xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' Don't Forget South Central

Sunday, November 5, 2017

I'm Moving to Finland

When I tell people that come January, I will be living in Finland for 5 months, the reactions are shock, wonder, and admiration. "I wish I could get away for 5 months like that!" is a common reaction.

The truth is it is not so easy.

Your Job 

Most teachers who apply for a Fulbright tend to be intricately involved in the management of their schools. They are department chairs, coaches, coordinators, and many times all of the above. Aside from that, we have our own rolls of students we are committed to.

I had the opportunity to leave the classroom this year for the first time in 22 years. My Fulbright award definitely swayed me into the direction of taking on a full time Magnet Program Coordinator role. If I wasn't personally in charge of 150 students, it would make my departure easier to bear.

But no matter your role, knowing you will be leaving your school is a tough decision.  As January approaches, the decision is still a tough one to deal with.

Your Pay

Although Fulbright covers your costs while living abroad, you have your own expenses to deal with at home. It turns out there is a wide variety of support that teachers receive from their school districts.

Most Fulbrighters receive some level of salary and benefits. But there are some districts that completely cut teachers off and assign them an unpaid leave. At our orientation, one teacher shared that her school gave away her position during her leave and when she returned, she had to cobble together three minimum wage jobs until she was able to obtain another teaching position.

My school district, in spite of months of questions, has not told me what I can expect for compensation next year. So I have to plan for zero. This means renting out my home, and moving in with loved ones in order to save money for 2018. This was really hard to do, but I am willing to make sacrifices to get to Finland.

It will mean living like a college student again in order to pay my bills while conducting my inquiry project in Finland.

Many leaders in my district have written congratulatory letters to me and are thorough supporters of my endeavor. But the must frustrating part is those who respond with "what is a Fulbright?" when I try to get answers about my leave. Those are the tough days.

Your Family

There is nothing easy about leaving friends and family behind. But I take this as an opportunity to encourage them all to visit you while abroad. My daughter Alana plans to visit and keep me warm.

Your Housing

Many worry warts have asked me if I am stressed about the move or finding housing or the food or the language. No! I am excited! That is all part of the adventure. When will I ever have the opportunity to find a cool new apartment and be cosmopolitan? When will I ever get to challenge myself by being immersed in a completely foreign culture? Your grow or you die.

The apartment I am looking at is in the city center, a short walk from everything. However, a short walk might seem like torture when it is below zero, but I hope my acclimation will be quick.

As the holidays approach, I continue to gather artifacts and ideas that I will share with the Finnish people. Los Angelenos represent the intersection of race, class, gender, and all that makes America already great. I embark on my Fulbright hoping to share with the Finns as much as they may share with me.

Want to learn about the awesome program that is sending me to Finland? Check it out here.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Application; Am I Worthy?

As a classroom teacher, milestones that determine your accomplishments are quite different than in other professions. Managing an unruly department can be an accomplishment. Applying for and earning a school grant is laudable. National Board Certification? Props.

But would these be enough to qualify me for a Fulbright?

The application itself was formidable. You can peruse it here.

The main focus of the application was previous travel experience and qualifications. Moving to a foreign country for 6 months is no joke, and I saw the questions as a way to gauge your sturdiness in adapting to foreign cultures. While  Finland is not dramatically different than the U.S., the climate is. Going from the land of eternal sunshine to 5 hours of daylight upon arrival will take some adjustment.

For my letters of recommendation, all those commissions in which I participated came in handy. I did not hesitate to ask leaders in education for a letter. They not only obliged, but cheered me on.

For my professional accomplishments, I thought about what I had tried to accomplish during my 20+ years as a teacher:

  1. becoming a model for my students
  2. acquiring top-notch training
  3. joining professional networks
  4. stemming the loss of teachers at my high-needs school
  5. elevating the profession
And yet I was intimidated by the Fulbright. Who did I think I was thinking I could represent the United States of America in such a prestigious manner? Although friends and colleagues assured me I was a strong candidate, I always have a crisis when it comes to high profile opportunities. Teacher stage fright.

I reflected over the study tours I had taken around the world on teacher delegations.

I though of the commissions I worked on at the CA Department of Education.

I thought of the awards I had been fortunate to received.

And then I received a message from a long lost student on Facebook (posted with her permission):

Hello Ms. Infante,

You may not remember me but I'm a former student of yours. I graduated from Bethune MS back in 2005 (12 years ago, WOW!). Just wanted to express my gratitude for encouraging me along with many others, to go to college and succeed in life.

I had a few behavioral issues but with no hesitations, and no questions asked, you enrolled me into the Honors program in Bethune. With the guidance of caring individuals like yourself, I had the support needed to succeed. I'm currently a Graduate Student at CSULB School of Social Work.

Aside from education goals, I also owe to you my aspirations to travel. During our history class you would ALWAYS encourage us to consider traveling. You gave us a sneak peak of the world through pictures of trips you had taken. I remember thinking, God... when I grow up, I'd like to do that! At that age I knew nothing but the streets of South LA. And now, I've visited 9 countries, and counting 😉

The work you do, TRULY changes lives! You instill dreams to students, and you give us the support needed to ensure those dreams come true. You've planted so many seeds throughout the years in areas where there was nothing but dirt....and now, thanks to you, there is a garden 🌼Thanks to individuals like you, generations of educated Latinos are rising. We are no longer a statistic, but are becoming constructive members of society. Thank you for looking past behavioral issues, challenges, and other things, and for valuing each student beyond their flaws, and seeing their true potential 🙂

Best Regards,
Ariana Z

Become a role model for your students. How could I look my students in the eye, exhort them to work hard, dream big, and fly if I wasn't willing to do this myself? After wiping the tears and reflecting on how many students are watching what we say and do, I began the Fulbright application process. After an agonizing 5 month wait, I learned that I too, would be a Fulbrighter. And now the work begins.

Monday, September 4, 2017

It Was One Year Ago Today

In the midst of my 21st year of teaching, I get the email about applying for a Fulbright. It gave me pause.

When you have worked a career that involves so many moving pieces, it seems impossible to tear yourself away from your work. Who will take care of my Advanced Studies Program? How can I walk away from a school that faces dire challenges due to the surrounding poverty in the neighborhood? How could I afford this opportunity, if an unpaid leave of absence might be required?

Then I remembered that my students and families watch what teachers do, not what they say.

My whole career has been dedicated to affording the best educational practices to my students, regardless of their background. And when you think of the best, you think of Finland.

Maybe you've seen the Michael Moore video on Finnish education.

Maybe you've read Tim Walker's funny and informative posts on moving to Finland and learning about the schools and culture (my favorite was My Amathophobic Finnish Wife).

Or maybe you just know that your school and your district can be a place that people want to visit and learn from.

So I applied. And waited. And waited. AND waited.

I got it.

This blog will serve as a repository of my Finnish foray as well as the exporting of the vibrant community of South Central L.A. and Boyle Heights to other parts of the world.

Martha Infante
aka AvalonSensei

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

No to Gangs, Yes to STEM!

Swimming with dolphins. Dissecting squid. Learning about conservation. Visiting a turtle rehabilitation center. Conducting water sampling. Visiting a coral reef. These are just some of the experience we have put together for the students who choose school over all the negative influences in the neighborhood. Would you consider donating and sharing? I THANK YOU IN ADVANCE!!!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Letters to the President

Our very own alum, Elizabeth Chimalpopoca had her letter to the President published in this book! Congrats, Elizabeth!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Studying in the house of wisdom...LAAMS

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

We went to China!

More details to come of our incredible trip this past summer...but first, let's finish the semester. Here's a teaser:

To wand or not to wand?


Admittedly, the first time I saw this happen it was jarring.

But one time, the administrators found a gun in a student's backpack (at former school.)

Another time, they found a razor the student had been using to mutilate herself. They gave her the help she needed.

Some parents appreciate the random security checks. In a country where mass shootings happen daily, folks want to get offended that we wand?

Methinks we have bigger things to argue about. Like suspensions.

P.S. The charter schools oppose wanding...of course, you already expelled all the potential safety risks and sent them back to us. Bye, Felicia!

Suspensions don't work! Tell that to the other 35 students


Question: In lieu of suspensions for severe misbehavior, we offer what? A talking/healing circle?

What if the bully doesn't want to talk or let the victims heal?

We know suspension doesn't work for that ONE student who gets sent home. But does it help the other 35 who remain in school?

Who is fighting for the rights of the 35?

I think I might be the only social justice educator in favor of lifting the suspension ban.

Not for little things like talking back (I applaud it when it is thought provoking and reasoned.)

But for, I don't know, assault? Vandalism? Sexual and profane language?

When the powers that be tie our hands and do not allow the professionals who actually work at the school the authority to make these calls, the misbehaving students see a green light to go on a rampage. It's been happening since suspensions were banned. No, it is not just for willful defiance...a ban has sent a chill down administrator's backs for fear of attracting downtown's attention. So it includes virtually all causes.

If we cannot provide the type of resources needed to support the needs of challenging students, then we are literally handicapping our students from being productive members of society when they become adults by banning suspensions. And we are robbing the other 35 students of the full attention of the teacher.

There has got to be a better way.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

To Be, or Not To Be a Lifer

What do you do for the third act of your career?

Will you keep the promise of service to a challenged community that you made in your early career? (to drunk colleagues at a Margarita Jones?) ”We’re Lifers,” we all agreed, after our third round of margaritas.

Do you give yourself one final challenge and give yourself to other kids who need you just as much but in different ways?

What will you do when you only have 10 years of teaching left? (ish)

These are the questions that have left the Sensei in an existential funk for the last year or so.

Never bright eyed and bushy tailed, work at my last school (a middle school) was every bit the challenge I knew it would be. Questionable leadership, racial politics, and the massive effects of poverty on students made the teaching conditions there…unique. Yet, still, there were incredibly talented teachers who were making a dent in the system. A system where the odds were against these students and teachers, and little was done at an institutional level to bring about real progress. 

There was the Iraq war vet who’s no nonsense persona filled the kids with terror—and love. They knew he cared. And if they ever blew off a district test, he’d have them marching in the rain promising never to score “below basic” again. He’d be in teacher jail today for doing that.

There was the Asian crew of teachers who gave the students a brutal talking to if they dared to call them “pinche Chinos;” it worked. Those hard-headed students learned to respect teachers of all races and treat the women with respect. But, they too would be in jail today (or sued) for having such frank conversations.

There was the funny teacher who would shoot down any and all attempts by ill-intentioned students who were trying to get the class off track. Now you must understand, he was born and raised in the same neighborhood as the students, near 69th and Broadway. He was from the community. He knew the way these kids’ minds worked and what was needed to maintain order in the classroom. When a poor student decided to humiliate the teacher, his speedy and unfiltered responses would elicit major props by students, who knew not to mess with him in a battle of wits. He too would be in teacher jail.

I mention these cases, and a few of my own, to indicate that times have changed. The tools we had to counter the misbehavior of students have been taken from teachers. The system that is L.A. Unified has reacted to their own mishandling of many issues by establishing policies that compensate for their own shortcomings.  

In the case of sexual abuse, one would think that structural changes would be made to how teachers are supervised. I don’t know, maybe additional visits to all teachers’ classrooms whether they are evaluated or not? Strolls through the hallways at lunch to ensure no students are alone with teachers?


Instead, entire faculties have been removed from schools, teachers are quickly thrown in teacher jail for the most insignificant allegations, and administrators have their pensions threatened if they don’t walk the straight and narrow path of district policy. You are 10 minutes tardy to my class? Give me 10 jumping jacks. “No, you can’t do that, Ms. Infante, it is corporal punishment.” You want to vandalize my desks with permanent markers? Pick up a bag full of trash from the campus at lunch. “No, Ms. Infante, you are hurting their self-esteem.”

And here’s the kicker. You can say “Fuck you,” “you’re a bitch”, and kick my door as if you are going to tear it down, and per district rules, you cannot be suspended. And all the while, those far removed from schools, those making policy, pat themselves on the back and boast about thelow suspension numbers. As if they are working. As if it is not taking years off of teachers’ lives with the stress of being unable to truly discipline kids in a manner which we know is best. As if the other 39 kids aren’t looking at you with fear of the disruptors, frustration at lack of teaching and learning due to the interruptions, or worse, a gleam in their eye when it strikes them that they too can “turn up” with no consequences.

No suspension is a gift from god to parents who cannot handle their own children; they tell us as much at parent conferences. Or they tell us not to bother them with so many phone calls. My favorite recent one was the parent who was a no show at a parent conference that I only went to work for while seriously ill.  When I called to ask where she was, and told her that I made an extra effort to be there for her, she yells “Well no one told you to do that! Why would you do that?” “I was honoring my commitment to your child, who is my student.” “Well you need to take care of yourself and stop asking me questions.” The student returned to class, wreaking more havoc, interrupting learning. Victorious and emboldened. Now I am experienced enough to know that a parent raising a child in poverty is at their wits end. I know they may not have the emotional and economic resources to help their child (and themselves) in the way they need. Which is why economics is such a pervasive factor in how students perform in school. Want to fix schools? Fix poverty. Or give us the right resources.

Sadly, all summer wasn’t enough to recover from my 19thyear of teaching. My friends at more stable schools were worried. Friends and family begged me to move. Job offers arrive in my inbox from friends and colleagues who sensed I would for once consider moving to their schools. Yoga, jogging, and clean eating wasn’t enough. My twitter PLC wasn’t enough.

Heroically, my school is doing what it can while its hands are tied by district policy. We are asked to do miracles by the sadly misinformed (or contemptuously indifferent).  It’s an existential crisis because you realize the whole system is stacked against success. Yours and your students. Money that can be spent on counselors, health access, and a robust curriculum is going to the billion dollar testing industry. And even well intentioned peers fighting for social justice still focus on helping that one lost kid but forget the 39 other ones impatient to learn.

You walk a fine line when you write a post like this; you might give ammo to those who will say,” I told you those black and brown kids can’t be educated.” Yet it is more obvious than ever that it’s not about black and brown; it’s about green. Those who can move to a better neighborhood can and will. Those who are mired in poverty and cannot escape its wide effects, stay in local schools where they are not expected to volunteer 40 hours and their students won’t be suspended for cursing the teacher. Black and brown kids of more green do just fine in other places. The greener, the finer.

Affluent schools don’t do annual standardized testing, but offer bountiful programs in the arts and sciences, have libraries full of books, and offer all kinds of sports. Our kids get “restorative justice”, but most classrooms are yet to experience the wonders of that program.

BTW where is the justice for the 39 other kids in the class who are playing by the rules?

I recently ran across an old friend who said he was “scared to tell me” he had moved on to an affluent private school. I looked him square in the eye and said “you gave these kids more than a decade of your life. You changed lives. Walk with your head held high.” Because the majority of teachers would never willingly work in schools like mine if they didn’t have to (some side eye there.)

I used to think I’d be a Lifer. But now I just don’t know. How can you look your charges in the eye when you see that no one really expects them to succeed, and slowly, but surely, all your secret weapons for countering the odds are being taken from you (thou shalt not lie?) Even the greatest of teachers can’t impart knowledge when the interrupter, the shouter, the ADHD, the willfully defiant, and the angry student have decided that no learning will take place today, and the district is on their side.

Is 26 years of service enough?

Any thoughts, comments, or questions would be welcome on this post.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Sensei Goes to Sacramento

Did you know that there is a blueprint for California schools? It's a road map that tells where schools are headed, and how they will get there. Check it out here.

Well now that document needs an update and the State Superintendent of Instruction, Tom Torlakson, has asked a classroom teacher to co-chair the update process of the blueprint. A teacher whose school is in South Central L.A...you guessed it. Me!

The Blueprint addresses important issues such as:
  • Educator Quality
  • Curriculum and Assessment
  • Higher Education and Secondary Alignment
  • Accountability and School Improvement
  • Early Childhood Education
  • Education Supports
  • Health, Nutrition and Physical Fitness
  • School Finance
  • Facilities and Construction Reform

Working with my co-chair Chris Steinhauser, the Superintendent of Long Beach Unified, will be a treat; I have much respect for someone who can manage a large district and avoid debacles like iPads and tech systems. His union-management agreement on teacher evaluations is a model for districts.

So why have a classroom teacher lead this initiative? Because our SSI values the opinions of those who are still in the classroom. And what will these strategies look like in the most challenging schools? 

It looks like this blog is achieving its purpose. Tom Torlakson did not forget South Central.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

We Got Noticed!

There's a write up about teacher bloggers in the latest CTA issue. This was one of the featured blogs! It's a bittersweet feeling. This blog was created in 2009 when our school was decimated by budget cuts and layoffs. Six years later the economy is finally recovering, but nothing is in place to make sure it never happens again.

Who tanked our economy? Why were the most vulnerable of our population the ones to bear the brunt of the recession? Why are the majority of public school students in poverty?

I'm really glad that CTA featured this blog and that the issues of students from poverty (and the teachers who teach them) are getting attention. This blog has led me to connect with some amazing educators and leaders from across the nation, especially those who tweet about #educolor on Twitter.

I hope that more teachers are encouraged to step outside of their classroom to blog or tweet and make their voices heard. Each school is its own ecosystem with particular and unique needs, and the public needs to know about them. This blogger will continue to do her best to bring attention to the strengths and needs of the students, parents, and teachers of South Central as well.

Yours Truly,


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

AvalonSensei's Best and Worst of 2014 #LAUSD

Thumbs Down in 2014

1. iPad Debacle
John Deasy ordered the spending of millions of dollars for the highest priced tablets that could have been spent on lowering class sizes for more individual attention of students. Some classes reached the 50's...that's not instruction. It's crowd control.

2. Misis Catastrophe
The district dragged its feet to become compliant with a consent decree, and then hurriedly rushed out a software program riddled with glitches. Worse, they refused to slow down when warned repeatedly by teachers that the program wasn't ready to go live.

3. Lack of a contract settlement (7 years without a cost of living adjustment)
It's disheartening to see our leaders lie and deceive about how much money is in the budget to afford teachers and others a raise. Not even a raise, because that would take back pay on the 7 years our COLA was absconded with by the district. Teachers have families too.

4. Local control formula that keeps focusing on the same 'ol, same 'ol
What's the point in shifting control to local schools when the folks in power keep emphasizing English, Math, and the Common Core? What about the arts, sports, and gifted education?

5. Breakfast in the Classroom continues to bring pests into the classroom
Seriously, this was just a publicity stunt. If you're going to do it, do it right. Double the number of custodial staff at each school and buy better food. That bird seed bar has got to go. 

Thumbs Up in 2014

1. Ramon Cortines-He's a benevolent dictator, and I'm ok with that (he was an educator)
Welcome back, Mr. Cortines! Just remember that the public trusts YOU to do right by the kids and not by Pearson, Apple, and Scholastic. Just sayin'.

2. Prop 30 funding
Thank you, Californians!

3. Tom Torlakson re-elected
This is a man who knows what's best for schools. I look forward to 4 more years of leadership.

4. John Deasy exits the district
Don't let the door hit ya on the way out.

5. New union leadership (Alex Caputo-Pearl is the Business!)
Finally, an intellectual.

6. The dedicated teachers of South Central L.A (and all around the world!)
You know you are making a true difference in the lives of children.

Thank you all who read this blog. I want the record to show how the real people: students, parents, and teachers dealt with the consequences of the decisions made by people far from schools, some with no educational background whatsoever. 

We want schools to improve, but treat teachers with contempt. Well, that's never going to work. So we write. We march. We join. We participate. And we document.

Looking forward to a productive year in 2015!

Martha Infante aka AvalonSensei

Monday, November 24, 2014

Top 10 Takeaways from NCSS Conference

The National Council for the Social Studies conference was everything I thought it would be and more. While the experience is fresh in my mind, I'll share my top 10 takeaways from the conference.

1. Twitter is great, but nothing beats person to person learning, networking, and inspiration!

2. The C3 Framework is coming. It's here. Lots of districts are moving on this. Is yours?

3. Michelle Herzog is the BUSINESS.

4. Just when you had your mind made up about the immigration policy you hear this guy speak: Jose Antonio Vargas.

5. Boston was a phenomenal place to hold a social studies conference.

6. LAUSD (cc: Ramon Cortines), teachers need to leave the classroom, the school, and sometimes the state to get top notch professional development. ITS FOR THE STUDENTS!

7. Charter school teachers want to get connected. Their people won't do it. Our people won't do it. WE'll DO IT.

8.We honor our own. Nobody else does. Honor an educator by being a part of our community.

9. Teachers shouldn't have to stay in hostels to afford top quality training.

10. Do you belong to a professional organization? If not, why? Numbers=power, respect for the profession.

CA Council for the Social Studies
National Council for the Social Studies
National Council of Teachers of English
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
National Science Teachers Association