Stuck in trafficking… (originally titled: If you reach just one)

This past week during Open House at the Hawk, I helped to organize a community safety meeting that was to take place in our parent and family resource center. Like many initiatives and programs, this was an idea that was thought of and organized rather last minute, not fully leveraging our means to contact or parents and community members. This unfortunate reality of extreme multitasking that is not uncommon for many educators did not stop the event from being held. It did however drastically impact the number of parents that attended the evening’s presentation. As our community partners from Inner City Vision and I sat waiting to see what that number would be, a lone grandmother entered. She sat down and asked with nervous laughter if she could add someone to the list.

These words were written on March 26th of last year. I was going to continue to tell the amazing story of the one person who came to seek out information about child sexual exploitation and commercial trafficking, a very unfortunate reality that impacts the area along the Figueroa corridor that borders Hawkins High. I never got to complete this post before I left Hawkins.

The short of it was, on this night, that lone grandmother came to realize that her granddaughter, a former student of ours, had indeed exhibited every single tell sign of a victim of human sexual trafficking. She shared that her granddaughter had just been home after a year missing. She had come home weary, looking to rest. When grandmother noticed her tattoos, they were covered up and quickly concealed. When the questions of her “significant other” began, this young woman quickly put those lines of inquiry to an end. She was careful not to reveal what we would come to realize a week later in the Parent Center that night… a few days too late. The young woman disappeared again, leaving grandmother and family to wonder one more time.

Earlier this week I received a follow up email to an initial one I had never received. It was a request to assist in identifying and soliciting the participation of career and industry experts who may be available to see student presentations about human trafficking and homelessness, providing them feedback on a panel. This is an annual interdisciplinary project where 9th grade students in the Community Health Advocacy School choose a relevant and timely problem to explore and identify solutions to. This participatory action research project is aptly titled Rebuild Healthy LA. Pause and let that sink in for a minute. Today’s education, in order for it to be “relevant” and “hands on” (buzz terms often bandied about in the educational discourse) needs to ask youth to think through the most heinous of societal problems, how they came to be, and offer real viable solutions. It’s no small feat to dream of a world where a city’s residents can afford basic housing and shelter or where young girls and women can grow up and live safe, not having to fear that their bodies will become a mere object of a gratuitous and violent transactional underground economies.

This is both simultaneously hopeful and tragic, as often is much of the work of educators in inner cities across this country. Despite my not working in South Central Los Angeles any longer, I can never not invest in the hopeful side of the equation. So I reached out to my contacts I had cultivated around these tragic realities. Folks who had helped me think through appropriate interventions for young people caught up in gang life and consequential violence and trafficking. The same folks who helped organize my open house workshop a year ago. They responded immediately, more than willing to take another opportunity to engage young people in this most important work. It warmed my heart very much to see the unwavering commitment to the community these professionals have, and how they volunteered without hesitation to help cultivate the same in our young hawks.

A day later, yesterday I received a text from one of these professionals who had personally taken on the case of our young woman. The same woman who had helped me reach this grandmother that night at the school. We had kept in touch about the progress on her case. At one point she had been found and rescued. Awaiting programming for counseling and recovery, she had left again… reentering the trafficking world, were the cycle of violence is incredibly hard to escape. Yesterday’s text messages further helped me to know how this student’s story had developed. Below is an edited version of the text exchange with pertinent information redacted to ensure the safety and future recovery of said student.

This exchange continued and reminded me again that the world works in mysterious but often very encouraging ways. In meeting one person on one night, and connecting them with another, a path has opened up for one young girl to try and work towards hope. If there is such a thing as salvation, in my mind the closest thing we can do to achieve true understanding of it is to work together relentlessly in the name of hope.

In East Salinas, where I currently teach, human trafficking of young people and girls in particular, is indeed a problem. It is this reality that I am cautious about educating my young middle school students about, for fear of ending the last phase of childhood innocence. Yet it is the same reality that concerns me when students, like the one I wrote about in my last post, choose paths that increase the possibilities of tragedies like this. And yet we must remind ourselves at all costs that there is hope. Always.

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.

Fiction in a history classroom?

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.

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 😉

Imagine, the scariest thing

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.

School is at home, learning is everywhere

Homeschooling means you have to deal with your little brother photobombing and just pain bombing everything

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.

Convergence of Crises…


Fresh off the high of last week’s exploratory symposium that afforded me new perspectives on everything from language use, poetry, genetic diversity preservation, hypnotherapy, meditation, serious play, podcasting and a whole host of other realms of the human experience… as well as leaving me energized by the work of so many creative people in different but intersecting fields, I have returned to Los Angeles inspired only to find a convergence of challenges that have the potential to radically define my professional sphere this upcoming academic year.

The realization that our campus, a combination of 3 small innovative and progressive public schools, for the first time in its 4 years of existence has to contend with a massive turn over of teachers was underscored for me today as I sat in back to back to back teacher interviews of many highly qualified candidates that we may not be able to hire regardless of our desire. The cause? An incessantly reoccurring hiring freeze, a sick annual tradition that the nation’s second largest school district has been engaged in since the first round of recession layoffs in 2008, the same that I wrote about here. Like some sick and twisted sacrificial dance who’s cultural logic and value has long since been put into question by the light of future and reasoning, but remains tradition nonetheless… this unfortunate economic and political reality has made it near impossible to hire new qualified teaching candidates into the district because of a pool of displaced teachers who cannot or do not want a permanent home at a school site. Seniority rules designed to protect teacher tenure rights from vindictive administrations (a real thing to be sure) in recent years have continual handicapped schools from staffing with any sense of stability, many campuses having to just accept randomly placed teachers who may very well not want to be at the site of forced placement and in turn create much disruption upon their placement.

I guess that it is a better record than could be expected when one looks at our neighboring schools and how often they’ve had to deal with this chronic problem of inner city schools. And yet the instability this level of turnover creates is unsettling to say the least.

To add to a long day of interviews of folks we may not be able to hire at all anyway, I was informed by a former colleague via a text message of declared 100 days of violence in South Central LA. As these Los Angeles Times pieces document (here and here) the recent events in the community surrounding my school. Regardless of the media coverage, which may or may not be downplaying the significance of such real and dramatic events (aside: every time someone loses their life due to violence is a cause for real concern despite and even in spite of past or current statistical patterns and trends) which some have speculated to be a non-alarmist stance aimed at protecting the image of the city’s first ever special olympics… the events of the past weekend are cause for serious concern for folks in the educational sphere. The concern is enough to warrant an informational meeting for principals of the surrounding schools to be brought up to speed by the LAPD and school police departments. And wouldn’t you know it… Intervention Coordinators.

As I try and synthesize all of the ideas from summer readings, interactions and planning meetings with colleagues brainstorming how to have the best year yet at Hawkins, I am encouraged to pace myself in this new role, challenged more than ever to take a more global perspective on the many going ons of a school, its students, and their surrounding community. I know that in this new role I will have try my best to manage not only my hopes and visions for transformational education… but also my knowledge of the societal and institutional structures that keep unfortunate realities from remaining. And yet simultaneously I will have to remain committed to a practice of building personal relationships with individual students so that I may indeed support them in what may prove to be their times of greatest need. How do you divide and help students make sense of 100 days of violence/180 days of instruction? How do you prevent one from becoming the other? Questions I bring into the upcoming school year…

Leaving the nest, soaring to new places

If you have been following this blog in any significant way for any amount of time over the last decade you’ve probably noticed that I don’t post frequently. Which is why you haven’t noticed! It’s ok.  I’ve accepted the fact that although I sometimes pour my heart and soul into this reflective space, it is a far second to the space where I have poured everything into… The classroom. For the last 10 years I have been growing and learning with students in South Central Los Angeles, attempting to teach them about history while simultaneously learning about themselves as young people – not necessarily in that order. I’ve learned so much in my role as a teacher. Too many things to even condense into a summarized or detailed list here (go back and read my blog posts!)

This past Friday the Schools for Community Action at Augustus F. Hawkins high school graduated their second class of seniors.  With these departing seniors, many of whom I taught in 7th, 9th, 10th, and 11th grade, I have also chosen to take a new step in my professional career. Like many of these young people who will be moving into different experiences and roles, so too will I.  

After 10 years of being a classroom teacher, I will be stepping into a different role on campus. I’ve been offered and accepted a position as the intervention and support coordinator at Augustus Hawkins.  What does that mean exactly? Well, in short it means that I will attempting to coordinate the support that our most challenging students need   those that might not otherwise find themselves in caps and gowns. I know that it will be a different sort of challenge than the hardest job I’ve ever had… classroom teaching. And yet I am both excited and nervous to take on the challenge. I know I will continue to have a great team surrounding me and I will be relying on them to support ME as I attempt to coordinate support for others who need it.

I’ll say it again… I have learned so much in the last decade from students like the ones pictured below. Too many things to list. And at a time where I believe our country and world need to key in on the lessons that young people, particularly in working class communities of color are trying to help us learn more than ever… I am going to leave the safety, and discomfort of my classroom to go and learn new things. I will miss classroom teaching a lot more than I probably realize at this point, even though there was a time in my life when I never even wanted to pursue a career in the classroom. Erasing my board last week, a little part of me grew frightened for the future. But that feeling of exhilaration in the face of uncertainty… that’s what makes us jump into the unknown, into the future. So like so many of my former students, and like the younger me, I will once again seek a new adventure… leave the nest, to hopefully soar. #GoHawks

              

                                  

 

 

  

 

Changing the narrative

This past week saw a lot of extreme highs and lows for me. As a father, I got the blessed opportunity to celebrate my daughter’s 4th year of life in this world. An amazing gift. As a citizen of the most powerful country the world has ever known, I got to watch in horror as we as a society continue to tolerate, even condone the blatant killing of black and brown lives, at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve us. I also got to see people’s perspectives emerge, friends, family, acquaintances and strangers… Here and here (see #8).

Realizing this has EVERYTHING to do with the narratives we consume and proliferate, it is all the more significant when things like this happen, work done to try and change the stories we feed our minds and souls about people and places of color.

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Granted I missed this iteration of one of my favorite events is Los Angeles, celebrating a golden birthday with my loved ones at the beach… But then again…

I ride my bike most days to work, passing through many places in this city that I used to only traverse in my car. I teach students in South Central the importance of recognizing and appreciating the beauty all around them, within themselves. We work hard everyday to live our truths, lives with dignity. We live and learn life’s lessons together.

The day after the Another grand jury’s mistake to not indict the officer who unjustly took the life of yet another black man in Eric Garner, I paused the previous day’s lesson on the intersection of the industrial revolution, social movements and design to dialogue with students around the connections they see between the past and the present, in the hopes of changing the future.

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As a school community we then honored the work some of our students are doing around science and gaming.

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Everyday we try to help steer the narratives away from the dominant ones of fear, skepticism, dismissive inhumanity… Towards ones more reflective of the reality I know to be true. Black and brown youth are not what our country’s made them out to be. Places like South Central Los Angeles are not the places you think. Seeking out the stories and sharing them are of the utmost importance to any movement towards social justice and change.

Voices, Ethnic Studies, Movements, and Challenges…

There was a lot going on these last two weeks at school. It seemed that even more was going on after school hours. I had the privilege and great pleasure to watch students learn about very important matters in different spaces outside of the classroom. I myself may have benefited even more by watching all of this learning take place.

On Thursday night we had the distinct pleasure and opportunity to take a group of 20 students to the Japanese cultural community center to watch the 10th anniversary Voices of the People’s history performed by several actors and musicians. This important in seminal text was released my first year teaching. I remember going to Immanuel Presbyterian Church and watching Howard Zinn (rest in peace), who is still alive and well in the hearts and souls people, his spirit fiery with inspiration around the education of the complexities (read atrocities) of our nation’s history.

It has been a long time since I have seen kids light up with the essence of true learning and excitement. Not that I don’t strive for that in my class everyday, but to have a completely aesthetic experience, as Sir Ken Robinson would say, in the service of critical thinking and learning? Where you won’t be quizzed immediately after for retention but rather continually reminded of that moment when you were fully alive and connected (not separated) by time and space to other human beings, other lives. This is what I witnessed with my students.

Of course the star power of actors and musicians like Kerry Washington and Tom Morello helped connect the voices of the past; Sojourner Truth, Malcom X, Bartólome De Las Casas, Muhammad Ali, and more… to the hearts and minds of my students. These are the times when there is nothing greater than being a history teacher.

The next day I had the pleasure of hosting our Taking Action students film night. They were screening a very well made documentary on the struggles of students and teachers against the Tuscon Unified School District to dismantle their Ethnic Studies program. Precious Knowledge examined the most extreme and polarizing of ideologies that clash on the battlefield of current day educational reform. As I watched the movie, it was difficult to control my emotional responses to statements like:

With ethnic studies there’s a desire to develop ethnic solidarity. Uh… you know. This group, we’re the… we’re Latinos, that other group they’re the African Americans, that other group they’re the Asian Americans, that other group they’re the Anglos and so on… In the human being there is, uh, there is a primitive part that is tribal. And that will say, I want to be with members of my own tribe, members of my own race and that sort of thing. The function of civilization and the function of our public school system is to get people to transcend that… There are better ways to get students to perform academically and to want to go to college than to try and infuse them with racial ideas.” – Tom Horne, Former Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction

I can’t express enough how tired I am of the misguided (at best) and intentionally misrepresented (at worst) narrative of the state of race relations in this country, where many “well intentioned” people like to believe that we live in a “post racial” society where race and ethnicity (two different things) don’t matter any longer or as much as individual merit. And I wonder how we are to measure transcendence now! If I am helping to facilitate any type of transcendence in my classroom, it is of the type that helps students find agency to combat the dominant narrative of white supremacy that has them internalizing ideas about individual or collective success, like this.

The following Tuesday the students and teachers of Los Angeles, and in a rare moment the school board of Los Angeles, renewed my hope that the struggles towards a quality and dignified educational system is still possible when people organize and listen to the real stories that are being lived. People organized to ensure that what happened in Tuscon would never happen here in Los Angeles. Ethnic studies is now a graduation requirement in LAUSD.

Two days later, teachers, students, and community members rallied at 5 different locations around the city to voice our demands for quality schools that Los Angeles Students Deserve. 719a69f1-8d16-49bc-a6b6-6f5f18937b50 Our teachers and students, including our marching band, helped to provide not only voice but the soundtrack of our demands from the district.

As the last 2 weeks have provided me with plenty of challenging work in and out of the classroom, it is transformational learning experiences like these that keep me coming back for more… well… and the much needed time off.