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.
She can’t commit to not privatizing public education
She cannot be sure if, as the chief education enforcement officer in the land, she will hold educational institutions accountable to the same standard whether they are public, publically funded and privately managed, virtual or otherwise
She won’t uphold federal law to ensure equity or equality for students with disabilities
She doesn’t fundamentally understand the important debate around authentically and accurately assessing student learning
She believes that public dollars should be allowed to go to religious education, despite that going against our nations first constitutional amendment
She doesn’t have an opinion on how the second amendment should be interpreted to protect our schools
She has no public educational experience whatsoever (k-12 or higher ed)
She has not been cleared by the Office of Ethics
She lied to congress in her confirmation hearing
Her brother founded one of the most successful and dangerous companies on the planet with a business model that essentially removes public and governmental oversight of the military
TODAY’s POP QUIZ:
Is Betsy Devos qualified to lead and improve our nation’s PUBLIC education system?
It’s better than watching it perhaps, it depends on if you prefer your eyes and ears to bleed or just your ears, but in this era of ridiculous danger, we must all subject ourselves to this type of abuse lest we suffer more later not having known what to expect. With Betsy DeVos we can expect not a whole lot of substance or transparency when it comes education policy supporting America’s PUBLIC school system.
There were many more exchanges of course and not one of those led to an actual answer of the question posed, which is not surprising in the political sphere but DAMN it is annoying. Her exchange about guns in schools was too infuriating to post here. But it was pretty clear that she will indeed push a privatized agenda. To be clear… here is what she will do away with and here is how we will let her… unless we fight.
This post has been incomplete and in draft form since July 5th, 2016… Thought I would complete my thoughts and now seemed as good a time as any.
I’ve been to a lot of graduations in my time. I’ve been moved by many a speech, affected by many a pupil. And yet of course, none other has broken me down as fundamentally as my daughter’s recent ceremony commemorating her transition from preschool and into kindergarten this coming August. It didn’t break me down in the way one might expect. I didn’t weep because of the actual program, though it was one to remember and as such I took copious amounts of video footage of everything from a play written, directed, and starring the children, the final circle time which included a rendition of “Happy Trails” and some pretty funny gift giving. All of this was pretty heart wrenchingly cute.
What really got to me was what it meant for my child’s future… the prospects of an education by and in a system, designed for conformity and lacking empathy. A system where play is limited at best and completely forgotten at worst. One where a unique identity as a learner is often a liability. And where children get lost… sometimes forever.
What I know now after having seen my daughter survive kindergarten in her first public school experience in the second largest school district in the nation, is what I knew at that moment when she closed out her time at Neighborhood Nursery School (NNS)… that she will be alright. As long as we, her parents are vigilant and strive to build community within her schooling, relationships with her teachers, her peers and their families. This fortunately happened at Elysian Heights Elementary where she attended. And despite moving out of Los Angeles and having to home school her this past year in Monterey, she still talks about her teacher and her classmates with love and fond overwhelmingly fond memories.
I often write on this site about education from my vantage point as a teacher. But what I have been more keenly aware of lately is my experience as a parent of school aged children. I have had to complicate my thinking on many things, my notions of where different institutions and policies fit into the theoretical and practical landscapes of education, in my head and in my children’s lives. Since that day in July of 2016 (again, when I first typed the beginnings of this post) I have had my second daughter leave the beautiful community of NNS. We have transitioned out of LA into the communities of Seaside, Monterey, and Salinas. My focus and the majority of my attention and energy has rightfully been diverted to my own kids and my role as a parent. I anticipate writing from this head and heart space more and more as time moves on as well as I expect my identities of educator and parent to merge more holistically as one better understood entity.
2016 didn’t see a lot of public writing from me. The various factors adding up to the sum total of struggle. Last year was definitely challenging on many fronts. As an educator (shout out to Katie Nisa), a parent (shout out to my wife Parisa) and as an overall human being (shout out to all of those who acknowledged on a level greater that their previous level of consciousness that humanity has a lot of work still to do.) From the deaths of iconic childhood figures, to the vitriol obsessed media coverage of just about everything horrible, suffice to say it was hard for me to focus on reflective writing.
This post, and hopefully others to come symbolize my re-commitment to this very important practice. I didn’t realize how important it actually was until I was presented with the possibility of losing all of my past entries, over a decade of reflections written down, in moments of pondering, responding, and at times reacting to the world around me as well as the one within.
As far what else this year and the near future have in store for all of us working towards education for change, I think it is safe to say that we have a serious fight on our hands. Last year around this time, one of my only posts to begin the new year was welcoming my last born child and only son into this world. I did so with a mixture of joy, concern, and uncertainty. A year has brought us closer to some of those concerns and has definitely presented us with much uncertainty in many different realms. One of the driving questions that has been occupying much space in my mind as of late is the question of action. What will be my course of action? How will others around me organize ourselves towards action? While many different people involved with many different organizations ask themselves different variations of this same question, for my own part I feel it important to reconnect with the practice of studying. Attempting to make more time for reading and hopefully discussing with others ideas that will help us face whatever uncertainty with dignity and action.
As we begin the next phase of American democracy and the educational system that has been an integral part of both sustaining and repressing democratic principles and practices, I keep my mind set on these few things:
I have been thinking about this day for the past 4 years. It has been this sort of dream like sequence that I have played in my head to symbolize a sort of Rites of Passage, not only for you as graduates but for us “as educators.” You see, your journey has helped to define who we are. Your narrative helps write our collective identities as teachers but also helps define the very institution that is Hawkins. And as such, the culmination of your time in our classrooms and on campus is the closing of an important part of our lives too.
It is this chapter coming to a close that often prompts deep reflection. When I look at each and everyone of you, at every turn I see evidence of your energy and passion. It is this soul of the class of 2016 that breathed an entire school community into existence. I thank you for that. 4 years ago, the Schools for Communtiy Action were still just ideas in their infancy. 4 years ago we invited you to dream with us. Today, at the end of your all’s high school journey, the dream is so much more than we could’ve hope for.
For the students of the Responsible Indigenous Social Entrepreneurship small school (RISE), the last 4 years saw young people grow into an empowered social consciousness that inspired student action in the form of neighborhood market conversions, voter registration drives, and felony expungements for Communtiy members. The mantra echoed in a call and response format honoring ancestral traditions of our past, also epitomized our core values. As graduates tonight you issued a statement that resonates with all who come into contact with these powerful words because with these words you invite others to dream and to fight with you. Who rise? WE RISE!!!
And to my very own game changers. The students in the Critical Design and Gaming School have been busy the last 4 years expanding their imaginations to incorporate dreams of a world where games and play, that which is essential for humanity, need not be sacrificed for social justice. In fact you demonstrated many times that one is often the path towards understanding the other more deeply. From imagining and designing possibilities for more sustainable landscapes to creating media messages that implore critical thought and inspire action, you have helped us change the game of education.
And yet despite all of these amazing accomplishments and battles, there are still many to be waged and won. This election season will mark the first that you will be able to participate in and hopefully not the last. Continue to throw your voices into the uncertainty of the future, believing that it will matter… That it is the only thing that ever makes a difference. The fight against or to realize both Trump and Hilary’s vision of America has to be tempered by your vision of America and must involve your commitment to social justice.
I can’t truly state how proud and grateful I am that you all have allowed me to be a part of your journey. Some of you I’ve known since 6th grade, when you blessed the classroom of my life partner and best friend. We both continue to recall how special you were back then and how you’ve grown into wonderful and powerful young adults. Despite all the challenges we may have faced together and those set to face you in the coming years, I am reminded of our keynote speaker at our first Hawkins graduation, Luis Rodriguez. He reminded us of the necessity for maintaining a #criticalhope. This is what I have for you all as you make your way in the world and leave the comfort of our nest. And I will echo the sentiment of last night’s keynote message: #dontforgetwhereyoucamefrom. For we will never forget you. Good luck. God speed. And remember to always do good things.