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7 Questions – Juliana Ratner (Free Minds Book Club)

Welcome to “7 Questions” … Juliana Ratner, Program Director of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop. The club meets weekly at the DC Jail, exploring literature and creative writing and empowering young inmates to transform their lives. Learn more!

1. What was your most interesting recent project, initiative, partnership, or event?

Every day is an interesting project with this job! On Friday, however, we hosted guest writer Michael Mattocks, co-author of the memoir Unlikely Brothers, in book club. That day book club met on the unit itself, where the acoustics are bad and it’s hard to hear, and all the book club members were so focused and attentive. Michael talked about his journey from drug dealing and incarceration to being an involved and responsible father of five boys, and what writing a book had taught him — and they were full of questions and eager to read their own writing aloud. Afterwards Michael said that it had been one of the most powerful moments of his life, to have the opportunity to share his story with them, and to hear their poetry.

2. What else are you up to?

We’re in the process of producing a literary journal of our member’s work. We do a book every year, but this year we’re taking it to the next level. The journal has an editorial board of four Free Minds members, three of whom are in prison and one of whom is home. They have been in charge of every aspect of the book, from selecting the themes for each section to doing the final pick of poems, and it has been amazing to watch. They are committed and insightful editors and so deeply pleased to be able to give back in a positive way, especially if it can influence other people’s lives and choices.

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In The News …

A bundle of non-profit and local news coming your way …

Capital Area Food Bank to begin charging members for produce (Washington Post): “For the first time in its history, the Capital Area Food Bank will begin charging its members for fruits and vegetables July 1, adding thousands in unexpected costs for some of the 700 agencies that rely on the organization to feed the region’s hungry.” The new initiative is a result of ever-increasing demands for the services of local food organizations, despite the improving economy. The trend is alarming, and indicates that local non-profits working to combat hunger will certainly require additional support in the coming year.

Gentrification a matter of economics, not ethnicity (Greater Greater Washington): At the NPR Building last week, a panel of young black professionals debated the question of DC’s gentrification … and “although the assembled group, almost entirely African-American with a majority female, acknowledged it is ‘dangerous to say that gentrification is not a race issue,’ the consensus held strongly that gentrification more closely correlates with economics.” Do you agree? Continue reading

No More Homework

Most students have tried to dodge homework at some (or several) points in their academic life. But thanks to a new policy in the second-largest school system in the country, students in the Los Angeles Unified School District will have homework count for a maximum of 10% of their grade in a given class. From Monday’s LA Times:

The LA approach is intended to account for the myriad urban problems facing the district’s mostly low-income, minority population. It’s also aimed at supporting LA Unified’s increasing focus on boosting measureable academic achievement.

According to the new policy, “Varying degrees of access to academic support at home, for whatever reason, should not penalize a student so severely that it prevents the student from passing a class, nor should it inflate the grade.” It was distributed to schools last month. [...]

The new policy is commendable but should be combined with helping teachers improve their use of homework, said Etta Kralovec, co-author of “The End of Homework” and a University of Arizona associate professor.

Wheelock College associate professor Janine Bempechat said the district should focus on providing students the support they need to complete their homework, which remains crucial. “To make homework worthy of only 10% of a student’s grade sends a message that it is not important,” Bempechat said.

From my perspective, the policy actually provokes two separate debates. First, what value does homework have? Few would argue that a hard-and-fast homework requirement, which in turn leads teachers to assign busywork, is not that beneficial. But would it make more sense to help teachers craft better assignments, rather than just lessen their importance? Is the problem homework, or is the problem “bad” homework?

Second, while the article does not press the point, Professor Bempecha (quoted above) points out that “the district should focus on providing students the support they need to complete their homework.” In other words, the problem is not the volume or even the quality of the homework, but the unequal abilities of students to complete work at home. And in his estimation, fixing those inequalities falls to the school system.

But does it? The obstacles to completing take-home assignments can range from lack of access to a computer and library to the lack of a stable home environment (and quiet room). When it comes to developing study skills and enabling students to practice them, countless obstacles beyond the simple volume of the homework itself come into play. Can the school system alone, realistically and effectively, help students overcome those obstacles — or is that where education non-profits enter the equation? In particular, non-profits whose purpose is to help out at a specific point in a student’s day? … And by eliminating the worth of homework, are schools tackling the problem or just the symptom?

Testing Day

Today marks National HIV Testing Day and, as the Post reported last night, “DC clinics and health groups have organized testing sites across the city and hope to reach out to a large swath of the community. encourages people to get tested in an effort to help identify those who have the disease so they can receive treatment and prevent transmission.”

A June 15 Post article pointed out that, while the number of new cases has dropped significantly (nearly 50%) in the past two years, “the number of District residents living with HIV or AIDS remains high enough to rate as an epidemic.” A recent survey by the Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that “more than a third of city residents single out HIV/AIDS — first identified 30 years ago — as the city’s biggest health concern.” And with reason. More than 3% of DC residents over the age of 12 are HIV positive and well over half of the population “say someone they know has the disease or has died of it,” compared to 41% nationwide.

Whitman-Walker Health has offered testing around the city for the past week and will offer extended testing hours tomorrow, from 9 AM to 7 PM. Says Dr. Raymond Martins, chief medical officer at Whitman-Walker: “Last week’s report from the DC Department of Health showed that more than three percent of adults in DC have been diagnosed with HIV. However, an additional two-three percent may also be infected but hasn’t been diagnosed. That is why it’s so important.”

Catalogue non-profit Metro TeenAIDS also offers testing all week (at a range of hours) at at 651 Pennsylvania Avenue SE. MTA works to prevent the spread of HIV through youth leadership teams and in-school health education — because knowledge is one of the best ways to ensure that the number of new cases keeps on dropping.

Around Town: June 24-26

Just one more weekend in June! So what strikes your fancy?

Nature …

Ever wanted to swim at National Harbor? This is your chance! An open water Seaport Swim this Sunday from 7:00 AM-1:00 PM will benefit the Alexandria Seaport Foundation. And starting at 9:00 AM on Sunday, you can join the Potomac Conservancy for an annual medicinal plant walk along the C & O Canal.

Theater …

Bootycandy, the kaleidoscope of sassy lessons in sex education, continues its wild run at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company this coming Friday-Sunday (two shows on Saturday!). And at 10:00 PM on Friday and Saturday, you can swing by the District of Columbia Arts Center in Adams Morgan for Shawn Mikael’s Theater: improv and stand-up comedy from DC’s both established and newer talents.

and Dance!

Ever wanted to be part of a dancing flash mob? Seriously, who hasn’t? Check out the video and instruction here and then go to the Central Library in Arlington at 3:00 PM on Saturday; Bowen McCauley Dance will review the dance and lead the mob. You can also catch BMDC on Sunday in the Source Festival’s Artistic Blind Dates. Plus, on Saturday at 8:00 PM, the Choreographers Collaboration Project comes to Dance Place, engaging modern dance featuring a wide range of choreographic visions.

7 Questions – Doug Yeuell (Joy of Motion Dance Center)

Welcome to “7 Questions” … Doug Yeuell, Executive/Artistic Director of Joy of Motion Dance Center. Embracing a wide range of dance from Middle Eastern to flamenco, hip hop to ballet, West African to tap and welcoming first-times and professional dancers, JOMDC always strives to make dance accessible regardless of financial means.

1. What was your most interesting recent project, initiative, partnership, or event?

I must say it was our recent gala fundraiser. Galas can be many things. Ours was simply a dance party and simply fun. A good time was had by all — and good money was raised. DJ spinning tunes and many, many people finding their dance on the dance floor. What could be better? It’s nice when you spend all your days focusing on dance training, curriculum, and educational programming to just let it all loose with co-workers, students, and all those that support what you do. Dance truly is for everyone, and I now have the pictures to prove it.

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The Amazing (Theatrical) Race

Looking to combine volunteering, fundraising, and community outreach in one event? Draw some inspiration from The Theatre Lab’s newest venture!

By Jeff Scott, Marketing & Events Manager at The Theatre Lab:

On Saturday, June 18, The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts hosted its first-ever Amazing Race. The one-day event featured teams of volunteers approaching local businesses to solicit donations which could then be auctioned off at The Theatre Lab’s annual benefit in the fall (which helps to fund education and community outreach programs). The volunteer group included current and past students of The Theatre Lab along with their friends and colleagues.

The racers were divided into teams and each team was assigned a specific area of town to target, which included Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, and Georgetown. Armed with packets of information on The Theatre Lab’s education and community outreach programs, and dressed in matching fire engine red t-shirts, the volunteers set off into the unknown.

Prior to the event, certain stores had prearranged donations with The Theatre Lab. The volunteers were given clues by Theatre Lab staff members to direct them to these stores to add a scavenger hunt element to the activities. Theatre Lab alum Tina Ghandchilar recounted her team’s experiences:

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Fathers’ Day

From NPR Weekend Edition, June 18, 2011:

When Alice Ozma was in the fourth grade, her family was going through a rough patch. Her parents had just split up, and her older sister had recently left for college. Ozma was suddenly spending a lot more time alone with her dad, Jim Brozina, an elementary school librarian. So Ozma and her father made a pledge: to read together every single night for 100 days.

But after 100 days, they just kept going. Their streak ultimately lasted 3,218 days — spanning from Ozma’s fourth-grade year to her first day of college. [...] Reading together was one thing they knew they could depend on. As Ozma got older, it got harder to keep it up, but the pair persisted — even on the night of Ozma’s prom.

From epic novels to fairy tales, books have a strange ability to bind two people together. You know that flash of excitement when you realize that a new acquaintance shares a favorite author or series? That giddy realization that you both “speak” the same language, that you have numerous topics of conversation? It’s a great feeling, that closeness. And in the case of Ozma and her father, they share not one book or one writer, but a whole library.

Ozma’s website, The Reading Promise, offers a starter book list to initiate your own “Reading Streak.” And I recommend the list in part because it features Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which I vividly remember reading with my own father when I was about seven or eight. In his edition, the picture of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come was deeply creepy, but I’ll always be glad that I first experienced that story with him. I also recognized quite a few other books on Ozma’s list: Maniac Magee from fifth grade language arts, Sherlock Holmes from middle school science (really!), and Macebth from sophomore English. Certain books can be indelibly linked to certain moments in life — and seeing them is like stumbling on a memory. And when that memory is shared with a loved one, all the better.

In sum, do check out the complete story on NPR and celebrate this week after Fathers’ Day with a quick read — with a parent, child, or friend. Also: learn more about Catalogue non-profits who are working to spread literacy to each and every family in our region. Let’s make sure that everyone has the chance to experience what Ozma and her father did.

Around Town: June 17-19

Of an artistic mind? In the mood to groove? (See what I did there?) Then we have some great opportunities coming up at our non-profits this weekend …

District of Columbia Arts Center: 2438 18th Street NW

Always plenty going on here! Including “Something Other Than The Present,” presented by Sparkplug, in the gallery, and The B Team, presented by Landless Theatre Company, in the blackbox from Friday through Sunday.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D Street NW

Four chances (Friday through Sunday) to see Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy, a kaleidoscope of sassy lessons in sex education, which speak the truth about growing up gay and African American.

Perry School Community Services Center: at Bikram Yoga, 1635 Connecticut Avenue NW

Attention Yogis! Drop by the Friday 8:00 PM class at Bikram Yoga today and, thanks to their partnership with the Perry School, the class proceeds will benefit Perry’s programs. Continue reading