Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hymn To Working Class New York

As we struggle through the aftermath of the worst storm in New York’s history, my thoughts turn to the first responders- firefighters, police officers, EMS workers- and the role they played in the last great tragedy to strike New York, the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11 The heroism these men and women displayed then, and in our current circumstances, is not a surprise to me. For the fifteen years I spent coaching and running youth programs in Brooklyn in the 80’s and 90’s, civil servants, especially fire fighters, were an integral part of the coaching cohort I interacted with daily, both in my own neighborhood, and throughout Brooklyn and Staten Island, and there was never a doubt in my mind, based on that experience, that they would sacrifice their health, well being and if necessary their lives if called on to rescue people in trouble My relationships with many of these individuals, especially those who represented opposing parishes- in CYO basketball- or opposing teams - in sandlot baseball- was not always easy. They were, like me, stubborn, intimidating, over bearing and fiercely competitive and we had many arguments in the midst of closely contested games. But they were also selflessly devoted to their players, with whom they spend countless hours at games and practices, and whatever their private political or racial attitudes, determined to maintain Brooklyn sports leagues as a place where young people from every neighborhood and racial and ethnic background could find an outlet for their talents. Never did I see any of them participate in, or tolerate, the slightest amount of race baiting from their players and parents, even though some of them came from neighborhoods, such as Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge or Rockaway, then infamous for racial exclusivity. When push came to shove, they as fair as they were loyal, and I never felt the slightest hesitation taking interracial teams from Park Slope into gyms or ball fields in all white neighborhoods because I knew we would always be protected This kind of quiet heroism, I felt, allowed for more dramatic forms of heroism when circumstances called for it. It surprised me not at all that some of my fellow coaches ran up the stairways of the World Trade Center to their death while other people were running down. Not would it surprise me to see their counterparts today, some of whom might be their own children , run into a flooded buildings to save a stranded families or risk being crushed when clearing fallen trees. This is the ethic of loyalty and sacrifice they grew up among, a New York working class tradition passed on from generation to generation among members of the uniformed services and among more than a few teachers, transit workers and other civil servants For quite a while, most of the attention by elected officials and the media have been bestowed upon financial and artistic elites who gravitate to our city. But it is the working people of New York who insure the city’s daily functioning, and in moments of crisis, sacrifice themselves for others so that the city can continue to survive, and when things improve, begin to grow and thrive. We have always lived among quiet heroes, some of them immigrants working three jobs to support families her and in their home countries, some of them teachers and social workers serving people in the face of deep skepticism and contempt from the power that be; some of them members of our uniformed services who are asked to risk their lives for the rest of us. I just wanted to take this moment to show some love for these people and hope you will do so as well Mark Naison

Monday, October 22, 2012

How to Lose a Close Election

Virtually ever poll now has President Obama and Mitt Romney embroiled in an extremely close race. The President could very well win this election; but he could also lose. And if he does lose, I will have to go back to something I first started saying nearly three years- namely that turning off the nation’s teachers with educational policies which silence their voice, and put them under extreme stress, is not only bad for the nation’s schools, it could cripple the President’s re-election efforts. Many of you have read some of my blog posts which made this argument, and have seen the “Dump Duncan” petition which I helped to draft which called on the President to remove his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, incorporate the nation’s teachers into Education Policy discussions, and stop requiring schools to ratchet up the number of standardized tests to receive federal funding. But what you haven’t seen, or known about, is my private efforts to engage people close the president in conversation about teachers disillusionment, efforts which were totally unsuccessful. The President’s inner circle, from what I could gather, refused to bend on support for Race to the Top and Secretary Duncan. They were not only convinced that these policies would end up improving the nation’s schools; they felt that the political gains to be made in terms of support from large funders and influential journalists was far greater than any losses that would occur in terms of teacher enthusiasm, particularly since they knew the largest teachers unions would support the President no matter what policies he chose to implement. Now, at crunch time, when it’s too late to change course, I can tell you that this judgment was a severe miscalculation. Not only have the President’s policies failed to narrow testing gaps by race and class, they have contributed to teacher morale in the nation to be the lowest it has been since pollsters began measuring this trait. But the political consequences may have been even more serious than the educational ones. Most teachers will probably end up voting for the President, but from what I have seen, in both New York and around the nation, they will not be manning phone banks, canvassing in their neighborhoods, travelling to swing states on the weekends and generally giving time, money and energy to assure the President’s election the way they did in 2008. Many pundits attribute the Obama victory in 2008 to an incredibly strong “ground game” composed of huge numbers of volunteers, as well as paid staff, working to get out the vote in battleground states. Many of those individuals, including me, my wife, and many of my friends, were teachers, professors and school administrators. During this election, I know of few, if any educators putting in that kind of heroic effort, almost entirely because they are feeling betrayed by the President, indeed, by the entire Democratic Party, on educational issues, even though they support the President’s positions on reproductive freedom, gay rights, taxation and medical care. There is no way of knowing whether the phenomenon I am describing is will be a “game changer” in this election. But based on what I have seen in 2008 and in this campaign, there is a chance it could be. And if it is, the Obama brain trust has no one to blame but themselves, because they have had ample opportunity to change course, and indeed have been pleased with by many of their supporters to do just that. Mark Naison October 22, 2012

Friday, October 19, 2012

Economic Backdrop to a Grim Election

For the first time in recent memory, there are no signs supporting either candidate on my block in Brooklyn three weeks before a Presidential election ( unless you count the Obama 2008 sticker on my door). This coincides with what I saw in Eastern Long Island earlier in the week. I see little public enthusiasm for either Presidential candidate. But in my judgment, this is not just about the personalities involved. It is that people are so pessimistic about the state of the economy, their own lives, and their own futures that they find the candidates optimistic rhetoric out of touch with reality. *******This is something I see on a daily basis. Almost every week, a former students comes to me in frustration about working at a job they hate, often well below their level of education, where the pay is low and the atmosphere is toxic. Whether they are working in animal shelters, cleaning hotel rooms, doing marketing, or taking a success of temp jobs, they picture they give of the American work place in the private sector is a grim one. And that doesn't include the teachers, who increasingly speak of working in such fear of losing their jobs in they don't raise test scores of children who the stress of poverty is beating down that they are on medication. When you add to this the pressure from student loans, which jobs they have don't allow them to repay, you sense that tens of millions of people in this country are walking on an economic treadmill that is steadily wearing them out. ********And these are people still in the "middle class" albeit just barely. Poor people are increasingly on the edge of homelessness, living doubled and tripled up, sleeping in cars, bouncing between relatives and homeless shelters, often deferring meals or satiating their hunger with chips and soda. ********Given these realities, is it any wonder that most people are voting largely to prevent someone they fear or dislike from being elected, rather than putting a candidate in office who they think will make things better for them *********And given where our economy is not, and where it is heading, such a pessimistic approach makes perfect sense.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

How Whites Encountered "Race" in 1950's Brooklyn

What I remember most, growing up in a Jewish/Italian working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, is not having a language to talk about race when profound changes in the racial order were transforming our lives. Growing up with the Jackie Robinson Dodgers and the rise of rock and roll, I was part of the first generation to have black athletic and musical heroes, but it was never something "we" talked about, not when we were in an all-white group, or when the few black kids in the neighborhood joined us. It was a huge change from our parents generation- who spoke Yiddish or Italian when talking about black people- but not something we knew how to comment on. Then as more blacks moved into our neighborhood, and more whites started moving out, an aura of fear began to envelop the older generation while "we" were confused. What's the big deal?. There were occasional fights in the schools, but for the most part, whites and blacks there were no latinos in our area) got along well enough, especially if we played on the same teams. All this was going on with the Southern civil rights movement as a backdrop on the nightly news, and it seemed a world away. Almost no one made a connection between the sit ins and marches in the South and the confusing, sometime painful integration of Brooklyn neighborhoods. But by the early 60's, it was clear that racial fears among our parents generation were becoming poisonously vivid. My parents began warning me against getting involved in civil rights demonstrations, talked dismissively about most blacks as having low moral standards, all the while extolling Martin Luther King Jr's virtues as a leader. What they said seemed totally out of touch with my realities. I had black teammates and classmates, loved rock and roll, and was intrigued by growing protests against racial discrimination taking place in Northern neighborhoods. But there was no real conversation with my parents. They were all gesture, all threat. The amount of emotion they were devoting to black people as a danger to their world seemed crazy to me.And it just kept building. By the mid 60's, when they moved from increasingly multiracial Brooklyn to an all white portion of Queens they weren't just concerned with race, they were obsessed with it. And when I fell in love with a black woman in my senior year in college they went completely crazy- talked about committing suicide, threatened to disown me. It was elemental. On some level, they thought that black people, by association, had the powerful to nullify their ascent into the middle class and render the sacrifices they had made to get there irrelevant. Which from my point of view was completely crazy. I had just won a four year fellowship to a top doctoral program in history. Was selected as the most valuable player on the Columbia tennis team. My life seemed set, and they thought I had thrown it away. It just showed how powerful the undercurrent of racial fear and animosity was underneath the Northern facade of tolerance. Scary shit! s

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Today, They Drug Boys Like Me

When I read the NY Times article about the psychiatrist in a poor county in Georgia who was drugging kids who do not have ADHD to help them do well in school, I thought “There but for the grace of God go I. I was lucky I was born in 1946 not 1996. They would definitely try to drug a kid like me in a growing number of America’s public schools.” *****I was the kind of kid who drove teachers and parents crazy. I was a good student and a good test taker, so much so that I ended up skipping two grades and was constantly made fun of by other kids in my tough Brooklyn neighborhood, but I was disrespectful to teachers and always getting in fights with other kids, inside and outside of class. My teachers complained to my parents, and my parents constantly threatened to send me to Yeshiva or military school, but somehow the schools I went to managed to cope with me, and other kids like me, most of them boys, without drugging me or expelling me because they knew how to tire me out and challenge me with physical activities and by assigning me responsibilities that today only adults are allowed to do ******Take physical activity. In the elementary school, we had free play before school and during lunch time where we played punch ball, kick ball and tag, running ourselves into exhaustion. We also had gym every day. But that wasn’t all. My elementary school was open 3-5 and 7-9 every day of the week for supervised activity. I used it regularly to play basketball and knock hockey. When you combined all these activities, it was not unusual for me to be engaged in physical activity in and after school two to three hours a day. Not only did this tire me out, making it much easier to sit still and concentrate on lessons, it gave me something to look forward to other than harassing teachers and fighting. I still got I trouble, but only a fraction of the trouble I would have gotten in if I didn’t have all that physical activity. *******But that wasn’t all, when I got to 5th grade, my teacher assigned me to two important student run activities- the audio visual squad- whose responsibility it was to show movies in all the classes and the Safety Patrol, whose responsibility it was to help younger students cross the street. Both of these activities were given to some of the toughest kids in the school and without exception, they rose to the occasion and did their jobs with great responsibility and pride. Today, these responsibilities are paid positions given to school aides and paraprofessionals but in those years, they helped take young people whose leadership skills were often directed negatively and turned them into positive figures in the school community. They certainly helped me ******In junior high, the same dynamic prevailed. Not only did we have gym ever day and play games in the school yard before school and during lunch hour, but we started to have a whole range of organized activities which gave students an outlet for their talents, ranging from a theater program, to school teams to a band and an orchestra. And though the junior high school was not convenient to go to for after school activity because it was out of my neighborhood, I could still play basketball in my elementary school night center, which was right around the corner from my house. Once again, I was engaged in physical activity at least two hours a day, not including the time I spent playing in the school band. ******In New York City today, and a growing number of public schools around the country, the activities that kept me on course have been eliminated or drastically curtailed, either because of budget cuts, professionalization of what were once student responsibilities or because of pressures to raise scores on standardized tests. I can not think of one public school in New York city which offers its students two to three hours of physical activity a day; many are students are lucky if they get thirty minutes. Few schools below the level of high schools have school teams, bands and orchestras; and even less have after school programs both in the after school and evening. *******So what happens to restless, rebellious students from tough neighborhoods, especially boys. Are they given activities which allow them to use their physical energy constructively. Are they given responsibilities which allow them to be positive leaders or make use of their athletic or artistic talents? Increasingly, the answer is no. They are asked to sit still at their desks hour after hour and try to absorb information that often has no visible relevance to their lives and nothing to spark their interests. And if they rebel and act out, as many of them will be prone to do? Or fail to concentrate on preparing for tests? They not only are jeopardizing their own academic futures, they may be threatening the jobs of their teachers and principals and the very fate of their entire school. *******Given how high the “stakes” are on getting them to perform, or conform, two options seem irresistible to teachers and administrators. Getting them to leave the school, which is not always easy, or giving them behavior modifying drugs, which is becoming increasingly prevalent. *******To me, this is a perversion of education and of the health professions. It is a cruel, cynical short cut to producing conformity to a system which systematically is undermining the health of the children trapped in it. I think of the how many children like me there are in Georgia and Texas and Nebraska and California and New York who will never have a chance to realize that the power and energy that lies within them can transform the world around them because they are being drugged into submission. This is personal to me. And I will expose it, and challenge it with every weapon at my command.

If You Can Tell A Nation's Character by Its Schools

"The picture I am getting of the atmosphere in American schools is pretty chilling, especially in high poverty districts. Students being drugged, whether diagnosed with ADHD or not, so they can sit still in class(Georgia); students being forced to carry microchips so their movements can be followed(Texas); parents being arrested or have their children sent to child protective services for excessive truancy( Nebraska) Special needs children forced to sit through and take tests that are developmentally inappropriate (all over the country); Gym, recess, and after school recreation programs turned into test prep ( all over the country). Teachers taking medication for stress because they are terrorized by school officials and fear losing their jobs ( all over the country). THIS is the great success story of Education Reform in the United States? If you can tell a lot about a nation's character by what is going on it its schools, this is a very sad commentary about the United States of America."

Friday, October 5, 2012

Three Recommendations to Imrove Health Conditions in the Bronx

I. In terms of food access, I think we need to have a major investment in urban agriculture, both in vacant lots, and on roves and indoor space using hydroponics. Every school and community organization should be given major financial incentives to create such growing spaces, a nd train local residents in indoor and outdoor farming. Let the Bronx, which has among the highest Obesity rates in the nation, and the most serious Hunger problem, become the national and local center of investment and innovation in urban agriculture. 2. Tens of millions of dollars need to be invested in building new youth centers throughout the borough, and more importantly in insuring that school gymnasiums are used for youth and adult recreation programs in after school hours, roughly from 3 PM to 10 PM. These gymnasiums were once opened 3-5 and 7-9 ever weekday for supervised activity; those programs were cut during the fiscal crisis of the 70’s. They need to be restored. It is a crime that children growing up in NY in the 50’s and 60’s had much better recreation opportunities than they do now! 3. Tens of millions of dollars should be invested in creating youth sports leagues, particularly in soccer, baseball and softball, in Bronx parks, that are free of charge and require nominal fees. Right now, such leagues proliferate in the city’s middle class and wealth neighborhoods, many charging significant fees. They need to be matched in the city’s working class and poor communities

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The President's Puzzling and Depressing Performance

The performance by President Obama last night was puzzling and profoundly depressing. He failed to mention his most important accomplishments, and instead boasted about a program-Race to the Top- which has been an unmitigated disaster! Here are some of the things he might have said, but didn't! "My policies saved this country from a Depression and yours will put it right back into one if they are implemented" "As a result of passing health care, there are tens of millions of people who have access to health care that they wouldn't otherwise have" "When you cut government programs, you elminiate jobs. What makes you think when you fire millions of government workers with your proposed cuts that the private sector will pck up the slack" "Austerity of the kind that you suggest has been imposed in Spain, and in Greece. Is that what you want, riots in the streets? Because that is what you are going to get!" That the president never came close to those things suggest he is planning to move to the right in his second term. Not only is that a losing strategy for this election, it means hard times ahead for working America.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Price of What They Call "Reform" on the Nation's Teachers

Yesterday, I had two conversations with teachers which dramatize to the tragic, perhaps even catastrophic, consequences of what policy makers call "Education Reform" to the Nation's teachers. The first was with a brilliant former student who, after getting her master's degree in education had her morale, and love of teaching totally shattered by a year spent in a K.I.P.P. school. And we are not talking about a sheltered young woman either. We are talking about a black woman, was a great college athlete, a campus leader and a person who lit up every room she entered. She told me she still wants to find ways of empowering young people from the inner city, but wonders whether she can teach again after seeing teachers and students worn down by relentless pressure in a K.I.P.P. school, whose pedagogical methods,, ironically, are held up by many Education Reform advocates, like Jonathan Alter and Paul Tough, as a model for the nation. I that wasn't enough, I then spent an afternoon with a teacher in a Bronx elementary school, threatened with closing by the NYC Department of Education, and who have a difficult principal to boot, who told me that at least 30 teachers in his school are on medication for stress and depression and that some of them have trouble getting out of their cars in the morning to go to class. School closings, it should be noted, are an integral part of the Obama Administration's "Race to the Top" policy and are being implemented in schools districts around the nation as a strategy to allegedly improve educational performance in working class and poor communities. One thing they have definitely done, in schools throughout the Bronx, is ratchet up pressure on teachers to the Nth Degree, to the point that their health is threatened. These two vignettes are but a small example of a drama is being played out all over the country. How students will be empowered as teachers morale is being crushed is a mystery that Education Reforms have yet to satisfactorily explai

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Lessons From My Grandpa Charlie

One of the biggest influence on my life was my Grandfather, Charles Brown. That wasn’t his real name. It was changed when he came over from Russia at age 14 at the turn of the century. Grandpa Charlie, as my cousins and I called him, was a formidable presence. Only 5’6” inches tall, he was even, in his late 60’s, nearly 200 pounds of pure muscle. Rumors of his physical strength surrounded. That he could swim a mile out to sea from the beach at Rockaway. That he could bend a steel bar with his bare hands. That he was a strong arm man for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union who beat strikebreakers senseless. That he could go to work and then dance all night If you had an image of Jews as weak, scholarly and law abiding, Grandpa Charlie broke the mold. He spoke English haltingly and could barely read and write in any language. He had, in his youth, been a bartender and bootlegger, before eventually setting into his full time occupation as a presser in the garment trades. And Grandpa Charlie was a dandy. He rarely went outside except in hot weather, without a jacket and tie, where he sat in a folding chair or stood on the corner with the other retired me And Grandpa Charlie was dark, so dark that when students or colleagues saw his picture, they said things like “Is that Paul Robeson” or “Is that some guy who played for the Howard football team?” But tough as he was, Grandpa Charlie never showed me anything but love. He always gave me a pat on the shoulder and a piece of candy when he saw me, and would sit with me for hours watching television without saying a word. He never asked me about my grades, never quizzed me about me teachers, never talked about what was on the news. Unlike almost everyone else in my family, he just let me be. And he cooked. Oh how he could cook! Fried steak with onions. Fried onions with chicken fat, cooked to a crisp. Huge thick French fries which he made fresh for me and my cousins, topped with sea salt, ten pounds of them in a sitting. And we all grew up big and strong, each of us reaching 6 feet and more than 200 pounds I learned something about love from Grandpa Charlie. That it could thrive without words, in acts of kindness and generosity. And through food. And he also taught me about courage. When Grandpa Charlie was hospitalized with terminal cancer, through some act of superhuman courage, he pried open a window 4 feet off the ground and jumped out an a 8 floor hospital window, saving him and his family months of excruciating pain. Some people were embarrassed. I was proud. Grandpa Charlie died as he had lived. On his terms In some respects, I could not be more different than he was I am professor, an intellectual, and author, a person who cherishes ideas, who lives through books. But I am also a person who sees value in the unspoken, in the multiple ways people give and receive love, And I cherish the example of courage and fortitude that he left for me, and the model he provided of the dignity and power of working people who created a life for themselves with few of the world’s advantages. Whenever I fight for justice, Grandpa Charlie is right there with me. And with him in my corner you can be sure I won’t back down.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Letter to Maggie Gyllenhaal RE "Won't Back Down"

Just posted this on Maggie Gyllenhaal's Fan Page: I regret to say that you have lost the respect of many people who admired you by not only taking a role in "Won't Back Down" but then defending the movie's message. It pains me a great deal to say this, because I knew your mother when we were both in college and because you spoke at an art auction of the school where my wife Liz is principal, but taking in a role in a film financed by Philip Anchutz and supporting legislation supported by the American Legislative Exchange Council is something that no progressive person I know can understand. Worse yet, your movie has made teachers around the country feel more embattled, more attacked, at a time when teacher morale is the lowest in recorded history. This is a time when people of conscience should be standing with teachers against powerful interests who are trying to privatize our public education. Unfortunately, you have stood with the billionaires against the teachers, while seeming to speak in behalf of parents. The only hope for public education is for parents and teachers to unite as they did in the Chicago Teachers Strike. Supporting parent trigger legislation which pits parents against teachers is exactly the wrong move at this historic moment. Please tell your mother, Naomi, what I just said. And tell her to contact me if she wants to talk