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.

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.