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 Mr. Navarro Says

Good-bye, Tests! Don’t Let the Door Hit You On the Way Out!

Sayonara, test score mania!  Well, for two years, anyway.  The state of California has just suspended the calculation of API scores until 2016—an index of performance based on multiple choice state tests in every subject for every grade–in order to give schools time to gear up for the Common Core tests that are still under construction.  As far as I’m concerned, that suspension is cause for celebration.  I know, I know, all over the state, people are freaking out because they believe this suspension of scores will leave schools in low-income communities free to go down the toilet for two full years while corrupt administrators and bad teachers merrily cash paychecks, accountable to no one.  Here’s why I think that logic is wrong—and why I believe this temporary suspension is a great opportunity to create a better system.

First of all, over a decade of API scores doesn’t seem to have done much to stop corrupt administrators and bad teachers.  The schools that were terrible before we started testing are still terrible.  Where schools were declared failing and taken over by the Partnership for L.A. Schools or other charter management systems, results have been underwhelming no matter who is in charge.  I have heard not a single story of a miracle takeover, but have heard many stories of schools that are as bad as before.  In any case, test scores are not the best measure of whether these takeovers have been successful; the first measure is safety, followed by attendance and student attrition rates.  Very high teacher turnover rates or large numbers of long-term subs are also serious red flags.  We don’t need test scores to measure dysfunction.  I wish it were that hard.  Continue reading Good-bye, Tests! Don’t Let the Door Hit You On the Way Out!

Blended Learning from the Ground Up

Call me cautiously optimistic.  Emphasize “cautious.”  I hesitate to express all-out enthusiasm for what’s called “blended learning” because right now the term is so often conflated with the term “cost-effective,” a euphemism for “eliminating human jobs and leaving a single teacher in charge of 45-60 high-needs, at-risk students.”   As I mentioned in an earlier post, the original vision—still in circulation, as far as I can tell—was that technology would make enormous class sizes possible, in order to offset the initial outlay of money for computers, software and internet access.  All I can say about this notion is that it’s clearly a marketing move by tech companies, which they are fully entitled to try, but we are not fully entitled to buy into.  Continue reading Blended Learning from the Ground Up

College, College, College, College

Don’t be fooled by the radiance, confidence and bubbly warmth of Azanni, Symone, Jada and Immani, four seniors at View Park High School in South Los Angeles, an ICEF charter school.  They are stressed.  Imani and Azanni applied to 22 colleges each, Jada to 20, Symone to 11.  “I wanted to have options!” Jada tells me and the girls all laugh, agreeing.  We’re sitting at a picnic table on the quad at View Park, where they’ve taken time from their classes to give me a tour of the school, talking over each other in their enthusiasm as they tell me the various places they’ve applied, ranging from Brown and Penn, their dream schools, through UCLA, Berkeley, USC, Spelman, the Claremont schools, several Cal States and many others. Continue reading College, College, College, College

Failing School, Charter School, Traditional School–A Student’s View

“So of all the schools you attended, if you could go to just one of them, which would you pick?” I ask Natalie.

She smiles and looks up a moment, thinking about it.  A poised, friendly senior at Gabrielino High School in San Gabriel, she has the warm smile and firm handshake of a polished professional.  My friend Will Wong, who teaches math at Gabrielino, suggested that I interview her because Natalie’s life story makes her an inadvertent test case for a lot of the current theories in education.  Over the last six years, she’s attended a failing public district school, a high-performing charter school (Animo Leadership, which I have covered here and here) and Gabrielino, a traditional large district school in a diverse middle-class neighborhood. Continue reading Failing School, Charter School, Traditional School–A Student’s View

About This Blog

This blog, Gatsby In L.A., is my record of my sabbatical from teaching during the 2013-14 school year, during which I visited high school English classrooms across the socioeconomic spectrum in order to answer two questions:

  1. What’s a great teacher?

2. What do we mean when we say “a good education?”

Before writing this blog, I taught English and electives at a charter high school in South Los Angeles.  I embarked on this journey at my own personal expense.  Along the way, I talked to dozens of teachers, administrators and parents, sat in many, many classrooms, and connected with readers in Los Angeles and beyond.  Several of my posts went viral, picked up by other, larger blogs and shared by teachers on social media.  My most popular post, “Why Do Teachers Obsess that They’re Not Good Enough?” was viewed millions of times.

Even now, two years after I stopped posting, teachers continue to seek out this site, sometimes very late in the night. I don’t have easy answers to anything, but I hope that these posts, and my search here, can provide comfort.

If you are one of those teachers, this blog is dedicated to you, out of respect for your choice to give so much every day when our educational system does not honor, respect or prepare you for the essential work that you do.  Though your work is hard and sometimes isolating, you are not alone.  I hope that this blog can introduce you to other teachers who have also given everything they have to the dream that every child has an equal right to an education, and every teacher deserves to work in professional conditions that honor the young lives in the room.

Thank you for all that you do every day for the next generation.

The Invisible Curriculum

 “So what defines good or bad?” one boy asks.  “Motives or actions?  Everyone’s saying ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but I don’t understand what you really mean.  Are they good because of their actions or because of their motives?”

“Motives,” says a kid across the room.  There are no raised hands; he just jumps in.  “It all comes down to your motives.  I can donate all my money to a charity but if I say I want some attention, some fame, it undermines my good intention.  Your motives define whether you’re a good person.”

“I think that’s where the science experiment failed,” says another boy, indicating a science study the class has just read called “Scientists Probe Human Nature and Find We Are Basically Good.”  They are reading it today while they discuss Candide, the text they’ve been studying for this unit.  “They’re reasoning that it’s a natural thing to do but they don’t really prove what’s motivating the actions.”

“But you never really know what a person’s intention is, you never truly know their motive,” objects a girl in the corner.   “I would base it on their actions.”

I’m in Catherine Stine’s class at Animo Leadership in Lennox and we’re in the first ten minutes of one of the most abstract, intelligently articulated arguments I’ve ever heard in a class discussion.  In a class of 26 students, every person is involved and contributes at least once.  Everyone listens intently.

There is no discussion leader.  Catherine sits at a desk in the back.

I am not making this up. Continue reading The Invisible Curriculum

What Makes a Great Discussion?

“I’m nervous,” Jennifer Macon tells me.  We’re sitting in the cafeteria before her English 11 class is going to have a discussion.  “This whole topic is controversial.  We’re dealing directly with race.  We’re not doing it through literature.  We’re going straight to the topic.”

The Race Unit has long been an integral part of the 11th grade program at Cleveland Humanities magnet.  As Jennifer points out, because the topic is such a hot-button issue, to have an open conversation can risk seriously hurt feelings, especially in a classroom as diverse as hers, where there is no ethnic majority and virtually every race in America appears to be represented.  The classes are always lively, but for deep, honest conversation, Jennifer works hard to establish communication standards early on.  Continue reading What Makes a Great Discussion?