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.

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.

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.

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.

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

              

                                  

 

 

  

 

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.

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!

summer break… not so much

contrary to popular belief (or desire) not all teachers have three months off to become the working class version of a corona vacation… the current economic imperative to cut public education from every angle has necessitated that a lot of teachers trade in the sand for the blackboard to make ends meet… which is to say that those teachers are blessed to have the option to do so in such difficult times (myself included)…

apart from what the national dialogue would have you believe about teachers being one of the last hold outs of public employees who are over paid and under-qualified, others are continually pushing to make the educational opportunities they can provide for their students in the coming fall that much more wonderful, innovative, creative, and effective (count me in this column too)

to those ends i have been pushing through many exciting projects with my fellow teachers, and i feel the need to share/reflect on these here:

i was fortunate enough to have a colleague recommend me to become part of the adjunct faculty at Antioch University’s Master of Arts in Education program… in teaching a small cohort of 8 graduate level students who are training to become educators, i have rediscovered why my job as a public middle and high school teacher is so important. i have also rediscovered certain educational theories that have helped inform my pedagogy. the class i teach is language acquisition and development… crucial for every teacher to have a strong theoretical and practical understanding of yet i am finding that the subject is increasingly relevant in my personal life as a new father. i am pleased to be joining the Antioch faculty.

a small team of colleagues and i have also just wrapped up an intensive 10 day training centered around GIS and how to incorporate this technical knowledge in our classrooms and in the community. through our UCLA TIIP grant proposal (scroll down to manual arts) we are lucky enough to fund our instructional inquiries throughout this summer and next. although intensive, this work has inspired me to continue to dream of the possibilities public education can accomplish despite the challenges we face.

the most daunting and inspiring task i have found myself working on these past few months has been designing a new public high school. it is daunting for the mere fact that the less than perfect LAUSD school board proposed process of public school choice is more political in nature than it is student or community centered. a continuing mix of privatized special interest lobbying, community swooning, and just plan old district disorganization has created a situation that has resulted in many heated exchanges including this one at a school board meeting earlier this year… it is in this, the 3rd round of public school choice that i find myself neck deep in… yet i am not alone. a trusted team of teachers, students, and community members have all come together under a unifying vision… Schools for Community Action. it is in this work where most of my idealizing and dreaming around educational possibility is taking place. but its more than that… it is a true dialogue with the community, with a basic premise driving it. in order to provide for the community you have to ask them what they need, what they would like to see, what do they deserve. our team is tirelessly organizing every thing we do around this premise… and hopefully at the end of the summer we will be that much closer to submitting a proposal that will usher in a new standard in k-12 education for the community of South Central Los Angeles…

although i am definitely feeling the need to just sit on a beach and relax (soon to come) i cannot feel luckier to be part of such amazing work, with so many amazing people. summer, i do love you…

I got some good news…

Thhus week a judge ruled that layoffs solely based on seniority adversely affect schools (like the one I have called home for the last 5 years) unjustly due to the higher concentration of new teachers.
http://www.ktla.com/news/landing/ktla-judge-blocks-school-layoffs,0,4707626.story

Our school, like many others should also have been named in this lawsuit… But I celebrate this as a victory for my teacher friends and family who had to suffer through the last 2 years of uncertainty, abandoned hope, and forced acceptance of a dream deferred.

And more importantly for our students, who have also had to suffer, in the most literal sense of the word. Everyday in the bungalows and in the dean’s office, on the steps of classrooms they have been left to sit on for no rhyme or reason, or the corners of campus they seek as a refuge rather than going to those classes where chaos and indignity triumphs over respect and education. I have seen a lot in these last 5 years to have me still believe that this decision, born from an “impartial” system is cause for hope still…

John Muir Middle School
One of my collaborative attempts to beautify my home for the last 5 years... Mural done by graff artists Galo (MakeOne) and Cre8.