Sunday, January 20, 2019

"There Are No Children Here"

This book was the one that inspired me to write Literally Unbelievable: Stories of an East Oakland Classroom. It is the story of two brothers growing up in a housing project in Chicago. The title comes from their mom saying, "But you know, there are no children here. They've seen too much to be children."

I was reminded of this book recently when I had dinner with a former student. She's 14 and in 8th grade. She was telling me about what she and her close friends have been through: homelessness, near-homelessness, sex trafficking, seeing people shot, friends who have died, parents and siblings in prison, watching drug deals, being locked in closets while family members smoked crack, and (unsurprisingly) depression, psychosis, and suicidal ideation.


We have to do better by these kids. They are being robbed of their childhood.

What to do?

Well, raising awareness is key. That's why I wrote Literally Unbelievable, so that people can understand what these kids--children--have to deal with.

Learn about it and tell everyone you know.

Then make some noise. Talk to your representatives and tell this that this isn't acceptable. Volunteer for groups in your community (if you're in the Bay Area, I have some ideas in the appendix of the book)

Please share other ideas! We can't consider this acceptable.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Sumando con Dinosaurios!

I have friends (Mexican citizens) who run an orphanage in Reynosa, Mexico. It’s called an orphanage but many of the kids there are not orphans, but kids whose parents cannot take care of them for a variety of reasons. I first visited/volunteered in the summer of 2000, as a new teacher, helping some kids get up to speed before the school year started in the fall. I quickly learned much more from any of them than they learned from me, and try to go back every year, keeping in touch when I am not there.

This orphanage is called Pilar de Esperanza (pillar of hope) and it truly is a hopeful place. It is set up to be a family, with some of the original kids now staying on as young adults and helping out. One of the other adults running the place is from Holland but has lived in Mexico for 20 years, calling herself now “Dutch-Mexican.”

The kids at Pilar mostly go to school in the city of Reynosa (the orphanage is a few miles outside the city limits), but some of the youngest or most academically behind students are taught on the premises. Their teacher, Paulien (the Dutch-Mexican woman) thinks of creative ways to teach with very limited resources, and I was happy to play a very very small part in their math class recently.

A friend was cleaning out her house and gave me a bunch of small plastic dinosaurs, thinking (correctly) that I’d know what to do with them. I gave two to a child I work with at home, and they were a HUGE hit. One had spikes and one had flippers so he obviously named them Spikey and Swimmy. He did his whole lesson with me in Spikey and Swimmy’s voice, and told his mom that it was the best lesson EVER. He has since reassured me that Spikey and Swimmy live in his closet but there’s a small window that they can see out of so that they don’t get sad. (I love children).

The rest of the dinosaurs went to Paulien and she is using them for prizes and also for addition! I’m sure the kids were thrilled to be “sumando con dinosaurios!” (Adding with dinosaurs).

Any time you can make math a little more fun for kids, it sticks in their head better!

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Teaching is More Exhausting Than You Think!

I’m often asked why teaching is so exhausting. Since I’ve left the classroom, I often tell people how much less tired I am than when I was teaching. With private tutoring I have one, maybe two, kids at at time. There are weeks that I work all 7 days, with 5 of the days being 9-11 hours days. I have many fewer days/weeks off than I did when I was in the classroom. On paper, I work many more hours. And it is SO MUCH less tiring. 

So, why is teaching so tiring? This list will not at all be exhaustive and I’d love to hear from other teachers because I’m sure I have forgotten some important reasons.

First of all, we’re always “on.” Teaching in front of a classroom is a performance. I don’t mean it’s insincere, but you are definitely performing. Keeping the attention of 20-36 students is no joke! I knew a first grade teacher who, when he sensed that he was losing the attention of his students, would walk into walls, in his own slapstick routine. No kid fails to find that funny, and he would get their attention. Most of us don’t do that, but we do funny voices, little dances, jokes, and more. I know that I always froze up when I realized that adults were in the room because I felt so self-conscious about all the silly things I was doing, that totally worked for the kids. I very rarely feel self-conscious in front of children, but throw a peer in the room and it’s tough.

Besides the performance aspect, we also have to be “on” in that we have to be aware of everything in the classroom, all the time. While we’re teaching a math lesson, we have to be aware of the kid trying to touch another kid (and plenty of desks are double desks so they can’t get away easily). We have to watch the child who can’t be trusted with scissors. Depending on the age we work with, we have to make sure all the phones are put away, no one is snapping bra straps, kids aren’t cheating, no one is eating crayons, kids aren’t squirming in their seat as a precursor to having a bathroom accident, they understand the lesson, their earbuds aren’t in, they’re not drawing on the desk, and much, much more. The hyper vigilance required is astounding.

During “breaks” — recess and lunch — teachers rarely get a break. Recess is usually 10-15 minutes and, depending on where your classroom is, it can take that long or longer to walk to the bathroom, wait for other teachers using it, and walk back. I STILL, 10 years later, have dreams about not having remembered to make copies in time and rushing to do it during recess, along with every other teacher who forgot or had to adjust lesson plans. If you need to call parents, plan field trips, or just plain call your doctor, this is when you have to squeeze it in.

Lunch is, in most districts, “protected” time for teachers. Most contracts allow for a “duty-free” lunch period of 30 minutes. We all know that this is a joke.  First of all, you have to walk the kids to the lunchroom and make sure they all get their lunches and sit down and begin eating. Most of us try to leave the classroom a little early to get this done, but sometimes are reprimanded for that by administrators who have somehow forgotten how long it takes to get children through the lunch line. We then try to scarf down our lunches (and if we forgot lunch, we usually just power through without eating because there’s not time to get anything) and do all the things mentioned in the recess time. It’s no wonder that teachers have such a high rate of bladder infections — we don’t have time to go to the bathroom frequently enough!

But at least we only work 6 hours a day! Right? You can deal with an exhausting job if you only work 6 hours a day! 


I know teachers who get up at 5 am to prep for the day. I can’t do that - I’m far from being a morning person. I prepped late into the night instead. I would go to social events with stacks of grading or lesson plans to work on because I needed time with my friends and I still had so much work. I usually left the school as soon as I could because I was so exhausted that I needed a nap. I’d make the copies I needed at school (or often at a copy shop, paying out of my own pocket, when they put copy limits on us without providing us with enough materials), go home and take a nap, then start hours of lesson planning, cutting things out, laminating (I bought a laminator!), gluing, organizing, grading, writing in journals, etc. 

I could go on and on and on. The social interactions; switching between talking to colleagues, parents, students, and administrators;and more. 
I remember in my second year of teaching, a friend came to teach the kids a few martial arts moves during PE. He was "in charge" of the kids for about 45 minutes, and that's in quotes because I did all the crowd control and took care of their behavior. At the end of it, he sat down, exhausted, and said, "Wow! So that's what a day in your life feels like!" I said, "No, that's what about 1/10th of a day in my life, with all the hard part done for you, feels like.

He didn't respond.

For you, what is the most exhausting thing about teaching?

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Family Giving Tree!

I had such a great time speaking to the Drive Leaders for Family Giving Tree last week. This organization provides back-to-school backpacks and holiday gifts for under-resourced children in the Bay Area. Rather than re-explaining everything I like about them, I'm just going to quote from my own speech! Please check them out at their website or on Facebook!

Think of yourself as a student, or a parent of a student, at this school. Think about all the things I’ve just mentioned, and the financial stress that comes with trying to keep your family housed, safe, clothed, and fed. Now imagine that you’re getting ready to send your child to school with the feeling of shame that comes from not being properly prepared – not because you don’t want to do the best for your child, but because you literally can’t afford to.

In many more affluent schools, parents and PTAs join with teachers in providing books and supplies. Our school didn’t have a PTA and most of our parents couldn’t help out much, although they did when they could. And supplies and books were more important for kids who didn’t have them at home, so teachers used their meager paychecks to buy these for their students.

Now that I’ve given you the context, I think you’ll understand why we as teachers are so grateful for Family Giving Tree and for all of you and your work with getting these donations into the hands of students who need them.

Many of my students came to school with their belongings in plastic grocery bags because they didn’t have anything else to carry them in. I started asking my friends in tech who went to trade shows and got laptop bags to donate them to me. Pretty soon my class was the only one with 20 kids proudly sporting laptop bags, but they were not really the right size or shape for third-graders. They did, however, help the kids with their dignity, as they had something that didn’t look like a trash bag to bring to school.

Even when the kids got a backpack substitute, they usually didn’t have school supplies. Their parents wanted to help but they just didn’t have the money. I spent thousands of dollars of my own money each year. That’s right, thousands. On a beginning teachers’ salary! But what the school gave us was in no way enough and I needed to help these kids learn.

In addition to what I spent myself, I started asking people for supplies. I posted on Craigslist and got supplies from strangers. I begged friends for supplies. I asked my family to give me money for my classroom instead of Christmas and birthday presents. I was shameless – because it was for the kids. In fact, one of my friends who worked at Pixar Animation studios, recently reminded me that when we met, I asked him to come talk to my students before I even told him what my name was! I had one friend who made holiday gift boxes for all my third graders and the joy on their faces as they unwrapped the boxes – which contained practical school supplies, socks, art supplies and fun toys… well, these kids would be in their 20s now and it still makes me smile. If you want to hear more about how effective donations are, I have some great stories in my book. The truckload full of paper donation – and I mean full – is my favorite, but is a little too long to tell here.

People stepped up as I asked for help, and I had another surprise. I thought that my students would feel embarrassed about these donations. I thought they’d feel like they were accepting charity and have some shame about it. I was totally wrong. The kids were not only grateful, they saw these donations as proof that people cared, and that they were special. One third-grader said it, straight up: “People keep helping us because they know we’re special and they know we need an education.”

Now, a lot of people and groups try to help, and not all of them do it well. Every single teacher has a story of people who come in and donate… junk. I’ve gotten donations of stained clothing, used wrapping paper, and random tea bags. Family Giving tree is one of the good groups. Before I agreed to do this talk, I asked specifically how they communicate with the schools about the needs of the kids, and they gave me the answer I was hoping for.

Family Giving Tree talks to teachers and administrators at the schools to find out what is actually needed in the backpacks. They don’t assume, they actually talk to the people in the know, which is something I wish everyone did! There’s also a grade differentiation of the backpacks to make sure they have what is needed and appropriate. They also make sure that the contents of the backpacks are consistent, so there is no envy between kids.

This model is one of generosity, not of pity. It is not looking down on people and helping them because we feel sorry for them. It’s respectful and thoughtful, and actually helpful in a way that maintains the dignity of the recipients. This is essential I’m so grateful for all of you. I hope you will keep doing the drive every year and keep increasing the number of backpacks you collect, because there is so much need out there!


Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Just be Happy to See Me

I often tell that 90% of good teaching is just being happy to see the kids.

Sure, the teaching methods are important, obviously. Subject matter competence is essential. But none of these matter if you're not happy to see the kids.

Kids are smart; much smarter than many adults give them credit for. They know if someone is honestly happy to see them or if they're faking it. And they learn better if they are wanted and welcomed.

As a teacher, this can feel like just one more chore. We have so much to do; we are so overworked and underappreciated. But nothing else we do will make a lasting impression if we don't care about them.

I wish the politicians making the tests and setting terrible teacher salaries could see how wonderful the kids are, how hard we work, and how much we need to give to them. Then things would actually change.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Bittersweet

I love keeping in touch with former students. I love it. This is one of my favorite things about social media. I love celebrating joys with them... but of course, there's also major sorrows.

Today was a roller coaster of emotions.

I started by meeting with Jorge's Abuela and explaining to her why a lawyer that I talked to thinks we shouldn't open up Jorge's case again, and that he probably will have to serve the majority of his sentence.

She's a strong woman, but she's also very lonely and very sad. She's had more heartbreak in her life than I can imagine and she's done almost all of it alone. My friend Mitali and I sat with her (it was so hard not to just keep talking) and watched her cry and listened. Half the time, I couldn't understand what she was saying because it was in Spanish and more importantly, she's very soft-spoken. But she just needed someone to listen.

I'm hoping that having people with her on this journey helps, but I want to do something more concrete. She's so sad. She's faced so many obstacles that I'm honestly not sure how she's still getting up every day, but she does.

Then I came home and sent this baby blanket to a former student, Sammie, who is going to be a father in a couple of months. This young man has not had an easy life, not at all. So, when I got a message from him that was just a sonogram, I was so excited to make him a blanket, pray over it, and hope it shows love.

I sent it and messaged him telling him. He said "Nia was my cousin."

Well, if you live in or near Oakland, you know who Nia was. Nia was killed by stabbing recently, on the commuter train. I think she was about 18. I was already somewhat heartbroken about this in general, and then found out that one of my beloved students is facing yet another tragedy... well, it became a lot more real. He's pouring out his feelings to me in messenger and I can't do anything other than listen.

Now I'm starting another baby blanket, for another former student. She's going to be an amazing mom and wants to be a doula and pass on her nurturing to others also.

It's been a roller coaster. I'm exhausted. And of course, how I'm feeling is nothing compared to these kids.

Yes, I still call them kids. They'll always be my kids. I love them so much and I just want to do more. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Faith Network: Hope For Children Now

 I was incredibly honored to give the keynote address for Faith Network's annual gala earlier this month. I have been working with the staff of Faith Network to try to get out the stories of these amazing kids in Oakland and to come alongside them.

Quite a few people have asked me what I talked about, so I'll share here. I mean every word of it from my heart.


I am so excited to have this chance to tell you about our kids, these wonderful kids in our community who have so much potential, and who flourish they’re provided with the love and support they crave and deserve.

Let me tell you about my experiences teaching in Oakland. I taught at Lockwood Elementary School, in East Oakland, right by the Coliseum, for eight years. This school was in a particularly rough part of Oakland. I didn’t know this before I taught there but the police called this neighborhood the “killing zone” due to the high number of murders that took place there. Although I left that school ten years ago, we unfortunately have many of the same challenges today in our schools.

I was 24 when I started working at Lockwood and I was not at all prepared for the level of need at that school. Like any group of people, my students had a variety of family situations. However, the level of financial need was consistent: it went from fairly low-income to desperately poor, and life for all of my students’ families involved the difficulties that came along with raising children with so much financial stress.

I was also not prepared for the level of violence that these kids had to live with every day. Most of my students’ families had no personal connection to the violence nearby but they did have to live with the repercussions of it. The first time I got a note requesting that I excuse an 8-year-old from doing her homework because she had to hide from the drive-by shootings that were happening that night… well, I started to realize that these kids were dealing with a lot more than most people were aware of.

I was honored to meet, and grow to love, students and families from many different cultures and backgrounds. There was a wide array of talents, experiences, knowledge, and skills, but there was also so much need.

I had students who came to school hungry every day. We had a free breakfast program, but it wasn’t very healthy. In addition, if a student’s parent worked nights or was preoccupied with younger children, it could be difficult for that student to get to school in time to take advantage of this program. For some kids, lunch was the only substantial meal they’d have and, like school lunches almost everywhere, they were not high-quality. This obviously led to issues like lack of attention, low energy levels, and more. In fact, I had one colleague who ran an experiment on herself, eating the school lunches every day for a week. She reported back to us that she felt tired, sluggish, and a little ill all week. The kids who most needed nutrition supplementation were not getting it. Unfortunately, the quality of school lunches today is still a concern for educators in many regions, including ours, and the effects on learning are exacerbated in lower income areas.

Many of my students were far below grade level academically, for a variety of reasons. Some had non-English speaking parents, so they entered kindergarten without speaking any English, much less reading or writing it. If their parents couldn’t speak English, they were unlikely to be able to help with homework that had English directions, so young children struggled to complete homework on their own. This often made the students feel like they were, in their words, “stupid,” when truthfully, they just needed some guidance, like every other child. Some of their parents had had children when they were very young and had not had the chance to complete their own schooling. And of course, many of the parents were working multiple jobs and just didn’t have the time, money, or energy to help their children or provide enrichment opportunities.

I want to be very clear - NONE of this was because the parents didn’t care about their kids. But if you’re concerned about your children having food on the table, a roof over their head, and basic safety, their academic concerns are just not what you’re going to be able to focus on.

In addition, our school was in bad shape. The playground, which was really just an asphalt yard with some broken basketball hoops, was actually crumbling. There was no grass and very few trees - the yard looked more like a prison yard than a school yard. Because of the area, we had trouble finding teachers and administrators, and many used our school as a stepping stone and then, as they would see it, “advanced” to safer, more affluent areas. This constant turnover affected our students and families, who couldn’t build important relationships with school staff.

We had a different principal every year for the eight years that I was at Lockwood. How many of you can remember your principal’s name from elementary school? I can: mine was Mrs. Goodwin. The kids I taught quickly gave up on learning the principals’ names because they knew they’d just have to meet someone else the next year. We have a new dedicated, homegrown superintendent in Oakland Unified and many passionate principals and teachers. However, hiring and staff stability is going to remain a challenge for at least the next several years due to severe budget limitations.

In many more affluent schools, parents and PTAs join with teachers in providing books and supplies. Our school didn’t have a PTA and most of our parents couldn’t help out much, although they did when they could. And supplies and books were more important for kids who didn’t have them at home, so teachers used their meager paychecks to buy these for their students.

My first year teaching was hard, for all those reasons and more. It was really hard. In my second year of teaching, there was an announcement at my church that Randy Roth, former pastor of First Covenant Church in Oakland, had started an organization meant to support students and teachers in Oakland. I heard his talk and cried throughout it. This was what we needed - we needed a community to come alongside us and help. We needed to not do this alone.

Randy told us about the schools Faith Network had started working with and I knew them. They were needy schools, but they weren’t on our level. We had consistently scored 59th out of 60 in elementary school testing, and we were in the poorest and most violent neighborhood in Oakland. Through my tears, I begged Randy to come to our school. He told me that he wanted to, but that the neighborhood was so dangerous that he couldn’t get volunteers to come. This was in Faith Network’s first year.

Seventeen years later, I am thrilled to say that not only has FN been at my former school for many years (even through it changing into two small schools) but that they’ve spread throughout the East Bay, and that I have seen and heard of their good work from teachers, kids, parents and administrators. They have provided mentors, reading partners, math tutors, science labs, and much much more. Most importantly, they have created a team to come alongside each school community, because every single one of these kids needs and deserves a team of people on their side.

This is not simply about getting kids up to certain academic standards. It’s not about providing pencils and books. It is literally a matter of life and death. Let me tell you what can happen without a team of community support behind these wonderful kids who are at such risk. I have two stories that are hard to share and hard to hear, but they are important.

Jorge was a child who was intensely aware of how much he needed help. He told his second-grade teacher that he needed help “learning how to be a good person.” He explained further that other kids had parents who could help them learn to be a good person, but that he didn’t. His dad was missing, and his mom was dealing with the stress of East Oakland by using a variety of substances. It’s a long story, and Jorge gets a whole chapter in my book, but the upshot is that he continued to ask for help in every way he knew how, and we just didn’t have the resources to help him. Eventually, anyone in his position would have gotten beaten down by the circumstances. He was pushed even further by witnessing the murder of his friend, at 13, and gave up and joined a gang. And if you think about it, of course he did. He was craving community and people on his side. If he had had those people on his side in another context, I don’t think our tax dollars would be paying for him to be in Corcoran State Prison for 19 years.

Fred was another child who was very close to my heart, and who also cried out for help. I had Fred in both first grade and third grade and, while he was known as a terror around school because of his behavior, he would come to me when he was upset, telling me that he couldn’t deal with his feelings and that he felt like no one cared about him. He was expelled in elementary school and incarcerated as a teenager. As a young adult, trying to leave the gang he had joined, he was shot and killed. I recently found his journal from third grade. I haven’t had the strength to read it, but I remember him writing profusely, because he wanted so badly for somebody to listen. I firmly believe that if he had had the type of support offering by Faith Network, he would still be with us today, making the world a better place.

Both of these stories were completely avoidable. These kids were at a crossroads, and if there had been a team of people to advocate for them and help get them over the hurdle, we would not have wasted these precious lives.

Now let me tell you a different story. Stephanie had more family support than Jorge or Fred but even more than that, she had community support. She had a big sister through Big Brothers Big Sisters. She had teachers who helped her out, following her from year to year to make sure she never fell through any cracks. She had a church community and knew that people in her community had her back. While Stephanie dealt with the same violence and poverty as all of my other students, she had a village around her, supporting her and building her up. Last year, Stephanie graduated from Howard University and is currently in a double master’s program: education and biology, while serving as a teacher intern in Baltimore. THIS is what can happen when a child knows that people believe in her.

Obviously Howard University is a nationally recognized university and I’m so proud of her. But I’ve had other students take a different path to success, and in a way, they have achieved even more than Stephanie. Saafir is one of those. Saafir has actually fallen through the cracks in many of his schools but he had a Faith Network volunteer when he was in my third-grade class and she made a huge difference. She brought him and his classmates healthy snacks, worked as a team with me and his 4th grade teacher to make sure he didn’t get lost, and believed in him. When he was in high school, she was even able to hire him for an internship! He got a little lost at Oakland Tech and ended up transferring to a continuation school to finish high school. He agonized about this decision, and it would have been easy for him to drop out during his senior year. But he had this history of people believing in him and I am SO proud to say that he is studying at the College of Alameda. I got to be at his high school graduation and it was one of the proudest days of my life.

If you have ever had the pleasure of working with any of the kids at the schools Faith Network serves, you know that the benefits are not just for the students. The volunteers are set up for success with training and controlled environment, which makes a huge difference. Setting the volunteers up for success this way makes them able to really focus on what the kids need: academic help and positive, supportive relationships with adults.

Let me tell you what I’ve seen as a teacher, and more recently, as the former Director of Education at Harbor House Ministries, from these tutoring relationships. I’ve seen kids who could barely recognize letters at the beginning of the year excited about reading at the end of the year. I’ve seen kids who didn’t believe any adult outside their family could possibly care about them end up totally secure in their relationship with an adult from a completely different background than themselves. I’ve seen teachers who were not thrilled about having a group with “Faith” in the name moved to tears because of the generosity of FN volunteers and staff. I’ve seen volunteers bring food to kids who hadn’t eaten a substantial meal that day, or possibly that week. I’ve seen a group that doesn’t come to schools and tell them what they need to do but who humbly asks what they need. I’ve seen kids who I thought would drop out of school before 6th grade (yes, that is frequent) bring books to me and say, “Guess what! I can read this!!”

Again, this is not simply a matter of getting kids up to grade level, although that is important. This is a matter of helping children and youth at a key crossroads in their lives. If they get the help they need, it will make all the difference in the world. This is a matter of life and death.

We’ve all heard that third grade reading levels are used to predict prison population. As a teacher, I could look at a child in my class and know, with depressing accuracy, if they were going to make it to 25 alive and out of prison. Do you know what the one thing was that would surprise me and prove me wrong? It was intervention by someone who cared.

Oakland has a tremendous community spirit and I am so excited to see community, like many of you in this room, who are making a dramatic difference in these children’s lives. It’s not hard to do - two hours per week by one member of this community, supported and trained by Faith Network - can change two children’s lives forever, over the course of just one academic year. And that’s not even counting the amazing changes that take place in the volunteer’s lives!
There are many people in the Oakland community with wonderful hearts and a desire to make a difference in a young person’s life. If everyone in this room made a point to talk about the need and how to help, whether by volunteering, donating, advocating, or spreading the word, we could have ALL of the volunteers and resources we need to help the next generation of children. Imagine that. Imagine the potential in these kids becoming fully realized. I am hopeful that, as a state and a nation, we will someday establish our priorities to have all of our schools finally resourced as they should be, but until then, it’s up to us here in this room, and our greater community, to make the changes.

There are about 1,600 third grade students in Oakland Unified who are reading substantially below grade level. That’s a lot. But… if Faith Network could increase their 150 reading tutors to 800 - 800 people volunteering only two hours a week - we could wipe that out. We could have the vast majority of the third graders in Oakland reading at or above grade level. As a former third grade teacher, this idea gives me chills because it has so much potential. Third grade is a crossroads. This is the last year that anyone helps them learn to read; after that, it’s all reading to learn. Increasing individual tutoring could change everything and empower so many precious children.

Please continue your support and help us to spread the word. These kids are amazing and deserving and they ARE our future. It’s actually very easy to make a big difference. Thank you for listening and caring so deeply for the children in our community.