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Having a quiet morning in Toronto—as usual, it’s freezing outside but it IS sunny and I’ve been having a pretty great visit so far. I had to run through the airport to catch my flight on Thursday, but my cousin’s wedding was lovely and I got a chance to catch up with relatives I haven’t seen in a while. The next day I had a full-day visit at North Kipling Junior Middle School and it was absolutely fantastic—I gave six presentations to 18 classes, and had a pizza lunch in the library with 8 students and three educators. I even had three boys who shadowed me all day and solved any technical glitches that came up. I’m always a little anxious when I present before Canadian students because I’m never sure whether my presentation will resonate with them—I write about the US and I know NYC kids really well, but the kids in Toronto are different (only two students raised their hands when I asked who Coretta Scott King was). My first presentation was to a cafeteria filled with seven classes of 7th and 8th grade students. They were SO quiet, maybe even a little timid. I finished the presentation thinking that I’d bombed, but as I walked through the halls later, many of the students waved and smiled and said hello. One senior student in my lunch group said she had been really inspired by my talk, and the other classes were responsive and engaged. And the teachers! I always say that being around teachers feels like being around family; I was raised by two teachers and I’m an educator myself, and I have SO much respect for the men and women who get up every day with a mission to change kids’ lives. I met the district superintendent (who’s a big fan of BIRD) and she recalled sharing Ezra Jack Keats’ books with her own children when they were young because she wanted them to be exposed to children of color. The school principal is determined to integrate the curriculum instead of only inviting black authors during the month of February (YES!). And I owe the entire experience to the vice-principal, Ms. Reid, who “met” me online a couple of years ago and didn’t give up when her efforts to bring me into her previous school didn’t work out. ONE determined educator can make such a difference…

The audio edition of Ship of Souls will be released in May, and I’ve been given permission to share this photo of Benjamin L. Darcie—the man responsible for giving D, Nyla, and Hakeem a voice! I admit that I’m a little anxious—and jealous. I’m used to reading the book to kids myself and I’ve learned how to add certain dramatic flourishes to keep them on the edge of their seat. But Mr. Darcie is a professional actor, so I’m going to trust that he’s better able than I am to bring these characters to life. It would have been cool to hear actual teens reading the book, but maybe that’s a project teachers can develop in their classrooms. I still haven’t done a trailer for Ship of Souls, and goodness knows I’ve got enough on my plate already without taking that on, too. Yet spending the day in Etobicoke made me want to come “home” for a while—just for a few weeks so I can get to know these kids and then write a book just for them. A book set in *their* city, with a cast that reflects the incredible diversity of Toronto. I read Nalo Hopkinson’s The Chaos last week and would love to hear what other folks think of it. It’s great to finally have a spec fic novel for teens that’s set in contemporary Canada and features an all-black cast…

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The only good thing about waking at 4am this morning was finding this email from a former student in my Facebook inbox. You’ve probably heard about the teacher in Michigan who was fired for mobilizing her students around the Trayvon Martin case. Radical teaching—which is what we NEED to achieve social justice—should be celebrated, not punished. You can sign a petition and learn more here.

Greetings,
I know it’s been awhile, but I wanted to let you know that I am still following your work and to also, again, thank you for your inspiration and support in my scholastic endeavors. I am currently in my second semester at ___ State University and am in the process of getting my masters in the teaching of writing. I am currently interning for a class titled “Theory of Composition,” where we actually just attended a lecture given by Dr. Y. I wrote the following email to my professor, Dr. S, that I thought may be of interest to you and to also remind you, again, of the impact you’ve had on me as a learner/teacher. Having had some experience as a teacher working in foreign countries for the past three years, I know what it means to receive genuine and honest feedback; it is one of the many things that makes teaching so rewarding. So, I thought I’d send you a copy of the email I sent my professor to not only demonstrate the effect you had on me, but to also demonstrate how the messages we teach, when they are truly meaningful, can spread like wildfire to places or, in this instance, to classes you hadn’t imagined.

She then shared my blog with her professor so that their conversation about young adult lit can include a consideration of race and equity in publishing! Touched and very proud…

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Up before dawn on the first day of spring break, hoping this headache doesn’t bloom into a migraine. Lots to watch online (episode one of Great Expectations at PBS.org) and Amy Bodden Bowllan has posted Part 1 and Part 2 of our conversation about race and representation in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin. I use this poem by Sharon Flake in my poetry workshops, but think I’ll include the cover image from now on…

I showed Pratibha Parmar’s brilliant film, A Place of Rage, in my classes yesterday. As always, the students were deeply moved and impressed by the profound statements made by Alice Walker, Angela Davis, and June Jordan. Pratibha posted this important Ms. Magazine blog article on Facebook this morning:From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin: How Black Women Turn Grief Into Action.” And the students are writing on Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” It’s not enough to mourn. You have to channel the pain that is the core of rage into something constructive that can help others in addition to yourself…

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The only good thing about bigots is that they usually hang themselves if you give them enough rope. That’s just what happened on The Daily Show when Al Madrigal traveled to Arizona to interview a school board member who voted to ban Mexican American Studies in Tucson schools (based on “hearsay,” not facts). If you haven’t seen the segment, you can watch it here. Debbie Reese has also transcribed the interview and you can find that on her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature. You want to laugh because it’s so ridiculous, but the ramifications of this kind of ignorance are very real—and harmful to our youth and the future of the country. This week Amy Bodden Bowllan is featuring Matt de la Peña on her School Library Journal blog; Matt recently visited AZ after his novel, Mexican Whiteboy, was pulled from the shelves. Amy also gave me a chance to reflect on the Trayvon Martin case and its impact on young readers. THIS is what I’m talking about when I say that “the lack of books for children in our communities IS A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.

Yesterday I told my students that I never used to talk in class; they were amazed to learn that I used to sit in class in college and even in graduate school with my lips sealed shut. And even at the conference in France last month—the keynote speaker was making some really problematic statements, and I sat there hoping someone else would speak up. But no one did, so that’s when I raised my hand and tried to keep my voice from shaking with rage…most days I’d rather disappear, but we don’t only speak for ourselves. We speak for those who have been silenced. We speak because we’ve been given a platform and so many others have not.

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Yesterday was not my best teaching day. I try to let my students express themselves in class, and I try to listen patiently even when problematic ideas are coming out of their mouths. After all, the point is to figure out where they’re starting from—what they know now so that we can try to move forward together. I’m usually ok if they disagree with me on something—so long as they can back it up. But when we’re talking about sensitive issues (like homosexuality) I find I sometimes lose my patience. Yesterday was one of those days. I knew we had fifteen minutes left in class and I didn’t want to “go there” when it was clear that this one particular student wasn’t ready to reconsider her position. So I left her there and moved on. Didn’t feel good about it, but I had another class to teach and a faculty film group to facilitate after that…and there will be opportunities later in the semester to revisit the subject. I got back to my office after the faculty group wrapped up and another student from that class had sent me this email:

Good afternoon Professor Elliot, I’m _____ from your noon class on Tuesday and Thursday and I just wanted to say that I’m really enjoying this class. I almost didn’t sign up for it but I’m happy i did. You are a excellent professor and I’m really learning more in this class than my others. By the way this Isn’t sucking up or anything I’m just showing that i have interest in your class.

Sounds like sucking up to me, but you know what? I really needed to hear that yesterday! Attendance in my morning class was down by about a third, and I couldn’t help but wonder if students skipped class because they didn’t want to talk about homosexuality. I need to do better. And I’ll try, though this semester is proving to be much harder than I thought. On Monday I got this sweet email from a former student, which reminded me of the long-term impact great teaching can have:

I am SO happy to hear you are still teaching and showing some of the materials you used for us at MHC; I really cannot even begin to tell you how much your courses continue to help me. It is really crazy to see how so many students have never spoken about or taken any classes on race relations in the US or on Black studies/Black history at an education school like ____ of all places; so, I find myself longing for and appreciating the work we did in your courses at MHC all the time. I am using so many of the readings from both of your courses, particularly from the Black Studies Reader, Tricia Rose articles, and poems from Amiri Baraka to conduct a literature review on work regarding ethnic studies courses, hip hop collegians, and language (particularly signifying–to this day, the most fascinating thing I ever learned, so thank you!) Please stay in touch and let your students know just how incredibly fortunate they are to have you as their Professor. Best of luck with the launch of your new book!

So tomorrow I’ll put on my new school marm dress and try to get it right. I did learn yesterday that I got a travel grant to help pay for my trip to France, so I’m going to focus on the positive and keep pressing on…

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Today I gave my last Black History Month presentation for the Brooklyn Public Library. An auditorium full of 8th graders! Each class was named for an ivy league college, and one boy from Dartmouth came up to talk to me afterward—he had developed a sequel for SoS! “What if the netherbeings pursue Nuru into her realm, and in order to fight back, Nuru turns D and Nyla and Keem into supernatural beings, too! Then, once the netherbeings are defeated, the three kids can return to their own world but they get to keep some of their supernatural abilities!” I urged Steven to write that story himself and he said, “But that’s plagiarism.” (love this kid) “Actually, it’s called fan fiction, and it’s ok to write about other people’s characters so long as you take credit for writing it.” A writer is born!

I was quite surprised when I got home last night and found that the AmazonEncore team had sent me a bonsai tree to celebrate the publication of SoS—I know very little about bonsai trees, but figured out that this one is a braided money tree from Central America! It even came with a gold dollar coin wrapped around the trunk…

Ship of Souls has gotten two more great reviews. Our first Canadian review is up at Amy Reads and Em at Love YA Lit had this to say:

At just 132 pages, Elliott does an impressive job creating a cast of complex and amiable characters, weaving in history, and conjuring up some magic like I’ve never seen before. I would gladly spend more time with D, Keem, and Nyla. Each are interesting, distinct characters, but even more so their chemistry and their growing camaraderie were enchanting. Elliott does a fabulous job of creating believable characters in realistic settings. In both of her urban fantasy novels, I’ve found myself intensely connected to the contemporary/realistic sections of the stories, before diving headfirst with the characters into the fantasy. In Ship of Souls, what starts off feeling like a contemporary fiction novel, eventually turns into an all-out fantasy adventure. The story is fast-paced, with short chapters and lots of action, making it a great choice for struggling readers or those craving a quick read that doesn’t lack in quality and depth. While Ship of Souls is a bit more MG than YA, with it’s complex character development, strong sense of place, beautifully imagined fantasy, and unique feel, it should find a home with many ages of reader.

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Each year The Brotherhood/Sister Sol co-sponsors an educational panel that focuses on solutions to the educational crisis we face in New York City – and indeed throughout the nation. The inadequate level of education provided to the children of this nation who are most in need is the pre-eminent civil rights issue of our time. Each year our educational panel has been filled to capacity and each evening has been a truly powerful night that has moved from the normal platitudes and simplistic debate to real discussion.

On Tuesday, March 6th, at 7:30, we are co-sponsoring this important event with The Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University.

This event is freebut you must register for what promises to be a rich conversation focused on results, solutions and big picture thinking:

The Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University & The Brotherhood/Sister Sol present…
Looking Ahead: What is working in New York City for Educating Our Children?

Moderator:

  • William C. Rhoden, Columnist, The New York Times


Panelists:

  • Dr. Merryl H. Tisch, Chancellor, New York State Board of Regents
  • Dr. Pedro A. Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education, New York University & Executive Director, Metropolitan Center for Urban Education
  • Khary Lazarre-White, Esq., Executive Director & Co-Founder, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol
  • Zakiyah Ansari, Parent Organizer, Coalition for Educational Justice
  • Avram Barlowe, Teacher, Urban Academy Laboratory High School


…at New York University’s Kimmel Center, 60 Washington Square South, 10th floor auditorium

You can register and get more information here: http://edpanel.eventbrite.com/

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Tonight I’ll be a guest on The Gist of Freedom, a web radio show with a focus on African American history founded by Lesley Gist. Tune in or call in if you’d like to join the conversation.

Yesterday at the African Burial Ground National Monument we had a fantastic conversation with Ranger Cyrus Forman about Catherine Ferguson, a formerly enslaved woman who founded the first Sunday School in NYC and adopted more than 40 orphans, black and white, to save them from the streets; she also knew from experience the challenges faced by unwed mothers and so worked to save them from scorn. Ferguson lived just a few blocks from where I teach (Warren Street), and I can’t wait for my students to find out about NY’s rich history when we visit the AFBG as a class this week.

Tomorrow I meet with the PR department at my college; there’s a banner on the BMCC website announcing the launch of Ship of Souls at the AFBG next Saturday. I’m ordering the cake today—stop by and have a slice!

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This introvert is taking a much-needed day of silence…yet as I walked around the park this morning, baseball cap tipped against the blowing snow, I marveled at the kindness of others. I did three “meet the author” presentations this week, and every time I left a school, I said a prayer of thanks for the Brooklyn Public Library. I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to share my work with so many students and educators—eight schools altogether, with one hundred students in the audience each time. On Monday the assistant principal in Sunset Park worked tirelessly to get me the equipment I needed for my powerpoint presentation, and then sat at the laptop herself and advanced the slides so I was free to interact with the students. On Wednesday I arrived at the school in Spring Creek and two members of the book club were waiting at the door, cameras poised to capture the moment. After my talk the librarian and parent coordinators hosted a nice reception that included *quite* a spread—and I got a call later asking me about how to order books for the school. Yesterday I was in a new school with a stunning auditorium, and the librarian filled it with a range of students—some top performing classes, some special ed. classes, some kids with special needs–and she, too, sat at the laptop so I was free to move around. Afterward as many teachers as students came up to thank me for my talk and to express interest in Ship of Souls. Those kind of moments always make me thankful for my early years in Canada—the warmth and openness of Americans wouldn’t mean so much to me if I didn’t come from a culture that’s markedly different.

Back at my job, my students were understanding when I had to rearrange our class schedule on Tuesday to accommodate a radio interview with Pia Lindstrom; I’m not sure whether we taped a twenty- or thirty-minute segment because the time flew by and I got to talk about SoS, my belief in magic, my love of history, and I even squeezed in a quote by Audre Lorde (whose essay I’d taught earlier that morning).

Now I have to turn my attention back to my conference paper for France. I found a grant that might help to pay for some of the expenses, but I need to submit the conference program and I can’t ask for that when the organizers are still waiting on my overdue paper…time to make the most of this day of silence—time to write.

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I don’t want to talk about the situation in Arizona—the white woman governor poking her finger in the president’s face, the need for brown-skinned immigrants like me to carry ID at all times, and now the banning of books that do nothing more than tell the TRUTH. I wrote about the dismantling of the Mexican American Studies Program in a post I’ve submitted to a Canadian government blog—if it gets published this week, I’ll let you know. I wrote about Wednesday’s “Teach-in” in emails to my colleagues at work. I plan to talk about it when classes start tomorrow because I doubt my students are aware of the pressure across the country to do away with Ethnic Studies in schools AND universities. But I’m sorry to say that right now I don’t want to blog about it here. I’ll just point you to Edi’s fabulous list of links, which includes the important work Debbie Reese is doing over at AICL. I’ve asked my college to order a copy of Precious Knowledge and will screen it this semester as part of our Ethnic Studies Film Series. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. Because we all have a choice at moments like these: do something, or do nothing.

 

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