Jonathan Kozol, author of Fire in the Ashes, talks about the gripping stories of poor children, the problems of “obsessive testing,” and how to build a school system worthy of a real democracy. An interview by Elaina Ramsey.
I love to receive letters. When I was a little boy, I lived on a long, straight street and I could see the mail truck coming from a long way off. After the mailman stopped in front of our house, I ran with hope in my heart down our front walkway, between our two giant maple trees and across the street to our mailbox. Would there be a letter for me? Was someone in the world thinking of me?
One day last year it was not the mailman, but a second-grader on the school playground, who handed a letter to me. I unfolded it.
"Dear Mr. Barton, hi it Odeth from 2th grade I miss you a lot I wanted to know about you so much I am being good I am in 4th grade Do you miss me. I live in __________ I go to school in __________ I hope you will come to my school … can you come visit me in school ask for my name…I am 10 year old I want you to come to my school.
Your best student,
What a wonderful thing, to be remembered by a student.
Imani walked down the hall with a paper cup in her hands.
She stopped and held up the cup to me. Inside of its paper walls were soil, water, and seeds — all those humble and elemental things that build a third-grader's scientific knowledge.
Imani was growing cabbage.
She was my student last year. She loved science and writing. I remember the look of wonder in her eyes when we studied weather. We learned about tornadoes. In my classroom, I had two 2-liter bottles connected by a tornado tube, a plastic piece that allows you to make a tornado by swirling the water around and around in one of the bottles. Imani held the bottles in her hands and marveled as her water formed into a giant, powerful funnel cloud.
"Wow," she whispered.
I love the sound of learning.
USA Today reports on a new study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, called Kids Count:
The well-being of American children looks to be a mixed bag, with gains in academic achievement and health offset by growing economic distress, a new study finds.
I liked this film so much I've already seen it twice. Moonrise Kingdom is so good, in fact, I almost couldn't bring myself to write about it for fear of not doing it justice.
And yet, since I first took my 11-year-old nephew, Ethan, to see it last month, I've been talking about Moonrise Kingdom nonstop, encouraging everyone I know to go see it. It has captured my imagination completely, an absolute tour de force — wholly original and an "instant classic," as I heard one film critic utter tell a companion on his way out of the theater.
Perhaps Ethan, a mythology buff who's never met a fantasy film he didn't like, put it most eloquently when he said (surprising no one more than himself), "That was the best film I've ever seen."
Moonrise Kingdom is director Wes Anderson's seventh feature-length film to date. In an iconoclastic cinematic oeuvre unrivaled among filmmakers of his generation, Anderson's latest stands above the rest of his stellar films — Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Darjeeling Limited — as an eloquent, funny, enduringly poignant homage to childhood and, moreover, to innocence.
In a word, the film is perfect. I wouldn't change a thing.
Love, we read over and over in the Bible, casts out fear.
The angels to Mary: Do not be afraid. To the shepherds: Do not be afraid. Do a search on that phrase and you’ll find it numerous times from 2 Kings through Revelation. When he appears to humans, our God of love is always prefacing his messages with, “Do not be afraid.”
As a mother, I want to raise brave kids who hear that message and know it to their toes. Everything is going to be all right. Love wins, as they say.
I want them to be people who know that there is a bigger picture, a spiritual promise of hope and redemptive, even when life circumstances feel frightening.
I don’t want them to lose sight of it or fail to see God’s gifts of love around them because they are afraid of what, ultimately, cannot harm them.
It’s not always easy, however, for me to be brave.
The 2012 Wild Goose Festival East wrapped up just under a week ago and I am still trying to process my experience there. As I tweeted as I drove away from the fest, I left feeling exhausted, hopeful, and blessed – that strange combination that reflected the emotional impact of my time there. And it was a truly blessed time.
I was honored with the opportunity to speak on The Hunger Games and the Gospel as well as do a Q&A on everyday justice issues at the Likewise tent. I also was able to join Brett Webb-Mitchell on a panel discussion about living with disabilities in religious communities.
But beyond those conversations I was able to help initiate, I also found a generous and safe space to connect with friends, wrestle with difficult questions, and dream of a better world. Such spaces are so rare in my life these days, that finding such at Wild Goose was a precious gift.
There are, of course, the expected complaints about the festival. It was brutally hot (and that is coming from a Texan). I never ceased to be sticky, sweaty, and stinky and there were bugs everywhere. Camping in a field where every action (and parenting attempt) is on constant display is stressful and uncomfortable. And, as with many religious gatherings, there could have been greater diversity.
For the first hour I was there as I nearly passed out trying to set up a tent in the sweltering heat, I was in a panic mode wondering why I was stupid enough to subject myself to the discomfort and imperfection of it all again this year. Yet as I entered into the experience of being a part of this crazy wonderful gathering, those issues (although ever-present) faded in significance as I found myself fitting into a place where I felt I belonged.
Brace yourselves. I’m about to step on a soapbox.*
Much as I’d like to go all armchair-Constitutional-scholar and argue that access to affordable health care SHOULD be in the same category as education, fire-fighting, and law enforcement, I’m not going to.
I’m just going to tell you what has happened in MY family.
February, 2005, California
Pregnant with first child. Am on crappy private insurance that costs like $500 a month in premiums but covers almost nothing. Calculate that cost of having child will be approximately half our yearly income.
Within the next couple of weeks the Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, SB1070, which mandates racial profiling by police officers and deputizes them to act as an extension of ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
Since the passage of SB1070, states across the country have introduced copycat measures into their state legislatures. Chief among them was Alabama’s HB658—the most draconian measure of them all. The crafters of HB658 intentionally pushed immigrants to the point where life was so miserable in their state that they chose to “self-deport.”
This week our nation is witnessing a new level of low. Even as we await the Supreme Court’s ruling on states’ rights to pass their own immigration laws, some Senate Republicans are arguing for two sets of federal legislation even worse than the state bills. These new federal bills aim to take money and food from children—American children.
It started with a few pieces of construction paper.
If you’ve been following my blog at all over the past few months, you know that Amy and I recently moved our family from Southern Colorado, where we planted a church eight years ago, to Portland, Oregon. Though we’re still doing ministry, it’s a completely different kind of work. Now we’re at a 133-year-old church in the heart of the city. The facility is incredible and the history of the church spans generations. But with that comes a good deal more administrative work than either of us is used to.
We found a preschool for Zoe right away. In fact, the first day she told us that we needed to leave and let her do her school thing. She’s the kind of kid who blooms wherever she’s planted. Mattias, our eight-year-old son, is a little more complicated. Aside from him having Asperger’s, the schools here don’t get out for a couple of weeks yet. This means not only that he has no other kids his age to play with, but also that the typical summer activities we could enroll him in don’t start until mid-June. The result: he gets to spend some pretty long days with us at the church.
Most times, he makes the best of it. He’s figured out how to navigate the labyrinthine halls by scooter, and he has plowed through more cartoons on the iPad than is healthy, I’m sure. But we have to work and we have no other options for him. So far, we’ve all managed.
But yesterday afternoon, he’d had enough. He looked up from his chair on the other side of Amy’s desk with tears filling his eyes. “Mom,” he said quietly, “I’m so bored.” There are plenty of adjectives that describe Mattias, but quiet isn’t one of them. So you know when his voice reduces to a whisper, he is really being sincere.
Amy came down and stuck her head around the corner into my office. “We’re going across the street to throw paper airplanes in the park, she said. “want to come?”
Image by Feng Yu/Shutterstock.
There is a dangerous marketing strategy when it comes to food and our children. No, it’s not “sugar” or “fat” or even promotions of “low sugar” or “low fat."
Most of the food-marketing ploys aimed at kids are contributing to the soaring rate of obesity.
Here’s why, and here’s why it is so personal to me.
I’ve told my story many times of how I struggled with being overweight as a child and teen. The problem wasn’t “baby fa," it was the freedom I had to eat O’Henry bars and ice cream on a daily basis at my grandparents' house. How fun!! Weekly visits to Bullwinkles (does anyone else remember that place?) and McDonald’s made eating exciting!
Back in the 1970’s and '80’s, marketing food to children as entertainment was only making its debut. Now, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry that’s derailing healthy lifestyle patterns for our kids right before our eyes. And we’re OK with that?
All children growing up in poverty are noble, beautiful flowers growing through cracks in concrete sidewalks. They are vulnerable to the frost of hunger, the hard rains of sickness, and the crushing footsteps of violence.
Those children would have filled 229 public school classrooms of 25 students each. Because of gun violence, desks now sit empty that might have held the next great scientist or writer or parent for the world.
In the aftermath of former Liberian president, Charles Taylor's conviction for war crimes this week, author Greg Campbell writes for The Atlantic that the children of neighboring Sierra Leone still suffer in abject poverty:
Ten years after the end of Sierra Leone's bloody civil war over control of its diamond fields, children as young as 3 years old continue to toil in its mines, hoping at best to earn a few pennies for food in a country still wracked by extreme poverty.
Read his full piece here
This weekend, amid key discussions on the future of Afghanistan and media attention on the strained relationship between the United States and Pakistan, members of the Group of Eight (G8) announced its commitment to the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition which will seek to “lift 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years through inclusive and sustained agricultural growth.”
In a speech given at the Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security last Friday (May 18), President Barack Obama laid out his vision for what the Alliance could achieve, in co-operation with the private and non-profit sectors, in terms of seeing global hunger eradicated in the next decade.
And we are not going to let him forget this moral duty.
A few years ago, I guest-lectured in a Women’s Studies class at Bethel University. My topic was How Motherhood Shapes a Woman’s Soul, but I ended up talking more about how motherhood sort of mirrors God, how being a mom (or hearing from moms) helps us understand God, his relentless love, his willingness to forgive and his patience with the whiney little complainers that we are.
Frankly, I was amazed at how engaged the women (and man) in the class were. I’m used to talking about issues maternal, but usually it’s to moms. Not to 21-year-old college seniors. But either these students were actually interested or exceptionally polite. I prefer to assume the former. After my lecture, we even had a lively round of Q&A. They asked lots of great questions, but two have really stayed with me.
The first that stuck was: “Why would anyone want to have kids?”
And the other was: “Why haven’t we ever heard this before? Why is it that I’ve gone to church my whole life and never once heard that moms might have special insight into God that should be shared?”
The first question made me laugh (and made me realize perhaps I ought to be guest-lecturing in abstinence classes!). The second question made me want to cry.
We headed west toward Las Vegas this morning; chasing daylight toward the coast, leaving the kids in the care of grandma and grandpa.
I’ll give you one guess to figure out which one of us had a harder time leaving.
Personally, I know they’re safe at the farm, and they’ll have a lot more fun there than they would with us, driving a couple thousand miles over the next two weeks. Of course I’ll miss them, but I’ve also been looking forward to some “grown-up” time for a while. More specifically, this trip is not something most people ever get to do, let alone parents of two young kids.
And before we get to Portland and take our positions in the Big Kid Church, this is our chance to be a little bit irresponsible and childish. We can stay up late if we want. I can eat 12 Slim Jims for lunch if the mood strikes— though to be honest, the white stuff you squeeze out of those things turned me off of Slim Jims decades ago.
But I could if I wanted.
Mother’s Day and today is a celebration of the role of my maternal life, a role that has proved to be more satisfying and blessed, which is closer to my heart, than writing or art or friendship or even marriage. The work and longing of a life-time, almost, has been invested in my children — the beings who had their start like seeds in my own body, who have bloomed and flourished, who overcame barriers and difficulties caused by my own parental inexperience or ignorance, who grew as I grew, who now have lives of significance, who are learning along with their own offspring, much as I did but in a far more swiftly changing world.
So there were pleasurable moments as I heard from all five individually. And flowers — yellow daisies and Queen Anne’s lace from Robin, my eldest. (It’s a favorite flower for us both. She and I remember back to her wedding to Mark, on an island in an Illinois forest preserve, when her wedding bouquet was made of those white lacy flowerets, exploding like fireworks.) I hope to use those delicate flowers as objects to write about when I talk about poetry at an elementary school next week.