Wednesday, December 16, 2015


I have been fascinated by the Humans of New York (HONY) project since its inception in 2010, as documented in my previous post: Humans of New York: a Photographic Census.  

There is a new book with expanded stories to accompany images. And now even little ones can join in the HONY project with the recent picture book.

I continue to be drawn to the images and accompanying quotes and stories as Brandon Stanton travels  our world, providing us with faces to illuminate the complex  news stories bombarding us from every direction.

I continue to be provoked to deeper thought about current events and issues as I read brief stories of individuals who are involved, immersed, or impacted  by these same events and issues.

Most recently he has shown us the divergent faces of Syrian refugees.

Not everyone is a fan, however.

Critics range from appreciating the fact that these photos and stories are not journalism, yet are able to take us beyond the headlines, to openly recognizing the pull on our heartstrings, to hard critics who judge them to be mere caricatures and stereotypes, sentimental and shallow.

In the Problem with Humans of New York, Daniel D'Addario voices his concerns about the decontextualized and stereotypical nature of the presentation:
In the world of Humans of New York, however, humans are actually caricatures. The people Stanton photographs are reduced to whatever decontextualized sentence or three he chooses to use along with their photo. And so the nattily dressed Klein, cigar in hand, lectures us about how we should all follow our dreams, while the woman whose photo was posted near his tells us that she wants things at work, where she's under the boss's thumb, done "my way." But both photographs and "stories," as Stanton calls them, even if they are a mere sentence, exist to fulfill stereotypes; the evidently rich fellow gets to brag about his achievements, the nonwhite woman gets to complain about her lot in life.

 Melissa Smyth, in Sentimentality: a Critique of Humans of New York attacks the curated lens of sentimentality through which we are invited to view these images:
Sentimentality offers an escape from the difficult conclusions that must come from honest scrutiny of social reality in the United States. In today’s media landscape, photographs most viscerally ferry this indolence, for the nature of the medium facilitates sentiment’s purpose: to obscure the operative social structures with cloying cases of the individual.... 
The problem with sentimentality here is not the infusion of emotion into a political issue; on the contrary, it is the funneling of emotion into mute forms, preventing the marriage of thought and feeling that produces the most concentrated social action.

In Humans of New York and the Cavilier Consumption of Others, Vinson Cunningham tackles the shallowness in intent and in ramifications of HONY when juxtaposed to photgraphic documentary projects of the past, as well as questioning our uncritical consumption of the images..
By comparison,  [ to the well-known work of  Jacob Riis, James Agee, Walker Evans, and Gordan Park] “Stories” betrays shallow notions of truth (achievable by dialogic cut-and-paste) and egalitarianism. Both come too easily. Instead of the difference acknowledged by Caldwell and Bourke-White’s You and Their, Stanton’s all-encompassing title implies a vague, flattening humanism, too quick to forget the barriers erected—even here, and now, in New York—against real equality...
The quick and cavalier consumption of others has something to do with Facebook, Humans of New York’s native and most comfortable medium. The humans in Stanton’s photos—just like the most photogenic and happy-seeming and apparently knowable humans in your timeline...

And then there are  the humorous parodies and mocking satires.  Is imitation always flattery or does it call us to look with a more critical eye? Are we to laugh or take a social stance?

Things worth appeciating or criticizing often become food for our humor.

Several websites mimic or mock HONY, including: Felines of New York and Millennials of New York.

Regardless of where we stand, however, on the concerns and cricitisms of HONY, we can't help but recognize its widespread reach and influence.

We can't look away from the images and we can't erase the lingering shadows of the images and thoughts long after we have left the site or closed the book.

Even our president looks in from time to time comments on stories that touch his heart, like a photo of a Iranian father and his son, or  a image of a principal and student from a Bronx school whom he later invited  to the White house.

Most recently, he has responded to a post about a Syrian refugee, welcoming him to Michigan and  the United States.

Humans of the New York

Humans of our World.

What is your response to this project, this phenomenom?

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Visit the Humans of New York website and read  several articles about the project shared above.

Create a list of positive and negative aspects and features.

Write a review praising the site and project.

Write a second reviewthat is critical of the site and project.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


“No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.”

The news is bad.

How do you tell it?

Do you jump right in, bluntly speaking words that will bring tears or utterly crush?

Do you arrange a supportive environment, preface the hard-to-bear news with soft words, serve a meal, perhaps offer a drink-- all preparatory measures designed to delay or soften the blow of hard words?

Do you muse for days, planning a speech, arranging your body to tell the news, while indicating support with your eyes,  your face, you hands?  How do you fix your eyes to share disappointments? How do you pose your face to say I know, I know, I know  as you bring down the hammer? What should your hands do to show I got you.

 Do you write and rewrite the email in your head?  Do you write seven drafts, deleting and starting over, each time striving to achieve the desired effect?

The last time it was my turn to deal the doom, I was physically sick and emotionally distraught for two weeks. I alternatively denied, delayed, and thought about how to dilute the news.
How could I completely avoid this task?

As much as we agonize about the time, the place, and the words, the bad news has to be told.

In the medical world where bad news must be routinely delivered, it is still not easy.  Examples of extensive and complex medical protocols for sharing bad news can be considered here and here and here.

The business world also plays by preordained rules for sharing bad news. See more on delivering bad news at work here.

But who wants to hear bad news?
Not only is it hard to deliver bad news.   It is equally difficult to be on the receiving end.

We all remember the Wicked Witch in the Wiz and her enthusiastic rendition of  Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News
Often times, we have no warning.  We don't believe what our ears have taken in. Our hearts sink and we try to return to the moment before the words were delivered.

But other times there are signs.
And we all we know the signs.

The friend who won't look us in the eye.
The conversation that comes to a halt when we enter the room  or the whispers that we can't quite hear.
The phone ringing late -- never good.

Certain  phrases put our ears and our hearts on instant alert.
We hear the ritual opening words on tell-all talk shows:

You know I love you, but...

I don't want to hurt you, however...

I know you don't want to hear this...

What follows these words is never good.  It is usually devastating at worst and disconcerting at the very least.
We brace ourselves to hear, yet not wanting the words to be uttered.

Like my reaction to delivering  bad news,  the moment we realize the next words we hear are not going to be pleasant, we may have a physical reaction as our bodies prepare to support and guard our hearts.

Sometimes we manage to find a drop of blessing in a downpour of negative news.

The news was bad, but there was this one good part.

This is the bad news, but the good news is....

These books for children  highlight this conflicting reality.

And finally, as we think about all the bad news scenarios, it is crucial to make certain that the news we are delivering is accurate.

We all remember Chicken Little (sometimes known as Henny Penny) and her the bad news-- her untrue news--that the sky was falling. She not only passed on this news to her friends and neighbors, but enlisted them to help her tell more folks.


I will never forget my embarrassment on the day I posted on Facebook (from a reliable source) that Nelson Mandala had died... more than a year before his actual death.
I was not alone in passing on this premature, erroneous  news.  But that does not excuse my error.
Read the  blog post about my Facebook error and other news media and social media errors

We all receive bad news  and often times must be the bearer of such news.
How do we deliver unwelcome news?
How do we receive it?

 I leave you with the final lines from  It Is I Who Must Begin by Vaclov Haved offering a helpful perspective toward our unwelcome news and resulting situations:

...I suddenly discover,
to my surprise, that
I am neither the only one,
nor the first,
nor the most important one
to have set out upon the road.
Whether all is really lost
or not depends entirely on
whether or not I am lost.

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Reflect on the last time you were the bearer of bad news

How did you prepare?

When did you last receive unwelcome news?

How did you respond?

Wrtie a protocol or guide for others to deliver or respond to bad new.

Write an essay on the effects of bad news.

Thursday, October 29, 2015


A Statement

Black lives matter.

It happened again
and again yesterday
and still yet again today.

All lives matter was the retort
the first statement
speaking from a stance
of moral certainty
of statistical, historical, and societal privilege
assuming the right
to change, not just the topic
but the entire conversation
and in the process
missing the message
losing the focus
the critical point.

Black lives matter.

When the conversation gets changed
Black lives get lost
amidst the politically correct
pretense of equity and inclusivity
of all concerns
that swallows the specificity
of this one concern
and deliberately
Black bodies
and lives.

No one denies that All Lives Matter.
We just want Black Lives to be included in All... always)

Black lives matter
not instead of but
in addition to.

Black lives matter... too.

A Question

In your classroom all of your students matter. They all have individual and specific needs. Together they also have general and collective needs.

But for the past four days, one student has been coming late, hungry, dirtier than normal, without her homework.  Once in the classroom, she is unable to concentrate, sits and rocks, mumbles to herself, and cries often. On day four you notice bruises and swelling on her face and arms.  She flinches when you walk toward her.

All of your students matter, but right now this is a crisis.  This student matters.

What do you do?

Do you ignore this singular, elevating, obvious crisis and keep insisting that all students matter?

Or do you address the immediate concern at hand and acknowledge that this student matters right this minute?

What do you do?

 A Conversation?

Black lives matter.

No, All lives matter.

But black lives matter, too.

We need to talk.

We really need to talk.

So, let's talk.

Resources For the Conversation

Let's talk, indeed.
There are lots of places we can begin our conversations.
We can simply tell our own stories.
We can listen to each others' stories respectfully and deeply in order to hear and learn and digest.

How do our stories differ?
Where do they intersect and connect?
What does the space where our stories  meet signify?

Depending on who you are, who you know, and where you live, you may not know about or understand the experiences of people of color in general and African Americans specifically, that have led to  a nationwide  discussion about black lives and reopened  a conversation that should have been ongoing.  You may know only about  the many police killings, but not much about daily life experiences.

Two recent and excellent books offer perfect places to begin our consideration of daily-walking- around-driving around-wanting- to- just- live-our-lives lives of black folks.

 Citizen: An American Lyric,  Claudia Rankine offers us glimpses into her own daily life and that of others in the public eye, including  Serena Williams.  In an earlier blog post about this book I wrote:

Her poems/prose call us to look again and again at isolated incidents, that taken one by one might be hurtful or dismissive or disrespectful, but because of their familiarity, perhaps not given a second thought.
Her poems/prose hold up a  magnifying glass to those encounters that we have experienced, yet not truly registered and processed fully because they happen every day.
What happens if we pile  them all together creating a landscape we can't escape?
Incident after incident, comment after comment.
The powerful subtleties and toxicities of living black in America-- every day
 Read the entire post, An American Lyric:Claudia Rankine here.

Ta-nehisi Coates offers in Between the World and Me, an opportunity to also consider the experience of  inhabiting a black body in this world, as he writes a letter to his son explaining and exploring how he came to understand his person.  place,  purpose, as well as ways forward.

And in eight thought-provoking essays, Cornell West addresses controversial and relevant issues concerning race in America in his now classic Race Matters.

Julius Lester offers many suggestions for possible conversations for both children and adults in Let's Talk About Race.

History will enter your conversations. Here are several resources to help remind  you of the history you know, as well as inform and correct the misconceptions  you may have been taught or the events and concepts you were not taught at all.

 In Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, Kadir Nelson presents a powerful view of both our proudest and most shameful moments in history along with his characteristic illustrations.

Additional books, online resources, and conversation suggestions  are listed in these previous blog posts:

 I,Too, Am America 

Open Season on Black Men

 And Few Final Items for Consideration  in your Conversations and Dialogues: 

Teaching in Black and White -Rethinking Schools- Fall 2014

Open Letter:A Dialogue on Race and Poetry. by  Claudia Rankine

Embracing Cross-Racial Dialogue

Invitation to Dialogue. This I believe essay.

What if we all begin to talk?
What if we begin now?
How many lives could that save?
What kind of future would we create?

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Write a poem about race. Explore several perspectives in your poem.
What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about others?

Write a dialogue about race-related events  or #Black Lives Matter. It may be an actual conversation or speculative.

Write a personal narrative about a time race was a factor or made a difference in your life.

Share your writing with someone as a way of starting a conversation.

Sunday, October 4, 2015


The Real Teachers of..... Insert a City.
The music begins. Seven teachers-- five women and two men-- theatrically pose holding stereotypic teacher items-- an apple, a ruler, a plan book, a red pen. They boldly state their taglines.

I don't just teach... I reach.

I can grade with the best of them.

I am more than a textbook.

I am not your grandfather's schoolmaster.

And so on ...

More music...transition to commercial.

It hasn't happened yet, but we can all imagine the opening of the first reality show about teachers.

Reality shows thrive because we are nosy-- interested in prying into the private lives of people we haven't met, or those we have seen in the news or on our favorite program.  We feast on vicariously experiencing new lives, and seeing what other people say and do when out of the spotlight or precisely because they are in the spotlight. Teachers are not exempt from this curiosity.

I can imagine the above opening scenario becoming a reality soon.


When you think of  teacher, what images do you conjure?

Perhaps the older woman with glasses on her nose and hair in a bun, a pencil sitting behind her ear and a sweater buttoned at her throat over pearls,  in front of rows of desks explaining the rules of grammar.

Or maybe a young woman with her back to you, writing on the blackboard ( when educational note boards were not yet green, and definitely not white) demonstrating how to solve an equation.

Do you imagine an older man in a tweed jacket and mustache slowly reading poetry that you don't understand, but something about the way he reads makes you desperately want to understand?


Whoever your real teacher is, you probably imagined her or him in the classroom, actively teaching.

And if you are not a teacher, I bet you have said or heard someone say that  they could be a teacher... do what a teacher does... 

Of course, they could not do what a teacher does any more than they could do what a doctor does.

If we are truly  honest with ourselves and each other, we would recognize the complex space that is the classroom-- the layers of interactions, the cultures colliding, the multifaceted decisions made instantaneously, the wealth of knowledge and information held collectively in that space and all the learning facilitated by the real teacher.

If we look carefully we would acknowledge and honor  the complicated, messy world that is the reality of every real teacher.

And rightfully so.

But rarely do we picture real teachers outside their place of work, that space where they work their magic (and intelligence and craft and science and art and skill.)

Shelves of books document what teachers do in classrooms.   Short snippets of classroom life are routinely offered, along with lessons learned and more lessons to be taught. Longer portraits are collected of that life over time, some captured by observers, researchers,  journalists,  or by the teacher herself.

My own shelves are stacked with these books.

But who is the real teacher that we think we know so well?
Who is she before she gets up in the morning, eats breakfast, drinks coffee, kisses her husband, pats her dog, and drives to work?  Who is he before he went to bed last night, before he helped his special-needs son with homework, before he washed dishes or prepared the evening meal?

What was her childhood like? How did he grow up?

What do you really know about your teacher-- the one you conjure at the mention of the word teacher, the one who lives next door to you,  the one on the news last night?

How did your real teacher become a teacher and why?  What path led them to enter that amply documented classroom space?

Who served as examples, inspirations, and mentors?
Who were detractors? What hindrances were encountered?
What places offered reflective retreat?

Which recurring themes wove through their lives before arriving at the classroom door?
What patterns emerged that converged in that place?

Those are the stories in which I am interested.
Those are the realities that I want to know about.
I am fascinated with the becoming and the being that happened before the doing, that still ever undergird and surround the doing in that classroom,  See related blog post: Teaching, Learning, Knowing: Always Becoming a Teacher.

 In Teacher Man: A Memoir, Frank McCourt brings his classic dark humor to the difficulties, discoveries, and dignity of his high school classroom as he reflects on the mismatch between expectations and what we actually find on that anticipated first day:

You think you'll walk into the classroom, stand a moment, wait for silence, watch while they open notebooks and click pens, tell them your name,  write it on the board, proceed to teach... Principals and other figures of authority passing in the hallway will hear sounds of excitement from your room.   They'll peer through the door window in wonder at all the raised hands, the eagerness and excitement on the faces of these boys and girls...You'll be nominated for awards: Teacher of the Year, Teacher of the Century. You'll be invited to Washington. Eisenhower will shake your hand. Newspapers will ask you,  a mere teacher for you opinion on education.  This will be big news:  A teacher asked for his opinion on education.  Wow. You'll be on television.

 And fortunately for us, if we want to know this real teacher outside of his classroom, as well as how he became the teacher who entered that classroom,  we can read the first two books in this memoir trilogy.


For shorter excerpts of teachers' lives, how they became and why they remain teachers, I offer Sonia Nieto's Why We Teach.

In one of the essays, Teaching Outside the Lines, Elaine Stinson reflects on her early years  in school

"I hate school!"  I often would lamented as a student....  The divide between my home life and my experiences at school was made wider becasue I was too shy to initiate friendships.  My teachers did not come to my aid and I can only conclude that they were uanware of the social challenges I encountered as a 6-year-old.  They lacked knowledge about my home life and how it contributed to my experience  as a learner.  ....

She goes on to describe the reading groups (with obvious levels like bluebirds and robins where everyone knew who was the smartest) and history lessons endured  in which all the answers were given and no questions invited.

Her early experiences shaped the teacher she became and determined the practice in which she later engaged.

Perhaps teaching is my way of providing something that was missing in my own experience as a student. I've found that meaningful learning happens through meaningful interactions whether it's with peers, teachers, music, authors, or poets, or through nature. When children feel liked and accepted for who they are, they are more willing to open up and share their ideas, ... As a teacher I have learned that unpacking the "facts with a community of unique and critical eyes is essential to engaging learners and allowing learning to unfold.

And fortunately, as with  Frank McCourt, we are able to read how this important conversation about teachers' lives began and continues in other collections edited  by Nieto,


While McCourt offers us a narrated life and Nieto offers many essayed lives, William Ayers offer his life in comics.

In To Teach: The Journey, in Comics, he challenges us to think about how we define teacher:

To name oneself as a teacher is to live with one foot in the muck of the world as we find it-- with its conventional patterns and received wisdom-- and the other foot striding toward a world  that could be but isn't yet.
Even the most commiteed caring teachers will make mistakes along the way but they won't be disastrous. Teaching at is best is not a matter of technique-- its primarily an act of love... Welcome to the classroom  where instruction jumps off the page and overflows with love.... Welcome to learning as an act of construction and reconstruction.  

  If comics are not your thing, Ayers narrates  his story, the same story in To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher.

Who is the person who names herself a teacher?

As we ponder that question, as we search for the real teacher, the whole teacher, the one who enters the classroom, Parker Palmer, in The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life,  continues to  help us seek not answers, but better questions and understanding.

I was exploring the inner landscape of this teacher’s life, hoping to clarify the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual dynamics that form or deform our work from the inside out.  I wanted to find ways to deepen the self-understanding and thus the practice of anyone who cares about teaching as much as I do. 
In the midst of a culture that devalues the inner life, I hoped to do more than make the case that good teachers must live examined lives and try to understand what animates their actions for better and for worse

Who is she who enters the classroom?
Who is the one who names himself teacher?
Who is the real teacher?

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

If you  are a teacher, consider your story or select  portions of your story to examine.
How did you enter the profession? Did you always feel called or come to it later in life?
Who were your mentors and supporters, your detractors and stumbling blocks?

What patterns and themes emerge as you reflect on your journey?

Write your story. Include memories, journal entries, poems, letters, as well as quotes that have informed and transformed your life and ultimately led you to the classroom door.

If you are not a teacher, find a teacher to interview, asking some of the above questions.

Write a letter to that teacher about what you have learned and discovered.