Category Archives: education

A discussion in popular education

My meeting and discussion with three teachers from Aprendamos, the arm of IDEPSCA serving elementary-aged students, seemed too important to let evaporate beyond the summarized points that fit into my article for So I’m reproducing my notes below so that the ideas are out of my notebook where anyone can think about them. I, and probably most of us involved in critical pedagogy, would love to continue this discussion with anyone and everyone who is interested, for a simple reason.

Popular education IS this discussion.

Should I give the real name and location of Aprendamos?

Yes. The offices are at 1565 W 14th St, Los Angeles, CA 90015. The website is The site for the summer session was CARECEN, located at 2845 W 7th St, Los Angeles, CA 90005.

How do you describe the demographics of Aprendamos?

Nearly 100% Latino. Some students have migrated to the United States in just the past couple of years, mostly from Mexico and Central America – but there was more diversity in the student groups when Aprendamos was working inside of LAUSD schools. This neighborhood [Westlake/MacArthur Park] also has the largest population of indigenous people, and some students have to learn Spanish as well as English when they start attending school. Pride in cultural backgrounds is an important component of the learning goals and priorities agreed upon by Aprendamos.

How does popular education inform your practices at Aprendamos? Feel free to comment on any aspect of the popular education theory that is important to you.

One constant question is how to incorporate popular education principles into standard academic subjects, like math and literacy. When Aprendamos was working in the public schools, on school property, it quickly felt like they were falling into the LAUSD focus on standards. This is one of the reasons that constant evaluation is so important in maintaining a system of popular education. It seems sometimes like this program engages children in the same activities as any other – what’s special about it, after all? At LAUSD, the physical space became important; they began to rearrange seating into a circle, which represents the equality and fluidity that popular education strives for. It felt as though they would sneak into popular education mode behind closed doors. Whatever discussion was happening among the students, they tried to incorporate themselves into it. Really caring about the children means really talking to them. To the Aprendamos teachers, an important goal is instilling love – encompassing community in this sense of the term – in education. The thematic curriculum used by Aprendamos is symbolic of that (with week-long units on community, identity, social justice, &c.) Teachers are able to focus on children’s special realities and learn about their personal lives, especially during the week themed around family. Aprendamos teachers often end up actually working with entire families because of the issues that children bring up in their classes. They sometimes act almost like a support group, and work through deep challenges. The legal bureaucracy facing educators in schools is so estranged from those values.

Students at LAUSD were surprised not to have homework in their classes, and they would say that there was no work. They would get to talk more, and they would get excited. Teachers at Aprendamos have had opportunities to address imbalances in society, just small actions of raising consciousness among the students. One example is comparing jobs that are predominant in this community, with so many people working with their hands, cleaning and fixing things. They would talk about recognizing the value of these positions that keep the city looking beautiful, although they are assigned less monetary value.

Another major question is how children become critical thinkers? At Aprendamos, children participate in campaigns and create analytical questions. The curriculum is personalized through flexibility; teachers respond to whatever they are hearing and seeing during the session. They arrive with a lesson plan, but students actually guide the class.

How do you introduce ideas in ways that are appropriate to different age groups? For example, how to introduce a phrase like “social justice”? Even the youngest understand the concept of fair and not fair – that’s a good start.

Still, is it vital to maintain certain boundaries?

They laugh – there have to be boundaries, right? So that everyone can be as equal as possible. There have to be boundaries of respect, and emotional and physical safety. This is the purpose of establishing “community agreements”, a group process at the beginning of each session when students create their own rules and consequences. Together, they discuss what will help them learn in class and vote on every proposed rule, with any one student contributing as much as the teacher does. Students learn about voting and democracy at the same time as analyzing what is fair and what they’ll actually learn from. Students might propose stricter consequences than teachers feel comfortable implementing – for example, are detention and suspension best practices for learning? Consequences are not intended to be punishments, they are supposed to be ways to learn.

The agreements and consequences are constantly changing, and this process takes a long time. It’s usually shocking for children to take on this responsibility, and it holds them more accountable. For teachers, it is important to communicate to parents how different this process is from conventional educational structures; contacting parents often automatically produces fear for students and irritation for their parents, who are accustomed to only negative communication about their child.

In popular education, students spend a lot of time teaching as well – there is a pattern of doing work, sharing work. Presentations to the group are frequent, and sometimes daily. The Aprendamos teachers find that the best approach to habitual troublemakers is giving them leadership roles.

Another goal at Aprendamos is organizing with children, and helping them learn to read their realities. They want to take action. Immigration always comes up, and the solutions they imagine are direct and clear. With the multimedia portion of the program, which is intended to bridge the digital divide, students practice using cameras, tech equipment, and even cell phones to document their realities.

What about On the Move? Did my practice of student-centric pedagogy seem productive, chaotic? What should I change or expand in this curriculum? How can I improve?

It seemed to work well with Aprendamos’ practice of popular education. It may have been too much information for the little ones – as young as 4 years old – but the lesson plan seemd like a flowing, nice process. Having puppets and other visual/tactile aids was good.

Maybe there could be a presentation of the same story, but using local characters and culture to make it more accessible to the young children…

Having time to relax is also important.

Thank you so much to Samyrha Saba, Mariella Saba, and Alejandra Leyva for a wonderful conversation and inspiring ideas.


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Filed under California, education, On the Move

Playing freelancer

When I lived in San Francisco, I used to bike past all the people sitting in cafes in the middle of the day, drinking their coffees and not rushing from one job to the next, and I used to marvel, “How can they possibly be doing that?”

Here in Los Angeles, I’ve become one of those people. It feels like caffeine.

I’ve been tucked into a computer for the past few weeks, typing away to write the On the Move article by the end of this month. By the end of this week! It’s a long time to spend writing an article, but I want to write about so many different things that convincing myself to leave anything out takes some time.

Right now there are just 4 more days until my story pitch closes; if you have any time to take a survey and donate to my project before then, I would appreciate it! Just hit the “Free Credits” or “EARN spot $” buttons on the web page, and answer their questions.

Thanks! I’m looking forward to sharing more local Los Angeles posts next month – with Halloween, Día de los Muertos, and a paper-making workshop coming up. There’s a lot to say about this city.

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The Ultimate Tigers

Last week, I got to go to school. When I first walked in to the larger and newer office of the afterschool program, I noticed old caricatures of all the staff members in black marker on white paper, taped up on the wall. I scanned the faces until I found the one that had claimed to be me, two and a half years ago… and I still don’t see the resemblance. GLO is the afterschool program where I worked during the endless San Francisco winter of 2007-2008, and the site of my latest On the Move workshop.

Even better, with a feat of mathematical magic the site coordinator and I arranged for my workshop to target the 3rd grade Ultimate Tigers, once upon a time the kindergarten Bumblebees of 2007-2008. The first day of my workshop was a reunion with the students who have shaped the majority of the past two years for me, and they are bigger and brighter than ever. With only two short sessions, we made a Kaavad for the class instead of a banyan tree, telling some travel stories of the group.

I love what happened last week.

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Filed under California, education, On the Move, storytellings, United States

High altitude review

Standing on a rooftop, all covered in plants

we thought that an art piece might enhance the expanse

but papier mâché can’t survive a winter of rain

so we used fabric to weave a tree that shall remain.

(Thank you, Graze the Roof)

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Filed under education, flora, On the Move, storytellings, weaving

City of Angles. Angels.

Strange fact : I sort of love Los Angeles. It’s horribly big, but that means there is a space here for everyone. It’s a sprawling mosaic of subcultures, and I’m lucky enough to have friends in subcultural places. It’s just – I just keep meeting all these people doing fantastic things.

I less-than-randomly walked into a community center called CARECEN last Monday, and the woman whose work I interrupted happened to be the director of a K-5th educational program that happens to be based in the methodology of popular education. It’s called Aprendamos, it’s a project of IDEPSCA, and I love it. I love it in that seriously impressed way.

Today I wrapped up a 4-day On the Move workshop with the 60 students there and left a tree of stories swaying, a little unnervingly, in the entranceway. Powerful, colorful stories. I learned so much this week from the students, from the incredible staff, and from my own reactions to the information being shared every day –

so much to consider.

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Filed under education, media, On the Move, storytellings

Epidemic of travel

The need to travel that I picked up somewhere in Oberlin, Ohio all those years ago seems like it may have spread, or might simply be better reported these days. It’s become an epidemic, and it affects entire families. So, coming back to ask a pack of preschoolers about their experience of movement and migration was fruitful.

I spent this past week at the Oberlin Early Childhood Center playing our way through my storytelling curriculum, the first workshop in the US-based series about the experience of migration. There were three main sessions and an interwoven whirl of small-group activities, culminating in a 5-foot tree of stories modeled on the growth of a banyan.

First : I very briefly told the story of the Hindu epic Ramayana using a kaavad, a shadow puppet, and a comic book of a sort that’s nothing less than a modern-day Indian tradition. This is an incredible story to tell, even for someone as new to it as I am – the depth of details make the story flow easily to accommodate any tangential interest. The minds of 3 to 5 year olds led to entire chapters about the animals in the story, about Indian clothing and jewelry, about the colors, about swimming, and about traveling.

Second : The Ramayana is the story of Rama’s journey (translated from Sanskrit), the prince with blue skin. The story of this person forms the basis of the exalted epic, so during my second session with each class at the OECC I told a personal travel story about my visit to the biggest banyan tree in the world. I explained the way a banyan tree grows, from the roots to the trunk to the branches that push new roots down to the ground, and brought my mala beads from the temple at Thimmamma Marrimanu for everyone to touch.

Third : All the children, who had been joining me in small groups to create the supporting trunk of our art project with papier mâché, sat down to share their own travel stories. Individually drawn & narrated, these formed the external “roots” of the banyan, the basis for the tree’s future growth. The unique, professor-filled demographic of the area built a tree of journeys to the park, the basketball court, the movies, to San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, Moscow, London, New York, North Carolina, India, Ireland, and even one boy’s voyage from the toddler classroom to the pre-kindergarten group. Each of them left the tree on Friday afternoon with a colorful handprint for their autograph patterning the bark. It was amazing. I can’t wait for more.


Special thanks for your amazing support :

The staff & students of the Oberlin Early Childhood Center (I’ve promised not to name any names just yet)

Janice Zinser

Jake Wise

Russ McCann & the Oberlin bike co-op








and of course, and as usual, the students of the Sphoorti Foundation who created this curriculum with me.

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Filed under bicycles, education

Link-up bonanza

This has been a very substantial week. I’ve learned so much, met so many, and been so amazed. The US Social Forum is easily and beautifully worth the enormous amounts of energy put into planning, arrangements, organizing, building, and arriving there.

There were so many choices. The choices went beyond the 4 pages of workshops available during each two hour time slot over three days, beyond the extra page of workshops running throughout the entire afternoon, beyond the breakdancing, capoeira, live performances, and parades popping up in lobbies and on streets all over downtown Detroit, and way beyond basic necessities like eating and sleeping. I felt pulled in many directions. It was almost a surprise to sit down in each workshop once I arrived and find out what incredible topic had finally grabbed me most forcefully; it was definitely a surprise to find out what themes trickled out of those mad grabs. I found myself particularly chasing media related workshops, like “Movements begin with the telling of untold stories” with the Media Mobilizing Project and “Grassroots media networks v. immigrant criminalization” with Deep Dish TV. I found myself helping to conduct a media-based workshop which we had planned although I hadn’t really realized how important the issue is to me, “Digital Storytelling for Social Change” (in collaboration with A2S and GOT BP).

And it’s a good thing too, because now I’m a journalist. Check out what I’m going to write. I pitched the story of my workshop tour to a website for community-funded journalism – a wonderful idea, I think, because community-funded should mean pertinent and important to the community. Even cleverer, advertising revenue is also community-directed, so anyone can go onto the website, take a survey (click the button that says “EARN credits”), and apply some dollars/credits to whichever story they’d like to see written. Like maybe mine –

And it’s a good thing too, because now I’m in Oberlin, Ohio conducting my first workshop based on the curriculum I developed in India. And that’s not the half of it.

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Filed under education, storytellings