Wednesday, September 23, 2009


I didn't think Wal-Mart could be cute until we stumbled through the aisles drunk together.

Refusal to Sleep on a Winter Night
It's even colder to slip into bed without you. I'm staying up.

Richard Brautigan Poems That I Like

I used to write really verbose poetry. I didn't know how to fix it. Then I discovered Richard Brautigan.

"Deer Tracks"
Beautiful, sobbing, high-geared fucking
and then to lie silently like deer tracks
in the freshly-fallen snow beside the one
you love. That’s all.

"The Net Wt. of Winter is 6.75 Ozs."
The net wt. of winter is 6.75 ozs.
and winter has a regular flavor
with Fluoristan to stop tooth decay.

A month ago I bought a huge tube
of Crest tooth paste and when I put it
in the bathroom, I looked at it
and said, "Winter."

December 4, 1968

"Hinged to Forgetfulness like a Door"
Hinged to forgetfulness like a door,
she slowly closed out of sight,
and she was the woman that I loved,
but too many times she slept like
a mechanical deer in my caresses,
and I ached in the metal silence
of her dreams.

"Romeo and Juliet"
If you will die for me,
I will die for you

and our graves will
be like two lovers washing
their clothes together
in a Laundromat.

If you will bring the soap,
I will bring the bleach.

"Late Starting Dawn"
It's a late starting dawn that breathes my vision,
inhales and exhales the sound of waking birds
and pokes ten miles of cold gray sky at a deer
standing alone in a meadow.

"My Concern for Your Tomato Plants"
I stare at your tomato plants.
You're not, I'm not pleased with the way
they are growing.
I try to think of ways to help them.
I study them. What do I know about tomatoes?
"Perhaps some nitrate," I suggest.
But I don’t know anything and now I've taken
to gossiping about them. I'm as shameless
as their lack of growing.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Remembering Griselda

I was now completely broken down in tears, clutching Cambria in my arms as I danced across the cheap linoleum in our kitchen. We'd been dancing to a mix cd I'd made and I completely forgot that I had put El Niagara en Bicicleta on it.

My high school Spanish teacher had played that song for us in class. The song eloquently describes the near impossibility of accessing decent medical care (it's like trying to cross Niagara Falls on bike) in Juan Luis Guerra's home country of the Dominican Republic. A relevant song for these times, when in the richest country my wife has to wait 6 months before a treatment she needs will be covered. And of course, that pales in comparison to the thousands (maybe millions) of more dire situations that so many are hell bent, some against their own interests, on perpetuating by preventing reform.

But I digress. Griselda was a strong socialist, feminist, Puerto Rican woman. She legally dropped her last name because she explained to us that the last name is passed on by men, historically a marker of who owned a woman. No one owned her. She told that to the judge and successfully had her last name removed from her driver's license, social security card and credit cards.

I look up to her in so many ways, and now that I am a teacher myself I look up to her because she was herself through and through every day. There was no doubt where she stood politically, religiously, and on most important topics. And yet, I also do not doubt at all that Mary, the evangelical student felt completely comfortable with her own beliefs in that classroom. Why? Wasn't she brainwashing us with her socialist propaganda? She had a freaking poster of Fidel in her classroom!!

No. Why were all of us comfortable expressing our own views in that classroom? Well for one because she did. She showed us to love ourselves and share ourselves. We knew what her butterfly tattoo symbolized, we knew how her uncle had been killed when Puerto Rican students rose up against the occupying US Army and the twisted irony of when her son told her he was joining the military and would later be deployed to Iraq. She shared her poetry with us and she shared it with so much pride as those words left her mouth. She didn't shy away from herself or controversy and that classroom was alive. It was what learning should be- an outpouring of ideas and opinions and honesty and people just being genuine with each other.

She lead by example and we wanted to follow her lead, not by adopting her politics but by passionately speaking our minds. Also, she loved us. She loved us unconditionally. There was no doubt that me, the punk dabbling in anti-authoritarian politics and vegetarianism, or that Mary the born again Christian were loved by her. Since she loved us, it wasn't our beliefs that mattered, it was how we used our minds. Did we think critically of our world? Did we really analyze the stories we were reading, or were we just falling back on shallow rhetoric?

We watched documentaries about the Sandanistas, read plays on Judas, struggled through a Mexican novel all told in second person. It was incredible.

So, Cambria was reaching up at the tears streaking down my cheeks because Griselda never met my kids. She never met my wife. She died after an overdose of anti-depressant pills. It was that whole situation where it wasn't clear if she was trying to kill herself or if she was just in a dark place and tried to get out or just made a careless decision. And again, the tragic irony isn't lost on me that the woman who taught me to love myself as hard as I could would leave this world because of her own carelessness for her own life.

She would go on to be the most important mentor outside of my family. We marched together in the streets, discussed philosophy with Billy Holiday playing in the background of her flat and argued politics (I loathed the authoritarianism of her socialist politics and she shook her head at my anarchist idealism). Her brujeria nature would come out and she'd always tell me her visions that I'd love three times and that I should end up with the soft-spoken lover because she might not be on the frontlines with me, but she'd always support me. She said I'd grow up to be a lawyer who would ruthlessly fight for justice and even arranged a meeting with me and Ernie Duran (president of the UFCW Local 400) to help that process along.

Well, I did love three times like she said. I ended up with the outspoken woman and I'm not a lawyer (at least not yet). But I don't doubt for a second how proud she is of me. She made that known every chance she could. She told me over and over that I was a wise soul to the point that I would start to think it might be true.

In class that day, when the song was playing, I asked why a song about such a tragic topic would be so upbeat. She smiled and asked, "When life is that hard, what else can you do? You just dance and insist on joy. With death and pain all around, you insist on life."

And that answer came back to me in my chest and I pressed Cambria to that soreness as I danced harder to the words "Bajé los ojos a media asta y me agarré la cabeza porque es muy duro pasar el Niágara en bicicleta."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Malcolm X Was a Proficient Reader, What About My Students?

"At one-hour intervals the night guards paced past every room. Each time I heard the approaching footsteps, I jumped into bed and feigned sleep. And as soon as the guard passed, I got back out of bed onto the floor area of that light-glow, where I would read for another fifty-eight minutes --until the guard approached again. That went on until three or four every morning. Three or four hours of sleep a night was enough for me."
-Malcolm X, Autobiography of Malcolm X
My school's CSAP scores, including reading, dropped last year. As a result, the topics of literacy and proficient readers permeates every conversation, every thought, every footstep through the hall. How do we get our kids to score well on CSAP this year? However, this preoccupation with reading instruction has not lead the school to adopt a love-of-reading culture. Because the question being asked is the wrong one. We are not asking How do we share our love of reading with our students? Instead the conversation and the thinking is narrowly directed to a standardized test.

So no, our students as a whole do not love reading. Instead the school administration has done what Herbert Kohl eloquently wrote in an Open Letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan-
"In the panic over teaching students to perform well on reading tests, educators seem to have lost sight of the fact that reading is a tool, an instrument that is used for pleasure and for the acquisition of knowledge and information about the way the world works."
I think about the proficient readers I know or have read about. Malcolm X's story of reading whenever possible while in prison, even if he had to sneak it, exemplifies a simple mantra I've always carried with me "A proficient reader loves to read." And his story as to why he began reading, echoes Kohl's assertion-
"I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. The ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive."
Would he have reached this in my school, as a 5th grader? I seriously doubt it. If so, it would have been because his teacher had been intuitive, bucked the system and would have been in spite of the curriculum rather than because of it.

Because test scores have hijacked our building's ability to see reading for what it is - our students who are not proficient readers are treated as if they are diseased. My assistant principal, speaking of students scoring Unsatisfactory on their reading test, explained that "If they don't get it first in the classroom, then we can give them a second dose, and then a third dose with an SES, and then a fourth dose with intervention." The thinking here is that if they aren't reading on grade level then something is wrong with them, that they need reading skills drilled into their heads and if they don't get it the first time we'll do it again, and again, and again, and again.

Of course, the sick irony with this approach is that the more that we "intervene" the clearer it becomes in the student's mind that reading is not for them. That they are not good readers and that reading is not for enjoyment or the gateway to life-changing experiences, it's a test that they will take and which will most likely come back telling them that they are "Unsatisfactory."

And so, instead of following in the footsteps of Malcolm X by poring over a book with a flashlight at night, our children will return to their homes, grateful not to see a book. They will turn on the tv and escape to a place where they are not coerced to read a passage and then fill in a bubble about it, a place where history and science and art and PE are denied to them because they need to practice their reading instead.

Rather than a tool, they will see reading as a barrier to the things that they love. They will associate it with the time that they are pulled from Science to sound out words. We can take that mantra for proficient readers and invert it, "Non-proficient readers loathe reading."

And even within the confining goal of improving test scores, they most likely won't by making our kids hate to read. And if they do, it will come at a high price.

Of course, the scores are true to an extent. Many of our students do struggle at reading. However, instead of looking at the students as stupid or failures (thus prompting the question over how to cram more literacy instruction into the day) what if we took Kohl's quote as guidance? What if we reframed the question to say "How can we help students use reading as a tool to tap into their passions and transform their worlds?"

Mind you, Malcolm X was not a proficient reader. He quit school early. To learn to read at an academic level he read every single page out of the dictionary and then wrote down every single character onto paper. He did this twice.

Why would he go through such a laborious, boring process? Because he realized what reading could do for him. For him he knew that there were volumes of books and countless stories of his people that had been denied to him and he wanted to know them.

So even for our struggling readers who do in fact need phonics instruction or practice with fluency or other activities that are typically not the most engaging, that understanding of literature's potential for them is essential. If they do not see reading as the profound tool that it is, they will not empty their heart onto those pages like Malcolm X did. They will, no let me start over- They are being denied the joy and liberation of reading and they will continue to be robbed of this joy so as long as we treat them like they are deficient and as long as we take our guidance from standardized tests rather than from our students.