When Alicia Johal texted me directions to her school, she added, “Oh, and make sure you and your driver are watching the exits. We’re just a few miles from the border.”
These are not the sort of directions I am used to in Minnesota.
Johal is a science teacher in San Diego, and the exits she noted are not just any typical border crossing. Johal’s school is just a few miles away from the San Ysidro Border Station. San Ysidro is the spot where the politically weaponized caravan of refugees currently waits, seeking asylum in the United States. It is the spot where some of these refugees were tear-gassed away from our walls.
My being here now is an accident. I’ve been working with Johal on arranging this visit since last summer. I’m here to watch some top-notch science teaching. Honestly, I had forgotten San Diego was so close to the border until I got there.
On the way in to school, my Lyft driver was telling me about how he worked for a financial company for awhile, and how about half the guys in his office, mostly American-born, lived in Mexico. Rent was like one-eighth as much for a much nicer place and there was a fast-pass system to make crossing easier in the morning. So, every morning, the driver explained, these guys would wake up in Mexico, drive into America and head back to Mexico again at night.
In a city where switching countries counts as a moderate commute to some, it was no surprise to find that many of Johal’s students are themselves immigrants, or children or grandchildren of immigrants.
Kids Are Kids, No Matter Where They’re From
As I entered the school, students were criss-crossing the sort of outdoor campus I thought only existed in movies. I was wandered, looking for the office, I scanned the grounds around me. I tried and failed to understand the concept of an outdoor cafeteria, tried to imagine what it would mean to live where a day hovering in the low 60s was considered the worst weather of the year.
I hadn’t even reached a classroom yet, and I knew this place was going to be different, unlike any school I’ve ever been in, ever visited. I knew it not just because the place was unlike any I had been in, because my head and heart were heavy with the news of what was happening a few miles from here, because I knew, before seeing the room and before meeting the students, what this piece was going to be about.
But then, this weird thing happened: It wasn’t.
Inside Johal’s classroom, eighth-grade girls talked about how good “the tea” always was on Fridays, and eighth-grade boys smack-talked each other about “Fortnite.”
Some students had late work they needed to turn in before the end of the week, and others had three extra projects they were working on for whatever club, whatever competition, whatever elective. Some looked at me side-eyed, because who is this weird dude in the back, and others made a point of coming up and saying goodbye to me after a 30-minute class. They were kids, and, like kids everywhere, they were there to learn stuff and bug each other and be marked as “present” in the awareness of an adult who cares about them.
Again and again, I have found while visiting these classrooms that, certainly, our methods change, the quality of our colleagues and administrators change, that there are things that work and things we need that we only rarely get enough of, but I have also seen, again and again, that kids are kids are kids. They are beautiful and brilliant and really, incredibly weird. They want to be taught and respected and very rarely accept one of those things without the other.
Johal’s kids were not brilliant and or in spite of or because of some broader story about immigration. They were just kids. They were smart, awesome kids, and though I tried again and again while writing about them to shoe-horn them into this other narrative, it never worked because it was never right. I may have been thinking all day about immigration, but what I saw was what I came for in the first place: top-notch science teaching to kids who were excited about science.
Good Things Happen When Kids Trust the Teacher and the Room
Again and again, I have found that the work teachers do to make their room a place of deep learning, a place of mutual respect and real love for each other, is a tangible thing. Sitting in the back of Johal’s room, awkwardly perched on the back counter next to the fish tank because her first class of 36 kids needed every chair, I could see that this is a place where students felt comfortable, and felt comfortable being challenged.
Johal’s room, with twin doors opening to an outdoor hallway and a high, curved ceiling, is covered in equal parts student work, social justice-y science posters and pop-culture nerdom. Her students enter loudly, joyfully, but respond quickly to her “clap if you can hear me” attention-getter. Once the work starts, they are all about the science (and some tea).
One of her classes, the Science, Technology, Art, Research (STAR) elective she designed in order to bring in all the cool science stuff out there that isn’t in the standards, worked on presentations about marine biology. One student used only aquatic pictures from “Minecraft” in his. When I asked, students explained eagerly about over-fishing, about fish with weird spikey teeth. One table debated the authenticity of a group of pictures they found of exceedingly large goldfish.
I was there on a Friday with a weird schedule that meant Johal only saw her kids for 30-minute blocks. Some classes did pretty normal “fix-it-Friday” type stuff. They checked grades and made up late work or finished bigger things before the weekend hit. In other classes, they did a “pocket solar system,” an activity that always made me think about the structure and enormity of the cosmos until I got very uncomfortable and had to look at dog videos for a while. As they wrestled with instructions that called for folding receipt paper into fractions of fractions, one student complained, playfully, “Ugh! Science is so unforgiving!”
Through the day, through the banality of grade-talk and the frustration of mixing markers and paper and measurements and written instructions, Johal’s presence remained the constant. She is the warm demander we all wish we were, pushing students to get their projects in because, “It would be lame if your elective class brought your GPA down.” And encouraging students to look over their presentations and reflect, “Raise your hand if you can make yours a little better,” before turning them in.
She flowed from challenging the student with straight A’s to push a little harder while chatting about their recent successes in other classes and after school competitions to discussing, without a hint of judgement, the many missing assignments of another student and helping them make a plan to get their work in. She reminds me of many of the best teachers I’ve worked with, teachers who manage to leave no doubt in their love of each one of their students while being just as clear that their failure is simply not an option.
What we do in class is, of course, important, but it often doesn’t matter if our what is super good if students aren’t set on the why they should do it. Sometimes they’ll do it for grades or fear of parents or because it seems kinda OK, I guess, for school. In Johal’s room, students dive into what they are doing, from taking notes and filling out worksheets to building little LEGO robots and labeling (and not even giggling at) Uranus, and they do it because they trust the room and the teacher and the class to give them things that are good.
Sometimes it is those unremarkable days, the days of shortened classes and make-up work, that show how well the work we’ve done all year has paid off. The lack of flashy lessons, the days that aren’t those days we talk and tweet about, show us a lot about who we are as teachers, how our students see us and how important it is that we see them as more than a story.