Reverend Morris “Mo” Brooks: In Schools for Kids

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Reverend Morris “Mo” Brooks.

A Kalamazoo native and proud graduate of Kalamazoo Public Schools, Reverend Mo attended Northeastern Elementary School, Hillside Middle School, and “the great Kalamazoo Central High School.” He went on to graduate from Western Michigan University with a bachelor’s in social psychology. A number of summers ago, he also served as a youth development worker in CIS Think Summer!

Reverend Mo is the Director of Youth Ministries at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, a position he’s held for almost three years. He’s written a book, Unmasked: The Courage to Be You, and is working on another book, also geared to youth. And still, he makes volunteering with youth in the schools a priority. For the past two years, he’s volunteered with CIS at Kalamazoo Central High School, supporting young men in a group that meets on a weekly basis. The young men have named the group, KC Men of Change.

Alright, Reverend Mo: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

Thinking back on your years as a student in the Kalamazoo Public Schools, who was your favorite teacher?

I’d have to say my favorites were my English teacher, Mrs. [Sandra] Daam and Mr. [Topher] Barrett. He was a forensic coach and I was also in his drama class. Mr. Barrett was patient and challenged me to be a leader. Mrs. Daam was loving and hard. Oh, she was hard! But a loving hard. She helped me out a lot.

How would you describe the volunteer work you do with CIS?

For me, the work is really meaningful, especially because when I was their age, I wish that I could have been a part of something like this, to have someone help me make wise decisions, and challenge me.

Last year, I was able to meet with them twice a week and this year, we’re meeting once a week. I’m hoping that next year I’ll be able to go back to doing the group twice a week. When we meet, I’m able to ask the hard questions of them because of my experience growing up, and we have deep conversations. I like impacting them in a positive way.

I sense a great deal of respect for our youth, whether it is here at the church, in the schools, or in the community. Kalamazoo cares about its young men and women.

CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough said one of the most impactful sessions for the students was one that had to do with self-love.

Yes, Deb wanted to have a few sessions that combined both the males and females [Young Women with a Purpose], so we did. I had them list five or more people that they love. I then asked them to name the things they do for them because they love them. They identified things like I protect them, I’m loyal to them, I make sacrifices, and so on. I asked them to list five more people they love and then asked, Now how long does the list have to be until you’re on it? It was an eye-opener for them. Too often, our young people aren’t taking care of themselves because they’re busy worrying about others. We then talked about loving ourselves and how that involves things like trusting one’s self and protecting one’s self.

When it comes to engaging our youth, what do adults often forget?

I think they forget that they were once a youth and, along with that, they forget their mistakes.

I can remember my mistakes vividly. In 2015, I wrote a book, Unmasked: The Courage to Be You. In it, I share my own struggles of when I was in high school, my mistakes and regrets, as well as being somebody who I wasn’t. Students often struggle with that.

Sometimes, adults do too!

Yes, and while the book is geared to youth, I’ve had adults who have read it tell me: I’ve needed this!

When it comes to working with young people and connecting with them, what’s your secret?

One, recall your own youth and know your own mistakes. Also, know that their emotions and feelings are real. Too often we can cast them aside or don’t recognize them. Youth don’t always share their feelings but just because they aren’t communicating them to the world, doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing the feelings. They may be bottling them up, so offering them a safe space to bring out and express their feelings can help. When I share my story, my path, and the wrong things I’ve done, that helps get the process going. They see this guy wearing a suit and tie, and think, well, he has baggage and pain and if he can open like that, maybe I can too. And they start sharing, because now we’ve got this trust thing going on and are connecting on a deeper level, having real conversations.

Speaking of suit and ties, Deborah Yarbrough also mentioned that you implemented a “Dress for Success” day and that that too, was a huge hit and brought the group closer together, identifying even more as a team.

Actually, it wasn’t me but the young men who came up with the idea! Each week, I come wearing a suit and tie to group. We had a tie session last year and taught the young men to tie ties. Last year, the group decided to have a dress up day and it went so well we thought, why not keep this going? And so, this year we had another tie session and then another dress up day!

What are you currently reading?

I’m always reading and listening to books. Right now, I’m listening to Meet Generation Z. It’s written by James Emery White. He takes a look at this next generation that follows the Millennials, or “Generation Z.” He explores the trends, how culture is shifting, how we can reach these young people, minister to them, and serve them.

What is one way, according to the book, that we can reach this next generation?

Answer their questions. With the age we are living in, young people have a lot of questions. We need to listen to those questions and have answers.

James Emery White points out that we are living in a post-Christian world, one in which the norm is that people are no longer connected to a religion. More often than not, as a minister I’ll hear, I don’t have any religion. I’m spiritual, but I don’t belong anywhere. This generation is asking, Is religion necessary? Is it relevant?

What are some of your favorite Kalamazoo places?

Home, here [church], and Sweetwater’s Donuts. That’s about it…I’m really a home body!

Favorite word?

Self-assessment.

I feel like a lot of people have the inability to self-assess. I want to know, how can I grow? What could I have done better? We live in a blame generation. So, when things go wrong, it’s easy to point the finger and blame anybody but ourselves. But if we stop and assess ourselves, recognize hey, I could do this or that better, well, when we do that, we can move forward. If everybody did that, we could really move forward. We need to self-assess.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

The importance of habits as well as practicing those habits. By training on whatever you’re working on, you can build upon good habits. While I’m always learning, that’s the big one right now: habits.

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

During my elementary years, I’d have to say it was Mr. Gary Vanstreain. He was our basketball coach at Northeastern Elementary School. He was so positive, caring, and challenging, and would give you the shirt off his back.

In middle school, there were quite a few. I’ll go with my coach at Hillside, Steve Dunning. He was a disciplinarian and made sure you were on track and what you needed to do to stay on track. Even outside of the court, outside of basketball season, he cared and was on me. He showed that tough love.

In high school, it was Pastor James Harris. I will never forget, I was in a low moment in my life and Pastor Harris came to my house, spoke with me and prayed with me. He set out on a notecard representing where I was and then set out another notecard showing me where I could be, my potential. I doubt he’d remember that, but that moment really impacted me.

Then, in my college years, it was my own pastor, Pastor Moore. He really poured into me, invested in me, mentored and disciplined me.

Thank you, Reverend Mo, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.

Jennifer Johnson: Ever Moving Towards the Possibilities

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Jennifer Johnson, Executive Director of Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes.

A lifelong resident of Southwest Michigan, Jennifer grew up in northern Michigan. “People won’t like to know that I love snow,” she laughs. “But I grew up with snow! I love it!”

Jennifer attended Central Michigan University, double majored in psychology and English and then obtained her Masters in English, Language and Literature. “When people learn I have an English degree, they’ll often ask, What makes you qualified to do this? I tell them I’m annoying,” says Jennifer. “And I ask questions.”

We’d describe Jennifer not as annoying but rather, persistent, focused, and curious, always looking for possibilities and moving not just her and Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes towards them, but the whole Kalamazoo community.

Alright, Jennifer Johnson: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

When we talk about hunger these days, we often hear the term, ‘food insecure.’

That is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s measure of hunger.

What is your definition of food insecurity?

People need enough food to lead a healthy active life. They need food that counts nutritionally. A person may be eating food, but not the right food. They may be taking in calories, but not the right calories. The reality is that some people don’t have enough money to buy the right food, or perhaps they have enough money but they live in a food desert. Their only access to food is the local Family Dollar or corner store that doesn’t have fresh fruits and vegetables; the foods they need to grow health and strong.

Hunger presents itself in many different ways. Teachers see it in the form of concentration problems and behavioral issues. For kids themselves it is more of an out loud thing, literally. My stomach is growling! My daughter’s teacher, like a lot of teachers, has a snack drawer in her classroom. We see the holes and we’re all trying to fill them.

Speaking of filling a need, let’s talk Friday Food packs! We are so grateful to you and all those at Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes for your commitment to this program. As you know, since 2005, your food packs have been one of the critical “tools” CIS site coordinators pull out of their tool box of resources to help students.

In the early days with the program, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes saw the food packs as merely a bridge, a bridge to more things. It was, and still is, helpful for us that CIS site coordinators, working with teachers and administrators, identify students who need that little extra help on weekends from Loaves & Fishes. Identifying the kids has been a way to help us reach the families. We want to feed the whole family as well as the child.

So the Friday Food Packs has helped bridge that end?

It has helped with that, yes… I’d add that we are limited by the number of packs we can provide. Around 6,000 kids are on free and reduced lunch. The number of food packs provided are small in proportion to the need. We know how tough it is for CIS site coordinators to prioritize what students will receive the packs.

You’ve been with KLF for eleven years, serving these last four years as executive director [and prior to that, as resource development and public relations director]. When it comes to feeding hungry people and engaging our community in the fight to end hunger, what is one of the biggest changes you’ve noticed over the years?

One of the most recent things I learned was from talking with Deb Yarbrough, the CIS site coordinator at Kalamazoo Central. She’s been there a long time and really knows the kids. So I asked her, “When it comes to hunger in the high school, what’s changed?” She said that it’s changed a lot. Kids, she said, are more responsible than they’ve ever had to be for their food, their sibling’s food, as well as accessing food for their household.

What a responsibility that puts on our children’s shoulders! Now, there are lots of reasons for this, one being that a parent may be working at night. Whatever the case, the level of responsibility that has been put on kids in the last few years has greatly increased…I grew up as a latch key kid, but it was different then. It’s not the same thing.

If you could feed us one statistic on hunger, what would it be?

In our community, there are 40,000 food insecure people. That means in Kalamazoo County there are people living right on the edge and there are also people living deeply in poverty. It’s the whole spectrum.

One of the thing people don’t realize is that just because you have a couple of jobs doesn’t mean you have all the bases covered. Imagine, you have two part time jobs, no benefits, and something happens where you have medical bills. Or maybe your car dies and you don’t have the dollars to fix it. You need groceries, but don’t have a vehicle. Life is complicated for many people. Holes and gaps hamper their success and their children’s success. At Loaves & Fishes, we live with that every day and work to create as many access points as possible to help kids and the surrounding community.

We know [from last year’s Valentine Post] that you “love the possibilities” as seen through your daughter, her friends, and this community. What possibilities have you been noticing recently?

It’s hard to see them sometimes. It’s easy to get bogged down by external things, like what’s going on in the environment, the media, the world. It’s hard to not be negative. I encourage everyone to push all these distractions out of the way to see the possibilities. They are there! We believe at Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes—we believe to our core—that we can create a hunger free community. That is an immense task, but it is possible! And CIS is an integral part of that task.

How so?

Your CIS people are incredible connectors. We couldn’t do this work without CIS. CIS site coordinators are on the ground and in the schools. They see and can help identify a child in need and that helps us know where our food needs to be. CIS is one of many agencies that are helping us do that throughout the community.

We love partnering with Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes in the Kalamazoo Public Schools! Your organization really has an open mind set. Back in 2003, when we came to you and sought out your expertise about kids coming to school hungry, especially on Monday mornings, KLF was quick to say, Let’s figure something out! Soon after, the Friday Food packs was born.

Sometimes, possibilities are stopped by a system. We adhere too strictly to boundaries or the way things have always been done. When we open ourselves up to looking at ways systems can be stretched, that’s when possibilities can happen and we can leverage things like breakfast, lunch and summer feeding programs to their fullest.

I’m not saying it’s easy. Systemic change is hard. Real change takes work! We’re all busy and it’s hard to stop, to take the time and figure out better and new ways to do something. But if we can stop and focus—together— and say, I know this isn’t easy work, but let’s take the time to figure this out, together, we can make things better.

Do you have a favorite condiment?

I’m anti-condiment. I don’t like condiments, and that includes salad dressing. I’m boring, I know. That will be the theme of this blog interview! I’m boring.

Far from it! So, what’s the best meal you’ve ever had? What one food item is a “must have” in your own home?

We love fruits and vegetables. Mostly fruits, if you ask my daughter.

My best meal? Probably the home-made pizza I made with my daughter. I love baking and cooking with my daughter. Growing up, I cooked with my mom and grandmother and I am trying to instill that love of cooking with my eight-year-old daughter. We recently made spaghetti and meatballs from scratch. Not the noodles, though. We don’t have a noodle maker. But my daughter helped with the meal. She squished and formed the meatballs with her hands…I know how much it meant to me to bake with my mom and knowing I can do that with my daughter, well it’s thrilling to have that experience with her. Cooking and baking together is an important part of our life.

Favorite word?

Possibilities. That’s been one of my favorite words for a very long time. I can trace my thinking on possibilities back to Zora Neale Hurston and her book, Their Eyes Were Watching God. That book taught me a lot about possibilities. It really made me think beyond my own life. When you think there is no other way to go, nowhere to turn, there is. You just need to stop, collaborate, and take a different road.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished Katharine Graham’s Personal History.

Loved that book, though it was a lot of pages.

God Bless America, that was a long book! But it was so good. I really enjoyed reading about Graham’s growth as a woman, her running the Washington Post, and working in a male-dominated industry. I found it inspirational and relatable for our times: don’t give up! Oh, and I’m just starting The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. To think about the contributions to the world both of these women made, and in completely different ways. It’s inspiring.

Did you know that the librarian [Jermaine Jackson] at the Alma Powell Branch Library is related to Henrietta Lacks?

Yes, there are several of her descendants living in our community. That is exciting.

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

I’ve had several. Both my parents have been my caring adults. I lost my dad four years ago. My mom is still here. My mom was my baker, teacher, and challenger. So was my dad. I’d go to Rotary with him, we’d collect for UNICEF together. I learned to give back at a very young age.

I’d also have to say my English teacher was very influential. I didn’t like school, didn’t find it very challenging. She changed my life by showing me books I should read. In college, I even ended up going into English Language and Literature.

Without a doubt, another caring adult in my life is Anne Lipsey. She became a friend but she is also my mentor, having been my boss for years. I’ve learned so much from her, how the voice of the people we serve must be heard and how we must stand up for them, particularly during these judgemental times. I’ve learned so much and continue to learn from her. She is just amazing.

We’re so grateful to the KLF staff and board for your on-going commitment to helping hungry kids in the schools and for all you do to end hunger throughout our community. We know there are many volunteers who work behind the scenes to make your work, such as food packs and school pantries, possible. What is the size of your volunteer force?

Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes would not exist without volunteer support. On a weekly basis, it takes 300 to 400 volunteers to do what we do. That’s a massive amount of people! From front desk people volunteering, helping us answer the phone, escorting people through the building, to drivers who pick up and deliver our food, and those volunteers who deliver those food packs to schools. [If you would like to learn how you can volunteer with Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, go here.]

Thank you, Jennifer, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.

What Are CIS Volunteers Reading in 2018?

National Reading Month has us once again wondering, what are Communities In Schools (CIS) volunteers reading?

Here’s what a few of the wonderful volunteers who share their time and talents to benefit students throughout the Kalamazoo Public Schools told us. (We note what school they volunteer at within the Kalamazoo Public Schools.)

 

This month I just finished reading The End of Alchemy by Mervyn King and A Farewell to Arms. (Hemingway is my favorite). I have also just begun 12 Rules for Life by Jordan B Peterson.

-Jacob Gilhaus, Edison Environmental Science Academy

 

I am reading Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson by Gordon S. Wood.

-Marti Terpstra, Milwood Elementary and Milwood Magnet Middle School

 

I have just finished reading The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman as well as The Prison Angel by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan.

-Catherine Lemus, Linden Grove Middle School

 

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.

-Mikka Dryer, Milwood Magnet Middle School

 

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.

-Dennette Schettner, El Sol Elementary

 

-I am reading The Watson’s Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.

-Jim Cupper, Northeastern Elementary School

 

My Unitarian Universalist church has a “recommended” read this month—Daring Democracy:

Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want by Lappe and Eschen.

There are 14 of us volunteering at Lincoln International Studies School.

-Kay Spade, Milwood Magnet Middle School

 

At this time, I’m reading Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson. In the past couple of weeks I finished Cute Poodles, Sweet Old Ladies and Hugs by P.J. Miller and Good Guys Love Dogs by Inglath Cooper. I tend to read light and happy books, this time of year.

Pam Dalitz, Spring Valley Center for Exploration

 

I just finished The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

-Katie Weirick, Milwood Magnet Middle School

 

I have just finished reading The First American by H.W. Brands on the life and times of Benjamin Franklin.  A well written and fascinating insight into this famous American. On a lighter note, I am almost finished with the Dan Brown thriller, Origin. It is a page turner as well!

-Bob Spradling, Woods Lake Elementary: A Magnet Center for the Arts

 

Just finished an advanced reader copy of Beneath a Ruthless Sun by Gilbert King — really good!

Currently reading Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

-Shirley Freeman, Parkwood Upjohn and King Westwood Elementary School

 

I am currently reading Odd Child Out by Hilly Macmillan. Just finished her other book, What She Knew.

-Nancy Laugeman, Prairie Ridge Elementary School

 

I just finished Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson by Gordon S. Wood. It was very good. It traced the friendship/relationship of Adams and Jefferson from the American Revolution until their deaths on July 4, 1827. I also just finished The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash. It is a novel inspired by actual events that occurred in the late 1920’s during the unionization of the cotton mills in North Carolina. The author is the writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

I would recommend both books to anyone who enjoys history.

-Nancy Hyde, Spring Valley Center for Exploration

 

I’m reading the Bible.

-Stanley Lepird, Woods Lake Elementary: A Magnet Center for the Arts

 

I am currently reading The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe.

-Susan Knox, Kalamazoo Central High School

 

Next week is Spring Break for Kalamazoo Public Schools. Let’s meet back here, at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids, on Tuesday, April 10th!

John Brandon Chats on Cats, Closets, & Cafes

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature John Brandon.

We met up with John at Caffè Casa, in downtown Kalamazoo.

John grew up on the east side of Michigan, in Lexington, about 20 minutes north of Port Huron. John came to Kalamazoo to attend Western Michigan University and graduated with a degree in history. In 2014, he joined CIS as an AmeriCorps VISTA worker, supporting both Milwood Magnet Middle School and Kalamazoo Central High School. John now supports all 20 CIS sites in his role as partner services coordinator, a position he’s held for a little more than two years.

Alright, John Brandon: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

How would you describe your position as partner services coordinator?

I work as a representative of CIS with many of our partner organizations. I look over the day-to-day nuts and bolts of the partnerships, making sure services are running smoothly within the CIS model.

Part of your responsibilities also include overseeing Kids’ Closet. If you could use no more than five words to describe Kids’ Closet, what would say? Go!

Clothes. Hygiene items. School supplies.

But I have to say more because those five words don’t fully fit or complete the description of Kids’ Closet. CIS is able to distribute the basic needs items I mentioned and more to students thanks to the community. We collect and store items, we operate the distribution and delivery of these items to the schools, but it is the community that is 100% providing this resource to our kids.

We couldn’t operate Kids’ Closet without the support of community donations or the volunteers. Take Sally Stevens, for example. She volunteers five hours every week to helping with Kids’ Closet. Our kids really benefit from her organizational skills and dedication. Without her, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish one fifth of what we currently do when it comes to getting kids the basics they need. We’re able to do as much as we do because of volunteers like Sally.

What item do you find the hardest to keep in stock?

Adult sizes of [new] clothing items, like adult-sized sweatpants, especially in small and medium sizes.

What item(s) have been big in demand from school sites this year?

School supplies of all varieties. Notebooks, mechanical pencils, pocket folders, dry erase markers—all the elementary kids have a white board to do math on but they need replacement markers from time to time. That’s a new thing for us this year, the dry erase markers. We also have had many requests for sweatpants for all ages and underwear at the elementary level. This winter, boots, coats, and shoes have been in high demand, as have items like deodorant and feminine supplies. Basically, while the list of what we have in stock is long, the demand for these items is especially high. Fortunately, people in our community are good about donating them!

Also, what we need depends on the time of year. For instance, at the start of year we do great with school supplies, but towards the end of the school year, we’re in need of more of these supplies, like pocket folders, notebooks, and mechanical pencils, because the kids have already gone through them. [To see the most current list of needed items, check out the Kids’ Closet wish list here.]

What is your most favorite item you have in your closet?

Probably this sweater I’m wearing. See, it even has orange elbow pads.

You look like a history professor.

[John laughs.] I do pay attention to history. I read history books frequently and listen to a history podcast.

Podcasts are really a thing now, aren’t they? Any particular podcast you listen to?

Hardcore History. It is done by Dan Carlin and one of the more prominent history podcasts out there. Most podcasts last a half hour or so. This podcast comes in at six hours. You can’t listen to it all at once. He takes a topic in history and elaborates on it. You listen and think and then you listen some more.

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading three different books right now. One is a history book called The Age of Capital by Eric Hobsbawn. It’s about the blossoming of the capital system and the spread of industrialization as well as the political ideology of liberalism. I’m also reading A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin. It’s one of the books in the Game of Thrones series. And also, A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman. It’s a novel about a comedian that is not very funny. It’s tragic, really.

Favorite word?

Thank you. Thank you is two words, though, so you can’t use that. So, how about just thanks!!

We know [from last year’s Valentine Post] that you love “The Great Lakes—all of them.” What else do you love about living in Kalamazoo?

Kalamazoo has such a unique collection of people. I’m from a small town, so it feels like a big city to me, but without being too big. I love all the historical buildings. It’s also hip.

I live in the Vine neighborhood. Just this weekend, I was thinking how I’m so lucky I can walk to a record store or a fancy sandwich shop or a pub. I like the mingling of small businesses along with residential areas. Those are the biggest hits for me when it comes to what I love about Kalamazoo. Oh, and of course that Kalamazoo is not too far from the lake!

Any favorite places?

I am a big fan of Fourth Coast Cafe. Also, the Lillian Anderson Arboretum which is just outside of town and owned by Kalamazoo College. I enjoy the nature trails winding through the pine trees planted in rows, off to either side. It’s a good spot. There are so many good spots and that’s why the city of Kalamazoo is so great. I learned that we even have a cat cafe!

You can bring your cat?

No. It’s called Kzoo Cat Cafe and they work with Kalamazoo Animal Rescue. Debi Newsome [CIS Senior Director for Finance, Human Resources and Administration] told me about it. You pay twelve dollars and can hang out, play with cats, drink coffee and tea, and have some snacks. The cats are all adoptable through the rescue center.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I attended a conference on foster children. I got the opportunity to listen to and speak with people whose focus is entirely foster children. In being exposed to an area of advocacy I had no real prior knowledge on, it was eye-opening. I’m constantly learning how little I really know about people’s struggles in this world.

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

For me, that would be my parents. Both of them. They’ve been role models for me in being a good adult. They’ve always done a good job of balancing, encouraging me to be who I am but also having a realistic view of what is possible. I’ve turned into a well-rounded person thanks to them, though. I didn’t always appreciate how awesome they are until I got older.

Thank you, John, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.

Creativity: A Path for Future Generations

The majority of students today will be employed in jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. The predictions for this range anywhere from 65-85%. So what is a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or uncle to do? How can we prepare our kids for life and work in these increasingly uncertain and rapidly changing times?

One thing we can do is to encourage their creativity. Creativity has been linked with positive academic achievement and it can help young learners successfully navigate and thrive in this ever-changing world.

But just what is creativity? According to Paul Collard, who runs the UK-based organization Creativity, Culture & Education, creativity is “a wider ability to question, make connections and take an innovative and imaginative approach to problem solving.” Collard believes it’s important to explicitly teach creativity. “Creative skills aren’t just about good ideas, they are about having the skills to make good ideas happen.”

Those who study creativity agree. A number of organizations in Scotland worked together to look at creativity across learning environments and identified core creativity skills such as:

-Constructively inquisitive (by being curious, flexible, adaptable, and exploring multiple viewpoints).

-Harness imagination (by playing, exploring, generating and refining ideas, inventing).

-Identify and solve problems (by demonstrating initiative, persistence, and resilience).

These type of creative skills which help kids (and grown ups, too!) play with ideas, look at things with fresh eyes, learn from mistakes, adapt to changed circumstances, stay focused, meet new and unanticipated challenges, and much more, really resonate as true.

Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids interviewed two business people who also serve on the CIS board in Kalamazoo. They both touched on the importance of creative skills. When we asked Dave Maurer, President of Humphrey Products, what parents can do to help prepare their child for today’s labor force, he told us that we can help them persist. He also talked about the importance of developing new ideas. (You can read his interview here.)

Mike Stoddard, chief operating officer of BASIC, talked about the importance of being nimble.  “It’s important to keep up and be flexible. In a blink of an eye, things change, particularly when it comes to technology.” (You can read his interview here.)

While there are a million ways to nurture creativity in our kids, here are two things we can easily do: One. Recognize that creativity is important to our children’s future success, both in life and in their future job, a job that may not even exist yet. Two. Help kids look for the second right answer.

A second right answer? In a classic book on creativity, A Whack on the Side of the Head: How to Unlock Your Mind for Innovation, author Roger Von Oech encourages us to shrug off what many of us have been trained to do: look for the one right answer. This approach, he says, is fine for some situations, but we shouldn’t give into the “tendency to stop looking for alternative right answers after the first one has been found. This is unfortunate because often it’s the second or third, or tenth right answer that is what we need to solve a problem in an innovative way.”

Let’s encourage our kids to wonder more and come up with different solutions to a problem. We can ask them questions. Have you thought of any alternatives? How else might this work?

We can read this article, “Tools to encourage kids’ creativity,” that says with a little nudging, kids can build creative skills by sharing stories, opinions, and their ideas. (It was this very article, passed along by CIS Executive Director Pam Kingery, that inspired today’s post!)

Remember, there is no one right answer for how to nurture our 12,000+ kids’ creativity. The important thing is to do it.

 

Robin Greymountain: A Passion for Making Things Work In Schools (and on ships!)

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Robin Greymountain, now in her fourth year as principal of Parkwood Upjohn Elementary School.

Originally from Fulton, Michigan, Robin and her family moved to Sugar Island when she was in the second grade. She notes that this Michigan island, located in the St. Marie’s river that flows between Michigan and Ontario, used to be considered part of Ontario. “It is part of the Chippewa reservation land and part private land. We lived on land that has been in my family for hundreds of years. My father’s mom was born and raised on Sugar Island. My family historically would come to the land known as Manmade Lake for summer berry picking. The land is still in my family’s name.”

Principal Greymountain holds a bachelor’s in education from Southern Utah University and a master’s degree in educational leadership from Northern Arizona University. Prior to working in the Kalamazoo Public Schools, she served eight years as an elementary principal in Page, Arizona, and previously worked as a teacher and the district’s coordinator for English Language Learners and Gifted and Talented programs. Before pursuing a career in education, she was a diesel mechanic.

Alright, Principal Greymountain: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

POP QUIZ

I didn’t know you had been a mechanic!

I joined the Coast Guard between my junior and senior year of high school. That’s all I ever wanted to do. My parents signed the waiver the day I turned 17. I got on a plane and went to boot camp. I was in the reserves one year and then went active duty when I graduated from high school.

What made you want to be a mechanic?

All of my uncles and my grandfather were mechanics. My Uncle Butch was truly an artist, I’d watch him weld, make race cars, take apart his van and put it back together. Oh, what he could do with engines! I wanted to do that. And, at some point, sexism came into play. Somebody told me, “You can’t do that because you’re a woman.” Oh, yea? I thought. Watch me! I became a mechanic and I was the only woman in the engine room, supervising 17 men.

As part of the mechanic’s training, I worked inside a ship and had to learn the engine compartment. It was three stories high and twice a wide. The piping was a huge puzzle. I had to figure it out. It was exciting, learning how things worked, drawing all those pipes. I liked this! I held the record for finishing it the fastest. I proved to them that woman are just as good as men.

Or, in this case, better.

I was better.

So how did you move from mechanic to the world of education?

When I got out of the Coast Guard and went to college I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to stay home or close to the reservation and I knew the reservation was always looking for teachers. I started taking education classes. I enjoyed it and loved it. It lit a fire inside me. It’s the kind of job where you have a purpose; it’s fulfilling. I’m a part of shaping something better for the future.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I learned about the Social Justice Book Bowl competition that they have at Western Michigan University with Kalamazoo Public Schools. It’s part of the annual MLK Celebration.

We just blogged about that a few weeks ago! [Post may be read here.]

Until this year, I didn’t understand the greatness of this event. I was missing this for the last four years? The speakers were moving—Mr. Sidney Ellis was so good. I enjoyed the poem the student read aloud, the book bowl competition, the celebration, just everything about the whole event was wonderful. I only happened to go this year because my daughter participated in the Social Justice Art Competition. (Anja Greymountain, a seventh grader at Maple Street Magnet School was one of the top three finalists. Her work, “Multi-War Bonnet,” took top prize.)

I’m so glad I went to the celebration. The books the students read in advance of the Book Bowl give them courage to have context to have meaningful discussions, to share provocative thoughts, and have the ability to have the hard conversations.

… As a school and as educators, we have to teach about diversity and instill an appreciation and a respect for all the cultures and demographics our students come from.

What are you currently reading?

Decisive, a book by Chip and Dale Heath. I have a couple of their other books. Made to Stick and Switch. They write about how people and systems work and what you can do to make systems more effective. Made to Stick is about emotions, how people run off of emotions and how the emotional part of the brain leads people to do certain things. When you work with people, you want to create buy in, not have teachers do something because “I told you to do it” but rather they do something because you can show them this will work and how doing this is the best thing for children. Their book I’m reading now, Decisive, goes into how you make those changes in education to make the system better overall for kids.

Favorite word?

Fricative. That is the sound of letters when they blend together or come out of your mouth. There are 44 sounds in the English language. Some kids, when you ask them to sound something out, if they haven’t heard that specific sound from birth to four—that pure sound—they can’t differentiate and sound out that short /e/, or short /i/ sound; but they can feel it in their mouth.

What do you love about Kalamazoo?

The diversity of Kalamazoo. I love being able to experience different cultures. There is so much opportunity here. You can meet people in a variety of settings and be surrounded with different social groups and it doesn’t matter what your background may be. I can interact and learn their stories…Of all the places I have been, Kalamazoo, more than any other place, appreciates diversity.

And there is always something going on in Kalamazoo. That’s another thing I love. You can’t say you’re bored or don’t know what to do. You just have to choose from the many things, the diverse celebrations happening throughout the year.

As a principal, what was the transition like for you, coming from Arizona to Kalamazoo? Did you experience a cultural shift of any kind?

The transition part, culturally, wasn’t difficult for me. The students of my school were 75% Native American from the Navajo Nation…Coming to Kalamazoo, it was more about learning the culture of the system. What are the policies? What are the procedures I need to learn? Also, I came from a smaller school district, and went from a district with two elementary schools to 17. So, while the overall the size of the district was an adjustment, the school size of the elementary building I had been principal is comparable. I had a school of 600 kids and I have 588 students here.

What does it mean to you, as principal of Parkwood Upjohn to have CIS in your building? Do you see CIS as value-added to the school environment and the work you do here?

Yes! CIS is a crucial element to our school and needs to be in all schools for children. For instance, when a student’s basic needs aren’t met, learning can be compromised. CIS works to get those basic needs met. Student needs can range from emotional, to behavioral, attendance, health, and whatever it is, CIS works to connect the right resources to the child. If CIS doesn’t have a specific person or resource, they provide direction for how to find something for that child.

Behind every successful student is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

Different people have been that caring adult at different points in my life. Whether they’ve come from the community, the church, the neighborhood, they’ve had an influence on me.

My mother, she was and still is my caring adult. I still hear her voice…telling me to do something or not do something. She had cancer, she was in Hospice and I was flying back and forth from Arizona to Michigan. Each visit I told her, I don’t know if I can make it to see you again. She said, Go live your life. I’m at peace with my life; you need to live your life…

Thank you, Principal Greymountain, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.

John Oliver: Listening to that still, small voice

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature John Oliver. When John joined the CIS support staff in August of this past year as Director of Quality & Evaluation, he became the second John in the downtown office (shout out to John Brandon!), so colleagues began referring to him as “Dr. John.”

John grew up in Lansing, Michigan, graduating from Everett, the same high school that Irving “Magic” Johnson attended. He then moved to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College. After graduating, he returned to Michigan and entered Marygrove College in Detroit, obtaining a teaching certification and a Masters in Educational Leadership. He taught for seven years at Gardener Middle School, the same building he had attended as a youth.

He then pursued his doctorate in Educational Leadership from Michigan State University. “I wanted to remove barriers,” he says. While there, John worked with his advisor who was the evaluator for a Kellogg project for community change. “That’s where I made the connection between community and the schools needing to work closely together. We looked at eleven different communities across the country and how they were doing change. My doctoral dissertation focused on the power of youth and adult partnerships.”

Around this time John also developed an interest in radio through involvement in “an offshoot” that grew out of his work on the Kellogg project. “We formed this learning exchange, beginning with the original 11 communities we worked with and it eventually grew to 75.” Radio, he says, can be a platform for communities to exchange ideas and can “bring together wisdom of place.”

Last year, after six years as an assistant professor at Texas State University, John, his wife Michele, and their daughter Joelle moved to Michigan to be closer to family.

Alright, Dr. John: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

You mentioned the phrase “wisdom of place” in referencing the radio project you were involved with in Texas. Talk more about that.

In thinking about place-based leadership, it’s important to never take for granted that someone who doesn’t have a title isn’t someone who should also be at the table…Too often it’s the people with credentials making decisions on behalf of those they represent. We miss out on a lot of capacity, on the wisdom of place, and the power of people when this occurs. To really learn and exchange ideas, we must check our credentials at the door. We learn more by asking than just by sharing or telling. That’s always the case when working with children.

You once taught at an African-centered charter school. Can you tell us more about that?

99% of the students were African American. We placed students at the center of their learning, asking them to consider Where am I in this topic? Where are my people in this? So, for example, let’s say students are learning about 1492 in history. What happens in 1492? Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Students would discuss things like, How do you/can you discover some place if people are already there?

Critical consciousness and centering is what we taught alongside each topic and the African-centered approach was embedded within everything and whatever benchmarks we covered. We always posed the question, Okay, where are you in this and how are you centered? We pushed students to get to that base, to consider African diaspora throughout their course work. The experience culminated in the eighth-grade class going on study tour up the Nile. I went with the students. It was an incredible experience.

You’re now the data guy for CIS. How would you describe what you do?

My role, the way I articulate my role to others, is that I’m trying to make sense of what the data says. To be clear, data is more than just numbers, graphs, and charts. It’s also the dialogue, the conversations and the responses with people. It’s about relationships and finding relationships between the numbers. What’s happening between relationships of people, organizations, and the community? What is the story?

Can you tell us one story?

The story I’m trying to understand now is how to ask a new question. The question we’ve struggled with as educators over the years has been how do we assess at-risk or marginalized student populations? To that end, we zero in on incarcerated youth, drop outs, etcetera. However, being here in Kalamazoo and learning how resource-rich this community is, as well as being a Promise community, that’s huge, right? So how do we look at this with fresh eyes, in a new way? When we do, it becomes not so much looking at “at-risk youth,” but looking at what is keeping students from not using the Promise.

CIS is focused on removing barriers that put students at-risk of not using the Promise. I have an appreciation for this multi-layered, multi-faceted approach to student success and am really pleased to be working here in a community invested in the CIS model of integrated student services.

Favorite word?

Positivity. It’s actually one of my top five words.

What are the other four?

Futuristic, adaptability, connectedness, and maximizer.

Are those all words you try to apply to your life?

Yes. Those are my identified strengths within the five domains of the Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0 that we all took at our CIS orientation launch in the fall. It was both reassuring and a little creepy how accurate it was. But, wow, it really makes sense…I’m in the right place, doing the right things. Everything is aligned.

What are you currently reading?

Start With Why. It’s by Simon Sinek.

Sounds like nonfiction.

It is. I don’t do fiction. If I’m going to read something, I want to learn. I always like to increase my skills set. When I want to be creative, I explore that avenue through music, playing the guitar and listening to music.

What do you love about Kalamazoo?

Lot of things. It’s small but close enough to larger venues and cities. Most importantly, though, it’s a tight, close community.

Any favorite places yet?

The Farmer’s Market. That was a cool discovery!

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

My parents, of course. Especially my dad. He passed last year. We got here to Kalamazoo just before he passed. We arrived in September and he passed in December. It wasn’t expected.

What a difficult thing to go through. I imagine your mom must appreciate that you have been here in Michigan during this difficult time.

Yes. It helps to know that we were listening to what the universe was putting out there, listening to that still small voice that said, Get back to Michigan.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

It’s important to follow that still, small voice. Listen and follow.

Thank you, Dr. John, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.

John Oliver, Director of Quality & Evaluation (far left) modeling Millie’s mittens (you can read that post here) with CIS staff John Brandon, Partner Services Coordinator, Alonzo Demand, Human Resources Coordinator, and Michael Harrison, Associate Director of Site Services.

April Rocco: Striking The Right Balance in Teaching & Life

School is back and so is the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature April Rocco, sixth and seventh grade teacher at Milwood Magnet Middle School. She teaches strategic reading and also serves as Milwood’s Athletic Director and the WEB (Where Everybody Belongs) Coordinator. WEB, building on the belief that students can help students succeed, trains members of the 8th grade class as WEB Leaders. These student leaders serve as positive role models and mentors, supporting the younger students during their transition to middle school.

At Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, we feel fortunate to work closely with talented and compassionate Kalamazoo Public School teachers like Mrs. Rocco. Also featured in the CIS Annual Report, Mrs. Rocco shares some of the benefits she sees by having CIS in her school.

Alright, Mrs. Rocco: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

POP QUIZ

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

How much money is made from low income rentals, just the sheer profits that are made, and the socio-economic impact of these low income rentals and evictions—how it creates a cycle of inequality.

Favorite word?

Excellent.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished Evicted by Matthew Desmond. It’s the community read, the 2018 Reading Together title.

What do you love about Kalamazoo?

Kalamazoo is big enough for having really good restaurants. Its size allows for many opportunities and things to do, but Kalamazoo is small enough that you know your neighbors and you can know what’s going on.

What is one of your favorite things about being a teacher?

Getting to know a new group of kids every year and then being able to watch them grow and learn as they move from middle school to high school.

What is the hardest thing about being a teacher?

Being able to balance meeting students’ academic needs and balancing these needs with their emotional and social needs.

You have a wonderful sense of humor and can be quite funny. What role, if any, does humor play in your classroom?

Good advice I was once told: sarcasm is not a teaching strategy. It’s simply not. And I really try and tame down that part of me in the classroom. You might find that surprising, but I do. That said, it’s important to strike a balance. I want to model to kids, that we have learning to do but that we can laugh at things along the way. But it’s important to do it in a way that allows us to still focus in on learning.

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

Lots of people. Athletics has played a big role for me, so I would say all of my coaches played that role. I went to Concord High School near Jackson, Michigan and played basketball and ran track.

Thank you, Mrs. Rocco. And a big thank you to all you teachers out there who show up every day for our 12,000+ kids.