Monday, April 17, 2017

The Next Generation

One of the best parts of writing Literally Unbelievable has been the wonderful people I've met. When I was teaching, I was often so stressed out and exhausted that I felt completely isolated, as if I was solely responsible for the welfare of all the kids in my class, and even in the school. I worked with some amazing teachers, but also a lot who were less than amazing. And almost universally, we were all so overwhelmed that, although there were people I would have loved to collaborate with, the feeling was much more one of survival, every teacher for herself.

Now I am starting to realize how many people care about educational inequity and under-served kids and just how many of them want to help in any way they can. The most exciting groups for me to talk to have been college and graduate students. Last week, I was able to Skype in to a school counseling prep program at Sacramento State, and talk in person to future special ed teachers at Dominican University. Both groups left me humbled and grateful that these people are the near future of our children. They're facing some very large obstacles, but I could hear their passion and I am hopeful.

That same week, I was able to speak at Ignitus, put on by Cal Rotaract (the college version of Rotary). These amazing undergrads spent their Friday night learning about different forms of service, and how to give back to the community. They were professional and organized, and even gave me flowers at the end. My favorite part though, was talking to students after the event. I didn't even realize that I stayed for an hour after the event, just chatting about inequity, education, racism, and life in general. 

I haven't felt this hopeful since Election Day. And now I kind of want to teach college students for a living...

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

It Was Already Broken (Originally Published on Medium)

Originally published on Medium.

Let me start by saying that, to my knowledge, I’ve never been more qualified than a Secretary of Education before. I have by no means agreed with or approved of everything they did, but at least on paper, they were qualified. Not so with Betsy DeVos.
We all know by now that she didn’t attend public schools, that her children did not attend public schools, and that she’s never worked or even volunteered in a public school. We know that she donated large sums of money to many of the Senators who voted to confirm her. We know that she doesn’t appear to know the first thing about standardized testing, proficiency vs. growth, or whether grizzly bears or guns pose a larger threat to public schools.
Remember, though, that public schools needed help before Trump was elected or DeVos was appointed. No Child Left Behind punished the most under-resourced schools and students, and was a major part of why I left teaching, as the job became more and more about teaching to the test, and certain schools were set up to fail. At one point, the expensive consultant that our school hired just told us that it was, at that point, statistically impossible for our school to succeed under NCLB.
Parents and teachers of children with learning differences are nervous, and rightly so, but they’re used to fighting. Even the services that are legally mandated for children under IEPs are only provided after a struggle, and only to families who understand their rights and advocate for themselves.
DeVos is not the beginning of what’s wrong in American public schools. She’s one more step along the way, and she’s obvious in how biased, corrupt, and unqualified she is. However, she’s also the wakeup call we need.
So, what can we do? Talk to your local and state representatives, and learn more about your own local education system. Find out what donations your neighborhood public schools need and help out — teachers spend a lot of their own money on basic needs and school supplies. Volunteer in a public school on a regular basis — make copies for teachers, tutor a child in reading or math, or help out at recess. Make sure you know what is happening in education on a local, state, and national level and speak out for the students who don’t have a strong voice.
Betsy DeVos may have more money than many of us, but I am confident that those who care about public schools and the students who attend them far outnumber her. Let’s use this as a push to stand up for all kids, not just our own.

Saturday, December 10, 2016


I went to prison today.

I am alternately feeling hopeful and extremely pessimistic. Our prison system is so careless; there are so many lives wasted. At the same time, I think it might have saved someone's life. Let me explain.

When I was teaching, I made a point to tell my students, many of whom had few stable adults in their lives, that they would always be "my kids." Today, that meant driving two hours (a friend drove me which was wonderful because I was really nervous) to Mule Creek State Prison to visit "Jorge" who has his own chapter in my book.

I am not going to go into Jorge's whole life story because he has his own chapter in my book, Literally Unbelievable: Stories from an East Oakland Classroom. The very abridged version is that he was born to a 14-year old illegal immigrant who quickly developed a drug problem, if she didn't have one when he was born. He had to take responsibility for his family his whole childhood, and was mainly raised by his grandmother. He saw his friend murdered when they were 13, the police put him in danger and treated him like an adult perpetrator rather than a child witness who had just lost a friend and been traumatized, and he went off the rails. That's all in the book.

After I lost touch with him, I learned today, he started using meth and joined the Norteno gang. He said his initiation into the gang was for them all to beat him severely. He used meth up until he was arrested at 18, for shooting at a police officer, and got a sentence for attempted murder (thank God he didn't hit the officer).

Going to jail made him get clean out of necessity, and he spent I think almost two years at Santa Rita. I don't remember the order of the events, but two things were essential to him turning things around, at least in his mind and intentions. His mom died tragically in a fire, and around the same time, he was "jumped" while eating by a rival gang and no one in his gang in the prison helped him out. Something (if you know me, you know I believe it was God), gave him the strength to leave the gang.

I want to be clear: this is not a kid who has been used to making hard decisions for his benefit. He's the kid who friends would make hold the drugs when the cops came because he needed to belong and wouldn't stand up for himself. THAT KID left a gang in prison, putting his life in danger.

He said that when he made that decision to get out, he got put in "the hole" (solitary confinement) for two months, I believe until he was moved, for his own protection. Now he's totally on his own; he said "I'm my own man."

I'm heartbroken that this child—he's 21, feels like a child still to me—could be in prison until he's 37. He will have trouble for the rest of his life in finding a job or finding acceptance. I'm encouraged that he is growing up and making good decisions, in a time that most people absolutely do not make their best decisions.

I was nervous about seeing Jorge for the first time in eight years, in prison, with him as an adult. I shouldn't have worried. He's bigger, and his hair is really long, in a ponytail, and he lost a tooth in the gang fight at Santa Rita. But his eyes are the same. He has always had incredibly beautiful eyes and would probably be highly embarrassed by me saying that, but it's true. And he has a beautiful soul. He has always cared far more about his family than he should have to, and had to be their protector. It was too heavy for him, and you could see that when he was just a little kid.

I'm so thankful he's alive and I'm so sad he's in prison. It's a tragedy that he's in prison, but the route his was going... he probably would have died if he hadn't been arrested.

This is the child who asked his second grade teacher how he could learn to be good when he didn't have anyone to teach him. In third grade, he said to me, "Ms. Harris, I've figured out it. When your mom's on drugs, she forgets she loves you. She still loves you but she forgets."

I was really worried that he would not feel respected in the book. I did my best, but he was not an easy kid much of the time. He said I did well. And he was so proud of being in the book dedication. He said he was showing it to everyone.

Thursday, November 17, 2016


Due at least in part to the recent election in the United States, bullying seems to have increased recently, along with hate crimes.

I've heard a lot of parents ask what they should tell their kids and how to help their kids stand up against bullies. This is what I always told my students:

"People who bully others feel bad about themselves. Remember that. They treat other people badly because they feel so bad about themselves. That doesn't mean it's OK. You need to tell an adult* and walk away. But remember, that you didn't do anything to make them bully you. This was not your fault."

I knew it helped at least one child when she said to me, "It's so sad that that kid feels so bad about themselves and wants to make me feel bad too. I'm not going to."

*As adults, we need to tell the police, the ACLU, our elected representatives, etc.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Children's Memorial Grove

A couple of weeks ago, I went to visit Children's Memorial Grove, which memorializes children killed by violence in Alameda County.

The memorial is at the end of a one-mile hike that overlooks a beautiful lake and is a lovely setting for a tribute to the children we have lost, but I just couldn't stop thinking, "We shouldn't need this."

 The memorial only went up until 2012, so I kept wondering if I'd know more of the names. The kids I taught would be at the most dangerous ages, statistically, in the last few years.

I felt panic every time I saw a first or last name I recognized, but the only child I knew personally was in 2009, and I've told his story before.

I'm sure I would know more from 2013-2016. And, of course, one of my former students was killed last year, but he was an adult. Barely.

 I don't know what we can do to make this obsolete. It's bad enough when kids die in any way, but to die violently? It SHOULDN'T HAPPEN. And yet it does. Frequently. And the families and kids left behind have to deal with the unimaginable.

No parent should have to go through this. No child should have to see their friend killed.

I don't know what we should do, but something. The answer is something.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Oakland Police: To Protect and Serve?

About a month ago, a friend who works for SFPD tweeted: "So work was crazy and shocking today and is going to be weird and different tomorrow." I looked at the news, and found that the San Francisco police chief had resigned after several scandals in the police force.

I didn't expect that Oakland would not just one-up San Francisco, but three-up them. It's actually astounding. Read it, and then come back here.

I'm going to say up front that I had a really low bar for the OPD. I've seen them in action (or inaction) many times, up close, and I really had very low expectations. What's the opposite of surpass? They have opposite-of-surpassed my very very low expectations.

When I was teaching, we had an attempted kidnapping at my school. A homeless person wandered onto the playground when the gate was open for the kindergartners to go home, and grabbed a fifth grader by his jacket, and tried to take him of campus. Fortunately, the student was smart enough to wiggle out of his jacket and escape. Several of us called the OPD emergency line, and they finally came... after 55 minutes. We weren't far from one of their stations; there was no reason it should have taken them that long.

Another time, some kids from the middle school next door came to our school with rocks and knives and started frightening and threatening our students. I called the middle school and they said they couldn't do anything and to call the police. I called the police and they said they couldn't do anything and to call the school.

Once my wallet got stolen from my classroom. The kids knew who did it, and the person used my credit card in over 15 different places. Two of the places had her on security camera and offered to give the footage to the police. I knew who had done it anyway. I called to make a police report and told them all that, and the officer I spoke to said, "What do you think we're going to do about it?"

My student who saw his friend murdered -- in front of him -- was taken by Oakland officers to the suspect's house, and asked my student to identify the suspect in full view of the suspect and his whole family so that my student and his family were then in severe danger. The next day they took my student -- who was 14 years old at the time -- in for questioning for hours without letting him have his mom there. As soon as a lawyer friend called to check up, he was released, but they kept him all night.

(By the way, that student's mother had called about the shooter the previous month and the officer told her that unless someone was dead they couldn't do anything. So they waited until a middle schooler was dead)

I was driving in West Oakland a few years ago when a man had very very bad road rage. Someone swerved into my lane, and I swerved so as not to get sideswiped and cut someone off. I knew I was cutting him off but I figured it was better than an actual accident. He became extremely angry, progressing to chasing me down at red lights, taking a baseball bat out of his trunk and swinging it, and then chasing me for miles, trying to pull in front of me and cause an accident. I called Oakland Police's emergency line and they put me on HOLD and then said there was nothing they could do unless he hurt me.

These are only the firsthand accounts that I have. This doesn't include the numerous reports I've heard from kids and parents about being mistakenly detained, because the description was "African American male" and they just found the closest one. This is not including my employees' stories about being pulled over for driving while black. This is not including all my coworkers' stories about calling because a parent with a gun came on campus (being told that if they didn't know the parent's first and last name, an officer wouldn't be sent).

All of the secondhand reports could be false. I wasn't there, I didn't hear it or see it, and it could be like a game of telephone. But the other ones... I was there for them.

The OPD has always had its problems. Right before I began working in Oakland, they had the "Riders," which is its own story. I've talked to cops who wanted to go in and make a difference, and they're now working elsewhere because the culture at the OPD was too much and there was no making a difference.

But three chiefs gone in nine days? And no chief now? That's impressive.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Power of Music

The kids at our after-school program come from many different backgrounds, but they are all extremely under-resourced in different ways. We have a variety of refugee students and I've been learning a lot anout how hard it is to be a refugee trying to navigate the American public school system, along with everything else that's new.

We have a student from Congo, who came to America two years ago. I'll call her Elizabeth. I don't know much about her family because her grandmother (who might actually be her great-aunt) only speaks French and Swahili. Her grandmother has been very slow to trust us, which may be understandable given what she's been through and the fact that she can't communicate with us.

Elizabeth had no consistent schooling until she got to the United States two years ago, when she was put into a grade that she was too old for, because her skills in English and math were so low. The school she was attending did not give her any help and failed her at the end of the year, making her the oldest in her grade the next year by two years. She switched schools this year to the one we serve with our after-school program, which fortunately has more resources.

I went to a meeting with Elizabeth's grandmother, who had mistakenly thought that the school would be providing a translator (the school was under the impression that she was bringing a family member who could translate). The only part of the meeting that her guardian understood were the parts I typed into my Google Translate app and translated into French, but that was more than she had gotten at the previous school. We managed to get her some services for next year, and I think everyone is feeling more hopeful, although as I watched Elizabeth's elderly grandmother limp away with her cane to the two buses she has to take home, I couldn't help but wonder how she managed to keep things together for the family.

Later that week, we were able to participate in a choir performance with an Oakland-wide youth choir. Our kids were excited and overly active and bored and difficult as they rehearsed the day before and a couple of hours before the show. We knew most of the parents wouldn't come for various reasons: transportation, lack of English, etc., but we got staff and volunteers to come so that they could feel appreciated and proud of themselves.

The kids did great - they weren't sufficiently practiced and ready, they missed some transitions, they scratched their heads during their performances, and they sang with their hands in their pockets. But they were beautiful and they made absolutely beautiful music. They sang their little hearts out.

Elizabeth had said that her family was coming, but so did about half of the kids and most of them did not show up, so I wasn't expecting anything. However, at the end of the show, Elizabeth's grandmother pushed through the crowd and found me. We couldn't actually communicate with each other, but I said, "She sang so well, you must be really proud!" Her previously standoffish grandmother smiled big and hugged me. In fact, she hugged me several times. I introduced her to my boss and got another big smile from the grandmother even though she didn't understand what I was saying.

When she left, she turned around briefly and grabbed my hand. She squeezed it hard.

I am so grateful that love for a child transcends culture and language. That woman could tell that I loved her grandchild. She didn't need to understand me to understand me.