Thursday, April 26, 2007

Soundtrack for crusading white girls

Any white girl from the granola suburbs of New Hampshire who says she doesn't hear the Coolio track from "Dangerous Minds" playing in her head when she walks through the doors of that urban high school (built in the early-Golden Era "Comprehensive" style) is lying. You can say: "I don't subscribe to those stereotypes. They just get delivered to my mailbox with the junk mail and the notices that more sex offenders are moving into my neighborhood." But you're the target market. I'm the target market. I'm "that girl."

So when I walked through the aforementioned doors, I was engrossed with worry that stereotypes of "inner city school kids" would affect my perception of the students. But it didn't even occur to me that stereotypes would also affect the kids' perception of me. Turns out stereotypes are more progressively equal-opportunity than most federal jobs.

It started the moment I introduced myself as "Miss Brown," and a kindergartener said adorably, "You're not Miss Brown. You're miss white." Soon the kids were following me around going, "cool!" "totally!" "OK!" "whatever!" "awesome!" They were calling me Cinderella and singing the Barbie song. And I, who had always considered myself a serious, articulate brunette, found myself asking friends, "Does my hair look blonde to you?" "Do I sound like an airhead on my voicemail?"

Of course the stereotype of the white blonde bimbo hasn't had a debilitating affect on my perception of myself, my job opportunities, etc. I'm not claiming to be the victim here. But the experience taught me how far I have to go in terms of shaking off whiteness. Because I was thinking people of color were the only ones who get stereotyped. Oooops.

Flashback to the first time I watched the Original Kings of Comedy, and I had to watch it with subtitles. And I heard the comedians doing impressions of white people, and I suddenly realized that being white was its own thing, with its own way of walking, talking, dressing, thinking. It wasn't monolithic, but it was whiteness, it wasn't just normalcy. But apparently that's a lesson that Bernie Mac and the "inner city school kids" will have to teach me over and over and over.

So I don't have a solution to these problems yet, but what I do have a is a playlist for white student teachers in the city so they don't have to hum Gangsta's Paradise anymore. Deconstruct them for yourselves. Decoder ring not included.
  • De La Soul: Ghetto Thang: "Lies are pointed strong into your skull/Deep within your brain against the wall/To hide or just erase the glowing note/Of how to use the ghetto as a scapegoat."
  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: The Message: Listen to his son explain why he wants to drop out and tell me where the quotation marks are supposed to go.
  • Kanye West: We Don't Care: Kanye, on disproportionality: "We scream, rock, blows, weed park/so now we smart/We aint retards the way teachers thought/Hold up hold fast we make mo'cash/Now tell my momma i belong in the slow class."
  • Gil Scott-Heron: Message to the Messengers: OK, so he's talking to rappers, here, but the advice is good for you, too: "Be sure you know the real deal about past situations,/and ain't just repeatin' what you heard on the local t.v. stations."
  • Lauryn Hill: Every Ghetto, Every City: Most of this song was Greek to me when it first came out, but I remember being like, "Yeah! I write my friends' names on my jeans with a marker, too!" -- Even though I didn't.
  • The Coup: I Ain't The Nigga: It's amazing all the alternatives they come up with: jigger, ninja, Niagra Falls ... Just in case you were getting desensitized.
  • Public Enemy: Don't Believe the Hype: Title speaks for itself.
  • Nas: One Love: Nas is having a Hamlet moment. Listening to this track is like reading his notebook, unedited, without the self-aggrandizing Zorro-esque flourishes.
  • Wycelf: Year of the Dragon (Street Jeopardy): This one has it all: braces, fat laces, yellow cheese buses, and after school shootings. Like One Love, it's a made-for-TV-movie of a song that I can't resist, but the real message is that in a violent culture no one is safe--whether they're inside or outside of the "wrong neighborhood."
  • Jeru the Damaja: You Can't Stop the Prophet: OK, so not only is this about a superhero who fights ignorance, but it mentions the library.

I'm tempted to add Ludacris's What's Your Fantasy, for the sake of my college friend who put it on every single mix CD she made (in case of a Ludacris emergency). This means that on one trip to Boston (was that the one when I crashed her car?), I listened to the song 11 times. So I can tell you that it actually does reference education and libraries.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Like the after-Christmas sale, only with poems

So Poetry month is actually almost over, but here's my bibliography for it anyway (made for teachers at Woonsocket High School).

Top Websites for Teaching Poetry

Online Poetry Classroom
This is a division of the Academy of American Poets ( for educators. It has lesson plans, a list of the best poems to teach, and information about the how and why of poetry month. It’s linked to, so you can access short biographies, selected poems, audio, and critical essays on American poets and movements. You can also sign up for a poem-a-day e-mail for the month of April.

Library of Congress Poetry Page
Check this site for online exhibits and webcasts that pair poetry with primary documents from the library of congress collections, as well as info about state and national poet laureates. Also check out the Poetry 180, a collection of new poems (“full-text available online!”) specifically selected for high school students by former laureate Billy Collins. With titles like “Fat is not a Fairy Tale,” “Cartoon Physics,” “Hate Poem,” and “The Death of Santa Claus,” these poems defy expectations.

The Poetry Foundation
This is the U.S. Mecca of poetry. Click on “Children” in the top left menu box to get lesson plans designed by none other than Maya Angelou, as well as reviews of children’s poetry collections, and an archive of poems organized by age and theme (if you don’t see it, click on “Poetry Tool” in the Archive menu box).

Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Project
This is the site of a national contest that challenges students to perform poetry –not just read it. Search the archive using keywords to find full-text of brilliant poems for reading out loud. There’s also audio of some poems read by actors like Anthony Hopkins and James Earl Jones. Go to the teacher’s guide for information about having a recitation contest in the classroom, as well as a few lesson plans.

Slam Poetry on Web English Teacher
This site links to FAQs, history, and how-to. If you already know a little about slam poetry, proceed straight to and go to the poets gallery to read about past winners and (more importantly) listen to mp3s of them slamming. You can also visit the related blog,, to hear more.

PBS News Hour Special on Poetry
If you’re looking for some short and sweet introductory essays for your students to read, this is the place. Just a few paragraphs long, these essays on appreciating poetry use simple language and striking imagery—just like the medium they describe.

Will this poem make me look fat?

Last night I watched a tape of myself introducing a poetry project to students at Woonsocket High School. (This is for my beginning teacher portfolio. I don't just tape myself for kicks.) Tough crowd. It actually looks like I'm presenting to a crowd of comatose car crash victims. But I did eventually get them reading poems and looking for material for their project--mostly by pretending to be grading them when really I was just writing their names down on a random piece of paper with a dry erase marker.

Anyway, I collected citations for the poems they looked at and, after analyzing the data using an ineffable methodology, I came to these conclusions:

High school students ...
  • basically think poetry should sound like poetry (in other words, rhyme).
  • still like nonsense poems.
  • are shocked by poems with "swear words" or references to body fluids. Body parts are OK, just not fluids.
  • like poems written by other teenagers and are more likely to read these poems critically.
  • love the Tupac, Aaliyah, and Atwone Fisher collections.
  • are surprised to find poems about things like going to the pool, talking on the phone, skipping class, and accidentally having sex.
  • like their poems to be certified as "good" by experts--hence the popularity of Shakespeare, Longfellow, Neruda, and Robert Frost.
  • think that poems are written for specific groups of people. There are poems for girls, for children, for men (see Rudyard Kipling), for English majors, for gay people, for black people, and for old people. And if you try to give a high school student a collection of poems that's not "famous, overused, and misunderstood poems that rhyme, by old white men, a few women, and maybe some Rainer Maria Rilke," he has to check and make sure it falls in the right category--or he will actually give you some obvious piece of information, such as, "But I'm not a girl," or "I'm not Asian" (you need to be Asian to read haiku? really?).
  • prefer writing poetry to reading it. (I really want to know why it occurs to them to write poetry when they generally refuse to read it. Is the desire to write poetry something universal and subconscious? Does it meet a basic human need? Do people figure out how to do it the way they figure out how to have sex, even without experience or instructions, even if they were raised by wolves?)
  • are afraid to read poems out loud.
  • have a strong sense of ownership toward poems they can relate to. They'll tell you "that's my poem," the way they tell the DJ, their friends, or their car radio, "that's my song!"
  • are most receptive to poems that have appeared in films.

When you think about it, poetry actually taps into one of adolescents' greatest fears: the fear of being tricked into confessing something embarrassing. Poetry has all these inside jokes, allusions, metaphors, euphemisms, and double entendres. When students choose poems to read in front of the class, they want to be sure they're not accidentally communicating something embarrassing.

It's like when someone goes, "what is that under there?" and you go, "under where?" and they go, "You just said underwear!" I mean, that's the elementary school version. If you're in high school, they'll find some way to get you to admit that you only have one testicle or you're giving fellatio to your math teacher. And I think high school students are afraid that these poems are going to trick them in the same way. They're not comfortable with ambiguity, and that's why I probably shouldn't have used this poem as an example.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

I have an idea for Jay-Z's next album ...

So I'm working on updating the library's children's audio collection, and it turns out that there's been an explosion of kiddie rock to go with the explosion of hipster parents (or yupsters). I know, I'm behind the curve. I just wish I were time-wasteful enough to illustrate "the explosion of hipster parents" with a violent animation. Instead, I've made a list of sites that review and recommend children's CDs.

However, the list seems incomplete, because I have yet to locate the aging O.G.s who are blogging about children's music. Is it possible that the most commercial genre of popular music has yet to tap into the under-10 market? Or is it just that urban kids don't need kids music, because they're already rocking bootlegs of stuff that's parental advisory-certified? Is this the best we can do?

For now, I'm going to order the soundtrack to Jump In! and hope that my constituents don't consider it passé by the time it's cataloged ...

Review Sources for Children’s Music

Bill Board Kid’s Chart Guide to Children's Music
New reviews and lists on different topics published regularly. Reviews are signed by Fran Grauman, but no biographical information is provided.

Pickleberry Pie/Children’s Music Network
This public charitable organization hosts annual children’s music web awards. Their annual report explains how kids vote.

Common Sense Media
This non-profit organization has a manifesto in the "about us" section. It basically says that they support media literacy—not censorship. They provide information about questionable content like sex, violence, and commercialism, and they allow users to post. Reviews are signed but no biographical information is provided.

Zooglobble and
Reviews by guru Stefan Shepherd. Hear him get name-dropped on NPR,, etc., etc.

Kids Music that Rocks
Reviews by a New York Public Library Children’s Librarian in blog format. My fave.

Small Ages
Reviews by Clea Hantman, children’s and YA author and doting mommy. A meandering and refreshing mix of music that's OK with kids, whether it was marketed to them or not.

The Lovely Mrs. Davis Tells You What to Think
Reviews by a mom in Bolling Green, Ohio (seriously), who makes a good case for her credentials in the “about me” section. She’s worked with people at Zooglobble and Spare the Rock and has her own “review guidelines.”

Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child
Playlists from a kids’ rock radio show on Valley Free Radio.