Civic Duty, Decisions, and Unintended Consequences


The decisions we make as educators and policy makers clearly have impact on students’ lives. The further you are removed from the school site, the harder that is to see sometimes. And embedded within all decisions are unintended consequences, some anticipated and others left to be uncovered by time. My school board’s recent vote was to approve Ethnic Studies as a graduation requirement was no different. Last night, the school board meeting was packed beyond capacity, generating concern from the fire marshal. The main issue that drew so many of my colleagues out was a proposal put forth by the district at the negotiating table that would eliminate the salary table for teachers. While I clearly have really strong feelings about that, I will save that for another post (while optimistically hoping that I will not have to speak more on that utter nonsense.) The second issue that drew many of my colleagues to stay and speak until well past 9pm was the board’s proposal to make Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement. This is what I want to reflect on in this post.

In my current role I have been lucky enough to begin coordination of support for a core team of dedicated educators who led the charge to bring Ethnic Studies to our district, this being the first full year of its offering as a year long elective in two of our four high schools. Helping these teachers continue to think deeply about the critical pedagogy and curricular resources needed to effectively implement this program has been some of my most engaging and exciting work because of my direct experience with students in this type of teaching. And while I have never taught an “official” Ethnic Studies course, I have been part of the movement to bring the foundational theories and practices that underlie Ethnic Studies into all of the courses I have since taught. This work has led me to reconnect with old friends and colleagues as well as form new relationships in the effort to tap into and further build a community of educators committed to the field. It has been wonderful to have the support of my district in this endeavor.

Up until two weeks ago I wouldn’t have changed anything to this regard. Then came the proposal to make Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement for all students in our district. To be clear, this is a proposal that I unequivocally support. And yet I was compelled to speak directly to the body of decision makers last night about the way this proposal came to our board. As is common practice in many school districts, a committee is formed with the mission of asking questions, fact finding, and idea generating when systemic changes are being considered. In this case the impetus for a committee formation was the examination of whether or not our current graduation requirements were serving the majority of our students. Assuming that the committee was looking at everything from graduation rates, to college acceptance/retention, and juxtaposing that with the most current and relevant research; they arrived at the consideration to make Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement, probably recognizing that these programs have shown overwhelming success in positively impacting students in all of these areas, in particular are most marginalized students of color. I say assume and probably because I was not on this committee but neither was any teacher who was part of or is currently teaching the course. And while that still might not surprise or require concern, it is fundamental to understanding why our colleagues who teach health were also prompted to speak passionately about their course to the board last night and do so in a way that complicated the desire for a unified teacher front in a largely teacher driven district (I am not sure which school district in America is not “driven” by the engine that is classroom teachers but I know of many that do not place teachers in a position to help steer… and up until now I have not directly experienced this within my current district.)

What was more concerning especially to health teachers was that there were also no health teachers on the committee. And the point is quite simple: there should have been both. In making the historic recommendation to move Ethnic Studies into the category of required courses for graduation and not increasing the number of units to do so, both courses would have to be reduced from a year to a semester. And this is where the sticking point was. Again, it is not out of idealism or naivete that I chose to speak my board members about this. Once it was made clear the goals we were attempting to accomplish as a district, including the parameters, it was clear that other courses would be impacted. I return here to process. If the process had involved more direct stakeholders from an earlier stage, we possibly could have avoided the emotional and political entanglement that informed the board vote. And while I was impressed by the level of collegiality and solidarity within the face of clear disagreement and division (real or perceived) I do not believe that it had to be done this way. What if health and Ethnic Studies teachers had been able to be part of the discussion together? Would they have been able to speak in support of a resolution they both believed did more good than harm to students? Might they have had a more common understanding of the difficulty but necessity of such a decision? Would they have been more inclined to collectively imagine a change to the system as opposed to advocating in essence to keep the status quo? These are the questions that I wanted to pose to our board members to keep in mind as we move forward with what I still believe will be in the best interest of all our students and will move us closer to our shared goals of equity and success for all students.

Whether or not the sentiments expressed by stakeholders will inform the planning and implementation of this decision moving forward remains to be seen. I am hopeful that it will. And I know that I will bring my best self to any conversation or work that centers student needs in development of initiatives to get those needs met. I just hope that lessons learned from the process will better inform us moving forward.

Why LA teachers should remain optimistic


The historic teacher strike ended yesterday as the Union and the District reached a tentative contract agreement that was later ratified by teachers And although not every teacher who participated in the strike voted to ratify this agreement (as evidenced by their outrage in the comments section of the live-streaming of press conferences announcing next steps) here are some reasons that teachers should hold their heads up high.

1. Teachers effectively organized one of the largest and most diverse cities in the world to speak with one voice and therefor exercised REAL power. If we were to take Eric Lui’s definition of power (in the awesome video below) then we can see this strike as proof of concept that numbers matter. And therefore the multiyear effort the UTLA engaged was able to pay off in this regard. Thousands of parents and community members were empowered by these organizing efforts and may very well continue to play important roles in bettering and protecting our public educational system.

2. The union was able to limit the power of the district. This is no small feat. And not all teachers may agree or even understand how this was accomplished. For even though reduction of class sizes by numbers, to many, was not sufficient (or they expected more), the reality moving forward ends the power of the district to arbitrarily raise them again should they feel the need arise in the future. This is now codified in language requiring this to be negotiated in the future with teachers.

3. Raising the conversation while raising spirits. This I feel cannot be overstated. When the national dialogue around HUGE issues has all but died (see state of the government shut down among other things) this strike galvanized not just the LA community but the nation as well around articulating and supporting shared values and even definitions of public education. It was also able to bring other decision makers into the fold to contribute to the dialogue, demonstrating that even in the face of massive disagreement (and even a lack of trust and goodwill) that civil public discourse can continue as long as the power of the people are pressuring it so.

This last point is probably one that some might contest. For already there are those who feel that the strike was not worth the deal it got out. And while it is unusual to see in a tentative contractual labor agreement “vows” to work together to garner political will and policy action, the way that this all played out cannot be dismissed as insignificant. Teachers were never going to get everything they demanded in this round of negotiations. What they did get was a national recognition and reminder of the power of collective voice to disrupt and begin to change the system. In this lesson, we can come to understand that the teachers never really stopped teaching; the question is will the rest of us remember these important lessons?

UTLA teacher Strike is about continuing to fight for and cultivate community schools

The last week has been a mix of emotion for me as I watch scenes pour in from the historic teacher work stoppage on my various modes of connected technologies. And while the real distance of time and space has at times brought on a strange sense of melancholy fomo, the overwhelming emotion that has informed my work this week has been one of pure pride and optimism. The text messages, tweets, IG stories, and at times even our media outlets have helped to communicate what is at the heart of this strike and a larger movement; community. Contrary to how many outside the Los Angeles educator community may see and understand this “sudden” demonstration of collective power across the city, this has been the culmination of years of hard work and fighting.

And while a part of me wishes this moment had happened in 2009 before we laid off thousands of young and talented teachers in the district and across the state, it is quite clear looking back from this moment that we were not ready. What we are witnessing right now from the teachers, students, parents, and community members that have showed up in force across the entire expanse of the urban and suburbanscape of Los Angeles is revelation that community organizing works and that it is absolutely vital to the progress of any movement towards equity and justice. Despite the conversations I have had with folks close to me who continue to insist that this strike is not the answer, to me and many others it is clear that the strike is the way to get people talking about the real problems; and eventually answers. I am also of the school of thought that not everything worth learning has to be or even can be learned in school. With all the renewed buzz for civics education, one would be remiss in dismissing the power of learning about social movements by being an actual part of one, by having your voice heard alongside of tens of thousands of other voices all saying the same thing. This is something that cannot be replicated within a classroom, despite many educators’ efforts to critically think through how to authentically engage our students’ voice.

Striking is not sustainable, but an organized disruption to a corrupt and broken system is essential to get towards a more sustainable and equitable solutions finding process. And we can see that this is already happened. Not only are both parties back at the bargaining table, but this has sparked statewide and national conversations about how we fund and fundamentally see public education with the context of our democracy; which like others around the world is currently being tested to see whether or not it will survive the onslaught of right wing populism and corporatization.

As this next week begins I continue to look forward to seeing the outpouring of support that educators have galvanized nationally from this strike. I also hope folks continue this support and dialogue beyond the inevitable end date of the strike. For it is only through this continual organizing work that we will begin to break through the realities of structural racism and the inequality of its legacy in education.

Voting day

Today is here. And tomorrow will come. In the meantime it is our duty to engage in our democracy. On the best days, our country and its systems of rules and laws is the most diverse body politic ever unified in the history of the world, often championing civil rights, freedoms of speech, religion, and generally espousing tolerance. On our worst days, people die and we lose our humanity. We have not had so many best days of late. As a history student and now teacher, it’s clear that the divisive (disgusting) rhetoric of fear and intolerance has not been seen at these levels since Andrew Jackson’s presidency. The white male supremacy that this country is founded on has never ceased to exist. But despite it, or perhaps in-spite of it, our greatest examples of social justice have been born. And yet I have to believe that our best days are still ahead.

As I wait in a church parking lot for my polling place to open, I’m reminded of all that drives me to vote today; my identity as a son of immigrants, married to a daughter of immigrants, father of children, two of whom are daughters, and my membership in this American society. We, the people are the institutions. It is only us that can change their design and direction. Am here to do just that this morning. Join me. And not just today, but tomorrow as well. And everyday forward that you can and are able. This is our duty and our freedom so long as we will act it out.

Year 2… a “new” chapter

It has been a little over a year since I left Los Angles Unified and joined the Salinas Union Hig School District.  Jumping back into work last week as well as a package I recieved in the mail prompted a pause for reflection, something I hope to do more of this year, while simultaneously encouraging teachers of my district to do the same.  Leaving Los Angeles was difficult, having had so many powerful and transformative experiences “as an educator” over the past one and a half decades.  And yet, last week I was refreshed to remember how much of that work and many of those experiences have transcended their original and originating geography.

Many moments have sparked this realization. Working again with my long time friend and now director Antonio Garcia is very exciting. In working here in Salinas I know that both of us harken back to our work in South Central Los Angeles, carrying our scars (both emotional and some physical) born of both victory and loss. I know these help orient our collective efforts here. Memories of when we were young and impatient with the educational system. I remember meeting in my small apartment, organizing with other like minded social justice educators towards visions of our own school. These memories play just in the back of my mind every time I walk into our office space. It is a good feeling to know that he once again will be pushing me to be my best self as we collaborate towards improving educational and life outcomes for students in Salinas.

Another reminder of the connections across time and space came last week as I helped ground the work of our new social studies teachers in the district. Many of my workshop participants were my former CSUMB students from last fall. We picked up almost right where we left off, connecting the theoretical foundations of equitable education with their pedagogical practices. It was exciting to have this energy and momentum, built on relationships and trust. This same trust allowed for an open invitation into one of my new teacher’s classroom space where I got to observe some (very much needed for me as I adjust to my new work/learning space of the #cubiclelife) student interaction: a dialogue centered on students’ expectations of their teacher. This brought a smile to my heart as I struggled this week to find my own rhythms without the aide of the young people around me. It was an important signal to appreciate the power of moving forward.

Meeting with some of our district’s amazing educators and learning about the work they have been undertaking was inspiring. It was also a pleasant surprise to again see connections to people and places from the past, realizing that many of the people and practices that were foundations for the development of our new ethnic studies program were indeed familiar and shared. As is often the case with educators in “LA to the Bay,” we too in Salinas share a community of progressive practice.

Yet the most powerful reminder that some of my life’s previous chapters are not closed per say but instead are directly connected to the work I am still doing cane in the form of a written and published chapter. I must say that I was both excited and nervous to see my name alongside that of my brethren educators and close friends for many reasons. One being that although we did our best to capture the narrative of our collective journey and include all of the multiple voices that were part of it, there is always an apprehension that something important was missed. And for sure there most likely was. But in my heart I know we gave everything in our attempt to capture the important history of our work with Schools for Community Action and represent the collective experience.

It is this giving of everything that had me feeling a mixture of things as I opened the package, for it prompted a painful but necessary reflection on my only my professional journey but my personal life as well. For in giving your all to something, you often fail to realize that you are taking some from another. This was indeed the case for myself and my family. Despite our best attempts at Hawkins to create and institution that respected and tried to integrate family into the core of our being, the work often required that our families make great sacrifices of time and presence. It was these sacrifices that I was unable to see clearly, even in my last days in Los Angeles as we were both metaphorically and literally finalizing this chapter for publication as well as my family’s chapter in LA. It is not an exaggeration that this inability to see this reality almost cost me my marriage and family.

And it is this complex perspective that I gaze back on the last year, several years with, knowing that all powerful learning is a struggle. But the act of critical reflection is indispensable. As I look forward, I am excited by the opportunities with both former and new colleagues. I am even more excited to work towards mastering sustainability and dignity within my family and work communities of practice. In this work I take everything that I am and all that I have been in order to create and refine who I will be in this uncertain future. Year 2, here we come.

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.