Words, Break-Throughs, and TGIFs

on my morning commute yesterday i rode my bike through the part of downtown Los Angeles that everyone knows exist but does not want to admit exists. i have been there many times and yet it never ceases to amaze and sadden me, the amount of people living on the streets, without jobs, shelter, food, just your basic necessities that a lot of us take for granted… and i thought to myself, “i wonder how universal TGIF is really?”

this past week at work was long, like the previous 2 or 3… there have been many amazing examples of our stakeholders coming together to create a school that is supportive and innovative in committing to educational excellence. yet there have been just as many disheartening instances of disregard for authority and self-respect, destroying rather than building. to talk about all of the things that i have observed and thought about in relation to these rather long work weeks… it would be tediously long, incoherent, and overwhelming. so i just want to talk about yesterday, friday.

after my morning bike commute through Little Tokyo, Skid Row, and South Central Los Angeles, i arrived at work only to find out that the only true out of classroom personnel (my principal and school counselor) were not going to be in today. this happens too frequently as they are continually pulled out for district trainings and such, leaving our already understaffed campus to make due with less supervision staff… picture me and other teachers walking the campus during lunch and prep periods… after i realized that these key staff members would not be able to assist on this day i attempted to address the issue of one of my students and his foster guardian. this student has had difficulty all year just remaining in class, electing rather to roam the campus and hallways, which should be an easy fix if not for our complete shortage of supervision staff. he has also struggled with respecting authority. his foster guardian, who has successfully fostered 3 generations of children including the three currently living with her at the moment, was there to express her overwhelming concern and realization that she could no longer deal with the difficulties of raising said student at the expense of her own health or the future success of his foster mates. after 30 minutes of counseling and mediation between these tow parties, i was able to get him to commit to at least attending and remaining in ALL his classes that day as well as respectfully addressing any adult that he had an exchange with…

i next went on to manage a last minute attempt to decorate my classroom door (pics to come) with inspiring and informative messages regarding the college alma mater of my lovely wife. from there it was on to class (four 85 minute periods with only lunch as a break… even days are my most tiring) where i am currently attempting to manage a large scale hallway transformation project, my first real full scale “DESIGN” project in my geography class. we have gotten a lot of positive feedback (full on analysis and sharing of this project to come shortly) but nonetheless it is somewhat stressful to have 35 9th graders spread out between the hallways, classroom, with exacto knives and masking tape!

as the day progresses, the lack of supervision staff always makes itself real apparent, after lunch especially… as it did on this day. instead of fights that draw huge mobs of students, tagging wars on the walls, smoking in the stairwells or bathrooms… today it was a false fire alarm, broken extinguisher, and vandalized 4th floor foamed to the max with whatever is in a fire extinguisher.

i have to write about these experiences as truthfully as possible. i have to believe that an honest reflection of what is actually going on in our schools will lead to deeper understanding and more effective strategies on how to mitigate the negative while simultaneously capitalizing and recreating the spaces for possibility… positive transformation. but needless to say after enough of these types of experiences, one begins to feel defeated.

so we come to the end of the day… the part of the day where i am supposed to be looking towards the end with relief, more anticipating the cold beverage i will be sharing with colleagues than the next work day i will have the privilege to serve my students in this capacity… my “TGIF” moment. at the last minute i remember one of my last commitments of the day. this commitment began earlier this year when i realized that one of my more academically capable english language learning (ELL) students REFUSED to speak any utterance of english, despite being able to read and write at a basic level of fluency in her second language. a little more background, her family came from El Salvador about two years ago. her brother is also enrolled in my class, has been since day one yet i have never met him. when i asked her about this she explained to me that her mother could not afford to pay the rent with what she was making and so her brother – and the rest of the family – collectively decided that it would be better for him to work full time than to finish high school. her refusal to say anything in english stems from a real and genuine FEAR about how others will perceive her accent, intelligence, and social worth. this is quite common amongst ELL students and it is something that our educational system is not equipped to address effectively. throughout the year i have had multiple talks, pleadings, and interventions… the last one took over 45 minutes and involved some of her peers, all of us BEGGING for her to say anything in english. that intervention ended with her finally reading a passage of her own notes in english, which she had to do in order to leave my classroom. teaching the fundamentals of language acquisition and development at the graduate level, i am able to recognize when a students’ language fluency is being stymied by an actually inability vs. a perceived reality… both of which are serious when it comes to the development of one’s ability to use “Words” (click here for a fascinating Radio Lab episode on understanding their power) the way our society expects… her tell tale sign was her ability to write, observing her write down her response to my warm ups in class in english, i could tell that she was thinking in english, much like how they say when you dream in a second language than you have arrived at a certain level of fluency (although there has been little to any research that i am aware of that shows any correlation between language proficiency and language use in dreams)

i finally decided to MAKE her speak the english that i knew she could. i casually threw a book at her and her friend. i chose a passage and told them that they had to practice reading it out loud, all week, and that i wanted to hear it by friday. at the time i was not thinking about how that might impact her TGIF experiences, but rather i was trying to FORCE a break through. mind you this approach would not have worked if i did not invest a lot of time forging a relationship with this student, having the privilege to have her both in my geography class and in my advisory. it has been a precarious cultivation, discovering the fine line between truly supporting and challenging her. in this instance it paid off. she stayed after all the students had left. we sat down at the desk. and she began to read…

it was fantastic. and not so much for her “fluency” in reading the words off the page (though she literally stumbled over 3 words that would be difficult for any non native speaker)… but for the sound of her voice… the tonal and rhythmic quality, absent of the same fear, lowered of her affective filter enough to just read a powerful passage and add to its significance. layering a top of the story about a young girl murdered in an moment of compounded misunderstanding and injustice, her own narrative of reclaiming her confidence and finding the power of her voice.

my friday had been made complete, despite an intense week of both victories and defeats, i could end on a momentary win. i am not sure of the significance, if any, the acronym TGIF can provide any of us beyond a silly #hashtag that has evolved from an even sillier period of sitcom television and tag lines. but i can say looking back on this past friday, form the start to the end… i am thankful for the opportunities to do what i do and the ability to recognize the possibility in all of the problematics, if only for a few moments… hopefully not just reserved for fridays.


there is something sacred about circles… and perhaps a little uncomfortable. particularly in the education world, where there is a strange evolution of the use of circles. we begin in kindergarten (or preschool for those of us who are fortunate enough to afford it) and circles are in our everyday routine. by the time we reach high school, to circle up is to feel awkward, embarrassed, and vulnerable. sharing parts of ourselves in those spaces seems to become very difficult.

at my new school we are trying to change that. both by design and what i find even more interesting is how much of it is impromptu. take lunches for instance. i have never been one to frequent the faculty cafeterias or break rooms. i was taught as a young teacher to stay away from those spaces, as they supposedly had the tendency to breed nothing but negativity in the form of talk (complaining) about our students, the community they were from, the profession that we chose, etc. and for the first 7 years of my teaching career this was fairly accurate. in contrast i have eaten lunch with my colleagues in the Critical Design and Gaming School probably more than in the last 7 years combined. and not that i didn’t break bread with folks i worked with ever… but it was never at the officially designated architectural place… and it was never the majority of my colleagues. where as this year, almost every teacher in our small school is always eating together, everyday.

but not just eating together… sharing ideas, talking about instructional highlights, bring in student work samples, and even informally lesson planning… together. lunches in the staff break room have become a place of personal inspiration…

One of the Circles I had the good
Fortune to participate in truly opened my eyes to the power of this democratic geometry. My very own principal invited me impromptu to sit in on this peculiar but not so uncommon situation… A conflict that needed resolving. 8 students walking out of a first year teacher’s class, delicate feelings to be navigated on both sides. Eventually through this hour long dialogue, there ceased to by sides. There was deeper understanding and renewed commitment to teaching and learning from all members involved. Powerful to say the least.

This post has been in draft form since September 8th. Since then I have been bombarded with the realities of working at an innovative start up public school in the inner city, as well as becoming a father again. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to share a post of such raw optimism experienced in our 3rd week of opening these dream schools in week 8 of a very challenging year. But alas I can. And it’s important. If only to Remind me that I still work within the context of possibility, limited only by our commitment to our own imaginations. Circles beget creativity, democracy, and community. The other… Status quo