Archives for category: Free Public Schools
Rotten Pumpkin Literacy Math

While Elizabeth Catlett’s apprentice was upstairs dodging the literacy hall police, the downstairs first grade wing was under an equally intense assault. After all, it is both insulting and assaultive to march into a room full of young children one does NOT KNOW and proceed to to “instruct” them.

This is the destructive fallacy behind techno/researched, data-driven, high finance interventions. They are all rooted in anonymity. The victims must remain invisible, devoid of personhood, reduced to a statistic and just another face in the crowd. The crowd must travel under some sort of label. Any of these will do: Low Income, Impoverished, Title I, Minority, Disadvantaged, Below Grade Level or how about Person of Color? The label becomes an authorization for every manner of outrage. On this day, the color was ORANGE.

An easel was hauled into the middle of a squirming, scooting, squirrelly bunch of six year olds. The fidgety ones were meant to be and designed to be moving about a classroom fingering, eyeballing, counting, weighing, comparing and investigating. That was their instinctive idea of math in practice but alas, it was not to be. Because someone was clutching the Letters of Transit that entitled her to travel into this assembly, command silent, single-minded attention and foist upon them a dog and pony show completely divorced from the most immediate, everyday life of the neighborhood.

I plopped down onto the floor, hiding criss cross applesauce behind a gaggle of gabby girls who were clearly in the thrall of a true boss. She was streetwise, you could hear it in her voice. She had secrets everyone wanted in on. But the easel idiot in charge of this convocation was too busy with her scripted presentation to detect the dynamic.

Princess Pythagoras proceeded in a conspiratorial whisper as if the babyfied, remote feltboard, imitation pumpkin program had evaporated into a magical mist. With an intimate, affirming gaze she began. “Well if I had five bucks. Really! If I had five bucks, here’s what I would do. You know those suckers the ladies sell down in the lunchroom? So they each cost a quarter. That’s 25 cents. And if I had five bucks, I would go there and I would walk right up to the cash register and I would say Please Give Me 20 Suckers. I’d hand over my five dollar bill and then I’d walk around our table and give everyone a sucker. There are 20 of us and every kid in our class would get a sucker.”

Of course she got called out for not listening, for being off-task, inattentive, disrespectful, disruptive – a distinct but distractive voice in the wilderness of pre-packaged, early literacy curriculum. She rolled her eyes, shrugged her shoulders, prompting a giggle from her swarm of admiring sucker sisters.

In an instant she was revealed. Perhaps the oldest child in a big family. Competent, confident and quite capable of taking ten dollars from her adult’s pin money for a grocery shop at the nearby convenience store. She was experienced at traversing sidewalks safely, negotiating ped-xings and traffic lights. In her head she routinely and roughly calculated the prices for required family staples, remaining under budget and on top of change due. She was a trusted, mission accomplished kind of kid.

But every bit of it was lost on the university instructor, parachuted behind the lines to film a literacy infused math lesson featuring pumpkin pablum. Her fruit-free exposition met a juicy grant requirement and was later featured as yet another false flag for age appropriate, child friendly, field-based and effective.

He was in 3rd grade and was “failing” using every measure employed by the bureaucracy. Reduced to data points, no one bothered to look him square in his humanity. Their destructive incompetence remained sanctioned, documented and institutionalized. And that’s the way it is done these days.

He was forever running out of class, refusing to participate in his sham of a classroom. The assigned “teacher” should have been fired ages ago. Her professional record on file at district headquarters documented omission after commission after irresponsibility. So instead of placing her in remediation, she was awarded a hefty stipend and assigned to an urban academy where teachers in good standing were supposed to be demonstrating how to effectively instruct in a high poverty school. What a joke!

The room she inhabited was in shambles by design. No effort was made to create an extraordinarily beautiful and attractive place. After all, the wild ones were raised in slums and bore the destructive impulses of a slum and destroyed everything they touched, or so the narrative was constructed and widely reported.

Anyone in a right frame of mind would flee this place every hour on the hour. And so he did. I found him wandering the hallway clutching Elizabeth Catlett’s illustrated Lift Every Voice And Sing. He was carrying Elizabeth because he had copied her. His picture book was crammed full of drawings he had faithfully reproduced of every linotype Elizabeth had rendered in her collection of images.

He knew his time would be better spent working on an apprenticeship under Elizabeth Catlett’s watchful eye than attending to the fool on the hill who was presiding over his education. Naturally, he was “failing” every subject because he was disengaged with all of it. The big bosses pulled the plug on him and he responded by refusing to ingest the systemic poison or breathe the tainted air. Hence the regular escapes to the nooks and crannies of the 2nd floor corridor. As far as I was concerned, his drawings were his hall pass, a portfolio brimming with interest, concentration and competence. “He can’t read,” everyone insisted at Child Study. But James Weldon Johnson disagreed and so did Elizabeth Catlett.

Of course, this is what a READER looks like. He falls in love with a story, a poem, a song, an illustrator and he spends every free moment committing the whole adventure to memory, replicating the rhythm, the cadence, the eloquence and the artistry. Never mind that he can’t unlock every vowel and consonant combination. He is hooked on a book for the transformation it can provide. What more needs to be said? The university types, promoting their own cash cow literacy research upon the backs of impoverished children, stayed in business and in the money by declaring him illiterate. The nerve of these people! He ignored them, dismissed them and dissed them. His sword and shield was a picture book held tightly over his heart chakra for protection. A bookworm if I ever met one.

Bare Bones 1968 Style

While white boy was busy using his career connections to oust Elsa Lurie from her East Harlem principalship, here is a snapshot of what he and his cronies were supporting.

Really study this photo and deeply meditate on the dead boring destruction these kids had to endure every damn day. This is precisely what systemic racism looks like in action. It is a starvation diet and it is extremely deliberate. No one on God’s Green Earth ever thought this outrage was okay. The visitors should have removed everyone from that classroom and taken sledgehammers to those turn of the century desks bolted down to the creaking, decrepit wooden floors. This Fact Finding Committee must have seethed with righteous anger, mutating into action.

Because action finally did come their way in the form of Lillian Weber and the Open Corridors movement. Teachers and parents met, researched, thought, talked and watched films of schools where the learning life was NOT the equivalent of a Soviet Gulag. One fine day the desks were unbolted and in their place came this.

Nancy Nilson from “Parents In The Corridor” was a witness. Meaningfulness went as follows. Parents got busy bringing in the comfortable sofas and chairs. Rugs arrived as did lamps and bookcases. We all learned to walk the streets with an eye out for rubbish bins and to search friends’ apartments for likely discards. Parents helped make learning games and materials for use by students.

Parents built and painted storage units, painted classroom walls and provided pots, pans, measuring utensils, tools for workbenches, typewriters – all those many things never EVER found before in these schools.

Wardrobe trunks were fitted with casters and filled with colorful costumes. Incubators, sandboxes and indoor ponds were built. Animal cages and animal feed were donated. It is hard now to remember that an early parent victory had been to push the idea that the school’s textbook budget could also be used to purchase materials!

Teachers went south for Freedom Summer and Freedom Schools. They returned with fire in their bellies and many songs in their hearts. Most of them the songs taught and fought on the endless marches, pickets, boycotts, sit-ins and mass incarcerations. That unbridled energy devoured the opportunity offered by Open Corridors.

We really wanted our school to be the center of the community. So we arranged to use our school kitchen.

The Puerto Rican parents cooked for the Italian parents one day. One mother remarked, “You know, when I was invited to eat in a Spanish restaurant I said I would not because to me Spanish food represented those people whom I didn’t know and didn’t understand. I actually thought they were pigs. But now I am here. I saw the food being cooked. I liked it and I am going to cook it for my own family!”

What followed was a kind of cultural exchange that many teachers could profit from for they need to be honest about this with parents. Do not code it over with words like “tolerance” because tolerance is a poor substitute for acceptance, understanding and celebrating individuality + commonality.

Mrs. Lurie, the principal of this East Harlem elementary school, was herself native born Puerto Rican. Freely and legally selected by decentralized, District 4 Community School Board, she took her Puerto Rican school parents and her Italian school parents into an active partnership in behalf of every child’s education. Quite an accomplishment! One would think the Board of Education and NYC would rejoice at such a bridging of rich cultural differences. But Oh No! 

Because this Puerto Rican woman principal was quickly replaced with a white non-Hispanic man who claimed he was the victim of reverse discrimination. He charged that he had been passed over for the principalship by a heavily Puerto Rican community school board and he claimed the post was rightfully and “white fully” his. The argument went that his qualifications were superior to Mrs. Lurie’s and that she had received the job based solely on ethnic grounds. Lurie actually held the same qualifications as white boy, but never mind. It went all the way to the NYC Commissioner of Human Rights who ruled that the complainer had indeed been passed over because of his national origin( White Land) and Mrs. Lurie was removed. Sound familiar? Sound like 2021?

Eventually, white boy died of old age and his obituary was quick to mention that he took up Financial Advisor as his post educator career path. After all, he had certainly kept his eye on his OWN bottom line. The obit also stated that our human rights victim was always passionate about social justice. But not so passionate that he felt moved to allow legally selected Principal Lurie to lead her Puerto Rican and Italian school parents in a classroom movement squarely centered on children.

And so we continued to cripple youth and destroy their spirits and their hungry minds. It was how the “system” worked. That was how the cookie crumbled in White Land. 

The 1970’s Open Corridors program meant opening minds and buildings to parent participation and to new ways of doing things. Black and Brown students marginalized, alienated and diminished by centralized, bigoted pedagogy finally stood a chance of being seen and nurtured. But there were many company men and women who were having none of it. They were comfortable with the old way of “doing business”. They put in their years, got the correct credentials, kissed the appropriate asses and believed themselves ENTITLED to a position of personal preference, current liberating movement be damned.

White boy and his friends had spent decades presiding over East Harlem schools, steering them to the widely regarded designation of Worst Ever! They were dead last on standardized reading tests, plagued with chronic absenteeism, raging gang violence, drug deals in the boy’s bathroom. A regular Blackboard Jungle. This was the proud legacy, the manufactured crisis that the “victims” of reverse discrimination wished to maintain.



The children of this land are old.
Their eyes are fixed on maps in place of land.
Their feet must learn to follow
Distant contours traced by alien minds.
Their present sense has faded into past.
The children of this land are proud
But only seeming so. They tread on air but—
Note—the land it was that first withdrew
From touch of love their bare feet offered. Once,
It was the earth of their belonging.
Their pointed chins are aimed,
Proud seeming, at horizons filled with crows.
The clouds are swarms of locusts.
The children of this land grow the largest eyes
Within head sockets. Their heads are crowns
On neat fish spines, whose meat has passed
Through swing doors to the chill of conversation
And chilled wine. But the eyes stare dead.
They pierce beyond the present through dim passages
Across the world of living.
These are the offspring of the dispossessed,
The hope and land deprived. Contempt replaces
Filial bonds. The children of this land
Are castaways in holed crafts, all tortoise skin
And scales—the callus of their afterbirth.
Their hands are clawed for rooting, their tongues
Propagate new social codes, and laws.
A new race will supersede the present—
Where love is banished stranger, lonely
Wanderer in forests prowled by lust
On feral pads of power,
Where love is a hidden, ancient ruin, crushed
By memory, in this present
Robbed of presence.
But the children of this land embrace the void
As lovers. The spores of their conjunction move
To people once human spaces, stepping nimbly
Over ghosts of parenthood. The children of this land
Are robed as judges, their gaze rejects
All measures of the past. A gleam
Invades their dead eyes briefly, lacerates the air
But with one sole demand:
Who sold our youth?

It all began with rambles where we studied things as we came upon them.

When Elwyn S. Richardson first came to New Zealand’s Oruaiti School he stopped to examine the green clays in the neighboring creek beds. One day he and his students found a seam of grey clay that they thought looked promising so they dug and carried several loads back to an outdoor patio area. They watered it, chopped it and worked it with hands and feet and finally got it into a workable consistency.

Next came a series of clay samples brought from home on a regular basis for testing and selecting. One day a boy named Rex wheeled his mother’s wheelbarrow one mile up the valley to the school loaded with bricks to make a kiln.

“The clay we used in the first months was not good. So we used the scientific method to solve the problem. We dried some pieces rapidly in the stove and these all cracked badly. Those that were sun-dried also cracked but those which were placed in the dark of the store room cupboard and dried slowly did not crack at all. We found that bottoms cracked unless we turned the pots early in the process of drying.”

The children at this school were real people to their teacher and to each other. Coronavirus could not distance nor defeat them because the vaccine against infectious anomie was their creative community. They were not reduced to social security numbers or login ID’s. Together everyone opened up to the immediate world, examining and uncovering it as if they had recently arrived from some other dimension. And maybe they had. Fresh eyes that fell in love with the work undertaken.

There was a romance involving GRASS and here is how Clifton-10 years expressed it. “I saw the clip of the grass gently move. the long dry wind, bending ticklish grass. The sticky heat of the paspallum walk. The mown grass breath of the wind. The sharp needle of the prickly gorse sticking into grass tops. They sat and watched the blinking sheep and the long bent grass waves. The long silent grass blows over the hill. On the top of the hill is the grass bending over like me bowing.“

The blue heron stands in the early world,
Looking like a freezing blue cloud in the morning.

George Joseph Cons was a dreamer. He was a man who said NO to combat during WWI. As you might imagine, that did not go over well and he was sent to prison for awhile, a farm prison where he grew food for the war effort. When it was all over he was not the favorite candidate for a teaching job in many districts but he made his way through the patriotic pettiness and ended up at Goldsmiths College University of London.

Postman As Curriculum

There he went into neighborhood schools where the children of working people were enrolled and brought the immediate community into classrooms. Students met their parents and their neighbors in an entirely heightened light. Suddenly the postman, a dustman, a sewer man or a fireman became the subject for intense and respected study. No one was ashamed to say, “My Mum is a washerwoman.” That mother was standing at the front of the class delivering a lecture and fielding questions on the business of send out laundry.

G.J. Cons and Catherine Fletcher wrote a book about their educational experiment and entitled it, ACTUALITY IN SCHOOL. A favorite section is the Q&A session with Mr. W. the local postman. It went something like this.

Please sir, when you’re going up the street and can’t see the numbers, what do you do? We have a little electric lamp which we switch on when we need to.

There is a man who lives in Palestine, who’s a great friend of my father and my father sends him letters. How would he get them? They would be sorted at the office and put into the “foreign section” of the General Post Office. There, there are sorting boxes for all parts of the world. Your father’s letter is put in the Palestine division.

Not only did this classroom meet with their postman, they also visited the sorting office where he worked. At age 9 and 10 they stayed in that area for over one hour, curious about and interested in all that transpired. On two different Thursday afternoons these youth boarded the city tram and arrived at the G.P.O. St. Martin Lee Grand for a proper look-see. As many of us have experienced as center city teachers, these kids had no idea that the big river running right before their eyes was a tributary known as The Thames. A free tram opened their lives up to an entirely new waterway subject of study which they could share with their impoverished families on a weekend jaunt.

Cons got hold of some documentary films to further expand post office investigations. One of his favorites was entitled “Night Mail”. Porters at Crewe are seen slinging giant mailbags into the train. The train steams through the Midlands, past factories and across the lowlands of Scotland, finally arriving in the misty morning at Edinburgh filled with letters and parcels of all description. Very visual.

But Mr. Cons and Ms. Fletcher were after something much more important than a deep, cognitive understanding of the postal system. As a man who said NO to war, he was a lover of peace, community, prosperity and sympathy. Yes, sympathy or empathy or whatever else one might call it. He wanted the children and their teacher to see that the postman lived a life of drama, holding his breath until a parcel recipient made it to the front door in time for a hand-off. Dashing into the shelter of a building, a tree or a storefront just as a drenching rain broke out. Losing a registered letter full of money and having to solve the mystery of where it went and how to retrieve it. This postman was a man of intelligence and energy and bravery and as a result of this big group inquiry, the world was once again endowed with delight, value and significance.

This is what real teachers do. They use curriculum to develop civic consciousness. They broaden individual worlds so people feel alive and excited in their place of existence. No one sleep walks through life or bounces about in a cocoon, careening off others, believing they are the only ones in the universe. No caste system is erected or maintained in which postmen and trash men and sewer men or washerwoman or lunchroom woman don’t count as citizens or as intellects. What we do matters and other human beings matter and we are the better for it, all thanks to a real teacher.

We do not stand back and watch a monster walk into the White House, claiming it as his own simply because he feels the need for power. We do not permit tyranny to run rampant like a contagious infection through a populace, filling them with fear and frustration. We need smart, active citizenship and this is how George Joseph Cons envisioned it happening in schools.

Coronavirus is requiring something of everyone. Beyond masks, testing, social distancing and political street protest, it is demanding that we wake up and begin to invoke our imaginations. We need to imagine that the bungling of the Pandemic is no accident but a quite deliberate ploy to infect and murder people in the name of re-election for pathological power.

We need to imagine that the greed, which is the foundational appetite of racism, really is completely insatiable and is capable and culpable of every atrocity in its own name, from centuries back.

We need to imagine that Sinclair Lewis was not halucinating because Buzz Windrip has arrived and is currently presiding over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Elwyn Richardson was an inciter of imaginations. He and the Universe chose New Zealand as his base of operations and school children were his foot soldiers. Together they marched into clay banks, beaches, ponds, wasp nests, handmade kilns, paint pots, fertile fields and terrariums to do battle with the idea that education should be confined to desks, chairs, buildings or 2020 drill&kill, computer technology.

One can see from the photos that it was a riotous existence at Oruaiti School. A daily disruption of normal, dead-boring, state-imposed, soul-killing, standardized, test-driven dribble. It was an ALIVE place where courage and creativity walked hand-in-hand.

No one graduating from Oruaiti would allow themselves to be subject to a regime preaching avarice and incarcerating combat with impoverished/displaced migrants, all people of color, moms in yellow, dads with leaf blowers, nursing home residents and vulnerable students.

Instead, they would dream up an improved arrangement and begin building it with the help of their immediate community. Because Elwyn began his work exactly where he was, using what was at hand, developing himself as an instrument through which liberating energies could be invoked, developed and celebrated.

We are in a death spiral and many shiny ones are very busy trying to turn that defeated world view in a life-affirming direction. They know The Secret and they are our Way Ahead. May we follow their Lead.

Nobody at the 1935 Chicago Board Of Education thought their publication on Correlated Handwork was revolutionary. In fact, if you’d asked them they would have told you that they were about 35 years behind.

Lots of women and men knew how to work with their hands back in 1935 and students were often taught these skills at school.

But as early as 1900 children in classrooms were elegantly busy with detailed hand-eye-brain finger work that was the foundation for replica house and farm building 35 years later.

Give This A Go
Perforation Work
Folding and Cutting

No wonder 1935 educators thought it perfectly reasonable for first grade children to build houses, farms, city parks and later foreign country studies. At home with minimal intervention or instruction from adults was customary because Kindergarten had gotten them more than ready.

Pay attention to the level of EXPECTATION accorded these Great Depression children in the long ago Chicago Public Schools. The 1st graders were constructing full-blown houses using cardboard, construction tools, measuring equipment, clay and fabric. Now for the 2nd graders.

Yes, the 2nd levels are building a farmhouse, barn, silo, sheepfold, pigpen, fences, grass, mock cornfields, trees, figurine families and farm animal models. Are you kidding me?

Think about it. We are not talking about these 1935 Chicago students pulling a Farm set out of a supply closet and setting it up in a classroom or at home. We are watching smart city kids learn and draw or create the constituent elements of a farm like miniature wagons, wheelbarrows, vegetable stand, scales for weighing produce and signage for each group of produce being sold.

These children went on to use clay & paint for model fruits and veg. They made butter. They sprouted seeds in eggshells, sponges or in a home/window box “garden”. They made a Weather Chart because guess what? The local weather has everything to do with a successful crop.

Simple Butter Making

Here is what the 1935 2nd graders were advised on the topic of farm BUILDINGS. “The house, barn and other buildings may be made of construction paper or any paper colored with crayons and pasted together. Suitable buildings can also be made from cardboard boxes, cutting holes for windows, doors and attaching corrugated paper for the roof. The barn silo may be formed using paper and in proportion to the barn. A windmill frame may be made from dowel rods or thin strips on boxwood tied together. The wheel and vanes are cut from tin, thin wood or cardboard. Fences may be made from twigs or thin strips of boxwood or balsa wood. Gate hinges may be made from small pieces of leather and fasteners from scrap wire. People and Animals can easily be made in silhouette form or actually modeled in clay. Roads, fields and trees are represented with sandpaper, towel fabric, twigs, sponges, steel wool and dried grass.

Remember that as these students work, they are maintaining careful/consistent records and reflections on their work. They are drawing illustrations of finished products. Today we would cellphone photograph. They are writing to describe in detail, and with precise vocabulary, the work they are engaged in. This is not sloppy process.

After the FARM was finished, these same 2nd grade children went on to create an entire City Park in exquisite detail.

Model Making

Name the subject matter and it was woven into this work. And at a much higher thinking and problem-solving level than called upon in most 1st and 2nd grade groups. Food does not appear MAGICALLY in a supermarket. Nor does housing, and its many elements, spring MAGICALLY from an online catalogue or company. This immersion is the end of magical manifesting and instead is a dig-down-deep into the practical production-inquiry of how we live and what we use in life every single day.

No one here is casting about for a laptop, an internet connection, a Zoom meeting or a worksheet. They are too busy doing real investigations into their immediate physical world.

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