Naptime in the Kindergarten Room

My first teaching job right out of college in 1974 was in the Richmond, VA city school system. I worked for a federal program called Operation Uplift, and I was assigned to four kindergartens in four different schools and one pre-school Head Start Center. What I lacked in experience I made up for with enthusiasm. I embraced my assigned schools, meeting the principals, working with classroom teachers, and arranging for meetings with parents. But having spent all of my life in the suburbs–living, going to school, and student teaching–did not prepare me for the conditions I’d find in the inner city schools.  Some of the schools were in good condition–maybe old, but clean and neat, while others were new brick boxes that hid some grim realities. That year of teaching in inner city schools is etched indelibly in my memory. I can still see some of the faces of the children I taught, several of whom inspired poems in my new book, No Barking in the Hallways.  Here is one such poem, “Naptime in the Kindergarten Room”, published in 2014 by Pif Magazine.

Naptime in the Kindergarten Room

Heat, intense as the fragrance of September hibiscus, fills the kindergarten classroom in the new brick school. Alphabet carpet tiles cover the floor. Child-sized mats stacked like lonely rafts in the back of the room. A boy rolls a blue marble from palm to palm. The curve of a smile paints his face when our eyes exchange hello. The lights in the room are cut off, a pedestal fan sweeps the room haltingly. The air still, flat, heavy. The children take reluctant naps, their damp faces resting on folded arms atop small round tables. What is the logic of kindergarten children napping at tables? Their teacher, Miss Kimberly, sees the question forming on my face, pulls up a chair for me at her desk.
This school was built over a landfill. There are roaches everywhere. I’ve even seen them crawling out of the kids’ lunchboxes. I have a mat for each child, but I’d never let them sleep on this floor. Miss Kimberly checks her watch. She knows I’m there to pick up several children for the speech class. Lucky you—with an office out in the trailer.

I don’t think we have any roaches out there.

What Happened to Maxine?

My first job as a teacher was in Richmond, Virginia, working for a federal program that provided enrichment for at-risk kindergarten students. And while I had gone to high school in Baltimore’s inner city, I never knew the stories or the challenges of the people in my school’s vicinity. It wasn’t until I was working in Richmond that I found out what poverty looks like on a personal level.

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I remember going into a kindergarten room and seeing all of the children napping with their heads on their desks–the school was built over a landfill and there were roaches everywhere. In another school, one of my students had teeth etched with lines of black decay, so I asked his mother to come in so that I could talk with her about his dental care. When she smiled, both of her front teeth were missing.

In that first year of teaching, I was much too naive to know much about the role of property taxes in funding schools and how red-lining practices enforced segregated housing, but I saw the effects of those policies on the children in my speech classes. I still remember those children, and their stories feature prominently in my new book of poetry called No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom. One child I still think about is Maxine—and I wonder whatever happened to her.

Maxine the Hugger

When Maxine enters the speech room
she throws her arms around my neck
pulls my face close to her cheek.
Her party dress is dotted with food stains,
the gray-white collar frayed and limp.
Maxine smells like musty sheets
draped over furniture in an abandoned house.
Blond bangs graze the tops of her brows, thick lashes
frame hopeful eyes. As if to answer the question
I would never ask, Maxine tells me, We don’t have no water 
in our house. She reads the worry on my face.
But Momma says not to fret
‘cause my Uncle Todd—he lives in the next house over—
he’s gonna run a hose
down to our place.

The launch reading for No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom is tonight! February 24th at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD, from 6:30-8:30 pm. Co-feature is Diane Wilbon Bond and the event is hosted by The Poet Experience.

No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom

I’m pleased to announce that my second poetry collection, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, is now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and New Academia Publishing.  I’ve spent nearly all of my career as a teacher and have met many memorable students over the years. Each one came to me with their own story–sometimes funny, sometimes sad, often heartbreaking. But it was learning their stories that helped me to connect with them in more meaningful ways as a teacher.

Children's faces

Praise for No Barking in the Hallways

“This is poetry in its finest hour. Bracken does what a great poet does best: reveal, provoke, wound and heal readers, all in such a fashion that one cannot be left unchanged. With poignant and sometimes painful imagery, Bracken creates moments in which we could easily be standing alongside her in the classroom, bearing witness to each moment as it unfolds. Collectively, the poems are a window into a system that is more damaged than the circumstances faced by of some of the children the system claims to serve. Yet the language is always equally as beautiful as the children for whom these poems are written. This is exemplified in one poem in which Bracken observes,

We can’t stop the line. But when you peek under the hood— like the car with the wrong bolts, Ben will need repairs.

For anyone who has ever worked in schools and with children, or for those who appreciate how language can transform lives, this collection of poems is for you.”

Morna McDermott McNulty, Associate Professor, College of Education, Towson University

Here’s the poem that Prof. McNulty referenced which was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016 by Robert Giron of Gival Press.  The poem is based on the story of a young man I taught in a high school a few years ago. I hope you’ll enjoy meeting him and find truth in what Fred Rogers had to say when he talked about learning people’s stories: “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.”

THE AUTOWORKER AND THE FACTORY MODEL

We never stopped the line,
no matter what mistakes we saw.
We worked a lot of overtime fixing mistakes
but we never stopped the line. ~ This American Life

And I feel the same way about Ben
my student determined to graduate from high school
still reading at the 3rd or 4th grade level.

The administrators say
“Ben needs credits to graduate,”
but reading class doesn’t count
if he takes it more than once.

So administrators find ways
for us to push him along
like the auto factory grinding out
a Ford Focus with Fiesta doors
held on by Explorer bolts

nothing fits, and you can’t drive the car
but we don’t stop the line.
for Ben who understands a lot about history
but doesn’t read well enough to pass the test.

So we give him an accommodation—special help—
and someone reads him the test
which worked well when he was seven
but seems foolish when he is seventeen—

and hoping to get a job, hoping to graduate
So I ask, Will someone read to Ben at work?
the answer echoes back We can’t stop the line

But when you peek under the hood
like the car with the wrong bolts
Ben will need repairs.

The cover art is an original painting by my daughter, Christella Potts, an art teacher in Baltimore County, and Deb Dulin of Dulin Designs did the layout.

What Does it Mean for a Teacher to Serve as a Witness?

Definitions are important, I used to emphasize when discussed crafting an argument with my students. Definitions serve as the foundation for a common understanding of an issue. And when we want to find a definition, we usually consult the dictionary. While there are many definitions for the word witness, the following entry in Webster’s seems most appropriate to the work of teacher as witness: “to be present at, to see personally.”

Teachers are present at many events in students’ lives: reading a first book, winning a race, mastering an instrument, graduating.  But as teachers, we always need to bring the personal into the classroom, to see personally each of our students. To move past the challenging behaviors or the angry words and sullen refusals to participate.  As teachers, we are called to look at the student more carefully, more thoughtfully, so as to help them manage whatever challenges they carry.

“There’s beauty everywhere. There are amazing things happening everywhere, you just have to be able to open your eyes and witness it. Some days, that’s harder than others.” Sarah McLachlan

I learned this lesson most deeply when I taught adolescents in a psychiatric hospital several years ago.  To say their behaviors were inappropriate and challenging is to understate the situation. And while I was often at a loss as to how to break through the students’ defenses, I found my way in with poetry. The more I knew about each student, the more I was able to connect in a kind and understanding way.

The series of poems that I began while I worked in the psych hospital grew into a collection of poems that detail the stories of many of the students, teachers, and administrators I have worked with over the span of 40 years. Writing the poems helped me to go deeper into each student’s story and at the very least, to gain more empathy. Here is one of the poems about a young woman struggling with gender identity in high school. I hope her story will encourage you to witness the people in your life as personally as you are able. (Published in Mipoesias, Fall, 2015)

Rena

Rena’s brown eyes focus on something in the distance—
She slumps in her chair
cropped brown hair frames her frozen face.
Rena never smiles
except when she talks about her going back to Brazil
or about caring for her 5 year old sister.
They make castles together and later Rena writes stories
with a heroine named Marvelous Maggie.
Rena tells me I love reading to her and writing stories.
A smile spills across her face.

Rena fails every class in 10th grade—
despite repeating 9th grade work. At midterm,
she begs for the chance to take Honors English 10
I’m bored. If you challenge me, I’ll work, she promises.
When I ask Rena how she’s doing, she looks past
me, then shuts her eyes.
My parents work all the time, so I have to take care of my sister.
I want to take a drawing class. Have you seen my sketch book?
 
“How’s it going in English?”
I missed a test because I was sick, but I’ll make it up this week.
I’m doing great though.
Rena doesn’t tell me she has a D average. I’m going to Brazil in January, so none of this matters.

Rena’s hair is shorter every time I see her
She sports a spikey leather collar around her neck,
wears baggy tee shirts with old Punk band logos. She holds hands
with a girl when she leaves school. When we have a progress meeting, she says
I used to want to kill myself and I’ve been feeling really sad
again. I don’t think I’m going to hurt myself, but I’m afraid.
Rena refuses to speak to me because I tell her parents what she said.
She turns away when I approach. She continues to fail every class.

Rena shaves all of her hair and leaves a strip long, hanging over one eye.
She dyes it green. I see her hugging a girl in the hallway.
Her clothes more masculine, her face impassive, yet defiant.

My parents won’t let me go to Brazil, she tells me.
I’m dropping out of school.

Educating the Teacher: Michael Dickel

I had the pleasure of meeting Michael in Salerno, Italy, last summer when we both participated in the 100Thousand Poets for Change Conference.  Michael joined me, along  with Laura Shovan and Debby Rippey, my travel companions, in sharing a gourmet Salerno lunch in a wonderful ristorante.  Michael also served as the emcee for one of our poetry nights. His work speaks of struggle and peace, and he is committed to using the arts for social change. Welcome, Michael.

MIchael Dickel
MIchael Dickel

Does teaching have to contribute to the status quo? Must it be dominated by business models that value efficiency over humanity and greed over compassion? Yes and no. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.

This is my story. It just happened.  And it’s been happening for years.

I’m letting go of teaching. I’m kicking and screaming, hanging on with my fingernails, letting go.

I’m sixty. I’m “outside faculty” (literally translated from the Hebrew, adjunct in plain English). One of my bread-and-butter teaching gigs will evaporate with a just-launched Ministry of Education, free, online, self-study English reading course.

And things are not working so well at a new gig this semester, where an administrator seems to have taken a dislike for me. I don’t want this constant battle in my life anymore, the struggle to make a living doing something I believe should have value.

After three months teaching, a group of us who are “hourly” teachers this semester saw a contract for the first time. It was dated Monday, the 18th of January. It begins three months before, 18th October. And, the contract expires this Friday, the 22nd. Four-days after they presented it to us. That’s, not coincidentally, the last day of classes for the semester.

One of the many problems with this end date is that we had been told to be present at the final exams on Monday, the 25th. Please note, that is after the contract ends. And, in addition to the paragraph that say, “you are hired from this date to that date,” paragraph seven also says something that loosely translates as: to be very clear, after the end date above, you are no longer an employee of the university, unless you are explicitly given an extension in writing. There is no extension of the dates.

This attitude toward those of us who teach is as destructive to education (and, by extension, society) as almost any other force other than war.

I hate having to fight for employment rights, like getting paid. The constant battling leaves me feeling like a failure. I am letting go of this work, which is no longer teaching, but a form of war.

I am hanging on to a lot of anger. I felt it as I left campus today. Boiling under the virus, feeding its fever. I am seething. And I need to find something else to hold on to.

I teach English as a Foreign Language reading comprehension to international students, Israelis, and Palestinians, in a post-high school prep program, called in Hebrew a mechina. (Yes, these students study together in the same classroom.) I love my students. I want to hold on to those marvelous relationships with students we teachers have the honor of sharing with them, where we learn together.

Today was our last regular meeting as a class. As I often do, I invited them to keep in touch—they have my email. Use it, I said. I’m on Facebook, I added. Three have already sent friend requests. Two of them are Palestinian students.

And just before supper, a student sent me an email (uncorrected and shared with permission of the student):

Hi Michael, this is __________, from English.

I want to tell you that you are a awesome teacher. Since the first lesson, I want to stay in your class. When I heard that we have to redo the [placement] exam. It’s my first time that I started to worry about if I can still be in a specific class.

I love the way you teaching, although sometime it is a little bit boring. I still remember that you played guitar and singing with us. And you told us that the purpose of teaching us is teach us how to think, about critical thinking. Since that, I knew that I was in the right class.

This particular student comes from China. He wants to study in Israel. He knows English already, and has been learning Hebrew. He also takes math, history, physics…a full load of prep-courses that has most of the students studying from 8:30 to 5 or later.

What he wrote at the end of his email, I will hold onto forever:

And I mentioned that I have something to share with you, the topic is that the relationship between war and education.

I found that, if a country want to get strong, it must have to good education in the nation. And the way to show others that you are strong, is to show them you have high tech and strong military. I would like to say high tech in some way is for high tech weapons. So who will provide the nation researchers and scientists to make weapons? Education do. 

So in this way. I can say education make this world worse  not better. And it get worse after every year. I believe that one day this world will get destroyed by those weapons and war. So who cause this? Education. 

What do you think about this?

We had a unit on comparative education. The students spent a couple of classes online, looking at websites for places like Summerhill School (Democratic education), reading articles about Tiger Mom’s and Finland’s education system, and listening to TED Talks on the need for more creativity in education.

We did not discuss war, or its connection to education. That came from an amazing student. It didn’t come from me. Yet, providing students a chance to think such thoughts and to ask such questions—that is why I teach. And a successful teacher is someone to whom a student could write: I have something to share with you…What do you think?

I will hang on to the memory of this email. And hanging on to it will allow me to let go of frustrations with the difficulties and unfairness of a system that is stacked against him more than it is me. Hanging on to what matters will help me let go of what doesn’t matter.

It will also help me let go of this form of the work.

I wrote this student a long reply, which allowed me to hang on to what I really value. And, paradoxically perhaps, to let go of the job. The end of what I wrote went something like this:

If education doesn’t ask the questions that need to be asked, or, more importantly, teach how to ask important and critical questions, then you are right, education is part of the problem. It becomes an accomplice, helping to build the structures of dominance and power. Then, it feeds the cycles of greed. All of these things threaten our world today. If education is about training workers and obedience to authority, if it teaches accepted facts and does not challenge students to think for themselves, we are in trouble.

I think that this is one of the reasons why the Humanities are under attack, politically and economically, in much of the world today. It is why many politicians attack education—not because it is failing,” but because it challenges. And why reforms” are regularly introduced that use over-simplified models of manufacturing knowledge,” teaching doctrinal facts (in whatever discipline or doctrine)—serving a purpose of producing workers and even leaders who fit,” but not inspiring thinkers who question.

We need to find ways to inspire students to think—as I see you have been doing—about our world, about how to make it better, about how to find reasonable and well-reasoned approaches to fixing the problems we see and providing a sustainable, healthy, and worthwhile future for our species. 

I don’t have the answers. I hope that we will find the right approaches, or at least, good enough approaches. And I hope that education does not end up only serving the powerful, the military, and the greedy. 

However, it is always about possibilities. We must look for and welcome new possibilities into our lives.

From the Jewish tradition, we have this teaching, too: You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:21).

I believe that we can stop the destruction you fear. I hope that we can. May we not desist (stop) from trying. May we continue to seek forms of truth, practice heartfelt communication, and learn compassion for each other. May we cooperate and share with each other solutions as we find them. And may we always look to improving the world, not simply existing, or, worse,using up” the world.

I believe that you could be someone who makes a difference. Start with your questions. And then, look for those possible solutions. That is all I know to say to you as an answer to your question about whether education is causing the destruction of the world. Yes and no. And, it doesn’t have to be this way.

With respect and hope for your generation,

BIOGRAPHY: Michael Dickel, a writer and digital artist, currently lives in (West) Jerusalem, Israel, and teaches in Tel Aviv. He is the chair of the Israel Association of Writers in English. His most recent book is War Surround Us  Rose Press, 2014), available at bookstores and online.

Educating the Teacher: Michael Dickel

I had the pleasure of meeting Michael in Salerno, Italy, last summer when we both participated in the 100Thousand Poets for Change Conference.  Michael joined me, along  with Laura Shovan and Debby Rippey, my travel companions, in sharing a gourmet Salerno lunch in a wonderful ristorante.  Michael also served as the emcee for one of our poetry nights. His work speaks of struggle and peace, and he is committed to using the arts for social change. Welcome, Michael.

MIchael Dickel
MIchael Dickel

Does teaching have to contribute to the status quo? Must it be dominated by business models that value efficiency over humanity and greed over compassion? Yes and no. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.

This is my story. It just happened.  And it’s been happening for years.

I’m letting go of teaching. I’m kicking and screaming, hanging on with my fingernails, letting go.

I’m sixty. I’m “outside faculty” (literally translated from the Hebrew, adjunct in plain English). One of my bread-and-butter teaching gigs will evaporate with a just-launched Ministry of Education, free, online, self-study English reading course.

And things are not working so well at a new gig this semester, where an administrator seems to have taken a dislike for me. I don’t want this constant battle in my life anymore, the struggle to make a living doing something I believe should have value.

After three months teaching, a group of us who are “hourly” teachers this semester saw a contract for the first time. It was dated Monday, the 18th of January. It begins three months before, 18th October. And, the contract expires this Friday, the 22nd. Four-days after they presented it to us. That’s, not coincidentally, the last day of classes for the semester.

One of the many problems with this end date is that we had been told to be present at the final exams on Monday, the 25th. Please note, that is after the contract ends. And, in addition to the paragraph that say, “you are hired from this date to that date,” paragraph seven also says something that loosely translates as: to be very clear, after the end date above, you are no longer an employee of the university, unless you are explicitly given an extension in writing. There is no extension of the dates.

This attitude toward those of us who teach is as destructive to education (and, by extension, society) as almost any other force other than war.

I hate having to fight for employment rights, like getting paid. The constant battling leaves me feeling like a failure. I am letting go of this work, which is no longer teaching, but a form of war.

I am hanging on to a lot of anger. I felt it as I left campus today. Boiling under the virus, feeding its fever. I am seething. And I need to find something else to hold on to.

I teach English as a Foreign Language reading comprehension to international students, Israelis, and Palestinians, in a post-high school prep program, called in Hebrew a mechina. (Yes, these students study together in the same classroom.) I love my students. I want to hold on to those marvelous relationships with students we teachers have the honor of sharing with them, where we learn together.

Today was our last regular meeting as a class. As I often do, I invited them to keep in touch—they have my email. Use it, I said. I’m on Facebook, I added. Three have already sent friend requests. Two of them are Palestinian students.

And just before supper, a student sent me an email (uncorrected and shared with permission of the student):

Hi Michael, this is __________, from English.

I want to tell you that you are a awesome teacher. Since the first lesson, I want to stay in your class. When I heard that we have to redo the [placement] exam. It’s my first time that I started to worry about if I can still be in a specific class.

I love the way you teaching, although sometime it is a little bit boring. I still remember that you played guitar and singing with us. And you told us that the purpose of teaching us is teach us how to think, about critical thinking. Since that, I knew that I was in the right class.

This particular student comes from China. He wants to study in Israel. He knows English already, and has been learning Hebrew. He also takes math, history, physics…a full load of prep-courses that has most of the students studying from 8:30 to 5 or later.

What he wrote at the end of his email, I will hold onto forever:

And I mentioned that I have something to share with you, the topic is that the relationship between war and education.

I found that, if a country want to get strong, it must have to good education in the nation. And the way to show others that you are strong, is to show them you have high tech and strong military. I would like to say high tech in some way is for high tech weapons. So who will provide the nation researchers and scientists to make weapons? Education do. 

So in this way. I can say education make this world worse  not better. And it get worse after every year. I believe that one day this world will get destroyed by those weapons and war. So who cause this? Education. 

What do you think about this?

We had a unit on comparative education. The students spent a couple of classes online, looking at websites for places like Summerhill School (Democratic education), reading articles about Tiger Mom’s and Finland’s education system, and listening to TED Talks on the need for more creativity in education.

We did not discuss war, or its connection to education. That came from an amazing student. It didn’t come from me. Yet, providing students a chance to think such thoughts and to ask such questions—that is why I teach. And a successful teacher is someone to whom a student could write: I have something to share with you…What do you think?

I will hang on to the memory of this email. And hanging on to it will allow me to let go of frustrations with the difficulties and unfairness of a system that is stacked against him more than it is me. Hanging on to what matters will help me let go of what doesn’t matter.

It will also help me let go of this form of the work.

I wrote this student a long reply, which allowed me to hang on to what I really value. And, paradoxically perhaps, to let go of the job. The end of what I wrote went something like this:

If education doesn’t ask the questions that need to be asked, or, more importantly, teach how to ask important and critical questions, then you are right, education is part of the problem. It becomes an accomplice, helping to build the structures of dominance and power. Then, it feeds the cycles of greed. All of these things threaten our world today. If education is about training workers and obedience to authority, if it teaches accepted facts and does not challenge students to think for themselves, we are in trouble.

I think that this is one of the reasons why the Humanities are under attack, politically and economically, in much of the world today. It is why many politicians attack education—not because it is failing,” but because it challenges. And why reforms” are regularly introduced that use over-simplified models of manufacturing knowledge,” teaching doctrinal facts (in whatever discipline or doctrine)—serving a purpose of producing workers and even leaders who fit,” but not inspiring thinkers who question.

We need to find ways to inspire students to think—as I see you have been doing—about our world, about how to make it better, about how to find reasonable and well-reasoned approaches to fixing the problems we see and providing a sustainable, healthy, and worthwhile future for our species. 

I don’t have the answers. I hope that we will find the right approaches, or at least, good enough approaches. And I hope that education does not end up only serving the powerful, the military, and the greedy. 

However, it is always about possibilities. We must look for and welcome new possibilities into our lives.

From the Jewish tradition, we have this teaching, too: You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:21).

I believe that we can stop the destruction you fear. I hope that we can. May we not desist (stop) from trying. May we continue to seek forms of truth, practice heartfelt communication, and learn compassion for each other. May we cooperate and share with each other solutions as we find them. And may we always look to improving the world, not simply existing, or, worse,using up” the world.

I believe that you could be someone who makes a difference. Start with your questions. And then, look for those possible solutions. That is all I know to say to you as an answer to your question about whether education is causing the destruction of the world. Yes and no. And, it doesn’t have to be this way.

With respect and hope for your generation,

BIOGRAPHY: Michael Dickel, a writer and digital artist, currently lives in (West) Jerusalem, Israel, and teaches in Tel Aviv. He is the chair of the Israel Association of Writers in English. His most recent book is War Surround Us  Rose Press, 2014), available at bookstores and online.