Archive for General

THE TREE OF LIFE

November 21, 2018 Comments Off on THE TREE OF LIFE General

Israel is such a beautiful place to visit. We were there for a second time in the summer of 2017, accompanied by a wonderful group of friends and neighbors mainly from our Squirrel Hill Pittsburgh community.  One day, returning to Jerusalem from the Dead Sea and Masada, we stopped at the lovely Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. Ein Gedi has exciting hiking trails, botanical gardens, and a delightful waterfall for swimmers. When we arrived, I entered the rest room and encountered a group of laughing, happy young women in bathing suits. I guessed that they had been in the waterfall; they were clearly having a really good time.

Shortly after they walked out of the restroom, I heard what sounded like screaming. I rushed out to see one of the young women shouting with joy and embracing her beloved grandfather and grandmother, both of whom were with us on our tour. They had known that they would be in Israel at the same time, but had no idea that they would run into each other. The joy of their coincidental reunion was riveting because it was so filled with their great love for one another.  It was a wonderful moment to witness.

I recalled that joyful reunion in Israel after reading a newspaper article in which the Rabbi of the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill described the screams he heard as eleven of his congregants were brutally shot to death on Saturday October 27, 2018. Our home in Squirrel Hill is just about two blocks from the Tree of Life. The morning of the shooting I was working at my computer when a text came in from my neighbor, warning me of a live shooter at the Tree of Life.  We ran to our television and watched the sad story unfold. The world-wide hatred and violence which seems to arrive daily in our newspaper had now come to our own community.

In response to the murder of my neighbors, and the cruel anti-Semitism which so many must fear, I assigned myself a philosophical task. The task was to try to balance the joys of the reunion I witnessed in Israel with the terrible grief experienced by so many families in Squirrel Hill after the shooting. Complete philosophical resolution of course eludes me. However, I have considered anew the ways in which we might best balance the joys we can experience in our lives and relationships with the pain experienced by all who encounter the reality or ramifications of terror and violent death around the world.  How can we build a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives when so many deeply frightening things are happening?

My thoughts about the juxtaposition of joy and violence – the best and worst of things that can happen – returned me to writings that have been my touchpoints for years.  The first is that of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose Book of Hours contains poetic imaginary conversations the Almighty might have with us:

“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final”

This quote has been an inspiration to me because it allows dual acknowledgement of what we value most greatly in our lives with we find most frightening. There is a fluidity in these polarized experiences that allows us to move both between them and forward from them toward what is right and good.

Rilke further writes:

“Flare up like a flame; make big shadows I can move in.”

We need not hide or diminish our responses to joy or fear or sorrow. When we fully articulate our most powerful reactions to what is beautiful and what is terrifying, we can help to create meaningful spaces for others to be inspired in their own lives and ultimately to act for the good of others.

I think it is natural to feel powerless in the face of our greatest social problems. How can anyone eradicate hatred and prejudice? How can anyone control the huge proliferation of weapons of war and destruction in our own society? How can anyone end the poverty and lack of meaningful education that can so often lead to anger and the destructive desire to harm others?

When I ask myself these questions, I am inspired by the beautiful writing of educator David Purpel, who was committed to the moral and purposeful life. I think his answer to “What can we do?” was always “Something.” Whenever something is done, no matter how small or futile it may seem, something else happens. Courage begets courage, love begets love, compassion begets compassion. As Purpel wrote in his book Moral Outrage in Education:

“Problems surely can and should be ameliorated, suffering and pain reduced, justice and equity increased, peace furthered, violence lessened, meaning strengthened. To accomplish even limited gains is exalting and exhilarating for as the Talmud teaches, ‘It is not for us to finish the task _ but neither are we free to take no part in it.”

I believe that what both Rilke and Purpel offer is the power of transcendence – of using what we value and treasure the most to strengthen our ability to confront terror and violence with a courageous sense of purpose and hope.  We can move forward, we can enact our best moral selves, and we can serve in the healing of the world.

I dedicate this blog to those who died in the Tree of Life on October 27, 2018. May their memory be for blessing.

Written  by Beatrice S. Fennimore a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children.

The author took this photograph of a tree turning to fall colors in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh.

MR. FRED ROGERS: A CHILD ADVOCATE FOR ALL TIME

June 10, 2018 Comments Off on MR. FRED ROGERS: A CHILD ADVOCATE FOR ALL TIME General

 

 

 

Mr. Rogers has been in my life since my first child started watching him on public television long ago in the 1970s in Brooklyn, New York.  The show seemed strange to me at first, with the simple set and unique puppets (many of whom had the same Pittsburgh accent.) I subsequently met Mr. Rogers briefly at a Parent Teacher Association luncheon in Manhattan in the early 1980s. All the PTA parents at the luncheon were hoping to have him sign their event program for their children after the event. There were probably 50 or more of us still lined up for an autograph when someone came over to Mr. Rogers and said, “Fred, we have to leave now.” He looked at the person, and then looked out over all of us. His friendly response to the person urging him to stay on schedule was, “I will leave after I speak with all these people.”   This memory always stayed with me; PTA parents whose children attended public schools in New York City were not always treated with that level of respect and kindness. It meant a lot to me.

 

In the mid-1980s, my family made the decision to move from New York to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. So many of my friends asked me, “How can you think of moving from New York? You are such a New Yorker! You love New York!” It was true. I loved New York City so much that, taking the subway home from my evening doctoral classes at Teachers College, I always stood up to look out the window in awe of how beautiful the city looked as the train went over the Manhattan Bridge.  But the prospect of living in Pittsburgh was exciting for lots of reasons, and I always reminded people that we were “moving to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood!” Somehow, it was the connection with Mr. Rogers that eased my way during the transition. And, when friends or relatives would come to visit us in our new home, we would bring them to WQED to see the set for Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. If we happened to see Fred there, he was absolutely just as kind and polite and nice in person as he was on his TV set.

 

Last night, more than 30 years after moving to Pittsburgh, I went to see the documentary called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” What a beautiful film!  I was so moved again to see his gentle kindness to children – his respect for their feelings and experiences. I also became much more aware of the courage of his convictions as he pioneered new ways of helping children to develop ethical and political understandings of the world around them. He honored their questions and fears; he found ways to model respect, compassion, and acceptance of others. Love, he tells us in the film, is at the root of all feelings – love or the lack of it.  He also shares his belief that one of the worst and most unethical things we can do to children is to make them feel as though they are much less than they really are. Mr. Rogers was a powerful advocate for children. He knew they did not all experience love. He knew that many of them were harmed by the belittling powers of prejudice and discrimination. Mr. Rogers showed all of us how, in daily exchanges with children, we could help them to see their true selves and find their real voices.

 

At the end of the film, we saw Mr. Roger’s persistence even in the face of aging and discouragement. Violence was still persistent in children’s television. There were parodies of his show, some demeaning and unkind.  Like so many other dedicated people, after a lifetime of commitment to a great social cause, he had to face the limitations of what he had accomplished. After he died, unkind criticisms of the effects of his show on children emerged. There were even protesters across the street from his funeral – protesters who had their young children with them – because of his perceived approval of homosexuality. Imagine having little children across from his memorial service taking part in a demonstration of human intolerance! It seems impossible, but it is not. Over and over again, those who advocate for children must accept the limitations of their social, political, and professional power.  Every day was not a beautiful day for Mr. Rogers, but he was never diminished. If he were here with us today, I believe that he would tell us again that love is the strongest human force on earth and love will always prevail in the end.

 

The photograph above in the public domain is of Mr. Fred Rogers testifying in support of public television for Congress in 1969.

Written  by Beatrice S. Fennimore a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children.

A GIRL, A MOTHER, AND A CHRISTMAS GIFT

December 26, 2017 Comments Off on A GIRL, A MOTHER, AND A CHRISTMAS GIFT General

A GIRL, A MOTHER, AND A CHRISTMAS GIFT

 

I heard a woman tell this story about herself as I drove home from work about 20 years ago. It was early December; I was listening to a radio talk show as I drove. The radio host had asked listeners to call in with memories of a wonderful Christmas. This woman’s story was the first I heard; the call was anonymous so I cannot acknowledge her by name. She told this story with such charming depth and warmth of emotion that I have found it unforgettable. * I decided to share her story with you in this beautiful season.

 

“I grew up in the 1950s in a small mill town right outside of Pittsburgh. My father had died in a car accident when I was a baby, and my mother and I had struggled to get by until she married a widower with three children a few years later. My stepfather worked in the mill, and when we heard the mill whistle blow at 5:00 PM we knew he would soon be home for dinner. He was a very quiet man — kind but remote with the children as men often were at that time. My mother stayed at home to take care of us four kids, and she managed to keep our family warm and well- fed on a tight budget. There was never any extra money, and we knew at Christmastime that the words “I want” should not to be heard. My mother taught us to be grateful for what we had and to be gracious about anything that was given to us. We knew there would be exactly two gifts for each of us under the tree on Christmas morning; almost inevitably the clothes we needed the most. Saying anything except “thank you” after opening the boxes was unthinkable.

 

One day close to Christmas, when I was 11 years old, my girlfriend and I were walking around the shops in our little town to see the pretty decorations. We passed a jewelry store with a glittering window display. Everyone in town knew the jewelry store was for rich people; mill families with little money were not welcome. On this day, when I gazed into the store window, I suddenly spied a magical child’s watch. It had a small diamond on each side of its golden rim, delicate filigree numbers and hands, and an elastic band. The minute I saw that watch I had to have it.

 

I showed the watch to my girlfriend and told her I was going to go into the store and ask to see it. My girlfriend was hesitant but I insisted that we go in. The shopkeeper looked at us with unfriendly suspicion. I boldly walked up to her and asked to see the watch in the window. She asked, “Do you have the money to buy something like that?” I was unstoppable and insisted that I wanted to see it. My girlfriend was shocked! Under her breath, she asked me what I was thinking to make such a request. I told her I just had to look at it up close. The shopkeeper held the box and allowed me to look inside. That watch was just unbelievably lovely!  I informed the shopkeeper that I would talk to my mother about buying it, and we left.

 

The next day, I worked up the courage to mention the watch to my mother. I was afraid she would be angry with me but she was very nice about it. It was truly uncharacteristic for me to make this kind of request; maybe Mom could see that that something very special had come over me. She listened carefully as I told her all about how much I loved that little watch in the jewelry store window. After a few moments of silence, she agreed to go look at it the next week. However, she cautioned me that it was most likely out of our financial reach. And indeed, a few days later, she took me aside to say that she had gone to look at the watch and that it was so expensive that I had to just forget about it.

 

I adored my mother and tried to obey her, but I could not forget about that watch. Knowing that my mother always meant what she said, however, it was time to start holding out for a miracle. Every night before Christmas, I knelt by my bed to say my prayers and to ask God to find a way for me to get that watch. I just had to have it!

 

When Christmas morning finally arrived, we all ran to the tree to see our wrapped gifts. We were allowed to open one before breakfast and the second after church. I scanned my two boxes carefully for evidence of the miraculous watch, but things did not look good. There were two large boxes that appeared to be clothing as usual. I opened the smaller box, hoping for the best. Pajamas. My heart began to sink, but there was always hope until I opened the second box. In church that morning I continued my prayers for a miracle.  After church, we ran back to the tree to open our second box. Could the watch be inside? I eagerly opened the box and saw a new skirt and sweater set inside. I was crushed. I knew I should be grateful, but on that Christmas morning I was just plain filled with deep disappointment.

 

My mother was watching me very carefully, patient as always. She gently told me it would be a good idea to take the new outfit upstairs and try it on. When I grouchily asked why, she said she had not been sure the size was right. Although I refused at first, my mother insisted that I take the box upstairs to try on the outfit. Dejectedly, I walked up to my room and opened the box. I put on the skirt first; it had a pretty little dog on it. Then, I started to put on the sweater. My first arm went in easily, but something was stuck in the second sleeve. I pushed my arm harder into the sweater, and a small wrapped box fell out of the sleeve and onto the floor. My heart literally stopped.

 

I was almost shaking as I unwrapped the box and looked inside. Yes! Unbelievable! It was the very watch that I wanted with all my heart. I ran downstairs and into my mother’s arms. I was just so happy and excited; we were both in tears. What a wonderful day that was. My mother had worked a miracle that I could never, ever forget.

 

To this day, I have no idea of how my mother managed to purchase that watch.  She kept it a secret for the rest of her life.  My guess has always been that she had a small bank account for emergencies and used it to buy me the watch, but I will never know. I wore it until it literally fell apart in my twenties. I put all the pieces in the box with the jeweler’s name on top, and have kept them to this very day. My mother passed away last year, leaving me with this golden memory of her love and devotion. Thank you for the opportunity to share this story about my wonderful mother with all your listeners!”

 

And to one and all – a happy, healthy 2018!

 

*Since it has been so long since I heard this story on the radio, I have taken the liberty to add details as needed for gaps in my memory.  The fundamental story is the exactly the one I recall.

Written  by Beatrice S. Fennimore a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children.

MY RETURN TO YAD VASHEM SUMMER 2017

July 18, 2017 Comments Off on MY RETURN TO YAD VASHEM SUMMER 2017 General

I was most fortunate to be able to return to Israel this summer, and to tour Yad Vashem and the Children’s Memorial again.  My journey also offered many other opportunities to think deeply about the danger to all humanity that is inherent in hatred and discrimination in all its forms.  Yad Vashem continues to offer hope as well as challenge through its beautiful recognition of the righteous — those who had the courage to counter murderous hatred with courageous action.  Now that I have returned home I have decided to re-post my blog on Yad Vashem from July 2015. We certainly continue to live in a world filled with conflict and thus a world which requires us to continually revisit our universe of obligation to one another. We also continue to live in a world in which many children are suffering deeply from war and human conflict in all its forms.  No one can do everything, but everyone can do something to build a world that is more equitable, more compassionate, more just — and thus more peaceful.

 

 

 

“And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name (a “yad vashem”)… that shall not be cut off.”

(Isaiah, chapter 56, verse 5)

 

On my recent trip to Israel I had the opportunity to tour Yad Vashem – “…the Jewish people’s living memorial to the Holocaust. Established in 1953, as the world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem is today a dynamic and vital place of intergenerational and international encounter.” (Quote from museum website).

During my tour, I was especially moved by the children’s memorial. “This unique memorial, hollowed out from an underground cavern, is a tribute to the approximately 1.5 million Jewish children who were murdered during the Holocaust. Memorial candles, a customary Jewish tradition to remember the dead, are reflected infinitely in a dark and somber space, creating the impression of millions of stars shining in the firmament. The names of murdered children, their ages and countries of origin can be heard in the background.” (Quote from museum website).

As I walked out of the children’s memorial onto the beautiful museum grounds, I passed a sculpture of the compassionate face of a man surrounded by many children. The children were suffering and very sad. Wondering who he was, I took a photo of the sculpture so I could ask our guide when we met up later in the tour. She told me he was Janusz Korczak, a doctor who had cared for 200 children in an orphanage in Poland at the time of the Holocaust. As the extermination of the children in his care by the Nazis came near, Kolchak’s influential friends urged him to save himself. His reply was always the same; “You wouldn’t abandon your own child … So how can I leave two hundred children now?” (p. 82). Ultimately he walked with his beloved children to awaiting freight cars and died with them in the gas chambers of Treblinka.

Although I had not heard his name before, I discovered later that both Bruno Bettelheim and Alice Miller had considered him one of the greatest educators of all times. “When the United Nations declared 1979 “The Year of the Child” it was also named “The Year of Janus Korczak” to mark the centenary of his birth.” (p. xi)

The unrelieved horror of the Holocaust, starkly present throughout Yad Vashem, is lightened only by the recognition of those who, like Janusz Korczak, held brilliant moral ground in the face of brutal and murderous hostility. “In a world of total moral collapse there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values. These were the Righteous Among the Nations. They stand in stark contrast to the mainstream of indifference and hostility that prevailed during the Holocaust. Contrary to the general trend, these rescuers regarded the Jews as fellow human beings who came within the bounds of their universe of obligation.” (Quote from Yad Vashem website).

If we come to believe during our lives that that we all have a universe of obligation, places such as Yad Vashem call us to reflect on the opportunities for righteousness that exist in our own daily lives. One opportunity that is certainly present in the lives of teachers as well as many other professionals and citizens is the recognition of suffering in children that stems from callous social disregard for poverty and discrimination. Our compassionate and caring response can create a universe of hope for children. Janusz Korczak says this best in his book Loving Every Child: Wisdom for Parents. He writes:

“If a child has a life where cruelty has become the norm, what a powerful effect would be the memory of that person – perhaps the only one – who showed kindness, understanding, and respect. The child’s future life and sense of his self could take a different course, knowing there was one person who would not fail him.” (p. 28).

As troubling as the world can seem in so many ways, it is encouraging and comforting to know that our simplest acts of “kindness, understanding, and respect” have tremendous power in the lives of children. If we do not fail them, then possibly we will not fail our responsibility to the future of our nation and our world.

Quotes about Yad Vashem are taken from the museum website http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/about/index.asp

Quotes from the book are taken from Korczak, J. (2007). Loving Every Child: Wisdom for Parents. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

The author took the photographs of the sculpture of Janusz Korczak and the entrance to the Children’s Memorial.

Written by Beatrice S. Fennimore a teacher educator and advocate for social justice for all children http://standingupforsomething.com/

SPUTNIK THE DOG AND THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC EDUCATION IN THE USA

June 11, 2017 Comments Off on SPUTNIK THE DOG AND THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC EDUCATION IN THE USA General

 

Did you ever see such a cute little dog? Meet our dearly departed Sputnik, who passed away of old age and a number of physical ailments on March 2, 2017. A shelter dog rescued from abandonment on the streets of NYC, Sputnik made every day exciting with his enormous personality. He was a highly intelligent, sensitive, consummately friendly jack russell terrier- chihuahua mix with a keen interest in the world all around him. He liked children and was very fond of long walks around the neighborhood. He loved us and we loved him. In spite of his many marvelous qualities, however, we guessed that he had been adopted from shelters more than once before someone dumped him on a city street to fend for himself (to be rescued by a shelter once again).  Why would anyone treat this charming little fellow in such a way?  We might guess that his life was chaotic and unpredictable from the start, making him an anxious dog with some incredibly difficult behavior problems. As we soon discovered ourselves, Sputnik was not always easy to love! We were amazed at how challenging he was, but we never gave up on him. It made us happy to give a chance to a lucky dog whose life could easily have ended in disaster.

 

Let’s start with the fact that Sputnik was terrified of thunder and lightning. If we could medicate him soon enough before a storm with a sedative combined with an anti-anxiety drug, he might remain relatively calm. However, as hard as we tried, we were often taken by surprise with sudden storms. Sputnik went into a complete and immediate panic and, before the drugs finally kicked in, would try to climb on us so he could bite and scratch our heads. Our escape with the first clap of thunder was a quick leap onto the kitchen counter, with Sputnik in hot pursuit. We would clutch each other in fear as Sputnik jumped high enough to get in close range – poised for attack. This entire situation made it necessary for us to keep a small bag of his medications attached to our refrigerator, so we could reach them as quickly as possible. Luckily, Sputnik could not resist cheese, so we could toss him some cheese with the drugs inside. Everyone needed a nap when the harried weather episode finally ended.

 

Rain was an issue as well. Sputnik absolutely hated walking in the rain. One night, when we finally got him out the door while it was raining, he suddenly resisted, pulled away, and managed to get one of his paws stuck in his harness. Sound like an easy problem to solve? Not so! In his ordinary life and interactions with others, Sputnik was never aggressive. Once in pain or panicked, however, Sputnik would bite. A huge set of razor-sharp teeth would somehow emerge from that small little mouth, placing the person trying to help him at high risk. The solution that night? We managed with the help of huge chunks of cheese to get him into his crate, and drove for about 30 minutes to the nearest emergency veterinary hospital. Somehow the doctors managed to sedate him and free his paw.

 

Speaking of veterinarians, Sputnik was a veterinary celebrity. Our fantastic regular vet (duly warned) was cautious – an assistant would restrain Sputnik carefully as he did his best to relieve our vet of a chunk of his arm.  After any treatment, the medical team would back away and Sputnik would calmly allow us to lift him from the examining table to the floor.  One night, I got home from work to find Sputnik badly injured on the floor. Apparently, he had panicked during a storm, destroyed the contents of an entire set of boxes on a closet floor, and then possibly taken a backward tumble down the nearby set of stairs. To make a long story short, he had a back injury so serious that the emergency vets could not get him out of pain –even with morphine. We had to choose between letting him go or agreeing to an operation to repair his spine. Unable to say goodbye to our dear little pal, we agreed to the surgery.

 

Soon after the operation, the nice emergency vet called and asked me to come get him earlier than expected. Sputnik was apparently trying to bite everyone in the hospital. When I acknowledged that Sputnik was “a bit of a problem” the vet humorously replied “…he is a holy terror.”  Did Sputnik recover well? Yes, he did. So well in fact that, when he returned to the hospital for post-surgical check, he escaped from the treatment area and engaged the medical team in a high-speed chase around the waiting room. The emergency vet later suggested that we skip the second follow-up visit, as it seemed unnecessary. “Why put him through that again,” he asked, “and why put all of us through that again?” The story of Sputnik’s full recovery at home is too long to tell—but he made it through and spent a few more happy and healthy years with us.

 

There was just one more visit to the emergency veterinary hospital late one night last fall. Sputnik was aging, and his breathing problems and coughing, we discovered, were due to pneumonia, a heart murmur, and several other medical problems. After a night in the hospital on oxygen, we took good care of him at home until he made the decision to let go – he refused his medicine and food and lay quietly in his bed. When we sadly brought him to his caring regular vet, assuming he would be put to sleep, we all instead decided to give an injection of antibiotics and steroids that had helped in the past one more try. After our exciting life with Sputnik, we wanted to be sure that our powerful, wonderful little fighter was truly ready to leave us. Alas, nothing worked, and a few days later we said a sad good-bye to our little Sputty (as everyone called him). He was calm as his life was close to ending, and he seemed to approach each of us to thank us for taking such good care of him.

 

Our regular vet once told us, “When this dog found you, he won the lottery.”  Sputnik’s rescue from the streets and his unlikely adoption by patient people who loved him enough (and had the resources) to support him through his challenges resulted in a miracle – a long and happy life with many admiring friends (animal and human) all over his neighborhood. His caregivers adored him, and the place where we boarded him once actually honored him as “Dog of the Month.”* Sputnik was a dog no one could ever forget! He had a unique strut and style wherever he went. As a neighbor once said, “He is a little dog who doesn’t know he is little.”

 

What’s the connection to the future of public education? Sputnik was not the first dog we adopted who had experienced abandonment, hunger, and fear. We have had other dogs who came to us from shelters with the need to be patiently loved and nurtured before they were able to show us just how wonderful they really were. They needed acceptance, respect, understanding, and a real commitment on the part of those who cared for them.

 

While I want to be clear that I am not equating dogs with children, I must acknowledge that there are many, many children in the United States whose young lives have also been characterized by difficult if not traumatic early experiences. Poverty, violence, discrimination, lack of resources, and other kinds of social neglect take their emotional and developmental toll. These children can truly make great strides in public schools in which they are accepted, respected, and supported by a determined institutional stance of humane warmth and understanding. All too often, in my experience, many of these children instead attend under-resourced schools with a stance of punishment, suspension, and expulsion – even for children in preschool and early grades!

 

These are the children who need a chance! Please don’t be fooled with words like “school choice.” There may be many people who would apparently like to profit economically from constructing privatized schools that provide enhanced opportunities for some children, but it is highly unlikely that many of them are truly seeking to admit, support, and cherish the many children in the USA who are in the most desperate need of intensive and caring intervention. These are children who need a high-quality public-school system with a heart. As a nation, we have the moral imperative to embrace the “choice” of actively meeting the mandates and intentions of the Brown decision of 1954! We have the “choice “of protecting, sustaining, and improving a national system of public schools reflecting a commitment to all our children. We have the “choice” to address child poverty, to fight against prejudice, bias, and discrimination, and to equalize public school resources. The difference that this “choice” would make for children in need is beyond measure and description. Our poorest or most troubled children would indeed “win the lottery” – because the love, care, and commitment they received in well-resourced schools would light the way to a future of less suffering and much more hope, true opportunity, and ultimate happiness.

*This was Sputnik’s “Dog of the Month” photo taken by the Dog Stop of Pittsburgh East End

Written  by Beatrice S. Fennimore a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children.

WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?

February 9, 2017 Comments Off on WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN? General

 

This photograph is of a hospital built on Tiber Island in Rome, Italy. Tiber Island is tied forever to the origins of Rome, and to the hospital that has been a famous place of healing since the arrival of sacred snakes  said to protect the people from the plague in ancient times. This hospital on Tiber Island holds a very special place in my heart – two of my grandsons were born there within the past five years. When I visit my daughter and her husband and sons– they have lived in Rome for some years now – I always love to racewalk along the Tiber River in the early morning. It is a beautiful and peaceful time of day, and I never fail to stop to look at the hospital in the midst of the river and be grateful for all the good fortune it has brought to my family. One morning, the light on the bell tower was so perfect that I took this photograph.

 
This bell tower helps me to reflect on the impact of the political turmoil in the United States on children. What are they hearing? What are they seeing? What are they thinking? This is hardly the first time that our nation has been in turmoil. Think about children during the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, the internment of our Japanese American citizens, the Civil Rights Movement – many children have experienced fear, confusion, uncertainty, and yes – suffering. I would like to encourage everyone to just stop and think – what about the children right now? They are watching us, and they are learning from us. What are we modeling, and what are we teaching them?

 
I think that hope should be a birthright of every child in the United States. Hope for their future, and hope that the adults around them are forever seeking what is right and what is good. Our nation, founded on idealistic principles of liberty and equality, has been built on the hopes of so many immigrants and so many strong people whose vision of a great democracy inspired their courage, persistence, and determination to build a better life for all the people. Nothing was easy for them! As a young African American man who descended from slaves says in the film A Place at the Table, “They never gave up, and they never gave in.”

 
This commentary is not proposing that I or anyone else opt out of our civic responsibility to stand up for our beliefs or resist anything that we believe will harm the common good. Rather, it is suggesting that we just take time right now to ask about what is happening to our children? They are depending on the adults around them for hope and for reassurance that their future is a beacon of light. It is exciting, I think, for children to be around adults with an animated interest in political and civic affairs – adults who express their commitments and act on them for the public good. However, being in the presence of adults (however accomplished they may be) who are modeling hopeless, denigrating, or hate-filled talk and action is something quite different – is this what we want to teach our children? As the education author Parker Palmer has written – we teach who we are. Who are we right now?

 
I think we can be beacons of light – people who demonstrate beliefs and commitments in positive and respectful ways. We can be people who encourage children to become good citizens – citizens who can engage in civil discourse – even in periods of disruption and disturbance – that leads to respectful acknowledgement of multiple perspectives and constructs positive steps toward peace. We can stand up, speak out, and resist injustice —  while still modeling the best of ourselves for the children who are our future.

 

Written  by Beatrice S. Fennimore a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children.

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS FOR TIMES OF POLITICAL TURMOIL

December 26, 2016 Comments Off on NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS FOR TIMES OF POLITICAL TURMOIL General

Hello dear blog readers!

I offer you this re-posting of one of my favorite blogs, hoping that it will inspire powerful resolutions for the new year soon to come.  I attribute this folk tale to the  very wise and wonderful relative who first told it to me (partially in Italian) — but I suspect that it exists in varied forms  around the world.  I love this folk tale because it reminds me of the importance of “carrying heavier stones” for the sake of others.  Many years ago, when I  just started graduate school, I decided to spend some time thinking carefully of how a “good person” could be identified.  After some consideration, I decided to think of a “good person” as someone who carried much more responsibility for others than was actually required for their own success and personal satisfaction. Since then, I have asked many of my university students to give me an example of someone in their lives who was a really “good person.” Almost universally, they have talked about people they knew who made sacrifices for others — in their families, in their communities, and in their professional lives– with a generous eye toward the common good. At this time, many of us are aware of the depressed or even despairing ways in which some people around us might be  viewing the political state of our nation.  How can we all move forward together?  I  think we need a lot of citizens  who are a source of calm, of hopeful vision, and of dedicated service to the common good.  We do have a whole new year ahead — and it undoubtedly will offer all of us countless ways to ACT on our true dedication to justice, fairness, equality, and good will toward all.

THE WISE MAN AND THE MOUNTAIN

I think we all wonder at times if it is sensible to spend time reaching out to others and advocating for their rights and needs.  After all, we are truly very busy with our work and our families and other responsibilities. And, as we persist in trying to make a difference for others, we sometimes wonder what we are actually accomplishing!

We need some sources of support and encouragement to keep us going. I think we often need to return to our philosophy of life. What do we value and what is important to us? When I reflect on such thoughts, my mind often returns to a folk tale that a beloved older relative told me many years ago.  Here it is:

There was once a small village by the side of a tall mountain. The adults in the village were very worried about their young people, who they thought were becoming greedy and unconcerned about others.  They held a community meeting about this problem, and decided to ask for help from a very wise old man who lived nearby in the hills. He was said to have special powers to change hearts from absorption with self to love and concern for others. To everyone’s delight, the wise man agreed to come to the village to speak with all the young people.

On a warm and sunny day, the wise man arrived. He called all the young people to him and led them close to the side of the mountain. He explained that they would all climb up the mountain until they reached a fresh spring of water. There, he told them, they would all learn a great lesson of life. First, though, he pointed to the many stones of different sizes and shapes that lay all around them on the ground. “Each of you,” he said, “must choose a stone to carry up the mountain. Choose carefully! In life it is important to choose that which is worth carrying.”

As the young people milled around, considering different sizes and shapes of stones, they fell into three groups. The first group quietly laughed and said such things to each other as “Does this silly old man think we care about stones to carry up the mountain? What for! So what? Just find the smallest and easiest stones around here.” They all found stones so tiny they could barely be seen in their hands.

The second group looked around cautiously. As they spoke with one another, they said things like, “This man seems nice but strange, and we don’t want him to cause any trouble for us. Let’s find stones of bright color big enough for him to see but easy to carry.” They found stones that made a good appearance but weighed quite little.

The third and smallest group of young people talked seriously among themselves. “This man is very wise. We should respect him.  If he wants us to carry stones of importance, let’s pick the biggest ones we can carry. Surely we are doing this for some important purpose.” They picked up large and heavy stones.

Soon, they all started up the mountain with their stones. The climb became steep and the sun grew warm.   The wise men urged them on toward the spring.  The young people with the tiny stones were proud of themselves for being so smart and making their climb so easy.  The group with the stones of good appearance but little weight was glad as well that the stones were not a great burden as they climbed. The group with the larger stones was finding the climb quite difficult. Looking around and realizing how light the stones of many of the others were, they almost felt foolish for burdening themselves in such a way. Still they persisted, because they believed that the climb with the wise man must have some great purpose.

Finally they all reached the fresh spring of water. Now they could drink and refresh themselves and the descent from the mountain would be much easier. But, after they all drank the water, they realized that they were very, very hungry. “Wise man,” they called out, “What did you bring us to eat?” The wise man answered, “I have brought nothing. It is you who have carried the food.” Then he closed his eyes, reached out his hands, whispered magic words, and changed all the stones into delicious loaves of bread.

The sweet smells of fresh bread filled the air.  But the young people with the tiny stones now realized that had almost nothing to eat. Those with stones of good appearance but little weight had only a little more and it would not satisfy their great hunger. It was the group who had carried the largest stones who would have their fill. When those with the smaller stones began to complain, the wise man silenced them. “Listen carefully,” he said. “It is what you agree to carry in life that will sustain you. You must learn to carry heavy duties of responsibility as well as the burdens of others in your village. Reach out to all in need, and go to sleep each night exhausted from work and care. Then you will be greatly loved, and find the only true joys of life.”

I’ll leave you with this story and without further comment. I hope you will enjoy reflecting on it as much as I do.

Written by Beatrice S. Fennimore, a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children.

REVISITING THE CHRISTMAS MOUSE IN THE CALENDAR 2016

December 13, 2016 Comments Off on REVISITING THE CHRISTMAS MOUSE IN THE CALENDAR 2016 General

December greetings to my blog readers! I posted the blog below a number of years ago during this time of year. It still  tends to be one of my most popular blog entries — people read it throughout the year! Thus, I decided to re-post it during this holiday season. I am thinking a great deal about the time of political turmoil in which we are living.  I am trying to encourage my students in teacher education to always remember  that we always have the power  to  influence everyone and everything around us. Even as we seek to filter and recognize the incendiary and sometimes misleading information circulating on the Internet,  we must have the courage to find and act on what we believe is true and right. Every day, where we live and work, there are countless opportunities to light the way for others by directing our thoughts, our words, and our actions toward the common good . This is a really great time of year to take advantage of those opportunities! 

The Christmas Mouse in the Calendar

Christmas Mouse Calendar

When I first began working at my current university, we had a department secretary who sold Avon products.  This was something very new to me; I was adjusting to a lot of new things after moving from New York City to the hills of Western Pennsylvania. However, as soon as our secretary handed me the Avon catalog, I decided that a purchase was in order. Perusing the section on Christmas items, my eye fell on a cloth Advent calendar with a cute little mouse that moved daily from the first pocket at the start of December all the way to pocket 24 on Christmas Eve. It’s been a long time now since I bought that calendar, but I continue to greet it fondly each year as I hang it in its customary spot.  Placing the little mouse in pocket number one, I anticipate its all-too-rapid speed to number twenty-four. As much as I try to treasure time and hold on to it, especially during the holidays, it continues to rush by. Today, it seems impossible that the little mouse is once again resting in pocket twenty-four. Very soon now it will return to the box where I keep my Advent collection, and rest quietly in the basement until Thanksgiving weekend next year.

As we all know, life like time moves only in the direction of forward. We can’t slow it or stop it, but we do have a lot of control over what we do with it. I think that one of the most important things that we can do with time is work as hard as possible to enhance the lives of others.  This belief of mine is affirmed every year during the holiday season.  Much of December can seem blurred with the sense of an overwhelming rush of time and expectation. Yet, it is a month that provides us with the priceless opportunity to remember that each day can be filled with small greetings, gestures, and kind acts that cost us nothing but make life so much better for others. Our own daily intention to live in a way that helps others to live in peace may well be the key to our own happiness and satisfaction.

Many of my experiences as a college professor remind me of the importance of efforts to enhance the lives of others every day. For example, toward the end of the semester in mid-December, I was having a conference with one of my students and the cooperating teacher with whom he had been placed for a field experience. Sitting in an empty classroom as we talked together, I could hear the voices of many children in the other classrooms and in the hallways.  During the meeting, the cooperating teacher shared what it meant to him now to look back on a career that provided the opportunity to have had a genuine effect on so many people. When the meeting was over, I stayed to talk for a few more minutes with my student. I wanted him to really think about what the words of his cooperating teacher had meant in terms of his own career.  It would be very important for him to also be able to look back one day and feel wonderful about his impact on others. He might accomplish some big things – graduate degrees or awards or promotions. But ultimately the “big things” would pale beside the knowledge that, every single day, he had done everything he could to enhance the lives of as many of his students and colleagues as possible.

I think that’s the most important lesson that I learn from my calendar mouse every year. December will rush by for sure! But every day of the holiday season is rich with the opportunity to think of others and to act with intention to reduce suffering and increase justice and peace wherever possible. Knowing that the days will inevitably pass, the opportunities to do good become even more precious.

Peace and love!

Written by Beatrice S. Fennimore a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children

VISITING THE EUROPEAN SOLIDARITY CENTER IN POLAND

August 17, 2016 Comments Off on VISITING THE EUROPEAN SOLIDARITY CENTER IN POLAND General
Solidarity Center Gdansk Poland Gate to Old Lenin Shipyard Gdansk Poland Worker in Solidarity Center Gdansk Poland

On a recent trip through the Baltic region, I had the opportunity to visit the European Solidarity Center (Europejskie Centrum Solidarnosc) in Gdansk, Poland.  This museum offers an amazing opportunity to reflect on the power and complexity of democratic social movements through the lens of the relatively recent 1980-1981 Solidarity Movement in Poland. Solidarity was the first independent self-governing trade union free of communist control in a Warsaw pact country. Not unlike similar movements around the world, the creation of Solidarity was and remains controversial.  Controversy is inherent in grassroots uprisings of civil resistance that successfully counter human oppression.

Opened in 2014, the European Solidarity Center sits near the historic Gate No. 2 of the former Lenin Shipyard (now known as the Gdansk Shipyard) on the edge of Gdansk old town. (See a photo of the gate above). It was in that shipyard that Lech Walesa, then an unknown electrician in the shipyard, gave his first speech in 1979 at an illegal ceremony commemorating workers who had been killed in an uprising in 1970. Walesa went on to famously jump over the shipyard wall in 1980 to help lead the strike of ship workers, and ultimately to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. Millions of strikers and Solidarity members – 10 million by the first Solidarity Congress in 1981 – shared in the accomplishments of the movement.

The European Solidarity Center is constructed from the rusted hulls of ships built in the Gdansk Shipyard; visitors move from room to room to interactively experience political events that took place between 1970 and 1989. While in the museum one can palpably feel the incredible power of committed people who rise up, join together, and seek freedom in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.  In this case, the Solidarity movement contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the return of freedom across Eastern and Central Europe. As I walked through the museum I recalled the famous words of Louis Brandeis displayed in the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia — “The only title in our democracy superior to that of president is the title of citizen.”

In former blogs I have shared the idea that young children and their teachers can create the experience of a social movement through small classroom projects. All children would benefit from learning more about social movements…engaging in critical thought about the political dynamics of a democracy is essential to the life of every future citizen.  Social movements are complex and offer many opportunities to think deeply about the responsibility of citizens to stand up for fairness and freedom in society.  I believe that our current presidential race has underscored the need for much more citizen education in critical political thinking in the U.S.  While school children may be exposed to historical information about movements, the information is often oversimplified.  For example, some years ago I taught a course in the history and philosophy of education. In one class we discussed the civil rights movement and viewed a segment of the Eyes on the Prize documentary. One of my students seemed very surprised at the content of the film and said, “I don’t understand this! People in the movement seemed to have experienced so much hatred and violence, but we were always taught in school that it was a non-violent movement.”  Her words underscore the importance of deeper learning about social movements, including the ways in which in which laws and rights can be tested and upheld through the courageous efforts of ordinary citizens who are willing to take great risks.

Such civic education can be offered not only in the schools but in many other ways throughout communities. For example, some years ago in Pittsburgh, the entire city was encouraged in a “one book one community” initiative to read and discuss the book To Kill a Mockingbird. My husband and I contributed to this initiative by offering a free course on legal and educational issues in the book at a local university. Our course was attended by people spanning a wide range of age, education, work, and experience. The discussions were dynamic; I think we all taught and learned from one another.  Such community initiatives could also be focused on books about movements for human freedom and human rights throughout the world. A movement is created when people work together to address a critical social issue in order to promote social justice and the common good.  I think that the current Black Lives Matter movement is a very good example – and we are in need of many other such movements, small and great, in our world today.

The following reference was consulted and utilized to write this blog: Peters, Florian. (n.d.) Solidarność Yesterday – Solidarity Today? The European Solidarity Center in Gdańsk endeavors to combine the past with the present.  Retrieved from http://www.cultures-of-history.uni-jena.de/exhibitions/poland/solidarnosc-yesterday-solidarity-today-the-european-solidarity-center-in-gdansk-endeavors-to-combine-the-past-with-the-present/ (Translated by David Burnett)

The photographs of the European Solidarity Center were taken by the author.

Written by Beatrice S. Fennimore a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children

CHECK OUT BANK STREET OCCASIONAL PAPER SERIES #35!

May 25, 2016 Comments Off on CHECK OUT BANK STREET OCCASIONAL PAPER SERIES #35! General

 

High Resolution River Pictures - View is a large image

 

If you have never taken a look at the Bank Street Occasional Paper Series (OPS) this is a great time to do it! The theme of the newly published OPS # 35 is Progressive Practices in Public Schools; editors Jonathan Silin and Meredith Moore provided all the authors (including me) with an exciting opportunity to shine light on the many ways in which progressivism can continue to be a powerful force in public education today.  My essay is called Say That the River Turns: Social Justice Intentions in Progressive Public School Classrooms.

 
The title and focus of my essay was inspired by this beautiful line from the poem The Sermon on the Warpland written by Gwendolyn Brooks: “Say that the river turns, and turn the river.” I am grateful to the graduate student in my summer course Young Children and Social Policy at Teachers College in 2010 who focused her creative project on this line of the poetry. Since then, I have re-read and thought about the poem many times.  I believe Brooks truly captures the  powerful role that language must play in resistance to social injustice. We first have to say that something can be done and then we have to do something to start to turn the injustice around!

 
I hope you will take some time to read the entire OPS #35 and share it with others. Here is the link:

https://www.bankstreet.edu/occasional-paper-series/35/

 

 

Written by Beatrice S. Fennimore a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children