When Larry Ferlazzo, an English and social studies teacher, shares teaching insights rough his blogs and his EdWeek advice column, he speaks from experience. Ferlazzo has created meaningful change in his school and in his community by leading efforts to set up a computer lab and coursework for English as a Second Language (ESL) students. The project is helping English language learners improve their reading skills through an after-school program, connecting students to thousands of high-interest audio/text stories and language-learning games linked through Ferlazzo’s website. The project won Ferlazzo the 2007 International Reading Association Presidential Award for Reading and Technology, and it continues to demonstrate remarkable results in an area with a growing and diverse immigrant community. Through his perseverance, the lab has grown to serve parents as well as students, and the proven model is being used in other schools and communities. We talked with Larry about his ideas on education reform, and the role he’s played in transforming his school and influencing other educators.
Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?
I like to think that my teaching and writing in various publishing venues has helped educators look more creatively at the idea of helping students motivate themselves, instead of looking at ways we can motivate students. I’ve been able to apply much of what I learned during my nineteen-year community organizing career to issues around motivation and learning by doing in the classroom, and, again, I like to think that hearing about those experiences — both what has worked well and not so well — may have inspired some educators to try out new instructional strategies in their classroom.
I also like to think that the creative and simple ways I’ve used technology in and out of the classroom have encouraged educators new to tech to try something new. I believe my distinguishing a difference between parent involvement (a “doing to” that has the school leading with its “mouth”) and parent engagement (a “doing with” that has the school leading with its “ears”) may have had some impact on schools figuring out how to make a better connection with the parents of their students.
Finally, I hope that my “grounded in the classroom” critiques of what is often done in the name of “school reform” — and my suggested constructive alternatives — may have some limited influence in public discussions of education policy. Neither my students nor I are test tubes to be experimented with. Instead, changes in education policy must include teachers as one of the main drivers and navigators — not just as passengers along for the ride.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
I like to think that at least some classrooms are more engaging than they might otherwise be, and that more students are developing a love for learning and, as a result, becoming life-long learners and less focused on tests and grades.
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
I think by reading what I, and many others, have written about how to help students develop more intrinsic motivation, they can learn practical ways to reduce depending on “carrots and sticks” in the classroom. In addition, there are similar written resources available for parent-engagement strategies and organizing for effective education policy changes.
Many organizations are out there to provide support, including the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project and local and national teachers unions. Plus, there are thousands of like-minded educators to connect with on social media like Twitter and Facebook.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
I’ve particularly used technology to work with English Language Learners (ELL’s) — well over half of the students at our school (Sacramento’s largest inner-city high school) are ELL’s. One of the major ways we develop reading skills, and a love of reading, among all our students is through encouraging them to read high-interest books of their own choosing. The thousands of free “books” online that provide audio and animated support for the text create similar opportunities for our ELL students.
Our school worked with immigrant families to provide computers and free Internet service to help entire families learn English through our website, and we’ve also developed sister class relationships around the world. This has created opportunities like having our ELL world history students ask students in Spain and in Mexico how the conquistadors were taught in those places, so we could compare it with what our textbooks say about them.
Using video and audio online is an incredible way for our students to use the highest level of the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (create) — to demonstrate their learning and to also practice their speaking skills.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
I’m lucky enough to teach in an incredible school where administrators, teachers, staff, students, and families are committed to developing life-long learners. Our incredible administrators, particularly Principal Ted Appel, do a great job finding resources we need, and protecting us from outside disruptive challenges to our teaching and learning.
The biggest obstacles, however, to student academic achievement (and I’m not defining that by test scores) are the socio-economic challenges our students, their families, and our society face — poverty, lack of adequate health care, affordable housing, good-paying jobs with benefits and neighborhood safety.
What is your region doing right to support education?
We are lucky in California right now to have a Governor and Superintendent of Public Instruction who recognize the importance of providing adequate financial support to public education and who resist many of the policy attacks on teachers, students and their families. The Governor, with the support of the legislature and our states two major teachers unions, is placing an incredibly important tax measure on the ballot this November to provide increased support to schools. I’m confident California voters will approve it. Our Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, and the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing have created a Task Force that is meeting to develop recommendations on policy issues like teacher evaluations and professional development. The Task Force is composed of thoughtful stakeholders involved in education at all levels. I’m honored to have recently been appointed to it.
What conditions must change to better support education?
We must recognize that what happens in schools is just one influence on student academic achievement, and must provide additional funding and policy implementation to reduce income and wealth inequality.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
Supporting teacher autonomy in the classroom, with peer support, is the best way to encourage innovation in education — and the best education for our students. Scripted curriculum and teacher evaluation checklists, on the other hand, support rigidity and obedience.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
Find a school whose principal views teachers as colleagues and not their employees, who believes he/she has as much to learn from them and they from him/her.
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
I think there is a growing backlash to the testing mania, and instead more and more people in education are looking to be data “informed” and not data “driven.” When we’re data informed, data is just one of many things to look at in a decision making process. When we’re data driven, the numbers direct everything, often including decisions that are not in the best interest of our students. Schools can discourage “on the bubble” students from taking higher level math classes where they might not do as well on the standardized tests; or be less welcoming of new immigrants because of their impact on school rankings.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
I’d give them a book that they want to read. That “tool” can take them anywhere…
About Larry Ferlazzo
Teacher at Luther Burbank High School, Education Blogger, Author
An award-winning English and Social Studies teacher, Larry Ferlazzo is the author of Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers To Classroom Challenges, English Language Learners: Teaching Strategies That Work, and Building Parent Engagement In Schools. He also maintains the popular Websites of the Day blog. In his EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, he will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers.
Birthplace: Brooklyn, New York
Current residence: Sacramento, California
Education: B.A and M.A., New College of California; Teaching Credential, California State University – Sacramento
Website I check every day: New York Times
Person who inspires me most: My father
Favorite childhood memory: My father driving us around looking for “haunted
houses” (just old abandoned homes)
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): San Francisco for the next meeting of the State of California’s Educator Excellence Task Force
When was the last time you laughed? Why?: I laugh every weekday morning when I watch a recording of the previous night’s The Daily Show. Their writing is brilliant!Favorite book: Bread and Wine by Ignazio Silone
Favorite music: Classic Rock
Your favorite quote or motto: Look at every problem as an opportunity, not as a pain
For more on Larry Ferlazzo’s work: