Category Archives: Teachers I’m Following

The background and educational philosophies of the teachers I’m observing this year

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

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

Every Student is Somebody’s Child

After seven years of bouncing around the LAUSD, first at a middle school, then starting a pilot school, then in administration, Nicki Tiberio came home—to Theodore Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights, where she herself attended high school. She’s been here three years now and like her colleague Gene Dean, she doesn’t hold back in expressing her opinions.

Growing up in Boyle Heights, she always knew she wanted to be in education. Her mother works in Special Ed with adults. “It gave me an understanding that everyone deserves to work at their level,” Nicki tells me as we sit in the shade of one of the school’s enormous courtyard, Nicki continually answering frantic texts from teachers asking for help in administering the Common Core practice tests (“I can’t say that all of my colleagues are tech-savvy,” she says, philosophical. “There’s no way to prepare for this new assessment other than to practice resilience through patience. A lot of my colleagues aren’t ready for this.”) Continue reading Every Student is Somebody’s Child

The Elephant In the Room Is The Kids’ Low Reading Levels

Gene Dean is keeping it real. An English teacher at Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights for the last nine years, he doesn’t toe anybody’s party line. “What are the stories mainstream media tells about us here in Boyle Heights?” he asks his students at the beginning of their final unit. “What do these stories focus on?” Continue reading The Elephant In the Room Is The Kids’ Low Reading Levels

Spellbound

A couple of weeks ago, I watched a really terrific teacher in a high-poverty community give a lesson that, if rated on a “College-Ready Promise” evaluation rubric, would have scored about a 1.5 out of 4. Faced with classroom of 35 students, most of them reading and writing below grade level, here’s what this energetic, enthusiastic teacher did not do:

1)   Write a measurable objective on the board and reiterate it frequently

2)   Check frequently among her students to give her a verbal or visual sign to let her know they understood what they were saying

3)   “Chunk” her lesson into short, digestible 10-minute intervals

4)   Have students “pair-share” (answer every question in partners before calling on the class in general) to make sure they all participated

5)   Call unpredictably on random students to keep everyone on their toes

6)   Insist on a response from reluctant students

7)   Demand that students who had gotten an answer wrong go back and give her the correct answer

8)   Use a powerpoint to visually reinforce what she was teaching

9)   Stop intermittently for group work practice of the day’s learning objective

10) Collect an “exit slip” at the end of class so that she could gather data about whether the students had mastered the objective.

That’s right. She did none of those things. Here’s what she did do: Continue reading Spellbound

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 I Can See Myself Growing Here

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 Why Raising The Standards Won’t Make Kids Read

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

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.