Category Archives: True Confessions

Some candid reflections about my own experiences in the classroom

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

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

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

What’s the Future of Unions?

The recent ruling in the Vergara v. California lawsuit, in which Judge Rolf Treu struck a body blow against the power of teachers’ unions by declaring that five of California’s laws protecting teacher tenure, firing and seniority were in violation of the state constitution’s guarantee of equal education to all children, has implications so broad I don’t think we can even fully comprehend them yet.

I’ve written in earlier posts that though I absolutely think that bad teachers should be fired—and that last in, first out policies should be re-thought—they are not the core problem in the fight for equal education. I’m troubled by the witch-hunt zeal, the purge mentality, of this lawsuit, which implies that the layoffs that caused so many eager young teachers to be fired in the first place were some kind of natural disaster inflicted upon us by the gods that we should have diverted onto the heads of bad teachers.

But let’s be honest, California: those layoffs occurred because of budget cuts—and those budget cuts were our collective decision. And they were so radical that even if we had first fired the small percentage of bad teachers, we would still have been laying off a large number of excellent teachers. Continue reading What’s the Future of Unions?

Lawyers Run the Legal Profession. Doctors Run the Medical Profession. Why Don’t Teachers Run Education?

I’m fed up with the inefficiency of the judicial system! I’m going to become a judge. I may not be a lawyer, but I’ve been a law-abiding citizen all my life, I mean, how hard could it be? I have 20 years of business experience in the TV industry. When I blow into the courtroom demanding accountability, I am going to shake things up! Who needs legal experience when you understand the bottom line?

Wait—no. I’m going to be Surgeon General. Sure, I’m not a doctor, but I’ve seen a million of them!  You should have seen the pair of “specialists” who nearly killed my grandma. It’s time for me to roll up my sleeves and set some standards. Patients first, dammit!

No, you know what? I think I’m going to be a Rear Admiral in the Navy. I grew up right near Lake Michigan, a large body of water, and with my business experience…

Okay, all of these ideas are preposterous. Common sense and business savvy are no substitute for a lifetime of training and expertise. Continue reading Lawyers Run the Legal Profession. Doctors Run the Medical Profession. Why Don’t Teachers Run Education?

Do Androids Dream of Computer-Graded Essay Tests?

In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, “When the Circus Descends,” David Brooks derided opponents of Common Core Standards, implying that they were clownish ideologues on the far left and far right making “hysterical claims and fevered accusations.” But as I visit classrooms across the city talking to teachers about the Common Core, I don’t hear any hysterical claims or fevered accusations. I do hear one deep concern:

That the test will be a disaster.

Here’s the thing: I haven’t talked to anybody—anybody!—who objects to the actual Common Cores Standards. The Standards are incredibly general; basically, they value the processes of analytical reasoning, reading, writing, speaking and listening. Teachers I’ve talked to are excited about pushing their students to read  thoughtfully and support their claims with evidence.  In other words, the Standards are like the education version of Peace, Love and Understanding. Who could possibly object?

The problem is that we are about to test the standards—and people do not like the tests. Continue reading Do Androids Dream of Computer-Graded Essay Tests?

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

How Do You Create Relationships?

Jennie Carey knows everyone. At least it seems that way. She’s been the L.A. Education Partnership’s Community School Coordinator at Cesar Chavez Learning Academies since the school’s beginning in 2011; before that, she did the same job at nearby Sylmar High. “The overarching idea is that my job is to find out what are the barriers to student success and come up with strategies to try to overcome them,” she tells me as we talk in her office, an empty classroom whose walls are covered with giant post-its scrawled with notes from meetings. “I very much view my job as a strategy creator.”

Jennie started as a teacher, but after four years in the classroom, went to Harvard for a Master’s in School Leadership. “I liked the idea of studying leadership from the place of being a non-authority,” she says, a view that permeates her role here, where her main job is to connect people, listen and create infrastructures that allow constructive conversations. “My question is, how do you create relationships?Continue reading How Do You Create Relationships?