10 Best Education Posts of 2013

It’s been a crazy year in education!  If you’re taking time over winter break to reflect on 2013’s highs and lows, here are the education “hits” that have changed my thinking this year:

  1. Invisible Child by Andrea Elliot, New York Times.  Anyone who talks about the achievement gap in this country needs to read this searing profile of a 11-year-old girl cycling in and out of homelessness in New York City.  If we are serious about addressing the needs low-income students of color in this country, we need to first understand the conditions in which many of our students are growing up.
  2. Educating the Educators by Mike Rose, The Answer Sheet, Washington Post.  Cutting through the hysterical rhetoric of so much of the conversation in education these days, Rose, a professor at UCLA, sheds light on the meaning of teaching with his thoughtful, wise, complex and compassionate discussion of what it means to become a teacher and who ought to be one.  Part One is a re-examination of some of the terms we use to define teaching.  Part Two is a discussion of diversity and what we mean when we say “selectivity.
  3. Continue reading 10 Best Education Posts of 2013

You Still Carry It With You

My first year as a teacher, I had a class that was wild no matter what I did.  There was the kid who could not keep himself from jumping up and dancing in the middle of the room. The class clown, who drew a large, photo-realistic penis on the back of his clipboard, to universal acclaim led by the class president, Felipe*.  Two super-smart alpha girls who’d yell “this is boring, miss!” if the class slowed down and one boy from the soccer team who, for reasons I could never determine, just plain hated my guts and would walk out, slamming the door, when I got on his nerves.

And then there was Clarisa, a skinny, quiet girl with braces sitting ramrod straight amidst the chaos of the class, eyes fixed on whoever was speaking.  Though she rarely spoke, her writing was sophisticated, perceptive and honest.  “Don’t underestimate her,” warned a teacher friend of mine.  “She’s the one kid that all the other kids respect.”  Another teacher, putting together an awards ceremony, was filled with frustration.  “I can’t just give all the awards to Clarisa!” he said, then added, “even though she deserves them.” Continue reading You Still Carry It With You


I think often these days of Wilhelm Fleiss.  Who doesn’t? you’re probably asking, but in case you don’t remember: in the 19th century, while Freud was developing the theory of psychoanalysis, his friend Wilhelm Fleiss dismissed Freud’s talk therapy as a lot of windy hoo-ha.  Why sit around listening to people blather about memories, dreams and feelings? Fleiss’ cure for neurosis was swift and conclusive: stick a hot piece of metal up a patient’s nose and cauterize the connection to the brain.

As you can imagine, this technique was not very successful, which is why you never worry about making a Fleissian slip unless you are running around with a piece of red-hot metal, in which case you have much, much bigger problems to worry about.  But for years, before Fleiss destroyed a patient’s nose, causing half of her face to cave in (she later sued him, then became a psychoanalyst), Fleiss’ technique was held in high regard.  Why?  Because it felt so scientific.

Obviously, in retrospect, it was not remotely scientific, since it never worked (though it may have seemed to work in the short term; who could continue to obsess about their emotional problems while in such excruciating nose pain? To be fair, I suspect that his other cure, “cocainizing” the nose, may have been remarkably effective, at least until the buzz wore off or your money ran out.)  But Fleiss’ cure had the trappings of science: the metal instruments, the procedures, the insistence on physical, observable things like body organs.  It makes me think of Stephen Colbert’s word “truthiness” for ideas that feel true even though they’re not.  Fleiss’ technique may not have been scientific, but it had “science-iness.” And that was close enough, at least until the lawsuit kicked in.

I think of “science-iness” every time I hear people refer to our students’ future success or failure as “outcomes.”  Continue reading Science-iness

What Is Curiosity?

If you want to believe that Southern California is heaven, ease onto the 110 Freeway and set your GPS to South Pasadena.  There, in this city of 25,000 only a few miles from downtown, the trees are so prized that in 1991, the city council passed an ordinance to protect them.  Squint to shut out the cars and you could believe that it’s 1915, with historic California bungalows lining the shade-dappled lanes.

But that’s not why people move to South Pasadena.  They move there for the schools.  The schools!  When I visit South Pasadena High and take in the elegant Art Deco buildings, the sunny, clean pathways, the library—my God, an actual, real-life school library, a giant space filled with books, remember school libraries?  And school librarians?  South Pasadena has them!  I am not making this up!  There sit two pleasant middle-aged librarians, checking out books as if they have no idea they’re an endangered species; it would have been only slightly less startling to see two whooping cranes or two hartebeestes!  Truly, as I stand in the school library, my eyes fill with tears of nostalgia but also bitterness because the school where I taught did not have any library at all, only a ragtag collection of books in each teacher’s room—I want to turn back time so that my own kids can go to South Pasadena High.  So that I can go there.  So that everyone can go there. Continue reading What Is Curiosity?

What’s a Bad Teacher Like?

My son is having a nervous breakdown,” Azucena Gonzales tells me, fighting tears.  “He said I don’t want to live.”  A warm, friendly woman with wavy dark hair, she’s sitting with me on the sunny patio at a Starbucks near her son’s middle school in Watts. Her son is home all week, afraid to go back because he’s been bullied so much, both verbally and physically. “People tell me, maybe you should teach your son to fight.  I don’t want him to learn how to fight.  I want him to learn.

Azucena’s son is in 7th grade.  Because of ADHD, he has what’s called an IEP, or Individualized Education Plan, which is edu-speak for being in Special Ed.  In other words, growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood, he fits the profile of a large number of at-risk kids who are stuck in neighborhood schools that can’t always meet their needs.  I wanted to hear Azucena’s story because, though this blog is focused on great teachers, I want to understand what people mean when they talk about bad schools and bad teachers–and also why it can be so hard for parents to get their kids out of them no matter how badly they want to. Continue reading What’s a Bad Teacher Like?

Why Teachers in Underserved Communities Should Be Paid More. A Lot More.

As I watched Kristin Damo teach one day at Locke High School in Watts, then watched Cynthia Castillo the next day at Augustus Hawkins in South Central, I suddenly understood why I was so often dogged by the suspicion that I was a fairly crappy teacher.

I mean, I know I’m passionate about my subject matter (who else would blog so much for no reason at all?), and inexplicably enjoy the ridiculousness of teenagers, but I’m gonna be honest: there was a lot that I was really, really bad at, and when I was in the classroom, it was all coming at me so fast that I could not pull apart and analyze how, exactly, I’d gone wrong.  Now, watching Kristin and Cynthia, I suddenly see my key problem:

I am horrible at creating and implementing systems.

Systems!  Who thought teaching was about systems?  Continue reading Why Teachers in Underserved Communities Should Be Paid More. A Lot More.

Keep Calm and Carry a Clipboard

The word of the day is “Boorish,” projected on the whiteboard.  I’m at Locke High School in Watts, watching Kristin Damo stand at the door greeting each student personally.  Two girls in glittery sweatshirts arrive early, telling her they’ve missed her because she’s been out for two days at meetings.

“I’ve missed you, too,” says Kristin. The girls sit right away and get to work, heads down, copying the word and attempting to guess the definition from a sentence on the board; this is a teaching technique called a “Do Now” so that students get into a serious frame of mind from the moment they walk in. Continue reading Keep Calm and Carry a Clipboard

These Are The Believers In Life

The chain-link metal gates around Locke High School in Watts are locked when I show up during lunch. A sign on the doorbell tells me that no one will be in the office for another half hour.  I buzz anyway, peering through the crack in the fence until I catch the eye of a student who runs over, smiling until she realizes she has mistaken me for her mother.  Still, she throws open the gate.  I’m in.

Locke is famous.  Or infamous.  Or both.  Once notorious as one of the worst high schools in Los Angeles, after a bitter battle among the faculty in 2007, a slight majority voted to turn the school’s management over to the Green Dot charter system.  The move was massively controversial; something like half of the faculty quit or were fired, replaced largely by young recruits.  Results in the first couple of years were mixed, trending positive at first; though Green Dot was dinged in the press for spending a staggering amount on security, the school became safer and test scores rose a bit.  Still, Green Dot acknowledged that the challenge of taking over a failing neighborhood school—as opposed to starting a new one with families who had chosen to be there—was more difficult than they had originally thought.  Continue reading These Are The Believers In Life

Do I Even Want To Fight This Fight Any More?

Shakespeare’s Sister has hit the wall.  An English teacher in a low-income community in Colorado, she’s in her sixth year in the classroom and blogs pseudonymously at the Daily Kos.  When she emailed me her newest post, it stopped me cold.  What she wrote could have been taken from my journal last year:

all of my years teaching have been in high-poverty, low-income, under-funded schools. That means that not only are my students affectively needy, they are needy in the educational sense too. They have various – and significant – learning gaps. They need an incredible amount of support – in both senses – to move them from their current level of achievement to, well, not where they should be, but somewhere better. Why not where they should be? Because I am human. Because I cannot, no matter what the storybooks say, increase a student’s achievement level more than one grade level in one year.

At this point, someone might say, “Well, if you were a good teacher, you could.” No. I am a good teacher.

To read the whole post, click here, but I’d like to freeze-frame on this statement because it encapsulates, in a nutshell, the wretched mindfuck that teaching in an underserved community has become: a toxic combination of a “no excuses” demand for excellence on the one hand while on the other, a failure to provide the conditions in which excellence is likely to occur. Continue reading Do I Even Want To Fight This Fight Any More?

The Idiot’s Guide to the Common Core

How much do you know about the Common Core Standards?  Choose all that apply.

The Common Core is:

a)     a new set of nationwide standards that will encourage deep thinking instead of rote memorization

b)     a new round of edu-bullshit like No Child Left Behind

c)     replacing state standards in 47 states including California

d)    causing surprisingly large numbers of students to freak out and start weeping uncontrollably during initial tests all across the East Coast

e)    causing Arne Duncan to infuriate opponents by dismissing them as “white suburban moms”

f)      going to push fiction out of English classrooms

g)    going to have no effect on the teaching of fiction

h)    going to change everything

i)       going to change nothing

j)     going to make testing companies billions of dollars

Continue reading The Idiot’s Guide to the Common Core