Monday, December 31, 2012

Desiderata and the new year



The new year is less than an hour away and I take comfort in the wise words that have held up to the changing times. And these words will endure long after I depart this material world. Desiderata is from the Latin word for 'Desired things,' and I know that we all desire good for the coming year. This was a lesson that I enjoyed teaching to my Sunday school classes and I hope that you will find lessons from as well... Happy New Year!

Desiderata by Max Ehrmann (1872–1945)

Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.

Strive to be happy.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Backpage Editorial (FOLIO WEEKLY)

Time to re-evaluate

Teachers are victims of negative typecasting


Folio Weekly, December 25, 2012-January 1, 2013



Every day is judgment day in our public schools. This sounds like hyperbole on my part, but there is a kernel of truth to what I am saying on behalf of educators who are responsible for shaping our future.

At a time when administrators are being trained to nitpick teachers over the most minute of details, such as whether their students are in single-file line, paying perfect attention during lessons or are prepared for class, we overlook the items that fall outside of the rubric with which we judge and ultimately will decide how to pay the troops in the war against ignorance and poverty.

It will never be reflected in the evaluations, observations, or feedback that I receive, but I wish to advocate for one seemingly small experience that I had in the classroom. It has to do with a student who came close to leaving Duval County Public Schools because he feared for his own safety.

Once it came to my attention that this sixth-grade boy was being bullied on a regular basis by a classmate who appeared to be more interested in terrorizing than learning, I worked with administrators and counselors to help this victim overcome the challenge to his own education.

I took the time to listen to the boy's parents as they expressed frustration with what they felt was the glacial pace of a system that had to maintain low disciplinary statistics and pressured its schools into under-reporting incidents for the sake of not losing face in the community. The unintended consequence was an atmosphere where the victims were fleeing for greener pastures such as private schools, charter schools, and homeschooling. The inmates, however, continued to run the asylum. Incidentally, the student who was doing the bullying ended up being arrested for assaulting another schoolmate with a knife later in the year.

Because there was no metric or data to gauge efforts to cooperate with the boy's family and to listen to their concerns, it went overlooked. The state-mandated evaluation system focused more on the superficial aspects of what could be considered "poor" teaching on my part. For example, many teachers get low marks on their evaluations for petty points such as students talking about something other than their work during a lesson. Yes, off-task conversation may reflect negatively on a teacher's ability to keep the focus on the lesson, but we must never lose sight of the fact that there are indeed factors that even the most firm and focused pedagogy cannot deter.

Do not get me wrong here: I did not seek to save a child from chronic bullying and harassment because I wanted to earn a medal or praise for what I was doing. I merely wanted to serve my fellow human being in a way that I would have expected to be helped if I had been a student in the same situation.

On the last day of school before spring break last year, I stayed after work to grade the last of my papers and decided to have a brief meeting with the student's family on my way home from work. Even though I was off the clock, I knew that my vacation could wait until I handled what was a more important matter than packing my suitcases for a week down in Naples with my goddaughter and her family.

I explained to the parent that I was willing to be his child's advocate and that I didn't mind being contacted at any hour, by email or telephone, to remedy their child's situation. After all, he wasn't just a source of funding for our school system; he was a talented young man who had the potential perhaps one day to play major league baseball, report on sports for the media or coach a team when he realized his bright future.

The parents were grateful for the work that our school did on their behalf and they ultimately kept their son enrolled in Duval County Public Schools. They even left a message with my school, thanking us for the work we did for them. Somewhere along the line, the gratitude was ignored and lost in the maelstrom of criticism and stereotyping of rank-and-file teachers as being selfish, lazy bureaucrats who were only in the field of education to collect a paycheck and spend their summers off.

Contrary to popular belief and demonizing, we teachers truly do care. We do what we do because we are giving back to the community that inspired us to answer a higher calling. We have teachers, coaches, administrators and counselors who believed in us and we believe that we can pay it forward.

I should know, because I was a "late talker" in my younger years. My parents feared that I would be mute for the rest of my life. Thanks to speech therapy at W.E. Cherry Elementary School in Orange Park, I learned to become confident in verbally communicating what I had been thinking all along. I learned to express myself thanks to people who didn't give up on me. I, in return, cannot give up on the young people whom I serve every day.

In my own junior high school years, I faced problems that I was able to solve with support from an educational community that helped this introvert learn how to make friends, in spite of losing so many peers to military relocations, and an educational community that helped me to overcome insecurity over my short stature in the shadow of peers who seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds over a child like me who seemed destined never to reach 5 feet tall.

I understand that not all will appreciate with work that we do, because there will always be students who resist our attempts to help them grow academically. But, thanks to remediation, interventions and other methods, we are learning to serve every student who enters our schoolhouse doors.

Bean-counters and micromanagers aside, I continue to soldier on because it is more than a profession for me; it's a moral duty that I must fulfill to justify my continued existence on this earth. It is an obligation that allows us to bear the slings and arrows of "reformers" who wish to visit upon us so-called improvements that are aimed more at punishing us than enriching us. It is something of which we should all be proud, because we keep going in spite of it all.

This is why I continue to do what I do when it's not reflected in the judgment that we receive. The days when I have guest speakers, like the supervisor of elections, the state attorney and members of city council, are days that my former students remember. The times when we have international food days, mock elections and trips to New York are times on which my former students reflect fondly. The memories of students whose funerals I attended, and one where I served as pallbearer, are what I believe to be the true indicators of our dedication.

Perhaps our friends in Tallahassee will never recognize our true value in our work, but I continue to teach not for them, but for the future.

Meeks has been teaching social studies in Duval County since 2002. He is a 1998 graduate of the University of North Florida.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Solstice and solace



“In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus

The Sun ran away early in the evening to join the surfers down in Australia and left me with a cold feeling. Really, I had a cold feeling because the mercury dropped into the fifties here in Jacksonville, Florida. Before the catcalls emerge from those winter-worn folks to the north, I count my blessings that I am indeed not shoveling snow, but making plans to mellow out to Jimmy Buffet’s rendition of ‘Christmas Island.’

The shortest day of the year came and went without the predicted pomp and circumstance of an untimely end of our world. In defiance of the Mayans, our gods had other plans that they have yet to reveal. Besides, the interminable Christmas shopping season must go on.

I emerge today from a week of being sequestered in my home to recuperate from a sinus infection and know that my hibernation was brief. The clouds lifted from my head and my lungs and gave way to a ray of sunshine that allows my holiday cheer to be as warm as even Ebenezer Scrooge would begrudge.

I scurry to mail my Christmas cards to those who sent me holiday greetings, but I missed on my own Christmas card list. I pick up my laundry from my beloved mother who still wants to be a mommy to me and I delivered my family’s presents to place under the tree. I dined on bean salad with old friends. The mundane, however, is punctuated with a festive spirit that even a trip to the credit union or car wash if pregnant with anticipation of our annual celebration of Christ’s arrival in our world.

As I take time to honor and observe the brilliance of the season, I ponder how far I have come from the darkest days of Christmas past. Depression made my days seem longer and my patience shorter. I was angry with myself for my station, or lack thereof, in my life. I battled internally over the struggle to choose between what I wanted and what was expected of me. I was losing the fight and wanted to end it all.

Hospitalization, medication and therapy did wonders for me to pull away the dark curtains that blocked my light. I lingered yet in the lack of answers to my questions until I finally drew upon an inner light that truly allowed me to see the Light that enlivens our holiday season.

I turn 38 on Tuesday and I know that my birth on this most sacred of days has a meaning that I must apply to my own renewal as I approach my forties. The burnout that nearly destroyed my spirit and the enemies both real and imagined, I decided, are no match for the hope that resides within me for a more peaceful world within and around me.

To ignore the good that enriches me would be to betray the birth, youth and growth of someone in whom many good people have invested their friendship, love and time. Yes, the leaves have fallen from the trees and the air turns chilly yet again. The darkest hour today is before the dawn of a new revolution of our mortal world around the mighty Sun. In this completion of yet another cycle, I am glad and rejoice in it.

Under my spiritual tree, there are two presents. One is marked fear and the other is marked faith. When I wake on the 25th of this month, I know which gift is mine and which one to exchange for something greater. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a very happy new year.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

It's the end of the world as we know it [and I feel fine]



Michael Stipe and company must be billionaires many times over by the end of this apocalyptic weekend.

The Athens-based elders of alternative music jolted many ennui-filled and 'different' teenagers to dancing along with a song whose lyrics would not simply obey with the upbeat messages of most pop music. I think that this is why "It's the End of the World as We Know It" is arguably one of the most influential songs of its decade. Much like the music of R.E.M., that was designed to inspire a giddy frenzy of dancing and then thinking, the Mayan apocalypse story is the subject of pop culture smirks, but draws us into something deeper than what it appears. Humor and irony, after all can be our way of facing unknown disaster as predicted by an ancient calendar. We smugly tell our friends that we already know that those dead Mayas cannot pull one over on us so quickly, and then silently wonder if these Mesoamericans were not right.

Metaphysically speaking, the Mayan predictions have a lot in common with the R.E.M. song about the 'end.' They both are man made means of capturing their thoughts from imagination onto paper or stone. One rock group hoped to reach audiences with entertaining words that listeners could only dream of drafting. The Mayan priests more than likely wanted to entertain their brethren, by possessing a power that mere mortals could never possess. Sounds like our pop stars have a past life somewhere as more than just figurative "gods." Their words are simply ideas that each of us has to express, some with more meaning than others. Who gives these words meaning? We do.

What lesson can we draw from this as we enter another Armageddon-free year? If we can choose to ignore faulty predictions of long lost cultures, we can benefit from ignoring those who believe that they are prophets who can define our limits and predict our failings.

I learned from the popular television series "Mad Men," that this world can be broken down into an internal conflict we have. Do we do what we want or do we do what is expected of us? We free ourselves for brighter futures when we realize that, although we are 'expected' to succumb to Doomsday thinking, we have the individual freedom to want something better and know that it is coming. Equally, there are those whose 'constructive criticism' and unsolicited advice do us more harm as they create a world from the same human minds that we have. Our power comes from the Truth that we maintain in our hearts.

As I lay me down to sleep the evening of December 20, I know what I want in spite of what is expected. I want to wake up on December 22 with the morning newspaper and an egg and cheese sandwich. And I feel fine...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Crazy for guns



"I imagine it appears that I brutally killed both of my loved ones. I was only trying to do a quick thorough job [...] If my life insurance policy is valid please pay off my debts [...] donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type."

Infamous last writings haunt Texans years after Charles Whitman opened fired on the University of Texas. The ramblings of a sick man closed with a plea for the type of help that we have denied the mentally ill in the decades that have elapsed since 1966.

A quarter of a century later, we nearly lost yet another president to violence provoked by a broken mind. Even then, we were content to sweep John Hinckley, Jr. under a very messy rug that is now stained with the blood of 26 innocents in Connecticut. This makes me wonder if we are thinking in our right mind. If the answer is mental health services, I wonder why the NRA would not be the first to lobby for greater funding for mental health services. I do not wonder for very long because the NRA is not necessarily a hotbed of big government moderates, or liberals. Besides, it is more compelling for these one-issue voters to see the late Charlton Heston challenge the government to take his gun from his cold, lifeless hands.

If we are to take guns away from anybody, as many gun advocates fear, it should be from the hands of those whose thinking does not permit them to own tools of destruction, let alone make sound decisions for themselves.

Perhaps insanity is something we dare not address because we are all crazy to some extent. Why else would we close our eyes to the true cause of massacres while we wade into the same constitutional battles that end with the same gridlock – of course, until the next outrage whips up renewed frenzy and then unconsummated ideas.

It is a fool’s errand for us to believe that a superman will emerge to save us from our guns or from the unstable folks among us who brandish them. Presidents may speak grandiosely of what they want done, but we forget the failed efforts that attempted to put a traumatized nation on track for less bloody times. It was no less than the year of assassination that a seemingly-powerful president attempted to pass legislation that limited access to the kind of weapons that we both embrace and reject. The final product was a watered down law that pleased the gun lobby but betrayed the memory of men like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy whose lives were ended with gunfire.

If the killings and the attempted killings of our leaders is not enough impetus to act, I am tempted to view promises to honor the dead of Newtown with a cynical eye because a bizarre tautology exists behind the opposition to stricter regulation of firearms.

Behind the veneer of a clubby group of hunters and sportsmen lies a contingent of Americans who believe that any discussion with the government is a deal with the devil. This comes from their innate fear of a government that is ready to supplant the Constitution to implement a New World Order that Nostradamus never would have dreamed of predicting. This is the same establishment to whom these same anti-government types gave sweeping powers under the PATRIOT Act. They are maintaining vigilance against a system they feed and support.

There, of course, is the public safety component of the gun control debate. Yes, we could consider arming folks to defend themselves the next time there is a mass killing. Well, this is defense when we need to be taking the offense. If can prevent the likes of Charles Whitman, John Hinckley, Jr., Adam Lanza from becoming a danger to our society, we could finally know that we have attacked the issue and not each other.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

We are Newtown



The proverbial rock under which we have been hiding has been kicked away by the latest spate of violence to visit our nation.

The wake up call does not have to be a political donnybrook over who needs firearms or over whose individual rights are being compromised for the sake of our collective safety. This wake up call, however, does not necessitate the creation of yet another feel-good commission that claims to listen to people but has about as much bite as a toddler gumming away at a chew toy.

The central issue of this tragedy, and those leading to it, is in our minds. I am not saying that this is an imaginary problem, but I am saying that our mental health is at stake in a crisis of confidence that our nation is experiencing at this time. We have no problem with going to a doctor when our nose runs, our stomach cramps or our muscles ache. We, however, continue to ignore the illnesses and maladies that plague our minds. We stigmatize those who indeed recognize and seek treatment for the unseen disease that kills more than just those it directly affects.

We may joke about being crazy, loony or psycho, but the joke simply isn't funny any more when the basket-weaving stereotypes are challenged by a more deadly side effect of our naive attitudes about mental health.

For those who say that our resources cannot sustain increased investment in real mental heath, I would reply that our criminal justice system is already paying the hefty price of delegating mental health services to a line item with no perspective of the toll that mental illness is taking on those who suffer from it and those who become its collateral damage.

I was listening to Dr. Jeff Gardere explaining it more eloquently when he said that mentally ill people are treated more like criminals than patients. He bemoaned the fact that he had to advise families to call the police to best serve their loved ones in times of crisis and serious need.

Could you imagine calling the police to help someone who is having a heart attack? Could you imagine jailing someone who is suffering from appendicitis? Could you imagine that? We are already doing this for many sick people who need medical help. If there is any change to be made to help us learn from Newtown, the change needs to be in our thinking about mental health.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Song for a new generation



Back in 1992, when I was a college freshman, I experienced a depression that came from the opening of a door into an unknown world. I remember when I spent the first night alone in my dorm room and saw only darkness.

I bade my family farewell as they dropped me off in the minivan and they headed back to the only world that I knew and the only comfort that I remembered - with my parents and my sister. I had indeed spent nights away, but this was the first time that I struck out on my own in a new place, a new town and a new world.

I remember the first few nights when I cried myself to sleep because I was merely a 17-year-old boy who was not quite ready for prime time. I was uneasy about what lay ahead of me because I knew that something was dying, and it was my youth.

What drew me out of my fog was a moment of inspiration. I chose to write down my thoughts and I chose to document my feelings. I compiled a series of poems that set me free to begin a new chapter of my life. And, I soon learned, it was only the beginning.

Twenty years later, I opened this journal and I decided that I wanted to honor that young man and his thoughts by publishing what can hopefully be a way for a new generation of young people to see that the road I trod alone is one that I can help others travel with less despair.

Don't get me wrong, there is a great deal of romance and optimism in my book. It was a time when I fell in love. It was a time when I marveled at a new president taking office. It was a time when I smiled and laughed through what now seem to be my salad days.

I encourage you to visit createspace.com or amazon.com to gain the insight that my past life can provide. Proceeds from my book will go toward helping young people get the mental health services that they need.

https://tsw.createspace.com/title/4078540

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Thanks



'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free. 'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be. And when we find ourselves in the place just right, 'twill be in the valley of love and delight.

In the words of this Shaker hymn, I am grateful for the simple but great aspects of our lives that we shall never take for granted as they are eternal. The dawn of each morning brings us the light that has awakened our ancestors and will enliven our descendants. The first breath we took at our birth and the last that we draw as we reach the end of our weary path is from the same vital element of air that invigorated our forefathers and we give to our children and those who will inherit all that is beautiful in our world.

When I was a small boy, I eagerly rose from my bed to greet the sun and I zealously announced to my family that the sun indeed was up. No matter what turmoil or tumult encircled our fragile planet, I knew that a new day bore great promise for me and I wanted everyone to celebrate the promise of the first rays of light that struck my bedroom window.

The darkest hour of doubt and fear, the storm and tempest of uncertainty will always give way to God's light that illuminates our lives daily. The simple gift of waking to a new world is enough for me to express my gratitude. I open my eyes to a family that loves me, friends who cherish me, and work that has yet to be done. I know that I cannot do this alone and I am glad that great work can be made simpler with many hands working beside me.

And when I waje from this dream called life, I know that the breadth of my existence was the sum of the seemingly minute and minor things that comprised all that I knew, all that I experienced, and all that I embraced. The smiles, the laughter, the hopes, the wishes, the prayers, the peace and the love were part of the greater good I hope that I have done for my God and my brothers.

Once again, it is the season of thanks and I close with words from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Thanksgiving proclamation of 1942:

"Across the uncertain ways of space and time our hearts echo these words, for the days are with us again, at the gathering of the harvest, we solemnly express our dependence upon almighty God.

For this, we are eternally grateful. Amen.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A post-partisan Florida



The political system in Florida is bland and in need of some flavor that truly speaks to the voices of all Floridians. Ever since the Sunshine State flipped in favor of the current ruling majority, we have been missing the kind of red pepper that would bring the spice of variety to our public discussion and would create a system that truly works for all.

I lack any basic cooking skills, so I am not necessarily referring to a potluck that would throw someone of their bland diet. I speak metaphorically of the squashing of liberal and progressive voices at the hand of those who are more interested in perpetuating their own political power for their own means than on actually uniting a state that consists of more than just the yes men and women who cater to the needs of the ruling establishment.

Based on the gerrymandering of legislative districts and the wholesale auctioning of our agenda to the moneyed interests, one would not know that registered Democrats actually outnumber Republicans by nearly 400,000. Instead, we are subjected to an overconfident and cocky clique of politicians and lobbyists who wield their power like a club over their foes.

I remember that, in 2000, a mere 537 votes meant the difference between a Bush and a Gore administration for the nation, but the majority party chose to rule by fiat and mandate. They chose to eschew consensus for their ability to bully the powerless and exact revenge on those who disagree with them.

Our state's misplaced priorities were made manifest when they made the private issue of a brain-dead woman their priority while they attempted to write death warrants on public workers, labor unions, trial attorneys, environmental activists and those who stood in the way of their political dominance.

Our leaders did not become drunk with power on their own. The collective silence of the minority gave the false impression that Florida was willing to be led down the primrose path to fulfilling every whim designed by former governor Jeb Bush and the special interests who continued to ignore those who did not have the same access to the powers that be in Tallahassee.

In what may be an outlier of future election cycles, even the young Cubans of South Florida turned 'blue' as they have no concrete memory of the Cold War grudges that inspired a voting bloc to be firmly in the pocket of our state leadership. No longer can they be taken for granted and neither can the moderates and independents who live along Interstate 4. Hillsborough County ultimately held the keys to the White House for our 29 electoral votes and it will surely be pivotal to winning the governor's mansion.

For whatever criticism and abuse that was heaped upon former governor Charlie Crist, he should be lauded for his willingness to understand that leading means more than just pandering to the base of a party that turns a deaf ear to Floridians who are in dire need of representation and are desperate for more unity and less demonizing. The latest attempt by the state legislature to rig the rules of the game in their favor seemed to be a done deal because they had the super majority in the capitol, a lock on the state cabinet and buckets of money being tossed their way. What they did not count on was an equally powerful voice of people who rallied to finally say that they had enough with overreach and abuse from on high.

I am sure that we all assumed that Governor Rick Scott would have understood this when he defeated a Tallahassee insider to win his primary election for governor. We all assumed that an outsider would truly change the system for the better because he successfully made the case that he would do a much better job than the Democratic candidate whom he tagged as part of the dysfunctional system. He won by a slim margin because he showed promise. The promise of serving all Floridians, however, was bogged down by his reaching out to the same insiders whom he opposed when he originally decided to run for office.

While it is a smart choice to be fiscally responsible, the governor swapped his scalpel for a chainsaw with which he made devastating cuts to the educational system he promised to change. He opted to turn a deaf ear to the parents, teachers, school boards and superintendents who warned him that he and his administration were going too far. It did not really matter to our state's leadership because they had a firm grip on the levers of power and they would do anything in their power to stay on top.

I should know the impact of this draconian system of governance because I, along with many public workers, was forced to take a pay cut in order to balance our state's budget. I am confident that our state's Supreme Court will rule that this betrayal of our pension system dating back to the 1970s was indeed an abuse of our state's constitution.

The absolute power that resides in our state government, however, could not abide the rule of law. Our legislators, in their infinite wisdom, decided that it was time to mount a full-on attack on the sectors of government that would not tow the line. The laundry list of constitutional amendments and the assault on our judiciary branch failed because Floridians realized that the foundations of our state's political system were in danger.

What disappointed me most was the efforts of our state to shrink the window for early voting because they were dissatisfied with the results of previous elections. I know of no other time in our history that limiting voting resulted in a positive result for our citizens. I am proud that Floridians saw through this ploy and waited hours in line to show that they will not be scared or intimidated.

The arrogance of the likes of State Senator John Thrasher are even more pronounced as they claim to be victims of a powerful federal government that forces the states to relinquish their powers. The balance of power, however, has been ruined over the past generation as Tallahassee chose to usurp home rule in our 67 counties and our countless municipalities in the form of revenue policy that shifts the burden to local government, forces unfunded mandates onto our local governments and claims to be the advocates of less government.

The tide is turning in favor of more level-headed political discourse and I look forward to this trend continuing in 2014 as our state has a real debate on ideas and vision as opposed to wheelbarrows of cash pouring into the same hands that drove us into the mess that we are in today.

The red pepper? Former senator and congressman Claude Pepper is the kind of politician who we need to bring back balance to a truly purple state in a time when our leaders are less interested in leading than in dictating.

"If more politicians in this country were thinking about the next generation instead of the next election, it might be better for the United States and the world." - Claude Pepper

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Quotable quote

"Service is our duty and our obligation to repay those who served us. None of us have come from a void; we can only reach enlightenment when we go together hand in hand."


- John Louis Meeks, Jr. John Louis Meeks, Jr. currently resides in Jacksonville, Florida where he teaches social studies at Mayport Middle School. He is a 1998 graduate of the University of North Florida and a veteran of the United States Air Force.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Making a difference for ALL students

The old he-coon may no longer be with us, but we can carry the torch for Governor Lawton Chiles and all Floridians who want our schools to be the best for all of our children. I attended the Duval County School Board debates this evening at First Coast News and was disappointed that one candidate decided to play up his conservative credentials at the expense of understanding that there are liberals, moderates and independents who also want our children to succeed. The school board races have been traditionally nonpartisan, so it annoyed me that we have folks who depend on big names from Tallahassee to steer voters in the direction of one party coming in and telling our community what is best for our schools. I believe in accountability for our public schools. I believe in supporting the best and the brightest educators to help our community. I believe in best serving our children in all schools - public, charter, private, parochial and home. I do not believe in the current paradigm in which we continually use 'accountability' as a weapon with which to remove resources from the schools that need it the most, with which to punish communities that are already struggling, with which to demonize the teachers who toil daily and spend their own money to build better schools and with which to paint a negative picture of the professional organizations that advocate for public schools. The national debate is vigorous as we search for ways to compete in the global marketplace. The real issue is how to solve these pressing problems, and I can say that our educators and education support professionals are not the problem. The real problem lies in perverting the true purpose of what was supposed to be diagnostic testing into a partisan sledgehammer that is used to cripple our schools. This is why I am taking a stand this evening to fully throw my support behind Jon Heymann for School Board.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Learning knows no color - my Times-Union commentary



Four decades after strife and struggle marked race relations in our nation, Florida appears to be taking a step backwards in our work with minority children in the classroom.

In 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson addressed Howard University on this very issue, telling Howard University of the perils of freedom when Americans have been playing a catch up game with regard to all Americans having a fair chance to succeed.

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, "you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

While I understand the reasons behind the state Board of Education’s directive to set student progress goals by race, I respectfully disagree on the grounds that this new policy directly contradicts the goals that we have planned for real accountability in schools.

All along, teacher and parent organizations chafed at the punitive approach that our state’s leaders have taken with what was supposed to be standardized testing to diagnose the ills that are harming our students. All along, teacher and parent organizations pleaded with the state to take into account the factors that negatively affect our public schools.

Our problem is not racial, our problem is poverty. We miss the point when we believe that an African-American student in a relatively prosperous ZIP code needs to be given a pass in meeting the standards. I would point out that students, regardless of race or ethnic group are struggling because they happen to come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Look at the neighborhood schools with high percentages of students who are on free and reduced lunches. The data will point out that failure knows no color. Socioeconomic status is what really dictates how students will perform on standardized tests.

While it is easy for us to change the rubric for student success to yield better numbers, the real work at hand is for us to change the circumstances that hobble our young people.

Regardless of our ideology, we all continue to fight a losing war on poverty that can only be addressed in ensuring that all citizens prosper with better jobs, better wages and better quality of life.

This, of course, is not going to be easy because we have been fighting a recession that seems to be as endless as the number of students who are dropping out of school and being lost to the criminal justice system or the welfare state.

The beginning of the real solutions is for our state’s leadership to finally listen to the people and to finally set aside petty partisan grievances and games to afford all Floridians a chance to work together for better schools that work for all.

The obvious answer, say many, it to divert more public funds to charter, private and parochial schools. This neglects the fact that we still have to operate public schools as our state constitution mandates in accordance with a paramount duty to do right by our students.

We are right to decry efforts to water down standards for minorities for the sake of moving children of color along. We are right to question Affirmative Action programs that ask more from white and Asian children simply because of the color of their skin.

What frustrates me about this issue is that this is a bed that we have made and now we are being forced to sleep in. What frustrates me is that we are tacking the same problems that we were warned about when FCAT turned from a helpful tool to a cudgel with which to assault educators who toil daily to meet the needs of all children.

The right thing for us to do now is to stop and repair this dysfunctional system that begins not in the classroom but in the pocketbooks that deprive many of our young people of an equal chance to succeed and in the economic policy that can put more people to work.

John Louis Meeks, Jr. currently resides in Jacksonville, Florida where he teaches social studies at Mayport Middle School. He is a 1998 graduate of the University of North Florida and a veteran of the United States Air Force.

Source: http://jacksonville.com/news/florida/2012-10-14/story/florida-taking-step-backward-setting-standards-based-race

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Backpage Editorial - Folio Weekly



We are looking for a few good men and women to lead our nation. The problem is that we cannot handle the truth about politics or else we would not be beating ourselves up every four years over politicians who allegedly break their promises or commit the cardinal sin of flip flopping.

We like to think that we live in the real world while we consign our leaders to Mount Olympus where they should rule like gods. When we learn that they are men and women like the rest of us, we are quick in our condemnation and judgment of them. This attitude is already going to doom the person who will be taking the oath of office on January 20, 2013.

I remember watching the State of the Union address on television back in the days when it interrupted our regularly scheduled broadcasts on our three available broadcast networks. I remember marveling at the cavernous chamber in which the president gave his annual message to both houses of Congress and the co-equal branches of our republic.

I surely felt that I was dreaming when I visited the House of Representatives in person and looked down from the visitors’ gallery onto a space that could be no larger than the average junior high school gymnasium. The games that Congress plays, of course, have higher stakes than the typical match between school children, but I am tempted to believe that the adults who debate the issues of the day can be just as juvenile.

To say that I am shocked by the nature of today’s politics would be untrue. We elect leaders who we believe are going to change the world singlehandedly. This is a delusion that ignores the fact that our nation is a constitutional republic. Our system is designed to rebuke those who engage in overreach to achieve their aims. Notice how quickly our nation recoiled when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt attempted to pack the Supreme Court with justices who would be friendlier to his agenda. Look even farther back to the effort by radical congressman to remove President Andrew Johnson over making decisions that were within his purview as chief executive.

We are lying to ourselves when we demand that our presidents move mountains. The kind of man or woman who can truly reshape our nation also has the power to become a dictator or a monarch – the kind that our Founding Fathers revolted against when King George III and his parliament attempted to exercise absolute power over the colonies. We are deluding ourselves when we believe that the men and women whom we elect are going to magically solve all of our problems so we can go back to our comfortable lives of sitting on the couch, updating our Facebook pages and watching reality television. The genuine reality of our politics is much more complicated.

If we are to judge our leaders on their broken promises, we must also afford them the benefit of the doubt regarding their effort. If President Woodrow Wilson were alive today, the same man who has numerous streets named for him in Europe and around the world, would be deemed a failure for his ‘broken’ promise of getting the United States into the League of Nations. Never mind that Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke while in office and his wife ran the nation by proxy, our results-oriented society would have condemned Wilson in ways that his contemporaries never would have imagined.

Yes, we expect candidates for public office to issue sweeping agendas for our future and we expect them to follow through, but we ignore the fact that our system is more than just the person who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

President Ronald Reagan raised taxes. Did he want to raise taxes? No. As the flag bearer for the modern conservative movement, he did what was necessary to keep our nation solvent. He did what was necessary out of necessity. This meant that he had to govern in ways that supposedly betrayed his political beliefs and he was rewarded with reelection. This would never happen today because our petty dogma prevents such leaders from making the difficult decisions to move us forward.

President John F. Kennedy cut taxes. Did he need to cut taxes? Yes. He defied the liberals in his own party to prime the pump for the world’s greatest postwar economy not out of expediency but in the best interests of those who put him into office. These moments of acting out of principle and not out of partisanship are what make us nostalgic for the leaders who actually did lead.

Leaders, however, cannot take charge without support from the people. Our prevailing attitude is that once the polls close, our job is done. We could never be more wrong. The New Deal coalition of old was composed of active citizens who worked together for the betterment of our nation. The common good was the motivation for people of all backgrounds to unite around the cause of good government. Instead, we retreat and expect our politicians to do all of the heavy lifting by themselves. It is most convenient for us to condemn our public officials for failing us when we indeed have failed ourselves.

I am not speaking of a new malaise when I roundly condemn our action, or inaction, in affecting the change that we crave. I am speaking of an ignorance that speaks more to our own personal failings that permit us to continue to be lied to by our leaders.

Remember when former Vice President Walter Mondale leveled with Americans in 1984 that he was going to raise taxes? He was rewarded with a historical drubbing at the polls. This kind of honesty did not go unpunished. This is not unique to our shores, either. In 1983, the British Labor Party wrote their own suicide letter with a manifesto (platform in our parlance) that told their electorate exactly what they wanted to do. They lost in a bloodbath that helped keep Margaret Thatcher in office for a generation. It should come as no surprise that our politicians are wearing flip flops. As Bill Maher wisely said it, these people are not waffling or flip flopping – they are adapting to what we want in our government. This is why a pro-choice candidate for president in 1980 turned into a pro-life candidate when he was chosen to be the vice presidential candidate by Ronald Reagan. This is why President Lyndon Baines Johnson went from opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1957 as senate majority leader to being a president who championed civil rights. Changing our mind, in my opinion does not indicate weakness, it indicates the maturity to understand that consistency is indeed the hobgoblin of little minds – to borrow a phrase from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The words and actions of men and women indeed can be great, but we must never forget that these fellow human beings are as fallible as we are. We must always remember that when we point the finger of judgment in the direction of those who seek to lead, we are pointing fingers at ourselves. It is time that we grow up and wake up to the truth of our politics.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Open for business for educators!



I woke up this morning and found the right resource for the right time when I turned on the television. The Morning Show, on WJXT-TV, featured a story about a website called TeachersPayTeachers.com. It has been the answer to my question about how educators can network with other educators to share their lessons and to supplement their income. I have launched my participation in this new venture by including materials that connect art and history. If you teach art or history, please feel free to visit the below link and buy my work!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Big brother is waiting...



This Saturday evening was much more loaded with anticipation for an only child who attended kindergarten down the block and lived alone with two loving parents. His father was out to sea and his grandmother flew down from Ohio. Having moved from his birth state of California, Florida was a stable new home for him and there were no major upheavals in his early life save the passing of his maternal grandmother. As his own mother grew in size and great with child, he was puzzled by this impending arrival. He was astonished that there was somebody growing inside this magical oven. He rubbed his mother's tummy in hope of feeling a kick or a nudge from the newest Meeks. The day came on a Monday when his mother was spirited away to hospital and he pondered the scene of the delivery. He was going to be a big brother. He was going to be an elder in his own home with lessons and joys to share with this bright, new sibling. The brand new girl came into the house much smaller than I had anticipated, as I announced to my mother and grandmother that she was too small to play with yet! New life entered my home and, suddenly my home became our home. My parents became our parents. My world became our world. Ashlee Ja'Near Meeks meant an expansion in my world and growth in my spirit. Thirty-three years later, I think back to that weekend of waiting. Thirty-three years later, I remember the door opening. Thirty-three years later, I am still a boy who is proud to be a big brother. I love you! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!

Starving for knowledge



I cannot teach on an empty stomach. I already know the consequences of allowing low blood sugar to dictate how the rest of my day is going to go because I have often sacrificed breakfast in the triage of having a quick morning routine. We know of that devil's bargain that we make when we wake up after the snooze was activated for the ninth time - I will jump in the shower, shave my stubble and get dressed on the way to the car (not literally!). Breakfast is the first of the things that I chose to omit because a smelly teacher was ostensibly much more noticeable than a hungry teacher. Well, thanks to decreased functioning and a crankier outlook on the day, I realize that breakfast can have as much an impact on my work as five o'clock shadow. Both problems make me appear run down even before the clock strikes twelve. Conversely, we are very aware when we notice that a student has skipped showers. The smell can especially pungent in a middle or high school setting. All of the Axe deodorant in the free world cannot mask a deficiency in bathing. When students arrive in the classroom after missing breakfast, however, the results are a lot more subtle. Stomachs may not growl and teachers may not know the warning signs of a student who has a challenge with nutrition at home. I was made aware of this, as I posted on my school blog, when a student came to class with what seemed to be a giant monkey on her back. She could not focus on her work and I was worried about what was troubling her. She forthrightly told me that she did not have anything to eat that morning as her cupboard was bare. I made a deal with her that I would bring breakfast foods so she could ask for help when she needed it. Upon further research (http://www.dailyfinance.com/2011/08/25/where-americas-children-are-going-hungry/), I discovered that over a quarter of Florida's students live with 'Childhood Food Security' and one out of ten Floridians experienced the same issue of having little to nothing to sustain them. If we truly believe in education reform, we must reform the way our children are fed. Private partnerships are necessary to help all public school students to not just feed their minds, but their bodies.

Use your mentality, wake up to reality - get tested



It's all about status. We know our marital status if it is not already apparent by what we wear on our ring finger. We know about our Facebook status because our cousin in Michigan can comment in the time it takes to check her cell phone. We also know the status of our departing flights because we waited two hours in lines for a one hour delay. The status that we often do not know is our HIV/AIDS status. Of the various statuses that we have in society, we can help to combat this deadly disease by being tested regularly. We not only do this for our own health, but because the choices that we make affect so many people around us. I remember the days in the 1980s when it seemed like the death toll from HIV/AIDS would never stop climbing. Friends, family and associates became casualties in this war against an epidemic that took away far too many of them before their time. Three decades since we have rallied around red ribbons and giant quilts, we now see a new generation of young people needlessly falling prey to HIV/AIDS. Education is essential to combating the ignorance and silence that go hand in hand with the spread of this preventable disease. This is why it we need to continue taking preventative measures (e.g. using condoms with sexual partners) and continue to quickly obtain treatment for those who do test positive so we can take a proactive role in stopping HIV/AIDS in its tracks. I was inspired because a colleague of mine lost her uncle to HIV/AIDS and I joined her in a community walk to raise awareness. I have always been fully aware, having organized a candlelight vigil for World AIDS Day while in college and having been a medic in the Air Force who was trained to educate people about staying healthy. Today, however, I helped in the fight by not just talking the talk, but literally walking the walk and by getting myself tested. This fight is not over by a long shot. To those who battle daily to finally win, I say that I am with you.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Family ties



One of the quirkiest things about me and my work is that I have a collection of neckties. It is unusual to me, in my opinion, that I am viewed as an anomaly at work and at church because I prefer to suit up when I am doing my work either for my workplace or for my church community. It just comes naturally to me to dress for the part because it is such an important aspect of my work to show up with my "A game." The Florida Times-Union, my local newspaper, even ran a feature piece about my work as a male teacher in an overwhelmingly female environment. In the article, I recall a student commenting that I wore a 'tuxedo' to work! It is quite amusing because I believe that we as education professionals are essential to presenting a model for young people to adapt to the workplace in an appropriate manner. As a matter of fact, it is very strange for my students to see me show up in shorts when I attend yoga classes at our school or when I dress down for field trips. I have great respect for my community to keep up the hard work (or simple work when compared to the dressing up or down that my female peers face every day). At any rate, I would like to send sincere kudos and props to my spiritual mentors in Unity who have passed down the tradition of 'family ties.' As a former Baptist, I recall showing up at a very casual Sunday school class in a shirt and tie every week even though the dress code was not as strict, formally or informally. I also remember that my minister shared stories about how he received neckties as presents from Lowell Fillmore - the son of Charles Fillmore. As I look at my collection of over 100 neckties, I remember fondly how my minister used to tease me for my affection for my skinny, vintage neckties - especially the ones that I purchased for five dollars at the antique fans and stoves store in Five Points. Today, I try to do my part to be a proper role model for my students who one day will be the leaders in our world and, when I go home, that is when I can truly dress down knowing that I did my part to inspire our students to aim high.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What is education reform?



After I attended the recent TEACH conference with educators from around my school district, I did some soul searching of my own with consideration toward how our community can reform and improve our schools. We all know that our schools can do better. We also know that our community can do better. What we are not sure about is how we go about reaching out to build up our youth to create a productive citizenry who will lead our nation into the future. Reform is a nice word, but I believe that it has been perverted by political forces who choose to ignore the plethora of factors that hold so many people back and fail them in their quest to realize their potential. When I enter the classroom, I want to teach and my students want to learn. The so-called reformers do not understand that we are all in this together. What the so-called reformers demand is a more draconian approach that ignores the factors that impede true educational progress. For example, I know that I am surrounded by colleagues who toil daily to ensure that our students are able to meet and even exceed the standards that we must teach. The tests and assessments are excellent gauges of this work if they are applied properly. The problem arises when we have students who come to school in need of the basics, and I do not mean reading, writing and arithmetic. What I refer to is the fact that we have children in our city/county who come to school lacking food, clothing or shelter. We have children who live in circumstances that would make even the most hardhearted person take pause. Last year, I noticed that one of my students was not working up to her ability. I asked her in private what her problem was. She told me that, when she woke up that morning, she had nothing to eat for breakfast. How can I feed a mind when a child is starving? In response to this situation, I made a deal with this student that she would come to me whenever she needed a bite to eat in the morning and I would help to the best of my ability. This kind of intervention inspired me to begin a school-wide drive to collect simple breakfast foods for students in need to visit the guidance office and request when they begin the day with an empty stomach. We take for granted that the most important meal of the day is readily available for everyone. This is not true. Our nation believes in equality of opportunity and yet we still have children who are being written off by society because they have circumstances that cannot be simply erased with a government policy or initiative. This is why it is much easier for us to point fingers and accuse teachers of not doing their job. When we go above and beyond to assist our students, it will never be recognized because the work that we do beyond teaching children to fill in a ScanTron sheet is not something that is quantifiable. It is much easier to gauge teacher effectiveness by walking into a classroom and playing bean counter. Is this totally necessary? Not if reform is something that we do to educators and students. True reform is something that we do together to achieve a common goal. We tend to believe that systemic reform requires punishing people, kicking their butts and taking names. In my opinion, all we need are advocates and friends who can take the time to bring a box of Pop Tarts or breakfast bars to their community schools and truly fuel a child's appetite for learning.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Happy Constitution Day!



We the people... These three little words kick of the preamble to a great document that serves as the foundation for our nation. These three BIG words affirm the I AM of a nation that, for all of its faults, continues to serve as a civilization that aims to lead the world in freedom and liberty. Two centuries after the Founding Fathers created the Constitution, we have our doubts about how our nation is progressing or regressing and yet we must observe this day every year to educate Americans and the world about how our user's manual for a nation should be maintained and executed. Cynicism has taken hold of our national dialogue in the years since Vietnam and Watergate but we can think of no other way to move forward together. For all of the talk about how the system is broken, we forget that WE THE PEOPLE are the heart of our republic. When fear takes hold, we ignore the Truth that our nation is guided by ideals that are greater than our petty squabbles and that it is up to us to fix our supposedly broken system. When we engage in the necessary troubleshooting to right our course, we must remember that our user's manual is the way to ensure that we get things right for posterity. We need not fear our future if we are faithful to what the Founding Fathers fought and died for to break away from an old order and to create a new system. Party politics aside, we can come together and we can achieve a common goal to continue to lead the world in freedom and liberty. Our world is filled with uncertainty and questions. We are plagued with problems and issues that seem to impede our growth. What is the solution? WE THE PEOPLE! HAPPY CONSTITUTION DAY!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

TEACH!

Community-based education reform TEACH: Together for better schools

By John Louis Meeks, Jr.



Instead of pointing fingers, this conference was about joining hands to improve public education at the first TEACH conference hosted by WJCT and Community First Credit Union at downtown’s Hyatt Regency Hotel.

Over 1,000 educators and education advocates attended this conference which carried the theme, “Better Together.”

Mayor Alvin Brown helped to kick off the event with a pep talk for the attendees with whom he shared his personal story of how family, friends and supporters helped him to better himself through college and in his career.

Although his grandmother and mother did not attend college, he said that they had a “PhD in common sense.”

The father of two boys who attend public schools in Duval County also shared how he was a supporter of education in both words and deeds as it is “an investment in our future, our workforce and our economy.” In the past 14 months, he said, his administration has worked hard in “meaningful ways that have brought results” – including an aggressive campaign to remind families to send their children to school during the first days of school, visiting classrooms and seeing the work that is done every day and appointing the city’s first education commissioner.

“I believe in education. With education, come many opportunities,” the mayor said. This is why Mayor Brown said that he worked to either implement or promote programs like Mayor’s Mentors, Communities in Schools, and Teach for America.

As a former professor at Jacksonville University, Brown especially took pride in his Learn to Earn program that gives students a firsthand look at college and the workplace as many young people are familiar with post-secondary education or the means of advancing themselves.

“It’s not where you start off, but where you finish,” the mayor said in his remarks, addressing the chance for all students to achieve the American Dream through setting goals and playing by the rules. And, to teachers, Mayor Brown expressed his gratitude.

“I am proud of the work you do,” he said, adding that educators are the “salt of the Earth.” The morning general session keynote speaker was Dr. Lucy Calkins, who seeks to transform the new Common Core standards from a mandate into a mission for all educators.

The ambitious new national standards have been written and ratified, Calkins said, but they have yet to be implemented.

She said that the key to putting Common Core into action is the buy-in from the educators and education leaders who are responsible for executing them.

“It is up to us,” she said.

As an object lesson, Calkins gave an anecdote in which she talked about the word ‘curmudgeon’ with her students. She explained that she asked students to treat a book like they would a soiled diaper – in the way a curmudgeon would approach something new. She said that this illustrated how some educators approached new programs and initiatives and how their attitude carried into their delivery.

“We could take the same approach with Common Core standards. We can either use a curmudgeon attitude toward the new standards or we can treat the new standards like gold,” she said.

With the challenge of implementing new standards at hand, Calkins addressed the biggest problem facing American schools – poverty.

Twenty-five percent of American students live in poverty, she said, and as many as thirty percent of students in a city like New York live in such conditions.

While the United States was a pioneer and leader in creating public education as we know it, Calkins said, other nations around the world were taking the lead because they do not face poverty on such a level that American educators face.

“If the United States had less than ten percent of its students in poverty, we would be the number one nation in education.”

Instead, we are putting the blame on the teachers, she said.

“One of the best things that we can do for children is to give their parents access to jobs and health care.” Calkins cautioned that, as a solution to failing schools, Common Core is not a curriculum that micromanages schools and recommended that educators study the new standards for themselves. “If we are to make a difference, we are to read the Common Core.”

The necessity for new national standards rose from a wake-up call she said in which forty percent of college students graduate and in which the average college student reads only one book a year. “We are not doing well in education,” she said, “Business as usual is not okay.”

This was particularly true in a world in which eighty-five percent of our jobs require high levels of literacy, she said, on top of the fact that the careers in unskilled labor were a thing of the past.

On the bright side, Calkins said that Common Core was much better than the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation of the second Bush administration.

Even under the previous president’s education policy, Calkins said, the federal government listed Florida’s core reading programs as bad for comprehension. One reason is because they focused on main ideas and not central ideas. And this was after putting over $87 billion dollars into such core reading programs after four decades of research that dispel the notion that such work is not effective.

“We are looking not just for high-level comprehension, but critical reading,” Calkins warned, saying that students need to move up the ladder in text difficulty and to learn the new standards on all grade levels.

Calkins is aware of the way to apply Common Core in the classroom because she has written “Pathways to the Common Core,” a bestselling book that explains the standards’ three main clusters – key ideas and details, craft and structure, and integration of knowledge and ideas.

“Those are the standards. The question is what you do with them.”

After the morning keynote address ended, attendees moved on to various breakout sessions addressing topics like technology, involvement and advocacy. Because advocacy is an issue that is close to my heart, I chose “Telling Your Story: Becoming an Ambassador for Students and Public Education.” Facilitated by Deborah Gianoulis and Colleen Wood of Save Duval Schools, this session was designed to help education stakeholders find a voice in the corridors of power in Tallahassee.

“We are watching our public schools lose resources every day,” said Gianoulis, a former WJXT anchor who ran for the Florida Senate in 2010. She said that state leaders are shifting these resources to private, charter and parochial schools because of the aggressive lobby that private interests have in the state government.

Instead of a level playing field, Gianoulis said, politicians unfairly compare public school ‘apples’ to the ‘oranges’ that exist among the private education interests.

“We need choice between apples,” said Gianoulis, referring to the uneven accountability and standards to which public schools are held.

“Can you imagine if the Jaguars played by different rules than the [Houston] Texans?” she asked rhetorically, saying that public education is the most over-regulated industry in the state.

Floridians have the power of the vote to advocate for their public schools, Gianoulis said, but they are not using it.

It does not have to be this way, she said, pointing to a recent town hall meeting at Jacksonville City Hall with then-education commissioner Gerard Robinson. A mother of a special-needs student shared her frustration with how she had a difficult time reaching the education commissioner’s office. After publicly calling out Robinson, Gianoulis said that the mother finally got a telephone call from Robinson.

Most of the time, however, it is up to Floridians to make the trek to the state capital to truly make a difference in public policy; Wood acknowledged that it can be like crossing a very wide gulf for people to take time from their already busy lives to visit Tallahassee.

In spite of the logistical difficulties, Wood said that it is up to families to rise to the challenge because we “have to be fighting for the very existence of what public education can be.”

There are ways, however, for everyday citizens to communicate with leaders.

Wood said that it is essential for education advocates to admit that they do not know an answer if asked by a politician about their issues. Otherwise, these well-meaning people will be perceived as ignorant, unprepared or unprofessional and would not be taken seriously. This is especially true at a time when private, parochial and charter school interests have an open door to legislative offices and chambers and public school advocates are often locked out.

“Tallahassee does not take the field of public education very seriously,” Wood said, “It is petty. It is stupid. They will judge you and walk out the door.”

Wood said that the goal of education advocates is “champion building,” however, as they develop working relationships with allies on both sides of the political aisle.

“Every interaction is a chance to create a champion,” she said.

This work, Wood said, involves looking beyond today into the future.

The Florida House of Representatives and the Senate elect their respective leaders (House Speaker and Senate President) up to a dozen years in advance in a leap of faith that trusts potential leadership based on their personal connections and pledges.

“You don’t know if they can speak well,” said Wood.

Wood pointed to the example of a new state legislator whose college roommate is married to a member of the Duval County School Board and how the school board member has been advocating for causes that are important to local schools.

As the legislator rises through the ranks, it will be harder for him to say no to the personal connections that he has developed over the years with local leaders, said Wood.

Because of this, Gianoulis said optimistically, “Things can change and leadership can change.”

To best influence the changing leadership, Wood and Gianoulis recommended that public education advocates communicate with the legislative staffs that serve as the gatekeepers to lawmakers, to get to know the lawmakers on a personal level (Wood used a colorful ping pong story to get the attention of one elected official) and to know the lawmaking process.

The unseen power structure, they said, included receptionists, aides and assistants who have a great deal of say in the operation of legislators’ offices – including the drafting of legislation and who gets access to the legislators.

One important tip for increased access to such staffers is to make an appointment to the home offices in their respective districts. Constituents, said Wood, are more likely to get access to someone than with arranging for a meeting in the state capital.

With regard to the cumbersome process of lawmaking, Wood advises that advocates not wait until the bill is on the floor to take action.

“It is important to speak out during the committee process,” she said, using the recent failed ‘parent trigger’ legislation as an example. If passed, the parent trigger will give parents the opportunity to vote on the fate of their children’s schools if the schools do not make the grade. It even goes as far as to allow middle and high school students to have a say in whether a public school is turned over to private interests.

This legislation will be back, said Wood, and the time to speak out is by asking to attend committee meetings and to show up in full force.

“We will be texting and tweeting and Facebooking,” she said about getting the word out about this fight. Gianoulis said, “None of you will ever have to do this alone.”

“This is your life,” said Wood, “You know more about this than anyone else in the room.”

After this session and a lunch break, I attended the breakout session that was hosted by Co’Relous Bryant, the manager of community mobilization for the Jacksonville Public Education Fund.

Titled ONE by ONE: A Conversation with Teachers, it was a chance for educators to learn more about the JPEF, a private partnership that is engaging the community in solutions to challenges in the education community.

JPEF has actively solicited solutions from the public for solving the problems that face students today. Mr. Bryant, a product of Duval County Public Schools, moved to the area from Perry, Florida when his mother left the rural town for economic opportunity.

At eight years old, he went to Oak Hill Elementary School. He took a moment to acknowledge Vicki Wall, his former teacher.

Mr. Bryant explained how he became a “son of the school” because adults believed in him and entered him into the school’s gifted program in spite of his circumstances and his environment. He later went to Darnell-Cookman Middle School, where he gave the morning announcements.

“Make it a great day or not – the choice is yours” was Mr. Bryant’s daily sign-off. This sign-off is still used to this day at the now Middle-Senior High School.

Mr. Bryant entered the International Baccalaureate program at Stanton College Preparatory School, he said because he had educators who told him that he was capable of rising to the challenge.

Mr. Bryant, as a youth, found his gift as a speaker. He won American Legion-sponsored oratory competitions, rising through the ranks as the best speaker in the county, state and then represented Florida in national competition.

One of three finalists in the competition, speaking about the United States Constitution and then speaking on a topic drawn out of a hat. Of the three, Mr. Bryant became the 2007 national oratorical champion. “I trusted my teacher. They handed me the road map and I took it,” he said. Branded a modern-day Cicero, he was offered a free ride to attend New York University and graduated with a political science degree.

“I came back home to join the fight,” he said.

In March 2012, Mr. Bryant drove back to Jacksonville to take part in what he called the “number one fight in Jacksonville.”

“Sign me up,” he said.

It is a high capacity, independent non-profit,” he said.

When he asked how many attendees knew about JPEF, about half raised their hands. He set about telling the audience what his organization is about.

“We have got to put the public back into public education,” he said, explaining what JPEF is about. “How to you make community involvement essential to systemic change?”

It is the responsibility of the public, said Mr. Bryant, to become actively engaged in the public education system.

This can help combat is situation in which one out of three Duval County public school students graduate from school on time.

“The community has heard you,” he said, “How do we make it happen?”

To create the One by One initiative, JPEF looked to Mobile, Alabama because it had similar historical circumstances to Jacksonville and faced similar challenges. He said that they had low achievement rates. The community created the “Yes we can” campaign and gathered input from the community.

After five years, the percentage of schools that were proficient by state standards increased from 23% to 90%.

Innovation after innovation after innovation leads to incoherence, however, said Mr. Bryant, referring to the morning keynote speaker – Dr. Calkins. He said that the first step toward progress in Jacksonville involved listening to the people.

One by One participation, he said, represented all sectors of the community. This was no small feat, as JPEF had a staff of half a dozen people. A team of volunteers had 165 conversations with over 1,600 participants.

JPEF illustrated this mission with a special exhibit that was featured at the Cummer Gallery of Art and is now at Jacksonville City Hall. Over 75,000 people have viewed this art exhibit that was designed to portray the students who have the potential to become leaders in the community – if only with the right support from all stakeholders.

Mr. Bryant said JPEF took on the mission of documenting the district’s educational needs because it was important, in his opinion, to present the next superintendent of schools with input from the people whom the school system serves.

“There is a variety of… input,” said Mr. Bryant. All of this conversation is available on the JPEF website. He said that the data and evidence includes a cross section of ideas from all over the county – from San Marco to the Beaches, from neighborhood to magnet schools.

One problem is communications, he said, because 72 percent of survey respondents were unable to understand what the school district was telling them. They believed, according to the same JPEF study, did not feel fully integrated into the school system.

Climate and culture is one of the top three priorities that the community is talking about, said Mr. Bryant. He said that educator morale cuts to the question of whether educators can actually teach or if they are beholden to mandates.

Resources, Mr. Bryant, said are another community concern. For years, funding is part of the divide that separates the more affluent neighborhoods and their schools from the schools in areas that have to do the same work with less.

Third of all, community support was a factor that respondents said they include as a priority in public education. The community understands, he said, “how important it is to partner with you.”

Closing out the day, Dr. Brad Cohen, the afternoon keynote speaker, told the conference about how he grew up with Tourette’s syndrome to become an educator.

Before he made his remarks, the audience watched a clip from a made-for-television motion picture that showed the inspiring story of how one principal helped Cohen to transcend shame to enter what he called “a brand new world.”

Tourette’s or no Tourette’s he said that he knew that he was going to be a teacher. “I know what it’s like to make a difference,” Cohen said.

“I have a story that I believe each and every one of you need to hear,” said Cohen.

Growing up, he said that he wanted to be treated like everyone else – with respect.

He related how his mother sent him to an overnight summer camp for one month.

On the last day of camp, there was a camp fire. Each of the counselors announced awards for each of the counselors gave out prizes.

Cohen, then in grade school, received the ‘Froggy Award.” He was the most popular child at camp for making sounds mimicking that of a frog. He said that he was on top of the world and ran to his mother upon returning home from camp. He excitedly shared his noise with his mother.

Over time, the young Cohen could not control his involuntary sounds, even though the consternation of others around him was growing. His family refused to take him out into public because of the shame that he caused them.

The young boy’s mother researched his condition and soon learned that he had Tourette’s. His fifth grade teacher, however, was merciless and made the young boy apologize for making what she called annoying sounds. After she made him promise not to make these noises, his tics continued.

When he entered middle school, “No one wanted to be friends with a noise maker,” he said.

In math class, “that math teacher didn’t get it,” Cohen said.

The young boy’s mother tried to educate his teachers, but this did not stop the math teacher from sending him to time out.

“I tried to learn anyway that I could,” he said, “I knew that I had more in me than the teachers and students saw.”

The bullies paraded around him and mocked his noises.

“They tried to shut me up because they knew the teachers couldn’t.”

“I hated every single one of those bullies.”

He needed someone to understand what he was going through.

“It is the people who don’t know and the people who won’t want to know,” he said.

The principal stepped forward and asked the boy if he would like to educate the student body about his medical condition.

In Cohen’s family, he was the first generation to be born with this hereditary condition and he explained that it was not contagious

“On that day, I knew that we were making a difference.”

He made himself available to his schoolmates to ask him questions about Tourette ’s syndrome. At the end of this lesson, the school gave him a standing ovation.

He said that it was then that he realized that the students’ negative treatment of him was rooted in the need to know more about him.

“On that day, they learned.”

It was then and there that Cohen wanted to be the teacher that he never had who focused on their strengths and not their weaknesses.

He wanted to be the teacher who gave out scratch and sniff stickers, he said to the amusement of the audience, because he never received such positive reinforcement because he was too ‘noisy.’

In high school, he had a new confidence and could finally focus on his academic work. He no longer faced bullies who exploited his perceived weaknesses. He developed relationships with others around him to not only succeed in school, but life.

“I began to make genuine friends,” he said.

One day at high school in St. Louis, Cohen told the audience how he fell in love with Bradley University.

“You cannot fall in love with a university just because of its name,” his father implored him.

“Let’s go Bradley!” The cheerleaders shouted at games.

The crowd spelled out his name.

He added that he did not just choose the university because of its name, he appreciated the proximity to his home, the size of its student body and the school gave freshmen the chance to teach in the classroom. As a college student, Cohen asked his professors to allow him to share about his condition with his peers at the beginning of class.

His education professor said that he did not have time to allow the college student the two minutes to explain his Tourette’s because there was no time at the beginning of class.

During the first day of class, the education professor ended up giving the time to the nervous student who became more at ease because he knew that the students understood.

For four years at Bradley University, “I studied my tail off,” Cohen said.

“I never made excuses,” he said, “I tried to learn like everyone else.”

“My resume looked nearly flawless.”

“I was ready to take on the world.”

He headed to Atlanta to begin his teaching career. It was cool going to the Olympics at night. But during the day, he endured interview after interview. He could not convince any elementary school administrators to hire him. They were concerned that they would be unable to explain Dr. Cohen’s medical condition to the education communities.

He was even cautioned by one principal that their fifth grade students would react violently.

He walked out of one interview with a principal angry because he asked a principal how a school would treat its special education community if they treated an applicant like him with such disrespect. He decided that he did not want to work for such a person.

“I knew I could do it,” he said. Feeling dejected, he went to bed in tears.

His family asked him to return to Missouri, but we woke up with a new positive attitude. His father recommended that he work as a substitute teacher until full-time work was available.

He printed out a stack of new resumes and set forth to find a new job with a newfound assertiveness. One day, a principal called and asked if Cohen had been hired yet. The principal invited Cohen to an interview.

Instead of focusing on the Tourette’s, the interview was geared toward Cohen’s teaching skills.

Mountain View Elementary School in Cobb County, Georgia hired Cohen after his 25th interview, three weeks into the school year. The new second grade teacher, however, was not in the clear. Having joined late in the year, the other second grade teachers farmed out their children with the greatest challenges and the most high-maintenance parents to him.

After graduating cum laude, he did not know what lessons would help him reach the parade of children who literally moved their desks into his classroom.

But Cohen had the talent and the gifts to come full circle and rise from disability to ability and being able to be the kind of teacher that everybody, including a young scared child making funny sounds, deserves. I am looking forward to what TEACH has in store for us next year.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

9/11 - From grief to grace



I was teaching English at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida when the towers fell. My heart sank when I received word from our security officer that the World Trade Center was struck again. I recalled the time in 1993 when the World Trade Center was first attacked and it never occurred to me that these mighty towers would crumble like my heart would that horrible day. The outcry was swift and brutal against those whom we believed to be behind this act of terrorism that killed over 3,000 people. The anger was understandable, but it often manifested itself in violent words and actions that victimized innocent people who happened to share a faith that was perverted by an evil few. Having returned home from the United States Air Force, where I served as a medic at Dover Air Force Base, the memories were also fresh of being part of the ceremony in which the bodies of those who perished in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole were repatriated to America. I also knew that, as a new Uniteens sponsor that I could do something to make a difference in how we reacted to this crisis. Through fate or Divine Order, our Uniteens group had a lock-in scheduled for that weekend. While our original purpose was to have fun, we faced a more solemn task when we gathered for our weekend sleepover. That weekend, we prayed and meditated over the tragedy that befell our world and we prayed and meditated over the world that we were responsible for co-creating with God. Moving forward, I challenged myself and our Uniteens to reach out in Spirit to find the common good in all. After that lock-in ended, I decided that I would incorporate ecumenical lessons into our curriculum. I found a book that was based on the HBO documentary, "How Do You Spell God?" I also purchased a copy of the video to share with the Uniteens. I felt that it was especially urgent to learn more about world religions and faiths because, when I was in junior high school, I held onto the belief that we were either Christians or we were nothing. It was simply how I was raised as a young Baptist before I joined Unity. This was no simple task, but I chose to make it engaging and joyful for our children. We created mandalas, we performed service projects and we connected with other Uniteens' groups in the spirit of the world that we wanted to see become a reality. I also decided to leave my own complacent comfort zone and attended Saturday meditation at our local Buddhist temple. I also attended synagogue in the San Jose area of Jacksonville - and attended my first Bar Mitzvah. These were the lessons and gifts that I wanted to use to ensure that over 3,000 people did not die in vain. Healing is not easy, but it was something that I felt that it was a task that we were all up to taking up as a cause for life. We can still observe 9/11 through enlightening ourselves to vanquish the darkness of ignorance and hatred. This is our call and this is our cause to ensure that future generations will never have a day like was had on that fateful Tuesday. Epilogue: This morning I attended Sunday morning worship service as usual, but was treated to something unusual. One of the Uniteens who attended our lock-in during that week in 2001 started volunteering in our Sunday school today. I am very proud of her for not only enriching her life through Unity, but serving a new generation of Unity students in a spirit of love and light!

Young Hollywood



"I AM big. It's the PICTURES that got small." - Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard

When I took film making class at the University of North Florida, I made it a mission of mine to see as many classic films that I could find. Hollywood's magical machine had a way of telling stories once upon a time. Although a little worn around the edges from competing with new media, the motion picture is still the art form that surpasses the rest in defining our popular culture. The past is prologue in our lives and Hollywood provides us with a parable in honoring those who came before us. Before there was a Steven Spielberg, there was a D.W. Griffith. Before there was a Natalie Portman, there was a Gloria Swanson. Before there was a Brad Pitt, there was a Montgomery Clift. Our heritage is the legacy of those who blazed a path for us. Yes, Hollywood is preoccupied with youth. Yes, the youthful demographics are what prompt filmmakers to be fickle and flighty in who they package to be the next star. What will never change is the work after which we pattern our new plots and stories. You might ask me what in the world does a fantasy world have to do with the one we live in today. I would answer that we and the entertainment industry have a great deal in common. We can ill afford to discard our past for the sake of embracing the future. The Bible cautions us to honor our fathers and our mothers for we can live a long life from such respect. This, metaphysically, does not mean that being nice to our parents will extend our life expectancy. It means that by recognizing our elders in the flow of life, we understand that longevity is not a vice but a virtue. The picture was big for me when I was a youth and listened to my church elders. I scarcely knew who they were and I always wanted to know what they knew because they were a fountainhead of wisdom that would help me on my journey. One woman comes to mind when I think about my times in Grenson Hall - our fellowship hall - after our Sunday worship services. One woman of advanced age was a faithful attendee of our church. She had a faded tattoo on her arm that she extended to me in friendship. We always exchanged pleasantries and conversation as I staffed the doughnut table that was our YOU fundraiser to support our local, regional and international functions. She, like Rev. Bonnie Grenson, always wanted to take home a small treat for dessert. In return for her doughnut or cookie, she always placed her love offering in the YOU basket and she always paid me back with a smile I left for college and, when I returned, she was no longer there. I learned that she had made her transition. That is not the only thing I discovered about my late friend. Ann was a survivor of the Holocaust. That explained her faded tattoo. She chose a spiritual path in Unity that I trust helped her with her transition. I miss her because I could have learned a lot more from her, but I appreciate the influence that Ann had in my life. The pictures in our world only get small because we allow them to. We must open our eyes to the big picture that we are all big and that our presence must never shrink in the infinite Light, Power and Glory of God. And, when I am in the twilight of my own years in this mortal world, I hope that I will be honored even a fraction of the way I honored Ann and many of my brothers and sisters like her.

"The stars are ageless, aren't they?" - Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard