Do you really make an impact?

After already living out most of my college career, it was time for my high school best friend to pick the college of her dreams. She had narrowed it down to two choices. Since I lived in the dorms, I didn’t get to visit her as often as I used to. But now it was Spring Break and I was back in my home town of Huntington Park.

By the time I reached her house it was nearing sunset; we sat in front of her front steps. I knew I didn’t know enough anymore to speak about her personal life, so our conversation steered towards the college decision process. She had been excited about both UCLA and UC Berkeley, and I had gifted her a Bruins banner I knew she would adore.

As an academically accomplished woman, she had many mentors in her life. When scholarship companies were deciding who would be the best community ROI (return on investment), they had decided Katia* was the best bet. I may have been the top mentor in her life at one point, but that time had long passed. Everyone wanted to say they helped her. Because there was no doubt she was going to be successful in life, everyone wanted to at least say they played a part in that.

Her older brother had already been successful as captain of the Academic Decathlon, but she quickly surpassed him in high school achievements. These two big acceptances were the inevitable result of her great work ethic and her counselors helping her fill out her applications. I did offer my help on them, but by the time I saw them they were already polished enough to where I didn’t have to do anything.

When she received her acceptance letter to UCLA, one of her mentors, a UCLA grad herself, was ecstatic. She immediately offered to connect her with anyone in case she had any questions.

By the time I visited her, what would be left? She had already visited both campuses and probably had enough information to decide. My head couldn’t stop sending me this nagging signal that I had to do something to be useful. That’s who I am; I love being helpful. I figured there was still something I could contribute to her decision. I still wanted Karen to be a part of my life. Even if we never became as close as we were in high school, I wanted to know how she was doing and be able to connect to her.

Our connection was already getting thinner and thinner. Although I loved politics (and I still do), she wasn’t interested in connecting it to other disciplines like science. I tried to explain why it mattered but in the end she bluntly stated, “I just don’t care enough about science.” I stopped pushing the point and moved on to talk about more practical political stuff like voter registration drives.

That was it. That was the key. If I can stand out among the sea of opinionated people, it would be to talk about politics. I already knew she wanted to be a political science major and I knew that not all political science departments were created equal. UCLA has a huge activist political scene and their politics are more radical than other colleges. UC Berkeley still has activism, but it is also near Sacramento, so it is more accessible to Capitol internships and such. (Note: If you are reading this and thinking What a gross oversimplification! , keep in mind I didn’t attend any of these colleges and I was speaking about this as a 19-year-old without the same knowledge I have today.)

Therefore, I told her that if she wanted to do community organizing, UCLA would be a great choice and that I knew UCLA graduates who got into activism. If she wanted to try a more bureaucratic approach, UC Berkeley might have more connections to make it happen for her.

Then came the kicker. What I knew needed to be said because it could change the type of person she became altogether. My college roommate said it first, and I have to admit its held true over time. She’s said, “Everyone that I know that has graduated from UCLA has turned into a communist.” (Again, hello conservative UCLA students. I’m sure you exist… but I haven’t met you. Stereotypes exist for a reason.) And if there’s one thing Katia hated, it was communists. She was always the kind of patriotic woman who would cheer on the United States even if the rest of the city rooted for Mexico. The kind of person communists make fun of in their memes. The person who starts their sentences with, “Even though communism sounds great in practice…”. You know how that ends.  I recited my roommate’s observation verbatim. Her expression was doubtful at first but then she admitted she’s seen that trend too.

I can’t say she had an epiphany, because that would be overstating my influence. When I left her house that day she was still undecided.

By this point, she was ready to go to a college based on a coin flip. Tails was UC Berkeley and Heads was UCLA. Whatever it landed, she would go to it. She juggled the coin in her hand, still not 100% sure whether she should give it all that power. But soon enough, she flipped the coin. It landed heads. Instantly, she yelled out: “Nooooo!!”. That’s when she knew where she needed to go.

*Not her real name

MyOn: A Review

Bottom Line: The children’s e-book site MyOn is enjoyable, in the way a bowl of sugary cereal is. There are reasons to be cautious about it.

   MyOn promises to spread literacy by offering any kid with an internet connection access to more than 20,000 books. But how does it stack up?

   Every review I’ve read on the program has said nothing but praise. Therefore, I have to be the person that breaks up the parade.

   I get that it’s difficult to critique MyOn because it’s a program kids love. They have smiles on their faces when the teachers give them their 20 minutes with it a day. It is a total lifesaver during standardized testing because it keeps the early finishers perfectly placated. For the lowest kids who can’t read on their own, MyOn reads any book out loud to them. So when looking for online learning programs to put on trial, MyOn has managed to slip by.

   So where are the problems? Why do I get frustrated with a program that allows kids to read for free? The issues are: MyOn is mistakenly placed on the same level or higher to print books, is devoid of classic children’s books, is saturated with low-quality books, contributes to the fragmentation of our culture, and is sometimes used as a replacement for libraries.

   Because the elementary students using MyOn have never seen a time before the program’s existence, the usually see it as equal or even better to reading physical books or books published by major publishers like Scholastic. (One notable exception is my student I’m a 1-1 aide for who finds MyOn books “boring”.) Students often prefer MyOn because it makes it easy for them to load up their queue with as many books as they want. For instance, if a student’s favorite subject is say, cars, they can spend the whole period looking up cars books, adding them to their list and scrolling back and forth through their covers (For any gamers out there, it’s like the famed people who spend more time adding to their Steam collection than playing the games they bought.).

A small sampling of the searching rabbit hole that kids find themselves in with MyOn. They can spend the whole time adding books onto their collections as if they were collectables.

Most of the books on MyOn are straightforward, with zany fonts and fun facts about the chosen topic. You aren’t going to find any world-renowned authors or proven non-fiction brands like National Geographic or TIME.

   I once had a student pout when I pulled him out of MyOn time and into guided reading. I usually wouldn’t care to entertain him, but I’ve had the program on my mind. I asked him why he preferred reading books on MyOn. He stated with confidence that MyOn books are more educational. I asked, “How so?” He replied, “There are more history books. Like I just read all of the books on UFOs and I learned that though people sometimes don’t believe they’re real, they’re real.” I wish there was a way for students like him to distinguish these TMZ-like barely history books and more substantial ones.

   When I say “substantial” books, I mean exposure to literary classics. As a woman of color, I know that often what is called a classic is based off of male Eurocentric standards. But this does not mean that all books have the same merit. There is such a thing as classics, and in my definition I include works written by women and people of color. American culture is enriched when students from disparate parts of the nation all have a common understanding of the classics, like A Wrinkle in Time, The Snow Queen, Winnie the Pooh and Their Eyes Were Watching God. These are stories with valuable messages and deep philosophical undertones that every child deserves to know about. With MyOn, it is too easy to skip over these works and get trapped only reading Where’s Waldo type hidden objects books or that 6th Bigfoot fact or fiction book.

   My last concern with MyOn stems from some teachers and students believing it is a replacement to physical libraries, rather than a supplement. When faced with the problem of kids not reading enough at home, my teacher started giving out home reading logs. Because she was afraid that some kids wouldn’t have books at home, she said they could use MyOn or Get Epic! (A MyOn competitor). Not once did she recommend they get a library card.

   Worse of all, USA Today reports that for the Emma Jewel Charter Academy school district, “a traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ library was not financially feasible.” MyOn was deemed a good enough replacement for all of these kids. Even with the traditional concerns about too much screen time, this is an unacceptable solution.

   Every child deserves exposure to the larger variety of books that MyOn does not offer. Being low-income should not mean not having access to the wonders of a library and to the brain-stretching powers of reading print books.

   Luckily, my school has not gone that far; the above was more of a cautionary story. However, we can do better to promote a balanced literary diet that can have both the quick, sugary MyOn fix and the heartiness of cozying up to a book that inside contains a tale as old as time.



Reading the room

   Master teachers, when mentoring their newest crop, always zoom in on the power of reading and reacting to the energy levels of the classroom. As a teacher, you have a great deal of control over the students’ energy levels. When it’s low, it’s a good idea to get students to move around and do group activities. When it’s too high, the best action is to dim one light and have students write independently.

   A single day of this reading in action was so memorable that it ingrained this lesson in me forever.

   As students were walking into their math readiness class at Claremont High, my master teacher noticed one of the tall, grungy-haired boys was carrying a ping pong paddle and a ball. She challenged him to a game. If he won, the class would play a game instead of completing the lesson for the day and they would have no homework. If she won, the class would continue like normal.

   Every student was on board, as shown by how they rearranged two desks into a pseudo-table and cleared the chairs in less than a minute. The gap between the desks marked an invisible net line. All of us, save the teacher and student, crowded around to see the action play by play. Both players showed a high level of skill; my master teacher was proving her talent. It was a race to see who would get to five points first. At the end of it, the teacher lost by a single point! The kids rejoiced and for the rest of the period they played a math review game- the classic one where teams of students compete to solve the most problems correctly.

   After the class ended, my master teacher came up to me and said, “If you want to know why I did that, it was because I wanted to bring these students some joy into their lives. Since I know them so personally, I know they’ve been dealing with a lot lately, like multiple deaths and illnesses. I lost on purpose, but I wanted them to feel like they had earned that time. And because we played the math review game, they were still learning for the day.”

   As a teacher, it is important to get a sense of the room, have a bag of on-the-spot teaching strategies, and be able to adjust your day as needed.

What happens when you let students and teachers be free?

Lately, there has been a switch from English classes focused on critical readings, mini-lessons and writing workshops to standardized composition courses.

My latest visit with my former English teacher left me with a palatable sense that he feels his freedom is gone and he’s now trapped. The times when he would scour first his home library and then the photocopy machine are now over.

He used to spend hours pouring over what we should read, what we would gleam from the most. The winners would end up being in a far range, stretching from Zora Neale Hurston to the Federalist Papers and the more modern Malcom Gladwell. All of them have been replaced with a binder that lays by itself in the corner of the classroom: the 2017-2018 CSU developed English composition curriculum. The binder (besides the required books if there are any) contains the master copy of the year’s worth of material he is required to teach, along with the writing assignments.

As was promised to him, he is now free from having to lesson plan, free from the scramble over what to teach. But to my former teacher, that freedom comes at the price of imprisoning and atrophying his mind.

Back in my neck of the woods, pressure has been underway to move in the same direction. From what I’ve overheard in the hallway, the Wonders literacy program constantly approaches the school’s administrators to convince them to adopt their system. As for now, the answer back has been “No!” (as long as the test scores stay good). The teachers, and particularly this one I work with, believe in a more open-ended approach. The teacher spends about 10 minutes talking on say, how to add more action to a story, and then lets students work on writing while choosing three a day to conference with.

I am here to show you what happens when students are allowed to express themselves freely. The student I support struggles in writing precisely because she can’t take to directions often. Last year’s struggle was when the prompt required her to write about a person she cared about. The assignment became a nightmare in the flesh, starting with her feeling overjoyed at being able to honor her mother, guilty from not remembering things about her, and anxious over trying to write about her in the most perfect way. This manifested itself in lots of tears, screaming and grabs at my body. In private I pleaded with her teacher to let her choose a different topic. She agreed, which meant she could write about an object she cared about: strawberries. This turned out well, and her success in this assignment allowed her to feel confident enough when it came to tougher prompts. When she was frustrated, I would point out that she did so well in the strawberries assignment so she could do well again.

This year, the teacher is even more free-form with the first writing assignment. For this narrative writing, the teacher was happy with her as long as her pen was moving. After multiple fantastical short stories, she picked one to make into a final draft. Below is her final product. She did not get any guidance from me sans capitalization and indentation. It comes not from a product of a scripted curriculum, but rather teacher-crafted lessons that taught her to write with feeling- to dig deeper and deeper within herself until she found the heart of her story.

Note: The name of the dog has been changed to further preserve anonymity.

Pearl is What!? O:

Vroommm! “How was your first day at school?”, my mom asked.

“Fine”, I said. When we got home, we went to the back door, we saw Pearl, my dog, being pulled by her leash!

“Oh no!”, my mom said. “Pearl is dead!”

“Pearl is what!?” I shrieked. “The door was opened!”, mom said, groaning. I was so angry I went into the house.

After a ton of talk and tears, I got some plastic bags so mom could carefully pick up Pearl´s stiff body. She got a shovel and started digging a hole in the front lawn. I played my tablet to snap out of it but I couldn´t!

I remember her tiny, just born. “Can we keep her?”, I asked.

“You can keep her when she´s a bit older.”, said mom. The sound of the crunching bag brought me back.

As mom patched up the hole, I put flowers and one of Pearl´s chew toys on the grave.

“She will be remembered forever”, I weeped [sic]. “It´s okay. Everything will be okay”, mom said. “you still have me.”.

I softly said, “I guess you´re right.”

❤ In memory of Pearl forever

[picture of dog and of author´s likeness, which she titled “Tiny Me”]

What is the foundation of your job?

It’s important to have existential crises sometimes. When authors come and use a sledgehammer on society’s institutions, it makes me wonder: What is the foundation for my work? What can be stripped from it and still be recognizable?

In The Trial, Franz Kafka presents us with a simple premise: What if someone got arrested without committing a crime? It goes further, picturing a bureaucracy of courts, officials and lawyers, busy droning away at their jobs. Doing what exactly? No one knows which law they are working to defend their client against. In addition, they, “were not moved simply by humanitarianism” and “lack contact with the common people” (117). Furthermore, their minds are “far from wishing to introduce or carry out any sort of improvement in the court system” (119).

So to recap, these lawyers work without an accusation, evidence, personality, humanitarianism or advocacy to make the system better. Kafka shows us that in this world, the only thing that keeps the lawyers useful are the personal contacts they have with the high officials, which they can bribe to let their clients breathe easier.

These literary thought experiments are useful because they make us question the essential components of our own professions. Stripped down from any context, my job might just sound like me giving out directions, awarding reward tokens, and deescalating triggering situations. With this information, I might realize I could infuse more purpose in my day to day with more instruction and life lessons. Or, I might see this as a blessing. Because my job isn’t always rigorous, it gives my brain extra time to think.

That’s obviously good for the future of this blog and for my work life, as it’s still in the construction phase.


Give it up for flexible seating!

It’s sometimes too easy to criticize the state of education and so I want to  mix things up with a positive educational trend: flexible seating. I’m writing on the subject in the hope that it becomes the norm rather than a novelty. The benefits I see to flexible seating come from my experience as a summer school teacher and my current job as an instructional assistant.

  1. They give the student responsibility over their actions.

When you send a student off to work on an assignment in flexible seating, it often becomes more challenging to circulate the classroom and check up on every student’s notebook to see if they are really writing. They will oftentimes pick to work in a cranny of the room where no matter how you stretch your neck,  you can’t see their page. Therefore, flexible seating is always a social contract. In return for students sitting wherever they want, teachers trust that they will do their work. If teachers notice there is no writing completed at the end of the session, the contract is broken and students have to sit at an assigned spot.

2. Groupings can form spontaneously based on needs.

Does a group of students want to debate in “hard mode”, tilting the scales 4 vs. 1? With flexible seating, they can do so easily by arranging their modular lounge seats in the desired configurations. Flexible seating also means that for an instructional assistant like myself, it is easy for me to pull multiple types of small groups even while the teacher pulls her own small group on the kidney table. And often times the arrangements are so outright cute! (See picture above.)

And most importantly,

   3. They allow students with special needs to be more included in the classroom.

Last year I was in a classroom without flexible seating and my assigned student would want to work on the carpet or under the table. When I talked to OT about this, she said that while its age-inappropriate, as long as she isn’t hurting anybody I should let her. Although my student was allowed to work out of her desk, she was also self-conscious about sticking out and being the “different” child. She would ask me, “Are they looking at me? Cause I’m pretty sure they are all looking at me.” Now that this year’s classroom has flexible seating, she now blends in with all the other kids, who all sit in different configurations. She can feel more comfortable in her work and her anxiety, already heightened because of her disability, has one less reason to flare up.

Welcome and Introduction!

Hello everyone!

If you are reading this, I first want to say thank you for giving me a chance 🙂 For now, this blog will be anonymous and so my job in this post is to make myself sound as credible as possible without giving too much of myself away.

I am currently an Instructional Aide at a high-performing charter school. This is after I’ve had a hectic two years post-graduation working in four different districts besides this current one. I wanted to become a teacher. And I tried. I really tried and I know my graduate school really tried too, as they moved me from school to school finding the right spot for me. But at the end of the day, teaching, at least in the format of having a dedicated classroom of 30-130 students each day, wasn’t for me.

I’m still completely submerged in the education system, working at an elementary school and occasionally at a high school as a college counselor. I debated when was the right time to share my thoughts on what’s going right and wrong with the education system. I thought about waiting until I was out of the system so that I can be free to share my opinions. However, I feel now is the right time as my memories can still be fresh and I can react in real time to any evolving trends as they happen.

My ultimate goal in life is to be an advocate for students, so that they can have a better education system. Currently, I am trying to study the Law, so that one day I can pass new laws and repeal unnecessary ones.

Join me as I take you through my experiences working in the best and worst school environments (Hint: It’s pretty good right now). I will show you how what they are doing connects with current trends regarding education policy as a whole. We might also have more general education, technology or politics posts, so look out for those too!