Time to seriously look at the level of student protection, safety and academic success on college campuses.

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For years I and other high school principals have, more or less successfully, warned parents against “disengaging” when their child reaches high school. I think this warning also holds true for college.
For also like many present and former high school principals, I have experienced several “bad incident”, “bad endings”, college stories. In some situations I had to either on the phone, or actually leave NYC to go and deal with a crisis a student found themselves in. And I may not have the data to prove it, but I truly believe that “bullying”, physical and sexual assaults on college campuses are terribly (for reason of institutional self-interest) underreported. Another important piece of “quiet” data; are the number of students who suffer non-violent trauma, confusion, disillusionment and/or depression, and just flunk out, and come back home. (When a NYC principal my contacts, and the fact that we insisted ever senior apply to the CUNY system have saved the day many times!)

During a crisis, too often the feedback college officials give parents (I have listened in my conference room to these conversations) is that the student is an adult. But that is not reassuring or comforting to a parent who has learned (often from the child) that they are arrested, in the hospital or involved with some kind of conflict with a roommate, professor, staff person or a fellow student. It is not uncommon for colleges to prefer to handle “problems” internally, for what might be some very good reasons (Good PR being the least of them!). But in many situations that results in an injured victim’s rights and care becoming a secondary concern. To their credit many colleges have taken a bold step in the right direction; by warning all students that: “if a crime is committed on campus, the local (not campus) police will be called”

At some point we need to face the issue of the lack of counseling and supervision for young people attending college away from home. This is one of those quiet national tragedies that slips pass the press, until there is a death. Although I believe that we have at least turned the corner on much of the extreme and dangerous “hazing” activities that take place on college campuses, we are not home-safe yet; annually stories still emerge, perhaps due to administration under-sight, or the existence of clandestine and unofficial hazing activities, committed by students who are, just hoping that nobody is seriously psychologically harmed or physically injured, so they won’t get caught.

I get that the colleges prefer to consider them adults, and I understand the “legal-statutory” standards involved here. But the truth is that nothing magical happens to one’s judgement after a high school graduation. These young people going off to college in a couple of months, are very often the same young people we had to counsel out of a bad decision a few months prior. High schools tend to remove parts of the psycho-social scaffolding as the students move from 9th to 12th grade; but we (and alert parents) always keep an eye (even if they don’t notice) on the students as they prove to us that they are making good and sound decisions. Further, young people are at very different places on the independence-maturity achievement scale.

On a college campus, death and serious injury is the extreme situations that can occur; but there are many small tragedies that never hit the news media. And if you are the parent of one of the few students in the nation who die every year at a college; national statistics don’t alleviate your grief and sorrow. One thing I have learned in education, numbers don’t matter when that one tragic number is your child.

Me & Navy

The interesting phenomena I noticed when I spent the day at the Naval Academy was that every student was “connected” to some team, project, activity, program that was connected to an adult. Every student was also connected to a team of other students, who were officially charged (and held responsible) for looking out for each other. The Naval cadets were also connected to families and religious institutions “off-campus”; it seem that to go “missing” or go into isolation was impossible.

Recently, I also spent a semester taking a class at an HBCU (Miles College-Alabama) and one of the things I admired about that institution was that the faculty (and the staff) took on a more parental-mentoring role as opposed to just separating themselves from students, and making themselves only available during scheduled “office hours”; and access by way of “official titles”. It seem that the faculty and staff took a personal interest in the personal well-being of individual students.

Me & Miles

I understand that most large universities can’t (for reasons of size, culture and tradition) duplicate the structures I saw at Miles College and the Naval Academy. But I do believe that they can do better. It’s not enough to see this as a “public relations” problem once something goes terribly wrong. There must be some positive proactive steps that can be taken, that allows students to experience “adulthood”, while at the same time feel protected and connected.

I think we can start by having a counselor (not academic advisor) officially assigned to a case load of students. This counselor of course can check on the student’s academic progress and challenges; but more importantly this counselor can consistently and continually check up on the student’s emotional state on a regular basis to determine if more extensive therapeutic or support services are needed. How is the student adjusting to being away from home? Away from family and friends? Who are their present (campus) friends and associations? What are they involved in outside of academics, i.e. clubs, teams, associations, etc.

We also need to look closely at the HBCU model. When institutions of higher learning take a social-political-cultural interest in the students well-being; and importantly a commitment to making sure that the student graduates; college campuses can become physically safer and emotionally healthier places! They must start looking beyond students as numbers and tuition payees.

That means moving past rhetoric (“Our students lives matter”), and more into operational-structural changes; again before, not after the tragedy! Colleges and universities must look closely at their mission statements to make sure they cover the psychological and physical wellbeing of all students (particularly women); and this can start by connecting every students to a “life-advisor”; who is concerned about them as a person, not a number.
Just having someone check on you, to ask from time to time: “How are you doing?” may not be seen as part of the college’s mission; but it could be seen as part of their humanity mission; after all you can be any age, and still appreciate someone checking up on you; even if you pretend it’s not that big a deal; it really always is! In the meantime parents, stay alert!

Why I don’t engage my Bernie Sanders friends anymore…

We have a long way to go, and a lot of work to do folks; let’s stay focused…

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Early in the Democratic primary campaign I had some wonderful and enlightening conversations with my pro-Bernie friends. And I would even admit that they actually won me over with several of their arguments. Back then the conversations were focused on the virtues and integrity of the Sanders political positions. And I would be less than honest to say that I did indeed find their arguments concerning the way “big money” has polluted our political electoral environment appealing. I also connected with the Sanders denouncement of the ugly growing wealth and hope gap between the top money earners/owners, and the working and unemployed poor. Yes, and like them I was wary of the Democratic Party’s primary focus on accommodation and cautious incrementalism; as the GOP seems to have a serious action plan of obstruction, destroy and deny. We always ended these conversations with an obligatory agreement and pledge to support either of the two Democratic candidates, once the primary was concluded.

But something has changed to force me to no longer engage the “Bernites” either on social media or in person. And if I needed any further encouragement to take a step back, the recent altercation between actor/activist Wendell Pierce and some Bernie fans provided it. Now I don’t know what happen. And I don’t know if the Bernie fans in this situation were “progressives” or not; but anytime you call the police on a Black man in America, he better be a real criminal, because you are placing that man’s life in danger. But whoever is truly the aggressor here; I still say: “Come on, Bernie vs. Hillary; it can’t be that serious!”

We have students study history for a reason; in the past, things tend to go very bad when one leader takes on good angelic attributes, and the other leader, of course becomes the demonic bad angel. And unless (and we will see with Sanders) the “good angel” has the character of a Nelson Mandela; a movement for positive change, can turn quickly into a movement of nihilistic anger, hate and revenge.

Things started to turn bad when the Bernie folks went full in with the GOP talking points against Hillary Clinton. As an educator who has been molded by the philosophies of Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) and Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), I found this troubling. I have warned teachers and administrators for many years, that using the language of the oppressor, in any context, is dangerous business. When the news station (FOX) that is based on lies; calls Hillary a liar; I am sorry, but at the very least I am suspect, and not willing to use them as a source of information or inspiration. Further, it became less and less clear to me what the Sanders people end game was (is); as they went “bazooka” in the attempt to super demonize and damage Hillary.

It seemed, as the primary outcomes did not go their way, linguistic toxicity seeped in, the critiques became less about policy and more about personality; we were being led to believe that someone with the integrity of a John Lewis could not tell the difference between the Clintons, and the arch-segregationist of the Civil Rights era. All of those Black elected and civic leaders who I remember voting for and championing the “Clinton crime Bill”, suddenly went MIA; the campaign rhetoric started to sound bitter and dishonestly silly.

What finally shut me down was the real and implied dismissal and disrespect shown to Black voters; who according to the Bernites (again utilizing GOP talking points) were fooled, and foolish for voting for HRC; when in fact it was their candidates inability to make a link between: “breaking up the banks & walloping Wall Street”, and the dire and desperate economic state of Black America. Black voters have often suffered in history from supporting the abstract liberal-left adventurism of the entitled folks with jobs, safe water, and good schools for their children to attend.

In any event I am sticking with the original pledge of supporting the Democratic nominee, no matter who he, or she is; but I am not basing my hope for the deliverance of the disenfranchised on any of them. We need to both vote, and save ourselves (like the work done in New Orleans by Mr. Pierce), if we truly want to be saved!

I guess when it comes to utilizing the new social media I am clearly old-school.

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I try to approach social media first with having the daily objective of encouraging and inspiring some person I may, or may not know. I also enjoy informing people of some good and vital learning enhancing information opportunity, i.e. a scholarship, internship, or an informal education experience (museum event). I further like to see the personal progress, successes, victories, achievements, accomplishments, new jobs, job promotions, graduations, and positive completions that people are able to realize; in particular I look forward to seeing the “good-news” of the many young people I have been blessed to work with in the past. And yes, I love, and never get tired of their children’s pictures! (My personal enjoyable and funny pay-back is when they sound like me when dealing with their teenage children!:-)

I (a passionate and consummate learner) also see social media as a tool, and opportunity for me to learn something new, something different, something for which I was unaware, some piece of knowledge or information I can use in one of my many “projects”, diverse study interest and numerous hobbies. I think that one way that I would define death (sorry biology teachers); is the personal end of learning. I utilize social media to fill my knowledge gaps; and in this practice I am very fortunate to be connected and “friends” with a large number of smart, intelligent and creative people, many of them former students or collogues.

The term “life-long-learner” is too often a throwaway line in my profession; but I really find joy in constantly expanding my knowledge-information resource bank across many different subject areas; particularly those topics outside of my intellectual comfort zone. If the end of learning is a kind of hell; then the reluctance and failure to get outside of ones learning comfort zone, must be the road to that hell. I love to read something that shakes-up my assumed knowing or a “sacred” and passionately held belief. The reason I think most people actually avoid pursuing life-long-learning; is that it can often put you in the very uncomfortable position, of having to continually think about your own style and substance of your thinking. (What we call in the field: metacognition)

That’s the good side…

But too often, I also find some very disturbing behaviors in the social media world. People will use the electronic distance, and the anonymous “handles” to say very ugly and hurtful things. To say things to and about people they would not say in a physical social-group setting, and definitely not to the person’s face. Now I am not talking about the critiques of public figures or officials; although even that can at times go a little too far. I believe that you can’t benefit from being a “public person”, and at the same time not expect to hear “negative feedback” from that same public. I know as a former superintendent of those dreaded monthly meetings where at 3 minutes a clip, you could receive the sometimes not so pleasant “advice” (often conflicting) from the public, as to how you are, or not doing your job properly. Public critiques are part of the “price of the ticket”; but we can very easily forget that these “public people” are also human people. And this would include the ever increasing “parent rants” about their child’s teacher on social media (It would be more productive to set up a meeting with the teacher and administrators at the school!) Public service should not translate into public abuse. On social media I think that too often even “humorous” comments at times rises to the level of abuse and disrespect for the humanity of a public-person; particularly when it includes the passing on of unconfirmed story lines; or drawing in their innocent family members into the conversation for reasons of inflicting unearned ridicule and rebuke.

My personal practice is to first read a comment or a posted article. And if it’s an “interesting” (defining interesting is “a whole nother” post!) article I may save it in one of my many reference folders; i.e. creative writing, early childhood education, Art, history, school improvement, “bucket list stuff”, school leadership, etc. Or sometimes I will read an article or post, and just take “interesting” sections (quotes, books, references) put them in a file and revisit them later for an article, or to shed light on something else I am reading. This style of reading-studying-note taking, the comparing and contrasting of different articles, the process of dissecting, deconstructing and analyzing is a result of several autobiographical experiences:

(1) My having spent so much of my “latch-key” childhood life in the unofficial after-school care of the Brooklyn Public Library. There I learned that searching (researching) for knowledge and fun was, well fun! I learn to love the pursuit of what appears to others to be disassociated, disconnected and obscure topics of interest; for no other reason except that they are in the world to be known. Since the 50’s (reading the entire Sherlock Holmes series) I interpreted, “smartness” as to mean that you were conversant and a student of knowledge across multiple subject areas. Later in undergraduate school one of my heroes was my social psychology professor Dr. Kenneth Clark, who could link and move effortlessly between the disciplines of history, anthropology, philosophy and political science, etc. later I would feel the same way about people like W.E.B. Du Bois and Michel Foucault.

(2) I had great k-12 teachers, and in particular a 12th grade English teacher who threatened us kids with torture on “the rack” if anyone ruined her perfect pass rate on the NYS English Regent’s exam. The courts may have taken religion out of public schools; but not out of her class; we were warned: “The Lord himself will need to come to the rescue of anyone who fails that Regents exam!” Some of us may have trusted in the Lord; however in this case, we preferred not to use that option. But it was not only her fierce admonitions; these words were matched with her commitment, efficacy, competence, and the ever present, and ever ready to be used red pen; for which no essay, book report or composition could escape without a red corrective comment (how on earth did she find all of those small mistakes?). I think somewhere in the middle of the semester we all gave up on: “no red marks”; and redefined victory as a small amount of red marks. I know that in our modern pedagogical era the “red pen” has been ruled verboten, but back in the 60’s they were more concerned about our academic achievement and success, then our “hurt” feelings. In any event no one from my class ended up on the “rack.”

Finally (3) I had a gem of a professor at Columbia’s Teachers College doctoral program for my research methodology class, the late Dr. Linda Powell. She actually taught me “to read” in a new and different way, such that even now as I read any article or paper I can almost instinctively detect the slightest bias, faulty premise, a flaw in logic, or inadequate-incorrect research methods; and any disconnect between the title, hypothesis, the body of the work and the conclusion. And so I bring all of this to my social media readings.

And is this wrong?

I say this because I often read the “comments” and responses that others post in response to postings (including mine); and I am left to wonder if the responding individual even took the time to read the post or the article in question. I have visions of that dreaded 60’s “red pen” hovering above my head, as I read some of these comments. “Did they read the same article I read?” Sometimes I have even gone back to re-read the article (including some I have posted) assuming that: “maybe I read it wrong!” Nope, (that’s time I will never get back!) I read it right. It seems that the “off-topic” respondent wanted to make a point, and to hell with the actual point of the post or article! There is a lot of: “putting people in their place”, or “straightening people out” on social media, and less learning from others. But I think many of these incorrect corrections are really social media putdowns masquerading as the free flow of differing ideas. And not to get lost in all of these efforts; I have also seen some very enlightening (respectful) and educational debates and dialogues on social media; but I think the anonymous nature of the medium encourages too much of the “put down” stuff.

Perhaps this is a place where K-12 educators can be helpful (where are my curriculum and instruction majors!); after all I don’t think that social media is going away anytime soon. Mabey we should put this media into the (ELA?) curriculum. Help students to see it not only in the context of communication, but also as an educational learning tool with standards and accompanying rubrics to define and explain those standards. The technical aspects of social media (how does snapchat do what they do, technically?) A business-entrepreneurial use of the medium. And what about an “anti-bullying”, respect, tolerance, conversational etiquette component in the curriculum. And finally some “Too Much Information Sharing” standards; there are somethings that the public, family, friends, co-workers; future: voters, constituents, college selection committees, students, customers, employers or employees, (present or future love interest!); don’t need to know about you! I can’t speak for my other collogue-friends, but I did not plan to be a principal in high school or college (and had no idea what a school superintendent was or did)

Clearly, I don’t fit into the: say “whatever” (comes to mind) age…

Thinking of the term “old-school”; I have now accepted that the term defines me in both ways. For I can’t count the number of times in the past that I have had students in my office as a principal where I suggested to them that: “Just because an idea, enters your head, it does not always mean that you are required to verbally share it with the teacher or class.” Or: “Imagine if you did not allow that phrase to leak from your head to your mouth; instead of sitting here now with me, the teacher could be thinking, (not having any proof to the contrary), that you have a great deal of sense!” Mabey calmer and more thoughtful “heads” will eventually come to be the best and common practices we see on electronic social media. I sure hope so!

Holding us in, holding us close, holding us up, and holding us to our calling…

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Holding us in, holding us close, holding us up, and holding us to our calling…

    “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

    We hold these memories to a sacred conclusion,
    these are those, the sad society of unnested orphans,
    recipients of the ever forgiving hearts,
    the ever giving milk of kindness;
    our mothers are in us as we were in them,
    swimming inside of our thoughts, singing in our words:

    (“did I just sound like her?”…“say something she would say?”)

    And the constant and often inconvenient voice:

    “If I did, said that, what would Pauline Johnson say?”

    The motherless fellowship, we always feel alone now, today and most days;
    sailing on a rudderless ship, we just try to get through the day,
    abandoned by laughter and exiled to our quiet remembrances,
    we can at least smile as the end products of fierce prayers and tears,
    and for those things that can never be lost, or taken away;
    the things wrapped in and around DNA, the nuanced little habits;
    time leads our learning to love a calling given, like our names at sea,
    I fell in line to my maternal labeling:

    Michael, the warrior Arch Angel destined to directly confront satan,
    Anthony, the wilderness wanderer, compassionate, alone and sensitive saint,
    built to enable and inspire others to their calling with God.
    Why these two opposites, I would ask her now,
    why the terrible burden of wanting to both fight and pray, destroy and heal?

    (“I will always be there with you, I am praying for you now, and for when I am gone”)

    And so I am always caught before I fall,
    warned out of my own fondness for forgetting the reason and why,
    emissaries sent and signs signaling, push backs against occasional regret and sorrow;
    And even now I still seem to recall everything:

    words soaked in wisdom and warnings of pending winters,
    looks that could instantly stop any pre-inappropriate behavior,
    smiles soaked in the sacred secrets of a promised offering,
    the warmness of touch pushing the scrapes and bruises away;
    words, looks, smiles and the warmness of touch,
    was essential for a black boy to survive the brooklyn streets,
    to survive the world’s cruel intentions…

    In many ways I was a dedication to disappointment,
    an unreturnable gift;
    (“I understand you care about your people, but they…”)
    But she always cared,
    for my hope was not to disappoint,
    to not waste great efforts born of solemn, bold and silent sacrifices.

    I am still swimming in a maternal sea of hope,
    connected and nourished in spite of all the discord in my life,
    by the prayers of a faithful & brave woman,
    who without future evidence, and with no proof of the promise,
    dedicated her child to the mysterious call of God.
    What was she thinking?
    She was not, she was praying.

    -MAJ/Mother’s Day/2016

School: A place you go to learn to live, not to die… Part 2.

We don’t serve the families of our imagination, or even the “perfect” families that nurtured us, rather we serve the families who send us their children everyday…

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A philosophical cultural narrative of weakness rules the thinking of too many educators. It is the “If only…” factor. It asserts that we could successfully educate children: “If only parents taught them a list of prerequisite skills prior to their arriving to our schools!” “If only parents knew how to assist their children with homework and home study techniques!” “If only parents exposed their children to the many informal educational activities and institutional resources that exist outside of school!” “If only parents would insure that their children take school and learning seriously!” “If only parents taught their children to behave properly!” If only…

For sure our work would be much easier if parents were able and willing to engage and enforce the before mentioned best parental practices. And yet sadly, this faulty belief is sacredly held by many who have done the required educational readings in developmental psychology; and therefore should be fully aware that the adolescent stage is the internal psychological (and physiological) signal to the child to begin the natural and necessary: “resistance to parental control over my life” period. But if our work is truly a vocation, then we must serve people where they are, not where we wish they were, or where our work would be made easier; for as I read somewhere that:

“…It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”

The truth is that we don’t serve the “model” families of our imagination, or even the imagined “perfect” families that raised us; rather we serve the naturally imperfect families who send us their children every day, seeking what most parents seek for their children, a better life; and definitely they are not sent to school to lose their lives…

And so, in order to have a safe learning environment: The principal must be strategically proactive, preventative and investigative in the approach to student safety. A safe learning environment is your first priority. I don’t want to give any students all of the secrets of the Principal craft; but here are a few small things to get things started, that can make a large impactful difference:

1. Personally meet, greet and welcome students at the door each morning; with one of the objectives being to read “body language”. Many students are forced to travel from and through very stressful situations at home, or on the way to school. If required, initiate some preventive-counseling if the student arrives with the signs of “going to have a very difficult day”. Know what challenges your students are facing outside of school. Be a “nosey”, “inquisitive”, “pushy”, “in the business” type of building administrator— “intelligence gathering” from multiple sources is critical; the school family members must have access to you, in order to communicate with you. The age of the “ivory tower” principal (my 60’s high school days when we never saw the guy!) is over. The people who accuse you of “doing too much”; don’t share your responsibility for keeping your students and staff safe, and based on their comment, neither do they know how. There is a conspiracy to keep you in your office; fight it! Get out of your office and move around the school–Including at the start of school, lunch periods, and at the end of the school day! You especially need a relationship with students that would allow them to feel safe and comfortable to “put you on” to a present or possible conflict, particularly, in its early stages. As a superintendent I used, (as was the case with my Brooklyn H.S. superintendent with me) the “preventing an incident” statistic as an important measurement for determining effective school leadership. You need a plan in place to counteract various possible scenarios; for example: Alternate (change from time to time), your walking habits and the security petrol plan to make them less predictable. You need a safe integration and oversight plan for a “new” student transferring into the school in the middle of the year; a standard cause of conflict in H.S., because students have already started to “group-up”. Provide them with an initial good group of (your) selected friends. Don’t believe everything you hear about teenagers; I have always found that young people are honored, and take this assignment seriously, and are also flattered that the principal would ask for their help (which is how you should begin the request: “_________, I need your help”)

2. A clear and widely understood discipline code: A discipline plan must be proportional to the violation, equitable, just; and it must have consistency and act with predictable consequences. And the ultimate learning objective of the discipline program is not punitive, it is to be instructive. You are not solely in the discipline business; you are in the teaching of appropriate, positive and productive behavior business.

3. A student involved conflict resolution program, where the reward-weight is placed on seeking a resolution to a student to student conflict. The plan can’t just be based on prohibitions and penalties (as severe as they must be); students need positive incentives not to fight.

4. Good and rigorous instructional-learning practices invite good behavioral practices. A good and strong instructional plan/program will also cut down on the amount of time, for a large portions of the school time, when a student is out of class unsupervised. A “principal for a day” corporate executive once joked to me: “My goodness, these kids don’t ever go to the bathroom during classes!” (“Nope, they are high school students, they can be encouraged to manage that biological process efficiently!”)

5. Offer a rich survey of student clubs, activities and teams that cover a wide spectrum of student interest, gifts and talents. In this way you are connecting large numbers of students to an adult in the building, and to each other. The principal must enroll every adult in the building (including school aides, custodians, cafeteria staff, etc.) in the securing the school mission!

6. I don’t know what this particular fight was about; but my experience has been that girls will often fight over some type of real or imagined “boy issue”; the boy involved usually is neither sympathetic nor interested in the conflict (“Mr. Johnson, I did not tell them to fight, can I go back to class?”… No, you can’t!); even if he has purposely caused it. The key factor is that the adults in the building must take these kind of conflicts seriously; you can’t project your adult ideas onto the situation, and just dismiss it as: “silly”, “childish” or “puppy love”.

7. Once you have the two antagonist in your office (remember: the principal’s office is a classroom); you must spend all the time necessary to truly end the conflict. Shake hands and saying: “I’m sorry”, is not necessarily a teenager’s concept of “it’s over” (there’s that knowledge of developmental psychology thing again!). Ending a conflict between teenagers takes time and work, you must be willing to put in both. You must also be willing to do the necessary follow-up and “check-up” on the status of the situation. You must balance punishment with counseling (This is a palace where me and my late-great guidance counselor Mrs. Cammarata played our best good guy/bad guy routine; she would say: “You two better work with me, because if it’s all Mr. Johnson’s way, I can’t save you from what terrible and harsh ending that will befall you”

8. Have a friends and audience on notice plan (bring the key “potential candidates of instigation”, the “Paul Revere types”, into your office to receive their warning): Anybody “instigating” or “hyping up” the situation, verbally, online, written; engaging in rumor mongering: that is starting, carrying or delivering of same rumor or threat; you have been dully warned! Any incitement in the format of a rap, poem, song, or drawing; the facilitation of the conflict through “venue selection”, “audience informing”, or even offering to “hold a coat”; will lead to serious and very painful consequences. Any type of first, second or third hand involvement in promoting a conflict; if your name comes up in any way as encouraging the conflict, and it results in a fight; you get the same penalty as the combatants. Anybody watching (cheering or encouraging) will face sanctions. Don’t waste your (comments) time educators, I know none of this is “officially” legal; and since we are on the topic of not legal; yes I suspended two students for fighting on the weekend (nobody tried that move again!) And at another school I blocked another fight when I turned up at the “fight site” early, having been tipped off by students; and yes the potential combatants paid dearly for ruining my Saturday morning!

9. Engage and enroll students into the mission of the school; ultimately you will need them to manage their own behavior, as well as the behavior of their peers. The students need a political and moral philosophy that leads them away from physical conflict. Make “snitching” to prevent violence in the school a virtue (by changing the word and the concept); protect the identities, honor and reward those who inform you of threats to their own, or the school family’s safety (“But, how did you know Mr. Johnson?… “Never mind how I found out; now let’s talk about this “beef” between you and ____________!”) Make peace a practiced cultural imperative for the entire school family. The concept of: “why we are here”; and why we need each other to survive and succeed!

10. Finally, the principal must be able to take “the heat”. You could be designated as “too strict” by a parent; that is, until that parent’s child is a victim of violence, and then you are “not strict enough”! And so you might as well do what you need to do in the beginning, to make the school safe! The principal must also be prepared to take every push-back and criticism that the “liberal-do-gooder” community will throw at you; because trust me, none of them will be standing with you, when you lose your job for leading an “out-of-control” and/or dangerous school. And they will also be absent in the worst moment of the profession; and that is when you are forced to inform a parent that the child they sent to you alive and well that morning, is in the hospital, or worse is now dead.

In my 11 years as a principal I have experienced the full spectrum of “parenting skills”; some great, some not so great. I have worked with students from all types of living conditions; good housing, bad housing, group home housing, to no housing. One parent, two parents, no parents, grandparents, deployed parents, foster parents, parents living in another country, one parent in prison, or both parents in prison. In any event, I saw my job as principal was to serve as a counteracting force to what the external society wanted to bring into the school; that meant I had to think and plan on how to keep children and staff safe. I did this because as a high school principal I knew that re-raising teenagers was an impossibility; and asking only for perfectly raised children was a wasteful act of fantasy. The school environmental culture must offer an alternative peaceful and predictable reality; that would allow children a break from (read: a rest away from) the world.

An effective school culture of peace places the emphasis on prevention, “an early warning system”, clear and precise behavioral standards, the conditions and consequences that will occur for not meeting those standards; and the ultimate goals of: peaceful resolutions, having a peaceful environment, and the teaching of appropriate and productive human social interactions. Any principal with the title can suspend students after a fight, or after a staff person, or another student is seriously injured.
However, the principal who is effective, seeks to be a master incident preventer! And that requires thoughtful strategic planning skills. Build a school safety culture that responds to the present reality that exist both internal and external to your school. It must also be a safety cultural that effectively balances justice with compassion; punishment with rehabilitative-counseling-restoration; and the protection of individual student rights, along with the right of the majority of the school family to work and learn in peace.

Michael A. Johnson is a former school teacher, principal and superintendent.

School: A place you go to learn to live, not to die…

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Part 1

“Investigators in Wilmington, Delaware are expected to charge as many as three teenage girls in the fight that killed a 16-year-old high school student. Charges are expected to come down as early as Friday. Amy Francis-Joyner, died at the hospital following an assault in the bathroom at Howard High School of Technology”—WTXF News; April 30, 2016

Like every earlier generation we could blame this on the present generations: “bad behavior”, “poor judgement”, their disregard for life; their loss of values, their choice of music, and lack of proper moral and ethical codes of behavior. And like the elders of my youth who were sure that our behavior, our manners (or lack of), our language, our style of dancing the: “slop”, “boogaloo”, “Shing-a-ling”, and “grinding”; along with our taste of music that was based on love without the mention of a Christian marriage: “Ooo-baby-baby”, “Baby I need your loving”, “Ain’t too proud to beg”, and “Get ready” and “Let’s get it on”; was surely accelerating the world on the path to hell. But between their finger waging sermons they forgot to tell us that their elders bemoaned their manners, their lack of attention to social protocols, dancing styles and taste of music; and their elders were also convinced that they were paving the road to hell, and taking the world with them. And although both our generations were/are not perfect, considering all of the things that could have gone cataclysmically wrong; we did not turn out too bad; and the planet is relatively intact.

Perhaps we could as so many on social-media have done, attribute this tragic incident to the decline in “parenting skills.” But in my many years of interacting with a lot of parents, particularly those families that are struggling under hard to horrific social-economic pressures; I think that the overwhelming majority of them do a better job than both they, and we give them credit for. Parenting is not a perfect science; for even many families who have all of the “keys to the kingdom”; meaning: wealth, education, political and racial entitlement, can still see their children fall victim to the pitfalls of society. The recent trend to move drug addiction away from criminality, and into the category of a health issue, is a response to the accelerating number of white children becoming addicted. And listening to the now flurry of interviews by the parents of these children, poverty, parental unemployment-underemployment, depressed social-economic housing-living conditions was not necessarily the cause of the child’s addiction.
Now each case is unique, but these parents, don’t for the most part come across as neglectful and disinterested parents, who were not involved in their children’s lives. Interestingly, one of the major fears of these parents, is that because of this drug addiction, their child is now forced to travel from their safe neighborhood, into “bad” neighborhoods (Read: “Colored”) in order to purchase their drugs. And so parenting, no matter how well done, and bracketed by societal advantage, can in the end go terribly wrong, because teenagers can act as independent agents of their own lives; you can teach them, but you can’t be them, or be with them 24 hours a day.

But wearing my superintendent’s hat here. The conversation I would have had with the principal of the school where this young lady was killed, is not on the topic of: “the presence or absence of quality child rearing strategies on the part of parents”. Rather, what operational structures did you have in place to prevent such a tragedy from occurring? I am also sure that for the parents of the deceased child; there is little comfort in critiquing the shortcoming of our “modern era”, or the parenting skills of either the victim’s, or the perpetrators parents. The truth is that schools have never, in the history of public education, been able to control the socio-economic, societal factors that children bring with them to school.

But we are responsible for strategically designing smart responses to: The bad things that exist outside of our school doors. We do have some control over how much of “the world”, is allowed to enter, and control our school world.

And I don’t think that children need to die in a school.

I will explain why next week in Part 2.

Michael A. Johnson is a former teacher, principal and superintendent.

Yesterday in my garden…Rain on Purple

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Yesterday after the short sweet rain; and after the sure and faithful mail lady’s truck has passed out of view. I know she has come and gone because I heard her truck. I can hear now. It is so quiet that I can hear the trees sway from the smallest encouragement of a breeze. I hear the woodpeckers hard at work (I do hope they are not working on my shed). I don’t just hear birds now; but rather I hear the different songs of many different birds. In the country I have learned how to hear again; like I could hear in my younger Prospect Park days; back then I could hear my kites beating Brooklyn rhythms against the sky.

And so I walk down to the road to pick up my mail. Yes my city friends I must walk down to the road to pick up mail; and thus I am forced to encounter the sights, sounds and smells of nature every day. I turn this daily mail pickup, like most things these days, into a meditation; but that’s another topic for another posting! I am immediately aware as I am walking, that out of all of the flowers gathered on both sides of the path, the purple flowers have experienced an amazing 1 day growth spurt; they seem for some reason to want to get me to look closely at them. And so I look beyond the red, white, yellow, and orange flowery collage, to get a better and closer look at them, since clearly they are trying to get my attention. And that is when I notice the drops of rain, resting gently on purple flowers; and these translucent rain drops, reflecting the sun’s rays, looking like a kind of… purple rain. I admit that I have a weakness for signs and symbolism; and so what could this all mean?

My initial thoughts are about how these flowers have so artfully conspired with the rain and sun to create this: “Purple Rain”. How free is nature to be able to combine, and weave Art and Science into something beautiful. One definition I guess, of a genius, like a Dr. King, A Queen of Soul, or a Prince; is when you are able to merge diverse and distinctly different things, into a single act of beauty.

I think about how the world of education makes so little space for art and creativity. How little time and resources we have invested in designing a common core of educational values that would allow us to identify and grow the multi-giftedness of all young people. The schools that do actually work, are designed to funnel children onto the employee-workspace; but what about the inventive-creative space? Who says you can only learn one instrument; why not 3, 4, or 7? And why can’t we teach that one can engage in design, creation and creative ownership, innovation, direction, production and the performance of art?
Schools should have long names (An inside SSCHS & Phelps joke :-); or at least act like they do. Names and missions that cover multiple areas like: STEM, Art, Music, Creative Writing, Dance, Robotics, History, Drama, Photography-Film, Poetry, Ellington swinging, Ella singing and a Shakespeare Scholars Club! Schools, if not in name, at least in practice, should speak to serving the whole creative and intellectual personality of the child!

Forget about identifying genius in public education; we can’t even get to, and support all of the children who are gifted and talented, and who are trapped in uninspiring and discouraging school settings. We lose them because they are poor, the wrong color, their parents may not have mastered the English language, or they just live in the wrong zip code. Maybe they are lost because they are shot on the way to or from school; or traumatized by the daily violence and death in their neighborhoods…in their lives. Perhaps their potentially gifted brains are poisoned by the water they are forced to drink; or the poison on the home walls that establishes the ‘uncrossable’ borders of their dreams. No one took them to a museum or a play. Could it be that no musical instrument was ever placed in their hands? Did anyone dare teach them an African, Modern or Ballet dance move? Gave them a blank canvas, paint, clay, wood or stone; and then teach them to speak to the world thorough those objects. Did they ever get a chance to show what they know—naturally, inherently? And maybe, like Amy Joyner (that’s her name, she is a person, not just “victim”) they get beat to death in their high school bathroom. Or they die slowly of low expectations, discouragement and disinterest every day in a classroom.

How many have we missed? How many “Hamiltons” will we never see created and performed? The missing Misty Copelands of our land; the undiscovered presence of creative inheritance through an Augusta Savage, Otto Neals or Tom Fellings… And even now, how many young people are calling out their creative gifts to an unresponsive nation? That crying out for learning, and the hope of being bravely and boldly creative; perhaps: “This is what it sounds like when doves cry”

Wonderful! These students opted out of bigotry!

Ted Cruz visit to Bronx high school canceled after students threaten a walkout: ‘His views are against ours’— NY Daily News

New York City Values In Action!

These students are displaying the type of education that can heal our land…

The full text of the students’ email:

Hello Ms. Duggins,

A group of students will be leaving during 4th period, as act of civil disobedience in regards to the arrival of Ted Cruz to BLCPA. We have all considered the consequences of our actions and are willing to accept them. We respect you and all the staff at BLCPA as well as the expected guests. But we want you to understand that as passionate students, we have ideas and principles that should be heard and respected. This walk out isn’t a reflection of our discontent with BLCPA but our opportunity to stand up for our community and future. This walk out is taking place because we as students all share a common idea.

The presence of Ted Cruz and the ideas he stands for are offensive. His views are against ours and are actively working to harm us, our community, and the people we love. He is misogynistic, homophobic, and racist. He has used vulgar language, gestures, and profanity directed at a scholar and staff members, along with harassing and posing threats to staff and scholars according to the Disciplinary Referral slip. This is not to be taken kiddingly or as a joke. We are students who feel the need and right to not be passive to such disrespect.

Full article: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/cruz-bronx-school-visit-canceled-students-plan-walkout-article-1.2590946

AN ALL TOO FAMILIAR AND MUCH TOO COMMON CORE OF CRIMINALS

“Feds charge 12 Detroit principals in $1M kickback scheme”

“In its latest crackdown on school corruption in Detroit, the federal government today launched a legal bomb targeting 12 current and former Detroit Public School principals, one administrator and a vendor — all of them charged with running a nearly $1-million bribery and kickback scheme involving school supplies that were rarely ever delivered.”— Detroit Free Press

Unfortunately, I have seen this show up close and personal when as a principal I had to leave my school in the middle of the 2000 school year, in order to take charge of a school district (http://www.nytimes.com/2000/11/02/nyregion/ex-queens-school-chief-charged-in-6-million-bid-rigging-scheme.html?ref=topics) where the leadership had abandon the children. Children most of whom, looked a lot like those same abandoning and thieving administrators. These failed educators sadly turned an entire district into a criminal enterprise. And what troubled me the most by what I saw, was the cynical and callous combination of the pilfering of the much-needed monetary funds, plus the educational theft the children suffered.

That district needed every penny it could get since it had a large number of title 1 students, academically struggling students, a large number of ELL- ESL (Latino, Asian, Haitian) students, and the highest concentration of students in any NYC school district, living in temporary housing. People can go to jail, and some of the money can even be recovered. But the educational resources needed in a specific time and situation are lost forever. That learning “moment in time” is lost to the children, forever. Children, many of whom sat in front of missing, dead and/or unworkable computers every day for years, saw their educational opportunity become irreplaceably lost, forever.
And that part is often understated when we have the noisy-news-media braking up of these criminal projects and test cheating scandals; the missing part is the permanent damaging effects of educational lost to the children, that no jail time or fine can fix.

Quite honestly, over those three years (and throughout my career) I often wondered: What the heck is wrong with some Black educational leaders? Did they grow up and live in some alternate American reality that was different from my own? Did they not even flip the TV channel one evening and accidentally land on the TV series: “Roots”? Or by chance see either of the “Stand” movies: “Stand by Me” or “Stand and Deliver”? Did they ever pick up a copy of the: “Autobiography of Malcolm X”; Cornel West’s: “Race Matters” or Baldwin’s: “The Price of the Ticket” by mistake, and read a couple of chapters? Stumble upon “From Slavery to Freedom” (John Hope Franklin); and wonder on which end of the Slavery to Freedom spectrum they stood. Read: “Mis-Education of the Negro” (Carter G. Woodson), and think about if whether they were promoting the “Mis”, or the “Education”? Did they glance at MLK’s: “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, and wondered why he was sitting in that jail cell? Heard “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou, and mistakenly thought that after all of the sacrifices of the elders and ancestors, it was a call to: Still I Fall into personal greed. Thought about what it was that was worth dying for to cause Claude McKay to pen the poem: “If We Must Die” (Hint: it was for our children!) Ever looked at a child for whom school is their only chance for achieving a good and decent life, and wondered: “What happens to a dream differed?”(Langston Hughes) Or maybe, just maybe, they flipped through a pew Bible once between sermon-naps in church, and accidentally landed on Proverbs 1:19- “Such are the paths of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the life of those who get it.”

A word, phrase, a passing hint somewhere in life that would suggest to them that these children, who are up against the worse the nation can dish out, somehow needed them the most. Something, anything that would lead them to feel bad about cheating and stealing from their students, and cheating and stealing from their own truth and calling.

And if not human, what of professional ethics? Did they read Mike Rose’s: “Lives on the Boundary” or his: “Possible Lives”? Were they asleep in their education classes, when the professor covered Paulo Freire, Lisa Delpit or Jonathan Kozol. Did they not once hear of Booker T. Washington, Ron Edmunds, WEB Du Bois, Lorraine Monroe, Asa Hilliard, Adelaide Sanford, Barbara Sizemore, Mary McLeod Bethune, J. Jerome Harris, et al, at all?

Something, anything, even a brief fading memory. Anything instead of nothing, not a clue, not a thought, not a single idea that would help them to understand while they were looking in the morning mirror, that hurting the children, who look like the person they saw in the mirror, was not the way to go. Did it ever occur that these children who are the most hurt by our society, the kids living dangerously on the perimeter of the American dream; that stealing from these students is probably one of the most horrible and destructive things an educator can do.

Michael A. Johnson is a former teacher, principal and superintendent.

Let’s give the new NYS Regents Chancellor, Dr. Betty Rosa (knowledge and experience) a chance!

This issue is important and personal for me…

Betty

Amateurism as pedagogy, has enjoyed a very long and unsuccessful run in many city school districts of our nation. Poor children, English Language Learners, and children of color, have borne the brunt of this failed experimentation; which is badly misnamed as “school-reform”. We have had uninformed, under-informed and poorly informed: “drive-by” teachers, school and district leaders, harm the hopes and aspirations of entre communities. The most vulnerable children of our nation, have received the greatest amount of this malpractice; perpetuated by those who lack both the knowledge, skill and experience to either truly reform, or improve schools.
What has tragically emerged is a bad education philosophy that consist of either closing struggling schools, or to transform the children into commodities; (turning children into commercial objects, marketed to quality education seeking desperate communities and parents as: “school-choice”) and then sharecrop them out to educational entrepreneurs. Now in the spirit of: “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day”. Not all of the critiques of these so-called reformers are wrong. For too long public education has placed itself in the professionally unethical position of serving the interest of a lot of people, other than the children. People with: political aspirations, commercial vendor interest, politicians, political parties, consultants, and the dictates of labor unions. The interest of the children will come last, if at all.

Parents are not stupid, they see what they see! Their children are not learning, while the adults in the system continue with ever-increasing financial earning. If for sure: “it takes a village to educate a child”; then these parents realize that public schools are not holding up their end of work. For even when these parents do “all of the right parental things”; the schools they are forced to send their children, underperform and underserve the intellectual needs of the children. Neither are these parents fooled by this ‘not really a choice’, choice situation. They are actively seeking out Charter schools because traditional public schools have provide no evidence in the least, that they truly care about the children of these suffering parents; and those parents are voting against these traditional public schools by finding, and walking through the only exit available!

Further, public schools that primarily serve poor children, have in many cases been transformed into educational practice and training centers for teachers on their way to more affluent school districts and schools. Or, these poor (and poorly politically defended) schools are a good place for educators who are seeking a financial safe-harbor, as they wait out the bad economy; and while waiting, earn a commendable resume filler.

In other cases the schools of the disenfranchised have become the financial battle ground for some very bad and harmful (and very expensive) educational plans and policies; these “school improvement strategies”; are poorly conceived and poorly executed by both liberal and conservative ‘educational policy’ experts. On the surface their policies apparently (at least to some of us) seem silly like: “evaluate”, reward or punish, an eighth grade English teacher based on one standardized exam; when the child will have many other teachers in that eight grade experience, and surely would have had many different teachers in their K-8th grade life-time. But because these deformers lack both formal pedagogical course work-training and/or practical on the job experience; they are not aware that a child’s learning is a cumulative exercise, not a learning assessment snap-shot in one single grade.

Meanwhile Black and Latino educational experts (Like Dr. Rosa) have essentially been excluded from the school “reform”, “improvement” conversation. And to be “fair and balanced”; it is also sadly true that a great deal of the faux “reform” movements damaged has been carried out by people of color, whose interest, heart, commitment and concern, is not for the children who look like them; but rather to ratify, reinforce and enhance systemic educational inequality!

The news media seems to be singularly focused on the “standardized testing issue” and the new Chancellor. Unfortunately, that topic is only one of many challenges that confront public education. Should we not hear a little more reporting about Dr. Rosa’s ideas on: teaching and learning; school based leadership, school improvement; closing the parent resource gap, closing the access to ‘informal education’ gap between students, the standardization of quality learning standards (people get nervous if I say ‘common core curriculum’), and the systemic absence of support required for Black and Latino students, and poor students of any color and ethnicity, who are meeting and exceeding the grade level standards; and yet these student are academically under-challenged and under-prepared for a post K-12 public school life?

Concerning the apparently hugely popular standardized testing controversy: I don’t think that we can “test” children into meeting the curriculum standards. For example if a child has not mastered a particular behavioral or conceptual standard; testing them over and over again on it, won’t help their understanding; we need to understand the cause of their misunderstanding, and correct it, especially if that cause is external to the child. At some point, we must arrive at the obvious; there is no substitution for quality efficacious instruction; combined with a strategic, thoughtful and visionary school based leadership team. I also don’t think that we can use standardized assessments for disingenuous purposes; applications for which they are not pedagogically useful, or even connected; like firing people, or, labeling children, schools, a school’s staff, and even whole communities, and racial-ethnic groups, as failures.

There is a positive and productive role for standardized assessments!

We need to use standardized assessments to let us know if there is any inequality in the quality of instruction, measuring the ability of a school to effectively deliver the curriculum standards. We need to make sure schools are covering the generally accepted content standards like: how we determine the age of the earth, or the laws of physics. We need standardized exams on the “front-end”; where we can learn the “gaps” and deficiencies a child brings to a particular grade or class. For example something I instituted for students entering the 9th grade algebra class; a pre-course standardized assessment that could measure a student’s mastery of pre-algebra concepts that the student learned, or did not learn in the elementary and middle school math instructional experiences. And then set up an immediate and appropriate intervention program to address those issues. Testing a student in Algebra at the end of the school year has some value; but it is of little teaching and learning value to either the teacher of that class, or those students who are now moving on. Standardized assessments can eliminate “teacher made test” that could obscure “classroom teacher blind spots”. Standardized assessments should be “useful” and “timely”; such that they can inform teachers in the same learning cycle (semester), what they need to “reteach”, review, clarify and confirm what students have, or have not learned. In essence, standardized assessment must be used to inform our instructional methodology and practices, and to professionally develop teachers. Any assessment that does not seek to accomplish the above objectives, is at best a political talking point; and at worst it will improperly drive instruction in the wrong direction. Children in certain “struggling” schools will not be sufficiently exposed to art, creative writing, music, STEM, dance, library and reading for fun, and other intellectual, inquisitive and exciting learning activities (activities that ironically raise academic achievement levels!) “Underperforming schools”, out of staff fear, will be turned into never-ending and ineffective test-prep centers; which also ironically suppresses and distorts the very academic learning and achievement we are seeking. And this is why the “anti-testing movement” is essentially led by parents and communities where the children are currently receiving a “standards plus” curriculum, mastery instruction, combined with high teacher expectations. These “anti-testers” correctly in my view (even as they may express it incorrectly), reject the false allegiance to testing for reasons other than raising academic achievement. The fear-focused “test-prep” model is not only redundant for these schools; (the schools instructional commitment to the learning standards is the best, and most efficient method of test prep!) It is also a waste of valuable real learning time.

And so I think it might help to give a chance to a Chancellor who at least understands pedagogy from a theoretical and practical perspective; and who can articulate, the problems and challenges that different children encounter on the road to academic success. We need to offer children for whom public education is their best and only option for generational improvement, a pipeline to prosperity, not to prison.

This issue is important and personal for me, because despite the systems public acknowledgement in 2000-2003, of the ability of my CSD 29Q team to redirect the focus to teaching and learning; put a stop to a putrid political patronage system; stabilize a brutalized and neglected school district, and then dramatically raise academic achievement levels in every testing grade; but we never got the chance to finish the job.

From my experience with the new Chancellor I truly believe that she cares deeply about children. Particularly for the “left-out”, discarded, ignored, and the poorly served, or never served children of the system. Despite all of the disappointments I have experienced in this profession, my cup of hope is never empty. I am hoping that Dr. Rosa gets, and makes the best use of her chance, and that she gets a chance to finish the job; for which our children so need and deserve!

Michael A. Johnson is a former teacher, principal and superintendent.