Thursday, September 21, 2017

Misstra Knowitall's Greatest Educational Hits

I love to teach. Here's a few thoughts on the subject.

Revision and Innocence: The Life of Aaron Rushing

I wrote a piece for Gawker about a brilliant student I lost too soon. He inspires me every day to think about innocence and joy in my class.

Awe is about witnessing, not dissecting. Awe is not about grading, but appreciating. Awe is essential to good teaching.

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Welcome to my winter break with a stack of essays. 

We Built It, Now We Live In It

2008 was my first year of high school teaching and my first year of having a Black President. Listening to my students helped me understand the significance of both. 

Beloved Community: 

King's dream was beloved community. That's the dream I have for my own classroom. 

Elbows: A Meditation :

Getting bruises is a part of the game, on the court and in the classroom. .

Standardized Teaching: 

Can we use data to inform, rather than enslave? 

Teaching Writing and Blowing the Whistle: 

In a test-heavy environment, sometimes the learning that can be easily assessed is the learning that gets emphasized the most. Writing should promote deeper thinking. If it's not, it should be rethought. 

Misstra Knowitall's Philosophy of Technology Education:

How do we teach our kids to use tech without it using them? 

Real Talk:

A student at my school is killed. I had to skim this one, but you might want to read it. Still hard to think about.

Life After Death at ACT Charter school: 

What is it like to live through the slow death of a school? Terrible. What is it like when said school is resurrected? Terribly bizarre.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Marching for Justice With #BLMCHIYOUTH

Leaving the house sometimes, I imagine what it would be like if I never came back. What if the run of good luck that has kept me from the fate of so many Black men and women who meet guns or bullets or chokeholds or night sticks runs out? All of those awful possibilities came rushing back to me last Sunday as I got ready to go to the #BLMChiYouth protest against the police shooting of Paul O’Neal.
I said goodbye to my five year-old daughter, Lucy. She was cross-legged on her bed looking at a book. I gave her a hug. She asked me where I was going. I told her about the Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Chicago.
“Are there going to be police there?” she said. She brushed a strand long brown hair away from her forehead.
“I guess so,” I said.
“You’re not going to get arrested, are you?” she said. I still couldn’t get the image of all those police officers standing around, slapping fives, checking themselves for injuries, while the life ebbed out of the young man at their feet, his hands shackled behind him. What a terrible way to die.
“No, baby,” I said. I gave her a kiss on the cheek. “I’m not planning on getting arrested.”

After navigating traffic and finding a parking spot, I got to Wrigley Square about thirty minutes late for the protest. The sun was still high in the sky, and people were crowding the sidewalks, enjoying the last moments of the weekend. On the square there were about 200 or so people sitting on two sides of a grassy field. The crowd skewed younger and whiter, but there was a good presence of black and brown faces as well. Across the street, lines of police were arrayed along Michigan avenue.
The protest organizers stood in a circle at the fountain nearby. Eva Lewis, a young black woman with long black and purple braids, thick glasses, and yellow ankh earrings was earnestly reading a long list of names over a bullhorn. The names were all people who had been killed by police.
I walked around the perimeter of the square so I could get a lay of the land and get a sense of the group’s vibe. Despite the fact that I grew up in Berkeley, California, where demonstrations are an unofficial part of the curriculum, large gatherings always make me nervous, especially when they involve interactions with police. The Dallas shootings at a BLM rally last month added yet another layer of gruesome possibility. But despite my discomfort, there is something deeply satisfying about getting with a bunch of like-minded people to draw attention to an injustice that should not be ignored. Exercising the right to free public assembly and speech makes me feel most American, I suppose.
I immediately noticed the white guy with dirty blonde hair and a large green backpack walking near the crowd’s edge, muttering about something Eva had said.
“Did she just say that America was created to protect white men?” he said. He repeated the question over and over, shaking his head and laughing. I moved away so I could keep an eye on him and the nearest exit. From the way some of the black people in the crowd were stealing glances at him, I wasn’t the only one wary of his disbelief.
On the other side, I noticed a light-skinned brother taking deep draws on a cigarette, also muttering about the proceedings. He had a blue baseball cap tipped forward at a jaunty angle. He was skinny, but tall and tense. He surveyed the crowd with disgust, his eyes light green and googly.
“This shit weak,” he hissed and shook his head. “This shit lame.”
He didn’t appear to be talking to anyone in particular, but a woman with a notepad sidled up to him and identified herself as a reporter. His face brightened a little as he talked and she scribbled.
Honestly, I had some concerns, too. Having white allies is important to any stand against white supremacy, but I can’t help but have Malcolm X’s Message to the Grassroots speech in my head, where he complains about white influence making the March on Washington whiter and more palatable. Like cold cream in hot black coffee was the analogy he used. Being black often means occupying spaces designed with the comfort of white people in mind. I didn’t want to protest with knuckleheads, but I also didn’t want this to be about making white people feel comfy.
After a moment or two, Eva came back out and made a shocking statement about what we were going to do: the goal of the march was to shut the streets down, but not get arrested.
I’ve been to a lot of protests and before an event gets started, usually you’ll get advice about what to do if you got arrested, but can’t recall anyone ever saying the goal was to avoid arrest. Protester street cred is supposed to come from getting locked up. Throwing your body against the gears of the machine, and all that. But this new approach felt oddly subversive.
“If you a CPS student, I know you not trying to get arrested,” she said. “Because I know I ain’t.”
It was startling to hear a young activist pragmatically consider what a clash with the police might mean for her and all the people gathered together. There are times when an effective protest may require people sacrificing their freedom, but she was letting us know that this wasn’t that kind of party. (Besides, there's ample evidence that mass arrests are a tactic being used to dismantle BLM movements around the country) I had already promised Lucy I was going to be coming home that night, but hearing Eva say this made me not feel like I had to carry the promise like a secret.
As a teacher, I admired her classroom management acumen as she made everyone repeat several times that no one was going to get arrested. She also said that we needed to stick together. If we were by ourselves, we should find a “protest buddy” who could look out for us. We shouldn’t put our hands on anyone. We shouldn’t cuss at police. We should not do things that would get us arrested. We should listen to instructions from the organizers. Racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia were all unacceptable.
Everyone was smiling and looking ready to go. The gaggle of young women and men who were organizing the event were holding a powwow on the side to go over the final details, and Green Eyes came over. He moved his hands wildly, but seemed mostly calm as he mansplained how “weak” and “lame” the nascent protest was and detailed his idea for making it less so. They tried to placate him by listening, but he stomped away when he didn’t get the reception he wanted. He walked to the center of the still-seated crowd.
“You see those motherfuckers over there?” he said, pointing to the police lining the sidewalk on the other side of Michigan Avenue. “They taking this shit for a joke. I’m tired of this bullshit”
Eva grabbed a bullhorn and yelled back.
“If you have any respect for the black girls who are putting this together, you will stop.”
But Green Eyes was in his own world, at the center of everyone’s attention. He was a model of righteous black fury. Cursing and jabbing at the air. The crowd fidgeted and news cameras were hoisted on shoulders. I felt the impulse to pull away from the spectacle, but an older brother with a black beret and a large black liberation flag stepped in front of the young brother. And then another one of the young poets, and another, and another. Nobody was being overly aggressive, just letting him know what he’s doing is not acceptable. They surrounded him like bullshit antibodies.
It was tense for a moment as he yelped, “Get your goddamn hands off me,” but then the organizers told everyone to stand up and we were on our way. Crisis averted. As we marched down Michigan, a chant starts, “No justice, no peace, no racist police.”
Green Eyes approved.
“See, that’s what the fuck I was talking about,” he beamed.
Walking down State, the organizers tell everyone to link arms and come in tight. I’m hesitant because I don’t know anyone, but I guess that’s the point. They encourage us to share names with one another (Two college-aged white kids, Elaine and Kareem, are on either side of me) just in case anything happens. As we’re marching and yelling, I’m a little surprised at how connected and strong I feel amidst the tall buildings and roaring traffic.

Side note: Participating in public protest nowadays means being ready to not only confront the stares of bystanders, but also their cameras. A protest should disrupt the normal flow of people and capital so the public is forced to consider the injustice. Disagree with the cause or not, people are forced to think about what they think, even if what they “think” is just a product of brainwashed thinking. The thing that’s complicated now is that people insulate themselves from thinking by holding their phones up. When thought and emotion get too intense, people feel the impulse to point their cameras at it. I notice the wry smiles on people’s lips as they stare at their screens as we pass. I wonder are they thinking about police brutality or how many likes their footage will earn them. Hashtags in their eyes.
As someone participating in protest, this raises the stakes because at any moment, anything could happen that could be beamed to screens all over the world. Don’t trip over your shoe. Don’t throw a rock. Don’t say the wrong thing. Really, the police don’t need to patrol a crowd that’s being recorded, and recording itself.
But I also get it. The young ladies who organized the protest had put the whole thing together online and were very aware of how to use it to their benefit. They encouraged people to take out phones and take pictures of them and tweet about the event. After all, that’s how I heard about the event. So it can be an important tool, but you wonder when the effort to encourage awareness mutates into a performance of “wokeness”.

I saw the scruffy white guy from earlier as we walked up State. He had a friend with him and they were both sipping cans of Milwaukee’s Best. The crowd was chanting  “Black lives, what? Black Lives Matter!” and these guys are chanting “All lives matter!” Some people around me hear it and yell at them, but they just flash silly grins and keep chanting. I leaned over to one of the guys.
“Why are you doing that?” I said.
“Well, because they do matter,” he said, matter-of-factly.
I agreed that all human life is significant, but that wasn’t the question that Black people have had to answer in this country. The question of valuing the lives of Black people is the question that Paul O’Neal faced as he scrambled over that backyard gate, heavy with breath, school backpack jangling with nothing but a screwdriver inside. (By the way, why was he so committed to that little backpack? He was either driving around in a brand-new stolen Jaguar with the backpack pressed uncomfortably against his seat or he grabbed it in and put it on after he crashed his car and fled the police gunfire. Something about it was important to him. He’ll never be able to tell us why.) Black Lives Matter is necessary because it’s an answer to a question that this country has not yet set itself to come to terms with.
I didn’t say all that too him, but basically I fussed at him like I would fuss at a student who was being disruptive during class presentations. He got the point and apologized. I told him I was glad he was there and how important it was for guys like him to represent, but I restrained the impulse to share my name with him and I walked away.

My adrenaline had gotten going talking to Milwaukee's Best and within a few steps I felt like I had been running wind sprints. The sadness came all of a sudden and the weight of why we were marching put lead in my feet. I stopped chanting and just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, just being a part of the crowd. Just being a vessel for someone to use for good purpose.
I credit the organizers for that moment. Not only did those young ladies take ownership of the event, providing a very clear vision of what they wanted to happen, they also did little things that made me feel cared for, like encouraging those who had come on their own to link up, like pausing the march to have people share hugs with people they didn't know, to adopting chants the crowd contributed. All stuff that made me feel cared for. Stuff that made it easier to just breathe and be present.
And maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Black women have always done this kind of organizing, it’s just patriarchal nonsense that has kept some of our best and brightest leaders on the sideline. I noted the young brothers who formed a line of security and consulted often with the main organizers. The love and respect that they showed was a model for everyone there.
I had to leave the march early to keep my bedtime appointment with my two year-old, but I felt a bit of catharsis as I drove home. I didn’t leave the rally feeling like I had ended police brutality or the state-sanctioned murder of black people in America, but it certainly left me with a vision of the type of leadership that will move us there. That will move my children there. Thank God for that.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Misstraknowitall Presidential Debate Strategy

Hillary's opening statement

Hillary during the rebuttal period

Hillary's Closing Remarks

Friday, May 20, 2016

Can you get to this?

Me on a Friday.

This is actually from the promo video for Funkadelic's Cosmic Slop. Peep.

Sunday, May 1, 2016


What would happen if the daughter of Sam Cooke and the brother of Bobby Womack made a song together? This. Actually, Womack and Womack had a bunch of successful cuts. Just ignore me if you already knew all that, but do yourself a favor and put this song in your day. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Healing Power of Gratitude

To a three-year-old, there is nothing better than bubbles in the park. My daughter, Lucy, and I were at the playground last Spring, when our friend Jenn and her son, Jackson, came through with the ultimate party-starter: a bubble wand. Jenn waved the wand and filled the air with shiny, watery globes that wobbled along in the warm breeze. Even though Lucy’s a big girl who can swim and play piano and write her numbers, seeing her shrieking and giggling and running after bubbles was a good reminder that she’s still my baby.

But then disaster struck: Jenn’s wand ran dry. As the last bubble popped, Lucy’s smile faded and her shoulders hunched. She stomped over to me and looked like she was going to cry. I asked was she okay and she somberly reported that the bubbles were gone. I gave her a consoling pat on the shoulder, but asked if she’d thanked Jenn for bringing bubbles in the first place. My daughter looked at me like I was insane and her frown deepened. I told Lucy to go thank Jenn. She moped, but walked over and said thank you.

“You’re welcome,” Jenn said, with a smile.

Lucy’s face brightened. A bit later she was running around with Jackson, giggling like the bubbles never left.

That moment taught me the healing power of gratitude. Being grateful is not about having good manners or just being nice, it’s about making yourself whole. My daughter’s sadness wasn’t simply about bubbles. The pain of her need had lead her to feel anger and alienation toward someone who had shown her kindness. Not only had she lost the bubbles, she had lost the connection. The pain wasn’t released until she recognized the kindness, which strengthened her connection and helped her release her need. After she gave thanks, she could feel close, feel loved again.

A child without gratitude is a child in torment. Always wanting, never being able to appreciate the gift of the present moment. In the same way, joy is only possible when we show gratitude to those that help us, even in small ways. Bombarded in our daily lives by guilt, shame, and fear, witnessing and testifying about the kindness and blessings we receive takes hard, heart work. But our connection to other people, to ourselves, and even to God, depends on our ability to give thanks. All of us deserve to realize how much we should be thankful for. All of us.

Friday, September 4, 2015

What we talk about when we talk about Yo White Daddy...

Yo Daddy is so White, that all his slave ships were zero emission.

Okay, so in the past year or so, I've been tormented by a stream of White Daddy jokes. I'm not sure exactly where it came from, but I was always really fascinated and horrified by the specific genre of Mama joke that has to do with Blackness. You know: "Your mama so black she...followed by something hella racist about her blackness." If you need a reference, Google it.

Anyway, I started tweeting them to my friend Ross and we went back and forth with it. But then I couldn't stop because they kept coming to me. And I tried to tweet a few out, but it was around the time I was looking for a job and that didn't seem to be helping things, and plus it didn't seem like people really got them. Maybe they still won't; I don't know. In some ways I don't really get them.

But hopefully people get that a good Yo Daddy So White joke has nothing to do with actual skin color, but the color of a certain type of perception, a white supremacist perception. A perception that actual White people don't even have a monopoly on. A perception that dictates so much of our inner discourse, whatever your race.

The homie, Rion Amilcar Scott, published them on Queensmob, so check them out now before I have to issue my public apology and go into a racism treatment program.  

Friday, July 31, 2015

Cecil the Lion: No Angel

Haven't you had enough of these people getting all weepy-eyed for Cecil the Lion? Do you see any gazelles getting misty? Everybody's acting like this is some big loss. He had so much potential. He was getting good grades. He said he was gone buy his mama a house one day. Pfft.

Seems like every lion that gets shot these days was getting straight As in school. But let's stop being PC and admit that all it takes to make the honor roll in these safari schools is to take bullets and be on the news. Cecil was eligible for a 2Pac Pell Grant. Big deal. And so what he was headed to college. Community college doesn't count.

I had my suspicions, but I was ready to keep an open mind until I did a little digging and found his Instagram feed. Below are some of the disturbing images I captured before his account was taken down. Please spread the word about the brave White American man who had the bravery to fly half way around the world to make us safe from this super-predator.

And even if these images are not enough to encourage you to change your mind about the hunting, not killing, of that dangerous lion, please support Walter Palmer as he fights extradition to Zimbabwe. Do you know what they do to White people in Zimbabwe? Can you even imagine? We can't have brave White American Men called to account in racist countries that have not received the Light of Freedom.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Innocent Poetry

There I was, one morning trying to find the perfect poem to get my students to understand what I meant when I said that their poems were innocent and that they didn't need to mash them into pulp with all of their learned judgments. And then I found this amazing piece by Linda Hogan:


There is nothing more innocent
than the still-unformed creature I find beneath soil,
neither of us knowing what it will become
in the abundance of the planet.
It makes a living only by remaining still
in its niche.
One day it may struggle out of its tender
pearl of blind skin
with a wing or with vision
leaving behind the transparent.

I cover it again, keep laboring,
hands in earth, myself a singular body.
Watching things grow,
wondering how
a cut blade of grass knows
how to turn sharp again at the end.

This same growing must be myself,
not aware yet of what I will become
in my own fullness
inside this simple flesh.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Innocence and Revision: The Life of Aaron Rushing

I've been thinking a lot lately about a student of mine, Aaron Rushing, who was a talented writer and guitarist killed in May of last year. The anniversary of his death passed just a bit ago and I wrote something for Gawker. You should check it out. The Chicago Tribune Jazz critic Howard Reich put together a really powerful piece about his life. Below is a video that accompanied the Tribune piece.