Friday, August 21, 2020

An Open Letter to Gov. Murphy on School Reopening

Dear Gov. Murphy,

Within the next two weeks, school districts across New Jersey will be reopening in some way, shape or form. And while every district's plans will, no doubt, look different, one thing is the same from High Point to Cape May: this is a hot mess. 

In March, you gave us a clear directive to prepare for 100% virtual teaching until the end of that month. Educators across the state rose to the challenge as you very sensibly guided us through the rest of the school year one month at a time, checking the spread of the Coronavirus and its impact on our state's population. During that time, we were able to hone our skills and fine-tune our plans to deliver the very best virtual curriculum we could. We were proud of what we were able to accomplish in such a short amount of time, and I personally was so proud to count my governor, whom I supported from the get-go, right up there with Gov. Andrew Cuomo as one who took this pandemic seriously and took decisive steps to contain it despite the heavy criticism you faced. You did it right and your efforts paid off. 

But as spring rolled into summer, the numbers started to rise—especially in children. Just last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that "children and teenagers account for a growing share of coronavirus cases in Camden and Gloucester Counties, mirroring a national — and ominous — trend as young people rebel against social distancing rules, health experts say." 

Over the past few months, administrators, boards of education, community members and staff in every district have been working diligently on reopening plans (I was proud to serve on my district's reopening committee), the logistics of which often resembling a Rube Goldberg concoction. But now, with mere days until students arrive, many districts are ditching those plans and going 100% virtual—mine included—leaving parents and staff in the lurch as we all scramble to figure out how we are going to make it work in our homes and in our classrooms. Many districts have cited any or all of the following as their main stumbling blocks to reopening:
  • Back ordered PPEs
  • Inadequate HVAC systems and lack of air conditioning in many schools
  • Many classrooms without windows or operable windows 
  • Mold
  • Inadequate classroom space to properly social distance
  • Students having to eat in their classrooms
  • Inability to social distance students on busses
  • Staff members who are at high risk requesting medical leaves
  • Shortage of substitutes to fill those positions
  • Proper accommodations for students with special needs
  • Available staff to properly clean buildings at the end of the day
  • Inability of staff to clean equipment and certain classrooms in between classes
All of that costs money—which is in chronically short supply in many districts. Add to that the staggering cost of providing electronic devices to every student for home use, and a hybrid model just doesn't make sense. Where is this money supposed to come from? This is arguably the most expensive unfunded mandate ever imposed on schools.

Parents need to go back to work, children need to go back to school, teachers want to go back to school, but we cannot let the abject failure of leadership in Washington force us into reopening for in-person instruction when it is clearly not safe to do so. Yes, there will be learning loss, but what is the alternative? Is spreading this virus and risking the lives of more people worth that cost? If restaurants cannot be open for indoor dining, if gyms are still closed, if many businesses are still operating remotely, how can you, in good conscience, expect schools to reopen for in-person learning? Have you ever been in a kindergarten or preschool classroom? Do you know how much time teachers spend teaching those little ones about personal space, personal hygiene and keeping their hands to themselves? As you did in the spring, you must put the health and welfare of our students and staff above all else. New Jersey has come so far in beating back this menace. You can't ease up.

I am urging you to order all New Jersey schools to go to virtual instruction for at least the first two months of the school year with a plan to reassess at the end of October. During that time, I ask that you work with the state board of education to develop SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely) goals, based on CDC recommendations, for every district to ensure we are doing everything we can to protect the health of our students and staff. 

Please, don't let New Jersey slide backwards. We can't afford to mess this up.



Thursday, April 23, 2020

Strange Days Indeed Pt. 2 — How Big Is Your Button?

Some reflections on life in these strange new times from someone who's lived through a few of her own

You can buy one of Hicks' books by clicking on the links throughout this post.

These are my thoughts and feelings; this is my experience. Take what you like and leave the rest. I mean no judgment on you or your beliefs. This is just what works for me.

In Part 1 I talked about my grandparents, who raised me, and how their generation survived not only the Spanish Influenza, but the Great Depression and two World Wars—without Zoom meetings, cell phones, social media, Netflix, drive-by birthdays, or anything else that's helping us get through "these difficult times".

Sure, it's easy to wax nostalgic and think the entire country was united around the leaders of the day, everyone working together for the common good, but that would be too perfect. Yes, there was opposition, but it wasn't screaming in your face in real time, 24/7/365. Many people were simply too busy trying to survive.

Violet from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Oh how life has changed. With the sheer volume of information now available at the tap of a button, I feel like one of those kids in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory who couldn't resist all the temptation surrounding them until they were consumed by it. And who's to blame? Me, of course.

I have a big button. And I've allowed it to be pushed pretty hard over the years. Politics, war, injustice, Taylor Ham vs. pork roll (it's a Jersey thing)—you name it, I can sound off on it. And the more I react, the bigger the button, the easier it is to push, and the more stress, anxiety and fear grow inside me. 

There's a lot going on right now that is so tempting to dive into, and boy-oh-boy have I dove! But, what has it gotten me? Nuthin. Oh sure, it feels really good in the moment when I'm tweeting snarky remarks at politicians or proving my moral certitude to Internet trolls. But what does it do for my overall health and well-being? For the greater good? What energy am I sending out to my little corner of the universe? That I am afraid. I'm stuck in the vicious cycle of fear and my negative reaction to fear, which produces more fear. I'm stuck in what Buddhism calls Samsara, the infinitely repeating cycle of birth, misery, and death.

We all have a button. It doesn't have to be something as all-encompassing as the state of the world right now. It could be your neighbor who doesn't pick up after their dog, your overly-critical boss, a family member or that noise your car keeps making that you have no money to fix. Whatever it is, your reaction to it either increases or decreases the size of your button and your overall emotional state. And it does something else: because you're generating so much negative energy, negative energy finds its way to you

So, what to do? Start by acknowledging its existence. All that energy is there for a reason. What's it trying to say to you? What does it want from you? Why do these persons, places or things set you off? What if it was turned around to positive energy? What could you do with that? I grew up in a very dysfunctional and sometimes dangerous household. When things got really loud and scary, I shut down emotionally and hide—completely normal reactions for a child. But as an adult, I reacted that way to situations that were adverse, but weren't necessarily life threatening, because my ten-year-old mind was still running the show. I had to acknowledge all the hard work that kid did to keep me alive, and I had to let her know she didn't have to be in charge anymore. However, that little girl taught me an invaluable skill: how to calmly walk away from certain highly-charged situations. It's a skill for which I'm eternally grateful.

This doesn't mean that I don't get angry. Far from it! I'm a human being, and I care deeply about what's happening in the world right now. It's how I choose to react that keeps my button from growing. So, here's what I'm practicing:

  • Limiting my exposure to televised news. I read more than I watch. 
  • Disengaging with people on social media who are clearly button-pushers. That doesn't mean that I won't point out a factual error or a flaw in thinking, but it does mean that I won't react in ways that increase the size of my button, especially because there are people out there who get paid to push it! And if the conversation gets too heated, I can choose to walk away. Remember, it's the second person who starts an argument.
  • Breathing. It's a simple, involuntary act that is so important in keeping us calm and centered. I do a simple breathing meditation first thing in the morning, and if I feel anxiety coming on, I stop what I'm doing, close my eyes and breathe into the feelings until they subside. There are so many great breathing meditations out there. Find one that works for you.
  • Praying for people with whom I disagree or whose words or actions have caused pain or suffering. I'm not religious, but I do believe in a power greater than ourselves, and that sending good thoughts about someone into the universe can help them and me. Every great religion and spiritual teacher espouses love for all mankind as the fundamental goal of humanity. It's not easy, but I've found it to be very healing.
No matter the energy source that fuels our button, it will continue to grow until we make a conscious decision to change. It's not always easy, and it does take time, so be gentle with yourself. If you fall off that wagon (and we all do), just get back on again with no shame or blame. Otherwise you're just pushing your own button.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

When School Reopens

This post is in response to education 'reformer', Michael Petrilli's April 6th op-ed in the Washington Post

All across this country—and around the world—students, parents and educators are writing their own chapter in this unprecedented time in human history. With barely a moment’s notice, educators created digital platforms to deliver instruction through the rest of the school year, and perhaps beyond. Parents, many of whom are now working from home or are unemployed, have been tasked with supervising their child’s instruction, while the students themselves are doing their best to absorb, process and retain all they are learning while the very real and tangible uncertainties of social distancing, health, finances and safety swirl around them. Many not only have no parental supervision, but are not engaged in learning at all due to language barriers and/or a lack of technology or Internet access.

This platform was not subjected to the rigorous analysis, data collection and punitive consequences that the education ‘reform’ movement has imposed on us over the past 20 years. Our students had an immediate need and we met it. As University of Georgia Professors Stephanie Jones and Hilary Hughes describe it, “It is not distance learning. It is not online schooling. There are philosophies and research guiding those ways of teaching and learning... What we are doing right now is something different. So, let's call this what it is: COVID-19 Schooling; or better yet, Teaching and Learning in COVID-19.”

When school finally does reopen either this school year or next, educators will face a whole host of challenges both with their students and the system at large. For certain, there will be gaps in learning, some greater than others depending on the amount of support and stability in a student’s home. Schools themselves may look different. We just don’t know what the economic impact of the Coronavirus will be on budgets, many of which have been slashed to the bone due to education ‘reform’. So, while Mr. Petrillli calls for large numbers of students to be retained even for part of the year, some districts simply may not have enough money to retain current staff, let alone hire more.

And while I agree with him that re-establishing routines and addressing the social and emotional needs of students must come first, there is no perfunctory timetable for Social and Emotional Learning. It happens all day, every day in every school, every year. It is the foundation of all good teaching and learning, and it ebbs and flows with student needs. And with the likelihood that a number of students will be returning with psychological issues ranging from mild anxiety to full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder, we are going to have to practice enormous amounts of it because no amount of standardized testing, 'rigor', evaluations or other punitive measures will restore lost learning if students are not emotionally able to learn.

No doubt researchers will spend years studying the COVID-19 student cohort as they continue their education. So, what should be our goals moving forward? Do we simply play catch-up and restart that hamster wheel of teaching to the test? Or do we hit the reset button and add more of what’s developmentally appropriate like choice, creativity, play and experimentation into the school day? Twenty years of education ‘reform’ have turned children and educators from human ‘beings’ into human ‘doings.’ And with the alarming rise in the number of teen suicides and children of increasingly younger ages being treated for anxiety and depression, do we want that to continue? What if we finally create educational environments that meet children where they are and help them move forward at a pace that’s right for them?

We may have no other choice. Student needs may demand it. Educators and administrators in each district should assess what worked and what didn’t during their COVID-19 Schooling and develop a plan that works for them. If standardized testing is resumed in the 2020-2021 school year, it should not be used as a punitive measure against students, teachers or schools. Let it be exactly what it is: a snapshot of student ability on one test, on one day out of the year. In fact, this would be the perfect time to re-evaluate the entire concept. But, whatever does happen, K-12 educators should be the first voices that are heard—not politicians, lobbyists, billionaires, or think-tankers. No one—except parents—knows our students better than we do. We built the damned plane, we should be the ones flying it.


New feature in my blog: At the end of each post, I will now be posting links to books that have inspired, changed and informed me. Click on the link to purchase. 

Want to learn how ordinary people just like you have fought back against the education 'reform' movement? Check out Diane Ravitch's latest book:

From one of the foremost authorities on education and the history of education in the United States, "whistleblower extraordinaire" (The Wall Street Journal), former US Assistant Secretary of Education, author of the best-selling Reign of Error ("fearless" (Jonathan Kozol, NYRB)) - an impassioned, inspiring look at the ways in which parents, teachers, activists - citizens - are successfully fighting back to defeat the forces that are privatizing America's public schools.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Strange Days Indeed Pt. 1

Some reflections on life in these strange new times from someone who's lived through a few of her own

Note: These are my thoughts and feelings; this is my experience. Take what you like and leave the rest. I mean no judgment on you or your religious or spiritual beliefs. This is just what works for me.

Everything old is new again.

In 1929, my grandmother was a 25-year-old single mother of a two-year-old boy. She already had eleven years experience under her belt working for what was then Bell Telephone, having graduated 8th grade and lied about her age to get the job. She was also the sole breadwinner in a house that included both her parents, her sister and brother-in-law. 

Welcome to the Great Depression.

Between that and the two World Wars, life took a devastating toll on people physically, mentally and spiritually. But, through sheer grit, determination and belief that things would get better, they survived and thrived. But not without tremendous loss.

"Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" was the mantra of the era. Although my family fared better than most (relatively speaking), like all Baby Boomers, I was raised on their stories, practices and stoicism: patch clothes and hand them down, darn socks, clean your plate, don't waste anything—and say your prayers!

Until the day that old age finally claimed their minds, both my grandparents were devoted Catholics. They scheduled time every day for prayers. They visited religious sites. There were religious statues, images and prayer books around the house. And after church we had to rinse our mouths with water so no traces of the Eucharist remained before we ate breakfast. It was serious stuff.

As a child, I had no choice but to comply. But as I got older, I eventually rejected organized religion. Although I've always believed there is a power greater than all of us somewhere, I never bought into the whole concept of one religion having the market cornered on salvation. I knew there was something else out there, something that made more sense. I just didn't know where. I would soon learn that it was hiding inside me all the time.

They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Well, mine appeared when I turned 25 and walked into my first Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) meeting. That program saved me in more ways than I can write here. Since then, my search for the meaning of life has led me through many twists and turns. Like my grandparents, my house is full of books and meaningful art and objects that reflect my spiritual beliefs. Like them, I am committed to this journey. But, unlike organized religions, I have been given no magic answers or false promises. All I can say is that the more I know about this infinite universe, the more I don't know. And I'm okay with that.

Which leads me to this, written by American Buddhist Nun, Pema Chodron*: 
A [spiritual warrior] accepts that we can never know what will happen to us next. We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not-knowing is part of the adventure. It's also what makes us afraid. 
So, how do we be unafraid in yet another time of huge uncertainty? Well, as Chodron says, 
[Warrior] training offers no promise of happy endings. Rather, this 'I' who wants to find security—who wants something to hold onto—will finally learn to grow up. 
If we find ourselves in doubt that we're up to being a warrior-in-training, we can contemplate this question: 'Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do I choose to live and die in fear?'
No one knows exactly how long this pandemic will last, nor do we know whether we'll come down with it or be hit by a car. So, how do we deal with this huge uncertainty? Believe me, I have had some serious moments of anxiety and fear! If you follow me on social media, you know full-well. But all those worries and fears don't have to define my life 24/7. I have tools to get me down off the ceiling. 

I start with focusing on where I am right now. This moment is all I have. I don't have 10 minutes from now any more than I have last Tuesday. Yes, there's a pretty good chance that I will have 10 minutes from now, but my point is that the present moment is all I ever have so I might as well pay attention to it. 

So, what's going on for you right now? Take a moment to check in. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you taste or touch? How does your body feel? Are you tense, muscles clenched? Where is that stress? What part of your body? Are your thoughts racing toward a future you are only imagining? 

If so, remember, you have the power to change all of that. The most immediate way I've found is to just breathe. I can get an asthma attack pretty easily from anxiety. It's my body's way of telling me to calm down. So, I stop what I'm doing, close my eyes and take 10 slow, calming breaths. I focus on that breath and try to let go of everything else. If thoughts invade (and they most certainly will), I let them float away and go back to focusing on my breath. I repeat that 10-breath cycle until I feel calm. Sometimes that just doesn't work. When that happens, I rely on modern medicine. Hey, I'm not a glutton for punishment! And breathing is kind of important. "Better living through pharmacology", I say. I also do the breathing every morning when I wake up, only I do 10 cycles of 10 breaths—100 breaths total. 

Chodron continues:
Acknowledging what we're thinking and letting it go is the key to touching in with the wealth of bodhichitta, the awakened heart of loving-kindess and compassion. With all the messy stuff, no matter how messy it is, just start where you are—not tomorrow, not later, not yesterday when you were feeling better—but now. Start now, just as you are.
We are all in this together. As we've seen, COVID-19 affects the young and old, rich and poor, famous and not so famous. All of us are potential victims, but we don't have to be victims. 

Whether it's a pandemic, natural disaster war or famine, or the everyday vagaries of life, the one thing we can count on is that life will come at us again—hard. And we may suffer tremendous loss. We can either become angry, fearful and bitter, or we can be like our grandparents and great grandparents and call on those reserves of inner strength that got them through the darkest days of the 20th Century. We can also protect our hearts from fear and anxiety. We can look for the happiness and joy in life. We can help and support each other because all of us are deserving of love and compassion, and all of us have the ability to give it. As we stand at the threshold of Holy Week, remember the great universal law: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." 

* The quotes by Pema Chodron are from her book, Comfortable With Uncertainty. You can order it by clicking on this link:

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Fight For Our Children

The number of suicides among people ages 10 to 24 nationally increased by 56 percent between 2007 and 2017, according to a new federal report showing the tragic consequences of an emerging public health crisis.

An NJ Advance Media report... highlighted New Jersey’s rising suicide rate among teens and young adults amid a mental health crisis.

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

In the last three years, three Hunterdon Central Regional High School students and two former students have died by suicide: sophomore Alison Vandal in December 2017; senior Eden Carrera Calderon in October 2019; freshman Joseph Drelich, Jr in January 2020; graduate Jared Yazujian in January 2020; graduate, Christopher Soldano in July 2018. These tragic deaths have rocked our community to its core. In a county of only about 125,000 people, it seems everybody knows somebody who has been affected by them.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people between the ages of 10 and 24. It's a public health crisis that is largely being ignored. But, at least in our little corner of the state, that may be about to change.

Last night I attended an event called The Fight For Our Children, sponsored by Safe Harbor Child Access CenterSafe Harbor is a 501(c) 3 that "provides services to separating, divorcing, and divorced families to ensure that children have continuing contact with both parents and other family members. [They] provide a safe environment for individuals healing from trauma." For teenagers struggling with mental health issues, it's a place of warmth, comfort, acceptance, love, sharing and healing. 

The event was originally supposed to be held at Safe Harbor's facility, but the response was too big for their small space so it was moved across the street to the Flemington Baptist Church where a standing room only crowd filled the basement meeting room.

For the next two and a half hours Safe Harbor's director, Carol Dvoor, moderated the discussion amongst students, parents, grandparents, teachers, mental health professionals and other concerned citizens who poured out their ideas, experiences, heartbreaks and hopes in an effort to stop this epidemic. 

The most compelling speakers were, of course, the students: those who are dealing with depression and anxiety on a daily basis and those fighting like hell to make sure their friends get help.

Hunterdon Central is one of the largest high schools in the state. Three thousand backpack-laden students from four different sending districts move through various campuses, taking any number of courses from a catalog that rivals a community college. And with the county vo-tech literally on the same campus, there is a path of study for every student. It's often said that if you can't get an education at Central, you're just not trying. Both my children graduated from it; both did very well academically; both had very different experiences socially.

For all the great opportunities Central affords its students, in a school that size, it's easy to get lost, to slip through the cracks, to go almost unnoticed. And if a student is dealing with mental health issues, there just aren't enough counselors to service all the students.

I want to be very clear: my point here is not to lambaste Central. You don't get to be a Blue Ribbon School by accident. I know many dedicated teachers there who are committed to providing the best possible learning experiences for their students. They care deeply about them, as those who were in attendance last night expressed. But I was very disturbed by reports from the students who told us that, after each suicide, once the mandatory period of 'crisis-counselors-will-be-available-to-our-students' time was over, students were pretty much expected to go back to 'normal'. Time and again, their proposals for clubs, support groups, safe spaces, memorials and the like were turned away by administration. Some were told they were being "too impatient". 

Again, I'm not trying to point fingers at the school. I only heard one side of the story last night. To be fair, there were parents who did speak about things the school has done to provide more mental health services for students. I have no doubt that the administration is very concerned and doing what they believe is best. But, one thing was very clear last night: these students don't want solutions handed to them; they want to be part of creating them. It's their right. It's their way to heal. It's their friends who are dying. And if they are denied that right, the school is missing a huge opportunity for some innovative healing.

I am not an expert in suicide, nor am I a mental health counselor, but I did try to take my own life when I was 14. I felt I had no way out. I felt there was no hope, no other option to escape the pain. And, most importantly, I felt like there was no one who would or could help me. That's the tipping point. Fortunately, I wasn't successful, and eventually found the help and support I needed. But it wasn't until I was in my 20's and for many kids, that's just too late.

These kids need help. Now. Is it any coincidence that teen suicide rates have been climbing alongside the education 'reform' movement? Alongside the pressure from state and federal governments to undergo a 'rigorous' education? To perform like a trained dog on standardized tests so their teachers can keep their jobs? 

In addition to the social/emotional realities of being a teenager—which are now played out in real time on social media—their childhoods are being cut short. Students are forced to learn more and do more at alarmingly young ages, and it's simply not developmentally appropriate. Kindergarten is now the new first grade. Gone are nap time and lots of play and socialization. Now it's math, reading, writing and yes, testing. The process continues right up through high school where state and federal mandates expect all students to be 'college and career ready'. Why? So they can spend four or more years racking up tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in loan debt with no clear way out?

Nowadays, it's not unusual for students in kindergarten and first grade to be under a doctor's care for anxiety and depression. This is madness. We must do better. We owe it to this generation, and those that will follow, to give them something other than a nihilistic view of their future. 

Where to start? I plan on going to the next Hunterdon Central Board of Ed meeting. Then I plan to start volunteering at Safe Harbor. Hope you'll make a difference in your community. Lives depend on it. 

We said this pledge at the beginning and end of the meeting last night. It bears repeating: 

I pledge to help raise awareness for the importance of mental health. To ally with others in my community to break the stigma surrounding mental illness and be a resource for those who need it. To listen to others without judgement and be open and considerate to all people regardless of their situation. To act when I see someone who is showing signs of mental illness. To educate myself and others on the issue. To do my best to treat myself kindly and prioritize my wellbeing no matter what problem I might face. To reach out for help if I need it. And above all, to remember that there are always people around me who love and support me. I pledge that I will do everything in my power to help end this problem within our community and the world.