Witnessing The Dream


Humbly acknowledging the borrowed words of a great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I have quoted small portions of his iconic speech to challenge our idea of educational freedom and authentic learning. I do this now rather than the observed January holiday or designated Black History month not to diminish their importance, but to elevate the notion that great people and great ideas are worthy of acknowledgment at any time, all of the time, and at particularly difficult times.

When I recently revisited Dr. King’s 1963 speech given at the Lincoln Memorial, I was moved to tears reading the humble but powerful cry for freedom and equality. I was fortunate enough to hear Dr. King deliver this speech on August 28th via our television. My mother and I sat intently clutching onto every word that deeply seared our hearts. It was a pivotal time in my life that I will never forget. It happened just a few years before our family would be put to the test of his words. I am forever thankful that I took the test and passed it.

Our family became racially integrated through marriages and children of my siblings. I gained beautiful new family members, along with a new understanding and acknowledgment of my particular privilege. It took little time to discover that these family members were treated differently on many occasion. Often, they were given less than respectful interaction. At times, they experienced blatant disregard. I observed first hand the ugly scourge of racism. I began to understand the words of Dr. King, that I heard as a 10 year old when he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Later in life, I found myself working as a teacher and then administrator in a predominately African American community. I saw once again challenges and struggles as parents sought to level the playing field for their children by way of a good education. Ten years before my arrival to a new state, in the mid eighties, this school district had gone through a tumultuous desegregation mandate that resulted in a “white flight” escape to the suburbs. There is much more to that dark story, but for sake of time and space I’ll just focus on the schools and children that were left behind.

Dr. King told us the following.”Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

Dr. King’s words were slow to take root. In fact, twenty five years after his words rang out over the multitudes in Washington D.C, racism was still full-blown within many of our institutions. Schools were one such institution that clung desperately to their separate but equal philosophy. While desegregation finally began to more forward, it was hardly in the manner Dr. King had envisioned or described.  Although some attempts were made to level the playing field in schools, the results of racism still closed doors of opportunity, especially below the Mason Dixon Line.

The school in which I worked was a “magnet” school hoping to “attract” the predominately white students who left at the time of desegregation in that county. It was a Montessori magnet and did indeed pull in a few children from outside the area. However, there was no real integration in the truest sense. Desegregation barely met the letter of the law. In the Montessori classrooms, filled with mostly wealthier white children, one would find thousands of dollars in equipment and supplies, lots of parent involvement, frequent field trips and multitudes of hands on experiments and activities. It also embraced the philosophy of following the child and creating the best conditions for their learning.

These students ate together at lunch and played together at recess. They often had special family events as well. While the principal tried to integrate school-wide events and activities as often as possible, it was painstakingly obvious that we housed two separate, but not so equal schools, within the  larger school building. Most of the teachers who chose to work together were there because they genuinely cared and wanted to provide the best education possible. However, the non magnet students had less supplies, old books, worn desks, and a fewer field trips. They ate lunch together, played at recess together and shared an occasional game of ball with the magnet students. This magnet school was an awkward attempt at integration and everyone knew it.

Watching this all play out with daily regularity, I couldn’t help but think of Dr. King’s speech again and in particular his analogy of cashing a check.

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

Now over fifty years since Dr. King’s poignant plea, not all, but many of our beautiful children of color are still looking at that bad check. They are often trapped in inferior and substandard public schools within their cities. With millions of federal dollars pouring into our most needy schools, we know our children are still shortchanged. White flight still exists and so does deep rooted racism.

Those who seek to right these inherent wrongs are often led by their ideology and elitist altruism. Government must right the wrong – translated to mean more funding directed to the “failing” public schools. The premise here is that any money diverted from public school will make them fail even more than they already have.

Others believe that funding students/families directly to attend the school of choice will right the wrong of inequity. Unfortunately, neither of these conditions will take care of ingrained racism. Wealthier white families will still take flight when children of color show up at their school of choice.

Children of color will also remain trapped in poor performing public schools regardless of how much funding they receive. One of the main reasons for this lies in how that funding is spent. Typically schools seek out proven track records of success peddled by predatory publishers of books and programs promising increased test scores.  So they buy more books, shining and new electronic devices, and maybe some teacher training to go with them. Some initial success may be noted in these cases, but long term educational benefits are not apparent in the relevant research. Most notably, the last administration’s efforts with the federal school improvement grants showed in a report that we are still failing our children even when we provide more targeted funding.

When children are able to enroll in their school of choice they feel a bit more empowered, but this choice must be a good one. Schools in general, whether public or private, charter or magnet, typically don’t do a very good job of facilitating real and lasting learning. It’s a factory that groups children in age batches. It produces compliant consumers who often find themselves bored, bothered or bewildered. Students pick up a few basics, regurgitate facts on tests, and then move on to the next grade level. Sadly, they don’t often retain much of what they’ve crammed into their short term memory. As school years pass, many students can no longer think for themselves, problem solve for themselves, or create and invent. This is not surprising since most of their school existence is scripted, contrived and controlled.  To many this is incredibly baffling and very concerning.

For some, school works as designed. For others it is a bad check that can’t be cashed now or later in life.

Simply put, school has to be re-imagined to honor and value the unique ways in which every learner learns. It can’t be prepackaged education delivered in a one size fits all box tied with a bountiful bow of good intentions. As a nation we must confront the reality that exists and stop patting ourselves on the back for dropping the ball. We must stop insisting that we are doing the best we can and start doing what is right. We must acknowledge the statistics that tell us our schools are not working for so many children. We must find the will and the way to create conditions for learning that actually result in real learning, the kind of that lasts a lifetime, not just for a test.

Much like Dr. King’s earnest desire for his own children, we must go from dreaming to acting now. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Keeping children of color in substandard schooling conditions sentences them to a life of inequity and oppression.  Keeping any child oppressed in this manner is a travesty and counter productive to our core beliefs of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

At various times in our lives, we will encounter tests that judge our character. These tests may come in our individual families, our schools, our work place, or our government. These tests are not simple multiple choice or true and false. They are performance-based requiring us to clearly demonstrate our understanding of Dr. King’s call to action in his 1963, I Have A Dream speech. They call on us to clarify and validate the principles of equity and freedom for all.

With regard to schooling, children need the freedom to learn without sanctions, punishments, threats or coercion. We need to usher in a new school paradigm based on the principles of liberty. This a doable and urgent. In the quote below, I respectfully borrowed some of Dr. King’s words to formulate the deeply held commitment that many brave educational freedom advocates believe.

“And when this happens, and when we allow educational freedom to ring, when we let it permeate every school district and every school in every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of the children, black and white, rich and poor, different faiths and ethnicity, will be able to join hands and sing the words of the old Negro spiritual:”

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

We are witnessing this freedom already in alternative schools, democratic schools, good charter schools, and even home-schools. The freedom to learn is a fundamental human right. Many schools in their present form, and often unknowingly, rob children and young people of this basic right by taking away choice and substituting it with compulsory compliance and a canned curriculum.

When will life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness find its way into the schoolhouses of America? How  much longer do we have to wait?








Brilliance Without School – A Tribute to My Father

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My father taught me how to ride a bike and how to roller skate. He also taught me how to fish like a real fisherman. He took me on several worm expeditions and showed me where to find the fat and juicy ones in the darkest black soil – the best ones to use for bait. He taught me how to be thrifty by cutting them in half or threes so we’d have plenty of bait. He modeled the art of fishing showing me how to slip the bait on the hook, cast my fishing rod and then hold it with just the right amount of tension so as not to lose a catch. To my surprise, I caught several bluegills, (more than five) fish in one day.  Knowing that I had perfected the art of fishing, my father released them every time so I might have been catching the same fish over and over but neither I nor the fish seemed to mind.

Dad taught me how to build a fire and pitch a tent at our summer camping site north of our city. I had to make several trips through the woods to gather all of the twigs, but I never complained because I knew it meant golden roasted marshmallows for a treat. He demonstrated the proper way to build a safe fire, big enough to last late into the evening and then made sure I knew how to put the fire out before heading in for the night.

Although he had three daughters, it did not stop him from teaching us just about everything he would have taught a son. We learned the name of all his tools as well as what they were used for, which frequently comes in handy even today. He encouraged me to use the tools so I would understand their importance while also teaching me how to put them back in their proper place – more than a few times.

My father constructed the most utilitarian and modern outhouse we had ever seen on our summer camping grounds. Imagine an outhouse designed with free flowing air, bright colors, pictures on the wall, a bug repellent light fixture, a built in air purifier, and of course, piped in music. It was considered the most attractive outhouse in the entire camping area. All outhouses after that one were/are a huge disappointment, and I avoid them at all cost.

From my father I learned that whatever your mind’s eye can see, it can create.

The second home I remember living in was a rented three story house two blocks from the first. Our new washer and dryer were in the basement or what we called the “cellar.” To make chores a bit easier and more pleasant for my mother, my father built an intercom/music system so that when she was down in the basement she could listen to music and send or receive messages without walking three flights of stairs. He also built a laundry shoot. In addition to doubling as a fun pastime on a rainy day, when on occasion I tossed a toy or two down, the shoot served a family of five quite well on laundry day.

At a very early age, I discovered that my home was a beautiful canvas, and my father was the artist. I watched him painting rooms in our house, building wooden cabinets for the stereo equipment and installing the newest bathroom fixtures that included sliding glass shower doors and modern wall mounted lights. I was completely drawn into his ability to create something in his mind, transfer it to paper as a sketch or draft from which to work, and then build it.

My father was not an artist by trade and most of his masterpieces were only displayed on the walls of our kitchen, bathroom or living room, but he was a master nonetheless.  I wanted to be an artist like he was. He showed me how to hold a brush, how to carefully cut into the corners, how to mix colors and how to prepare and then clean the materials afterwards. He often allowed me to paint with him, fond memories that I cherish and skills that I still utilize.

From my father I learned the power of authentic participation. 

My father taught me pride in a job well done and gave me confidence to do things myself.  He created many innovative and useful products for our home that made me realize years later how ahead of his time he was. He could do or make just about anything. He designed drapery hangings for our living room, hung artwork, pictures and lighting with precision and perfection. He designed and created various pieces of artfully crafted furniture and frames that we proudly displayed in our home.

Our family was the benefactor of his great expertise, particularly my mother who never had to call a plumber, carpenter, electrician or handyman. Dad was quick at math and had a keen sense of how things worked. He taught himself the inner workings of whatever he found himself doing. He made everything he touched much better than how he found it.

My father also had the most beautiful handwriting. He taught me how to sharpen a pencil, use an eraser and sketch a drawing. Whatever he sketched was simply amazing. He appreciated the beauty in a painting, a drawing, a sculpture and shared that love with me.

From my father I learned how to make the world more beautiful.

My father’s parents divorced when he was a child. As a young adolescent he lived with various relatives, moving more than a few times. He attended school when he didn’t have to work and he managed to finish eighth grade. Most of what he learned about work he gleaned from observing masters in the various trades. What he learned about life was out of necessity, mostly teaching himself.

Even with a difficult upbringing,  a ravaging WWII, and a few disappointments in life, he maintained his keen wit and incredible sense of humor. These qualities along with a desire for his remaining years on earth to count for something; endeared him to family, friends, neighbors and even total strangers.

As an adult, I came to realize that my father was brilliant and that schooling had little to do with it. I learned that each of us has brilliance waiting to be released. Schools don’t typically do a good job of tapping into our brilliance. Many young people have a story like my dad’s. They may not know yet how to channel their disappointments, fears, and challenges into something productive. They are however, waiting for someone to notice their brilliance. Look for it, it’s there. They’ve already learned a lot about life, now they just need someone to show them how their creativity, participation, and brilliance can make the world more beautiful…just like my dad did!




Two In One – An Important Lesson



When my youngest son was in second grade, I was his teacher. This was my second year of teaching. There was only one second grade at the school, so he got lucky, I suppose. After all, who wouldn’t love to have their own mom as their teacher?

He was filled with many questions about what to call me and if I would still help him with his homework. He wanted to know if I would treat him just as I would all other students in my class. Once we sorted through all these important details, we agreed it would be an amazing year just as our first seven years together had been.

The school year was not without its interesting moments. Like the time when he held another student in a headlock hoping I wouldn’t see, or the day I saw him smiling from across the room at a certain young lady in the classroom. I watched him grappling with the urge to joke around when it was time for more serious discussion. I heard his wonder and curiosity in the many questions he asked. I also saw his compassion and thoughtfulness as he assisted others. Observing my own child, while serving in this capacity, provided me with a never ending supply of humor, insight, and much needed patience.

Towards the end of the school year, I asked all the children to write a book about a topic that was important and special  to them. I provided very little direction as I wanted this to be an authentic effort, free from the typical teacher oversight and corrections. I felt confident that they had learned enough to spell, write, and successfully convey their important message. They were allowed to help each other if they chose to do so. Occasionally, a student would seek me out for assistance on spelling a particularly pesky word.

They were given a hardback, blank book and the appropriate materials in which to illustrate and write their story. The only guideline was to have it done and ready to share with the class the last week of school. There was no grading involved.

My son’s book was called, Two In One – My Mother is also my Teacher. As he read the opening page to his classmates, I wondered if this was a good idea.  He read, “My mother is also my teacher.” “Sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t.” Swallowing my pride, I allowed him to continue reading, hoping that the story would have a happy ending.

Turning a few pages he read…”the worst thing about having my mother as my teacher is when I get in trouble. “She seems to notice me more than others.” The illustration showed several empty desks except for his, where he sat smiling. He continued the story sharing his favorite subjects and activities ending the book with, “I really like having my mom as my teacher, but next year I want someone new.” With a huge smile of relief on my face, the class and I congratulated him for such an interesting story.


This year long adventure is now part of our family history, full of notable and humorous “remember when” stories. Admittedly, for both of us, it also required an extra dose of patience and respect.  We found a way to make that happen even though it was not always easy. I often struggled with the dichotomy of being Two in One. Observing the actions of my child, I became very thankful for this struggle as it forever changed my perspective as both a mom and a teacher. From that point forward, I purposely tried to view my students’ strengths and challenges from a parent’s lens.

Before children enter formal schooling, parents help teach their children how to walk, talk, eat, dress, do chores, take turns, express ideas, and hundreds of other important tasks. They may even teach them to read, count and write. They know their strengths and challenges, their personality and behaviors. For the most part, they know what makes them tick.

When children arrive in our classrooms we rarely know them at all. We see them in only one setting and with only one lens, that of teacher. How much time do we spend talking with students and their parents before or at the beginning of the school year? What kind of communication exists during the school year besides report cards and the obligatory parent conference? Does a Friday folder suffice as a communication device?

As a teacher, talking with parents frequently gave me greater insight when working with and assessing my students. Parents are indispensable learning/teaching partners. Teachers who possess the lens of “parent” and work closely with parents seem more likely to better know and understand their students. They observe learning and behaviors differently by appreciating the uniqueness of every child/young person with whom they work, then plan their interactions and lessons accordingly.

Teachers who are Two in One by choice,  nurture, guide, and encourage their students through a parent lens. Their students know they care and so do the parents. It is the school connection that matters most and the one that will yield lasting results. 

As this adage aptly suggests…


For all the great teachers out there, thanks for being Two in One in your classrooms! It makes all the difference in the world. Kudos to all the home school moms and dads, you are two in one all the time!