Tuesday, September 30, 2014

30 Poems in November!

For the third year in a row, I am participating in the 30 Poems in November! challenge held as a fundraiser for the Center for New Americans. A wonderful mix of literacy support, literacy practice and literary joy, 30 Poems bring two of my most favorite things together - writing poetry and being of service to others.

I am hoping that my family, friends and readers will consider supporting me in my efforts.  The money raised will go to support the various literacy programs provided by the Center for New Americans (CNA).  The poems I will write - some of them - I hope to include in a new book I am writing on Ireland. 

This year, CNA is using Razoo as their fundraising venue. You can either click here or on the link at the top of this page.  All donations are gratefully appreciated - no donation is too small!

As a teaser, here is a poem I just wrote - imagine the ones I will write in November!


The letters are strung together
into words that form ideas - pictures -
glimpses of Heaven - 
or - 
Worked and formed, erased and edited,
the thoughts build to a crescendo
until, breathless, the poet sits back
admiring the creation she breathed into life.

Linda M. Rhinehart Neas © 2014

Monday, September 22, 2014

Lifting the Curtain: Q & A with D.A. Russell

Today, I’d like to introduce you to D.A. Russell, author of Lifting the Curtain: The disgrace we call urban high school education, in addition, you will have the opportunity to win your own copy of Lifting the Curtain by entering the giveaway! (More about that later in the blog.)

Russell's book, Lifting the Curtain is a "no holds barred" kind of read.  Kirkus Reviews calls the book, “An impassioned look at the shortcomings of public education, from the perspective of an inner-city high school teacher.”  In it, Russell exposes the systemic failures in today’s educational system and offers a solution geared to put the focus back onto the best interests of the children. Anyone who cares about a child should educate themselves about what is really happening in our schools. 

As a fellow educator, I was eager to ask Don some questions about the state of our educational system and teaching in general.  

Q: While writing Lifting the Curtain, you surveyed both students and teachers regarding the state of education. What surprised you most about the students’ responses? 

A: I was really taken aback by how much our children want to have better and more challenging teaching. In the student survey, the most common comment in the “what is best… or what is worst… or what needs change” section of the questionnaire was from students angry about not learning enough! Some of the responses were amazing to hear: 

  • “My teachers think I’m incapable of doing work because I’m in standard. I want a challenge.” 
  • “The work they give us is stupid is (sic) like they don’t want to challenge us to do something bigger.”
  • “The lack of work that is given. Personally, I rather (sic) be challenged than given a free pass.” 
When I followed up with students on this issue, I tried to see what made the difference for them. In almost every case it was a teacher who set expectations far above what the child had ever experienced before, and then that teacher was passionate about working to help the child earn good results. One of the most intriguing (and absolutely spot-on) studies of what makes a great teacher found only two common factors -- a passion to teach, and a knack for engaging children. 

The only dumb ones are the ones we teach to be dumb. A free ride through high school is not an act of love or kindness! 

 Q: What impact, if any, have all these policies had on our children’s arts and cultural studies? 

A: You’ve hit upon yet another unintended consequence that shortchanges our children. In almost every school I researched, the children had one or two classes each term dedicated to helping pass standardized testing – often one for both English and for Math. Many schools are starting to look at adding more such “test preparation” classes for bio, chemistry, and history as those topics become part of standardized testing. 

So do the math – who loses when 2-3 of a day’s classes are tied up with remedial training? A typical school has just 5-6 classes per day. If two (and soon to be more than two) are for additional Math and English training to help with passing standardized tests, where is there room for electives anymore? Where is there a space for creative writing? For law? For small business issues? For psychology? For that matter, where is there a slot for band, art, home economics, study hall, or carpentry? 

Once again, as with inclusion classes, the issue is simply math – too many topics trying to compete for too few spaces. The bureaucrats, year after year, do not understand something as obvious as 7-8 classes cannot fit into a 5-6 class day – and our children are the losers. 

Q: Why do so many teachers believe we must eliminate inclusion classes? 

A: This is a critically important, yet dangerous question! Anyone who criticizes inclusion classes is likely to immediately be labeled as uncaring, unfair, and even racist. Yet, the truth is that those of us who are most caring about children who struggle in class are the ones who most recognize how much inclusion classes have hurt our children. I feel so strongly about such children that for the past ten years I always asked for the weakest standard classes. Those classes have given me more joy in watching “losers” earn success than anything else in my life. 

So why am I so strongly against inclusion classes? It is an issue of math, not philosophy. It has nothing to do with uncaring, racism, or fairness. It is simply the fact that inclusion classes force the teacher to decide what part of 115 minutes, on average, of mandated requirements will not be fit into a 60 minute class. An inclusion class has so many Department of Education and administrative mandates that the teacher must either skip parts of the teaching, skip parts of the accommodations, or skip part of the administration of the class. There is not a single inclusion teacher in the United States who has ever been able to provide all the items mandated for an inclusion classes. Not one. 

Since accommodations for the inclusion students in the class are so essential, inclusion teachers must cut out parts of the required curriculum in every class in order to spend one-on-one time with inclusion student accommodations. If a class has just 10 inclusion students (my standard classes averaged 15-plus per class) and the teacher spends just three minutes with each inclusion student on accommodations (or stops to help a co-teacher with accommodations) then 30 minutes of mandated curriculum topics must be skipped. Everyone, both non-inclusion and inclusion students, suffers because important topics are discarded. 

Inclusion classes sound good, and appear “fair and caring.” But they seriously hurt the very students we are trying to help by forcing the teacher to dumb down the education in every class. Don’t shoot the messenger – it is what it is. 

Q: Some people say America’s educational system doesn’t prepare students to compete in global business; the children are simply trained to be consumers and workers. What are your thoughts on this? 

A: I have heard that view, or ones much like it, many times. It is a very frustrating one for all the good teachers to hear. Sadly it is both right, and totally wrong, with most people having no chance to see the subtle difference because Department of Education career bureaucrats and inept school administrators are so good at hiding what is wrong with our schools. 

The first part is spot on – our educational system does not even get close to preparing children to compete for the most rewarding business jobs. The testing service ACT in September of 2013 (The Condition of Career and College Readiness) reported that less than half of 2013 high school graduates were prepared for college. Just consider this scary comment in the ACT report: “Just over 1 in 4 (26%) ACT-tested high school graduates met all four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in 2013.” 

Our high school administrators and Department of Education career bureaucrats should be ashamed of that report – and many of them fired! We have forced teachers to dumb down education so much that our children in urban high schools have little chance of ever getting on a career path to the best, most rewarding, and challenging jobs. The number of high school graduates that either must go to community colleges to repeat their high school courses in order to qualify for a four-year college, or spend their first two years of a four year school repeating those courses, is staggering. And it is shameful. 

The part of this view that so frustrates teachers is the second part – the view, by those who cannot see all that is hidden behind the curtain of the school entryway, that all teachers want to do in the classroom is to get the children to pass and to qualify for minimum wage positions. It is seen as the intent of the teachers to do the minimum. Yet almost every teacher I have ever met feels just the opposite – and beg for the chance to challenge our children. But the system forces teachers to skip content and dumb down the curricula. We are told to concentrate on the minimal materials covered in standardized testing, rather than challenging our students, because of administration pressure to avoid school sanctions for low test scores is constant. Our inclusion classes mandate 20-30 minutes per class of accommodation support for students to be taken out of the hour that is needed for teaching content – so the teacher must eliminate chunks of the material every class. Most of today’s Special Education (SPED) students have the deadly “…can retake any failed test” accommodation that saps student motivation and effort. We have dozens of well-intentioned mandates that take children out of the classroom for hours each month for bullying assemblies, allergy training, LGBT sessions, evacuation and fire drills, career opportunity meetings, counseling sessions, and a host of others – all good things when considered alone, but when totaled up they significantly reduce even further the time spent actually teaching a subject. 

Teachers don’t train our children to be just consumers and entry-level workers -- the systemic failure of our educational system prevents teachers from doing so much more, and so much we want to do, that would prepare these children for the best possible careers. 

To read more about what’s happening in today’s schools please visit the website at http://liftingthecurtain.com/

Are you ready to see what else is behind the curtain? Enter to win a copy of Lifting the Curtain, The disgrace we call urban high school education. Go to http://liftingthecurtainoneducation.wordpress.com/2014/09/04/win-a-copy-of-lifting-the-curtain/

About the Author: 

D.A. Russell has spent the last ten years as a math teacher in one of the urban high schools used as an example in Lifting the Curtain. He is an honors graduate of Dartmouth College, and received his master’s degree from Simon School, where he was valedictorian of his class. Russell is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He has two children that he treasures, and four grandchildren. His son is a police officer who served in the US Army in Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star for valor. His daughter is a lawyer and his most passionate fan and honorary literary agent. 

Russell has taught and coached children for decades. Few things are more important in his view than to cherish the children who are our real treasures in this world. 

Connect with the author at: 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Pride in Service

A Dublin Café - the hostess was chatting with me about our visit and giving me suggestions of things to see.

I have returned from our dream trip from Ireland.  Decompressing over the past week has left me with many insights into our two seemingly similar, yet definitely different cultures.  Aside from the obvious, I realized that in Ireland there is a completely (and I mean completely!) different work ethics.  Let me explain.

On our first day on the isle of Eire, I noticed that the women cleaning the toilets were smiling and greeted women as they came into the facility.  I, of course, returned the greeting, smiling back.  How nice, I thought, but I didn't ponder on it for long.

Next, I noticed that the bus and tram drivers smiled at patrons, answering questions completely and politely. In addition, the vehicles we road in as well as the stations were immaculate.  The same was found when we went to tea at the local museum cafés. 

What got me really thinking, however, was the museum staff - everyone from the docents to the security guards.  Not once did we encounter anyone not willing to explain something, give advice, directions or assistance, even if it meant walking with us to show us what we needed to know or do.

(Don't think for a moment that life in Ireland is perfect.  There are problems there, same as everywhere.  Their banks messed them over the same as ours.  Unemployment is as big a challenge.  There are homeless people and addicts.  But, there is a difference in how people approach there day-to-day work,  that I couldn't help but notice.)

After pondering for the past week, I have come to the realization that in Ireland, where children don't appear to be pushed from infancy to go to college, there is still pride in doing service work as well as handiwork.  Carpenters are proud to be carpenters, masons are proud to be masons, waitstaff are proud to be waitstaff.  Artists, poets, and musicians are a pride to a family, not considered less than perfect, or worse yet, failures. Walking the streets of Dublin, we saw tailors, cobblers and bakeries, something that we see too few of, if any, here in the US.

I have come to believe that here in the US, we have done a disservice to our children by expecting all of them to be college/university educated. Go to any town in the States and there are machine shops and factories lying empty and rotting. Working with your hands is something we have come to disdain, rather than admire. For instance, tool and die makers - a craft my grandfather was proud to be a master of at the Gillette factory in Boston - are hard to find in the US now.  If things aren't being sent out of the country, then they are being done with computers and robotics, for which you need a college degree in order to operate the machines.

Why is it that we cannot be proud of our children if they want to become mechanics or plumbers or woodworkers? What is wrong with taking pride in construction work?  My Dad was one of the people that dug out and built the Callahan Tunnel in Boston.  To his dying day, he was proud of the work he did and the men who worked with him.

If we really want this country to be great, we need to push for less college readiness testing and more opportunities for children to use their individual gifts and talents in a way that suits them.  After all, happiness in life is essential for a balanced, productive, and content human being.  Rather than eliminating shop, art, and music classes, we need to promote them, allowing children to feel pride in the work they do as well as their creative accomplishments. In addition, we need to stop pressuring our children to be the number one best overall.  Being the best they, individually, can be is what is important.

As an educator with over 40 years of teaching behind me, I have seen the heartbreak of a child who wants nothing else than to be a farmer or a singer or a mechanic, being forced onto the college track only to end up either dropping out with a host of emotional and mental issues or becoming a graduate with no joy in what they do for a living and no hope of changing it for fear of disappointing their parents.

Life is too short.  As old as I am, I know without a doubt that happiness and contentment in ourselves and what we do is the key to a fulfilled life.  We need to rethink what we are doing to our children and ourselves in this country before we no longer have options.

More on alternatives to college:

We Need Alternatives to Traditional College Education

Alternatives to College - various articles in the Huffington Post

Alternatives to Traditional College Education


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

What’s in Your Spiritual Backpack?

No matter where we go in life, we must deal with people, events and things that may or may not be difficult. Having the right "tools" at hand makes our journey less stressful and much more fulfilling.

Our guest writer, Lorraine Ash shares her tips on what to take in our spiritual backpacks during Life's journey as we participate in the WOW! Women on Writing blog tour for her new book, Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life.

In this uplifting memoir, Lorraine Ash uses her own life experiences to explore inner landscapes where the seeds of divine healing and insight reside. These are the landscapes on which we create our own meaning and find the resiliency to thrive in a changing and challenging world. 

 Photo credit: ©Asdf_1 | Dreamstime.com 
Today, Lorraine answers for us the question, "What is in your spiritual backpack?" 

Any traveler, from a hiker to a spiritual seeker, loves talking about maps, directions, and roads traveled. They ask which ones lead to the summit, whether that be a real-world mountain or a state of mind. 

Getting lost from time to time is enlightening, too. It certainly worked for Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

But what we carry in our proverbial spiritual backpacks - otherwise known as the contents of our minds - is as key to the journey as any external destination or surprise along the way. Your mind, like mine, is filled with truths, hard earned from our experiences on all the trails we’ve ever traversed. I’ve learned never to trade in those truths for some shiny new tantalizing thing I want to believe. 

Here are seven I carry wherever I roam: 

1. The world is not a maze. It is a teacher, diverse and complex enough to offer lessons for billions of people. 

2. Inner guides and natural inclinations are not delusions of grandeur. They are muses who suggest starting points, and key turns, in our life journeys. 

3. The soul is not a financial portfolio or resume. Its contents are not to be weighed, measured, or compared. 

4. Truth contains everything, including negativity and positivity. 

5. The human psyche is vast. Yet, most folks live on a small island in the mind devoted to aspiring, achieving, and stressing; they ignore the oceans of peace and perspective that surround it. 

6. A family legacy is not a random stroke of good or bad fortune. For everyone, it is both. 

7. Many lost souls walk the planet. They live among us, sometimes with us. Some are powerful. Recognize them. Pray for them. But do not follow them. 

Question: What time-tested lesson learned on the road of life do you hold most dear? Post yours in the comments!

About the Author: Lorraine Ash, MA, is an author, journalist, and essayist as well as a writing teacher. Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life is her second book. Her first memoir, Life Touches Life: A Mother's Story of Stillbirth and Healing, was published by NewSage Press and has circulated throughout the United States as well as in the Middle East, Australia, Europe, China, Canada, and Mexico. Lorraine also is a veteran journalist, whose feature articles and series have won seventeen national, state, and regional awards and have appeared in daily newspapers across the country. Lorraine belongs to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, Bill.

Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life is available in a variety of formats and online stores, all presented here,


Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life is also available a digital audiobook. Find it at Audible.com and Amazon.com as well as in the iTunes store. 

Reach Lorraine at - 

www.facebook.com/LorraineAshAuthor , or