Big Brothers Big Sisters Celebration

Here’s the text from which I spoke to Big Brothers Big Sisters celebration last night. (Loosely — the paper stayed in my pocket.)

It’s an honor to be with you today. I want to start by applauding the graduates. What you’ve done is awesome, and you make all those who love you proud – especially the Big Brothers and Big Sisters here today who’ve stood by you and mentored you along the way. To these fabulous people I want to say thank you for sharing what is most precious: our time.

To honor your graduation I want to make three points. They don’t form a beautiful commencement speech, but they suggest the three things I’ve learned that are most important to me.

  1. We live in a time of miracle and wonder – despite the constant drumbeat of negativity about how tough things are today. For years you’ve heard that the economy is tough, it’s hard to find jobs, the housing market has collapsed, terrorism threatens our way of life – on and on. Of course there are problems – but this emphasis is wrong! As singer Paul Simon said, we live in a time of miracle and wonder.

    a. Technology is the easiest place to start. Those of you who own a smart phone carry the “sum of all knowledge” with you everywhere you go, and can talk to anyone on the planet at zero incremental cost. This is ASTONISHING in the history of the world.

    b. Economics is trickier, because it looks different depending on your age. The housing bust was terrible for older people – but good for young people wanting to buy their first house! The economy is terrible for old people whose skills are atrophied – but good for young, educated people, which is what you’re becoming.

    c. National spirit is trickiest of all, but to me it’s obvious that America is getting better. We are making real progress on our oldest, hardest problem: our “original sin” of racism. Barack Obama may or may not be a successful president; history will judge. But he most certainly is a black man who earned his place as the most powerful person in the world and wields it credibly. Fifty years after Martin Luther King, Jr. told us of his dream, President Obama is judged by the content of his character. This change has opened doors for all of us. As an example, this improvement in America made it possible for me to start attending St Stephen church, liberated to join one of America’s great traditions – African-American religious celebration – by Obama’s example.

    We live in a time of miracle and wonder. DO NOT LET THE CULTURE OF NEGATIVITY AND WHINING PULL YOU DOWN!

  2. Perseverance is the foundation of hope. You graduates have earned your degrees. It wasn’t easy; parts of your journey have been struggle, even suffering.

    This is not new. Every great religion teaches that suffering is an essential step to fulfillment. My favorite statement of this theme is in Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he urges his readers (in verses 3-5) to celebrate even the painful parts of their journeys : “We [should] rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope – and hope does not disappoint.”

    I urge you graduates to take hope from your achievement, and to build on the confidence that you can hang in there, LEARN, and achieve in the future. You’ve proven that you can persevere. Your lives will present more tests that require suffering and perseverance in the future. The self-knowledge that you can put up with pain and doubts along the way will help you in the hard times that, whatever you do and certainly if you continue to aim high and achieve, will lie ahead. BE FILLED WITH HOPE!

  3. Pay it forward. I’ve touched on technology and economics, age, race and religion. I might as well close by quoting Benjamin Franklin, as translated in a commencement speech nearly 40 years ago by a great football coach, Ohio State’s Woody Hayes. Hayes told his graduates and their parents and supporters that Ben Franklin invented the term “Pay it forward.” The basic idea is that all of us receive help from people that we can never pay back. Some receive food or shelter from strangers; some have a special teacher or coach who believes in them and shows them they’re special. You have received mentor-ship from a Big Brother or Big Sister. By the time you’ve finished your education and settled into your career, you probably won’t be able to pay back the people here who have helped you on your way. You may live elsewhere, they may have moved on, and some of the older folk who’ve helped you will, sadly, have passed on.

    I’ve been blessed with many gifts that I can’t pay back. When I was teaching in China, two old teachers who’d been political prisoners for decades smiled and hugged me (in the formal Chinese way, by patting my shoulder) every time they saw me, suggesting my very presence brought them joy because of the better world it represented. I had no idea I mattered. And I received a similar gift from my students, who hung on my every word just because I was speaking English – the only thing I really knew. These people taught me that my effort and care and energy mattered, and that they would learn from me and change their world if I would just do my best.

    I can’t pay back these far away friends from long ago, any more than you can pay back the Big Brothers and Big Sisters here in the room and the others who’ve believed in you. So as Ben Franklin (sort of) said, we must pay it forward by passing on good to folks we don’t yet know. I hope that my service on the school board will let me pay forward the debt I owe to my Chinese colleagues and students, as well as to the teachers and others who cared about me.

    I encourage each of you to pay forward the gift you’ve received from your Big Brother or Big Sister in the future by helping a lonely or aggressive kid who needs a caring adult, or in some new way that you invent out of your own unique, creative, changing-the-world self.

Hawthorne Elementary’s dual language curriculum

On Thursday I visited Hawthorne Elementary at the invitation of Principal Jessica Rosenthal. Hawthorne is unique within JCPS in offering a dual language curriculum in which students learn all subjects in both English and Spanish, spending about half the day in each language in each classroom.

As a foreign language learner and former teacher of English to speakers of other languages, I was THRILLED by what I saw.

Most important, at Hawthorne I saw, for the first time ever within JCPS, students speaking FLUENTLY in a SECOND LANGUAGE that they had LEARNED WITHIN JCPS. Elementary school students from all over Louisville were happily and productively reading, writing, speaking and doing math in both English and Spanish.

I’ve been frustrated for years, as both parent and education activist, by the low expectations and low attainment that JCPS has brought to foreign language instruction. Nowhere else in the system have I ever encountered even a vague notion that non-ESL students might become fluent in a language other than English.

Yet I’ve seen this happen everywhere else I’ve ever been: My own students in China, the multilingual kids of my friends in Europe and Asia, and the many foreign business leaders, government officials, and workers I’ve dealt with over my career. So I was THRILLED to see Hawthorne delivering this global standard of excellence to some of Louisville’s children.

My morning at Hawthorne was overwhelmingly positive, and it’s tempting to stop here. However, continuous improvement requires honest recognition of areas that need work — so I’ll mention several observations that did not thrill me.

First, I was surprised to learn that JCPS personnel policies, as embodied in the contract with JCTA, place teachers in Hawthorne who don’t speak Spanish. Seniority rights allow teachers to transfer to Hawthorne even if they are unable to participate in the school’s unique program. This looks like a good example of the sort of old-fashioned rigidity that needs to be updated to help teachers and students succeed in today’s flexible, globalizing environment.

Student assignment was another surprise. Apparently some students are placed in Hawthorne who haven’t chosen Spanish immersion and have no Spanish, sometimes mid-year in the older grades. Dropping kids into classes where they don’t speak the language replicates the experience of kids who come to the U.S. as refugees from other countries. I expect that many of the Louisville kids who experience this will be as successful as many of our inspiring refugees, thanks to their teachers’ efforts and their own resiliency. But replicating the refugee experience does not look like good policy.

But to finish on a positive note: I loved my visit to Hawthorne, and believe I saw an innovative program, creative and flexible teachers, a happy and nurturing environment, and a school doing work of which all Louisvillians can be proud. And I know I heard the sound of genuine learning, in the natural and effortless switching of kids between two languages that will enrich the rest of their lives.

Vigilance about keeping church and state separate

I’ve received a number of comments and questions about an evening meeting of an organization called Louisville Area Christian Educator Support (“LACES”) held earlier this week in a JCPS auditorium. It’s clear to me that many Louisvillians are concerned about both sides of our Constitution’s provisions separating church and state: freedom from governmental “establishment” of any preferred religion, as by presenting or allowing preaching or proselytizing in schools; and freedom to “exercise” one’s religion, as by praying in whatever manner dictated by one’s belief.

As a school board member, as a participant in organized religion, and as a lawyer and former teacher of constitutional law, I take seriously the Constitution’s promise of freedom to practice one’s own religion and not to have government force any religion on anyone. This seriousness will inform my evaluation of these issues whenever they arise.

As soon as this controversy surfaced on the web, board members asked for clarification of JCPS policy and whether the event complied with policy. Here’s what we learned:

“JCPS, through the Board’s policy, allows community groups, religious and non-religious, to use district facilities after school hours. LACES completed the appropriate application for Facility Use.

We have received a number of questions and comments from the community regarding media reports about the content of the event. To remind our principals regarding their obligations pursuant to the law, we have distributed . . . guidance to the Achievement Area Superintendents and Principals.

This guidance states:

· Public school employees are required to be neutral concerning religion while carrying out their duties as public school employees.

· Public schools may teach students about religion in appropriate courses, such as World History and Literature; such studies are academic, not devotional.

· Creationism and Intelligent Design are not a part of the state science curriculum standards and are not taught.

· Students have a right to pray at school individually, or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers so long as they are not disruptive, and such prayer is not organized or led by staff.”

My sense is that (1) policy comports with Constitutional requirements, and (2) we may learn more about whether this particular event complied with policy. I doubt all members of the community will be satisfied; after all, Americans have been arguing about separation of church and state almost since our beginning as a nation. But vigilance about keeping church and state separate, and passion about religion, are vital elements of America. So thanks to all who’ve commented and are paying attention!