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Thu07162020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Education is a big deal in my family. My grandmother was a teacher; my mom is a teacher; my aunt is a teacher; and my brother is on his way to becoming a teacher.

Of course, modern teachers have never had to deal with anything like this before. California school buildings are closed through at least the end of this school year—and instead, teachers are doing their best to educate students online. Because of these unusual circumstances, I decided to talk to some teachers in my life—my mom, an old high school teacher and a couple of my college professors—via email or online chat (except for my mom) about what it’s like to be a teacher during a pandemic.

“Theoretically, the quality of the learning should not be changed, but I can’t help but assume it has been diminished drastically,” said Corbyn Voyu, an assistant professor of English at College of the Desert. I am currently enrolled in her English 2 class, and Prof. Voyu has been putting a ton of effort into re-creating the same fun learning environment from her classroom in our Zoom video conferences.

“I worry about the students who specifically chose to take courses in-person rather than online,” Voyu said. “I cannot imagine their quality of learning is remaining the same. Usually at this point in the semester, there is an effort slump, which impacts the quality of reading and writing I see from students. That perpetual phenomenon, coinciding with the stay-at-home order, is making my assessment of student work more ambiguous than usual. I am constantly wondering: Is this the normal midterm decline, or the new medium of learning that’s causing students to not participate? I am not sure I will ever find a concrete answer.”

Prof. Voyu explained how she is working extra hard to keep her teaching interesting.

“I am resorting to more educational gimmicks like Kahoot! (an online quiz game), to varying degrees of success,” Voyu said. “I am culling work down to the most-essential pieces, because I know an interminable Zoom session is no fun for anyone. I am lessening the rigor of my standards by recording lectures, carrying the brunt of discussion, and extending deadlines. Mostly, I find I am trying to operate on ideals of compassion. … My students deserve to learn and, I believe, need to learn about literature, so I want to provide them the space to do that. I am really trying to follow where my students lead; I want this time to work for them rather than for me. Basically, if my students have an idea that might make their learning better, I’d do it if I can. In a regular class setting, I cannot say I am that flexible.”

I am also in adjunct teacher Steven Fuchs’ Intro to Government class. Compared to Prof. Voyu’s more free-flowing class, Prof. Fuchs’ class is primarily lecture-based. He said he appreciated the technology of the Zoom application and online discussion boards.

“I find them extremely useful, especially since I can now associate a name with a face,” Fuchs said. “This is always an issue when instructors teach large survey courses. So, in some respects, it adds a level of intimacy to the class. I will absolutely encourage students to interact via Zoom and discussions in future classes. … Except for some startup issues, I'm very pleased with the transition. I’ve been using online quizzes and papers for over five years, and taught a fully online class during winter intersession, so I think my students are lucky to have a relatively easy transition.

“Also, students are often shy about speaking up in public, so the text-only discussions I have been implementing have given them a chance to more fully express themselves and their academic abilities.”

To see how things were going at the high school level, I reached out to my old film teacher, Monica Perez, the head of the Digital Design and Production Academy at Coachella Valley High School in Thermal. She has always been tech-forward with her teachings.

“Most students are only familiar with online classes as a form of credit recovery; there has always been a brick-and-mortar classroom where kids are given multiple scaffolds and retaught if they don’t understand,” Ms. Perez said. “In this online-only setting, it is harder to gauge who needs help, because a student has to be more proactive in their learning. The quality of learning is there, because the curriculum stays the same; it is the way a student chooses to digest that learning that comes into play. There are many videos and guides that can be used to facilitate learning; kids know how to Google answers, so that concept isn’t new. (Education success) is more of a motivational factor now more than anything.”

Ms. Perez said she’s needed to allocate more time to check in with her students.

“One of the biggest differences in my teachings is my form of communication with my students,” Ms. Perez said. “I get a lot more phone calls and text messages now. Students just need to know that you care and miss them. I miss them dearly, so hearing them on the phone is a big positive difference.

“Kids don’t need to know about existentialism if they’re living it, so we (teachers) can approach these topics a little differently. I have ditched some bell/busy-work activities for more online conversation and debate. I am going to limit the craze of Zoom for only necessary times. I prefer pre-recorded material anyway; live Zoom could be used for quick Q&A sessions.”

While Ms. Perez said video conferences are useful, they can’t and shouldn’t fully replace the physical classroom.

“Video conferences are a double-edged sword, because not all students have access to connectivity,” Ms. Perez said. “They are a strong tool for students who need the ‘live’ interaction with their peers and teachers, as online classes by themselves require a lot of discipline and individual effort. I see it as any other tool. It is a fad right now because of our pandemic circumstances, but there are multiple modes of teaching and learning. … In the future, yes, I do see many riding the video-conference train, but I also see many students and teachers alike missing the organized chaos of the brick-and-mortar classroom. A perfect storm, in the end, would be an equal balance of the two mediums.”

Ms. Perez said she’s heartbroken that the class of 2020 won’t be able to fully experience their senior years.

“Many of us are very saddened that we don’t get to be with our kids for the end of the 2019-2020 school year,” Ms. Perez said. “I miss all my children, from those who make me want to pull my hair out, to those who make me a proud ‘cat mom’ everyday, to those crazy combination students who flip a coin and keep me guessing.

“If anything, this pandemic has shown the importance of education and the need to reinvent the ‘old traditional’ ways of learning to a fusion of old and new. In order for kids to thrive, we can’t teach like we taught 50 or even 10 years, ago. We have to evolve.”

Finally, I spoke to my mom about how teaching is continuing at the elementary-school level. Maureen King is a teacher at Palm Academy in Indio, and she is doing her best to make sure the learning never ceases in her third-, fourth- and fifth-grade combo class.

“We do a mandatory check-in every day with our students via video conference or email,” King said. “Every student went home with their school-issued Chromebook and a paper packet encompassing three weeks’ worth of school work. However, that was back in mid-March, so our daily check-ins have been utilizing our system of online video lessons in order to further their education. Many programs that we used in regular class are being used for distance learning, and I am able to assign specific lessons for student reinforcement when needed. Once a week, the entire class meets virtually to see one another, play some games and check on their social and emotional well-being. I also have office hours if students need one-on-one tutoring.”

King is proud of the measures being taken to continue connecting to her students, but she admitted there are some obstacles between younger students and technology.

“I find that younger students are needing more help at home to login and share assignments with their teacher,” King said. “Internet connectivity is not a given in our school population, so I am working on providing additional written packets for students who have been unable to join virtually.

“Per my school guidelines, teachers should be providing four hours of work per day, focusing on reading and writing, math and personalized passion projects. We are also stressing the importance of physical activity and the well-being of the students.”

No matter the education level, local teachers are working hard to do the best they can under the stressful circumstances.

Prof. Voyu summed up her motivations in this way: “These are unprecedented times, but I have too much respect for my students and for my subject to just allow the semester to be considered a wash.”

Published in Local Issues

The service people you encounter every day, to most, are basically invisible: the clerk at the cleaners, the waitress at the café where you get your morning coffee, the plumber who comes to fix a clogged drain, the salesman at the pro shop, the person who checks you in for your doctor’s appointment.

Most of us never know who these people really are, or what their lives are like, until the moment one of them displays the kind of interpersonal skills that make them not only personal to you, but also highly effective representatives of the organizations with which they work.

One such individual is Carlos Castro Jr., property manager with Public Storage in Palm Desert on Fred Waring Drive.

Castro was born 44 years ago in Indio, where he still lives. He is the oldest of four children, who grew up with the understanding that as the oldest, he had a responsibility toward his younger siblings—Monica, Vanessa and Raymond.

“My mom had me at 18,” he says, “and I saw, after she and my father divorced, how, with no marketable experience, she moved from welfare and Section 8 housing to owning her own home and her own car and independence. I’ve always looked up to her. She’s really my hero.”

Castro’s mom, Dora Rodriguez, was born in Waco, Texas. She came to the Coachella Valley and met Castro’s father at Coachella Valley High School.

“It’s really some coincidence,” he says, “because I also met the woman in my life at CVHS, but our story took a lot longer to work out.”

Castro had a crush on Claudia Macias in school, but life took them in different directions.

“What got us back to each other about six years ago, after we were both divorced, was Facebook,” he recalls. “I came across a profile of her and sent a message: ‘This is Carlos, who sat behind you.’ She was blown away, because a friend of hers had read my father’s obituary. She responded, ‘Oh, my God, I thought you were dead!’ We talked a lot after that, and then she said we should get together some time. I told her, ‘I’m available right now. Let’s get a drink.’ Then we started seeing each other.

“Claudia reminds me of my mom in so many ways. She also grew up the product of a divorce and found a way to end up owning a house and a car, raising her kids, and making her own place in the world.”

Coming from an extended family that included relatives who got into trouble and even spent time in jail, “I really decided to be just the opposite,” says Castro. His father was a strong influence to stay clean and straight. “I was raised to be respectful, to have a sense of responsibility toward others, to always act with integrity, and be self-aware. And if I did something wrong, I had to pay the consequences, at a time when that went well beyond a time-out.

“My family was somewhat reserved, a pretty typical Mexican family, so I wasn’t really raised to show my emotions. I developed that on my own. I was always interested in knowing about other people. You have to find things you may have in common. I trust people until someone gives me a reason not to. Sometimes, that backfires, and it really hurts. People can try to manipulate you, but you have to be strong and true to yourself.”

When it comes to being an asset to a company with a job that requires constantly interacting with people who may be upset or are often unsure of what they want or need, Castro could teach others how it’s done.

“I love my job,” he says. “I love meeting people and learning their history and the different experiences they’ve had. I tend to share myself, and then others share themselves with me. And I love being able to help them.”

After high school, Castro continued his education at Mt. San Jacinto College, studying information technology. He then moved on to College of the Desert to study psychology. He plans to continue on to a bachelor’s degree and hopes to go into social work to help others as a counselor, perhaps focused on substance abuse.

Castro’s bucket list? “I want to travel to Australia. It’s a very unique place. I’d like to go to the Outback and see kangaroos and koalas. I’d also like to go south and see the Mayan ruins.”

What advice would Castro give to others? “Be yourself. Be proud of where you come from. There are always going to be obstacles in life, but whatever you do, you should never change who you are just because of the actions of others. That just gives them control over you. And, of course, it’s easier with someone there with you.

“My mom always took care of us. She’s always there. I probably don’t tell her often enough.”

The next time you’re running errands, take the time to notice who is helping you, and realize how little you know about who they are, where they came from, and what their hopes and dreams might be.

That person, like Carlos Castro, might be someone you should take the time to know.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

On Saturday, March 19—after a spirited men’s semifinal match in which eventual 2016 PNB Paribas Open champion Novak Djokovic defeated longtime rival Rafael Nadal—two local Coachella Valley High School students joined Jean Yves-Fillion, CEO of BNP Paribas North America, on the Stadium 1 show court.

Brianda Beltran and Miguel Alvarez, winners of the inaugural BNP Paribas Annual College Scholarship Award, each received recognition for their accomplishments—both on the tennis courts playing for their Coachella Valley High School team, and in the classroom.

“We’ve been supporting this tournament since 2009,” Fillion told the Independent after the ceremony. “I myself have had the privilege to be here pretty much every year. I know it’s a wonderful tournament. You have superstars, but you get to know the people when you come eight years in a row. (At BNP Paribas), we felt, I felt, we are all part of a community. It’s one thing to say you want to be part of a community, but it’s another thing to do it. We felt this scholarship program supporting students was actually a very sincere and truthful way to do it and not to just say it.”

Each year starting this year, one male and one female senior student/tennis player will be selected from local valley high schools to receive a $15,000 scholarship to help support their college educations.

We asked Fillion if it was a rigorous selection process. “Very, very,” he replied. “When I went to the school yesterday (Coachella Valley High, in Thermal), what I told the students there was I was actually impressed and moved by many of these applications. But this being like life, you always have winners. Obviously, Brianda and Miguel happen to be excellent.

“Tennis was an important factor, and these two students are excellent tennis players who play in public schools, but it was also academic. It was maturity and leadership. When you look at what Miguel and Brianda have done beyond just being very good tennis players and (helping) the team, it’s very nice.”

Brianda said she embraced tennis with academics in mind.

“My friends told me, ‘Oh, you should join tennis, because you’re going to need this when you’re applying to college, and it looks good on your resume,’” she said. “I hadn’t done a sport in awhile, so I went to practice, and I stayed there, and I did it and did it. Eventually, it did help me, because I received the BNP Paribas scholarship. So I don’t think I could be anymore grateful.”

Miguel said he started playing tennis when he was a sophomore.

“I started because my coach, Larry Salas, who is also a counselor at my high school, mentioned the importance of academics in being at school and activities like being in clubs, extracurriculars, community service and volunteer work, too. Also … he said, ‘What sport are you planning on playing in high school?’ I honestly never considered myself an aggressive-enough person for most other sports. I considered golf and tennis. Since he was the tennis coach, he asked me to go practice one day with them—and I loved the sport. That two-hour practice on that one day was it for me.”

Both student-athletes said they don’t anticipate playing tennis seriously beyond high school—although the sport will remain part of their lives.

“Since I was introduced to the sport when I was already 15 or 16 years old, my hope is that my kids are able to start when they are little so they can be pros,” Brianda said. “I hope to play in my free time and when I come back home in the summer. Obviously, I want to help the incoming freshmen or meet up with the girls I’ve played tennis with.”

As for Miguel? “I’m really going to focus on getting the best education I can and getting the best out of school. But I will continue to play tennis recreationally. I guess if I could make the college tennis team, I wouldn’t deny that opportunity.”

How will the scholarship money impact their college aspirations? “Both my parents came here to look for a better job, so they didn’t finish college,” Brianda said. “So I really want to get my bachelor’s in psychology and minor in communications. Then I want to get my master’s, and my dad says he’d be really, really proud of me if I got my doctorate, which I’d be willing to do.”

Miguel shared a similar story.

“When my parents came to America, they always hoped for us to live the American Dream, where we would find success and where we would work hard to be somebody in this world,” he said. “Now I want to enter USC (where he’s been accepted) as a business major and attend their world-business program, where I would attend USC for two years, spend one year in Hong Kong, and a year in Milan.”

As things came to a close, Miguel had one last message: “Just for the record, I do have something I want to say. Where we live, in Coachella … it’s a little sad that in our entire city, the only courts that we have to play on are the ones at our school. I know that in other cities here in the valley, like La Quinta or Palm Desert, most of their parks have tennis courts here, there, everywhere. So if anyone really wanted to play tennis in our community, it’s very limited, considering that the only courts are at our school.”

Sounds like the young man thought of another community project worthy of the attention of PNB Paribas and the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

Published in Features

With the trauma of the Dec. 2, 2015, mass shooting in nearby San Bernardino fresh in their minds, Simon Moore—the lead adviser of the Coachella Valley High School Health Academy and Health Occupation Students of America—and his students began planning a community outreach program.

Kimberly Bravo, a senior at the Thermal high school and the captain of the CVHS HOSA community awareness team, noted in a news release announcing the forum that mass shootings have taken countless innocent lives.

“Later, we find out that the people committing these shootings suffer (or suffered) from various types of mental health issues. The question we ask ourselves is, ‘Why didn’t anyone hear these individuals’ cries for help?’” she said.

At the forum, Bravo, her fellow students and the members of the public who attended learned that the premise of the forum was flawed: Most people who carry out mass shootings don’t make cries for help—because they aren’t mentally ill.

“Not all of these shootings are based on mental illness,” said Desert Hot Springs Chief of Police Dale Mondary, one of the panel participants, who worked in San Bernardino before taking his newish job in the desert. “I’d say the majority probably are not. It could be political causes, or religious ideology or some sort of family-relationship issue.”

The fairly well-attended forum attracted a distinguished group of prominent local and national professionals and politicians, all with their own perspectives on the theme.

“Everyone who we invited showed up—and, I mean, that’s just amazing,” Moore said after the forum. “We asked Dale Mondary, the chief of police from Desert Hot Springs, because he’s a new guy to the area who came from San Bernardino. State Representative Chad Mayes, who is a Republican, just showed up and said, ‘Let’s talk.’ And we’re not even in his district. Also we got Supervisory Special Agent Colin Schmitt from the FBI (who was lead incident commander during command post operation for investigating the San Bernardino shootings). And given the acclaim that attendee Dr. James Fox receives among law enforcement as a profiler in the U.S., it was really cool to get him.”

Fox (pictured below) is a professor and interim director at the School of Criminology at Northeastern University who has appeared on numerous television shows, writes a regular column in USA Today and has been called on for his expert opinions by the U.S. Congress, several attorneys general, President Bill Clinton and Princess Anne of Great Britain, among others.

The panel covered numerous topics over the course of the discussion, which lasted more than 90 minutes—and the hard link between mental illness and mass shootings was not the only myth debunked at the forum.

“There’s one tiny flaw in all the theories as to why there’s been an increase in mass shootings in the United States, and that is the fact that there has not been an increase in mass shootings over the past several decades,” Fox said. “Now, I don’t mean to minimize the pain and suffering of all those who have been victimized in these attacks. But the facts say clearly that there has been no epidemic.”

He offered an array of statistics to support this stance.

That position not withstanding, student co-moderator Sergio Ortega asked, “With the growing number of mass shootings in public spaces, what do you think is the root cause of these incidents?”

“In the cases of shootings in public places which are the rarest, maybe 5 or 6 a year,” Dr. Fox said, “they are the ones where mental illness is most likely to emerge. These individuals have a paranoid sense that the whole world is evil or the government is corrupt, and they really don’t care who they kill as long as they kill as many people as possible.”

Schmitt mentioned that shooters often put a lot of thought into where they make their attack.

“Between 2000 and 2013, there were 160 active shooter instances, and 46 percent of them took place in areas that were open to pedestrian traffic. Obviously, it’s unlikely that we’d have an incident like this at an FBI building which is full of armed agents. If somebody is looking to kill lots of people, they are going to go somewhere where there is not a lot of law enforcement.”

After the forum, we asked Moore if he was surprised by the expert opinions that seemed to undermine the basic premise behind the forum.

“No. They knew the discussion was about violence in relation to mental health,” he said. “Dr. Fox’s finding is that most of those shooters are not mentally ill. He told us that among people who commit mass shootings, less than 12 percent have had mental health issues. And Chief Mondary has a specialty of combating crime rather than profiling. I think it was great that they both spoke from their experience with the public.”

So what’s next for the students who were involved in this public-awareness exercise?

“Now it’s time to get the word out,” Moore stated. “When we had a debriefing with the student organizers, I asked if most people who carry out mass shootings have mental health issues, and everyone in the room said, ‘No.’”

Published in Local Issues