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Giving thanks 2012

I’m thankful for a lot of things, but mostly, I’m thankful for the education I received in America. Point blank.

I went to a decent public school in a middle class area. I dreamed to attend journalism school at USC as a young elementary child and did it, but I didn’t do it alone. I did it with the help of my parents and every educator who helped me develop my writing. I had parents who were involved in my education and spent countless nights with me in high school grueling through math problems or English essays. Enough said.

Education is so important to success and not repeating the cycle of poverty seen in my service communities. Without similar parental support that I received during my school years, the kids in my service communities may not  understand this and are sometimes robbed of a decent education before they can really take responsibility for their own education. Yet, even when they get older, like some of my 6th graders from last year, they still might not get the hint until it’s too late.

What about that little grade 7 learner who stole my heart when he dressed up as a news reporter and performed a skit as a journalist in front of the whole school the other day? Will he ever make that dream come true and get to report for the camera like I did?

His odds are sure far lower than mine were, especially considering his English fluency. However, there’s still hope for kids that attend struggling schools — and that’s one reason why I serve — so that students can understand how important education is, take ownership of their education and receive the education they need to achieve those childhood dreams like I could.

One day, like myself, I hope the students I work with and those who work with my City Year and PCV buddies will look back during the holidays on their childhood and be thankful for the education that helped them get back on track.  Education is everything. Don’t forget to be thankful for yours this holiday season.

Month three: South African school structure; similarities and differences in America

“YES!!!” The learners screamed and jumped out of their seats.

YES!!! They got an answer right!

I sat in the back of the grade 5 English class during one of my “observation” periods perplexed, cracking a smile, but also trying not to laugh because the thought of my students from last year acting like this is just too funny to cross my mind. They would never be caught dead screaming “YES!” in unison during grading; indeed, they are too kewl for skewl.

South African youth, however, aren’t sitting in class during grading period texting and Facebooking each other, “bord in 4 period!!!! lmao >:((((( lyke or commnt” (American middle school internet slang gets me every time). Instead, school is cool and South African learners care a lot about their schoolwork because it’s such a big part of their lives. Family, church, school, chores, cleaning and playing games with other village kids is a typical learner’s childhood.

After the lesson, I told the English teacher that would have never happened in the grade 6 class I worked in last year. She laughed and said, “Ah, yes the learners like to learn!”

At that moment, it really became apparent to me: oh boy, I’m definitely not in America anymore.

So far, I have observed some drastic cultural and administrative differences between South African schools and American schools. To name a few:

  • Students stay in their classrooms, but teachers move class to class.
    Many classrooms aren’t decorated, but may have a few educational posters up because each classroom doesn’t belong to a teacher like they do in the states.
  • Learners from grade 4 and up take NINE subjects.
    These subjects include: arts and culture, life orientation, maths, economics management science, English, home language, natural science, technology and social sciences. I guess instead of one grade 4 teaching all the subjects in a day’s worth of class, the learners get the subjects from different teachers. But seriously, would you have been capable of all these subjects at grade 4 after being taught in isiZulu and now your first year being taught in English? Didn’t think so. However, with next year’s new curriculum, the ministry merged arts and culture and life orientation and natural sciences and technology. The ministry also ditched economic management science and now learners don’t take it until the senior phase (grade 8 and up). Amen my brothas, is teaching a kid about how businesses run at age 10 really practical? Nah, also didn’t think so.
  • Teachers teach based on a “timetable” that breaks up the hours the Ministry of Education requires.
    Subject classes aren’t taught every day and are longer or shorter on certain days. Therefore, learners don’t have a set schedule like we do in America (about an hour for every class period and usually students have the same schedule every day). Some days they might have one hour of English and on other days they might have two hours. As of next year, the ministry requires per week six hours for home language, five hours for English, six hours for mathematics, three and a half hours for natural science and technology, three hours for social sciences and four hours for life skills.
  • Teachers teach multiple subjects.
    In America, teachers usually teach only one or two similar subjects — English and history, math and science, whatever. South African teachers teach whatever they are assigned to and it changes each year. That means if they needed a maths teacher and I had time in my schedule, they’d throw me in that class. I can barely do sixth grade math myself, but in an extreme case, I would possibly have to teach it (trust me, though, I’ve strictly said I will only teach English).
  • Learners clean on Fridays instead of attend class.
    This has been one of the hardest things for me to watch/deal with. Learners come to school on Fridays, sing at morning assembly, then sit in class and wait until 10:30ish when they eat the school food. After they finish eating, they clean all day — polish the floors inside and outside the classrooms, clean the staff rooms, sweep, do the dishes, wipe the windows and burn the trash. The reasons for this are two-fold: the school doesn’t have enough money to hire a custodian and it “teaches the students responsibility.” When I tried to clean up my mess in the library the other day, a teacher refused to let me do so because it’s the learner’s job. I’d argue that these learners go to school four days out of the week. I know I won’t be able to change this because it’s cultural — South Africans need everything to be clean regardless of the unstoppable and ever-going accumulation of dirt in buildings — but I do hope that I can at least make Fridays a literacy day for some learners. For example, some grades clean while others do literacy sessions with me in the library (I would do phonetics with lower grades, reading and listening with other grades, etc.) We’ll see if it works — I probably won’t propose this until I feel it’s the right time. In a way, this cleaning business is kind of ironic for me — from my experience, I’ve seen American students trash and tag their schools; now cleanliness is a top priority.
  • Teachers go to class on their own time.
    Heard of African time yet? Well, it ain’t no myth — it really exists. African time is far, far, far different from American time and I’m slowly — but surely — getting used to it. I value timeliness back in America and I have mini-panic attacks when I’m running late for something (I know my roommates painfully miss morning car rides with Liz, right guys?) My time clock says 30 minutes before the scheduled time is early,15 minutes before the scheduled time is on-time and right at the scheduled time is late. In Africa, I’ve learned that schedules aren’t of much importance. When teachers are done with what they have to do — like socializing, debating over a morning announcement from the principal or marking papers — then they’ll go to class. Classes are supposed to start at 8 a.m., but usually start around 8:30 a.m. or later. I’m going to be moving at the pace of a tortoise when I come back to the states, no joke.
  • A substitute system does not exist.
    Self-explanatory. If a teacher isn’t there for the day, the learners sit in the class and do nothing. Hey — at least they don’t throw chairs, hit each other or trash the classroom like my old sub days! Not too shabby kiddos.
  • Every morning, learners gather in the front of the school for “Morning Assembly” where they sing in isiZulu and pray.
    All the learners have different dances and songs they sing according to the day. It’s pretty cute to watch. Sometimes they pray in English and the younger one’s faces are so serious because they are concentrating on saying the prayer right. My school is public, but all the learners are of a Christian background (they attend the Anglican church), so they know all the same prayers. Separation between church and state is unheard of. I find myself closing my eyes, pretending to pray and mumbling “amen” a lot during morning meetings. Awkward.
  • Learners are respectful and listen to teachers.
    Learners say good morning and good afternoon educator to me every time they walk by. They stand in unison when you walk into a room and say, “Good afternoon educator, how are you? We are fine.”Whenever I see a bunch of learners gathered in a group or boys playfully fighting, my blood rises and my eyes are glued to the group as I think a fight could break out. That’ll never happen, though, I just assume that a grouping of students means a fight is about to start. Miss Little Liz won’t ever have to break up a fight again (ha, or attempt — middle schoolers are strong)! Soon enough, the Markham Middle School-effect will fade and I won’t be on edge at school.
  • Staff meetings are held during school and not after-school. Teachers leave directly after-school.
    Only four teachers at my school live in my village and the rest live at more suburban towns anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour away. Those who live farther get a salary incentive to teach in a rural village. Thus, teachers may be more qualified, but only put in the hours they need to because of distance and time constraints. Staff meetings are therefore hosted during school hours so all the teachers will attend. In America, staff meetings are usually once a week after a minimum day at school, which is one more thing I’m looking at to implement here.

Now, I bring you the basics:

In general, all South African children have a right to basic education, which is the same in America: children are guaranteed an education until the 12th grade. Twenty percent of the government’s budget is spent on education, but during the Apartheid period that funding was purposefully not given to all-black schools in the rural areas we serve at. As I’ve mentioned before, the purpose of doing so was to ensure that whites received a decent education and blacks received a poor education so they would later work for the white people.

South African operate top-down similar to the way individual American schools operate: principals —> deputy principals —> department heads —> teachers.

All students at the end of grade 12 take a comprehensive exam in English that measures performance, which is called “matric”. This statistic — the matric pass rate — is a significant marker of the schooling system. In the 1990s, South Africa had a 40 percent pass rate and most recently in 2011, the pass rate is 70 percent. Other than English being an official language in South Africa, this is another reason why learning English is so important for these learners because to graduate from school they must be able to pass this test.

Ninety-three percent of South African children are in public schools. There are “no fee” schools for those who cannot pay and then two other groups of schools where parents pay for activities, supplies, etc.

One in 100 South African students will receive tertiary education (translation: go to college). After high school (grade 12), they can attend either colleges that emphasize further training for specific skills or universities like we do in America.

Funding here comes from the government, but isn’t determined by standardized tests like it is in America and schools are allowed to fundraise. If parents are more involved in their children’s education and earn a salary, they tend to contribute to their children’s public schools. At my school, this isn’t the case, but I haven’t seen a lack of resources yet. There are enough exercise books, workbooks, paper and printer ink to teach. The office assistant told me that the school never runs out of basic supplies as such. I have a hard time believing this because paper and ink were such a scarcity last year at my American school, but maybe it’s true. If it is, I can’t believe I’ll be able to make as many photocopies as I need for my class!

Now, I bring you the social issues:

Aside from differences, I can travel from urban America to rural Africa and still find social issues that ring a bell. The schools Peace Corps South Africa serve in face similar challenges to those that Markham Middle School in Los Angeles and other American schools face. There are high illiteracy rates because students cannot get the help they need with homework at home. In rural villages, the mother is usually out working so a grandparent is the only person home, who cannot assist the children because many elders are illiterate. Likewise, the mother may speak some English, but not enough to help; the mamas and babas of my community had to learn Afrikaans in school because they went to school during Apartheid. At Markham, many students couldn’t complete homework at home either because their parents weren’t involved in their education or their families only spoke Spanish. Same situation, different language and country.

Most dropouts leave school during grade 10-12 — a little later than the American school system. Some girls dropout as early as grade 7 due to pregnancies. Most girls are pregnant by age 18 and may return to school if there is a Gogo at home to take care of their child. Girls my age — 23 — more than likely have at least one child.

HIV/AIDS also plays a big role in the South African school system. Learners may have to be the adult of the household because they have lost family members to HIV/AIDS. In America, students may have to assume responsibility in the household due to substance abuse in the family or their parent’s busy work schedules, but still also live in child-headed houses.There’s a good number of children at my school who are also orphans — like foster children in America — and are taken in and cared for by relatives or elders in the village.

Now, I bring you everyone’s favorite — the political issues:

Teacher’s unions also integrate themselves into the way schools operate — what a shocking surprise. Low-performing teachers from the Bantu education era aren’t fired because of union rules and not many want to take their spots in rural schools.The only way teachers are seriously fired is in extreme cases of corporal punishment, which is now illegal in South Africa, or sexual abuse. If a teacher doesn’t commit such a crime, one can call teaching a lifelong job. I can travel 10,000+ miles away from Los Angeles and teacher’s unions still play a huge role in the education system.

The image of a teacher in South African culture doesn’t help draw attention to these issues in the educational system that need attention, either. Historically, South African teachers were seen as poor that made the bare minimum. Therefore, the profession in the past has not been appealing to South Africans and those who made it out of the public school system work in the private sector, but now more and more people are teaching after attending university because of government incentives and higher salaries.

I find South Africans exclaiming their appreciation for us being here far too often. Most of all, I recall the time a deputy from the Ministry of Education came to our pre-service training to welcome us to the South African school system and tell us how excited and lucky they were to have us. Very nice gesture, but like anything and everything, my questioning kicked in.

There are definitely some talented and experienced people in my Volunteer group so I have no doubt that they’ll be amazing teachers and English is our native tongue, but the question that keeps running through my mind is do other countries really look up to American education and educators?

Do other countries understand that our public education system is struggling too? Just because we’re American doesn’t mean we have solutions to all issues or a decent public education system. The teachers at my school were shocked to hear that teenage pregnancy is an issue in America too. See, I told you, believe it or not — we are combating similar issues!

Regardless of the issue of public education plaguing many parts of the world, Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful WEAPON that you can use to can change the world.” Truth.

Now let’s spread that message like wildfire, my Peace Corps and City Year friends.

Here’s a glimpse into my school (10x smaller than an American school!)

Outside of my school

School yards and garden

School sport yard and volleyball court

Peace Corps world map project completed by former health Volunteer in my village

Love to my peoples back at home working in American schools!
Ngidinga ukulala (I need to sleep),


An end to my first year of service: a reflection to never forget

My worst nightmare has come true. Our last day at Markham Middle School was on Wednesday (actually, one of my students said his “worst nightmare would start on Thursday” because City Year would no longer be on campus).

I can barely write a blog post because so many emotions have been going through my mind this week — I’m anxious that I’m leaving the country in 33 days, depressed that I am leaving my students for good, excited for the future, but not ready to say bye to everyone I’ve met this year.

This year has truly been amazing. I have learned so much from my school, my students and my teammates. At the beginning of the year, I really didn’t have expectations. I didn’t know if this year would be bad, so-so, or great. It exceeded greatness. Why? Well maybe because I learned so much:

  • Markham Middle School and Watts showed me a reality so many others aren’t aware exists.
    I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to experience an urban and struggling school like Markham, as well as a community like Watts. I saw the issues facing our public education system upfront. To name a few, students violently fighting about anything and everything (gangs, gossip, family issues, community issues) before school, during school and after-school. Obviously that affects any learning environment for students — being surrounded by violence at school of outside of school. For example, just the other day when my class was coming back from a field trip on the metro, a rider was walking up and down the train yelling with a gun in his pocket, and then just five minutes later a group of men trying to fight each other at the metro station by Markham. The day after I watched my teammates break up a crazy fight between a boy and a girl before school that was related to outside family/gang retaliation. Scenes like that in the neighborhood and at school I know would make me frustrated and mad, so I’m sure students feel that way.

    I saw how the public education system has failed so many students: so many are behind grade level and unmotivated to keep trying because the work is too hard for them to complete. I witnessed prostitution and alcohol and drug abuse in the community — every morning driving or walking to school. The litter, graffiti and homeless camps throughout the streets with boarded up buildings are a familiar sight. I learned that my student’s parents sometimes work three jobs to support them and traveled as far as 50 miles one-way on public transportation to get to the jobs. I faced the hard reality that some students I knew were foster children due to substance abuse in the family.

    The neighborhood of Watts is also just a bunch of houses, housing projects and convenient stores, soooo, where are the jobs for the struggling families and the kids turning to gangs and violence? The area is forgotten because so many in Los Angeles don’t really realize the extent of the problems here and that it’s a reality for many people. Now that I’ve worked in this reality for ten months, I will never work a day in my life that isn’t dedicated to a cause that will help change this stark reality so many people face in poverty-stricken areas of major cities. Granted I’m not sure if I’ll come back to Los Angeles, but every city has its Watts and that’s exactly where I belong.

  • My students showed me that I have empathy and compassion I didn’t think I had.
    Due to various situations I’ve dealt with with my family, I thought I lost all sense of being empathetic. I usually just think, “Well, that’s your fault for the way you are and you can change if you want to” or I refuse to deal with someone I know won’t change. But that’s not the case in all situations. I found even the worst behaving students in my class to hold a special place in my heart because I saw them outside of their behavior problems and caught them in their squishy moments — i.e. one student always talking about how much he loved his baby brother. That one always got me: “You want to be a role model for your brother, right? Start behaving in class! He’s depending on you.” My students gave me the hope that people do change and will change; now I can believe.
  • It’s chance that my students were born into or moved into Watts and went to school there.
    They have dreams too, just like any other Los Angeles kid. However, it’s going to be much harder for them to succeed based on their reality. Life may never be fair for minority students and students of such communities, but at least we can work to bring some justice to these communities through work like City Year or just teaching in these schools.
  • My team was so incredibly diverse and I tried my hardest to not have first assumptions about people, but let’s be honest, everyone has first impressions of people.
    Everyone is amazing in their own way and every person on earth has an interesting life story. Give people a chance and they’ll surprise you. My team ended up being the most hilarious, intelligent, inspiring and caring group of people I’ve ever met all at once. I vow to not make any assumptions about everyone I will cross in South Africa, whether that be another Peace Corps Volunteer or someone from my village.
  • Time apart shows you who your real friends are.
    This year has been so crazy busy that I lost contact with many people. The best part about losing contact with people is when you see them again and it’s not awkward you know it’s a real friendship.
  • Keep calm and never doubt.
    There were countless times this year that I wanted to give up. I was working toward improving issues that are bigger than myself. I realized that the only way any work would get done at school is if I was calm about it and never doubted the situation. I still doubt a lot of things, but I added a couple of points higher on my positivity scale (special thanks to the teammates and roomies Marissa and Daniel for teaching me this).
  • Changing the world isn’t as easy as it sounds.
    Change doesn’t come overnight. Any work I did with my students may show in a couple of months or years or maybe even never. You come into City Year thinking you are going to change your student’s academic abilities so much, but you don’t understand how patient you have to be with this process. Maybe I didn’t change my student’s academic levels, but I know I made a difference because students looked up to me and the rest of City Year as friends, mentors and role models.
  • I now know what I stand for.
    I stand for the voiceless of the world. I am here to be a voice for the voiceless through my writing and volunteer work. Whether it’s a neighborhood like Watts or a rural South African village, I will be that voice that forgotten communities lack.

I’ll never forget this year and the students I got to work with; I’ll carry the memory of Markham Middle School with me wherever I go in life and it’ll definitely be a factor in choosing my final career path. Everything I learned will serve me well in South Africa and this year has prepared me more than ever for my Peace Corps adventure.

It still hasn’t really hit me that I won’t see my students next week. I think it’s going to take at least two weeks for it set in that this year is actually over.

One of our students wrote a letter to us and read it aloud after-school when all the corps members and students were saying goodbye (yes, many tears were shed):

Dear City Year,

I hope you guys visit us and I hope you guys find a good job. I will always remember you guys, you guys are like my big family. I hope you guys have fun in your new job and I hope you guys have fun in your life.

Thank you Markham Middle School for changing my life. Next year’s Markham team really has to uphold everything we created this year. My team built the foundation for next year’s team to succeed because City Year wasn’t at Markham last year and it seemed like the school was apprehensive about having us back, but now they can see it worth it and that we really made an impact. The students trust us and love us — next year’s team needs to carry over our love, passion, dedication and care. I have faith they will.

Sadly, we graduate City Year tomorrow, but it’s not goodbye, it’s a new beginning. Three more weeks in Los Angeles. Seriously? Gotta make the best of it.

Keeping the USC spirit alive. I wrote all of my students letters and gave them a Fight On pin so they hopefully remember to never give up on their dreams.

One of my students begged my teammate and I for our yellow bomber jacket. My teammate Chariya is giving him one of her yellow jackets. I hope he’ll look at the jacket and always remember what we taught him.

Got my kids to sign my boots because I’m bringing them to South Africa with me. “I’m gonna miss you bitch” oooohhh Markham; words like this mean the kids really do love you.

My team leader made pictures of all of us and put them on the wall in the City Year room for students to sign. Once again, to show love, one student wrote “you ugly” on everyone’s, but mine was even more special. “don’t know you, but you still ugly.” Oooohhh Markham.

What will I miss about Markham the most you ask? Based on the pictures above, I’ll miss the hilarity.

Although I’m graduating tomorrow, I’ll still be “yours in service” (South Africa in a month),


Summer blast off event at Markham: it’s summatime!

Today City Year at Markham Middle School hosted a school-wide event for students and parents to play games, win prizes and most importantly, find things to do during the summer! My teammates Daniel and Becky worked extremely hard putting the event together and invited a lot of community based organizations in South Los Angeles and Watts like the local library, gang reduction programs, UCLA’s summer UniCamp, among others. City Year put together four booths with different themes — literacy over the summer, summer games, academic games for over the summer and fun and free things to do in Los Angeles.


We made handouts that showed students why summer reading is so important — research shows student who don’t keep up with reading over the summer will fall behind grade level. The handout also included calendars to make a summer reading schedule as well as crossword puzzles and games. We raffled off a bucket of school supplies and a dictionary to look up words they might not know while reading.


The students also got to play two games at our booth — one that made them separate fiction and nonfiction books and another that had them spell out as many words as they could with the letters given. If they played they got a free snack or book.


All the community organizations that showed up before students visited the booths.


Students racing at the “Summer Games” booth.


Some light refreshments at the lemonade stand.


Students learning about fun and free things to do in LA this summer with a pamphlet and map my teammates made.


An academic twist on a water gun carnival game.

Next week is our last week at Markham. I don’t even know what to think and cannot believe I will be writing my year summary blog post soon. This year went by way too fast…stay tuned for my final City Year post and a South African bake day/presentation for my students next week to teach them about where I’m moving to!

Happy Summer!

Week 32: CYLA’s Spring Break 2012: Destination Education

Although I’ve lived in Los Angeles for nearly four years, I don’t care much for the entertainment industry or celebrity sightings. However, working for a nonprofit in Los Angeles has its perks: You can fundraise through the entertainment industry!

On Saturday night, City Year Los Angeles hosted its second annual City Year Spring Break: Destination Education at Sony Studios (corps members refer to this event as The Gala). Haley Reinhart from American Idol and Robin Thicke performed. There was a ton of food, booths hosted by different corporations and television channels and plenty of drinks for the guests.


Setting up for the event

Celebrities such as Quinn from Glee and cast members from the Hunger Games attended, among a few others. My favorite celebrity spotting was Alex, the middle sister, from my favorite television show Modern Family! Luke, the youngest sibling, was there too, but unfortunately I couldn’t find him.

Two of my roommates who are returning to City Year as senior corps members next year got to take pictures with the guests as they walked in. The rest of us performed physical training for the audience and asked them to join in. After we ran out for physical training and surprised the audience we got to wander, mingle and see all the booths. Some included Microsoft, E! News, Sephora, People magazine, Food Network, NFL, etc. We also got to hear one of our own corps members deliver a speech, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy speak in favor of City Year and watch the musical performers.

The development and communications staff members of City Year Los Angeles have been planning this event nearly all year. It was a great success thanks to them and all the generous help they received from companies involved with funding of the event.

CYLA’s goal was to raise 1.2 million dollars for next year’s 2012 corps year. We met our goal! That’s right CYLA!

Here’s some media coverage and more photos of the event.


I snatched a photo with Andrian at The Gala; he is a new and upcoming celebrity!


Some of my roommates Molly, Marissa, Lauren, Mercedes and I pose for a photo on the way out

On the school front, students are starting California Standardized Testing (CST) testing this week, which is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. I may not have been able to drastically help them change their scores, but I know I tried and I’m content with the work I’ve done. I’m not in the classroom while they’re taking the test (if I was they’d be constantly saying, “Ms. Liz! I NEED HELP! And of course I can’t help them), but after they took the first portion of this test this morning they ran up to me and hugged me in good spirits! They seemed confident they did well, so I’m proud of them.

Best of luck my kiddies! I care about you and believe in you!

-Ms. Liz

Week 29: chronicles of a substitute classroom part one

I came back to school after spring break to find out that my teacher would be out until the end of April. In other words, I have a sub for three weeks.

I got lucky and my students have the same sub for two weeks. She has subbed for my teacher when she was on maternity leave in the past, so she has a good relationship with her and has the class under control compared to other subs I’ve had in the past.

Here’s a glimpse into the life of a corps member in a sub classroom:

“STOP throwing food, it’s disgusting and you’re acting like first graders,” I yelled.

“IT WASN’T ME!” said my student.

Throws food again.

“I just saw you do that. Get up right now and sweep the floor.”

“It wasn’t me, you need glasses or something?!”

“Actually, I have perfect vision. Get up right now and sweep,” I said, completely frustrated and annoyed.

“Whatever, it wasn’t me,” as he mumbles things (about me probably).

It’s hard to not yell at my students because they can be so rude when we have a sub. They think they can get away with anything. I try hard to be patient and to pick my battles, but sub days bring the worst out in me. I sit at a desk in front of the classroom, so every single thing my kids do — like rip up paper and throw it at each other, whisper and and cuss each other out, pass notes, not listen to a word the sub is saying, interrupt and talk back the sub, run around the classroom, chase each other with the classroom broom, throw chairs, spit water at each other, walk on top of tables, physically hit each other, and so the stressful list goes on and on.

Having patience with sixth graders isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Before I started working at Markham, I thought sixth graders would still be innocent and cute elementary kids. Of course some students act like how I expected them to, but after being in a middle school environment like Markham for almost a year, they know just exactly how to get under mine or a sub’s skin.

Case in point: The other day a kid pretended he had a nose bleed to get out of class. Was it actually blood? Yeah right, it was kool-aid.

However, sometimes when I call students out, I am in the wrong. I apologized after yelling at one of my trouble students, but still told him that even if he wasn’t throwing food, his track record when a sub is here gives me a reason to think he’s acting up.

I plan to survive the end of week 30 and week 31 by taking students out of class every period and working with them in the library. Well, more like the students who actually want to do work. I experimented yesterday and took table by table out each period to play a memory game with sixth grade English CST vocabulary. I was lenient and let them listen to music, which wasn’t helpful because they weren’t invested in the game. Right now, they have no authority back in the classroom telling them they need to work with me and respect me, except the students that ask me, “Can we go to the City Year room today?!”

I think a perfect comparison for weeks like this would be that the classroom is like a zoo.

“Hey girl, how you doin today?” said my student after I gave him the “are you serious right now” scowl after he yelled at one of his classmates.

Think I’m going to respond to that? Nope. PICK YOUR BATTLES.

Please, oh please Peace Corps, assign me to be a high school (and not middle school) teacher!

Yours in service,

Stressed and Aggravated Ms. Liz


The scene of the crime: All the trash my students threw at each other and the brooms they enjoy hitting each other with on sub days

Week 26-27: exactly a year later, I’m still baffled

March 22, 2012

I sit here in the English class that I serve in while they take their third periodic assessment test, a test that is scored on a Los Angeles Unified School District. My students are gazing off into space, some diligently working and others struggling to write. I make eye-contact with one of the troublemakers of the class. He shows me his well-written five paragraph essay. I smile and give him a thumbs-up. This kid is very smart when he applies himself. I wish he applied himself all the time, but as a child of the projects and someone I’ve heard call his school a “prison” countless times, his environment doesn’t reinforce his intelligence.

All the scores from this test will be recorded downtown at 333 South Beaudry, the infamous address of Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters.

I sit here holding back tears, not only because I’m worn out, but because I’m starting to lose hope.

My English teacher explains the test questions to students who ask her for help. She’s an amazing (and every other synonym for amazing) teacher. She’s taught here for nearly 15 years because she knows where’s she’s needed in Los Angeles. However, being an unforgettable teacher can’t solve every problem. As much as we hate to admit it, money goes hand-in-hand with a quality education.

I just got a glimpse of the proposed budget for next year at Markham Middle School. Our Title I funding, which is extra federal funding a school receives based on how many students are “economically disadvantaged,” has been cut drastically for next year. And to top that off, the school lost thousands of dollars due to absences. During the common assessment test, one student sits at his desk with barely anything on his paper; he has been absent for nearly three weeks because he “couldn’t wake up in time for school.”

What will happen next year if my teacher can’t make copies for her students? What if she doesn’t have the classroom materials she needs to foster a challenging learning environment for her students?

Still, she knows where her skills are needed: here at Markham in Watts. She’ll make it work, somehow, someway.

This month, according to a Los Angeles Times article, LAUSD sent about 11,700 layoff notices to teachers and other staff. The district has laid off more than 8,000 employees over the last four years but eventually hired many back.

Likewise, since 2007-08, the number of full-time teachers has declined by 32,000, or 11 percent, in California.

Luckily, City Year wasn’t affected by any of these budget cuts at Markham because the money the school has to pay for us to be there falls under a federal school improvement grant. This is amazing news that my team recently heard not only because our students will have a City Year next year, but also because City Year returning to Markham is not at the expense of any staff positions that will probably be laid off next year (I’m talking staff positions people have held for 30 or more years at Markham).

If Markham wants to generate more federal funding, students need to bring up their standardized test scores. The higher API score (Academic Performance Index) a school has, the more funding it will receive based on the No Child Left Behind Act. There’s no doubt that the school and my team have been frantically trying to prepare students for the California Standardized Test (CST) they’ll take in mid-May.

The common assessment test my students were taking on March 22nd is based on 6th grade English California state standards. How my students score on this test is likely how they’ll score on the real CST.

Students have merely become scores — far below basic, below basic, basic, proficient and advanced — leading up to this test. “Make your mark at Markham!” is the school’s advertising campaign to push students to jump a performance level.

I face a challenging reality because I do not believe in standardized tests and feel guilty that I’m robbing students of an interesting education and instead just teaching to a test (and hey, only seven percent of teachers believe in standardized testing!)

But, I have to get over that and get over it quickly because public eduction policy isn’t changing anytime soon. I have to reassure myself and my students that the CST still makes sense. I justify any CST prep by telling my students that the more funding the school gets, the more sports equipment they’ll get and fun activities they’ll get to do, including more elective classes.

I remember taking these standardized tests from elementary school to high school when I was a California public school student. I dreaded it. I questioned how it measured my intelligence. I complained every year that it gave me no room to express my creativity.

Part of my hatred toward this test when I was a student is that I never scored well on it. I was like my students – “below basic or basic.” I even bombed the SATs in high school (1510 out of 2400) and probably had one of the lowest scores in my college graduating class. However, I still made it to USC – a top university – and graduated with honors (however, the road to get there was much more challenging than it was for others who performed well on the SAT). I believe I am living proof that these tests don’t mean much.

I recently finished reading book called “That Used to Be Us” by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum about America’s decline. The authors identify public education as an economic issue rather than a social issue.

Because of the merger of the IT revolution and globalization, raising math, science, reading and creativity levels in American schools is the key determinant of economic growth, and economic growth is key to national power and influence as well as an individual well-being. -Friedman and Mandelbaum

Likewise, the authors call for American students to play with their creativity to find new ways to do routine jobs or expand technology.

An excerpt from the book

Another fascinating article I’ve read recently by Thomas Friedman is “Pass the Books. Hold the Oil” in the New York Times. Friedman discussed the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s latest study that maps the correlation between a country’s natural resources GDP and scores from the Program for International Student Exam (PISA), which is a worldwide exam that tests reading, math and science.

In short, how well do your high school kids do on math compared with how much oil you pump or how many diamonds you dig?-Friedman

Students in countries with minimal natural resources like Singapore and Japan scored higher, as opposed to counties like Kazakhstan and the US that have plenty of natural resources.

Countries that value education teach their students to be creative, which correlates to the country’s economic growth because people in these countries are finding new and interesting things to do for work and to make money unlike countries that export natural resources to make money. In a way, it’s kind of like a game of survival of the fittest. What countries are more fit to think creatively and take advantage of having an educated population? Definitely not America because education is seen as a social issue and not an economic issue here. Other countries understand that they have to focus on the masses instead of resources.

Point blank, I agree with Thomas Friedman that education is an economic issue and will determine America’s place in the world sooner than later. How do lawmakers not see this? Why aren’t we investing more in education? WHY are we teaching kids how to take a standardized test instead of making school creative and fun? I made it without doing well on those tests, can’t we find another way to educate students and fund public education? If we keep ignoring it, not only will other countries become more innovative, but it’ll also affect our national security (whoah there, right? Who’s going to make our military weapons? Military power is tied to economic power, and so the reasons go on. See, education really does affect everything).

To me, Markham is just a snapshot of every other LAUSD school and other schools in low income areas throughout the country. The issues schools like Markham face with funding and layoffs is surreal, especially because education is valued so much more in other countries.

April 2, 2011

Exactly a year ago, I was a USC Annenberg student journalist working on an investigative story about some of the schools City Year works in – including Markham – and didn’t get why it should even be a story because it was so intense and in my own words “messed up.”

April 2, 2012

Exactly a year later, I STILL don’t get it. But now it’s a little different. I’m no longer the removed journalist secretly rallying for social justice (yeah, the stereotypes are true. Most of us are opinionated and liberal, duh). Now I see them struggles of the public education system on a daily basis and people who are close to me are directly affected by it. Now I personally know sixth grade students who the public education system has failed to raise.

I don’t think I’ll ever get why education isn’t a priority here in America. I hope it is in whatever country I end up serving and teaching in with the Peace Corps. After this year of AmeriCorps service, I vow to bring back with me whatever I learn from teaching in a foreign country to the US to do something about the public education crisis. I mean, hey, a psychic once told me I’d live abroad for a couple of years (which is happening!) and that my career would be something “creative” that I will come up with to help others. That sounds about right.

March has been by far the hardest month of service and as the end gets closer it’s going to get harder. Although this year of service is almost over, I need to look at it positively: it’s not the end; it’s only the beginning.

From our students to you: Adventures of a Disappearing City Year

Here’s a story that my teammate Tessa’s 7th grade student wrote about my teammates. It’s hilarious, creative and well-written! Props to Mr. Aaron for saving the day.

Adventures of a Disappearing City Year

On a dark and spooky night Tessa and I woke up to total darkness and we searched the school. And we look and looked, but we couldn’t find anything or anyone but the only person we did find was a blood hound. And we could not find the rest of City Year but we know that Mr. Aaron is somewhere in the school. And he would know was had happened. He knows everything. Once we go on this quest there is no turning back. So I ask if they wanted to quit and Ms. Tessa held her head up high and said no. The dog barked and I took that for a no.

So we continue on our mission. So we check all the rooms for Mr. Aaron and he was chilling out like nothing happened and I speak out, “Ay! Do you now what happened to all of City Year?” and he laughed and he said “They’re all dead!” and Ms. Tessa said “No they’re not!” and she looked sad like she was really worried so I walk out. I know they were not dead. So we had to continue. I do not care what he said but I’m still on it for all of City Year.

So we check from room to room and we all spit up with walkie talkies so if anything happened we can talk to each other and we search the rooms and Ms. Tessa calls me and she said “Come now!” and she was crying. So I rush over there as fast as I can. When I get there she is on the floor crying and she points to the wall and first there nothing there then I see it like a hologram but it is a dead person on the wall like their spirit never left that corner. But that was new blood and it like some one dragged the body out of the room.

And Ms. Tessa and I followed the bloody trail and it took us back to Mr. Aaron’s room and he was not there. And there were we found Carlos was getting boiled in his own juices me and Ms. Tessa almost threw up. But we turned around and walked out but we knew what ever did this was not friendly but we have to face it and we might have to hide to get some sleep. But we continue our mission the next night.

So during the day we did what we had to do go to school, and work at City Year alone. Everyone is trying to find the rest of City Year but we said they’re at home today so that made everyone leave so that following night we went to look for them and that same night we founded Ms. Lauren and she was in a closet with a blanket over her head. So we had to convince her to come with us but after a couple of times she said no but after telling her about our quest to defeat whatever was in the school and she came with us. So we search the school once more like last night but we had a new person. Ms. Lauren heard a noise coming from the closet so she opened it and found the rest of City Year so we got them out of the chains and braces. And I saw it.

​It was big, huge and hungry so we all grabbed the chain and anything that hurts and went to war. We were winning when he slapped us off of him and we fell before the monster and then Mr. Aaron jumped out of nowhere with a big sword and chopped the monster’s head off and he said “Anybody order a chop monster head?” well I thought we were goners for a minute. Well the next day they had to close the school down for some time so they can clean up the body. well to believe it we really had a good time.

The End

Week 25: the bus ride

Whenever the song “Show Goes On” by Lupe Fiasco comes on the radio when we’re in the car, my teammates/roommates and I always say it reminds us of our students.

Alright, already, the show goes on
All night ’til the morning, we dream so long
Anybody ever wonder when they would see the sun go
Just remember when you come up, the show goes on

So no matter what you been through, no matter what you into
No matter what you see when you look outside your window
Brown grass or green grass, picket fence or barbed wire
Never ever put them down, you just lift your arms higher

Raise ’em ’til your arms tired let ’em know you here
That you struggling, survivin’, that you gon’ persevere
Yeah, ain’t nobody leavin’, nobody goin’ home
Even if they turn the lights out, the show is goin’ on

I listened to this song over and over again and just stared out the window of the school bus on Friday and did some introspective thinking. We had just left The Getty Museum, which is an art museum located in West Los Angeles. I was coming down from a “feel good” high because my students thoroughly enjoyed the field trip and being out of Watts for the day, which of course boosted my mood because I’m happy when others around me are happy. My favorite moment of the day was when my students were overlooking the coastline and were so amazed and happy to see the beach.


“Ms. Liz, look!!! It’s the ocean!”

They live in California, but that doesn’t mean they get to see the beauties of the Golden State everyday. Getting out of Watts for a day doesn’t mean they’ll get out forever and get to see the nature they saw at The Getty on a daily basis.

So no matter what you been through, no matter what you into; no matter what you see when you look outside your window, just lift your arms higher. But do they have the motivation to get out? Do they believe they can? One reason why this year has been so hard is because if most Markham students had the perseverance that is detailed in this song to “get out of the ghetto”, they would when they get older. There’s so much we can’t control in this environment — gangs, fights, bullying, classroom behavior, etc., but a student CAN control his or her life by having faith that they will get somewhere in life and take those right steps. Education is key to getting out.

As the bus passed Westwood, I thought about my teammate Ricky’s story. Ricky is a first-generation American-Latino and the only person in his immediate family that has graduated from college. His parents only speak Spanish, but from what he’s told me his family has a strong bond, which helped get him to where he is today.

Ricky’s a lot like these students (he even talks like them). He was born and raised in Boyle Heights, which is another community City Year serves in Los Angeles. From there, he made it to UCLA. Just last week, he received some great news: he was accepted to UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, which is a top-ranked program in the US. His story gives me hope for my Latino students. That you struggling, survivin’, that you gon’ persevere.

On Sunday, I completed a bucket list item: Go to the Museum of Tolerance.

The one exhibit that really got to me was one called “Para Todos Los Niños”. The exhibit was about segregated schools in the West and Southwest; Latinos (although they were all called Mexicans even if they weren’t) had to go to Mexican School. A historic court case centered in Orange County, Mendez vs. Westminster, ruled this was unlawful in 1946, which paved the way for the Brown v. Board of Education decision. What astonished me about this exhibit is not that this happened (people suck), but that I never really learned about this in school. We’re taught so much about black civil rights, but other minority groups suffered too. Seems like I was ignorant about my own state’s history.

Anyways, the exhibit said this:

“The wonderful legacy of the Mendez case is diminished if we don’t confront the injustices we see today. Latinos are now the most segregated group in our public school system. Less than half of all Latino students receive the support necessary to graduate from high school. Only ten percent graduate from college. What can we do to fight these inequalities? What will be the impact – on our society, our economy, and our democracy – if we don’t.”
-Dr. Raymond Rast, Asst. Professor of History at California State University at Fullerton

I realized that City Year corps members are honoring the legacy of such a historic case because we provide the support that’s necessary to graduate from high school. Now that I’ve learned about it, I’m even more proud of the work my team does with our students and the work City Year teams will do for years to come.

Next year’s City Year senior corps members were selected on Friday (also known as team leaders). Seven out of 14 of my roommates applied and ALL of them were accepted. Pretty damn impressive! Likewise, three people from the Markham were accepted, so at least one of the three will be back at Markham next year. I can keep up with the school and my students next year through whoever becomes Markham’s next team leaders. Congrats to everyone who was accepted!

20120318-223032.jpgMy students viewing work by Vincent Van Gogh at The Getty

20120318-225706.jpgA memorable Markham moment: I’ve overcome my math anxiety and every Wednesday one of my students comes to our after-school program to take notes and get a hour and a half lecture about what math concept we’re working on class. My teammate was so proud of me that I was actually teaching math, he took a picture!

Another week tomorrow,



I’ll rush into the best news that my team has heard in a while: City Year at Markham Middle School has been sponsored by OneWest Bank for THREE YEARS! Likewise, OneWest, a Southern California based bank, is sponsoring the other programs at Markham. After we get “OneWest Bank” embroidered on our bomber jackets, we will officially be the OneWest team at Markham Middle School! The sponsorship entails $100,000 a year for Markham.

City Year Los Angeles’ Development Director, Erin Ross, personally told us the good news on Friday. This is the first sponsorship that City Year has taken part in since the economic downturn and also one of the longest commitments. Erin told us that OneWest asked her what the highest need school was in all of the schools CYLA serves in, which is Markham, hands down.

I’m not trying to boast about how hard my school is or any of that nonsense, but the reality is we have NO resources at our school: no whiteboard markers, no sports equipment, no printers, minimal computers, no bandaids, etc. There isn’t even enough ink and paper for teachers to make copies. The only abundance of any supplies our school has is butcher paper, no joke. Granted, I’m not sure what it’s like at other schools, but I can say we (and everyone who works at the school) definitely struggle at Markham.

Erin said that this action taken by OneWest is straight-up philanthropy and none of that social corporate responsibility junk. The company is investing in Markham to truly see changes in Los Angeles, not to just be able to write on pamphlets and mention that it donates to inner-city children.

Our reactions to the news were priceless. I really wish I caught it on camera or video, but I was in the same state of shock as the rest of my team. We are so stoked and will take ANY help we can get for Markham. All of our mouthes were literally wide open in disbelief that what Erin was telling us was really real.

I’m not positive if we will even be affected by the sponsorship since we only have three months left at Markham, but we’ve come this far with limited resources so we can keep going. My team and I discussed this at happy hour on Friday (of course we had to celebrate!) and we see ourselves a just the foundational team at Markham. We may have not been able to do everything other CY schools do, but we struggled through this year and paved the road for next year’s team. We started the Markham legacy. Our team unity, love and perseverance to keep going at this school even after the hardest days shows next year’s team they can do everything we did and do even more.

My teammates and I have had conversations lately about whether or not City Year will be invited back to Markham next year because our student’s test scores are unlikely to go up due to a multitude of factors. However, because CYLA decided that this sponsorship should go to Markham indicates that at least CYLA believes we’ll be back next year. If so, this three year sponsorship means that my students will have City Year on campus until they are in 8th grade. And honestly, I don’t even care about academics at this point, especially with my girls. Even if a CY isn’t in their classrooms next year, if they remember the relationship they had with me, then I know they will at least befriend the next City Years. They still need a mentor to talk to and someone, like me, who will give them a blunt reality check when needed.

I had to give my girl students their first reality check about drugs and alcohol this week. I told them I know the they’re going to run into it sooner than later and they likely WILL try it, but they have to be smart about it (ex: don’t be stupid and do anything on campus like other students may do). That’s better than telling them that they should never ever do it and it’s a horrible thing to do; when people hear things like that it makes them rebel even more.

This talk I had with my students seriously wanted to make me cry. In the beginning of the year, they were these shy, innocent, cute girls. Now all they do is cuss each other out and talk back to everyone without a care in the world. I was talking to my dad about this and how much I think the school atmosphere has corrupted my students, but then my dad gave ME a reality check. He told me that I was swearing by the 6th grade and doing everything my students are doing. Now that I think about it, I did get sent to the office multiple times in middle school and I remember flipping off a teacher in 7th grade…

So, I guess that’s just a part of growing up. You could go to Markham or Cunha, my small town middle school, and still exhibit similar behaviors. Right now, I’m giving myself a reality check: although I’ve seen my students change so much since the beginning of the year, I still love them as much as when I met them. They still crack me up and make every day worth going back to Markham. I also have to be grateful that although my students are sassy, none of them have fought this year and I hope it stays that way.

It was Markham’s turn to host pueblo Friday, which means we cooked breakfast for the rest of the South Los Angeles schools and performed an interactive skit that embraced all City Year values.


Setting up for Friday breakfast hosted by our team; theme: Markham in Vegas

The Markham team performing a “Markham in Vegas” skit during community Friday

It’s late and I have to be up at 5:30 tomorrow.

Good night,