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Schools Focus on Walkouts as a Teachable Moment

Area students debate the bills being argued in Congress and discuss the protests. `The kids care. They see a relevance,' a teacher says.

March 29, 2006|Joel Rubin and Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writers

He was supposed to be talking about supply and demand. But like teachers all over Southern California, Mike Stryer shelved the regular lesson plan for his economics class at Fairfax High on Tuesday. In its place, he took up the hot topics of the week: immigration and the previous day's walkouts by students protesting proposed changes in federal law.

"I don't know why we're always talking about immigrants as if they're all bad or good," 17-year-old Chris Potter said after a classmate suggested that there should be no distinction between illegal and legal immigrants. "The whole issue here is about 12 million illegal immigrants."

Stryer worked hard to keep the discussion from getting personal -- a struggle in a class that was roughly half Latino and half African American. Several of the Latino students indicated they had relatives who are living illegally in the country.

When an African American student said that undocumented workers were taking jobs from citizens, the conversation turned pointed.

"Do you work? Do you have a job?" demanded 18-year-old Lesly Quinta. "You don't know what it means to work a $4-an-hour job to support your family."

Educators call this "the teachable moment," that serendipitous instant when a student's interest in a topic can be parlayed into meaningful learning. Such moments were popping like toast Tuesday.

"It's fantastic to be able to take an issue that is both current and important to my students and discuss themes related to the topic," Stryer said. "The kids care. They see a relevance."

Fairfax and all other Los Angeles Unified School District high school and middle school campuses had begun the day on lockdown, with students kept in their classrooms to prevent a repeat of the mass walkouts of the day before.

By midmorning Tuesday, however, the lockdown had been lifted and Stryer started his class by having students read newspaper accounts of the contrasting Senate and House versions of the proposed immigration bill and of the protests.

A brief discussion about the differences between the House and Senate bills led to a refresher on how bills become law. The class turned into a spirited debate over the rights that should be afforded illegal immigrants. When the closing bell rang, students were still clamoring to talk.

"It's so much better than a regular class," said Diane Morales, 17. "Instead of talking about something that happened 300 years ago, you get to discuss something that is happening right now. Something you're living through."

At Kennedy High School in Granada Hills, Principal Christine Clark presided over a lunch forum on immigration, passing a microphone down a line of more than 50 students waiting in the aisles of the auditorium, each squirming to talk. They spoke to an audience of nearly 300 others, some waving Mexican flags, some periodically booing.

Grabbing the mike, walkout organizer Carlos Mendoza, 16, told the crowd that he immigrated illegally from Guatemala with his parents seven years ago for a better future, education and rights.

"I'm very proud of you," he said, speaking to some of the 900 students he had led through the streets Monday.

Luis Gavilanes, 16, a Mexican immigrant, stood up, wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt. Why, he asked, are illegal immigrants treated like criminals? "Why should you compare something like wanting a better life to murder or robbery?" Students cheered in support.

The cheers turned to a mix of boos and applause when Jamielyn DeJesus, 17, spoke up.

"I'm very disappointed in anyone who walked out yesterday," she said. "I lost a day of my education because of it."

DeJesus, a Filipina, said she spent Monday discussing immigration in small classroom groups instead of learning other subjects she needs for college. "I do support [your cause], I really do," she said as a few classmates rolled their eyes. "We came here for a better future and a better education, but why leave school?"

A voice shouted from the seats: "Because we want to be heard!"

At Berendo Middle School near downtown Los Angeles, Principal Jeanette Stevens sent packets of hastily assembled instructional materials to all of her teachers Tuesday, and had them build lessons around issues of constitutional rights and how citizens in a democracy should express their grievances.

The teachers then linked the discussion to students' current studies of persuasive writing, and had many express their views by writing letters to elected officials.

"The feedback we got from the teachers was that the kids really appreciated being heard," Stevens said.

At Santa Ana's Saddleback High School, students were kept in their second-period class until fourth period -- about two hours -- while Santa Ana police stood by. Some students complained that the restrictions were overly severe and that an open forum would have been more effective.

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