Sunday, May 29, 2011

What Gil Scott-Heron meant to me

I was saddened to learn of the recent passing of poet and spoken-word artist Gil Scott-Heron.  What Gil Scott-Heron's amazing poetry meant to me was that poems could inspire peoples' social consciousness and raise their awareness.  And that they could do so in a way that was really cool!  I could respond aesthetically and emotionally - and even politically - to the words of an African American voice whose life and life experiences were very different from my own.  I am someone who grew up in a fairly homogeneous small-town rural culture in southeast Iowa and then Nebraska.  Reading Gil Scott-Heron's poetry and listening to his rhymes made me stretch outside the boundaries of that culture to realize bigger connections in the social fabric of American life.

With his passing, many of the most influential voices of hip hop and rap have come forward to celebrate Scott-Heron's legacy as they themselves (artists ranging from Chuck D to Eminem) see their art as appreciating and perpetuating his legacy. My own experience as a reader of his amazing works came about because of my teacher Joyce Joyce, who was a fantastic and thought-provoking prof I studied under at UNL at the time. I became someone who enjoyed listening to his albums, and that in turn really helped instill in me a personal appreciation of and understanding of the importance of multicultural literature and the prominent role it should have in schools.  That appreciation was developed as an undergraduate English student who was studying literature at a time when it was still very common to experience academic reading as mostly 'canonical' literature, which is to say, mostly lit written by DWMs or Dead White Males.  Without saying anything to denigrate the voices and the amazing literary accomplishments of those authors, Gil Scott-Heron was a  prominent voice in late 20th Century American literature because he was a voice of social consciousness: hip, self-aware, humorous, politically provocative, and rhythmic.  That rhythmic sensibility helped me to see the connection between his writings and the Beat poets, whom I already loved - guys like Ginsberg and Kerouac - who were definitely inspired by jazz artists like Miles Davis and John Coletrane - and the later hip-hop artists who were part of my pop culture lexicon: from LL Cool J to Public Enemy.  

I would not have had the opportunity to make those important connections if a teacher would not have cared enough and risked enough to step outside the predictable boundaries of academic discourse to share Gil Scott-Heron with a lot of students whose reading background was much like my own.  I thank Dr. Joyce Joyce for the inspiration and am quite confident she continues to inspire students as a prof at Temple (  I am grateful she introduced me to Gil Scott-Heron and a lot of other amazing African American authors and poets whose works I will continue to appreciate and enjoy.  

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Gorging on test scores & starving for meaningful health & fitness data

This afternoon I attended the NE Medical Association's Childhood Health / Obesity policy group meeting.  The group is comprised of various public health advocates - doctors, registered dietitians, nutritionists, and educators, among others - who are working together to propose helpful solutions and policy-level impact in combating obesity.  Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions and the CDC has labeled it accordingly.

The obesity epidemic is real locally, too, and thousands of Nebraskans are affected by it.  Our district is similar to most across the state and we have between 20 & 30% of our students per grade level who are highly overweight or obese.  The health consequences are dire and schools do have a role in this.  We have students with us for a good portion of the day during the school year and for many kids, a majority of calories consumed on those days are at school.  Schools need to promote physical activity for a lifetime and nutrition literacy.  Schools don't need to be dictatorial and Machiavellian about instituting 'regime change' that takes the element of choice out of classrooms and lunchrooms, but when it comes to student diets, schools need to help encourage the consumption of healthy foods and minimize the frequency and prevalence of the bad stuff.  By 'bad stuff' I just mean foods of minimal nutritional value - candy and pop, for starters.

It occurred to me that one of the things schools should be doing is reporting out on their vending product choices, publishing their a la carte lunch items, and disclosing aggregate (group only) BMI data to show what their trendline (waistline trendline!) analysis looks like.  Why?  Because schools that are being up front about their aggregate BMI results and sharing fitness testing results will be more likely to be positioned to share why physical activity and health education are priorities in their district.  We've already got the evidence that shows the correlation between fitness and academic achievement.  Healthy students are more learning-ready and are more likely to achieve higher learner outcomes.  It's obvious to parents but what is less obvious is how sedentary the learning experience remains for many students.

Our mission statement talks about our commitment to helping each individual learner "thrive."  In order to do that, we have an obligation to take a balanced curricular approach.  We need to carefully integrate routine physical activity opportunities and promote healthy student nutrition choices throughout the day.  It's not that tough to do - it doesn't require a lot of resources schools don't already have - and it's the right thing to do.  We just need to provide the support for everyone doing it, consistently, through quality professional development.

One of the things the group talked about is that, to borrow the Druckerian truism, "What gets measured gets done."  Schools are now recording BMI data and many districts, like ours, have instituted fitness testing using the Fitnessgram.  We are going to publicize our fitness testing group results - grade level group summaries.  We can do this for tests of strength, flexibility, and endurance.  I think our parents are every bit as concerned about the health of their students and what schools are doing to promote healthy, learning-ready students, as they are in seeing how their kids are reading and performing in mathematics.

By the way, while I was there this afternoon I got to meet one of my heroes, Dr. Cristina Fernandez.  She does amazing work providing interventions and education for children and families that are afflicted with childhood obesity and the attendant health problems.  Her blogs provide great outreach and practical advice about this profoundly important public health issue.  Check her posts out at and you'll see what I mean.