Thursday, November 16, 2017

Stop Being Racist

A couple of weeks ago my associate superintendent tweeted the following...and three simple words caused SUCH A STIR. Which words? STOP BEING RACIST.

When his tweet first went out I had no idea. I don't go on Twitter all that much, but after getting some text messages I decided I should. And I am SO glad I did! What Dr. Johnson had to say on this day was something teachers and educators all over this country need to hear.

When I first started getting texts about his tweet, they were all similar, and from the people I am close to in my school district. My friends said things like, "It's about time." and "Yay...Thank you Dr. J!"

And then I started to hear all of the things that people I am not surrounded by all the time thought about his tweet. The comments were more like:

"This isn't leadership."

"I can't believe he said we were racist."

"He should have to take that tweet down, it is offensive and wrong."

I have actually had some really valuable conversations about racism in our schools as a result of his now-infamous tweet.

Teachers I value have asked me things like, "Do you really think we are racist? I am not racist!" We talked through the difference between being overtly racist and being a part of a system that is plagued with institutional racism, as many of our country's schools are...including my own district. I always go back to the data to reason with people and to help them see the impact schools have on kids of different races.

Here is one data point that I have been using to respond to this idea that institutional racism doesn't exist:

You are reading this right. By the end of 5th grade, 89.9% of our African American students are not proficient in mathematics. (Source: I can't imagine how kids feel sitting in math class, just starting middle school without basic math skills. And they received the same instruction all the way through. That's how institutional racism works. And we have to start talking about it, in every community, in every state. Here is a glimpse of reading proficiency:

Out of the almost 200 African American students that just started high school, almost 70% of them are not proficient readers. High school is hard enough when you can read anything that is put in front of you. Imagine how difficult it is to keep up in a chemistry class when you can't understand the text.

The anger around his three simple words was startling. Even to me. And for all that think he should have to take it down, or that saying "stop being racist" is in some way a testament to his leadership abilities, I ask you to sit down and really think about that. If you were offended by those words, it's time to look within.

I am here to tell you that THIS is leadership. We have to look institutional racism right in the face and do something about it. Every single one of us. I have no criticism for my leader, I have only one thing to say to Dr. Johnson...Thank you. And I double down on his message to all of us.

Stop being racist.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The starting line...

Watch this. Just watch it. I am going to write about this amazing soon as I stop crying.

I just sat down at Starbucks to create some curriculum and write some assessments...and I checked my Facebook. My former teaching partner, who I have not blogged about yet...because I always cry when I consider where we are today, sent me the above link to the most important video I have seen in a long time. Shawn is the most amazing teacher I know. We shared five years and hundreds of kids during our time together. It was the most amazing experience of my life. We called it KASHAM. (He is KA and I am SHAM) More on KASHAM later...but this reminded me why I believe what we did for five years was magical. The video was sent with a simple message: "What an honest lesson about life."

Shawn and I made it work for five years because we could have conversations like this one. We could discuss with each other the different experiences our kids had, and that they were all coming from different backgrounds. We both believe that every kid deserves the very best education we can give them, but understand that some came to us with hurdles in front of them, while others had a clear path to the finish line. If you watched the video you know that it shows you very clearly that kids have NOT all had the same opportunities. As teachers we MUST acknowledge this...even if society will not.

"We would be foolish to not realize we have been given more opportunity. We don't want to recognize that we have been given a head start. But the reality is...we have. Now...there is no excuse. They still gotta run their race. You still gotta run your race."
Yesterday I blogged about Operation Common Good. And this video reminded me of exactly why I started OCG over a decade ago. I realized that the kids in my classes were not starting on the same line to begin the race. Some were hungry. Others were worried about not fitting in with their more wealthy counterparts. Why would you try out for cheerleading when you know you can't afford all the swag that the coach will require you to purchase? In a world full of UGG boots and North Face coats, it is brutal for a kid that cannot afford either. My colleagues and I, along with thousands of kids, we made sure that we did our part to help the kids that are already starting behind everyone else.

"Because the reality is, if this is a fair race and everyone is back on that line...I guarantee some of these Black dudes would smoke all of you. And it's only because you have this head start that you are possibly going to win this race called life."

Look at the faces of the kids left in the back when the race begins. Not one of the things that allowed others to move closer to the finish line before the race started was a decision that they made, or a choice that they had. This is EVERY DAY in school. When we start a new unit in our classes, we have to remember that some of our kids are far behind their peers. When I worked with Shawn, I saw every day how he helped kids to get closer to that line. He gave up his lunch just about every day for five years. And by choice, our kids would come in and sit with him and practice math. I have never seen anything like it, or ever worked with anyone more committed to leveling the playing field.

"Nothing you have done has put you in the lead right now."

I would have been one of the kids in the front of the line. I am clear about that. Having never known hunger in my life, and having supportive parents and an amazing extended family, I know what I don't know. I know so many people that believe that the world provides the same opportunities to all kids. They think it is up to individuals to decide whether or not they will utilize those opportunities. I wonder if they have ever looked behind them to see who is starting the race from far behind.

"If you didn't learn anything from this're a fool."

Every teacher, administrator, parent, child, human should watch this video. And we should all work together to build opportunities for kids that haven't ever been up front when the race begins. For some kids, that is every hour of every day they spend in school. This must change.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Operation Common Good

Every once in a get to be a part of something so amazing, so perfectly perfect that there are not words to describe it. Operation Common Good is that thing for me.

This morning I woke up and I wanted to write. Yesterday one of my most favorite people told me to blog this weekend. She knows I have so much to say and she knows I have to do something to help people...especially kids. I see and feel injustice all the time. I can't pretend it isn't there. I can't compartmentalize my need to fight for people that can't fight for themselves. I have to do SOMETHING. And the world seems to have gone mad, and I see it impacting our kids every day. I want to fight and speak out and make a difference. I kept thinking about what I want to write about. Racial injustice? The treatment of children of color? Legislation that hurts schools? The Pledge of Allegiance? The dismantling of public education? The fact that I came across some sixth graders this week that think Mexico is our enemy? My frustration with people making decisions about classrooms that haven't been in one? Ever?


I'll get back to that. Today I want to write about the most amazing thing I have ever been a part of, and encourage anyone that reads this to do something in their own community to help kids that need it. Somebody has to.

Sometimes I feel like I have hit a wall and can't find a way to help kids. And then I remember OCG. And this has to be where I spend my energy. Because what happens when I do??? Hungry kids get fed. Families with chronic lice get the help they desperately need. Seniors living in poverty get to go to prom and 10-year-olds aren't left out of field trips because they can't afford to pay the $15.00 fee. And lots and lots of little kids get snow pants. LITTLE KIDS NEED SNOW PANTS! But when putting food on the table is the only thing parents can focus on, snow pants and boots have to take a back seat. I would love to tell you that our schools are in tune with the needs of children, particularly the most vulnerable of them. But we aren't.

I apologize in advance that I am the star of this video. I prefer to put kids front and center of all things...but in this case, I guess I AM the face of OCG. I am the founder. I am the one that speaks at events and goes out into schools and communities to get support. It works too...but only, I believe, because this is truly an organization created BY kids FOR kids. And need their teachers to help them save the world. So that is what I do.

Operation Common Good started in 2005 when my 8th grade history class learned about a family I was helping during the holidays. We were learning about the Core Democratic Values, and supporting the "common good" is one of them. I told them about a mother in a nearby community that I was helping. She was dying of cancer and had five young children and no support. Within a couple of weeks, my kids had raised over $3000.00 by carrying a jug around and collecting change. (And some kids asked their parents for checks!) We provided everything on their Christmas wish lists, and then some. And were able to help multiple other families as well.

It was an extraordinary experience. But we soon learned of a family with five children, some our own Warner Vikings, who were living in their car. My partner, Hatty, and I decided we needed to focus our efforts on helping kids in Farmington from that point forward. It seemed that kids living in poverty, but in an affluent community, had greater challenges. They were going to extreme measures to avoid being "caught" being poor, after all, we are Farmington. And most of us have all of our needs being met and then some. We raised money in a jug for years...and got so big that our (AMAZING) principal started nagging us about becoming a legal 501c3. He worried that we may have outgrown our "tin can method." (That was an understatement) Having a principal committed to social justice and supporting kids at all costs allowed us to turn OCG into a big deal (Thank you, Mark, for being our hero and the reason OCG has made such an incredible impact). We are now a legal 501c3 under the umbrella of the Farmington/Farmington Hills Education Foundation.

Over the past 12 years we have raised almost $100,000.00 through school and community fundraisers. The above video clips are from an amazing event at the Faith Covenant Church in Farmington Hills. The amazing women hosting that day raised over $8000.00 in one afternoon. And EVERY SINGLE PENNY helped a kid in their community. When I walked in that day, I had NO IDEA what I was about to see and do. I had spoken at numerous events, but this one was different. This was BIG. I realized that day just why so many community organizations wanted to help us. They love that we have no overhead. They love that kids are included and in charge of the fundraising. And they WANT to help families in our own community. The only thing I could think that day cup runneth over.

We got to the point at Warner where we were able to raise $10,000.00 in one week...thanks to the energy of elementary teachers and the most amazing 10 and 11-year olds. We had it down to a science. Our 5th and 6th graders were raising ALL of the money for a district of 10,000. And they did it with smiles on their faces and kindness in their hearts. But then...just like came to an end. Our school was no longer our school and our platform for fundraising was gone. I learned a lot about the consequences of doing good things just for the sake of doing good things. In an environment that is wrought with competition and focused on adult comforts first, people like me breed resentment. My OCG partners and I have even been invited to present OCG at the National Homelessness Conference. We didn't get to, but it was so cool to be asked. I want the opportunity to share OCG because it is an amazing way to give kids in your community a chance to feel like they are not watching the rest of us from the other side of a glass wall.

Last year, at my new school, a couple of dedicated teachers, my new administrators, and the PTA president found a way to keep OCG alive. We were running out of money.  I had accepted the fact that I could no longer do what I do. I had essentially been defeated. But my new school community proved to me that there are amazing people everywhere. One incredible human being (another principal) even ate a worm to support OCG. Yes. She ATE a live worm. And if I remember correctly we raised over $700.00 just hoping to watch her consume a slimy, squirmy, dirt-covered worm. Great educators (great people) will do anything when they know the result is the ability to feed and clothe a hungry child.

I am exhausted from fighting for equity and basic decency for children in my community. I am exhausted from trying to keep my own name off of my own non-profit so as not to build more resentment. I am exhausted. But I remembered this morning just how energized I feel when I am depositing thousands of dollars into our account, and imagining all of the kids whose lives will be just a little bit better because we took the time to raise money and awareness.

We are almost out of money again. So I am going to commit myself to spreading the word about Operation Common Good. I hope teachers around my own district see this and ask what they can do in their schools. Schools have become fundraising factories, but when you start to ask outside organizations about the percentage of donations that will be spent on overhead, it is disheartening. Especially when the kids could be raising money for their own friends (unbeknownst to them) and classmates that desperately need help. I hope this spreads to more local businesses and organizations looking for a way to give back to their own communities. I hope I get tons of requests to speak at different events this year. I hope kids that are worried, hungry and scared are a little less worried, a little less hungry and a little less scared.

It is starting to get cold. We are going to need help to keep kids in Farmington and Farmington Hills warm and fed. People still don't believe that poverty exists in such an affluent community. But one out of five children in our community is food challenged. And they do NOT want you to know. They just want to feel and look like any other student.

And that is why I do this.

Want to make a donation? Go to

Sunday, September 24, 2017

To Pledge or not to Pledge? That is the question...NOT.

You may have caught the story in the news over the past week or so about a 6th grade student making a decision to sit out the Pledge of Allegiance at school. And Colin Kaepernick is still fighting for his right to "take a knee" during the National Anthem. In the wake of these small acts of patriotism, it seems that everyone has something to say. POTUS does.

At a rally this weekend, the President of the United States said, "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get the son of a b**** off the field right now. Out! He's Fired!"

No. No I wouldn't... What I would like to see is a NFL owner or two take a knee. Now THAT would be a true show of patriotism.

I work in the public school district dealing with "Pledge-gate." And the debates are similar to the national debate about taking a knee. Ironically, I wrote about the pledge a couple of weeks ago, before this happened and before the national news media had ever heard of us.  Should kids be allowed to take a Knee?

I do not know the child involved in this pledge incident. I have no idea who the teacher is. I feel horrible for everyone involved. I wasn't going to follow up on my earlier pledge post...but then I started reading the comments on an article about the incident. And all I want to do is scream. This is a little boy. I teach sixth grade, and spend all day every day surrounded by 11-year-olds. They are just starting to formulate opinions about the world on their own. They are inquisitive and hilarious and amazing. And I am just sick about some of the things grown people have written about a little boy. I have only ventured to read the comments on one article. That was plenty for me.


And THIS? Well this sums up the ridiculousness. 

This little boy is 11-years old. He is a baby. And he is an American. You may not like it, but it's true. People post all over the internet about how "these kids" need to show some respect or "go back to their country." So let me get this straight. These adults (white adults...I should point out) want us to teach this kid and every other kid to have respect for the flag, the country and for each other. But they publicly call an 11-year-old boy names, use racial epithets, and suggest he and his family leave this country. "He deserved to be assaulted," one commenter said. "Your family should move back to Kenya," another genius wrote. I could write a book about this right now. I am embarrassed that we believe these things about our own CHILDREN. I am not going to write that book, at least not today. But I am going to write this: 


There is no debate. And no reason for us to fight over it. This decision was made for us all a very long time ago and is right here for all to see. 

And guess what...neither the little sixth grade boy nor Colin Kaepernick owe you an explanation for their decision to take a knee. That is the beauty of freedom and democracy. Their decision NOT to pledge or sing is just that...THEIR DECISION.

I have been in school all of my life. I have said the Pledge of Allegiance a million times. I honor the flag and the freedoms that it represents. I honor every veteran that fought for our freedoms. And until people fully comprehend the First Amendment and every American's right to free speech, I'll be taking a knee in solidarity with everyone that has ever been attacked for exercising their first amendment rights. Now THAT's American.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Teachers, What do YOU make?

I watch this video often. I do it for inspiration.

My favorite part of Taylor's speech is this:

I make parents tremble in fear when I call home...Hi. This is Mr. Mali. I hope I haven't called at a bad time. I wanted to talk to you about something your son did today. He said, "Leave the kid alone, I still cry sometimes, don't you?" And it was the noblest act of courage I have ever seen. I make parents see their children for who they are and what they can be.

Take a second to remember why we became teachers. Before we get all caught up in the curriculum and all the "stuff" that can take away from our real work...remember why we became teachers and let's do this.

We are about to start a new school year. This is my bit of inspiration for my fellow teachers, and my wish for an amazing school year. Go Super Teachers! You make a DIFFERENCE every single day. Don't you forget it!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Would you let YOUR kids take a knee?

Last week one of my dear friends and colleagues posted the following video on Facebook:

The caption on the video says: During the 2016-2017 NFL season Colin Kaepernick took a knee in protest of police brutality of African Americans. The league responded by blackballing him. 

The creator of the video goes on to encourage a boycott of the NFL. I watched the entire video and I wanted to do something. A boycott isn't really going to work for me...I don't watch football. I don't buy tickets. I don't even know which team Colin played for. But I do know Colin. I know him because young men of color, just like him, sit in front of me every day while I teach social studies. Because I don't watch football, or follow it in the least, I didn't quite know what was going on last year when a large portion of my class "took a knee" during the daily reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance. We say the pledge every day at school. But on this particular day, I saw something I hadn't seen before. When the announcers came on and directed us all to face the flag, multiple faces turned in my direction. Looking for permission for something I didn't understand. The pledge was said during a time of day when the kids in my class were all children of color. Almost all of them were Black males. 

They didn't really know me very well yet, and didn't know what I would do when they made their decision to take the proverbial knee during the pledge. One of my students was the first to make it clear that he didn't want to participate, but he is a rule follower and one of the most respectful kids I know. I remember his face looking right at me, and he saw the confusion on my face. I could tell he didn't want me to think he was a trouble maker. I wandered over and he said, "Do I have to say the pledge?" 

I started to put some pieces together, having heard rumblings about Kaepernick on the news, I had a feeling the two were related. I said to him, "Nope. Your first amendment rights allow YOU to make that decision." 

After a few of us were done pledging our allegiance to the flag, we had an awesome class discussion. They told me about Colin and why they wanted to take a knee. They were genuinely in shock that I wasn't mad at them or forcing them to participate in this daily ritual. They couldn't believe I would engage them in a conversation about the benefits of a protest. They couldn't believe I wasn't mad at them. I was just getting to know this particular group of students, but this was probably what led to the relationships I was able to build with them. From that point forward, some kids pledged, some didn't, and the deal have to be respectful during the pledge. But I was certainly not going to force these young men of color to pledge allegiance to something they felt was in direct opposition to who they were. 

I know some teachers would whole-heartedly disagree with me. I know some people whose blood will boil just reading this. I am really OK with that. Because that's how we make change. We engage in dialogue. We think about how it might impact someone else. We consider the feelings of others that have an experience we can't understand. I have no idea what it is like to be a Black male in the United States right now. From what I have heard and read, Colin isn't even on a team anymore. I've heard he is a great football player (I have no reference point for that) and that doesn't matter because the NFL doesn't want him. They don't seem to mind players that are criminals and have forgiven players for egregious acts. But this kid isn't playing football because he gave a voice to the voiceless. 

Shame on the NFL for building their franchises by employing mostly men of color, but not letting one voice be heard because the white fans and team owners might feel uncomfortable. I want to hear from teachers on this. Would you let your kids take a knee? Would you let them take a stand? Do we fight for a 13-year-old's right to stay silent during the pledge? Do we respect their wishes and let their voices be heard? Or do we force them to pledge allegiance to something they don't believe represents them?

We can't avoid discussions of racism in school. Our kids are feeling it and experiencing it more than ever before. I think about this all the time and I want to do what is right by my kids. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Anyone else disturbed by Trump's speech to the Boy Scouts?

It's been over a week since the President of the United States made his grand speech to the Boy Scouts. How hard is it to go give a speech to a room full kids? Just cover the basics. Talk about perseverance and pride. Tell them you are proud of their commitment and their hard work. Give them a little pep talk about all of the amazing life skills they have learned. Tell them they rock at all the boy-scouty-things they do. It's not rocket science.

I know I am late with this post, but I took a break from blogging and reading to go watch my nephew play in the state finals for Little League. I'm really quite glad they didn't secure the president to throw out the opening pitch to the young men of Michigan that worked so hard to get to Charlevoix. I imagine it would have left them all stunned and confused. I imagine that's how some of the Boy Scouts felt after that speech.

The speech has been swirling around in my head for some time. How is this OK? How will it impact the kids in our classrooms? What are we going to say to the kids about sportsmanship and respect? I've taught a lot of social studies during my career. I have REALLY strong opinions about politics. You know who I never talk to about my political opinions??? MY STUDENTS.

It's my job to teach them about the world and let them figure out how to generate their own ideas. It's up to me to give them the freedom to think and analyze, and to decide for themselves what they think. I shouldn't have been shocked my Trump's speech to the Boy Scouts...but alas.

The President of the United States stood up in front of roughly 40,000 Boy Scouts and said some of the most asinine things I have ever heard. He started his speech with some craziness about how the press would say there aren't very many people at the Jamboree. I think someone neglected to tell 45 that the event was not in his honor. They ALWAYS have that many boys. It's a Jamboree. So when he asked the following question, I cringed...

"Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I'm in front of the Boy Scouts?"

Nobody, sir. But I have a feeling you will anyways. And he did. The vast majority of his speech was about his political issues and recounting his perceived successes. I have just one question. Who the hell starts a speech to the Boy Scouts with WHO THE HELL??? They're BOY SCOUTS!!! I did a little research on the Boy Scout Creed and I found this:

From what I can see...POTUS was unable to get through one speech with any of the Boy Scout values in tact. Instead of friendly and courteous, he was rude and obnoxious. Instead of cheerful and kind, he made backhanded comments and presented himself as a sore winner. And I am not sure what is brave about standing up in front of 40,000 adolescent boys and talking about winning the electoral college, particularly since they were unable to vote in the election. They are kids.

I'm pretty sure he wasn't being exactly "clean" either. He talked to them (again, 40,000 teenage boys) about a cocktail party in NYC that happened decades ago, before they were born. He felt the need to recount his glory days in NYC's high society. Sir...these are BOY SCOUTS.

And have no fear...POTUS proclaimed, in front of 40,000 boys aged 12-18, that they need not worry because EVERYONE would be saying Merry Christmas again. And says, "believe me." And when I heard this little gem I wondered about the Jewish Boy Scouts and the Muslim Boy Scouts, and the Atheist Boy Scouts and, well, you get the point.

The lack of respect 45 has for diverse people, cultures, religions and beliefs is not a shock. I shouldn't have been shocked that he gave a speech like this to a room full of kids. And I most certainly shouldn't have been shocked when he blatantly lied and said the Boy Scout leaders called him up and said it was the single greatest speech ever given at a Jamboree. Boy Scouts are supposed to be trustworthy, and it seems POTUS wouldn't make the cut. He wouldn't even come close.

What do we say to the kids? How do you explain to your Hindu students that the leader of our country believes that they, too, should be saying Merry Christmas? How can a teacher make sense of this to kids that are 11 years old? How can we be effective in teaching kids to be respectful when Donald Trump can stand in front of a Jamboree and put Barack Obama down and encourage them to do the same?

This Presidency is a game changer for teachers. I'm just not sure what the rules are yet.