Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Wednesday Evening at the Brooklyn Heights Barnes & Noble: Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School 11th Grade & "Take A Position: Create A Vision"

We are really jet-lagged after a long day hanging around Sky Harbor and a much-delayed flight back to JFK (this time of year Arizona is three hours behind New York since it doesn't observe daylight savings; the last thing you need there in summer is an extra hour of sunshine). But we're glad we roused ourselves from a sleep-deprived stupor to take the G train from our Williamsburg HQ to the Court Street Barnes & Noble this evening.

We went to a really special program celebrating the eleventh graders of Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School (BCAM) and the release of their new book, Take a Position, Create a Vision: Persuasive Speeches & Campaign Posters, published with the wonderful Student Press Initiative at Teachers College.

It was pretty crowded when we got to the store (we knew we were back in Brooklyn when we walked past Borough Hall and saw pickets from Sunset Park with signs mostly in Chinese chanting in Spanish). Given a program, we stood in the back until B&N workers brought in more folding chairs.

The first speaker was Nita Noveno, the curriculum consultant from the Student Press Initiative whom we know from attending many of the great Sunday Salon events over the years (sadly, while we were in Arizona, one of our favorite Williamsburg haunts, Stain Bar, closed due to a massive rent increase - but Sunday Salon will now take place at Jimmy's No. 43 on East 7th Street starting on June 21.

Nita talked about working at BCAM with the eleventh graders, the school's inaugural class, and how the Take a Position, Create a Vision project is one of the most professional-looking publications to come from a high school class. It doesn't contain cliches or typical "student work," Nita said, and after seeing the posters (some of which were taped to the store's window on both the Court and Schermerhorn Street sides) and hearing the speeches, we definitely agree.

Erick Gordon, the founding director of the Student Press Initiative, praised the rhetorical accomplishments of the students, saying "BCAM sets the bar high."

How high was seen in the speech by the first student up, Camille Adolphe. Her talk, "A Word for the Written Piece," proved forceful and intelligent. For a decade we taught argumentative writing at Nova Southeastern University, and Camille's essay - written, like the others in the 11th grade American literature class of Kevin Greer - was more eloquent than most of the college-level work we've seen, and superior to all but one essay we can recall when we had the experience of teaching an 11th grade English class at a private school in Phoenix.

"We are victims of intellectual genocide," Camille said, referring to media influences that prevent high school students from thinking for themselves. She decried the materialism, trendiness and "blinding narcissism" that turn young Americans into walking advertisements and automatons and urged her peers to reject conspicuous, thoughtless consumption in a speech that could easily have been trite but which was anything but, as she called for people to use writing to express themselves and thus develop their individuality. Quoting the poet Jill Scott, Camille asked us to "write like there's no tomorrow. If you do not, there may not be." This was a great speech.

Similarly, Denise Fasuyi's "Speech to the Police" of New York City was a powerful indictment, here of the general attitude of the NYPD toward the city's youth. Relating a number of incidents of harassment and humiliation (anyone who walks the streets has seen this going on) as well as the tragedies we're all familiar with from the news, Denise delivered a speech that was all the more powerful for stating the arguments why police might sometimes need to stop adolescents and be wary of them. She called for a sincere and frank dialogue between cops and high school students, asking officers to come into the schools and talk to students as human beings, not potential perps.

Kevin Greer, the English teacher who's been working with these students since they were in ninth grade, said that he was a bit intimidated by the previous inspiring speeches and spoke about how essential rhetorical skills are in the world these kids will be facing after high school.

He introduced Trasaya Cyrus, who decried the langugage BCAM students use when they speak to each other, less so for the vulgarity than the "day-to-day, minute-to-minute hate" that common expressions like "fuck you" and "drop dead" exhibit. She asked the students to meet such rhetoric by not firing back but by walking away and by giving a little of, as in speech's title, a "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." If the golden rule seems as outdated as 1980s bell-bottoms, she said, it's not and students only disrespect themselves when they utter mindless profanities and hostility.

Kavon Johnson's "Separate Yourself from the Crowd," began with an admission that when he came to BCAM as a freshman, he was in search of popularity, got involved with cliques and did stupid things like "trying to prove fighting skills" in his quest to be popular and get attention.

But Kevon said he now learned more about the person he is by isolating himself and developing skills and interests that ware truly his own. Quoting Florence Falk's On My Own: The Art of Being a Woman Alone, he asked his peers to harness the power of solitude and use its shaping and transformative power to attune themselves to their own needs and desires as a way of achieving authentic selfhood.

After that eloquent speech, BCAM Principal James O'Brien came up and thanked the many people responsible for Take a Position, Create a Vision, asking them to stand up and be recognized. In turn, he called upon the teachers of the school, the counselor and assistant principal, the parents of BCAM students (most in the first few rows), the Student Press Initiative team, and finally, the BCAM students themselves. Next year is the founding class's graduation, Principal O'Brien said, and it's important that they not slack off.

He then introduced Councilmember Letitia James, saying "Every time we needed something, she was there." If you've ever heard Letitia James speak, you know she can be spellbinding, and this evening she gave a dynamic, inspirational, hortatory talk, warning the students against "the bias of low expectations society has for each and every one of you" and that there were those in the New York City power structure who were even now "preparing a housing program for you in some local jail."

The students represent "invisible voices," Councilmember James said, and she applauded the principal for letting them express themselves freely without any apprehension. She harkened back to the young people of SNCC back in the days of the civil rights movement, the young people who tore down the Berlin Wall, and the young people who fought for and achieved women's suffrage.

All the ability to change society and ourselves lies in education, Ms. James said. "There is no time to waste. I have the highest expectations of every one of you, and I will take no excuses" like "I'm poor" or "I don't have a father" or (eliciting laughter) "that teacher hates me." In the past, others struggled with much less opportunity - she referred to her own experience as the daughter of a single mother with eight kids on public assistance: "If I can make it, you can make it."

Then she warned the students that when she talks to Mayor Bloomberg about the school, he can point to test scores and say, "Tish, they're not doing that well." She said she needed the students to work hard at their studies to "back me up" when she speaks with the mayor and others in power. Then, raising the book, Councilmember James said, "This backs me up. . . But I also need your grades and graduation." And she said she expected every single BCAM graduate to go on to college, that in the audience of kids she didn't see any future basketball players and rap artists - "no B's, no H's" - but instead, future highly educated professionals.

Talking of her recent success in taking on and stopping "the richest developer in New York City" and in fighting for affordable housing on the waterfront of Brooklyn Heights, Ms. James said that for her and everyone else, "Education is the key to success. It's as simple as that." To immense applause, Principal O'Brien presented her with a yellow BCAM T-shirt.

The remaining speeches had more local than global concerns. Rahdell Clause's "Talk of the Cafeteria" dealt with an age-old issue: crappy school lunches. But he put in the context of a serious health issue, not just "broccoli that looks like throw-up" and burgers that look like they're made from beef maggots. Before Rahdell's speech, we were getting kind of hungry.

Pamela Otibu also discussed food as part of "Try Something New, It Might Save Your Life." It was a passionate diatribe against American junk food and its hold on teens. Coming here from Ghana three years ago, she got sucked in to the pleasures of Crown Fried Chicken but that she needed to "try harder" to achieve good nutrition and she discussed what we all know - things like eating more fruit and vegetables - while decrying junk food as as an assault on human dignity.

Christy Herbes, the art and media teacher, who worked with the students, said that it was challenging them to master Adobe Photoshop and the other software they used to create the posters. (We are no experts, but we do teach graphics arts majors at Fashion Institute of Technology a class in Profesional Writing in Art and Design, and from what we've learned from our students, we think the BCAM juniors are doing very professional graphics work.)

We were impressed by the sharp criticism of BCAM High School in the last two speeches by Ajani Brooks and Naomi Lynch. The principal was sitting right in front of us and though he did some good-natured heckling, it's a tribute to how seriously committed he and the administration are to students' free expression that strong criticism is not just tolerated but seems to be celebrated. We cannot imagine our own principal Dr. Bernstein at Midwood in the mid-1960s even envisioning a student delivering that kind of stinging criticism - not that we students back in the day would have imagined it, either.

Ajani's screed against "The Draconian Uniform Policy" was delivered, appropriately enough, with his own individual touch: he kept his backpack on while speaking. As a ninth grader, he wore what he wanted to BCAM, but then the insidious edict mandating uniforms led to the decimation of his preferred mode of sartorial expression and morning interruptions by Dean McHunter as he walked in the halls: "Yo! Yo! Son! You got a uniform?" Clothes are family problem, Ajani said, not an educational one, and the uniform policy is uniformly stressing out students and "creating paranoid adults."

Naomi Lynch's "An Ode to BCAM" asked the rhetorical question, "Where is the BCAM of yesteryear?" - yesteryear being 2007. She explained what an ode is, but it was left to us to figure out what a yester is. Actually, her speech was saved from stridency by touches of humor and self-mockery. She did nostalgically allude to the first year - ninth grade - as "the best," when BCAM seemed like "a hood version of Degrassi" but sadly decried the lack of student input on changes in the school she feels have been detrimental. Naomi called on student input and representation in school staff meetings and the PTA, which she'd like to see become the PTSA.

Principal O'Brien joined Naomi up front and said that they probably do need to partner more with the students and part of that was letting students be heard, as was done on the posters and speeches we saw and heard this evening. We were very impressed with both the students and the BCAM and SPI professionals who worked with them. And we're grateful that they let the public see what they're doing right.


kevin said...

thank you for taking the time not only to stay for our event but to write such a detailed and appreciative account of our (the students and staff of BCAM) hard work.

i can't wait to bring your blog to school to show our students (and staff) and i wonder if you might be interested in visiting our school, perhaps in the Fall--as interested citizens (our doors are open to the public) but also, from what i gather from your post, as arts and literacy educators, and as writers/bloggers. i imagine assembling a small group, including some of the students you wrote about, taking you for a tour and interviewing you, as it were, about what you do.

i hope the idea appeals to you, and thank you again for talking the time and interest.
kevin greer

Richard said...

Thanks so much, Kevin. I greatly admire what you've been doing and I enjoyed the students' work immensely and would be honored to come to BCAM. You can always contact me at

Nita said...


Thank you very much for the support and hope we'll get to meet at BCAM or Sunday Salon in the future.

All best,
Nita Noveno