In Classrooms: Social Justice Humanitas Academy (Part 3)

I come into the Ethnic Studies class just as Sasha Guzman, wearing a denim jacket over a T-shirt and jeans, is walking around the room checking on small groups of students at each table. The 19 ninth graders wearing ID lanyards are tapping away on their Chromebook keyboards or reading screens. Guzman has taught for 16 years in Los Angeles Unified School District, the last five at SJHA.

The period which lasts one hour and fifty minutes had begun a few minutes earlier before I arrived and students know what they are to do since it is written on the side whiteboard:

AGENDA                                                HOMEWORK        

* Choose narrative                            *Academic paragraph due 2/28 by midnight

*Write academic paragraph

The spacious room has the obligatory clock and flag and a printer sitting on a table in the back. Playing softly in the background are Spanish songs. Posters are on the four walls and door of the room. Above the door is one that says: “A Proud Member of the Facing History and Ourselves Schools Network.” On the door is another that says “Protect DACA.” Propped against a wall nearby is a print of a woman with the inscription “Viva La Mujer.”

On another wall are two posters that hang in every SJHA classroom:




Three to five students sit at tables facing one another. The teacher’s desk is in a corner at the front of the room. When students have questions, they address her as Ms. Guzman.

The teacher has loaded software content on their tablets about the current assignment. Students have to choose a story from political activist, America Ferrera’s Americans Like Me. Judith, a student sitting nearby, shows me which of the stories she has chosen (Carmen Carrera’s “Letter To My Ten Year-Old Self”) and the first few sentences of the “academic paragraph” she has to write. She answers confidently the questions I ask about who Carrera is and what she says in her letter.

I scan the class and all students are clicking away or reading screens. After walking around and checking each table, Guzman goes to her desk and works on her laptop. After a few minutes she gets up and walks among the tables, asking questions, making comments, and stilling a few talkative ninth graders. She then tells students:

I don’t know how much time you will have in Advisory [last period of the day]; I don’t know how much time you have at home. Take advantage of the time you have in class. 

No one says anything and the clicking, small talk at each table, and on-task performance continues. Chatting students move off- and -on task, as Guzman cruises around class. She calls on Bernal, who has been non-stop talking to table-mates, to come and sit at a table in the rear of the room. Bernal stops talking, starts tapping away on his tablet. He stays put.

At one point, Sasha stops at my table and tells me about a new hire SJHA is making–a teacher committee interviews applicants and recommends a candidate to principal–and the dilemma that this “teacher-powered” school faces. As she put it to me, SJHA looks for candidates who are very strong in their discipline (e.g., math, science, history) and care for students. She told me that SJHA has hired several new teachers over the years who were new to the classroom.  Their content grasp needed to be coached, supported, and increased. However, she says, “an innate sense of caring and compassion for our kids cannot be coached; in the end, we require both content and caring.”

As the teacher releases students for their next class, I thank Sasha Guzman for letting me observe. There are no bells that signal the end of the period except for first period of the day and lunch. For all other periods, like this one, the teacher dismisses the class.


An Advanced Placement Spanish Literature class is another lesson I observed.

It is the beginning of the school day at 8:30 and two students bring in individual juice boxes, oranges, and other items for the class. All students in the school get breakfast. Students sit with friends at desks arranged in a square. There is a computer and printer below the window. a cart of Chromebooks are in the room. Over the door hang college pennants.



Within 15 minutes, students have finished eating and dumped their trash in the large box (which two students cart away). Lourdes Lizarraga, a founding teacher of SJHA, begins the lesson.

Wearing a hip-length grey sweater over a light grey blouse and black slacks, Lizarraga hands out a sheet of instructions to the 21 students (most of whom have taken Spanish with her since ninth grade) for today and tomorrow’s lessons. She asks them to move into small groups of “analisis” and “expertos” that she has designated (see handout below).

Students are assigned particular essays to read and analyze such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” and “My Wonder Horse” by Sabine Ulibarri. These selections are often on the College Board’s Advanced Placement test in Spanish Literature. For today’s lesson, they will practice for the next day’s presentation.


After discussing the assigned story, the designated expert will rotate to another group. Within moments students rearrange themselves into groups and begin discussion of stories. Lizarraga moves among groups answering student questions and asking her own. I stay for another 10 minutes and note that each group is on task.

More vignettes of SJHA lessons will appear in subsequent posts.






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Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

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