Monday, May 24, 2010

Eleanor Morrice's Interview with a Social Studies Teacher

My inspirational teacher smiled when asked if he minded being called an exemplary teacher. He said he was very sure that he is an exemplary teacher, knows it inside, even if his colleagues would not necessarily nominate him for the honor. He teaches seventh grade World History, Social Studies, in a middle school in one of the larger cities in this county. He says he is satisfied with the results he gets from his students, so his teaching techniques and skills are appropriate for the job. He uses what he feels is efficacious, and does not espouse any particular theory or pedagogy. Indeed, he could not articulate any specific styles or concepts, and denied having any structure other than what he has developed for himself in the 20 years he has been teaching.

The student population, 1,021 students in the seventh and eighth grades, is in a school built in the 1930s. The school has been added to and adapted to changing demographics in the area, which is considered a slightly more affluent one, near the downtown area. The majority of the students, however, are bussed in from the opposite side of town. The areas they come from are considered much lower on a socio-economic level, and are some of the most densely packed residential census tracts in the state. The community is predominantly a mix of Hispanic and Caucasian residents, but there are also Asian, Russian, Samoan, Filipino, Hmong, Afghanistani and several other eastern European cultural identities among the populace. There is a 67% rate on Free or Reduced price meals.

Mr. P got his emergency credential in 1990, as there was an immediate need for teachers in the South Central section of Los Angeles then. As he started his first year, he was not told of the true situation in the school. He had no true mentor, was never observed, and just started teaching without a period of student teaching or guided practice. Administrators did not tell him before he started that the classroom had been firebombed, and his classes were in the cafeteria the first semester. Then he had a rolling cart and ran from room to room, with kids, for the second semester. Declining enrollments meant a switch to a district near Watts his second year, where he experienced the 1992 LA riots. "Students behaved so badly that if you had 100% class discipline, you could teach anything, there was leeway for creativity." Now things are much more standardized, and more difficult.

Mr. P graduated from Temple University in 1987 with a B.A. in Journalism, and started teaching in Los Angeles three years later. He went to night school as he taught, at Cal State LA, getting his credential in 1993. His classes were in Literature, and not in Education, Theory or Pedagogy. His students were for the most part physically bigger than he was, and he quickly learned that disciplinary problems from students were "like a Hydra's head. Cut one off at the neck, and another swings into place." But he found a way to communicate his meaning, with a look, or a glance, or a bit of theatrics, and established classroom management. He does not believe in referrals to the office, choosing to deal with student discipline in the classroom as much as possible. And now he has his own children. He often thinks about how he wants to give the students in his classroom everything that he expects his children to receive in their school from their teachers. He keeps his family photos, by design, on his desktop, where he can view them at all times.

His philosophy of teaching "can be summed up in two words: kindness and strength." He feels that he is the kindest person in the room, and the strongest in spirit. His metaphor was of a piece of steel, which is smooth to the touch, but one can not break or bend it. This he compares to its opposite, a piece of sandpaper. Sandpaper is rough in texture, and it rips under pressure. At first, his classes may perceive his kindness as weakness, but he has a code posted on his wall. Its five points are, in order, Be Truthful, Be Kind, Be Respectful, Be Responsible, and Do Your Best. The ranking is a priority for him, and in this order for a reason. He refers students to the code chart, and has them read or reread it, as appropriate. He calls this method "positive reinforcement." He is preparing them for a job, or more important, for lives as an adult.

Now he teaches all seventh graders, but has taught sixth through ninth at different times in his 20-year career. There are big differences with each age group. It is not easy, and sometimes he feels broken-down, or questions himself (is he having an impact at all, let alone a good one?). The job can deplete a teacher. But he has a regimen, and feels that you owe yourself to fill up with something good, on purpose, and with intent, everyday. It is like a gas tank. He drinks water constantly, brings a nutritious lunch that includes lots of goodies like apples, bananas, strawberries or granola bars. He reads a section of the Scriptures every morning, and drives his kids to their school. They pray out loud on the way, thanking God for all their blessings, and asking God for the important things they need each day. He visits public libraries at least three times a week, reads books, listens to music, and carves out time to spend with family and friends. He is strategic in refreshing himself with loved ones, faith, culture and art, his tools to avoid teacher burnout.

His teaching techniques can be categorized by a quote from Bruce Lee, "Use what works." There is no orthodoxy he follows. He is skeptical and wary, yet open to all modes of teaching. His methods are the result of trial and error, and he admits to "having fallen into the way he does things." It is just what works. When he first started teaching, he used to have his students line up outside the door. But no one size fits all, for all teachers have different strengths and weaknesses, just as students do, and this is important to acknowledge. He watches to see how different kids interact with teachers and other students, and senses the mood of the classroom. He thinks that discipline is what he wants from his students, in the concept of the stem of the word, 'disciple'. He wants kids to look at him, and without him saying any words, eventually be able to consciously or unconsciously think, I see what I should be. Without ever explicitly saying so, he wants to get them to want to be like him, or even, someday, be a better version. This can not be learned from textbooks.

In his view, public education is the foundation of society. In fact, the Teacher, the Policeman, the Reporter, keep civilization alive. Without all three we are doomed. But the current political situation drives him nuts, and he finds it hard to express his political view aloud. Nevertheless, he votes. He is amazed that the same people who spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on entertainment will complain when taxes are raised even one dollar. We need to raise taxes to pay for things we need. But on an immediate level, he is happy. His classroom is warm and sunny most days, with a bank of windows on the southeast side, two doors to an interior corridor, with a drinking fountain outside one and the faculty lounge (with a rest room) outside the other. His classroom walls are neat, but student work is prominently displayed, with many posters of animals, scenic panoramas, timelines and cultural aspects of various peoples and countries. All is inviting, with student desks paired in three rows, and his resource materials neatly organized.

He ended the interview with his philosophy of History. "It is no accident that the root of the word (History) is 'story'." This is lacking in many current Social Studies classes, the concept that kids need to hear stories. History is a long, rambling, interconnected story, all real. It is the greatest story ever. His voice tells the stories patiently, passionately, and respectfully.

His passion for teaching and for the discipline, coupled with his care for himself and others, will be a treasured asset to the faculty of this middle school, the lives of his students, and our community for many years to come.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Saul Ruiz's Interview with a Social Studies Teacher

Wilmore high school is one of three high schools in this small agricultural city Wilmore high school uses a block schedule. Students have three classes a day and an advisory. The classes are an hour and fifty minutes long. The school is centered on small learning communities known as academies. The school has over two thousand students. Wilmore High has a large Hispanic population. It is a reflection of the community where they are centered and because of this Hispanic teachers can have a large influence. That is why the teacher I interviewed has had such a positive effect on his students.

Mr. Ramirez has been teaching at Wilmore High for 32 years. He started when he was 24. He started out teaching English and Social Studies. In his early years, his peers did not look upon Mr. Ramirez favorably. He had a different way of teaching that didn't involve a stand and deliver approach. His tactics were ahead of their time. Mr. Ramirez is now a World History and U.S. History teacher in the video academy. The video academy allows Mr. Ramirez to integrate technology into many of his projects and has taken his projects based assessments to another level.

Walking into Mr. Ramirez's classroom is a quite a sight. The walls are covered with posters and images. Prominent Hispanics, such as Cesar Chavez, litter the walls. The rest of the room has students work. The variety of posters, timelines, and other poster projects shows the project-based curriculum that goes on in Room. 8. The desks are set in a U shape to facilitate discussion. The classroom has a bank of 8 computers and a projector.

Mr. Ramirez's philosophy of education is that it is the great equalizer. He believes, "it allows them to take control of their futures." Teaching in this city has really shaped Mr. Ramirez's perspective on education. Many of his students come from poor economic situations and he tries to help his students understand that education can open many doors. "It opens tremendous opportunities that they would not have under their current economic situations." Mr. Ramirez does see many issues in our education system today. He believes that modern day education does not have the best interests of the students at heart. He fears that the education system is more structured for the institutions rather than the kids. Most of all, Mr. Ramirez cares about his students, "I believe all kids can learn and I take the job seriously."

Mr. Ramirez is a firm believer in Gardner's Multiple Intelligence theory. He tries to structure his lessons around this theory and assessments are project centered, "in order to engage all my students." The book is used more as a reference than a bible. Mr. Ramirez believes in a student-centered classroom where he is more of a resource or "a coach," as he puts it. Mr. Ramirez is a firm believer in the introduction of technology in his classroom. Many of his students are challenged to extend their learning by using the Internet to explore subjects further.

When I asked Mr. Ramirez how he stays enthusiastic about teaching his response was, "the kids… the youth of the kids gives me energy to continue teaching the way I attempt to teach." Mr. Ramirez feels he has a responsibility to his students because "education is the last best chance many of our kids have." The belief that he is making a difference in the lives of these students is what drives him. Despite all the things modern day education can throw at him he manages to really focus on what is important, the kids. The final most rewarding thing for Mr. Ramirez is that he never knows which students he touches with his teaching until much later but he needs to believe he is making a difference and helping them to change their lives.

I think I have learned that the teaching profession can be a thankless job. As Mr. Ramirez has mentioned, you don't see the rewards of what you have done until much later. You have to believe that you are affecting these students and making a difference in their lives. Teaching is one profession where you can impact the lives of other people and help them to change their situations drastically. Recognition can be non-existent but you have to believe you are helping change their lives. If you don't, then you should leave the profession.

I have also learned that you should never compromise your beliefs on education just because you are feeling pressure from your colleagues. Mr. Ramirez cares for his students and because of that he will not allow them to fail. The kids really respond to that and it shows in the work they do for him. The children trust him and they have fun because of that trust. Trust is extremely important to your success as a teacher. If you show your students that you understand that their lives can be difficult, they respond.