Go figure… So I’ll admit that the two previous years I spent out of the k-12 classroom saw certain instructional skill sets accumulate some rust. In particular my abilities and propensity for fostering an environment of creativity and imagination have been largely overshadowed this year by an intense focus on all things reading and writing academic. Of course this is not all bad, we had a killer Socratic Seminar discussion on Islamic extremism and immigration policy… but it is not necessarily as good as I want it to be. So this week I took some inspiration from the DBQ project and began preparing my students to write their first historical fictional narratives.
Although nothing fancy about it, no groundbreaking gaming technology or social media implications (though I was really hoping that storium.edu was up and running already) the mere act of dreaming up their own character fostered such animated and lively discussion that I felt the slightest bit of guilt for not having yet attempted more creative assignments like this.
This was not a groundbreaking realization admittedly. History teachers are taught that strategies like role plays and first hand experiences help students to internalize some of history’s lessons. This was more of a wake up call to not to forget to have fun and create with students while they are “studying.”
In the lead up to this lesson on West Africa, I took the advice of a colleague of mine and created a scenario based lesson where students were treated like special agents. Recycling some of my old IG posts of my time in Washington D.C. visiting the DOE, I momentarily convinced many students that they were indeed helping the government to determine whether we should use federal gold to purchase unidentified substance (salt). It was another fun reminder of the power of imagination and play in unlocking avenues for academic and real life inquiry.
The best part of this has been reading the amazing stories the student came up with. Some of these kids already have real talent in writing. They were able to create emotionally complex characters and connect them to both the history and me, the reader. This is definitely something I want to do again.
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.
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 😉
I do not want to spend my time writing about our nation’s current leader. I feel that our first year under his presidency was dominmated by an endless cycle of comsumption of the most ridiculous, abusrd, offensive, and flat out scary stories that I and many others have read about in recent memory. This morning’s addition to this never ending stream of assaults on humanity and the earth disguised as tweets struck me in a way that I felt the need to reflect and write on.
I got the chance to catch up with an old friend, who was going to take her sons to the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico this past weekend. As I was responding to her instagram post of success in the underground caves with kids, my phone was alerted of this story. I found it a sobering and sad juxtaposition of child/adult realities of our complex world.
These tensions and complexities are my trade as a history and geography teacher. It is my aim to help future generations identify and understand not only the broad themes of history covered in my classes such as power, conflict, and change but I also strive to have opportunities for students to deeply explore the details and nuances contained in everyday narratives. It is ideal when I can coax students into believing their own personal stories are worthy enough to bring into classrooms as authentic academic explorations. Yet in taking this approach to educating young people, it is often challenging to seperate the personal from the academic. Especially when national and global stories have direct implications on not only student populations that I have taught in the past… but real human beings whom I’ve developed relationships with.
Today’s episode of The Daily Podcast struck such a chord (defintely worth the 22 minute listen as it is on most days). As I drove tp work and listened, I couldn’t help but thinking of the many Salvadorian students that had an impact on me over the years, their families, and their now uncertain futures. It was upsetting to be reminded of the all too real history that I of course know and try to illuminate for student when I can in classes where America’s history and policy in Latin America presents itself as a focus. What was harder was to visualize the students whom I’ve known in my career who have been or were actively trying to be a part of MS-13 or who’s journies out of their war torn country was unimaginably terrifying and traumatic.
And although these realities have always been there… it is just slightly more demoralizing and difficult when you realize that our “leader” is purposefully disrupting people’s lives just because he can. Because he feels threatened and invulnerable all at the same time, byproducts perhaps of his sick conception of what it means to be both stable and a genius. Or perhaps this is just a newer version of what has always been a brand of American politics and culture. Either way it weighs heavily on the mind and soul.
The question for this year, and most likely for many years to come is: what to do about it? How will we sustain in the face of contiued callous attacks on humanity? One thing that continues to provide me strength is recognizing the seemingly infinite resilience of those who are under attack and continue to fight. Young people who find ways to grow despite the situations that would dictate otherwise. Though I think it is somewhat dangerous to disregard the realities and history of systemic oppression and inequality; I do think that the following tweet by Neil Degrasse Tyson is worth serious consideration… as are the commentary of responses lol.
Studying those who succeed in spite of broken childhoods might be more illuminating than studying those who don’t succeed because of them.
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.
This morning I woke up defeated. Too tired to even think about facing my favorite holiday, unprepared and uncommitted. Having stayed up way too late the night before scrolling through “last minute costume idea” threads on Pinterest, until I eventually gave up and succumbed to the vortex that is YouTube.
I went to bed defeated so it makes sense that I woke up this morning in this state. I tried to claw at plausible answers that would help explain how I’d arrived at this point. I dismissed the thoughts that’s posited simply: you’re old. You’re not as creative or fun as you thought you once were. I dismissed them with excuses, I’m just too busy and tired with three kids (1 still in diapers). These did not suffice to quell them as much as I’d hoped. And the alternative scared the crap out of me. What if these thoughts were true?
A longer car ride to work and my awesome new office staff (I’ve been blessed in my career to have such great clerical staff helping me to develop into the educator I’ve become) helped me to realize they were not, they couldn’t be! My students deserve better than that. My family deserves better than that! And so do I! The great thing about Halloween is the ease in which you can circumvent the commercialism damning the holiday and hack it with pure imagination and simple creative hacks.
So I sat down, with two sharpies and a pair of scissors, and a smile… drowning out the excuses. Planned a lesson that would inspire creativity, productivity, new learning, reflection, and ultimately what I hoped was engagement.
The result was a day both the students and I will remember. If anything for the mere fact that I spoke no words, made no utterances the entire day. Just an intense and creepy gaze that my students couldn’t shake. I managed to not only instruct my students through a continued examination of Islamic culture but also a little Halloween history and imagineering. Using one of my all time favorite children’s book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, I set the tone from the onset of class. More importantly, I set the tone for myself and how I want to approach this current phase of my career.
It’s been difficult to leave Hawkins and the South Central Los Angeles community. I’ve felt lost at times, not quite knowing my place. Days like today help remind me of who i am fundamentally as a teacher. And how I want to teach. With a smile.
Most days I try not to think about Betsy Devos and her inexperience and agenda driven running of our country’s Department of Education, who’s mission reads:
Our mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access
As a classroom teacher, serving over 140 individual students a day, I admit it is pretty easy to dismiss the reality that a billionaire who has never spent time in and around public schools before her ascendance to the highest educational post of the land, is actually the secretary of Education. But in the last two weeks, news of her past, sound bytes of her present, and her visions for our future have reared their ugly heads like a hydra fixated on maddening its victims.
First there was her recent announcement to roll back Title IX protections and universities’ abilities to protect sexual assault victims and hold perpetrators accountable. “Highlights” of her official statements can be seen here and the full text here. I admit that my initial reaction was that of a father of two daughters and that of an educator who for the last 2 years has dealt with more title IX infringements at the high school level than I would have cared to. This is also hot off my summer reading list where John Krakauer’s book Missoula (a book I think Devos should desparately read if she hasn’t already) was fresh on my mind. Since then I have looked a little deeper into the issue, and while my skepticism and book recommendations for Devos remain, I can see the legal dilemma that has arisen from the current circumstances. This New Yorker article makes some valid points. In the end however, I am uncertain if any of this will result in less sexual assault on our nation’s campuses or increased safety, and that is a huge problem.
Then there was this episode of This American Life. Listening to Devos’ privileged past experiences as a volunteer at a local public elementary school,shelling out kindness to individual students and their families was a hard stomach to say the least. But what I took issue with the most was this quote from one of her speeches to the conservative audience at ALEC.
This isn’t about school systems. This is about individual students, parents, and families.
She again this week double downed on this very problematic notion that “systems” don’t matter and that government should focus on individuals.
And like those western settlers, anyone who dares to suggest schools ought to do better by their students is warned off: It’s too hard. It’ll take too long. There’s not enough money. It can’t be done.
Today, there is a whole industry of naysayers who loudly defend something they like to call the education “system.”
What’s an education “system”?
There is no such thing! Are you a system? No, you’re individual students, parents and teachers.
What’s an education system?! Only the very thing you are charged with managing and improving for ALL students, parents, and educators who are part of that system. To be certain, systems are NOT individuals… AND systems should be designed to serve individuals within the system in the most equitable and efficient manner possible, continually being revised towards improvement. But a simple examination of the history of public education in this country would illuminate quite well that this has not always happened. I also take great exception to the assertion that “we defenders of the system” are saying “it can’t be done.” My daily existence and work as a professional, along with so many of the colleagues I have worked with for over a decade, is one of essential possibility. When it can be done, it’s because of our work and commitment to our students and their communities.
And it is individuals; policy makers, politicians, philanthropists and corporations who CREATE these systems… often to get the results as intended. How can one argue that “systems” don’t exist? Especially when one is at the head of such a masssive system?
I teach all of my social studies students the very important skill of analyzing and distinguishing between the institutions and the individuals that design and our impacted by them. We look at the political, economic, social, and cultural implications of systems designed to get both intended and unintended results. I feel like Secretary Devos could stand to visit my classroom for a review ok these concepts.
I think the answer to the previous questions posed: How can one argue that systems don’t exist?
Answer: when one believes that they shouldn’t exist and because of their belief actively tries to eliminate that public system.
And I think it’s pretty clear that Betsy Devos has this as her main agenda. And now she has even more capability to actually make that happen.
Queue the lesson on civic and political action and social movements. Secretary Devos, you have an open invitation to my class for that lesson as well.
Today marked another milestone in my first born’s life. Although there have been many changes and milestones for all my children, including my dear Melody Ray beginning T-K last week, there is something different about beginning 1st grade. It is especially unique when an unexpected change of plans materializes into a homeschooling situation where none had previously been envisioned. In reality, my wife (one of the most phenomenal teachers I had ever met before she was laid off in the recession… long time readers of this blog will be familiar with that saga) and I have been thinking about this for awhile and more recently have totally committed to being our daughter’s “classroom” teachers… well, myself, I will only be swooping into infect my daughter with the social studies and humanities bug… one which she already has developed quite well on her own.
And that is the thing. Despite our hang ups about the homeschooling or “unschooling” movements, or the problematic way that community and public schools are underfunded or not supported as much as their charter counterparts, it is our commitment to the process of education that would be best for our particular child.
Of course we recognize the privileged position we find ourselves in to be able to even make this decision. And it should be noted that our intention is to get Nilou through this year of first grade until she is able to enroll in the same school as her sister, which will be next year. But our decision to homeschool her came from a place of deep love and recognition of who she is and what she has been through. Since the very first weeks of her life, Nilou has been tested like no other. On the positive, this has helped create a little person who is immensely driven to squeeze every bit of life out of every moment. And yet this amazing trait to live life at its fullest is not guaranteed to benefit a young thirsty mind entering the American schooling system. The chances of having a mediocre experience in the first grade at a school that you have no intentions at staying at the following year are just too high. And Parisa and I were able to confirm our decision upon visiting what might have been her local school for only a year this summer. When Parisa talked to some of the staff it became clear that it was not going to be a good fit. And yes, education has to FIT the individual learner… AND be a communal and social process, as humans learn through socialization and collaboration. And we figured, who better to collaborate with in learning than your parents, who are also skilled educators? Especially if you are only awaiting enrollment into the school your sibling attends. Thus we find ourselves… here.
It is an exciting and scary thing, homeschooling your own child. Being a teacher is one thing, being a parent another… being both at the same time is definitely going to challenge all of us. But the potential trade off of this magical year is what we keep thinking of. And the time spent getting to know Nilou more, learning an growing with her, will hopefully help us continue to heal from the trauma of almost losing her so young. And will hopefully provide her with a satisfying experience to learn and wonder about all that she does. I am excited by this all. To help guide my daughter in her academic and personal studies. To collaborate with my wife, as a parent and professional colleague. This is indeed a new chapter and new type of adventure… Here we go.
When I last was here, the California Central Coast of Monterey Bay (the other bay) I was 23 years young. A boy in all fairness. Feeling like a young man, but in retrospect only having the responsibility and constitution of an adolescent. I had two part time jobs. Both were working with youth… I remember those kids very clearly. I have printed photographs of them. Over the last decade or so I have often wondered what had become of them since our interactions in their early elementary years. The kids of the Neary Lagoon housing projects. How had they overcome some of the struggles? What experiences helped to shape them after I had gone?
When I last was here, my role was primarily as a student. Even after I had graduated from CalState Monterey Bay as an “Integrated Studies” major… whatever that meant at the time. It means more to me know than it ever did. I learned from my students. I learned from the ocean and the trees. Looking back at old journals and notes before I knew how to or even cared for blogging, it was clear that valued my time to write and reflect, and that this time was in much more abundance than I find today. Much of my internal dialogue was processed outwardly through writing. A reality I hope to reinvest in with more frequency returning to the region.
When I last was here, our nation was reeling from an unexpected and unforeseen threat, preparing to respond through war. So many years later we are still at war and still insulated from the majority of the consequences of that war. But not all of us our so privileged and shielded. The impacts I see more clearly today than when my passionate critique of US history and foreign and domestic policy fueled my thirst to learn about it. I see the impacts more through the personal narratives of those around me. The students and families struggling to deal with the economic realities of unemployment, budget cuts to social service and educational programs.
When I last was here, I was beginning my journey to become awakened and conscious; politically, socially, professionally, and spiritually.
Now I am back again…
I am ready to teach young people with the same intentional purpose of making the world a better place by empowering youth to imagine the possibilities, to create the solutions to today’s challenges, and to learn from the inevitable mistakes all individuals and societies make. Today is the first time in a long time that I am teaching middle school and already I am in love again with the 7th grade energy, nervous and excited… in the midst of such radical change. It is in this shift where I see the possibilities.
Being back again, in Monterey, I am excited about my own personal and professional shifts. Having my own children now, I can’t help but see the world slightly different. I regret that it took me so long as a parent to bring into focus the young people I helped bring into the world. Being back again has allowed me the time and space to sharpen that focus and already enjoy more of the time spent with my kids. I know this is a disciplined practice I will have to continue to cultivate, because parenting isn’t always sunshine and hashtags (despite what Instagram would have you believe.) But it is amazing nonetheless and I am happy to have the opportunity to engage in parenting in a new and fresh context. I am also anticipating reconnecting with my best friend and lifelong partner and wife. Having been the rock on the homefront for the last 7 years or more has been difficult at times to say the least. I am very much looking forward to being a more substantial part of that work.
I would be remiss in my responsibilities to share all of the positive that goes on amidst the daily struggle. And however real the negative pulls on us we know that if we focus 4 times as hard on the good, we can counteract destructive forces and change our realities. Here are some of the things that helped change my reality today.
My Wednesday morning at Hawkins began when Ms. Englander handed me this note. She told me that our student Alberto wanted to give this message to me. It could not have come at a better time. Just moments later I would be in front of the entire graduating class of the Critical Design and Gaming School (CDAGS), the last set of students I taught in the classroom at Hawkins, attempting to help them through the healing process of yet another loss. It’s important to understand a little about Alberto. He is high functioning autisic. He is a living embodiment of the mission and vision of the Community Health Advocates School (CHAS). And he encompasses all of the CORE values of Hawkins. He is also a yogi in training, the most committed member of our collaboration with the People’s Yoga. A true CHASvocate.
I then entered the library where our seniors were again gathered, just having been in the same space the day before to celebrate their approaching graduation with breakfast and friends, only to find out right afterwards about the loss of our friend and student Eric “E” Thompson. Our objective for this meeting was seemingly simple: to communicate that we had their backs and that we would indeed get through this together. When it was my turn to talk, I thought I had it, but was overcome with emotionality. After fighting through the choke and tears I had to dismiss myself from the space. I immediately felt as if I’d dropped the ball, fumbling the drawn up play to demonstrate compassion and strength through resilience and resolve. I returned too late to show a more composed demeanor, and was about to kick myself again were it not for my crisis team letting me know that our students seized the opportunity and the space to continue speaking from the heart, listening from the heart, and bringing their very best selves – not only for themselves but for the benefit of everyone in the community. Words and embraces were exchanged. People began the healing process together and reoriented and re-energized their efforts on preparing for their own exit from high school, their new beginnings of life.
Later on in the day I was asked by Ms. LaMar if I could assist with being on the judging panels for the senior defense presentations. I was so blessed to have said yes. During these presentations, the reasons I teach, the types of learning my pedagogy strives to encourage, and this was reaffirmed by seniors who demonstrated how they have internalized and expressed their understanding of design thinking, growth (gamer) mindset, systems thinking, and professional comunication. Students took ownership of their own narratives, drawing from the family backgrounds, personal interests, migration stories, and future plans for the world. These students reminded us what is possible with adequate preparation and suppport. These were presentations of possibility.
My day ended with a celebration that took place at the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Justice. The very location where we first brought together community members to dream with us around what the Schools for Community Action at Augustus F. Hawkins High school would be. That evening, like many others, we gathered with students, families, friends, colleagues, and community members to acknowledge what’s possible at the intersection of art creation and community organizing in the efforts to educate towards equality and justice.
I was so honored to share the stage with my students who had once again conceptualized big ideas like “restoration” and “justice” and transformed those ideas into an art piece that touches the soul. It was also an amazing feeling to be able to collaborate with some of my favorite people who have been the most profound and exciting to collaborate with as we imagined so many different ways to unlock the creative and transformative potential of our youth.
I’ve said it before and it continues to be more true every time. My time dreaming, creating, and working at Hawkins has been simultaneously the most rewarding and challenging work I have ever done. I could not be prouder of this.
Somewhere in this extremely emotional day I was afforded time to check in with one of the district’s psychological crisis response counselors. She helped me to realize what is most difficult for me personally at this moment. Recognizing the impact one has had on others means understanding what that impact requires. Another way we often talk about impact is in terms of touching someone’s spirit or soul. In doing so, there are actual pieces of ourselves left in these communal spaces. These are pieces of me that I’m leaving behind. Losing parts of me, is proving to be difficult to manage at his time with all the other types of loss. Yet this is the risk we run when we engage others around us in building community. This is the loss we have to work through, knowing that what we gain through this process will amount to so much more. This is what we see from the mountain tops. A brighter tomorrow built together. Built by all of us… for all of us.