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Posts tagged ‘urban education’

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),


Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world

On Fridays, the group of South Los Angeles schools City Year serves in (also know as a “pueblo”) gets together for training. Every time a corps member from a different school reads a “never doubt statement”, which is based off the Margaret Meade quote that our pueblo is founded upon.

Never doubt that small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. -Margaret Meade

My roommate and teammate Daniel presented. His statement gave me the chills. NOTHING is better than hearing an amazing story!

Never Doubt
By Daniel Pierson

Trying to impact my students this year has often felt like trying to break through a brick wall by slamming my head into it repeatedly. My ups and downs have been enough to put any roller coaster to shame. Keeping calm and level-headed just isn’t possible all the time in a world of lockdowns, fights and chaos that are part of Markham’s environment. During the past seven months I’ve cried in the bathroom between class, done shadow boxing in the mirror to calm myself down and also felt like the most fortunate person alive to get a chance to serve.

Over the last several months I’ve listened to other’s starfish stories and heard of the amazing connections corps members have formed with their students. I’ve heard about other corps member’s students drastically improving their grades and CST scores. Of course I like my kids, but I have just never felt that special connection other corps members seemed to be forming.

Obviously, test scores are not everything but when my class’ average on a periodic assessment test made no improvement after five months, I was seriously discouraged. I questioned my purpose at City Year and whether my presence in the classroom was even putting a drop in the bucket. I felt waves of cynicism overtaking me. I struggled to fight the apathy that seemed to be winning the battle against my normally optimistic attitude.

If my kids have absolutely no care in the world, then why should I?

Not long after, a stroke of luck occurred right when I needed it the most. Never Doubt statements are supposed to be positive, right? Out of the blue, an 8th grade student joined my after-school group. He told me he was going to start attending frequently because he had Fs in four of his classes.

The student needs constant attention, so I often work exclusively with him for for the duration of our program.

“I can’t read that good, Mister,” he confessed one day.

We had only worked on math up to this point, so I was taken aback.

“You’re learning to read,” I told him.

“I want you to delete can’t from your vocabulary.”

The student also confided to me that he was in special ed. classes – without a hint of shame in his voice. One time another boy was teasing him and called him stupid for hanging out with City Year.

“They’re the ones who are stupid because they never do their homework,” the student said. All I could do was laugh.

Even though we have 20 minutes of sports activities before homework time in our after-school program, he insists we go inside early and get started on his assignments. Two weeks ago, he would bug me daily about coming to Saturday school. When I showed up, he spotted me from 50 yards away.

“Mistrrur!” he called and ran across the field to give me a bear hug. When we saw some other kids from his class, he introduced me as his best friend. I’ll never forget that moment.

Although the progress was slow everyday, I couldn’t wait until after-school so I could work with the student. If I suggested to take a break, he’d say we don’t have time for that. Once, when we were working through a multiplication problem, he asked me if he got on my nerves. That sad the first time a student ever asked me that (of course, I responded “no”). His social awareness and ability to make me laugh were unmatched.

I really thought things were going well until out of the blue he said to me, “I’m going to stop in the 9th.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, prepared for the worst.

“I mean, after 9th grade I’m not going to school anymore,” he explained.

We had a conversation about what he wants to do with his life and how school is the only thing that will open these doors for him.

I wasn’t sure if he had taken it to heart, but three days later I found out. We started working early as usual. The student had two new assignments from that day and three previous ones to make-up. He told me he had to leave after-school early to sweep a shopkeeper’s store and make a little money. As the end of ASP approached, we still had a ton to do.

“Mister, can you stay later and help me? I’m going to skip work today. This is more important,” he asked me.

My heart glowed when I heard these words. He waited twenty minutes for me to finish meeting with my team and then we resumed his homework. I would have stayed until midnight if I had to.

If I can impact this student in a fraction of the way he impacted me, I’ll know I’ve done great work this year. When I attend his graduation in June, no one will be more proud of him than me. NEVER DOUBT.


Week 23: blank walls, bricks and metal gates

Happy Birthday Justin Bieber! In any other world, I would have had absolutely no idea that it was Justin Bieber’s birthday. However, my students now call me Ms. Bieber, JB, Bieber, Liz Bieber and even gave me a couple of birthday shout-outs.

This didn’t come out of nowhere. I recently got a new “wannabe hipster” haircut, which is asymmetrical. Everyone I know likes the new hair-do, but any drastic hairstyle doesn’t resonate well with middle school students. I can’t begin to count how many times students came up to me and said, “Why did you cut your hair?” or “I liked your old haircut!” At least with this drastic hair change they won’t confuse my teammate Charlotte and I.


I’ve got Bieber Fever

Last week, my teammate Daniel introduced a new initiative at Markham, “Make Your Mark on Markham”. Daniel has been working really hard to invite all of City Year Los Angeles to a service day at Markham. Our school is pretty bland – there’s not much that’s appealing to the eye besides the couple of random palm and pine trees and the three murals. Oh, but wait! The only three murals that were at this school – one that said “Watts”, another that said “Markham”, and another that depicted Florence Griffith Joyner, an Olympic track runner who graduated from Markham – were painted over last week. Our school has been under a painting project for a long while now, but I still don’t understand why they had to paint over the murals; none of the murals were defaced! There’s no explanation, except that it’s just another day at Markham Middle School.

It’s alright, though, because Daniel’s initiative allows students to submit their drawings and ideas for murals of the three themes: anything they can think if, college success and peace in Watts. The winner will have he or she’s mural painted during spring break by City Year! A lot of my students are interested in submitting to the contest. I really hope this project brings a whole new atmosphere to Markham. If students see motivational quotes (I’m pushing for the “Hold Fast to Dreams” poem by Langston Hughes to be painted; this poem is a tattoo on my wrist and it reminds me daily to never give up on my dreams) it will make them happier to be at school. Right now, all I see at Markham is bricks, blank walls and metal gates. I know it sometimes depresses me to be here, so I can only imagine how the students feel about their school atmosphere. That’s all about to change!

My students are still prepping for their next common assessment on five paragraph essays. My teacher taught them how to organize the introduction, thesis, body paragraphs and conclusion by color-coding the different topics. This helped them a lot with organization and I was really pleased with some of the final drafts. One of my students worked on the essay at home with his older sister and told me they had to stay up late and wake up early to get it done. The teacher and I were really impressed and proud of how much work he put into it and I made sure we praised him. You could tell he was proud of himself. It’s little moments like that that remind me again why I serve.

Time is shortly running out and thinking about where my students will be in ten years is always on my mind. My math teacher presented a disheartening article from the United Teacher Los Angeles union’s newspaper. The article focused on Latino students, who are half of California’s student population, getting to college. The statistics said that only 13 percent of Latino CA students earn a college diploma. My students are working on probability and percents, so my teacher made these statistics into a math problem: If only 13 percent will go to college, how many out of a class of 25 will go to college? Only three. Yes, three. Such a sobering fact. Once again, I remember why I serve: to prove these statistics wrong. Maybe not all of my students will go to college, but more than three will. I thought it was a great topic to discuss with the students because it can motivate them to fight the statistics and take control of their lives and education.

On Monday and Tuesday, my English teacher was sick. A substitute for two days = living hell. The kids morph into creatures, no sarcasm or exaggeration intended. A substitute can holler at my students all day long, but it’s just going to frustrate them and make them talk back even more. I can try and talk all the sense I can into them by telling them it’s not worth it to get sent to the office for talking back (or even bringing in City Year male authority), but they think they can get away with anything when the teacher isn’t there. They’d rather hang out with me than listen to me and see me as an authority figure.

Substitute days scare me. I’m going to be a teacher next year and I can’t imagine trying to control a class like mine on substitute days. I would NOT have been prepared to have been a teacher right out of college. This year has given me a good understanding of classroom management and teaching styles that I will definitely use next year.

Peace Corps update: I sent all my medical and dental forms last week, but the USPS never confirmed that the documents were delivered. The online tracking says the packages are still “processing in DC”. I freaked out and thought all of my medical forms were lost, but other PC applicants on Facebook reassured me that it takes up to four weeks to process the forms because any mail going to a federal building must be screened for anthrax, etc. Let’s just say I’m relieved.


On Tuesday, Markham hosted a Black History Month event. Students participated in a talent show, arts and crafts and a raffle.

On Thursday, my team went out to dinner after work to celebrate our teammate Angela’s birthday. This is one of my favorite pictures of the year; our students are always watching out for us! Adorable. Sometimes it’s nice to not be in uniform.

Reporting from Watts,


Week 22: people who give a damn

All of my students have desktop computers now! On Saturday, Computers for Youth, a nonprofit organization, handed out desktop computers – fully equipped with Microsoft Office, education games and are Internet-ready – to all 6th grade students. All the students had to do was come with an adult to a 4.5 hour workshop and then take home the free computer. This is great news for our students because there’s a lack of technology in the classrooms at Markham; there’s only a set of computers in the library and a set of mini PC notebooks. My students type letter-per-letter and could really use the typing game all the computers have installed. If their families agree to buy an Internet service, they can even use the computer for research (and Facebook and YouTube… we ARE talking about middle school students here).

On Friday, I shadowed the eduction editor at for a “Leadership After City Year” shadow day. a social innovation website that highlights people, businesses and nonprofits doing “good” things and “moving the world forward.” We discussed technology in the classrooms because she had gone to a panel earlier that day that suggested giving students access to technology – like iPads – will solve some of the problems in education because it will encourage students to learn by giving them a more interactive way of learning. Does that really solve the root of the problem, though? Will giving a kid an iPad or computer teach them to read? It might help them, but in all honesty, they need one-on-one support from educators to motivate them. I’m still happy that my students received free computers, but the odds of them using it for education than social uses are slim to none.

My visit to was amazing! The education editor, Liz, gave a tour to the City Year external relations project leader and myself. We got to meet at least one person from every department and learn about what all the departments do. Not surprisingly, most of the content that is not written by the editors comes from freelancers who freelance consecutively or once in a while with the website. The education section of the site is what I read on the regular (and write for once a month!)

People came to the company from literally everywhere, which gave me hope for my future career. Everyone was so welcoming and I absolutely loved the work environment (an office that’s dog friendly and the office dog travels from desk to desk to get pets and sits on a chair during a meeting? Now that’s my kind of workplace!) The company’s slogan, “for people who give a damn” says it all. I could really see myself working at a place like this later in life. I’m still deciding if I want to go into international diplomacy (public diplomacy), work for a social change company or work for the communications dept. of a nonprofit. I still have years to figure it out, but this service year has helped me figure out one thing: I need to be around people who feel the same about social issues and are actively trying to fight them.

I feel absolutely disconnected with the world outside of social activism. I feel that I can no longer connect with those who aren’t doing similar work that I’m doing (or at least understand it). I need to be around people who are passionate about social issues; people who get it. People who know exactly how I feel and the types of things I think about and see on a daily basis. People who want to see change.

I’ve also realized that even if social injustices like poverty, hunger and the civil right to an equal education aren’t ever going to go away, I at least want to be with the communities who are facing these challenges. I don’t feel like I belong anywhere else now. It’s hard to explain.

For example, the other day I went to USC to pick up my health record from the health center and I didn’t feel nostalgic, but rather depressed. Yet, I wasn’t depressed because I’m no longer a college student. I was depressed because I was surrounded by wealthy people, people who have nice designer things and likely walked down an easy road to get to USC (and yes, I understand this is a HUGE generalization, so I apologize in advance). I just couldn’t stop thinking about my kids. Why is it going to be so much harder for them in life? Just because they’re from Watts and are minorities? I see so much of middle school self in my students; my students do the same things my friends and I used to do, except they are far behind grade level and we weren’t. So why did it have to be so easy for my friends and I to go off to college and get a good education leading up to college? We went to a California public school, too! Why was I so privileged enough to live the USC dream and not worry about a damn thing but my grades, social life, my tan, haircut and what cute outfit I’d wear to class the next day? For the first time ever, as much as I love that school, I felt like I didn’t belong at USC.

The future for me holds a lot of options. I’m slowly figuring out myself and I think what I felt at USC the other day is a pivotal point in my life. It showed me that I won’t be happy in life if I’m not around other people who think like I do and are trying to make a difference; it at least gives me hope for the world.

People don’t change; they just get a clearer understanding of who they are. So far this year had given me just that.

I used to make these star-shaped bracelets all the time back in the day. I finally found the same beads and was so stoked to share them with the kiddies at lunch! Everyone made bracelets and keychains.

-Ms. Lizard

Week 21: hey 6th graders, what do ya think love means?

I remember during my middle and high school days my fellow peers would flaunt everything they got on Valentine’s Day as if they were the most important person that day. This in no way is supposed to sound bitter – because I really didn’t care and still don’t care for Valentine’s Day – but I couldn’t help but think of my secondary school days on Tuesday because it was the same exact scene at Markham Middle School.

Valentine’s Day at a middle school is by far the most hilarious day of the year. Students carry around all the knick-knacks they get – teddy bears, flowers, roses, chocolates, etc. – to show off just how much they got. Moreover, classmates sneak Valentine presents to each other (like how one of my boys gave one of my girls a really neat necklace!)

I couldn’t help but bug my kids about their crushes all day, but that doesn’t mean they don’t pick on me as well! Rumor has it that I’m dating every one of the four guys on my team. Every time they call me out for “dating” someone on the Markham team, I start cracking up. If I laugh, it makes them think that I’m “blushing” and “giggling” because I am “dating” that person. Really, though, I’m cracking up because the thought of dating that person is one of the funniest things to run through my head that day (Disclaimer: my team is like a family, just think of dating a brother. No, no, thank you).

The materialistic nature of Valentine’s Day brought forth a good discussion in my English class – “What is love?” Is it defined by how much gifts you get on Valentine’s Day? What OTHER kinds of love can you have? Family? Friends? Love for yourself?

My students came up with some creative answers, including this:


Some of them were a bit shy talking about the subject, but my English teacher made sure everybody understood that love could mean so many things. The take away message of the lecture was that love starts with having love for yourself before you can love other people and things. Amen to that.

My teammate Angela put together a Valentine’s Day celebration for the kids during our after-school program. The after-school students made candy Valentines for their family members and then we played a game called, “Baby I Love You.” The rules of this game are to place all players in a circle and one person is in the middle. The person in the middle has to go up to anyone in the circle – face-to-face – and say, “baby I love you.” If the person in the circle laughs, then he or she has to go inside the circle and do it all over again. The students (and City Year members!) got a kick out of this; we all couldn’t stop laughing.

Some of my teammates then put on a “Dating Show” skit for the students. Three of my teammates played contestants, one played the host and the other played the man-on-the-market.


Dylan and Melanie – the two “nerds” from the “Dating Show” – running for each other after the students made the final vote.

As much as “love” (or should I say middle school lust?) spawned across our campus, it’s hard to not note the new security personnel on campus. Last Friday, a series of fights broke out between racial groups. This called for extra security from other schools to be brought to our school and even the discussion that possibly some of our extra funding will be used to hire more security, although Markham cut its security personnel in half from last year due to budget cuts.

My students have been a little more on edge lately, and my English teacher can usually tell when something’s going on in the neighborhood. There’s been a lot of fighting between gangs due to a disagreement and the tension is felt on school grounds.

Ironically, my latest GOOD article is about two of my teammates: Ricky, a Latino man, and Aaron, a black man. Ricky and Aaron’s friendship on campus demonstrates racial unity for these students, which the students rarely see. This story is by far my favorite to come from Markham this year and I’m very happy it was published!

Despite everything going on in Watts, my students got off campus on Thursday for a field trip to the Pan-African film festival in Baldwin Hills to celebrate Black History month! My teammates Chariya, Jeanny and Becky’s classes joined. All of our students attended a free screening of a documentary about an African-American man going back to Ghana to find his identity. The film featured a group of African-American men who traveled up and down the Ghana coast to revisit their ancestor’s footsteps before they were shipped off in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

The director of the documentary, who was also a main character in the film, was there for a Q and A session after. I wish I was able to watch more of the documentary (it looked very interesting!), but I had my hands full. I spent the whole time escorting students to the restroom and telling my girls to “be quiet and listen to the movie” every 10 seconds.

My students will have to write a paragraph about the film this coming week, but when the ask me for help I’m just going to laugh and say, “I was telling you all to be quiet the whole time I didn’t get to listen to the movie!” Sucks to be them.

Afterwards, we split up into groups of ten students per chaperone to wander the Baldwin Hills mall, check out some African artwork on display and eat lunch. This was the first time I had to chaperone a large group of students in a public space. After my students each ate 20 chicken McNuggets at McDonalds (gross), my girls pestered me back and forth to go to different stores in the mall. Thankfully, I was really proud of them because they stayed in a group and stuck with me the whole time…until the last five minutes. One of my girls left one of the boys in a store. We found him five minutes later, but he was all shaken up because “we left him.” This student is known to be a drama queen, so even though my students called me a “bad mom,” I didn’t let it get to me. Hey, I don’t want kids anyways! Regardless of the five minute disaster, it was great to spend time with my students outside of school.

I’m prepping for next week because now it’s cracking down to three-five paragraph essays in English. The journalism unit is over. It was fun and exhilarating, but now it’s back to the reality of the LAUSD curriculum. Dear five paragraph common assessment, my English teacher and I are ready to put up a good fight. Sincerely, Room 48.

Peace Corps update: I flew back to the Bay Area on Thursday to get my wisdom teeth out on Friday. Luckily, I feel no pain at all and I am free rollin’. My lab tests are back at the doctors office and I NEED the results/forms signed from my physician so I can send it into the Peace Corps and move onto the placement process ASAP! My goal for this week: Call the doctor’s office everyday until they look over my lab reports and sign my forms. Sorry for being the annoying patient, but this is extremely time sensitive! Oh, and I was legally-cleared on Saturday morning. Hooray! One step closer.

Onto a new week with no wisdom teeth,


Week 20: time to play musical classrooms

The second semester started last Monday. Usually, that just means students switch elective classes. However, just like everything else is at Markham, it’s a whole different story.

I still don’t really understand why this happens other than to balance class sizes, but a lot of students from every grade level get switched to new academic classes. The first time this happened a couple of weeks into the first semester was due to placing students in classes based on skill level. Now, I think it has to do with academic level and behavior. I know a new sixth grade teacher was added to the staff, which opened up another class for teachers to request students to move into. Some of my students, who are the misbehaving angels, were candidates for this class, but weren’t switched. Instead, three of my focus list students were switched out of my math class and into my teammate Charlotte’s math class. It’s pretty much like the kids playing musical classrooms, not musical chairs, every couple of months.

Many of my teammate’s students were also switched. Some of us got lucky and another teammate inherited our students, but others, not so much. Some of the students my teammates have been working with are out of City Year classrooms for good. Now what? All I know is everyone’s focus list (the list of ten students we work with and track our time with) have to change.

Yet, things could be worse. My students that got switched are still in my English class (where I do the most work with them) and at least one of them admitted to “actually having to do work” in her new math class. But that’s not always the case; I wish there was more consistency at this school because when these kids are switched it gives them more of a reason to not do anything in school because the new class might be ahead or behind their old class in subject matter.

Last week’s post discussed my hatred toward data and my student’s common assessment scores. I finally got to see my student’s math scores and I was pleased with them; the scores stayed constant, but at least they didn’t go down (and one student who only speaks Spanish scored basic! Pretty good if ya ask me).

Now that the last common assessment is out of the way, my English teacher wanted to do about a month-long journalism unit. YES, A JOURNALISM UNIT. Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh. MY LIFE IS COMPLETE. As awesome as that sounded, my teacher and I spoke too soon. The district and school threw a new challenge at her: The next periodic assessment for 6th grade English is in three weeks. Although she knows what the topics of every assessment will be, it’s up to the school to decide when the test will be administered. Painfully, the journalism unit has to be condensed into a week and we have to move quickly onto writing five paragraph essays. When my students still don’t write paragraphs with topic sentences or complete sentences (even though they blatantly know how to), I wonder how it’s going to be to get them to write five paragraphs. I honestly don’t even want to think about it right now. I still have my complete sentence challenge going on in the class and students get mad when I don’t give them a point. Hmm? I wonder why. Because a sentence is like this. And sentences are started like this. Sentences with no subject. Is not good. Alright, time to stop thinking about that looming challenge and time to reward myself by being in journalism bliss for the next week or so.

On Tuesday, my English teacher introduced the journalism unit to the students and I was given the opportunity to lead a discussion. I brought a copy of USC’s student newspaper the Daily Trojan, which I reported for back in the good ol’ days. To kick off the discussion, we asked the students what the difference between broadcast and print journalism was. Most of the students I called on said newspaper is “boring” and broadcast is “exciting” and that newspapers are “for old people.” The comment that threw me back the most was when one student said that “print journalism doesn’t tell you the details and doesn’t give as much information as broadcast.” I had to swallow my print journalism pride at this comment, because any print journalist knows that we are allowed to do so much more with a story than broadcast is (length-wise and detail-wise). I found this cute excerpt from a 3rd grade textbook on and got my teacher and the class to read it popcorn style.


My teacher explained to the students that this is what I went to college for, so I got to do a short Q and A with the kids. I thought not many would ask questions, but they were genuinely interested in what I did – even though they think journalism is boring – because it makes a topic so much more interesting when you can associate a human face with it, especially their Ms. Liz! They were asking adorable questions like, “so all your classes were about this? How hard is it? Isn’t it boring? Who do you interview? Why are you here if you did that in college?”

20120212-230343.jpgA mess of a desk after a newspaper scavenger hunt

I told them about all about the different people I’ve interviewed, how hard it can be to make deadline and how I would stay in the newsroom from 6pm-11pm every night for the brief time I was an editor. The best question, however, was when a student asked how I still enjoy journalism. I told him it’s a passion of mine I found in middle school and sooner or later all of them will find passions of their own. I hope one day my students will find something in their lives that makes them feel as good as I do after I finish an article or the euphoric feeling I get after completing a bomb interview or finding a good story.

Due the classroom changes and the next periodic assessment surprising us from under our teacher’s desks, the CY academic data is still hard to produce at a school like Markham. But, that doesn’t mean we’re not making a difference. It was overheard at the therapist’s office that Markham students who attend therapy are mentioning CY, which snows we really are having an impact. That’s what’s up!


One of my students always makes these paper puppets in class. I stole it from him and went around math class and attacked my students who weren’t doing work with it.

My students gave me the “are you serious” death stare, but all I said back was “sorry I embarrass you; sorry I’m not sorry you’re stuck with me everyday.” I’ve come accustomed to embarrass my students and make fun of them (as they do with me). Now that one of my boys and one of my girls got into a scuffle last week in class the resulted in a slap on the face and the girl crying, I call out the boys and girls who are fighting by saying “ewww stop flirting.” Although they come back at me with the, “well your dating so and so from City Year!” it affects them way more than it affects me (obviously because I’m not dating anyone from my team, contrary to student rumors about all of my teammates).

Peace Corps update: Medical process is whooping my butt. So many forms to get signed, so many appointments and so many needles. Next step: Lab work is returned and my wisdom teeth will be yanked out this coming Friday.

Soon-to-be chipmunk cheeks,


Week 19: data struggles and fighting on for next year’s CYLA corps

The sixth graders at Markham Middle School received their common assessment scores for math and English this week. After our teachers shared the data with us, I could sense frustration across the board. From what I’ve heard, not many student’s scores went up significantly; some had minimal gains (a few of my students did). Sadly, my co-teammate (who works with the same teachers as me, just different periods) compared her student’s math scores with the first assessment they took and the students either went down or stayed the same. I haven’t seen my student’s math scores yet, which makes me nervous. I have a feeling they’ll be very similar to my teammate Chariya’s students.

However, I was happy to see that some of my English students scored 4-6 out of 6 on the written portion of the assessment. The written portion of the assessment asked them to write a factual assertion and then provide one direct quote from the text that supports the assertion and a paraphrased detail that supports the assertion. My English teacher and I tried to drill this concept into our students for about two months. About a week before the exam, most students still could not explain what an assertion was. Yet, they pulled through! I think the written portion is more reflective of my students skills because they rush through multiple choice tests and guess because they’re too hyperactive. One of my top English students scored significantly lower than the teacher and I know he is capable of. I’m assuming it’s because he rushed through it.

I could go off on a tangent about how much I hate standardized tests and don’t think they reflect intelligence at all (especially because I attempted to start studying for the GRE this weekend; shoot me in the face), but I’ll save that for my mind that questions everything.

These scores don’t reflect the amazingly-well-taught English lessons my teacher has given the students or the one-on-one time I’ve spent with students in-class and out of class. I think a lot of it has to do with student motivation. Also, the students do not listen in math class. I lack a lot on the behavior management spectrum because my kids tend to boss me around and see me more as a friend than an authority figure, which is my fault (but I can’t say I don’t enjoy gossiping with my students/making fun of them!) They don’t have the passion to listen, regardless of how many times you try to drive home the point that education is important.

The weight LAUSD puts on standardized tests really makes me wonder. These scores are used in a value-added model the district and LA Times has used to evaluate teachers. Is that really fair? I’m in my English teacher’s classroom everyday and everyday see how great of a teacher she is. So, because all of her students scored far below basic, below basic or basic, does that say she’s a bad teacher? I’d hope not! Education reform is interesting and there’s a lot I don’t agree with, but it’s so hard to find other alternatives that will work. It’s seriously like a 1,000 piece puzzle, which is why it’s so riveting to discuss and think about. I just signed up to attend an event on Wednesday, Feb.15 hosted by Michelle Rhee’s organization StudentsFirst and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. I’ll get to hear all about education reform in Los Angeles. Oh so exciting.

Last semester at SC, I got to approve and edit comments for the LATimes value-added teacher evaluation project. Therefore, I got to read most of the teacher comments before they were published and also sent e-mails to teachers that allowed them to look at the data and respond to it before the Times published it. Most of the comments mentioned how the data did not measure behavioral problems in class, a student’s home life, the student’s other teachers beforehand, etc. I couldn’t argue against these comments or argue for them; I could only sit there perplexed to what in the hell are the solutions to education reform.

I could discuss for hours and hours the struggles of the public education system, but instead I’ll just still be a small solution to a bigger problem. I have finally hashed out a better schedule for student interventions. My higher students are going to start reading Esperanza Rising with me popcorn style and then I’ll throw in reading compression techniques as we go. Other than that, my students will also be working on grammar worksheets (especially verb tenses!) My other students that need more help in reading and spelling will continue doing my team leader Lauren’s English language intervention system and a phonetics reading system my team just got ahold of called Great Leaps.

Point blank: I hate data. I’m scared the Markham team isn’t going to produce high student data for City Year and the school administration, which could influence if City Year comes back to Markham next year. We’re definitely having an impact on this school, but it might not show with student scores. It’s just a whole other world at Markham, which should also be taken into consideration when our end of the year student data is released. I can’t help but worry; our students need City Year. Data, data, data, blah, blah, blah…

This week, my team also had to sit through a speed-dating type of team intervention called feedback 360. Every team member had to meet face-to-face for about three minutes and discuss the negatives and positives about each other’s behaviors and tips on how we can improve ourselves to make our team stronger. Apparently our program director was a little worried about having the Markham team go through this because we already have a very, very strong dynamic, but we killed it, took into consideration everything everyone said to us, and acted exactly as we always act with each other right after. Our team just keeps getting better and better! Guess what everyone told me? Stop stressing out, stop being hard on yourself, give yourself more credit and that they appreciate all the blog work I do for our team (that one made me pretty happy because honestly I didn’t even think my teammates read my GOOD articles). I’ll stop stressing out for my team, I promise!

On Friday, City Year hosted a “recruitment blitz day”, which means our corps members were deployed to UCLA, Cal State LA and USC. All alumni went to their former colleges, so I got to spend the day at USC with other alumni and most of my team! I enjoyed getting to show some of my teammates the campus and getting to share college stories.

The communications team shot a CY/USC promo video with alumni to encourage current students to apply to CY for next year’s corps (2012). I wasn’t in the video, but watched the production side of it (thank God. Me on camera = awkward mess).


Alumna Angelica Juarez, corps member at Stevenson Middle School in Boyle Heights, fights on for the camera

I answered a Q and A bio for the flyers CY put in envelopes for the sororities and fraternities. I never saw the final product of it, but I’m sure it was funny…

I’m starting to get all my medical work done for the Peace Corps this week so I can turn it in as soon as possible! I am also going to run every night now to get in shape because I might have to bike three or more miles to work (or perform other physical extremes) in the Peace Corps.


My students just finished their Ancient Egypt projects. This student used green Jell-O and blue tissue paper, pretty creative, huh?

From the porch of Woodcraft Manor,


MLK Day at Los Angeles Academy Middle School

Today was City Year’s annual MLK service day; City Year sites across the nation mobilize their communities to treat MLK Day as a “day on” and not a day off to honor MLK’s values and ideals. Our service day took place at Los Angeles Academy Middle School in South LA. The event was sponsored by Disney and drew around 1,000 volunteers from all over LA to beautify the middle school’s campus by painting 28 murals. I was on communications squad duty, so I just floated around and talked to people. Here’s the post I wrote for CYLA’s blog to summarize the service day. Take a look at the video the comm squad edited to hear more from volunteers. The on-camera host, Josh, is one of my 13 roommates!

The Markham Middle School team painted a mural that says, “knowledge is infinite.”

Here’s my team before (as you can see, there’s never a dull moment with my team):


My teammate Becky during:


My teammate Ricky finishing up:


My teammates and I after:


A blog post by our CEO Michael Brown says that we’re fighting for what Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls “the civil rights of our generation.” Today, we honored MLK by serving, but we also do everyday by being advocates for our students.

Check out my alma mater’s coverage of the event on USC’s Neon Tommy. I got to play “source” instead of “reporter.” Bucket list item of any former journalism major? Getting quoted in a publication your friends have been editors and reporters for. Success.

Week 16: budget cuts are toying with my future plans

Slowly but surely, we got through our first week back at Markham after a month. The week dragged on because none of us were really ready to go back, but we have to get back in the motion of things because we’re not getting a break anytime soon.

My students weren’t ready to be back at Markham either. When I asked them how their breaks were, all of them said, “boring.” I asked them what they did, all of them said, “nothing.” That’s still better than being in school though, right?

The LAUSD common assessment is coming up for my students in their English class, so all week we worked on writing assertions. My English teacher merged her history lesson on ancient Egypt and writing assertions into one lecture (ancient Egypt is pretty darn interesting). My teacher and I are trying our hardest to get the students to understand that an assertion can be a really, really simple sentence like: “The ancient Egyptians believed in the after-life.” Instead, the students tend to write just a sentence about anything that has to do with Egypt. They also write sentences that are too detailed to be an assertion and then have trouble finding two details from their textbooks to prove the assertion. No matter how many times I tell them (or my teacher lectures) that the assertion is the main idea and to treat it like a topic sentence, I sometimes think they just don’t listen. Let’s hope the hours of work my teacher and I have put into going over assertions with them (we’ve been discussing this topic for about a month now) will translate into our student’s scoring “proficient” on the common assessment.

My math teacher decided to group students after the break based on skill; the higher performing students sit together and vice versa. I’m very happy with this decision because a lot of the students screw around in this class and don’t listen, which affects the students who do want to listen and learn. This seating arrangement also makes it easier for me to provide whole-class support (which is what I’ve been doing all year) because the kids who need my help the most all sit in close proximity. Now I won’t hear students scream, “MS. LIZ COME HELP ME” from across the room, but instead, it’ll be right in my ear.

This week I plan to go over complete and complex sentences with my students. I’ve decided I’m going to start a “complete sentences” chart and give points to students who have written all their English work in complete sentences. I’ll probably give candy as a prize (or even hot Cheetos…). Hopefully this will get them in the habit of writing complete sentences every time they write. I know they know how to write a complete sentence, but they just rush through their work and write gibberish.

My teammates and I really got the “welcome back” we were waiting for during sixth grade lunch on Wednesday. A total of six fights broke out (one of my sassy students claims it was seven. I don’t believe him). The fights involved boys and girls, some were in the bathrooms, others smack dab in the lunch area.

Fights don’t even phase me anymore. However, what was hard to watch was that every time a fight broke out, literally all the sixth graders would stampede over to watch it, over and over again. I tried to stop some of my students from watching the fights, but there’s only so much sense you can knock into a sixth grader, especially when watching is “the cool thing to do.” Even if my teacher or I tell the students it’s stupid to sit on the sidelines of these fights because they could get hurt, ultimately they’ll still watch. And no, I’m not just talking they could get punched. I’m talking they could get shot by a stray bullet. You never know if weapons could be involved.

One of my favorite girls was all pumped up after that lunch period and said how cool it was and she will fight someone eventually. This is my little student who wears bows in her hair and is such a caring girl! My response to her after she said that? “Don’t you dare even say that…not under my watch will you!” it just sucks that this is the school environment that these students are in and that it affects them regardless of how adorable, fun and loving they are. I hope my student was kidding.

There were also “rumbles” at lunch and during passing period, which means that the “village boys” (students who are in a gang) beat up random students. Hearing about the rumbles and witnessing the sixth grade fights has encouraged me even more to start working on a “Peace in Watts” week-long event with my middle school and two of the feeder elementary schools. The event will be promoting art as a way of expressing pride and peace in Watts instead of violence. The event is spearheaded by Miss Jadine, a co-worker who serves at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary and put on this peaceful event last week. More details to come, but we’re planning to host the event in April.

Remember how I mentioned in my Peace Corps update post that I was looking into applying for a second year at City Year Los Angeles as an external relations project leader?

Well, that’s no longer happening. I just found out this week that that position was cut because of AmeriCorps funding cuts. I’m pretty bummed; I was stoked to potentially start working with media again outside of this blog.


So, now what’s my LACY (Leadership After City Year) plan? I have absolutely no idea. It’s looking like I’ll just have to move home (gag me), work at a restaurant and save money until I leave for the Peace Corps. Hey, I’ll still be “Liz in Service” serving tables (sarcasm alert)!

Just last week I was emailing my Peace Corps recruiter about how I was considering a second year at City Year and to potentially move my availability date back to summer 2013 instead of as soon as possible. She said she could, but I told her that I’d make the final decision in March to move my availability date or not because by then I’d know if I was offered the external relations position.

Instead, I had to send her this email today:


What’s ironic about all of this is that the reason why I haven’t got my actual Peace Corps nomination yet is because of funding, which is why I looked into serving with City Year for another year. I never thought my future would be directly influenced by government budget cuts, but hello, now it has.

However, I can still try to make a difference by getting my word out there on the National Peace Corps Association’s 2012 Day of Action and contact my Capitol Hill reps.

I can also look into other AmeriCorps programs, but I don’t want to have to leave City Year just yet. I love the work atmosphere at this organization and see how much potential it has to grow (I had ideas, too!) My roommate asked me at dinner tonight if I was “mourning” the loss of the office position. Yeah, she was right. I’m mourning. I just wish I had a definite nomination for the Peace Corps right now so I didn’t have to frantically look for alternatives.

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King’s birthday. Our students and other Americans get this day off, but it’s a “day on” for all of us at City Year because we are celebrating MLK’s legacy and ideals. MLK called for all Americans to act together in peace, which is what we will be doing tomorrow at our largest service day (with ~1,000 people) at a middle school in South LA, Los Angeles Academy. I’m writing the post about it for CYLA’s blog. Blog post and pictures of the murals we paint will be posted tomorrow!

Good night and good luck,
Ms. Lizard

Let freedom ring at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School

Something I’ve observed while working in Watts is that people are really proud of who they are, whether that is African-American or Latino. If you ask students to think about a historical figure, they generally say Martin Luther King (one of our after-school challenges is to write about a historical figure). Why? Students in this community are taught at an early age about the civil rights movement and the work Martin Luther King did, which is so central to the pride African-Americans have in Watts and all over the United States today.

On Friday, at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School, City Year reenacted the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington led by Martin Luther King. The City Year team at Florence Griffith Joyner (FloJo) put together the event and the rest of the South Los Angeles school teams got to participate. The FloJo team assigned the two middle school teams, Markham (my team) and Gompers, to work directly with the elementary students for a refreshing change of pace.

I was placed in a first grade classroom to teach students the chant they would be chanting during the march. The kids listened, participated, said thank you, smiled at me and hugged me. Was the real life? I’m used to students not listening, doing whatever they want, not doing work, not participating, yelling, cussing each other out, and so the list goes on. Long story short, the students were absolutely adorable and it was so much fun to work with them.

I taught them this chant: hey hey, ho ho, the violence has got to go. The students made their own picket signs to carry that said, “equality for all”, “we don’t want to sit in the back of the bus”, and “peace”.


I asked them what they could do to create peace in Watts. They said they could follow laws, treat others fairly and treat others the way they want to be treated. We wrote these on strips of paper that City Year later assembled into a paper chain that represented every classroom at FloJo.



Then, the students marched and chanted around the blacktop twice with the rest of the school. They stopped at the Washington Monument that was recreated by the FloJo team.


The students listened to two student speakers; one student introduced Martin Luther King and another student (“little Martin Luther King) recited parts of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This little 5th grader spoke so well! I was standing next to his father and I could tell how proud he was of his son.

All in all, this event was awesome and taught the students a valuable lesson. Good job FloJo!

But, there’s still one harsh, harsh reality: these cute little angels will all be Markham Middle School students someday. Students, hold onto your innocence. Always promote peace.

Here’s video of my teammate Jeanny chanting with her little ones: