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Episode 5: Rafael Cruz, LA County Teacher of the Year 2021-22

Rafael Cruz is a Los Angeles Unified School District Teacher at Hollenbeck Middle School and 2021-2022 Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year. Rafael has over 16 years of teaching experience and currently teaches STEM courses. 

The following transcript has been redacted and edited for quality and educational purposes.  

Nati Rodriguez [01:01] 
To start, we’d love to hear about your background and how you became a teacher. 

Rafael Cruz [01:06] 
How I became a teacher is part of the reason why I really advocate for certain things. I was very fortunate in high school to be part of an outreach program called PUENTE – that helped me become college-ready, and I went to UC Santa Barbara. I got really good grades in accounting, and then I started my career in accounting, and it only lasted two months because I wasn’t career ready. I didn’t know how to type correctly. I didn’t use Excel correctly, which led to a quick exit from the accounting field. I also realized that it wasn’t accounting that I was in love with [because] I didn’t want to go back after that. It just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was in limbo, and one of my cousins was doing some program in [CSU] Northridge, and he advised me that I should look into it. And I did. I loved the program and got into education and have been here 15 years ever since. [I] really enjoy the whole fact of building people up and helping each other. I can’t say this for the corporate world because I only had two months’ experience, but in those two months, the people weren’t helping you out the way I expected or taking you under their wing. It was really like, – “Hey, you got to do this,” and bottom-line oriented. I found in education, it’s been the opposite – where it’s been about community, helping each other and bringing out the learning within us teachers, and then, of course, with our students. 

Nati Rodriguez [03:04] 
Thank you for sharing about the community and teaching. I think sometimes that isn’t spoken about as often. I’m curious what a day in the life of your work is like. Could you describe a typical day for you? 

Rafael Cruz [03:19] 
Usually, when we start, the kids come in, and I ask them if they’re going to use their computer or notebook, and this year we have that luxury. Our college compass, which we call My Academic Plan, where the students really reflect on their learning – this is something new that we’re doing this year. I really like it because it is getting the kids both college and career ready, but from them at the center – tying in the application process of college with the career, with extracurricular activities, so the students are able to talk about the things they’re interested in, part of their hobbies, or anything they’ll be able to put in a college application. We’re able to talk about how to be successful, not just in college, but most importantly in the real world – you have to be well-rounded. After that, we get into our projects. We’re one of the leading middle schools in Linked Learning; the purpose of Linked Learning is really to connect students’ learning within each class and into the real world. Today, our students were [finishing up] their project. We’re doing a COVID-19 vaccination campaign; the course I’m teaching right now is Medical Detectives. The students are working collaboratively with each other, creating pamphlets and posters, and one class is creating a video, and another class is creating a podcast. Most of the time in the classroom, students carry the cognitive load. What that means is me talking less and them talking more, whether it be with each other or in conversations, and then producing real-life work, where they’re able to put their learning into something that’s going to be applicable. 

In our COVID-19 campaign, we made a video, and we’re hoping all the classes show them, and we’re going to do some presentations. We were so fortunate. Yesterday I had a couple of doctors, Dr. Velasquez and Dr. Campos, zoom with our students and answer questions to further their knowledge about COVID-19 because we’re taking a knowledge-based approach to help people and to get all our students vaccinated. We’re coming from scientific facts, knowing what the COVID vaccine is, how it works, and debunking the misinformation. So having those doctors come and talk to our class and interact with our students was really rich. Our class is project-based oriented and heavily leaning [toward] culturally responsive teaching.  

That project is part of a bigger project, and that is really about what’s our responsibility to our community. The science that we’re learning is about ecosystems; that’s going to break into a project that has to do with global warming and something we could implement. The students could reflect and work on their identity as agents of change. We’re usually working on projects where the students choose the topic and guide the learning. We give them the essential questions, the standards we’re covering, but in my class, the kids learn by doing, using their talents and assets to build on their learning. [I] give them some questions, guide them, and facilitate them to get the discussion started, but as I said, the kids do the heavy load. 

Once again, it’s big on them having a good time learning and getting [them] into things they are interested in – I think that’s the awesome part. They have fun, and they’re learning at the same time, and they’re doing higher-order thinking. Learning such as synthesizing and analyzing are the skills they need now in the new economy – transferable skills. Every day our kids have four pathway outcomes. They’re either working on being an effective collaborator, an effective communicator, a problem solver, or a critical thinker. 

Nati Rodriguez [08:23] 
Thank you, Rafael. There were so many things that I wanted to circle back on – what sounds like a wonderful environment to be learning. You mentioned a couple of new things this year, like the Academic Plan, where they reflect on their learning. You mentioned something about them getting to choose a notebook or computer. What is different about this year for students? 

Rafael Cruz [08:44] 
My Academic Plan got rolled out in our school and it was typical of how some programs get rolled out people telling us we got to do this. When that happens, it loses the reason why we’re doing stuff. A lot of people looked at it negatively and we were able to revamp it. Why are we even doing it? Are we just doing it because someone at the top is telling us to do it, or are we going to use it? Some people in the summer worked on it together with the Partnership for LA Schools and were able to really have the teachers understand why we’re doing it. Now we’re really implementing it because we’re using it to help the kids reflect and not just using it to get it done and to put a bunch of data that’s not relevant.  

One of the big things that I’m pushing for is having more qualitative data than quantitative data. Instead of just getting the numbers, well, what do the numbers mean? What are they telling us now? Now, we’re using the data from students. What do they think about certain things or where do they see their future going? Instead of going from top to bottom, we’re looking from bottom-up and what are the kids telling us to do – have that guide our work. I think that was something new because last year in the pandemic, we didn’t know what to do. It was a totally new ball game. For the first time and something that we’re doing less of this year, and I hope, but more than other years, is to see what were the needs of our students and parents and we started off from there. We didn’t even start off with test scores or anything like that. Let’s survey the kids. What’s happening? What do they need? What makes them feel comfortable as we’re learning how to do this virtual teaching? What experiences are they going to have? What social-emotional learning do we have to provide for them, if people need food or have financial problems? We were deploying people to help them, really leaning on community services to help us on that. It felt like a really big community looking at the essential things of what people need, what our students need to be successful, and kept looking at the data to revamp our virtual learning, changing things up to really meet what our qualitative data was telling us.  

We were able to meet one need that we hadn’t in many years, which was the technology gap. We had one cart for two or three teachers. We were able to deploy technology to our students last year. This year, all the kids have a computer. 

That’s just so awesome them having the computers because I’m still using platforms that I used last year because it was cool. The kids could message me on our platform called Schoology and ask me questions that they might not feel comfortable [asking] in class. I’m still trying to have all the material they need on that Schoology platform, in case they’re absent or they need to reference it. That helps them be more independent because if I have an instructional video explaining the project, they could always go back and look at it. Those were a couple of things that are new this year. I’m definitely leaning on qualitative data. I’m looking for data [from] the kids letting me know where the instruction needs to go. I’m teaching electives to be fair, so my kids don’t take standardized tests. What they do is they have exhibition nights where they showcase their social-cultural projects to an authentic audience. This year, the authentic audience is going to be the students they want to persuade to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Other years, it might be engineers or anyone that’s looking at their project; it depends on the theme. So those are our tests. Because our tests are so project-oriented, the kids are able to do the work and learn from the work and get immediate feedback. As they’re working on their projects, their success rate [is] really high. I’m able to do some things those other teachers are not, let the students tell me where my teaching is going, instead of having an instructional book tell me where I need to go. That was perfect with virtual learning; that’s where I succeeded because it was easier to go from live-teaching to virtual teaching and then back to live-teaching because it was projects. When kids are doing projects, you have a lot of flexibility. 

Nati Rodriguez [14:41] 
Thank you for sharing about the connection to real world learning. I love this idea of the exhibition where they present to an authentic audience. I’m curious, what is the name of the elective that you teach? 

Rafael Cruz [14:57] 
This year, I’m teaching Medical Detectives and that consists of a couple units where the kids have to figure out a mystery illness and then a mystery diagnosis. The last unit is Murder Mystery; there’s this program called Project Lead The Way (PLTW) that gives us the curriculum. From there, I have the flexibility to do some extensions, like the COVID-19 project is an extension from the Murder Mystery unit that talks about contagious diseases. We start off by learning what the nurses and doctors do, and then they have to diagnose a patient. From that extension, we started doing the COVID project. Medical Detectives is an exploratory course on the medical world and forensics.  

Nati Rodriguez [16:22] 
Where did your career start as a teacher?  

Rafael Cruz [16:26] 
I’ve only done this [for] the last five years. Before that I taught math and science. There was one year that I was at Oakland as a transformational coach, but for those first other 10 years [I] was teaching math and science.  

Nati Rodriguez [16:41] 
Got it. I can see the connection between math and science and project-based learning. I’m curious if you’ve seen models where this project-based learning curriculum is happening in math and science classrooms instead of an elective? What are your thoughts on that?  

Rafael Cruz [16:58] 
With Linked Learning, our project-based learning (PBL) projects are cross-curricular and that has been a challenge. Right now, Math and English are not part of our projects because of the testing pressure. They’re looking at the scores so it becomes nerve-wracking, but we do the projects with History and Science. Last year, we did a project that was called Medieval Engineering where we looked at some aspects of medieval times and we connected it to a science curriculum that had to do with building baby incubators for places that don’t have electricity. That was a natural connection to medieval times when they didn’t have electricity and there was a high infant mortality rate. We connected it with engineering to build baby incubators, some virtually, and then with some of them we built solar ovens [with] things the medieval people would use, that still had to do with our science standards about heat transfer. Actually, in the pandemic, we had to switch it because we were going to have this big event where [the] kids were going to be merchants from the medieval times. They were going to be selling the inventions they created with scientific knowledge and engineering skills. We were going to give community members little coins, and give the coin to the product that they like the best; we thought that was going to be authentic and fun.  

Unfortunately, the pandemic happened and we had to change it. We had the kids use this program called Flipgrid, where they did their presentation and industry members and educators would look at their video and then give them feedback. In Flipgrid you could make a video and you could do a feedback video – that is something that I’m using now because I was able to get a lot of people: engineers, somebody from NASA, we got someone that was a structure engineer because they could make their video whenever they wanted and they were able to interact with the students without having to come to the classroom. It’s hard to get professionals to come into the classroom. We had doctors come in on Monday, and they didn’t come into the classroom. I need professionals to work with our kids on the projects. It’s hard for them to take a whole day off or even just come for one hour because you have to include travel. Now we can zoom with them and it only takes half an hour; they can zoom from their office. 

Part of Linked Learning is bringing in professionals. Now the kids get a deeper understanding of what we’re learning and how it’s applied in an industry. When we bring the doctors, they’re teaching you from life experience or how they have used this knowledge. I would love for English and Math to be part of the projects; when I taught Math, I did some of those but not with other curriculums. I got really good test scores when I taught math; I think part of it was that we were doing projects as well; we were incorporating as much real-life experiences. We even did some songs with angles, so we would just create projects out of it. That’s why my kids did really well in Math, and with effort we put into working with our parents as partners, I pushed Math and English in our school to be part of our projects. 

I think portfolios are a much better indicator of what skills our students have. It’s much more equitable and it’s going to be more real-life. That’s what you do, you don’t take a test when you interview for a job, you show your portfolio.  

Nati Rodriguez [21:20] 
I couldn’t agree with you more, Rafael. I think anytime a student can see why they’re learning what they’re learning, and it makes sense and it connects to the real world, that’s when there are deep connections being made that last beyond getting ready for a test. It’s exciting to hear that teachers like you have these experiences for students so they can make those connections across disciplines and really have access to people that have those jobs and hear from professionals. All of this sounds like a lot – there’s parents, professionals in the community, and bringing in outside learning and current events, especially with the COVID-19 project and vaccinations – what kind of support do you get to continue your learning and to be able to bring in these experiences for students?  

Rafael Cruz [22:21] 
We are a Linked Learning school; we get professional development from that. We are also part of the Partnership for LA, which also gives us professional development. They were able to help me financially last year to get my master’s with a UCLA program called Principal Leadership Institute (PLI); they focus on a social-cultural lens. Those have all been great opportunities to learn more, but at the same time, I co-constructed my learning with them. I think that I’m very fortunate to have those programs. I love them because I’m learning with a network. One of the goals of both Linked Learning and the Partnership for LA Schools is to build the capacity of their teachers. I definitely have taken advantage of that to expand my learning, and I’m very grateful for that.  

[This] provides me the opportunity to work with other educators. With our Linked Learning program, I was very fortunate to work with Nightingale Middle School in LA. A teacher called Ms. Reyes, who was in the same boat as me, collaborated a lot the first year because it was hard to implement a thing like at a middle school. In high school, it’s a lot easier because there are internships, but we really communicated and exchanged ideas. I’m part of what is going to be called the Linked Learning Alliance, where they promote more of these programs in middle schools. It’s a bunch of educators getting together and talking about it.  

Every culture has brilliant people; we’re part of that, so I’m able to practice that. One of my friends told me getting fired from accounting was a blessing in disguise. In retrospect, I’m in a place where I’m happy. I enjoy my work and right now I’m putting myself in positions with schools and networks that I know are about the work that I like doing. It’s fun – interacting with the students and seeing their projects, and giving them immediate [feedback]. That’s fun! I really concentrate my time as an educator on things that are fun for me. So, I seek out professional development because I want to learn about it, [because] I’m interested in it.  

That’s really what I try to foster in my students – these projects that get them motivated about things they’re interested in and curious about. That’s how they do the heavy lift because they’re interested in it. I’m just there to facilitate and help them and take them in the right direction during my teaching time. It’s fun and I’m not stressed out because my students are doing most of the work, and they’re enjoying it, so they are owning the learning. I made great networks; I enjoy them. These two networks – Linked Learning and Partnership for LA Schools – I feel blessed to be in them. They provided me with a lot of opportunities and the opportunity to pursue things that I’m curious about. I am hoping my students feel the same way.  

Nati Rodriguez [25:45] 
When you describe your work and these opportunities with learning with a network and exchanging ideas with teachers, it sounds very creative and fun. I’m sure you’re conveying that to your students. What a blessing for them to have a teacher like you working with them and guiding them through their own learning.  

Nati Rodriguez [26:27]What would make your experience as a teacher more enjoyable? 

Nati Rodriguez [26:27] 
What would make your experience as a teacher more enjoyable?

Rafael Cruz [26:36] 
Being able to change the focus from standardized testing to what we call Portfolio and Defense, where students build a portfolio throughout the year, and in the end, they do the defense. I’m able to do that, but unfortunately, other subjects are not able to do that and participate fully because they’re worried about the standardized test. I think if we focused on kids building a portfolio and they are able to, in the end, showcase it, that would be more awesome. Do more PBLs; have that be the center of our education. Even now, being part of Linked Learning, getting time to work with my colleagues sometimes can be difficult because there are other priorities that our school has and a lot of them are based on standardized testing. My kids did good on the test, the more projects they do. Once you give them the test, they’ll be able to do good on it because they’re learning the standards. What we really need now is people who are creative and adaptable. If we had that be the focus, and that’s pretty much what Linked Learning focuses on, that would make it more fun because more of my colleagues would have time to work together to create these projects. 

Nati Rodriguez [28:05] 
Thank you for sharing. You mentioned in your Teacher of the Year video about being a part of a community of change. Can you talk about that? What does that mean? 

Rafael Cruz [28:24] 
It’s about transforming education. I’ve been very blessed. I was hired at Hollenback Middle School by principal Vicki Castro. Vicki was part of the people that organized the walkout back in 1968. She already came with a lens of transforming our community, through its assets, through the things we have in our community that are pretty awesome already and building on those. She was really an inspiration because she was part of a program where there were mostly men administrators. She became one of the first female administrators! She was at the forefront of that throughout the Civil Rights movement. She taught me and the people that I started working with to be leaders and to be agents of change. One of my colleagues, he’s our Director in the Partnership for LA Schools, Mr. Randy Romero, he helped transform Roosevelt Magnet into one of the top schools ranked one year #2. My other colleague, Mauro Bautista, is a principal at Mendez High School, which is a highly-acclaimed school in Boyle Heights. All of a sudden, we have like 3 or 4 or 5 high schools in Boyle Heights that have really high regard. They did this through people from the community and building each other [through] education. I remember Mr. Bautista, my mentor, as a first-year teacher talking about how he bought a house in the neighborhood because he believes in building up the neighborhood by becoming owners of houses and not moving to other cities. His philosophy was, “No, I’m going to come build a house here, we’re going to bring up the neighborhood with members of the neighborhood, instead of having gentrification.”  

I recently bought my home in East LA and it was where I wanted to live because I love the community here. I want to follow in the footsteps of Mr. Bautista and really build up the community, not just through education, but also by being part of the community. We have the assets to do that. Being part of the community of change, that’s what I meant. We’re going to change education; not just with bringing in industry members, like Linked Learning, or having people up our game like with the Partnership for LA Schools, that are letting us co-construct, but it’s also brings in the parents and students because they’re part of the community. Being part of the community and helping it really concentrate on the assets of that community to build it, just enhances it. 

That’s what’s happened in Boyle Heights and in East LA over the years. I’m living here and I love it. Whatever stereotypes that were in the past, I haven’t seen them and I haven’t experienced them. That’s how we transform and we create change. It has to be all the students and their parents, their community – we all do it together. That’s why I love working at Hollenback Middle School – that sense of community and the sense that we’re improving as a community and we’re leaning on the community to help us do that.  

That’s what I mean being part of the change. There were two Latino doctors who were interested in giving back and helping future doctors. Without them, my program is not as good. Without parents who are always attending exhibition nights or who are always willing to help out with whatever we need, the education is not going to be the same. My scores were super high because we engaged the parents, and the parents were like our partners, and of course the kids. I’m not teaching empty vessels; these are young people that come up with a bunch of knowledge and understanding already from their young life experience. It’s just my job to facilitate them, to have that growth all together.  

The world is changing and we have to find solutions for the environment and solutions for the amount of automation that we’re going to have. We have to, together, come up with these solutions. Society is changing at a rapid pace. We could only transform as a community.  

Nati Rodriguez [34:51] 
I love it. Thinking about what’s happening in your classroom, it’s really getting them prepared for a world of uncertainty and learning to be problem-solvers, and connectors and collaborators, with the resources that are where they live, but also that are outside that can support them based on their own needs and desires. I really like hearing about this work, Rafael, and I think you’ll be an inspiration to a lot of our listeners.  

Nati Rodriguez [35:32] 
Where do you see yourself in five years?

Rafael Cruz [35:37] 
I recently got my admin credential and I don’t know where I’ll be professionally. Hopefully, I’ll be in education. Once I retire, I want to do a Ph.D. program and do some writing about things having to do with culture. I want to do the research. A lot of times in my career, they bring these experts that have these writing but I already know experts – Vicki Castro, Mr. Bautista. Why are they legitimate? Because they got a degree? Some of them I highly respect, like the people I learned under UCLA but eventually I want to own the work too. I want to tap into the learning that I had, that is not always validated because it’s just people on the ground doing the work. 

For the next five years, I want to work either in Hollenback Middle School or Stevenson Middle School, which are the two middle schools in Boyle Heights. What am I going to be doing? I don’t know, right now I’m really happy. In my position, I’m able to build this Linked Learning program in our school, or at least in our personalized learning community. As an administrator, I don’t know if I will be able to have the impact I have right now or the funds. I’ll be an administrator, an AP, sometime in the future. I really want to be in a place where I feel I can make an impact and I could have fun and enjoy. Right now, I’m in a school and in a position where I’m doing that through my leadership positions. I’m enjoying what I’m doing. I think that to me is the most important thing. I want to help the community. I want to be happy and do things that I enjoy.  

Nati Rodriguez [37:50] 
Well, thank you. We look forward to tracking your progress and I really enjoyed this conversation. Is there anything else that you would like to share, that I didn’t ask about or any social media or websites you’d like to share for our audience?  

Rafael Cruz [38:08] 
I do have a YouTube where people can access the awesome work our students are doing, HMS STEMM Pathways courses. I love showing the students’ work because that’s about the students, the awesomeness that they have. One theme that I keep saying is, we got to access our students’ funds of knowledge. There’s a lot that they bring to the table. I love showcasing all the awesome things that they’re doing. I love sharing the awesomeness that they and their families are doing. That is HMS STEMM Pathways courses. 

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