Monthly Archives: December 2015

Dispatch from the Education Front: An Interview with Kaycee Eckhardt

kaycee with katrinas sandcastlesKatrina’s Sandcastles packs a lot of book into 192 pages—it’s a personal memoir of learning to become a teacher, an—at times hopeful, at times critical—portrait of the charter school education system, and a recent history of New Orleans in the decade since the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and the botched governmental response, and a compelling look inside the lives and prospects of some of the most underpriveleged kids in the US. So when I finally met its author, Kaycee Eckhardt, it didn’t surprise me that she’s doing eight things at once—making tea, tending her dogs, talking about big ideas, and planning the details of her day—all at a mile a minute without even looking particularly frazzled. I sent her a few questions over email, and she miraculously found some time to answer them. 


1. The end of Katrina’s Sandcastles sees you leaving the New Orleans charter school of which you’d been a founding faculty member and planning to pursue non-classroom work. What have you been up to since then? Where are you right now?

I have a lot of gratitude for the work that I am able to do now. As a teacher, I had a great impact on the students in my room and school, and while I miss that work terribly, my current work allows me to share what I have learned and to work for education reform on a national scale. I run a summer institute for experienced teachers, where we learn about the real causes of the literacy gap and how to combat them with students in high needs schools. I also work directly with some K-2 teachers and classrooms on their early literacy instruction, and with some early career teachers in Nashville on curriculum preparation. All of my work is focused on high standards and high expectations for students, as well as pushing for equity in schools and districts. We are in the middle of a sea change in education right now, and it’s an exciting time to be doing good work for kids.

 

kaycee and students2. The charter school that you describe in the book had a militaristic approach to discipline and structuring the students’ (and teachers’) activities. What are your thoughts about the benefits and drawbacks of that model?

We need to take a close look at what we are asking from students, and why. Students do need a high level of structure when they first enter a school – they need to understand the culture and what is expected. The purpose of initial compliance is to create an environment in which students can learn. However, often teachers and schools end up focusing on compliance instead of remembering that structure should be a means to an end = student’s learning. And often developmentally appropriate learning doesn’t look like students sitting quietly while the teacher presents, or until she involves them. It’s often messy and loud—it involves debate and discussion, group work and also a lot of time to think critique and contemplate. Teachers need to get out of the way and allow students to do the work—this means allowing some rule-breaking in place of academic experimentation. Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves constantly if the rules we impose on students—and teachers!—are a means to an end, or if they stifle the creativity and freedom of thought we want to foster in children. 

 

3. A lot of the book is about your struggle to maintain your health and personal life in the midst of an all-consuming and high-stress job. That’s something a lot of readers in many fields can relate to—can you offer any life advice for your fellow committed-but-overwhelmed workers? 

I don’t know if I have any advice, given that this is an ongoing struggle for me, as it is with many of us. But I do know that sometimes we forget that our relationships, families, and our bodies are jobs as well—they take effort, consideration, attention and a lot responsibility. Too often we allow our “work” to consume us and we allow that to be an excuse for investing less in what actually, in the long run, matters more. If I had any advice, it would be to ask yourself if you allow your “job” to give you a reason not to attend to other important things—yoga class, a bike ride with your partner, a dog walk, sitting down to dinner that you prepare, calling your grandmother, painting that wall in your house a joyful orange. Caring for yourself and what sustains you is your most important job. 

 

kayce in the classroom4. If you were to sit down with the president tomorrow, what three policy proposals for education would you recommend? 

If I could wave a magic wand, and address three issues in education today, it would first be to put a great teacher in front of every child, regardless of that child’s neighborhood, city, socioeconomic status, race, or age. Great teaching is the number one indicator of academic success in students: a student with a great teacher can generate 5-6 months more learning in a single year than a poor performing teacher. But poor school leadership, low pay, and lack of support and training drive many of our best and developing teachers from the classroom. Retention of our best teachers need to be a major focus—and this includes the removal of teachers who are not up to par.

 

I would also ask for a significant focus on early education. A child’s reading level by third grade is one of the most consistent predictors of success or failureA child who can’t read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his or her proficient, wealthier peer. This should call our attention to what is happening before third grade—not after. A greater focus on knowledge-building, vocabulary, read alouds, and literacy in all content areas would shore up some of this—and there are some great programs, like Core Knowledge (which is free!) to do this. 

 

Finally, I believe strongly that the adoption of the Common Core State Standards was the right move for our country. Contrary to the white noise of the media and a few loud, uneducated people, the standards do not mandate curriculum—they simply outline what student should know at the end of each grade. We are falling further and further behind other first world countries and this, in great part, has been due to the fact that we have been teaching to low standards, or erratic standards that changed from state to stateI encourage anyone who’s skeptical to go read them—they outline a clear, rigorous progression of what a student needs to do to be a competitive critical thinker by the end of high school. The shifts for Literacy and Math called for by the Common Core call for powerful changes in our classroom practice and changes that, if we stay the course, could increase equity in our schools, as well as drastically improve the quality of instruction.

 

This is part of a series of interviews with Microcosm authors. The most recent one was with another New Orleans writer, Urban Revolutions author Emilie Bahr.

Railroad Semantics Box Set

Devoted to train-hopping, graffiti, and railroad culture, Aaron Dactyl’s Railroad Semantics zines describe the sights, sounds, successes, and defeats of exploring the western U.S. by freight train. 

The first four Railroad Semantics zines were made into books, and are all together in this box set. You’ll find epic, hidden works of art, read up on rail lore and riding tips, meet rail workers and fellow adventurers, and experience the perils and glories of life in rail yards, train cars, small towns, and encampments.

Urban Revolutionary: An interview with Emilie Bahr

urban revolutions book coverEmilie Bahr’s new book Urban Revolutions: A Woman’s Guide to Two-Wheeled Transportation just turned up from the printer, to the delight of everyone at the office. So much hard work and love went into this book. Emilie fully deployed her chops as a journalist and urban planner, her hard-won knowledge of urban transportation bicycling, and her love and knowledge of her home city of New Orleans (we’re pretty sure this is the only book out there with advice about biking during Mardi Gras!). Pretty much everyone at Microcosm worked hard on this book, and our graphic designer Meggyn actually started biking while laying it out. She’d been wanting to ride for a while and reports that this book “answered a lot of my questions… that I didn’t want to ask!” With a pre-publication track record like that, we have high hopes for the rest of this book’s life!

In honor of the book’s existence (it officially comes out on April 12th, and is available directly via Microcosm until then), we sent the author some questions about how and why the book came to be, New Orleans’s surprising rise to bicycling prominence, as well as (feeding a longstanding fascination of mine) the role of bicycles during and after Katrina. Read through to the end for an extra surprise!

1. Congrats on your new book, Urban Revolutions! What’s the origin story of the book—what gave you the idea to write it?

Although I haven’t always known how to define it, as a longtime fan and observer of cities, I’ve always been interested in how the shape of our environments affects opportunity: everything from transportation options to health to access to jobs (all of which, in the end, are fundamentally related). At a very basic level, the book was inspired by forging connections over the years between these ideas. It’s also inspired by my own experience as a pretty typical, car-dependent American who was woken up to another way of getting around not all that long ago and who suddenly felt (at the risk of sounding melodramatic) as though a veil had been lifted from my eyes. As I started using my bike more and more to get around, I realized that there were lots of other people out there like me – and yet also many more people, including many of my friends, for whom the idea of using the bike as a means of transport was as foreign a concept as it had once been for me. I was especially interested in this latter group and what it was exactly that kept them out of the saddle, and that became the basis for my graduate school research. I also noticed that among my friends who didn’t bike or who didn’t bike regularly (most of them women), many were intrigued by the idea of biking, but were held back by various obstacles, and a number of them really had no idea where to begin. I wanted to create a tool to help them overcome those barriers by really honing in on their specific concerns.

emilie in paris2. The book’s subtitle is “A Woman’s Guide to Two-Wheeled Transportation.” Why that subtitle? Is the book only for women?

It turns out the resistance to bicycling among women isn’t unique to my friend circle. Nationally, only about a quarter of transportation bicyclists are female, a phenomenon that is not universal in the developed world and likely relates to a whole variety of factors, from social policies and norms that place more of the burden for household and childcare duties on women to very valid concerns in our car-centric environments about vulnerability to traffic crashes and crime to the fact that women are simply not as exposed to the practice, which means many of us don’t even consider it as a possibility. This book started out as a how-to guide designed to address concerns that are specific to women, though many of these concerns are also shared by men too. And I would say it turned out to be much more than a how-to guide. In the end, it’s really an exploration of the state of the American transportation landscape, how it’s changing, and what this means for everyone. I think this book should appeal to anyone who is interested in urban environments, how people get around, and who might want to brush up on how to ride and maintain a bike.

3. Two chapters of the book are devoted to your home city of New Orleans, which is one of the best unsung bike cities in the US. What makes cycling work there? What makes it different?

I said earlier that my own experience helped inspire this book, and that experience is inextricably tied to New Orleans. I write in the introduction to Urban Revolutions about hearing about what then sounded to me like a crazy plan to begin installing bike infrastructure in New Orleans. I was working as a reporter and decided to write a story about this, in part because I wanted to find out what insane people would dare ride a bike in my city. What I didn’t realize at the time was that New Orleans already had a strong bicycling culture – it had just been sailing under my radar.

In terms of what makes New Orleans different, this city has a number of inherent advantages over many other American cities, and particularly many other southern cities, when it comes to bicycling. We developed before the rise of the car, and we’ve retained a lot of the street connectivity, intermixing of land uses, and pedestrian-scale development patterns that come with that that really facilitate bicycling. It also helps that we’re flat. Moreover, we’ve seen pretty substantial infrastructure investments here in recent years that I would say have helped to advertise the bicycling possibilities that have long existed and helped make many more people feel comfortable bicycling here.

emilie and trailerWhat’s also important to note about New Orleans is that we’re a poor city. Our poverty rate is significantly higher than the national average and a large proportion of people don’t have access to cars, so there are a number of people who get around by bike and have for many years before the infrastructure was installed because they have no other option. I would say that our bicycling community is very racially and economically diverse, which is increasingly true across the country, but New Orleans bicyclists really defy the stereotype of bicyclist as wealthy, white male. More and more, I notice a whole lot of women biking here too.

Another thing that I think really helps to set New Orleans apart from much of the rest of the world is that we have these massive street celebrations here several times a year, the most famous and massive of them, of course, being Mardi Gras. At Mardi Gras, our streets are essentially shut down to automobile traffic for days at a time, and residents are forced to reconsider our relationship with the streets, even if for a finite period. I would say that Mardi Gras and some of our other major festivals are what introduce a lot of people to the possibility of biking and help us to think about the streets as being something other than channels for moving cars as quickly as possible.

4. There’s been a lot of focus in the news lately around the 10 year anniversary of Katrina. Were you in the city during Katrina? Did bikes play a role in disaster relief or recovery? Or did the hurricane pave the way for bike infrastructure and culture in some sense?

In August 2005, I was splitting my time between New Orleans, where my boyfriend at the time lived, and Thibodaux, a small town about an hour’s drive from the city where I was working for the local newspaper. Before the storm, I evacuated from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, where my dad lives, and spent a long night until the power went out desperately trying to figure out what was going on in the city, the extent of which wouldn’t become clear to us for some time after the rest of the world knew.

So much can be and has been said about Katrina and its aftermath, but one of the things the storm revealed was just how cut off a modern society becomes when electricity and gasoline lines are severed. I sneaked back into the city about a week after the storm, and even in places that didn’t flood, it resembled something out of a post-apocalyptic novel: there was no power, no gas, military people marched in the streets. And the people who refused to leave had to rethink how they got around. You might say they resorted to old-fashioned means, using canoes, bikes, their own two feet. For many people, getting in to see their homes, especially in flooded areas, required using a bike, and some of the most powerful early footage of the damage from the storm was shot by people riding around on bike.

In the recovery from the storm, one of the silver linings has been that it’s allowed us to reconsider how we do things here. I wouldn’t say we’ve fully taken advantage of these opportunities, but one area in which it’s really caused a shifting in the public consciousness is transportation, and this is in part because the city suddenly got a lot of federal rebuilding money to redo its streets after the storm. Starting in 2008, thanks to the advocacy and creativity of a number of folks here, many of the streets that were being resurfaced were striped with bikeways for the first time. A few years later, a local city councilwoman who cares a lot about transportation beyond just moving people in cars successfully won passage of citywide policy requiring that all users – pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, people with physical disabilities, and drivers – be considered in rebuilding our streets. At the same time that this new infrastructure continues to take shape, we’ve experienced a surge in new people moving to New Orleans post-Katrina. Many of them come from cities with strong bicycling traditions and they have continued to spread the gospel in their adopted home, even if it’s just by example. There was a time not all that long ago when a bike commuter would have seemed like an exotic species here. Today that is definitely no longer the case.

5. Anything else I ought to ask you about?

Well, I guess I could mention that I’m six months pregnant. I write in the book about parenthood as one of the obstacles many women face in getting on the bike, and I’m interested to see how pregnancy and motherhood affect my own bicycling patterns. I’m determined to continue biking but this will definitely require tweaking my routines. Already, I’ve found myself opting for my upright, Dutch-style bike over the speedier model I typically ride because it more readily accommodates my rapidly-changing figure. That said, I’m excited about the challenges and the new perspective parenthood will provide. And I’m looking forward to having a reason to invest in some of those adorable contraptions for toting around kids on bike.

This interview with Urban Revolutions author Emilie Bahr is part of a series. The last interview was with Alexander Barrett. The next one is with Kaycee Eckhardt, author of Katrina’s Sandcastles.

Urban Revolutions: A Woman’s Guide to Two-Wheeled Transportation

Urban Revolutions is a different kind of cycling book. Author Emilie Bahr draws on her experience as an everyday cyclist and a transportation planner in New Orleans to demystify urban bicycling in this visually-compelling and fun-to-read field guide. 

What does it mean for a city to be bike-friendly? What makes bicycling a women’s issue? What does it take to feel safe on a bike? How do you bike to work in the summer and still look professional? What is the most fun you can possibly have on two wheels without being athletic? Bahr answers all these questions and more in her friendly and thoughtful essays and detailed practical tips.

Xerography Debt #38

“We don’t just blindly provide ‘good’ reviews—we’re here to support a community and foster its members. If your zine is reviewed,you earned that ink. Keep up the good work!” opens this issue of the review zine with perzine tendencies. Since 1999, Davida Gypsy Breier’s gluten-free recipe for Xerography Debt might be best summarized as an obsession for all involved, none of which are likely to be as wealthy as the preserved zine king depicted on the cover. Billy da Bling Bunny Roberts recently said “It’s the glue that holds the zine community together.” Maintaining three issues per year, the 38th issue of Xerography Debt is still the same ol’ charming personality, allowing a hand-picked cast of contributors to wax philosophical about the zines they love. In an age of blogs and tweets, Xerography Debt is a beautiful, earnest anachronism, a publication that seems to come from a different era, but is firmly entrenched in the now. And they want to review your zines in future issues: Davida Gypsy Breier / PO Box 347 / Glen Arm, MD 21057

Rampant Media Consumption—November 2015: Confessions and Guilty Pleasures

dil to pagal haiA year ago when we first launched the RMC, people were pretty excited about it, and would send in their short book + movie + tv + art + more experimental media (like the sounds on the bus) links and reviews every week. But participation dwindled. We started posting monthly, and then less than once a month, just when enough people had sent that in. Then, during a staff meeting, it came out that a lot of us feel a little self-conscious about what we go home and read/watch/listen to unwind. So we decided that this month we’d all be super honest and not worry about meeting some invisible cultural bar. 

So here it is, the RMC guilty pleasures edition!

Jeff

My mom got me into watching Dr. Who. I’m not sure how I feel about it, but it’s strangely addicting.

I found a free Hank Williams record and said “Why not?”

But I’m not sure why I keep playing it.

Hadn’t seen the movie Trading Places in a long long time. So yeah, I watched it again. 

Meggyn

Erykah Badu’s new mixtape “But You Cain’t Use My Phone” is hands down my favorite release this year. It was released today and it’s a careful selection of phone related songs that have been important to the r&b/hip hop scene for the past two decades. This is important. 

[Meggyn also wrote: “I made a playlist called Velotronica on Spotify full of my guilty Vegas dance favorites. Should I link? (They power me through the hardest hills.)” But she did not send the link.]

Elly

I watched the whole latest season of Project Runway. Then for a while I couldn’t stop watching all the Bollywood movies that are hitting Netflix, especially the amazing ones from the 90s starring Shah Rukh Khan—my favorite was Dil to Pagal Hai (The Heart is Crazy), which left me feeling weirdly giddy and whistling the tag line on my bike for a week.

I spend a lot more time every week than I ever plan to reading long articles online. Recent ones that stuck with me include Rebecca Solnit’s ultimate answer to the whole “having it all” racket + the tedious questions women are supposed to constantly field about our reproductive plans, and the super-long New Yorker article about Megan Phelps-Roper—every paragraph had a new amazing reveal. And here’s a real pleasure: Carrie Fisher and her dog Gary splendidly demolish inane interview questions on Good Morning America.

Thea

Can’t stop watching Spiral, the French crime drama. 

Finally watched This Must be the Place movie with Sean Penn by Paolo Sorrentino. Wasn’t disappointed. 

More BBC bicycle love.

Ack! Now even coloring books are gendered

Tomy

The Great British Baking Show — It’s great. I don’t know what it is about it that makes me very happy.

Book Review: God, Forgive these Bastards

god, forgive these bastards book and lp setWe ask each of our interns to review one of our books before they go. Natalie heads home to Australia next week, and left us with these thoughts on our first and (until April 2016) only work of fiction…or is it fiction? To tell the truth, we’re not totally sure.

I originally overlooked this book when I read the title on its spine—I was feeling a little lazy that day and so I was looking for something that had a more ‘familiar’ title. But after flicking through a whole lot of DIY books, I began to crave something with a solid narrative, and that’s when I reached for God, Forgive These Bastards: Stories from the Forgotten Life of Georgia Tech Pitcher Henry Turner.

Being from Australia, I don’t really know much about baseball or anybody named Henry Turner. After I read this book, I honestly don’t know what I learnt from it at all. I realised quite quickly that these stories weren’t really all that much about baseball. In fact, to me at least, it felt like they were more about America and the strange things that can happen to you here.

God, Forgive These Bastards begins with Rob Morton meeting Henry for the first time, at a bus stop in Portland, Oregon. Beginning in an ordinary biographical kind-of-way, the stories then take you into a direction that’s a little less predictable. Kind of like when you accidentally catch the wrong bus and end up in an unfamiliar neighbourhood. Some of Henry’s stories are violent and sad, and it was hard to know if they were true or not—and while I was reading them, I really didn’t want to know the truth.

The whole concept of the book reminds me of when I ride the buses and see all of the other regular commuters. I try and imagine stories about what their lives were like before they ended up riding the same buses as I do—and unless they approach me to tell a story about themselves, I’ve usually been too shy to strike up a conversation.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, even though I’m sure that there are so many different things that you could take away from these stories, I feel like this book helped me examine how we perceive and contribute to our own ideas of ‘culture’. Like the way it feels as though we’re too absorbed in our own lives, and just too afraid of each other to talk and trade stories.

I did find that a couple parts of the book were hard to believe because it felt like there were missing details that I would’ve liked to know; nevertheless it was a good read. My favourite line from the book was in my least favourite chapter—my least favourite because all of the things that happen are just so dark and horrible. Henry explains how he is feeling at a time when he feels incredibly vulnerable: enry‘It was the kind of panic that I imagine the devil would make you feel if he walked over to the bed where you slept, lied down next to you, and wrapped his arms around your body.’ And I like this line the best because it describes exactly how I felt reading that chapter.

Morton also uses this book to talk about how down-and-out people like Henry are left unforgiven and hated. I don’t know if he’s really saying that we should forgive people for making us feel intense pain or for committing horrible crimes—it does come across that way—but Morton does explain that people shouldn’t be defined by the bad things that they’ve done, and I suppose that just listening to others to learn from their mistakes can be a good thing to do.

Henry’s stories are told with an honest voice, which makes the unbelievable, believable. These stories are crazy, and mean, and probably everything that you don’t want to imagine your life to ever be. God, Forgive These Bastards is definitely a book that I would read again, and the soundtrack by Mortons’s band, The Taxpayers, is equally as thrilling.

If you want to read the book while playing the soundtrack on vinyl, we’re doing another pressing, and it’ll be available again in 2016!