I Can See Myself Growing Here

What makes a kid decide to turn his life around?  At the beginning of this year, I sat in on Cynthia Castillo’s English 11 class, which had 45 students on the roster. Here’s part of my description of my visit that first day:

Her students are the chattiest I’ve visited; no matter how many questions she answers, there are always more.  But a vocal group of eight or so very gregarious boys claims most of her time, along with a kid with extreme behavior issues, who just returned from three days of restorative justice circles and is continually jumping up and down announcing that his computer is broken and accusing her of having something against him.Continue reading

Why Raising The Standards Won’t Make Kids Read

I recently sat in on a class in which none of the students had done the reading. It was an 11th grade English class; they were reading a fat canonical American novel, maybe 350 pages long. And none of them had read it—at least not the chapter they were supposed to have read the night before.

The teacher, a smart, dedicated older man, stood in front of the class trying to lead a class discussion. Crickets.

As the teacher stood lobbing question after question, the kids sat at their desks making eye contact with no one, shifting uneasily in their seats and waiting for the time to pass so they could leave.

Reader, I’ve been there. Maybe not in a situation where all of my students didn’t do the reading, but often when a very substantial number did not, a situation that would inevitably put me into a panic of misery, shame and frustration. What should I have done? What was I doing wrong? If the kids didn’t read the book, how could they write an essay that meant anything? Continue reading

How Do You Create Relationships?

Jennie Carey knows everyone. At least it seems that way. She’s been the L.A. Education Partnership’s Community School Coordinator at Cesar Chavez Learning Academies since the school’s beginning in 2011; before that, she did the same job at nearby Sylmar High. “The overarching idea is that my job is to find out what are the barriers to student success and come up with strategies to try to overcome them,” she tells me as we talk in her office, an empty classroom whose walls are covered with giant post-its scrawled with notes from meetings. “I very much view my job as a strategy creator.”

Jennie started as a teacher, but after four years in the classroom, went to Harvard for a Master’s in School Leadership. “I liked the idea of studying leadership from the place of being a non-authority,” she says, a view that permeates her role here, where her main job is to connect people, listen and create infrastructures that allow constructive conversations. “My question is, how do you create relationships?Continue reading

Education Super-connectors

Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s term “super-connectors,” those people who know everyone and can hook you up with whatever you need?  I’ve just met the education version in L.A.  And I think they may be onto something.

“You’ve got to go deep into the ground and not assume anything about people,” says Ellen Pais, CEO of L.A. Education Partnership, a 30-year old non-profit whose stated mission is to “work as a collaborative partner in high-poverty communities to foster great schools that support the personal and academic success of children.” In other words, they build a network that connects students and families to the resources they need so that kids can stay in school and succeed.

I’m sitting in Ellen’s office at a window overlooking nearby downtown L.A., along with Lara Kain, senior director of their partner schools division, and they’re telling me about a program so utterly unlike the instant-results, test-score-driven, “we don’t have time to wait” philosophy of the Ed Reform world that I’m almost disoriented. A program that’s existed for 30 years? That seems to exist under the radar of almost everyone I know, including people who know a lot about education? That has grown…slowly? Continue reading

A Teacher’s Life

My friend and former colleague Martha Mata passed away this morning after a long battle with cancer.  Nothing I could say would do justice to her.  I don’t have words right now so instead I want to share her own words about her life from an interview two years ago:

“My parents are from Suchitoto, El Salvador. By the time I was born, though, they moved to San Salvador because of the civil war, and when I was three, we all came here to Orange County, so that’s where I mainly grew up. When the time came for college, I didn’t really ask if I could go away, I just told my mom I was going to Notre Dame. Being Latina, my mom had that overprotective thing going on, so I told her, no worries, the dorms are single sex and there’s a nun in the dorm! That seemed to make her feel better.

I loved Notre Dame, but after I graduated I came home. I was a computer programmer for three years, but I really didn’t like the corporate world, so I became a teacher. Even after ten years as a teacher, I still don’t make as much money as I made in the corporate world, but you know what? Money isn’t everything. Working in corporate America was sometimes boring. Teaching is never boring.   It was always my dream to own my own house, and when I finally bought my house this year, my mom moved in with me—it seemed silly for her to keep paying rent, and it’s pretty great because she makes me dinner every night.

It was really hard on her when I was diagnosed with cancer, but she never shows it. And she’s still overprotective. When I was out for surgery she wanted to do my laundry, and I was like: I’m doing my own laundry! She’d be ironing my clothes if I let her. She loves to decorate, which is mostly nice but it can get a little out of control. I was like: Mom! You are not decorating the bathroom! I found Christmas towels in there!

You get cancer and you re-evaluate everything. I wanted to see Stephen Colbert and I did. I wanted to rock climb and I did–I went to Colorado for a week and learned how. But mainly, one of my first thoughts when I got diagnosed was how is going to affect my classroom? I realized I want to be here every single day that I can be. Teaching is one of my core values. You see kids get better, solve problems they weren’t able to solve before. It’s not so much changing them on an emotional level, but changing how they see themselves. They see that they can learn. They see that they can be successful. When kids do something nerdy about math, it gives me such joy, because the kids are really smart and they don’t know it, and it makes me so happy when they realize it. Like on pi day when the kids tell math jokes. Want to hear my favorite? What did the 0 say to the 8? Nice belt.

I want to tell my parents that they did a good job. From my mom’s side of the family I learned that poor doesn’t necessarily mean uneducated. We were poor. But that wasn’t an excuse not to be proper, not to be respectful. The kids will complain to me that they don’t feel good or they have a headache, and I’m like: so what? You have to work hard and you have to make time for the things you love. You have to decide for yourself that there are no excuses.”

That was two years ago.  Martha was true to her vow: she was in the classroom every day she could be, no matter how sick she was, right to the very end.  Last year, despite her chemo and hospitalizations, she was there for the kids every day she could stand up and her students scored highest in math in all of Green Dot’s system. She taught her students they were smart, that they should never give up, that they should fight for every inch of life and live it full-out.  She taught me what it meant to be a teacher.  I am honored to have known her.

Mr. Navarro Says

The soft-spoken 18-year-old boy in a buttoned-down blue oxford cloth shirt tells me that when he was fifteen, he was taken away from his mother and put into a foster care facility.  Up until then, Ramon* been hanging around with tough kids, doing drugs and feeling like he had no future; suddenly, he was at a new school, Cesar Chavez Social Justice Academy in San Fernando, where he found himself alone, far from his friends.  In the evenings after school, he’d go for long walks by himself, thinking about what would happen to him.  Having seen his mother spiral out of control on drugs, he knew that he couldn’t continue the life he’d been living without ending up an addict.  But what could he choose?  What other future was there?

Mr. Navarro says that if you aim at nothing, that’s exactly what you’ll achieve,” Ramon tells me.  Mr. Navarro is the principal of his school, the person he says inspired him to change his life.  With a transcript full of terrible grades from his previous school and his old life, Ramon has faced an exhausting battle to get himself back on track.  “Mr. Navarro says ‘this, too, shall pass,’” Ramon says, a statement that he repeats to himself when times get hard, reminding himself that Mr. Navarro has told him of his own similar struggles.  Now, Ramon is a mentor to other kids, telling them his story and encouraging them not to give up.  He will graduate in June and plans to attend community college. Continue reading