Yesterday in my garden…Rain on Purple


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:


“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 ( 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…


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.

End The Annual NYC Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT) Drama!

It’s almost that time of the year, when well-meaning non-educators put on the diversity passion play around the NYC SHSAT eam. Unfortunately, all of the energy does very little to actually raise the academic achievement levels, and thus the test-taking readiness of Black and Latino 8th graders. It’s like those wise residents of Flint Michigan who keep wishing folks would do less talking, and take more action to truly solve the problem!

For sure, there is a very valid educational debate that can be had about the use of a single test as a tool for high school admissions. And a good case could also be made for the intellectual, social, ethical and moral value, for all students, of studying in a diverse educational setting. However, as a Black educator I find the argument, even when it is unintended, that is singularly focused on eliminating the exam, allegedly because Black and Latino kids can’t pass it, condescending and dismissive.

The truth (and my professional experience) is that there is nothing wrong with the brains of Black and Latino students. The “problem” can be fixed with a little thoughtful school leadership, certified-mastery and efficacious teaching, a standardized curriculum, high expectations, and a supplementary (after-school, weekends and summer sessions intervention). And herein lies the problem, political courage. First, based on a zip code a student may be exposed for one or more critical school years to a: “first-year”, an uncertified, or not fully certified, or even an ineffective or disinterested teacher. In fairness to teachers I should say that even the best and most sincere practitioners face a major challenge to being successful, when they have large numbers of struggling students in one classroom who require large amounts of their time and energy; the children in the class who are meeting and exceeding the grade-level standards, could end up not receiving the educational instruction they need to excel.
Also, there is no system-wide strategic plan to address the needs of Black and Latino students who meet and/or exceed the grade level standards. So much of the education equity conversation is focused on closing “achievement gaps”; that we forget, and don’t effectively plan for the many students of color who are performing well in school; and yet may receive a “remedial-type”, sub-standard, and/or an uninspiring educational experience. These students more than likely (that zip code thing again) attend schools with a challenging tipping point of students who are struggling from academic deficiencies, and/or serious social-economic challenges; these schools will more than likely not have the academic, and social services support needed to effectively address the needs of these struggling students. The historical political problem of not matching the weakest students, with the strongest teachers is a recipe for (any test) failure. But we also fail the students in those same schools, who are performing at a high academic level. It’s not so much that the test is unfair, it’s the K-8 academic preparation that is unfair. Black and Latino high performers are not given the fair opportunity to compete with their academic peers in schools, with the expertise, expectations, time and capability to offer rigorous academic programs. And so we don’t really know if the SHSAT is unfair, if students of color are unfairly eliminated early (before the 8th grade) from the competition.
Further, schools will need to step-up and provide their students with the informal, “out-of-school” educational experiences that are standard in the schools with more affluent parents. That means school days, weeks, year, must be longer; not just in quantitative time, but in qualitative time. Students must be exposed to museums, libraries (school and public), art, music, dance, debate, creative writing, chess, STEM, etc. All of the elements that go into making students perform better on exams, in school, and in life. Finally, something we did with much success in CSD 29Q. Build the “pipeline” in K-5, with a strong reading, science and mathematics developmental program. And starting in the 6th grade, students need a professionally taught (Princeton Review type) SHSAT test-taking skills class after school, and on weekends. (We also expanded K-8 formal: art, music, drama, and dance education, to give students a better shot at getting into LaGuardia High School.)

We mislead parents, the public, and worse the children, when we suggest that eliminating the SHSAT, will result in the rise in academic achievement levels for Black and Latino students; it is a cruel shell game. And so why not just give these students the “clean water” of good and effective teaching, rigorous standards, academic-cultural support to off-set the parent enfranchisement gap; and a school environment where these students can effectively learn. More will do well on the SHSAT, and gain admission to specialized high schools; but for those who don’t, it’s a win-win, for they will be on track to perform better, no matter what high school they attend!

Michael A. Johnson is a former NYC public school teacher, principal and superintendent; and a former mayoral appointee as a Trustee of the Brooklyn Public Library. Twitter:@majmuse… Blog:

Meanwhile The Republicans are punching the entire city of Flint in the mouth

It is the usual story of the news media being conveniently adept at simultaneously over-reporting and under-reporting. American eyes (particularly Black American eyes) are fixed, (and understandably angry) on the latest violent act inspired by the “spirited” ugly energy generated at a Trump Klan-like rally. Fresh off of their violent pushing and shoving of a young Black lady at one rally; and the recent Nazi-like pledge of allegiance to the Trumpster; you just knew that things could only get worse. Unfortunate however, is this view that Trump and his followers are the sole occupiers of the racism and bigotry real estate in this nation. The presentation of Trump as the heart and soul of American racism is the story we are told and sold by both liberals and conservatives. And nothing could be further from the truth; the Trumpites are just the loudest and vilest in their racist representation.

There are a lot of forms of violence committed against the disenfranchised, disinherited and deserted communities of our nation. When poverty, unemployment, unavailable or unlivable housing options; public education that offers certain members of the public an inadequate, degenerative and second-class education; when a communities young people see as their only avenue of escape from a cycle of pain and poverty, is through gang crime, the professional sports lottery (at some astronomical odds) or prison; that is a collective punch in the mouth. All of these negative actions are acts of violence against the personhood, hopes, dreams and ultimately the humanity of millions of people.

I have struggled for years (and I probably don’t know how to stop at this point), with mixed success, to get parents and communities upset and agitated about the never-ending acts of educational violence that is inflicted on children of color on a daily basis in our public schools. Unfortunately, too many people are in “exciting event” and “crises” mode. It is very hard to get folks focused on some very doable and achievable actions that could lead to better educational outcomes for their children; like stopping people from playing the forced low achievement, and institutional-cultural low expectations game with their children.
There are a lot of the dramatic closing of “underachieving” schools in this nation; but very little of the closing down of the conditions and people who cause these schools to underachieve in the first place. It’s a cruel “move and pretend” game where the parents and communities of these children, are led to believe that by merely moving children from one struggling and unprepared school, to a similar ineffective school, will automatically result in raising student academic achievement.

And so as the “Trump rally punching” video goes viral; there is very little reporting on the ugly “standing in the door” Flint Michigan nullification behavior by Mr. Cruz and his Republican friends in Washington. They have decided that for the most part, the people of Flint are not their people (just as Mr. Obama is not their President); and therefore not worthy of much-needed relief and support from the callous actions of their brother Republican Michigan governor, who purposely poisoned that city’s water.

I hope, for the sake of the children whose minds, bodies and dreams are poisoned every day; that one day Black people nationally, will respond with an angry determination to act and stop, the daily punches in the mouth we receive. And as it pertains to education, who knows maybe one day we might even stop punching ourselves in the mouth!

Why exorbitant “Suggested Donation” request at the entrance of “Free Admission” museums, and other cultural institutions are a problem.


“Critics slam Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new ‘suggested’ admission deal.”— NY Daily News 3/1/16

Let me say first of all I pity the citizens who would elect me to any political office; seeing that I have neither the skill set, nor the patience to put up with the requirements of that profession. But if in some fantasy scenario I was elected to public office, I would push for the major public and civic financial support for what we call in the education profession: Informal education-learning institutions: Libraries, Museums , Dance, Music, Art cultural centers. I believe that these institutions represent the best collective cultural expressions of any society.

Now having said that…

Growing up in the Brooklyn of the 1950’s, in what is now I hope an illegal a “cold water flat” apartment. A large part of my day-dreaming at P.S. 9 and JHS 294, consisted of wanting to grow up, go to college so that I could move into an apartment that had never-ending heat, and hot water! A common mistake made about people who are not financially well off, is that they also live impoverished family, spiritual and emotional lives; that they don’t have rich expressions of love, hope, dreams and in this particular case, pride. Or even worse, that they don’t have creative and artistic interest. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have found that most people I have met in the world, all want both “Bread and Roses”. But poverty carries both scars and medals; and one of those medals is the desire to realize the full expression of ones humanity. To be given a fair opportunity, and not a condescending dismissal.

As a young adolescent growing up in Brooklyn I spent a great deal of my time at the Brooklyn Public Library, The Brooklyn Children’s Museum, The Brooklyn Zoo and Prospect Park. In part because of the Caribbean emigration experience of my family, meant that every adult in the house was working very hard and long hours; and so I had to take myself to those institutions. They represented places that to me had a true free and welcoming admission policy. Most people rightfully interpret (and that’s the institution’s intention) that “A suggested donation”, is a suggestion in name only. And feel that anyone daring to enter a museum without paying the “suggested amount”, was behaving like a “freeloader”, “moocher”, “poor”, or even worse, a thief. Somehow it seems that in 2016 we should be able to balance the financial needs of these important cultural institutions, with our need to see that all of our children can receive a rich learning legacy; especially those who are in the most fertile and fragile stages of the developmental learning process; some of whom may need to visit these venues without a parent, to do a school assignment.

As a life-long professional educator, I want to see the informal-education-learning gap disappear in our society. I also believe that this lack of access and exposure to these rich out-of-school educational experiences, accounts in part for the great academic achievement divide we see in our school based settings.

I want very much for these important cultural institutions to survive and thrive, (but borrowing from a former POTUS) I also want them to: “Tear down that wall!” that separates the children and families of advantage, from their disenfranchised peers. And besides, equal (meaning non-intimidating “Admission fees suggestion signs”) access is a good “audience development” technique; after all, poor and working class kids, could grow up to be adult visitors and financially supportive patrons!

Full Disclosure: Michael A. Johnson is a former mayoral appointee as a Trustee of the Brooklyn Public Library.

My Brooklyn Public Library Living-Learning-Loving Experience

My Brooklyn Public Library Living-Learning-Loving Experience


Memories are great teachers, in part because they teach us so much about life, and much more about ourselves. There is institutional memory, and then there are the memories that institutions donate to the enhancement and positive growth of our lives. And there are memories we love, the memories we love to relive; and then there are the memories we try to resist remembering. Fortunately, good memories, including those that are more than 50 years old are not easily forgotten (Or how could we possibly cope with the many accumulated disappointments of life!). I think the purpose of having good-memories is that they remind us that there are many wonderful things in a world, a world that is so saturated with so many not-so wonderful things. One of those wonderful things I experienced in my life was my childhood-young adult memory and experience at the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL). And even now, in the present “mellowed” stages of my life, I still feel a sense of warmth, excitement and belonging, whenever I walk into a public library anywhere in the world. That feeling is not accidental, and in fact was created many years ago in the heart of a curious about everything kid, living in the heart of Brooklyn. The BPL was an important part of the world for a Black boy who was a good reader, a lover of books, and blessed with an inquisitive mind. It was a sort of sanctuary for that young Blackman who was desperately seeking a safe space to read, to engage safely in smartness, to discover and to protect himself against a very confusing, conflicting and sometimes cruel world around him. Indeed the BPL was the one place he knew and understood well; and one of the few places in his world that knew, understood and treated him well.

It starts with a central currency of libraries—books. It was all about books and the power they held between their covers. The power books projected onto the mind and soul of a young Black child growing up in 1950’s America. For the young me, books (including large numbers of comic books purchased by way of working a newspaper delivery route) were considered sacred servants of the good and best life. I (unfortunately and not proudly, still to this day) can’t help but divide the world between people who read books, and people who don’t! Back then, however I could not imagine a world without books; and the young me wondered why so many of my peers would only reluctantly read a book when it was assigned to them by a school teacher. As for me, I was a four-seasonal reader; I never stopped! Back then I was unaware of the concept of “reading for pleasure”; and yet I knew and felt so well, the overwhelming pleasurable feeling of holding a book in my hands, and allowing the writer’s words to wash over my mind and spirit; that restful place where the reflective and meditative meet. Those moments spent reading were moments away from everything “noisy” in the world; there existed only the book and the reader. And whatever was troubling, whatever was missing; all of imagined or real, too much, or too little of things in his life, all went silent, in those immersed reading moments.
And the BPL was a place that honored serious readers; one was not counted as “strange” for wanting to just sit and read; not only read to study, to do homework, or to research a science fair topic; to be able to just read fiction or poetry out of the pure joy of reading! Only the members of my “biblio-introspective tribe” (a mixture of mild to medium introversion + the love of reading) will truly understand this tremendous desire and dedicated enthusiasm, to be able to sit quietly and read. As a young child two of the important goals I had in life was to go to college; that presumably would lead to a good job; so that one day I could have a bathroom I did not have to share. And second, to have a quiet house to read in peace whenever I wanted (including if I wish, reading in the bathroom!). The BPL’s bathrooms were public, but it did satisfy the second goal, and served as a peaceful and dedicated place to read books, in peace.

Buying Books in the 1950’s presented a major logistical and financial burden for many working class Brooklyn families; these were struggling practical people who had to very often focus on doing and acquiring the essentials of “just basic life”. It’s not that these parents did not understand the power of books; for in their heart of hopes, they saw education in general, and reading in particular as the only path for their children to achieve “generational improvement”. As a first generation American I was constantly reminded that: “Everyone breathing in this house must work, and your job is school!” These brave and courageous people could offer love, encouragement, a strong moral and ethical foundation, but there would be no great financial legacy or inheritance windfall to be left to their children; education was the only viable path to success. In fact, these “hard-working-classy” folks probably appreciated the power of books and learning more than those wealthy parents who could afford to buy books, it’s just that they were forced to make very difficult survival time and money choices. And so having a public partnership with the BPL, having a free place that could provide their children with the tools to grow their intellects, was for them, one of the greatest things in the world! As a former principal and superintendent, I have heard a lot of complaints about “government” in my day; but I have never heard a parent speak ill of the public library system.
This was also true back in my childhood days; for when I announced on a non-school day that: “I am going to the library!” There was never any words of discouragement; it was like announcing I was going to church, Boy Scout meeting or church acolyte rehearsal. And having to report as a young child to the library every day after school (until my mother came home from work); probably provided her with a sense of comfort; and also provided her with a free source of after-school childcare that was both safe and educational. The BPL knowingly or unknowingly latched on to us “latch-key” kids, and held us safe from the ever potentially dangerous Brooklyn streets.

But for the “kid-me”, the BPL was much, much more. For it represented one of the few places, outside of school and church where I could fully be myself; that self who was always asking the why, where, when, and for what reasons questions. If you were a child with a lot of questions, then the BPL was your proverbial promise and deliver land. And even when you had one of those questions, that in those days were forbidden to ask like: “The ‘real’ age of the planet”; or, “How could all of the dinosaurs fit in the ark (and how could they be in the same time period as humans)?” You knew that the Librarian was the one adult who would not “give you up” to other adults for pursuing a controversial line of inquiry.

The BPL was and still is, one of our educational intuitions that seeks to close the: right to imagination gap that separates the children of wealth and entitlement, from their darker and/or poorer age mates. If a child can get inside the walls of a library, anything imaginable and life changing can happen; and anything wonderful could and did happen to me.

For sure the BPL was a place of sanctuary and security; a place where one could let the imagination soar; in the same way that my kites soared in the sky above the green grass of Prospect Park. In those BPL moments, one was free to forget about the random violence that plagued our Crown Heights neighborhood, a violence that always threatened to insert itself uninvited into our lives. You see, it seemed that no self-respecting “hoodlum” or gang member could afford to be seen inside the walls of a library. I attended school with many of them at P.S. 9 and JHS 294, and so I knew that reading, to say the least, was not one of their most cherished hobbies!
Now there were of course the reality of the many BPL pretty girls (I never told my mother about that part of my motivation!) Their presence attracted the interest of both the serious bibliophiles like me, as well as the pretenders (did they even have library cards?) But Mr. Blaze (who I remember looked like a giant to my adolescent eyes) and his security officers were extremely adept at detecting and discouraging the: “non-book-loving-unbelievers” from just hanging out and causing problems; and so these interlopers eventually gave up, and left the girls to their reading, home work and those of us, who out of the “best and purest” motives, offered any study assistance that the young ladies required. Alas, (note to guys) smartness has its benefits; for a good way to a lady’s heart, is the ability to help her with her homework!

And so the BPL was a gathering place of that family-hood of children of color who were scholar-initiates, those who were serious about learning and school. It was in the BPL that we could recognize and reinforce our understanding of who we were in the present, and who, and what we wanted to be in the future. There was no shame, or fear in being smart in the library! The BPL was an institutional model and vehicle of what we could, hope to be personally; if (unbeknownst to us) we could only survive into adulthood.

And then there was the wonderful librarians (and I will always love those who are called to be librarians!) who never seem to tire from feeding our inquisitive natures, they never asked you why you ask so many questions, or why do you need to know about this or that seemingly (to those disinterested in the pure joys of learning) obscure topic. The librarians were not part of the citizenry that was uninitiated in the arts of ideas speculation; or those who did not understand that acquiring knowledge, and the search for knowledge were equally pleasurable. Librarians are a special wonderful breed of humans, blessed with patience, perseverance, and the ability to be interested in whatever interest you. They were never judgmental concerning the objective or purpose of my inquiry. Neither I, nor the topic were ever considered “weird”. Our thirst for knowledge was never questioned. Our motivations to investigate and know something, simply because it was in the world waiting to be known, was sufficient reason enough. For the BPL librarians, all questions were important to them, because those questions were important to the person asking those questions. And in that sense all questions, and all questioners were equal! And speaking of equality I don’t ever remember a Librarian treating me with less effort and concern because of my color, my economic status, my living in a (now illegal) “cold-water flat”, or the fact that I showed up each day to the library without a parent. And they had to notice that a large group of us religiously left around 6: PM. One of the best things an economically disenfranchised child can experience, is to have the experience of being in a non-condemnation-judgmental childhood space; a place where you don’t need to explain, make excuses, or make up stories about the things, real or perceived, missing from your life; a place to just be an unconditional child.

I could always approach the librarians desk without fear of rejection; knowing I could ask about some topic that caught my attention, by way of a random observation, a word heard in a sermon, a teacher reference, or a captured word or phrase overheard from an adult conversation (in those days a child could not be in the middle of “adult talk”, and so you had to use stealth to hear what was being said!) Perhaps my research motivation was produced by some reading encounter in a book, magazine or comic book; something seen on TV; Some item or phenomena that caught my attention at the Brooklyn Zoo, The Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, or the Brooklyn Museum. Or, some practical problem for which I was seeking a solution like: “Building a model train system” (for the model train system I was building in the basement); “WW 11 war planes” (informed and supplemented my model plane building hobby); “The first stamps in history” (in response to my stamp collecting merit badge work); “how to build a box kite” (a dedicated kite flyer was I); or “How to build a model boat” (for my naval work at the Prospect Park (pond) Ocean”); “baseball statistics” (to offer “technical support” to my baseball card collecting and trading activity); “Ant Farming” (for my ever challenging ant farm; and in response to my mother’s warning: “Michael, if I see one ant crawling around my house….!”); “science projects” (for my home science kit work); “rocks” (for my self-developed Prospect Park rock collection project); “rocketry and space travel” (I was a science fiction fan, and a sputnik child!) No topic was too big or too small. I imagined back then, that somewhere in “librarian school”, librarians learned to treat all topics as serious; and to treat all of us “children researchers” with the same amount of solemnity for which we held our “needed to know” questions. Librarians seem to act in the capacity of knowledge-gate openers; rather than shutting the doors of inquisitiveness; they happily and gracefully expanded the perimeters of the art of searching. You could not ware them down with a weekly research project; or reach the end of their search knowledge. And the most amazing thing about librarians is how they fed off of my curiosity: “Well, since you are interested in X, have you also considered this book on Y; or even this related book on Z?” For a kid with a big imagination, big dreams, and very little financial resources, there are no better words of encouragement in the world!

The BPL was in the 1950’s perhaps the most important learning source for me outside of school; mainly because the knowledge and information it contained seemed to be both accessible and infinite. The library also empowered the “learner” to be both teacher and student; it achieved this through its organizational culture of an unpressured-self-directed, and yet smartly guided learning experience (I later would come to know this as a professional educator by its official title: “informal learning or education” and “scaffolding”). And yet the library seemed to my child eyes to be a very formal and well organized place; all books were in a very specific designated place; and there was clearly a great deal of effort given to organizing those books by age-grade levels, subjects, titles, topics, genres, authors, etc. And it is amazing to note, that in the BPL, even the sound was organized. The sound level differs greatly as you move from the children’s, to the young adults, and then to the adult sections of a library. For those of us who have spent a great deal of time in libraries, we can appreciate its very nuanced “formal” and well organized structure, that offers the best opportunity to search, find and experience information and knowledge. Those of us who love and cherish them, see libraries as very rich, exciting, vibrant and dynamic places; not just a “quiet” building housing books and documents.

A wonderful rite of passage for me was when I mastered the “card catalog”. My personal brain “search engine” education was a combined effort between my school librarians (Yes, modern-day “budget cutters”, we had an important and indispensable class called “library” in school. And yes, we were actually taught how to “fall in love with books”, do research, and how to use the “Dewey Decimal” system!) and the librarians at the BPL. Once I mastered the card catalogue; I was elevated to the unofficial status of master library user; which meant I now only needed the librarian for the more complex and in-depth topics I had to research for my middle-high school essays and term papers (But still very much needed them!). That master library user status opened me up to a new areas of the BPL (like the map section, audio-music, microfilm, or the archival collections); and of course the coveted reference books behind the librarians desk! Access to reference books designated one as a serious (at least in our eyes) library user; so serious was this recognized sense of trust and honor, that one had to surrender a library card or bus pass in order to check the reference book out (to read it in the library); and only when you completed your reading and returned the reference book, could you retrieve your I.D. document. As I took up residence in the young adult section and relied more and more on the use of reference books; I also got to know the librarians in a new and better way; and they in turn became better and better in anticipating the direction of my many projects, and the level of reference book support that I could effectively handle.

Moving from a child to a young adult, to the adult section in the same library building is like growing up in a family (minus the drama!). As a young adult section resident I had a sense of where I wanted to go, even as I was not exactly sure how to get there. My questions were more focused, I was no longer “groping” for a path to the answer to my many inquiries. Indeed, the librarians and I, seem to have entered into a type of research-learning partnership. And as I moved from elementary school to high school; my sense of who I was at the Grand Army Plaza branch, and what that library did to and for me also grew. Unaware to me at the time, was the fact that I literally grew up, emotionally and educationally in the same library branch building. And as with all of these types of developmental psychological movements; I can’t seem to remember the day I “moved” to a higher section; it just happen naturally. Alas there were no promotion ceremonies, or “graduations” to a new section of the library. I only remember as a high school student walking through the young adult and children’s sections on the way home one day, and wondering: “My goodness, did I ever look and act like that?” (If a librarian could have heard my thoughts, they probably would have said: “Yes!”) And yet, even today, I still think about how over so many years, I moved effortlessly, uneventfully and seamlessly from the young children’s section to the adult section. I was in essence the same person, but in reality as I moved from section to section, I was absolutely not the same person; each section challenged and changed me, and built on, and nurtured my intellectual and spiritual strengths gained from the previous section.

The BPL was a setting to stimulate the imagination; a safe place to be smart, the BPL gave me the ability to travel into the inner space of the microscopic universe, and out to the stellar universe of outer space, visit nations and cultures around the planet, travel back and forward in time, dialogue with famous people from history; visit animals like dinosaurs and whales in their natural habitats; and listen to the magical, mystery and science-fiction worlds created in the minds of authors.
And most important I learned that there was a very large world (a world full of different people and places) that existed outside of my Brooklyn neighborhood. The financial, social and racial limitations that were placed on my life were all neutralized in that sacred Grand Army Plaza Space. Its walled canyons of books served as a learning miracle, the parting of a sea of ignorance that led me to freely know the world in an amazingly new and different way.

The BPL changed my life forever, it helped me to fall deeper in love with books, to love learning, and those feelings would eventually lead me to love and pursue the profession of education. I was fortunate to grow up a few blocks from the BPL; but a child’s access to the wonderful world of libraries should not depend on the decision of where their parents choose to live. I also realize now that I was fortunate to live in the same, (walking distance to the BPL) place on Washington Ave. & St. Marks Pl. from elementary to high school. Ideally, I would love for every child to enjoy my experience, and to be able to walk to a public library. I learned as an adult that It meant so much to my financially strapped family, that I could be freely “baby-sat” in a place every day after school, where I would be both safe, do my homework, and be intellectually stimulated. There we all were at the BPL, with our house-keys attached to lanyard and secured around our necks, waiting for working class parents to get home; I never felt poor or deprived for that experience; in fact, I felt I was the luckiest kid in the world; because I had the best “baby-sitter” in the world, and the best place to sit in the world!

There are many ways to measure any society; one important criteria for me is the willingness of that society to invest in its public library system (when I travel to other places in the world, it’s one of the first things I look for). The good society will see this investment in public libraries, not as a burden, but rather as a blessing and promise to the next generation. To understand both the symbolic and concrete meaning of public libraries; is to understand the need for the powerful democratization and equal distribution of knowledge, the fair and non-discriminatory access to information and learning. But society must also see the library’s special and specific purpose for children. Those junior members of our species, who could find emotional healing and intellectual reassurance inside of the walls of a library. A place where children can hope and find hope by becoming smarter, and better skilled at approaching the world as: creators, inventors, innovators, or just producers of feelings for tolerance, kindness and compassion.
Any society must come to understand and appreciate how such a place as a library can save, secure, inspire and nourish a Black kid from Crown Heights, looking for a place to belong, and to become something of positive value to the world. I cannot separate who I am today, and what I have accomplished to date from my BPL experience. I have at the very least tried very hard to give back to the world; some portion of the good that was given to me as a child; and much of that good I gained from my experience at the BPL.

We very much need institutions that will inspire young people to become servant-leaders and forces for good in the world. The more time I spent reading and learning in the BPL, the more I came to respect and revere the complex and diverse wisdom and knowledge that exist in the world; at each sitting my world became less about my personal world, my block, my neighborhood, my nation; as I grew an intelligence about the world and the universe in, and outside of Crown Heights Brooklyn. And once you travel to those far away destinations, or inward to the unexplored destinations inside of yourself, you can never quite be the same person, or see things the same way. It’s the opening up of the intellectually unrestricted life; the imagining of the unimagined life, where no one can ever determine the barriers of your promise. Each day I sat in the library, I learned that I was destined to change something, and some people in the future, starting with myself!

The adults of any society have a collective sacred obligation, to physically and psychologically protect its children from harm; to empower its young to enhance and enrich the progress that has been made by the previous generation. Libraries like the BPL then, are the best expressions of that important assignment. Libraries capture, maintain, protect and distribute knowledge; and in that sense they represent one of the best, and most important work any society can undertake.

Michael A. Johnson is a former NYC public school teacher, principal and superintendent; and a former mayoral appointee as a Trustee of the Brooklyn Public Library. Twitter:@majmuse… Blog:

Art, the Humanities and STEM need each other, and as an educated society we need all three of them.


“A Rising Call to Promote STEM Education and Cut Liberal Arts Funding”…

STEM vs. Art and the Humanities?

What a false, unimaginative and short-sighted choice. And there is no accident that the charge is being led by southern Republican governors; whose political success and survival, for a large part, is dependent on the maintenance of a large unenlightened, aesthetically underexposed and intellectually challenged voting bloc. These governors should at least declare a conflict of interest here; as the “dangerous” exposure to: poetry, philosophy, history, art, music and dance may actually cause their constituents to seriously think about the quality of their lives under right-wing rule. These terrible presentations of educational “trade-offs” held by some politicians can only be defined as anti-education, anti-learning, and ultimately anti-human development. This kind of bad policy thinking is the byproduct of public education policy maker’s endless search for a quick and cheap fix to problems they themselves have created. These bad ideas always end up doing more to deform schooling rather than to productively reform it. STEM, Art and the Humanities compliment, and enrich each other; and together they represent the natural components of what should be recognized and championed as: An educated person.

Flint, the flowing poisonous water is a perfect metaphor for educationalcide

The access to clean water, the ability to live in a clean, healthy and safe environment; as well as having an access to a rigorous, inspiring, meaningful and purposeful education; is a right that should not be denied any of our children…


“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

The poison of Flint Michigan is flowing everywhere the poor, and people of color live in our nation. This is the result of a national acceptance that we live in a top and bottom citizenship status based on race and class. The governor of Michigan essentially said that the poor, and the people of color in Flint are neither citizens of Michigan or the United States, and therefore we should not extend any rights and protections that they would naturally earn as members of a state and national family. It’s the abandonment and discarding of an entire city of people.

For sure Flint is one part of our entire national conversation that is poisoned by the most vile and hateful voices (the news media works hard at obscuring, and wrongly labeling it: “angry at the establishment voters”), this religious, racial, and reactionary rhetoric, eventually in places like Flint, turns into harmful and hurtful actions (or non-actions!) It speaks to, and for many who believe, that what happens to the children of the disenfranchised and politically disconnected does not matter. These evil people have made sure to build a wall of protection around their own children; insuring that no societal poisons enter their minds or bodies, or interferes with their children’s positive life possibilities and dreams. “Our children are safe”, they say. It’s the kind of cynicism that could only emerge from a fake “Christian” governor asking for fake prayer for Flint; he and his collaborators are the ultimate militant non-believers; not only do they renounce any concept of an ultimate divine system of universal justice and accountability; they even dare God to try to save the children of Flint from the life-long pain they have so callously inflicted on them.

It is a necessary death by many means that the poor and people of color must suffer. Death by civilian gun violence, or delivered officially by those who allegedly swore to serve and protect them. It is the death of poverty, housing that serves as the breeding ground for despair. It’s the economic recovery that never stopped by your block in Flint (Brooklyn, Birmingham, Atlanta, Chicago…). The chronic and long joblessness that leads to a hopeless sense of hope. It is the slow grade by grade death, stretch over many years of the criminal justice system incubators called public schools; “schools” designed to allow others to pay their children’s college tuition, while the students that earn them that money are filled with the poison of low expectations, with a toxic mix of disinterest and disregard for the necessity of nurturing human dreams and intellectual potential.

Those of us who are professional educators (and medical professionals) know that the destructive lead poison that was purposely distributed to the children of Flint, will have long-term, and in many cases irreversible negative effects on their ability to learn. If those Flint children also attend schools that are culturally poisoned by poor educational practices and low expectations; let’s be honest, those children don’t have a chance to realize their full academic potential.

Nothing short of a massive (billions) federal and state initiative that combines medical and educational interventions, can save the educational chances of these children. And their parents and community would not be wrong to take their case to the United Nations and the World Court of Justice; for they are truly victims of a state-sponsored governmental (and a national government that did not stop the state) crimes against their humanity, for this is a form of educationalcide, a crime against the children’s health, and educational future.