Inspiration for the first day of school, part 2 – Taylor Mali, and “What do you make?”

August 23, 2010

It ain’t easy being a teacher.  Newsweek puts you on the cover, saying you need to be fired.  Texas Gov. Rick Perry says you don’t need job security, as if getting additional money for teacher salaries would make teachers secure in places like Dallas, where mid-year RIFs are a too-recent, bitter memory.  Heck, just looking at the curriculum in Texas can depress a teacher.  Parents think you don’t call them enough, or too much — but never the Goldilocks optimum.  Students?  Even the best student is surly in the last period of the first day back at school.

Taylor Mali knows all about that.  He taught for several years — but he struck out as a professional slam poet.  His work there remains among the best tributes to teaching of the past 50 years, at least.  You probably heard this poem, or somebody sent it to you in an e-mail (especially if you’re a teacher) — but attributed to “Anonymous.”

Well, here is Anonymous, the Unknown Teacher — whose name is Taylor Mali.  Watch for him and his work.

This is an encore post from 2007.  (Mild profanity.)


Killer lesson plans:  Teachers as superheroes

Reader Bernarda noted this site in comments, and it’s good enough to promote more formally: Teachers as the alter egos of superheroes.

Teachers ARE superheroes, a lot of them. More than in other professions, certainly.

Which reminds me of this video. Teachers, you need to watch this sometime here in the first month of school. What do you say when someone rudely asks, “What do you make?” Wholly apart from the Ann Landers-style answer, “Whatever would possess anyone to ask such a personal question?” there is an answer to give, as explained by slam poet Taylor Mali; surely you’ve seen this before, but watch it again — to remember what teachers should be doing, as well as how to talk about it. See below.

[Update August 2010:  Hmmmmm.  Well, that video is out of commission at the moment — Mali and copyright?

Mali has a version at his website, for sale.  Buy it, you have it in high fidelity audio, video and emotion.

Here’s a shorter version of the tape not available above:

It remains the single best piece about teaching and why teachers do it when they don’t get paid the big bucks, when administrators make it so hard, and when society at large wants to fire them all — they do it for the kids.  What do they make?]

You can support Mr. Mali. Just purchase a pen that includes that little poem.

You can support Mr. Mali and his campaign for good teachers in another way, too. Make sure that whenever you talk about this poem of his, you credit it to him. I think we as teachers owe that to artists, and other teachers, as part of our continuing struggles against plagiarism.

But we also owe it to ourselves to get credit to Mr. Mali. Odds are he has some other good things to say. When you properly attribute his work, you increase the chances that someone else will find the rest of his work. You increase the chances that some superintendent will hire Mr. Mali to speak to the teachers in his district. You increase the chances that someone will understand that Mr. Mali is a real human being who loves teaching — he is, in short, one of those superheroes we call “teachers,” even without a cape.

Uncaped crusaders need compliments, too.

Inspiration for the first day of school, part 1 – Dalton Sherman

August 23, 2010

An encore post from two years ago.  50,000 educators from Dallas ISD gathered at the American Airlines Center, and then-5th grader Dalton Sherman gave the performance of his young life.

That was 2008.  Later that school year a $64 million shortfall showed up in the Dallas ISD budget, and many of those teachers were laid off mid-year.  In 2010, Dallas ISD provided a short video of encouragement from Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, rather than a mass gathering and pep rally.

Below is the post from 2008.


“Do you believe in me?”  5th grader Dalton Sherman inspires Dallas teachers

Taylor Mali is one of my usual suspects for inspiring teachers. He does a great job, with just a tinge of profanity (appropriately placed, many teachers argue – if they ask for it, you have to give it to them).

This year’s inspiration for Dallas teachers comes from Dalton Sherman, a fifth grader at Charles Rice Learning Center. Here’s a YouTube video of the presentation about 20,000 of us watched last Wednesday, a small point that redeemed the annual “convocation” exercise, for 2008:

Sherman’s presentation rescued what had been shaping up as another day of rah-rah imprecations to teachers who badly wanted, and in my case needed, to be spending time putting classrooms together.

(By the way, at the start of his presentation, you can see several people leap to their feet in the first row — Mom, Dad, and older brother. Nice built-in cheering section.)

Staff at DISD headquarters put the speech together for Dalton to memorize, and he worked over the summer to get it down. This background is wonderfully encouraging.

First, it makes a statement that DISD officials learn from mistakes. Last year the keynote was given by a speaker out of central casting’s “classic motivational speaker” reserves. As one teacher described it to me before the fete last Wednesday, “It was a real beating.”

Second, DISD’s planning ahead to pull this off suggests someone is looking a little bit down the road. This was a four or five month exercise for a less-than-10 minute presentation. It’s nice to know someone’s looking ahead at all.

Third, the cynical teachers gave Dalton Sherman a warm standing ovation. That it was delivered by a 10-year-old kids from DISD made a strong symbol. But the content was what hooked the teachers. Superintendent Michael Hinojosa provided a death-by-PowerPoint presentation leading up to the speech, one that was probably not designed solely as contrasting lead in. In other words, Dalton Sherman’s speech demonstrated as nothing else the district has done lately that someone downtown understands that the teachers count, the foot soldiers in our war on ignorance and jihad for progress.

The kids came back Monday, bless ’em. School’s in session, to anyone paying attention.


Full text of Dalton Sherman’s speech to Dallas Independent School District teachers, August 20, 2008:

I believe in me. Do you believe in me?

Do you believe I can stand up here, fearless, and talk to all 20,000 of you?

Hey, Charles Rice Learning Center – do you believe in me?

That’s right – they do.

Because here’s the deal: I can do anything, be anything, create anything, dream anything, become anything – because you believe in me. And it rubs off on me.

Let me ask you a question, Dallas ISD.

Do you believe in my classmates?

Do you believe that every single one of us can graduate ready for college or the workplace?

You better. Because next week, we’re all showing up in your schools – all 157,000 of us – and what we need from you is to believe that we can reach our highest potential.

No matter where we come from, whether it’s sunny South Dallas, whether its Pleasant Grove, whether its Oak Cliff or North Dallas or West Dallas or wherever, you better not give up on us. No, you better not.

Because, as you know, in some cases, you’re all we’ve got. You’re the ones who feed us, who wipe our tears, who hold our hands or hug us when we need it. You’re the ones who love us when sometimes it feels like no else does – and when we need it the most.

Don’t give up on my classmates.

Do you believe in your colleagues?

I hope so. They came to your school because they wanted to make a difference, too. Believe in them, trust them and lean on them when times get tough – and we all know, we kids can sometimes make it tough.

Am I right?

Can I get an Amen?

So, whether you’re a counselor or a librarian, a teacher assistant or work in the front office, whether you serve up meals in the cafeteria or keep the halls clean, or whether you’re a teacher or a principal, we need you!

Please, believe in your colleagues, and they’ll believe in you.

Do you believe in yourself? Do you believe that what you’re doing is shaping not just my generation, but that of my children – and my children’s children?

There’s probably easier ways to make a living, but I want to tell you, on behalf of all of the students in Dallas, we need you. We need you now more than ever.

Believe in yourself.

Finally, do you believe that every child in Dallas needs to be ready for college or the workplace? Do you believe that Dallas students can achieve?

We need you, ladies and gentlemen. We need you to know that what you are doing is the most important job in the city today. We need you to believe in us, in your colleagues, in yourselves and in our goals.

If you don’t believe – well, I’m not going there.

I want to thank you for what you do – for me and for so many others.

Do you believe in me? Because I believe in me. And you helped me get to where I am today.

Thank you.

Velsicol Chemical vs. Rachel Carson — the lawsuit that didn’t happen

August 23, 2010

Decades later, the site of Velsicol's DDT manufacturing at St. Louis, Michigan, along the Pine River, remains a still-recovering-from-contamination site.  Velsicol denied DDT is dangerous in a letter to the publisher of Silent Spring. In 1999 EPA began a $100 million Superfund clean-up of Velsicol's site. Even with new, better cleanup methods, it's still a hazard.  Photo from Penny Park, by the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force

Decades later, the site of Velsicol’s DDT manufacturing at St. Louis, Michigan, along the Pine River, remains a still-recovering-from-contamination site. Velsicol denied DDT is dangerous in a letter to the publisher of Silent Spring. In 1999 EPA began a $100 million Superfund clean-up of Velsicol’s site. Even with new, better cleanup methods, it’s still a hazard. Photo from Penny Park, by the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force

This story by Linda Gittleman deserves circulation well outside central Michigan, where it was published in the Morning Sun:

LINDA GITTLEMAN: Telling stories of the St. Louis Superfund sites

Published: Sunday, August 22, 2010

When it comes to the St. Louis area Superfund sites, there must be a thousand sidebars – those quirky little stories that all played a role in what happened at the Velsicol Chemical plant, in the city and indeed the country throughout the last several decades.

And, I suspect, there are a thousand more yet to come out.

Several years ago, the PBS series “American Experience” showcased Rachel Carson, the woman who wrote “Silent Spring,” published in 1962. That was the book which became the force that led to the ban, for the most part, of DDT use in the U.S.

Velsicol in St. Louis was the largest manufacturer of DDT in the country.

In the program, Carson recalled the bad old days.

To say the chemical company didn’t much care for her is an understatement. They flat out called her a liar.

Not only was she up to no good with her “sinister influence.” She was also a “tool of the Communist menace.”

Nor did they care much for the New Yorker magazine, which published excerpts from her book shortly before publication. At least the same could be said for her publisher Houghton Mifflin.

Alma College Professor Ed Lorenz had traveled to Yale and perused Carson’s papers that are kept there.

He found a five-page letter written to the publisher from Velsicol’s lawyer outlining in great detail all the discrepancies, misstatements and misunderstandings on Carson’s part as well as the inaccuracies found in the New Yorker series.

Letter from Velsicol Chemical to publisher of Silent Spring

Letter from Velsicol Chemical to publisher of Silent Spring, threatening to sue if alleged errors in Silent Spring were not corrected. No changes were made, and Velsicol did not sue. Letter image from the archives of Alma College.

Certainly wouldn’t want to see all those errors in the book due out, so a letter from Velsicol was in order. A letter that would “call several matters to your attention from legal and ethical standpoints.”

Louis McLean, the attorney, requested a meeting with the publisher so they could discuss all that and more besides.

The editor in chief wrote back and thanked him for the letter, forwarding on a copy to Carson.

“We have reviewed carefully the sources for the statements in her book, in the light of the points you bring up in your letter,” Paul Brooks wrote in response. “While there may be room for differences of opinion, we still believe, after thorough examination, that Miss Carson’s presentation is accurate and fair. Since our concern as well as yours is factual accuracy, we do not believe that a meeting would serve any useful purpose.”

Velsicol didn’t sue.

E.B. White, then the publisher of the New Yorker wrote to Carson, remarking on her courage for, “putting on the gloves and going in with this formidable opponent. This will be an Uncle Tom’s Cabin of a book, I feel – the sort that will help turn the tide.”

It did, at least in the U.S.

And one last item for the “It’s a small world department:” Did you know that the mother of Bernie Davis, the former Alma College professor and former county commissioner, was Carson’s administrative assistant?

She too was interviewed on “American Experience,” Lorenz said.

(Linda Gittleman is the Gratiot Managing Editor and can be reached at

America is vexed with a non-centrally organized, but persistent, campaign to smear Rachel Carson and her work, with inaccurate claims about her research and the science of environmental protection — smears that would be laughable were there not so many ill-informed people who give them credence.  In contrast, there is no paid lobby to spread the good works of Rachel Carson — the truth simply stands on its own.

More about DDT and Alma, Michigan, at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub:

Also see:

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