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Fremont High, Day 136: Life Lessons from a Reconstitution

Chuck Olynyk has taught history for the past 16 years at Fremont High School in Los Angeles. More than half the year he shows up to class dressed as a Roman Centurion, or some other character from the era under study. But this week Chuck, along with many of his colleagues, submitted transfer requests to their administration, rather than reapply for their jobs, as required by the reconstitution plan of Superintendent Ramon Cortines. Here are Chuck's thoughts about the lessons we can learn from this process. These are some precious lessons we had better learn fast, before thousands of schools meet a similar fate.

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Today is Day 136 in my time left at Fremont. I got my transfer papers signed, which was coincidently the day the applications for the "reapplication process" (redundant, eh?) were placed in our mailboxes. Two of the SLCs [small learning communities] marched in en mass and had their papers signed. I went in solo--better that way, I guess. It did allow me to see one of my favorite kids as I came out the principal's office.

This child was a major irritant to me the first ten weeks of school. You know the species: 15-year-old eye-rolling chatterbox addicted to her iPod and iPhone and so lazy you'd have to tell her to breathe. Then there was some miraculous understanding in week eleven, where I stopped longing for her to be absent and instead of jumping her case about being LATE, she'd be a minute late to first period and I'd raise a Mr. Spock eyebrow. She's also a "B" student--might even get an "A" this semester if I know my kids, and I've been teaching since 1983 and I usually watch them come ALIVE in my class second semester. She asked, "Are you making trouble again?" We matched grins. You see, she understands why I am doing this.

Kids like this mean a lot to me. As I've said before, I feel good teachers teach life lessons all year long--they just use their subject areas as the vehicles to do so. Another kid, who's playing basketball, got into a massive yelling match in September, which was especially painful because this is another of those "lazy" kids who eventually earned a "B" and I fully expect to get an "A" at year's end (the joy of 10th grade--first semester is a nightmare and second semester I watch them bloom) expressed his concern for me a couple of days after the Cortines bombshell. "Hey, O, you straight?" It took a while for me to reply, but did my usual minimizing what's going on with me. He didn't buy my bull and told me, "Hey, it's not your fault."

That's two reasons right there.

Another set of reasons comes from a lesson I do annually, this happening a couple of years ago. When I teach the Cold War, my all-time favorite lesson involves giving the kids lyrics to a dozen songs, with images of the time. I play the music, starting with "For What It's Worth" (all the youngsters can stop rolling your eyes now); on that day, all the kids have to do is read the lyrics, listen to the music and look at the images, sort of a multi-media romp through the Sixties and Seventies. In twenty-six years of teaching, I only have had to shut down this lesson TWICE out of all of my classes. In the year in question, most of the Fremont staff participated in a one-period boycott. Students and community members watched us as we demonstrated; those of us who did taking the loss of an hour's pay. The lesson? Everything comes with a cost. In the words of Stephen Stills: "Find the cost of freedom buried in the ground." But that day, those kids heard the music--really heard it--and saw what we were doing--for them! After one period, I had a couple of girls come up to say, "No one in our lives has ever taught us like that. Thank you." There's intangible rewards. Yeah, I'm not one of those teachers who gets praise from colleagues or administration--the previous principal pretty much denigrated me for five years. But I'm not doing this for him. It's for those kids, hoping they can take my lessons and go further, kind of an Isaac Newton, "We stand on the shoulders of giants" sort of thing.

That's why I'm doing what I am doing. This isn't to feed my ego and have sixteen-year-olds praise me. It's to have them see the life lessons. One of my kids said today (I saw an amazing number of them today): "You don't give a damn what anyone thinks." "Not true," was my reply, which came from the heart.

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Does it matter what others think of me? Of course it does. But what matters more is to be the person I was raised to be; there were lots of hands in that process: my parents, my sister thirteen years my elder, the example of my stiff-necked grandfather who died in a gulag, teachers I have known, science fiction writers I have met, other writers I have only known through their works, such as Tolkien (and for the record, I look like Gimli, think Aragorn/Strider is the coolest one, but it is plain old Sam Gamgee who is the real hero), poets, musicians, comic book characters (for the record, again, Green Arrow, because he has always fought
for those who need a champion)... and those I've met along the way in the Society for Creative Anachronism. All of these shaped me, gave me my pain-in-the-butt, devil-take-the-cost attitude.

This, too, has been my favorite teaching "gig," sixteen years' worth. That's also why I had to put in transfer papers today. If I stood by and did nothing, EVERYTHING I TAUGHT MY KIDS WOULD BECOME A LIE! And I firmly, passionately believe in what I am doing and what I am teaching. I must teach and lead by example. There another couple of quotes that come to mind:

"When one man says no, Rome begins to fear. We were tens of thousands who said no. That was the wonder of it."--Kirk Douglas in "Spartacus"

"I think there's only one thing that a father needs to leave his son, and that's a good example of how a man should live his life. Anything else, the son can learn for himself. The greatest gift my father ever gave me was the courage to trust my own abilities, and I learned that through his example."--Fraser, Due South (The Gift of the Wheelman").

I haven't lied to Mr. Balderas. I haven't lied to the kids. I'm not about to start.

Chuck Olynyk, teacher, Fremont High School

Some links about the situation at Fremont High and beyond:

Local TV coverage of the December 16 Rally held to save Fremont High School jobs

How Does it Feel to be Reconstituted: Day 168

Day 152: The Battle for Fremont High

Reconstitution: There Has Got to Be a Better Way

A Tale of Two Urban Schools: An article about how reconstitution at a high school in Seattle didn't work

What do you think are the lessons we can learn from this story? What can we learn about how to better serve struggling schools?

images by Chuck Olynyk, used by permission.

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