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.

To a Thinker: An Original Poem by Jennifer Dines

An original poem by Jennifer Dines.

An original poem by Jennifer Dines.

To a Thinker (PDF download)

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.

N = 1: Are We Serving the Student in Front of Us?

Last night was the first night of my Reading Diagnostics class at MGH Institute of Health Professions, where I am a student in the Reading Specialist program.

Our professor presented a fascinating concept to us: N = 1.

She said that, when teachers complete academic assessments and instructional plans with a student who we are serving, the sample size is 1. Just 1.

Although researchers utilize larger sample sizes to study trends among groups, those who directly serve children must focus on serving each individual student in the classroom or clinical setting. This means that, although some classroom techniques or clinical practices may serve most students, it really only matters if the services provided to a student work for that particular individual.

She likened the practice to doctors selecting a medicine for a particular patient. Just because a certain type of prescription works for most patients does not mean that the particular medicine will work for the one patient who we must consider as an individual entity, in and of himself or herself.

N=1 makes me feel validated in my approach to students.

I have difficulty examining trends in data about my students – I prefer to take the time to look at each child individually.

I applaud success, and I become very concerned if a child is not thriving, even for a moment on a particular day. I  analyze the many factors involved, and I often follow up with a conversation with that student. Did you eat breakfast? Lunch? Did you sleep last night? Did something happen in the hallway? the bathroom? in homeroom? Did you understand the directions? How do you feel? Did the lesson make sense to you? 

I have learned that I cannot assume. There are many reasons for students to have a “bad day” or a “bad class” at school. My job is to optimize the classroom factors I can control at school for that student and to let the student know that I will never give up on him or her no matter what. Who cares if something works for most students? Different things will work for each and every child in front of us, and we need to take an individualized approach to provide a bridge to  progress and growth.

N must equal 1.

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: 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.