Tag Archives: dom belmonte

On the occasion of 25 years of a good thing

One of the joys of non-profit work is the creating of something out of nothing. You put together like-minded people tethered by an ideal and you say, “let’s create a thing.” And over a series of meetings that seems to stretch endlessly backward in time that thing you create is molded and patterned, tested and reshaped, reflected upon, acted upon, celebrated, retooled, strengthen, defended and perpetuated.

Those four lines above describe the skeletal shape of the Golden Apple Scholars of Illinois program, our advanced teacher preparation and mentoring program we created  in 1987 and launched in the winter of 1988, debuted at UIC in the summer of 1989, and this weekend in Tinley Park celebrated for the 25th year of its operation.

You hang in one place for a quarter-century, you worry over this thing like a thumb rubs a prayer stone, and you come across a passel of emotions, remember a flotilla of people, recall a trove of memories:  hilarious stories, sad recollections, worrisome times. The survival and resilience of this program is remarkable. State funded since 1993 through four governor administrations, passing of legislative power from one party to another, ever  subject  to the whims of political vicissitude, the Scholars program is a testament to the resourcefulness of good people who led it and good people chosen to participate in it.

And that paragraph above could not begin to describe the immensity of the task in creating this program, nor of the brilliant and dear people who have been part of it, nor of the countless meetings held to further, sustain or protect it. All this rolls in my mind like the memory collects—gauzy, sometimes selective, a bit secretly triumphant, sometimes secretly despondent, as we sometimes are when the rain falls and thoughts wander.

None of this, not one moment of what has transpired this last quarter century, could have been accomplished without the stunning generosity and belief in teachers possessed by our founders, Mike and Pat Koldyke. Absent them and we would have wandered a course, no doubt,  and strive, certainly, and probably achieve, but not with this level of sheen nor this amount of pride.

I wonder frequently about the young people we have brought into teaching through this program. Most nearly all are darling, but sometimes worrisome thoughts surface. I worry about entitlement seep. I worry that they don’t realize the old school notion that when someone is given a beneficence,  that beneficence is repaid seven times over. I wonder, like an old teacher wonders, if there will come a time some day in the future when they truly appreciate the depth of excelling in this profession of ours—that it is seven-eights humility and equal remaining parts of reflection and plan, with little room for hubris.

But the truest of gratitude that can be received is in the manner each of them teach. For every kindness shown a child, for every patience paid and forbearance granted, for every extra hour spent or early awakened to help a student, the effort to create this thing we celebrate, and those who know their fingerprints upon it, are thanked.

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No time limit on conciliation?

I married into a family that owned liquor stores, worked in them while dating my wife, and observed first hand how angry words and an inability to be conciliatory broke apart a successful family business. By the time my wife and I married, my father-in-law and his brother were deeply suspicious of each other. The older brother that could bring together disparate opinions and jealousies of his pugnacious younger brothers perished in a plane crash years before. Absent his presence, the dueling brothers saw no common ground. The antipathy grew, despite the obvious negative impact it had on the business. In due time, the business collapsed, the bank took over the name of the chain, which exists today without any family involvement in them (indeed, one store stands near my home, and drive by it with my wife’s maiden name on it every day with,as you can imagine, ironicfeelings). Such irony was italicized years later when, at my father-in-law’s wake, his brother arrives to weep over the casket. And the emotions of those around were perhaps the same: Now? Now you come to seek conciliation?

The memory came to me while reading reports of a different tone taken in the board meetings on proposed school closings in which a tone of conciliation was noted. Can we not work together to form a better solution than the one proffered, it intimates.

 

Can we not work together?  Now—a thought from my past echoed? Now, after posture and ridicule and outrageous charge and point accumulation on both sides of this polemic have been raised, shouted, finger-pointed and simpered, this emotion surfaces? When hectoring and speech-impediment deriding and four-letter ranting have punctuated discussion; when the push-me/pull-you  of this past year has left a list of bruised I’ll-never-forget-that moments, can sides  truly come together?

 

Perhaps, finally, the true impact has surfaced. Schools will be closed and students will be in schools new to them. Not new schools, but schools where the path seems funny and the rooms smell different and the faces of peer and adult that greet and interact with them will differ. Everyone will have a stake in how successful or challenging the transition will be. If these closings cannot be forestalled, can these sides come together, finally, on behalf of Chicago’s children?   

 

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Buzz Café, Oak Park

I’m still “processing” as the professionals say, my meeting the English teacher I had sophomore year that inspired me to want to teach. Forty-five years is a long time between moments, and the moment I so frequently had with former students, turned to my direction, has made me reflective, maybe a little bittersweet, and wondering if I evoke the same as was evoked that evening.

As a sophomore in 1970 I was lost and angry with no purpose in my anger save jealousy that the Summer of Love, the tumult of the Democratic National Convention and Woodstock all went on without me. Bill was to my young mind the most together, most philosophic, the most frenetic  teacher I have ever seen, so different from the stoic Christian Brothers or the borderline incompetent Vietnam dodgers wasting our time with no idea how to forward a class. Bill was all forward, with a manic glee as he focused on connections between art and music and literature. I was enthralled, I was convinced, this was the life work I would and did pursue.

The man I sat with at Buzz, as memory meets reality, looked nothing like the person in my mind’s eye. We are eight years apart, and the gulf between 67 and 59 seemed like nothing compared to the presumed gulf between 23 and 15.Bill retires this year, and his tales were of the injustices he suffered at the hands of administrators and the disparate plans he has for the future.

Will I look like this? Do I look like this now to those who come back and reconnect? Do they, like me, gloss over the realities that age brings? Will I be found less together, a bit wanting? Should our memories of the great people who inspire us be stored in amber, ever relevant, ever young?

Still processing, as they say. Delighted to see him again, thoughtful and vibrant, yet wistful, as l was as I drove away.

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“We must try to contribute joy to the world.”

Roger Ebert’s statements from his memoir have been reverberating in my mind this week. It is on this measure of joy that so many of us fail, fail miserably in fact. His illness sharpened his perspective past accomplishment and ambition to this single tenet “(t)hat is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”

In the teacher’s world of the classroom, one hopes to engender joy. We can all recall when it has surfaced, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes miraculously.

These times make it hard for joy to surface. I sought it in the classrooms I visited this year and hardly found it. I found dogged determinism, I found the usual adolescent antic, I found bitterness in the teacher’s lounge, I found suspicion in the principal’s offices.

But joy seems hard to come by.

There is no joy to be found in school board meetings, or any of the meetings upon meetings this town has held. Anguish and outrage in plentitude can be found, so can the wearied expression of the besieged and the forced placid demeanor of the decided. But joy, like this spring, has been slow to surface with consistency.

Bill Ayers wrote to me recently, currently enjoying new grandparenthood in Berkeley while his son and daughter-in-law resume teaching. There he expresses the tired joy of being in the company of new life, a feeling that transcends accomplishment and ambition.

Still, he shared with me a bit of his thoughts on the testing juggernaut wrenching the joy out of the student and teacher experience. In commenting on the aftermath of the test cheating scandal in Atlanta, which he claims can be laid at the feet of the focus on testing launched by the Bush and continued in the Obama Administrations, he wrote:

“The deeper problem is reducing education to a single narrow metric that claims to recognize an educated person through a test score. Teaching toward a simple standardized measure and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the “outcomes” both incentivizes cheating and is a worthless proxy for learning.

I recently interviewed leaders at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools—the school Arne Duncan attended for 12 years and the school where the Obamas, the Duncans, and the Emanuels sent their children—and asked what role test scores played in teacher evaluations there. The answer was none. I pressed the point and was told that in their view test scores have no value in helping to understand or identify good teaching. None.”

And so the toll knells, and while the press conferences and releases and policy statements move circumstance and emotion, a movie man at the end of his life writes “To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crimes start.”

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Chicago Psychodrama Part Two

The relationship between labor and management has been traditionally wary, suspicious, thinly-veiled. Each presume the lesser elements of the other lie just beneath the surface of a veneer of sincerity and altruism. When the door is shut, when the cat’s away, when the guard is down, comments about labor from management and vice versa reach bottom quickly, to the depths of mockery.

In education, when at its best, labor and management coincide and trust. The latter serves as a heat shield to the former, allowing the teacher to pursue goals with a minimum of “administrivia” by a leader who believes in colleagues and ardently preserves their classroom autonomy.

When it’s the pits in education, Queeg-like paranoia intrudes into the classroom dynamic. Colleagues turn against each other playing the roles of toady or malcontent.

Writ large, what’s happening in Chicago is a second-stage macrocosm of the distrusting and the dysfunctional in a business setting with the unfortunate collateral damage potential to children’s education, parental trust in their school system, business acumen and political heft. All of these elements intermingle in what will soon reach the level of social dynamite.

Chicago public school management, political leadership, business scions, union leadership, and school based education principals and classroom teachers are all intertwined now in a drama equally fascinating and repulsive to observe.

Teachers who are in closed schools are in mourning, some unabashedly involving their students in public grieving. Principals of ironically named welcoming schools may inwardly look forward to the doubling of their student population and the inclusion of faculty from those closed schools with less than welcomed embrace. Community activists, religious leaders see within this tumult the opportunity to make point and acquire access and influence. The union calls the school closing action closeted racism insisting this exercise is a social experiment to open schools to private enterprise, there is no budget gap to close there is no truth in central office public methodology, their transparency a sham, their political agenda naked and injurious to children. Business may warn the mayor’s office the need to show the steely resolve and strength that we were supposed to be getting, the Washingtonian fish wrapped in newspaper intransigence that was supposed to get things going, move the needle, or some such business idiom.

Meanwhile, kids and parents are scared or angry, teachers scared or angry. One could assume it difficult for any instruction to go on in a school slated for closing, little more for those being consolidated.

Gang lines must be respected, insist some. We should never allow criminal elements to dictate policy say others. Get real. Get tough. Get going. Get out. Get back. Get in line. Get with the program. Get out of my way. Get into it.

And you wonder why the number of people wanting to teach, or the number of teachers wanting leadership roles is in decline?

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The staggering impact of violence upon our children

You look at the numbers and you just can’t believe it’s so, but it is so. Alex Kotlowitz, the author of There Are No Children here and current write in residence at Northwestern, write in a recent New York Times article (“The Price of Public Violence”) that according the Chicago Police Department and University of Chicago Crime Lab, in Chicago, since 1997 up to now, 8,083 people have been murdered, and 36,000 people have been shot and wounded.

Almost 45,000 people shot and killed or wounded.

ALMOST 45,000 IN THESE PAST FIFTEEN YEARS!!

Think of the impact this miasma of violence always lurking in your neighborhood would have on your children.

Kotlowitz spent some time this summer with those adults and students associated with Harper High School on Chicago’s South Side.  The previous school year (prepare yourself for this, oh readers) Harper High School lost eight current or former students to gun violence and 21 others were shot and wounded.

Eight killed, 21 shot or wounded. One high school. Imagine yourself driving to work there each morning. Imagine the students pulling on shoes with that destination. What think you about their frame of mind? What lessons would you prepare?

As one social worker reported “You’ve got kids walking around who are just on guard with everything and everyone. It’s almost like you don’t have a moment to rest.”

Remember when you had that kind of day at work? At least odds are you weren’t worried that weaponry might be involved. Imagine that being your atmosphere every day. Every day. And you wonder about the drop out rate in the city.

Kotlowitz reports on a dire social possibility: “the Department of Justice released a little-noticed report that suggested that children exposed to community violence might turn to violence themselves as ‘a source of power, prestige, security, or even belongingness.’”  Has there been not similar study done of those who abuse having been abused themselves, and become predator as a counterbalance to the predation visited upon them earlier?

Life in violence smacks of post-traumatic stress disorder, and soon it will be discovered that our wounded warriors never leave the streets of their town, begin to suffer its effects as children, perpetuate violence when opportunity is presented.

As I have asked in previous blogs, what is it going to take before these issues are meaningfully addressed? You may see this staggering impact of violence upon our children numbly, like driving under the IDOT signs that post the number of citizens killed on our highway, while texting maybe. Maybe we need to see the impact of this violence daily, a virtual Emmett Till-like open-casket view of this impact—murdered children, burned-out children, violence-inured children, students without affect, students without hope, students attending funerals of their classmates,  students with post-traumatic stress symptoms. Maybe we need to see them as we commute. Maybe we need to see them as we converse. Maybe we need to see them in our homes. Will that do it?

Will anything?

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