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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.


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

Why the Vergara Verdict is Scary

Sure, we all want to get rid of bad teachers.  Who doesn’t?  But the legal implications of this decision are deeply troubling.  What we all want (I think) is an effective teacher in every classroom.  But what does that even mean?  And if we’re not sure what it means, how can we judge it?  Here’s my take, from an interview on “Press Play” today:

I’ll be posting more about it later this week.


We Don’t Have Time To Wait For Schools to Improve. But Real Change Happens Slowly. And There Are No Cookie-Cutter Solutions.

“There’s no harder thing than being a teacher in South L.A.,” Robert Vidaña says bluntly as we squeeze interviews into his packed schedule, sitting in his tiny cubicle in what used to be the counseling office of Fremont High School, where he is LAEP’s community school coordinator (for a post about LAEP’s work, click here; for a description of an LAEP community school coordinator’s job, click here.) Robert’s father, who attended Fremont himself, is surprised that his son chooses to work there, but Robert believes in the school, loves South L.A. for all of its challenges, and has no interest in an easier job. Continue reading We Don’t Have Time To Wait For Schools to Improve. But Real Change Happens Slowly. And There Are No Cookie-Cutter Solutions.

How One Teacher Turned A Class Around

“So I heard that Fremont was the worst school ever,” Jordan Gonzales is telling me. We’re sitting in his classroom at Fremont High in South L.A. where he’s taught for the last three years. In his late twenties, Jordan is idealistic, enthusiastic and extremely funny. Before teaching at Fremont, he taught middle school English in Lynwood, just north of Compton and just east of Watts. In Lynwood, he loved the kids, but at the end of the year in Lynwood he was pink-slipped, so he applied to Fremont.

“Everyone was like, don’t go there. They’ll slash your tires. I came in there and I saw the kids and I was like, are you kidding? These are good kids. Who are you even talking about? When he was offered the job, he started work the next day. Continue reading How One Teacher Turned A Class Around

There Are No Miracle Schools. But There Are Some Really Good Ones.

Over this year, as I tell people about my project visiting schools across Los Angeles to try to understand education in real time, they often ask me if I could sum up what I’ve learned in a headline or two. What do I take away? What’s really surprised me?

Here’s what I find myself saying over and over: “There are no miracle schools.” All those books I bought with titles like “Schools That Succeed” and “Education That Makes A Difference”? Forget about it. The authors either have an agenda to promote a particular form of education or they haven’t spent enough time in a school to notice the cracks in the surface. Continue reading There Are No Miracle Schools. But There Are Some Really Good Ones.

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?

What’s Lost When Literature Vanishes?

Carlos Gordillo is ditching the non-fiction experiment and bringing on “The Tempest.” Earlier this year, when I spoke to Carlos, he was cautiously excited about the Common Core’s emphasis on non-fiction texts. As an experiment, he dumped his second semester literature unit for his seniors and replaced it with a series of short units that emphasized the kind of practical, real-world reading and analysis that would be more relevant, more useful in the workplace and more likely to build the reading skills students will need in non-literature college classes like social sciences or STEM courses—really almost anything they’re likely to study other than English.

When I visited him in January, students had picked from a list of high-interest topics like the relationship of video games to violence, parenting styles and their effect on children, Latinas and welfare, and the relationship between lack of education and incarceration. Once they picked a topic, they read scholarly articles on the subject, decoded data, interpreted charts, did independent research, discussed their conclusions and wrote papers. The kids loved it. One student with an older sister in college said he felt more prepared now for the work he saw her doing every day.

But for Carlos, the experiment came at a high price. Continue reading What’s Lost When Literature Vanishes?

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


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