Author and Activist Michael Patrick MacDonald Visits the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School

I was both surprised and thrilled when my colleague Susan Lovett sent out an e-mail about arranging a visit for author and activist Michael Patrick MacDonald. I jumped in right away to help organize this event for our school, the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School.

Years earlier, I had taken Mr.MacDonald’s book All Souls: A Family Story from Southie out of the library and read it cover to cover over the course of a single weekend. The book is a memoir of MacDonald’s early life in South Boston during the 1970’s and 1980’s, and the story that unfolds is much more than a personal narrative. All Souls offers a historical narrative with vivid first-hand descriptions of  Boston’s busing era and the influence of notorious criminal “Whitey” Bulger on the Southie neighborhood. The novel is also a spiritual journey of resistance and resilience on the part of young MacDonald, whose bright soul, curiousity, and dedication to his family and community shines through the trauma of living under the effects of poverty, crime, and death. The writing and publication of the book itself is a tribute to MacDonald’s bravery and activism, breaking the unwritten “code of silence” that long prevented the residents of the Southie neighborhood and others like it from reporting and discussing crime, drugs, and deaths plaguing their communities.

Image

My autographed copy of MacDonald’s first novel

 

During Mr. MacDonald’s visit to our school on Tuesday, the acclaimed author spoke to a group of about fifty of our students, who were specially selected to attend the event based on their commitment to social justice and community leadership. Mr. MacDonald talked about the City of Boston’s Gun Buyback program, and he read a passage from his second novel Easter Rising which discussed the post-traumatic stress he experienced following the deaths of his brothers. The students had many questions to ask Mr. MacDonald, and he thoughtfully answered each and every one of them.

After the presentation, students received copies of All Souls (one young man even brought his own hardback from home) and had the opportunity to have their books signed. The students were overjoyed to talk with a real author, and I saw many students reading their books in the hallways while walking back to class. In fact, I taught a class right after Mr. MacDonald’s visit, and I had to ask students to put their new books away to focus on the lesson – this is the kind of focus issue that I am more than happy to see!

Image

Students gather around MacDonald to have their books signed.

Two students from Academy 1 smile and show the cover of the book.

Image

Sixth grade student Rasha shows his beautiful smile as he stands next to Mr. MacDonald.

Image

7th graders Mikel and Kiajah look on thoughtfully while Mr. MacDonald autographs Kiajah’s copy of All Souls.

Over the course of the week, many teachers reported to me that students were carrying the books in their backpacks and “showing off” the autographed books to students and teachers alike. My colleague Alice Laramore commented that the students were treating the books “like a trophy” of Mr. MacDonald’s visit.  I myself have ordered additional copies to use with my intermediate and advanced ESL classes in the last quarter of the year as part of a unit on argument and persuasion – at the conclusion of the unit, students will produce argument essays about how to best prevent violence in an urban community. Mr. MacDonald sent me some photographs of toy gun buyback programs to inspire our students to perhaps organize their own drive. The note I received from Mr. MacDonald read: Jennifer, please share these images from past buybacks and concurrent toy gun turn-ins organized by middle school aged kids, in case that might inspire some local community organizing in the school with the local community. These toy gun turn ins (in exchange for non violent toys and books donated by businesses like Toys R Us and Publishers like children’s lit Houghton Mifflin) are very fun.  And it’s a great way for teens, pre teens, and the smaller children to feel a sense of voice and agency.

Image

Image

Image

Photograph of mothers from Charlestown as promotion for Boston’s third gun buyback

Image

Mr. MacDonald with a young activist and organizer

Mr. MacDonald’s visit was a perfect fit for our school – our building itself is a symbol of triumph over violence, as our school was built by activists on a lot that was once a hub of criminal activity. Formerly named the New Boston Pilot School, the Lilla G. Frederick (LILL-LUH, not LYE-LUH) is itself named for a Grove Hall community organizer.

Dines Family Book Club October Selection: Bad Land

Bad Land:  An American Romance by Jonathan Rahan

Ginger poses with Bad Land in the Dines Dining Room.

Ginger poses with Bad Land in the Dines Dining Room.

My Review from My Goodreads.com Account

This book mirrors the landscape it describes: slow, meandering, and seemingly endless. Although the tragedy of the Montana homesteaders is worthy of a place in American history, the author fails to make the personal connections between the reader and the subject of the book. Raban interviews many different people along the Montana plains, but his writing fails to make the reader feel as if he or she knows the people. It seems more like listening to snippets of a public radio broadcast than making connections with human subjects. The book gives the impression of an overzealous Brit exploring the wildness of the American West in a cheesy PBS documentary, yet, to Americans, it is the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder minus the compellingly simple narrative arcs. Raban meanders through the “Bad Land” of Montana, and every inch seems miserable and gray.

Post-Reading Discussion Questions 

by Jennifer and David Dines

1. Compare the effects of the Homestead Act on the railroad industry to its effects on individual homesteaders.

2. How did personal pride and independence influence homesteaders?

3. What is the role of faith in American invention?

4. How does the Wollaston family’s lifestyle contrast with the environment in which they live?

5. How did the homesteaders’ view of themselves differ from the government’s view of the homesteaders?

6. How did advertising serve as a catalyst for the settlement of the railway?

7. What is the role of debt in middle class American adulthood?

8. How are the grasshopper plagues a metaphor for the homesteaders themselves?

9. In what way is self-sufficiency threatening to organized government?

10. Did the homesteaders realize the extent of their effect on Boston and New York-based investors?

Index Card found in the used copy of the book purchased at Brookline Booksmith

Index Card found in the used copy of the book purchased at Brookline Booksmith

Dines Family Book Club September Selection: The Devil in the White City

Welcome to the first monthly installment of the Dines Family Book Club! My husband David and I often buy two copies of the same book, and we read them together and talk about them. Even through we are not part of a more formal book club, we enjoy having our book chats at home. I thought it would be perfect to share some of our selections with readers of this blog along with discussion questions. Enjoy!

September

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

Image

Pepper Dines elegantly displays the Dines Family Book Club’s September selection.

My Review from my Goodreads.com Account

A fantastic cocktail of American macabre beauty with a twist that “only Poe could have imagined”. A well-researched book that allows the reader to time travel through the dichotomy of good and evil in the White City and its dark shadow.

Post-Reading Discussion Questions

by Jennifer and David Dines

1. Why did Holmes feel the need to appeal to the public?

2. Why would parents allow their daughters to travel alone to Chicago? What social change made that possible? Was the crime rate in Chicago publicized? Would non-Chicago papers carry those stories?

3. Did Holmes’ victims have a particular psychological profile?

4. Who burned down Holmes’ building?

5. Why did people comply with Holmes’ wishes?

6. Could Holmes be the Devil?

7. Is it wrong to put human beings on display?

8. What is the danger in the desire to curate? How are Holmes and the fair’s planners curators?

9. How does the White City contrast the city of Chicago?

10. What are the connections between Holmes and the fair aside from physical proximity?

Ongoing Book Review: The Artist’s Way By Julia Cameron, Week 3

Like most worthwhile endeavors, The Artist’s Way does not get easier as it goes along; it becomes more difficult as the novelty of taking time for one’s self and one’s thoughts wears off, and the challenge of getting to really know and live with the self begins.

It took me two weeks in real time to get through the third week of The Artist’s Way.

Morning pages are not an obstacle for me – I continue to write about dreams, and then about whatever comes to mind. Increasingly, these thoughts have been more and more about work-related and school-related matters. I think it is healthy for me to notice when my mind becomes overly focused on that particular area of my life, rather than to become entangled in that one particular domain without noticing, and then wondering why I feel burnt out.

The Artist's Way. All Day.

The real block I faced in the third week was coming up with a suitable artist’s date. Nothing seemed worthwhile. I kept brainstorming, but none of my ideas seemed worthy enough. I was overanalyzing the simple act of spending some time alone doing something different than I would ordinarily do. I had convinced myself that I needed to come up with a really grand idea. Well,I think that was just a procrastination.

Two nights ago, I became frustrated that I hadn’t yet completed my date. I got in my car and drove, putting on an old song I used to listen to repeatedly in college. The location of Trident Booksellers and Cafe popped into my head after being in the car for less than three minutes, so I drove there. Normally, I would avoid this area of town at night if I was alone. It was unsafe to take the train there by myself, and I didn’t know where to park. But on this night, I just went with it, and, behold, I found a parking spot, spent some time browsing and some time writing, some time drinking some Chai Spice tea, and so it went. And then it was over and behind me. I did it.

The third chapter of The Artist’s Way is titled “Recovering a Sense of Power”, and this refers to examining one’s limits as well as one’s ability to keep an open mind.

The chapter discusses the themes of anger, synchronicity, shame, and criticism. Anger and synchronicity are useful tools that we should attend to rather than dismiss, while shame and criticism are often destructive tools that we amplify and overemphasize. The writing exercises in the chapter examine childhood environment, traits, and accomplishments, as well as friendships and admirations. It is a chapter that will have you check your reality, and it is hard work. If you choose to continue The Artist’s Way, this chapter may leave you feeling raw and vulnerable, but you will also feel stronger and more in touch with yourself.

Ongoing Book Review: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Week 2

Before beginning The Artist’s Way, I would wake up and instantly reach for my laptop. First e-mail account. Second e-mail account. Third e-mail account. New York Times. I would start the day by drowning my brain in communication with others. Well, The Artist’s Way has changed all that, and now the first thing I do is slide out the drawer of the bedside table to pull out my gold and red Chinese print fabric-covered journal and my InkJoy retractable pen and write down three pages of whatever comes into my mind. Since I am sleeping well for the first time in years, I actually have dreams that I can remember. I usually begin by writing those down, and then I write down whatever else is on my mind. Rather than infecting my brain will e-mails and advertisements, I am beginning the day by slowly massaging the thoughts from my mind and onto paper. It feels great.

Week Two focuses on rediscovering one’s own identity.

The second week of The Artist’s Way focuses on recovering a sense of identity through exploring self-definition, creating boundaries, and exploring one’s personal needs, desires, and interests. Ironically, these themes are something that I periodically I focus on with my own students, yet it never occurred to me to take the time to examine them for myself.

On page 43, Cameron states: “As blocked creatives, we focus not on our responsibilities to ourselves, but on our responsibilities to others. We tend to think our behavior makes us good people. It doesn’t. It makes us frustrated people.”

Prioritizing taking care of others over self-care is an extremely easy trap for those in the teaching profession or any human services career for that matter. In my teaching career, I feel an extremely compelling passion for and responsibility to my students and their families. However, there came a point last year when I began to felt burnt out or, as one friend said, like I’d been put through “the old-time, old-fashioned wringer”. I had spent nearly a decade putting my responsibilities to others over spending time taking care of myself, and I found myself feeling short-tempered, moody, and exhausted. Interestingly, since focusing more attention on myself, I feel more clear-minded, energetic, and self-assured, and I am better able to assist others with my stronger sense of self.

In this chapter, Cameron carefully cautions the reader to be wary of “poisonous playmates” and “crazy makers” in one’s life. She encourages the recovering artist’s to avoid those who diminish our self-worth and increase our skepticism and self-doubt. And she asks the provocative question: “What creative work are you trying to block by staying involved [with those who make you feel terrible and insane]?”

Ongoing Book Review: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Week 1

Mom: What did you do today?

Jenn: Well, I went on a date with myself, my artistic self.

Mom: (knowingly) And how did that go?

Jenn: Well, I got dressed up. I wore the shirt that you gave me for Christmas. I went to a café by myself, and I downloaded piano music and listened to it for an hour.  I think we’ll probably go out together again. (laughs)

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Self-dating, which the author calls “Artist Dates”, comprises just one of the unique tasks that Julia Cameron suggests will heighten the readers’ creativity and build their relationships with their creative selves . The Artist’s Way consists of 12 weeks of creativity courses, each with a discussion followed by a series of ten short tasks based on that weeks concept. For example, week 1, titled “Recovering a Sense of Safety” discusses negative self-talk regarding one’s own artistic endeavors as well as examining relationships that have either repressed or championed creativity throughout one’s life time.

In addition to the ten tasks, Cameron’s course also requires a commitment to both daily Morning Pages, three pages of long-hand free writing composed first thing after awakening, and weekly Artist Dates – spending time with one’s self for a couple of hours each week doing something creative.

Thus far, the program is encouraging me to pursue the creative work that I enjoy – writing, playing piano, and cooking – as the author points out that unless we ourselves are doing these creative acts, they will not happen.  She also highlights the importance of letting ourselves “try it to see what happens”. Although I do this with my own students, I often neglect to provide this sort of encouragement for myself. I have also been practicing yoga daily during this time. Between the tasks in Cameron’s book and the yoga classes, I have a sense of peace and my mind has been cleaned enough to allow creative thoughts to enter and creative tasks to occur.

For example, a few days ago, I practiced piano for about three hours straight without even realizing where the time had gone. I faced a difficult piece that I have wanted to play for the past twenty years – this piece has literally plagued me and nearly whispered to me: “You are not technically proficient enough to master me.” I even remember that a friend’s sister, two years younger that me, played this piece in a concert in high school. When I asked her if it was difficult, she said,”It’s not that hard.” As if my question was totally ludicrous. Nevertheless, I have been fearlessly practicing it this week, with many wrong notes, and I feel like I am confronting a demon.

At the end of each chapter, check-in questions encourage the reader to assess whether or not they have completed the week’s tasks, Morning Pages, and Artist Date. Although I have never been much of a person for New Year’s Resolutions (I felt affirmed when my yoga teacher offered that the resolutions we make often do not reflect and in fact actively work against who we are meant to be in this lifetime), this book does seem fitting for the time of renewal and rebirth that occurs at the start of a new year.

Citation: Cameron, J. (2002). The artist’s way. Tarcher.

Note: This book came out over a decade ago; I encountered it on the shelf at the library while browsing. I would expect that many libraries nationwide carry copies. Try before you buy!

 

Change Agent: Aminata Keita, Stunningly Accented Teen Poet

As Aminata Keita performs her poetry slam version of her original poem “My Accent”, published in her 2012 book Struggles of a Dreamer, a tear wells up in my eye, cleverly disguised behind my thick black sunglasses. I can remember Aminata’s first days in my 5th grade classroom in the fall of 2007, when, as a student new to the United States, she felt extremely frustrated by the combination of her acute intelligence and her lack of English.

Aminata recalls: “I should have been in the 8th grade, and when I had to go to 5th grade, I was really upset. It was a frustrating time, but I’ve learned to control my temper.” Changing grades wasn’t the only struggle that Aminata faced that year. In immigrating to the United States in order to learn English and improve her educational opportunities, Aminata left behind her mother, friends, and family in her native Guinea-Conakry.

Aminata (right, center in brown and pink jacket) and her 5th grade classmates on the first day of snow in December of 2007.

Now, at age 15, Aminata is the author of two volumes of poetry: Sentences of the Heart and Struggles of a Dreamer, both published by Books of Hope.  Sentences of the Heart is currently out-of-print, as its first edition sold all 100 of its copies. “My sister and I would hustle people at [Somerville High School] soccer games. We would tell them it was a really good book and worth the $12,” explains Aminata as she signs the copy of Struggles of a Dreamer on a late August Sunday inside Davis Square’s Diesel Café.

Aminata signs her latest collection of published poems at the Diesel Café in Somerville.

As we head back to Aminata’s home in Somerville’s Mystic Project, she tells me about the education and the opportunities that Books of Hope has provided for her. When Aminata attends her Books of Hope sessions in the Mystic Project Community Center on Mondays and Wednesdays, the instructors present the students with a social justice topic, such as homelessness or World AIDS Day, for discussion. Then, the students participate in writing exercises, “to get your mind moving”. Finally, the students create performances to present to one another. These in-class performances have led to the formation of a slam poetry team that includes Aminata and other Books of Hope students. The team has performed in Somerville and Boston as well as in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New York City, including a stint at the Harlem Book Fair.

Aminata and her fifth grade teacher Mrs. Dines pose inside of the Mystic Project Community Center, where Aminata attends Books of Hope writing workshop sessions.

Aminata attributes much of her successes with writing and performing to the dedication of Books of Hope Director Soul Brown. “It’s in the way she helps me and the other kids,” Aminata says,”She gives us hope at becoming authors. She treats us like her own children.”

When asked how an immigrant student can become a published author, Aminata offers the following advice: “Stay focused. Life is what you make it. Try to do something positive. With no knowledge, you’re probably nothing unless you plan on working at Dunkin’ Donuts or Stop n Shop.”

Aminata (center) poses with her book and her family: her brother (left) and her cousin (right).

Perhaps Aminata’s shift from frustrated English Language Learner to confident and serious student can best be understood in her poem “I Used To” from Struggles of a Dreamer.

I Used To

by Aminata Keita

I used to 

Love dating

Love eating

those amazing steak & cheeses

Hate myself

Hate him

Love to party

Love going out

Like music

Love skating

Liked trying to fit in

Love flirting

Love cookies

Hate people who are trying to save me from myself

Like sleeping while teachers’ are explaining

Until one day I woke up and

Realized 10 years from now,

Those characteristics are not going

To be paying my bills

But my knowledge and habits will…