Oakland’s MLK Oratorical Fest: an old contest with a new challenge

Some writers can stand on stage, all alone and before rows and rows of people, and recite original poetry. Others prefer to keep a lower profile.

Sophia Denison-JohnstonAt this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Oratorical Fest, a new competition gave stage-shy students a chance to shine. About 50 students in Oakland’s public and private middle schools entered an essay contest. They submitted short persuasive pieces on people, living or dead, who have benefitted humanity.

I was one of the judges for the final competition, and I’ve posted links to their essays so you can read them too. (Note: We determined the winners before learning the writers’ names or where they went to school.)

The first-place winner was Sophia Denison-Johnston (right), an eighth-grader at the private Redwood Day School. She wrote a piece titled “Martin Delaney – AIDS Activist and Lifesaver.”

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The dismantling of California’s adult ed system

Photo by Dan Honda/Contra Costa Times

If you look around, you’ll see adult education coming apart, piece by piece. That was the message teachers, students and administrators gave state politicians this morning at a forum in Richmond.

Not only were adult ed programs cut by 22 percent this year, but this spring, the state Legislature gave school districts the go-ahead to spend the money as they wished.

Faced with huge budget shortfalls, districts have been doing just that. According to a new survey taken by the California Council for Adult Education, 85 percent of Bay Area school districts have used at least some adult ed money to balance their 2009-10 books.

Alameda and Contra Costa counties alone are serving 15,000 fewer students this fall as a result of all of these cutbacks, according to the council. Continue Reading


Sustenance in the classroom

Kathryn Fishman-Weaver, a special education teacher at ASCEND school in Fruitvale, wrote this piece about a recipe writing project her students recently completed. -Katy

photo courtesy of Kathryn Fishman-Weaver

My grandmother used to tell me a Jewish proverb that “worries go down better with soup.” It’s 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. I am talking to my student Isaiah’s grandmother. I am worried about a bureaucratic decision that I think is under-serving students. Just as my own grandmother would have done, Isaiah’s grandma starts baking for me.

In my multicultural classroom, our common love of food is often a point of connection. In fact some of my sweetest memories as a teacher are of eating with my students and their families: Christian’s mom’s surprise strawberry chalkboard cake; cooking Thanksgiving lunch with my students in our community kitchen, slurping up melting popsicles on the play yard with 20-plus extended family members at a spring party; sipping creamy chocolate with seven-year-olds on the morning of Day of the Dead; an eclectic gratitude potluck that included spaghetti, fried chicken, banana bread, enchiladas, the best flautas ever, and orange soda.

Just as I bring apples and honey to share with my students each Rosh Hoshana, I also bring to the classroom a passion for the written word. Our most recent writing project, a cookbook, combines these two forms of sustenance. Continue Reading


Middle school philanthropy

courtesy photo

Here’s a feel-good story for the week: Three seventh-grade girls from Tehiyah Day School, a Jewish school in El Cerrito, spent the last two months collecting children’s books for their bat mitzvah projects. They knocked on neighbors’ doors, scoured garage sales and asked family friends, parents at their school’s bus stop, and people from their respective temples.  

The three girls — Talia Myers and Rose and Gabby Rokeach — collected 1,000 in all, which they delivered to children at Greenleaf (K-3) and Whittier (4-5) elementary schools in East Oakland. The books were for the kids to keep.

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