Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Black Nativity

Aired on KQED's The California Report Magazine on Friday, December 18.

And on NPR's Morning Edition on Wednesday, December 22.

Annoyed by the Muzak of the season?  This soulful version of the traditional Christmas story was first written by Langston Hughes, and is performed in African American theaters and churches across the country. 

Friday, December 11, 2009

Sweet Dreams Sewing Cooperative

Aired on KQED Radio's The California Report Magazine on Friday, December 11, 2009.

And on the World Vision Report December 19, 2009

Thousands of kids in California grow up struggling with poverty, family problems and gang violence. While some might dream of running their own business someday, they face plenty of obstacles. In San Francisco, there's a non-profit that teaches business skills to at-risk girls, through sewing and fashion design.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Reading Like a Teacher

Published in McSweeney's Issue #33, The San Francisco Panorama, Tuesday, December 8, 2009.

I can't publish the PDF, so here's the whole article about the impact reading with my students had on me when I was a teacher, and the travel those experiences inspired.

It seems like you can hear the train almost anywhere you stand in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  It’s the soundtrack at the BBQ joint and the downtown high-rise hotel, at the drive-in theater, closed for the winter.  And if you, like me, have read The Outsiders more than a few times, the train whistle in Tulsa makes you think of just one thing: the characters Johnny and Ponyboy hopping a boxcar to escape the trouble chasing them in this city.  I’ve wanted to visit Tulsa for years, just because The Outsiders is set here.  I was a teacher once, and it was the first book I taught successfully, and I had to make a pilgrimage. 

I’ve made other journeys for books I taught.  I’ve negotiated the subway system of Mexico City, taken road trips to tiny south Texas towns, visited island barracks with Chinese poetry carved into the walls, and flown to New Zealand all because of the powerful effect the books I taught – some of which I’d read twenty-plus times -- had on me.  Educators think a lot about literature’s impact on kids; we pick stories hoping to engage students and build their skills, and search for the magic books that will turn students into lifelong readers.  But how often do we consider how the books we teach are important to us?

I am maybe unduly influenced by sense of place.  Once I’d lived and taught in rural Georgia, REM’s songs, Flannery O’Conner’s stories and Alice Walker’s essays all made much more sense.  And I’ll travel almost anywhere, often because I met someone from there, or read a book or article that piqued my interest.  When I read for pleasure, I can’t help but sense the setting’s smell and climate, picture the architecture.  As a teacher, I encouraged my students to do the same.  Maps covered the classroom so that my students and I could obsessively locate the tiny towns mentioned in stories.   We’d track Malcolm X’s travels and Polynesian migration, marvel at the sheer size of Texas and imagine all-black towns on the shores of Lake Erie.

So it was really no surprise that I found myself crawling under the gate at Tulsa’s Admiral Drive-In this fall, scenes from The Outsiders playing in my head.   I drove to Will Rodgers High School, where class tensions prompted a teen-age S.E. Hinton to write The Outsiders in 1967. I snapped pictures of the school’s art deco grandeur and “gun-free zone” signs. I watched a film at the revamped Circle Cinema, used as the neighborhood theater in the 1983 movie.  It’s not that I expected some version of Ponyboy to walk by; this isn’t 1960s Tulsa. Today’s Circle Cinema is, after all, a stone’s throw away from a supermercado, and hopeful developers are saving historic buildings from the wrecking ball, converting them to lofts. But neighborhoods of modest homes surrounded by chain-link fences, contrasted with south-side mansions from Tulsa’s oil-rich history, point to the pervasiveness of the disparity Hinton described 40 years ago.  I had to pay my respects.

Why?  The Outsiders saved me my first year of teaching. I’d moved across the country to teach in rural Georgia, and experienced the first real failure of my life.  I was a terrible novice teacher, with no instincts for classroom management, easily crushed when my earnestness wasn’t enough to transfer my passion for written stories to my disenfranchised students.  After the tragic-comedy of my first months as a teacher, my students’ captivation with The Outsiders caught me off guard.  They energetically debated causes and solutions to the book’s class conflict, and so identified with characters that many thought the Greasers were African-American (several got pretty mad at me when I told them otherwise).  For many students, The Outsiders was the first book they read cover to cover.  Maybe because I felt I’d finally done something right, as I read the last page of the book aloud to my first period class, I choked up.  , Patrice, in the second row, finished reading while her classmates stared at their teacher, tears streaming down her face because of some words on a page.  Hinton’s story just rings true, to all kinds of outsiders. 

Years later, at a San Francisco high school, my teaching team worried over our school’s struggling Polynesian population.  When I found the book The Whale Rider (the basis for the sleeper hit movie) I bought forty copies, charging my credit card so I could start the school year with this story.   My Samoan students (who share pieces of history and culture with the Maori, like a warrior dance called the haka and sea god Tangaroa) connected to the book’s cultural references and sensibilities.  But The Whale Rider’s conflicts -- rejecting or maintaining tradition, sticking with or separating from family, believing in destiny or personal choice – gave all of my 10th graders an entry point for making sense of their own communities in crisis.  After a bullet intended for another youth killed one of their 3rd period classmates, Deshawn, my students’ first healing conversations started with The Whale Rider; they asked me to read the paper in which Deshawn had written about his destiny.

And so when I left teaching, I travelled the South Pacific with a visit to The Whale Rider village of Whangara (pronounced fa-nga-RA), New Zealand at the trip’s core.  I drove the north island’s East Coast -- the least-habited, least-visited, most Maori region -- listening to Maori-language radio and counting the number of Maori meeting spaces (maraes) visible from the road, their unmistakable carving and red paint dotting the landscape.  I made plans to meet a village elder, Hone Taumaunu, in Whangara and once I wound down to the coast past a handful of houses, I saw that Taumaunu, except for his warm smile, could have been the model for The Whale Rider’s gruff patriarch, Koro Apirana.  Over the next five hours, I talked about my students’ responses to the book, and Taumaunu told me about author Witi Ihimaera’s family history in Whangara (“He felt he was imbued with the presence of the ancestors and that place”), explaining meanings of carvings, paintings and weavings on the marae, telling me the tribe’s story of the whale rider Paikea.  Our discussion of The Whale Rider, and the Maori beliefs on which it was based, led to talk about Maori culture, and its maintenance through language, about the history of Maori education through colonialism and bilingual resurgence.  The day could only have been better if my rental car was full of teenagers, if Drew, Mape and Peter were the ones peppering Taumaunu with questions.

After I left teaching, it hit me that the greatest reading joy I've ever had was reading, and re-reading, with and for my students.  I’d felt victorious when I found texts that both hooked reluctant readers and were well suited for teaching the standards.  And I was gleeful when I found books whose depth continued to engage me class after class.  Reading books I loved with kids, many of whom were just identifying as readers, was like being in the best book club I could imagine.

On a trip to Texas, I brought a copy of Woman Hollering Creek, a book I’d taught for many years.  In her stories, the author Sandra Cisneros, humanizes people who often go unseen -- a street vendor, a girl of the brink of adolescence, an undocumented woman in a souring marriage – and she treats these characters with a tenderness and frustration and complexity that mirrored the feelings I had for my students. The book’s based widely around and across Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, and I helped root the stories by telling my students about my road trips across Texas (stopping to see Cisneros’s famed purple house in San Antonio) and visit to Mexico City (and the basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe one of the book’s recurring images).   But it was my students with Southern-based families and ties to Mexico who were the experts on language and setting.  They taught each other – and me – new ways to read this book.

Now, driving small roads down to the Mexican border, I stopped in towns like Beeville and Falfurrias to take pictures of water towers and little houses, thinking of the characters, and the students who read about them.  What did Cisneros imagine happened to the closeted gay soldier, whose boyfriend pinned a milagro up in a church?  Could I dare to hope that Tee Tee and Jaleace and my other students applied to their own lives the lessons learned by Cisneros’s characters? Do teenagers ever?  Did I do the book, and my students, justice?  Do teachers ever?

It was crucial that I visit Sequin, the setting of the title story “Woman Hollering Creek.” In it, Cisneros re-imagines the South-western/Mexican myth of La Llorona (the crying woman), who committed infanticide in an attempt to lure back a straying lover and who, according to legend, haunts riverbeds in search of her children.  Cisneros’s creek-side version details the life of an undocumented bride from Mexico, whose new husband quickly changes from prince to abuser.   Over the years, my students and I tracked the changing meanings of the “hollering” in the story – shock, pain and rage, the confidence of a confidant, a “ribbon of laughter” as the main character escapes.   

In Seguin, I listened for the shh-shh-shh of the trees and drove by houses picturing the protagonist, her abusive husband, the women she went to for help, and the untold stories lurking just behind the curtains here and anywhere.  I snapped photos of “landmarks” infused with meaning only because of my teaching – a cross-street, the bronze pecan statue in the town square – and almost wanted to shout at oblivious passers-by “Do you know what this is?  What this place inspired?”  But if teaching is an isolating craft, remembering the act of teaching is even more so.  And so as I drove out of town (over the trickle of water called, in fact, Woman Hollering Creek) I let out a huge holler myself.  It was a cry of relief and loss, yearning and joy, because I got to share these great stories with students, and because I know I’ll never read that purposefully and intimately again.


Sidebar: Recommended for Teen Readers

Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros takes iconic stories from Catholicism, Mexican myths and American pop culture and bends them.  Little girls obsess over storytelling with Barbie dolls, and buy theirs for reduced cost at a market, melted and smoky from a warehouse fire.  A college graduate rejects the traditional female role her family expects her to take up and finds power, not sublimation, in her devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe.   An adolescent girl’s assumed death makes her the subject of attention (and jealousy); her discovery three days is hailed as a near resurrection.  Each story is packed with such compelling stuff that students didn’t balk when I slipped in some feminist theory. 

Sula by Toni Morrison

Morrison’s language, cadence and symbolism seduce even the most reluctant reader into going to this place, and looking closely at words.   Sula is about an African American neighborhood in Ohio, but it’s really about what my colleague described as “the pain and deliciousness of relationships.”  Its story asks questions teens grapple with: How far will people go to be good parents (as when a mother kills her drug-addicted son)?  What lines can’t be crossed in a friendship or a marriage (as when a friend sleeps with her best friend’s husband)? How does war affect a town (as when the whole neighborhood mimics a veteran’s shell shock)?  What constitutes a full life (living for yourself, or for others)?  Students bring their own questions: How did an all-black town exist in Ohio?  What are the long-term consequences of slavery?  What’s up with the name Shadrack (or Ajax, or Eva Peace, or Dewey, Dewey and Dewey)? 

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

It’s almost cliché to claim that reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X can be transformative.  But for my urban teen readers – especially the boys – it often was.  It often felt to me that a few students just carried themselves differently during and after reading this book.  Students shaped by institutional racism were often shocked, and buoyed, by the anger and the elegance of the book, and the model of a man constantly learning, reflecting, transforming.  From his childhood framed by both racial pride and race-based violence to his hustling young adulthood and jail-house conversion, to his ascension through the Nation of Islam as a counterpoint to more mainstream civil-rights figures, to his leadership on the world stage, Malcolm X’s life riveted teens.




Thursday, December 3, 2009

California FarmLink -- speed dating for famers

Aired on KQED Public Radio's The California Report, Thursday December 3, 2009.

And AARP's Prime Time January 19, 2010:

And, April 14, 2010:

Farming in California is facing a crisis of aging.  The average farmer in the state is nearing retirement age.  Immigrants and young urban and suburbanites who want to farm aren’t likely to inherit or marry into land.  Reporter Lisa Morehouse found an organization connecting these groups of farmers.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

U-Pick Kiwis?

Published on Tasting Table San Francisco on Tuesday, November 24, 2009.

Swanton Berry Farm has a winter U-Pick crop: kiwis.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Revenge of the Uke

Aired on KQED Radio's The California Report on Friday, November 20, 2009.

And on AARP's Prime Time Radio:

There's been a recent surge in the popularity of the ukulele -- from the ubiquity of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by Iz, Jake Shimabukuro's performances going viral on You Tube, to countless memorials to George Harrison on uke. This story features the Tatami Mats and their gotta-see-it-to-believe-it performance of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon on ukulele, and takes a visit to Mike DaSilva's ukulele workshop in Berkeley.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Seldom Seen Acting Company

Aired on Friday October 23 on KQED Radio's The California Report Magazine:

All of the members of the Seldom Seen acting company have been homeless, and they perform plays they write based on their own experiences.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Food Carts

Aired on The California Report Magazine September 11, 2009

Friday, August 28, 2009

Budget Cuts on School Grounds

Aired on The California Report Magazine Friday, August 28, 2009

Students and teachers across the state are settling in to the new school year, and in some cases they're not quite sure where things are heading. That's because the budget deficit deal struck this summer cut more than $5 billion from K-12 funding. That's on top of cuts made earlier. I visit Dixon Unified School District just west of Sacramento to see how the budget cuts are playing out there

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Small Farms Find Fertile Ground

Aired on KQED Radio's The California Report Tuesday morning, August 4, 2009.

It's been a tough year for many California farmers. Milk prices have collapsed, and cattle and almond prices are depressed. But along the northern Central Coast, a number of small farms are actually faring better than ever.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Rural Students Reap Academic Gains from Community Service

Published in Edutopia Magazine July, 2009

A whole district in California's Central Valley is committed to service learning at every grade level.

with an audio slideshow on about the Chavez Caring Crew, a 6th grade project to collect sunscreen (while learning science and English).

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Slashing Adult Education

Aired on KQED's The California Report Magazine, Friday July 24, 2009.

Education spending was one of the sticking points in getting California's budget package passed. Now that it's been approved, there's little doubt adult education is going to take a big funding hit. Some think these may be the unkindest cuts of all.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Flyaway Production's "The Ballad of Polly Ann"

Aired on KQED's The California Report Magazine on Friday, July 17, 2009.

Have you ever crossed a bridge and wondered about the people working high up on the towers? A new dance production in San Francisco pays tribute to the women who've helped build Bay Area bridges. Flyaway Productions' aerial dance piece is called "The Ballad of Polly Ann."

Friday, June 5, 2009

Ventura Tree Swallows

Aired on KQED's The California Report magazine, Friday June 5, 2009.

The tiny tree swallow had all but vanished from Southern California a couple of decades ago. Development and agriculture had pushed the iridescent indigo bird out if its natural habitat. But through the passion of one woman and a small band of volunteers in Ventura County, the bird is back.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

People's Grocery

Co-produced with Eloise Melzer with the Kitchen Sisters.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

New Orleans Musicians' Clinic

Aired on The World Vision Report, May 2, 2009.

And on Voice of America News, June 19, 2009.

In the birthplace of American music, most working musicians earn so little at gigs they can't afford health care. The New Orleans Musicians' Clinic is doing something about that.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hidalgo High School

Published in Edutopia Magazine in April, 2009.

A Texas high school on the Mexican border settles for nothing less than success.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Laton Live!

Aired on The California Report Magazine on Friday, March 20, 2009.

The Central Valley town of Laton was struggling even before the current economic crisis. Dairy farmers are worried about falling milk prices, and the town is feeling the hit of thousands of farm workers out of work in the region. But an eight-month partnership with a Los Angeles arts school is invigorating Laton.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Sloss Furnaces, Birmingham, AL

Aired on NPR's All Things Considered Tuesday, March 3, 2009.

Birmingham, AL was once known as the "Pittsburgh of the South" because of the iron and steel industry that built this city after the Civil War. Sloss Furnaces, one of its largest steel furnaces, was saved from destruction in the 1970s and is now a National Historical Landmark, where the public can see metal-arts programs in action, attend concerts and movies, and learn about the industrial, race and labor history of their city.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Hunters Up Their Game with Camouflage

Aired on NPR's on Day to Day, February 2, 2009.

A faux finish artist near Huntsville, AL helps hunters blend into their environments by custom camouflaging their trucks and boats.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Grace Living Center

Published in Edutopia magazine's February, 2009 magazine:

With an audio slideshow on

This is such an obviously good idea. A nursing center near Tulsa, OK is also home to two classrooms, where kindergarten and pre-K students start their school experience.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sharpen Your Knives, it's Time for Butchery Class

Aired on Weekend America from American Public Media, Saturday January 17, 2008.

And on KQED's The California Report magazine on Friday, November 21, 2008.