All posts by Ellie Herman

Writer, teacher, life coach, nerd. Blogging freely about learning, creativity and how to have as much fun as possible.

Teachers: Bring a Professional Writer into Your Classroom (FREE)

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Are you a classroom teacher or school librarian – or do you work at a non-profit based in an underserved community?  If so, would you like a novelist, screenwriter or poet to visit your students?  PEN in the Community, a program of the literary and human rights non-profit PEN Center USA, has a list of writers who have offered to volunteer for a visit.  There is no charge to you or your school; it is PEN in the Community’s mission to create opportunities for students from all zip codes and ethnic backgrounds to envision themselves as writers.

If you live in the L.A. area, these visits can be in person.  Outside of L.A., we can arrange a Skype or google hangout visit.  If you’re interested, email Ellie Herman at

Thanks to those of you who have recently signed on to follow this blog!  I have finished my yearlong search, chronicled here, and am now the Program Manager of Pen in the Community.  Though I am no longer blogging, I sometimes hear of opportunities for teachers and students, and will continue to post them here.  Please feel free to share with other teachers.


Why Do Teachers Obsess That They’re Not Good Enough?

Every day, no matter what my current post, somewhere between around 2 and 20 readers click on a post I wrote several months ago called “Are You A Bad Teacher?” On some days it seems as if an infection of self-doubt has burst across the profession, causing as many as 75 readers in a single day to click on this months-old post buried in the internet. Of all the posts I’ve written, it’s the one that continues to generate the bulk of traffic on days when I don’t post anything new.

From my statistics page, I can see the readers’ search terms. In the last two days, they used terms like “I’m a horrible teacher” and “I’m a rubbish teacher” and “why am I a terrible teacher?”

Why are so many teachers agonizing over the possibility that they might be bad? Continue reading Why Do Teachers Obsess That They’re Not Good Enough?

Charter Schools vs. District Schools: An Infographic

Is the public school system really broken, filled with incompetent teachers? Are charter schools really a front for a union-busting corporate takeover of the educational system? Amid the flaming rhetoric of the current educational debate, it’s hard to know which side to take.

Because I spent the last year visiting high schools in Los Angeles across the socioeconomic spectrum, I sat in on classes at every imaginable type of school, including charter schools and district schools in the same neighborhood. In my current job teaching after-school enrichment at a non-profit, I work with three groups of high-performing students of color from low-income families; two of the groups attend district schools, while the third group attends a charter school.

Because these groups are demographically identical, I’m getting a slow-motion portrait of different school models in action. Because I have the chance to develop close individual relationships with students, I hear their day to day stories about their teachers, which gives me a unique snapshot of how each system impacts the kids.

I’m struck by consistent differences between charter school and district school educational models in high-poverty communities. Every community is unique, of course, but systems prioritize certain values, and those values impact the experience of students. To lay out these values, and to show you the differences I’ve observed, I’ve created the infographic below. I am aware that the values on the infographic are in fact unquantifiable and that my evidence is anecdotal. But my experience at this point is on enough of a scale, over more than a year and across many schools, that I do think it is significant enough to share.

(I am also aware that the word “infographic” is a bit of hyperbole when I’m really talking about a chart.  Branding is everything, right?)

Please note that this infographic only applies to the effect of these schools on students from high-poverty communities, not middle-class or affluent communities, which have more resources. It does not reflect the stated goals of these systems, but what I’m observing right now on the ground. Also, I am talking about schools that are generally considered “good”—there are terrible charters and terrible district schools, but tragically, all terrible schools are alike: chaotic.

Class size Class sizes usually cap at 38 I’ve seen classes of 50 and heard of classes of 70 
System prioritizes giving students clear, consistent individual feedback Usually Varies depending on individual teacher
System asks teachers to present material in multiple ways for students with different learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) Usually Varies depending on individual teacher
System prioritizes whole-class participation, using “guide on the side” style rather than “sage on the stage” lectures with Q and A Usually Varies depending on individual teacher
Instruction is driven by standardized state testing Yes Not as much as you’d think
School is open to very at-risk kids, including children from foster care No(except turnarounds) Yes
School offers arts classes beyond bare minimum No Yes
School offers sports beyond bare minimum No Yes
School offers many extracurricular activities and clubs No Yes
At least 10% of teachers are considered by students to be insane or incompetent No Yes
There are teachers with more than 5 years experience Rarely Yes
Kids consistently say “all our teachers are great” Surprisingly often. No 
Teachers have adequate resources to meet students’ needs No No


*this observation does not apply to any of the teachers I personally followed—it is based on what I’ve heard from students about their schools in general.   The teachers I followed were all excellent—but many times, they were outliers at their schools.

If I had to choose, after a year of observing schools and several months working with kids at these three communities, I’d say that I’m (cautiously) pro-charter. This opinion is practical, not philosophical, because I agree with the holistic, humanistic district-school proponents like Linda Darling-Hammond, who argue that meaningful education reform will only occur when teachers have working conditions that allow them to collaborate and create rich, meaningful curriculum, something that the test-driven state of most charter systems is currently precluding because these systems are currently in non-stop crisis mode as they struggle to survive. Educational leaders such as Diane Ravitch are right: the real issue is poverty, and until we acknowledge that and fund school communities to meet their needs, we will never be providing equal education to all students.

The problem is that right now, I don’t see any of these visions enacted successfully anywhere in high-poverty communities. I, too, believe in that dream—but in public schools, I really only see it enacted right now at magnet schools, which have significantly better funding and by virtue of their byzantine application process, filter out all but the most motivated and system-savvy families. There is a tragic disconnect right now, in my opinion, between this dream and the reality of district schools that are still chugging along doing what they’ve always done while an ever-changing array of demoralized or incompetent administrators cycles in and out, issuing mandates that will be replaced by new mandates next year.

If I were a parent in a high-poverty community, I’d send my kid to the best charter school I could find. Why? Because frankly, I think they’d be likelier to get a solid education and be prepared for college. If they were struggling academically, I’d know they’d get support. My 8th grade students who are going to a great charter school are flat-out getting a better education than my 8th grade students at a district school. The charter school kids love their teachers. They have better grammar, vocabulary, spelling and reading skills. When I ask them how they’re doing today, they tell me about something amazing that they’re learning. When I ask the kids at the district school, the amazing thing that happened is that the ceiling in the multipurpose room caved in, causing them to have class outdoors in 95-degree heat.

Yes, there are serious problems with charter schools. Their track record at “turnaround” schools with very at-risk kids is unimpressive, to say the least. By their own admission, they are only able to achieve results by creating a workload that is unsustainable by most teachers, causing a turnover problem that profoundly undermines communities. And their test-driven school culture, at its worst, privileges short-term measurable results over meaningful learning—as does the absence of sports, arts and libraries. None of this is trivial.

But I’d pick it over the hit-or-miss hodgepodge I’m currently seeing at many district schools, where it’s perilously easy for a kid to get lost. I’m still haunted by the memory of a super-bright, warm, wise funny kid I met at an Adult Ed GED school, who didn’t graduate from his district high school because the academic counselor quit and nobody at his school ever told him the required classes he needed to take. He was stunned and devastated at the end of his senior year to find out he was not graduating. And this was at a school with a good reputation. I don’t hear these stories of systemic failure at good charter schools.

The most serious critique of charter schools is that they don’t meet the needs of our most at-risk students. I agree. But right now most district schools aren’t meeting those needs, either. The core problem is not charter schools. It’s our collective societal unwillingness to acknowledge and address those needs—and fund adequate support for our most at-risk children. I agree that the flight to charter schools is draining resources from district schools. But the fact that large numbers of families are fleeing district schools is not exactly a compelling argument for that educational model.

Charter schools are not a solution. They are a work-around for our national collective state of denial about the near-apartheid conditions in which children in poverty are growing up. They are a way of managing the desperately inadequate funding and resources that schools are given so as to minimize collateral damage—a heartbreaking triage of efficiently meeting the direst need in the most scalable way. Until we pull ourselves out of this state of denial, we will not have meaningful change and we will not have equal opportunity. Let’s acknowledge the real issues of charters as they are and instead of tearing them down or stopping their existence, let’s build from there. Let’s say “what if…?” instead of “No.” Let’s stop taking sides and start working together.

The Most Important Lesson Won’t Be On The Test

Remember my friend Lauren the English teacher? The one my former student Gerardo said had turned his life around because she refused to give up on him?

I just found out that 16 of her students from last year passed the AP English Literature exam. Four of them scored “4’s.”

In the case of Lauren’s class, we are talking about students from one of the highest-poverty communities in Los Angeles, who until high school had attended some of the most infamously terrible schools in Los Angeles, many of whom came into 9th grade reading well below grade level. The AP English Lit exam, for those of you who haven’t taken it, relies heavily on a student’s knowledge of the entire body of English and American Literature. Of the many things I learned this year, one of them is that students who live in very high-poverty communities like South L.A. or Watts live in a kind of isolation that segregates them from exposure to other socioeconomic groups, making tests like the AP Lit exam, which tests upper-middle-class cultural knowledge as much as writing skills, particularly difficult. I’ve actually never heard of such a large number of kids passing the AP Lit exam at a school in a high-poverty community.

I know, because Lauren is incredibly modest, that she is going to want to kill me for writing about her, but she’s going to have to deal with it, because what she did is amazing—and it helps me understand the most important lesson I learned all year, which is that great teaching is much, much more than a set of techniques. I know that Lauren has incredible skills, honed after years of classroom experience. But when Gerardo talked about her years later, those skills are not what he talked about. What he talked about was how much she cared about him and believed in him.

In my year of talking to great teachers, no matter where they taught, whether at the wealthiest private school or in the most severely impoverished community, one word came up consistently. That word was “love.” Continue reading The Most Important Lesson Won’t Be On The Test

Teachers Can’t Be Effective Without Professional Working Conditions

I recently interviewed for a teaching position at a really good charter school in a low-income community. The principal was smart, idealistic and dedicated; so were the other teachers I met. They spoke fondly of the students, who seemed to love the school, which was clean, safe and welcoming to parents.

When I drove away, I almost had to pull over because I could hardly breathe.

I was having a panic attack. Continue reading Teachers Can’t Be Effective Without Professional Working Conditions

What I Learned In School

From 2013-2014, I visited high school English classes across the socioeconomic spectrum in Los Angeles in an attempt to understand what makes a great teacher and what we mean when we say “education.”  This is one of the most important lessons I learned: that we need a new language to talk about poverty.

I recently worked with three groups of 8th and 9th grade students. All of the groups are comprised of students of color from families in poverty, which means they qualify for free or reduced-price lunch under a California program whose cutoff is for a family of four is an income of under $30,615 (free), or under $43,568 (reduced-price). Students from families like these who qualify for free and reduced lunch are generally the students we talk about when we talk about children in poverty.

My three student groups all meet this criterion. In addition, they all are highly motivated and academically proficient, with supportive parents who have enrolled them in an after-school college-prep enrichment program. They must all be alike, right?

Wrong. Continue reading What I Learned In School

Why A Great Principal Burned Out – And What Might Have Helped

Boxes crowd the hallways, moving in and moving out. I’m in an empty office at Animo Phillis Wheatley Middle School in South L.A. talking to Principal Nat Pickering, who has resigned after three years so that he can go back to being a teacher. Back when I was teaching, I worked with him; he was a history teacher for years before he became Assistant Principal of our school. I will forever be indebted to Nat, who despite being insanely busy, voluntarily met with me two or three times a month to coach me on the plethora of problems I was having in my various classes; he helped me shape my curriculum, talked me through issues with students and, more times than I can count, simply listened to me venting. Continue reading Why A Great Principal Burned Out – And What Might Have Helped

Lesson 2: Merit Pay Is Unfair to Our Most At-Risk Students

I’m the best teacher in the world. I just spent four days teaching a writing workshop and you would not believe how much those students improved in an incredibly short time. I guess it’s pretty obvious that I’m awesome. I deserve a giant raise!

No, wait. I’m the worst teacher in the world. Two years ago, I taught a class for an entire year and even after a whole year with me, many of those students demonstrated no growth that could be measured. In fact, most of them didn’t even graduate from high school in four years. I guess it’s pretty obvious that I suck. I should be fired or put on an improvement plan.

Say what?! How could one teacher—me—be so highly effective in one class and so grossly ineffective in another? Continue reading Lesson 2: Merit Pay Is Unfair to Our Most At-Risk Students

Lesson 1: You’re Dead in the Water Without a Great Principal

You know how they say that people come to look like their dogs? A parallel truism is that any organization comes to look like its leader. For some reason, though this idea is axiomatic in corporate life—who would attribute the success of Apple to its highly effective programmers?—when you get to schools, I rarely hear it said that every school embodies the values of its principal. But it’s meaningless to talk about teacher “effectiveness” outside of the context in which he or she works. One of the biggest lessons I learned this year is that a teacher cannot, repeat, cannot be effective for long in a dysfunctional community. And whether that school community is or is not functional is entirely dependent on the leadership of the principal. Continue reading Lesson 1: You’re Dead in the Water Without a Great Principal

What I Learned In School

Kyra will go to UC San Diego, her dream school. Danny will go into the army. Raquel will go to Berkeley. A boatload of kids are going to community college, another, slightly smaller boatload, to UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis and UC Merced. Another boatload to various Cal States. Jonathan will go to Vassar, the second graduate of our school ever to attend a private college out of state. Manuel, who last year sat in my classroom crying because his parents refused to allow him to go to college so he could work to help support the family—Manuel will go to Cal State L.A. I guess he talked his parents into it.

There they are, my juniors from last year, now seniors in cap and gown crossing the stage and getting diplomas. The audience is cheering like crazy. Somewhere in the crowd is Ernesto, who drove us all crazy because he was so out of control and who somehow, miraculously, managed to graduate last year. He is now in community college. On another side of the room is Yesenia, one of my brightest students, who did not attend college because she had a baby, now on her lap bouncing up and down and watching Yesenia’s brother graduate.

A year has passed since I left my job to start this journey. Continue reading What I Learned In School