Better Together – California Teacher Summit at California State University, Bakersfield

The 3rd annual Better Together conference was a success at CSUB! Originally our goal was to sign up 700 teachers but almost 800 registered for the event. On the day of the event more than 500 local teachers showed up.

The event was special for me because I had the opportunity to be one of two keynote speakers.  My keynote was titled Standing on the Shoulders of Giants which is an homage to our underserved communities, migrant, and illegal immigrants.  Below you can find the full transcript for the event along with some pictures and videos that were taken by family and friends.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants (Keynote for #BetterTogetherCA)


    “Standing on the shoulders of giants” is part of a longer quote popularized by Isaac Newton which states, “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. ” This is important because you would think that  as the man who ushered in the new era of science with his achievements and discoveries he would say something like “guess who discovered gravity? #THISGUY.” But that is not the case. Isaac is saying that his work would not have been fundamentally possible without the work of those he stands on.  

    For this keynote I would like to share with you whose shoulders I stand on in the classroom, the shoulders I stand on in the community, and what this all means. I must preface this by saying that I have only ever worked at schools or with kids that are considered to be from the “wrong side of the tracks.” Typically when I say where I work teachers respond with “oh, I subbed there once. Never going back.” If the person is not an educator they typically say things like, “well, you know those kids need good teachers. It’s not their fault though, it’s the parents and unfortunately these kids don’t stand a chance.” They are a product of their environment. I hope to dispel some of those notions here today.

As I share with you some of my giants, please share yours on Twitter. Make sure you use the hashtags #ShouldersOf and #BetterTogetherCA.

    So here in this image you see a group of 5th graders in Mission Viejo being tutored via Facetime by a 9th grade student in Lindsay in 2014-2015. This was the first year the school in Mission Viejo had one-to-one capabilities and Pablo was helping them roll out the technology from over 100 miles away. You can see Pablo checking for understanding with those thumbs raising. You can see the young girl flashing her screen to make sure they are on pace.

When I say I stand on the shoulders of Pablo I am saying that before this experience there are things that were not clear to me and I did not understand well. My mentor Dr. Joe Dixon had taught me that kids should be creators, makers, and leaders but it wasn’t until I saw Pablo in this experience that I realized Pablo was a change agent. We talk about needing a catalyst in education, that public education is waiting for a superman, but our superwomen and supermen are sitting in front of us every day hoping that we call on them to be the leaders they know they can be. Our students are the answer to all our problems and they always have been.

    In these images you see Elena teaching a new group of kids. Something new happened again to me. After this lesson I walked up to Elena and said, “you know there is a job that would have paid you about $40 to do that right now?”

    She responded, “what job.”

   “A teacher, you should be a teacher.”

    This was the first time in my career I saw these kids not as students but as talented individuals, each with their own gifts.

    This next image is Arturo and Mickey. Arturo is a great kid with the gift of gab. He could walk in here today with a heater and some poor sucker would walk out into that 100 degree Bakersfield heat saying, “hey that was a good deal.” Arturo was a salesman and when he presented, boy did he sell that experience. Mickey was a natural born leader, kids followed her around because she had this natural charm.

    The effect these kids had on me changed how I saw kids for the next couple years. Last year when I had an overly eccentric student who was always seeking attention, I saw an actor living the role of his life. When I had a student who would not take notes and sketched their way through class, I saw a frustrated and struggling artist who was not getting the training they deserved. I saw doctors, lawyers, friends, and neighbors. If I have seen further, it is because I am standing on the shoulders of these giants.

Now I did not want to share this story for this keynote because people often ask me how to scale that practice. Surely that can’t be a policy? True, I had no idea what to do next with it. When I began to research our local giants I came across the name of Leo Hart. All of a sudden things became clear to me. When I say I stand on the shoulders of Leo Hart it doesn’t mean that I want to be like him or do what he did, it means that if I have seen further it is because I am standing on his work, his experiences, his shoulders.

Leo Hart was the superintendent of Kern County in the 1940’s. At that time there was a large population of Dustbowl children that nobody wanted. Leo Hart petition the state of California to let him make a school for those migrant students. The state of California denied his request by saying that “you can’t make a school for a temporary population.” Leo countered with a new petition asking to create “a temporary school for a temporary population.”

    So there goes Leo Hart to the Weedpatch Labor Camp and enlists children to begin digging trenches for the water line that will supply the school. He brings in the parents and they begin to lay the foundations, build the walls, and the roof. He realizes something special is taking place and goes to the surrounding areas to pitch an idea for similar schools. The response from a local oil executive was “You can’t educate those blankety blanks.  They’re going to grow up just like their fathers and mothers.  They’re a shiftless lot.  They got no brains …”

    The negative reactions from the community did not stop Leo Hart and he continued with his work. The students at the Weedpatch school made their own desks and shelves out of orange crates. They even went on to dig what became the first public pool in Kern County. It was affectionately known as “the Hole” because when kids were done with their work they would say “can I go out and help dig in the hole now?” The children at the school went from being a deficit, to an asset, to full on innovators in the community. Now people wanted to send their children there.

    So what does this all mean? People say that this is the most connected generation of students. It is true, technology is allowing some special things to take place. But I ask, if the students are so connected then how connected are the teachers? I would argue that the teachers are also the first generation to be so connected.  I believe that this privilege allow us to be the first generation to have a voice in helping shape the narrative around our profession.  We get to share with the community via blogs, social media, and websites the amazing things that happen in classrooms every day. I also believe that this gives us a certain level of responsibility. The responsibility to share the amazing work that people before us were doing, the work of people like Leo Hart.  As the first digital voice for teachers we can say “hey these are the amazing things going on in our classrooms, this is what teachers do and this is what teachers have ALWAYS done. This is why our profession is so respected…and this is why we get summers off!”

    I will end by saying that the shoulders of the giant I stand on are my mothers. She took the easy route in becoming a teacher by becoming a wife, starting a family, and having three kids before she made it into the classroom. When my mom became a teacher it was infectious. Relatives, family, and neighbors went back to school because they saw the happiness teaching brought to our family.  My dad would always say, “You should be so lucky to have a job that you love as much as your mom loves teaching.” So in my career, if I have seen further it is because I am standing on the shoulders of my mother, a woman who came as an illegal immigrant child from El Salvador and went on to become one of the best teachers in her school district.

    Thank you very much everyone, I hope we all have a great school year.