Bringing My Preschool Age Daughters to Charleston’s Old Slave Mart Museum

For the past few weeks, after my kids are in bed, I have had my nose buried in Ned and Constance Sublette’s quintessential soon-to-be-required-reading The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave Breeding Industry. (My thoughts on this book will be a whole nother post…) Through reading this, I came to understand that few images exist of slave auction houses, and the historical remnants of slavery have been persistently concealed.

While looking up sites to visit on a family vacation to Charleston, I came across The Old Slave Market Museum  I was enthusiastic to visit this rare preservation of an auction building, but I hesitated because I would need to bring my three young daughters with me.

I worried: Is it appropriate for them? Is it going to be too scary? 

But I really wanted to go. I really want my daughters to be educated about history and justice, even in a small way at their age. I want my daughters to see the joy I take in learning and the seriousness and purposefulness that I approach learning in my life.

And so we went. It was $8 per adult and free for children, so I knew that even if we spent a short time, it would be fine – not too expensive.

And so we went. My daughters love to look at maps, and we spent a little time discussing a map which showed how slaves were transported from Maryland and Virginia to other parts of the South – by chattel, train, river, and ocean.

My daughters mentioned that the people in the photos looked sad, and they didn’t like that people had to leave their families. They asked me about the shackles and told me that they didn’t want to wear them. They studied a plaque that showed how people who were enslaved were prepared for the auctions – shaved, dressed nicely, being fed more food in the weeks prior to sale.

I used some very simple questions (taken from Visual Thinking Strategies) to start discussions about the museum’s features: What’s going on in this picture? What more can we find?

We spent twenty minutes in the museum, and I was proud that I took my children, proud that they behaved well, that they were curious, and proud that I overcame my hesitation of bringing them.

After they went outside, I had the pleasure of speaking with History Interpreter Christine King Mitchell, who provided me with some wonderful booklists. She is working towards publication of a book of primary source materials, and she showed me a few copies of posters announcing slave auctions that will be included in her book.

Later that day, my oldest daughter informed me: “I want to be brown.” I realized we had not discussed the skin color of people displayed in the museum. She had also played with two girls who were black in the Charleston Waterfront Park Fountain that day. (Not unusual – my daughters go to a fairly diverse preschool and have played with children with all shades of skin.) So, I wondered why she wanted to be black. “Mom – I could wear bright pink lipstick if I was brown.”

She is interested in race, so it is my responsibility now to find some books about this and start talking a bit about skin. I don’t feel comfortable with the topic at all, but I know it’s important.

“She anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.”

Do you like to read aloud to your friends and family? I do. And this week, a trio of articles served as a catalyst for discourse and especially for wild gut-busting laughter during some family car trips.

The Article: How We Are Ruining America by David Brooks

The premise of this piece is that upper middle class Americans deliberately move their families away from the other half (read: “the poor and less educated”) and therefore limit opportunities for inclusion. This essentially bars class mobility. Basically, it is a caste system – locking out the untouchables, with little access to the upper classes. Education is a key part of this, and the system for college admissions is rigged to prioritize children of parents who are wealthy enough to play the game.

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While Brooks’ premise is aligned with my experiences with my own education and my profession as an educator, he makes a BIG MISTAKE – a paragraph so distracting that it is ripe for parody, and, well, just pretty dumb.

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Here it is – in all its glory:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

This is a lesson in writing – reread and ensure that your discourse is aligned and on message. The paragraphs before and after are written with on message and with academic language that fits the tone of the rest of the article. Brooks attempts to use a personal anecdote to connect with the reader – but it is an incredible distraction from his message and drew enormous critical responses about this single paragraph (see the fun part below). The poignant parts are forgotten as America reacts to the mention of delicatessen.

Also interesting to note that Italian is perceived as sophisticated (a change from just a century and change from when Italians were outcasts and even lynched) whereas Mexican is clearly just a step above a Miller High Life,  a bag of pork rinds, and some stale circus peanuts.

And now for the fun part…

Exhibit A: From the poignant blog The Outline, an  op-ed piece by Alex Nichols

Stop patronizing the working class: Why are pundits obsessed with Applebee’s and farm workers?

BOOM! Here’s the question on everyone’s miss after reading the sandwich shop story:

“First of all, how does someone so stereotypically provincial manage to befriend a high-profile Times columnist?”

And the following paragraph (definitely read this one aloud to a friend!) rips the equally-obsessed-with-how-the-lower-castes-handle-food columnists anti-gay conservative Rod Dreher and Bloomberg columnist Meghan McArdle a new one:

There is indeed a pattern here, but it isn’t that working-class Americans universally break out in hives when confronted with food other than hamburgers and mac ‘n’ cheese — it’s that no one wants to go out to lunch with any of these pompous hacks.

BOOM! Ain’t that the truth!

Exhibit B: From The AV Club‘s Sean O’Neal

Explaining David Brooks’ column to a stupid coworker who’s scared of fancy meat

This article is an absolute gem. And a single sentence had my husband and I laughing so hard that my daughters all laughed along with us:

“Indeed, I said single-malted-scotch-ily. I explained how this column serves as yet another clarion call alerting us to America’s slow sinking into a morass of cultural decline, which David Brooks and others like us—we who thoughtfully chew our piquant charcuterie while brooding over the Proustian reveries of ourselves it inspires—can only look upon it sadly, gazing down at our bologna-smeared consorts and lamenting the many bloviating, condescending, overpaid butchers of language and meat that are driving us apart.”

“Single-malted-scotch-ily” – who writes like this? Amazing. Just meet a friend for lunch (antipasto, anyone? or maybe just a gas station pickle in a bag)  and read this article to them. You are giving them a gift, seriously.

 

Resisting the Rush, Supporting Our Children: Talking Back to the Common Core, Mandated Testing, and the Silence of our Impoverished American Families

In American public schools today, we are not only fighting a “War on Poverty”, but we teachers who care so deeply about our students are often passive participants in a War on the Children of the Impoverished. So many of the mandates of our public schools today (which are attended mainly by impoverished children) are directly turning children off to schooling and deepening the ever-widening disconnect between school and reality, which is readily documented in any volume of the history of American public education.

Reading David Elkind’s best selling book The Hurried Child triggered my sense of urgency over the reform that we need in our schools today. It has little to do with the insane Common Core expectation of all children knowing how to read by the first day of first grade, as Elkind points out – this does nothing to support lifelong habits of reading.

The reform we need is the reform that makes school less of a “pressure cooker” for our impoverished public school students and more of a place that fosters love, learning, and a love of learning. I don’t have all the answers, but reading The Hurried Child is encouraging me to make a commitment to talk back to the incredible stresses that my students face.

I'm talking back to robbing children of a childhood for my own two children (above) as well as the children of my neighbors and friends in the City of Boston, the United States of America, and across the world.

I’m talking back to robbing children of their self-worth, not only for my own two children (above) but also the children of my neighbors and friends in the City of Boston, the United States of America, and all across the world.

What are the stresses of schooling that our students face? (pp. 176-181)

  • There are increasing amounts of theft and violence in schools. Here is an article about a school I used to work in that had unlocked side doors and a community center that led into the school. When I worked there, which was prior to the shameful crime documented in the article, the school was broken into multiple times, and many laptops and projectors were stolen. Furthermore, I was working at another school building when a drive-by shooting occurred on the main road and a bullet damaged the window of the school library. 
  • Schooling places false expectations on students. One I’ve seen frequently is students placed in Algebra I classes who do not have a basic mastery of their multiplication tables. Another is the Common Core expectation that children are reading by first grade. Not to mention the non-stop testing which is fully inclusive – our special education and beginning ELL students take the same tests as students without disabilities and language learning needs. 
  • Children are labeled quickly and early for behavior and learning disorders and disabilities. This is getting better in my district with more careful processes for identification and Response to Intervention , but still – often the only way for children to receive interventions is to state that they have a disability. And sometimes those interventions aren’t even available. For example, not one school I’ve worked in has had a dedicated reading specialist to serve children with dyslexia nor dedicated ESL teachers for advanced ELLs (WIDA level 4 and 5).
  • Schools push children into adult busywork that includes routines of boredom and stress. I would love to see a vocational program offered for our middle school students  who love to work with their hands. Many of my former students are succeeding at our district’s vocational high school in areas such as cosmetology (barbershop), culinary, and auto body, but that opportunity came along for them after years of feeling inferior.

Keeping an Eye Out for the Signs of School Burnout 

“When children have to drag themselves to school day after day to face repeated failure, they sometimes develop chronic symptoms, which can be physical or psychological.” (p. 193)

These symptoms include:

  • dissatisfaction with school
  • fatigue
  • poor work habits
  • sleep disturbance
  • allergies
  • headaches
  • ulcers
  • colitis
  • agressive bullying
  • quiet withdrawal
  • chronic cheating
  • excessive drug and alcohol use (pp. 192-194)

So what if what we the educators are doing in schools is literally making children sick? Is our obedience to higher ups (including the federal government) actually harming our children?

How Can We Support Our Students?

Elkind provides two interesting assessment tools, a Stress Test for Children and a Contract Evaluation form, which parents and educators can use to reflect on children’s stress levels as well as the expectations placed upon and support given to students. However, it is clear that it is our responsibility as educators, parents, and concerned citizens to talk back to school stressors through writing, discussion, and political action.

Unpacking Ferguson: Teachers Must Talk with Students about Violence Against Youth

Although Hines wrote this 1971 poem about the memorialization of Dr. King, its message is tragically relevant 43 years later. Its second verse challenges the reader “to build a better world”. Teachers have the power to do just this through the life lessons they share in their classrooms.

I would challenge every teacher returning to school this fall to unpack the events of Ferguson and related crimes against young people. For many of us, the scope and tragedy of Michael Brown’s death is overwhelming. We ask ourselves – How can I teach this the right way? As now-controversial illustrator Mary Engelbreit poignantly states: “No One Should Have to Teach There Children This in the USA.” However, while we adults have the privilege to see these events as news – something that sadly happened to someone else – our students, especially our young men of color, inevitably see themselves. As I myself watched these events unfold in the news, I could not help imagining if this happened to Quddus or Clayton.

Engelbreit

Engelbreit’s Controversial Illustration

To avoid teaching this topic carries little consequences for the teacher – we will still receive our paychecks and most likely a good evaluation whether or not we address meaningful and relevant content in our classrooms.

However, to find a way to unpack this for one’s students sends them a powerful message – I care about what matters to you, and I will guide you through this trauma. Even better, we can encourage our young people to problem solve alongside us about how to “build a better world”.

I am convinced that ignoring and avoiding the events in Ferguson reinforces to students that school is, in fact, completely disassociated from reality. And this message is one that many of them know to be true already.

Following the lead of my colleague Paul Tritter at the Boston Teachers’ Union, I have created a pinboard with links to articles and information relevant to the events in Ferguson:

(Thank you, Paul, for sharing many of these links in a Google Doc!)

I will continue to add to the Pinboard over time. Additionally, here are several other resources for classroom use:

PDF of A Dead Man’s Dream

Brown Teachers’ Guide from the DC Public Schools (Thank you for sharing, Kenny!)

Ferguson Racial Profiling Data

I hope that you will find these resources useful for these difficult discussions. Despite the cynicism that social justice educators and leaders often face, I do believe that teachers and students hold the power to meet Hines’ challenge.

Join Me in Reading for a Cause!

Dear Readers:

This morning, via the Goodreads July newsletter, I learned of a very interesting initiative that involves two of my favorite things – reading and social justice. I invite you to join the Pages for Progress challenge with me in order to support World Education. All you need to do is log pages you’ve read on the Pages4Progress website, and World Education will receive a $1 donation for each page.

I myself will be reading 25 pages per day between now and International Literacy Day on September 8th. I have already honored my pledge today by reading pages 163 to 188 of 10% Happier by Dan Harris (the July selection for the Talks with Teachers Summer Book Club). I will be regularly updating my progress on my pledge via my twitter account.

I do hope you will join me in helping the world to read! Please let me know if you do sign up by commenting here or on twitter!

Happy Reading from Jennifer Dines

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Rise Out: A Professional Learning Community for Teens

Throughout this school year, my husband and I, both musicians and former members of several Boston-based bands, had the honor of mentoring Alex La Rosa, an 18-year-old songwriter and guitarist, through the process of arranging and recording his debut album. Alex connected with us through my long-time friend Laura Fokkena, founder of Rise Out.

 What is Rise Out?

Rise Out is a non-profit organization that provides a professional learning community for teenagers who do not attend high school but rather participate in home school or alternative independent study programs. Teens enroll in Rise Out on an annual basis, and each participant is expected to complete an independent study project.

My husband and I attended Rise Out’s end of the year celebration at the Boston Public Library at Copley two weekends ago, and Laura gave a wonderful introduction to the presentations, explaining that she does not believe that bullying or schooling toughens teenagers, but rather that students grow best when they are respected and listened to.

I personally found it incredible to see what these young people were able to do when given time, resources, and support to pursue their own independent projects, which included historical research, public health and fitness, technology, engineering, and the arts.  Below are a few highlights:

Matthew Allen: Self-Navigating Drone

Although Matthew is only a junior in high school, he is already a collaborator with fellow scientists from Google, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Draper Labs through his internship at Danger! Awesome, a “makerspace”, which Matthew explained is like an artists’ studio for the technologically inclined. For his Rise Out project, Matthew created a hovering robot that can self-navigate through a forest. Matthew explained how the Rise Out program has given him the connections and confidence “to be the person [he] always wanted to be”. Through Rise Out, Matthew had the confidence to pursue (and ultimately gain acceptance to) the VAST (Vermont Academy of Technology and Science) program at Vermont Tech, which will allow him to simultaneously complete his senior year of high school and his freshman year of college.

Matthew powers up his self-navigating drone at BPL – Copley

Kate Mitchell: Learning with the Farmer’s Market

Kate’s project touched on two topics dear to my heart: public health and education. Kate’s project stemmed from her observations of  families at the Medford Farmers’ Market; she noticed that while parents shopped for vegetables, all of the kids ran to the cookie booth.

Kate decided to create a learning booth for young children at the farmer’s market that featured vegetable activities such as vegetable face sculptures and vegetable stamps, and she also published a recipe book for families.  She also published her own Her aim was to create a positive association between young children and vegetables, so that kids are excited about eating vegetables at home.

Already a reflective educator, Kate humorously addressed engagement of young children during her presentation: “When I asked kids if they wanted to learn about vegetables, I didn’t get a huge response, but when I asked, ‘Do you want to play with vegetables?’, kids started coming to my table.’ Kate was proud to announce her program’s sustainability, as the Medford Farmer’s Market plans to continue with Kate’s curricula and recipe booklet next season.

 

Kate shows a slide of a turnip face craft, just one of the activities she designed to connect children and vegetables at the Medford Farmers' Market.

Kate shows a slide of a turnip face craft, just one of the activities she designed to connect children and vegetables at the Medford Farmers’ Market.

 

 Alex La Rosa: Observing from Aphelion EP

Alex La Rosa began playing guitar a little over a year ago, and he has already written hundred of songs. “But only sixty are set to music,” he explained, prior to the performance of “Don’t Believe Them”.  For Alex’s Rise Out project, he recorded his five song debut EP “Observing from Aphelion”. Alex will be attending Berklee College of Music’s Summer Songwriting Workshop in late June.

Alex La Rosa’s deep vocals and rhythmic guitar punctuate his performance of “Don’t Believe Them”

Reflection

After viewing these presentations, I thought about my middle school students in Dorchester, and I felt incredibly inspired. What would my middle schoolers do, given time, support, and resources to pursue individual interests? I would love to create an independent research or independent study group, even as an after-school program, for my students at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School. If we treat all children as gifted children, then all children will display their gifts. I truly appreciated working with Alex this year, and I’m sure we will be seeing more from the incredible young people involved in Rise Out in the years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

A Literary Surprise on a Tuesday Night

On Tuesday evening, my phone rang, and it was a number I did not recognize. I usually never pick up for unknown callers, but for some reason, I did. The voice on the other end asked,”Do you accept book donations?”

I didn’t have to think for anymore than a split second.

“Yes!” I replied affirmatively.

“Can I drop them off to you today?” asked the voice.

“YES!”

The caller was a very generous Roslindale resident and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt employee named Emma R., and she left a beautiful collection of books on my front porch. Her donation will be shared with my middle school students at the Lilla G. Frederick and with clients at the Roslindale Language and Literacy Center. Thank you, Emma!

A sofa full of new friends.

A sofa full of new friends.

Box

A Box Full of Joy

Open the Door To Liberty: A Biography of To

Open the Door to Liberty! A Biography of Toussaint L’ouverture
This book will be a part of my ESL unit on reversing the narrative about slavery to demonstrate the strength of those who were treated as slaves  in the Americas and the Caribbean.

No DAmsels

No Damsels in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Women
This book will be a part of my ESL unit on mythology and folklore that I am planning in collaboration with 826 Boston.