On the Road Learning

07/16/2013
Leaving the Delta

Leaving the Delta (Photo credit: joseph a)

I am writing this post from Birmingham, Alabama. I usually write from my home in the NYC suburbs. I’ve been on the road since July 1st, visiting the deep south, a part of the country I’ve never seen before. I’ve got five more days before I reintroduce myself to my wife, our son and our dog and sleep in my bed again.

The impetus for this trip was my acceptance into the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) workshop with the intriguing title “The Most Southern Place on Earth: Music, Culture and History in the Mississippi Delta. The workshop is held at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi (Mississippi has to be the most fun-to-type word in the English language!).

I have visited Charlottesville, VA, Asheville, NC, Memphis, TN, and now Birmingham. Next stop in Knoxville, TN, then Richmond, VA before heading home.

I am learning an incredible amount, so much so that I’m having a hard time processing it all. I’ve toured Monticello, Graceland and William Faulkner’s house. I saw thousands of acres of corn, soybeans and rice growing in the Mississippi Delta where cotton was king for decades. I’ve been to art museums in Asheville and Birmingham, the Cotton Museum and the Stax Records museums in Memphis, and Vulcan Park in Birmingham. I stood on the balcony in Memphis where Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and looked out at that balcony from the window next to the one the shooter used. I visited Fannie Lou Hamer’s gravesite, a Chinese cemetery, a Black cemetery, what may or may not be where Robert Johnson is buried and the likely crossroads at which he is alleged to have sold his soul to the devil so he could be a great blues guitarist.

I visited Po Monkey’s, the last rural juke joint in America and met Monkey, the farm hand who owns it. I listened to two musical lectures about the blues, then went to Red’s Lounge, a neighborhood blues club in Clarksdale, MS to hear the real thing.

I’ve tasted  baked catfish, fried catfish, fried sauerkraut, fried okra, fried pickles, koolikles – pickles marinated in cherry Koolaid, and more styles of BBQ ribs than I knew existed.

I visited one of the last Jewish synagogues in the Delta and met the man struggling to keep it alive. I saw the 16th St. Baptist Church where a bombing in 1963 took the lives of four young girls and spent a couple of hours touring the Civil Rights Institute across the street.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned:

Fried pickles are better than Koolaid pickles, but Koolaid pickles are better than you might imagine they are.

The Mississippi Delta is not only the most southern place on earth, it is also the flattest.

People in the south are, at least on the surface, much more friendly than those in NY. They are warm, gracious and generous.

Mississippi has more Black elected officials than any other state, but there are still those who would like the segregation laws reinstated.

Many cities in the south put a lot of effort into making their downtowns beautiful with parks, plantings, sculpture and the like. Memphis is not one of them.

When it rains in the south, it REALLY rains. I’ve driven through downpours where I would have pulled off the road if there had been somewhere to pull off, and I’ve walked through downpours where I could not see where my next step would take me.

My PLN (PRofessional Learning Network) was, once again, a great resource. I’ve had people show me around, recommend activities, suggest dining options and otherwise guide my travels.

The blues did not originate in Chicago, Memphis or anywhere between those two points.

I learned what a diddley bow is and how to make one. I am going to make one for my school library. I have no talent to play it, though.

Farming is hard work. So is steelmaking.

Independent bookstores are hanging in there in Asheville and in Oxford, Mississippi.

Asheville is very dog-friendly. It is also very gay-friendly. If there is a connection, it is called love.

Downtown ballparks are more fun than those not downtown. Memphis’s AutoZone Park is beautiful. I’m also going to games in Knoxville and Richmond, but those stadiums are not downtown.

During an ill-advised five-mile drive down a gravel road cutting through private farmland we saw a lot of corn plots labeled “experimental.” I’m not sure what those experiments are, but they may have produced large aggressive bugs that flew at 15-mph next to my car for almost three miles.

If Mississippi is in need of a state bird, I nominate the dragonfly. Dragonflies are cool and the Delta is the dragonfly capitol of the world.

Apparent;y the Delta State University bookstore never thought of placing their school’s mascot on a cook’s apron even though that would seem to be the perfect place to show off the “fighting okra.”

The south apparently does not believe in vegetables. The most common side dish with BBQ seems to be white bread, with french fries running a close second.

Grits get tiring after a while, but biscuits are a great excuse for having peppery sausage gravy.

I am sure that over time these superficial learnings and impressions will be augmented or replaced by deeper understandings. This will happen because I will have the time to process and reflect upon my experiences. But as I sit here in my hotel, with my stomach growling for dinner, I feel like what I am sure many of my students feel. Overwhelmed, tired, hungry and thirsty.

It is good to be reminded that our students need to be fed, to have their thirsts slaked, to have their own PLN to show them love and support, and to have time to process all that their sponge-like brains soak up.

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How I Made Leaving School Work. Maybe You Can, Too

05/21/2011
Looking south from Top of the Rock, New York City

Image via Wikipedia

As I sit here thinking about my own experience, forty-plus years ago, deciding high school was not the place for me, I wonder whether anyone anyplace other than where I was could have done what I did as successfully at that time. And I think how much easier it would be now.

Chinatown, Manhattan, New York City 2009 on Pe...

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I grew up in Manhattan and in late 1967, when I left school for the first time at age 14, Manhattan was, for me, a 12 mile long, 1.5 mile wide educational experience. A brief subway or bus ride could deliver me to any one of dozens of museums of art, natural history, craft or occupation. Or I would emerge from underground into what seemed like a different city where the people spoke Chinese, Italian, Spanish or Ukrainian and the foods in the restaurants were the best kind of spoon-fed learning.

McCarthy button 1968

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Eugene McCarthy was emboldening and enlisting young people to become the driving force behind his idealistic campaign for the Presidency and against the Vietnam War. I had already worked on some political campaigns and, when the cold January winds blew, the NYC campaign headquarters at Columbus Circle became my second home; second even though I spent more time there than at my family’s apartment where I went only to sleep and shower.

Bronx High School of Science, Bronx, NYC, USA

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New York City was made for the learner and I suspect it was only because I was here that I could realize, in retrospect, that going to classes at my two high schools, one considered at that time one of the two or three best in the nation, actually interfered with my learning.

I’m not sure, but I suspect that had I been living in Oklahoma, Iowa, Arizona or suburban Connecticut my experience would have been radically different.

It would also be radically different today because thanks to the Internet and all the wonderful tools that have become available because of it, a fifteen-year-old in Kansas, Kankakee or Kalamazoo could explore even more of the world from their bedroom than I could from the heart of the world when I was fifteen. It is truly an amazing thing that today anyone, almost anywhere, can learn almost anything her or she might want to know about, almost immediately and mostly for free. They would not even have to pay the subway fare I had to fork over.

There is, of course, a qualitative and experiential difference between looking at a picture of a pierogi and popping one in one’s mouth, or walking the streets on foot instead of through Google Earth, but one learns what one can the way one has available.

I am not arguing that the average, or even the exceptional, young teen has the ability to learn anything on their own or that they would even realize what they might be able to learn. I had guides, mentors, interlocutors and others who would steer me, challenge me, and teach me. I relied on those around me, but today those people can be anywhere in the world.

School does not work for everyone, but neither does leaving it. We each have our individual paths. Still, if one is not learning in school and is willing to take the risk and make the effort, the opportunity to get a broader, deeper and more interesting education is richer now than it has even been.

And that is a magnificent thing.

This post originated as an essay for The Teenagers Guide for Opting Out, Not Dropping Out, of School

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Echoes of the Ancient and Tomorrow

03/28/2010
Seder Plate
Image by Daniel Greene via Flickr

It’s been this way for years

Monday night I’m participating in a Seder at my best friend’s apartment and the following night he and his wife will do the same at my house.

My first Seder was 40 years ago when a group of socially aware and politically active teenagers gather to celebrate the “Freedom Seder.”

Although my grand parents were all Jewish, I was not raised in the Jewish tradition.

dying easter eggs
Image by PaperNest via Flickr

My family did not celebrate the rites of any religion, but we adopted the symbols of many.

At this time of year we would dye Easter eggs that my parents would put into little baskets along with fake grass, jelly beans, a chocolate bunny and, often, a dreidel. There would be a box of matzah in the house.

My maternal grandmother would come over to cook a meal featuring homemade gefilte fish, and chicken (bones and all) in a soup filled with carrots, celery and onion. She would also make a peppery, oniony potato kugel so dense it did not dissolve even when Grandma served it sitting in the middle of the soup bowl. (I have never found anyone else whose relatives put the kugel in the soup. If yours did please let me know)

P1040074.JPG

Image by PlaysWithFood via Flickr

While my father was still living with us we’d also have a happy Buddha or two somewhere nearby.

My parents had largely rejected the religion of their parents. That’s why we annually had a beautiful Christmas tree with hand-blown glass ornaments from in front of which we open presents before eating our Chanukah gelt, chocolate coins with Hebrew lettering on them.

There were symbols all over the place, but no one ever told us what they meant or connected them to any particular religion. If we wanted to know we were directed to several of the hundreds of books in living room.

Instead of deities, doctrine, ritual, and the other accoutrements of religions, we saw models of compassion, sharing, brotherhood, acceptance, and what I have come to identify as an echo of the ancient Hebrew sense of tikkun olam, acting to heal the world.

Earth
Image by Satoru Kikuchi via Flickr

Despite the lack of notions of God or Gods of any kind in our upbringing, our home rituals, such as they were, carried echoes of their ancient origins even if they lacked their rigor.

What we do as parents and teachers also echoes through generations.

When we teach our children, as parents and in our work in schools, our actions carry more weight than our words.

The same applies to our learning as adults. We act the ways we see modeled by others.

Collaborative principals create collaborative teachers.

School leaders who rule by coercion and threat get teachers who do the same.

Tomorrow night, and for the following eight days, I will celebrate freedom even more than I do on all days. Others will celebrate the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

When I return to work I will model leadership, collaboration, trust, ethics, taking responsibility for my actions and responsibility to heal the world.

I wish I could be around to see how that echoes through my students’ lives.

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The Antidote to Burnout

02/14/2010
Homemade Chocolate Chip Cookies
Image by windy_sydney via Flickr

Something incredible happened Friday.

It was the kind of thing that makes teaching so rewarding.

Hell, it’s the kind of thing teachers live for.

The most difficult student I teach did something that made my jaw drop.

And it was good.

It was very good.

She gave me a small bag with two homemade cookies.

My relationship with this girl was so bad that I would not have eaten the cookies for fear that they were somehow dangerous to me.

I ate the cookies. They were delicious.

I ate the cookies because of the note that came with them.

“Mr. Black – thank you for trying to teach me and improve my behavior.”

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Get Fat For Haiti!

01/23/2010
Bake sale table
Image by Holy Outlaw via Flickr

In early October people began noticing that in late June the NYC Department of Education banned most bake sales in schools.

There were exceptions: once a month the PTA could hold a bake sale, but not during lunch periods. In other words, if you wanted to sell cupcakes to kids you had to haul them out of class.

Oh, you could also hold all the bake sales you want after 6PM on any day. Go figure. My school closes at 6PM.

The DOE promulgated the crackdown on cupcakes in an at-best ham-handed attempt to reduce the amount of fat and sugar in student diets.

Apparently the yearly lessons on the food pyramid were not sticking in student heads as much as the daily doses of chips, brownies and Skittles were sticking out student bellies.

I’m not writing this essay to claim that allowing students more time for physical activities such as gym classes and running around the schoolyard during recess would do more to promote student health and reduce waistlines faster than policing pies.

That is far too obvious to bring up.

And I’m not writing this essay to note that many schools are so overcrowded that their gyms are used for classroom space, or that many principals have eliminated gym time so that students are able to receive more minutes of the precious math and language arts test preparation that passes as instruction in many schools.

I’ll save that diatribe for another time.

I’m also not writing to say that my school gives all students gym class at least twice a week, has two certified physical education teachers, and gets kids outside during recess whenever the weather allows it, even though we do all of that.

No, I want to talk about Haiti and the DOE’s reaction to the death, injuries, famine, homelessness and other horrible results of the recent massive earthquake there.

The DOE said it was okay to have bake sales again, even during lunch periods.

But only as long as the proceeds were sent to agencies participating in the relief efforts in Haiti.

Yes, boys and girls, the DOE says you have to find other ways to finance class trips, band instruments, sports uniforms, and all the other things schools once provided.

But its okay to get fat for Haiti.

There’s something particularly disturbing about the DOE’s idea of students swallowing sweets while desperately hungry Haitians swallow dust.

Meanwhile, at my school, students raised over a thousand dollars in three days just by going from class to class and soliciting donations.

And they got exercise by striding down our long halls and climbing up and down stairs.

I think they could teach the DOE leadership a thing or two.

Don’t you?

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Differentiating Deliciously

11/29/2009
The Food Technology room at Marling School in ...
Image via Wikipedia

No, I’m not talking about the social bookmarking site.

I’m talking about education and food. That’s what this blog is supposed to be about and in a Twitter response to my last post, @ToughLoveforX remarked that high schools should have teaching kitchens.

I disagree.

All schools should have teaching kitchens. Maybe even all classrooms.

The earliest lesson that I remember from my schooling was when, in first grade, we shook heavy cream for what seemed like forever to make whipped cream and butter.

The next lesson I recall is when we made applesauce.

There was a time not that long ago when most high schools and middle schools had classroom kitchens. Most were removed shortly after Russia’s first space shot galvanized American educators to get serious about science and math because we had to put a man on the moon.

Been there. Done that.

Now its time to reexamine that decision to remove those kitchens.

Kitchens are the perfect venue for teaching middle and high school students.

Those students have an abundant interest in food and eating, so there is incentive to show up for class.

Each of the major disciplines can be addressed in the process of completing the task of planning, preparing and reflecting on the flavors of a menu.

Researching dishes to include on a menu involves language arts, social studies and nutrition science,

Scaling the recipe of a dish for a smaller or larger number of servings is measurement math and multiplication or division.

Costing the price of the ingredients, creating a budget and doing the purchasing incorporates various math concepts and skills.

Cooking and baking involve chemistry, physics and nutrition science.

Invitations, dish descriptions and critiques all involve writing.

And so on.

And why stop there? Sewing classes, woodworking shop, and other venues of practical skills are rich with academic possibilities.

Every day I have students coming to me and asking for food. Every student in my school is eligible for free breakfast and lunch, but I hear stories about how mom works two jobs and doesn’t come home until midnight and then starts to prepare supper.

It is a long stretch between an 11:30 or noon lunch and a midnight or 1:00 AM supper. Even if there were no academic benefits to having teaching kitchens, doesn’t it make sense to give these students the ability to prepare a nutritious meal or two?

There is a big push right now to introduce more and more technology into classrooms and I’m all for that. But the technologies most classrooms need are not interactive white boards or hand-held computers; what classrooms need are stoves, ovens, chopping blocks and refrigerators.

The investment for a classroom full of computer-based technology and a teaching kitchen are roughly the same but kitchen equipment is far more durable, more easily maintained and far less likely to become obsolete within a few years of purchase.

Critics of my proposal, and I expect there to be many, will say that classroom kitchens don’t teach 21st Century skills, or that I’d just prepare kids for flipping burgers.

Nonsense.

Writing a recipe is pure concept mapping.

Planning a menu requires the accumulation and integration of information from a variety of sources and the creation of a cogent new document. Its a process of planning, drafting, gathering feedback, revising, proofing and publishing. Sound familiar?

Well run kitchens require collaboration, planning, critical thinking, problem solving, adaptation to changing circumstances, the ability to gather and evaluate information, mutual respect, attention to detail, and the ability to apply principles learned in the synthesis of new concepts.

Those sound like 21st Century skills to me.

Is there some risk in giving your average high school student a cleaver and 10″ chefs knife? Absolutely, but far less than giving that same student a car.

The fact is, the technology most classrooms need is not an interactive white board or hand-held computers; what they need are stoves, ovens, chopping blocks and refrigerators.

OK, maybe a computer or two to access recipe sites and to write the class blog.

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No Education, Just Plate

11/27/2009
Assorted wine corks
Image via Wikipedia

I call this blog Education On The Plate, but so far it has been almost all education and very little plate.

Today will be different.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving. As I make every attempt to be thankful for all the good things in my life every day, yesterday was mostly about food.

And wine.

If anyone ever tells you to try a sparkling Shiraz, take his or her advice. If they really know their stuff they’ll tell you to drink it VERY cold (yes, cold red wine) from red wine glasses, not champagne flutes. Listen to them.

I go to a great wine store in Orangeburg, NY and they introduced me to Bleasdale Vineyards The Red Brute Sparkling Shiraz, a deep purple liquid with an abundant share of all the typical Shiraz berry and chocolate flavors, plus bubbles. Festive and perfect with turkey.

My brother-in-law’s table groaned with turkey, cornbread stuffing, roasted sweet potatoes, carrot-parsnip puree, red cabbage, and two cranberry-based dressings. My wife’s concoction involving cranberries, tequila, jalapenos and some other stuff was a big hit.

My contribution to the meal, aside from my appetite, was cranberry chutney made from a recipe belonging to a food writer whose pen name was Vladimir Estragon. I clipped it from the Village Voice in 1982.

Here’s the recipe:

Two cups cider vinegar

1-cup water

1 & ½-pounds light brown sugar

1 & ½-pounds fresh whole cranberries

½-pound currants (substitute white raisins if you can’t find currants)

½-pound seedless raisins

2 ounces fresh ginger, sliced very thin

1 medium head of garlic, peeled and chopped fine

2 large lemons, chopped fine (remove seeds, but include peel)

½-teaspoon cayenne pepper

Bring vinegar and water to boil and then add the sugar. When all the sugar is dissolved, add all other ingredients.  Bring to boil again, and then simmer two hours or so.  Stir gently from time to time, adding more water if necessary. (You may want to use a heat diffuser under the pot to help prevent scorching.) It’s okay if it seems a little thin; it will gel when cooled. Put in jars and seal.

I usually make a double batch so I have lots to spread on leftover turkey sandwiches. It is also good with pork, chicken, and cheddar cheese. It lasts for months in the refrigerator.

I’m probably not going to be posting a lot of recipes here, but I hope to do more writing about food and drink now that my food writer/restaurant critic newspaper gig has come to an end.

School lunch, anyone?

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