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Interview with Larry Ferlazzo

February 20, 2012
Larry Ferlazzo

Larry Ferlazzo

Hey Larry –
Congratulations on reaching the five-year mark with your blog!  As a reward for your hard work, I think it’s time to turn the tables and use the occasion of your 5-year blogiversary to interview you.  I was thinking about doing this anyways at some point, and this is the perfect occasion.  If you can spare the time, would you mind answering some questions? 

David,

Sure — be happy to:
1.  In the past five years, you’ve been incredibly prolific.  We’re talking about five years because that’s how long you’ve been posting “Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day” – which has turned into a vast collection of resources that anyone would be proud to have produced.  But on top of that, you have two other blogs (Engaging Parents In School, Classroom Q&A at EdWeek), and now your third book is coming out.  Where do you find the time?
(First, slight correction — it’s actually my fourth book that’s coming out)
I do spend a lot of time reading and writing on education issues.  The kids are out on their own now; my wife Jan is incredibly supportive; I teach at a fantastic school, Luther Burbank High School, and get to do exactly what I want; and I play a lot of basketball.  Put it all together, and it’s a recipe for creating time to read and write and for getting the energy to do both.  It probably also helps that I come from a nineteen year career as a community organizer, and the hours in just about any other profession pale in comparison — those years must have “toughened me up.”
2.  It’s hard enough for high school teachers who aren’t blogging to maintain balance in their lives.  What works for you?
Another reason why I can find the time to do it is because I only write about ideas and resources that are directly useful to me and my students.  If I’m not going to use it in class or in education policy issue discussions/negotiations in my school or District, no matter how interesting it might be, I just don’t write about it.
I also write a fair amount about  my students — in a positive way — and I share what I write with them.  I think it makes a big difference that they see I think about them outside of school hours, and it’s just one more reason I think it’s a good idea for teachers to blog — if they can.
3.  I’m know you’ve received your share of praise and accolades, but have you ever experienced any criticism or significant push-back regarding something you wrote?
There are a few topics that always generate critical feedback when I write about them:  I teach an International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge class, and anytime I write about it all the people who think IB is a tool of the United Nations to brainwash young people leave nasty comments and anytime I write anything remotely critical of the Khan Academy, a lot of its supporters respond very defensively. I sometimes get thoughtful pushback on educational policy commentaries — I think one of the advantages I have by writing so much about practical classroom strategies and resources is that a fair number of educators from across the policy spectrum read my blog and see the school reform related posts, too.
4.  Some readers may not realize that you have come into teaching relatively recently.  Can you share some of what you did prior to teaching, and what prompted you to change careers?
I was a community organizer for nineteen years prior to becoming a high school teacher nine years ago.  Most of my organizing work was with the Industrial Areas Foundation, which was founded by Saul Alinsky seventy years ago (people might be familiar with Newt Gingrich’s attacks on Alinsky during this presidential campaign — I guess one advantage to attacking someone who’s been dead for forty years is that he won’t fight back).  I worked in low-and-moderate income communities throughout Northern California helping local institutions — religious congregations, neighborhood associations, labor unions — organize to respond to the challenges facing their communities, including issues like affordable housing, child care, health care, etc.
I kept on seeing how people were transforming their lives from what they would learn through organizing — learning the change they could make by building power through organized people; the capacity for self-initiative they found in themselves; the strength they could develop by working together with diverse peoples.  And they were learning these things in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties…I thought to myself, “Boy, imagine how much better their lives would have been if they had learned these skills when they were younger.”  And, so, I became a teacher, and was lucky enough to be hired at Luther Burbank High School, Sacramento’s largest inner-city high school.
5.  What has been the most surprising or gratifying result of your writing?
I think my organizing experience has given me a lens that enables me to look at some aspects of teaching and schools a little bit differently from  how many other people see it.  It’s been gratifying to see that others have found hearing that perspective helpful.
6.  When you think about public education in Sacramento, in California, or in general, what gives you the greatest hope and the greatest cause for concern?
It may sound a bit corny, but I experience the greatest hope each day during the school day (or, I should say, during most school days — my students and I have our bad days, too).  The vast majority of students want to learn, and the vast majority of educators want to get better at their craft.  Being part of the great work of groups like Accomplished California Teachers and  Teacher Leaders Network also provides me with the hope that we might be able to have an impact on educational policy issues.
My greatest cause for concern is seeing so many so-called “reformers” — an enormous number of them having little or no direct experience in the classroom — wanting to push non-evidence based changes on our students and us teachers.  We are not test tubes to be experimented on….
7.  Five years from now, you’ll be…?

Teaching in the same positive environment at Luther Burbank and having grown five years wiser as an educator….I also hope to have a better three-point shot :)

Congratulations to Larry once again, and thanks for the interview!  My apologies for losing count of the books.  And for the record, books 1-3 are:

Helping Students Motivate Themselves

English Language Learners: Teaching Strategies That Work

Building Parent Engagement In Schools

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2012 6:45 am

    Have been following your stuff on Facebook and didn’t know the Alinsky connection. I heard him speak many years ago and he had a profound effect on me (as a public school administrator, of all things). I helped start the Dump Duncan letter campaign 3 weeks ago and we are now at about 3500 signatures nationwide, a completely grassroots proposition. Do you have any organizing ideas to help us grow the effort? http://dumpduncan.org

  2. February 20, 2012 6:46 am

    Oops. Forgot to fill out the “Notify me” section.

  3. Fed up with it all! permalink
    February 29, 2012 7:54 pm

    I have gotten his blog emails and love it. So often I am one step ahead by reading a blog and thinking and planning better as a teacher.

    Louise

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