Tag Archives: poverty

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

When You Live In A Book Desert

He was beefy and laconic, rumored to be gang-affliated.  Kids whispered that he stood outside of school in the early mornings selling weed, though we could never catch him at it.

He was also brilliant.  If you define “intellectual” as a person who takes delight in the process of abstract thinking, Xavier* was one of the most purely intellectual people I’ve ever met.  Faced with a complex question that would leave other kids stumped or bored, Xavier would stare at the ceiling, a slow grin moving over his face as he contemplated the various possible answers he could give.  Watching Xavier think was like watching him listen to music only he could hear.

Despite his brilliance, he did homework only sporadically, was absent a great deal of the time and was barely passing his classes.  I met Xavier my first year teaching in South L.A. and like many new teachers, was determined that I would be the one to reach him.  The day he approached me after class to ask for a reading list, my heart leapt.  He wanted to read more, but he had no books in his home.   His parents, who had had to start working as children and did not have much education, worked 12-hour shifts at factory jobs.  But Xavier wanted a different life; he wanted to be a doctor.  He wanted to write about his experiences.  What should he read? Continue reading When You Live In A Book Desert

It Really Does Take A Village (or A Community)

The kids high-five Catherine Stine on their way in, say hello, grab their notebooks, sit down, and get to work.


All of them.

I’m gonna be honest: I’ve never seen anything like it.  Granted, her class at Animo Leadership in Lennox is small, only 18 students.  But still, at least outwardly, these appear to be normal teenagers, all of whom have walked in, rolled up their metaphorical sleeves and gotten down to business.

I mean, I’ve heard about situations like this.  I know I was always supposed to make this happen.  But in truth, there were always stragglers, doodlers, chatters, whisperers.  Even in the most compliant classes, there were one or two daydreamers.  Not here.  Every single student is completely engaged in the work.

I’m on a roll.  A couple of days ago, I was at Harvard-Westlake, where I watched Jeremy Michaelson lead the most engaged class I’d ever seen, a vivacious group of 15 kids calling out enthusiastic answers to every question.  But Harvard-Westlake, you could argue, has perhaps the most privileged population in Los Angeles, an overwhelmingly white, upper-middle class group of students who have enjoyed every advantage.  Here at Animo Leadership, which is almost entirely Latino/a, 94% of the students qualify as economically disadvantaged. Continue reading It Really Does Take A Village (or A Community)

I Don’t Think We Can Make Progress If We Don’t Listen

 I’m going to see a megastar tonight–as long as Matt Damon gets out of the way.  Look, I’m not knocking the guy.  He’s talented, super-hot and admirably willing to play marginally sympathetic, intellectual, uptight oddballs. Plus, I’m gonna be honest: I cried a little when I saw the viral video where he defended teachers because his mom has spent her professional life in the classroom.  His tireless advocacy of teachers is really inspiring to me.  That said, tonight I really hope he doesn’t block my view of Diane Ravitch.

Continue reading I Don’t Think We Can Make Progress If We Don’t Listen


Of all the classes I’ve visited so far, Cynthia Castillo’s at Augustus Hawkins High School is the friendliest.  Within five seconds of their entry into the room, kids are coming over to say hello and encourage me to stay.  One boy informs me that I’m “cool” and say he hopes I’ll to sub the next time they need one—even though all I’ve said so far is “hi.” (Yes, I know, I’m sure if he knew me at all he would not think I was cool.  But I take compliments where I can.) Continue reading Voice!