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.

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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!

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Students gather around MacDonald to have their books signed.

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

Change Agency: The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

On a snowy New England Sunday, The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, a 40,000 square foot monument to children’s literature, rests atop frosted grounds nestled inside the Pioneer Valley. The decade-old museum offers several galleries full of picture book art, a children’s library, a café, a bookstore, and a performing arts space. Additionally, the building hosts a packed schedule of arts and literature-based activities for children as well as professional development workshops for educators.

A Very Hungry Caterpillar Car is parked at the entrance.

A Very Hungry Caterpillar Car is parked at the entrance.


Galleries

As in a traditional art museum, curators have neatly mounted the featured pieces at eye level. However, the plaques displayed to the left of each illustration do not necessarily contain information about the artist. Rather, the plaques present a quotation from the text that the illustration elucidates. Benches in each gallery contain boxes of picture books connected to the displayed works, and many visitors go back and forth between looking at the walls of the gallery and browsing the picture books to locate the images in context.

A display of illustrations from a Caribbean retelling of Cinderella

A display of illustrations from a Caribbean retelling of Cinderella with text to the left and illustrations to the right.

Short blocks of text encourage close reading.

Short blocks of text encourage close reading.

Illustrations illuminate the language of the story.

Illustrations illuminate the language of the story.

Unfortunately, visitors are unable to take photos in the main galleries due to issues with the preservation of the artwork; the images above were displayed in the children’s library in a smaller exhibit that featured digital prints from variations of “Cinderella” and “The Three Little Pigs”.

Reading Library

An incredible library of picture books sits at the back of the museum. Tables feature selected display books and accompanying activities.

Library Book on Display: Pezzentino (Italian for "little piece") is a small orange cube that searches for his place in the world.

Library Book on Display: Pezzenttino (Italian for “little piece”) is a small orange cube that searches for his place in the world.

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Library Book on Display: Ganesha the Elephant breaks his tusk while chomping on candy, and he needs help from Vyasa the poet. An accompanying worksheet encourages the writing of an “epic” poem.

Printables from publisher’s websites accompanied both Pezzettino and Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth on the display table.

The Bookstore

Book lovers, leave your wallets at home! It’s a bibliophile’s heaven (or hell, if the bibliophile in question is low on funds).

A modern retelling of Strewwelpeter

A modern retelling of Strewwelpeter, a German cautionary tale

Illustration School series: step-by-step instructions on how to draw really cute things

A volume from the “illustration school” series: step-by-step instructional manuals on how to draw really cute things

The Hungry Caterpillar Bookshelf

This attractive display case featured seasonal books.

This attractive display case featured seasonal books.

Mission Accomplished!

The museum provides a space for "anyone interested in the art of the picture book".

The museum provides a space for anyone “interested in the art of the picture book”.

Change Agency: 826 Boston, Egleston Square’s Inspiration Center

I was really surprised to find myself out on a school night, especially after the very first day of school last Thursday. However, the lure of free pizza, visiting a book store, and talking with writers at non-profit youth tutoring and writing center 826 Boston‘s Write-A-Thon launch party proved irresistible.

826 Boston’s field trips allow classes to create their own publications with each student writing his or her own ending.

“3035 Washington Street,” I told my husband,”It’s right by that Dunkin’ Donuts at Egleston.” We walked toward the building, right on the corner. “Oh, it’s right here at this bank,” I said, as we walked closer. GREATER BOSTON BIGFOOT RESEARCH CENTER read the letters on the front of the building. “Well, this is 3035,” said my husband, ringing the doorbell for 826 Boston. A smiling woman greeted us and quickly escorted us through the “research center” – which turned out to be the clever disguise for 826 Boston’s very own bookstore, full of books published by the organization’s students.

As we entered the back room, the center’s tutoring center, we were presented with hard-cover writing journals as well as name tages to write our pen names – our childhood pet’s name as the first name and our childhood street name as the last name. Assuming my new identity as “Birdy Thornbrook”, I sat down and helped myself to a slice of pizza while I scanned the room. I noticed a cartoon drawing on a white board, a story being typed and displayed on a projector, and another display of a Skype homescrren.

Before we arrived, the other partygoers had created the beginning of an extremely silly story – this particular story was about an animal named Petunia who hoped to become a shortstop for a Syracuse sports team. Then, each participant wrote their own ending to the story, and several of the endings were read to a bearded and bespectacled editor via Skype. It turned out that this activity is exactly what 826 Boston youth visitors experience when they come on school trips to 826 Boston headquarters, and they then receive a copy of the beginning of the story as well as a book with their ending. If the laughter and smiles of adults are any indication of what children experience at the center, it must be a very joyful place.

This assumption was affirmed by my conversations with 826’s volunteers and staff. Northeastern University student Toby Fox, age 20, volunteers at 826 as part of the Civic Engagement Program at the university. He says that he enjoys leading field trips and tutoring students, and he loves seeing the stories that the students write. Although Fox studies environmental science, he says that his experience at 826 has inspired the desire to continue volunteering with youth.

Northeastern University student and 826 volunteer Toby Fox feels inspired by the students at 826’s Egleston Square writing center.

When asked about her favorite publication in the Bigfoot Research Center Bookstore, Store and Events Coordinator Sarah Skolnick responded by showing me A Place for Me in the World, a collection of interviews and prints written by the middle school students at the Mission Hill K-8 School. The interviews focus on the theme of career, and the interviewees consist of professionals working in cake decorating, marine biology, and even government – the grinning jowls in the print portrait of Mayor Thomas M. Menino are immediately recognizable.

Store and Events Coordinator Sara Skolnick (left) and writing teachers Aria Hamada-Forrest (center) and Julie Drench (right) pose with the center’s latest publication, written by Mission Hill School middle schoolers.

826 Program Coordinator Karen Sama claims to face an addiction to the center’s students. She displays her favorite publication, a well-designed palm-sized volume titled A Handbook of Practical Knowledge for the Modern Spy, which I purchased for $5. The book is full of ciphers (I spent about twenty minutes trying the first one, and I plan to return to it later) as well as stories about spies. Sama recalls a memorable student: “His name is Kamari. I remember he never wanted to hear the feedback. He just wanted to finish his stories, and that’s it – just to get them done. Then, one day, he went to put his folder back. It was almost put away, and then he pulled it back close to him. He said he just wanted to add something to his story. It was a great moment.”

Program Coordinator Karen Sama sits among student publications holding her favorite 826 volume.

Note: I have set a goal of raising $250 for 826 Boston’s Write-A-Thon. Please support me in this endeavor if possible.

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…

Change Agent: Paulina Perez, School Principal and Community Leader

The sun beats down upon tin roofs as motoconchos rev their engines, bachata music blasts from a nearby lavandería, and red dust clouds the sidewalks of unpaved streets. Most of the people in Cabarete, ex-patriates, Dominicans, and tourists alike, adorn short shorts, flip flops, and tank tops in a futile attempt to beat the heat. But not Paulina Perez, the principal of Puerto Cabarete School. Upon entering her office, tucked in a shaded pocket of trees inside the gated school yard, I find Paulina seated at her desk, wearing a green button-down shirt, gray suit jacket, long dress pants, and loafers. She greets me with her gorgeous and friendly smile, and, upon observing the sweat dripping off of my face, she quickly gets up and turns on the fan.

Paulina Perez flashes her famous smile in her office at Puerto Cabarete.

I first met Paulina in 2008, when I partnered with teachers from her previous school in a summer writing program. By 2010, during the Mariposa Girls Summer Leadership program, Paulina had moved to the Puerto Cabarete School and generously opened the facility – the schoolyard, classrooms, and library – to the Mariposa volunteers and the young ladies attending the camp, many of whom were students at Puerto Cabarete.

Paulina has devoted her to life to serving her community as both an educator and a parishioner. Paulina received her bachelor degree from the Ponticicia Universidad Catolica Madre y Maestra, and moved to Caberete to begin her career in education. She began this career nearly 20 years ago, teaching in the Cabarete public schools. In 2004, she was promoted to Assistant Director of Colonial Nuevo, a K-8 public school in Callajon de la Loma. In 2008, upon receiving her Masters in Education from UAPA, La Universidad Abierta Para Adultos, she became the Director of Puerto Cabarete, the oldest public school in Cabarete. Within the her parish, she makes home visits to the elderly and sick to facilitate prayers and offer communion. Paulina and her husband, Mario Bonilla, have 4 children, all of whom attend the pubic schools.

Paulina’s office serves as make-shift counseling center for both adults and children alike. Children come in here when they are in trouble in the classroom. Teachers come by when they have a stressful day. Angry, frustrated, or depressed parents bring there problems here. Paulina listens carefully to them, helping them to work through problems by asking questions and offering advice. I myself have cried in Paulina’s office – once due to being completely exhausted by running a summer program and the other time over the murder of a mutual friend. Both times, Paulina’s words and gentle yet strong manner helped me to heal my feelings – indeed, just being in her presence lends itself to a sense of calm.

Over the past three years, the Puerto Cabarete schoolyard has transformed as a result of Paulina’s engagement with her community partner, The Mariposa DR Foundation. Where once stood a chain link fence, through which motoconcho drivers catcalled schoolgirls, now stands a multi-colored wall adorned in butterflies. Volunteers from Lawrence Academy have painted the wall’s interior in rainbow colors. The once-crumbling gate of the school now bears the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. A planter that was once filled with litter now holds a well-manicured collection of plants. The children in the schoolyard on this day, dressed in their blue school uniforms, are smiling. Several of them volunteer to read to me from the bulletin board, where one of the signs reads: “Proteger tu escuela. Es tu segundo hogar.” Care for your school. It is your second home.”

Paulina and Candida, a teacher at Puerto Cabarete, pose in front of the butterfly wall. Photo courtesy of the Mariposa DR Foundation

Three students pose in front of the butterfly wall. Photo courtesy of the Mariposa DR Foundation.

The Rights of the Child are painted on the school’s gate.

Students pose in front of the planter at Puerto Cabarete.

All of these students were able to read the signs from the bulletin board.

Change Agent: Victoria Jones, International Volunteer

“Why is it just for girls? That’s what the boys in the neighborhood ask,” explains Victoria Jones, as she sits on the striped futon in the center of the Mariposa DR Foundation‘s office on Calle 9 in Cabarete, Dominican Republic. Victoria has served as a volunteer with the Mariposa DR Foundation since August of 2011, and she will continue to serve the organization until December of 2012 as she completes her practicum for her M.A. in Social Justice and Intercultural Relations from the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. “I was supposed to go to Tanzania to teach ESL, but Ria [Shroff, another Mariposa volunteer and former School for International Training student] convinced me to come here.”

Victoria Jones poses in front of the library in the office of the Mariposa DR Foundation, located on Calle 9, Callejón de la Loma, Cabarete, Dominican Republic.

Over the past year, this poised and thoughtful young woman has clearly made an impression on the families of Cabarete, as several of them have photographs of her in their home and mentioned her by name when asked about the Mariposa program. The teen girls who participate in the Mariposa DR programs are the sole focus of Victoria’s work in the foundation. “Our three overarching goals for all of our girls is that they feel safe, learn skills, and have fun,” she explains. In addition to providing the girls with an out-of-school-time community center, Victoria and the team of Mariposa staff and volunteers provide a wide range of trips and activities outside of the Mariposa office, including swimming, tennis, volleyball, soccer, and capoeira.

Victoria knows the needs of and individual goals for each and every young lady in the program:
“Maritza* used to lack listening skills, and she had difficulty with showing respect for adults and peers. She has developed a lot of maturity as a result of being a part of this program. Ana* is unable to read, and she used to make a lot of negative comments. Julia* devours books. She asks questions, and she shares knowledge. Paula* and Mariana* struggled with attendance, and then they were a part of a sewing program that we did. It helps them with motivation, and they started coming a lot more. They increased their alphabet knowledge. They didn’t know the Spanish alphabet, and they struggled to sound out words.”

Victoria’s extended stay in the Dominican Republic has forced her to spend a lot of time analyzing the difficulties for the young ladies who grow up in the Cabarete community. “These girls are developing as adolescents, and they are learning attitudes, communication skills, and social relations. Their parents may or may not have basic skills. They are very sexualized in this culture, and there is an industry of sex tourism.”

However, Victoria also feels the appreciation and respect of the community: “I was automatically a part of Cabarete when I came here because I was working with the Mariposa Foundation. My work is valued, and I feel very protected here.”

*Note: To protect student’s privacy, names have been changed.

Change Agent: Orquidea Garcia, Supermamá de Cabarete

In the office of the Mariposa DR Foundation, located on Calle 9 in the Callejón de la Loma in Cabarete, Dominican Republic, Orquidea Garcia is known by her alias:”Supermamá”.

La Supermamá Orquidea (left) with Jennifer Dines (center), daughter Orianna (right) and two of the La Supermamá’s students

In 2010, when I first met Orquidea, she was very excited for her daughter, Orianna, to join the Mariposa DR Foundation’s First Ever Young Women’s Summer Leadership Program , an all-girls summer program that, in its first year, provided 50 at-risk teenage girls with four weeks of academics, activities, and excursions. When Orquidea agreed to join the program herself as a part of the School Staff Training Program, she took the first steps towards her new life as “Supermamá”.

Orquidea’s talents were immediately apparent in her abilities to use her quiet yet radiant personality to engage the Mariposa program’s young women in both casual conversation as well as in their academic work. I remember one day in early July of 2010, I walked into the library at Puerto Cabarete and saw Orquidea with a group of twenty or so girls. Not one of the girls turned towards myself or Mariposa Assistant Director Jessica Lawson when we entered the library. Orquidea had these young ladies completely enamored with a Spanish translation of Tomie di Paola’s Italian folktale Strega Nona. Afterwards, when I commented to Orquidea about her abilities as a librarian, she said: Jenny, tengo mucho ánimo. “Jenny, I have a lot of positive energy.”

Along with her neighbors and best friends, Claudia and Kathy, Orquidea continued to volunteer with the Mariposa DR Foundation, and in the fall of 2011, she was extremely excited when Executive Director Tricia Suriel arrived at her home along with Jessica Lawson to offer her a job working in the office of the foundation.

Today, Orquidea works full-time for the Mariposa DR Foundation, where she serves as the office manager. Each morning, she starts her day by chatting with the program’s young ladies as she prepares breakfast for them and then sends them off to school. Orquidea has gained many computer skills as well as learned English through her work in the office, and she handles e-mail and phone correspondence, arranging trips, appointments, and guest speakers.

Additionally, Orquidea tutors younger girls in mathematics, and she works closely with the girls in the health class alongside of clinical child psychologist Alexandra Milián Martinez. Although Orquidea admits that she worries frequently about the problems that these young ladies discuss in their groups, from typical trials of coming-of-age to more intense personal and family struggles, she loves being able to guide the young women of her community through their teen years and she is learning much from Martinez, her mentor.

Orquidea hopes to complete a degree in psychology at the local university in Puerto Plata, and she is currently taking the first steps towards making her dream a reality – Orquidea is completing her bachiller or high school diploma in evening classes at Puerto Cabarete, a local public school. Orquidea says that working with the Mariposa DR Foundation made her realize that she was actually very smart. Although she attended school through the 8th grade, she didn’t really think of herself as a serious student or learner until she began working with the young ladies in her community.

Between her roles as an office administrator, social work intern, student, and mathematics tutor, Orquidea remains a “Supermamá” to her beautiful daughter, Orianna, now age 13. Orianna graduated from the 8th grade in June, and she will begin classes at Colegio CADIN, a private preparatory school, in Islabón on Monday.

Orquidea is an inspiration to her friends, family, and students in the Cabarete community, and Literacy Change is proud to feature her as our very first Change Agent profile because Orquidea is making positive changes in education in her community, and she is a model of a teacher who is also a learner.