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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Man on Fire by Brian Leiken, Guest Blogger

"A man can be an anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it.

Creasy's art is death. He is about to paint his masterpiece. I have nothing else to say." - Rayburn, Man on Fire

My art is teaching.

Like most men with delusions of grandeur, I'd like to think I'm something other than I am: a writer, a comedian, a pirate, the Indiana Jones of Southeast Asia. But my true craft, my genuine talent, lies withing the realm of teaching.

It's a skill that's been honed through thousands of hours of practice in the heart of darkness, the inner city classroom, strengthened by teaching the inherently "unteachable," Special Ed. Anyone can teach AP, but not anyone can teach Special Ed.

If you can teach Special Ed in the inner city, you can teach anything.

I used to think I was ineffective, a fraud, a fake. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how many times I explained and re-explained, no matter how many hours I spent in review or helping kids with their homework, my students just didn't "get it."

But give me a class full of general ed students, and I transform, metamorphosing from a crude hockey player into an elegant figure skater, gliding through concepts with lectures and discussion that borders on high performance art.

Give me a class of honors and AP, and I am no longer a figure skater, but a God.

You are what you teach.

One of the tricks to teaching is learning not to take things personally, to quell your feelings and your emotional frustration: apprehension, rage, angst - gone.

Like a bemused comedian in the middle of a routine, you are no longer an individual but an act, a persona that oscillates between unflappable royalty and Buddhist monk, because no matter how good you are, you have to accept that some things are beyond your control.

No matter how hard you try, your students still have to be willing to learn and listen.

Sometimes you receive a question in class that is so far out in left field it came from the bleachers.

I'm co-teaching in Duran's economics class, explaining how property values can decline in crime ridden areas when a question is tossed from outside the stadium.

"Mister," Fluffy asks, "What happens if a house is haunted? Does the property go down?"

Sigh, it's Fluffy. Duran takes to the plate first. "Well, then you have to call in the Ghost Busters."

The class laughs. "Ha ha ha, Mr. Duran." Fluffy says loudly. "Very funny. I know there is no such thing as the Ghost Busters."

Shrugging, I return to the board. A small interruption, no big thing.

"But seriously," Fluffy interjects, "what happens when a house is haunted?"

My turn. "Normally after the police ascertain a house is haunted, they call in the Bureau of Paranormal Activity."

The entire class looks up. Bureau of Paranormal Activity! What's that? "Seriously, none of you have heard of the Bureau of Paranormal Activity? Section 13?"

Fluffy sits forward. "Section 13! What do they do?"

"They investigate and solve paranormal crimes; hauntings, aliens, that sort of thing."

"How do you get into it!"

"You study to be a para-psychologist. They're specifically trained to handle ghosts. One of the ways they identify ghosts is by the ectoplasm they leave behind." I state offhandedly.

"How does one get to be one of those!" Fluffy pants, leaning forward.

The class is riveted. Time to crush Fluffy's imaginary dream. "Well, you have to go to college and get a degree in para-psychology."

Fluffy deflates. College. I might as well have told him he had to jump to the moon. "How come I've never heard of Section 13?"

"Talk to me after class."

Twenty minutes later, the bell rings and Fluffy's out the door, question and answer forgotten as he heads out to lunch, but the next day he approaches me with yet another question.

"Mr. Leiken, I tried looking up Section 13 on Google, and I couldn't find anything."

"Well it's not like they are going to have Section 13 on the Internet!" I snort. "They don't want the public knowing about it."

"Oh." Fluffy replies, heading back to his seat.

It's probably the first time Fluffy has ever shown initiative when attempting to research a topic.

Later that week I show an English class one of my blogs, Top 10 Movies: 2010.

Working with Castaneda, we've decided to dedicate one day a week to blog writing in an attempt to get the class to write creatively and work on self expression.

On Friday I give them their first assignment: write one page about a movie or TV show they either loved or hated and explain why they either loved or hated the show or film.

On Monday I ask them to hand in the assignment. Out of forty kids, only eighteen turn in their work, and five of the eighteen turned in not papers but three sentence paragraphs. Curiously, the three Special Ed kids in the class have all completed the assignment.

"Can't we turn it in late, Mister?"

"Sorry, I don't accept late work."

"But you can't expect us to do work on the weekend!"

"Oh no, not the WEEKEND!" I exclaim, throwing up my hands. "Oh my God, the teacher assigned homework on the weekend. We're doomed, DOOMED!"

I fall down to my knees, head raised as I beseech the heavens, sobbing. "Why, God, why? Why have you forsaken us? I can't believe you expect us to do homework on the WEEKEND! Why not just kill us now!"

The class is stupefied, not sure whether to laugh or look ashamed. I pop back up to my feet, grinning. "So, what can anyone tell me about constructive criticism?"

The next time I give an assignment, thirty kids turn it in. That's progress, I guess.

Good teaching is like telling a good joke. Anyone can tell a joke, but not anyone can tell a joke effectively. Cracking jokes is not about the words; it's about the timing. A good joke is not just a set up and a punch line, but a story infused with personality.

Teaching is the same way; anyone can recite facts and present information, but not everyone has the passion, the personality, the inner fire.

A great teacher has a heart of flame, a soul animated not with a bonfire but an inferno, a tornado of enthusiasm that tears away the listless and mundane, a whirlwind that rips through the insipid red tape and brainless bureaucracy of standardized testing and meaningless rules.

Without the fire, you won't make it. There's a reason why teachers who have given up are referred to as burn outs.

As the refrain goes from Damn Yankees, "You got to have heart, miles and miles and miles of heart."

Hopefully, your flame catches a spark in those you teach and inspires them to be more than they are, not diploma approved CST automatons, but free willed thinkers who refuse to live in the cave of cultural conformity.

Writer, comedian, pirate, I am all of those things.

But I am also, and always will be, a teacher. Everyday I teach in the inner city, I continue to create my masterpiece.

I am the man on fire.

Copyright 2011 Brian Leiken

LA Teacher

Brian Leiken is an LA inner-city, Special Ed teacher and author of  three books for and about his students available on He's also penned I Went Into Teaching for the Money about his first year of teaching in LA. And best of all, he's my son:)

Crossed Out and Messed Up by Brian Leiken at

Photo: burning match by Stephen Davies
Photo: class full 'o bored students by mexikids
Photo: flames by patita rds

Thursday, March 10, 2011

In Search of an Irishman on St. Paddy's Day

As a feature reporter for NBC  in the Midwest years ago, my assignment was to interview Irishmen drinking and toasting on St. Paddy’s Day in local pubs in central Illinois.

A no-brainer, right?

My camerman and I thought we had an easy day ahead and expected to wrap the St. Paddy’s Day story up early so we could enjoy the holiday.

We entered one Irish bar and started conversations with the “revelers,” clanking their green beer mugs together, shouting “Erin Go Bragh” (an Irish blessing used to express allegiance to Ireland) and breaking into choruses of “Danny Boy.”

Everything seemed traditionally Irish. I was raised in Chicago where the river was dyed green for the occasion, and a parade paid honor to the many Irish communities that live in the windy city.

As I walked from one drinker to the next, I found many nationalities: Germans, Scots, Dutch, Italians and assorted heritages, but not one Irishman among them.

OK, so we picked the wrong bar randomly.

As the night wore on and we hit a number of pubs, I wondered if I was going to meet any Irish drinkers (or at least those who would admit it) in central Illinois.

That night as the bar voices got louder telling jokes and singing Irish songs, no one I talked to claimed to be Irish. I was baffled, and it was turning into a long night.

Astonished, I never did find one. My only choice as a roving reporter was to flip the story assignment to: There are no Irish in central Illinois’ drinking establishments on St. Paddy’s day (not much fun), or go generic and show people having a good time on an Irish holiday.

For one day wherever we are, we can all be Irish, gulp green beer and sing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” And that’s no blarney.

Here's to a long life and a merry one
A quick death and an easy one
A pretty girl and an honest one
A cold beer and another one!

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010-2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Clover leaf photo by Sarah Williams
Paddy's Day drinking kit photo by Steve Ford Elliott
Irish leprechaun photo by Chris Chidsey

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

In Like a Lion...Out Like a Lamb

I’ve been thinking of the rituals and symbols we attribute to spring: spring break, spring cleaning, and even “spring forward” for daylight savings time.

Rites of spring at Yale Elementary School in Chicago in the ‘50s came with its own rituals. My fifth grade class was selected to decorate the student hallway bulletin board.

Eagerly armed with scissors, glue, felt and thumbtacks, we created a felt lion and furry lamb covered with cotton balls along with paper cut spring tulips and dandelions to welcome spring to cold Chicago.

It was a major display that everyone walked by, a prime location. We felt appreciated for the“craftsmanship” and creativity of our delightful spring banner. In some aspects, it was the “early seeds” of my marketing career to create eye-catching ads and promotions (little did I know:).

Growing up in Chicago, spring meant coloring Easter eggs and the sugary fun of emptying an Easter basket filled with chocolate bunnies and jelly beans.

It also meant a new outfit for church, including an Easter bonnet, short, white gloves and black patent leather shoes.

I transitioned from girl to young lady in the spring when I wore my first “nylons,” hosiery with seams, signaling a coming of age similar to a boy going from short pants to trousers.

However, I couldn’t keep the hosiery's back seams straight on my beanstalk legs that seemed to be growing too fast for the rest of me. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to wear them thinking of the glamorous actresses in the movies and magazines posing in their fashionable, elegant stockings.

Spring also meant late winter storms and blustery winds as Chicago's winter belted its last “roar” before it allowed gentle spring rains and plants to come out of their slumber, allowing the new born “lamb” to replace the fierce lion of winter.

Spring is a time of awakening, to shake off winter’s doldrums and allow new growth to emerge. The seasons of our lives imitate these cycles, prompting us to shed our winters for new life.

We are in synch with life’s patterns when we remove our winter coats to embrace the warmth and gentleness of spring’s “lamb.”

When I think back to my grade school display of the felt lion and furry, cotton lamb, it makes me smile and welcome spring once again with a child's delight.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010-2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Lion photo by Jean Scheijen
Easter Eggs photo by Alexandar Iotzov
Toy Sheep photo by Ula Kapala