Dr. Jone’s Dream: Equal Education Long Before Brown v. Topeka Kansas

I teach at the world’s oldest and largest international school where the annual tution costs as much as a year of elite university in the states. My students, from affluent families valuing education, cannot understand how minorities denied equal education remain powerless within societies. In 1896 the 14th Amendment guaranteed full rights of citizenship to anyone born in the USA, yet Plessy v. Ferguson, a ruling that same year, upheld social segregation of “white and colored races”. Over a half century later little had changed.  The “separate but equal” doctrine provided the legal basis for racial segregation until the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Topeka, Kansas case. Thirteen families representing twenty school children, led by the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall, who became the first African American judge, challenged the Supreme Court’s decision and deemed the doctrine unconstitutional.  This helped spark the Civil Rights Movement and led to integration of not only schools, but also public places.

Dr Jones & school children

Dr Jones & school children

In 1909, long before that epic battle,  Laurence Jones, a black man with a vision, turned an abandoned sheep shed into The Piney Woods School with meager donations from an impoverished community. This was the beginning of his dream  to educate underprivileged black children in destitute, rural Rankin County, Mississippi.  Over a century later, that one room school has become a thriving 2,000 acres campus, with a high school that can justly boast “we are changing America, and the world, one student at a time.” Alumnus went on to Princeton, Howard, and Tuskegee pursuing degrees in medicine, education, marketing and other careers to become leaders in their fields.

When my grandparents, Ralph and Betty McKinzie, retired from teaching at NIU and DeKalb High School, they dedicated two years of service teaching at Piney Woods.  During Easter break 1968, on a trip to visit my grandparents, we drove through the deep South where I saw ram shackled lean-tos, the remnants of slavery.

Jim, Ralph, Betty McKinzie, Martha Olson, Dr. Jones

 

“How come the Negroes live in shacks?” I asked with the innocence of an ten-year-old.

“Because they are so poor.”

“Why are they so poor?”

“Because they don’t have any land.”

“Hey, I see lots of land,” I said pointing towards a sprawling plantation with stately white pillars. “The whole town could fit in that house; it’s bigger than a hotel!”

At Piney Woods School, my brother and I played basketball with the black boys on a dirt court in a sun-baked paradise surrounded by pine and honey-scented pink and white magnolias. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

“Isn’t it great how well they get along?” my dad asked.

My sisters and new friends

“If only we could remain children in our hearts,” my grandma replied.

As we piled suitcases on top of the Rambler to head back North, a young girl peeked behind her big sister’s cotton skirt to stare at the first white family she’d ever seen.

“Schootch together,” Grandma said, “so I can take your picture.”

I stood by my new friend, the color of chocolate, and beamed as the camera clicked.  Then I reached over and took her soft warm hand in mine. It fit just perfect.

Photographs of my childhood remain etched in my soul forever.  Just as my grandma had hoped, I remained a child in my heart, befriending people from all four corners of the globe in my international community where I teach as an adult.

 

http://www.pineywoods.org/

 

 

 

Celebrate Books – The Memory of Mankind

Celebrate Books The Memory of Mankind For the past 29 years during Banned Books Week, late September, librarians and educators unite to celebrate our freedom to read and heighten our awareness of the liberty to treasure the written word.

I fell in love with words in childhood, while raised in a teachers’ family I was exposed to the beauty of books at an early age. I devoured books voraciously until I reached adolescense when reading was decidedly uncool.

I renewed my passion once I moved abroad in my twenties. Words took on a new allure when the written word in English was not readily available while living in a francophone and germanic language country. Then books in my mother tongue were like gold.

For two years, after a severe whiplash accident, my eyes could not focus on words in any language. When I finally recovered and the letters on the page stopped wiggling, I developed an ever greater appreciation for books.

The intellectual freedom to access ideas, to express opinions and to read what I want is my birth right as an American citizen. Protected by the 1st Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, as part of the Bill of Rights, it is a privilege we often take for granted.

Today I spend a part of my day trying to convince teenagers to invest energy in discovering books. Maybe if students know the book I assign to read had once been banned, they will be lured into cracking open the cover.

It is amazing the number of books that have been on the hit list, including some of the greatest books ever written, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, as well as, the Diary of Anne Frank, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Beloved by Toni Morrison and Color Purple by Alice Walker, to mention a few.

During the Holocaust and other troubling times in history, books were burned, which reminds us of the danger when restraints impose limits on cultures, races and religions.

Though many books are challenged due to language or content, few remained banned, like Adolf Hitler ‘s Mein Kampf which publishers refuse to reprint to prevent inciting right wing extremist’s violence with Hitler’s destructive ideology.

Ironically often times the religious zealots are the first to challenge books in public education even though the freedom to establish and to exercise religion, was the basis of the Bill of Rights on which our nation was founded. Puritans, Quakers and others left Europe in pursuit of place where they would be free to practice the religion of their choice.

Words can never be underestimated. They make humans distinguishable from animals. By comprehending the hopes, conflicts, aspirations, successes and failures of people in time and space, we can better understand the self. Without literature, education would have no articulated spirit and our function would be survival rather than aspiration.

The only positive outcome of making books taboo that I can foresee is enticing rebellious adolescents to turn on to literature, one “bad” word at time.

Back to School in the 21st Century

In the 1930’s my grandma started her teaching day by shoveling a snow covered path to a one-room schoolhouse and splitting wood for the potbellied stove.

Today, we flash identity cards to guards at campus gates, open doors with electronic keys, display notes on whiteboards, take attendance on line, post homework on websites, keep in constant contact with parents, students, administrators and colleagues via the Internet.

Yet back to school in the 21st century has never been more challenging. No matter how long one has been teaching, la rentree is always stressful. To add to our anxiety, our nightly news reports teacher strikes, school shootings and failing test scores in academic settings around the globe. Teachers in France protest the retirement age. (Age sixty sounds good to me.) Students on the West Bank practice safety procedure in gunfire. Where we once learned to crouch under desks during tornado drills for natural disasters, today’s youth are trained to hit the deck to avoid manmade bullets and bombs.

Discipline is a whole new ball game. Chewing gum and wearing torn jeans are no longer a grave offenses Teachers reprimand students not only for talking in class, but for playing games on Laptops and, iphones. Now we confiscate cell phones, iPods and weapons during lessons.

Whereas teachers once caught cheaters red handed copying from a neighbors’ papers, now students take information word for word from the Internet and swear it’s not plagiarism because they got it off Wikipedia. As soon as new tools like Turn-It In are developed, techno savvy kids figure out a way to beat the system.

Text messaging and SMS are wreaking havoc with the language structure, pupils write essays in code. Every line includes “i” in place of the pronoun, “I.” Students can only follow instructions in 20-second increments. Sensory overload from too many electronic gadgets has obliterated their attention spans.

Hyper vigilant, ultra techy kids maneuver around cyberspace with the agility with which we once flicked paper notes folded into mini footfalls across the classroom.

At the touch of fingertips we are immediately connected to data bases filled with student profiles, parent background, and libraries full of facts.

How much information is too much information?

With online courses, videotaped lectures, assignments recorded on phone-in messages, one wonders will the teacher one day be obsolete? Yet, when was the last time the computer offered a smile of encouragement, a kind word or a pat on the back.

We are more connected than ever, but not always in a good way. The teacher’s role, though ever changing, is still invaluable retaining the tenuous link between generations, connecting – school, parent, child – and bridging family and society.

Recently the new superintendent of Chicago suburban high school welcomed back the teaching staff with this message. “I guarantee you my own children will not remember which university you graduated from or how well you know your subject content, but whether or not you connected and met his or her needs.

Perhaps our greatest role in a society that is changing faster than ever due to globalization and World Wide Web is to retain the human bond, to CARE. Communicate, accommodate, respond, and then educate.

I long for the good old’ days of grandma’s one room schoolhouse, when all the teacher had to do shovel the snow, stoke up the fire, clean the chalkboard and teach ABCs.

Hiding in the Secret Attic of School

Sixty five years after the anniversary of Anne Frank’s death in Bergen Belsen,  the young girl remains a teenager forever, her memory kept alive by the millions who  read her story.
My 9th grade English class try to comprehend the atrocity of world history. We not only analyze the Holocaust ; we also visit a concentration camp. « It is so depressing, » Invariably students say, « why do we have to study. This ? »  Yet, painful as it may be  a young minds, we must bear witness  to the past.
I told the class that they could ever play a game by my rules or  take a test. « The game starts when we walk outside this door.  No talking.  If you speak, you will be sent back to the class room.  Bring your journal and a pen; leave everything else in the room. » 
Single file, 18 students followed me down the hall, up two flights of stairs and down a narrow passageway under the sloping roof of the old building.  I unlocked the door to an empty room, no bigger than a boxcar.  When I close the shutters on the dormer windows, I say, »This is like the black out of houses during WWII bombings. We are in the secret attic of the school.  Write a descriptive piece using all five senses.  You can imagine you are writing a journal entry during the Holocaust, you can invent a story of the Swiss hiding from their French neighbors, former oppressors, or you can pretend the teachers turned against students and I am  hiding you to save you from being taken away.  You have to survive one class period in without a sound. »
Students slouched against the sloping walls.
A couple boys scuffled  over the three wooden chairs.  Others lay on the floor.  Only the rustle
of paper and pens scratching across the lines breaks the eerie silence.  No one spoke.  Even my hyperactive drummer boy stopped tapping. 
The air was hot and stuffy from too many bodies crowded into too small of space, squeezed
so close together our elbows touched. I felt like I was suffocating.
My thirteen-year old students were the same age as Anne Frank when she went into
hiding.  How different their lives?  Affluent kids from privileged backgrounds dressed in designer jeans and shirts, feet clad in various name brand of tennis shoes in rainbow colors.  My six girls, a minority, stopped writing occasionally to brush their long, luxurious hair from their bright, inquisitive eyes.
 I glanced around the room at my students -American, British, Czech, French, German, Guadamalean, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Scandinavian, Swiss , Trinidadian, -not long ago we were divided by ideology in a world war.  Allies vs. Nazis, the axis of evil, set to annihilate all but the Aryan race. Today we are classmates and friends at an international school without walls in Switzerland, a neutral country without borders.
« I feel locked, not in a room, but within myself, » one Israeli student wrote. « Even though we are not alone without communication we’re not together. The intense atmosphere of silence can quickly make the toughest mind fragile. »
« I feel oppressed. » wrote another.  « My back hurts  from sitting on the floor.»
I cannot help but compare these kids to those of Anne Frank’s time or to my generation coming of age at the heels of the Civil Rights and Women’s movement.  I pods, I pads, Internet, cell phones,
television, today’s teens connected 24/7 by instant messaging and the world wide web.  When was the last time these children listened to silence, turned out the universe and tuned into the self ? 
These multi cultured, multi ethnic, children are our future.  They are the ones who will stop nuclear war, negotiate peace, end terrorism, prevent oil spills and contain other man made disasters with more cooperation, better technology, brighter minds.
And I the aging teacher will become a shadow of the past, a faded memory of an era when I
tried to change lives  the old fashioned way, one idea at a time.

Nightmares Teaching Today

In theory, teaching looks like the ideal job. All those school holidays. In Europe, every six weeks we have vacation. We even shut down for the week long ski break to hit the slopes. But there is no escape. Even on mountaintops, teachers obsess about how to reach kids. For today’s students, conditioned by instant gratification in a society wired 24/7, attention spans last no longer than 15 seconds, the time it takes to microwave a muffin.

Academic staples like reading, writing, ‘rithmetic? Forget it. Kids learn grammar off twitter, spelling by MSN, and math on calculators.
At conferences, parents plead, “Rescue our child.”How do you save a kid that hates to read and write?   Fill the house with books and unplug TVs.Students that read the most, write best.Children who were read to in homes with books learn to value the old fashioned printed word.At the rate we are going, I fear that reading, like letter writing, will become a lost art!
At my school, report writing requires a special language degree.Every trimester, teachers write novelettes on each child’s progress in all disciplines. Between marking periods, we remain on call available round the clock via email and cell phones.
Teaching is tougher than ever.Even once loved courses, like physical education, are a hard sell.Getting kids to move these days is like pulling teeth. Why put one foot in front of the other when the world beckons at one’s fingertips without budging an inch? Competing with Internet, wifi, and 1001 channels on television screens the size of football fields; teaching has become a losing battle.
In real life drama, people relocate, families’ collapse, loved ones die; educators deal with the fall out.Sh** happens.

Educators fill gaps in a world gone wild. As kids whiz through childhood at a reckless pace during rapid social change, teachers’ roles altered drastically.Information abounds.Yet kids still need adults to help interpret the « info-net. » With more attention deficit kids (i.e. regular children craving adult attention not ADD), never has the need for good teachers been greater, the kind of teacher that lies awake at night concerned about students’ well being.There is no time off.Teachers are always updating lesson plans, grading papers, counseling kids, answering late night phone calls and early morning emails.

Yet the worst part about teaching is not the day, but the night. In endless nightmares, I thrash about, looking for classroom doors, searching for mid term papers, forgetting locker combinations(I don’t even own a locker!) One night I dream that I lost control of a classroom full of ADHD kids while my new principal observed. The next, I am scribbling on the board with my hand severed at the wrist.  Then, I wake up and start over again.After a gulp of coffee, I head back on the front line, saving lives, one lesson at a time.
No child left behind…