Summer Reading the Word and the World: Preserving a spirit of hope and inquiry


My mind and soul feel like they are on fire right now.  This summer has been an interesting and fresh balancing act of attempting to disconnect and focus on quality time spent with my family and friends, while simultaneously struggling to stay focused and motivated to confront all of the realities of tragedy and despair that have become (or maybe more accurately have always been) “las noticias de hoy.”  It has been surreal and at times I have felt the despair set in.  Every time I feel this happening, I have to grab hold of something, a book, podcast, television show or documentary, album, ANYTHING that can jar my mind back into accepting the reality that the world is a beautifully harsh place, that can indeed be transformed through collective effort, into a more just and peaceful planet.  In trying to continue to be a student of life and all of its instructive stories, I have found it difficult to force reflection on some of these more difficult realities.  Yet I know that this is absolutely necessary for true understanding of what the hell is actually happening.  And so this is my attempt at a reflective synthesis.

In preparing for the upcoming fall semester at CSUMB, I have been reading Antonia Darder’s The Student’s Guide to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  In redesigning my class for novice teachers to be able to rise to the occasion that, now perhaps more than ever, demands we teach for “liberation” and not merely for content mastery, I chose to use this text to help unpack Freire’s original influential text.  It is here that I have been prompted to think more deeply about what a liberatory and critical pedagogy actually mean.  Reminding myself of the necessity for time set aside for direct and intentional theorizing and abstraction, but never sacrificing action.  It is serendipitous that the new History and Social Science framework is intentionally focused on “civic action.”  Never mind that many history and social studies teachers are not yet fully aware of what this actually means for their classroom instruction, the architecture is now there to spark an authentic dialogue (which is another fundamental aspect of Freire’s text) amongst teachers who are in the position to have tremendous impact on the patterns of thought and eventual action of many young people.  On this note, I have been simultaneously excited and nervous to begin my new job as a curriculum specialist, which will help experienced and veteran (some expert) teachers collectively consider the implications for a type of instructive pedagogy that has civic action at its foundation, in particular at this moment in history. This text also reviews the history of many schools of philosophical thought and more importantly the historical context of authoritarianism, which is as stark a reminder of our current national and global epoch.

Aside from professional reading and pondering, I have been personally immersed in stories of the day that force the full act of humanity, that is to say I have been  intentionally reading, watching, and listening to things that recognize and acknowledge the human suffering of our brothers and sisters all the world over. It is not always easy to stare into the eyes of human suffering, but I know it to be necessary if I truly want to be part of movements designed to lessen and eventually end such oppression.  Enrique’s Journeyhas been an emotional slog for me. In the context of the mass separation of migrant children from the parents, this powerful narrative ha also harkened me back to the stories of so many of my students, undocumented minors both in Los Angeles and here in Salinas, who’s own journey’s were comprised of similar trials of tragedy. It also reminded me of many parents I have had the honor to work with, attempting to repair the often strained relationships between themselves and their children.

The Intercepted podcasthas been a summer staple, providing much needed journalistic context for the litany of crazy that is our current events. Two episodes that have had a lasting impression on me this summer have been these two. The show is unapologetic in its “speaking truth to power” style but what I appreciate even more is their journalistic commitment to contextualizing the stories of today through factual history, with a depth necessary for authentic understanding. Also appreciated is the hopeful chord always struck by interviews with activists and resisters. It has been on of my “go to” podcasts since the election.

Despite my steady summer media diet, which has also deviated into the realm of indulging pure entertainment in my attempt to not go insane, it was last night’s episode of Treme that really “struck a chord” in my soul. I have waited until this summer to watch this series from the beginning, knowing full well that I missed the metaphorical train on this. Truth is, I have not been ready until now. I remember the summer Katrina hit. I stood in disbelief as the events unfolded, the human callous out doing Mother Nature’s stormy onslaught. I remember feeling petrified, afraid of how I was reduced to a mere spectator from afar, gazing daily at the suffering of mainly black residents of New Orleans and the blatant disregard of our government. This feeling could not stand, so I along with my friend Daye and my future wife, signed up for a “disaster relief” course from the Red Cross. We were prepared to go to New Orleans and help in any way we could. In retrospect, relying on an institution to grant us “permission” and “training” to go help our brothers and sisters was unnecessary and ultimately futile, for it was not to be. The Red Cross said that there was a diminishing need for relief workers, as so many folks around the country had already been actively engaged and sent down to New Orleans. Historical hindsight being what it is, I never felt quite ready to see the deliberate destruction and designed despair that was to be the “re-building” of New Orleans. The neighborhoods left to rot while others were rebuilt. The closing and “charterization” of the entire public school system. I guess I was only ready to see this story dramatized on screen after the sobering reality of yet another disaster, Hurricane Maria, instructed me as student of history… this is the way of our world right now.

That is of course, unless we are called to action. And this is I guess the main struggle of my summer. The continuing questioning of action. What can I be doing? Am I doing enough? There is no one answer. On any given day, at any given moment the answer, for me at least, can change from the negative to the affirmative. These are often questions of focus. As someone who often lacks focus, who wants to pretend to concentrate on everything, I have had to remind myself of a previously stated intentionality of focus at this time in my life: family. My wife is my daily reminder of the importance of parenting to any movement related to social, political, or economic justice. How we raise our children will indeed have impact on our future circumstances. No matter how many times I have marched, or contacted my representatives, or voted… there is nothing as powerful as cultivating the imagination of a child towards empathy and reflection. Reading my daughter’s book is just another reminder that my focus has to be on my children right now. And all of the other things we know we must do to stay vigilant in these times.

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.

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 😉

Welcome to the World my Son

January 4th 2016 is a day I’ll always remember. It is the day my son was born. Well, technically almost midnight…but the entire day was indeed memorable. Especially the moments leading up to his arrival. More on that later. 

I write this post on our last day at the hospital, preparing to take this proverbial little bundle of joy home later today. Bodhi is currently lying on my arm inspiring, as much responsible for the content of this post as me. My attempts to disconnect from the outside world have gone largely unrealized, though not unnoticed as one of my friends and colleagues pointed out in a text checking in that I’d seemed to have been, “conspicuously absent from Facebook.” And while I feel slightly guilty about not being completely detached from technology, I do not feel bad utilizing the power of the written word to reflect on the deep emotional well of feelings I have at this moment. 

The third time around is definitely different, harking me to think about the other parenting rodeos I’ve participated in. And while it can seem at times that everyday as a parent can turn into a full on rodeo, everyday has also been a gift that my wife and I recognize and are eternally grateful for. 

Yet, like all things in life, there is fear inherent in joy. This time around though, the fears are slightly different. Is it really that surprising though when you finally turn on the radio and news of North Korea’s latest testing of a nuclear weapon is the first outside story that you hear? Or the “storm of the century” that is quickly approaching, but let’s face it… Every storm in Los Angeles is momentarily worthy of such fame.  Where does your mind go when the power in the hospital fails and the generators come on? I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit to brief visions of a zombie apocalypse, but even closer to home my mind wanders to past hospital stays with my first child.  Those days were hit by storms as well. 

As the rest of my city braces for the worst, floods, mudslides, and possible death… I must embrace the best… a new Life. Despite or perhaps in spite of the worst parents must embrace the best for the children. No matter the crisis or chaos, and there are many to be certain, it is towards a more positive outcome we must strive.  I had to remind myself and my wife of this as we raced towards the hospital at 90-100 mph the night we delivered. I meditated on this in yoga class just moments earlier, breathing in intention…exhaling hope. 

I will not pretend that this world is not full of tragedy and despair. But I will not dwell on these things neither. I can’t. I will continue to as truthfully as I can acknowledge them, like the thoughts that arise during your moments of silence, and continue to move towards clarity in action, always mindful of what my role as an educator, husband, and father will be. This is the world we have created for ourselves. And it is all we can do to stay focused and breathe. Am I scared? Just a little. But I am happy. Welcome home Bodhi. Welcome.   

  
  

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.