Category Archives: Manual Arts

Full recording of StoryCorp Interview

Recently, NPR re-ran the StoryCorp conversation Roger and I had several years ago.

I continue to think about and reflect on how Roger, like many of my students, transformed both my professional and personal life. Though it is raw and sometimes meandering, I wanted to offer curious readers access to the full recording of Roger and I. That’s a somewhat large MP3 file. If you find the conversation at all useful, please let me know.

Sadness-Tinged Relief: Uncomfortable Reflections on Leaving Manual Arts

It’s been just over a month since I stopped working at Manual Arts, the high school where I spent the past eight years trying to cut my teeth as a teacher; the place where I probably learned more every day than I was privileged to teach. And while I’ve been spending my time since packing­­–and later unpacking–boxes, standing in line at a new (though just as slow) DMV, and figuring out how to at least somewhat safely operate a circular saw, this primarily offline time has afforded me the opportunity to reflect on this final year at Manual Arts and what that school space has meant to me.

In many ways, leaving this school–particularly in light of this last year–has been filled with sadness-tinged relief. It makes me uncomfortable to say that, so let me explain where this feeling is coming from.

I should make it clear, though, that despite any of the challenges I’ve faced or dealt with at Manual Arts, I feel extremely, extremely privileged to have been able to be a teacher there. The students that I’ve worked with have pushed me in ways that this rant will not encompass. In a moment, I plan to share the more troubling challenges at Manual Arts but want to make sure that my gratitude to the abundant experiences of joy and enlightenment I’ve had from my students and colleagues is noted.

I’ve made it no secret that Manual Arts has had its fair share of challenges over the years. From truancy policies that essentially criminalize students to the fact that my eight years at this school has included eight different principals, Manual Arts, structurally is a persistent mess.

Last August, I met my eighth principal for the school. Robert Whitman was assuming his first head principalship at Manual having been an assistant principal at several other local urban schools prior. I want to stop here for a moment and note that this is par for the course of urban school leadership in Los Angeles: the schools most in need of strong leadership according to district metrics like standardized test scores, teacher turnover rates, and dropout levels act as training grounds for principals. The majority of the principals that have left Manual Arts while I was there spent little more than a year (sometimes less) letting the school coast while adding their new leadership position to their resumes and quickly taking a job at a less demanding school.

The new principal’s challenges were compounded by the fact that the school moved from a three track year-round schedule to a traditional calendar. While the three track system meant longer school days and is generally inequitable for all of the students involved, it was at least a routine students and teachers had learned to cope with for the decade plus that Manual Arts was a year round school. And while time was stabilized as a result of the move to a traditional calendar, all else was disregarded: class sizes shot up well beyond what teachers or classrooms were equipped to deal with. Across the board, students were packed 36-40+ students deep in core instructional classes. Strangely, our security and deans at the school were gutted. Here’s an equation for disaster at even the best of schools: too many kids with too little supervision equals dismal instruction.

Of course, the instability of varied leadership and strategies takes its toll on the students and teachers of Manual Arts. The Freshman Preparatory Academy–the school’s effort two principals before Whitman–was an effective effort in sustaining student interest during the year our students are most at risk of dropping out. With a new regime of administrators and a general lack of institutional memory to drive the decisions of the school this year, the majority of the practices that supported ninth grade teachers were decimated. The halls of FPA, where I spent most of my time helping teachers with technology challenges at the school became chaos.  Even the most collaborative teachers I was privileged to work with went into all-out-survival mode, trying to get through the overcrowded classes one day at a time.

The administration, like LAUSD’s superintendent’s phrase, shifted to a “laser-like focus” on skills and test preparation. The execution of this focus, however, was generally incompetent. My former guiding teacher and one of the most innovative educators I’ve been privileged to work with was subject to no less than a year-long procession of passive-aggressive administrators observing and encouraging him to volunteer to pilot the Scholastic Read 180 program in his classroom. The experience sapped him of the enthusiastic energy I typically got to see in him and seemed like a contract-protected form of administrative bullying. (I assure you I have no problem with being observed–under the best of administrators my practice has significantly grown from administrative observation. What this teacher underwent felt possibly retaliatory for the way he has been outspoken on the school’s campus.)

As a quick aside: as I type this, my former advisor forwarded me her emailed “word of the day” and it is fitting to today’s discussion.

Quantophrenia: “Undue reliance on or use of facts that can be quantified or analyzed using mathematical or statistical methods; inappropriate application of such methods, es. In the fields of sociology and anthropology.”

Nearly all of the teachers I’ve come to work with closely and that I’ve learned from are voluntarily leaving Manual next year. Most of them have helped co-design the Schools for Community Action and are trying to make these new schools (just down the street from Manual Arts) a more humane alternative to the bureaucracy that has plagued Manual Arts this past year and long, long before.

I say “voluntarily” in the previous paragraph somewhat uncomfortably. None of these teachers want to leave the students at the school. As is the case in school after school, Manual’s problems are adult-driven.

Perhaps what’s driven me to this reflection more than anything else is an announcement that was made during my last week at Manual Arts: the school has been awarded a School Improvement Grant for next year as a “turnaround model.” What this means is that the school is being reconstituted. “Reconstitution” is fancy ed-speak that essentially means that everyone at the school is being fired and needs to reapply for their jobs. Everyone, that is, except that in this single instance the principal will be keeping his job without reapplying. Wait, what? Yeah, that happened. Oh yeah, one other thing: in this particular concoction of reconstitution, the school will only hire back 50% of the teachers that choose to reapply at Manual Arts. This is clearly an opportunity to clean house and ensure that the bad apples in the eye of the nascent principal and less-than-effective management company, LA’s Promise don’t come back.

Here’s the fancy color-printed handout that teachers received notifying them of the reconstitution. Sure looks expensive to have printed out the school’s logo in color: a sound decision, I’m sure.

I should make it clear that money is great: the million plus dollars that the School Improvement Grant can bring to the school can make a real difference in the outcomes of the students at Manual Arts. But you know what else can make a difference? Positively driven, motivated teachers that know and have been involved in a school community. I should note, too, that even when working on school wide reforms in the past and reconstitution was invoked, I could not find significant research that it leads to positive academic outcomes.

So: sadness and relief. The work conditions at Manual have become untenable in a way that has made such an archaic word to me feel positively spritely. I’m genuinely saddened that the school I’ve invested so much time and energy in and that has rewarded me again and again with happiness and the best of my teaching experiences has been denigrated by inconstancy and poor management. I’m saddened that I left the school under these conditions. And, as awful as it may be for the students there, I am relieved not to be there next year. Even if they would have hired me back.

Reflections on my Conversation with Roger

Several months ago, my former student, Roger and I, sat down and had a rich, two-hour conversation that was recorded as part of an initiative at StoryCorps to capture stories about teachers. For me, this was an opportunity to connect with a student that taught me significant lessons about life, teaching, and the challenges of being a young man in South Central Los Angeles. Though I’d been out of touch with Roger for nearly five years, he was a student who allowed me to grow as an educator for reasons that can never be accurately captured in a two minute edited piece on NPR. Nevertheless, I feel privileged for the opportunity to share the unique insight and intelligence that Roger embodies. I am honored to be able to reconnect with Roger.

One of the best media products a student created in my class my second year of teaching was a podcast Roger created in which he narrated the world around him using found sound, interviews, and reflection, and music. Roger’s story challenged me to look at him differently and is a recording I still continue to listen to with inspiration. Asking Roger detailed questions about this recording during our StoryCorps conversation allowed me to continue my own journey as a teacher. The piece speaks to the powerful work Roger conducted as a scholar. I hope to share it on this site one day with Roger’s permission.

If you ever find yourself in the Library of Congress, I encourage you to look up the full interview and  spend two hours hearing him talk at length about the rich education Roger was getting while not in my classroom. Thank you Roger for allowing me to grow in my early years as an educator and for being willing to reflect publicly on the radio this morning.

From the Archives – Teacher as Griot

Continuing to mine the mysterious folder of research ideas from my first year as a teacher, I’m sharing below my initial thoughts of teachers as griots. Perhaps more than any other kernel of thinking in this old folder, this one reflects most the direction my research is still oriented. Storytelling and narrative are still the areas I’m focused and I remember distinctly discussing the potential of Youth Participatory Action Research as a digital tool for educational griots at the first Digital Media and Learning Conference several years ago.

My writing from seven years ago:

Teacher as Griot: Thoughts on an almost conversation (with Mark in the paperback fiction aisle of Book Soup)

Griots, for those of us whose middle school content area standards don’t require them being addressed, are West African storytellers. They are nomadic bards that travel from community to community keeping alive the threads of culture. Theirs is an oral storytelling tradition. The griot harvests and preserves the ideas and stories of a given culture and it is entrusted to them to pass along these stories.

And though writers and musicians alike have claimed the title “griot” in various instances, perhaps it is a label and a role most readily, most easily taken up by today’s modern educator.

Within my classroom, I strive to convey the notions of efficacy and justice that so compelled me to become a teacher in the first place. As the modern day griot, the story that we teach is a parable of social change and group achievement.

Briefly: I’ll be posting later this week with info on my NCTE and NWP conference schedules. Please send me a note if you’d like to meet up and you plan on being in Chicago later this week.

Somewhat Alarming

In addition to a wonky bell schedule, the fire alarm system at our school has been pretty erratic. It’s gotten to the point that when the alarm goes off at school no one even flinches. Sometimes it is only the emergency flickering lights, sometimes it is an occasional ring. And sometimes–like yesterday at lunch–it is a relentless buzzing that drives everyone nuts but is still just school as usual.

Alarming from Antero Garcia on Vimeo.

From the Archives – Racializing Students by Track

Recently organizing files on my computer, I found a folder I created that culled several documents I wrote during my first and second year teaching. It’s interesting looking back on these files now. Long before the Ph.D. track entered my mind and long before I had any kind of proficient grasp on my role as a teacher I was interested in the space at Manual as one for exploration, inquiry, and possibilities. The four documents above are all rough and unhinged from each other. I’ll probably share all of them over the course of the next month or so. The first is below and is a short narrative about covering a class on “A-Track.” Now a relic from when our school was on a year-round schedule, A-track was the track stereotypically known to be a bigger discipline problem than B or C track. It was also the track with the most special education students and the largest proportion of black students: when teachers spoke of A-track it was–usually but not always–a way to speak of students racially without having to utter any words about race.

With that being said, I take you back to 2006:

A-Track Coverage Reflection 6/9/06

I had the opportunity today – was asked by administration – to cover a fourth period class. It wasn’t until I showed up that I was told it was an A track special education science class. I was told immediately by the teacher that the class was one of her worst and that I should be prepared. It was clear that this teacher felt bad that I was being given this class for two hours. As she gathered her things to leave a students walked in  and was immediate asked if he had his materials. The students looked as equally stupefied as I did and was sent to the Deans office – apparently he was one of the class’ worst students and the idea of leaving him with me was unfathomable. The TA in the class seemed equally convinced that this student needed to go. The class was fairly quiet as I was briefly conversing with their teacher, though any comment provoked a “there you go” or “what is your problem” from the TA. This was preemptive discipline, if such a term is currently in effect.

Once the teacher left, I handed out the science reading materials and worksheets and we went over them as a class. Fortunately, my limited knowledge in science was able to allow me to engage with the students in a discussion about force, gravity, and inertia without embarrassing myself. The students were fairly quiet and the TA noted that they were being better for me than they were for the regular teacher – though the TA mainly looked up personal facts on the internet about her recently diagnosed medical condition and browsed JET Magazine.

It wasn’t until nearly an hour into the class that things began to break down – the students were done with their worksheet and nothing else was left… I talked with some students one-on-one – read one student’s rhyme-book and talked about Pac and Biggie. Another student wanted to trade me for my red union t-shirt.  One student asked if I had sewn my own Converse shoes. However, the class was getting boisterous and the TA was getting frazzled from all of her yelling.

I taught the students the game Mafia and they were energetic, excited and collected. The behavior problems ended and by the time the bell rang the TA said “thank you” to me, explaining that this was a great class.

My concerns here are the overt, the obvious feeling of racism in place in this class. There were three girls in the class. The rest of the class was males and was predominantly African American. These students, to my obviously limited time with them, didn’t display characteristics that I felt were out of the ordinary from other students. They seemed frustrated and pent up –I thought like caged animals would be. They read through the script that the TA anticipated to them, say something, speak out loud, get reprimanded, repeat. It was a worn out script and one that they seemed forced to recite. This is a prime example of the “a-track” racist rhetoric I’ve seen throughout the year. Teachers and administration speak of “those” students and the problems had when A track is in session. To me, these are not teachers equipped with the skills to teach “Other People’s Children” and are simply perpetuating a history of racism and ostracism of our posterity.

Why One English Class Isn’t Allowed to Have A Library: Storage Space Woes at Manual Arts

Visiting one of the English teachers the other day, I was surprised to find how much storage space her classroom contains. However, as I asked her about it, I was unfortunately informed that nearly every cabinet, drawer and shelf in the room was occupied by the adult school.

It’s pretty easy to tell if a cabinet is owned by the adult school – it has a nice prominent label.

Let me explain: Manual Arts has an adult school that operates in the evenings. For two hours. Most classrooms at the school are occupied in the evening and it’s typical for a room to have a file cabinet or shelving unit in a corner of the room for the night school teacher to use. Most of the time, things aren’t a problem – the night teachers come and go, a large number of adults take courses, no biggie. Sometimes trash is found in the rooms in the morning and sometimes desks are moved*. That’s about it.

Really adult school? Six file cabinets for one classroom?

However, here’s a situation where the adult school has pretty much monopolized a classroom’s space – this teacher literally cannot have a class library because all of the walls are taken with adult school’s supplies. Let’s see: that’s five classes of high school students whose needs aren’t being met while one class of adult students is. I don’t mean to frame the adult school in opposition to the high school. The problem is a beauracratic one: although the adult school and high school main offices are literally across from one another, they have little communication between them. It’s very hard to get anything communicated or changed at the adult school. Last year I had an infuriating time where I spent 30 minutes every morning moving my desks in the appropriate orientation only to have them turned back into rows by adult school. I tried communicating with the teacher and ended up getting a trashed room and passive aggressive notes on my white board. When I took the issue to my administrator he told me that after 4 p.m. the school is turned over to adult school and there is nothing that can be done. Thanks.

If you’re wondering what the paper in the left-hand corner says, it kindly informs you that these cabinets are property of the adult school.

Oh hey, what do you know? Another file cabinet and two closets for the adult school!

Oh good, four more file cabinets and a cabinet for the adult school.

Just so we’re clear: these three walls are all covered with adult school storage. The fourth wall is the white board.

A Quick Note about Information

It would be nice if it were actually provided to teachers. I’m confident that I’m speaking for many when I say I’m tired of reading about our latest school changes in the news before actually being informed as an employee. Don’t worry, though. There will be a faculty meeting after school tomorrow to inform the Manual Arts teachers about future changes.

Colored People’s Time and the Disappointing Inconsistency of Time Management at Manual Arts

I want to talk a bit about time at Manual Arts. Our school’s use of time denigrates students in ways that can be read as classist, racist, and apathetic towards the needs of urban youth. I would argue that they define “colored people’s time” in a way that’s as equally racist as the original definition. Let me explain.

Turns out our school’s schedule will change next week – it’ll effectively be the third schedule students have had since the school year started last month.

Why is our schedule changing next week? Oh, because our school is unable to count properly. And even though we had the entire summer to calibrate the schedule for students, it was only now that the school realized it was short of instructional minutes:

Due to a mishap last Spring with the district bell schedule design software; our current schedule is 18 minutes too short for our regular length days. 2 minutes will be added to each passing period and 1 minute will be added to each class period.

I particularly appreciate that our new schedule–to emphasize instructional minutes–adds six total minutes for students in class.

This week there was a vote from our faculty regarding minor tweaks to the new allocation of school minutes. Here are the details:

Please find the NEW Bell Schedule attached. Please Note that since staff voted to eliminate Advisory on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday; there are 6 minutes added on to Period 4 on Monday & Wednesday and 2 minutes added on to Period 4 on Tuesdays to allow for school announcements. On Wednesday and Thursday announcements will continue to be at the end of Advisory after lunch. Please remember this new bell schedule will not start until a week from Monday on October 17, 2011.

In case you’re wondering, “Advisory” is the space for students to gain mentoring support from teachers, to share their learning experiences, gain study skills, and prepare for post-secondary plans. At least in theory. Our school has absolutely floundered with any kind of clear articulation of how to use the advisory time. And now, by cutting advisory to a two-times a week situation, is essentially killing advisory all together*.

Finally, in regards to time: our school has a problem actually ringing bells at the right time. It shouldn’t be difficult, right? I mean, you ring the bell when it’s time for the class to end. End of story, right? Except that­–since day one–our bells are hugely erratic. They will ring anywhere from 1 to 7 minutes from their actual time.

This may seem minor, but teachers plan for the consistency and depend on bells ringing correctly in order end class in an orderly fashion.

If you’ve got a few minutes to kill, I videotaped my watch this week while waiting for the bell to ring. The class is supposed to end at 12:00. You can see my clock tick three additional minutes before it actually rings. You can hear the principal announce lunch changes, presumably because he thinks the bell is about to ring. In turn, you can hear Peter concluding his class because he thinks the bell is going to ring. And then: there’s a whole lot of time for students to be restless. [That really is the extent of what happens in the video, but feel free to experience it if you really want.]

Watching the Clock from Antero Garcia on Vimeo.

The above examples of disregard to consistent learning time have significant impact on how students perceive their schooling as valuable and important. For the urban youth at Manual Arts, these inconsistencies tell students that adults don’t care enough about running a school properly. They reinforce messages of shoddy schools perpetuated in the media and stereotypes about urban communities. This is the way our schools define a new and even more racist understanding of CPT.

*In an slightly related note, an upcoming PSAT for all 10th and 11th graders is extending advisory for a day to 180 minutes. That’s three hours. In a class that our school is at least symbolically saying is worthless. How many 9th and 12th grade teachers are going to be showing movies during advisory for three hours: probably most of them. [10/17/11 This footnote was edited per clarification from Ben in the comments below.]

Dollars and Cents: How LAUSD and UTLA Failed to Pay a Teacher Today

I know the national debate can be interpreted as if teachers are overpaid or underpaid. However, how about just getting paid at all?

You remember, Peter, right?

In case you were wondering, he’s still a substitute teacher for himself.

Today is payday for LAUSD. However, Peter didn’t receive a paycheck. Somewhere along the line someone didn’t file or process something and it means he’s waiting another week for the error to be fixed.

Talking with Peter this evening, it’s unbelievable how much this district forces someone that loves to teach (and is really, really good at it) to continually be punished. After spending the summer collecting unemployment because the district RIFd him due to seniority, he’s now stuck trying to make ends meet until the district fixes its error.

To make matters worse, there are two kinds of sub pay for the district. Here’s an excerpt from what Peter wrote to help organize the other RIFd teachers at the school:

For the 2011-2012 LAUSD school year the day-to-day substitute rate is $173.04 a day, or $28.83942/hr. For our group this is our rate until we start to get paid the day-today substitute extended rate of $233.52 a day, or $38.92002/hr. That is a huge difference, and for many of us (after a summer on unemployment), a necessary rate. Here is a link to the pay rate information for substitutes:

Technically we are not currently being paid that rate.  Normally substitutes do not receive the extended coverage pay rate until their 21st consecutive day covering the same classes. However, the exception that applies to us is that the extended rate kicks in after 10 days of continuous coverage that started with the opening day of school and covered an unfilled position.

Turns out that the RIFd teachers at the school (the ones that actually got paid, that is) got paid as day-to-day substitutes. That’s a $10 difference per hour. For six hours per day. For 18 days.

108 hours x $10 … oh yeah, RIFd teachers, on top of being essentially second-class citizens in the LAUSD world just got shorted more than a thousand dollars.

As our story has previously tried to explain, both the district and UTLA have been complicit in allowing the RIFd teachers to languish in employment limbo.

I am confident that Peter and the other amazing RIFd teachers I’ve been privileged to work with are seriously considering looking for employment possibilities outside of LAUSD. And can you blame them? After the significant challenges our school has faced? After the civil disrespect from the district? After the lack of fiscal, moral, or networked support from UTLA? Manual Arts is going to lose some of its best teachers during a hugely challenging year due to a mixture of incompetence, oversight, and fiscal irresponsibility.