Few people seem happy these days with the Common Core Standards. Part of the reason may be that there are so many of them. Another part is that they read like a robot composed them.

One of the Common Core 12th grade ELA Standards expects students to “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. “

Ok, but how do you teach students to become close readers? My senior AP Lit students read Huxley’s Brave New World this summer. Certainly, they can discuss the larger thematic implications of the text: the conflict between the individual and society, the ultimately dehumanizing pursuit of happiness through drugs and sex, the loss of spirituality and identity in a community programmed merely to consume.

They get the larger picture but sometimes struggle to see the minor strokes and shades of color that help us understand those themes more deeply.

We began with three provocative statements that I posted on butcher-block sheets in my classroom:

  1. Some people are expendable.
  2. Suffering is good for the soul.
  3. The history of the world moves in a positive, linear direction.

In the spirit of inquiry first, I asked them only to respond to those three statements with questions.

“Some people are expendable” led them to wonder:

  • Who gets to decide who is expendable?
  • What does it mean to be expendable?
  • Am I expendable? Are you?
  • Can being expendable ever be a good thing? Is expendability necessary sometimes?
  • If animals are expendable to us, why shouldn’t we be expendable to someone too?

“Suffering is good for the soul” led them to wonder:

  • What does suffering teach us?
  • If I don’t believe in a soul, what’s the point of suffering?
  • When is too much suffering not good for the soul?
  • Do you know this when you’re suffering or only when the suffering is over?

“The history of the world moves in a positive, linear direction” led them to wonder:

  • From whose perspective?
  • What makes history positive? The absence of war and suffering?
  • How can you break free from history to make this judgment?
  • Doesn’t it really just move in spirals or waves?

As I mentioned, the students had already read the novel. Nevertheless, we opened to page one, and I asked them, although not in these words to, “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. “ Basically, I asked them to tell me what they saw by highlighting the words that created a picture for them and then to share what judgments they could make from those pictures.

Screen Shot 2014-09-06 at 8.58.55 AM

They highlighted these words: grey, north, cold, harsh, pallid, goose-flesh, wintriness, white, pale corpse-colored, frozen, cold, ghost, yellow. They felt these words to be cold, sickly, deadly, and uninviting.

I then asked them to find any contrasts in the text. They highlighted: hatchery/conditioning to community/identity, north/cold to summer/tropical, pale/corpse/frozen to yellow/rich/butter/luscious. They felt these contrasts helped them to recognize an irony set up in the text right from the start. They noted that the last words on the page are the director announcing, “this is the Fertilizing Room.” Reacting to the dissonance of a fertility center described almost exclusively with words of sterility, they read that last line again and said, “Wait, what?” Exactly!

But then my students candidly commented that though they hadn’t read that page like that before, they weren’t sure that without me drawing attention to a passage and asking them to examine it closely, that they’d see that naturally. It was a fair point. How do you make this “Common Core standard” a standard way of reading text?

To begin with, I told them I’m not sure it is possible to read every page of a novel in this fashion. Students, carrying the typical class load, struggle to get their homework completed by midnight. It’s not realistic to ask them to read a 200-300 page novel with a magnifying glass. But I do think it’s important to engage in this type of close look with certain key passages of a novel as a means of understanding its larger import.

The previous week, I had read an excellent essay in the WSJ Saturday Review analyzing Caravaggio’s painting “The Taking of Christ” titled “Confrontation Amid the Shadows.” I used the painting below to assist students in “close reading.”

I teach in a parochial school but it is far from evangelical. Most of my students know the Bible stories with passing familiarity, but they can generally spot an allusion here and there.

After projecting a photo of the painting, I asked them what they saw – literally.


Q: How many figures do you see?

As: Six. What, no seven. Where? There’s another helmet behind the guy on the right.

Q: How many hands?

As: Five. (Long pause) Six – look at the soldier reaching toward Jesus. His hand is gloved. (Long pause) Eight actually – there’s another soldier’s hands grabbing at the green clad guy’s shawl.

Q: Tell me about their faces.

As: The three guys on the left aren’t looking at us. Jesus is looking down. Judas is looking at something outside the scene, which is weird because he’s kissing Jesus and should be looking at him. The frightened guy (who I explain is St. John) is looking up at something – maybe God who is letting this happen. They all have really different expressions but their brows are all really furrowed.

Q: What about what they’re wearing?

As: The colors are really strong. Judas is wearing orange, which is also kind of the color the guards are wearing. Jesus is in red with a blue shawl. John is in green with a red shawl. But it’s hard to tell the difference between what Jesus and John are wearing. Yeah, the way that soldier is grabbing at John’s shawl makes it hard to tell whose it is. I wonder if John was trying to escape this scene, and the soldier was pulling him back. That could explain that expression.

Q: What about the hands and how they are held?

As: (All of the students tried to replicate Jesus’s posture) That just feels weird and unnatural. Is he trying to restrain himself? Is he repulsed by the kiss? His face doesn’t look like he’s grossed out. Yeah, but he’s definitely trying to pull away since Judas seems to have to clench him to hold him in. John’s body, if you were facing him, looks completely open, but from our view he looks like he is standing back to back with Jesus. Judas is kinda bald. No, he’s not – that’s a yarmulke. Oh, yeah, you’re right. I wonder if the other two are wearing them.

Q: What about the soldiers? What do you see?

As: You can’t see their faces at all. But their metal armor is very shiny. But where’s that light that’s reflected on them coming from? Some of it is coming from that lamp that the guy on the right is holding (I explain that Caravaggio has painted himself into this painting). So where’s the other light coming from? Doesn’t this take place at night? Maybe it’s the moon. It’s kind of like it was very, very dark, and someone came along and held a flashlight on the scene. I find it interesting that you can’t see their eyes at all. Yeah, they’re just shiny darkness.

Q: What about the figure of the painter? Why is he there?

A: Well, he wasn’t there historically. He just put himself there.

Q: Tell me about how he looks?

As: You can see his eyes. And his face isn’t furrowed at all. His mouth is kinda open, which makes him look interested but not emotional. His hand isn’t clenched or awkward. It’s just gently holding up a lamp. He’s just watching what’s happening. Yeah, but he’s not wearing any of the bright colors. He blends in with the guards.

Ok, so you get the point. The students completely engaged with this painting, examining, describing, inferring, judging, and supporting conclusions. I asked them how they might transfer this exercise to a reading of text. They reflected that they would need to do a lot of visual imagining as they were reading; they’d have to “see” the text differently, and understand how the words (adjectives, adverbs, and verbs) were painting pictures for them.

This week, we’ll be trying out their new skills with a different passage from Brave New World. Hopefully, I can continue to make this standard attainable for my students. Then, only twenty more to go…




Yesterday, I wrote about my plan to discuss race and specifically Michael Brown and Ferguson in my classroom today.

We began with a “think, pair, share” activity. I asked the students why it’s uncomfortable to talk about race. Their answers:

  • “Political correctness makes us feel like we’re walking on eggshells.”
  • “Someone might take offense when no offense was intended.”
  • “It’s awkward to talk about race with or around different races.”
  • “There is still a lot of anger about slavery.”

I then asked them what color they see when they hear or read the word “race.” The students who called out answered “black.” I asked them if they think of white people as having a race. One white student shared that she doesn’t think of herself as being part of a race until she really thinks about it. White, for many of my students, represents the absence of race.

I shared with them the exchange I had the previous night at dinner. We were eating out with another couple. I brought up the Ferguson issue, and the man – a good friend – said, “I heard that he has a rap sheet a mile long.” I had not read that anywhere, and I’ve been keeping up with the story. I asked him where he read or heard that. He couldn’t remember. When I returned home, I researched the question and discovered that Michael Brown had no prior history of arrests. I asked the students to consider why this man’s first comment about Ferguson was an indictment of Brown. Why didn’t he start with questions first?

We then as a class read Charles Blow’s article: Michael Brown and Black Men.

I had posted eight NYT Pick comments to the article around the room and asked the students to take post-it notes and sharpies and to ask questions of each comment. No dialogue, no commentary, no statements. Today, we would only wonder and ask.

Here are some of their questions:

The first NYT comment was by Paul who states, “Tell the black kids to stop doing things they should not be doing, and not to resist police questioning and arrest when they are confronted for doing it. Or is that too much to ask?”

  • What evidence proves he was doing anything wrong or that he resisted?
  • What if the police are wrong? Does Paul think police are always right?
  • What race is “Paul”? And what does “Paul” do for a living?
  • Don’t white kids do things they shouldn’t be doing? Are they less likely to receive punishment?
  • Is there a different way to word this without coming across as harsh?
  • Why doesn’t he tell cops to stop shooting unarmed people?
  • Is he referring to the Michael Brown case or all black kids in general?
  • Why are the police not viewed positively by the youth?
  • Is civil obedience the best way to attain equality and safety?
  • Where is Paul getting his facts?

The second NYT comment was by NeverLift who argues, “This isn’t a school issue. It’s a family support issue. Behavior is learned at home. If it is not, the school is helpless.”

  • How could the community work together to better raise the children?
  • Why is it when a white person does something the news says, ‘Oh they have a mental issue” or some excuse but when a black person does something they’re automatically bad and have criminal backgrounds?
  • How come parents have become way more lenient?
  • Students are at school more than they are home, so why is this a family issue and not a school issue?
  • What evidence shows behavior is learned at home?
  • Couldn’t the issue be both a school and home problem?
  • If not from their parents, where else can youth learn to face the music and not use discrimination as a cop out?
  • Is discrimination a family support issue?
  • What if a little rebellion/disobedience is good? Don’t we live in a country that encourages individualism?
  • What if it’s the authority that’s the problem, not the kids?

The third NYT comment was by “Billy from Brooklyn” who states, “The obvious solution is to completely integrate the police departments…Whites will howl when the police force becomes half-white and half-black, half-male and half-female…There will no longer be this issue.”

  • Why is the solution “obvious”? If it was “obvious,” wouldn’t it have already be solved?
  • Could police brutality be eliminated by just limiting the type of weapons and riot gear used?
  • How would mixing solve the problem if not just make tensions worse through a government controlled “understanding” program?
  • What is really running through the mind of a solo police officer when he pulls someone over?
  • Are people more comfortable with their own race?
  • Why does Billy assume that “whites would howl”?

The fourth NYT comment was by Linda who shares, “I’ll never forget having ‘the conversation’ with my 16-year old son about what to do if a white police officer stops him. He said, ‘Mom, if I’m not doing anything wrong, why should I have to worry? I’ll just tell him that.’ I said, ‘No, baby, please, just don’t say anything. Just be quiet and do what you’re told and get it over with. That way there won’t be a misunderstanding.’ I cried for a week.

  • How can a black youth differentiate from authority to trust and not to trust?
  • Why should this be a problem if he didn’t do anything? Don’t respect and honesty go a long way?
  • What about white people and black cops?
  • Do white parents have “the conversation” with their kids?
  • Why do minorities have to deal with giving their kids speeches on how to approach people who are here to protect us?
  • Doesn’t he have the right to say something? If so, would it come down to how it is delivered?
  • Why would a mother encourage lying down and not standing up for what’s right?
  • A student’s follow up to the question above: Is she afraid she’ll be dead wrong?

The fifth NYT comment by Victor asks whether racism is too facile an explanation. “What happens in white homes, white churches, white schools, offices and social institutions that somehow creates and reinforces the notion that we are not only some strange ‘other,” but an ‘other’ that must be subordinated and controlled by all levers of power in our culture, including the use of force and even deadly force…Can it be changed? Can white folks change?”

  • Why does it take the death of a young black male for society to question racial tension and police brutality?
  • Are whites to blame for fulfilling the self-perpetuating cycle of racism?’
  • Why can’t all people see this as a real problem?
  • Why should blacks be denied freedom in order to not be judged by white superiors?
  • Why is it often assumed that racism was the only reason? What if the “victim” wasn’t actually a victim?
  • “Can white folks change?” Really?? When will people stop lumping white folks together and realize that only a small fraction of the population is a problem?
  • A student’s follow up to the question above: Is this true for black folks too? Do they get lumped together?

The sixth NYT comment by Brian asks, “What if the police viewed part of their job was to help kids get to age 18 with an education? What if kids were viewed as an opportunity and not a threat? Would that break the cycle of tragedy?”

  • Would the police treat the protesters differently if it wasn’t about the police?
  • What is it like to be a police officer? How much do they get paid?
  • How would we, as a country, regulate who was able to become a police officer then?
  • How do we change the police’s mindset then?
  • Are the police a robo-cop teacher hybrid?
  • Should police be made to stop things before they happen?
  • How could police possibly help kids make it through school?
  • Why are kids treated as wild horses that need to be broken in order to become a part of society?
  • What caused law enforcement to feel the need to escalate so drastically in the first place?

The seventh NYT comment was by Willow who states, “Yes, white kids are also sometimes unjustly shot by the police. Yes, a militarized and undertrained police force that has forgotten that its primary role is to serve the public is a danger to white people as well as black people. But the numbers in Blow’s article tell the story. And let’s remember that Clive Bundy’s white followers were allowed to point rifles at federal officers, who backed off to avoid an incident…”

  • Did the police force become more militarized after 9-11?
  • Why do the police think the only way to help a population is to control violence?
  • Why have the police not taken up a philosophy similar to preventative medicine?
  • How did the police system become so unjust?
  • What would have happened if Clive Bundy had been black?
  • Do I understand the history of violence against black men?

The last NYT comment was by Valerie who comments, “This piece by Mr. Blow has brought out many questions and criticisms directed at the Black community: comment after comment by readers who are pointing to Black-on-Black crime statistics, who wonder why young Blacks don’t go to the library instead of joining street gangs, who believe that blacks have a victim mentality, and that if the fathers would just stay home and help raise their children … and so on … Education on many levels is probably a critical part of any solution.”

  • Why is it that everyone looks to education to right all the problems?
  • Why do Americans feel they have no moral responsibility to help fellow citizens achieve the “pursuit of happiness”?
  • What could educators do differently to solve the problem?
  • There are poor blacks and poor whites. In some ways they are living the same life. But if both were convicted, why do we jump to claiming the black one guilty?
  • Why doesn’t the system make it easier for black children to succeed?
  • How might we make education every American’s (black or white) first priority?
  • Why are they not taught that joining a gang is not a good choice?
  • What if the victim is not a victim?
  • Why do people assume blacks are the only ones who pull the victim card?
  • What does it look like to pull the victor card?

Today was powerful. The room was silent. Students were moving from comment to comment, posting notes at every turn.

We’re delaying conclusions right now. Tonight, they are going to choose one question and begin brainstorming where and how they might find answers.


School started last Wednesday. Since I only teach seniors, I had planned on helping them brainstorm, review, and revise their college essays for a week. Although we’ve already made some progress in that area, we’re taking a break from the application process to discuss Ferguson and Michael Brown.

I asked my students on day one what they needed from me to be successful this year. Their responses all had a similar refrain: they want me personally to be fair, interesting, compassionate, and passionate; they want what we read, discuss, and write about to be relevant. I also asked them what they needed from themselves. Interestingly, their expectations for themselves dovetail with their expectations of me. We had a great discussion of what it will mean to support one another.

To hold up my end of the bargain, I need to pivot from my intended plan. They want to talk about Ferguson.

I’ve spent a good part of this weekend thinking about how we should go about doing that.

I watched Jay Smooth’s Ted Talk “How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love Discussing Race.”

I re-watched the Daily Show clip of correspondents’ Samantha Bee and Jessica Williams “The ‘R’ Word.”

I read articles and blog posts of educators grappling with this story:

I asked two black colleagues for advice. Not because I expect their experience to represent the whole, but because I admire and respect them as educators and wanted to hear their perspectives.

In the end, I think I have a plan.

Our school’s primary norm is “Start With Questions.” The wisdom in that imperative was fully brought home to me by reading Warren Berger’s excellent book “A More Beautiful Question.”

Here are the facts. I teach in a private school in Atlanta attended by students who are predominantly upper class and white. There are no black students in either of my AP English classes. There are only a few in my British Literature classes.

I began the process by asking myself a question: “Why do I want to talk about race in my classroom?” The answer is simple: because I’m a teacher. I want my students to see themselves as active players in the continually unfolding drama of life – as playwrights, directors, actors, and spectators. I don’t want them to plant their feet in one spot and claim that place and perspective for all time. Instead, I want them to remain agile in both mind and body, eager to empathize with others, willing to share their outlook, inclined to view the world through multiple vantage points, and intent on imagining what role they can play to make the world a better place to live.

I then wondered how they would answer the question, “Why is it difficult to talk about race?” That is a good starting point for me. I plan to let them engage in a think, pair, share activity that focuses on that question.

I realize not everyone will have the same set of facts to work from regarding the Ferguson story, and I don’t think I want to ask what they understand the facts to be. Facts are statements. I want them only to inquire.

To that end, I’m going to give them Charles Blow’s editorial “Michael Brown and Black Men.” There were 762 comments to the article before the comment section was closed. Of those the New York Times highlighted 52. The New York Times describes their picks as “a selection of comments that represent a range of views and are judged the most interesting and thoughtful. In some cases, NYT Picks may be selected to highlight comments from a particular region, or readers with first-hand knowledge of an issue.”

I plan to post six of those comments on large white sheets in my room, give each student a Sharpie, and ask them only to respond with questions. No dialogue, commentary, or opinion. Just questions. They can also ask questions of peers’ questions. But no declarative sentences.

For this initial foray into the topic, we’ll discuss the value of starting with questions.

Although I recognize that this is not necessarily the message students have been receiving all their lives, I want them to consider how wondering might be more valuable than knowing.

From here, I’ll assess the temperature of the discussion, whether we are ready to dive deeper, whether we are willing to employ our inquisitive spirits, and what our next step should be.

“The word ‘why’ not only taught me to ask, but also to think. And thinking has never hurt anyone. On the contrary, it does us all a world of good.” – Anne Frank


Yesterday, I was in Shanghai, and this morning I’m back home in Atlanta, Georgia. The transition couldn’t be more abrupt. 24 million to 5 million. In fact, the whole trip was a study in contrasts.

I wanted to blog during my trip but the great firewall of China blocks most blog sites, Twitter, YouTube, even Google. Actually, Google is opened sporadically even though quintessentially Western sites like the New York Times are still blocked. However, I was visiting shortly after the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, so it was on lockdown.

The trip was 10 days (June 23 – July 2) and three cities (Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai). I was fortunate to receive a professional development scholarship from EF Education First, and was accompanied by 24 other educators across the United States, although I was the only one representing a private school. Our tour guide John accompanied us throughout the whole trip, but another guide met us in each city. These four men gave us an extraordinarily intimate and event packed tour. I can’t say enough good things about the professionalism and good humor of EF. If you’re considered a tour, this company is top-notch!

John in a common moment of reflection.

John in a common moment of reflection.

We flew into Beijing, the capital city. Its population is roughly 22 million, up from a little over 14 million in 2000. All Chinese cities are enduring this population explosion as people flock to urban locations for more opportunities or are relocated from individual farms now operated on a larger scale by the government.

Our first stop was Tiananmen Square, 109 acres visited by a million people daily. We Americans know the name because of the government massacre of university students on June 4, 1989 when they occupied the square to protest corruption and to call for democratic reforms. Our tour guide, John, a college educated man, knew that the massacre had occurred but nothing more. He had never seen the quintessential picture of the young man standing in front of the tanks. Most young Chinese have little knowledge of what happened that day.  One of the buildings holds the embalmed body of Chairman Mao Zedong. Visitors flock to see his body daily, waiting in line for hours. Mao wished to be cremated, but now lies for view in glass. Even the leader of communism in China enjoys little freedom.

Moving in synchronicity, guards monitor the square. Fire extinguishers are neatly arranged everywhere, apparently to help put out fires potentially started by protestors. We did not see any behavior remotely anti-government. In fact, the square was orderly and mostly occupied by tourists. Although we didn’t visit Mao’s tomb, his portrait is visible everywhere.

Mao Zedong, Former Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (1893-1976)

Mao Zedong, Former Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (1893-1976)

Flanking the square is the Forbidden City. Built during the Ming Dynasty over the course of fourteen years (1406 – 1420), the city is huge and surrounded by high city walls. The floor of the city is covered with bricks seven deep in order to prevent invaders tunneling into the city walls.


Official buildings of the empire are decorated by roof figures. The more figures, the more important the building. The Hall of Supreme Harmony has the highest status with the imperial dragon leading mythical creatures. The dragon and the color yellow represent the emperor.



At the Forbidden City, I used my  first Chinese public restroom referred to by the guides at the “happy room.” A happy room may have one Western style toilet, but for the most part only flushing, squatting stalls are available. If you ever have the chance to visit a happy room, you’ll need to bring your own tissue or toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and, well, a sense of humor.

At the Forbidden City, I took my first T’ai chi class. The instructor has written his own book on the martial arts practice. Following his movements was much harder than I expected. People all over China practice T’ai chi in the public parks to improve strength, agility, and mental clarity.

I have a lot of room for improvement.

I have a lot of room for improvement.

Afterward, we visited the Beijing National Stadium, the central site for the 2008 Olympics. Referred to as the “bird’s nest,” the stadium sits largely unused now. Although it’s only six years old, it shows unusual wear.

Where Michael Phelps won eight of his gold medals!

Where Michael Phelps won eight of his gold medals!

Maybe it’s the constant smog pollution that’s wearing its finish. In the ten days I spent in China, I only saw blue sky on one of those days. Nevertheless, I was told that the smog wasn’t that bad and that was why few people were wearing masks. In fact, masks were rare, worn occasionally by bikers although I never saw a helmet.

A brave cyclist - traffic has few rules in China!

A brave cyclist – traffic has few rules in China!

That night for dinner, we visited a hutong neighborhood and ate dinner at a family’s home. Hutong neighborhoods have narrow alleyways and one-story traditional courtyard houses. Most have been torn down to make room for high rises. Rickshaw drivers take you through the narrow streets although most of the locals ride bikes. As we entered the small house, I couldn’t imagine it would accommodate all of us since it only held a small kitchen, a living/dining room, and two bedrooms. But the Chinese are accustomed to small spaces. The dinner was delicious, and the father and his son were generous hosts.

Diners traditionally eat communally with many dishes arriving one after the other.

Diners traditionally eat communally with many dishes arriving one after the other.


Our wonderful hosts!

Our wonderful hosts!

The next day, we visited the Temple of Heaven, built at the same time as the Forbidden City, to pray for a good harvest.


The temple is surrounded by a park frequented mainly by retirees. Generally, Chinese women retire at 55 and men at 60. However, their level of fitness is phenomenal. Although so many people smoke and endure pollution at its worst, they are generally pretty thin and very active.


Eventually, the American teachers I traveled with engaged in a competition. The Chinese 70 year olds won!

Eventually, the American teachers I traveled with engaged in a competition. The Chinese 70 year olds won!

I'd like to believe he competed in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic games!

I’d like to believe he competed in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic games!


And it was by no means just men.

And it was by no means just men.

Also, they are very friendly!

Also, they are very friendly!

Ok, now they're just showing off...

Ok, now they’re just showing off…

I loved watching and interacting with retirees at the park. They gather regularly in small groups to play badminton, hacky sack, cards, and chess. They also practice t’ai chi, knit, and exercise on “play grounds” built for the elderly, although that last word doesn’t fit them very well. They don’t live in nursing homes, abandoned and alone.  Americans, take note!


The next day, my favorite, we traveled to the Great Wall of China! Prior to 221 BC, China had been divided into different warring regions. Each of these regions had actually built walls as dividing fortifications. In 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang conquered all of these opposing states and unified China, establishing the Qin dynasty. Even though there are three feudal dynasties (the Xia, Shang and Zhou) that predate this dynasty, the Qin is considered the first because he declared himself emperor. Intent on imposing central rule, he destroyed the walls built by the feudal lords and ordered the construction of one main wall. In addition, he unified China with standardized currency, weights, measurements, language, and roads. 2200 years ago! Most of the portion of the wall that he had built has largely fallen into complete disrepair. To ward off invasion by the Mongols, the rest of the wall was built during the Ming Dynasty primarily during the 15th and 16th centuries. Its full length is 5500 miles.

Our walk begins.

Our walk begins.

We traveled a largely quiet portion of the wall for an hour, enjoyed a beer at the height of our walk, and then found ourselves trapped in a watch tour during a hailstorm. Afterward, blue skies appeared for the only time during my ten-day visit.

What one person will do for a cold beer...

What one person will do for a cold beer…




The skies clear. Magical.

The skies clear. Magical.

The next morning before our afternoon flight to Xi’an, we visited a top-performing middle school in Beijing.


We sat with administrators for an hour as they fielded countless questions from our group. The students themselves were preparing for their final exam, which would determine which high school they would attend. These tests are high-stakes for students. The school’s testing scores from 2008 – 2013 are posted in the hallways, and photos of top students line the walls. The halls boast screens highlighting events and performances at the school, but the classrooms still use chalkboards. Students are in rows, and the teacher commands the front.


Students arrive early, stay in the same classroom for four classes with teachers of separate disciplines rotating in and out. They break for lunch for two hours to eat, play, and socialize. The lunchroom feeds 2000 students efficiently. I actually admired the seating; the chairs allowed for movement and easy access to mop the floors. I need to find the distributor for my school!



Love these chairs!

Love these chairs!

The teacher lounge is well appointed with leather sofas, a big screen tv, multiple games, work out equipment, and surprisingly a bar although to be honest it looked rarely used!


The principal has visited American schools and wishes to emulate our emphasis on creativity and independent thinking, but even she acknowledged that it’s like turning a battleship. Much of the system is still designed to create compliant, conformist workers – not her words. It seems ironic to me that China wants to move toward a Western style education, and America is emphasizing standardized testing, the signature of Chinese education. Crazy!

In the afternoon, we traveled to Xi’an, the ancient capital of China and the starting point of the Silk Road. Everywhere your eyes looked, you saw empty skyscrapers. These “ghost cities” or “concrete jungles,” as the Chinese call them, represent the unbridled urbanization of China’s cities. As our local guide explained, these apartments in Xi’an are all sold out but still remain unpopulated. They are simply concrete with absolutely no interior modeling at all. Apparently, the government built these for peasants forcibly relocated so that a large area of farmland could be flooded. It’s frankly depressing to hear the Chinese say their national bird is now the “crane.”

Ghost cities.

Ghost cities.

On the bright side, the hotels throughout China attempt to ecologize. When you enter your hotel room, you place your room card in a slot that provides energy. When you remove it, the electricity goes out within two minutes.

Europe and Asia get it!

Europe and Asia get it!

On the flip side, the water is not potable in China. Everyone drinks bottled water in plastic 16 oz containers. The hotel provides two in each room daily. The city is awash in recyclable bins. But is this sustainable?

The view from my hotel window.

The view from my hotel window.

The next day, we traveled to visit the famous Terra Cotta warriors. Emperor Qin, the same man who authorized the building of the Great Wall, also demanded the building of a community of warrior statues to protect him in the afterlife. Discovered in 1974 by farmers digging to build a well, the Terra Cotta army includes over 8000 soldiers, chariots, and horses. 2200 years ago, the artisans constructed the soldiers in an assembly line fashion. Heads, arms, and legs were built separately using molds, but individual, unique features were added to each face so that no two warriors look alike. Workers dug pits, placed the warriors and horses in formation, and then covered them with wooden slats, and mounds of dirt.

Note half of the horse still uncovered.

Note half of the horse still uncovered.

Beautiful artistry rewarded with suffocation...

Beautiful artistry rewarded with suffocation…

When Emperor Qin died, most of the workers still working on the tomb were buried alive to serve him in the afterlife. They weren’t alone. His concubines, servants, and court officials were buried alive with him. Once the tomb was sealed, it was booby trapped with crossbows to deter robbers. That proved ineffective since a few short years later, invaders entered the tomb and removed many of the weapons held by the warrior figures. Amazingly, the bronze swords and weapons that were recovered are not corroded because they were coated with chromium. The modern chrome-plating technology appeared in Western countries in the 1920s, but it had been developed by the Chinese 2200 years ago!

Great innovators ... 2200 years ago.

Great innovators … 2200 years ago.


The reconstruction work, which occurs after museum hours, is painstaking. No warrior was discovered intact, so each must been excavated and pieced together, a process that can take a month. Although our guide did not mention this and probably does not know the history, a National Geographic article mentioned that a worker had stolen a warrior head in 1985 from pit 1 and was summarily executed. As the article stated, “a head for a head.” Only 1% of the entire tomb has been excavated thus far, and there are no plans to ever open the actual mausoleum that holds the emperor’s body and the massive wealth that must be interred with him.

He would have had a hell of an army if they'd only come to life.

He would have had a hell of an army if they’d only come to life.


That afternoon, we went to the Xian City Wall built in 1370 AD during the Ming Dynasty as a military fortification for the emperor. 40 feet tall, 46 feet wide, and 60 feet thick at the bottom, the wall is roughly 9 miles in length. We biked the whole thing.

No hills so not that impressive on my part.

No hills so not that impressive on my part.

Although it was drizzling that night, we walked to the Great Mosque of Xi’an, the oldest, most renowned mosques in China, dating back to 742 AD. Daily prayer service still occurs there as there is a large contingency of Chinese Muslim in the area. They are of Chinese descent and fully respected and integrated into the community, assuming the parents send them to the government schools according to our guide.


On the walk back, we all enjoyed the food vendors along the way! It was a Saturday night, but it was rainy so not that crowded. Can’t imagine what it’s like with clear skies.

The smells were amazing!

The smells were amazing!

Discarded kabob sticks.

Discarded kabob sticks.

Dinner that night was noodle pot. You threw in whatever caught your fancy.


Followed by a little too much Chinese fire water. Ouch.

What I wish had not caught my fancy...

What I wish had not caught my fancy…

Early the next morning, we flew to Shanghai. I could have used a few hours in the airport sleep box!

Night night.

Night night.

That day, we visited the Shanghai Financial Center, currently the second tallest building in the world although the tallest point where humans can stand. The tallest building in the world is currently the Burj Khalifa in Dubai although not for long. The Shanghai Financial Center is owned by the Japanese. The Chinese, intent on outdoing their Asian competitors, especially on their own turf, are building Sky City, a building which will tower Dubai’s by 10 meters when it’s completed in 2015. You can see its grey ghost-like presence to the right of the Financial Center in blue.

Coming soon to a skyline in Shanghai.

Coming soon to a skyline in Shanghai.

Our riverboat cruise that night offered a beautiful panorama of the Shanghai skyline.


The next day, we visited the Jade Buddha Temple. Built in 1882, the temple is still very much in use. Monks chanted, and incense burned everywhere.

The temple houses two large Buddha statues carved completely of white jade.

Reclining Jade Buddha. Not a bad life.

Reclining Jade Buddha with offerings. Not a bad life.

Numerous other gold Buddha statues line the halls inside. Seeing a swastika one the chest of one of the buddhas, I was reminded that the Nazis co-opted the symbol to represent the Aryan race, turning it clockwise. The ancient symbol stands for prosperity, good fortune, and longevity. Unfortunately, it’s now tarred with infamy.



During China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, soldiers destroyed many traditional symbols in China. Knowing that the jade sculptures of Buddha would be targeted, a savvy monk placed posters of Chairman Mao on the doors of the temple. Unwilling to split Mao’s head on the poster to open the door, the soldiers left the temple in peace.

In one particularly unsettling story, we learned of the goddess of motherhood. As the story goes, every day she ate a child, leaving its parents heartbroken. Hearing their lament, the great Buddha came and took her child when she was on one of her killing sprees. The goddess returned to an empty house and beseeched the Buddha to return her child. He did once she acknowledged the tremendous pain she was causing. From that day forward, she became the great protector of children, beloved by all. Kind of a strange do unto others as you would like them to do unto you story.

The Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule.


The Ying and Yang exemplified.

The Ying and Yang exemplified.

The following day, we visited the silk factory. China is known for its silk, tea, and pearls. However, it’s hard to know the quality of any of the three since vendors exist everywhere claiming to offer them in good quality. The only way to know for certain exactly what you’re buying is to purchase it from stores vouchsafed by the government. But you’re going to pay for that certainty.

The silk factory we visited offered high-quality, government-backed silk products. We learned that a single silkworm produces 1500 meters of silk when building its cocoon, which takes roughly 25 days. The silk is bound onto a threading machine to make silk fabric or simply stretched to make comforters.

25 days.

25 days.

Later, we visited a Shanghai teahouse dating back to the late 1700s, where we sampled a variety of different teas.

Despite the presence of Starbucks on many street corners, the Chinese prefer tea to coffee. They drink different teas for their distinct medicinal properties.


I purchased the ginseng oolong, which apparently helps mental clarity, but in my mind has the best flavor. The view from outside the teahouse captured the distinct difference between the old and the new Shanghai.

Old versus new.

Old versus new.

While the skyline of Shanghai is extraordinarily beautiful, it’s mind boggling to recognize that all of those enormously tall buildings were built in the last 25 years. Again, I wonder about sustainability.

For that reason, it was a nice break to visit the old city of Shanghai and in particular the Yu Garden, built in 1599 by Pan Yunduan as a comfort for his father, who unfortunately died before it was complete.


The garden has dragon walls throughout, which inflamed the Emperor since they were to be reserved only for his buildings. However, the owner of the garden claimed that these were not dragons since they only have four claws and dragons have five. Pretty impressive that he kept his head.


That afternoon we ate lunch at a local noodle shop and roamed the streets for an hour. I was particularly struck by the high heels that Chinese woman wear everywhere – even on cobbled streets. Is the inability to walk well a cultural reminiscence to the days of bound feet?

Personally, I'm impressed.

Personally, I’m impressed.


Somebody was exited to get his picture taken.

Somebody was excited to get his picture taken.

Get used to the crush of flesh.

Get used to the crush of flesh.

Why have lychees not caught on in the States? Yummy!

Why have lychees not caught on in the States? Yummy!

We spent the last night enjoying each other’s company at an ex-pat bar. The owner even offered us Chairman Mao shots, which were red and slightly spicy!

The crew.

The crew.


When in Rome...

When in Rome…

It was an amazing trip that opened my eyes to modern China. Yes, it’s a communist country that censors its citizens, but it also enjoys a robust market economy. Personally, I felt stifled because I was unable to Google information as I traveled. Nor could I tweet or blog; essentially sharing information was limited. I was also struck by the lack of Chinese innovation. Yes, you can find “knock offs” of Japanese, German, and American products, but how many people can name a Chinese product widely used in the world? They are master imitators but poor creators.

On the other hand, it’s a misconception to think that they all conform to ideology and spout communist rhetoric. The people we met – the administrators at the schools, our tour guides, people on planes – all were transparent about the problems in their country and the need for change. But how do you move a country of 1.3 billion people in a new direction, especially a country that provides answers but frowns on questions?

In my literature classes, I ask my students to think often about the unintended consequences of theirs and others’ actions. China is rife with unintended consequences. In 1979, the one child policy was instituted to manage overpopulation.  A long history of son preference has always prevailed in China. Because ultrasound is cheaply and widely available, many women have resorted to abortion when they discover they are carrying a daughter. Our tour guide told us that midwifes who perform abortions are prevalent, citing this statistic: 65 million children are aborted annually in China. As a result, China now has an imbalance between men and women in its population. Many men who cannot find wives will never marry, and hence never have children to care for them, a tradition that has ruled China for thousands of years. So, the government, recognizing this unintended consequence, is now relaxing the rule, allowing families to have two children. Our tour guide explained that many couples now hope for a daughter because they want to have someone who will care for them in their old age.

I’ll end this post and my reflection on my visit with a 3-2-1 Visible Thinking exercise.

3 Thoughts/ Ideas

  • Cultural prejudice and misconceptions are overcome by interaction. I have heard Americans comment that the Chinese are rude, often pushing their way ahead in lines and brushing up against others without apology. But in China, people move like fish. They fill vacuums – in traffic, in waiting lines, in shops. It’s how you operate in a country of 1.3 billion people. It’s not rude. It’s survival.
  • Americans (and I count myself in this lot) know very little about China. We are wary of its government, considering it repressive and antiquated. But I learned that the people believe they are moving in a progressive direction. The market economy has allowed the streets to rival that of Manhattan’s busiest and most expensive shopping districts. The schools hope to mimic aspects of American education. Our schools, however, need to modernize our conception of this country. We’ve got to stop limiting our students’ understanding to Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth and the history of The Red Scare.
  • Our country needs to pride itself more on taking care of ALL of its people. I visited three very populated cities in China, whose sum population is 1/6th of America’s. Yet, I only saw a handful (perhaps five) beggars. Each was either without a limb or terribly burned. If you visit any city in America, you will see many homeless people, destitute on the streets. What does patriotism mean when we don’t care for our own people?

2 Questions

  • How long can China keep its great firewall of censorship intact? Isn’t it just a matter of time before its people demand access to all the information that other countries have available? How will it ever be able to transform/modernize its educational system and build creativity into the process if it doesn’t allow its students to pursue inquiry?
  • What is the long-term sustainability outlook for China? It’s a huge country, but many of its citizens are flocking to urban areas. Can a country that cannot provide access to clean water thrive or even survive for long?

1 Analogy

  • America is to China as Independence is to Conformity. So what does that mean? Tomorrow is the 4th of July, our national day of independence. And God knows, we Americans love our liberty. We don’t want anyone to tell us where we can take a gun, how big of a car we can drive, how much food we should consume. Our national preoccupation with freedom has a dark side that we often fail to acknowledge. Unintended consequences: violence, unsustainability, obesity. Don’t get me wrong, I love my country. When I saw t-shirts with President Obama in a Chairman Mao green army, red star cap, I was not amused, despite the vendor saying, “Funny, funny,” apparently hoping I was a Tea Party member. Honestly, I think everyone in America would benefit from a visit to China. On the flip side though, conformity makes me sad. Yes, guns are prohibited in China, and the population is for the most part lean and strong. But there’s something inherently human about seeking answers to life’s questions without any obstacles.  That, in a nutshell, is my definition of freedom.

Thanks for reading if in fact anyone did. I wrote this primarily for myself to chronicle my own experience since I know memory fades and time creates distance.

The view from my hotel in Shanghai on my final morning.

The view from my hotel in Shanghai on my final morning.

Zài jiàn (goodbye), China.

Zài jiàn (goodbye), China.


Do you personally enjoy writing? Do you find it more difficult than speaking, reading, or listening? I’m a writer at heart, and even I would answer yes.

That realization has been at the heart of my exploration of how to teach and encourage writing.

Recently, I read an article in The Reading Teacher titled “Inquiry about Learning and Learners: Why do we find writing so hard? Using journals to inquire into our teaching.” The article was about teachers struggling to reflect in journals about their own teaching. Instead, teachers found study group sessions in which they shared perspectives on what was happening in their classrooms or read and discussed articles on teaching more valuable. They enjoyed journaling about their teaching experience least even though they actually found the reflection process helpful:
“But despite the fact that two thirds of us did not like journal writing and did not want to continue, the writing we did in journals was much more reflective than the talk that took place during study group.” They value group study, but recognize that writing provides greater reflection.

What a fascinating paradox!

The researchers in the group found that, among the problems that the teachers identified with journal writing, two stood out and “seemed to be more significant in explaining why writing was so hard for most of us”:

  • having prior difficulty with journal writing
  • writing as a stressful, difficult endeavor

Wow, that sounds like what many of my students experience; yet, these were teachers – some of them writing teachers!

The researchers recognized that, unlike social, collaborative study groups where teachers build upon each other’s ideas, writing is an individualistic activity. The writer is alone without the richly supportive and interactive environment of the group. Journal writing (blogging essentially) became for many teachers “emotionally troublesome and even threatening.”

If teachers are using that language, what might some of our reluctant students be experiencing?!

Fortunately, the researchers (teachers themselves, remember) offer some strategies that I believe would work equally well with students struggling to write.

  • In study group sessions, begin with everyone writing or sketching before talking. Allow individuals to read what they’ve written so that writing becomes a communal activity.
  • Refer to journaling as process, not product. Place the emphasis on journaling as ongoing inquiry. As the researchers underscored, “School teaches us that we write to display what we know, not to discover new ideas … good thinkers need to overcome the lessons they learned in school.” Good thinkers – meaning teachers, students, everyone – need to view writing just like thinking and speaking. We continually express, reconsider, revise, consume new information, and express again. That’s the thinking, speaking, and WRITING process. Journaling or blogging can exist anywhere in the spectrum of that process.
  • The key is to look at journaling as first-draft thinking and expressions of tentative understanding. We need to move away from “doing it right the first time” or “writing as test” mentality. Writing needs to be part of the exploration process too.

I plan to have this understanding of writing as the focus of my presentation, “The New Literacy,” at The Martin Institute in two weeks. I’m just getting some of my “first draft” ideas on paper.


I just finished rereading Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap. I’m giving a presentation in Memphis next month at The Martin Institute titled “The New Literacy,” and I’m reviewing some of the works that have informed my thinking on this subject. Wagner’s book especially highlights the need to help budding writers create focus, energy, and passion in their communication through the development of an authentic voice. We English teachers generally come to our discipline through a love of literature and writing about literature. As a result (and because no one has taught us to do otherwise), we teach writing almost solely through the reading and critiquing of the canon. It’s as though the consummate form of written expression is reached when one has mastered the five-paragraph expository essay on Hamlet’s indecisiveness or Gatsby’s myopia.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s much that is good about the five-paragraph essay. Writers learn to grab their readers, make an argument, defend that argument through evidence, and summarize their perspective. Personally, I appreciate it when someone, whether published in print or talking on television, can do this with clarity and concision.

The problem is that we English teachers have placed too much emphasis on form over function. The five-paragraph essay does offer a clear-cut, easy-to-teach formula for clear, succinct writing, but who uses that form of writing in the real world? I’ve asked that question many times, and even in presentation halls filled with teachers, I’ve never had anyone respond that they regularly – or even irregularly – write five-paragraph essays. It’s just not done outside of the halls of a secondary school classroom.

Instead, I’ve been asking writing practitioners, which means pretty much everyone I encounter, what form of written expression they use to communicate. The answers (in no order of prevalence or frequency of use) are emails, texts, letters, blog posts, social media posts, tweets, memos, reports, brainstorming sessions, medical charts, songs, short stories, resumes, diaries. I didn’t interview students or academicians. Just regular folk. And no one answered, “five-paragraph essays.”

So the question seems to be, if we’re trying to help prepare students for the real world, why are we focusing so much on one form of writing that isn’t even used in the real world? If we believe that form should follow function, and we know that students need to function as creative, clear, cogent writers, why don’t we develop them as writers using the authentic writing forms of the modern world?

For instance, what if I asked my students to reduce this blog post to a tweet? That’d teach concision and clarity. What if I asked them to write a letter to their English teacher advocating this form of instruction? That’d teach audience, voice, and persuasion. What if I asked them to compose a resume of their learning experience in high school with a bullet point expressing their writing capabilities? That’d teach reflection, analysis, and summarization.

In his book, Wagner repeatedly emphasizes that he hears the same mantra from employers all over the nation: employees need to be better communicators. The questions we teachers need to be asking are how are people communicating today, what makes those forms of communication effective, how might we develop those forms of communication in our classrooms. The new literacy demands it.

Haiti and Grit


This past week, I traveled again to Leogane, Haiti to a small school, St. Matthieu Episcopal School. It was not a mission trip, and I am not a missionary. In fact, if anyone was sharing or living the gospels, it was the Haitians, and I am the beneficiary of all that they teach me about faith, hope, and love.


I’m a teacher, and I believe in the power of education. I keep returning to Matthieu because the parents in the community desperately want an education for their children, and their children love to learn. In Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains, which chronicles the work of Dr. Paul Farmer in Haiti, he emphasizes the value of building schools, which may seem like poor triage when you consider the level of homelessness and hunger that prevails. However, one peasant woman explained why school is critical to Haiti’s future, “A lot of us wondered what would have happened if we had known how to write, perhaps we wouldn’t be in this situation now.” She rightly understands that knowledge is indeed power.

The annual cost of education for each child at Matthieu is roughly $100, which importantly includes a mid-day meal, often the only meal those children will receive. On my first visit in 2009 with a group of seniors, my students were surprised to discover that the Haitian students were learning math on a level commensurate with students in America. It’s a remarkable feat when you consider the nature of their classrooms: wooden benches, a rudimentary board, and chalk. Technology is non-existent, and yet they still learn.


Ten months after the 2010 earthquake, my friend John, a retired Episcopal priest, and I hatched an idea for a fundraiser. We photographed every child and teacher, placed their faces on holiday ornaments, and sold each ornament for $100, raising over $40,000 in three weeks. Every child attended school free in 2011, and every teacher received a salary.


Recently, we learned that the children have not been receiving lunch and the teachers have not been paid in months. We needed a new idea. How might we raise money to help sustain the good work of this school?

Unfortunately, the Haitians have few products to offer the world. There are no stores; instead, make shift stands offer goods that would be turned away from our local Goodwill stores.


Instead, what they have to offer is the work of their hands and their imaginations: their art. And their creations are their way of telling stories about their lives.


So, on this trip, I traveled with two friends: John, the retired priest, and Susan, an artist who could help us discern what might sell at a future fundraiser in Atlanta. On our four day trip, we spent two traveling through the streets of Port au Prince, Petionville, Carrefour, and Leogane, looking for local art. The art is hung outside on the sides of buildings, strung up daily by the artisans.


We haggled over the price of each painting we purchased, recognizing that we would also have to frame the pictures once back in the States. The artists fought back, laughing, cajoling, and arguing with us. They’d ask our names, and say, “Holly, Susan, come into my shop,” pointing in the direction of their paintings hanging in the open air.


It was difficult. Their paintings are beautiful; their colors rich and vibrant. But we’ve held an auction before, and we knew that we needed to find works that would appeal to American sensibilities. In the end, we purchased thirty paintings, bullhorn bracelets and earrings, hand carved salad bowls, and tin carvings. Here are a few of the paintings yet to be framed.






Our church has graciously agreed to allow us to host the auction in its fellowship hall. Fingers crossed, we hope to raise at least $20,000.

In addition, St. Matthieu has graduates who would like to attend university. We identified twelve individuals to begin with, graduates who would like to study nursing, accounting, engineering, and religion. Annual tuition at the university ranges, depending on the degree, from two to three thousand a year. After interviewing and photographing the individuals, I will begin writing their narratives. In the next few months, we’ll be meeting with donors who have already expressed a willingness to sponsor these students. However, I know that a face and a story will be important in building that relationship.

So, that in a nutshell was the purpose of my trip. But as always I return deeply reflective about what I believe. One incident in particular troubles me. We were traveling to visit another school up in the mountains, St. Jean Baptiste, even poorer than St. Matthieu. Through our last fundraiser, we were able to sustain Jean Baptiste, but since then it has fallen on even more difficult times. We have relative poverty in America, but in Haiti, poverty is absolute. The earthquake had destroyed much of the infrastructure, and what they had left they were holding together with the aid tents dispersed by USAID in 2010.


The road up to Jean Baptiste traverses a riverbed, which was dry since the rainy season has yet to begin. Traveling in a truck, crossing the dry, bumpy bed, the three of us were silently reflective after seeing the grim circumstances at the rural school. It was Saturday, washing day for the Haitians, when they wring their clothes out in the river bed or gully and then dry them in the sun. Walking with their baskets on their heads or traveling by donkey, they were all gathering by the water.


Many others were traveling to market. The majority of Haitians don’t own their own transportation. They travel in tap-taps, vibrantly painted trucks or buses adorned with devotional messages that serve as share taxis, or on motorcycles, three or four at a time.


Right ahead of us, coming in the opposite direction, a motorcycle hit a large stone, spilling its riders onto the ground. The driver, a young man, was uninjured, but his passengers, three older women were badly injured. One had clearly broken her ankle. Another, who was not wearing shoes, had split open the bottom of her foot. We carried them to the back of the truck and took off to the Sainte Croix Hospital in Leogane. It is unfortunately closed during the weekends, so we rushed to the Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) Center nearby. It’s a guarded, gated center, but they let us in quickly, assuming that either Susan or I was hurt. The urgency of their concern quickly dissolved when they discovered we had brought injured Haitians to their door. We helped them out of the truck and into wheelchairs; the elderly woman with the broken ankle was quietly crying. Although MSF is a global humanitarian aid organization, it does cost to receive care. We were able to notify their family members, and I paid what I hoped would cover their expenses. Nevertheless, the experience left us all dispirited.


Apparently, eighty percent of all emergencies in Haiti result from motorcycles and tap-tap accidents that topple from their top-heavy weight. Farmer in Mountains Beyond Mountains recounts a story of a woman tossed from the top of a tap-tap whom he found dead in the street, surrounded by mangoes and covered in a small sheet of cardboard. The tap-tap’s bumper was painted with the apt Creole phrase, “Lord, a word on all this.”

It’s easy to say the motorcycle simply hit a rock – an accident. But Farmer asks us to look deeper: “Accidents happened. Sure. But not every bad thing that happens is an accident. There was nothing accidental about the wretchedness of the road … or the overloaded tap-tap, or the desperation of a peasant woman who had to get to market and make a sale because otherwise her family would go hungry. These circumstances all had causes…” What Farmer is asking us to recognize is that there are hidden causes that exist whether they are invisible to us or not. It’s a reality that I share often with my students.

That reality goes to the heart of the grit discussion that Grant Lichtman, Ira Socol, and Paul Thomas have been engaged in and about which I thought often during my trip. The nature of that discussion surrounds the question of whether the current buzzword in education – grit – belies an unwillingness to challenge the social, political, and economic conditions in America that often makes life so difficult for minority and poor children. In the truck on the way from Port au Prince to Leogane, John shared some stories of his visits to an orphanage and a kindergarten in Cite de Soleil, considered perhaps the most notoriously dangerous slum in the Northern Hemisphere. At the Marguerite de Nassau kindergarten funded by Food for the Poor, whose motto is “Come to learn, come to love, come to be,” John was struck by the strictness of the teachers. They tolerated no dissension or divergence from their rules. They explained to John, “We are hard because life is hard, and these children must learn this.” The teachers then led the students in a recitation, which included the mantra, “Seize your power.” Similarly at the boys’ orphanage Our Lady of Hope, the nun in charge said to John, “Without this orphanage, these boys would be murdered or become murderers. But we teach them that they are the future of Haiti, and they could teach you one thing: your money makes a poor master.”

On that trip, John and I discussed grit often. Yes, young Haitians need to learn endurance. They will grow up in a world where they will enjoy few governmental services. There is no trash service, no public and few private latrines, limited water, and no sewer services.


And yet in my conversations with them, the Haitians asked me to view their lives through the lens of their perspective.


They live in poverty, but not in misery. Suicide is virtually non-existent in Haiti, and their lives are not marked by isolation, depression, or anxiety. When they turn to one another to express pain or hunger, they are greeted with understanding. The children are born in their mother’s homes, and the neighbors all know one another by name. Their lives are marked by a shared experience.


Grit is not something others tell them they need to survive; they naturally possess grit. More than grit, which only ensures survival, they seek and share faith, hope, and love, which makes for a life worth living.


Rereading Mountains Beyond Mountains on my trip, I was struck by one Haitian phrase, which I kept turning over and over as I reflected on grit: “Bondye konn bay, men li pa konn separe.” It translates in English to, “God gives but doesn’t share.” What the Haitians are trying to explain is that he intended the sharing to be left to us.