In the face of the atrocities that grow daily at the U.S. southern border, there is confusion about what we as the public can and should be doing. When those in power blatantly abuse their power only to demonstrate cruelty and the “checks” on that power in this “democracy” fail to even be acknowledged… what is a populous to do? Where is the resistance and outrage? To be sure it is there but what is missing is the mobilization. And this is the key problem.
Teachers and students across the country are out on “summer break” but it seems as if we might have to gear up and hold summer school for the nation. The mandatory course section our nation should be enrolled in? Organizing the Outrage 101. In our profession, as demonstrated by the recent waves of strikes in different states, teachers are constantly put into positions where we have to organize our colleagues, our communities, and now our entire nation. For those of us who have grown old and tired, we need to step into the instructor role of guide on the side, allowing for our students to remind us of the youthful energy often needed in defiance, as demonstrated all throughout history with student generated movements against war, state sponsored violence and neglect.
Other professions could aide even further in a mass mobilizing of the nation’s outrage and horror against this administration’s deliberate policy decision to monstrously and callously separate young children from their parents and hold them in detention center while mocking this very policy they are complicit in.
As Naomi Klein recently reminds us in her latest documentation of what she terms the Shock Doctrine, capital organizes much more quickly than people. The film industry could mobilize a mass of wealth and fame to go down to the border and confront these atrocities, using their bully pulpit to document, bring the mass corporate media with them, etc. God knows (as do you and I) that Congress should already be down there in their entirety, having cancelled their own “summer break” demanding that this practice cease immediately. But we also know that this won’t happen.
So it looks like it is up to us, once again. Teachers and students showing the nation what it looks like for truth to be spoken to power. While they organize and demonstrate their cruelty, we should all be organizing the nationwide response. Our unions should be contacting our members and rallying the war cry, the war for nothing less than the soul of our nation, which may very well already be lost. But that is not a reason to disengage. As teachers and students we know that to engage is to define the human spirit.
I am not sure that this will happen. And so I too am lost in confusion at this moment in time. But I am quite sure that this is entirely possible. And so I will write it as if it is so. To enroll in your mandatory summer course, please spread the word to your fellow classmates, the nation.
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.
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.
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.
“Daddy…” “Yes dear?”
“Can you snuggle with me?” “Of course.”
“Daddy but first let me tell you something. Do you know before you were alive that Martin Luther King was alive and that they had separate restaurants for black people? And they called them colored? And they had separate bathrooms? Is that right?”
“No…” “Does the color of our skin matter?”
“No… ” “Whats is really important?”
(pause) “Who you are inside.” “Thats right.”
“But they had drinking fountains for white people and some for black people? And they tried to call the police but they didn’t move.” “Many people, black, brown, and white organized together to change that. When people come together and work together and they know something’s not right they can fix it.”
“What can I fix?” “Whatever you see is wrong. If you see something you know is not right, you can always try and fix it.”
… echo in my head
… let me please remember this moment. and follow up with these lessons revisited. for myself. for my children. for my students.
there are so many complexities to this. as a parent, how do you balance developmentally appropriate with historical accuracy? or contemporary reality? i didn’t have the heart to tell her that skin color still matters, to a lot of people. that systemic oppression exists, that it is real. that racial, class, and gender warfare are real and that these are some things that she should prepare to fix. but she’s 6.
6 years old. and i am so proud to be her father. proud and excited to see what little corner of the world she finds and dedicates herself to helping make better.
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…
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…