Monday, November 16, 2009


It is November in Cleveland. Already.
A few short weeks ago the world was brilliant with the blazing hues of maple, ash, and oak trees, transforming the shady side-streets of quiet city neighborhoods into festive pathways of scarlet, gold, and orange. The sky was blue and the air was crisp. The excitement of a new school year and a fresh start held forth the promise that anything was possible.
And now it is November.
The dark nights come early, and the timid mornings begin late. I look up at the skeletal branches of trees, then down to the brown leaves blowing across the gray asphalt. Gray has become the predominate color of the city; gray streets, gray buildings, gray sky, gray moods. The first quarter report cards have been sent home, and students who couldn't make the grade have been sent packing. The honeymoon of a new beginning is over, reality made her entrance, and the long haul has begun.
It has been a mad rush kind of school year for me thus far. In typical CMSD style, my student rosters continue to change, with two new boys added to my eleventh period class just this week. I have a full schedule teaching 6 periods a day, with one brand new course; a digital photography class.
After serving more than twenty years in the district, I was not surprised by the fact I would be teaching a class for which the school has no textbooks or equipment. So, for this first year, each student must bring in their own camera, and I stay a jump or two ahead of the kids, designing the projects and curriculum as the class progresses. This elective course is an experimental pilot, and I feel pretty good about the outcomes so far. We've been able to schedule several speakers and a couple of field trips. The staff from the educational non-profit, Facing History and Ourselves, has been extremely helpful in working with us to connect art with social justice issues, history, and photo journalism. The theme we decided on for the school year is "Finding Our Voices; Telling Our Stories". The class is currently working on Life Magazine style photo-essays dealing with neighborhood landmarks and community. I would like to find a public space, or neighborhood gallery, to exhibit the work in the spring. If anyone has a suggestion, please, please, let me know.
Contributing to my manic schedule this year are a couple of new responsibilities. I applied for, and was admitted to, the district's new PAR (Peer Assistance and Review) program. Two young teachers, from other buildings in the district, have been assigned as my "mentees". For a semester I will serve as their advisor. My task is to help them with the challenges that face so many teachers when they are beginning their careers. I get to spend time in their classrooms, listening, observing, and answering questions. Together we will talk, set goals, plan, and try new strategies. I wish there was a program like this around when I was a rookie. All of my lessons were learned the hard way.
The PAR program is a collaborative effort between the district administration and the Teachers Union to address the issues of teacher quality, retention, and professional development. It is relatively new to Cleveland, and is only being implemented in a few other school districts nationwide. I will share my thoughts on the effectiveness of the program (with respect to confidentiality ) in future posts.

street photography photos
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Sunday, August 30, 2009

On First Days, Fresh Starts, and New Images

Even for those of us who have lasted long enough in the education trenches to bear the moniker of 'Seasoned Veteran', the first day back to school is still anticipated with a bit of trepidation, along with the excitement of a fresh start. Driving along the Shoreway early Thursday morning I wondered,
"Who will I meet this year?"

Over the past 28 years of 'first days', I have met thousands of young men and women.
As I taught them new concepts, they enriched my life. So many made me laugh, some tested my patience, a few even broke my heart. Most eventually graduated to go on to jobs or college. They became hard workers, good parents, and successful business people. A good number became artists, and an admirable number became teachers. I've sent quite a few of my students off to the armed forces. Some made careers in the military, others have returned from war physically and/or emotionally scarred.

I see my former pupils' names in the newspaper, or on the internet, in the business or society pages, occasionally in the obituaries, and more often than I care to admit, in the police blotter. I've seen their faces on the walls of the post office featured on the FBI's most wanted posters, found them listed in the sheriff's sex offenders updates, and on prison web pages. I've taught killers, gangsters, rapists, bank robbers and con-artists.
And I've also taught the victims.

This week I stood at the door to my classroom and smiled as I waited for the students to find their way to my classroom at the end of the long corridor. Freshly printed schedules in hand, their eyes scanned the walls for room numbers.

"Is this room 356?"

"Yes, you found it!"

Some of the students hurried in, too shy to make eye contact. The cool kids strolled in slowly, sizing up the seating arrangement. The gregarious ones started the conversation before they crossed the threshold.

"Finally, I get to take art! I loved my art teacher in 7th grade! We made these sculptures out of wire... it was so cool! Are we going to make sculpture in this class? I draw all the time when I'm bored. Do you want to see my drawings? I'll bring them in tomorrow."

This year, for the first time, the students are required to wear a uniform: solid blue or white collared shirts, black, blue, or khaki dress pants with belts and shirts tucked in. Before the start of homeroom, I had to send a couple of boys back downstairs for being out of uniform.

"Aw... Come on, let us stay. You can be the cool teacher and not follow the rules."

Laughing I retorted, "I don't need you to think I'm cool. I need to teach you your colors. Go on downstairs and learn what blue and white look like."

I've learned over the years you can pretty much get most kids to do what you ask if you smile, even kick them out of class without all of the usual drama. The two non-compliant juniors headed back downstairs, one of them turned around and mouthed a silent "Please?"
I waved good-bye.
Friday I had a full class, everyone in uniform.

The students this year seem a little different from last year, and a whole lot different from the kids who roamed the halls back in 1998, the year I transferred to Max Hayes from Garrett Morgan Cleveland School of Science.

Back in the 90's, Max Hayes was the School of Last Resort in the city of Cleveland. Principals from the regular neighborhood high schools would send their most incorrigible teenagers to the vocational school where, hopefully, they might find something else to do with their hands besides fighting, stealing, or groping.
When I taught at the School of Science a few blocks away, the security guards in that building had to be on special alert for the thugs from Max Hayes who regularly walked into the school to beat up the nerdy science students.

Well, it is ten years and three principals later. Students must now pass a rigorous screening process to be admitted , and sign an academic and behavioral contract to stay enrolled. Vocational classes have evolved into technical programs. The "shop rats" and "grease monkeys" were replaced with computer programers and engineering students.
Vo-ed has become STEM.

Finally, I will share with you a comment made by a fellow teacher who just transferred to Max Hayes this week after spending most of his career teaching English at Glenville High School on Cleveland's east side:

"I can't believe it! I went through the whole day without having to tell anyone to be quiet. Everyone was paying attention. There were no kids walking the halls in between classes. I think I must have died and gone to heaven."

Now, who says that the Cleveland schools are beyond help?
The dysfunction of the public school system did not happen overnight. The issues are complex — social, economic, and political. There is no silver bullet, no quick fix. The solution reminds me of an old joke that goes something like this:
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

If Max Hayes can reinvent itself, perhaps there is still hope for the rest of Cleveland.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Adding Color to Cleveland Walls

Last week I finally stopped by the Recreation Center at John F. Kennedy High School on Cleveland's southeast side, to view the mural being painted this summer by neighborhood teenagers.

The project is part of the Mural My Neighborhood program sponsored by the City of Cleveland's Parks and Recreation Department.
Each summer this program teams young Cleveland artists with professional muralists, community leaders, and business owners to create beautiful, uplifting murals in two different wards. The murals depict civic pride, vibrant city life, and visions of hope.
From the Mural My Neighborhood Brochure
For the past several years, Chris Lucciani, the director of Cleveland's Bereau of Cultural Arts has visited my Classes at Max Hayes to recruit students for this program. The kids need to apply for the a spot 0n the team, submit a portfolio of their artwork, and come in for an interview. If they complete the entire project, they will be rewarded with a stipend at the end of the program. This year I had 3 of my students participating.

Each Summer there are two mural sites, one on the East side of the city and the other on the West side. Depending on the location and the condition of the walls, the murals may be painted either directly at the site or on panels off-site, to be installed on the building when completed. The JFK Rec. Center had a wonderful smooth concrete wall, which made for a perfect painting surface. No scaffolds were required either, as the building was only one story.

John Troxell, the artist working with the students on this project, has quite a legacy of murals; not only in the city of Cleveland, but nation-wide. His most recent public work is the 350 foot long Mill Run Trail mural, the city's largest. This was a project sponsored by Cleveland Public Art and can be viewed from Broadway Avenue in the Slavic Village neighborhood.

Here is a link to the Flickr photostream containing samples of more of John's artwork.

This final photo is a section of the JFK mural that, I understand, was completed by one of my most excellent art students at Max Hayes; Franchesca Brown. Great job kiddo!
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Monday, July 20, 2009

Clean-up Crew

"Hey MB! If you're not busy this morning you should come out here. We're working at a school that I think you would love. It's built like an old stone castle, covered in ivy ."

It was the third time this summer my friend and fellow teacher, Fran Brewka, had invited me to come out and take pictures of the buildings where he and his crew of about a dozen Max Hayes High School students were working. I was busy the first two times he called, but since I had no plans that Thursday morning, I grabbed my camera and headed out to East 40th and Quincy.

Like an ancient fortress rising above the vinyl clad residences of the revitalized Central neighborhood, the old Central High School (renamed Carl Lewis Stokes) stands, a looming stone monument to Franklin Roosevelt's Federal Works Program. While the students continued to clear the tangled masses of vegetation threatening to devour the structure, Fran offered a tour.

"Wow! Look at the craftsmanship... the architectural detail, the granite, the marble, the brass."
I reached out to run my fingers along the polished stone panels covering the lobby walls.

"Can you imagine what a building like this would cost these days? And yet, when this was built, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression." How ironic, I mused, it seems that as the nation's economy improved, the quality of our construction deteriorated.

"C'mon upstairs to the tower, you can get some pretty cool shots from up there."

The windows were so scratched and dirty I could barely see through the ivy. An open widow in the next room provided entry for the aggressive vines, a stunning view of Cleveland's skyline, and a great shot of a group of students gathering up debris.

This is the second season for the summer maintenance program, which has tripled in size since the district agreed to hire the first crew of Max Hayes students last year.

Three teams, headed by three different teachers, meet early each morning at the high school where busses take them to the various job sites at school buildings across the district. No one is late.

Each team has their particular specialties, depending in large part on the instructor's expertise. They repair floors, paint, lay tile, landscape... the list goes on and on. With more than eighty school buildings operating in the Cleveland Municipal School District, there is work enough for a score of crews.

The speed, care, and professionalism of the students have garnered compliments from head custodians across the district, CMSD administrators, the community, and even Mayor Frank Jackson.

At one site, the major difference between the professionally laid tile and the work done by the Max Hays students was the obvious superiority of the student work. When the building custodian marveled at the quality of the student's craftsmenship, the kids learned one of life's most valuable lessons; pride in a job well done.

Even people in the community are beginning to notice.
At one over-grown East-side school, passers-by commented that they had assumed the school was closed down until the Max Hayes crew came out to clear away the jungle of weeds and debris.
Fran chuckled as he related a story about the folks in one West-side neighborhood who wandered over to watch the activity, while the students began cleaning up the long neglected landscape of an elementary school. Apparently, inspired by all the hard-working teen-agers, or not wanting their homes to look shabby by comparison, when the neighbors returned to their respective garages, out came the lawn mowers, rakes, and hedge cutters!
Education, when extended beyond the walls of the classroom, becomes a far richer, truly valuable experience.

Max Hayes building construction teacher Jim Mulgrew has watched students who stagnated in their academic classes find their spark working in the shop. Mathematics, reading, and problem solving take on a new relevancy when applied on a job site. Jim began the Max Hayes summer work program last year as a natural extension to the learning that was happening each day in his department.

The many benefits of the program are obvious. The district gets much needed maintenance at bargain basement prices. Students get valuable job training, real work experience for their resumes, and a paycheck. They also gain some of the more subtle life lessons of pride and self-esteem, building new friendships, and teamwork.

When schools give their teachers the opportunity to innovate, wonderful things will happen.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Max Hayes Blows Glass.

"I keep looking at your blog, and I see you haven't been writing."

"You know, I've been starting to go back into your archives to read some of your old stories, since there's nothing new."

"When are you going to post our pictures? You promised us you would put them online weeks ago."

Thank you my friends, students, and readers for gently nudging, reminding, and finally out and out nagging me. You make me feel wanted.
I've been neglecting this blog for more than a few weeks, and I beg your forgiveness, but honestly, I have been busy.

The school year is flying by, and the Max Hayes Art Club, especially, has been having a lot of fun this winter.
From paint to pastels to play-dough, my students experimented with new techniques for classic materials and also reacquainted themselves with a sticky medium from their not-so-distant childhoods.

But as much as the kids enjoyed working in the studio at school, the real highlight of the past month was our trip to The Glass Studio on Superior Avenue one cold afternoon in February.

For the second year in a row, glass artist Mike Zelenka invited interested art students to learn glass blowing at the studio where he works in Cleveland's Mid-Town neighborhood. For many years prior, Mike demonstrated the ancient craft to visitors at Hale Farm and Village. These days, he and his colleagues teach classes and create beautiful works of art at their facility behind the Tyler building at East 30th and Superior.

Mike became part of the Max Hayes family last year, when he took over the Phys. Ed. classes while the former instructor was on an extended leave of absence. An athlete a well as an artist, he also coaches the school's tennis team. Last year Mike raised money for the team with a silent auction of art glass which he and several other artists donated to the school.

The students watched in wide-eyed amazement as Mike dipped a long metal pipe into a pot of glowing molten glass, and proceeded to blow a bubble as thin as cellophane and fragile as soap, that shattered into a thousand pieces with the slightest touch.

The next red hot glob became a bowl as he showed the students how the glass responded to centrifugal force.

Blowing glass transcends the typical art lesson to become a fully integrated experience; combining physics and chemistry with creativity, visual problem solving, and aesthetics.

Each student in our small group was able to take a turn creating their own glass piece. Step by step, one at a time, Mike talked them through the process. By the end of our visit, five colorful paper weights were slowly cooling in the annealer.

People spend an awful lot of time in schools sitting through lectures, copying information, memorizing lists, and regurgitating facts... and after just a few short years, the majority of that information (or at least the stuff we don't need to use or think about) is forgotten, or sent to the brain's biological version of the cyber-trash bin and buried.

The learning that sticks with a person for a lifetime are often experiences outside the classroom, like those my students had at the Glass Studio this winter. It's kind of ironic, the things I volunteer to do on my own time will probably have a greater positive impact on my student's lives than the mandated curriculum I am hired to teach.

Experiential learning is by far the most effective learning method. The phrase is becoming my mantra.

Many thanks to the generous folks at the Superior Glass Studio for welcoming the Max Hayes Art Club, and a very heartfelt Thank You to Mike Zelenka for sharing his knowledge, skill, and passion.
The Cleveland arts community is the BEST!

Check the sidebar for a slide show of more pictures.

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Saturday, February 07, 2009

The 200 Day School Year: Reactions From the Teachers' Lounge

Last night I listened to Dick Feagler and his Friends on WVIZ discuss Governor Strickland's education plan for the state of Ohio, slated to be piloted in the Cleveland Municipal Schools. When Mr Feagler asked his panel's opinion of the proposed 200 day school year, all of his highly educated guests nodded in agreement. "Of course it is a GREAT idea!" "Some other countries have school years even longer than 200 days." "Another month of school makes sense. We need to prepare Ohio's children to compete in a global economy." "It's about time. After all, the current 180 day school calendar is outdated, being based on the needs of last century's agrarian society."

I noticed none of his guests were teachers.

The view from the people who work on the frontlines of education was substantially different.

As I sat with a small group of colleagues eating lunch in the teachers' lounge the day after the governor's State of the State address, one of them asked, "So did you hear Strickland wants to add another 20 days to the school year?"

One of the guys, who had two kids in college smiled and said,"Another month of work will equal an additional month of pay, right?"

"That's great," commented a young teacher with only a few years in the district, "but where is the money coming from? The school board is already talking about the possibility of hundreds of teacher lay-offs."

"Maybe they don't intend to increase our salaries, just extend the calendar."

Another teacher asked "How about all of the new teachers with bachelors' degrees who need to get their masters' degree to keep their license? Without the summer semester, when will they have time to take classes?"

"And when will we be able to take all the coursework we need to meet the No Child Left Behind mandate to stay "Highly Qualified'? You know businesses pay their employees tuition to upgrade their qualifications. We teachers have always had to foot the bill ourselves, but at least we had the time to do it. Now it looks like we won't get the compensation or the time."

I added, "I'm assuming all of the folks on the Governor's committee who came up with this recommendation work in air conditioned offices in July and August."

The rest of the group laughed. "I'll bet they never had to spend a single day sweltering in a 95 degree office, let alone shut up for hours in close quarters with 30 sweaty, complaining kids, in a room with one door and windows that don't open. Do they even realize that most schools in Cleveland have no air conditioning (except for maybe the administrators' offices) and our classroom windows are nailed shut for security reasons?"

"The district doesn't even provide us with fans. Teachers who need a fan have to bring in their own. On hot days I need at least three in my classroom just to feel some circulation."

"You get a few students in the class whose families don't have washing machines in their homes...Phew! Some of the kids can get pretty ripe on a hot day. A lot of the kids from poor families don't wash their school clothes on a regular basis. I feel embarrassed for them."

"And sorry for the rest of us!"

"It figures...the suburbs have new buildings with air conditioning, but they want to pilot the 200 day calendar in the decrepit schools of Cleveland. The politicians want a 21st century education implemented in 20th century facilities, and there's no money to fund it. "

"But if we complain, we are perceived as lazy, greedy and incompetent."

"The headlines, of course, will read, 'Cleveland Teachers Union Against School Reform'. "

"Sometimes it seems like we are being set-up to look like the bad guys. Is this just a political ploy to make it appear as if the state is trying to do something about education, or is it a back-door attempt at union-busting?"

Sadly, I shook my head and sighed, "It's probably both."

Monday, January 12, 2009

Potty Talk

This may very well be the most unconventional topic I've ever blogged, but hey, inspiration rarely follows convention, now does it?

However, the story does begin at the high school:

It was the last day of classes before winter break, and the mood throughout Max Hayes was festive. There was a little extra spring in my step as I made my way past the knot of students gathered next to the door of the building construction shop on the third floor. I smiled at my colleagues, Jim and Bill, and they waved me inside.

"What are you doing after school?"

It was agreed that a celebratory drink would be in order, but the question of where to imbibe remained open to suggestion.

"How about the Barking Spider?" Bill suggested. None of the West side teachers would be joining us that afternoon, so we were free to venture outside the typical staff comfort zone of the Near West Detroit Shoreway neighborhood. University Circle is on the other side of the river, and on the way home for us Eastsiders.

"Boy, I haven't been there for a couple of years. I'll meet you guys at about 2:45."

The Barking Spider Tavern has been a popular Cleveland watering hole since 1986. Cold pitchers of draft beer and free entertainment make it a favorite of the Case Western Reserve University crowd who are, for the most part, a rather brainy clientele. It is just this combination of alcohol, intellect, and creativity, that brings me to the subject of my post. Add a magic marker to that trifecta, and what you get are the most intriguing restrooms I have ever needed to spend time in.

Graffiti covers every surface. The legacy of thousands of women scribbled, stamped, and smeared on the doors, walls, and ceiling. Proclamations of love, political diatribes, cartoon drawings, poetry, jokes, famous quotations, and angry rants demand the attention of the occupant.

That Friday afternoon I found myself alone in the ladies room, and being in no hurry, I began to read. With no one to hear me I laughed out loud. Written in green, an elitist insult : "Your pants are easier to get into than community college!"

Remembering the camera in my purse, I began to photograph the layers of text.

Although the walls apparently get scrubbed, permanent marker stains the paint, leaving the ghost images of ancient tags and soliloquies until, before long, new patrons add their thoughts to the walls, doors, and fixtures.

What began as vandalism has, over time, been allowed to become art, although I'm not sure if proprietor, Martin Juredine, shares my philosophical perspective.

"You call this Art?" Certainly some conservatives would scream, "That's just wrong!"

And I reply "Look again...think."

I teach Art as concept, ideas, expression, and most importantly; art as visual communication. What has evolved over time here in the restrooms of the Barking Spider Tavern is an amalgamation of thoughts and feelings. Text and drawings, ranging from raunchy inebriated scrawls to pithy remarks and profundities, record the anonymous ruminations of the countless women who ventured into the ladies room over the years. Like bacteria in a petri dish, creative expression grows in this lavatory. The visitor who pauses to read will get a provocative glimpse of the feminine spirit in it's myriad manifestations.

In my opinion, the experience rivals the conceptual works in many gallery installations I've viewed.

When I returned, my colleagues, too polite to ask what took me so long, did give the camera in my hand a second glance. I wasn't surprised.

I do admit it is just a little strange to be taking photos in a restroom.

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