and availing herself as a guidepost when needed.  She disclosed that in raising them she has learned to discern their individuality, and in so doing, recognizes her responsibility to accept their distinctions and assist them to evolve into the individuals they choose to be.  She describes her parenting as both direct and intuitive, one that provides parameters on her daughters’ behavior (but does not limit their potential and interests), while simultaneously being responsive to the needs they tell and don’t tell.  As a Jewish woman raising bi-ethnic daughters (her husband is Puerto Rican), Marjorie also disclosed that she is conscious of how others may construct and stereotype her daughters, and that her work as a mother is to teach them how to counteract such constructs.  The raising of her daughters is to empower them not to allow themselves to be limited by others’ perceptions, instead to rise above myopic expectations others try to impose on them.  She also shared that her situating of motherhood as an act of social justice is one of affirming for her daughters the belief they can each stand on their own, and confirming for them that they can lean on her for alliance and reliance when needed.

Kamara, another school classmate, situates her motherhood as an unwavering act of being a teacher, protector, provider, and advocate.  She describes her experiences in raising a preteen son as teaching him to become the best decision maker possible, to discern which challenges command his attention and investment, because by her description he takes in everything as a challenge.  She describes him as being perceptive of what goes on around him, so her work has become to protect him by helping him decipher what to challenge and what not to challenge, what to follow and what not to follow, and what to participate in and not participate in as a leader.  She shared that her son has a keen awareness of worldly circumstances and events (citing such things as global warming, earthquakes, kidnapping, death, and plane crashes), and takes initiative to alleviate worldly woes. Her emphasis lays in providing him help and practice to make the best personal decisions as possible, as well as what and how to address worldly circumstances.  Motherhood as an act of social justice also means for Kamara being an advocate for her son in the NYC school system, actively advocating to insure the best educational and social experiences for him.

For my lifelong friend Carla, also a fellow educator, obtaining knowledge was a pivotal part of her growing up.  Her dad was Afrocentric, a scholarly and politically conscious role model who read voraciously.  In similar fashion, when asked of her defining of motherhood as an act of social justice, one responsibility she shared was the passing on of cultural history. Building a home library and taking him to libraries is one way she fulfilled this expectations for her son, now a college freshman for whom she has built savings to fully finance his college education.  She also situates motherhood as an act of social justice by sharing that it is all parents’ duty to raise children who commit to making the world better than inherited.  To this end, she shared that she preaches and teaches by example, showing her son that it is his duty to be involved in his community as evinced through her own work with parent associations, school leadership teams, and giving to charity.

In coming full circle, my peers were right about journaling.  It provides a landscape for you to see what you are thinking.  Writing is like a map that helps you chart direction.  I am in a valley contemplating the mountains that will be climbed and trails to be forged.  Right now, my motherhood is evolving.  The dilemma is the most sure thing. Emanating from Tiffany’s, Marjorie’s, Kamara’s and Carla’s insights are even more questions.

  • How can I balance duties I have to educators with the calling and new duty of educating a new life?
  • What framework shapes my motherhood to be an act of social justice?
  • How will I know what facets of our child’s personality to give parameters (and when), and which ones to give free reign (and when)?
  • What challenges will I have to help our child watch out for, and how will I teach him or her to discern them autonomously?
  • What are the experiences I should now have to emulate for our child?

As I sit and type, to my left are the four pictures our sonographer gave us to take home of the morning’s ultrasound.   I stare at the pictures as I try to write this conclusion. I see my baby’s growing body, its hands and legs and heart and brain.   I feel the constant kicks and stretches of my baby’s internal curiosity.  Our baby can hardly wait to meet the world.  I stroke my stomach to soothe it.  While not yet having answers, the one surety I have is that I am in good company to ask questions.

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You ever have a profound conversation that afterwards you are still thinking on what you discussed?  I hope this post piqued your curiosity and interest.  In what ways do you regard the raising of children as an act of social justice? Would love to hear from you . . .both as an expectant mother and out of genuine wanting to learn more from you.  You are welcomed to post a response.

Movies as Mirrors: Reflecting on “For Colored Girls”

This blog describes the impact of Ntozake Shange’s groundbreaking choreopoem on my identity as a woman of color and a writer, compared to the impact of attending Tyler Perry’s movie adaptation with my husband. 

In the late eighties, one book changed my life.  Ms. Kupperman-Guinals, our drama teacher and teacher extraordinaire, pulled me to the side after class and gave me a copy of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf to read.  Already a self-proclaimed poet, I was writing poems as mirrors of my days–the hardship of being a teenager, the beauty of nature, using big words to say small things, lamenting the crushes I had, and short stories about falling in love with Prince.  When I look back on the reading of that book, it has become a pivotal event in my life.  I know now was given a tool and mirror into so much deeper.

For Colored Girls was the first play I read written as both poem and play–a choreopoem.  In content and structure, it gave me inspiration as a fledging writer to see what can be done with a narrative about being a woman of color, with a unique frame within which to explore and share that phenomenon.  Told from multiple vantage points personified in colors, it bore witness of who we are (and I am) on paper.  Stories of trials, tribulations, triumphs, excavations and epiphanies all woven in a metaphoric tapestry of a rainbow.  A rainbow of womanhood.  Reading the play, I felt like I was seen.  Known.  Believed.   More than a statistic or stereotype.

For Colored Girls has become for me a tool and mentor text for using writing as confession, revelation, empowerment, sharing.  I thank Ms. Kupperman-Guinals for giving me this torch to see myself and the world I could create.  It later fueled for me the inspiration to write an undergraduate honors thesis on the works of Ntozake Shange (“The Negotiation of Silence in the Female Characters in Ntozake Shange’s Texts”), as well as an original play (titled “Episodes of Womanhood/Mahogany Women’s Movements/A Blackened Woman’s Voice from a Different World”).  Years later, in 1992, while writing my thesis, I would have the honor of meeting the original torchbearer herself at Crossroads Theatre who inscribed my copy of  The Love Space Demands with saying “Thank you for being who you are.”

Ms. Shange and Ms. Kupperman-Guinals gave gifts that keep on giving.

So when Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls” came out, I was excitedly reserved.  Would the movie he produced captivate me the same way as did the author?  Would I feel the same epiphany and inspiration in being a woman of color again, or would they be muted by the sacrilegious interjection of Madea in womanface?  For me, “For Colored Girls” is one of those works that “should” stay as a text.  Something different, even disappointing, can happen when the vivifying of a text is done onscreen.  Some things get lost in translation, which is what I felt with both “The Watchmen” and especially “Beloved.”  Beloved emerging out of the water and speaking in first person impact the reader in a way that the delivery of an image cannot fully capture.

Bad colds and conflicting dates kept me from seeing the movie with sister friends who wanted to make a dinner and a movie event from seeing the movie.  We knew we would have much to talk about.  Ironically, my husband, a movie buff, volunteered to go.  Fingers crossed . . . we attended.  Afterward, we spent an afternoon walking around the movie theatre parking lot debriefing.

Kerwin recounted that the movie upset him, leaving him to wonder if Tyler Perry hated men.  He felt objectified and shrunk to one dimension.  He disclosed that based upon the characterization of men of color in the movie, a man could only be  a selfish “down low” HIV-positive husband who intentionally infects his wife, a traumatized alcoholic war veteran who abuses his wife and throws his offspring out the window, a slick-tongued rapist, a two-timing non-committal gigolo, or a john.  Or absent.  The married good cop was just a flash in a pan.  To him, there were no layers, textures, complexity explored.  Just stereotypes delivered.  Again.  And when I told him there were no male characters in the original choreopoem, he was befuddled by why they were included by Perry in the movie.

I wished my husband experienced what I did in reading the play over two decades ago.  I genuinely wanted him to know what it felt like for me to see your complexion and complexity captured and given back to you as a gift, as I did with both my teacher and favorite author.  Instead, he saw himself shrunken, caricatured.  Again.  This time, by his own.

Since seeing the movie together, my husband’s sentiments leave in me a feeling of responsibility for using words and images so others can see themselves.  How can the poetry I write serve the goal of relaying my thoughts and ideas yet provide breathing room and a space for others to see and experience themselves?  Relative to the two of us, how do I serve as a mirror of his truthful reflections?  And, relative to us all, how can we live so that we serve as mentor text and mirror to our best and most possible selves?

The Carriage of Miscarriage

For several months I have been dodging this experience, telling the event but withholding the impact.  Asking for advice in statements and not questions.  Then there was the conversation with Sandra this week.  After nearing 7 years of being incommunicado, our reunion was seamless, like closing a zipper.  With her you feel compassion that no time away erases or erodes.   It always feels like homecoming with Sandra.  She is a friend that when your heart thinks on her, deciding to stroll by her house of memories impromptu and knock on its door, she hurries to answer, like she was expecting you.

Sandra shared a profound truth during our dialogue, a reminder of why we take breath.   Things happen to you so that when you tell your story you help someone else.  We take breath so that we may give breath.

My miscarriage (just before last Thanksgiving) was one of those stories I was trying for months to cope with and release.   From witnessing the miracle of two purple stripes to redirecting efforts informed by genetic counseling, this have been a whirlwind of silencing rage, suffocating tears, and praying for blessed assuredness.   Sandra gave me a breath so that I would stop narrowing mine.  Then, I could (hopefully) assist another woman in her choking while trying to breathe out her affliction and affinity.

The weekend I found out we were expecting, we were babysitting again my sister friend’s two sons, one an infant of constant hand-based curiosity (I learned the hard way he liked to chomp on hoop earrings and long hair) and the other an investigative rambunctious toddler (Kim warned me he liked to put things into the hole of a subwoofer to observe what happens, and was constantly captivated by the flashing lights of our modem).   We treasured them  letting us practice scheduled feedings, noisy playtime, and delivering soothing before-bedtime-baths, as well as tag-teaming to relieve unscheduled nasty colds.  We loved being thrust into the weekend’s boot camp of parenting, anticipating soon to be graduates. Showing Kim the pregnancy test, she was excited for us and for her and her husband becoming auntie and uncle.

Then early the following week we found ourselves looking at the ultrasound of our baby girl, cradled in a well of dark wonder.  Elated, I grabbed my husband’s shoulder, his eyes swelling with wonder and wanted responsibility.  Then, the doctor punctured our astonishment, deflating it by informing us there was no blood flow or heartbeat.  He announced it was not a viable pregnancy.  Then, he left us to ponder our options.

With relentless optimism my husband assured us that we will try again.  And keep trying.  We resolved to take next steps, believing that this moment allowed us to see the potential our bodies and beliefs offered us.  Our resolution was we bore witness to a moment in shared life to share in creating a life.

What has happened since then, and what is happening, is not a cohesive narrative essay that with time has become easier to prepackage and publish.  I confess my fears to my husband.  I counsel with friends who are mothers and wives.  Yet, through each of these explorations and excavations I’m still not “there.” Unfinished.

I don’t know the picture that assembling the pieces will make.  Yet here are some of the pieces I can share . . . I am profoundly grateful my husband became severely ill after the kids left.  Inheriting their colds, he was rendered bedridden for several days, unscheduled time that being in close proximity allowed us to begin building again on his promise made in marriage and renewed in the doctor’s office.  There remain days of wondering if the loss was statistical punishment for conceiving past 35.   Crying through ink to spawn and spool fragments into prose (this is the first to make it through).   Pure fright from embarking on the same experience again, only to fail my husband.  Again.

Ironically, healthily, losing our baby has impregnated me.  With writing.  Writing is my embryonic phoenix.  Going through decades of numerous versions of poems, notes for my novel, and other scribbled possibilities resurrected in me wanting to birth.  Typed drafts in piles vaulted in plastic bins, handwritten notes and drafts collecting in piles of notebooks, and friends’ voices for years echoing “it’s time,” have become the food for this child.  I have returned back to creating what I believe I can carry and bring to full term.

Healing occurs with my husband. He shows in words and deeds his alliance in the shared fight for preserving positive beliefs, a washcloth that removes the sweat from my face when laboring through my fears, eyes as mirrors that confirm his love untainted, and a counselor who listens yet who also diligently informs when our session is over and to live out what I have learned.

Talking with friends has encircled me within a newfound treasure.  Untold stories.  Stories that calm my anxiety and ambiguity living and loving out of a well of dark wonder.  Stories that remind and confirm for me (and for us all) women’s resilience.  One shared her depression and self-inflicted isolation after losing a baby and then her mother.  Others told of their multiple miscarriages before braving conceiving (one experienced two), and braving again between conceptions (one experienced four).  One, in her late 30’s, disclosed enduring two ectopic pregnancies and a miscarriage before conceiving and delivering healthy children.  One offered the assurance and evidence of both conceiving after 40 and doing so even after previously miscarrying.  One elder shared of her daughter-in-law’s challenges in her forties to successfully conceive.  The soothing granted in their sharing, the consolation given by them being forthcoming of their intimate trials and tribulations, the relief delivered by them commiserating and confiding in me untold stories punctures the hurt and augments the space for hope.

The genetic counselor, a person of remarkable empathy and relentless advocacy, told us that all we can do now is be brave enough to conceive.  Going forward, tests can be done afterwards to inform our subsequent decisions.  She gave power and epiphany in that advice.  The most major hurdle now is to believe enough to conceive.  This is my greatest obstacle at this point. Not age, not DNA.  Now, even with doubts and dilemmas still rampant, there is so much evidence of what is possible that in my own juncture I am tempered.

I am more at a fork in the road than a dead end.

At this point, with all the statistics, information, and intimacy, all I am powerful enough to do is conceive.  Conceive the belief of getting up and trying again.  Conceive that tomorrow is another day.  Conceive the hope that we can have a family.

Remembering Sandra’s adage, and Louis’ advice of writing as a journey, there are some things that have moved me to share so that others feel less isolated when occupying the space of common experience.  I hope this piece helps to carry one another through miscarriage.