tfa and the coe

one of my favorite professors while I was at the UW COE happens to be the current dean. even as a student, i swear i had the sense that he was kind of a big deal. he had a charisma and energy about him that told me he would do some bigger things before his time in education’s up. well, guess what. soon after i graduated, he was promoted to dean of the college of education, and he’s been making some big waves at a local and national level because of his involvement in helping tfa expand to seattle.

dr. stritikus is a tfa alumnus, himself, so he occupies a very unique space in the world of education. on one hand, he leads a high-profile, traditional teacher education program. on the other, he is a huge proponent (and product) of an alternative certification program that some (including myself) see as a fast track toward privatizing education.

i am a believer in keeping public education public. but i’m also a believer in dr. stritikus. he’s no snake hell-bent on turning public schools into corporate cash-cows with a captive audience. instead, he’s hell-bent on giving poor, colored kids the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty through education. he’s a sharp guy who knows a thing or two about the practices at the classroom level needed to educate kids who don’t speak english as their first language, and he knows a lot about the policies that need to change at the systems level to make those classroom practices possible (and widespread). it just so happened that all of his expertise has brought him to conclusions that i don’t support.

so i find myself in a familiar place of disagreeing with someone whom i hold with high regard, yet feeling inclined to trust their opinions over my own. i don’t buy the ideas but i’m fully behind the man behind the ideas. even though i don’t get his decision making, i trust that he knows something i don’t know. i hope (and trust) that tom is making the right decisions for the coe, seattle, and the kids here who need a second-to-none education.



“mr. lam, did you know i live in an orphanage?”

“uh, no you don’t. you live in an apartment with your family.”

“well, it’s like an orphanage, because we’re always adopting new kids, like this guy right here. he just moved in.”

“how many people live at your place now?

“mmm, 23.”


“yeah, i’m dead serious. and we’ve got one bathroom.”

two bedrooms, one bathroom, twenty-three people. in my two years of teaching, i’ve had the pleasure of working with four of the residents in that tiny little apartment. before i even had the chance to meet any of them, i heard tons of stories all about their antics, and honestly, i was a bit terrified at the prospect of having them in my classes. sounded like they had the potential to just destroy a classroom. but while they’re not quite model students yet, the stories about them were just lies.

getting to know them continues to be a growing experience. shortly after this school year started, i found them to be truly gifted readers and writers (even more so than many of my purportedly “smart” students). then, as i got to know them on a more personal level, i was stunned to hear that they lived in a tiny apartment with thirteen other people back in october. it was no wonder that they’ve always struggled to get homework in; there’s literally no quiet space to get anything done. i remember having a conversation with them just about the logistics of getting everyone adequate bathroom time in the mornings before school starts at 7:25 am. their thoughts? “it’s actually not that bad.”

knowing how loyal and hospitable they are to pretty much anyone in need around them, it’s not terribly shocking that the number of people living in that little apartment has ballooned to 23. as i reflected on our conversation from earlier this week, i thought a lot about how these students have been a witness of jesus’s love to me. their absurd decision to leave their doors wide open to seemingly anyone, and regardless of the cost (including bathroom space and time), struck me as radically christian. this family has given well beyond their means, beyond what is reasonable. they’ve given extravagantly what they could not afford, they continue to give everything. it’s been a blessing and a learning experience for me to see all this from my students and their family, word become flesh.


it’s that time of the quarter again. grades are due, and i’ve been busy reading student work. this can often be a long and laborious process that is at times really rewarding and really frustrating.

one of my students has a transcript full of failing grades and a file full of suspensions, detentions, and referrals. he has had a difficult time in school, despite the fact that he is one of my brightest students and one of our school’s best writers. he’s very aware of the fact that the way he looks often impacts the ways adults perceive him. his long flowing hair, dark skin, and baggy clothes helps him look the part of the “bad student.” that’s why i was so proud last semester to give him his first ever A — in AP Language & Composition, no less, one of just seven A’s I gave out. to cap off our unit of study on satire, i had my students write their own satire a la the onion about something they found annoying. he decided to write his satire on a personal experience he had just last week, and the paper my student wrote honestly made my year. check it out.

Delinquent Faces Maximum Punishment Caused By Itch

On March 22, 2011, it was reported that student Glen Cora was sent to the office and emergency expelled over an unprecedented itch. Daydreaming in his 3rd period class, Glen suddenly had an overwhelming urge to scratch his head. Upon raising his hand to get rid of this pestering itch, his teacher, Ms. Fugly, immediately stopped him, called security, and took him to the office to be interrogated.

“It was so frightening to imagine what would happen next, I didn’t know if he was getting ready to pull a gun out of his bushy bun! It was sooooooooo disrespectful of him.”

Although Glen claimed he was just dismissing an itch, his Principal, Ms. McCashwhole, claimed that some of his earlier comments in class like, “I’m glad it’s sunny” and “Where did my pencil go?” were threatening and disrespectful comments that led up to his head scratching disgrace.

“I mean look at him, baggy pants, and hoody with long hair? For all we know he could have been planning to kill all of HS3’s faculty!”

That afternoon, Glen’s hair was thoroughly searched for weapons, drugs, and narcotics and an excessive amount of dandruff was found. Security officials state that they’re not sure what this sinister teenager was up to but that these crusty flakes may have something to do with it.

When interviewed, the student said he had no idea sharing his thoughts about the weather and looking for his pencil were considered disrespectful. He added that if he knew that scratching his head would make him a menace to society, he would have simply stepped out.

After being lectured and questioned for hours, Glen learned that teachers and school officials just want to keep a safe and productive learning environment by singling out students who do not seem fit for a class setting, have a reputation for being a little rowdy, and those who simply look intimidating.

“I now understand that for singling me out for this simple and ridiculous reason, they are one step closer to making our high school a better place. If sitting in an office, being questioned for three hours, having lunch taken away, and being yelled at by teachers and staff is all it takes, then I’m happy to help,” said Glen Cora in a recent interview. Cora added, “Everyone should do their part!”

education as formation

there are only a few things about my teaching experience that really upset me. one is dealing with homophobia (it’s bad). second, dealing with racism (the jokes aren’t funny). and three, dealing with islamaphobia (tired of the ign’ance).

as a grad student, i recall having a big debate with some of my peers regarding a joke i made about wanting to “indoctrinate” my students. indoctrinate is a pretty loaded word, but i kinda meant it. some of my peers felt like my job as a teacher is to prepare my students to pass their standardized tests. the argument goes that i need to teach them how to read and express their thoughts in writing effectively, regardless of how bigoted those thoughts might be. while the principle behind those sentiments is understandable, i just disagree. there are a lot of dubious beliefs my students hold, and it seems like it’d be irresponsible of me to not try and influence those beliefs.

today, as we discussed some readings regarding the proposed mosque near ground zero in nyc, i was stunned to find how many of my students 1) think president obama is muslim (because his middle name is hussein) 2) think “the muslims” were behind 9/11, 3) think the mosque would be used as a terrorist training center, and 4) honestly believe the only people who would support the building of the mosque are other muslims. i was even more frustrated to hear my student’s bible study leader had hijacked pauls’ everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial to imply that the mosque might be legal, but is still “immoral” (her words). now that is irresponsible.

i continued on with my work today, building on our reading and writing skills, but lurking in the back of my mind the whole time was the thought that i couldn’t allow my students to leave my classroom at the end of the year with such a twisted worldview. the purpose of education can’t be centered entirely on helping kids with the mastery of certain skills (however important they may be), but there has to be, in my opinion, some element of character formation (a la MLK, who argued that a true education is equal parts intellectual development and moral growth). indeed, if students leave my class and graduate and are able to read and understand complex texts, but still maintain certain prejudices, well they really didn’t get much an education at all.

year two (so far)

i heard that the group of students i’d be getting this year would be unusually difficult. more than one person had referred to them as a “hot mess.” when i walked into my classroom in september, i knew that things could potentially spiral out of control before i could do anything about it.

well, it hasn’t been that bad. even the rowdy groups of boys i have in my classes have been good to work with so far. there are the crazy days when it seems like the only thing i can do to maintain order in class is to start kicking people out, but there are also the magical days when my lesson plans run smoothly, kids engage the new stuff, and most everyone is interested in the learning. the drama-free days are amazing.

but even when things are running smoothly, i always have a nagging feeling that my job is in a very literal sense, impossible. as a school, this is our first year launching an AP-for-all program, meaning every junior and senior, regardless of learning disability or language barrier, takes ap language & composition or ap literature. in theory, the idea is awesome. there’s something special about trying to hold every single one of our students to the highest standards, and something kinda pure and noble about giving every one of our students access to a rigorous curriculum. but in practice, it’s brutal. i mean, it is really hard. on the days when i’ve literally had to work with certain kids on writing complete sentences, i’ve felt pretty defeated.

i find it helpful to try and stay naive about what i think we as a school can accomplish, and to use that as motivation to keep persisting forward. i know i need to get better at classroom management. and once i get that down, i need to be smarter and more creative with how i deliver instruction. i need to figure out how i can continue to challenge my student who is already a published novelist (no joke), and build up all the other students who struggle to write coherent paragraphs. and then along the way, i want to make sure all my students know regardless of how they act in class or how much they struggle with the content,  i’ve got their backs.

let’s do this

i’m going for the cool, indie bookstore look in my classroom. we use a particular (and pretty popular) educational model that makes it necessary to have a little lecture area in our classrooms, and unfortunately, i have exactly 6 seats for my 30+ students in the meeting area. ah well.

my desk. my goal is to keep it clear all year. i can look up at the tiananmen square poster to get myself psyched up to fight the man, or look behind me at the prodigal son on the days i screw up badly. and if i don’t want to think about whatever it is i should be thinking about, i look up at the husky football poster and think about the next game.


mr. lam, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?”

“hmm, well i’ve had chicken feet… donkey….”


mr. lam! you eat ass!?!?! hey guys! mr. lam likes to eat ass!”

yep. just another day in the life…