Why LA teachers should remain optimistic


The historic teacher strike ended yesterday as the Union and the District reached a tentative contract agreement that was later ratified by teachers And although not every teacher who participated in the strike voted to ratify this agreement (as evidenced by their outrage in the comments section of the live-streaming of press conferences announcing next steps) here are some reasons that teachers should hold their heads up high.

1. Teachers effectively organized one of the largest and most diverse cities in the world to speak with one voice and therefor exercised REAL power. If we were to take Eric Lui’s definition of power (in the awesome video below) then we can see this strike as proof of concept that numbers matter. And therefore the multiyear effort the UTLA engaged was able to pay off in this regard. Thousands of parents and community members were empowered by these organizing efforts and may very well continue to play important roles in bettering and protecting our public educational system.

2. The union was able to limit the power of the district. This is no small feat. And not all teachers may agree or even understand how this was accomplished. For even though reduction of class sizes by numbers, to many, was not sufficient (or they expected more), the reality moving forward ends the power of the district to arbitrarily raise them again should they feel the need arise in the future. This is now codified in language requiring this to be negotiated in the future with teachers.

3. Raising the conversation while raising spirits. This I feel cannot be overstated. When the national dialogue around HUGE issues has all but died (see state of the government shut down among other things) this strike galvanized not just the LA community but the nation as well around articulating and supporting shared values and even definitions of public education. It was also able to bring other decision makers into the fold to contribute to the dialogue, demonstrating that even in the face of massive disagreement (and even a lack of trust and goodwill) that civil public discourse can continue as long as the power of the people are pressuring it so.

This last point is probably one that some might contest. For already there are those who feel that the strike was not worth the deal it got out. And while it is unusual to see in a tentative contractual labor agreement “vows” to work together to garner political will and policy action, the way that this all played out cannot be dismissed as insignificant. Teachers were never going to get everything they demanded in this round of negotiations. What they did get was a national recognition and reminder of the power of collective voice to disrupt and begin to change the system. In this lesson, we can come to understand that the teachers never really stopped teaching; the question is will the rest of us remember these important lessons?

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 😉

Redefining and remembering myself, “as an educator.”

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.

Betsy Devos and her “individualist” approach to eradicating our Educational System

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.

Writing as Healing, Finding Inspiration from NWP annual conference

  
the last two weeks, scratch that month, well… the entire academic year so far has been a whirlwind… so many highs and lows, often in such rapid juxtaposition throughout the course of a single day that there isn’t adequate time given to written reflection. as such, i decided to take on some inspiration from this morning’s sessions and key notes from the annual National Writing Project conference in Minneapolis. as we often suggest to our students and colleagues, engaging in the reflective and therapeutic power of writing can often help us heal. repositioning ourselves as “producers” of ideas and content rather than mere consumers is an empowering practice in and of itself… and yet too many conferences are laden with workshops, panels, and breakout sessions structured with passivity and consumption in mind, as our colleagues and partners try to “report back” and “share out” the amazing work we have all been “consumed” by since last we conferenced.

i am happy to report that this year’s NWP conference (not that i would be able to tell the difference as it is my first ever) is seeking to change all that. as a participant and presenter in this morning’s No Bells, No Walls session on sharing out the work done at several school sites and informalized learning spaces around the country per the LRNG and Educator Innovator grants, passivity was not the case. nor was it the theme of my colleague’s Cliff Lee’s keynote presentation on the great work that organizations like Youth Radio out of Oakland are doing. nor will it be the modus operandi of tonight’s game jam co-hosted by my nemesis and frequent collaborator Antero Garcia. and yet i still had to step away from the sessions to gather myself and take our own advice as critical educators… i needed to create time and space for my own personal reflection, to help sort out all the things that have been going on around me so that i may process how they are affecting me.

in a sense this is a continuation of a dialogue i have been having internally and with others as of late. shortly after this last conversation with Antero, another round of violence struck our community and school. 3 young people were shot right outside of the middle school i first began teaching at. in this most recent outburst, 1 Hawkins student was shot in the arm, another former student in the back, and 1 other current student narrowly dodged being hit. they were all sitting in a parked car after school. fortunately the two students who were hit are alive, though one may be paralyzed from the waist down and the other returned to school just this morning, with both arms in a sling, with parts of his arm and shoulder bones shattered, visibly in pain. the third student came back this past Monday, and returned home shortly after, realizing he was not in the mental space to remain in class. beyond the violence, the normalization of such occurrences, in particular gun violence, has caused many including myself to have lamented at length over the real challenges it presents when working with young people. these two students and their parents have also been impacted by the normalization, which presents as a cultural phenomenon of dismissing and disregarding truly traumatic events as trivial. this creates a unique set of challenges for me as an intervention and support coordinator. how do you intervene in the face of denial? how do you support someone who refuses to or can’t acknowledge the significance of a traumatic situation? what can you do when a parent refuses counseling for their child and themselves after their child has been a victim of gun violence?

these questions are the ones that dance around my head but are often pushed aside throughout the course of the day, because another mini or major crisis presents itself. these are the questions that i fear i will never find the time to fully examine and attempt to answer. and yet when i come to spaces like this NWP conference, i am reminded of the power of learning and teaching thru the lens of true experiences. i am re-inspired to hear and see the work of educators and students who collaborate together to respond to narratives of dominance by telling their own stories, learning valuable and transformative skills in the process; building critical media, literacy, and civic skills that offer them agency in a world filled with systems designed to take voice away from our young people.

luckily i work at a school site with a critical mass of educators who understand this approach and have a ton of experience teaching and learning from this framework. i am also part of a very capable and supportive out of classroom leadership team that continues to help cultivate this philosophy on our campus. and yet, our team is struggling greatly at the moment, trying to forge a sustainable model of authentically democratic and distributive leadership in a highly hierarchical structure… the usual suspects of personality, communication, and exhaustion brought on by overworking have complicated our efficiency as a team. but real issues of equity, transparency, and voice complicate the dynamics of highly capable individuals collectively trying to work and be adaptive leaders for our schools, which often are already going against the grain of the nation’s second largest district, a district being entertained by the plans of privatizing philanthropists. how does a team truly and effectively work through professional dynamics and interactions that inadvertently cause some members harm? how does a group of leaders learn and systematize inspiration and capacity building that empowers all stakeholders to be resilient through current states of reality and hopeful enough to keep working towards that desired state? how does a leadership team communicate and internalize the mission and vision of the work? how does a team repair harm to members and address real human emotions and concerns? at our school site, restorative practices such as engaging in courageous conversations in harm and community building circles is what we are trying to build into our toolbox. and yet after a 3 1/2 hour circle with our leadership team this past Monday evening after a full day of work, we left with many of these questions still unanswered for our team.

not all of the last two weeks have been a struggle. last weekend i was elated to work with some of our Hawkins students, our seniors who have been with us since the beginning, since the doors opened. 7 students from RISE, CHAS, and C:\DAGS collaborated with UC professors and graduate students from the UCLA REMAP department and Digital Cultures Lab to host the later’s first ever community event. my workshop was brought to life by the reflections of students poised to leave the high school space, looking back on their journey and articulating the lessons learned on the way. they helped to illuminate the power and impact of internalizing concepts like “designer”, “entrepreneur”, and “advocate.” they were able to collaborate on a 3D interactive mural that visualized their profound thoughts on the nature of the education they have been a part of and what the possibilities are for such expereinces. even more so they were able to share the lasting impression our young but emerging educational insitution had on their individual identities, in turn further validating the collective identity we are trying to create at Augusutus Hawkins Schools for Community Action.

as i sit and try to create a space of reflection and restoration for my own sake (a version of R & R in the educational sense) i realize that the all to real series of highs and lows may take on a tone that has me sounding depleted. and it is true that i am tired. tired enough to sit out of important sessions like my colleague Nicole Mirra and guests discussing why #blacklivesmatter in all of our classrooms. but it is the type of tired that makes me want to keep sharing out the good work our students and schools are doing. a tired that makes me want to keep on sleeping, so that i may continue to dream with those around me in building towards a more just, empathetic, equitable, and sustainable society.

Crisis and Response

The last 24 hours have been difficult for a lot of our Hawks, myself included. I hope tomorrow is better. Rest in peace, Elijah

“I know this has happened before and will happen again. 

I know this triggers thoughts of losing my childhood friend. 

I know that I have to comfort our young women and men. 

I know I want the guns and violence to end. 

I know I just had a conversation with him. 

I know I was hopeful at last week’s end. 

I know I don’t know a lot about why or when. 

I know it takes us all to heal and to mend.”

Crisis, Creativity, and the tools of Caring

I have been putting off writing about this for some time. Mainly because I am busy being a father, husband, teacher, school founder, professor, etc. Nonetheless I have been consciously thinking about how the often unconscious processes of Creativity work in communities and individuals, ever since my nemesis invited me to be a part of next week’s Creativity and Crisis symposium hosted by Colorado State University. Unlike most other symposiums, this one aims to informally  bring together folks from different walks, academic and non-academic alike in what I hope is an applied and active dialogue.

So what is it that connects these concepts together? Crisis, Creativity, and Caring? At first attempt to get my internal dialogue going, I thought about the areas of my life where I have or am currently experiencing “creativity.” I then began thinking about the tools I use to manifest this energy into the “real” world. Pen and Paper have always my go to weapons of choice. Doodling and jotting down ideas and connections that I see. Many folks who know me identify my scribblings with my personalities at work or home. For me, the lines on the page create or perhaps are manifestations of the connections forming in my head. Hearing one person’s ideas and recalling another’s, I often find points of connection and intersection… but knowing that these Aha moments can vanish quickly in the ocean of the mundane… I try to scribble them down. Original I know, but my scribblings are not just notes. The are usually more “artistic” and filled with doodling or actual drawings. And clouds… a lot of clouds. Why is this important? I am not sure that it is beyond a personal level, but there is growing evidence that it may be. Though many of my colleagues poke fun at my icons and symbols, they also often volunteer me to “chart” out meetings and discussions. Students seem to appreciate the class notes even on just an aesthetic level, which I feel should not be minimized in terms of significance. No one wants to stare at “important” notes if they look hideous and unruly! At least I don’t and that is where I would leave this conversation, but others have moved it forward at least in the educational sense, as this fantastic article helps us remember. And not only remember… but also help us connect.

  

The next two “tools” that have reawakened some of my other creative neural outlets have been the last two years’ father’s day presents from my wife and daughters. As the previously mentioned creativity often finds my head in a permanent space of professional work endeavors, my hammock and ukulele were gifted to me by my family in an attempt to ground me back in my most personal and closest moments of home. Relaxing and enjoying the life I have helped to create. These tools have been “instrumental” to say the least. As I have been immersed in helping to build my second home, the Schools for Community Action , my home and family have been my everlasting source of renewed energy. Yet, like most wells, you have to actively partake in the process of replenishing. My hammock has been my partner in crime on many occasion in sparking impromptu and spontaneous naps and cuddle sessions. This has helped to remind me of the importance to taking and making time for the most important and often overlooked aspects of one’s life. Home and family are essential.

  

All of these things are “homegrown.” And the last real bastion of creativity for me as of late has been my actual house and the standing or sitting structures that I have been a part of designing and bringing to fruition with my own hands. Building backyard gardens, benches, and fences (yes, city boys can build things too!) has been very cathartic for me recently.  Something about working with your hands and elements of Earth once or currently living, reminds us that we are part of nature. And everything we create is an extension of ourselves and our visions and intentions of and for the world. 

   
   
Of course there are other tools and times when I feel creative  Riding my bike to work and choosing the “lines” that won’t get me crushed by a bus. Playing games, figuring out puzzles, building, acting, drawing, or basically doing anything with my kids. Riding waves on the ocean. Teaching students how to ask important questions and then how to go find answers, how to organize oneself for change. But all of these things, if you think about it involve crises, big and small. Problems that beg to be examined and solved. 

  
The crises I have been dealing with, the problems that have required my creative thinking; 1) how best to be a good and decent husband/father? 2) how to continue creating and sustaining schools rooted in authentic community action and self determination? 3) how best to re-examine and redefine my truth and identity as I grow older in this life? 4) how best to exist in this world and answer our Earth’s call reform our capitalistic practices in favor of culture and climate? 5) how do we begin dismantling systems and institutions of oppression and build towards economic, social, and environmental justice for the most marginalized people in our society?

These are the questions I care about pondering and working out solutions to. And if we don’t care (actively) then we lose our ability to create, to solve problems. Capitalism requires this of us. Capitalism craves consumers and not creators. 

What are your crises? And how do you use your creativity to combat them? In essence, what do you care about? 

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.