Archives for the month of: December, 2015

This is a repeat of a post I published in 2013. I think it is worth posting again.

As you may know, I was born and raised in Houston, Texas.

I am third of eight children.

My parents were both Jewish, as am I.

Yet every year we celebrated Christmas.

Is this puzzling? It wasn’t at all puzzling to me and my siblings.

Every Christmas, the family bought a Christmas tree, and we all joined in decorating it with lights, ornaments, and tinsel.

Every Christmas morning, we woke up like a noisy tribe about five a.m. and rushed to discover that we all had presents under the tree.

Why did our Jewish family celebrate Christmas?

To begin with, my parents had been born into observant Jewish families. My father was born in Savannah, Georgia, where he was the youngest of nine children and the only boy. He was spoiled rotten, left high school without graduating, and tried (but failed) to make it in vaudeville as a hoofer and comedian. My mother was born in Bessarabia and came to America at the end of World War 1 as a nine-year-old girl with her mother and little sister. They traveled on a ship (the “Savoie”) loaded with returning American soldiers, then made their way to Houston to meet my grandfather, who was a tailor and had come to America before the war broke out.

What my parents wanted most was to be seen as “real Americans.” My mother was especially zealous about wanting to speak perfect English (she arrived speaking only Yiddish). She was very proud that she earned a high school diploma from the Houston public schools. In her eyes, real Americans celebrated Christmas. So, of course, we had a tree, and we believed that Santa Claus brought the presents. There was no religious content to our tree and our gifting.

We went to public school, where we learned all the Christmas songs. We went to assemblies and sang “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and all the other traditional songs. I knew I was Jewish, and I usually hummed certain words instead of saying them, but nonetheless I loved the songs and I love them still. I was never offended by singing Christmas songs at public school. It was what we did.

Of course, my siblings and I went to Sunday School at the synagogue, and my brothers were bar mitzvah. I was “confirmed,” which was a ceremony that occurred at the end of tenth grade, when we read from the prayer book as a group.

I should add that we started every day in public school with a short reading from the Bible, over the loudspeaker, followed by a prayer and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

I was okay with the Bible reading, the prayers, the Christmas songs. I was also okay with our family putting up a Christmas tree while belonging to a synagogue and practicing our Jewish rituals and holy days.

I committed one major faux pas as a result of my upbringing in two religious traditions. On one occasion, when I was about 12, the rabbi at my reform temple invited me to join him on the altar and say a prayer. I said “The Lord’s Prayer,” the one that begins, “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” prayer, and there was some awkwardness afterwards. I had no idea that I was saying a Christian prayer, drawn from the Gospel of Matthew, in the synagogue! I had heard it hundreds of times in school. I think I was forgiven my error. After that, the rabbi was careful to propose a specific prayer from the prayer book for children who were invited to speak from the altar.

Many things have changed, and I understand that. But when I go with my partner to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at the Oratory of St. Boniface in Brooklyn, I am glad I know the words to the songs. I learned them in public school in Houston. I look around and am not surprised to see a fairly large number of other Jews from the neighborhood, also joining in singing the songs with the choir. It is Christmas. It is a time to celebrate peace and joy and goodwill towards all. We can all share those hopes.

Teacher Andy Goldstein reads a poem which is a variation of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Andy, who teaches in the public schools of Florida, recites a poem called “How the ALEC stole the Public Out of Public Education.”

In Florida, the public school budget has become a playground for hucksters, scam artists, and profiteers. The charter industry has captured the Republican Party and the State Legislature. Crony capitalism at its worst.

Thanks again to reader Susan Schwartz, who finds wonderful things online and shares them.



A Christmas message to reformers: Fund what works. Hello, Bill Gates. Hello, Eli Broad. Hello, Walton Family. Hello, John Arnold. Hello, John Paulson. Hello, hedge fund managers. Fund what works.


I read this story by Emma Brown in the Washington Post a few days ago. It is such a beautiful story that I decided it should be posted on Christmas Day.


Brown reports on the remarkable success of Superintendent Tiffany Anderson in Jennings, Missouri, a town that borders Ferguson and that like Ferguson, is mainly African American and poor. The district has only 3,000 students. What it provides is an exemplar of wrap-around services. Anderson even helps the graduates of her high school find jobs.


School districts don’t usually operate homeless shelters for their students. Nor do they often run food banks or have a system in place to provide whatever clothes kids need. Few offer regular access to pediatricians and mental health counselors, or make washers and dryers available to families desperate to get clean.


But the Jennings School District — serving about 3,000 students in a low-income, predominantly African American jurisdiction just north of St. Louis — does all of these things and more. When Superintendent Tiffany Anderson arrived here 3 1/2 years ago, she was determined to clear the barriers that so often keep poor kids from learning. And her approach has helped fuel a dramatic turnaround in Jennings, which has long been among the lowest-performing school districts in Missouri.


“Schools can do so much to really impact poverty,” Anderson said. “Some people think if you do all this other stuff, it takes away from focusing on instruction, when really it ensures that you can take kids further academically.”


Public education has long felt like a small and fruitless weapon against this town’s generational poverty. But that’s starting to change. Academic achievement, attendance and high school graduation rates have improved since Anderson’s arrival, and, this month, state officials announced that as a result of the improvements, Jennings had reached full accreditation for the first time in more than a decade.


Gwen McDile, a homeless 17-year-old in Jennings, missed so much school this fall — nearly one day in three — that it seemed she would be unlikely to graduate in June. But then she was invited to move into Hope House, a shelter the school system recently opened to give students like her a stable place to live.
She arrived a few days after Thanksgiving. The 3,000-square-foot house had a private bedroom for Gwen, who loves writing and poetry; a living room with a plush sofa she could sink into; and — perhaps most importantly — a full pantry.


She’s no longer hungry. She has been making it to class. She believes she will graduate on time.


“I’ve eaten more in the last two weeks than I’ve eaten in the last two years,” Gwen said on a recent afternoon, after arriving home from school and digging into a piece of caramel chocolate. “I’m truly blessed to be in the situation I’m in right now.”


There also is a new academic intensity in Jennings: Anderson has launched Saturday school, a college-prep program that offers an accelerated curriculum beginning in sixth grade, and a commitment to paying for college courses so students can earn an associate’s degree before they leave high school.


Anderson restored music, dance and drama programs that had been cut, as they so often are in high-poverty schools, finding the money for those and other innovations by closing two half-empty schools, cutting expensive administrative positions and welcoming new grants and a tide of philanthropic contributions. The district was running a deficit of $2 million before Anderson arrived and balanced the budget….

Anderson, 43, has brought rapid change in a manner that is nearly the opposite of the slash-and-burn fierceness of reformers such as Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. schools chancellor who once fired a principal on television. Anderson instead uses a relentless positivity and sense of shared mission.


“Hello, Beautiful,” Anderson says, walking school corridors. “You’re awesome,” she says dozens of times each day.


“I appreciate you,” she says to the teacher working with a small group of students who are struggling in math, to the second-grader excitedly showing off his research project on dinosaurs, to the teenager who sang a solo in the holiday concert the night before….


Philanthropists are giving to Jennings, excited by the story that is unfolding here. The nonprofit foundation that Anderson set up to accept private donations has more than $80,000 in the bank to pay for the shelter, which can house up to 10 homeless and foster children, and for other efforts.


The shelter emerged from a 90-year-old dilapidated house with no roof. Anderson charged her senior administrative staff members with overseeing the renovations, and she said she gave them 30 days for work to be completed. Concept to reality in one month.


And they did it.


“We need to have the urgency for other people’s children that we have for our children, so we move at warp speed,” Anderson said. [Emphasis added.]


Reformers, please remember that one line:


“We need to have the urgency for other people’s children that we have for our children.” We must be sure that they are well-fed, loved, cared for, treated with kindness, regularly checked by a doctor, and given the security of knowing that they have a future. 


That is my Christmas message to reformers: Treat all children as if they were your own.







This is an amazing thing-a-ma-jig.


Reader Susan Schwartz sent it to me a long time ago. I decided to save it and share it with you as a Christmas present.


When you open the link, you will see a vast crowd. You can click on it and enlarge the image, click on it again and again, and pick out any face in the crowd, and in a few seconds, the face is completely recognizable, down to small details. It is an astonishing technological feat.


New York testing expert Fred Smith wrote this poem about two dueling sleighs that he saw after a few cups of grog:

Twas the night before Christmas by Fred Smith

Fred Smith is a testing expert who used to work for the NYC Board of Ed and now works with the anti-testing group Change the Stakes.

Dear Friends:

‘Twas the night before Christmas of 2015.
My poor head was spinning from all I had just seen.
ESEA revisions were clouding my brain
And Cuomo’s Task Force sugar plums causing me pain.

In the City the Chancellor held town halls in schools,
“Engaging” parents to tell them testing still rules.
A district supt. warned teachers of testing taboos
And not aiding parents who might want to refuse.

A new exam company was coming to town,
Having just won a $45 million test crown.
Yes, Questar will be here bedecked richly in green,
Bringing a bright shiny gift that was ne’er-before seen.

Soon enough I knew we would find ourselves captive
Of competence-based tests/computer adaptive.
But Pearson was still here to make ‘16’s test toys
To be given again to New York State’s girls and boys.

And ‘ere I descended into more gloom and fog,
An inner voice urged me to chug two mugs of nog.
My mind became fuddled with stark dueling visions
Of sky riders this night on opposite missions.

On the right was a sleigh dark-sided and shady
With curly-haired driver and a pearly white lady,
Whipping a dreary team of worn out work horses,
Having clearly lost sight of where the real Force is;

Still maintaining the will to accomplish their goal
To fill all children’s stockings with Common Core coal.
Though Andrew and Merryl might be losing their grip,
For now, they would go forth in their moonless sky ship.

And there on the left stood a sleigh wreathed in light,
Poised to keep sailing upward in glorious flight.
For on this voyage the crew never slumbers,
And everyone counts in ever growing numbers.

There’s no one commander playing ego trip games,
So before we proceed, here are some worthy names:
Diane Ravitch and Haimson and Scott and Burris,
Analysts, activists and writers who stir us;

Jeanette Deutermann, Lisa Rudley, Buffalo Chris
On Long Island and upstate—throw them a kiss;
Nichols-Stone-Mata-Sopp-Zavala had what it takes
Parents to start City opt out and change the stakes;

Lisa North, Jane Maisel and Rosalie Friend,
True educators from beginning to end—
With Jia-Jeanne-Katie-Nancy-Edith and Ruth
Unafraid to fight Power by speaking the Truth;

And let’s not forget Regents Rosa and Cashin—
Both know the score and bring the stature and passion.
If anyone was left off the list afore-scribed,
Please put the blame on the quaff that I have imbibed.

Back to the sleighs racing to our children this year,
My bet’s on the one with all the wondrous reindeer
And then there’s Mulgrew who must choose who is winning
To claim he was backing them from the beginning.

I’m riding shotgun tonight with the Doboszes
It’ll be 70 degrees; we won’t have red noses.
The reins in strong hands are pulled by Jamaal Bowman
Proven time and again he’s no melting snowman.

But seriously folks, our objectives this year:
To spread the joy of opt-out and lessen the fear;
To every City corner and to be very thorough;
To take back our schools for each child in each borough.

And though we’ve gained ground on the dark sleigh of the night
And while we firmly believe that our causes are right
We all are aware that we’re in a long fight.
But, hey—Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!

~Fred Smith

I met Vivian Connell when I was in North Carolina a few years ago. She was on a panel moderated by John Merrow, consisting of NC teachers who left teaching, usually for financial reasons. Vivian left teaching to go to law school. The audience consisted of legislators and policy makers. I recall Vivian as beautiful and vivacious. She became a devoted member of the Network for Public Education.


Sometime since then, this dynamic woman learned she had ALS, a fatal and degenerative disease. She faced with courage and dignity, determined to live her life as fully as possible.


This afternoon I received this, one of her last posts. She explains the disease, how she has coped, and the life lessons she has learned.


I share it with you because it is a story with special meaning on Christmas Eve. It is about living and dying and facing both with integrity, candor, and honor. Vivian is still teaching. She is teaching all of us.

Watch this video of a baby conversing with a husky.


I am a sucker for dog videos. You may have noticed.


I have a beautiful, 75-pound mutt. She is part German shepherd, part Husky, part Akita, part Lab, part everything. She is all black with white paws, so she is called Mitzi for her mittens. She intimidates people because she is so big but in fact she is the sweetest, most affectionate dog ever. When I walk with her at night, she gets frightened of everything and I have to remind her that she is there to protect me, not vice versa.





There must be more to this story. It is very bizarre.


In Idaho, a student told a school lunch lady that she was hungry but didn’t have money to buy lunch. The cafeteria worker gave her a free hot lunch.


In response, she received a letter of termination that called out her “theft of school district property and inaccurate transactions when ordering, receiving and serving food,” reports the Idaho State Journal.


In response to public outrage, the district offered to rehire the worker. She said she will have to think about it. She thought the district would find some other pretext to fire her.

Time for a laugh in a world that is not so funny.