Saturday, November 11, 2017

"Grieving Behind Bars"

A friend sent me this article called The Singular Sorrow of Grieving Behind Bars. This friend has been with me to visit my former student "Jorge" who is in prison and knows how much he can relate to this. Jorge's mother, never a stable person, died two years ago at the age of 36. He is in prison for 19 years and could not attend her funeral and could not attend the mass said for her on the one-year anniversary of her death. (I was honored to be invited to that and took pictures to send to him of the altar with flowers and her photos).

It made me think about how hard grieving is. I mean, when a person has support, community, and ceremonies for closure, grief is still really really hard. The hardest thing for humans. Now I try to imagine doing that while locked up, with no family or friends, and no freedom. No closure, no ceremonies, no ability to see the person one more time or be surrounded by others grieving.

I don't know if I could do that. I mean, I don't know if I'd *ever* get past that loss. I think it would calcify and fester and I'd be a meaner, more bitter, more dangerous person than anything that got me locked up.

What do you all think?

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Teacher in Training

My seven-year-old niece is practicing being a teacher. Many of us did this to some extent. I'm pretty sure I forced my sister and brother to sit still while I read spelling words to them that they didn't care about.

Later, when I really was a teacher, I would see fifth-grade students come into my third-grade classroom and help kids in that same way, the "I really feel special acting like a teacher," way.

It's really fun to see kids do that. It's very special to see that the relationship is so important that they imitate it and aspire to it.

My niece, S, is very committed to her teacher role, not even slowed down by the fact that she doesn't have any siblings. She has been a teacher for her stuffed monkey, my parents' dog, and lately, a collection of stuffed squashes she was given.

It's really fun to see how excited she gets about playing school. She writes out schedules that are better than any school I've ever seen: "Hello, Drawing, Snack, Recess, French, Art." She writes poems for her students that are more creative than any I ever wrote for mine. 
She writes encouraging notes to the parents of her student (my parents' Golden Retriever): 
"Your dahter is a bad student. 
A. She is stinkey.
B. She dosen't do any work.
P.S. She needs a bath.
P.S. I'll help."
And she's very patient with her youngest students, baby stuffed squashes. She even told her mom that they can't really read, you know, because they're just babies!

I wish I could be excited about S wanting to be a teacher. Clearly, she has years to change her mind, but I would love to foster this love and get her really excited about being a teacher. How do I tell her one day that being a teacher is amazing and rewarding, but she'd better marry well because she won't be able to afford to live? How do I tell her that she'll have so many ideas for how to inspire her students, only to have to spend weeks giving them standardized tests?

For now, I'll try to enjoy it.  She really is very gifted. And she loves Halloween! She's be a wonderful teacher.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Take Time to Listen to People of Color

I recently wrote an editorial for my local paper, prompted by some hateful vandalism in town. 

It can be found here, on the Alameda Sun's site. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Supporting DACA

My latest post on Medium: Why Supporting DACA is the Right Thing to Do

After I wrote it, I was fortunate enough to have a former student named Dat, a 24-year-old Vietnamese American young man, write his own take. Although Dat was born in the United States, his parents weren't and he is closer in age and relationships to many of the young adults who will be affected by this. Here is what he has to say:

I support the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy because it presents an opportunity for kids without homes to grow up with a chance. Most immigrant kids have come to the U.S with their parents in search of a better life away from the impoverished country they once came from. DACA individuals are law-abiding citizens, illustrating their commitment and determination to stay in the U.S. To have DACA rescinded is detrimental because these are individuals with no home back in their native countries. They came at an incredibly young age to lay a foundation and build a life here in the U.S. There is no reason to repeal this policy because DACA recipients work, pay their taxes, pay their dues, and have no criminal record.

All anyone ever wants is an opportunity to flourish in an environment that allows them to do so and to have their own kids to grow with that same opportunity.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Letters from Prison

I wouldn't have imagined a couple of years ago, but I am looking forward to the letters I get from prison several times a month. If you've read my book, Chapter 10 is about "Jorge," my former student. If you haven't read it, it's cheap on Kindle right now and you can learn all about Jorge. Skip to Chapter 10; he's worth it.

Anyway, he is a very very special young man who, in a nutshell, had every single thing go wrong in his life that could and (read the chapter!) he's now in prison for 19 years. I've gotten letters from San Quentin, Mule Creek, and Corcoran prisons. I've been to visit Mule Creek State Prison twice, and I'd prefer to never go to a prison again, but that's where he is. And as I told my students many years ago, they'd always be "my kids."

Jorge is working on his life story. When he read my book, he said that he was surprised that there were people in the world who didn't know how hard life is for people like him. he wants to tell them. So this kid, who stopped attending school regularly after 5th grade, is going to write his life story. And I am going to get it published, no matter what.

We're also thinking about publishing either his letters to me (I have them all) or our total correspondence (not sure if he has all mine, however). I think that would also shed a lot of light on many of our prisoners and what led them there.

So, if you have ideas or leads or connections, please do let me know. Otherwise, stay tuned, as someday you'll be hearing from him.

(To answer the inevitable questions: 1. Yes, I have his permission to publish this photo, and 2. Yes, a criminal attorney told me that inmates in California have a constitutional right to publish their writing without retribution. But I'm still using a pseudonym for him)

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.