Summer in Ghana

This summer, I spent almost a month studying and researching in Ghana as part of a Fund for Teachers grant that I was awarded back in May. The goal of the trip was to research and explore the monumental slave forts along the Ghanaian coast to better understand the Atlantic Slave Trade from the African perspective in order to improve the US History curriculum. I have been remarkably blessed by all of the incredible opportunities that have been afforded to me since I began teaching – whether it has been testifying in front of Congress on behalf of BTR, attending a conference in New Orleans on developing human capital in education, or participating in the many excellent history seminars from organizations like Facing History or Gilder Lehrman. This trip has already had a tremendous impact on my thinking as a person and a teacher, and I’m excited to use some of my new knowledge in the classroom this year. Below is one of my journal entries from my visit to the Ashanti Region of Ghana.

August 28, 2011

Our last tour of Ghana (before heading back to Accra) included visits to the various surrounding villages of Kumasi. The villages chosen were Ahwiaa, Ntonso, Adanwomase, and Bonwire. Each village is presently and has traditionally been linked to a handicraft to which it specializes – wood carving in Ahwiaa, adinkra cloth making in Ntonso, and kente weaving in Adanwomase and Bonwire. We were met by Fred and Benson our guides for the day and we headed out first to Ahwiaa. Our first stop was Ahwiaa to see how handmade wood carvings are still traditionally made, including the stools for the royal family of the Ashanti. We were introduced to the leader of the village’s main workshop, who welcomed us to see how all different kinds of objects are handmade. There are no sophisticated tools in the shop, just talented men with chisels of various sizes carving away at hunks of unformed white and red cedar to make their creations. I will post a video once I’m back home so everyone can see just how busy this workshop was. Just from looking in the shops in the village, the workshop does incredible work (and of course we had to buy some carvings to take home)!

Our next stop was Ntonso, a place I was excited to visit in order to learn more about the adinkra cloth that was made there. Adinkra are the symbols that carry significant meaning in Ashanti and Ghanaian culture. The act of stamping these symbols on to cloth represents the communication of the messages embedded in these symbols to those that have passed into the afterlife. While these cloths were often worn at funerals (and still are), the craft also has lighter themes and colors too! Ntonso has a lovely visitor’s center where were shown the production process of making adinkra. We saw the process of pounding bark to make the dye (quite a laborious effort!), where the pounded bark is then sifted and boiled and stirred to create the distinctive blackish dye used in stamping. The last step of course is the stamping, using hand carved stamps made of calabash, and we got to try this out for ourselves, choosing our own cloth, stamps, and pattern! The symbols I chose were the crocodile (symbolizing versatility because a crocodile lives on land and in water), the zig zag (that represents changing with the times), the symbol called “ese ne tekrema” (representing friendship), and the crane with its neck pointed backwards to itself (called “sankofa” this represents the importance of remembering your past). You can see the (almost) finished product in the picture. I also thought my Fund for Teachers bag could use some andikra too!

We bid farewell to Ntonso and headed next to Adanwomase, the village most famous for weaving the kente cloth of the Ashanti royal family. The town also has a pleasant visitor’s center from where we led on a tour of the kente weaving production process, the town and its local shrine, and the nearby cocoa farm. Our guide led us on an informative and interactive tour of all aspects of making kente, from spinning the thread, to “warping” the thread (this picks the colors and organizes the design), to finally weaving the cloth itself. The production was the most fascinating to me. The all-male weavers worked in an outdoor workshop (it’s actually the old market, abandoned by the women for its bad location, but soon-to-be-again market once the indoor kente workshop is complete). All were no more than 22 years old, and one boy looked much younger than that, and all worked at an incredible space. The designs were well memorized because any mistake in just one level of weaving would ruin the whole cloth. The atmosphere seemed positive and light, not what you would imagine a textile factory/workshop to look or sound like. I’m sure that the weavers of Adanwomase would stack up with any weavers in the world for their speed and accuracy in completing cloths! We finished with a tour of the village and cocoa farm. We visited the town’s sacred tree (where it takes its name from) and the local shrine, although the local priest was absent. At the cocoa farm we received an explanation of how the country’s second largest source of economic wealth is harvested and produced, and then we tried some of the seeds of  a cocoa pod – very sweet and tasty!

We said goodbye to Adanwomase, but unfortunately were unable to visit Bonwire because of time. However, Fred and Benson did insist on taking us to what Fred considered the “best fufu” spot in all of Kumasi (and I assume for Fred, all of Ghana). We agreed, and Fred ordered up for us a piping hot bowl of fufu (a pulverized blend of plantain and cassava that is smashed until it becomes this gooey ball) with goat’s meat and fish in light soup. Fred made sure to show us the proper technique – use your right hand, only the fingers, pick out a piece of fufu, dip in sauce, and eat without swallowing. The soup was a whole lot of spicy goodness, and the goat was tender. Fufu sure seems like it would take a lot of getting used to, but I’m glad that we tried it in the end. We finally said goodbye to our now friends Fred and Benson, exchanged email addresses and phone numbers, and promised to stay in touch.

I found that today was especially meaningful because it gave me such an important peek into the rich cultural history and traditions of the Ghanaian people. Much of this trip has been devoted to documenting the disturbing history of the Atlantic slave trade, and the visual reminders that remain today on the Ghanaian coast, but of course there is so much more to this country than its sordid past in that “peculiar institution” – it is a proud nation with an incredibly resilient people that can claim to becoming the first independent African nation (in 1957), but also still struggles with many of the same poverty, health, and environmental issues that developing nations all over the world today face. They are so clearly a nation that has dealt with European contact for over 500 years, but also one that has steadfastly maintained it’s strong customs and traditions. It is a place that is at once so familiar to me, but also a place that requires more time and examination to fully understand it (perhaps an impossible task for one lifetime). I have very much enjoyed my experiences here in Ghana because it has opened up so much more to me about how people can teach and learn in different parts of the world, and that by no means does the Western world have all of the answers. I think that if I can incorporate a fraction of what I have learned here, my students will be so much better for it.


Letter to TechBoston Lower

With TechBoston Lower Academy merging with the Upper Academy (at the Dorchester Education Complex) next year, this seems like the perfect time to reflect on what it has meant to teach at TBA and in the Boston Public Schools.

Dear TBA Lower,

Two years ago, we met. It felt like you were a little disorganized. I wasn’t sure what to make of you. They say reputations precede you, and your reputation read like a rap sheet. But still, I was excited (and maybe a little nervous too) to meet you. You were my first teaching job, my first classroom. I tried to put the rumors behind me, and just get to know you for you. There were trainings, but on the first day of school it felt like nothing was ready. Many of us were winging it. You gave me everything you had that first year. In the back of the building, in Room 204, I had to juggle lots of new responsibilities: teacher of two grades, wrestling coach, 8th grade team leader. My hubris probably got in the way of better judgement, but I feel the experience made me stronger. I think you were just used to being tough, and you wanted me to be tough too. Looking back now, I thank you for that. We survived that first year, in a lot of ways.

I found myself in Room 119 in my second year with you. Front and center, just about. Whereas last year, almost no one visited me, this year saw lots of visitors. It was a nice change. I still had lots of the same responsibilities (teacher, coach, leader), and more (starting the first Latina/o club at the school), but it felt easier in many ways. They say the first year is the hardest in a relationship, so if you can make it through that, you can make it through anything together. Oh sure, we had tough times together. But I could never stay mad at you for long. I mean, on most days, I wore your name across my chest on my maroon colored polo shirt. You were coming to define me, in many ways. “I teach at TBA Lower,” I would say to people, and there was meaning in that phrase, like people knew what I meant. Our reputation together was preceding us. I knew this day would come, when I would leave you, and I would have to join with the Upper Academy. It was meant to be. I am happy, but there is still sadness in closing your door this one last time. You made me stronger. You made me a better teacher. You made me more human.

I’m going to miss you TBA Lower. There will be no replacing you. I’m going to take the best of what I learned in your walls with me next year to the combined TechBoston. I think it’s what you would have wanted. Take care of yourself, okay?

Mr. V

Hay hombres que luchan…

Dear students,

Recently, I haven’t been able to get this quote out of my head. It’s from this dude Bertolt Brecht. He was an old German playwright, and he was this real radical. Well anyway, in on of his plays he had one of his characters say this one line. It was deep. I only know it Spanish, but I translate it after:

“Hay hombres que luchan un dia y son buenos. Hay otros que luchan un año y son mejores. Hay quienes luchan muchos años y son muy buenos. Pero hay los que luchan toda la vida: esos son los imprescindibles. 

OK, so roughly translated, it means, “There are men that fight for one day, and they are good. There are other men that fight one year, and they are better. There are men that fight many years, and they are very good. But there are those that fight their entire lives: they are the irrepraceable ones.”

This quote has stuck with me for a very long time. You were probably just starting elementary school or pre-school when this quote first resonated with me. Yeah, seriously. My father wrote this to me on the card he gave me on the day I graduated high school. I liked it enough, and I’ve kept it ever since.

So now I want to pass it on to you. You’re probably asking, “Why now?” Great question! Well we are getting to the last three months of the school year. It scares me to tell you that because it feels like just last week that I met you for the first time in Room 119 and we undertook this strangely beautiful journey together. I wish we had many more months together because I have so much to teach you. And no, not all of it will turn up on the Civics Final Exam. Actually, they’ll be things instead that you will probably encounter in your life. And that life starts today. So here is what I want to make sure you learn before you leave my room for the summer.

1. I am proud of your accomplishments. Many people probably helped you get to where you are today, but be proud of yourself. You did it. It’s a great feeling.

2. You have a teacher in your corner. I will fight for you, advocate for you, advise you…I will be there. No matter what. Just call me (but I really I know you’d rather send me a text…LOL)

3. You are an amazing group of students. I see that now. I’m sorry that there were doubters. Will you forgive us?

4. Make sure that next year, you come back and visit. Let the new 8th graders know what you went through to get to the 9th grade. You are the future leaders. We are expecting a lot from you.

This isn’t a goodbye letter. Luckily I get your company, energy, and growth for another three months. Let’s make the best of it, okay? We will all be better for it. For saying that we made it to the finish line together. Because as Brecht said, there are those few that are willing to fight every single day of their life. I know you are ready to join that fight. Ustedes son los imprescindibles.

Sincerely with love,

Mr. V


Thoughts on the Presidential Visit

I’m sitting at home with 40 notebooks to grade tonight, but I’m beaming. The President of the United States came to OUR school. I attended with my students and my colleagues, people for whom I have sacrificed much in these last two years. And no, I couldn’t possibly have predicted that those long hours after school or late at night at home crafting those lessons, calling families, coaching wrestling, and yes, grading notebooks (like I should be doing right now) would result in such a gratifying validation of our committed hard work in the Boston Public Schools for OUR students. But what validation this was. Usually my blog posts are crafted with lots of thought, trying to ensure that every word, sentence and paragraph meets its intended purpose. But tonight, I am writing to make sure that my emotions come through on the keyboard. So here it goes, in all its unfiltered glory.

First of all, I have to say that this afternoon was an exceptional reward for my students. And for Dorchester, my goodness for Dorchester. Their President visited THEIR neighborhood! My kids certainly noticed – “Hey, the only time the news channels come out here is when someone got shot” – isn’t that the truth. The positive press on this neighborhood should continue. It is a vibrant place with tremendous history, diversity, culture, and vibrancy. And our President saw some of that too. And Dorchester finally got some of its due.

Flashback to last week. The rumors spread quickly. was reporting on Thursday that President Obama was visiting TechBoston Academy. Hardly anyone believed it. Our principal sent out an email that night, but few details came. Even up through to Monday, the teachers didn’t know much, but of course much was happening behind the scenes. Everyone was certain that I would get chosen – the history and Civics teacher – but I wasn’t. I had convinced myself that I didn’t care if I wasn’t chosen to attend the event, since Obama would be speaking at our high school and not the middle school building. We were also told that not all students would be allowed to go – but that’s for another post. Let’s stay positive here! I simply just wanted to show to the students that were going that I was happy for them (because I was! They were going to see the President! Number 44!). And then I received the email this morning that I would be going – along with the other BTR graduates! I was thankful for the opportunity to go, but mostly because the four teachers that I respect the most and have gone through the same trials along there with me (Ms. Sumner, Mr. Cain, Mrs. Medeiros, and Mr. Witsil) would all be there as well. Okay, so fast-forward back to the Upper Academy’s gym…

As I was sitting there waiting for the President to arrive, I couldn’t help it – the teacher in me (or am I always Mr. V at this point?) was plugging away at ideas. “If I get a good shot of the podium, presidential seal, and backdrop, that would make an awesome green screen for when students debate.” The ideas continued even during his speech – “OMG he just said ‘We rise and fall together’ our school motto! I am SO looping that as a video and playing that for my students on repeat!” I was thinking about what impact his speech would have. I watched my students’ faces. Not even my most perfectly engaging lesson could possibly recreate what those students got to see live. The most powerful man in the world speaking directly to them, imploring them to strive for greatness and success. Telling them and the world that what TechBoston Academy has been doing for nearly a decade deserves recognition. Not only that, he spoke to them to say – “We need you to become our next teachers.” Yes! That was music to my ears. The other politicians in the audience could certainly follow Obama’s lead. Education should and ought to be a virtuous cycle.

This may not be the most insightful or revelatory blog I haven’t written to date, but I needed to write down my thoughts on March 8, 2011. A time capsule of sorts. I still have not absorbed all of what occurred today, but I know that for those students and teachers that went, this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience – a chance to tell children and grandchildren “I shook Obama’s hand” or for Mrs. Young and her 6th graders the chance to show of their handwritten letter from Obama thanking them for their letters to him. I am so thankful that education has given me such wonderful opportunities. I will count March 8, 2011 as one of the many cherished days that I have enjoyed thus far – and hopefully the many more yet to come.