Saturday, June 14, 2014

Tremayne - A Post Script

I have written about Tremayne before, nearly two years ago. A link to that post follows this one. Today, Tremayne and I worked on his graduation speech that he will deliver to our GED graduation this coming Tuesday.  Days like these, few and far between, make everything worthwhile. I am posting his speech here, as I am too excited to wait for him to give it in a few days:

Good evening, my name is Tremayne Harmon and I want to tell you a little about myself and how I found myself at Moraine Valley College and the GED program.  I was born in Chicago, but I was raised in Youngstown, Ohio. My father left our home at an early age, so I was raised by a single mother.  Coming up in the streets with no father figure and little financial support, I did what I needed to do to survive. School didn’t buy food, and I felt that it was not important at that time in my life. Even though I eventually got out of Youngstown, others did not. My sister was murdered at 24. A friend, John, attempted to rob someone and was killed. Another friend, Mark, was executed by the State of Ohio just three years ago. He called me an hour before they put him to death.

 Thank God I got out of Youngstown, Ohio. If I hadn’t I don’t believe I would be here now.

When I was 21, after a year and a half in juvenile detention, I reconnected with my father in Chicago and eventually received a job with the railroad, but it was through a contractor.  I worked there for five years and was getting my life together; at least I thought it was all coming together. Over time, the contractors lost their bid to work for the railroad and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad took over.  With my work experience and the strong work ethic I had developed, an opportunity arose that would allow me to work for this new railroad and keep a good job, but there was one small catch. Even though I had all of the qualifications to do the job well, I lacked the required high school education!  I was very frustrated. I was losing my job temporarily, but the railroad said it would hold my job while I pursued my GED. I was nervous at the thought of returning to school at this point in my life, and I knew they couldn’t hold the job for me forever.  With the amazing support of my family, I decided to find a program.  My wife researched some schools and found out that this program was starting soon. There were other schools available, but she thought this school had the best resources and least distractions (I really think she thought there were less attractive women in the suburbs – if only she knew! Just kidding honey).

 By receiving a massive amount of help from Dean Michael, Miss Karen, Miss Swift, Miss Jessica, Miss K and all the other  teachers and staff, I eventually made it through and I was able to earn my GED.  It wasn’t easy though. It took me a whole year just to get up the nerve to attempt my first GED test. It was tough getting down here to classes sometimes, and being unemployed put a lot of pressure on me and my family. I took many courses and made steady and gradual progress though. I took the test a few more times and started passing several of the sections. Being out of school for 25 years, this gave me a lot of encouragement. Math was hardest! When I received my final math results from my wife over the phone, I ran into school crying thanking Jesus! A grown man crying – please don’t tell the guys at 14th and Canal St.! The last hurdle was my essay – Miss K and Miss Jessica never let me give up and I passed this last test a year and a half later after I made that first move to get back to work and save my job.

Derek and Latrese, the terminal managers were excited and had me reapply for my job. Two months later, I was back to work with a career now ahead of me. Six months later, I was promoted to being a conductor with better pay, better hours, and weekends off. Thank you Jesus again.

 The late Nelson Mandela said that education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.  Moraine Valley College provided an excellent avenue for me to achieve my educational goals. As an adult, it’s hard to go back to school.  Hard work and never giving up is a necessity. By never giving up, all impossibilities become possibilities.

I waited until I was forced to make these changes – if you are out there now in the audience, or know someone who needs to complete their GED, please don’t wait. Moraine Valley is the place you need to be, don’t look anywhere else. The support here is like that of a family; people will reach out to you and encourage to keep going. Coming from where I came from to where I am now tells me it is nothing but God – He put all these people in my life and he will put them in your life too. All you have to do is believe and make the effort.

Thank you.

Sunday, May 4, 2014


David Earle 1970-2008
I have written about David before, and have thought about him often. Today, however, I did a simple search and the news I sensed was there made me wished I hadn't.  Here is an excerpt from a April, 2013 post:
Simulation Drill?: Often, in interviews, you are asked situational questions where you can simulate your responses and they can get an idea of your affect and behavior. Sometimes this is done as a role-play. Well, I had the mother of all role-plays in 1985, but I don't think it was scripted. I had arrived in Jamaica as a Peace Corps Volunteer without an assignment (long story, other posts) and had heard about an orphanage that needed a teacher for a year. I contacted them and scheduled an interview with the director the next day. When I arrived at the school, I was surprised to see it had been an old tourist hotel overlooking Montego Bay. It was quaint and dated, and the boys lived in the old guest rooms (four boys to a room). There were only two floors, one central area, and an abandoned pool. I made my way upstairs to meet with the director and casually looked down the railed hall of the second floor. I could hear activity at the end of the balcony and I figured classes were going on there. I went into the office and began what was to be a half-hour interview - it didn't last nearly that long. We exchanged pleasantries, and he explained the nature of his need: The regular teacher was pregnant and needed to take a year's leave. She presided over a one-room school with seventeen boys ages 7-17. In his words, these were the boys "too spirited to appreciate the benefits of a traditional education." I got his drift.
He seemed pleased with my answers and was in mid-sentence with another question when we heard a very loud scream from outside. I knew it came from the end of the hall I had passed, and my instinct led me to bolt up and run down to the room. I emerged first, with the director close behind, and saw a very large, very pregnant Jamaican woman against the wall with her hand over her mouth. My eyes followed her gaze and I looked over to see a small boy poking a homemade knife into the belly of a much larger boy. Once again, I acted without thought and tackled the larger boy sensing he was the cause of the problem. The director caught the smaller child and calmed him down and I held the older boy until we could take him down to the office. He had only superficial cuts to his stomach. I survived the interview (new meaning to that phrase now) and I got the job, and after a year and a half, I did make some progress trying to reach David, the older bully. The kids were wonderful and I learned so much about education in that little room without resources.
David is dead at 38, having served time in prison. I can see him clearly, as can I see his young victim. Two boys, both in worn and tattered uniforms, shaved heads, and little or no futures. The younger boy, Colin, was very sweet but had severe cognitive deficits. David must have come from some kind of hellish childhood I couldn't fathom. Colin loved to hug people, David might never have been hugged in his life. I don't know what either boy took to bed with them each night as they slept in open rooms with dank and soiled bedding. I don't know what motivated David to hurt Colin, as I never saw any satisfaction on his face. I did manage to get David to leave Colin alone eventually, and that might have been my only significant contribution to the lives of those 17 children. I saw the emptiness in David's eyes, and I could find no imagination or hope to put there. I don't know if ghosts come from such devastated souls, but if they do, David's loss will haunt me for a great while I suspect.

Sunday, April 13, 2014


I don't think too often about the notion of forgiveness. When I do, it's most likely that I have inadvertently hurt someone else and I am hoping they will forgive the mistake. Forgiveness, I suppose, is born of some sort of pain. People hurt other people, often in response to some inflicted pain, real or imagined. Forgiveness often feels like some sort of perpetuation of this pain cycle, not the cathartic release it is often advertised to be. I don't forgive very often simply because I don't store up the pain until it gets to a point that I have to do something with it. Too often, forgiveness becomes almost theatrical in its application - instead of being a release of pain, it becomes an appeal for admiration. There is just too much work and attention in the process for me.
I have been lucky in the pain/forgiveness arena in my life however. It has been a lifetime since someone I loved or cared deeply about has wronged me. Likewise, any pain I have caused has been discarded long before a loved one has had to confront me with it. Pain is fleeting for me, not some sort of capital to be hoarded then cashed in. People are hurt, they hurt, then fuss over forgiveness as if it is a virtue in and of itself. It is not, it is simply the tail end of a masochistic melodrama.
I do not hurt others intentionally, but I do on occasion hurt them accidentally, or more likely, carelessly. Once again, I hope they forgive my stupidity and recklessness. But I do not need relief or absolution from some sort of malevolence; it just isn't there.
When I feel I have been wronged, I rarely focus on the notion that the other person tried to hurt me necessarily; rather, I suppose the action is a means to some sort of end that best goes through me. This is the only conclusion I have been able to find in fifty plus years, as there have been people who I have helped and been gracious to that have come after me in some way. This detached logic (in my DNA maybe) doesn't keep me from brooding about the consequences of the action, but it does mediate my anger (and uglier emotions) towards the person responsible. Maybe this simple separation has spared me the soul-killing cancer of hatred. I don't hate. I don't think I have ever even felt hatred for anyone for any time at all. I have been hurt, angry, and confused, but I have never placed that person at the center of my being long enough to cultivate the emotions I often see on the faces of others. I don't have the smile that slides to a smirk then disintegrates into a snarl. I think I have been blessed this way. Conversely though, many people I have known might accuse me of not having loved either, for many of the same reasons.
I guess, for some, hatred is generated from betrayal. I don't know what it is like to give my heart to someone only to have them maliciously damage it. Even so, I suspect hatred would not be my eventual response. Sadness and grief maybe, hatred no. Betrayal is not a theme that resonates with me anyway - I don't keep score of my good and bad deeds, nor do I keep tally of these exchanges with others. If I give of myself to another and he does something to hurt me, I notice the incongruity, but I do not lament the imbalance. To do so would lead, I fear, to a ledger system that would promote caution and passivity over passion and good will. I see the remnants of the former in the actions of far too many people in my universe already.
Finally, I think my notions of pain and forgiveness are simply by-products of my very driven personality. I thrive on challenges and truly want to make the world a better place. Moving forward and helping others would not be possible with reservoirs of past pain and future skepticism. Any pain I do carry has no face, nor does the possibility of future betrayal exist in the eyes of those I love and share my passions with. I am blessed.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

In the Spirit of Inappropriateness

I am going to indulge some of my more base thoughts and emotions in this post. Sometimes it is good to dredge these things up in order to understand the rhetoric of idiots. I feel the same things as do morons, too often probably. The slight difference being that mine leave me with a tinged, guilty aftertaste. To too many others though, these deformed relics of ancient ignorance serve as peacock plumes and concentrated cialis. It is important to note the subtle and not so subtle phallic allusions here.
This post drifts back and forth between two recurring symbols of American pride and derision as I compose- the racial pennants Redskins and Niggers.

Both of these issues have woven themselves back into my consciousness as I impatiently wait for this upcoming Superbowl to pass. They share much yet are very different controversies. One is solely imposed on a group  as a naked symbol of aggression and power (and in my opinion, a good dose of Jewish narcissism) and the other found its way into the recesses of the souls it once subjugated,chained, and drug halfway around the world like common chattel. I will  begin with the term now drifting through the United Nations headquarters in New York.
First things first. To be true to my opening declaration, I must admit a recent chortle over a sublimely obnoxious irony that I wallowed in for a few hours the other day. Had it been my headline in my paper (at least today's off-color tabloid), it would read "Oppressed group seeks the assistance of the UN to intervene with a powerful Jew."  The Oneida Nation pleaded its case to the UN over the NFL's Washington D.C. team's mascot the Redskins. The team's owner, Dan Synder, has famously played the anti-semitism card in the past when it suited him, and now stands before the world with all his hubris claiming he will never change the name of his team. My money is on....well, you know who.
A bit more seriously, I sometimes take out my old lecture notes from my Philosophy of Human Nature course and reread the sections on religion and Judaism. As I move to the hallmarks of the development of that faith, I see the emphasis on social justice. That lecture, those words seem so incompatible now having been in Jerusalem and Hebron and witnessed Israeli social justice in the shadow of a separation wall. I understand a greedy billionaire, no matter what race or faith, but where is the majority of this faith on this social justice issue? Where?
I also smile, sort of, when I hear someone tell me they have discovered a Native American, even a group of them, who don't mind this word. It reminds me of a conversation I had twenty odd years ago with an African-American woman who told me she thanked God for slavery. When I incredulously asked why, she replied that if it hadn't been for slavery, she would be a godless heathen running around half-naked in Africa some place. I had neither the inclination nor patience to explain that God and clothing had since made it to the dark continent.
In my darkest moments, I imagine a new mascot for our nation's capital however, and a new name - The D.C. Hebes and it will be ok because we will find a dignified logo. Perhaps Charleton Heston?
Finally though, please don't ever talk to me if you are one of those "tradition" purists who think some sort of sanctity governing a game grown-up boys droll over trumps that of an indigenous people. Just too stupid to process. Instead, stay on the golf courses away from your wives smoking cigars and drinking beer while idly ogling the nineteen year-old in the tube top at the nineteenth hole.
I have been around the world with the word Nigger. I have never defended it, but I have done my best to explain it. Having an advanced degree in cultural studies, a South African wife, two African-American daughters, and almost three decades of service to people of color, I have my perspective. Take it for what it is worth. In this inane debate over who, if any, have the right to use this pejorative, I yield to William Faulkner. From A Rose For Emily: "She would cling to that which robbed her, as people will."
I remember watching and supporting a very vibrant movement in the 1990's supporting the abolition of apartheid (even before marrying into it) here in America. I was impressed with the empathy and passion of the advocacy of a diverse group of people. I didn't march or risk my life, but I felt connected. Now, fully twenty years on, these same folks seem mute on Palestine and other rewound obscenities and instead manipulate their intellects around a chic debate on this pathetic word. I guess we haven't yet found a Palestinian Spike Lee (to be fair, the director is not silent on this issue).
For me, this is the simplest of all racial issues in my universe. William Powell, Larry Powell, Rene Powell, Rachel and Job Gumede, Mrs. Norma Spencer, Sarah Spaulding, Lindi Morsches, Kesho Morsches, Sindi Morsches, Thomas Msuka, Furaha Mchuta, Blandina Mohammed, Errol Drummond, Tremayne Harmon, Reverand and Mrs. Reed, Donald Taylor, Aisha Mohmmed, Nuru Mohammed, Virgil Starks and his daughters, the five hundred plus Eritrean refugees that lived in Al-Khawkha, and countless other friends and family I have know are not Niggers, Bitches, Pimps, or Hoes. Many have made real sacrifices and don't renumerate themselves with soul killing pity or false bravado wrapped up in an inside out suicide. I don't think they would accept the insult, don't think they deserve it, and I don't think any decent person on the planet would attempt to label them so. They are good and honest people who worked hard and have made the world a better place. So I would appreciate it if those liberal friends of mine (those who defend this word and embrace liberality until someone reminds them of the consequences) exclude me from the dialogue.
On a closing note, I loath bullies and power brokers. I don't think anyone or any group owns words particularly in an attempt to exploit them. Strength, I think, lies in pushing past the privilege of hatred and supporting and occasionally defending those who need our help. It certainly doesn't dwell in
those arenas where bullies beat those less powerful and exploit their own people for temporal and useless gain.
*Bits of this are ugly and as I said, useful to me. This will not be my favorite post.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Student Engagement - Thoughts Shared With Our Faculty

A Short Treatise on Student Engagement


A Modest Proposal……


            For those of you who get the alternate title, there are days when students can engender these kinds of sentiments. Seriously though, I would like to share with you four things I learned to do in my classrooms that helped me improve student engagement. In the process, I discovered that I was really working on the precursors of engagement such as trust, risk-taking, and caring about them in my own way. To be very honest, I was quite shocked when I first invited student participation (given that I hadn’t experienced the opportunity too often as a student myself) and it wasn’t forthcoming. So, I learned,  it wasn’t just a matter of me getting out of their way, per se, but of developing the context and desire on their part to do so.

            When I think about student engagement, the first axiom that comes to mind is “Before you delve, divulge.” It is important that we expose ourselves as caring risk-takers before we ask them to do the same, and more importantly, to demand that the risk taken in the classroom is respected by their peers. We can set that standard emphatically ourselves through our actions instead of by defensive reactions to inappropriate student reactions. When you combine the multiple factors that limit engagement in our classes (i.e., low subject skills, past humiliation or embarrassment, resentment at being at this level, being too cool for school, unclear academic and career goals, etc.), it is a wonder they open their mouths at all. Then when some do, I wish they hadn’t.

            I start encouraging engagement the first day of class, and I ratchet it up through the term. Here are a few key activities that I do every term with every class I teach (from the developmental to the graduate level):

1.      Syllabus Goals – When I hand out my syllabi, I have them turn the paper over and write down three to four goals they have for the class. In recent years, I have even incorporated into the syllabus itself:








Sometimes I have to prod them but they usually come up with a few. I have them share them with the class. At this point I begin to randomly call on them to share one if they don’t offer. When we then get to the expectations and rules of the class, I have them connect these regulations to their goals. Before I get to my list though, I ask a question of them that often startles them. I ask them “What behaviors from me will show you that I respect you as students?”  This takes a few minutes for them to understand and to respond, but they do. I get things like “be patient with us”, “don’t laugh at us”, turn our homework back to us quickly”, etc. After letting this take its course, I ask them what the next question will be and they usually get it – “What behaviors will you see from us that show we respect you as our teacher?” From there, my list becomes largely redundant and a social contract has begun, far more tangible and palatable  than the standard classroom syllabus review.  It builds by-in from the beginning and creates a friendly feel for the syllabus and the class.


2.      Attendance Cards – I take attendance every day in my classes, and I use a special tool to do so. I give them each a 3 x 5 notecard. I then have them write the following on one side:




Phone Number:


Intended Major:

Hobbies and Interests:


I have find it useful to collect addresses and phone numbers as they don’t always match what the college has on record. I focus on the last two pieces of information as I try to get to know the students. I tease them and try to integrate examples where I can that exploit their information. Each day I go through these cards quickly and I keep track of their attendance on the other side of the card. I simply place them in two piles after calling roll; one stack for those attending and one for those absent. They know they have to see me after class if they come in late to move the card to the present pile. When they are absent, I write the date. When they are tardy, I write the date with an L after it. I learn their names very quickly this way (an important concept that many of you work hard at I have noticed), and they like the attention.


3.      Letters – I have my students write me a letter the second or third week of class. The object is for them to let me know what they think I should understand about them as my students. I have done this for thirty years now and have rarely received distressing responses I then respond to the letters and continue the activity periodically throughout the class. My greatest breakthroughs have come through this exercise, and I will share one here from my personal blog:

Nearly fifteen years ago, I was asked to teach a special study skills course to a special group of students. I was intrigued by the challenge, and I wanted to test the efficacy of some new learning theories I was developing. I learned that the class was in a cohort, a learning community, and that I would be teaching them study skills applied to psychology. They were seventeen, eighteen-year old black students who had low entrance scores, and had not been very successful in high school. I was set for the experience.

The first morning of the class, I was walking down the hall still composing my initial remarks when I noticed they had put us in a small, narrow classroom. I knew how crowded it would be before I opened the door. There would be seventeen young students sitting around a rectangular set of tables, with only a few feet from their backs to the four walls, I was not pleased. I opened the door, walked in, and was startled with what I found - all the students were there, crammed around the tables, none of them smiling, with the lights off. It was an inauspicious start.

I did turn the light on, called roll, and started to teach. Several of them, but not all, warmed up a bit, and the class went smoothly. I was pleased that many of them seemed to wake up and respond to me, but I did notice one young woman from the start, Keisha - she sat in the corner with a large hat on, frowning throughout the lecture. I was a little irritated to tell the truth, and I supposed I chalked it up to a bad attitude, one that might take me a long time to crack, if I ever managed to. For the next three sessions, she didn't move and only spoke if I asked her a direct question. She wasn't hostile, but she wasn't very friendly either.

During the third week of class, I assigned a letter as homework, as was my custom. I told them to tell me anything they would like me to know, and that it would be confidential. I always enjoyed reading these notes from my students, as I learned a great deal more about them. I would then answer them, and we would exchange this informal information throughout the term. Keisha's letter caught me off guard: It was long, written beautifully, and full of her hopes and desires. Initially I thought I had gotten the name wrong, surely that couldn't be from the morose, sour student in the big hat in the corner. But it was.

Keisha wrote about being a writer, a computer engineer, getting out of her neighborhood, living a new and exciting life. She also mentioned many of the things we had learned in the first two weeks, and she applied them very astutely to her psychology class. I wrote her back an equally long letter, and I noticed she had perked up and was now sitting at the table the next class period. Somewhere midway through the lecture, I called her out, teasing her gently. She looked at me for a second then smiled, broadly and beautifully, with a pencil thick gap between her front teeth. Later she would tell me she didn't smile a lot, for obvious reasons (I didn't think they were obvious), and that many people mistook her demeanor for apathy and disrespect.

I paid a lot more attention to Keisha from that point on. She was by far the best student I had ever had in a study skills course, and she enthusiastically applied everything I taught her. She had been a C student in high school, and she was now grinding out As on all her other assignments. She continued to write me, sometimes sharing her poetry, sometimes telling me she was making an effort to get to know her other instructors and that they were responding nicely. Keisha was coming out of her shell.

Keisha breezed through my class and her psychology course, as well as all her others. By the end of the term, I convinced Keisha to go to two state educational conferences to help me make presentations about the experimental course and it theories. She was nervous at first, but then she agreed, going on to steal the show at each event. The conference goers were very impressed with her, and stayed afterwards to ask her questions. I was very, very proud of her.

Keisha graduated in a little over four years with a degree in Computer Engineering, graduating summa cum laude, and I was at her graduation watching as she walked across the stage smiling joyfully. She went on to do an internship and eventually to a great job. To this day, I still remember her sitting back in that corner, perhaps daring me to come and help pull her out. I take a small amount of credit for her success, but not too much. I was in the right place at the right time, and stumbled on the right student. Sometimes God lines things up nicely, people too.

4.      Questions – Somewhere before mid-term, I like to stop class early on an appropriate day to do so, and to revolutionize my students’ learning experience a bit. I hand out uniform strips of paper to each of them and tell them they can write down any questions they want to ask me at all, about anything they are curious about. At first, some are stunned and some get a big smile on their face and begin scribbling. I tell them not to worry if the question is appropriate or not, as I can choose not to read it aloud if I don’t like it. To date, I have never received a cruel or intentionally stupid question in the thousand or so inquiries students have shared with me. On occasion, they ask more questions openly and I answer them honestly. They are curious! Curious as I was I suppose of this person in front of them. As a small footnote, I should add that I didn’t utilize these last two activities with my more worldly and experienced graduate students until the day I was describing them to a graduate education course as an example of reaching younger students. To my great surprise an older student asked “Why don’t you do these with us?” Several of her peers nodded and I have done so since.

These are not magic bullets, nor do they represent some sort of panacea in this ongoing struggle to reach and hear from our students. In their present form though, they suit my style and philosophy and help me create a consistent environment for the dialogue and participation I demand of my students. I have noticed that the number of inappropriate, cruel, and sometimes vicious remarks made by my students have decreased when I got out ahead of engagement and actually increased it, but with guidelines and tempered expectations. If you like any of these ideas, feel free to use them. If you have other ideas that work for you, share them with me and I will pass them on.