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Catching Up With Larry Ferlazzo

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Catching Up With Larry Ferlazzo

This prolific California teacher blogs everywhere, and is always plugged into the top education trends. 

By Alexander Russo

With more than 51,000 Twitter followers and a social media influence score of 70—not too far behind education brand names like Arne Duncan and Diane Ravitch—Larry Ferlazzo may be the best-known teacher in America you’ve never heard of.

Originally from Staten Island, Ferlazzo spent 19 years as a community organizer before he started teaching. He settled in Sacramento, where there are large numbers of Hmong refugees. Now 12 years into his teaching career at Luther Burbank High School, he works with a wide range of students, some of whom have never attended school or learned a written language. Besides teaching many English language learners, Ferlazzo also has International Baccalaureate and regular courses at a school where 75 percent of the school’s students get free or reduced-price lunch.

Ferlazzo began blogging more than eight years ago, in part as a way to find interesting resources to use with his students. His blog posts became known through the Center for Teaching Quality and the British Council (for whom he writes a monthly column on teaching ELLs). He also contributes to Education Week. In addition, he has a book coming out about Common Core and ELL
students, and he writes a weekly column on teaching English language learners for The New York Times’s Learning Network blog.

How did you decide to add blogging to what you are already doing in the field of education?

As I was trying to gather resources on high-interest books to promote literacy, I was seeing a lot of other material. There’s so much you can get for free on the Internet: stories, nonfiction audio, visual support for text. I thought, ‘Hmm, I might as well start sharing this. Maybe other teachers will find this useful.’

Does blogging help you as much as it helps your audience?

Writing helps people develop their thinking and expand their horizons. It’s a form of intellectual stimulation. It’s been really good to interact with people from all over the world.

Why do so many people follow your writings?

What I write is very practical—I share resources. I write about the chal­lenges I face in my classroom. People like the honesty. I always publish my class evaluations, warts and all. [One of them appeared in Valerie Strauss’s Answer Sheet column in The Washington Post a few years ago.]

What do your students think about your blogging?

They take things more seriously when they know I’m going to share it publicly. And it’s good modeling for them. I let my students grade me, and I post their feedback online.

How do your colleagues feel about it?

People have been very supportive. Many of my colleagues have contributed guest posts to my EdWeek or my regular blog, and I’ve shared resources with them or had them as guests on my BAM! Radio show. I certainly write about my school and colleagues and students—fortunately, I have lots of positive things to say.

What about administrators and central office people—do they know or care what you write about?

Former administrators from our school now have district-wide roles, and we talk regularly; some have contributed to my various columns. The district’s press office periodically asks me to talk to reporters, so I guess they feel okay with what I say or write. [Earlier this year, the district asked Ferlazzo to do an interview and video for the Sacramento Bee that turned into a front-page feature.]

How do you get all of your blogging done, in addition to teaching?

I’ve got a high capacity for work, and I’m teaching at a great school. I also play a lot of basketball. When I’m not on the court or preparing lessons or assessing papers, I spend a fair amount of time in the evening writing or reading about education issues. Plus, my wife is very supportive, and the kids are out of the house.

How has ELL instruction changed over the 12 years you’ve been teaching?

Depending on where you are, it’s not unusual for teachers of ELLs to not be very experienced, or for schools to not be very supportive. There are too many schools where the least experienced teachers [are teaching ELLs]. But there are also lots of great ELL teachers working with tried-and-true strategies. And it’s been a big change for ELL teachers trying to apply the Common Core State Standards. There’s minimal guidance about how to apply them.

How did NCLB affect ELL instruction, and how will the Every Student Succeeds Act change things, if at all?

That’s one of the few decent legacies of NCLB—it made schools more conscious of and accountable for ELLs. Some schools looked for opportunities to push their ELLs out, in the same way that charters “cream.” But many schools took ELL instruction more seriously. The interesting thing with ESSA is that it pushes schools to recategorize ELLs at a higher level, but the potential problem is that some schools may recategorize them as non-ELLs without actually increasing their language skills.

What’s wrong with recategorizing English language learners?

There’s a lot of research showing that if you recategorize too soon, development doesn’t continue without continuing support. It’s an artificial benchmark. It takes six to seven years to become fluent in academic English. That’s a long time.

Didn’t that pressure exist under NCLB?

I know there was pressure on the test scores, but as far as I could tell, there was never any direct pressure to recategorize kids under NCLB.

Tell us a little bit about your school.

The school is located in south Sacramento. It’s divided into smaller learning communities in which 20 teachers loop with kids through all four years of high school. It’s harder for students to get lost in the mix. If someone is having a great day or having issues, [the teacher is] right across the hall. It works well.

How does your organizing background shape your teaching?

There are a lot of similarities between effective teaching and organizing. I think both need to focus on developing intrinsic motivation, and the way to do that is to learn people’s stories and their hopes and dreams and help them develop a different interpretation of what it’s going to take for them to accomplish [those goals]. Relationships are the key in both.

Are there other parallels between organizing and classroom management?

Sometimes the only thing worse than losing a power struggle is winning one. In a classroom, you might win a power struggle with a student, but the cost can be immeasurable and could poison your relationship forever. Similarly, in organizing, you can win a campaign, but you might burn a whole lot of bridges and burn everyone out, and your organization is hollow after that.

How do you hope to influence the conversation on education?

I share what I believe in terms of serious efforts at education policy. From my perspective, teachers unions are the most realistic power to make that happen. I can have influence online, but the power lies with more organized people on the ground, and money. The group that has that, that I am most committed to, is organized labor. I spout off, and maybe somebody listens to it, but what I’m doing online is not organizing. Basically, I want to teach, write, play basketball, hang out with family, and support my union.

Teacher activism is big these days. Have you ever been an activist or taken a leadership role at the school or in the education community?

I’ve done more behind-the-scenes work with our union local. And I was ap­­pointed by Tom Torlakson, the California superintendent of public instruction, to serve on a statewide Educator Excellence Task Force a few years ago that, among other things, developed recommendations for teacher evaluations. 

PHOTO: Laura Morton/Getty images

 

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