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.

 

 

 

 

 

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/.

As Educational Frontiersman: One Man’s Calling to Make a Difference

Dr. John R. Jenkins
Dr. John R. Jenkins

On any given day, John R. Jenkins, Ed.D., can be found laboring in the fray, soldiering on the frontline of education. He is an irrepressible spirit who has embodied several educative incarnations.  As English/Language Arts teacher, teacher trainer, instructional coach, consultant, researcher, faculty member, administrator, and currently Vice President of Programs for the School Leaders Network, his efforts are centralized in actualizing the potential and possibilities of urban youth.  In a candid and intimate interview, Dr. Jenkins shares familial teachings that shape his professional pursuits, revealing how they inform the practitioner and person he is today.  What unfolds is a compelling narrative of a man and educator with finger on the pulse, and reform on the cusp.  He is a trailblazer who forges to create a difference in the lives of so many others. From student to administrator, he empowers people with tools and resources. The impact is exponential, as his investment empowers people to tool and empower one another.

Family Influence and Impact

John was born in 1968 to teen parents. Although he grew up poor in the South Bronx, New York, and Detroit, MI, two of the nation’s highest areas of poverty, his caste did not become his coffin.  He thanks his family with inoculating him, as his economic status did not hinder his self-image and destiny.  “We were a working class family with resources,” John rebuffs, with resources being familial and multi-generational.

John in middle school.
John in middle school.

Resounding in John’s self-perceptions and movements are the evidence of a hard-working, deep-loving, and spiritually-convicted family.  His paternal grandparents’ entrepreneurial and industrious spirits triumphed in demonstrative alternatives.  The Jenkins Luncheonette on Intervale Avenue was a prominent neighborhood fixture, a place for food, community meetings, and entertainment.  Johnny and Dorothy Jenkins’ perseverance served as counterinfluence against the prevalence of unemployed neighbors disproportionately resorting to ulterior motives making ends meet. From them, “I got a whole lot about class consciousness early on about those people and these people and how I didn’t want to be among those people.” John did not interpret such admonishment as elitism, but as clear cautioning to do his best. Yet witnessing such circumstances laid the foundation for John directing his attention and talent servicing others within struggling communities. He would channel his professional investment into urban schools.

From very young, the roles of caregiver, protector and mediator aligned with an inner calling within John.  “I’ve always taken the kind of caretaker leadership role.”  Harboring a heart to look out for and help others, he enjoyed being put in charge of younger siblings and cousins.  Babysitting and helping with homework were formidable experiences that informed his ethos to protect and support others.  It is no coincidence that John’s favorite game was playing school, especially the teacher, as he relishes leading, teaching and serving others.  Frequently he assisted elders in their errands, and cherishes in particular helping his paternal great-grandmother, Minnie Lee Felder.  John attributes his experiences with her to imbuing him with a heart of reverence and service. Consequently, being there in times of others’ needs has become “part of my construct of myself.”  Being peacekeeper and mediator were also important roles he filled, apprenticing him for future professional scenarios.  To John, “Peace and equilibrium are really important.  Avoiding conflict is very important.”  Looking out for younger relatives, and being a helpmate to adults, foretold of labor done lovingly becoming a vocation.

John and siblings.
John and siblings.

John describes himself as a composite of several family members. His mother, Marcina Jenkins, exemplified for him a person of inner strength and resolve. She endured challenging circumstances while negotiating several roles and their obligations simultaneously.  She was a teen wife coming of age while raising three children, a daughter balancing relationships with opinionated parents and at-times difficult in-laws, and unfortunately, becoming a single parent raising children on her own.  She made an indelible impression upon him. He credits his mother with “model[ing] for me the importance of hard work and sacrifice.”  In a larger context, seeing firsthand “what society does to [a] woman when you have to take care of children and you don’t have the chance to be yourself,” also laid the groundwork for him exploring the impingement of race, class, and gender in work and education.

John as high school student.
John as high school student.

John’s father, John Jenkins Sr., also influenced who he became as both a man and an educator.  Briefly living with him in Yonkers, NY as a teenager, John culled poignant lessons about “presence and presentation.” His father emphasized “the importance of looking your best, being pressed and polished in front of folks” so “you can be trusted and get access to what you want.”  Although by John’s accounts his father’s investment and commitment to this message were at times riddled with hidden agendas, dubious goals, and compromised ethics, he still heeds to this day his father’s advice of possessing a strong vocabulary, exercising gentility and channeling a charismatic image.

 

Educational History and Emerging Career Path

Dr. Jenkins’ high school and college experiences were pivotal to him identifying his strengths and designing a professional path for their expression. Although enrolled in Yonkers High School’s Gifted and Talented Program, attending college did not initially interest him. Having only one uncle attend and complete an Associate’s degree, “It was not a big thing on my radar that I had to attend college.” However, a small group of peers applied to the University of Albany in New York. John, influenced by them, followed suit.  While he did not initially fulfill traditional admissions requirements, he was accepted into the university’s Minority Recruitment Program.

Dr. Jenkins’ college experience proved transformative.  He began “coming into my own as a person.” He recalls key experiences that began shaping his identity as an African-American man, and compelling him to give back to the community.  While a junior, he saw the dance troupe Black Gold Dancers, and was so impressed that he joined.  “It was the first time that I had seen men as part of a dance ensemble and I just thought I could do that!” He credits the troupe with affording him the opportunity to artistically express himself, particularly within the allegiance of other men. He encountered brotherly love, and opportunities to serve a greater good, as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.  He acknowledges the organization instilling within him the conviction that while “I had a legacy of excellence to uphold as a Black man,” he was “responsible not only for me but particularly for other young Black men.”  As member and president of the university’s chapter, and later as member of the graduate Kappa Xi Lambda Chapter in New York City (affectionately known as the “Wall Street Alphas”), John fulfills the calling to shepherd young men of color. Efforts include partnering with local high schools and community centers to help young men graduate high school and matriculate into college.  “We support and mentor [young boys] through the graduation process, help them with college and scholarship applications so that they can transition successfully into college. This is the program that I am most connected to.”  He also mentors young boys coming of age in issues regarding responsibility and relationships, and in building life skills. Familial and childhood lessons he learned in how to take others begin to take shape and root within his actions as an adult.

John and fraternity brothers.
John and fraternity brothers.

John’s introduction into political and social issues began at the university. Taking several courses in Africana and women’s studies opened his eyes to how the world is different for people that in his words “did not fit the norm.”  “I became aware of the different challenges people experienced based on the social, gender, and cultural groups they belonged to. And I realized that life was not the same for everyone.”  Consequently, he applied his emerging epiphanies in issues of race, class and gender to his work within student government.  As the Affirmative Action Officer for the Student Association, his responsibilities were to handle student complaints of discrimination within Student Association affiliated programs.  Another was to provide mandatory trainings to student leaders around issues of diversity, “to educate every organization about their obligation to support all students and make every organization accessible and inviting to all Albany students.”

Heeding lessons of putting family first, John returned  to the South Bronx after graduation in 1991.  He moved in with his aging great-grandmother to take care of her until she passed.  John attributes this experience as “a nice completion of a circle of giving.”  Yet while being home, it was a chance conversation with a principal that led to his entre into education.  Harkening childhood lessons of advocating for others and making a good impression, he stepped into the role of a liaison for his cousin who was trying to transfer to Lehman High School.  After making the case with the principal for his cousin’s enrollment, the principal was so impressed with John’s argument and presentation he immediately offered John a job to substitute teach.  A week later an English/Language Arts teaching position was vacated that the principal needed immediately to fill.  He offered it to John. John accepted.

John with Great-Grandmother.
John with Great-Grandmother.

Teaching at Lehman High School became “the opportunity that showed up to meet the preparedness that I had been honing all of my life.”  John taught 9th Grade Honors, 11th Grade Regents Prep, and a Regents-level African-American literature elective which he authored and developed.  During his five years there, John created curriculum that was academically rigorous and socially relevant.  He culled myriad educational, social and personal experiences, both personal and historical, to create content and assessments.  His most memorable unit was “Fathers and Sons: Success and Manhood.” He taught two  novels, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, and the play  “A Raisin in the Son” by Lorraine Hansberry. These texts were lens for students to investigate and examine the development and consequence of the relationships shared between fathers and sons, examining “how the cultural, social and racial issues played out in each relationship.” Also, John encouraged students to further their education after high school.  As the only faculty member of color within his department, John had personal stake in availing to students post-secondary possibilities.  Frequently he shared his college experiences with them, “bringing it right to their doorsteps.” Consequently, several chose to follow in his footsteps and attend UAlbany.

Teaching at Lehman High School.
Teaching at Lehman High School.

John furthered his own education as he taught. He completed his M.S. in Secondary Education and English in 1994, and two years later received his NYS permanent teaching certification for grades 7-12.

From Teacher to Scholar to Leader

Ever pursuant of opportunities to improve schools and communities, John returned to teach in Yonkers, NY as a way to give back.  He began in 1996 teaching English/Language Arts at Roosevelt High School. In the late 1990s, Yonkers was found in violation of providing disparate and unequal educational opportunities to students based on race.  Again, John was placed in a situation to teach and mentor students, noting this time though their particularized needs for affirmation and self-advocacy. “The Yonkers students seemed to be more deprived socially and had greater struggles academically. They need[ed] much more social interventions to get them ready for learning and to keep them engaged in school. Thus I had to be much more nurturing and teach them how to advocate for their needs more.” This intersection of supporting students while transforming a school district would provide John not only new avenues to create change but unfold a new career path to do so. 

As part of a court-ordered desegregation initiative, the Yonkers school district underwent a major training initiative in diversity.  John was part of the human relations team designated to train adults in diversity and to implement changes.  Through this training (facilitated by diversity expert and facilitator Dr. Cathy Royal), John became a  Diversity Facilitator.  In his new capacity as a Human Relations Officer (1998-1999), he was charged with addressing the district’s desegregation mandates.  These spanned (1) creating and facilitating mandated diversity training, (2) providing principals with support in creating school-wide plans, (3) training teachers and school aides in human relations skills, and (4) designing workshops in listening skills, student management, assertive discipline and effective communication.

Both then and now, Dr. Cathy Royal’s work has been especially influential, particularly her Quadrant  Behavior Theory. John explains it as follows:

Across all the major identifying social groups that exist—race, gender, class, ethnicity, nation of origin, language, sexual orientation, and class—there are two groups, the dominant group and the subordinate group, [that] exists within each of those categories. And the world organizes itself to provide access, privilege and opportunity to the dominant group member, and oppression to the subordinate group member.

Consequential of such grouping, John remarks that “[either] you have a certain access to opportunity or certain oppression around your access to opportunity.”  Her theoretical framework and methodology for how she then works as an agent of change in supporting stakeholders in examining and understanding social, ethnic, racial, and cultural issues have made indelible impressions on John. For him, she provides an exemplary template of consultant work with an emphasis on self-reflection, examination of social and cultural dynamics, and working collaboratively with others in pursuing institutional change.  Accordingly, her work informs his work in transforming schools and his model of consultation.  John employs her theories within his work with urban schools to help stakeholders recognize how cultural and social variables come into play within their own school setting and impact it.

Recognizing he could catalyze change on larger scales, Dr. Jenkins pursued positions with more executive duties and managerial responsibilities.  First, in 1999 he completed his NYS Certificate in Supervision and Administration. Then, he served two years as an Assistant Principal in two Yonkers public schools. In this new capacity, he created opportunities  for students to receive public recognition for their academic achievement and citizenship, such as through school-wide assemblies. He provided in-school support for students by developing and participating within a mentorship program for at-risk students.

John as Assistant Principal at Roosevelt School.
John as Assistant Principal at Roosevelt High School.

While Assistant Principal, Dr. Jenkins’ time was most invested in addressing and fulfilling students’ social needs. His biggest commitment was furthering the district-wide initiative by addressing in particular problematic dynamics between teachers and students, “[h]elping students learn how to best advocate for themselves in conflicts with teachers.” He noticed there remained racial tensions between the teachers and students, and thus committed to improving such dynamics by facilitating teachers in changing their paradigms and constructs about exactly who are their students.  “Many of the students were angry and upset, and the teachers were angry and upset with them. They (the teachers) did not understand that the high school students are young adults, and they have their own perceptions of what they need, and they can’t just be told what to do. They’re not children.” On the other side of the equation, he empowered students with language and communication tools to advocate for themselves.  “I found myself having to help students learn how to articulate their needs, wants and challenges to teachers so teachers could be more responsive.”   Yet this facilitation made for contention at times, particularly with some faculty.  While some teachers appreciated his coaching of students, others saw his efforts as subversive, misinterpreting his empowerment of students as teaching them “to dismantle the power structure in the school.”  But in all, he attributes being an assistant principal with refining his skills in working directly with adults and to lead schools.

A Trifecta of Aspirations

While Dr. Jenkins was at a pinnacle of success as a leader, he also was at an intersection facing critical decisions about where next to go. His aspirations of transitioning from teacher to leader, pursuing a doctoral degree, and creating his own consulting company would necessitate deep clarification. Going forward, he would need to be real clear on what he wanted to achieve, why he wanted to achieve it, and the best steps to actualize these achievements, without being at the expense of his physical energy or mental health.  Yet there is a saying that if you honor your calling, the universe will meet you where you are. So it met John to mentor him through this potentially tumultuous junction.

The pursuit of a doctorate was activated by his grandmothers. His maternal grandmother gave him a graduation card saying “Excel. Excel. Excel.” John interpreted this message as her beckoning him to acquire his bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees.  Then years later, out of the blue, his paternal grandmother passed him a note in church, asking him to get his doctorate.  Ever respectful of his elders, he complied.  While in Yonkers he received additional validation from the living examples of two men of color. They were Dr. Andre Hornsby, the first African-American Superintendent of Yonkers, and Dr. Fred Hernandez, the principal of Roosevelt High School at the time John worked there.  Witnessing these two men possessing doctorates made John think he could too. So in 1999, while an Assistant Principal, he enrolled into the New York University’s Department of Educational Administration to complete his Doctorate of Education.

“My experience at NYU was life changing.” The only male student of color in his entire cohort, it brought him face-to-face with his own vulnerabilities of being a student.

I definitely felt like I was in over my head. I sat in those small intimate classrooms of 7-10 students and felt as if I was not smart enough or capable enough to do the work. I realized for the first time that there were quite a number of things that I was just not exposed to or prepared for. Reading critical theories and research and writing my own arguments, etc. were all so new to me.

Yet this multi-layered uneasiness gave rise to John recognizing his potential, and with this epiphany came renewed effort and commitment.  It was being “resilient and focused and choosing a research topic on African-American middle school boys [that] helped me move through and I ended up being the first person in my cohort to finish.” His efforts were recognized by the school as well.  “The department chose me to speak to other ED students about how to be focused and successfully navigate through the doctoral experience.”  John also credits his dissertation advisor, Dr. Terry Astuto, as modeling and providing an example of how an educator supports a learner.  “My dissertation advisor was an amazing supportive advocate and colleague and really taught me how an educator should advocate for his or her students and work with them to achieve high standards.” Her work “became a model of how I taught my students and taught teachers to advocate and support their students as well.”

Graduating with Doctorate of Education from New York University, 2003.
Graduating with Doctorate of Education from New York University, 2003.

Harkening to his own experiences of attending urban schools and teaching within them, John chose the topic of African-American boys and their middle school expectations. “I chose to study African-American boys in their middle school context to learn more about how they interpret their school quality and experiences.” John believed that he “had an obligation to reinform myself and informs other educators about what they needed to improve their school experiences.” He was tired of “all of the stats that show that African American boys were at risk and endangered and failing but there were no solutions.” His case study helped him articulate “that African American boys in middle school wanted rigorous instruction, high quality teachers who cared, and curriculum that was relevant to their needs.”

Concurrent with his doctoral program, John became the principal of several New York City and Yonkers public schools.  Each experience would hone his skills as a leader, as well as reveal the places within his leadership he would need to grow.  The years that followed situated him learning how to support schools under pressure, dealing with district-based political wrangling, innovating approaches to school leadership, and venturing into working within the world of charter schools.  The catastrophe of September 11th, 2001, occurred with John as a new principal of Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Yonkers,  thrusting him not only into the new role of running a school for the first time but also helping and supporting the mending of an entire community too.  Following this event, wrangling between the superintendent and district occurred, whereby newly hired principals were caught in the crossfire, with them having to accept a substantial pay cut if they wanted to remain principal. John left and sought new leadership opportunities. He was recommended by his former superintendent for a principal position in the Bronx, and for two years served as principal there in two middle schools. In his second middle school, the NYC Department of Education piloted an innovative model, testing out the benefits of co-principalship and collaborative leadership.  While the opportunity was appealing, John began to feel the compounding weight of the school’s needs, the demanding investment embedded within a dual-leadership position, completing graduate work and launching his consultant business, and left at the end of the school year.

Yet it was the needs of a failing middle school, and an opportunity to participate in the charter school community, that inspired John in 2003 to pursue and accept the position of principal at the Community Partnership Charter School in Brooklyn.  Founded by parents in Fort Greene, in partnership with the Beginning with Children Foundation, the vision for the school was to provide an unprecedented opportunity for parents and educative stakeholders to collaborate in a holistic approach to educating, serving and supporting students. However, shortly after opening the school stood to lose its charter.   “It was really high stakes and when I joined I was the 3rd leader of the school in 3 years.” Turning the school around was a “tall order for a new principal.” Though under extreme pressure, he deemed his priorities as working “to stabilize things, establish routines for safety and [create] a strong school community.” Through his two years of leadership and transformative efforts, integrating involvement from “dedicated staff and amazing parent body,” the school’s charter was renewed for five years, a rare occurrence.  John appreciated “the autonomy of being able to make my own choices and decisions about instruction and programs.” “I was able to really do what we felt was right for our students.”

John’s other contribution to the charter school movement is serving as a founding board member and chair of the International Leadership Charter School in the Bronx.  For three years he “support[ed] the leader in establishing a high-quality high-performing high school for students of color.” In 2012, after only being open for six years, ILCS was ranked #7 of the top ten high schools in New York City. In 2013, the school was recognized by U.S. News and World Report, making its list of “Best High Schools.”

An insightful observation that John made during his interview was the belief that each of his career experiences has been in service not only to that specific position, but as preparation for the one to come.

 [T]he cycle has taught me is that at each level of my professional career, I am never doing the work that is only about that piece of my career. I am doing the work that is preparing me for what I need for the next career ahead, particularly when I am experiencing things that are new, that are challenging, that push me, I know I am experiencing them as a capacity builder to do the work at the next level, and that I need to ride it out, learn how to ride those rough places out in a way that I had not been able to do before in my career.

While discussing his several principalships, he shared that he carried around feelings of remorse, feeling at times as if he abandoned and deserted kids that needed him the most.  Although believing he made the best decisions he could for himself, and not regretting doing so, he looks over the shoulder of his career with contrition.  He shared that he carried this indictment of his performance around for almost a decade, until assuming the position of Regional Director at School Leaders Network, which gave him a different opportunity to harness his regretful reflections. During a training in which he facilitated principals in reflecting on their leadership over time, John created a leadership journey timeline of his own career as a model. In the process, he came to an epiphany that his own  frontline experiences could be used in service to supporting principals currently on that same frontline, and the sharing of his experiences could benefit them.  This reflective opportunity proved redeeming and restorative for John, as he would amalgamate his experiences to be in service to other school leaders in the years to come.

The ethos of family first resounds strongly in John’s beliefs and actions, even if at sacrifice of self.  After completing his dissertation in 2003, two life changing events occurred. John was married, and later that year expected his first child.  He sought ways to further his career aspirations while also expanding sources of revenue to support his growing family.  So John pursued opportunities to do consulting work and teaching at the post-secondary level.  These pursuits would later inform his future professional endeavors. Consulting work granted him access to discussing with school leaders their visions for their schools, and working collaboratively with them and stakeholders to employ tools and resources that actualized that vision.  Teaching on a college/university level gave John access to being an agent of change within education. It provided him access and opportunity to educating and enlightening the horizons of new teachers and administrators entering the profession.

John and wife, Renee
John and wife, Renee.

From 2000 to 2006, John was an adjunct professor in Bergen County Community College’s Department of Literature and Composition, Mercy College’s New Teacher Residency Program and Department of Speech and Communication, and New York University’s Department of Administration, Leadership and Technology.  He taught courses in administration/supervision, educational philosophy, English composition and oral communication.  John explains the ethos and rationale underlying his work with college students:

My chief goals were to help my students see the challenges, gifts and diversity of the student populations they were working with and not shy away from either of these things. I openly shared my journey as a student born and raised in the South Bronx and helped them to understand that they were the conduit and advocate to limitless life possibilities for their students. I did this by exposing them to theories of Quadrant Behavior and dominant and subordinated group memberships. We discussed privilege and oppression and I helped them to discover that they had to actively help their students break through barriers that had been constructed for them by society. I got them excited by sharing that education (their roles) was a key tool in shattering those barriers. I helped them learn tools and strategies to be able to communicate with families and students as advocates from an asset-based perspective and teach students to be strong academes and advocate for themselves as well.

As part of their “real world” experiences, he conducted site visits of his administration interns and teaching candidates in their field placements, providing them critical feedback about their performances. He supported new teachers through both instruction and field work. In this capacity he could be of service to the field of education by working to shape the educators emerging from it, and how they in turn would educate others.  This juncture continued to cultivate and advance his skill sets in preparing and assisting stakeholders working in urban school systems.

John worked for several education-based consultative companies, learning different models to address school needs and implement change.  He reflects what this line of work taught him about the importance of relationship building and how best to do so:

The chief asset of [these] experiences was that they built my capacity to work more closely with adults and develop stronger one-to-one coaching skills. These skills helped me to become a better listener and to assess problems in schools authentically through the lived experiences of the people in them. I also increased my tool kit of knowledge with the programs offered by Ramapo and Kaplan. They also helped me to learn how to balance my emotion[al] involvement as an external consultant so that I was not overly judgmental or engaged in an organization such that it hindered my ability to effectively coach.

As a learning and development consultant for Kaplan K-12 Services, he facilitated NYC training teachers in test readiness strategies for city and state assessments, provided coaching and modeling, and developed training materials. As a Coach for Ramapo for Children, Inc., he supported NYC school leaders and teachers in implementing effective classroom management strategies. He also became a diversity instructor with the National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied and Behavioral Sciences (the organization who supported Yonkers’ diversity initiatives). His work spanned contributing in designing curriculum and co-facilitating training sessions. Working as a consultant helped John grow and develop his skill set supporting school leadership and providing professional development.  Yet working as a consultant also spawned within him the creating of his own consulting company.

Unlike the model of consulting where a pre-packaged program is simply delivered and administered, the Jenkins Learning and Development Group was created to provide customized on-site support specific to the needs of a school and its staff, involving stakeholders in the process of change.  John’s experience as a diversity instructor with The Diversity Facilitation Certificate Program under NTL and lead by Cathy Royal of Royal Consulting (the organization who supported the Yonkers initiative), inspired him to open his own consulting company, and shaped his consulting model.  He details below the theoretical and experiential underpinnings of his work, and shares examples:

[I] saw a tremendous need for professional learning in schools that was rooted in both pedagogy and social justice. I began by just working with and for principals I knew and they remain my chief clients today. My work helps to build a sense of confidence, commitment and capacity in teachers and leaders to educate all students and develop all staff to be most effective in their roles….Building all of these skills allows me to go into schools and literally work in a seamless way from all angles in the system to achieve maximum impact. Through coaching I am able to help leaders and their teachers cut through the challenges and get to the opportunities they have to improve their practice and impact their students learning and take healthy, productive actionable next steps.

Using a participatory action research model, John discusses with clients their mutual interest and need for collaboration, determines the scope of work, gathers data, engages and inform key participants, decides priorities, mobilizes energy for change, targets ways to build capacity, validates changes, evaluates progress and determines next steps.  He has worked for such clients as Youth Build USA, Bronx Lab School, Liberation Diploma Plus High School, and Eagle Academy for Young Men. Work has included facilitating whole staff retreats, designing and implementing project-based learning tasks, facilitating leadership teams, developing professional learning communities, creating protocols for classroom walkthroughs and providing feedback,  mentoring new teachers, instructional coaching, and writing concept papers for new school proposals,. Services also span the onsite teaching of courses; examples of courses taught are Effective Communication with Acting Out Students, Planning for Quality Instruction, Classroom Management and Student Learning, and Improving Writing Instruction in the Classroom.

Coming Full Circle, Transforming the Landscape of Leadership

In 2006 John joined Diploma Plus as an Instructional Manager. Servicing urban students who are over-aged and under-credited, this position afforded John the chance to harness and amalgamate his wealth of knowledge and experience as an educator, administrator, instructor and consultant.  For the next 3 ½ years he systemically supported networks of schools on both micro and macro levels.  John’s success lay in creating intimate relationships with principals where they could talk in detail about their visions and aspirations for their schools, while also divulging their concerns, hesitations, and challenges.  As he does within his consulting work, John’s orientation to supporting schools is to foster each principal’s analytic and introspective processes, to deeply reflect upon their strengths and areas needing improvement, and strategize around what is needed to actualize their visions for their schools.  He helps them ascertain the ways they are enfranchising stakeholders in having a vested interest and stake in their school.  After the development of a work plan, he hits the ground running.

As an instructionally- and systemically-oriented coach, he supported Diploma Plus schools and networks in implementing the Diploma Plus model. This implementation spanned one-on-one coaching of teachers in instructional methods and curriculum planning, supporting community-based organizations in integrating their support services within the school day, helping administration create measures of success and assess performance, etc.  Consequential to his efforts, his support of school leaders and their schools, several achieved high grades on their yearly evaluations, as well as accolades from district leaders.  Other than team meetings with the local NYC DP staff, John could rarely be found in the office or sitting at a desk.  On any given day, or night, John would traverse several boroughs to be constantly accessible to school leaders and staff.  He was also the informal coordinator of the new school process, where parties interested in opening DP schools would meet with him throughout the proposal development and preparation process.  His support would encompass vetting potential leaders and school teams, supporting selected teams in the writing of their proposals, compiling necessary artifacts, assembling stakeholders to support the potential school, and preparing them for their presentation and defense with the NYC Department of Education. And this is not including the work and support he provided to the Diploma Plus organization on a local and national level. Such support encompassed facilitating summer institutes in training new staff and faculty in the model, meeting with the national team to plan and implement several initiatives, and developing tools and materials for the national network of schools. As well, the position required him to regularly interface with the city’s department of education, one of the largest in the nation.  Duties spanned serving as a liaison between the NYC school network and the Office of New Schools.

As an instructional program manager, John transferred his skills of supporting schools internally, to doing so across local and national networks.  Although this two-tiered approach of supporting schools was new to John, he was able to broaden his emerging skill set of supporting schools systemically.  It was then he sought a specific professional position that afforded him an opportunity “to build his skills as a leader of leaders.”  In 2010 he became New York City Regional Director for the School Leaders Network, and in 2013, was promoted to Vice President of Programs.

John at School Leaders Network Event, 2012
John at School Leaders Network Event, 2012

Dr. Jenkins remains passionate in his work with instructional and administrative staff because they are an under-served, under-supported groups.  “There’s still a system where principals either sink or swim…the good rise to the top and the ‘bad,’ well they drown, and ‘they’ believe that’s how leaders work. You’re a good leader or not a good leader.”  The extreme focus on school performance, yet lack of investment within principals in particular, troubles him.  “Little attention is given to building the capacity of principals to create strong communities of learners within their schools.” “I don’t think there is enough of a focus on developing leaders while they are in their position from school districts.  And as a result, it is creating large scale failure, particularly in large urban schools that serve students who have been underserved in their education.” John sees the lack of support provided to school leaders having an exponential effect on students, particularly within schools with students of high need.  “The things we know that are happening in highly performing schools are not translating to the schools that are struggling because there is not a real consistent support in place for principals.”   Dr. Jenkins elaborates on this correlation between leadership and student success:

So the more challenges that the students are dealing with in their ability to learn, the more equipped the teachers have to be.  And usually the more ill-equipped the teachers are because they are [not working within] institutions that do not structure their curriculum around dealing with students who have not been appropriately prepared.” “So you have this combination of teachers who are least prepared, being paired with students who are least prepared, and they are [both] led by principals who are least prepared . . .That coupling happens most often in school districts with students of color.

John’s observation and experience has been that the “fixing” of struggling schools is in the pre-packaged dissemination of supports on the teacher and/or student level. Yet John believes it is the support of the leadership that is pivotal to the success of these stakeholders.

People are trying to fix it on the student level with all these interventions . . . [and there is] a huge market on that…And then you have a lot of teacher preparation programs saying ‘We can prepare teachers better than other people.’ However, there is not enough focus on developing the leader that will be able to take all those great programs, and all those better prepared teachers, and create communities where they are working in tandem to accelerate student achievement.  That’s why we keep having consistent failure, because at the top of the chain the leadership is not situated or prepared in a way to use all these new programs, all these new resources, to support the students who are struggling.

This disproportionate dynamic particularly troubles him regarding struggling schools, which is why he invests his life in supporting them.

John has also noticed that when schools within a given neighborhood or district experience similar depravity in the support of school leaders, the impairment and damage to student learning and achievement are exponential.  “[O]ften, all those schools are all in the same area. And if you have no leadership above that, to effectively develop those leaders [of those schools] together, so they can actually support each other,” then you can’t have success.  “A school cannot rise above its leadership.”

John notices that throughout several schools across several states that support of principals ends after the first 2 years, resulting, regrettably and too often, in “iterative, abominable failure.” The result? Collateral damage of teachers and students feeling  “disenfranchised and disappointed.”  This is why he feels his work and initiatives with SLN are so significant and meaningful.

John at School Leaders Network Event, 2012, 2
John at School Leaders Network Event, 2012.

In his current work with principals, John helpes them build their capacities to be “leaders of learners within their schools.”  “All of the current research is pointing to that successful schools are those that get their teachers and other educators to take on equal ownership to the movement of the school and the students as the principal does.” He is trying to help principals move away from the top-down, do-as-I-say approach to leadership. John helps principals to be reflective practitioners, regularly engaging in cycles of introspection and application, operating as agents of change and capacity builders within their schools and school communities.  Through cohort meetings, on-site visitations, one-on-one mentorship and staff development, he situates principals to regularly investigate and interrogate their effectiveness.  He puts them through a protocol of inquiry, to contemplate such things as,

this is how I am structuring the needs of my staff, how I should be targeting my goals and objectives, this is how I should be providing effective coaching and feedback with teachers about their practice, this is how I should be empowering teachers to take this work and move it forward, this is what a real adult learning community looks like, this is how I build trust with my staff, this is how I help them believe I have the capacity to do the same work that I am asking them to do, this is how I show value to them, this is how I root for them to support them and energize them when they feel discouraged.

John empowers principals so they act “as a group of adults learning, sharing, and pushing each other,” and with that same impetus, “take back to their schools and create those same communities and schools.” He believes this is critical work for principals.

Dr. John R. Jenkins is a restless educator who vigilantly continues to inform and shape educational possibilities for several stakeholders, from student to administrator.  Unperched from title, he ebbs and flows with the needs of the times, culling his skills to effectuate opportunities for urban education.  Expansive in reach, and cataclysmic in impact, his exertions as an educator defy his modesty.

The Jenkins Family. John, Renee, ReJohn, Nejee, Janae
The Jenkins Family. John, Renee, Nejee, ReJohn, and Janae

Woman, Wife and Mother: An Evolving Intersection

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I am discovering . . .

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

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

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

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

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

(Artwork: Woman Thinking by Stephanie Clair)

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Motherhood as an Act of Social Justice

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Carriage of Miscarriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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