Friday, August 18, 2017

Diversity In Teaching and Passing the CBEST

Three or four times a year, I teach a CBEST essay preparation class at the state university near me. The CBEST is the test require for someone to teach in California, whether substitute or fully credentialed. (There are many many more tests you have to take for your credential, and it ends up being quite a financial burden for a job that pays very little. But I digress)

The CBEST is not actually very hard, on the surface of it, and I know plenty of people who are surprised that I teach a class, wondering why people need help passing it. There are three main reasons the essay portion of the test is hard for people: First, there are people taking it who have just been out of school so long that they have forgotten what taking tests is like and get really nervous. They usually do just fine once they practice. The second group is made up of people who have test anxiety and often the practicing helps much of the time. The third group is those who do not speak English as their native language, and that is the overwhelming majority of the students that I teach.

In my class this week, I have eight women trying to learn how to pass the essay, and only one speaks English as a first language. The others speak Hindi, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, and sign language. The Deaf woman interestingly has learned a few different types of sign, so can't really identify what her native language is.

I am so grateful to see these women working so hard to be teachers. They are from India, Mexico, China, Taiwan, Singapore, and California, and they are all clearly very giving people who love teaching and love working with children. Many of them are teaching in their native language, not using English at all, but they have to pass this writing test in English. Some of them have tried five or six times so far and are working hard to not give up.

It's a little scary to teach this class to people who have already failed the test so many times. I hear "this will be my sixth time taking it" and think that I have no chance of teaching them enough to pass. But it's so important. Over 83% of American teachers are white, and teachers absolutely must reflect the communities they serve. It's important for the kids to have examples who look like them and have had similar experiences. It's important to have teachers fluent in the languages of the community. And it is essential that the teaching force is not all from one culture or ethnicity, or valuable insights get lost.

So I'm working as hard as I can to help these women get their teaching credentials. And I'll explain to anyone who doesn't understand why this seemingly easy test might be tough if you're taking it in your second (or third or fourth) language.

Thursday, July 06, 2017


One of the greatest things that can happen to a teacher is to see their student succeed, in any way, no matter how old they are. So you can imagine how excited I was when I was invited to Stephanie's college graduation party! She graduated from Howard University with a double major in biology and sports medicine, and while I couldn't go to DC to see it, I wasn't going to miss her California party for the world.

Stephanie has always been incredibly special: hard-working, strong family ties, and a confident attitude that has ensured her success even when many of the odds were against her. Being a black woman from East Oakland has meant plenty of obstacles, but I have never seen her fail at something she's tried. I've seen her realistically adjust her goals as needed and reach out for help as needed, strengths that many of us older people don't have and are impressive at 22.

Stephanie is now doing a joint masters of public health and teaching program and has jumped into teaching science to middle school students, a daunting task to be sure. But if anyone can do it, she can.

It was also amazing to see her family support. Stephanie's dad was a wonderful person who loved her more than life itself and sadly passed away a few years back but is not by any means forgotten. There was even a "Howard Dad" sash in his honor. Her mom, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, and more were at her party, and I didn't realize until later that I was the only white person there (I think) because everyone was so incredibly welcoming as we all shared Stephanie stories.

I also got to see another student who hasn't finished college yet but is back on track to do so. Sean talked to me about his personal growth, what he learned from beginning college, leaving, and going back to higher education. He shared about how he used to treat his teachers (I knew some of it firsthand, but he was more respectful to me than most of his teachers) and how he wants to reach kids who were similar to him. 

My heart was full for a week. I am so proud of these "kids," now adults. I can't wait to see what they'll do.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Facing White Fragility

I am nervous basically every time a person of color tells me they have read or will read my book. That's not fair, of course, as that kind of generalization is never fair, but I am aware enough of my white privilege to know that it probably comes out in my book at some point, as hard as I tried to be aware. Because white privilege is that ingrained.

I was very careful in my book, asking former students and Black and Latino/a friends if certain phrases were acceptable, and having these same friends read chapters or read the whole book. I did my best, and I took suggestions and criticism.

But here's the thing. I'm white*, and the world looks different with privilege. No matter how aware I am, I'm still going to stumble. And that hurts people. And that is really uncomfortable to face.

I was recently called out on something I had said that had an unintended but real impact on a Facebok friend who is a person of color. I'm not going to share any details, because it was a private conversation, but I want to share my reaction in hopes that it will help other white people to be willing to accept correction. Because let's face it, no human likes to face correction, and white people seem to be especially fragile in our reactions.

As I've written about before, my first reaction when I am confronted with my privilege is to be really, really defensive. Although I think they're totally wrong, I do understand the knee-jerk reaction of white people who claim that they have no privilege because they grew up poor/didn't go to a good school/don't see color/whatever. It's uncomfortable to face privilege and easier to convince yourself you don't have it.

So when this person very thoughtfully and respectfully pointed out what I had said and how that showed my privilege, I immediately felt defensive, and embarrassed. Really embarrassed. After all, I wrote a book about teaching kids in East Oakland! I'm not prejudiced.

But of course I am. We all are, because we're human. We all have biases and white people have more power to hurt others with those biases.

I went through various responses in my head, discarding them one by one. I thought about saying that the person was wrong; that they didn't know my whole story and I couldn't be racist if I was a teacher in that school. I thought about saying that they were oversensitive. I thought about getting angry or about ignoring it.

But if I had done any of those, I would be in the wrong, and I would be doing what I'm so often angry about -- discounting the truth about white privilege and how it hurts others because I was uncomfortable. And you know what? White people have to deal with this discomfort much much less than anyone else in this country.

I suspect my response was inadequate. After all, I don't really know what to say. White people have generations and centuries of harm to apologize for and make right. And I can't do all that. But I do hope that I can become less defensive each time this happens, and that I can set aside my discomfort to listen and learn. I hope I can clean up my mistakes to the best of my ability.

*I struggled with whether or not to capitalize Black and White throughout this piece and I suspect I am very inconsistent in my writing. Here is more food for thought on the disparity of the capitals. 

Thursday, May 04, 2017

The BART Mob

I was going to write a really thoughtful, well-reasoned response to the story of the mob of teenagers who robbed people on BART, but then I started seeing the reactions. The knee-jerk, racist, totally devoid of caring reactions.

So this is what I came up with. I posted it to a local Facebook group where it got deleted eventually. Possibly because I called out another local Facebook group that was advocating murdering the kids. I'd say enjoy, but, well....


No surprise here, seeing how some of the other local FB groups are advocating blowing the heads off of these kids" but I want us to think about our knee-jerk reactions. I have worked with "these kids" for years (and by "these kids" I ran nothing more or less than the kids in this particular neighborhood) and I want to point out a few things:

1. All kids in East Oakland aren't black.

2. All kids who commit crimes aren't black. Or brown. Or any other generalization.

3. My friend who worked at a super wealthy white school had fare jumpers on field trips and the PARENTS were advocating fare jumping because they didn't want to pay. They didn't rob people but fare jumping is also a problem that is usually attributed to black and brown kids in the inner city.

4. Some of these kids have stories you CANNOT EVEN IMAGINE. I am not saying all of them and I'm not saying that it's an excuse, but I am saying that some kids who end up in gangs/as followers for crimes, etc. have trauma that some of us will NEVER BE ABE TO FATHOM EVER.

5. I taught kids who were involved in this kind of crime and regret it so hard. Or were killed when they tried to get out of this life. Who had no community whatsoever other than kids who were criminals/drug users/gang members. THEY DIDN'T HAVE ANOTHER MODEL.

6. I am not saying I know these particular kids' stories. I'm saying that they HAVE stories and that is no excuse but it is context.

7. Understand that kids, no matter what they do, do not deserve to have their heads blown off. Someone in a public group, using his real name, advocating kids having their "goddamn heads blown off" IS THE PROBLEM HERE. THEY ARE KIDS AND THERE ARE STILL WAYS TO REACH THEM. I've worked my whole life to do so and there are not enough people who are helping. Way more who are judging.

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.