Sunday, April 03, 2011

There are a thousand stories in the naked city. . . . . and mine is just one.

Charlie Unkeless
John Burroughs Middle School
Technology Lab and Aeronautics Instructor

Two weeks ago I received a Pink Slip along with 4500 other teachers in the LAUSD. I'm told that even if my RIF is rescinded, I won't be allowed back into the computer lab because the Principal will no longer be able to authorize my ability to teach technology. My credential is multi subject k-8, and I am deemed unqualified to teach a technology class.

A Little History

In 2003 I was recruited to teaching by the LAUSD District Intern Program. This program offered me a chance to become fully credentialed after a three year internship. LAUSD was recruiting professionals who wanted to bring their life experiences into the classroom.

I had been a lighting designer for Oingo Boingo, led by Danny Elfman, for 20 years before he disbanded the group. I also worked as a lighting designer and operator for other artists including Barry Manilow, INXS, Debbie Gibson, and radio station KROQ. These accounts required me to design elaborate lighting rigs using CAD software and operate them using complex computer controllers.

I became a PC nerd in 1985 with my first Commodore 64 , and went on to work on Mac’s, PC’s, and UNIX workstations as a computer graphics artist while continuing to design lighting systems. I was self taught and became and independent producer of animation for commercials and live events. By 1998, I was employed as a lighter, animator, and modeler for TV shows and movies and worked in that field for the next five years.

At the age of 51, I decided that becoming a teacher was more attractive than being a freelance artist because I was always looking for the next production gig. A teachers salary isn’t great, but I also wanted health benefits and a path to a pension. It helped that I had a degree from UCSD and a good memory for math and science. I was deemed highly qualified.

How hard could teaching be?

Well, it was plenty hard. Facing classes of 40 teenagers 5 times a day and delivering interesting and rigorous lessons is the most difficult and rewarding challenge I have ever faced, and I was good at it. I have been recognized by me peers and my administrators as a creative educator who delivers content in unique and creative ways.

I was hired at John Burroughs Middle School to teach 6th grade math and science. I experimented with using flight simulators as an enrichment strategy to teach earth science. Since kids love video games, it offered me a chance to teach them a challenging kinesthetic skill, while embeding science, technology, engineering, math, and literacy standards all at the same time. For example, we studied the topographic maps and aerial photography of Mt. Shasta. Then my students would fly around the mountain sightseeing and making notes about the glaciers and landforms.

I wrote a grant in 2007 and was funded by the California State Assembly to teach aeronautics as a career technical education course. My Principal signed an authorization to allow me to take over the computer lab at John Burroughs Middle School and teach aeronautics as an elective as well as an introductory computer course.

However, the grant was underfunded and the lab contained 40 Windows 98 computers that were underpowered. In the last four years I have been the force that pushed for donations, grants, and a settlement from a Microsoft lawsuit to revitalize Room 230 into a great and productive lab. I put a lot of sweat and my own money into it as well.

Now you may ask, “are you a pilot?” “No, I just play one in the classroom.” Actually, I have taken flying lessons and trained in flight simulators. My program was mentored by a pilot instructor who provided my initial syllabus. I use the Microsoft Flight Simulator hooked up to your average PC and away we go into the wild blue yonder. The kids love it and I am teaching 4 crowded classes this spring semester 2011. Students learn to fly a Cessna and read all the gauges.

They keep portfolios and organize all their missions, journals, and worksheets.

We take field trips to airports and study aviation history.

They develop note-taking skills, write summaries, and reflections about their experiences. It is a busy semester and the kids who sign up know my class is challenging but they are motivated and responsible students. Last year I arranged for my top students to fly a plane with a pilot instructor who donated her services.

What kind of culture would throw away the value I have added to my school? I feel like a character caught between Catch 22 and 1984. These cutbacks will affect class size, curriculum and damage the future of our children. Does, “value added,” only apply to the metric created to judge student performance based upon standardized test scores? Do these tests encourage innovative thinking or are they just a scorecard in a multiple guessing game that we have been relying on since the IBM punch card era?

Mine is one of the stories in the naked city and it's breaking my heart to be thrown out of a classroom which I worked so hard to revitalize. I’m sad for our children whose experiences will be diminished by overcrowding, over-testing, and a lack of opportunities to take enriching courses that support their core subjects.