Sunday, May 15, 2022

An Open Letter To The Frustrated Public

It has been over two years since the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  What started in March of 2020 as a two-week pause quickly turned into the closing of schools and many aspects of our lives for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, and for many more, continued closures through much of the 2020-2021 school year.  As we have passed the two-year mark, the world is done.  We are fed up with closures.  We are fed up with masking.  We are fed up with limited supply chains.  We are fed up with shortages of workers that are plaguing restaurants, stores, and more.  And when I say we, I mean everybody.  Nobody wants this to continue.  This transcends urban and rural, political affiliation, etc.  We all want to world to return to some sort of a sense of normalcy.  However, the frustrations of a few are starting to rear their ugly head on society as a whole and it is counterproductive and discouraging to everyone that is simply trying their best to get through each day.  So that being said, here are a few observations that I have made recently. 

1.  A few weeks ago, with the surge in COVID cases due to the Omicron variant, many schools were shut down again in an attempt to mitigate the number of people absent from school.  This caused families last-minute grief in attempts to secure childcare, services for students that would receive them at school, and much more.  Understandably, people were frustrated and fearful that another long-term closure was going to follow and for the most part, did not happen as cases have subsided.  However, please understand that these temporary closures were out of an abundance of caution and frankly, because schools did not, and do not, have the personnel to keep schools open.  On one day at my school back in January, we had FORTY teachers out due to illness.  On top of that, hundreds of students were absent from school for the same reason.  Subs were and still are essentially non-existent, so the teachers that are able to go to work are covering classes during their prep period or bringing in classes that needed to be covered into their own classroom.  

2.  When COVID-19 forced the closures of schools and society in March 2020, schools had to change how schools operated in a span of a couple of days.  In those first few weeks, educators were hailed as heroes and many families expressed their gratitude for what educators do on a daily basis, many of whom commented on how they were struggled to handle a couple of kids, let alone classrooms of 30 or more.  However, the proverbial honeymoon is over and educators are the scapegoat for just about everything, including why students aren't performing academically, behavioral issues, social-emotional struggles, and more.  It's discouraging to educators that pour themselves into their work on a daily basis only to see and hear the armchair quarterbacks continuously scrutinize every little thing.  

3.  State legislatures and local school boards across the country are only making educators' lives worse with some of the mind-boggling laws and regulations that are being passed.  Laws that require weeks, if not an entire year, of lesson plans to be submitted for approval, banned book lists, Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law, and several states and localities' critical race theory regulations are making the profession harder and harder to navigate, is discouraging passionate educators, and is driving and will continue to drive even more out of the profession, one that was already in crisis shortage mode.  On top of that, the people that are showing up at school board meetings to basically threaten members of the board and the community over some of these issues is downright scary.  

If you are an educator that is reading this, KEEPING DOING WHAT YOU ARE DOING! Go to school every day that are able to and give your best to your students.  Keep trying new and innovative ways to motivate and educate.  Take care of yourself by leaving work at work, doing something that you enjoy, eating good food, and getting in some exercise on a daily basis.  Know that you are doing the best that you can and that nobody can take that from you, and know that you are appreciated! 

If you are a parent or guardian reading this, know that we are doing our best and have the best interest of your child(ren) in mind, just like you do.  We may not agree on everything, but we can also work together to meet the needs and goals of your child(ren).  Reach out to us when you have questions or concerns.  Please respond when we reach out to you; it's frustrating and discouraging when we try to contact parents and cannot get a response, especially when we have something great to say!  

If you are a member of the community reading this, we value your input, but we also value civility.  Storming in to a school board meeting and screaming or making threats does not help your cause.  We may disagree on various things, but we can work them out in a civilized manner and with a little grace and understanding.  

If you are a politician reading this, we really could use your help.  We need schools to be adequately funded.  We need resources to help students and educators with mental health.  We need you, no matter your political beliefs or party affiliation, to work together to solve problems, not just rely on a majority to push through a personal, political, or party agenda.  We need you to be examples of civility, debating ideas and policies, not attacking people because of their beliefs, or worse, because of who they are.  We need you to stop making mountains out of molehills, or in some cases, mountains out of craters (I'll let you try to interpret what topics I am referring to here).  

To anybody that is reading this, the world seems to have turned a corner, at least in the United States.  Mask mandates have been dropped in most places, concerts and sporting events are at full capacity, and numbers of positive cases have dropped significantly.  While it seems that everything is back to normal, there is still the linger threat of another outbreak at any given time, especially when the city of Shanghai and its 25+ million residents in lockdown, we still need to be vigilant to protect each other.  We've come a long way in two years, let's come together to get through whatever the coming days, weeks, months, and years have in store for us! 

Until next time... 

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Spring CUE 2022: A Reflection

"Could I have another one of those chewy Sweet Tarts, please?", I asked while fighting the setting sun coming directly through the windshield.  The trip had already been about three and a half hours, but great conversation and a constant onslaught of songs from Pennywise, Bad Religion, NOFX, The Bronx, Dropkick Murphys, Teenage Bottle Rocket, and many more had made the drive seem much shorter.  With only about 45 more minutes to go, the excitement was starting to build.  And then the phone rang...

On the other end of the line was Adam Juarez, asking where I was at.  "Between Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley, almost there," was my reply.  After a quick conversation about our road trips thus far and an even quicker plan for a time later in the evening, we said our goodbyes and got back to the task at hand: getting to Palm Springs in one piece.  

After three years, the Spring CUE Conference in Palm Springs, California, was IN PERSON from March 17-19.  While the virtual events were still great experiences in 2020 and 2021, I NEEDED this conference for a lot of reasons.  But rewind a few months back and I didn't think I was going to be able to make it.  When originally looking at the dates and my calendar, I mistakenly thought that I was going to be in Reno for my daughter's dance competition on the same weekend as Spring CUE.  Because of my mistake, I did not submit any sessions to present.  However, once I realized that they would be on different weekends, I quickly signed up, booked a hotel, and asked a couple of colleagues if they would want to go as well.  So after school on Tuesday, March 16, my colleagues, Jennifer Lee and Dana Cuni, and I loaded up my car and set out on the quiet ribbon of asphalt through the Mojave Preserve, through tiny hamlets like Kelso and Amboy (and past Amboy's $6.99/gallon gas), through Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley, the gateway to Joshua Tree National Park, and on Palms Springs, the city in which I made my annual pilgrimage for many years before COVID-19 turned the world upside down.  

Deep in thought with Adam Juarez

So much of the ensuing three days are a blur to me.  So much was going on, there were so many people that I hadn't seen in so long to see, and so many more people to meet, whether I had been connected with them virtually for years or connecting with some for the very first time.  Because I can get a little longwinded in my words, I am going to bullet point my highlights from this year's conference:

  • Wednesday nights in Palm Springs do not have an abundance of restaurants open, especially for delivery.  However, this is where Joe Marquez, Adam Juarez, and I discovered how awesome the mini churros from Jack in the Box can be.  Whether it was because we were that hungry or because they really are that good remains to be seen; I guess I need to make a JITB run sometime soon to find out...
  • As a volunteer for badge pick up on Thursday morning of the conference, I needed to get down to the convention center by about 9:45 before doors opened to conference attendees at 10:00.  I got down there about 8:45 and ran into a few people, thinking that I had about an hour to hang out.  It's a good thing that I was there, along with a few other volunteers.  The line for those waiting to get in was already several hundred by a little bit after 9:00, so many in fact that it was decided to open the doors early.  Just seeing the smiles on all of the faces coming through was enough to put me in a good mood for the remainder of the conference!
  • How did we eat at the conference in the past before DoorDash and UberEats were really a thing?  For me, I either didn't eat or I packed some simple things like granola bars and beef jerky.  The shawarma wrap and hummus I got delivered during a down period on day one were a lot better than snacks or the overpriced convention food!
  • And speaking of food, how much money did I spend on dinner and drinks in the past?  I don't have an answer to that, but thanks to generous vendors and their happy hours at various establishments around Palm Springs, I did not pay for a meal between Wednesday evening's Jack in the Box delivery (thank you to Adam Juarez for the shawarma delivery on Thursday) and pizza at Shakey's before we left town on Saturday
  • The areas around the Palm Springs Convention Center and Renaissance Hotel are great for skateboarding, as Adam and I learned while cutting a promo video for Adam's CUE Board election (if you are a CUE member and haven't voted for the board elections yet, please do so!)
  • While smaller this year, there was no shortage of great sessions, many of which were recorded so one could go back and watch at a later time; I'm still checking out sessions as I write this nearly two weeks after the conference began
  • While knowing it had been three years since attending and seeing so many of my friends I have come to know over the years, it was like we had never been apart once we got together again! So many great conversations, hugs, high fives, and more were exchanged!  
  • Perhaps the biggest thing that did not change was the sleep that I needed when I got home.  I fell asleep a little before 10 on Saturday night after I got home and rolled out of bed a little bit before 9 the next morning.  My FitBit track 9 hours and 38 minutes of actual sleep during that period of time and rated the sleep that I got as excellent! 
In closing, I want to thank CUE for putting on another incredible conference, one that was desperately needed by so many.  I also want to thank the many people that interacted with, old friends, new friends, and just those that I spoke with for a second or two, if you were there and are reading this, you know who you are, there are too many to name!  And thanks to my road trip crew, Jennifer Lee and Dana Cuni, for the laughs, the learning, the moments of seriousness, and everything in between; remember, there are always mulligans in punk rock! I cannot wait for Spring CUE 2023!  I had so much fun that I took maybe 6 pictures the entire time, but I swiped a bunch that people took and posted to the socials.  And lastly, just remember, smoke brisket, not meth!

Until next time... 

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Conference Season, In-Person!

It has been a long couple of years.  As of this writing, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel.  COVID-19 cases have been steadily dropping (I myself tested positive in January after receiving my third dose of the vaccine, doses that contributed to preventing me from having any symptoms of the virus), mask mandates have been dropped in many places, and even the CDC is looking forward to loosened restrictions and moving into a stage of the pandemic where we learn to live with the virus.  

The last couple of years has resulted in a lot of events that have been canceled, gone virtual, or have resorted to very limited capacity.  This includes educational conferences, something that I have enjoyed attending for many years.  I tried to do virtual conferences, but they just weren't the same.  I realized how much I thrived on meeting with people face-to-face for those "hallway conversations," something that just was not there in the virtual conference setting.  

So a few months back, when I was asked by my principal if I wanted to go to The Dream Deferred Conference in Washington, D.C., I was in for many reasons.  For starters, I attended the conference last year virtually, and while a virtual is not my cup of tea, the sessions were incredible and I told my principal at the time that I would love to go to it the next time it was in person.  Secondly, this conference is not typical of the conference that I usually attend.  Most of the conferences that I have attended in the last 5 years or so have been focused on educational technology.  A Dream Deferred is a conference hosted by the College Board that focuses on educational issues surrounding Black and African American students; many sessions focus on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).  This would also give me an opportunity to expand my network in another direction  And selfishly, the conference was going to be in WASHINGTON, D.C., a city that I have always wanted to visit but have never had the opportunity to see.  

I did not know what to expect going into the conference.  For the weeks ahead of its start, various emails were sent by College Board outlining the sessions, where to stay, and COVID protocols.  I honestly didn't look much at the sessions ahead of time; I had a feeling some of them would not be on the schedule once the conference started because of the changing dynamics of travel, COVID, etc. (I wasn't wrong).  My colleagues and I chose a hotel about a 10 minute walk from the conference hotel, as it was about half of the price.  And as for COVID?  In the beginning, I was expecting proof of vaccinations and required masking.  But because a lot had changed in the three months leading to the conference, COVID requirements changed as well.  The conference ended up requiring a proof of vaccination, proof of a negative test within two days of the conference starting (a test that the conference provide by mailing it to attendees a couple of weeks ahead of time), and masks were strongly encouraged (most people were fully masked the entire time, and I honored it as well).  

Why an album cover from one of
the most influential hardcore bands
of all time?  Keep reading...
Another fun aspect to the COVID protocols was a set of buttons that we received upon checking.  The buttons were meant to be worn on our conference badge to show our comfort with social distancing.  A green button read "Handshakes & High Fives,", a yellow button read "Elbows OK," and a red button read "Waves Only."  I ended up wearing the green button, but I must say, there were some awkward moments of reaching out to others or others reaching to me and not knowing how to react; strange how two years of not shaking hands, something that I ALWAYS did prior to the pandemic, can become something that you have to learn to do again.  

The conference offered a ton of great sessions, and while I wish I could have attended more, I was able to get to several incredible sessions.  A few of my favorite takeaways from the sessions include:

  • a program in a school from Washington, D.C. that meets with EVERY student starting their junior year to assist in transitioning to life after high school by helping students explore their interests, applying for college, trade schools, internships, jobs, etc., checking in on student progress toward getting to their goal for after high school, and following up with students in the years after high school to see where they ended up
  • a session from a clinical psychologist about the scientific benefits of self-care for educators and students and ways to "put your mask on first"
  • critical race theory (CRT): what it is, what it is not, and how to teach topics deemed to be controversial and sensitive by legislation from states around the country without violating the law
  • tips for white educators on how they can support their historically underserved students by building relationships, leading with empathy, being genuine, and more

My recreation of Minor Threat!
But this conference was not just about the sessions and the notes I took while listening to the presentations.  It was about meeting new people from all over the country.  It was about getting to know some of my colleagues that I have worked with for the past two years but didn't know much about.  It was about side conversations in the halls between sessions.  It was about the incredible food and drink in the hours after the conference. Or in my case, the days after the conference, as I stayed for an extra two days to take in the city and see the sights that I have always wanted to see and had only read about.  In no particular order, I got to experience the National Mall and monuments like the Vietnam Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and the Washington Monument, the Library of Congress, Arlington National Cemetary, Ford's Theater, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Museum of the American Indian, the White House, several breweries, and perhaps my best meal (twice) while in the Nation's Capitol, Ben's Chili Bowl (get the banana pudding!).  And just for fun, I made sure to reenact an album cover from Washington D.C.'s own, Minor Threat, while strolling the grounds around the Capitol Building.  

After a few days of reflection on the conference and my time in D.C., I get to look forward to another conference, this time, Spring CUE, in person for the first time since 2019!  I cannot begin to express how excited I am for that one, and because there is so much to talk about it, I'll save it for another post.  

Until next time...