03 November 2012

The Bell Is Ringing

We keep saying "yes," which appears to be the only acceptable response to requests for aid and volunteers in a hurricane recovery effort that will be much larger and more challenging than New Yorkers ordinarily "supposedly" have the patience for.  Like most people everywhere, we rise to the occasion--eventually making the right civic decisions that send the appropriate message about where resources and effort ought to be expended.

The decision to postpone the Nets-Knicks debut on November 1 is one such example.  The decision to cancel the New York City Marathon is another.  Diverting precious resources in a crisis would have been inexcusable.  There's a bigger picture here.

So here's another idea:  When one million New York City children return to school on Monday, the Department of Education and UFT should make it perfectly clear that the curriculum over the next month should be all about relief efforts in the city.  And high schools especially, training a new generation of students preparing to live in an inter-connected world with unlimited needs and challenges, have a chance to redefine Civic Education in real time.  

Nearly 75 schools have been turned into temporary shelters.  Countless others are struggling to drain basements, clean floors, and assess damage before re-opening on Monday.  Transportation logistics, food and clothing provisions, child-care for parents who need to work, joining up with meaningful volunteer efforts with city agencies, FEMA, and other aid organizations (including synagogues, churches and mosques like CBE) are among the most invaluable educational experiences a young person can have.  Let's embrace this reality and educate our kids accordingly.  

While the rush to "return to normal" may be tempting, I think there's another way to look at it.  

The New Normal, as they say, is a world struggling to understand the potential dangers of global warming on new storm patterns that may unleash storms of this nature on an annual basis for years to come.  Meterological Studies has much to say on last week's events; so science and physics departments ought to pivot in this direction, adapt curricula accordingly, and teach to events.  History, social studies, and civic classes have much to analyze in the response of government authority to the crisis, to compare and  contrast with past efforts in American history, and ask the big questions, among them, is it right that Americans have no requirement for national service?  We come together so well in moments of crisis--why don't we compel our young to serve their communities for two years after high school as a matter of law?  That's a Stimulus Bill I'd gather might earn bi-partisan support.

At CBE, we received a request late Friday to temporarily house an adult day care center for Russian immigrants, whose center near Sheepshead Bay is flooded.  Let's say we say "yes."  And in saying yes, let's say that our Hebrew school students temporarily suspend their planned learning for the next few weeks and instead learn about a Jewish life wholly unfamiliar to them; crossing cultural and linguistic barriers to grapple with a Jewish narrative other than that we weave for ourselves here in Park Slope; and learn that in service there is learning.  My daughters returned from trying to deliver food in Coney Island yesterday with looks of shock and grief on their faces--immigrants frightened and locked inside of mud-caked housing; foraging in garbage cans for food; darkened vestibules and hungry hands reaching for food.  This is not just Haiti--it's their borough of birth.  These are essential pedagogic maneuvers for our day.  To ignore it is to miss an opportunity of a lifetime.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum; Story Corps, the Schomburg Center in Harlem and every university history department in the New York area along with countless other organizations, could provide training and support to teach students simple oral history techniques, ways of learning about people from all walks of life, their journeys to America, their hopes and dreams, their disappointments and challenges.  I feel like my fourth grader's Pilgrim Study can wait.  Our shores are crowded with new refugees.

New York City Public Schools don't have much of a physical education program to speak of.  Resources are limited, schools are crowded.  So then let's put kids to work.  There's lifting, cleaning, moving, sorting, delivering of meals, blankets, and clothing--all of which require an expending of energy that I'd guess is more than a kid usually expends on any given day with limited access to a gym.  

Finally, in a city school system besieged by another hurricane--obsessive testing and data collection--we don't want to rush back to the plan that was created before Hurricane Sandy hit.  Rather, the true test we now face is what it means for a city to pull together to heal itself; what it means when a storm of disastrous proportions tests the limits of human behavior; what it means when a city of 8 million people are required to sacrifice of themselves in order to feed, clothe and shelter those in need.  If we don't meet those basic needs, there will be no "race to the top."  We will have simply dragged each other down.  

So what do you say?  

As a kid, I used to be jealous of the way in which my father's experience in the Second World War galvanized his generation to serve.  Historical circumstance called and there was no hesitation in his response, along with countless millions.  One could argue that an equal urgency is upon us now--and its dimensions are complex and many-faceted:  ecology, immigration, finance, unemployment, poverty and wealth, international policy and affairs, local and national infrastructure, education and much more.  Take your pick.  

There is a moment in our city to truly learn, to truly teach, and to enable a new generation of students to face their complex world with hope for a better future.

The bell is ringing--calling us in, to a classroom that has just expanded, far beyond its normal walls.


  1. I'm a neighbor who stopped by CBE this morning to see what I could donate. I have to say the relief operation I saw there was incredible. Kudos to CBE!

  2. As usual, cogently brilliant

  3. In service, there is learning. Well done.