Occupy Education

My passion for education and the access of education by those who have historically been disenfranchised and oppressed comes from the following personal anecdote:

At eighteen years of age and approximately a month-and-a-half before graduating from high school, I gave birth to my daughter who is now successfully attending American University in Washington D.C.  I wanted to breastfeed – eager to be an exceptional mom.  More than ever, I wanted to finish school.  At the time I lived in San Ysidro and commuted on the trolley and bus to Morse High School, the only aspect of my life that was constant. My grandmother, whom I had lived with all my life, understood deeply the importance of my education and the development of my motherhood. Having endured very difficult life experiences and fourteen years as a farm worker for agribusiness, she made it her life mission to provide a more dignified life for her family.  Everyday for a month-and-a-half, my grandmother made the 2-½ hour trek from San Ysidro to Morse High School, carrying my newborn daughter in her sixty-six year arms, to arrive at the beginning of lunch period, so I could give my daughter her second breastfeeding of the day.   Off to fifth and sixth period I’d go, while my grandmother waited, in a small office with my daughter, for the end of the school day.  After school all three of us would embark on our journey back home to begin our voyage the next day, like three Durgas (A Hindu Goddess and word that means invincible in Sanskrit).

I began my teaching career ten years ago at Hoover High School.  I first became passionate about teaching when my 12th grade English teacher inspired me to believe I could be somebody when I grew up – to have a vision for my future.  I wanted to use the universal experiences of the characters in literature to help students have a deeper sense of themselves and inspire them to overcome the stories in their own books.  Not too long after I began teaching, my inexperienced philosophies were assaulted by fallacies about student learning: lazy, apathetic, can’t learn, needs remediation, doesn’t follow instructions, doesn’t listen, doesn’t care; the same fallacies that had been used to describe me.

Growing up, school was my escape.   The few funny and creative teachers I had allowed me to dream and believe outside the realm of my existence.  I hung on to their every word and though I can’t remember the stories I read and projects I completed, somehow they inspired me.  I felt smart – I felt deserving.   Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought much about my life after high school, until the second semester of 12th grade, when I found myself pregnant and trying to explain to my French teacher why I wouldn’t be able to join the exchange program she had recommended me for.  That summer I enrolled at San Diego City College, and my journey toward education began.  Not knowing what a thesis statement was or how to structure a paragraph were just a few of the aspects that made me question whether college was the right option for me.  I was taking college classes because I had a vague notion of what I wanted to “do,” though I’d never had the opportunity to explore anything else.   I continued to go to school because it was familiar and gave me some form of constancy.

My teaching credential program was the first time I experienced a connection between what I was learning in the classroom and the career field I was preparing to enter.  College prepared me for the content and strategies I would ultimately use in the classroom.  My employment as a research assistant and administrative assistant prepared me for the intricate dynamics of a workplace.  Nothing prepared me for the limiting and oppressive structure I, along with my students, would face in the classroom.  The literature I had hoped to use to deepen students perceptions of themselves and the world around them was deduced to scripted curriculum, rote memorization, vocabulary and grammar activities and test preparation.  I was abruptly introduced to a world where students received a sub par education because of their social, linguistic, racial, and economic differences.  Rather than inspiring our students, the structure eclipsed their lives and diminished them to remedial academic zombies.

AVID was the first experience I had in public education where every educator’s approach was centered on the students’ success not failure. A central belief of AVID is that students will succeed as long as they are in a compassionate environment with appropriate support systems and rigorous and relevant curriculum. Cuba was my second experience.  I was profoundly influenced by the conviction of a people who believe that properly educating the next generation of children is the only way of guaranteeing dignity and sustainability for their people.

In 2007 I participated in the Ahimsa Center Summer Institute at Cal-Poly Pomona.  I was first compelled to apply when I read the following description of the institute’s syllabus: Gandhi’s enduring significance is anchored in his commitment to ahimsa or nonviolence as the foundation for his vision of humanity and as a powerful force to question, reform and transform the unjust establishments of authority.  And question I did.  I took a more critical look at my role as an educator both inside and outside of the classroom and at my responsibility as an advocate for the students.   I looked introspectively and wondered how I had come to be so well adjusted to injustice.   Never before had my vision of love and social justice been clearer.  I embarked on a journey to funnel this vision into transforming the lives of the students I served.

Carmen at an Occupy Education Protest

It was also during this time that my daughter began attending High Tech High International (HTH).  Rigor and academic expectations took on a whole new meaning.  At first I’d pry into her work to ensure she was receiving challenging and engaging assignments, but pretty soon I was using the ideas for my own classroom – and I saw it transform into a dynamic and exciting place of learning and exploring.  I attended as many exhibitions at HTH International as I could – hungry for knowledge and power to transform my students’ experience.  I also remember this being a very challenging time, often having to spend time justifying the work in my classroom to administrators.  I also spent a lot of time modifying projects because we did not have the needed classroom time, technology, and materials.  This drew me to learn more about the efforts and, most importantly, structure of HTH.  I researched the New Urban High School project, which lead me to the Big Picture Learning initiatives and Massachusetts Institute of Technology hand-mind model.  There was a world of innovation and possibilities I had just been introduced to.

On June 26, 2010 my daughter graduated from High Tech High International.  Transformative.  That is how I describe her education.  For most of my teaching experience I waged a revolution to implement a few of my creative ideas in my classroom.  I want to be part of a movement that revolutionizes education.  I believe in the mission and principles of High Tech High (HTH) and schools like it across the country.  From its building structure to its educational design, HTH exemplifies the essence of the spirit of learning.

These last few years have allowed me the opportunity to visit many schools in San Diego and across the country in search of more ideas and more questions.   I’ve had the opportunity to listen to students’ stories and dreams, and imagine what it might take to create an education structure where their stories and dreams drive the decisions.  Chimamanda Adichie writes about the danger of a single story that creates stereotypes – incomplete portrayals of a person’s living experience that robs people of their dignity.  Our students are robbed of their dignity everyday we allow their voiceless experience in an educational system that favors isolation over collaboration and suspicion over trust.

At the center of this whole process is my continued spiritual growth, yielding a constant awakening of my heart.  The philosophies by which I operate as an educator are rooted in love, empathy, dignity, and the need to learn from those whom I serve.  Laughter, play, and curiosity open the mind and are prerequisites to creativity and innovation.  The space for self-definition and self-expression must be an integral part of the learning process that occurs for adults and children.  A student once suggested, “How can you expect to change the world, if you don’t know who you are?”  Our students will be the first generation to be critically challenged with the complex difficulties of an ever-evolving industrialized world.  The classroom must expand beyond the physical walls of the school and engage students in real-life, real-heart authentic projects so they will develop the necessary skills and talents to become catalysts for change fueled by a vision for love, democracy, and sustainability.


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