Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Teacher's Presence

During my first year of teaching, I studied the faces of my students for the answers to a host of questions: Do you respect me? Do you think I care about you? Do you know that I don't know what I'm doing? Do you think I am a good teacher? Do you know that I'm afraid? Do you like me? Essentially, instead of seeing my class as a room full of individuals, most days I stood up and saw row after row of fun house mirrors, reflecting my own deficiency. I looked to their faces not to find out who they were, but to find out who they thought I was. 

As a result, I suspect the person in my classroom who learned the most during that year was me. I learned a lot about what my students thought about my teaching. Some liked it, some hated it, and some tuned out. But the most depressing outcome was that instead of being about learning, my classroom continually slipped back into a referendum on how good I was at my job. We had great moments in class, and there were students who did amazing work, but it wasn't until later that I figured out that in order to teach effectively, you have to be present enough in your class in order to see the person you are teaching.

Instead of being guided by a question about external impression, the most important question a teacher confronts is Who am I? This is the true essential question for learning in my classroom and before I can get my students to grapple with it, I have to be fully engaged with it myself.

Not only do students need to see that I have considered the question, but they also have to see that I haven't stopped asking it of myself. They need to see that the point of the question is not to provide an answer that can be bubbled in on a Scantron (male, female, teacher, student, black, white, poor, rich) but instead that the process of observation and reflection required by the question is the goal.

Paradoxically, the more I'm engaged and present with the question, the more clearly I'm able to see the individual sitting in front of me. Instead of seeing only myself in my students eyes, I start to see who they are and, perhaps, who they could be. I use this knowledge to shape a classroom experience and curriculum that communicates what I've witnessed. In that way, one of the most important elements of teaching is the ability to witness. It's not coincidence that the first question a witness in court is asked is: Were you present...?

One of the reasons that teaching is such a challenge, especially early on, is that presence is not something you can just pick up when you step in the classroom. You have to manifest presence in your life overall in order for it to be effective in your class. Some days I'm good at it, some days I suck at it. My bag of tricks has expanded over the years, but when I get stuck in class and the learning is stagnant, I still confront the same old questions that I did during my first year, but now I know those questions are secondary to the true matter at hand: How present am I? How present are my students? How will the things we're learning make us more so?

Just the other day I stumbled upon Parker J. Palmer's The Courage to Teach, where he says:
Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. The methods used by the these weavers vary widely: lectures, Socratic dialogs, laboratory experiments, collaborative problem solving, creative chaos. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts--meaning heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self. 
It's probably no coincidence that in a time when our technology is purposed to promote an illusion of connectedness, that teaching is under assault. Listening to the discourse around education, you would have thought that "true" education only started with "reform" or whatever buzzword being recently applied to schools. But people have been teaching for as long as there has been humans, and no matter the era, the best teachers are still those who are most connected with themselves, with their students, with their subject, with the world. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Friday, August 2, 2013

N Team Six

Misstra Knowitall received a disturbing communique from Eric Snowden, the former government contractor turned whistle blower. Snowden decided to finally release the most damning government secret the American government does not want you to know about. What secret would shake the pillars of our government to its absolute core?

The President of the United States has a highly specialized team of secret service agents whose only mission is not to protect Barack Obama from assassins, but to protect him from being called a nigger in public.They are known as N-Team Six.

You might have this thought: Nobody would call the President of the United States a nigger to his face!

Slap yourself for having the previous thought. There is always someone out there willing to call a black man a nigger, no matter what color house he currently receives mail at.  Make a note.

Secondly, remember this?

Captivating isn't it? Just imagine all the (additional) bombs we would have had to drop on Baghdad if even one of those loafers would have connected upside W's fragile bird skull. Cheney and Rumsfeld would be tripping over their scythes to connect the whole thing to Iran's nuclear program. Yellow Cake on the Isotoners. Next thing you know: WWIII

With Obama, that the threat is even more pronounced. You don't even have to throw a shoe. All you need is one shaky Youtube video with the President out at some political function, crossing paths with a redneck who wants to get famous. There's been a couple of near-misses in the past.

Joe the Plumber
This doofus asked a single question in a slightly confrontational way and overnight became a cross between Walter Conkrite and America's Next Top Model.

Janet Brewer
She scolds the President of the United States like he was a valet at Steak and Shake and gets on the New York Times Bestseller list. Meanwhile, Michelle is the angry black woman.

And then there's this guy.

During the President's state of the Union address he got up and called the leader of the free world a liar. You know as he was sitting there, palms sweating, practicing what he was going to say, it had to occur to him that he could write his name in history forever if he stapled that little six-letter word to the back of his outburst. (Relative) good sense may have prevailed, but according to the Snowden files, the scene could have ended much differently..

The President's anger is clear in the tape, but what's not clear is the purpose of his elbow shift right afterwards. According to the documents, that gesture is the secret presidential signal to the N-Team Six snipers in the top balcony. No, he didn't call me a nigger. Joe Wilson doesn't know how lucky he was that night..

Aside from disturbing the President's boiling reservoir of ancient slave anger, resulting in dead rednecks, there is a bigger concern. When you think about it, America having Black president is an absurdity. It becomes even more absurd when you realize that it's in the national security interest of this country to make sure that said President is not brought to the "nigger level". That's the same country that employs the President to maintain the "nigger level" in the first place. So, if they assassinigger the President, we could potentially see a fracture in the space-time continuum. 

But these threats to our security are not just domestic. According to Snowden, there's been quite a few times where an insult to the President almost resulted in the button being pushed.

Chinese President President Xi Jinping

German President Angela Merkel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Russian President Vladamir Putin 

Afghan President Hamid Karzai

So, let us not forget the unsung bravery and valor of the people who really keep this country safe: N TEAM SIX. We salute you.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Good Hands

Allstate's white audience.commercial 

Allstate's  black audience commercial.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Obama Faces the Throne

At first, Obama rushing down to see a stricken Mandela it reeks of political expedience. It's not like he's got much else going on. Stay in Washington and have to talk about secrets and firing Eric Holder? Or get out of the country and have a presidential moment with one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century? 

Seems like an easy choice, but I think we also forget that for most of his life, the US considered Nelson Mandela a terrorist. Billions of American dollars were made while black South Africans were murdered. And when you think about it, Robben Island is really just the precursor to Guantanamo Bay. So as great as people say Mandela is now, the American mainstream has always been a leery about the man who married Winnie and fought alongside Fidel Castro. If anything, this costs him political points. 

But I think this might be good for the President. In this country, Black people have invested our last bit of hope in this man and that makes us a little less than objective. Obama's very image has become such a cure-all for Black people in America. No matter the ailment, just rub some Obama on it. 
  • Broken leg? Splint your leg with a picture of the President shaking hands with Bo the dog. Your bones will heal themselves, overnight. 
  • Depressed because a classmate got shot? Watch the inauguration again, while rubbing your forehead with a picture of Aretha Franklin's hat. All your cloudy days will become bright. 
  • Caught in a prison industrial complex that grows and grows? Make eleven blindfold one handed free throws. Be filled with a sense of accomplishment to enjoy the rest of your days. 
But not everyone's buying that in South Africa. According to this New York Times report, there are protests planned across Soweto. He's getting an honorary degree at Johannesburg University, but some students will protest outside. Two major political groups have suggested that the President be put in chains when he arrives (oh, the irony) for “war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide”. 
“When President Obama was ushered into the world, there was a promise for change of policy, like the closure of Guantánamo Bay, and how he is going to respond to the dispute between Israel and Palestine,” Phutas Tseki, the regional chairman of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, said in announcing his group’s participation in Friday’s protests. “Now he is on his second term, and he continues to be arrogant, and his policies continue to entrench American power to the whole globe without any change.
It's hard to find a lot to argue with there. I think Black people's support of Obama lets us lose sight of the greater diaspora. We have a duty to criticize this man if he's not doing right by us, all of us. If we can't do that, then maybe it would be better to have a white man be president. Maybe we could be more honest with ourselves. At least with a white man we would more clearly see that our president, despite being one of the best presidents this country ever had, is planting the Corporate American flag right in the backs of the people who lifted him high.
“There is now among the students a feeling that Obama has done nothing to the advantage of South Africa, and has only continued the American policies around the world that we thought he was going to end,” Mr. Levy said. “He is a visitor of our government, and we do not object to that, but we do object to his being honored by our university and we want to make sure he hears our calls that he follow through on the promises he made.”
I hope that whenever Mandela makes his transition, he makes it in peace and full comfort. But I also hope that our president has time to sit at this great man's throne and consider his own legacy.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Into the Darkness

There's something deeply sentimental about the world of Star Trek. It's a vision of the future that might have been prophetic if not for the exponential curve of technology. If humans weren't already changed so much by technology, we might be able to really believe that a ship as powerful as the star ship Enterprise would be commanded by a person like James T. Kirk, a cool white dude who charms the ladies, kicks butt,  and crashes the ship every movie.

But the technological advance that would make a ship like that possible would need computing power unencumbered by the judgment and sentiment of a slothful human brain. Star Trek: Into Darkness would have been real short if HAL was running the show. Opening scene: Spock is in the volcano. Closing scene: Spock dies in the volcano. The end. Kirk would be nowhere near the controls.

What's the matter, Dave? Are you burning?
We persist in creating these computer-designed worlds where we are still masters of computers, yet many of us can't live now, in 2013, without our phones.

Thought experiment: Think about how painful it was the last time you lost your phone. How traumatic was it? Not having your data backed up feels like losing a close friend. Even if you;re data is retrieved, the experience is bittersweet, clouded by the doubt that maybe there was something lost.

We've transformed so much of our lives into data that a hardware crash feels like a death. The Ponce Deleon's among us cluck their tongues and lecture about flash drives as if they carried the water of eternal life. We're still waiting for that Lazarus device that will raise us from our purgatory of stored data after bodies have gone away. We're tripping. 

We employ a four character code to gauge the intelligence of our children, our most precious source of intellect. The test doesn't test our ability to feel, to empathize, to create--all of the qualities that will ensure our survival. Tripping.

Spoiler alert: We're not going to "win" against the computers, and that might be okay. It all depends on the types of computers that we create and award intelligence. Far too many of the most powerful computers in the world are used to kill or enslave people.

But what if instead of making our computers really good at killing and controlling humans, we used them to increase our capacity for understanding among all forms of life? Not just what's out there in space, but what's in our own hearts? 

And what does that look like? I'm not sure, but I know James T. Kirk is not involved.

What is involved is experiencing more of our lives without pictures or videos or dead screens. Put it down, turn it off, put it away. Take your headphones off and talk to that person who makes you nervous. Say hi and upgrade your emotional technology. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

All You Hip Hoppers

The only good thing about BluBlockers was the commercial and the only good thing about the commercial was when a brother stepped to the mic and instructed the hip hop nation to get themselves a pair of BluBlockers. That was the first commercial I can remember for white people that actually featured a black man rhyming. And although Dr. Geek had on a silly a$$ sombrero, this was no MC Hammer buck dancing for popcorn chicken.

What you say, Hammer? Proper.
Dr. Geek made BluBlocker millions and all he ever got was a free pair of cheap glasses. Same old story, but Dr. Geek can rhyme. Off the head, his flow bops along, brimming with wit and good nature. If he seems professional in his approach, its because he is. At the time Dr. Geek was working Venice Beach, rapping for tourists. Imagine being a large black man trying to make a living rapping at white folks who are on vacation to get away from large black men. He had to find a way to disarm them, without resorting to shuffln. Notice how he plays it cool about the glasses at first, but then lights up when the salesman gives him the pair. Despite his happiness with the free shades, he stays professional, even reminding customers to order them at home. 

You can call his flow corny, but Dr. Geek gets much respect as the ultimate blu collar MC. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Memo to Humanity: Ain't Nuttin New

Although the footage from the Russian meteor strike is amazing, it's worth stating that rocks have been hitting our big rock for billions of years. The only thing that's changed is our collective awareness of said rocks. If it weren't for all of the electronic devices that were honed in on the banal lives of every day humans, we would have never seen the sky filling with fire. Thirty years ago it would have been relegated to the News of the Weird section in the back of the paper. A chuckle about a bunch of jumpy Ruskies Now it's different. We've got YouTube and Twitter. Now we're more acutely aware of our situation. How it impacts (sorry) us.

I wonder, however, whether it's not the same in some ways. We're already so inundated with dazzling pictures and media that although a meteor strike has some sway over us, it's not like in the past. There were points in human history where the course of whole civilizations were turned by celestial events. Not so much anymore. Now, with each passing hour the meteor is losing page views to 

And what about investing in meteor-deflection technologies? Save your money. When it comes, there will be no deflection. Asks the dinosaurs in their 165th million year. The universe runs on a timetable that is much too large for us to understand in our present form. He's your burning hot reminder.

But what about investing more on something we can control? How about putting some money into misery-deflection technologies, like protecting our children from the proliferation of death mechanisms on our streets?  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Violence Monopoly

This is the Cuomo:

It's named after Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, who is pushing a ban on extended clips for  semi-automatics. It's plastic. It's the product of a 3D printer. It works. You can find the specs for it online.

Although it may seem like a gun control story, it gets at a much bigger issue: the true power to deter a tyrannical corporate state is going to be based in technology, not guns.

Those that think they're standing up for "freedom" or "rights" are a century behind the times. If you don't have access to technology than a gun will never protect you in the world that's taking shape around us. 

Sooner than you think, there will be plastic guns that can be printed and immediately put to use. The right to bear arms will immediately be redundant because guns will be produced so cheaply and with innocuous materials. The plastic guns will be everywhere, kind of like the way the metal ones are in my neighborhood.

That scenario is untenable for a number of obvious reasons, but also because our government needs to have a monopoly on violence. And a monopoly on making money off the mechanisms of violence. So, now the government has a serious question to consider: who can and cannot have a 3D printer? If you want to protect the liberty of your children, you better be less worried about oiling up your Bushmaster and more worried about what happens when they move to seize the internet.

In the words of Andre 3000, "While you running around rantin and ravin about gats, nigga they made them gats, they got some shit to blow out our backs, from where they stay at"

Side note: What is so 3000 about being in a Gillette commercial?

But woe to my community when these guns become more widespread. I doubt we'll get 3D printers in the hood any time soon, but I'm sure there will be a lot of bright eyed entrepreneurs looking to sell our shorties plastic shotties. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The War on White Terror

I'm glad the White House released evidence that we've all long suspected: NeO is really just a Jake Sully in disguise. Same narrative, different genres. 

It was funny to hear the commentators saying that they doubted NeO could clap em. The underlying assumption is that he's soft. That he can't fight. He's already proved them wrong. Do we have to review the debate footage with John McCain.

Or remind you of when he said this:

Or any of these people:
Jesse Jackson
Somali Pirates
Bill Clinton
Donald Trump
Jim Demint
Osama Bin Laden
Mitt Romney

Whether you dig him or despise him, if your honest with yourself you have to admit that dude doesn't touch the canvas often. Now that doesn't mean he's going to come through and save the day on gun control. I kind of doubt he will.

But he's got to do something. If it hasn't hit home by now, he'll never get it: Somebody has to stem the flow of gun overproduction. The people who are making billions on this are not patriots. These are multinational corporations, run by people who aren't worried about the Constitution. The only part of the constitution that corporations are ready to defend involve making money. Some might say it would be irresponsible to the stockholders if it was any other way.

I have students who know the girl who was killed the other day in Chicago. The ones who knew her talked about how good a friend Hadiya Pendleton was. She had just got done performing at the inauguration, for Christ sakes. Dead a week later. Unfortunately she's typical. Her death seems just as inevitable as the slaughter at Newtown. I'm not trying to hard or cynical, but I don't see how a major move against death sellers is not inevitable. He has to take on the corporations that support the NRA puppet. The corporations that flood the hood with cheap killing machines. But first he has to convince the White man to stop being so scared. Call the initiative: The War on White Terror.

The War on White Terror is all about getting white folks to stop being so scared all the goddamn time. Of course the president wouldn't frame it that way. His slogan could be something simple like, White People Ain't Got Nothing to Be Afraid of. Up to this point he's been trying to run a covert campaign with the same message. That's why he was bowling and throwing baseballs and making beer in his garage. And it's mostly worked, but what about all of the people who just don't like Black people? You holding a gun is never going to look right.  

In order for that photo to be a political asset, you have to convince that same white man that it's a good thing you're skeet shooting. As far as he's concerned, you could be holding a Mac-10 or an uzi or a spear. At the end of the day you're just an agitated nigger who needs to be pacified. If NeO released the photo to help White Americans to confront their fear of a Black Planet, I'm all for it. If he did it to try and get in the good graces of racists, I'm not feeling it. 

But in the meantime, Mr. President, Misstra Knowitall stands ready to do whatever I can to assist in the War on White Fear. My first initiative will be to sell a line of greeting cards that you can send to your white friends. The occasion: Thank You for Not Being Racist! Even if they are racist, send it to a white person you appreciate. Not only will you do a good deed, you'll do a good turn for your country.

Stay tuned for the link to my Etsy. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

On the Sugarfoot

Remember this?

That came from this:

Friday, January 25, 2013

Mr. Kid President, will you please be my mayor..?

If you haven't seen this kid already, you gotsta catch up. Another bit of brilliance from Kid President. 

Do you think a young brother could really play a role like this before NeO? Wouldn't  it have come off strange? Tragic?

But not now. You can allow yourself to feel the hope that's embodied in this very slickly produced movie because it's documenting demonstrated truth. The order has changed. Even if Obama's a bioengeneered robot, the narrative he is creating is going to produce a lot more little brothers like the one in this video. I feel pepped.  

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Substitute

Thankfully, I never had to play the role of substitute. It's a different type of teaching experience because you enter the classroom under a premise that no one really believes: that you are just as capable as the educator you're replacing. In reality, you have no idea what was previously taught, who the children are, or what were the class expectations. Hopefully, the teacher has left a detailed lesson plan, but even if they did, the kids know the deal. You are an adult they are unaccountable to. If something goes wrong in this class, on this day, you will be blamed.

Mr. Fullwood was my model for what a sub should be. He was a huge guy (to us) and big enough that you didn't feel bad about making jokes about him, but also big enough that you didn't want to piss him off because he could squash you. He smiled like a yellow-toothed Cheshire cat at all of our dumb jokes, even when Jon Silk always asked him if he was going to be giving the class the "full wood" that day. Although his voice was coated with tar from the pack of smokes he kept in his breast pocket, he didn't raise his voice often. But when he did, people got quiet. Most importantly, he had both a sense of humor about his dour profession, and a corresponding pride in what he was doing. He made us do whatever was on the lesson plan and he made sure nobody got too crazy. Even though it must have been primarily a way to scratch a couple of nickels together, we got the sense that he cared about us--even if only for 60 minutes.

This experience, along with my time working in Baltimore public schools (Higher, higher!), inspired me to write The Substitute, which was recently published in 2 Bridges Literary Review. Check it out when you get a chance. But before you do, prepare yourself with some instructional videos from Key and Peele.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Those that can...

...should show somebody else how to can. That's my teaching philosophy. If you want your kids to be better writers, than they need you to model it for them, as scary as it sounds. Don't be afraid to make yourself a writer in your own classroom. That was the main topic of discussion in my interview with former Indiana Review editor Alessandra Rolffs. But really the best reason to click is the picture of my daughter, Little Miss Knowitall. Check it.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Django: An Unlikely Black Fairytale

I met Robert Croston in Teach for America purgatory summer training. Dude is an awesome school leader and had something smart to say about Django, so I'm turning over the mic.

At it’s core, Django: Unchained is a counter-narrative and graphic fairytale about a black man’s commitment to honor his marriage vows and reunite with his wife despite the institutional fetters of slavery.

But of course, this is no kid's fairytale. The damsel in distress is an enslaved comfort woman and the knight in shining armor is a runaway turned bounty hunter. In this story, the dragon gets shot through the heart, the ogre gets kneecapped, and the castle is blown to smithereens.

Django (Jamie Foxx) is a black slave that hooks up with a bounty hunter by the name of Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz), who gives him freedom and a new job: hunting white fugitives. Despite his new employment and emancipation, Django never gives up on rescuing his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was sold down the river to Mississippi's fourth largest plantation: Candieland. Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) owns the plantation and his loyal houseman Stephan (Samuel L. Jackson at his sinister best) runs the show. 

When Django tells Schultz his story, the German marvels at Broomhilda's name and recounts a Norse legend about a maiden named Broomhilda who was freed from mountaintop captivity by a shining knight. As the bounty hunters mount up for their quest, it's hard not to see the enterprise as a fairytale. 

Foxx does not have to act an ass like the last black actor to land a major role in a fairytale box office smash. In fact, Django, according to Monsieur Candie, is more than a Mandingo fighter, a violent black male slave dripping testosterone; he is a 1 in 10,000 type “nigger” (sic). His ability to defer gratification—for blood or sex—in order to carry out the clever ruse they use to purchase Broomhilda’s freedom distinguishes him summa cum laude from all other Romeos and Prince Charmings. 

Unfortunately for a fairytale about black lovers, Foxx’s and Washington’s performances are on the pedestrian side. Apparently all that was needed was pretty faces and household names to fill the roles. Interestingly, Django’s altruistic appeal to take Broomhilda’s beating for running away is the single most passionate scene they share during the entire film. Foxx and Washington spend little time on screen with each other expressing their love in words or touch beyond the predictable passionate kiss after the heroic rescue of the final scene.

Django’s selfless love compels him to traverse KKK-saturated lands and defy black codes to rejoin his wife. But beyond his death-defying conquest, Django’s love for Broomhilda is only weakly portrayed by his daydreams, which call to mind a General Mills farmer imagining his long-lost award-winning sunflower.  Broomhilda is more like Django’s stolen property, an object to be possessed rather than a cherished companion. As a married man, I would have preferred to see daydreams of the wedding ceremony, “honeymoon”, or a hand holding stroll through the field. 

Despite all this, Django is an American Legend. Django does what maybe 1 in 10,000 men would do as a fugitive: He risks almost certain death to infiltrate and destroy the master’s house in order to save his wife and restore his family. Django is more than a cinematic tale of gore. It's a clarion call to black men to fight for their families no matter the racially oppressive economic and social conditions of America. Even so, as Americans, we should consider the Broomhildas of our personal and collective hearts held captive by any number of institutional “isms,” especially racism and capitalism. Pursue her with a reckless abandon; there is no tomorrow.

-Robert Croston

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Grey: A Screen Shot Collage

Through an unfortunate series of events, Misstraknowitall finds himself home alone. Instead of fixing my leaky shower or grading a desk full of student essays, I delved into my Netflix queue and finally watched The Grey. Maybe it was missing my ladies at the beginning of a new year, but something about Liam Neeson's battle against wolves and his fear of mortality grabbed me. So, I used screen caps to make a collage about it. The words are all captions from the film. Wannaseeithereitgo.