Thursday, May 26, 2016

Sydney - Different Day, Same ****

St. Joseph's
Well, here I am in Sydney Australia.

I am staying in a retreat center that houses a convent

I am meeting wonderful tellers from all over the world

I am seeing friends from North Carolina, the industrious super studious David Novak is here.

I have had a wonderful time in the two short days I've been here.

I promise to blog about this experience as soon as I finish having it!

Until then, here is what is happening!!!!

At the Airport

My Sydney experience started with some confusion at the airport. The shuttle I was taking was delayed, my phone didn't work, and I was afraid I was stranded. Luckily, that sorted itself pretty quickly, and I was on my way to Baulkam Hills where the convent/retreat center is.

The van driver was pretty fascinated with my being an American despite the fact that I have no doubt she meets lots of Americans.

In the almost two hour car ride where we inched along in the traffic, she decided that I had to answer for everything that had happened in America in the last fifty years that she thought of as bad, undignified, or horrible. She relished in telling me how horrible my country was.

Our discussion was far ranging. Here were the things about which she demanded I answer.

- Mass Shootings
-America's extremely foolish gun laws. Why didn't they take a page out Australia's book on that one?
-America's crappy health care system. Why were we so determined to kill our citizens?
-Donald Trump....don't Americans realize the rest of the
world is laughing at them...or me in particular
-The poor turnout at voting time in America. Why isn't voting mandatory?
-the recent war in Iraq, which apparently I gave the orders for personally
-Americans are stupid and have short attention spans...why didn't I fix that?
-Americans are rude

-Americans are overridden with gangs and meth
-Americans are ignorant of history
-Americans don't even know how their own country works

-Americans are destructive and wasteful

-Americans the thing that is really wrong with us, I got asked why as if all Americans are exactly the same and quite stupid in fact.

I resorted to pointing out that absolutely nobody in the world called me and asked my opinions about any of these topics except to add me to some anonymous poll. I don't have access to anyone who makes these decisions, and I am not responsible for them.

I mentioned the fact, ever so briefly that Australia has just adopted dumping policies that are threatening the coral reefs, and she shut that down immediately by announcing she knew nothing whatsoever about that. I had to smile. Apparently, Australian public policy was not on the docket.

I was very amused by this. Perhaps, if I were the sort of American who believes in the shining city on a hill, I would have been very annoyed by this and taken umbrage.

Some of you get the pic!

Perhaps if I were the sort of American who just moves along in a 'I am an American' happy place, this would have struck me as being some sort of personal attack.

Perhaps if I were the sort of American for whom life is quite privileged, and I never had to challenge my own thoughts in order to live in the world around me, I might have been shocked.

Luckily or unluckily, I'm not that type of American. I'm an African American.

What does that mean?

That means that other Americans have been trying to make me answer for every other African American most of my life. The types of questions I get are quite something else.

-Why do African Americans join gangs
-Why do African American women talk so loud
-Why do African American people need all of those other hair products
-Why do African American people have such high crime rates

-why do African American people name their kids such weird names
-Why do African American people have such different hair
-Why do African Americans all use food stamps
-Why do African Americans have such high unemployment

-Why do so few African Americans go to college
-Why do African Americans talk like that
-Why do African name it, I've been asked as if being black means I have some kind of handbook about being black in America that all of us are supposed to consult as we move through the world.

People ask these questions as if the premise upon which they are asking them is completely reasonable, and I have to answer for them. Just like the Aussie shuttle bus driver.

My Aussie driver seemed somewhat annoyed that I wasn't in full throated defending things that frankly, are kind of indefensible. She got quite passionate, and I just pointed out that I wasn't responsible for most of the nonsense she hears about. I'm not taking meth, I'm not promoting Donald Trump, I don't own a fire arm though I grew up in a military family where we learned to respect them enough for me to know I didn't need one on my house. On, and on I simply answered her questions with my own personal opinion all the while telling her that I'm not responsible for American policy, and that often her view of what she was saying was skewed by wherever she was getting her information.

She asked about my family and said they sounded very intelligent and industrious. she asked about my job, and noted that it was unusual.

I tried to divert the conversation into pretty much any other topic, but she really wanted to talk about what was wrong with America.

She actually got to the point where she asked, a bit belligerently, "Do you vote?"

I replied, "Yes, in every election including the special ones, the midterms and the presidential elections. I always vote. I vote for bond referendums, when they have special votes for policies, and I read about the candidates and pick the ones I feel are best for my country and community."

Finally, she said to me, "You are not like most Americans. You sound very educated and well spoken. You really seem to know what you're talking about, and you've put lots of thought into these subjects."

It was sort of her way of letting me know that I was not conforming to her stereotypes, and therefore, my attitudes, answers, and thoughts not only didn't really count, she could ignore them and happily go about not reassessing her view of Americans because my presence meant pretty much nothing.

It reminded me of all of the times I've heard the phrase, "You're not like most black people."

So, I crossed America from DC to Los Angeles; flew fourteen hours over the ocean, and wouldn't you know it.....I got treated like a minority!

On the plus side, she didn't think of me as an African American...just a plain old regular, there was that.

When the driver finally dropped me at the convent/retreat center I couldn't help but laugh.

Different day, same...well, you know.

Happy Traveling!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Words 'I Don't Like To Read' Don't Mean What We Think They Mean

A Phrase I hear, especially from boys of a certain age, is 'I don't like to read'.

I always find that statement heartrendingly sad because I am a bibliophile, and I can't imagine life without books.

I can't imagine not having more books than book space. (I just bought a new bookcase yesterday. Picking it up today. I am soooo excited!!)

I can't imagine what it would be like to be in a room in my house that doesn't actually have books in it.

When I am looking for a book to read, I frequently just run my finger across the spines, reading the titles and reveling in the stories that flash through my head in their entirety at that simple glance.

If one title leaps out at me, I pull it off the shelf and lose myself. Sometimes I don't read any of them. Just remembering how much I love the stories is enough. I can get on with my life after that. How could someone not have this as part of their every day experience?

One of the things I sometimes do before I perform is ask kids if they like to read. Then, I ask if there is anyone who doesn't like to read.

For the kids who don't like to read, I ask them follow up questions.

How many of you like to read about sports? Monsters? Dragons? Cars? Horses?

What I soon discover is that when kids say 'they don't like to read' they often mean they just don't like to read the stuff they are forced to deal with in school. They read other things, but somehow, those things don't count.

Last week, while I was in Florida, several parents asked for my help with their kids. 'My kid doesn't like to read? What do I do?"

If the kid is standing there, I ask the kid, "What sorts of things do you like?"

One kid looked at me defiantly, "Math."

"Did you know that Pythagorus, who was a great mathematician, told his followers not to fart because he thought  that whenever they did, a piece of your soul came out of their bottom?"

He started laughing. His mother was a bit surprised. I said to the kid. "Have you ever read the book, the Return of Rumpelstiltskin?"

"No." He responded, but he wasn't so surly.

"Rumpelstiltskin comes back, and they have to use multiplication to stop him."

"Really?" He was grinning now.

I turned to his mother. "If he likes math, there are books out there that have fun aspects that are about math. Look for those. He can read a little, wallow in some math. It is the best of both worlds." His mother looked thoughtful, the kid looked hopeful.

I can't always find a connection with a kid, especially if they tell you they don't like anything, but with my new appreciation of graphic novels, my arsenal for suggestions just got huge.

Recently I recommended adding Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side to a third grade classroom when the teacher told me her students were interested in humor.

Last Wednesday, I was caught in a huge rainstorm in Florida while on my way to an after school program for a show.

These are the driving laws in Florida as far as I can tell:

1 - The state has the 'optional' turn signal law in place, and most people exercise it
2 - ⅓ of the population is not allowed to drive above thirty miles an hour regardless of whether they are on a throughway or the highway
3 - ⅓ of the population is not allowed to drive below ninety miles an hour regardless of whether they are on a throughway or the highway
4 - People driving black sports cars are often in stealth mode and refuse to turn on their lights during storms even though it is supposedly the law, and the sheeting rain makes it impossible to see them until they are right next to you

By the time I got to the library, I was shaken, furious, and annoyed. Perfect.

When I entered into the space, the organizer apologized because there were only six or seven kids there. The librarian rousted about two more out of the main library.

I didn't care about the numbers. My attitude about storytelling in libraries is whoever shows up gets stories, and as long as the audience outnumbers me, it's a show. If only one person shows up I'll still tell...but don't tell anybody.

Anyway, the kids sat near the front, and I asked the questions: Who likes to read? Is there anyone who doesn't like to read?"

The only person who didn't like to read was the eleven year old in the front of the room who proudly held up his hand. I was late getting to the library, and so didn't ask my follow up question.

I told several stories, one of which was, A Knock At The Door. It is one of those tales where a mother leaves her children home and they are tricked into opening the door to someone who wants to do them harm. The mother saves them at the end.

When the story was over, I book talked half of Heckedy Peg. I end my little book talk with the words, "If you want to find out how she gets her kids back, you'll have to go and find that book."

The librarian went to find the book before I was finished with the set, and he returned with the book as well as some of my books.

When the set was over, the kids went for Heckedy Peg, but the eleven year old beat them to it. They were all crowded around him silently. Some kids couldn't see, and they began to complain.

I smiled. "Why don't one of you read it aloud to the others?"

The eleven year old jumped up! "I want to read it to everyone! Can I?"

"Sure." I said without batting an eye.

He went to the front of the room. The organizer apologized and said that parents had come to get their kids. The eleven year old was crestfallen.

"You can read it to everyone tomorrow." I looked over at the organizer. She nodded The eleven year old grinned. The librarian said, "We'll hold it for you guys."

I went out and got in my car. The rain had stopped, the sun made a brief appearance, and the world was easier to navigate.

Honestly, if the world had still been drowning in rain, I wouldn't have cared. The smile on that kid's face at the prospect of reading that book to the other kids made my entire trip down to Florida worth it.

If they tell you they don't like to read, they might actually believe it...that doesn't mean they are right. Don't give up on them.

Happy Reading!

Monday, May 2, 2016

Other People's Children: Language? Literacy? Questions.

Momma Duch with a couple generations of ducklings in Florida

I have been avoiding this space.

Sometimes life gets foolish.

Yes, I know I'm supposed to be writing a blog on a regular basis, but I have been avoiding this space because I didn't think I had anything to say. My plan this morning was to just write a 'sorry about my absence' piece.  I also had a slate of excuses to explain why I haven't been blogging.

For example:

I've had working Thursdays for the last few weeks, and since that's the day I normally blog, if I'm working out of the house, I never seem to get around to blogging.

My daughter, my sweet little girl went to prom a couple of weeks ago. Yikes.

Sixteen caught me by surprise

I've been avoiding working on my nonfiction piece while I try to finish a completed draft of this really fun novel I'm working on, all the while doing research, getting ready for both of my children to finish for the year and come home for the summer. I've been preparing for travel, workshops, conferences, festivals, and all of that stuff that pays the bills but keeps me hopping. That's why I haven't been writing.

However, when I finally stopped avoiding this space and I sat down to write about how I don't have time to write, I discovered I actually did have something I wanted to say.

Thus, rendering all of my useless excuses foolish and irrelevant.

I'm in Florida for ten days. I performed at the 29th annual conference for children's literature which was themed: Beginning With Books: 'Back to Basics', and the 14th annual Ashley Bryan Art Series where I was featured with some amazing artists and authors. It was neat. I had a wonderful time.

I listened to a fascinating presentation by Charles R. Smith Jr. Who is an incredibly accomplished author, photographer and poet.

My People by Langston Hughes, photos by Charles R. Smith Jr.

Brick By Brick a story about building the White House in D.C.

I met a graphic novelist named Chris Schweizer who made me look at comics in a completely different way!

Chris Schweizer

One of Chris's graphic novels

I was there to tell stories, and to give my take on language, literacy, and storytelling...what else? I'd prepared my speech, got my talking points together, but when I stood up to speak something odd happened.

 I noticed how the words came out differently, and the points I was making were slightly altered. I cannot doubt that it was because of this amazing book I've been absorbing.

This book is about how Standard English, which is taught in American schools, is a different dialect of English that lots of children do not speak. Instead of educating kids with different dialects, the efforts educators make to teach Standard English actually make it hard for students who do not already speak Standard English to learn ANYTHING. You get me? School becomes a battlefield for learning ANYTHING.

 "How is that possible?" you might ask.

 'Other People's Children' by Lisa Delpit.

I started reading this book after having lunch with a friend of mine who is getting a PhD in classroom systems. I shared with him about my writing a book about language, literacy and storytelling, and he recommended this to me.

I've been reading it a quarter section at a time, and every time I get through four or five pages I put the book down, sit back and wait for my poor, blown mind to reassemble so I can make sense of what I've just read.

This book made me think about lots of things. It has made me make decisions that I wouldn't have made three weeks ago.

Let me give you one example of what is between the pages. There is a short narrative about a college professor who observed a second grade teacher working with a little boy who pronounces words in his dialect instead of
Standard English. The teacher kept interrupting the student to correct the mispronounced words as opposed to allowing the student to work on reading the text. It got to a point where the the kid didn't want to read, withdrew, and started making mistakes on words he did know. The teacher became more impatient as the child had more and more trouble with the text. At no point did the kid get all the way through the work. This kid would be considered a slow reader.

The professor noted all of this. He created a form of English he called Atlantian English, and introduced it to his linguistic grad students. He put together a paragraph, and had his students attempt to read it out loud. He used the same techniques to get them to pronounce the words properly that the second grade teacher was using on an eight year old, and to his surprise, he got the same results. At least one of the grad students broke out in tears, most of them got so frustrated they fidgeted, refused to read, or read so quietly you could barely hear them. They began to second guess even the words they knew. It was a disaster. None of the grad students in linguistics successfully completed the reading, and none of them knew what they'd read. So? Does this mean that they were slow readers?

Now imagine you are eight years old and that is your experience every time you pick up a book and try to read with your teacher. Tell me, what are the odds you will become a proficient reader? What are the odds that you will learn to love books or literature? What are the odds that you will come to 'hate' reading?


That half of a page sent me into deep thought for several days as I tried to come to grips with what this says about the forever educational gap between white children, rural children, poor children, and children of color, and what factors might be contributing to it. It made me wish every single person who went into education was forced to read this book.

Then, there was the situation that happened this morning. I was up on stage doing my thing.

Sitting in front were two little girls in the third grade. A white girl and black girl side by side and it was clear they were friends. Throughout the stories they couldn't stop poking and playing. I spoke to them the first time. The second time I was a little harsher, and the third time I announced that if they couldn't get it together, or I had to speak to them again, I was going to move them away from each other.

A well meaning teacher marched over to the girls, said something to the two of them and chose to move the black girl. Normally I would just shake my head at the injustice of choosing one girl to punish while leaving the other, but not today. Today I intervened.

"No." I said. "They're fine. They are going to work it out. Don't move either one." The teachers looked worried. I just smiled. "You guys are going to work it out, right?" I asked. They nodded. I insisted that the black girl go and sit back down. The two of them were very good throughout the rest of the show.

As the show ended, I noticed briefly that the white girl was now playing with the kid on the other side of her, and the black girl was sitting quietly.

I called them both up to the stage after the stories. I thanked them for working it out, and I shook their hands. Both girls were very proud that they'd managed to correct their own behavior. I went back to the teacher who'd attempted to move the black girl and I said, "It didn't seem fair to me for you to move one of them since they were both equally at fault." She shrugged and smiled, and the whole thing was forgotten.

Not by me. I thought about all of the studies I've read about how black children are more likely to be disciplined for the same behavior exhibited by their white peers. I thought about children of color, and how coming out of a community that uses a different form of English creates an uphill climb that is often made worse because of the way we teach reading in our schools. I thought about how much fun we have when we share stories.

Most days I only think I know what I'm talking about.

I've been thinking about these things a great deal over the last few weeks. Sadly, I have no answers. We'll see how I feel when I finally manage to get through this book.

Happy Learning -