It’s Been Tough Breaking Down Walls My Students Have Built

The mood has changed in Cynthia Castillo’s class since I first visited in October.  The kids are quieter, more settled; the energy is calm.  When I first arrive, a guest speaker is talking to the kids about a summer internship, and they listen attentively.  There are no side conversations.  When Cynthia transitions to their vocabulary assignment, they do it quickly and smoothly.

The class is significantly down from its initial enrollment of 45.  Today, I count 29 students, though Cynthia tells me there are about 35 enrolled.  Several kids were pulled out at the semester because they’d failed so many classes that they needed to be put on a track where they did much of their classwork in APEX, an online credit recovery program.  Other students, having failed even more classes, were transitioned to continuation school.  A few “checked out,” leaving school without transferring anywhere.  Though none of these moves are positive, the students who remain in the class seem on the whole more focused.  Unlike other days earlier in the year, no one wanders around the room during a lesson. Continue reading It’s Been Tough Breaking Down Walls My Students Have Built

It Really Does Take A Village (or A Community)

The kids high-five Catherine Stine on their way in, say hello, grab their notebooks, sit down, and get to work.


All of them.

I’m gonna be honest: I’ve never seen anything like it.  Granted, her class at Animo Leadership in Lennox is small, only 18 students.  But still, at least outwardly, these appear to be normal teenagers, all of whom have walked in, rolled up their metaphorical sleeves and gotten down to business.

I mean, I’ve heard about situations like this.  I know I was always supposed to make this happen.  But in truth, there were always stragglers, doodlers, chatters, whisperers.  Even in the most compliant classes, there were one or two daydreamers.  Not here.  Every single student is completely engaged in the work.

I’m on a roll.  A couple of days ago, I was at Harvard-Westlake, where I watched Jeremy Michaelson lead the most engaged class I’d ever seen, a vivacious group of 15 kids calling out enthusiastic answers to every question.  But Harvard-Westlake, you could argue, has perhaps the most privileged population in Los Angeles, an overwhelmingly white, upper-middle class group of students who have enjoyed every advantage.  Here at Animo Leadership, which is almost entirely Latino/a, 94% of the students qualify as economically disadvantaged. Continue reading It Really Does Take A Village (or A Community)

What’s the Difference Between Wealth and Money?

“We’ve been saying that Myrtle’s having an affair with Tom for the money, but that has a different connotation than saying she’s having an affair with him because of his wealth,” says a blond guy in the front who’s been relatively quiet during class so far.

By “relatively quiet” I mean he’s only contributed to the class discussion of The Great Gatsby three or four times so far in the first twenty minutes of class, in addition to joining in every time the entire class offers up an answer to a question in unison.  Other kids, by contrast, have contributed answers to every single question.  Almost all are leaning forward in their seats eagerly.

It’s the most engaged high school class I’ve ever seen.  Anywhere.  Continue reading What’s the Difference Between Wealth and Money?

In Search of Lost Time

No, I haven’t just eaten a madeleine.  I’m talking about the idea of time, passing even as you read this–time, unstoppable, incessant, inextricably equated in our minds with money. “Every minute matters,” warns teaching guru Doug Lemov in his seminal teacher effectiveness text Teach Like a Champion.  “Time is water in the desert, a teacher’s most precious resource: to be husbanded, guarded and conserved.”  He exhorts teachers not to waste a single instant of class time, extolling the virtues of teachers who pepper their students with questions as they stand in line to enter class.  “A walk to the bathroom is the perfect time for a vocabulary review,” he says, though I cannot imagine there are many who share this sentiment, certainly not anyone who’s been swilling from a Big Gulp cup of iced coffee for the last two periods.

Not wasting time is at the heart of the current canonical view of effective teaching.  Time is the central unit of value, a commodity from which a maximum of measurable, testable instruction must be wrung.  To spend the last minute or so of class relaxing and chatting with your students is to “leave value on the table,” the moral equivalent of walking away from a deal without reaming your opponent for every last nickel.  Continue reading In Search of Lost Time

Four Years Later–Part II

They drove me nuts.  Smart, chatty, gregarious, popular, Gerardo and Katia talked incessantly to the people around them in class, a river of disengaged, casual gossip that stopped flowing only when I stood next to them glaring with all my powers, and even then sometimes they wouldn’t stop.

They did no work.

Gerardo and Katia, for all their considerable charm, did not do work no matter how much you begged, called home, commiserated or threatened.  They did no work in spite of the fact that they were extremely intelligent—Gerardo was one of the highest-testing kids in the school–and extremely courageous; they were the first students to come out at our school, starting a gay-straight alliance and supporting their younger LGBT classmates.   Though if asked, Gerardo and Katia would say that they did no work because they were lazy, in fact their refusal to do work was more like Bartleby’s existential “I would prefer not to,” a renunciation of all that we begged them to believe about themselves and about the world. Continue reading Four Years Later–Part II

Four Years Later–What Stays With You From High School?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I sent my children to private school, something I did for reasons that in part were rational–when my oldest went to kindgergarten, the local school was truly terrible and there were no charters at the time–but also in large part irrational: I was driven by the vague conviction that they would get a good education at a private school, though I could not have said exactly what I meant by a “good education,” only that I felt on an instinctual level that whatever it meant, it was what I owed my children, something that literally kept me up at night with worry.

Several years later, as I’ve also mentioned repeatedly, I became a teacher at a charter school in South Los Angeles for similar reasons: to be part of providing a “good education” for children in the community, a drive that again I could not have entirely explained but that also frequently kept me up at night with worry.

But what exactly was I worrying about?  Continue reading Four Years Later–What Stays With You From High School?

Teenage Students Ask the Big Question About iPads

“I don’t have to stress that a billion dollars is an insane amount of money,” Jacques assures me right away.

I feel much better.  I was starting to think I was the one who was insane.

As I travel through high schools in L.A., often observing classrooms where there are 45 or 50 kids packed into a classroom, I am obsessed with the LAUSD’s billion-dollar commitment to Apple iPads.  I understand that this money does not come from the general budget but from money earmarked for school construction; on the other hand, the logic by which iPads qualify as a construction project seems so convoluted that it could apply to anything.  Like…more teachers.

Anyway, in an attempt to understand how this purchase makes any sense, I’ve consulted a panel of experts: seven tech-whiz high school students from an after-school program called UrbanTxt, along with the program’s founder, Oscar Menjivar.  The highly competitive after-school program, whose mission is to teach coding and entrepreneurship to male high school students of color in South L.A. and Watts and which this past year accepted only 1/5 of its applicants, is home to some of the sharpest young minds in the city—who in addition to their tech expertise, also happen to be the target audience of the LAUSD’s massive purchase.  Over pizza and soda, in a computer lab crammed with monitors and laptops, these brilliant teenage guys patiently explain the complexities of the problem at hand. Continue reading Teenage Students Ask the Big Question About iPads

Breaking Up (With Ed Reform) Is Hard To Do

Lisa Alva is a dangerous woman.  At least some people think so: last month, she published a blistering piece on the InterACT education website recounting her “broken romance” with some of the leading organizations in education reform.  Lisa had already butted heads with some union leaders by speaking out publicly against their seniority policies and resistance to accountability.  But her association with the reform movement ended abruptly this past December:

I phoned into a conference call that wasn’t what I expected, and it ended my relationships with the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, Teachers for a New Unionism and Educators4Excellence, and put some others in the doghouse…

Listening in to a conference call with the United Way that was supposed to be a talk with education groups but turned into a recruiting session to rally support for LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, Lisa “felt the hair stand up on the back of [her] neck” as she realized that the groups were brainstorming to throw their support to a superintendent believed by some to be anti-union and currently very unpopular due to his recent expenditure of a billion dollars to purchase iPads for LAUSD students. Continue reading Breaking Up (With Ed Reform) Is Hard To Do

Teaching at the Deepest Level

Carlos Gordillo will never forget the day he was accepted at USC. He’d moved here at the age of eight from Peru, brought here by his parents who were fleeing the economic implosion of the mid-80’s.

Though he knew no English when he came here, Carlos quickly became fluent.  After testing into gifted programs in elementary and middle school, as a teenager he went to Hamilton Humanities Magnet.  There, Carlos was surrounded by other high-performing, ambitious students, all of whom were focused on getting into elite colleges.  Though Carlos’ grades made him a strong candidate anywhere, USC was his dream school because of its strong architecture program.  When the fat envelope came from USC, Carlos ran to tell his father.  But instead of congratulating him, his father turned grave and sat him down.  “There’s something I have to tell you,” his father said slowly.

That day, Carlos learned that he was undocumented; when the family had emigrated, they had not been able to establish legal residency.  With no papers, Carlos would be ineligible for any federal or state financial aid as well as most private scholarship money. USC’s tuition would be impossible for the family.   So would UC’s and Cal States, which were closed to undocumented students at that time.  Continue reading Teaching at the Deepest Level

We Don’t Have Enough Security

As I visit schools this year on my search to understand education, certain images haunt me.  One is of the metal fence surrounding a large LAUSD high school in South Central that I faced one morning as I was trying to leave.  Though my car was in the parking lot only a few feet away, the gate, marked “Emergency Exit,” was held shut with a massive iron padlocked chain.  Beyond the fence, I could see kids running around the football field for P.E. (where, incidentally, classes were so overcrowded that teachers often faced classes as large as 70).

I rattled the gate, thinking that since this was an emergency exit, the padlock might not actually be latched, but in fact, I was locked in.  Because classes were in session, almost no one was around to help me; finally, at the back of the cement courtyard, I found a security guard, a diminutive middle-aged woman with a giant, friendly smile.  Cheerfully, she walked me back to the gate, explaining that she had to keep it locked while classes were in session. Continue reading We Don’t Have Enough Security