Archive for January, 2016

Deven Black

At the time of writing, I’m supposed to be researching school reform initiatives for a grad class assignment.  Instead, I’ve spent the last hour or two refreshing my Facebook and Twitter feeds, watching educators from around the country mourn the loss of Deven Black.

I came to know Deven, as I have so many other wonderful educators in my career, through our shared activity on Twitter.  When we first “met”, Deven was a special education teacher in NYC, and he and I had many conversations about education (special and otherwise); we would later co-moderate a weekly chat on Twitter geared toward special education issues, which we did fairly regularly for the better part of a year.  He struck me as an interesting and deeply thoughtful guy for many reasons, not the least of which was the route he took into teaching.  From his blog’s “About” page:

After a stellar career as a middle school student I dropped out of two different high schools and a college, all before I was 17. That started what has been a long-lasting and continually evolving interest in schooling.

I started teaching at age 50, after being a newspaper reporter, radio newsman and talk-show host, voice-over artist, political campaign operative, bartender, restaurant manager, advertising copywriter, and public relations person. Of these careers, teaching is the most difficult, lowest paying and most rewarding. It took a long time to figure out, but being a teacher is what I want to be when I grow up. Like that is ever going to happen.

His career path in education later took him into the role of a school librarian, and I remember the zeal with which he approached his new position at the time.  He was written up in the School Library Journal in 2013, and won the first Bammy award for school librarians later that year.

While the specifics of our many conversations have long since faded from my memory, what stays with me from Deven – and what continues to inform my own work – is how much kindness, humanity, and thoughtfulness matter in teaching.  In the day-to-day work, it’s easy to get frustrated by and hung up on things that are, in the greater sense, ultimately pretty trivial.  Sometimes we – children and adults alike – put other things ahead of kindness: bureaucracy, pedantic rules, paperwork, outdated notions of authority, whatever.  In the long run, though, none of it is as important as showing kids you care.

His perspective, to me, was that of the underdog.  That may not be exactly the right word, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that he often pushed back against popular notions or opinions; sort of a “But did you ever consider…?” in defense of whatever people were tut-tutting about in the “these kids today” vein.  I don’t know if that was influenced by his own experience with formal education (as noted above), but it seems possible.  Listening to him was so valuable to me in part because that was a very different perspective than my own, as someone who was always very compliant and good at “doing school” as a kid.  He helped me get more in touch with my own empathy and humanity, which was particularly helpful in my position as a school psychologist.

Even in casual conversation, Deven challenged my thinking in such a way that even after we had fallen out of touch, I would (and still do) ask myself from time to time, “What would Deven have to say about this?”  He is one of a few educators whose influence – unbeknownst to them – acts as my own internal Jiminy Cricket, constantly checking my assumptions and gut reactions and forcing me to reexamine stances, situations, conflicts, and resolutions from multiple perspectives.  It’s a fairly short list of people who actively influence my thinking on a regular basis like that, but Deven was most certainly on it.

The circumstances surrounding Deven’s death are, to be frank, shocking. Maybe delving into that is appropriate for a piece on how it might and should have been prevented, but there are far better ways to memorialize the man, which is why I haven’t linked to any news articles here.  There are better things you can read.

Go read Deven’s blog.  There’s nearly four years worth of his collected writings on education archived there.

Go read his Twitter feed.  It seems to have been hijacked by spam most recently, but scroll down to the tweets dated early 2014 or earlier to see the kinds of resources he shared and hard questions he posed.

Go read his interview with the School Library Journal and find out why they called him “Middle School Maverick.”

Go read ALA’s writeup on his Bammy award win.  Regardless of what you or I think of these awards, he was recognized by his peers as one of the best.  That has to mean something.

Go read his interview with Wide Awake Minds, wherein he discusses the value of failure, curiosity, and school (h/t Ira Socol for the link).

Go watch his 2012 talk at #140Edu, “How to make dropping out of school work for you” (h/t Kristin Hokanson for the link)

I only knew the man for 7 or 8 years.  I certainly didn’t know him as well as others did, and I only actually met him face-to-face once, but through his writing and our conversations, he has had a tremendous influence on me.  I will miss him.

Update, 29 Jan 16 6:00pm

As expected, the tributes to Deven from the many people he impacted are starting to roll in.  I’ll add them here as I come across them:

St. Baldrick’s: Once More Unto the Breach

For the second year running, this March I’ll be joining my comrades in Lawrence Township Public Schools as we go under the clippers to shave our heads and raise money for childhood cancer research via St. Baldrick’s.  I’m proud that our district fields a few teams – usually at least one from each of our seven buildings – at this community-wide event and that students, teachers, administrators from across the district all join in the fun together.

If you are so inclined, please donate a few dollars and sponsor me.  Like last year, my modest goal is to raise $100, and also like last year, I hope to surpass it, thanks to your generosity.

While this year won’t hold the same sense of wonder for me as last year (never shaved my head before last year; turns out I rock the shaved head look pretty well after all), your money is still good, and thanks to St. Baldrick’s high rating on Charity Navigator, you know you can feel confident in giving.

Last year, after all was said and done, the Lawrenceville event more than doubled their fundraising goal of $75,000.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could push this year’s total from $150K to $200K or more?

Thanks for your consideration.

2015 By The Numbers: Books

In an effort to stave off some of the malaise referenced in my last post, I made a conscious effort today to do absolutely nothing.  Perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration, but I certainly didn’t do anything strenuous, and I only left the house to pick up Chinese food for the family for dinner.  It was beautiful.

Part of my recuperative process was to spend some time this afternoon reading.  Ian McEwan’s Atonement has been on my “to-read” list for the better part of a decade now, and I finally got around to starting it today.  As I often do, I popped into my Goodreads account to add it to my list.  I don’t know if this is a new feature or I just haven’t noticed it, but under My Books, there is a link called Stats, that slices your logged reading habits a number of interesting ways: by books read in a year, number of pages read in a year, and books read by year of publication (my re-reading of Dante’s Inferno really skewed that cluster).

Turns out I read 11 books in 2015, which averages out to a little less than one per month.  I’ll take it, but I think that moving forward I’d like to get at least 12 in per year (for comparison’s sake, I had 12 in 2014 and 16 each year in 2013 and 2012 – that’s as far back as my stats go).  I was a precocious reader, reading by or before my third birthday, and voraciously so – very few things in my entire life have brought me as much joy, entertainment, knowledge, or peace as reading.  I am a regular patron of my local library, both for myself and for my kids, and while I don’t particularly like to spend money on books (because I’m cheap frugal no seriously totally cheap and that’s what libraries are for), once a year I treat myself and load up my Kindle Paperwhite with about $100 worth of books to read on our annual family vacation.  Perhaps a conscious, deliberate effort to read more needs to be a part of my personal restorative process moving forward into 2016.

In no particular order, these are the books I read in 2015:

As for 2016, I’m starting strong with Atonement and Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez’s Invent to Learn.  Also in the mix: a sci-fi classic that I had to put down when school started and I never got going again – Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Feel free to check out the neat infographic Goodreads put together of my year in review, and if you have a Goodreads account, I’d love to see what your year in reading looked like as well.