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.

“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.

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 😉

Redefining and remembering myself, “as an educator.”

It’s taken me awhile to wean myself off of the last chapter of my professional life at Hawkins. As I’ve written many times here, that chapter was the most difficult and most rewarding narrative to live for me. And the fact is I still love and live part of that narrative, everyday. In my new classroom at La Paz middle school I have a Wall by my desk dedicated to family and friends, former colleagues and past students, and students who’ve passed. I often send and receive texts from the many loved ones who were once a part of the Hawk’s nest and like me have moved into other spaces and phases, as well as from those who are still there, helping new hawks to soar. I still get calls and text messages from former colleagues and students alike, asking about this or that… almost as if I’m still there, at the nest. And I love this, but it has also made starting anew somewhat difficult. Real tensions between holding on to what is loved… and learning to let go.

I’ve been cautious to let new colleagues and students in, guarding myself from the potential hurt that comes with giving a community and their young people your all… every piece of you. For this is what teachers are often asked, rather expected to do. Give everything you have and then some. But what is left for you? For your own children? What lessons are left unexplored by the teacher who has nothing left for crucial reflecting?

In a recent professional development, a friend and colleague of mine reminded us in his facilitation that, “People do not learn by doing, they learn by reflecting on what they have done.” Critical reflection is paramount to any sound pedagogy in my experience, but it is often the first thing sacrificed. Much like this post has been in draft form for over a month. I am certain I am not alone in the profession as a classroom teacher at multiple levels experiencing the phenomenon of constantly reading (student work, new research, dialogue between colleagues, narratives from outside the profession, etc.) but never giving oneself time to respond. It is through this dialogue and critical reflection where true learning happens.

So what have I learned in the last year of career transition? So many things. For starters I have learned that “as an educator” it is more than ok to take a step back and pause some of the work we initiate on multiple fronts, especially when driven by the ethos of social justice and equity. I have learned that it is okay to also step back into the role of follower even after having occupied positions of leadership for so long, in fact it is essential to re-align oneself with missions and visions intentionally and effectively. This of course requires investments in trust and relationships that drive the necessary collaboration. I learned that it is ok to build new relationships slowly, pausing more to listen and observe rather than share and interject. These may seem like simple lessons, and to some extent they are. What is not as easy is to reinvent yourself in a new place and new context.

It is this last part that excites me for the coming year. Since the time I began writing this post I have met many people who are committed to equitable and transformative education who are willing to collaborate and share their work in the efforts to affect change. From continual pushing instructional outcomes for our most disadvantaged student populations (language learners and special education students) to the adoption of innovative and equitable technology integration in our classrooms, I have once again realized how fortunate I am to be surrounded by hard working educators who care deeply about the students and communities they serve. I have also remembered that I am more than just an educator… and it is ok to focus time and energy developing my other important identities. In fact, it to is necessary. Here is to new year filled with learning, through both success and struggle in the continued fight for educational, social, and environmental justice.