Category Archives: gifted children

Learning From Lucero: Another Face of the Dream Act

249026_166056856898935_354667876_nIn thirty-some years as an educator, I have never seen a child quite like Lucero Chavez.  My first recollection of her is not just her dark eyes, wide open and ready to learn.  Not just her extraordinary drive– that silent motor that hummed somewhere from deep inside her.  Not just her willingness to push mountains of assignments and projects and papers and essays and school tasks faster than her teachers could assign them. Not just her manners, though she has those in abundance. Not just her excellence.

Instead, my first recollection of Lucero Chavez is of her indescribable grace. I clearly remember, mostly as she got older, that she was a presence, in any room or gathering.  A very quiet presence. Even mysterious.

At Mueller Charter School, we have had thousands of children blessed with many different gifts and talents– some discovered but most still incubating.  The longer they are with us on their journey from kindergarten through middle school, the more we become aware of them: kids that are funny, or athletic, or bright, or troubled, or loud, or musical, or demanding, or engaging. Leaders, followers, drivers, entertainers, statesmen.  Individually, they emerge from their self-imposed shadows on the strength of those unique qualities.  Indeed, the great joy of teaching is watching a young person begin to flower and evolve.  And we have had so many students who were blessed in so many different ways.

But none of those were the gift that set Lucero apart.

It was her grace; an almost-haunting presence that was part intellectual, part spiritual.  Inside any classroom, and in the hundreds of weekly assemblies in which Lucero participated over the years– even gatherings outdoors– I can still see her.  Always as close to the front as she could get, always sitting up straight—not for the sake of perfect posture—but so that she could more efficiently absorb every word that was spoken. No matter how crowded, no matter the climate of the room–wherever you stood or walked or paced, if you were speaking– her eyes were riveted.  Eerily attentive.  As if she were dependent on every syllable and teaching for her very breath—no matter how nonsensical, or vapid, or routine, or insignificant.  As if you and Lucero Chavez, were the only two people in the room.

Lucero Chavez has an extraordinary desire to learn from people and places and events around her.  Her thirst for learning is both palpable and insatiable.

It would be so easy to mistake her devotion to learning as simple compliance, or a young girl’s blind obedience to authority.  But from the moment Lucero Chavez first realized that she had a power within her to literally change the world—somewhere back in her first years at Mueller Charter School—she has been on her own remarkable journey.

In her junior year of high school, while the ever-shifting economy was grinding down so many families across America, it was grinding down Lucero’s family too.  Soon they lost their home and a place in the market.  All the while, in tragic and silent dignity, she endured.  Endured the ambiguity that poverty creates—the uncertainty of the train derailed.  Endured her parents’ pain and the loss of her room and her kitchen table and the hallway lined with her honor student certificates and photos dancing in the ballet folklorico.

But she embraced homelessness with the same dignity and attentiveness that she embraced all her other learning experiences.  She sat up straight, her dark eyes wide open and fixed on going forward, and she continued her journey.

UnknownBy midway through her senior year, she had been accepted to every college and university to which she applied.  Her first choice was Dartmouth.  And because her family was still reeling from homelessness, she would need financial assistance to go so far away.    So like thousands of other high school seniors, she began the process of applying for financial assistance. And in piecing together her life history in response to the many prying questions written to ascertain whether Lucero Chavez was diligent and deserving enough to pursue her dream of attending such a prestigious Ivy League college – she discovered something about herself she never knew.  Something her parents had never told her.  Something potentially more debilitating to a kid than sudden homelessness. Something that in the present light of divisive national politics and racism—would destroy a weaker person and all her dreams.

Lucero discovered she was not an American citizen.

She had been brought to the United States illegally as an infant.  Brought by parents who could look beyond the border walls and see Unknown-1the lights of America and know that that is where they wanted to raise their little girl.  And so they came.  Like your forbearers and mine.  Not for their own gain, but for Lucero.

And she has consistently rewarded her parents and family and teachers and friends– giving back to them through her remarkable academic and personal excellence.

In June of 2013, Lucero Chavez represented the 700 graduating seniors of Hilltop High School as their class valedictorian, and delivered her message of resilience to the world.

It was extraordinary in what she didn’t say.  She didn’t describe her struggles through poverty.  She never once mentioned her acceptance letter from Dartmouth or boast about her extraordinary academic achievements in multiple languages.  She didn’t mention that she opted to attend University of San Diego– partly out of fear that, as a result of her now-public dilemma,  her parents could be deported.  She didn’t rail on our policy makers for their inability to deliver a definitive message or compassionate safeguards through the so-called Dream Act.

Instead, she delivered a hopeful and familiar message that spoke for the common and routine experience of every high school kid in the room: the insecurities of adolescence, the joy of Friday night football and prom, the relative accomplishments of student leadership groups, and of course, the relationships.

Grace.

Beyond that, for Lucero Chavez at least, the future is less certain.

I sat at the edge of my chair and listened.  I hung on every word.  And as she spoke, I could not take my eyes her.  Could not fight back the tears of pride and regret that I was not more of a light for her– this extraordinary young woman grown before our very eyes.

Twelve years ago I wrote the vision statement that defines our school today: “Our Children Will Change the World.”  It was not meant to be a just another cheesy slogan with which to decorate school stationary.  It is our collective vision.  It means that these children– mostly Latino, mostly from high poverty homes where parents sacrificed everything for the education that they never had—these children who are easy to ignore and discount and write off and deport—will have the capacity and opportunity to literally change our world for the better if we position them to do so.  If we provide them with the caring and support.  If we maintain high expectations.  If we provide them with opportunities to fully develop their gifts and their voice.

imageIn the weeks leading up to her Valedictorian speech, Lucero was beset with media outlets requesting interviews and longing to tell her story.  Even CNN.  She is the face of homelessness.  The face of an immigration policy in desperate need of a champion.  And ironically, the face of American excellence.  She is single-handedly changing the world.

And now, after thirty some years in education, and tens of thousands of students– most now grown to adults—my own personal mission is fulfilled.  By none, more remarkable, more courageous, more resilient, more blessed… than Lucero Chavez.

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Filed under bilingual education, California charter schools, children at risk, El Milagro, Fighting for Ms. Rios, gifted children, immigration, President Obama, public education, resiliency, spiritual intelligence, the Dream Act

FEARING SHADOWS: OUR SCHOOLS AT THAT FAMILIAR CROSSROADS

“When you come to a fork in the road… take it.” — Yogi Berra

images-1We stand at a crossroads and I realize I’ve been here before.

If we continue to do what we are doing– to walk a curricular path that is confined to reading and math and mastering only one language — we will not die.  But many of our children will.  Just as they have during this past decade when school reform meant preparing students for standardized tests that ignore the many natural and innate ways in which kids are actually intelligent.

Or we can go back to the old road– the one we all walked through the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s when we were just kids ourselves;  where inequalities were enshrined in law and in our cultural DNA.  Remember that road?  The public school system convulsed from one legal mandate to the next trying to reflect the very Constitution we taught in social studies every day:  Brown v Bd of Education, PL94-142, Title IX, Lau v Nichols, and on. And on… until we got it (sort of) right.  In that era, there were no standards.  No expectations.  No accountability.  And little growth. Children of privilege did as well as they wanted. Children of color… not so much.  And the achievement chasm split the socioeconomic continuum like a great Grand Canyon.  There were haves.  And not.

And now there is a pathway toward the Common Core.  This is where the handwringing begins.Unknown

This is when educators fear a loss of control– as if they forgot their place in the political machinery of public education.  (Don’t you know? Public tax dollars pay for schools and salaries.  Those dollars are allocated by elected officials.  Those elected officials represent voters who demand certain actions in exchange for their votes.  Things like… schools where all children are learning what the community wants their children to learn.)

This is when the loudest voices are often from those who haven’t even read the standards, but envision a set of mind-numbing factoids that every kid will be required to swallow.  They hype their own fear.  The nationalization of learning.  The standardization of our kids.  (Wasn’t there a song about that from Pink Floyd or somebody?)

This is when educators begin to doubt their capacity to behave as they would have their students behave.

After a decade of complaints about the road we were currently on– the so-called reform road– we are beginning anew.  We are on the cusp of another full-scale transformation from basic skills and test prep academies to 21st century skills.

Never in the long (constantly changing) history of public education has there ever been a more promising opportunity to insure that every student has the skills and knowledge and values to compete and contribute in their world:  the ability to think creatively and critically, to seek relevance in daily school tasks, to readily apply new learnings to authentic problems, to communicate effectively in multiple ways and contexts and audiences.

Entrepreneurialism. Innovation. Civic Literacy. Activism. Voice.

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Progress.

At the crossroads, there is angst in the air.  There always is.

But when you come to that fork in the road…

*     *     *

• More from Kevin W. Riley at the official website of The Milagro Publications

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THROUGH THEIR EYES

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IDEO, the Palo Alto company famous for designing Apple’s first mouse back in the 80’s, has since created user-centered solutions for everything from computer games to ice cream scoopers, defibrillators and shopping carts.  As one of the world’s leading innovators in Human-Centered Design,  they even create strategies to address such social issues as poverty, nutrition, health, water and sanitation, economic empowerment, access to financial services, and gender equity throughout the world.

It should not be surprising that they also have some thoughts about designing our schools from the perspective of the students who attend them every day. Everything from the culture of school environments and education reform initiatives, right down to more user-friendly student desks.

And, of course, Aiden also has some ideas about school designs as he develops his journals in Fighting for Ms. Rios.

Ultimately, Fighting for Ms. Rios is not just about a kid and his teacher.  It’s deeper than that.  It’s a case for intentionally designing student-centered schools around a culture of what the corporate world refers to as “deep customer empathy”.  Authentic relationships.  Mutual respect. Caring. User-centered design!

imagesThe notion of “empathy” is a central tenet of Dev Patnaik’s book called Wired to Care. Patnaik, a renown business strategist, writes about how organizations of all kinds prosper when they tap into a power each of us already has: empathy, the ability to reach outside of ourselves and connect with other people.  He believes that when people inside a company develop a shared sense of what’s going on in the world, they see new opportunities faster than their competitors. They have the courage to take a risk on something new. And they have the gut-level certitude to stick with an idea that doesn’t take off right away.

In Patnaik’s view, people are naturally “wired to care” and many of the world’s best organizations are, too. But they must learn to stop worrying about their own problems and see the world through each other’s eyes.

Ms. Rios had a natural gift for empathizing with her students and Aiden writes about it constantly.  In “THE NINTH JOURNAL: The Last Day” he says:

During that time Ms. Rios found hope and inspiration in her students. She believed in every last one of us from Trinity to Atticus Hinzo to Rafael to Angela to Charlie Flowers and Remy Padilla and Vera Ruiz and Inca and even Lester…and me. And Raymond. Especially Raymond.

Raymond, is a special needs student who was placed in her classroom to test his ability to adapt to every-day school routines.   He struggled… (because he had special needs!)  Ms. Rios’ class would have been the perfect placement– but she was a brand new teacher and too easily influenced by Wanda, the burned-out teacher next door.  As we come to know Ms. Rios from Aiden’s writings– a natural born teacher wired to care– we realize that giving up so quickly on Raymond was very much out of character for her:

In his few short weeks with Ms. Rios, he had taught her more about teaching than any university or workshop or conference or colleague ever could.  She knew in her bones that she had given up on Raymond far too soon and she vowed to never let that happen again.  She regretted listening to Wanda.  She should have been Raymond’s advocate.

From that day forward, Ms. Rios never quit believing in her students. No matter what.  She remained resilient. (From “Lambs”)

It is possible (and critical) to design and manage schools–including the systems, services, relationships and programs– from the student out… instead of the outside in.  But to do so, we truly have to see the world through our students’ eyes.  That’s really what “deep customer empathy” is all about– and why, by the end of her first year, we come to regard Ms. Rios as such an extraordinary teacher.  And why Aiden becomes the voice of children in schools everywhere.

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MADELINE’S COSTUME

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The Human Rights Campaign has been profoundly influential in encouraging public schools to develop policies that protect students from any forms of discrimination or bullying– especially LGBT students.  San Diego Unified School District, for example, has developed a model, Board-adopted, anti-discrimination policy that assures children a safe learning environment, regardless of their “actual or perceived” sex, gender, or ethnic group identification.

Adopting policies that prohibit discrimination in our schools is essential for children and staff.  But the real work is in creating safe, inclusive, loving environments that are often the one safe haven in a community.  Like El Milagro.

In “Fighting for Ms. Rios,” Aiden introduces us to Matty in the Fourth Journal: Virtuosos.

Matty was an athlete. Matty was a fierce competitor. Matty played little league. Matty played kickball. Matty wore a Baltimore Ravens football jersey. Number fifty-two. Matty always had a short-cropped haircut and was tall and thin. Matty pounded Augie behind the backstop for trying to cut to the front of the kickball line. Matty cussed and spit and told crude jokes and talked with a full mouth.

For Halloween Matty dressed up as a professional baseball player. A catcher with eye black and all the gear and the shin guards and a cup. (Madeline’s Costume)

Aiden has been playing with Matty since the beginning of the school year, but it is not until the Halloween Carnival– when the kids take a bathroom break and go into separate facilities– that he discovers she is really a girl.  The other kids knew all along.  Perhaps they have known her since kindergarten.  Perhaps they paid attention when their teachers lined up the boys and the girls separately.  Perhaps in elementary school  it just doesn’t start to matter yet.

“Matty is a girl, you dumbass!” said Charlie Flowers. He stopped adjusting the crimson pirate bandana that bordered his crimson head. He paused and looked at me to see if I was serious. “She’s supposed to go into the girls’ restroom.”

Matty is a character based on several students we have served at Mueller Charter School.  Even in pre-adolescent years, some children identify more with children of the opposite gender– and at that age– it is often difficult to tell them apart.  Matty dressed like a boy, wore her hair like a boy, talked like a boy and behaved like a boy.  Enough to confuse Aiden, who seems to blush a little, shrug his shoulders, and move on:  “In any case, it just didn’t seem to matter much at the Halloween Carnival where, at least for one night, we were all hiding behind one disguise or another.”

We have seen children so insistent on behaving like a child of the opposite gender that they refuse to use the school restrooms.  So we just make quiet arrangements for them to use the nurse’s restroom whenever they need to.

Aiden comments on the sensitivity and compassion of the teachers at El Milagro and we can easily imagine that the staff there has adopted policies similar to those inspired by the Human Rights Campaign.  It is as if he knows, even at the age of ten, that  policies don’t change attitudes and that what really matters is how children are actually treated every day.

As we walked around the carnival, I watched all of the adults interact with Matty like she was any other kid. They all knew. Her former kindergarten teacher even called her by her real name: Madeline. “You look like a pro tonight, Madeline! You look stunning!” Matty smiled.

I had a new respect for Matty and for my school. I felt proud of who we were at El Milagro—a place where kids could be who they needed to be for however long it takes to work it all out.

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CHRISTMAS LIVES

MORE STORIES from “Fighting For Ms. Rios:

BookCoverImageIn December, Fighting For Ms. Rios was released in both paperback and Kindle formats.  It is a fictional collection of journals written by a gifted fourth grade student named Aiden, about his school, his friends, and his inspiring first-year teacher– Ms. Rios.  I have resurrected my blog to break down some of Aiden’s many stories and themes… all observations about our schools from a child’s point of view.

Christmas lives.  In spite of the best efforts of the ACLU or whoever else is as busy as one of Santa’s disgruntled little elves trying to dismantle Christmas and remove it from all mention in public schools– it is still mentioned. Frequently. And celebrated.

Aiden is in awe at his teacher’s gift for telling stories, especially when it comes to weaving in cultural traditions. In “Storyteller” he writes:

“In December she told stories about Christmas and Kwanza and Hanukkah and didn’t make it sound like she was just trying to provide equal time to be politically correct.”

That’s the thing with Christmas.  We aren’t supposed to talk about it in our schools because we don’t want tax payer dollars expended to propagandize any one faith. No Christmas carols, Christmas trees, Christmas Santa Clause scenes, or Christmas Tannebaum art projects.  It’s one of those holidays that we are supposed to whisper about as an odd tribute to all the people that don’t actually celebrate Christmas.  As if children aren’t aware of the imminent arrival of their favorite day of the year.

But for Ms. Rios, even the arrival of Christmas presents itself as a teachable moment: there is more to December than  racing to the shopping malls to contribute to stimulate the economy.

“The whole world worships God,” she said at the end of the last story of the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa season. “Each to his or her own. This is all of humankind’s most spiritual time of year—maybe because it’s so close to the beginning of the new year. Maybe because it’s symbolic of our deep, deep desire to live in peace. Maybe because it represents the origins of our collective religions or the source of our individual faith. But it is universally a time for family. And food. And prayer. And light. And forgiveness.”

Aiden’s own references to Christmas are sprinkled throughout his journals- not as prayers– but as vivid metaphors:

It reminded me of Christmas and how time seems to move so slowly in anticipation of the big day, but then when the day actually gets here, it seems to speed past in a blur. (From– Beware of Bilbo)

 Just before Mrs. Holstrum interrupted her conversation with two other teachers, I heard Ms. Rios talking about her class and her students and “light bulbs that go on and off like Christmas trees.” (From– Minimum Days)

• Every child’s eyes were as big as Christmas morning. I looked around and thought, “My goodness…this is gonna be an interesting year.” And I was right. (From– Labradors)

• One day Ms. Rios said that “being a teacher is like coming out to the living room on Christmas morning and having thirty-two gifts to unwrap.” (From– Storyteller)

There is much to unwrap in Fighting for Ms. Rios.  Aiden is unconstrained by political posturing.  For him, Christmas lives.

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CARVING UP CRAIGY

MORE STORIES from “Fighting For Ms. Rios”:

Now that my book is published and available (even for your iPad) through Amazon, I want to resurrect my blog.  There are a lot of really good posts here. So I’ll highlight different stories from Fighting for Ms. Rios and connect them back to a previous post.  It all comes full circle anyway.

BookCoverImageAiden is clearly blessed with many talents: he is an amazing writer, of course.  He is athletic.  He seems to have a sixth sense when it comes to adult culture in schools.  And he is quiet capable of defending himself in a fistfight.

Other interesting talents emerge from time to time– but one of the more peculiar ones is his awareness of when he is invisible to adults.  It’s hard to tell how literal Aiden wants his readers to take these passages, but they are definitely there for a reason.

On his first day at school, on the blacktop, he hears a conversation between a teacher and a parent.  How does he hear it?

I always seem to overhear those kinds of conversations between adults—maybe because I am invisible to them.

He overhears Wanda and Ms. Rios speaking about Raymond. And later, when Craigy gets himself in trouble for bringing a knife to school (Carving Up Craigy), much of Aiden’s narration comes from being invisible.

I wondered how I could have sat through that entire conversation and how it never once occurred to Señora Principal Nuñez or the Compliance Director to send me back to class. But I guess it didn’t. And I remained strangely, invisibly, witness to every word.

invisiblePerhaps it’s just a sneaky literary trick that Aiden is invisible and privy to information that normal kids wouldn’t have at school– if it weren’t one troubling detail.  They are often invisible.  Adults run the place.  They call the shots.  They determine who comes and who goes and at what time kids eat and go to the bathroom and play with their friends.  It’s all about command and control.  And when the adults step off-stage they do so in places where the kids aren’t allowed to go:  the office or the teacher’s lounge or the lunchroom or parking lots or the fast food restaurant down the street.

Some of this is just a matter of practicality. Adults in the workplace have different needs and privileges than children in a school.   But what does it mean when a child feels invisible in his own school?  He has no value? No relevance?  Nothing to offer? No wonder Aiden is so insistent that the adults know his name!
Schools often describe themselves as being student-centered– they aspire to focus all their attention and all of their decision-making around what is best for their students.  That is a worthy mission.  But if they could hear their students speak, if the truth was made manifest, how many are falling through the cracks and chasms simply because they are invisible?

“Carving Up Craigy” is from THE FOURTH JOURNAL: Virtuosos

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SAY MY NAME

MORE STORIES from “Fighting For Ms. Rios”

Now that my book is published and available (even for your iPad) through Amazon, I want to resurrect my blog.  There are a lot of really good posts here. So I’ll highlight different stories from Fighting for Ms. Rios and connect them back to a previous post.  It all comes full circle anyway.

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Sometimes kids don’t know much… but they know the sound of their own name.  They know it’s sacred.  It gives them an identity on a crowded campus when the day-to-day grind of school life is eating them alive.

In Juvenile Hall and in the schools for our incarcerated youth that are hidden away in the back country here in San Diego, I was always pushing back on the practice of calling students only by their last name.  Like they were in the army.  Or prison.

Every kid has a first name– we call it their given name because somebody took the time give it to them.  It is so unique, it even distinguishes them from other members of their own family.  It may be common or cosmic or utter syllabic nonsense– but it is theirs– and they want us to use it.  They want us to pronounce their name correctly, too– like their moms pronounce them.  With respect and reverence.

Aiden is on to the adults who don’t know his name.

“My name is not honey, babe, baby doll, young man, sir, all star, big guy, hey you, you there, hon, sweetie, champ, kiddo, sport, new kid, mijo, laddie, buster, goofball, or dumbass.”

You can’t fake it.  You know their names or you don’t.  And knowing their names is the first step to building authentic relationships with kids you hope to teach.

 “I love the sound of my name, and though I know there are a thousand other students in my school, I want you to know how to say it.  My name is Aiden:  little fire.”

–From THE FIRST JOURNAL:  Back in Line

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