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Staging an “Invincible Summer”

January 24, 2017

And now for some good news.  This happened back in October, but I seemed to have difficulty finding the time to write about it.  The wait is over…

On October 9, 2016, at the DeSotelle Theater in Manhattan, I experienced the very first staged reading of my play “Invincible Summer.”  It was a great to have a play that had been rattling around in my head for a year and half finally performed on stage by actors, under the tutelage of a veteran New York theater director.  I learned a great deal from the process, and I am so grateful to have gone through it.

It all started last January, when a friend of mine named Larry Leinoff (who is also an excellent playwright) expressed admiration for my play and encouraged me to stage a reading.  He felt it was ready, and it also happened that Larry runs a company (Stage Dot Org) that puts on staged readings!  We talked back and forth for months while I worked on the play, received feedback from Larry and others (including a dear friend and another great playwright, Lezley Steele).  By early summer, I was happy with the play and ready to begin organizing my reading.

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Larry recommended a director that he knew and thought highly of:  Tom Herman.  We met for lunch in August, and I was grateful that Tom liked my play and was very interested in directing the project.  After some discussion, we agreed upon a date, and worked hard on making the reading happen.

One of the first things I learned was that staging a reading is a complicated process.  It takes time to find the right performance space, the right actors, and to agree on rehearsal times, all within the budget you have chosen to work with.  Of course, whenever you have smart individuals with strong opinions working together, you are going to have disagreements.  That is inevitable.  There were times when it looked like the reading might not happen; there were times when it seemed as smooth and as effortless as painting a polar bear in a snowstorm.

By late September, we had a venue, a cast (Rob Skolits, Marca Leigh, Brian Henry, Adrian Naccari, and Tamara Daley–I also recruited my colleague Emily Blanchard to come and play piano), and an official program designed by Melissa Nosal, a former student.  We had a reading!

Happily, it went very well.  The cast worked extremely hard, and put on an entertaining and professional performance.  It was exhilarating to discover how much of my play worked and also to get a sense of what didn’t work.  There were about 25 people in the audience, 15-20 of whom had come down from Connecticut to see the reading.  I was very grateful to all of my friends who were willing to make that trip.  They all gave me great feedback–much of it positive, but also some very helpful critical feedback that I know has made the play better.

Lezley is now helping me get the play into the hands of other professionals who can get it produced.  When I expressed my gratitude to Lezley, she wrote this in an email:

You don’t have to be grateful to me.  I believe in your play. Not just that it is a well written play but also because it is topical, and dare I say,  commercial.  I also believe in you.   Having a play produced is a nightmare.  You have to have the right personality to get through the process.  I believe you do….I forgot to mention that I was moved to tears twice while reading the script.

It appears I have reason to be hopeful.

Trump: What to Expect

January 24, 2017

Given we have inaugurated a new President, one who is likely to have a significant effect on the direction of education policy, I thought it appropriate that I comment upon him.  I was recently asked through email the following question, so I thought I would share it and my response:

Do you think that Trump and his (horrifying) cabinet will be moving to give states more control over their laws? How will that affect the way things are governed? Surely poor states will be really hurt?

Given that  Donald Trump really doesn’t care about policy, his philosophy of governance is really Mike Pence’s.  I think Trump basically ran for three reasons:  1) to feed his enormous ego 2) to improve his business portfolio and c) to eliminate and reduce taxes and regulations he didn’t like.  Anything else he doesn’t care about.  So, if it’s Pence’s philosophy, I think we can expect this:

An administration that cares about states’ rights as long as it comes to things like a) not paying health care costs for poor people b) privatizing education c) eliminating business taxes d) reducing regulations that protect citizens and the environment e) gerrymandering congressional districts and f) making it harder for black, poor, and older people to vote.  Essentially, the right wing-American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)-Koch Brothers hit list.

They will not be interested in states’ rights when it comes to women controlling their own bodies; making it harder for businesses to refuse to serve gay people; preventing discrimination against transgender individuals;  preventing the racial profiling of blacks, Latinos, south Asians, or middle easterners; stopping the growth of charter schools; limiting the purchase of assault weapons and instituting thorough background checks; and selling medical or recreational pot.  All of these are things that a Trump/Pence administration would not be able to tolerate, and we will find their “pro states’ rights” ideology will suddenly disappear when it comes to these issues.  I think it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Pence is kept awake at night with the thought that he knows there are people doing these things and he has no way to control their behavior.  This is, after all, the governor who signed an anti-abortion law so stringent that a woman was sentenced to twenty years in prison for…having a miscarriage.

Add that to a secretary of education nominee that doesn’t believe in public education and doesn’t know anything about it; an energy secretary who doesn’t believe in the department of energy (when he’s able to remember that, at least), and doesn’t understand the department’s responsibility; and a secretary of housing and urban development who thinks the Egyptian pyramids were hollow and used as granaries. I suppose he does live in a house, which is the subtotal of the entire experience in his new area of expertise.  What we therefore have to look forward to is a troubling combination of ideologues and incompetence.

There will be some nuance to this, of course.  Marijuana has turned into big business, so the Trump/Pence administration may have to leave that alone.  Also, they’re going to find it really hard to fuck with Jerry Brown, because he governs such a huge percentage of the American economy.  There will be citizen and interest group push back, and some of it will be successful.  But overall, things are about to get very dark.

Rock Steady Boxing

August 28, 2016

There are a number of tools I use in my “fighting Parkinson’s” tool box–yoga, massage, resistance bands, twice daily walks, medication, and a careful diet.  I have just added a new one: boxing.  Rock Steady Boxing is a program designed to use the techniques of boxer training to help fight the symptoms of Parkinson’s.

You may be reading this and thinking “wait–Parkinson’s patients are boxing each other?”  If so, not to worry.  We don’t get into the ring and and go mano a mano.   I think I could make a case that a boxing match between two Parkinson’s patients would be the worse thing ever.  Our training is centered around “working the bag.”

When I arrived the first day, I was assisted by a young Latina named Rihanna (no, not that one).  Rihanna works at the Bare Bones Boxing gym in East Hartford, Connecticut, and is herself a boxer.  Indeed, she wore a t-shirt that loudly proclaimed “I FIGHT LIKE A GIRL!”  She was very kind and helpful, and wrapped my hands in no time at all.  It would have taken me the better part of the day to do what she did in about four minutes.

Then, I was introduced to Stan, my boxing coach. Stan is a professional, who has coached boxers for years.  He was trained in the techniques of Rock Steady Boxing, which are designed to improve balance, coordination, and cognitive function.  Stan is a very nice guy and an excellent coach.  After two decades in a classroom, I know a good teacher when I see one.

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Stan got me hooked up with some gloves, and helped me fasten them in place.  In the center of the gym are rows of bags (probably between 25-30 of them).  This is where the class would take place.  We worked on warm ups that focused on our balance, and stretched out our arms, shoulders, and legs.  During the class, we would follow specific punching sequences (left twice, right twice, left once) that require us to also move our feet.  We would sometimes pause to lean into the bag, then do push-ups against the bag, and then leg lifts while pushing the bag.  We would also jog through the rows of bags, hitting each one with our opposite hands.  All of these exercises require balance, careful breathing, and specific focus on the sequences.  In short, everything that is good for me to exercise.

The class was also great fun.  Stan doesn’t like the hip hop/rap music many of the professional boxers prefer to train with.  The good news is when Stan’s teaching, he gets to pick the music and he loves classic rock.  So do several members of the class, as it turns out.  Want to see an awesome sight?  Then stop by the gym some time and see a dozen Parkinson’s patients punching bags while loudly singing along to the Beach Boys.

Stan is also great at making us laugh while encouraging us to keep pushing.  During the first class he shouted “This bag is Parkinson’s!  You don’t bitch slap Parkinson’s!  You punch it!”

I was also touched by how encouraging the professional boxers are towards the members of the class.  Many come up and talk to us, clearly aware of who we are and what we are doing, offering us encouragement and showing us great respect.  I never thought a boxing gym would be such a positive, supportive environment, but this one is.

My yoga teacher/massage therapist giggles every time I mention the class to her.  I assume it’s because she’s trying to picture me boxing, and that image makes her laugh.  To that, all I can say is…yeah, okay.  Point taken.  She will have plenty more chances to laugh at me, though–I’m a regular now.

 

If you are interested, her are three earlier posts relating to Parkinson’s:

Coping with Parkinson’s, Warding off Depression

Yes, I Am Grateful

Observing World Parkinson’s Day

Awkward Conversations with my Superintendent, Part Three

July 9, 2016

If you haven’t yet done so, read part two here.

It was clear from his invitation he wanted this to be a one-on-one meeting, but given his accusatory tone, I certainly wasn’t going accept those terms.  So I invited a union representative.  Given the superintendents’ response, it also appeared he didn’t have a clear comprehension of this issue, and seemed unaware of the consternation and frustration experienced by the faculty.  Thus, I invited two other teachers who would have been directly affected by the schedule changes to convey their concerns and clarify the extent of the problem.

The meeting day arrives and he is shocked to discover he is not meeting with me alone.  He tells me “I just wanted to have a conversation with just the two of us about why you made this decision.”

I responded that if that is the meeting he wanted, he should have sent an email that was far less accusatory.

He replied that he just wanted to understand me better.

I said, “Then don’t send an email that suggests you’ve already made up your mind.  There is a way to invite someone to have that sort of conversation. That wasn’t it.”

“Oh. Well, I’m sorry if you felt intimidated.”

“It wasn’t a matter of feeling intimidated,” I replied.  “You send a message like that, the only way to interpret it is confrontational.  If you’re bringing confrontation, then I’m bringing a union rep.  I invited the other teachers here because I wanted to make sure you had a clear picture of what was going on.  Frankly, it doesn’t seem like you do.”

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He went on to reiterate what he said in his message: that he couldn’t understand why this would be a “first response” to the situation, and why I didn’t try to go through channels to solve this problem.  I pointed out that this was not a first response—indeed, it was a last resort.

At this point, the other teachers jumped in, and made it abundantly and passionately clear that they had been going through the proper channels for weeks and had gotten nowhere.  After that, the conversation took a surprising turn.  The superintendent made it clear he was aware of what’s been happening, and knew about the conversations between teachers and administrators.  Indeed, he supported the decision to make the schedule changes, along with the administration’s reluctance to contact the state for guidance.  Thus, his confusion had nothing to do with a poor reading of the situation; he just didn’t understand why I was personally involved.

As far as he knew, my name had not been mentioned in any part of these conversations.  He also pointed out I wasn’t at a key meeting where it was discussed, and it wasn’t going to affect my classes directly.   In short, it had nothing to do with me.  He was clearly under the impression that I had recently stumbled upon this situation, and took it upon myself to go rogue and call the state about something that was clearly none of my business.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” I replied. “This is all the staff has been talking about for the last two months. I have been involved in most of those conversations.”

“It has?”

“YES!” This was shouted in near unison from all of us.

“Trust me,” I continued. “I am well aware of this situation, and every step that has been taken to resolve it.  And students don’t have to be in my classroom for me to care about them.  If you think that’s the sort of teacher I am, then you clearly didn’t collect enough data about me.”

He gave me something less than a kind look.

In spite of this, the meeting ended well.  His misapprehensions about me, I think, were largely cleared up.  He also had a clearer perception of the extent that the faculty had been upset by these proposed schedule changes; it appears the building administrators had downplayed our frustration and anxiety.  Although he wasn’t happy with me, I think he understood where I was coming from.

He also took credit for the abandoning of the schedule change plan.  That was fine—I didn’t care who took credit for making the right decision, as long as it got made.  Plus, the fact that he was now pretending that he was responsible for stopping the changes suggested to me that he wanted a better option.  And as luck would have it, I gave him one.

A couple of days later, I got a note from a colleague: “Just wanted to thank you for doing the intelligent thing and contacting the state. Much appreciated!”

Hey, someone had to.

Awkward Conversations with My Superintendent, Part Two

July 8, 2016

If you haven’t yet, be sure to read part one here.

I volunteered to call because, after two years as a union president, it wasn’t my first rodeo.  I knew who to speak to at the state; I knew also how to phrase the problem in a way that it would be easily understood. I also knew how to interpret the careful language any representative from the state would use as a response.  And frankly, I knew I had less to fear in terms of possible retribution. Would the district actually go after the popular twenty-year veteran with Parkinson’s?  Probably not.  It wouldn’t be ideal PR for the district.  Mind you, there were no guarantees of my safety, but I certainly felt safer than others.

The short version of the district’s plan was that they felt in order to comply with a certain aspect of special education law, the schedules of approximately twenty special education students were going to be rearranged.  Moreover, this was going to be done nine weeks into the school year.  Moving a student’s schedule to accommodate their needs is nothing new—indeed, special education students have something called an Individualized Education Program (IEP).  This program is developed to serve the best needs of the student.  The problem is that the school administration was not going to consider the students’ individual needs when making these schedule changes.  They were going to make the changes based on whoever’s schedule was easiest to move.  In short, they were going to make changes based upon the needs of the administrators, not the students.  The irony here is that the IEP is filled with really valuable data on a student’s need—data being willfully ignored.

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Throughout this process, teachers kept asking: can we call the state?  Can we see if there’s another way to comply?  If this is what we have to do, then fine—but can we check?  In response, the teachers’ requests were either ignored, or teachers were told the district didn’t want to call the state for fear of a punitive reaction.  We pointed out repeatedly that it’s not in the state’s interest to be punitive—this is a case of following federal law, and if a school district is sanctioned, the state can get in trouble as well.  They would likely be willing to  work with the district and find a solution.  We were told the district’s plan was the only option.

Since the district leadership wouldn’t call, I did.  I had a very productive discussion with a representative from the state department of education.  She then asked if it was permissible for her to contact our special education director.  I said yes, please do.  And as expected, I was told my name would have to be used.

Two days later, I received a cryptic phone call from the woman I spoke to at the state, saying she had a very “useful, positive” discussion with the special education director.  The next day—the last one before the schedules were going to be rearranged–all of the affected teachers were sent an email from the principal informing them that students would not be moved.

I was happy that my phone call worked, but I knew the other shoe was going to drop soon.  The following week, I got an email from the superintendent:

I would like to meet with you regarding your recent call to the state  It has not been my experience, anywhere that I have worked, that a person would call the state without first having sought clarification on an issue with district colleagues, including building and district admininistration (sic).  While the state is a resource for districts, it is also a monitoring and authority agency.  As this is an anomaly in my experience, I am trying to understand why you would find this necessary as a first step in problem solving.  It would be helpful if we are able to discuss this.

So I agreed to meet with him, but I certainly wasn’t going to do so alone.

Awkward Conversations with My Superintendent, Part One

July 6, 2016

I have shared some humorous stories about my principal, but what follows here is anything but funny.  It is an example of the steps teachers sometimes have to take for the good of their students, and why they are sometimes put in conflict with their leadership in order to protect them.

After 19 years in this district, I have worked for five different superintendents.  Two I would describe as competent and good people, one I would describe as incompetent but a good person, and one I would describe as possessing neither of these qualities.  Happily, she was finally “encouraged to retire” by the school board, but not until after six tumultuous years of poor decisions, wasted money, narcissism, cognitive dissonance and destroyed morale.  I spent two of those years as union president, and to say those two years were a nightmare would ludicrously understate the matter.  It’s no fun to realize that you are working for someone who cannot tell the difference between making a good decision or a poor decision, and is willing to steamroll over anyone who gets in her way to accomplish an incoherent agenda she is incapable of even describing.  It’s even less fun when you realize you are one of the few people in a position to stand up to her and try to get her to stop what she’s doing.  And stand up to her I did.  Sometimes I was able to stop her, and sometimes I wasn’t.  My colleagues paid a price for it, some worse than others.  Our students, though, paid the biggest price, because the quality of their education suffered.  The superintendent and many on our school board, though, never seemed to notice.  Or perhaps they just didn’t care.

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Enter Superintendent Number Five, who only has to not be terrible to seem like a significant improvement.  And he is an improvement in many ways.  He is not vindictive, and doesn’t seem to suffer from the same intellectual and emotional vacuity that plagued his predecessor.  Some of my colleagues were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt; I, far too jaded from my experience, took an attitude of wait and see.  Yes, he’s saying all of the right things. Let’s see what he does.

Like many school administrators, the new superintendent is very interested in making decisions based upon data.  By and large, this is a good thing.  Data tends to more convincing than intuition, and reason tends to be better served by replicated examples.  However, in order for data to be useful you have to a) collect valid forms of it and b) have the ability to interpret it correctly.  I find many school administrators do not seem to have an understanding of these concepts, and certainly don’t seem to have them as part of their skill set.  This can be a very frustrating reality for teachers trying to use classroom data to make good decisions on behalf of their students.

It wasn’t too much of a surprise, though, that the first real test of the new superintendent’s leadership involved a decision that wasn’t the least bit data driven.  In fact, the only way to justify this decision was to ignore all of the data.  It was a choice that, had it been carried out, would have been incredibly disruptive to student learning, and likely would have violated some students’ civil rights. The administration had such little confidence in this resolution that some teachers were instructed to lie to parents about the reasoning behind it.  Teachers pleaded with the administration to explore other options, but they were rebuffed at every instance.  A deadline was set for when this plan would be instituted, and as that day approached, the faculty’s anxiety grew.

There was one option to try to stop what was happening: contact the state department of education and hope they would be willing to intervene and prevent the district from making a terrible mistake.  This call carried risks—it wouldn’t be an anonymous complaint, and if a representative from the state contacted the district, the superintendent would know which of his staff had made the complaint.  Thus, many of my colleagues were unwilling to take such an action.  They were rightly worried about retribution; indeed, they could be poisoning the well for a phone call that might not even obtain the desired outcome.  It was too dangerous.

In spite of those risks, I volunteered to make the call to the state.

Twenty Years of Teaching

July 5, 2016

This school year marked by 20th as a teacher.  I estimate that in those two decades, I have taught between 1600-1700 students.  Many of them I remember, and some I do not (which is embarrassing when I cross paths with them at the grocery store).   Some have become teaching colleagues, at least one went on to win an Emmy Award for computer animation, and others turn up in a number of surprising places.  For instance, one that turned out to be a very helpful police dispatcher when my dog went missing, and another worked at my favorite ice cream stand and insisted my money was no good there.  It was a fat and happy summer.

I started my career in 1996, which was a very different world than the one we currently inhabit.  Bill Clinton was about to run for reelection, Hillary was First Lady and still four years removed from her election to the United States Senate.  A charming and talented rapper turned actor named Will Smith was just on the verge of becoming a bankable superstar.  This new invention called the internet was very exciting—or, we hoped it was, because to try to use it usually took three hours to log on via phone line.  And just as you were about to reach your first World Wide Web page, someone would pick up the phone and there went your connection.  Certainly, the idea that we would carry the internet in our pockets was a technological advance deemed unthinkable just twenty years ago.

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When I walked into a school for the first time in August 1996, it was not at the tiny, rural school I have taught at the last 19 years.  I was interning at an inner city school in New Haven.  This school had 900 students, and probably 800 were African-American.  Others were African immigrants, some were Hispanic, and maybe a half-dozen were white.  The school, like many underfunded schools in impoverished neighborhoods, had problems.  Certainly not “Joe Clark with a baseball bat” problems, but there were issues nonetheless.  The building was old and in decay.  Many of the classrooms were outdated.   A number of the teachers were burned out, and running out the clock to retirement.  There were students living in shelters, others haunted by broken families, some coping with the gunshot or stabbing deaths of family members.  One student was reportedly the local drug dealer—his rare presence in school and the fact that he drove a brand new Acura only fueled that speculation.

But there was hope as well.  There were a number of students who wanted to learn, and viewed education as (Jamie Escalante once put it) “The Great Equalizer.”  Some of them wanted to return to the neighborhood after graduation and make it better, to be good role models for the young.  There were a number of teachers who were not burned out—many worked very hard to give their best to their students, and the students knew it.  It was a great environment to learn to be a teacher, because students didn’t wait to see if you were worthy of respect—they presumed you were not and then you had to prove otherwise.  If you had failed to do so, they would let you know in no uncertain terms.  I had failures, of course, but I also had successes.  At the end of my year, I was certain I wanted to be a teacher.  It therefore may have been the most important year of my career.

I have stories and even a scar from my time in New Haven.  I once broke up a fight between two female students and one of the combatants’ fake fingernails ended up lodged in my arm.  The story I remember the most, though, involved an aspiring DJ named Laurence.  Laurence didn’t care much for school, but he was popular, and loved to make people laugh. He certainly had the passion for music and the personal charisma to be a good DJ.  He already had business cards at age 16, which he loved to share with his teachers.

My year in New Haven was a challenge in a number of ways.  I was going through a divorce, and the stress of that combined with learning a new career, taking night classes at a nearby university, and a two-hour daily commute began to wear on me.  I know it was starting to show, even though I was doing my best not to let it.  It was during one particularly bad day that Laurence sauntered up to me in the hallway.

“Hey, Mr. Brodie.  I gotta question for you.”

“Sure.  What’s up?”

“Hey, what does DNA stand for?”

I was very excited.  This was going to be one of the very first teachable moments of my young career, and I was ready with an answer.  “It stands for deoxyribonucleic acid.  It’s a molecule that carries all of our genetic information—“

“No, man,” he said, in mock impatience. “That’s not what it stands for. You want me to tell you what it really stands for?”

I wasn’t sure where he was going with this, but how else could I respond?  “Sure.  Tell me!”

“It stands for… Dis Nigga’s Attractive!!!”

Extremely pleased with himself, Laurence strolled away. I stood in the hallway, and could not stop laughing.  I did my best to stay focused the rest of the day, but I couldn’t.  Each time I thought about Laurence’s joke, I giggled.  And I couldn’t get it out of my head.  It kept me tickled all day.

I don’t know if Laurence perceived my mood, and thought I needed a laugh, or I was just conveniently in front of him, but it was just what I needed that day. It’s funny to think that he’s now in his mid-thirties.  I don’t know what happened to him—I’d like to think he made it as a DJ, but mostly I just hope he’s happy.  I doubt he remembers that day.

All I know is I’ll never forget it.  And when I think of the year I spent at the high school in New Haven, it’s still the first thing I think of.

 

 

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