Summer Reading the Word and the World: Preserving a spirit of hope and inquiry


My mind and soul feel like they are on fire right now.  This summer has been an interesting and fresh balancing act of attempting to disconnect and focus on quality time spent with my family and friends, while simultaneously struggling to stay focused and motivated to confront all of the realities of tragedy and despair that have become (or maybe more accurately have always been) “las noticias de hoy.”  It has been surreal and at times I have felt the despair set in.  Every time I feel this happening, I have to grab hold of something, a book, podcast, television show or documentary, album, ANYTHING that can jar my mind back into accepting the reality that the world is a beautifully harsh place, that can indeed be transformed through collective effort, into a more just and peaceful planet.  In trying to continue to be a student of life and all of its instructive stories, I have found it difficult to force reflection on some of these more difficult realities.  Yet I know that this is absolutely necessary for true understanding of what the hell is actually happening.  And so this is my attempt at a reflective synthesis.

In preparing for the upcoming fall semester at CSUMB, I have been reading Antonia Darder’s The Student’s Guide to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  In redesigning my class for novice teachers to be able to rise to the occasion that, now perhaps more than ever, demands we teach for “liberation” and not merely for content mastery, I chose to use this text to help unpack Freire’s original influential text.  It is here that I have been prompted to think more deeply about what a liberatory and critical pedagogy actually mean.  Reminding myself of the necessity for time set aside for direct and intentional theorizing and abstraction, but never sacrificing action.  It is serendipitous that the new History and Social Science framework is intentionally focused on “civic action.”  Never mind that many history and social studies teachers are not yet fully aware of what this actually means for their classroom instruction, the architecture is now there to spark an authentic dialogue (which is another fundamental aspect of Freire’s text) amongst teachers who are in the position to have tremendous impact on the patterns of thought and eventual action of many young people.  On this note, I have been simultaneously excited and nervous to begin my new job as a curriculum specialist, which will help experienced and veteran (some expert) teachers collectively consider the implications for a type of instructive pedagogy that has civic action at its foundation, in particular at this moment in history. This text also reviews the history of many schools of philosophical thought and more importantly the historical context of authoritarianism, which is as stark a reminder of our current national and global epoch.

Aside from professional reading and pondering, I have been personally immersed in stories of the day that force the full act of humanity, that is to say I have been  intentionally reading, watching, and listening to things that recognize and acknowledge the human suffering of our brothers and sisters all the world over. It is not always easy to stare into the eyes of human suffering, but I know it to be necessary if I truly want to be part of movements designed to lessen and eventually end such oppression.  Enrique’s Journeyhas been an emotional slog for me. In the context of the mass separation of migrant children from the parents, this powerful narrative ha also harkened me back to the stories of so many of my students, undocumented minors both in Los Angeles and here in Salinas, who’s own journey’s were comprised of similar trials of tragedy. It also reminded me of many parents I have had the honor to work with, attempting to repair the often strained relationships between themselves and their children.

The Intercepted podcasthas been a summer staple, providing much needed journalistic context for the litany of crazy that is our current events. Two episodes that have had a lasting impression on me this summer have been these two. The show is unapologetic in its “speaking truth to power” style but what I appreciate even more is their journalistic commitment to contextualizing the stories of today through factual history, with a depth necessary for authentic understanding. Also appreciated is the hopeful chord always struck by interviews with activists and resisters. It has been on of my “go to” podcasts since the election.

Despite my steady summer media diet, which has also deviated into the realm of indulging pure entertainment in my attempt to not go insane, it was last night’s episode of Treme that really “struck a chord” in my soul. I have waited until this summer to watch this series from the beginning, knowing full well that I missed the metaphorical train on this. Truth is, I have not been ready until now. I remember the summer Katrina hit. I stood in disbelief as the events unfolded, the human callous out doing Mother Nature’s stormy onslaught. I remember feeling petrified, afraid of how I was reduced to a mere spectator from afar, gazing daily at the suffering of mainly black residents of New Orleans and the blatant disregard of our government. This feeling could not stand, so I along with my friend Daye and my future wife, signed up for a “disaster relief” course from the Red Cross. We were prepared to go to New Orleans and help in any way we could. In retrospect, relying on an institution to grant us “permission” and “training” to go help our brothers and sisters was unnecessary and ultimately futile, for it was not to be. The Red Cross said that there was a diminishing need for relief workers, as so many folks around the country had already been actively engaged and sent down to New Orleans. Historical hindsight being what it is, I never felt quite ready to see the deliberate destruction and designed despair that was to be the “re-building” of New Orleans. The neighborhoods left to rot while others were rebuilt. The closing and “charterization” of the entire public school system. I guess I was only ready to see this story dramatized on screen after the sobering reality of yet another disaster, Hurricane Maria, instructed me as student of history… this is the way of our world right now.

That is of course, unless we are called to action. And this is I guess the main struggle of my summer. The continuing questioning of action. What can I be doing? Am I doing enough? There is no one answer. On any given day, at any given moment the answer, for me at least, can change from the negative to the affirmative. These are often questions of focus. As someone who often lacks focus, who wants to pretend to concentrate on everything, I have had to remind myself of a previously stated intentionality of focus at this time in my life: family. My wife is my daily reminder of the importance of parenting to any movement related to social, political, or economic justice. How we raise our children will indeed have impact on our future circumstances. No matter how many times I have marched, or contacted my representatives, or voted… there is nothing as powerful as cultivating the imagination of a child towards empathy and reflection. Reading my daughter’s book is just another reminder that my focus has to be on my children right now. And all of the other things we know we must do to stay vigilant in these times.

Organizing the Outrage 101

In the face of the atrocities that grow daily at the U.S. southern border, there is confusion about what we as the public can and should be doing. When those in power blatantly abuse their power only to demonstrate cruelty and the “checks” on that power in this “democracy” fail to even be acknowledged… what is a populous to do? Where is the resistance and outrage? To be sure it is there but what is missing is the mobilization. And this is the key problem.

Teachers and students across the country are out on “summer break” but it seems as if we might have to gear up and hold summer school for the nation. The mandatory course section our nation should be enrolled in? Organizing the Outrage 101. In our profession, as demonstrated by the recent waves of strikes in different states, teachers are constantly put into positions where we have to organize our colleagues, our communities, and now our entire nation. For those of us who have grown old and tired, we need to step into the instructor role of guide on the side, allowing for our students to remind us of the youthful energy often needed in defiance, as demonstrated all throughout history with student generated movements against war, state sponsored violence and neglect.

Other professions could aide even further in a mass mobilizing of the nation’s outrage and horror against this administration’s deliberate policy decision to monstrously and callously separate young children from their parents and hold them in detention center while mocking this very policy they are complicit in.

As Naomi Klein recently reminds us in her latest documentation of what she terms the Shock Doctrine, capital organizes much more quickly than people. The film industry could mobilize a mass of wealth and fame to go down to the border and confront these atrocities, using their bully pulpit to document, bring the mass corporate media with them, etc. God knows (as do you and I) that Congress should already be down there in their entirety, having cancelled their own “summer break” demanding that this practice cease immediately. But we also know that this won’t happen.

So it looks like it is up to us, once again. Teachers and students showing the nation what it looks like for truth to be spoken to power. While they organize and demonstrate their cruelty, we should all be organizing the nationwide response. Our unions should be contacting our members and rallying the war cry, the war for nothing less than the soul of our nation, which may very well already be lost. But that is not a reason to disengage. As teachers and students we know that to engage is to define the human spirit.

I am not sure that this will happen. And so I too am lost in confusion at this moment in time. But I am quite sure that this is entirely possible. And so I will write it as if it is so. To enroll in your mandatory summer course, please spread the word to your fellow classmates, the nation.

Stuck in trafficking… (originally titled: If you reach just one)

This past week during Open House at the Hawk, I helped to organize a community safety meeting that was to take place in our parent and family resource center. Like many initiatives and programs, this was an idea that was thought of and organized rather last minute, not fully leveraging our means to contact or parents and community members. This unfortunate reality of extreme multitasking that is not uncommon for many educators did not stop the event from being held. It did however drastically impact the number of parents that attended the evening’s presentation. As our community partners from Inner City Vision and I sat waiting to see what that number would be, a lone grandmother entered. She sat down and asked with nervous laughter if she could add someone to the list.

These words were written on March 26th of last year. I was going to continue to tell the amazing story of the one person who came to seek out information about child sexual exploitation and commercial trafficking, a very unfortunate reality that impacts the area along the Figueroa corridor that borders Hawkins High. I never got to complete this post before I left Hawkins.

The short of it was, on this night, that lone grandmother came to realize that her granddaughter, a former student of ours, had indeed exhibited every single tell sign of a victim of human sexual trafficking. She shared that her granddaughter had just been home after a year missing. She had come home weary, looking to rest. When grandmother noticed her tattoos, they were covered up and quickly concealed. When the questions of her “significant other” began, this young woman quickly put those lines of inquiry to an end. She was careful not to reveal what we would come to realize a week later in the Parent Center that night… a few days too late. The young woman disappeared again, leaving grandmother and family to wonder one more time.

Earlier this week I received a follow up email to an initial one I had never received. It was a request to assist in identifying and soliciting the participation of career and industry experts who may be available to see student presentations about human trafficking and homelessness, providing them feedback on a panel. This is an annual interdisciplinary project where 9th grade students in the Community Health Advocacy School choose a relevant and timely problem to explore and identify solutions to. This participatory action research project is aptly titled Rebuild Healthy LA. Pause and let that sink in for a minute. Today’s education, in order for it to be “relevant” and “hands on” (buzz terms often bandied about in the educational discourse) needs to ask youth to think through the most heinous of societal problems, how they came to be, and offer real viable solutions. It’s no small feat to dream of a world where a city’s residents can afford basic housing and shelter or where young girls and women can grow up and live safe, not having to fear that their bodies will become a mere object of a gratuitous and violent transactional underground economies.

This is both simultaneously hopeful and tragic, as often is much of the work of educators in inner cities across this country. Despite my not working in South Central Los Angeles any longer, I can never not invest in the hopeful side of the equation. So I reached out to my contacts I had cultivated around these tragic realities. Folks who had helped me think through appropriate interventions for young people caught up in gang life and consequential violence and trafficking. The same folks who helped organize my open house workshop a year ago. They responded immediately, more than willing to take another opportunity to engage young people in this most important work. It warmed my heart very much to see the unwavering commitment to the community these professionals have, and how they volunteered without hesitation to help cultivate the same in our young hawks.

A day later, yesterday I received a text from one of these professionals who had personally taken on the case of our young woman. The same woman who had helped me reach this grandmother that night at the school. We had kept in touch about the progress on her case. At one point she had been found and rescued. Awaiting programming for counseling and recovery, she had left again… reentering the trafficking world, were the cycle of violence is incredibly hard to escape. Yesterday’s text messages further helped me to know how this student’s story had developed. Below is an edited version of the text exchange with pertinent information redacted to ensure the safety and future recovery of said student.

This exchange continued and reminded me again that the world works in mysterious but often very encouraging ways. In meeting one person on one night, and connecting them with another, a path has opened up for one young girl to try and work towards hope. If there is such a thing as salvation, in my mind the closest thing we can do to achieve true understanding of it is to work together relentlessly in the name of hope.

In East Salinas, where I currently teach, human trafficking of young people and girls in particular, is indeed a problem. It is this reality that I am cautious about educating my young middle school students about, for fear of ending the last phase of childhood innocence. Yet it is the same reality that concerns me when students, like the one I wrote about in my last post, choose paths that increase the possibilities of tragedies like this. And yet we must remind ourselves at all costs that there is hope. Always.

Sites of Encounter…


As I prepare to end the year with my 7th graders and embark on yet another leg of my professional journey in a new role outside of the classroom, I have been thinking a lot about the space of the classroom. A week long schedule of online testing definitely opens up space to reflect and do a little bit of my own online writing.

I was first introduced to the concept of “sites of encounter” by one of my mentors in the profession, the wonderful Emma Hipolito (who is now the awesome director of UCLA’s TEP program… so proud!) She helped to walk me through the new history framework in order to prepare my return to the 7th grade classroom. Sites of encounter was a different way to think about historical events and interactions between different peoples that departs from the more traditional culture hopping one tends to do when teaching medieval world history. But in this post I want to use the conceptual framework to try and reflect and understand more my own historical journey this past year.

The site largely driving most of my professional encounters has been La Paz middle school. I have written before about the initial feelings I had about arriving in this new space, feeling like an outsider but not really. But I have not focused on the immense kindness and generosity I was welcomed with upon arriving here (as evidenced today by the heaping plate of homemade chilaquiles I was so graciously offered this morning.)

And yet within this overwhelming kindness from every single individual on campus, from custodial and grounds crews, to office and clerical staff, to teachers (both in and out of the classroom) and yes… EVEN the administrators (I purposefully stress this group of folks on campuses, as I know they often get a bad wrap from the teachers they support and “manage” even though their jobs are just as thankless, often times even more), I have come to understand some of the particular complexities and inner workings – collaborative and contentious – of this site. It is these complex encounters that have really occupied my mind of late, for they often defy traditional or conventional ways of thinking about concepts like professionalism, effectiveness, struggle and progress. We often hear people talk about the “soft skills” and how things like communication and reflection are more central drivers to the work we do than other professional capacities. In any case, this site – like any other I have ever worked at – has its productive and nonconstructive modes of approaching the sometimes seemingly impossible task of teaching adolescent youth…

Which brings me to the focus of what has been on my mind for the last couple of days: the classroom AND students. Every teacher, even those who burn out of the field long before their due time, has had students that they struggled to reach, let alone teach. I finally learned long ago to not take it so personally when I come across a student who for whatever reason under the sun, I just cannot “get through” to… they are not interested in further developing a necessary relationship with me to predicate the remainder of our work on basic things like respect. This is particularly possible when teaching middle school, that tumultuous time of life in the same type of system that often produces unintended and unforeseen consequences (positive or negative) but always changes a kid and often us adults who interact with these students.

Every year I have had students who fall into this category and this year has proven to be no exception. And of the handful of students whom I struggle with this year, there has been one who has confused and frustrated me just a little more than others. That one student you wish and tried to connect with more to achieve some breakthrough… but it was not to be. Some of the details are familiar; challenging homelife, instability, lack of parental involvement, economic hardship, propensity for violent outbursts, defiant… brilliant, charismatic, and young. Despite these common traits that many of these young people share, I am always intrigued how each individual materializes their own destinies, exercising both agency and free will, while simultaneously succumbing to the institutional realities that often dictate the availability of these choices. And in reflecting on this, I have been thinking about the classroom as the site of encounter for these students.

In the case of this student in question, she began the year challenging my authority in the classroom. It was clear that this would be a continual event throughout the year. It was also evident that she was very bright and that if I could help direct her propensity to create problems in our classroom towards actually solving problems, she could become quite the student. I must also state a couple of things at this point. One, I definitely held back this year in terms of cultivating the types of relationships with students that I am used to building. And I think I did this intentionally, recognizing the time and space I needed to take to begin to process and heal from some of the trauma I had been experiencing in my out of classroom role at Hawkins. Two: she did not present an existential challenge for my teaching practice, in other words she was not the most difficult student I have worked with in the classroom. For instance, my student this year quickly proved to be challenging, but nothing that ground the development of the class culture to a complete halt. I did suggest that she switch into another section of mine halfway through the year as to get away from a peer group that was serving more to distract her from achieving academically.

And yet despite the level of “offenses” being minimal to mild (yet on the daily) she was not able to engage in a productive manner in our classroom space. This was not the central problem for this student however. The social drama of middle school, in the end proved too much for her to handle. Overwhelmed by negative peer relationships and an inability to resolve conflicts without escalating to the point of violence outside the classroom helped to create a deeper disconnect within the classroom space which was irreversible. At least in the sense that she was not allowed to remain in my social studies class.

I did not have a say in this. In fact, I worked hard in the last few weeks to avoid this seemingly inevitable fate. You see, in our district and at our school site we have am option for students who continue to face difficulty in the classroom or on campus and it is called modified scheduling, which in essence reduces the course load and time spent on campus effectively by a third. Students thus identified are given “opportunity” to focus on a limited amount of classes and are sent home after 4th period. In my two years of intervention work in Los Angeles I had never come across this method of “intervening” and remained unconvinced of its merits in helping move a student like mine from beyond the margins and into a space where they can begin to re-engage with school and the classroom. Nonetheless it is a real intervention here, and one that this student in the end was purposefully trying to achieve. So much so that she would come into class and purposefully try to get removed, as to end up in the counselor’s office just one more time, thus triggering this “opportunity.” I refused to comply in this game. But I was not, in effect teaching her anymore, despite her presence in my classroom space. Our relationship had reached its low.

Until yesterday… when she attempted to sneak back into my class after morning testing had concluded. Despite doing this in a very nonchalant way, I pulled her aside and naively questioned what the deal was, knowing that she had been removed from my class administratively and was no longer on my roster. She momentarily played coi, revealing a bright smile that simultaneously communicated that she had been caught but that we were “cool” enough to have a cordial conversation. I let her know that she was no longer on my role sheet and then she relented on her efforts to enter the class with her friend, the sole reason for her wanting to gain access to our classroom space I suspect. And that essentially, would be the last time I encountered her in my classroom as her teacher, so it would seem.

And then I ran into her in the office, in her usual spot.. waiting outside the counselor’s office, even though her favorite counselor was on maternity leave. This site of encounter, often very different from the classroom space, has the potential to invite different interactions with students. I know this from many firsthand experiences with students in offices these last few years. This juxtaposition is rather fascinating when you come to think of it as I did. For this interaction was markedly different. Although we only exchanged a few words and a cookie, the feeling of formal authority and traditional scripts of interaction was waived for a less tense and common understanding. I told her that I wanted for her to figure things out and “get it together” so I could eventually see her at her high school graduation.

I plan to stay in this district as long as that would take but I also realize that even if that were true, the chances of her and I being in a classroom together as student and teacher were very slim. And I believe she realized that in a different way. And it is this the thing – long wait I know – but this shift in context and space drove a completely new interaction. Animosity ceased to exist in that moment. For there was nothing left for her to fight towards, as she had expressed her desire to be on this modified schedule and not be in my class any longer. She had “won” and I was left with yet another student whom I could not, for my part “reach.”

We passed each other on the way home at dismissal. I again made a simple joke. “Stop following me.” And she played along and laughed, “YOU stop following me.” We parted ways. Our last site of encounter… for a little while anyway. Whatever happens, I know that I will remember this particular student and all of our encounters, no matter how ineffective they may have been retrospectively rendered in a traditional sense as ineffective. And like all my students, even those I personally could not reach, I wish them nothing but the best until our next encounter no matter where it may be. And as I prepare to depart the classroom setting once again, I look forward to seeing from a different vantage point the successes and learning opportunities of my colleagues and our students that lie ahead.

Resist the Silence

Image courtesy of VOA - Students sit in silence during protest D.C. March 14, 2018
As the unfortunate reality of media hype and the 24 hour news cycle wears on, and our social media feeds replace the inspirational millions of young people and allies who marched this past weekend with the latest, dumbest distraction, and destruction out of the White House, I think it important to understand the not so glamorous part of sustaining a movement that happens behind the scenes… often without any media attention. The young people of Parkland and their allies, like the young people of Ferguson before them, have shown how their relentless energy can indeed be focused as well as disciplined. The burning question for movements is always one of sustainability. Can this energy continue to be focused towards true transformation of the status quo? If so, what will it take to ensure this?

One local lesson that I am continually inspired by is the work of Safe Ag Safe Schools (SASS). As I continue to deepen my involvement with this energized organization and their campaign to reform and ultimately end pesticide use in and around our schools and communities, I gain better understanding of how to move these demands through the local landscape of bureaucracy. One recent example is this recent school board resolution unanimously adopted by Greenfield Union School District. School board meetings and the resolutions that the public often force from them are a familiar battleground to my experience organizing youth. It is here where the people with power to most directly affect our realities as teachers and students can be confronted.

In working with SASS, I have also come to realize that the local work they have been doing has far reaching implications. If communities can continue to organize and put in place policies, resolutions, strong advisory boards, and even politicians committed to people rather than corporations… we can wield a power as great if not greater than those of the elite one percent that are indeed themselves organizing an all out assault on everything from the environment, to health care, education, Veteran’s affairs, and of course… militarized warfare.

Like the youth that galvanize these movements, adult allies need to utilize our ability to navigate these systems of power to help clear the way for our youth. We need to be as vocal as they are in our own arenas, as parents, professionals, and caring community members. Together we can help sustain our young people as they prepare to gear up for the fights ahead.

17

Today marks a day of solidarity and national demonstrations by the youth of our nation.  My school site organized 17 minutes to begin school with an on campus march as well as student speakers at lunch.  Having been active in the past to support student organizing efforts on my former campuses, today felt strange.  I admittedly stepped back from my usually comfortable role of helping to lead student organizing and was more of a spectator today, in particular for the morning walk around the field.  I was encouraged to see young leaders from our middle school step up and lead chants and hold posters communicating the sentiment of “END VIOLENCE NOW.  LESS TALK, MORE ACTION.”  And while these messages resonate with me at my core, I am still building up parts of that core here identity here in my new community.

And it feels strange, to be this mucho on the sidelines.  And it feels strange to not have as many students and teachers at least aware of the sides contextualizing this dire moment of national identity construction, let alone taking active stances on the issue.  Part of it I know is the reality of middle school development.  Teaching at this level again has reminded me of how young my students are, while simultaneously giving me hope and joy to see the childlike immaturity venturing away from raw innocence and ignorance… towards their unforeseen and undefined futures.  And part of it is excepting that this is not South Central Los Angeles.  I teach in an agricultural community and my identity as a social justice educator and activist has had to shift to meet this reality.  And yet it still didn’t seem right, never does really, to jump back into “business as usual” to forward my curriculum.  We don’t learn just by doing.  We need to reflect on what we have done.  And today, most of my students took a stand and walked out of their classrooms in solidarity with other young people… even if they didn’t fully understand the context of implications of their action.

That is where we teachers come in.  Our job is to help students make sense of themselves and the world around them.  Some would argue our job extends to the responsibility to show students that they have agency and that their actions can impact the world around them.  What continues to be evident throughout history is that young people will do these things with or without our help… so why not support?

Today I did what little I could do to aid in this effort, accepting the fact that I know I could have done more; that I am used to doing more.  But to do nothing but watch is unacceptable.  To me.  So instead of forcing my students to present their personal Tanka Poems to conclude our unit of study on Feudal Japan, we read articles from NEWSELA about the issues facing our youth and nation today.  We read articles about  youth leaders and their movements.  And then we reflected on the morning’s action.  Here are some of my students’ thoughts on this national day of action.

“i am honored to participate in today action it made me feel helpful.some concerned are the fact that they want armed teachers.I think that people that own guns should take classes about gun control .One question i have would be does trump think about the risks of an armed teacher.”

“I feel pretty proud of myself for participating in today’s action. Some Concerns I have as a student is not being safe with our gun laws and I feel very deep down sorry about the 17 students who came to school, thinking they were safe. I personally think we should have a stricter process when getting guns and increase mental health services since clearly that man who shot was ill. Who was the person that thought that it was right for EVERYONE to be able to get a firearm?”

 

“I feel good about participating in today’s action. My concerns as a student about gun violence and school safety is that they should stop selling guns to mentally ill people and schools should have more security.”

“What I feel about today actions was supporting the 17 victims. One concern that I have about school safety is that they shouldn’t let people buy guns under 21 or under. I think what should be done about this sad problem that happened in Florida is that they should put fences around the school.”
“I participated to show respect and love to the family members that lost their kids in the school shooting. Gun violence is not okay especially if teacher have guns in their classroom.”
“I did not particpate on the event this morning because i have anxiety and i feel like i can’t breathe when am around people i don’t know. What conercers me is what is a kid or teacher uses the gun and kills people or themselves. i think more safety rules.”
“why are people just having a big talk about this now. now that a big school shooting has happened , now you want to talk about that they want to change gun laws. This isn’t the first shooting that has happened this year. People have been talking about this and they just noticed. People have been killed, people have been injured, families have been ripped apart! But now people are thinking of giving teachers guns. What if teachers get mad at a student or the student is being disrespectful, how do we know the teacher wont pull out the gun and shoot, HOW DO WE KNOW that that wont happen???”
“I feel good about participating in today’s action because we are honoring the 17 lives that were lost. I am very concerned about teachers being armed. What happens if a student makes a teacher mad?! The teacher could kill everyone in the room. If they do pass this law then I hope they make sure that the teachers are not mentally ill.”

 “i don’t feel anything for what i had done today at school because how many times have their been a school shooting or just a regular shooting and we just don”t put much mind into it but i do not know why now when their have been countless times of shooting and we do nothing about it. Some concerns i have as a student is that what is someone tries to jump over the fence or go through the front office, we in my opinion just don’t have enough protection. Get more protection change some laws, but then again people do have the right to own or get guns.”

It is clear from the responses that there are a variety of thoughts and feelings regarding these issues. And there were so many more themes to come out of my students’ reflections.  As evidenced above, a lot of young people have deep concerns about the solution to arm teachers that has been so nonchalantly floated by Trump and even more embarrassingly by our Secretary of Education.   And why would they not be with stories like this coming out the same day (noted this would be my children’s neighborhood high school in the coming future.)  This amidst other ideas that are also problematic in and of themselves, like the understandable reaction to want more police presence on campuses, which we know from past youth led campaigns as well as current ones leads to other issues for young people.

In all, I am very proud of our students and district for attempting to support multiple ways for students to be involved in such an important time in our country’s history.  And to be clear, it has always been youth movements to prod this nation reluctantly forward toward more equitable and just realities.  But there is so much more to be done.  The energy that this movement has sparked is encouraging and I can only hope that it will continue to build and merge with other youth led movements like Black Lives Matter to create the type of broad based coalitions needed to take on and defeat the alt right, neo fascist powers that have taken control of our country.  My identity as a social justice educator continues to evolve, only with the help of what my students and their communities have to teach me… and my ability to reflect on these lessons.

Our damned children

I cannot describe how angry I am that our country, supposedly the “greatest on Earth” does not have the courage to stare into the depths of our individual and collective identities and sort out between the two where our obsession with gun culture will end and our real committment to nurturing our future generations will begin.  To come home yesterday, after teaching and learning with 140 plus young bright minds, and listen on the drive home yet another narrative of horror, tragedy and loss really just eats at one’s spirit.  Feeling simultaneously fearful and blessed that I had the opportunity to embrace my children upon arriving home from my place of work, a school… is something that I can never let myself take for granted.

After the last school shooting that was covered in the media, (at a school site where three of my friends and former colleagues worked) I had the opportunity to attend “live shooter” training.  This training was conducted by ALICE.  And although I can understand and even appreciate to a certain level the intent and ideas behind having such a training, a question still persists like a question in my mind. Why must there be professional training for educators on how to survive mass shootings at school sites?  Those who would answer with the response that these are just the times we live in, while correct in this assertion should know better.  This is not an adequate response.  Everyone should know better.  We are the nation that pats ourselves on the back for so many things, putting humankind into outer space, advancing democracy and freedom around the globe, and yet for all of our “achievements” however based in reality they may or may not be, we can’t figure out how to have a real conversation about how to protect the sanctity of real children in sacred spaces of learning? Or is there nowhere and nothing that is scared anymore?  We unfortunately know the answer to this.

Nevermind protecting the sanctity of unborn life… for God’s sake!  What are we doing to cherish and protect the lives of our children as we teach them how to build a better future?  We are normalizing trainings for the adults who care for them in these spaces that teach folks like me how to barricade doors with belts and desks, how to engage in potential counter measures to an active shooter, and how to evacuate without getting shot… if possible.

And while I appreciate a training in research based survival tactics… I am not at all ok with the notion that just because this is a reality, that this is in any way, shape, or form… right.  We can do better. We have to do better.  For our damned children.  My heart and thoughts go out to all those who have ever been affected by the violence of a mass shooting. I pray that we will have the common sense, courage, and strength to begin to envision a better world where this does not happen with the frequency that delegates tragedy to normalcy.

“Sell your cleverness…”

Yesterday morning’s #superbluebloodmoon was awe-inspiring for those of you up early enough on the west coast to witness this celestial event.  I felt blessed to have this otherworldly scene greet me first thing as I opened my front door at a quarter to six.  As I pulled up to the gym parking lot, a little later than I would’ve liked, I was compelled to suspend my routine (albeit it very new… as in 2 weeks new) start time.  I sat in the back of my car, just staring at the eclipsed moon, in all its darkened red glory.  I felt a little silly as people passed by me, some already having been productive in their personal fitness and some rushing towards whatever physical health goals they had previously established, while I sat dressed to work out and instead gazed at the sky.  The shyness quickly turned into shock and then sadness.  One person saw me gazing and stopped just long enough to ask me. “What is this all about?”  I responded as a matter of fact, but this seemingly innocent inquiry really got me thinking about the crisis of our modern relationship with our surroundings.

No doubt living back in the Monterey Bay region has reawakened a sort of environmentalism that has been lying semi-dormant for a long while.  This is after all the area where I put my finger on the brand of educational and spiritual training I felt most drawn to.  I have also been prompted reexamine what exactly I mean when I say “environmentalism” by some pretty profound writings of Paul Kingsnorth of Dark Mountain fame.  His collection of essays entitled Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays has been helping me survive the massive onslaught of “bad” news in the past year.  But in reality its been several years if not decades since the roots of extreme global capitalism have taken shape, forming a type of global consciousness (or lack thereof) devoid of any true connection to land and environment.  This is what became clearer to me early Wednesday morning.  How could anyone witnessing this eerie celestial event not pause to question and reassess their position in the “grand scheme” of things?  Even if only for a moment, a break in one’s gait long enough to view the sky through eyes of wonder.  How would our ancient human ancestors have viewed this gigantic blood-red sphere, hovering above, so differently than every other day?  How would they have rearranged the sublunary events of their day to accept a larger, profound, and more universal one?

I wondered about this and other questions as I stared into the early morning sky.  I also took a few pictures, with the intent of sharing.  I soon laughed at the silliness of this, not the instinct to share this with others like friends and family whom I texted despite the hour to see if they were fortunate enough to be awake and experience this, but the absurdity of trying to ‘capture’ this amazing image with my phone camera.  I walked away in awe and also distress.

Admittedly I have not been the best optimist of late.  I have real concerns about the state of just about everything in the world.  From the state of our own nation, to geopolitical realities that are unfolding, humanitarian crises, and the ever-growing threat of nuclear war.  But at the center of my pessimism is the absolute realization that we are not, by and large, not making this world a better place.  And I don’t just mean for people.  There are many who would argue, even quite successfully that we have. I mean making the world better for all life.  And I think there are also just as many (hopefully more) that could counter the argument of unlimited growth and progress leading to better qualities of life by recognizing that those processes that we engage in the name of progress are actually the main drivers of death.

And it is not that death is necessarily supposed to lead to pessimism.  We all are supposed to die.  All life leads naturally to death.  It is the obsession with staving off the natural declines and deaths of everything in favor of a false philosophy of infinite growth and wealth that eats at my soul daily.  Knowing that this philosophy drives most everyone in the modern world, including myself to live in ways that are murderous to everything that is actually sustaining to our lives.  And the cognitive dissonance is so real, that it has taken those of us who feel a drive to “save” our planet from the unnatural destruction of our own making to a place where we are dependant on the human solutions of technology and innovation, the ironic drivers of this destruction.  Kingsnorth pulls at this idea throughout his entire book of essays but utilizes the soul-stirring words of mystic poet Rumi to really drive home a much-needed paradigm shift.

“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment. Cleverness is mere opinion; bewilderment is intuition.” – Rumi

In my attempts to heed this advice and combat this pessimism before it devolves into permanent paralysis and inaction, I have recommitted to some key principles in my life.  The first is to get out in nature and be a part of it.  This has developed into a sacred and spiritual Sunday outing where our family explores the wonders of the wild and untamed world, recognizing our very small but important place in it. This may even turn into a more disciplined practice of something I used to enjoy many hours of in my youth, nature journaling. My wife recently stumbled upon this dandy of an idea, suggesting that we even consider taking his class as a family!

The second thing I have dedicated energy and time to is involving myself with a local organization working on a very important social and environmental issue, specifically in our local region. Salinas being the salad bowl of the world, industrial agriculture has bestowed both the blessings and the curses of mass food production. Pesticide use as a “reasonable” byproduct has long been questioned and challenged in the region, as far back as Cesar Chavez’s work with the UFW. It still is today. A local community organization called Safe Ag Safe Schools, a part of Californians for Pesticide Reform, is leading the charge to help change regulatory policy of pesticide use near and around schools. After attending one meeting, I was energized to continue to deepen my involvement with this dedicated group of people. From banning chlorpyrifos to eliminating the use of Round Up on school campuses, there is still so much work to be done with regards to challenging the ill and often catastrophic impact of our modern-day food systems.

These are the things that have helped me to begin reintegrating my spirit into this land again. That and being able to spend more time with family and friends. And even though there are many moments where things feel hopeless and strange, there are still many more moments to embrace the grandeur of where we are and what is actually possible… when one invests in bewilderment.

Fiction in a history classroom?

Go figure… So I’ll admit that the two previous years I spent out of the k-12 classroom saw certain instructional skill sets accumulate some rust. In particular my abilities and propensity for fostering an environment of creativity and imagination have been largely overshadowed this year by an intense focus on all things reading and writing academic. Of course this is not all bad, we had a killer Socratic Seminar discussion on Islamic extremism and immigration policy… but it is not necessarily as good as I want it to be. So this week I took some inspiration from the DBQ project and began preparing my students to write their first historical fictional narratives.

Although nothing fancy about it, no groundbreaking gaming technology or social media implications (though I was really hoping that storium.edu was up and running already) the mere act of dreaming up their own character fostered such animated and lively discussion that I felt the slightest bit of guilt for not having yet attempted more creative assignments like this.

This was not a groundbreaking realization admittedly. History teachers are taught that strategies like role plays and first hand experiences help students to internalize some of history’s lessons. This was more of a wake up call to not to forget to have fun and create with students while they are “studying.”

In the lead up to this lesson on West Africa, I took the advice of a colleague of mine and created a scenario based lesson where students were treated like special agents. Recycling some of my old IG posts of my time in Washington D.C. visiting the DOE, I momentarily convinced many students that they were indeed helping the government to determine whether we should use federal gold to purchase unidentified substance (salt).  It was another fun reminder of the power of imagination and play in unlocking avenues  for academic and real life inquiry.

The best part of this has been reading the amazing stories the student came up with. Some of these kids already have real talent in writing.  They were able to create emotionally complex characters and connect them to both the history and me, the reader.  This is definitely something I want to do again.

Reading “through” the news…

Around this time of year, usually I would be preparing to teach a Critical Media Literacy class with Jeff Share at UCLA. The class aims to get teachers to think through helping students (and increasingly adults) critically think about our media consumption/production. As I most likely will not be teaching the course this year, my appetite for all things critical media literacy has been grumbling. Despite that feeling of confused hopelessness that many of us feel these days in the “post truth” era, I am very excited to continue helping others around me think deeply about the corporatized media landscape and its impact on our daily lives, in particular as learners in classroom settings.

Having found some colleagues in Salinas who share this interest and passion, I am in the beginning stages of thinking through professional development for teachers. Recently inspired by our district’s tech showcase conference out on by teachers for teachers, the ideas began to flow. This recent NPR story further serves to drive the point, what many of us have been actively trying to impact for years as classroom instructors.

Our district’s educational technology unit, which has helped lead the district’s certification for Digital Citizenship from Common Sense Media, also holds monthly trainings on topics of interest to teachers. In thinking through a possible upcoming training, we began discussing the simple skill of online search querying, or in other words “Googling.” Interestingly here were last year’s top overall searches. And of course, once we began talking Google, we couldn’t help but bring up Safiya Noble and her upcoming book release (which I am personally so excited for) Algorithms of Oppression.

I am excited to continue dialogue that seeks to deepen our understanding of some of society’s most salient features today; search engines, online media, schooling, and the ability to discern fact from fiction. Educators, how do you use media in the classroom and how do you get students to think critically about it and evaluate its authenticity and reliability? Parents, how do you help your children think through what they are consuming and producing for the web? (note the strategic invite to leave a comment below and interact with this blog 😉