Teacher Dolores Huerta: The Champion of the Migrant Farmworker

thLike many people who have heard of farm labor leader and civil rights advocate Cesar Chavez, I have also heard of his right-hand woman, Dolores Huerta, vice president of the United Farm Workers Union. But did you know that she was also an elementary school teacher?

Raised in Stockton, California, Dolores graduated in 1955 with an AA and her teaching credentials from the College of the Pacific. After graduation, she accepted a teaching position in a rural Stockton elementary school. She had been teaching for only a short time when she realized she wanted to devote her talent and energy to migrant farm workers and their families. “I couldn’t stand seeing farm worker children come to class hungry and in need of shoes,” she once explained. “I thought I could do more by organizing their parents than by trying to teach their hungry children.” After one year, she resigned from her teaching position, determined to launch a campaign that would fight the numerous economic injustices faced by migrant agricultural workers.

Joining forces with the legendary labor leader Cesar Chavez, Dolores organized a large-scale strike against the commercial grape growers of the San Joaquin Valley, an effort which raised national awareness of the abysmal treatment of America’s agricultural workers, and she negotiated the contracts which led to their improved working conditions. The rest, as they say, is history.

Although there are several fairly good juvenile biographies of this extraordinary woman, there is no definitive adult biography about her. The closest thing to it is A Dolores Huerta Reader edited by Mario T. Garcia. This book includes an informative biographical introduction by the editor, articles and book excerpts written about Dolores, her own writings and transcripts of her speeches, and a recent interview with Mario Garcia. You can find A Dolores Huerta Reader on amazon.com I have also included a chapter about this remarkable teacher in my second book, Chalkboard Heroes: Twelve courageous Teachers and their Deeds of Valor.

Ellen shares a big surprise with teacher Mayra Castillo

Mayra2Every once in awhile you see a segment on national television that honors some deserving teacher somewhere. When you see it, you’re energized about your work with kids, and you feel honored to be a member of the profession. I had that experience the other day when I stumbled upon a re-run episode of Ellen Degeneres that featured teacher Mayra Castillo. Mayra has two jobs: she teaches special needs students, and then when her regular work day is done, she runs an afternoon program for low-income kids.

Disguised as an impromptu need for a translator, Ellen invited Mayra to come out of the audience and up onstage to assist her in communicating with Spanish-speaking actor Danilo Carrera, who had recently been named “Most Beautiful” by People Magazine. Once Mayra was onstage, Ellen concluded her interview with Danilo, and then got down to the real business she had planned: a big surprise for Mayra.

Want to see the clip? Click on the link  Mayra on Ellen. You’re in for a treat.

Chalkboard Champion Jaime Escalante: He Was the One To Stand and Deliver

50479530_127002097486One of the most well-known teachers in twentieth-century American history, Jaime Escalante, passed away in 2010, but already his story is fading from our collective cultural memory. Recently I conducted an informal poll of the students, and even a few of the younger teachers, at my Southern California high school. “Do you know who Jaime Escalante is?” I questioned them. Almost every one said they didn’t, until I mentioned he was the teacher portrayed by Edward James Olmos in the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver.

The recipient of numerous awards and special praise from President Ronald Reagan, Jaime Escalante was a popular and talented teacher who challenged supposedly “unteachable” inner-city Latino students to achieve beyond a level anyone thought them capable of, eventually leading them to unparalleled success on the extremely difficult Advanced Placement Calculus exam.

In researching the life story of Escalante for my own book, Chalkboard Champions, I learned some surprising facts about this remarkable educator. For example, the movie never mentions that prior to immigrating to the United States, Escalante earned a degree in mathematics and a teaching credential in Bolivia. He was a veteran teacher with nine years of experience in prestigious Bolivian schools when he decided to leave his politically unstable homeland and come to America in search of a better life for his family. Once he arrived, unable to speak a word of English, he discovered that his education, training, and experience held no value here. Determined to return to the classroom, Escalante set about learning the English language and earning his university degree all over again. It took him ten years to get back into the classroom, at a significant cut in pay, by the way, but to this dedicated teacher, it was well-worth the hard work.

A painstakingly-researched and well-written account of Escalante’s life can be found in the biographical book Jaime Escalante: The Best Teacher in America by Jay Matthews. For a condensed version of Escalante’s life, check out chapter 12 my first book, Chalkboard Champions. Either way, you’ll find his story compelling and inspiring.

Chalkboard Champion Joseph Acaba: Educator and NASA Astronaut

220px-Joseph_Acaba_v2Many talented educators earn recognition for achievements outside of the classroom. Such is certainly the case of science and math teacher Joseph Michael Acaba, who is also a hydro-geologist and NASA educator astronaut. This chalkboard champion is the first individual of Puerto Rican descent to become a NASA astronaut.

Joe was born on May 17, 1967, in Inglewood, California, where his parents, Ralph and Elsie Acaba, had moved from Hatillo, Puerto Rico, during the 1960s. When he was an elementary student, Joe excelled in both science and math. He enjoyed reading, particularly science fiction stories. He also appreciated educational movies, and credits his interest in space to a film he watched in his boyhood depicting Neil Armstrong’s 1969 landing on the moon. During his senior year in high school, he became interested in scuba diving, and later he became a certified scuba diver through a job-training program at his school. This experience inspired him to further his academic education in the field of geology. In 1985, Joe graduated with honors from Esperanza High School in Anaheim, California.

Joe earned his bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1990, and his master’s degree in geology from the University of Arizona in 1992. Following his graduation, Joe enlisted as a reservist in the US Marine Corps, where he served his country for six years. During this time, Joe worked as a hydro-geologist in Los Angeles, where he was involved in the assessment and remediation of groundwater contaminants. He has also worked for the Caribbean Marine Research in the Bahamas and as a shoreline re-vegetation coordinator in Vero Beach, Florida.

Additionally, Joe spent two years in the Peace Corps, where he trained over 300 teachers in modern teaching methodologies in the Dominican Republic. “Once I did that, I knew that education was what I wanted to do,” Joe said. To fulfill this dream, after leaving the Peace Corps Joe taught one year of high school science and math at Melbourne High School in Melbourne, Florida, and four years of science and math at Dunnellon Middle School in Dunnellon, Florida. Then, in May 2004, the veteran educator was one of three classroom teachers selected by NASA to be a mission specialist. “The only job that could take me away from teaching is being an astronaut,” he explained. “Being an educator astronaut is the best of both worlds.”

In February 2006, Joe completed his astronaut candidate training, which included scientific and technical briefings, intensive instruction in shuttle and International Space Station systems, physiological training, T-38 flight training, and water and wilderness survival training. Upon completion of his training, Joe was assigned to the Hardware Integration Team in the Space Station Branch, working technical issues with European Space Agency hardware.  He was also a member of the Space Shuttle Branch, supporting shuttle launch and landing preparations at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Joe’s first space mission was aboard STS-119, which flew from March 15 to March 28, 2009. The task for this mission was to deliver the final set of solar arrays to the International Space Station. Joe performed two space walks during this mission. His second space mission was Expedition 31/32, which was launched on May 15, 2012, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and returned on September 17, 2012.  As a member of the Expedition 31/32 crews, Joe spent 123 days aboard the International Space Station as a flight engineer. The intrepid educator has logged a total of 138 days in space during his two missions.

thJoe once said that, as an educator astronaut, he hoped to reach out to minority students. On March 18, 2008, he traveled to Puerto Rico, where he was honored by the island’s senate. During his visit, Joe met with school children at the capitol and at Science Park located in Bayamon. Science Park boasts a planetarium and several surplus NASA rockets among its exhibits. Joe made a second trip to Puerto Rico on June 1, 2009. On that trip he spent seven days on the island and came into contact with over 10,000 citizens, most of them school children.

Joe is active in several professional organizations. He is a member of the International Technology Education Association, the Florida Association of Science Teachers, and the Association of Space Explorers. During his career, Joe has earned many honors. He has been given the Ana G. Mendez University System Presidential Medal and a Doctorate Honoris Causa from the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico. In addition, Caras Magazine designated Joe as one of the most influential and exciting Puerto Ricans of 2012.

“As an educator,” this chalkboard champion once expounded, “I think the most important thing for me is to fulfill the goal of inspiring the next generation. Motivating kids to learn is as important as the subject matter.”

On Veteran’s Day, We Honor Our Chalkboard Champions Who Are Also Veterans


When celebrating our nation’s veterans today, I like to remember that many of them are also chalkboard champions.

cameronface[1][1]I think about Henry Alvin Cameron, an African American schoolteacher who served as an officer in the United States Army during World War I. Henry taught science and coached basketball at Pearl High School in Nashville, Tennessee. At the age of 45, well past the usual age of enlistment, Henry answered the call for African Americans to serve as officers in all-black regiments that were deployed to Europe. Henry served in France and, tragically, was killed in the Battle of the Argonne Forest just days before the war ended. Henry Cameron is pictured here at right.

And then there is Braulio Alonso. Braulio began his teaching career as an instructor of physics and chemistry courses at Henry 0002910439-01-1_06-07-2010[1]B. Plant High School in Tampa, Florida, but when World War II erupted in 1941, he became part of the United States Army. He was immediately sent to officer candidate school, and later he became part of the 85th Infantry Division in North Africa. The teacher-soldier was promoted to Battery Commander for the 328th Artillery Battalion, taking an active part in the Italian campaign. He was among the first Allied soldiers to liberate Rome. By the time he was discharged from the service, Braulio had earned a Bronze Star with Cluster and a Purple Heart. This distinguished veteran is pictured here at left.

Another chalkboard champion is veteran LouAnne Johnson, an educator, author, journalist, and former servicewoman in the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marines. LouAnne is best known for her book My Posse Don’t Do Homework, which was adapted as the film $R05470FDangerous Minds  starring Michelle Pfeiffer in 1995, and a television series starring Annie Potts in 1996.  LouAnne enlisted in the Navy in 1971, and served at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. She served nine years on active duty, achieving the rank of Petty Officer First Class. She later transferred to the U.S. Marine Corps, where she rose to the rank of Second Lieutenant. Throughout her military service, LouAnne earned the Navy  Commendation Medal and the Air Force Achievement Award for her work as a  journalist and ​radio-television broadcaster.

After her years of service in the military, LouAnne became an educator at Carlmont High School in Belmont, California, where she began teaching reading  and writing to non-English speakers as an intern.  Two years later, she was appointed department chair of a special program for  at-risk teens. During the government evaluation of ten similar pilot programs,  LouAnne’s group was rated first in academic achievement, increased self-esteem,  and student retention. Since then, LouAnne has taught English, adult basic  education, developmental reading, and writing at high schools and colleges. LouAnne is pictured here at right.

These are but three examples of remarkable Americans who have given years of devoted service to our country in our military, and who have also given years of dedicated service to our kids as fine teachers. We thank them for all their service!