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.

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.

A letter to my little graduate…

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.

Re-entry… 2017

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:

Reading
Reflecting
Writing
Discussing
Dignity
Action

2017, here we go…

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

              

                                  

 

 

  

 

Connected Learning… What are we Connecting with?

i have a feeling if i continue to write in this blog space that i will increasingly be exploring the intersections of education and parenthood. it makes sense as these things take up the majority my cognitive processing power and time. they are also inextricably related, right?

i often try to multitask, knowing full well that it is not possible. i was attempting to do so this morning; listening to @anterobot give an interesting sit down with the Connected Learning Alliance podcast (see below) while trying to give and pay attention to my almost 2 year old daughter. it wasn’t working. as i listened to antero respond to questions about technology in classrooms, the power of connected learning, the missteps educators often make when attempting to have connected classrooms, i realized that my use of technology at that moment was not connecting me to the one person i should be connecting with.

so i pushed off the feeling of guilt with the pause button on the podcast, realizing i could always come back to this archived audio recording, but that i would have to rely on my own mental archives of my daughter playing with blocks and using imaginative play, pretending to serve me imaginary food in an abalone shell. and i think here in lies the paradox of connected learning in our current state of the technological revolution.

technology, particularly online and mobile, have the power to turn participants into perceivably passive “zombies.” as a parent i see this all the time. parents at the park on their phones. passively observing their kids from a far. it should also be noted that 1) i am also guilty as charged and 2) parents often need a break from only interacting with their beautiful (sometimes frustrating) children, especially who stay at home full time. the park provides much needed space for the both the child and the parent. one engaging in independent or codependent play, the other independent or social interactions online with mobile technology. both healthy and necessary at times if appropriately moderated. i have also seen this as a teacher in the classroom. there is nothing more frustrating but easier to identify than a kid on their mobile device, with their mouth half open, staring at their crotch… put your phone away and pay attention! it should also be noted here, that when i am in the position as a learner (often in professional developments or teacher trainings) i often find my hand creeping towards my phone to interact online. LIVE IN THE MOMENT!!!

and yet technology has the enormous capability to create powerful spaces of interconnection, the likes of which would be not be possible otherwise. antero speaks of google hangouts and video chats like skype, powerful online portals i am privileged to use frequently. just last night my wife and i reconnected to a close couple of friends we hadn’t seen in awhile, opting for a video chat on our laptops because our phone batteries were dying. it was surprising pleasant and non-pretentious. these opportunities at times help to strengthen my own families’ bonds, facetiming with grandparents and cousins. they have also created authentic and unexpected educational collaborations in my classroom, working with university students and professors in colorado (CLRN) and illinois state. it is a refreshing break from the classroom that exists only within its own four walls. sharing questions and ideas with learners in other places excites the learning space back to one of authentic enthusiasm and engagement.

so back to the paradox. or rather the false dichotomy. what is troublesome with conversations about technology, connected learning classrooms, and the like is that its often presented in traditional spaces – the media, schools, teacher education programs, policy making board rooms, etc. – as an either or. either cell phones have absolutely no place in the classroom because they interfere with one’s ability to focus on the task at hand OR they are the next best tool that can transform ANYONE’S classroom practice. this is a disabling dichotomy. dialogue should be more nuanced and critical, examining both the possible as well as the problematic potential and real world case studies. i know i have found myself frustrated with the lack of conversation by colleagues challenging conventional rules and policies around technology use in my school, an institution that at its very core repositions technology use and traditional teaching models.

in short i guess i agree with antero’s assessment of deepening the dialogue with teachers primarily. and this is no surprise given our often overlapping interests. however i found it interesting how i responded as a parent in the moment, prompted to critically reflect in real time and make adjustments when asking myself… who exactly AM i connecting with at this moment? i am glad that pushed pause in that instance. i think part an important part of the dialogue is the ability to push pause and give real time and space to think about implications of our interactions, online and in the real world… and that they say about us as students, teachers, parents, and a culture.

world history by design?!?!? bring it on!

design can be hard work. anyone who has ever wrestled at any length with their “perfect idea” can testify that at some point, your creative will is tested by the juggernaut that your ingenious idea may have become. creating this world history by design course feels this way right about now… there are so many possibilities… that they somehow place newly realized constraints.

the main design challenge i am having as a history teacher by trade, without real world graphic design experience… how to teach a rigorous course that applies this rigor to both principles of DESIGN and historical content???

i have of course been thinking about this ever since i agreed to teach the course a couple months ago. talks with industry professionals, designers, teacher colleagues, community organizations and others have generated many possible solutions to this challenge. anything from online collaborations, guest teaching opportunities, further development for myself the instructor. this particular presentation also struck me.

knowing that lecture/slide based presentation of information is not always the most helpful to my students, embedded in this solution is its own design challenge. how do you create authentic learning experiences that are integrated and rigorous across such seemingly different content? this is the challenge of the week. hopefully our UCCI institute combined with our Linked Learning work will continue to push my own design solutions as a teacher in this regard. and they say teachers have the summer off… HA!