CST Blues: Year Two

June 20, 2013

This is a nitty-gritty teaching post, fair warning for those who aren’t in the classroom.  My one sentence summary: Don’t make excuses for teachers who don’t get results, but do realize how freaking hard their job is.


I made myself and my students a promise when I started teaching in the public sector.

I promised to not make excuses for my failures.

I’ve been a teacher for long enough to know that teachers are full of excuses. There is always someone (or something) else on which I can blame the failures in my classroom.

But, I promised to not double-speak my failings. I made this promise because I believe that my students deserve the best possible education. They deserve teachers who can teach them to read and to write. They deserve respect and high standards. They don’t deserve to be sacrificed at the altar of teachers’ egos.

This is not to say that poverty, lack of parent education, insufficient prior education, poorly designed tests and curriculum don’t affect my students. I know that they do. It is ridiculous (and prideful) to think that one teacher can alter a lifetime of less than excellent educational and social experiences. This is why we need to hold teacher evaluations based on test scores with a wary hand. Anyone who is looking to “solve” education without a holistic understanding of larger socio-economic issues is just simply crazy.

But, at the end of the day, I believe in teacher accountability. Teachers should be held responsible for the quality of instruction in the classroom, for the gains or losses that students make while in their care. How? I have absolutely no idea, but it does need to happen.  It is a matter of justice.

So what does this have to do with me, this year? Well, I just received the raw CST data for my sophomores … and it’s not so hot. That’s an understatement. It’s awful. And, even as I write this, and as I look over my scores, my mind is coming up with a thousand and one excuses while this doesn’t mean I am a bad teacher–ways to spin the data (i.e. compare to other schools or LAUSD), explanations for certain students, fingers to point at other factors, poor administrative direction, etc..

But, I’m going to refuse to make excuses, as painful as it is to my ego, to my sense of vocation, and to my hopes for teaching in the future.

To be concrete, last year, 50% of my freshmen tested at proficient or advanced (roughly >70-80% of the questions correct). 32% of them tested at basic (roughly >55%-60%) and 19% of them tested below or far below basic.

This year, as sophomores (being tested on the same standards but with a harder test), 46% of them tested at proficient or advanced, 45% of them at basic and 10% at below or far below basic.

The biggest take away is that my proficiency levels went down. Around ten of my students who tested proficient last year, did not this year. Many of my students raw scores went down as well.  This is awful, and makes me almost sick to my stomach. The thought that students lost knowledge or stayed static while in my care as opposed to increasing their knowledge makes me cry.  It is inexcusable.

Now, I know as well as the next teacher this test doesn’t measure increased student motivation, writing, the books we’ve read this year, or non-multiple choice reading comprehension. But, having spent several years with the CSTs, I do know that they are effective at measuring some things. And this data means that for roughly half of my students, I wasn’t able to improve their basic reading comprehension or grammatical understanding. And, there are no excuses for this.

The data does tell me that for the other half of my students (mostly my lower performing ones), I was able to bring their reading comprehension/grammatical understandings from the below 40-50% to 60-70%. This I am happy about. These are students who couldn’t really comprehend at the paragraph level, and now can show basic comprehension at the several page level.

But–No excuses.  In many ways, I failed this year.  I didn’t fail in all the ways, and I succeeded in some ways.  But, I do know that I let down some of my students (whether or not they are aware of this).  And so, because I care so desperately about my students and this work, I am angry at myself. It is a terrible feeling to have worked as hard as I possibly could, to have put in way too many hours, to have creatively exhausted myself trying to get as many books as possible into my students’ hands … and to not have seen the results that I hoped for.

What does one do?  I’ll think about what was effective this year, and what was a waste of time.  I’ll try to examine specific students and figure out why I didn’t see growth. I’ll look over specific lessons and try to analyze why students didn’t retain information.  I’ll think about what I would have done differently had I planned to teach my students next year.  I’ll try to be humble and talk to other teachers.  I’ll cry a little.

And, I will remind myself that I am in this for the long-run, and it is the height of pride to think that I would have mastered the art of teaching underperforming students in two years.

I won’t beat myself up (as I’ve told my students over and over again). But, I won’t make excuses.  I did my best this year, and it wasn’t enough. But, the stakes are too high for me to give up.  My students deserve better.

So, next year I’ll strive to be better than I was this year.  And for right now, that’s all I can do.

Ms. C-H


What you have taught me

June 11, 2013

Graduation Speech / Class of 2013

Here’s a secret I’ve learned from years of teaching: Many high school students are boring.

But this is the last thing that is true of you. Our conversations this year have given me just a hint of all that you do. You make music. You support your families. You paint and draw. You play sports.  You help your classmates where they are weak. You explore your city. You party.  You volunteer because you love it–not for the hours.

You are a class of students who does things and goes places.  You know Highland Park, Downtown and Hollywood–your cities–better than most of your teachers.

Going to college won’t magically make an unmotivated student motivated… but for those of you who already live a life of activity and service, college is going to give you the skills to do that better.

And because of that, I’m not worried about you. Don’t get me wrong, college is going to be hard, and it’s going to be harder for some of you than for others. But the key to success (and you know a little part of me dies when I say this) is not reading books and writing papers. The key to success is being able to love people, to serve people, to work with people and to live well in your city, your home.

And this, class of 2013, this is what you have taught me this year. You have taught me, by your example, how to unconditionally love and accept each other, how to give people second chances, how to never give up on your friends. You have taught me to take risks, to do the thing that seems impossible. You’ve taught me that when in doubt, sometimes you just need a dance party.

You’ve taught me that if you keep working at it, the thing you don’t understand will eventually become simple.

You’ve taught me that all things, including APEX math and a very long year, will at last come to an end.

Thank you for letting me join you this year.

My charge to you, the class of 2013, is this: Keep exploring, keep taking risks, keep working hard and keep loving each other … and you’re going to be just fine.

The View from Here

October 26, 2012

N.B. This is a difficult, mature film to watch.  I highly suggest that parents of minors preview the film prior to broader viewings.

One of my students asked me a couple weeks ago about the text we’d been reading in class–a memoir of a child soldier in Sierra Leone (A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah).  After we’d discussed a couple pages, she sighed and looked over at me.  “Ms…why are you having us read such a sad book?”  I replied, saying, “The world is a sad place.”  I expected the fifteen-year old to challenge me, but instead she agreed.  “Yeah Ms.–It’s a true story–but I just really wish it wasn’t.”

A couple days later, after watching the 1993 documentary Silverlake Life: The View from Here, I had to remind myself of this conversation.  The world is a sad place, and it’s important that we listen to its stories.  Even when they’re uncomfortable, we must.  Why?  You ask again.  Because they’re true.

My sister and I are both currently living alone, several states away from each other; we decided to embark on a film watching project together this fall, trying to keep ourselves accountable to watch and discuss good films, despite our busy schedules.  After reading several recent articles, we settled on documentaries addressing the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s.  Besides personal interest (our uncle died of AIDS in 1993), we were interested in the way that this epidemic has affected both our parent’s generation and our own generation.  How has it changed the way we view the homosexual community?  How has it changed the way we view medicine, the body, epidemics, etc.?  What can we learn about the way humans die and deal with death?  These are not light topics, by any means, and each documentary we’ve watched and article we’ve read has been a struggle.  Death is hard, and dying of AIDS is particularly hard.  Watching a nation largely fail to love and care for the dying is hard to come to terms with.  But, each conversation we’ve shared about each film has underscored how important it is to hear and interact with these stories.


Silverlake Life: The View from Here is a self-documentary told by an independent filmmaker and professor, Tom Joslin.When he and his partner, Mark Massi, are diagnosed with AIDS, he decides to begin a daily film diary, to chronicle his last months.  The documentary is obviously a pre-digital documentary project.  It doesn’t have the cleanness of our iPhone drenched, YouTube saturated “self-made video” world.  But, it is always obvious that Joslin knows how to set up a shot.  His footage is all-encompassing.  We see him sitting in the car, too exhausted to walk into the grocery store.  We see several of his doctor’s appointments, tense family moments, arguments with friends, happy outings, and even a counseling appointment.  We see conversations, and we see middle of the night strugglings with insomnia.  The desire for the viewer to see his entire life, as it slowly (and rapidly at times) comes to an end is overwhelming.  It is rare to be invited, with such abandonment, into the intimate process of dying.

As death quickly approaches, Massi takes over the filmmaking, and we watch Joslin’s body waste away.  Even weeks later, it is difficult for me to relate these portions of the film.  There is something uniquely awful about the toll that AIDS takes on the human body.  It forces death in one’s face.  It is uncomfortable, in the way that death should be.  Death, the lasting effect of sin on our world, is not comfortable.

Peter Friedman, who finished the documentary after Joslin and Massi died, wrote that the project was a “… perfectly natural thing for Tom to do because as an artist, his way of dealing with just about anything was to make a film about it” (www.truelives.org).  Besides the ever present questions of how humans deal with death, this film raises questions about the place of art in allowing us to face and comprehend death.  In a startling scene after Joslin’s death, Massi reads a trite book written to “grieving loved ones.”  The pat advice and terrible poetry is set in stark contrast to the film that the viewer has just experienced.  In Silverlake Life, we see instead that emotions are rough, uncut and complicated; death is ugly, and the world does not always make sense.

I hesitate to write more.  This is a film that, more than most, cannot be boiled down to scenes and shots.  It’s a rare glimpse of the most painful part of human existence.  It is a story about the love and commitment required to be present for someone’s last months, days and hours, as you continue battle for your own life.

It raises many questions, some that I’ve already discussed.  But, culturally, it raises, perhaps more uncomfortable questions about society’s past treatment of those with AIDS, how families deal with death, and perhaps, our discomfort with beauty and self-sacrifice obviously displayed  in a homosexual relationship.  In whatever ways this film is uncomfortable for you, as the viewer (and yes, it will be), I strongly urge you to engage with that discomfort.  Why is this hard? is the beginning to many a self-examining conversation.

Massi notes, towards the end of the film, that experiencing Joslin’s last days and death together was transformative for his relationship with Joslin’s mother.  They were united by the common and personal experience of human suffering.  The differences and bitterness that had seemed so large were no longer important.  This kind of transformation is at the heart of each shot, interview, and whispered monologue. Suffering, if we let it, can redeem and transform.

Over dinner tonight, CH and I hear the familiar sound of a police helicopter.  An unfamiliar noise follows– a loudspeaker urging ——, ——, —— to contact their parents, for anyone knowing their whereabouts to contact the police.

Lahiri reminds me that we have less control over our lives than we would like to think.  I am sobered by the slow unraveling of lives.  Nothing dramatic, simply measured disappointment.

A student asks me, in quick succession, how did you know you wanted to be a teacher?  How did you know you wanted to marry your husband?

Over lunch, I try to explain our summer reading group to my fellow student teacher.  “We read books … and talk about them …”  “That’s it?”

“‘Civil blood makes civil hands unclean.’ Ms. H… that can’t just mean one thing, can it?”

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask.”


There are things I do not pretend to understand.