Cookie Cutters on the Floor: Learning Vocabulary and Pronounciation through Objects Around the Home

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From since being a crawling baby, Keith loves visiting his Godparents’ house. Specifically, he loves their kitchen. Wide floor area, slightly secluded from the rest of the house, it has become his favorite place to play. Whenever we visit, he launches straight for the kitchen, raids the bottom corner cabinet, pulling out a tub of plastic cookie cutters. Spraying them all over the floor, he loses himself in play with the numerous shapes and their colors. If he was quiet for a long period of time, we knew exactly where to find him.

Acknowledging Keith’s fascination, their Godparents bought the boys for Christmas their own tub of cookie cutters.  The fascination with them has now taken hold of Maceo. Following in his older brother’s footsteps, he too sprays the cookie cutters across the floor, selects the ones he recognizes, and begins to play. Yet in a different turn than just playing with them as his brother, Maceo repeats their names or associated letter sounds.

Maceo is at a stage of phonological awareness where he is distinguishing letter sounds and iterating them, as well as mimicking short phrases he hears in local conversation.  In support, the cookie cutters have been a useful tool for both practicing and promoting pronunciation. Maceo is particularly fascinated with the letters c, f, k, o, r, w and y.  Some of his favorite cookie cutters include those shaped as a baseball cap and a cowboy hat (which for now he also calls a cap).  Whenever he selects the cap and hat shapes, he instantly begins making the hard “c” sound. Similarly, when he selects other shapes of interest, he instantly begins making long strings of sound.

Seizing upon his interest as entrance, I also use it to introduce similarly sounding words. I choose other shapes that share a similar sound (carrot, cookie), name them, and practice saying them with him. It’s been a great way to engage and keep his interest in practicing letter sounds without it being rote and out of context.  Sometimes he brings in wooden blocks with c, k or r, and practices saying their sounds while selecting shapes with corresponding letter sounds too. My plan is to continue listening for the different sounds that interest them, and use specific cookie cutters to support his practice and expand his range of pronunciation.

Seeing Maceo’s interest and playfulness with the cookie cutters, I also use this opportunity to introduce new vocabulary. I select random shapes and say their names, both those that align with sounds that currently interest him, as well as unfamiliar ones. Rabbit, flower, dinosaur, square, circle and cow are a few examples.  If Maceo is interested, he grabs that particular cookie cutter, and repeats the new word.

This means to vocabulary learning has rekindled Keith’s curiosity too. And now, extends it further.  He selects cookie cutters and asks me to name them. Going further, he selects the ones shaped as letters and spells words with them.  He has begun grouping shapes into different categories. The cookie cutters also serve as tools to rehearse and reinforce his current knowledge of shapes, colors and counting.

As both mother and educator, my goal is to support their emergent literacy and not extinguish it. I am trying to encourage their learning in situ, within familiar settings and familiar dynamics, before their official start of school.  Cookie cutters are a great resource, helping my boys learn letter sounds and new vocabulary, and me studying the processes through which they best learn. This organic way of learning, with floors as desks, and kitchen artifacts as tools, makes the experience of learning enjoyable for us all.

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Literacy Learning in the Kitchen: Building Vocabulary, Practicing Procedural Thinking, and Learning to Tell Time

 

 

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The boys’ “play” kitchen located in our kitchen.

 

 

At ages 3 and 2, Keith and Maceo, respectively, have little patience for workbooks and sitting down for long lengths of time as a means to “practice” literacy skills. So at this stage, to grow their vocabulary, build skill in strategic thinking, and support their practice of various ways of learning, speaking, thinking and doing in situ for successful interactions (what I am defining as literacy as contextualized action), I try to do so while “on our feet.” Because Keith and Maceo like to hang out with me whenever I am in the kitchen, I have begun thinking of ways to use that space as a “real life classroom.” Rather than work through a list of words, or decontextualized workbook drills, I try to situate my sons’ skill acquisitions and the building of them contextualized in shared spaces, experiences and familial routines.

Ironically, an effective and impactful way has been through cooking and doing chores together.  Here are a few practices that are proving fruitful.

Learn and practice vocabulary in applicable situations. Keith and Maceo have a fascination with the dishwasher. Maceo is engrossed with the mechanics and inner workings of the machine, pulling the drawers and objects in and out. Keith has appointed himself as Mommy’s helper, interested in helping me load and unload it. So when it is time to use the dishwasher, I use the moment to foster and facilitate their acquiring of relevant vocabulary. As Keith is helping me, I ask him to name the different things we are loading into the machine, spell out the name of an object, or explain how a particular object (plate, pot, spoon, etc.) is used.  With Maceo, as he now at the stage of learning and practicing sounds, I name the objects both in the dishwasher and throughout the kitchen, then practice with him repeating their names. In another chore-based scenario, Keith LOVES helping unpack groceries, which I use as an opportunity to build vocabulary. As he removes objects from the bags, I ask him to name what it is he is removing from the bag (canned peaches, frozen spinach, chicken, etc.), and “help” Mommy by telling me where it goes (in cabinet, in fridge, in freezer, etc.).  As a caveat, I don’t do this with them EVERY time I run the dishwasher, or extend to EVERY task and chore we do, as that would probably burden the fun and at some point burn out the kids and their interests.

But when interests and curiosity intersect, I pounce.

 

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Simulate chores and then deconstruct step by step the procedures to fulfill them. We bought our sons their own play kitchen, prompted by observing Keith during a recent dental visit.  He was so engrossed with the one in the office we spent an additional half hour after his appointment just to let him play. Seeing how much he engaged with the kitchen—simulating cooking, putting dishes in the sink, opening and closing the microwave and fridge—gave me an idea to situate learning procedures and vocabulary within the context of family rituals.  Keith (who is quite verbal) typically asks questions while I am cooking about what I am preparing and how.  I’ll share details about the food I am preparing, describing step by step what I am doing, explaining what is happening to the food as it is cooking and why, illustrating the overall process. He usually brings a stool to stand next to me and observe. I am deliberate in telling him what I am doing step-by-step and how I am doing it because I am trying to model the use of procedures. At times I use vocabulary such as “first,” “second,” “next,” and “then” to cue him in how I progress through a task to familiarize him with the procedural language I use throughout that experience.  Maceo’s interests lies now with opening and closing cabinet and refrigerator doors. But given this interest, his emerging skill in reciting sounds, and his autonomous play with the play kitchen, I am thinking of ways to support and scaffold similar growth.

 

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Use familial and familiar experiences as launching pad to explore new concepts. Cooking in the kitchen has also begun to make Keith curious about time.  I use time as a means to measure how long to cook something, and in scheduling how to cook multiple things at once. Noting how and why I use time in this way, Keith has begun emulating me. Whenever I begin cooking, Keith asks me the time, which then leads me to explaining to him how to represent the time on his own play clock. This interaction has given me entrance and access to teaching the vocabulary of time (11:25, 4:50, big hand, little hand, half past, ten minutes to…), as well as how to represent time visually on his play kitchen clock (big hand on the twelve, little hand on the 3, for example).  In addition, I watch several news stations, and Keith has noticed numbers and symbols across the television screen. I explain them as the current time and temperature (a current fascination of his), leading many times to him pointing to and reciting them. Now that we have an intersection of interest, platform, and opportunity to build time-telling skills, I have brought in a few ancillary resources. One is a poster from the local dollar store illustrating how to tell time. Two others are books, one showing different times of day and the rituals people perform at those times, and another detailing how to tell time both visually and digitally, inclusive of new vocabulary associated with telling time. I also bought a clock that tells time physically, digitally and audibly, which we use to further explore his interest in time and skill to tell it. The books we read as a reference when needed during daily reading time. The poster is a visual reference we use whenever Keith asks questions about how to tell time.

 

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Keith is transferring these experiences of us in the kitchen, autonomously employing procedures and procedural vocabulary within tasks we do together or him separately.  When helping me clean in the house, particularly when doing his favorite chore of cleaning the floors, he tells me that first he will spray the cleaner, then I will mop, and then he will take over. I smile. In another example, he has begun pacing himself when he is play cooking in his own kitchen, speaking out loud what he will do each step of the way.  When looking for toys he verbalizes his steps, marking “First, I will…,” and “Then, I will….” Both of the boys have taken interest in the new toy clock, winding the big and little hands to represent different times, then awaiting the clock to announce out loud the time represented on its face.

 

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These are small steps taken in the big journey literacy learning. One chore at a time.

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).

 

Using Texts to Kindle Reading and Relationships  

 

Have a variety of books and materials that are immediately accessible for children to touch. Use them as a means to ignite inquiry and spark dialogue.  

 

Kids are tactile. Having an array of resources within hands’ reach sparks their curiosity and instigates exploration, spawning the beginnings of inquiry and dialogue.  So I have devoted time to creating a room full of books, an in home library, housing hundreds of books we collected over the span of our lives (see recent blogpost “Building a Home Library: An Autobiographical and Intergenerational Bridge” at  http://wp.me/p1lNcW-ir, for details). Across topics and genres, our collections includes books about screenplay writing and the movie industry, curriculum and lesson planning, cookbooks, poetry, philosophy, religious texts, manuals, even photo albums and high school yearbooks. The boys also have a whole bookcase dedicated to their books, puzzles, and library loans.

 

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Like Spider Man, our oldest son Keith scales the bookcases, exploring their contents, sometimes pulling out a cookbook; other times an old photo album. The availability of so many books intrigues him, catalyzing between us a dialogue about various things. Pulling out an old photo album recently spawned a conversation about the history of his maternal grandparents and what it was like for me growing up with them.  Seeing and hearing me read the Bible piqued his interest, resulting in him pulling and perusing different Bibles from the bookcase, then asking me to read portions aloud to him. Scanning his dad’s Entertainment Weekly collection has him now asking questions about the pictures in it (“Why is the baby crying?” based on an ad), and self-testing his letter recognition (“That’s a T!” referring to the T-Mobile logo).  Exotic covers capture his eye in particular. He likes pulling out old issues of Poetry journal, and is particularly drawn to the several books I have by two of my favorite authors, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison.  After pulling them and spreading them on the floor, he typically asks, “Will you read this to me?” I then read aloud a short excerpt. He may not understand the vocabulary, content, or context, but I do this to endorse his inquisitiveness.

 

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Keith perusing issue of Entertainment Weekly at dining table.
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Keith examining more closely pictures on the page.

 

 

The tangibility of various texts fosters a dialogic space. Dialogues emanate just because of a book he pulled out.  These books and the conversational shared space encourage and stimulate our talking about an array of topics, nurturing the relationship evolving between us. One where inquiry, exploration, and dialogue are fostered and legitimized. These conversations are the hallmark and beginning of him (1) exploring texts, (2) creating and examining ideas, and  (3) accessing and assessing new worlds within himself and outside.

And me learning how best to scaffold and support his interpretative and interpersonal possibilities.

 

What conversations have you had as a result of a child picking up a text and sharing it with you? What has been the impact on you both?

Literacy as Social Action: A Familial Practice (An Introduction)

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As a mom of two toddler boys, I am trying to balance rearing them as both citizens of a global community, as well instill within them the knowledge and skills needed to interface with it. I constantly find myself vacillating between supporting their learning and understanding of how to interact with and treat others, with acclimating them to effectively use literacy (thinking, speaking, reading and writing as tools and means) to interact with the larger world. Even more, learning how to grow, hone and innovate literacy learning without doing so in ways that are rote, remote and decontextualized.

I situate literacy as a practice, meaning particularized ways of interacting within a social context toward a social goal/outcome.  To this point, I am trying to facilitate my sons’ development of both functional skills with the acuity and discernment of which ones to apply within myriad social contexts.  Rather than limiting their literacy development to a collecting a set of skills that are finite, I am situating my sons’ acquisition of literacy as learning how to (1) discern the dynamics and expectations of an interaction/social event, (1) identify and apply the skills and knowledge they need to draw to participate, and (3) successfully employ and as well as adapt such skills and knowledge in situ.

Here is an example. If one is going on a job interview, the purpose of the social interaction is to convince a potential employer of one’s worthiness of the sought after job position. An interviewee, understanding the goal of the interaction and is knowledgeable of the skills and exchanges that need to occur within it, would discern the cues and inquiries of the employer as typical of a job interview, and thus provide pertinent information, answering (as well as exchanging) questions appropriate for the exchange. An interviewee would know this is not the time to go on tangents at length about political or religious dispositions, divulge personal information inappropriate for an employer to know, or sully the name of a previous employer, IN ADDITION to providing the necessary artifacts relevant to the situation (resume, business cards). The successful interviewee would, ideally, know how to answer the questions presented, and how to socially engage with various people s/he met at the potential new job site.

I am suggesting that literacy is integrative, the melding of functional skills in reading, writing, thinking and speaking with the keen awareness of applying the appropriate ones given the social context, doing so knowingly toward a specific social end.  To this end, I am I am trying to build a foundation of strategies and protocols around thinking, speaking, reading and interacting, a fluid tool box if you will, they can use, adapt and innovate throughout their lives.

In future postings, I’ll share some ways I am trying to support the development of my sons’ literacy development, doing so within both home-based and external environments. Not as a means to promote an absolute or absolutely successful examples of learning and facilitation, but more so a personal journal of a journey I am trying to take my sons upon, that, if done successfully, has put to best use of intersecting my maternal instincts with my formal training and experiences as an educator.

Building a Home Library: An Autobiographical and Intergenerational Bridge

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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…

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Changing Policy, Changing Lives: Angela Roman’s Fight for Underserved Young People

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Angela Nikki Romans works relentlessly in actualizing the promise and possibilities of historically underserved young people. She invests in proliferating pathways of success traveling from cradle to classroom to college. Dismantling policies and disrupting practices that inhibit access, opportunity and resources, she is a catalyst for change on multiple fronts, spanning classrooms, school districts, municipal agencies and non-profit organizations.

 

Change as Groundswell

 

Angela’s commitment to educational reform evolved from over two decades working in myriad educational and political settings, first as a high school math and science teacher, then university admissions officer, school network manager, senior education advisor for the mayor’s office in Providence, Rhode Island, and her current position as principal associate. Each experience has made her ask of herself progressively tougher questions about her advocacy work. “Where do you start at the individual teacher level, the structural and policy level, to make sure that kids have the right opportunities to be able to succeed, and with the right support to be able to succeed?”

As a principal associate at The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Angela’s work centers on national policy research and reform initiatives to improve public education. Under the umbrella of school district redesign and leadership, Angela’s energies centralize around understanding “How districts shape themselves,” then involving diverse stakeholders willing to collaborate in creating “the right policies, supports and structures for students to have equitable opportunities and equitable outcomes.” To Angela, partnerships provide “the strongest and most sustainable way to support school districts” because “school districts can’t do it alone.” They need a web of “community-based organizations, higher education institutions, public agencies, all [working] together to support student outcomes of success.”

Angela’s current projects are a nationwide study of college readiness involving several urban school districts, improving disciplinary practices within and across schools, and increasing the number of college graduates. She is the Annenberg Institute lead on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s College Readiness Indicators Systems (CRIS) Project, a multi-year collaborative project with four major urban school districts and an educational management organization aimed to generate and systematize indicators of college readiness. Its goal is to identify indicators of and replicate effective practices and policies in measuring college readiness at the student, school, and system levels, culminating in “the right policies and practices and support for individual students.” Another national project is building learning networks between school districts and CBOs (community based organizations) “to look at school district disparities constructively and look at alternatives to harmful school discipline practices.” In partnership with the Providence Children and Youth Cabinet (CYC), Angela is working to increase the number of local college graduates. Recently the CYC obtained a significant grant from Lumina Foundation (under the auspice of the Community Partnership for Attainment) to assist efforts in helping adults achieve high-quality post-secondary degrees.

Prior to her position as principal associate, Angela was the senior education advisor for the Mayor of Providence, RI, Angel Taveras. Working as a cabinet member of the mayor’s office afforded Angela an advantageous position to cultivate systemic change. “I took the job because with a mayor who has that type of governmental influence over schools [the mayor’s office appoints the school board and hires the school superintendent with approval from city council], there is a real opportunity for change-making…opportunities that are under-utilized and under-tapped.” As senior education advisor, Angela’s work gravitated around “being involved in and shaping a larger citywide conversation and notion of community accountability around education.” Her primary focus was on creating sustainable support systems for young people, doing so through assembling and aligning willing partners.

To initiate this change, Angela implemented a collective impact model (CMI), “a social change movement that is focused on community-wide, cross-sector engagement,” to generate “collective common goals that everyone agrees on, common metrics, and the notion of shared accountability.” Under Angela’s leadership, the existing Children’s and Youth Cabinet (CYC) was restructured, populating it with stakeholders representing diverse perspectives and resources. With over 120 individuals and 70 organizations brought together, she convened parents, residents, businesses, non-profit organizations, municipal and state agencies to champion their local schools. Angela deems CMI as an effective framework because it moves us “away from the notion that just the superintendent is accountable, or just the schools are accountable, or just the mayor is accountable. It is collective accountability across all the different stakeholders.”

During her first summer of employment in the mayor’s office, Angela convened a small workgroup from the CYC charged with collecting and examining previous reports and data, generating a set of citywide goals to move forward. For Angela, this collaborative approach to effecting change is “great work because it is changing the way we think about whose responsibility it is to improve outcomes for children and youth, helping organizations and institutions move away from a ‘siloed’ way of thinking to a collaborative way of thinking that is really trying to align our resources in ways that haven’t been done before.” This concerted approach to change “is an intentional and difficult shift, but one I believe we have to fundamentally make to move the needle considering we are failing thousands, millions of young people every year.” Further restructuring included creating small workgroups, an executive committee, and hiring a director.

 

Angela 3

 

Changing Possibilities through Changing Paradigms

 

Angela’s work to reform how historically underserved youth are serviced and supported is shared by her work in redefining them. To Angela, defining young people as “at risk” emphasizes the notion of problems prevailing over their potential, harbors negative social implications, and perpetuates detrimental political repercussions. For Angela, “It’s about what is at the forefront of your mind,” whether “you focus on the challenges young people face, or the assets that young people and communities have and how you build on those assets to make sure that young people reach their promise.” She contends that “What people tend to do when defining ‘at risk’ is to think about what are the factors that make students most likely to fail. To fail in their educational pursuits in being productive members of society in terms of economic outcomes, social outcomes, indicators around marriage and stability…And those are [typically attributed to] race, class, gender, parents’ educational background, contact with the justice system, use of drugs and alcohol…and tons of social behaviors…statistics correlated with students not doing well. If students have these factors, [the argument is] that these students are at risk to fail.”

In place of labeling students “at risk,” Angela articulates “a more proactive approach in saying that all students are ‘at promise.’” If “we really think about the notion of equity and the fact that we want strong opportunities and strong outcomes for all young people, then some young people need more support to get there. Because they have had fewer opportunities or different personalities or are in different environments, that just shows that they need more support to reach their promise. That’s the way I approach my work as an educator. In speaking about research and policy and working with school districts, and working with institutions, as well as individual young people, it’s how I define the dichotomy between ‘at risk’ and ‘at promise.’”

 

When the Personal Becomes Professional: Subjective Experience as Impetus for Social Change

 

Angela’s own academic experiences sensitized her to the challenges students “at promise” face, and the transformative difference that can be realized with help from committed stakeholders. Growing up in a single parent household, she credits good math and science teachers, some who were “particularly thoughtful women of color” for recognizing her interests and acuity, inspiring her and pushing her toward excellence. By attending a magnet high school specializing in math and science (in Atlanta, Ga) her senior year, she became a member of a thriving community of scholars of color, studying under “teachers who were pushing kids to do amazing research” in local universities. Angela regards this educational opportunity and setting as impactful. “My classmates were such an inspiration to me because, oh, you’re supposed to be this way. You’re supposed to be smart, accomplished, and competitive in a generative way.”

From an early age, Angela wanted to be an educator. An avid reader and enthusiastic student who was involved in engineering, science and math camps most summers, Angela was excited about learning new things, and the prospects of igniting students’ learning too. However, given the lackluster reception of the idea from her family, she felt the best decision was to channel her alacrity in math and science in pursuit of an engineering degree. “There were not that many engineers of color in the profession and that there were not a lot of women of color.” So “Being a woman of color going into engineering would be something that was a challenge, but also something that would be sought after…[I was told] you should be an engineer.” It was the career path advocated by her family. Fascinated by nature, biology, and physiology, she sought a way to merge these two interests, and decided to pursue a career in biomedical engineering. After talking with a student of color attending Harvard University, she applied and enrolled.

Attending Harvard University proved informative, both as a place to be tooled with means for professional success, and a place where she began her political and social awakening. Being in a competitive engineering program with fewer than thirty students, one of the few women and women of color in particular, and at times having professors of patriarchal orientation, made for a confluence of variables that at times made the pursuit of personal and professional success difficult and challenging.

Yet her experiences at Harvard yielded valuable lessons about paving, preparing and participating within a supportive village. Paying it forward, she worked in the admissions office as a way to continue increasing the number of students of color attending the university. “It’s important to be available to the young folks who are the first, or one of the first of their family, to aspire to a strong education, and get there, and how to get there.” She also learned the value and impact of supporting one another. Facing a dilemma of completing difficult cumulative projects to obtain the professionally advantageous BSc degree, or take an “easier” route and graduate with a BA, Angela had a hard decision to make. Then a classmate, a fellow senior and woman of color, implored her to choose the former when saying, “Angela, don’t leave me.” Her peer’s beseeching did more than influence her to complete the more challenging degree. Angela has been since impacted to invest in supporting students facing challenging intersections, especially those with few resources.

After obtaining a BS in biomedical engineering from Harvard University, the calling to teach resurrected with a strengthened volume, compelling Angela to return to Harvard and now obtain a Masters of Education. There she learned of education as a means to empower both individuals and communities, learning about educator Ted Sizer, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and the constructivist approach to learning and education. The program advocated and promoted a “real inquiry based education for young people, that empower[s] young people, [one] that is relevant and creative, and generative, and really empower[s] teachers and educators to design schools in ways that are best for the community.” This epiphany fueled both her want to empower others and to be empowered as a teacher. Participating in such an educational program “started me thinking about what I really wanted to do and what really meant a lot to me.” It “really pushed me to think about [how to make to] a choice with my feet.”
Angela 8

 

Making a Difference in Urban Classrooms

 

Immediately after graduation, Angela sought opportunities to teach in urban high school settings. “I really wanted to teach Black kids. That was something that, graduating from a high school that was all Black, having lots of Black role models and mentors, it was really important to me to become a mentor and role model for Black kids. And to be a mentor and role model to kids who did not have a mentor or role model. That was critical for me.” She sought employment in schools that “availed teachers the power to create curriculum, and create school culture, and strong cultures of inquiry-based teaching.” One such school was Urban Academy in NYC, which she describes as “just an amazing place.” “Everything there was about students discovering their own knowledge and learning, shaped in a very strong Socratic way.” Her instructional facilitation supported students finding trends and patterns within the process of problem solving, such that “Once you see patterns, we can then create our own rules, or we can articulate what the rules are.” She did this in lieu of conventional direct transmission where a teacher may relay “this is how I solved the problem, now you solve fifteen more like it.” Consequently, “students understood a lot more math.” Science classes were thematic. Compared to just covering a textbook from cover to cover, Angela and colleagues taught courses in animal behavior, research methods, and the science of food, involving students in actual research. “I never gave a lecture.” After a year she returned to Boston and taught at Fenway High School, another small high school. Angela “focused on teachers and teacher-driven curriculum, culture, and more project-based learning, more than the traditional high school.” She situated teaching within a workshop model, and began a new venture in advising and mentoring students.

But after three years of teaching Angela felt incomplete because her support of students was primarily confined to classrooms. “I love being an educator and working with young people, but wasn’t sure the best way for me to do that was through running a classroom.” She explored harnessing her support on larger scales. Brown University afforded her a platform to do professional outreach and support of “at promise” students within post-secondary institutions.

 

Building Post-Secondary Bridges

 

For eleven years Angela worked as Associate Director of Admissions and Director of Minority Recruitment within the Office of Admissions at Brown University. Working in this office particularly allowed her to serve students “standing in the intersection between high school and college,” helping them navigate that transition, especially “for those who don’t have in their friends, families, and communities, a lot of people that have [previously] navigated that transition successfully.” Within her numerous positions, she targeted her work around recruitment and retention of underserved young people. Young people “who could, and should be succeeding in places like Brown, that would never have found them, if not for that person who either came to their high school, or emailed them, or encouraged their counselor to recommend people like them, or all those serendipitous things.” Angela forged “a culture in the admissions office of trying to look beyond some of the traditional markers for underrepresented students, looking to how we could really capture extraordinary potential, in ways that are measured beyond just test scores. Students who have been extraordinary leaders, students who have gone above and beyond their school community such as seeking out summer programs.” She helped to shift orientations toward assessing the potential success of underrepresented students. What resulted was an increased enrollment of students of color, particularly first-generation students.

Angela began to miss working within urban schools, and left Brown University to return working in them, this time as Network Manager for Diploma Plus. Diploma Plus is a non-profit organization which provides a competency-based education model focused on college and career readiness, targeting high school populations of predominantly over-aged and under-credited students. As Network Manager of schools in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Angela’s work on the frontline spanned (1) providing professional development to principals, teachers and staff, (2) forging and sustaining collaborations between schools and community based organizations and higher education institutions, (3) mentoring students directly, (4) advocating for policy reform and educational initiatives in support of these schools both at municipal and national levels, as well as (5) supporting the national organization on myriad educational and political fronts. “It really gave me an opportunity to return back to the small schools where I got my start as an educator, really thinking about creating small schools that were supportive of students, with a culture where teachers had an opportunity to shape the instruction and the design of the school, AND working with students who were the opposite in terms of the academic achievement spectrum to those I worked with at Brown, for whom school had not been a good experience and had not been successful, but were still seeking it out, sticking it out even though school had not served them well for many years.” Angela’s work also culminated in the opening of a new and successful DP high school in Boston.

 

Advocacy Beyond Office Hours

 

Angela’s work to make a difference extends beyond the office or work hours. “So much of the personal is professional for me.” She is involved and invested in several volunteer initiatives. For the past four years, Angela has chaired the board of a local non-profit organization, College Visions, which mentors and supports first generation high school students in their post-secondary pursuits. Its mission is “providing individualized support so students get into and through college.” In addition, Angela serves on the board of the Harvard Alumni Association, through which she interviews perspective students, and is a past board member of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island. She does volunteer work for the Rhode Island Black Storytellers. She is also called to speak at many functions and for numerous organizations. Angela has also received awards of recognition. The YWCA recognized her in 2013 as a Woman of Achievement. She also an Annie E. Casey Foundation Children and Family Fellow. Angela continues to contribute to the educational field by writing articles. Recent articles include one she co-authored for The New Educator titled, “Engaging City Hall: Children as Citizens,” and the Atlantic’s Quartz online publication titled “Americans Who Say ‘College isn’t for Everyone’ Never Mean Their Own Kids.”

Looking back on her career, Angela shares the following reflection. “I continue to be both exhausted and inspired by the work that I do to try as much as I can to improve the lives of young people in this society because so much of what we are doing is not working…and have been really focused on the systems, the ‘unsexy thing’ that we have to think about in making sure that there are big sweeping institutional changes because there are many things moving in directions that are not good for young people.”

Angela Nikki Romans is on a mission. It extends before attaining elaborate trappings or award-garnering recognition under bright stage lights. Where Angela lends her talents is in the junctions of neighborhoods and crevices of school systems where ostracized and high needs students are falling between the cracks, fading to black. It is within these obscure and unpopular yet over-populated spaces you will find Angela digging to make a difference. With her soul’s sleeves rolled up, Angela thatches hope, aerates opportunities, stakes possibilities, prunes budding talent. In all, she is working to harvest underserved young people’s academic, economic, and personal success.

 

Angela 1

(This article is also in digital and print format at http://www.magzter.com/US/Bronze-Magazine/Bronze-Magazine/Women’s-Interest/)

A Place to Belong: A Place to Become (Movie Review)

Montclair YWCA

I remember the lessons learned as both member and president of the local youth chapter of the National Council of Negro Women where I grew up. The strengthening of sisterhood through bringing divergent points of view into focus on a common goal. Learning the importance of outreach, of volunteering, to make a difference in the lives of others. Attending meetings that bridged the emerging ambition of young folk with the tempered sagacity of elders.  It was an organization where the variance in our hues and hair was neither asset nor liability. We were sisters.  It was an opportunity where our capacity and consciousness could grow and be harvested, not pitted in covetousness or competition. It was the space where we spread our wings, tested our steps, and built our dreams into edifices for future generations.

Meeting in that small community center room, it was a place for each of us to become.

In the documentary “A Place to Belong,” oral historian and filmmaker Allison Bonner Shillingford chronicles the lives of eight women members of the Montclair YWCA for African American women and girls from 1920-1965. Weaving them together, they become for the audience an historical, social and cultural tapestry.  What unfolds is a beauteous but hard-stitched textile.  Juxtaposed against the realities of racism via redlining, blockbusting and de facto segregation, we learn the many dreams of these members of the Great Migration, and what they and their families hoped to mine and actualize from moving to Montclair.  It is the textile through which we learn how involvement in numerous clubs, community events and summer camps claimed their hearts, cultivating sisterhood between them.  It is the textile through which we learn how gaining and applying leadership and collaboration skills becomes fodder and tools for later practice in these women’s’ personal and professional lives.  It is the textile through which we learn how women of color across decades, including multiple generations within the same families, deliberately came to the YWCA to garner and harness a sense of self- ownership, affirmation, empowerment and pride in themselves and one another.  In defiance of the enforced separation or hidden prejudice harbored within some of the people of the landscape, the landscape for them became promising and replete with possibility. The Montclair YWCA became their beacon, a blessing, the bonfire of sisterhood around which they assembled and grew together.  Because of their individual and collective experiences at the YWCA, they learned how to live their lives as counter-narratives to gender, racial and economic inequities.

Through hard-told truths, wit, fond recollections and even giggles, these women pioneers—Norma Jean Darden, Daisy Booker Douglas, Lauretta Brandice Freeman, Rosemary Allen Jones, Sandra Lang, Dorothy Hatchett Morton, Elberta Hayes Stones, and Lucie Coleman Walton—make us privy to private experiences, rendering them as public texts.  In so doing, we learn lessons of the resilience that harbors deep in heart and soul.

In attendance during the Q & A session were Allison Bonner Shillingford, executive producer and Director of the Montclair Historical Society Jane Mitchell Eliasof, and President of the Montclair Historical Society and project director Claudia Ocello.  Also in attendance were several relatives of the women from the movie, spanning several generations. The session began with one audience member inquiring about the genesis of the film. Jane commented that “there is a huge story that is not being told,” and thought it important that the story of the YWCA be captured, particularly since the renovation of the building where the YWCA was housed has little represented within it of this important history. Allison elaborated that finding former YWCA members was a challenge, but was finally successful, including the fortune of finding one member who was 100 years old at the time of her first interview. Then, several family members intimated their thankfulness for the film being created. Next, an audience member asked about the film’s availability, which Jane shared is for sale at the Montclair Historical Society.  Jane also shared that there were be several more group showings of the film throughout the year.  An audience member then asked how long did it take to make the film, in which Allison shared that it took 2 ½ years, initiated by Claudia contacting Columbia University to find someone who was an oral historian who would be interested in this project. Allison answered the higher calling.

(This movie review is also posted at the Montclair Film Festival Website, http://montclairfilmfest.org/2014/05/a-place-to-belong-finding-a-place-to-become/)

Parents are the Frontline of Their Children’s Academic Achievement: A Book Review of I’m Your Teacher, Not Your Mother by Suzette Clarke

 

 

 

 

I'm your teacher

 

 

 

Class is in session.

In her self-published book, I’m Your Teacher, Not Your Mother, Suzette Clarke ignites a controversial conversation about the “true source” of student failure. While finger-pointing has typically designated teachers, schools, standardized tests, and standards as the source of fault, Clarke turns the finger to a “culprit” more centrally located to students’ lives.  The parents.  A former middle school teacher and library media specialist of fifteen years, Clarke postulates lack of parental involvement and investment as most impactful on academic success, and that this factor must be considered before blame be placed solely and sorely on the shoulders of educational institutions and those who work within them.

I’m Your Teacher, Not Your Mother is a collection of expositions, vignettes, statistics, observations, and personal reflections based on the frontline of working in schools.  Clarke asserts parents’ attitudes about learning, orientations toward what support looks like, and understandings of obligations and responsibilities all play a role in how learning is supported, and not supported at home. Recounting hers and colleagues’ experiences, parental involvement has been staggeringly low.  Reflecting both on her own and colleagues’ experiences working in New York City schools, Clarke identifies several factors for why she thinks parental lack of both commitment and participation occurs on so large a scale.

Clarke asserts that some parents situate school as the primary officiator of their children’s success instead of themselves. “It seems they believe overseeing their children’s educational development is someone else’s responsibility.” However, she also contends that with pressing economic times many parents are pulled away from home, working long hours and multiple jobs, resulting in less possibility for them to be actively involved in monitoring children’s academic success closely.  “We have become a society of overwhelmed parents” who work “so much from the home that many depend on the system to develop and guide children.”

In other cases, Clarke contends that children “who fail have been given the power to fail by their parents,” and particularly those “who perform poorly or cause trouble in school do so because they have parents who are enablers. These parents do not do what is necessary to stem such behaviors.” Still in other cases parental failure of students is attributable to a lack of parents understanding their role to make sure students actively and responsibly participate in their own learning (completing tasks, fulfilling assignments, preparing for assessments). Being good intentioned, Clarke contends that such parents correlate being older as inherently being more responsible. She asserts that these expectations of autonomy, self-monitoring, and self-reliance are too much to handle, even for teenagers.

In all, Clarke suggests that at epidemic levels, “children are not getting the daily educational supervision they need at home in order to succeed at school.” Central to students performing successfully in school is parental establishment and enforcement of what she describes as an “educational tone in their home.” She emphasizes that parents must inaugurate high educational standards as soon as children commence school, and institute them every day until high school graduation.  She contends that if parents demonstrate concern for their children’s education and couple that with daily monitoring, then they will excel.  “Children who fail are not stupid. They are just unsupervised, undisciplined, unfocused, and out of practice.”

Clarke proclaims that there is “a distinct correlation between the concerned parent and the proactive student.” Students who do well are those who are “well trained, organized, disciplined, and motivated…They have parents who provide them with constant order, support, and guidance.” In the second half of her book, she then puts forth myriad suggestions for different ways parental involvement and commitment can be fully actualized.

For one, Clarke promotes reading at home as beneficially impactful on academic progress, while simultaneously honing an essential life skill. If parents “require reading time every day at home, reading scores would soar, and more students would become natural readers. Their overall knowledge, comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, writing and spelling skills would improve.” As well, she purports avid readers as “more informed and are better communicators.”

Clarke suggests minimizing excessive showering children with gifts, especially those who are not successful in school, as it communicates values around material wealth over mental.  Indulgence in expensive gifts and trappings, in place of a consistent emotional involvement with child and school, endorses inappropriate school behavior and performance.

Parents reinforcing organization, such as the maintenance of an organized notebook, hold their children accountable in maintaining successful habits of mind and work. Frequent notebook checks are a way Clarke suggests parents can be kept abreast of a child’s progress. They can serve as a lens into any challenges or weaknesses his/her child is experiencing, and intervene. “If parents made sure their children maintained a constant level of organization and discipline, how can they fail?”

Clarke suggests that a mutually respectful partnership be established between parent and teacher. Parents of struggling students need to indulge less the blaming of teachers exclusively for their child’s poor performance. Instead, they should take the teachers’ input and advice and implement them into an action plan. She also admonishes parents to not be dissuaded by their child’s attitude toward a teacher, and not endorse their lack of successful performance just because they do not like a teacher. Parents must promote and uphold the expectation of the child to complete assigned work and excel on assessments, and not let a child’s excuse of “I don’t like the teacher” or “The teacher is out to get me” as justifiable eclipses of their potential.

Finally, Clarke suggests that supervision and activity are centripetal to academic success. From 3-6pm, students need activities that keep them engaged outside of school, and thus out of trouble. Examples include after school programs, play rehearsals, sports, language classes, tutoring, and when old enough, employment and volunteerism.

At the end of each chapter, Clarke asks parents pointed and poignant questions to reflect upon their involvement and investment in their child’s successes. They serve as prompts for parents to assess and reevaluate how they are supporting their child’s development. For example, a salient question she asks parents to consider is, “If a teacher has told you that your child is missing homework assignments, what new procedures have you implemented at home to ensure that all work is completed?” Such questions could serve as discussion starters during parent meetings, or as an opportunity for quiet reflection for individual parents.

In critique, there are some argumentative and structural elements of the book that need consideration. Argumentatively, the promotion of the idea of parental involvement proving pivotal to children’s successful formation academic habits and subsequent achievement is already established.  Repeating throughout the book that a lack of such investment has negative impact at times stifles its’ illuminative potential rather than augment it. All too brief and cursory descriptions of how and why parents are insufficiently participatory or absent from their children’s academic lives detract from us knowing and understanding what we as stakeholders cannot afford to repeat.  We need the nitty-gritty narratives alluded to by Clarke.  Accounts of specific families, detailing the different practices (or lack thereof) that negatively impact children creating and sustaining successful academic habits would amplify the argument and concretize what to avoid. Most importantly, providing in-depth case studies of parents who have implemented Clarke’s remedies effectively, yielding in children’s successful adoption and/or adaption of fruitful academic habits and achievement, would make the book complete.  Structurally, statistics and data from several diverse sources would provide readers a better understanding of the social, cultural, anthropological and historical milieu within which long-term academic efficacy and failure occur.

However, Clarke, as mother, educator, and advocate, puts her blood, sweat, and tears into initiating a much-needed conversation.  Her words and purpose push us into the arena, and provide an initial arsenal with which to begin the fight.  I’m Your Teacher, Not Your Mother offers food for thought regarding parents being the most essential agents of change in students’ academic development, progress, and success.

Class is dismissed. 

 

For more information, you can access Suzette’s website at http://imyourteachernotyourmother.com/.

 

 

Making Memories Plate by Plate

Food is sacrament. Forkful by forkful, something old unfolds and something new begins to take its first breath.

Food is sacrament. Through its creations and sharing, I am educated in how to give and bless back the family and friends that purpose my living. Family albums bloom with snapshots where we celebrate anniversaries, show thanks for another year via birthday dinners, mark rites of passage such as retirement and commiserate over one’s passing.

Growing up
Picnic in Riverside Park
Family Gathering, 1995
Family Gathering, 1995
family birthday celebration
Celebrating Dad’s birthday

Growing up, creating Mother’s Day dinner was how I showed—in small part given the grandness of her love—the honor and appreciation I held for her.  I tired my father in an exhaustive day of shopping for everything we did not already have in pantry or freezer.  I used every pot and pan, to my father’s frustration as he was the designated dishwasher. I enveloped the kitchen in a fury of preparing exotic dishes (one year attempting Hunter Style Chicken for dinner, another year a complicated strawberry crepe-style cookie with homemade whipped cream for dessert) in an effort to convey a love supreme. Dinner would be met with my mother’s humble smile, receptive palate, and a willing stomach.  When an adult, and in the hospital recuperating from my tonsillectomy, she traveled a great distance via mass transportation just to bring me Carvel pistachio ice cream. Although melted after her long trip, both my eyes and throat swelled with gratitude. She came to see me, and brought with her a cherished artifact of childhood to help me heal.

The cooking for others has become for me a humble tool to thank others for the difference they have made in my life. I would throw dinner parties as a teenager, and even as a young adult. It was my parents’ way of “compensating” for being old school in not letting me go to house parties or hang out in the city.

mom and dada
Mom and Dad helping me prep and serve at one of my “tribal gatherings”

Although somewhat sheltered, I did not feel shrunken. Rather, their strictness churned my innovation to think of ways to spend time with friends. Food became a means to hang out, to preserve, affirm, and harness friendships. And, it was one of the few times my parents would allow me to be in mixed company.

Regardless of attending universities and colleges in different parts of the country, these “tribal gatherings” as they would come to be called was where over the breaking of bread we, old friends and new budding buddies, would rekindle memories of crazy times growing up, and new life experiences. And we would laugh, laugh, laugh. I remember N’Gai breaking out in singing Rick James’ part of “Fire and Desire,” and how his dramatization both impressed us (he could SING), and humor us as was characteristic of him. My home, and the food prepared there, became means to bridge the old parts of me that happened there and in the old neighborhood with the new parts of me that where happening everywhere else.

College Sisters Kimberly, Sandra, me, and Faith
College Sisters Kimberly, Sandra, me, and Faith

And the ethos shaping these gatherings was one I brought back to campus. One time I made collard greens with turkey, as Kim, Daryle and I took a break from late night studying to exchange stories and watch “Showtime at the Apollo.”  One time, through the graciousness of my dorm RA and family, I hosted a dinner in our rec room with classmates to celebrate Black History Month. It became a means to bridge my family with classmates of diverse backgrounds, a time I will cherish these almost twenty years later.

So food has become at times a tool and other times a bridge.  It is a means for taking care of others, affirming love for others as well as preserving and forging new relationships. One Valentine’s Day, I was upset about not having a boyfriend, so Mom made a picnic in our living room. When I was in grad school, my dad came to visit me for the weekend, and we went to an Italian restaurant and ate a simple dish of spaghetti and marinara sauce.  In that moment, I was both his little girl and his biggest dream. When mom and I hosted bus rides to Atlantic City, we wanted everyone to feel like family, and we used food to do so. It was important to my mom that our guests have something hot to eat for our long trip, a tradition I still practice in making breakfast for my family.  During those trips, we gave a bagged breakfast of sausage, rolls, and juice during the departure, and slices of homemade cakes we made on the return trip. Those experiences even launched for us a small catering venture, where we would make fried turkeys and cakes for sale.  After my father’s passing, and before her own, Mom and I created a new ritual of making food for the winter.  We would spend several weekends visiting farms and supermarkets to stock up on produce. Then, undergo the laborious yet loving task of prepping and preserving food for the winter.  I loved coming home from school to then return with pickles, spiced plums, beets, and stewed tomatoes. Just a few years ago, my childhood friend Carla came to visit me at a tapas bar where she shared her manuscript for her first book of poetry.  Later, when we went to dinner in the city to celebrate its release, she was so touched by the server’s attentiveness and loving words that she gave her one of her newly pressed books for free.  Generosity reciprocating generosity. At the annual Thanksgiving dinner where we all congregate at my in-laws’ home, my father-in-law has passed the torch of carving the turkey to me (I do a damn good job, I must say). But his humility and benevolence leave me feeling cherished and loved. I am a witness that the breaking of bread together heals, redeems and forges.

Growing a relationship plate by plate holds particular fondness for me with my husband. Morsel by morsel, we have unfolded fears, divulged personal trials, asked for and given advice, pondered the future, incessantly chortled, and healed from challenges. We have enjoyed cuisine throughout the east coast, from the fried seafood of City Island to nostalgic hotdogs with mustard at Nathan’s in Coney Island. From being blown away by the deeply developed flavors of fire and emotion conjured by the creole cooking at Marsha Brown’s in New Hope, PA (which we would later return after he proposed) to the down home savor captured by the cornbread at Warmdaddy’s in Philly.  From the pitstops made while traveling to see family down south to the lovingly prepared succotash, ribs and rice at my Aunt Shirley’s dining room table in South Carolina. We’ve counted the restaurants and eateries we visited, and we have been to about two dozen (many repeatedly, some NEVER again) in our years together.

Engagement Night Dinner at Marsha Brown's.
Engagement Night Dinner at Marsha Brown’s

Yet a particular collection of restaurants mark significant events with my husband and I, those of his childhood friend Craig.

Craig is a man of great humility and few words. But the cuisine of his restaurants shouts and testifies. My initiation into the power of his food was at Smoke Joint. Having South Carolinian roots, I was primed for home cooking, and the food did not disappoint. BBQ ribs that fall off the bone, greens that summon you to hum from their deliciousness, and beans that tantalize with traces of sweet and smoky flirtations on your tongue.  But the beautiful flavor of the food was a means to something greater. It was a conduit through which we grew to know one another.  Hurling jokes, asking questions, humming, we hankered down into the succulence of food that would then begin the teaching of how we would come to feed one another in soul.

Smoke Joint

It would be at Peaches, another of Craig’s restaurants, that I would then meet the urban frontiersman of fine food, and his life partner, Laura. I knew this meeting, and the breaking of bread with them at their place, was pivotal. I was meeting people Kerwin holds sacred, as he and Craig grew up together, in neighborhood and in church, and Laura is a woman whom they both highly regard and respect. If allowed, I would be initiated into a sacred group.  The restaurant felt welcoming, the exchange of greetings and smiles very promising, and the offerings of libation by Laura let me know that this initiation and assessment would be affectionately administered. Then, and now, I am fascinated and inspired by Craig and Laura being a couple who withstood the trials and challenges of growing a marriage, a family, a dream and a business simultaneously.

Returning back to the food, it did not disappoint. The chicken and Andouille gumbo always opens and breaks my heart.  I taste home every time I have it. It harkens me back to when Mom and I made it together. I had the task of stirring the dangerous but delicious roux, harmonizing the flour and hot oil in the cast iron skillet, building the base that my mom would then complete, and we lovingly enjoy. In homage to that conjured memory, and the powerful gift of Craig’s restaurant to channel it, I continue to make it on my own at home.

Peaches

Like the role of food when growing up, Peaches has also come for us to be a meeting place for old friends and new family. Periodically, another childhood friend, Chris, visits Brooklyn. When in town we converge at Peaches to banter and make new bliss. Like me, Chris orders the same thing, the Shrimp Po Boy, as it has come for him to be the signature dish that holds his memories, heart and stomach captive.  Sometimes Kerwin and I have gone as a family, bringing at the time our oldest son, as we make a new memory savoring deep-rooted food. In similar fashion, Chris’ wife Deshae also created a special moment when meeting for the first time by having us all go out together at the local Outback Steakhouse after visiting their church. Meeting her, and spending time with them and their family, has made an indelible impression on my heart ever since.

And then there is Hothouse. The trinity of brothers met there when it newly opened, celebrating Craig’s new accomplishment and their time-tested bond. Kerwin was so taken by the fried chicken that he raved and raved and raved when he returned home.  I was intrigued. Pregnant and enlarged with our first child, we went. A tight wooden space, it resonates with the décor of a speakeasy.  But plates of that fried chicken swelled nostalgic within me, so much so that I think it is in part why our firstborn LOVES chicken. Hothouse now comes to be a place in our hearts that marks our celebration of an old friend’s accomplishments, and our celebration of growing a family.

And just this past Thanksgiving weekend, we were able to celebrate again a milestone in our dear friend’s career. The opening of Marietta. As an annual ritual, Craig and his wife Laura host several friends and family at one of their restaurants for Thanksgiving. Regrettably we missed it because of heavy traffic, and needed to get to my in-laws on time. But that following Saturday Craig, Chris and our family met there to break bread and make new memories.

Family
The family

Over the years I have come to regard Craig and Chris as my “big brothers,” feeling comfortable with asking questions, cracking jokes, and now, making sure that Keith and Maceo get to know their “uncles.”  A cornucopia of fried foods—chicken, whiting, and green tomatoes—overflowed our beige wood table.  Craig ordered on Kerwin’s behalf a variety of plates given Kerwin’s indecisiveness in what delectables to finally select. The butternut squash and mushroom risotto Craig ordered was decadent and quickly devoured. My second born, Maceo, a very finicky eater, grabbed for every plate that graced the table.

Marietta 2
Mommy and Maceo

Even under watchful eyes, he somehow caught hold of a chicken bone which he gnawed and gnawed until by his growling in enjoyment we realized what he was doing. After its removal, he settled for sneaking some watercress.  But he loved the sautéed greens I fed him by hand. Eventually I had to battle him in getting some for myself.  Good food will make you selfish.

Craig and Kerwin
Kerwin, Keith, and Uncle Craig

What was enjoyable about sitting with my family and brothers was the mutuality.  We peppered one another with questions. For Craig, I inquired what it was like to maintain several restaurants, his inspiration for the cuisine selected, reasons for the décor selected, and next ventures. Chris reciprocated in asking thoughtful questions for me to consider around Keith’s social readiness for school. For me personally, what was wonderful to behold was this band of brothers, these fathers, these spiritual kinsmen, spending time once again with one another.

Chris
Uncle Chris

Marietta and the men made me feel at home. I could be mom, and also kick up my feet.  Keith and I took advantage of the empty space (due to the holiday), giving my at times restless son carte blanche to explore.  Up and down the corridor we walked and giggled, touching plants and holiday décor, investigating textures and shapes. Ever the teacher, I built in mini-lessons about opposites, such as cold (when touching the window) and warm, outside (looking out the window), and inside. I also indulged the enjoyment of some delicious cocktails. Craig “reminded” me to indulge my quiet time. Sage and gin make a splendid mix. In my taking care of others, I was taken care of too.

Craig and Maceo
Uncle Craig and Maceo

There is something about good food and good times that summons me to find the tools and means to recreate them and share them again. Craig’s food so inspired me that again, in homage, I made renditions of them at home. Kerwin delighted in the risotto at the restaurant, so I made a butternut squash risotto with parmesan cheese this past week. I was so seduced by the bite and heat of the sautéed mixed greens that I made some too. Keith was an ever-faithful tester, who volunteered sampling several forkfuls in various stages of preparation (though they did not turn out as good as at the restaurant . . .will keep trying). Knowing Kerwin is a fan of mushrooms, I was inspired to make something we never had. Grilled cheese sandwiches made with challah, Portobello mushrooms, fresh sage, and fontina cheese. Kerwin inhaled the sandwich in just a few bites. I felt affirmed.

Risotto Greens

I see in my firstborn a growing fascination with food too. When in the kitchen, he breaks from his own play asking for seasoning. Sprinkling small amounts in his little hands, he stares in study at the different grains and colored powders, devours, assesses, and then asks for more. He can make distinctions between nutmeg, cloves, kosher salt, adobo, ground onions, garlic powder, and coarse black pepper (his favorite). At just two years old he asks for them by name.  This exchange can delay meals at times, but as my Mom did with me, and Craig for his customers, I am learning how to create foods as a portal into new relationships, and bridges into new ways to create love for others.

Keith and Greens

Forkful by forkful, something old unfolds and something new begins to take its first breath.

For more information about these restaurants, and menus, please visit http://www.bcrestaurantgroup.com/.

Of Hair and Origin

In this guest blogpost, Tricia Amiel, a mother, writer, adjunct instructor and former teacher, takes an introspective and candid look into the intersection of race, identity and self-perception.  She divulges some hard truths and hurts that emanate from others asking her questions about her roots.  Then, in turning affliction into learning opportunity, she discusses how she had students turn questions about origin and identity back on themselves, and what both she and her students learned about the power that emanates from knowledge of self. 

*****

When I tell some people that I am Jamaican, the first thing they want to know about is my hair.  My hair is long, very dark and “smooth.”  It is naturally very wavy, but is easily made straight.  As a little girl in elementary school, I was either a fascination or the object of disdain; they said I was conceited, that I thought myself to be better than other girls because my hair was so different from theirs.  It was “good hair,” of a quality that at the time I didn’t understand was supposed to be better, more beautiful than theirs.  It didn’t help that I was smart and my teachers favored me, but my hair was the sorest point of contention with the other girls in the schoolyard.

It used to annoy me, that request to know about my hair, the misguided guesses about my origins—I was thought at various times to be Cuban, Dominican, “mixed” with Native American, anything but what I am—and my annoyance led me to reply in a sometimes vague, often sarcastic way.  I’m human, I would say, or, my hair came from my head.  Now, a student of Multicultural Literatures, African American and Caribbean philosophy, I understand that there is a lot that people don’t know about the Caribbean.  It seemed to me that many people were purposefully ignorant, that they went out of their way to NOT know, but now I think so much is hidden from us, and that as human beings in a world divided along lines of color, belief, and politics to name a few, we seek to categorize people, place them in spaces that we understand and control rather than assume that there are things we don’t know.

Until recently, I was a ninth grade English and Drama teacher at a South Florida high school in the “green zone,” one of those areas in which teachers were paid a slightly greater salary for their bravery.  It is a low-performing, mostly black, Hispanic, and immigrant school with few resources, set far away from other, newer, “better” schools.  There too, my hair was a fascination, a curiosity, to students and staff alike.  It was the genuine curiosity and lack of knowledge in my students that changed my sarcastic tone to a didactic one; I saw that they wanted to know.  I assigned a project to my English classes, called  “Where I’m From.”  Students were to seek out ancestors–parents, grandparents, any elder family member at all–and interview them about their family’s origins.  They were encouraged to write essays, create posters of family photos of each generation they could, pictures or drawings of flags, national colors, foods, and historical information.

One student presented a recording of his Cuban great-grandmother’s voice telling the story of her emigration to the United States, hidden on a cargo boat, nearly dying of starvation. Another had a very old family album, full of bIack and white photos of great and great-great family members, labeled with names and dates as far back as the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Still, I heard things that saddened me deeply, especially from my minority students; for example, a Haitian student wrote that black people had come to Haiti from France, denying vehemently her African origins and history of slavery and the successful revolution carried out by slaves.  Some Hispanic students did not understand that Spanish was not just the name of the language they spoke, but also the adjective describing people from Spain—not Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or Mexico—that they spoke Spanish because Spain had colonized those places, and that some of their ancestors were native Indians.  Many African American students were unable to see beyond the neighborhood they lived in, posting things like the area code and gang colors on their poster boards.  They took pride in what they did know, but did not know as much as they should in a time when history’s pages are more open and questioning of tradition than ever before.

I did the project along with them, using the colors of the Jamaican flag for my poster, included pictures of my family that were taken at my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday party, pictures of Arawak Indians, stories about the Maroons, the arrival of the Chinese and East Indians in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and Rastafarian religious practices, a group for whom the “dread” style of hair that so many of them had adopted had significant meaning.  I also included pictures of my high school in the Bronx, where my maternal grandmother, whose own half-Chinese countenance fascinated my students, had emigrated to from Jamaica after living for many years in England.  I told them my paternal grandmother was East Indian, that she had black hair that fell to her waist, and that I’d been told  my coloring and bone structure were like hers; I knew little else.

In those facts, my students finally understood the story of my hair and the truth, as best I could tell it, of my origins.  The thing that had so annoyed me became the medium through which I was able to teach the value of knowing where you’re from, understanding your own personal history within the larger frame of historical knowledge.  Look in the mirror, I told them; see yourself.  In the mirror lies the beginning of your story.  A story that includes the people, the ancestors of your past, and the history of how you came to be.  Look for answers, I told them.  Try to find some truth; try to find out who you were, so that you can know who you are.

Tricia Amiel

Fellowship at 2012 NYC Fashion Week: Sisters Celebrating Sisters

2012 NYC Fashion Week, Sarahi Showcase

Traditionally, NYC Fashion Week impressed me as an exclusive event.  The crème de la crème reveal and show off their dernier cri and totemic textiles. A-listers are awash in worship from photographic flashes.  The illuminati offer praises like flowers at feet of fellow elite.  Those of us who have no anchor in the sea of high fashion will rely on the reports of the select few broadcasts allowed harbor and entrance.  Somehow this particular Thursday night the stars aligned, because I was given access to such a coveted event. What I would encounter was far from the images and assumption I initially endorsed.

At first, I felt as though I was “crashing” a selective soiree.  Working in education, and now a stay at home mother expecting my second child, such pathways rarely make for opportune interceptions with the chic.  It seemed irregular, unlikely, to sit alongside “those” who regularly lined the esteemed runways.    I wasn’t a blip on the elite radar of the houses of Monique Lhuillier, Michael Kors or Ralph Lauren, so being a guest would be out of the question, or even the assistant of esteemed stylists like Rachel Zoe.  Benevolently, my ticket came from the heart of a sister editor-in-chief, Shawn Chavis, whose gratitude to her staff and writers at Bronze Magazine gave us entre into this grand world, landing us at the premiere Sarahi showcase at RSVP, which her magazine was sponsoring.

I didn’t go to be seen, temporarily immortalized in this week’s tabloids and newspapers.  Attending for me was an honor, as I would meet fellow women writers, affix flesh and blood to online personality, whose fellowship was garnered mostly online due to our remote locations.  Working as a contributing writing and copy editor, Shawn has given me unwonted space to transition from working as teacher, professor and consultant to fulfill my aspiration of freelance writing.  Emelyn Stuart and I had been corresponding on Facebook in anticipation of our initial meeting; first reading about her in a previous issue of Bronze Magazine, her humor and receptive spirit made me excited to meet her. And others I would meet would become for me tour guides of dreams, unexpected touchstones of inner pain and the strength, courage, and wisdom that emanate from them.

I arrived early to RSVP, erring on the side of caution give my long commute by public transportation. I landed midst the hum of tuxedoed wait staff priming final touches and hoisting the poster of sponsors, greeters coordinating guest lists, and models practicing their many faces and stances.   Photographers, writers, and support staff buzzed away in preparatory tasks. The hive was hopping. Yet in the mix I felt welcomed, as people scooting by me made time to pause, smile, and even say hello. They provided a welcoming atmosphere I was not expecting.

By chance one such smile came from VJ Ameliaismore, a local celebrity. Instantly we started talking. She became a guide for me that evening, not just for that event but as an example of someone diligently on a mission and living to fulfill a dream. Like a big sister to little sister, she shared her life history and work, funny stories about being the single mom of a son, and a short retrospective on her life as a teacher, model, and business woman. It was her intimate sharing against the backdrop of the busyness and buzz that powered the pondering of my own dreams, and hollowing a space to wish her dreams their deserved flight and height.  Quickly disappearing backstage, she pointed me to where Shawn was.  I embarked to meet my colleague and mentor.

I recognized Shawn as soon as I saw her. Her spirit casts an aura of welcome and receptivity, even while standing still in the chaos of patrons indulging the open bar and cocktail hour (alas, how I craved sampling the sushi and steak tartare).   She shared her gratitude for the work I’ve done, particularly for last-minute copy editing. Here I was meeting the fountainhead of an inspirational magazine thanking ME. It was wondrous and wonderful to finally meet her, feeling far more like homecoming.  Her grace and warmth were contagious, enveloping me, like dwelling in the company of a dear friend.

Me and Shawn Chavis, Editor-in-Chief, Bronze Magazine

Standing right next to her was Emelyn Stuart.  I recognized her by the cool confidence she exudes, and in the striped dress (inside joke).  Media magnate and prolific film producer, her repertoire and resume remained quiet within her.  She didn’t greet me with her resume or reputation. She doesn’t bring them into our conversation at all. Instead, she bestows an authentic invitation to learn about one another.  In fact, she asks ME questions that have me since thinking about where and how I want to direct my future endeavors in writing.  She offered advice on how to gain sponsorship for my blog to build its readership and reputation. Being around her was like being released to explore and dig deeper into one’s dreams, and I found myself rattling off all that I wanted to be and become in this new chapter of my career and life.  She offered her phone number and suggested we keep in touch.

Even more than what I learned from the outpour of sisters like Shawn and Emelyn is learning what we can offer others.  Before the start of the show, acclaimed model and business woman Njie Sabik informed us of the silent auction going on as well, with proceeds going to two charitable organizations.  She bravely shared that one was created in tribute to her mother; the designer, Suzette Kelly, earlier informed us Njie just buried her mother days before the show.  Such character to remain committed to participating in the show and disclosing such a personal tragedy marks Njie as evidence of resilience.  After the show, she was swept away for a barrage of photos. Between the flashes I snuck in to share with her how I was moved by her celebration of her mother. I told how I too lost my mother to cancer (AML), and offered for inspiration that eventually better days do come. I relayed my admiration of how brave she was to disclose what she did, staying committed to the show, and that I believed her mother would be proud of her for her endeavors.  Njie embraced me in a long understanding hug. It felt fulfilling to know that even in sorrow there is the root of kinship, and that even as strangers we can each be healing balm for one another.  Not to mention her power on a runway. She rips it with methodical presentation and presence. She owns a room when she enters, and leaves it mesmerized when she exits.

Njie Sabik at 2012 NYC Fashion Week
Njie Sabik at 2012 NYC Fashion Week

The House of Sarahi definitely lit up the night.  Yet this night proved more to be a walk through the power and potential of sisterhood than retinal reverie.  Amelia, Shawn, Emelyn and Njie irradiated my soul. I returned home, and in high heels and red swing dress, resumed the maternal work of feeding my son and rocking him to sleep. Out of sheer gratitude I thanked my husband who worked from home that day for this once in a lifetime opportunity.

Back to work . . .inspired.

Suzette Kelly (far left), designer of Sarahi, with models

Unleashing the Beast from Within: Movie Review of “Animal Kingdom”

Multi-award winning crime drama “Animal Kingdom” (Sony Pictures Classics, 2010) shines a focused light on the tension, turmoil, and tenacity of a family bonded by their familial investment . . . in criminal enterprise.  Enter the Cody family, consisting of grandmother, three brothers, estranged daughter and her teenage son.   Don’t anticipate a conventional family like that of The Cleavers, Bradys, or Cunninghams, or idyllic scenes of Sunday dinners or family vacations.  All is not what it appears to be, as the façade of family barely gilds twisted ruminations.

Instead, we are thrust smack into the tangled dynamics of this deranged family, and the perverse loyalty shaping and shaming it.  Narratives of twisted maternal instincts, sinister sibling rivalry, bilious behaviors, benevolent friendships and coming of age are slowly unraveled and witnessed.  Matriarch Janine “Smurf” Cody showers her sons with a love that borders on the incestuous, and yet harbors a diabolical willingness to sacrifice some cubs to preserve those most cherished by the pride.  Actions taken by eldest brother Andrew “Pope” to protect him and the family are at times paternal and psychotic.  Teenage grandson Joshua “J” Cody comes to live with the family after his mother overdoses, but realizes that he has to grow up fast and choose allies carefully, whether police or kin, if he is to survive.

The movie will not belittle your sensibility with an admonishingly bow-tied retelling of the adage “I am my brother’s keeper.” It is replaced by revealing brute savagery that the family inflicts on one another to preserve the herd, no matter the sacrifice.  The intertwined and wicked relationships unravel the extent and cost the members of the Cody family will pay in preserving the frays of family.

The movie will not distract you with scenes of armed bank robberies to titillate and fulfill our propensity for special effects and bedazzlement.  Movies such as “Set it Off” and “Heat” do a unique job of using such scenes to propel plot and inform characterization. Instead, a montage of bank camera photos during opening credits takes care of this revelation.  What is more deeply and intimately investigated are the aftershocks of crime, its residual impact on loyalty.

It’s damn near sinister and shameful the extent kin will go, and blood be shed, to procure peace. Everyone fears one another.

With rightful cause.

The Cost to be the “Boss”: Kelsey Grammer’s Stellar Portrayal of Monster and Man

The Starz series “Boss” unfolds with immediate access into Chicago’s Mayor Thomas Kane’s Achilles’ heel.  In an arranged secret meeting, he finds out his fateful diagnosis. The clock starts ticking.  There isn’t much time. Yet it is this very alchemy of electoral ambition and corporeal deterioration that make for compelling drama.  Kane is a well-crafted villain who is simultaneously vicious and vulnerable, sinister and sympathetic.

It is knowing upfront the mayor’s deterioration that spawns an audience’s intrigue, for the mayor does not go gently into that good night.  Kane is an alluring character study.  Ruthless and lacerative, he weathers all tides as his kingdom rises and falls, falls and rises.  His prowess to manipulate is fascinating, wielding calculated and merciless vengeance over all who disobey him, inclusive of kindred and his own political inner circle. Even innocent people who unfortunately help his health are thrown under the bus.

The beauty of “Boss” is that as audience, we are made privy to not only the king’s ambitions but also his subjects’. We are given access to their subjection and subversion.  Immediately we are thrust into a world of characters with rivaling complexity, coordinating and calculating their own moves within the chaotic milieu of a gubernatorial primary.  No one-dimensional characters here.  From office staff to family to foes, each has motives and agendas. Camouflaged and chameleonic does not begin to describe their orchestrated facades. It’s as if living in a Shakespearean tragedy, like that of King Lear, where family’s and statesmen’s loyalties are in constant flux and purchase. Morality and allegiance are wantonly disregarded.

The characters are compelling because while they are somewhat puppets of Kane, each resounds with their own uniquely tailored dilemmas and demons. An estranged drug-addicted daughter, now venerable priest of a local Catholic church and director of medical programs at its local poorly funded clinic, works to reconcile her past by promoting messianic and charitable good, even if done through unconventional and illegal means. An ambitious state treasurer, handpicked and endorsed by Kane to be the next governor, gets ahead of his post, and consequently, his unbridled lust, political naiveté, and easily purchased loyalty place him in dire and compromising positions. It all makes for intriguing viewing.

Masterful and crafty as a weathered chess player, Kane anticipates the moves of others before the seed germ has begun to sprout.  He calculates their moves from jump, before they even touch the first pawn.  He brings people in check should they garner the audacity to position their own ambitions before his.  He has played their games before, so much so that their moves pulse and proliferate in the marrow of his bones. He engages the defense of some political foes and defenestration of others, all to the purpose of his glory and gain.  He antiseptically disinfects against all others’ self-determination and self-service.

Yet while Kane in many respects is the devil incarnate, he is a character not incapacitated from conducting self-study.  As his disease periodically peeks through in public speeches and private conferences, he takes steps to monitor its unfurling. He records its manifestations to capture and research what leaks out and what remains. Through these intermittent windows into his soul, we as witnesses sympathize with his helplessness and pity his body’s betrayal.

Accentuating “Boss” is its skillful cinematography, particularly the use of soliloquy to afford the audience intimate access into Kane’s mental machinery.  Kane’s ramblings are like Shakespearean soliloquies that allow us to hear his inner meditations, as like the ravenous ruminations of Macbeth whose leprous ambition unravels his mind to see phantom daggers and the ghost of murdered ally Banquo.

Thomas Kane, the infamous mayor of Chicago, is unscrupulous. There is no person he will spare, no blood he will not shed (figuratively and literally), no ambition he will not dare, to insure his throne.

Which is why I can’t wait for Season 2 this Friday.

Game on.

The Lone Crusaders of “Valhalla Rising” and “The Book of Eli”: Preternatural Archetypes and Iconic Rebels

This won’t be a review of these two films evaluating their merits and detractions.  More so, this blogpost is an investigative pondering, a thinking out loud about the power of movies serving as introspective lenses into ourselves.  After seeing “Valhalla Rising” a few days ago, it has not left my bones or cognitive preoccupation.  The brooding landscape, the haunting music, the brutal yet beguiling treatment of proverbial conflicts (man versus man, man versus society), the aesthetic achievement of a  movie not ending with a conventionally bow tied happy ending, have moved me.  I am responding to a movement in my marrow, an archetypal and iconic familiarity implanted by my father, now resurrected.

To give context, In “Valhalla Rising,” the clairvoyant Norseman protagonist, One Eye, is introduced as a captive exploited for the gladiator-style sport of combating and bludgeoning fellow captives.  One Eye is temporarily compliant with his slavery and defers to his captor’s bloodlust for combat.  He is then sold by his captor to another who hopes to use him to stave off the Christian Crusaders who have begun the onslaught of whomever they deem infidels.   However, One Eye brutally takes back his freedom, and resumes his quest, accompanied now by the boy (called The Boy) who provided food while in captivity and will provide his voice, as One Eye is mute.   Ironically, they encounter a group of Crusaders embarking for Jerusalem and join them.  Then when the ship is trapped by obscuring mist and stilled currents, some crew interpret the presence of The Boy as an omen of their demise.  Others are resolved in perceiving both One Eye and The Boy as a means to a supernatural confirmation of their quest, with One Eye providing messianic-like security.  The men then land upon a taiga, and begin to realize that they are nowhere near the Holy Land of Jerusalem for which their chartered their course and agendas.  They encounter aboriginals, as well as the fraying interior of the deepest and dilemma-ridden aspects of themselves, leading to revelatory unfolding.

Stories about lone crusaders and the conflicts they encounter fascinate me.  The preservation of self despite the infliction or indifference of others, the indestructible resolve to uphold and defend what is believed even at cost to self, are compelling narratives.  One Eye is embedded within an interwoven tapestry of two conflicts—man against man, and man against society.   One Eye does not willfully engage or pursue conflicts with others, or deliberately position himself to take a side for his own advantage.  In his quietude he remains resolute to keep moving, resilient in accepting and fulfilling his premonitions.  Beholding to what seems to be a calling to something greater, he combats through the shadows and valleys of others’ intentions, expectations, and manipulations.  This instinctive perseverance and acceptance of his fate are what confounds some characters and convicts others.

One Eye’s obligatory devotion to fulfilling his premonitions and the path they lay reminds me of my father.  My father was a man who availed his limbs and logic to providing me the best life possible (on earth and heaven).   Specifically, my father upheld the belief that it was his responsibility to instill within me religious practices and spiritual teachers to inform my life going forward.  The most indelible impression he makes upon me are what he taught me about my origin.  He had a way of explaining that we are translation of a divine intention.  Dad taught me about God and Christ, and many Biblical figures to serve me in life as guideposts for my living.  His favorite king was David, a man chosen by God to build and defend His kingdom knowing in his walk of earthen life he would both travail from and prevail against his personal foibles and fallibility.  Jesus impressed him because of His determination despite any and all obstacles to do His Father’s work.  Perhaps the parallel between One Eye and my father’s teachings lay in the fact that regardless of what the eye/s can see, there is a life purposefully divined and driven beyond physical unyieldingness, and to resolve to see and live life beyond circumstance strengthens one’s ability to do so sedulously and steadfastly.

Since seeing “Valhalla Rising,” I have also begun to reflect upon how I was also moved by the movie “The Book of Eli”.  The latter is also a movie that moves my marrow me because of its theme of sight beyond circumstance.  As like One Eye, Eli is diminished in his sight (he is completely blind).  However, Eli’s blindness does not mentally, spiritually or physically deter him.  Instead, his ordaining to deliver the last Bible propels Eli.  The sight garnered by conviction emboldens both characters to resist surrendering to physical limitation or societal intimidation; in Eli’s case, Carnegie’s hunting and assaulting of him to acquire the physical Bible in his care.  Throughout the movie, Eli invokes and demonstrates his Biblically-informed and infused sight to traverse an apocalyptic wasteland, the degeneration of others, and the attempted exploits of demagogue Carnegie to exploit and kill him exclusively for gain.  Unfortunately, Carnegie’s greed and thirst for power literally shrink his sight to only register what is physical.  The Bible Eli carries is written in Braille, which Carnegie cannot read and therefore exploit to wield his power.  The Bible that Eli transports is actually committed to memory: he succeeds bringing it to a repository and printing press housed in Alcatraz before succumbing to his injuries.

My fascination with both protagonists is that the fragile meets the fierce.  Despite what seems to be limits in the flesh, the execution of their beliefs is what avails them strength, courage and wisdom to continue pursuing their higher calling.  Each protagonist prevails against his own carnal limitation.  Despite the exploitation of others—attempted and executed—each remains undeterred to accomplish a goal greater than the obstacles that materialize and plague them.  They remind me of my father, whose spiritual sight helped him to prevail against affliction.  He taught me that we were born ordained to do special work on earth even before assuming earthly vessels, and celestially supported by the hierarchy of Heaven to complete it.    Who we are metaphorically, mystically, molecularly, and metabolically overshadows and overpowers  any obstacle we will experience in our walk on earth (perhaps this is also why movies like ”Contact” resound in me too . . .I’ll save that for another day).  This teaching he embedded in me informs and instructs me some 15 years after his passing.  Ironically, he died just nine days after my Baptism, and though for me premature, I have never believed this to be an accident as a surrender and restful return.

His job done on earth, as it is in Heaven.

Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman Redux: Are We a Nation Rhetorically at War with Itself?

What do we as a nation think of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case?   Here are recent posts from CNN’s website covering different aspects of the Trayvon Martin case.[1][2]

you know: what a good scapegoat for blacks to point at and cry racism.

P41: Caucasians are liars, murderers, thieves, rapists, sodomites, false witnesses, blasphemers, gluttons, idolaters, envious, lazy, swindlers, haters of GOD ALMIGHTY, and of the ORIGINAL BLACK MAN, BLACK WOMAN, AND CHILD.

Turbokorper: …there once was a community of thugs
…who were really good at pimpin’ and selling drugs
…we just move away,
…hopin’ they will stay,
…in the squalor, the crime and the bugs.

Lagergeld: Zimmerman is a brown Mestizo like the average Mexican yet CNN and the other networks keep pimping the lie that he is white to promote such BS agendas as this and to somehow twist words, journalistic accuracy, and reality itself to make some freak show tie-in to Emmett Till.  This is Communist News Network. As you were, Comrades.

Kimip: Far more Republicans (56%) than Democrats (25%) say there has been too much coverage of Martin’s death, Big surprise there. They would only care if it was someone from corporate America that was shot and killed. 

Michwill: If you’re not a part of the black community you need to keep your opinions to yourself. We don’t comment on the priests that molest the white altar boys or all the pedophiles in your communities or even when the white husband decides to kill himself and the whole family!!

Justice Has Occurred: I just read some of Trayvon’s published tweets. He was an inmate waiting to happen. Putting him down now may have saved some lives…black and white.

Recent responses to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman dynamic have clearly plucked a raw nerve, suggesting that this case has repercussions and ripples extending beyond that fatal night.  In some respects, the case has us all examining our experience of race and ethnicity in this shared country, particularly around civil liberties, law enforcement, due process, interactions with other ethnic groups and the perceptions we believe others hold of us based on our own positionality.  This is a case that harnesses within both individuals and groups a pulsing plethora of emotions and positions: vulnerable, victimized, and vindicated.   It is hard to not take aspects of the case personally and be impacted by them.

But as suggested by the smattering of the comments above, there is an undercurrent that is surfacing.  That facts and aspects of the case are being chiseled into reactions that are then used as leverage to hurt and harm a stranger or unsuspecting group.  What particularly resonates with me are some of the personal attacks that people have hurled at one another.  It’s made for a charged atmosphere of hurt feelings and caustic retaliation, the flinging of accusations and assumed political agendas.

Yet I wonder about the impact of such flagrant and rampant personalization, how it is churning and festering within us as citizens of a shared nation, leading us into then maliciously attacking specific individuals and groups. To some degree, it is human nature to hurt when harmed (a scorned lover, a bullied child).  But to sharpen understandings of the case into weapons to inflict undue damage is making for unfortunate fallout.  A failing of compassion.  A missed opportunity to understand and be understood.

The inflation of the case whereby people are using it to insult, instigate, implicate, and inculcate fellow humans does nothing to further understanding the incident, the case, each other or us as a nation.  But what the hurling of such incendiary comments, abuse of facts from the case, and exploitation of stereotypes does is beg us to look into the mirror.  Why are we using this case to purposefully and deliberately disrobe, dismiss and denigrate?  Why are we fashioning the hurling of hurt? What benefit manifests from adding insult to injury?  What long-lasting good comes from using this case to leverage insults against fellow humans? What do any of us score, or even win?

Why are the branches attacking the body?

This is not to suggest anything against our right to free speech.  This does detract from the historical, social and cultural backdrop against which this case occurs.  But we can retain emotive clarity.  When I read such comments as those listed above, and see their growing proliferation like dandelion spawns in blistery winds, I wonder where else they will land.

And, like the nature of weeds, what potential for life they will begin to choke.


[1] Study: Republicans, whites more tired of Trayvon Martin coverage. CNN.com. April 5, 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/04/justice/florida-teen-shooting/index.html?hpt=ju_t4

[2] Trayvon’s Death: Echoes of Emmett Till? CNN.com. March 24th, 2012.  http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/24/trayvons-death-echoes-of-emmett-till/comment-page-3/#comments

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