Friday, November 29, 2013

What I'm grateful for on Black Friday

I'm grateful that my kids were the ones who said they didn't feel celebrating Chanukah with presents so soon after losing my father, their grandfather, so we're just doing the spiritual part and postponing all the present stuff for some later date.

I grateful that my parents brought me up to treasure family over stuff, so that the idea of going out to shop on Thanksgiving is anathema to me and my kids.

I'm grateful I don't work for Walmart, and I support the striking workers.

I agree with Adam Zopf, who wrote this:

and I wonder how and when we are going to do something about the growing inequality in our society, which has now reached Robber Baron era proportions.

I'm grateful that I had teachers who were given the freedom to teach in creative and thoughtful ways, and that testing was kept to a minimum so we were reading, thinking and analyzing instead of being tested.

I'm grateful my youngest child is a senior so that we are going to avoid the coming debacle of Common Core implementation, SBAC and even more testing. But that doesn't mean I'm giving up the fight for public education, because it has been the key to my family's success in this country and I will not see it destroyed.

I'm grateful for musicians, who create soundtrack for my life.

I'm grateful that adversity has brought me friendship, sometimes from people who would previously have considered me "that crazy liberal."

I'm grateful that I am able to earning a living doing what I love the most, so that working my butt off, while exhausting, isn't soul destroying the way it was when I worked in jobs that weren't really me.

I'm grateful that through my work as a both a writer for teens and a political writer, I have met smart, creative people who share my passion to make the world a better place.

What are you grateful for today?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Enabling isn't love - an important takeaway from the Newtown report

I am not a parenting expert, and make no claims to be one. The only "expertise" I have is that I have raised two extremely different young people to the ages of 17 and 20, and that "Q & A", an animated interview between my then 12 year-old son and me at StoryCorps has over a million views on YouTube, so it's obviously struck a chord with a few people.

When I read the Summary of the Final Report on the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting by Stephen J, Sendensky III, State Attorney for the Judicial District of Danbury, I was overwhelmingly struck by one thing - the degree to which Nancy Lanza enabled her son.

Parenting is hard work at the best of times. It's a constant balancing act between giving your kids the unconditional love and support they need while still providing consistent discipline so they know that there are limits and values by which they are expected to conduct themselves in the family and in wider society.

As the Talmud advises: "push away with the left hand while drawing closer with the right hand" (BT Sanhedrin 107b).

When you're parenting a child with special needs, that balancing act is even harder. You feel like one of the Wallendas every day, trying to figure out if you're making the right decisions for your child; fighting the school system for services, fighting insurance companies for services, being criticized and/or second guessed by family members, by people in the grocery store, by well-meaning friends, and worst of all by yourself.

I can't tell you how many times I've cried in the shower, cried to my therapist, cried to my son's therapist, cried on my doctor's desk, cried to friends, cried in the car while driving, cried to my Rabbi, cried to anyone who who might listen, because I'm worried that I'm doing the wrong thing by my son - sometimes by pushing him because I think he can do things that others say he can't, or because I feel like I've failed to give him the right supports, or for any of a million other reasons. (Same with my daughter, but for different reasons).

But one thing I have always worked very hard NOT to do is enable him. I've messed up sometimes - no one is perfect - but when I read the Newtown report I could not believe the degree to which Nancy Lanza enabled her son, presumably under the notion that she was doing it out of "love".

Example 1: Doing his laundry. If her son was 20 years old and had OCD and felt the need to change his clothes several times a day, why the hell was she still doing his laundry? Why didn't she teach him to do his own laundry - especially since he was unwilling to help himself in any way through medication or therapy. If "the shooter" was capable of learning to drive a car and shoot any number of types of gun, he was bloody well able to learn how to operate a washing machine and tumble dryer. This is enabling, people. It's not love.

Example 2: Allowing him to living in her house for a year only communicating by email? If your son is exhibiting that kind of disrespect and anti-social behavior toward you, why are you putting up with it? Tell him that he goes for inpatient treatment, or he talks to you with the respect any human being - and particularly his mother - deserves. Again, how is this love? Allowing your child to act in increasingly anti-social ways isn't love. It's enabling. And twenty-six innocent lives were lost because of such enabling.

Example 3. Don't even get me started on the guns. Your son is exhibiting all these clearly antisocial behaviors, including only communicating with you by email in your own home, and you are not just training him to use guns, but giving him money to buy a gun as a present?

It's entirely possible - indeed it's desirable - to give your children the room to express themselves and grow, loving and supporting and respecting them while still expecting respect from them.

It's like when my son told me he was now an atheist. I said, "Okay. But when I light the Shabbat candles, I expect you to put on a kippah and let me bless you. Not out of respect to G-d, if you don't believe in him, but out of respect to me, your mother, because it's important to me."

I see enabling all over the place in the town I live in. Like typing their kids' applications for Ivy League schools. What's going to happen if the kid gets in and Mommy isn't there to actually do the work?

Enabling isn't love. It hurts your child, rather than helping them. And sadly, in the case of Nancy and Adam Lanza, it resulted in the deaths of 26 innocent people.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Shared Awareness: Information + Technology = "Education Spring"

Matt DiRienzo, Group Editor for 21st Century Media in CT, recommended Clay Shirky's "Here Comes Everybody" for one of my MFA students (thanks Matt!) and I've been reading it, too. It's worth picking up if you want to understand the growing backlash against Corporate Education Reform, the Common Core and my focus here, recent events in Hartford, CT.

As anyone who has following the edreform debate will be aware, the push for the current brand of high stakes, test-based stacked ranking of students, teachers and schools has come from moneyed interests - hedge fund billionaires like Paul Tudor Jones, Steve Mandel & Whitney Tilson, and tech billionaires such as Mark Zuckerberg,

Add in the mega bucks of megaphilanthropies like Broad Education Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Donald and Doris Fisher Fund, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and corporate interests like Pearson, and you get a pretty clear idea of how much money and power is behind the corporate education reform movement and the push to privatize our public schools.

It was difficult for the constituency of people who work with children and could see the many, valid problems with corporate edreform strategies to make themselves heard, because to put it bluntly, in this country, for all of our ideals of being a democracy and a meritocracy, money talks. This has only become more pronounced in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

It's not just that the wealthy have greater influence in the corridors of power because of their ability to make campaign donations. It's that the wealthy and powerful have a disproportionate influence on traditional means of communication - newspapers, television, radio. To get out a conflicting narrative means rocking the donor/advertising boat, and when media outlets are already struggling to survive in choppy economic waters, it's become abundantly clear that boat rocking is avoided at all costs.

But what's happened in Hartford - and is catching fire all across the country, much to Arne Duncan's chagrin - is that new technology is giving the rest of us (Shirky's "everybody")the tools for shared awareness and that awareness leads to action, which is resulting in consequences for those who have willfully ignored our voices for far too long.

Let's focus on an example from Hartford. The Hartford Board of Education, consists of 9 members, 5 appointed by Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra (including himself) and 4 elected members. Parents have complained about lack of transparency about process, lack of interest in the types of programs being pushed on them, and lack of resources before the decision to privatize the schools. But they haven't always had sufficient information and the ability to communicate and disperse that information in a timely way, in order to protest the Board's decisions.

In the last year or so, however, things have changed. First, there is the blogosphere - and blogs like Wait What? and Real Hartford have been providing a function that traditional media sources haven't - investigative reporting - thus giving parents information.

Social media is what has given this information power. By spreading the information far and wide, it's become harder for the traditional media to ignore, and thus for the Hartford politicians and the Board of Education to turn a blind eye to parent's concerns.

What's more, as Shirky observed in HERE COMES EVERYBODY regarding protests in Liepzig, (GDR) in 1989 prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, "each of the citizens...had some threshold at which they might join a protest. Each week the march happened without a crackdown offered additional eidence that the marches provided an outlet for their disaffection; each successful march diminished the fear felt by some additional part of the populace."

We saw this with the Steve Perry/Capital Prep story in Hartford. Jonathan Pelto started covering Perry's inappropriate tweets, his chronic absenteeism for speaking engagements, and his bullying behavior on Wait What?. Former and current teachers started approaching him behind the scenes, but because of Perry's threats to ruin their careers, they were concerned about going on the record. However a few things happened at once which changed the situation. A former Capital Prep teacher, Michael Fryar, 45, filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities over his alleged treatment at Capital Prep.

According to a report in the Hartford Courant:
"Fryar said he was fired Nov. 8, only weeks after he formally complained to the district and state that he was denied professional development opportunities and given low evaluation scores "with no factual basis."

Fryar criticized Perry's leadership and described an environment of low teacher morale. He also questioned Capital Prep's disciplinary practices, including instances in which students ran up and down the school's stairs as an apparent form of punishment, Fryar said.

City schools spokesman David Medina said the district would not comment on Fryar's allegations because of "pending litigation." Perry, who declined to comment on much of Fryar's remarks, denied that morale is low."

This, coupled with Supt Christina Kishimoto's proposal to give Perry an additional school to run, (under structured as a private management company owned by Perry) which was scheduled for a hasty BOE vote, lit the spark. Having social media tools allowed parents to stay informed, to spread the word, and to make their feelings known publicly. As more parents and teachers started telling their stories, others became more forthright.

From Wait What?

Addendum: New parental complaint


At this point the issues became harder for both the BOE and the traditional media to ignore, although the establishment paper,(CT's Daily Mail) the Courant, appears to still be doing its best to do so. In its late, and obviously reluctant coverage of the Perry tweet affair (which it posted after the Washington Post had already taken up the story)the Courant headlines with "Teacher's Union Asks for Investigation into Principal's 'threatening' tweet." Let's put "threatening' in quotes because we're going to pretend that a student or a teacher making that tweet like wouldn't have been suspended, right HC? It's just that meddlesome old teacher's union making trouble again! it.

Multiply this effect with a network of concerned parents, educators, professors, writers and activists around the country and you can start to understand why the Opt Out Movement is growing, why opposition to the Common Core is growing, why districts are opting out of RTTT funding, and why Arne Duncan (and Democrats who support him) will regret that "white suburban mom" comment for a VERY VERY LONG TIME. Because it's not just white suburban moms. It's everybody. And we're here, armed with information, research and investigative reporting and the ability to spread it, even if the traditional media won't.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Model to Replicate?

One of the phrases we hear constantly in the debate about education reform, particularly with regard to privatizing public education, is "replicating successful models."

Those of us who went to business school recognize the lingo. And those of us who studied statistics (instead of the calculus that the edreformers want to foist on every single child today because STEM! STEM! STEM!) also recognize that the "success" of such models usually are the result of significantly lower percentage of ELL and SPED students served. In some cases the "successful" models are the subject of lawsuits because they are failing to follow the law regarding special education services.

But many others have written about that. My topic today is a different kind of modeling - modeling behavior.

When I was growing up, my parents had this poem on the wall in our bathroom:

Dorothy Law Nolte

If a child lives with criticism,
he learns to condemn.
If a child lives with hostility,
he learns to fight.
If a child lives with fear,
he learns to be apprehensive.
If a child lives with pity,
he learns to feel sorry for himself.
If a child lives with ridicule,
he learns to be shy.
If a child lives with jealousy,
he learns what envy is.
If a child lives with shame,
he learns to feel guilty.
If a child lives with encouragement,
he learns to be confident.
If a child lives with tolerance,
he learns to be patient.
If a child lives with praise,
he learns to be appreciative.
If a child lives with acceptance,
he learns to love.
If a child lives with approval,
he learns to like himself.
If a child lives with recognition,
he learns that it is good to have a goal.
If a child lives with sharing,
he learns about generosity.
If a child lives with honesty and fairness,
he learns what truth and justice are.
If a child lives with security,
he learns to have faith in himself and in those about him.
If a child lives with friendliness,
he learns that the world is a nice place in which to live.
If you live with serenity,
your child will live with peace of mind.

As you can imagine, when something is on the wall in the bathroom, you end up reading it a LOT. Growing up, I read that poem over and over from a child - and then a teenager's perspective. I guess some of it must have sunk in, because as a parent, I know that I can say something till I'm blue in the face, but my kids are watching how I behave. "Do as I say, not as I do" isn't an effective parenting strategy. We have to model the behavior we want to see from our kids.

Which is why I am completely and utterly gobsmacked that anyone on the Hartford Board of Education would even consider putting another educational institution in the hands of a man like Steven Perry. He has a long history of reprehensible behavior: comparing teachers to roaches , calling noted education historian Diane Ravitch a racist, and last night, after the Hartford Board of Education thankfully voted against taking the the Sand School away from the parents and students and giving it to Perry to manage under a private company he set up to profit from public funds, he resorted to issuing threats.

Really Mr. Perry? Is that healthy modeling for teenagers? If you don't get your way you resort to head injuries? I think you should be in anger management classes, rather than guiding teenagers at a school.

It's no wonder that the teacher turnover rate at Capital Prep is so abysmal.

Chart courtesy of: JerseyJazzman

I'm not sure why this man has the following he has. But he is certainly not an example of someone I would want my children to emulate.

UPDATED: According to a late, obviously reluctant piece in the Hartford Courant, Perry is now trying to claim that his tweet was a "metaphor"

Perry, a public speaker and author who has frequently lambasted teachers' unions, said that the statement was "a metaphor about hard struggle" and called the ensuing controversy "troubling."

"There's no one mentioned, inferred or discussed at any point in the entire stream," he said. "This is simply an attempt by some people to take the focus off the very important issue at hand, which is to make sure Hartford … gets access to greater quality education by any means necessary.

"It's very, very sad to me that amidst all of the very, very real issues in education … someone's talking about my tweets," he said. "A metaphor. I could've said, 'It's going to be a bumpy ride.' I was being irreverent. It was a joke."

Perry said that the message was a general statement.

"It is not related to the vote," he said. "It is related to an ongoing fight for kids' rights."

Firstly, I think Mr. Perry should go back and take some remedial literature courses, so he actually understands how to properly use metaphor.

But even if we give him the benefit of the doubt here, which anyone who read his tweets in context would have an extremely hard time doing - it still begs the question - would this be an appropriate "metaphor" for the Principal of a school to use?

That the Hartford BOE, and State BOE don't appear to realize this, and have been sitting on their hands during Perry's previous incidents of inappropriate behavior is really astonishing. It makes one wonder what is going on behind the scenes and why they are so invested in such a troubled man.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

SORROW FLOATS: Eulogy for my father – STANLEY P. DARER

delivered at Temple Beth El, Wednesday November 6th, 2013

I wouldn’t be the woman I am today if not for the influence of our father, Stanley Paul Darer – Schmaria Pesach ben Aaron v Malka

A critical part becoming a good writer is learning to be good reader. My father was a voracious reader who modeled to us, his children, that not moment of time that could be devoted to reading should be wasted - not even when sitting on the throne doing one’s business.

We always had a wide range of reading material available everywhere in our house, including the bathroom, which is where I got my start reading Foreign Affairs. Dad’s taste’s ran heavily towards spy novels, for obvious reasons, as well as autobiographies, and historical non-fiction.

Dad taught us the importance of learning from history – something I wish more politicians would learn. As kids, we’d snuggle up in our PJ’s watching the amazing BBC documentary series The World at War with him. He was way before his time with “reality TV” – except there was nothing lighthearted or prurient about this variety.

But Dad wasn’t always serious. He loved the absurd, too and we’d laugh together watching Monty Python and Benny Hill.

Dad was like that – quick to anger, but equally quick to laughter.
He taught us we should observe, and more importantly that we should care about what was going on in the world around us.

He also taught us, by his example, to be good citizens who engaged in public service. But as we got older and started developing our own points of view, we didn’t always agree on the direction of that public service. When my political views started to diverge from Dad’s, the arguments at family get togethers could get loud and quite spectacular, as my children Josh and Amie can attest.

Losing Dad to Alzheimer’s has been a slow, painful grieving process – I compare it to having your heart cut out with a butter knife. I hate the disease for robbing me of conversations I wanted to have with Dad, for robbing Josh and Amie of more time with their beloved Grandpoo, and for stealing the chance for Dylan, Daniel and Hank to get to know Papa and Dad as he really was. But as painful as it’s been for all of us, there have been moments of grace and humor, and even some lessons that living with this for the last ten years has taught me.

I learned that being open and giving to others eases your pain, too. I’d bring our dog Benny to visit Dad, with whom he had a very special relationship. If Dad was having a bad day and I felt sad, taking Benny to visit the other residents and seeing the smiles he brought to their faces made me feel better. Benny and I have made so many friends at Waveny that we’re planning to go for official therapy dog training so we can continue our visits.

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned from Dad’s condition is to live more in the present. I’m Jewish, and a Mother, which (funnily enough) makes me a Jewish Mother, and if that weren’t enough qualification for being a total worry wort, I’ve fought depression and anxiety since I was a teenager. When I went to visit Dad I had to learn to go with the flow - to meet him wherever he happened to be that day. Sometimes it was the past, but mostly it was the present. We’d hold hands, listen to music, enjoy walking Benny, and just being together. The last time my father said coherent words to me, he smiled, kissed my hand and said, “You’re wonderful.” He might not have remembered my name, or even that I was specifically his daughter, but he remembered his love all of us up to the very end.

And that’s the other really important thing I’ve learned from this long and painful journey. I’ve been to weddings of Christian friends, and always loved Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. I’ve thought of it often these last few years: “But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Dad didn’t remember my name, but his face still lit up when he saw me. Love is the greatest of these, and it’s what has supported us all and helped us get through this difficult time.

One vacation when I was home from college, Dad was reading The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving. He drove me crazy because he’d start cracking up while he was reading and then he’d insist on reading the passage that made him laugh aloud. They were mainly about Sorrow, the Labrador, “a fetcher and farter”. I think Sorrow tickled his funny bone because we also had a Labrador – (Winnie, named after Winston Churchill) who could be rather flatulent himself.

I finally begged Dad to stop because I wanted to read the book myself. Like I said, Dad was great at modeling reading – and, pretty good at book talking, too.

But when he finally handed me the book, my father didn’t warn me about the sad bit - the part that made me cry so much when I got to it that I had to put the book down for the rest of the day to recover before I could continue reading.

Dad taught us how to drive, he taught us really inappropriate jokes, he taught us patriotism and the importance of casting our vote, he taught us to respect the office of the President even if you don’t agree with the man in that office. He taught me that I should always drink alcohol more slowly than any guy who took me out on a date. When I was going through my divorce, he came to Chabad every Shabbat to sit next to my son and help him prepare for his Bar Mitzvah.

But here’s the thing - Dad knew that we had to discover for ourselves that Sorrow Floats.

And even though we’ve had so long to prepare for this, even though we thought we were prepared, the shock of turning the page and learning that lesson, that Sorrow Floats, is just as devastating now as it was when I read the Hotel New Hampshire, all those years ago. But this time, I can’t go and talk to Dad about it, which only makes it more so.


This is one of our favorite family pictures of Dad because it is so him - how many people would go for a camel ride in the desert in a coat and tie? But it was so very, very Dad.