Category Archives: California

“Gifted Students Have Special Needs Too”

I’ve never heard anyone say this ever except for my mom. That is until I recently read an op-ed with exactly that title which got me reflecting on my experiences as a “GATE student” in California’s public schools. I’m writing this post specifically for teachers and principals and parents as food for thought – this is my story, draw your own conclusions. Hopefully something I’ve written here reminds you of some of the kids at your school and could be applied right now to feed that student’s life-long love of learning and to better set him or her up for both academic and personal success down the road.

I could easily be negative and whiny about some of my experiences as a K-12 student, but that is like complaining about everything I hate about horse-drawn buggies when they’ve already been replaced by cars. That is how much technology has changed since I was in kindergarten. I constantly look at what is happening in some of California’s most innovative schools and say, “Gee, I wish they had THAT when I was a kid!”

A Tale of Two Teachers

I want to start with a tale of two teachers that illustrates pretty darn well what needs to end and what can be. First off, I’m no genius. I’m a very curious person and I love learning. School always came easily to me, so in a class of 30 kids, if the lesson was at the exact right level for 20 kids and five were completely lost, I was one of the five who were bored. My point? There are lots and lots of kids out there just like me – enough that I ask you not to say or think things like: “Liza is bright, so she’ll be fine no matter what we do,” and just leave it at that.

As a sixth-grader, I was in a unique school within a school at our big, overcrowded middle school. We had traditional English and math classes, then every afternoon, we had a block period for project-based learning integrating science and social studies with a mix of 6th, 7th and 8th graders. We would work on a project for six weeks, then start a new one. For every assignment, we had seven options for completing it based on the seven multiple intelligences, and a lot of the projects were group work where they would put together a strong student, a struggling student and two average students (Teachers: don’t think we weren’t on to you!).

My math teacher hated me. I was always bored out of my mind in her class because she went super slow through the material, most of which I already knew, then if she gave us an in-class assignment, I’d finish quickly and ask her what to do next. She would snap at me and tell me to just sit there for the remaining 20 minutes of class or, another favorite approach of teachers, make me help other students. I have more sympathy now – after all, she had 35 kids with widely varying abilities and she was supposed to get all of us ready for algebra the following year. However, at the time, I was so bored at school that I was actually getting depressed and, being a goody two-shoes, I was distressed that my teacher hated me.

Fortunately, I had an amazing teacher for our project-based class in the afternoon. He made me feel special – I felt like he took all of us seriously and listened patiently to our concerns. In response to my complaints of boredom, he devised a special project for me – rather than just writing an essay or whatever else we were supposed to do – he had me create a Hypercard presentation. He showed me a little bit, then basically set me off on my own to figure out the program. I’d work away at the one classroom computer while he worked with the rest of the class. Most importantly, he didn’t give me an A based on how my work compared to that of my classmates. He compared me only to myself and pushed me to the edge of my abilities. Now THAT’S differentiated instruction!

I had many, many teachers like these two during my years in school – those who found me annoying and those who saw me as an opportunity to try out something new. In high school, I was much happier than I was in middle school for a couple of reasons:

  1. They tracked us. There is a lot of rightful criticism around tracking and I am still bothered by the few Latino and low-income students in honors classes at my old high school. However, I personally thrived by having challenging material and being surrounded by bright students who loved learning.
  2. My mom. I was one lucky kid because my mom is a fighter. She was an advocate for me – she worked with my teachers to make sure I was challenged. She found opportunities outside of school for me to develop myself.  And through a combination of volunteering for everything at the school and cajoling/harassing the principal, she would ensure I was always assigned to the toughest teachers for any given subject and the ones that loved teaching kids like me. Unfortunately, most kids aren’t as lucky as I was.

The op-ed that sparked this post  summarizes very well why gifted students often don’t get much attention – not from the principals and teachers entrusted with educating them nor from policymakers or education reformers. This includes worries about elitism, the idea that equity only matters for income, minority status and handicapping conditions, the belief that high-ability students will do just fine no matter what….not to mention there’s no clear definition for “gifted” nor clear research on what works. I went through school before No Child Left Behind, so I’m guessing if anything, there’s now even less focus on gifted students.

To me, it’s very simple – all students have special needs and that absolutely includes gifted students. In the same way that you take it upon yourself to help a struggling student – “intervention”, take it upon yourself to reach a student who is bored or who is coasting, not pushing herself to the best of her abilities. Every student needs more than a mom and dad – they need a whole community of diverse adults who care about them.

Coming next week: My Dream School and reflections on how we can truly have awesome 21st century schools…

And a plug for the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance – mentor a kid!

This post is dedicated to my mom, Bobbie Jenkins.

1 Comment

Filed under California, Education, Uncategorized

Best Letter to the Editor EVER

My blog post “Please stop making 4th graders build models of the California missions” recently ran in my hometown newspaper, the Sonoma Index-Tribune. One 4th grader wrote this response and officially became my hero. Thank you to everyone else who also wrote a thoughtful response in the blog comments or elsewhere!

Fourth grader revolts against ‘mission madness’

Jan 31, 2013 – 05:04 PM

Editor, Index-Tribune:

I am a fourth grader and read the article, “End the mission madness” (Index-Tribune Our Schools page, Jan. 29). I loved it because I feel that Native Americans were treated brutally and horribly by the padres.

Right now in my class, we are doing a unit on the missions and I believe that the subject of the Native Americans and their share of the mission period has been completely glossed over. When I brought up the subject to my teacher, she said that people can have different opinions, but I’ve heard her talk and I know she really means the missions are always right.

Thank you editor, and writer Sierra Jenkins, for publishing this article in the newspaper and showing people you don’t have to always believe what people want you to believe in.

Natalie Sandoval

1 Comment

Filed under California, California history, Sonoma

The Challenge: Photograph the Rain with Just an iPhone

I love my Canon DSLRs. I love my 85 mm lens. I love my telephoto lens. Love, love, love ’em all.

However, I can’t carry them everywhere with me – case in point: The only “camera” I brought home to Sonoma for the holidays is my iPhone. Furthermore, it has not been drizzling here- it has been outright pouring so even if I had my DSLR, I would leave it bundled up inside, not subject it to these conditions. So I decided to put a challenge to myself. Rather than whining about the lack of manual focus and the depth of field , could I turn the iPhone’s limitations into assets and take good photos of the rain? You be the judge.



Over an afternoon, I came to appreciate several unique attributes of the iPhone camera – it can handle adverse weather conditions, you can put it lower to the ground than you can put a DSLR (or your own head), because it can’t handle backlighting and lens flare very well, you can end up with results that aren’t alwaystrue to life but artsy and unexpected. Enjoy my walk in the rain!

Sonoma Rain Walk (as interpreted on my iPhone)

Leave a comment

Filed under California, Nature, Photography, Sonoma

Where our water comes from, why your water bill is going to go up and some one-liners from water people

“California’s water situation is like a bald man with a beard – it’s all there; it’s just not distributed right.” – MWD representative

Like most Californians, when it comes to water, I simply don’t think about it that much. I just turn on the tap and fresh, potable water comes out. Then I get a bill with a bunch of random line items with inscrutable descriptions and I pay it. And then sometimes they tell us it’s a drought so I try to be a good citizen and I don’t clean my sidewalk with a hose and I give my neighbors the stink eye when they do. And that’s about it.

Well, I now have no excuse for total ignorance. Over the past 10 months, I have been a part of Leadership LA and through this program, I recently had the opportunity to spend the day at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWP) and see our local water infrastructure up close with a tour of the Joseph Jensen Treatment Plant in Granada Hills.

I learned all sorts of complicated and fascinating and eye-opening stuff, but I’m going to focus this post on the most surprising things we learned and what all Californians need to know.

Where does our water actually come from?

LA is basically a desert – 89% OF OUR WATER IS IMPORTED! (Source: LA Dept. of Water and Power (LADWP) Fact Sheet 2010) That is both complete insanity and an incredible feat of human ingenuity and engineering. To our predecessors and I’m talking to you, William Mulholland, I say: I don’t totally agree with what you’ve done here, but wow. It’s not worth dwelling on it too much because we have too many problems to deal with right now to entertain the idea of having done things differently in the past…Here we are folks.

That said, we can’t keep going with business as usual. Basically, we keep adding more people while there isn’t any more water (and, in fact, might be less in the future) so our conservation impulse here in southern California is less altruistic and more “Oh shit.”

Our imported water comes from basically three places (See a map.):

The State Water Project & the Delta

Being a Nor-cal native, some of my first words as a child probably involved complaining about those damn So-cal people stealing OUR water. That is partially true. I will start our tour of California’s water system in the mighty Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which, if we were a more spiritual people, could be considered the state’s fountain of life. How essential is it?

The Delta provides water for 25 million Californians (out of 37.7M of us in total) and, more staggering, irrigation for half of all fruits and vegetables for the entire United States. It’s amazing and critical to all of California – however, we So-cal urbanites are not the #1 users. Of all the Bay-Delta water, 4% makes its way down the canal of the State Water Project for use down here. The biggest chunk goes to agriculture.

The Delta is that big flat area you see as you drive to Sacramento – all those canals, etc. – it’s where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet and it goes all the way to the San Francisco Bay. If you’ve road-tripped down the I-5, you have seen the SWP – it’s that blue stripe of a canal wending its way down the state. It’s massive – it’s also old and it’s screwing with the environment. More below.

The Owens Valley

Have you seen the movie Chinatown? Enough said. A driving tour podcast was recently produced about the Owens Valley – looks pretty sweet if anyone wants to road trip with me!

The Colorado River

The LA aqueduct was pretty great…but still not enough!!! So thirsty! So William Mulholland and the City of LA formed the MWD to build the 242-mile long Colorado River Aqueduct. Flash forward to today: the Colorado is the most litigated river in the world! And it’s in distress!

If you want to go deeper – this blog post is a really solid overview.

Why your water rates are going to go up

Let’s kick this off with a horror film – this is what would happen if we had a 6.4 earthquake in the Bay-Delta, something which has a very high possibility of happening.

Earthquakes, global warming causing rising sea levels and snow melt, salt water intrusion, the invasion of non-native species and loss of habitat – just a few of the major issues for the Delta. Good luck sleeping at night. The State Water Project was built in the 1960s and is in serious need of an upgrade – plus we’ve learned a lot in the past 50 years and need to mitigate some of the environmental harm we’ve already done and restore habitat.

The situation is so bad that the state legislature/governator actually managed to pass a plan – the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. All of us in California will be paying for it – here in LA, the projected cost is $5-6 a month per household. And that’s just for the Delta water we get. Don’t complain – the Bay Area residents passed a bond to upgrade the Hetch-Hetchy water system and build a tunnel under the bay that will cost them way more per capita.

And that’s just the start.

The Nexus of Water and Power and why desalination and wind power aren’t all that awesome

“20% of California’s electricity goes to moving water around.” – Jack Sahl, Ph.D. – Director, Environment and Resource Sustainability for Southern California Edison (SCE)

Jack Sahl from SCE who joined some great folks from TreePeople and Heal the Bay for a panel on Water, Energy and Environmental Sustainability in LA had lots of good one-liners that were more like Buddhist koans inviting further reflection. Chew on these:

  • “It takes a lot of water to generate electricity and a lot of electricity to move water around.”
  • “Electricity you don’t use is the cleanest and least expensive.”
  • “Historically, we have stored water in California as snow.” (Put that in the context of global warming.)

I’m going to pause us here. We Americans have a history of looking to new technology as the messiah that will deliver us from our energy problems. THERE IS NO PERFECT SOURCE OF POWER WITH ZERO ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT. It’s likely all these new green technologies will be part of the picture and they keep getting better, but any of them is not a singular solution to our problems.

Desalination sounds awesome – look at all that ocean water, all we have to do is take out that darn salt! Well, taking out the salt, much less moving all that water from sea level up the hill to us takes a ton of power…which has to come from somewhere. Wind power? The wind is out in the desert which means massive power lines for miles and miles to get the power to consumers in LA, not to mention that is incredibly inefficient because a lot of power is lost in transit. It doesn’t have the same sex appeal, but the meta approach to these problems is an overall move from a “command and control power system” to a distributed system.

And on to a final koan from Jack:

“Don’t talk about sustainability in terms of being good people – we have to be laser-focused on the value proposition.”

That last one bears a little more explanation. The world is changing constantly and people and organizations aren’t always so great at changing. So even if we know what we should be doing, how do you actually get people to change? If you’re talking to a CEO of a corporation, you show him the numbers AKA the value proposition. Ditto for those government folks. Ditto for those water and power consumers – am I more likely to use less water because you gave me a magnet with a pithy slogan or because you gave me a rebate to get a low-flow toilet?

At government policy-level, Kristen James, Director of Water Quality with Heal the Bay cast it in this light:

“The environment shouldn’t always come last. It can integrate with economic needs.”

And from Nurit Katz, Chief Sustainability Officer, UCLA:

“We could be zero impact. We have enough resources and technology – the blocks are political and budgetary.”

Basically, we all have to work together and, furthermore, trust each other – across departments of government, across business, non-profit and government groups. Easier said than done, but here’s your value proposition – We have no choice. With limited resources, we simply can’t get away with the way we’ve been doing things in the past.

All this stuff can make you really depressed and frustrated. Jack Sahl put this in a rosier context, pointing out that we’re past the worst of it in a sense and we have made progress – We reached peak CO2 emissions and gas use in 2009-10 even as the population has continued to grow and that if you want to talk air pollution, the ‘60s and ‘70s were when we had serious problems. In short:

“We have had uninterrupted progress in the last 100 years.”

Go humans! We’re got this.

Leave a comment

Filed under California, Los Angeles, Nature, Uncategorized

Don’t Try This at Home

If curiosity killed the cat, my boyfriend is convinced I am going to kill him in my curiosity-driven attempts to recreate ethnic dishes in my home kitchen.

I get plenty of culinary inspiration in LA, an eater’s paradise. You can not only find food from any country on the map, but find the best of everything.

In many parts of the country, procuring the right ingredients could be a challenge. In LA, that is little deterrent, considering I live at the nexus of Little Tokyo, overwhelmingly Mexican East LA and Monterey Park, the largest settlement of Chinese people in the U.S. The only things I’ve had trouble finding within a 2-mile radius are hummus, almond extract and blackberry-flavored kosher wine. Fish sauce and obscure dried chiles? Not a problem (Poor dear friends who live in terrible places like Vermont and Italy – I will send you anything you like!)

Pad thai, Indian curry, Yucatecan papadzules, Filipino chicken adobo – I’m all for culinary experimentation. The results fall along a spectrum between, “Wow, that was easy and delicious” to “Well worth $7 to spare me the blood, sweat and tears of slaving over that dish for three hours.” Well, I’ll save you the trouble by sharing a few of the dishes we’ve successfully integrated into our repertoire so you can spice up your life!

Go for it!

Pad Thai – it took us three go-arounds to get us all the way there, but honestly, it’s a pretty darn easy weeknight recipe. We use this recipe. What we’ve learned: Get a wok! And buy the flat noodles, not the round ones, and don’t soak them too long or they get sticky.

Gnocchi – These yummy Italian potato globules are the ultimate comfort food. It’s time-consuming to make them, but consider the undertaking your pre-dinner entertainment and queue up a good play list on your IPod. Totally doable.

Aguas Frescas – You know those big glass jugs filled with brightly-colored beverages at Mexican restaurants? The whole family of drinks is called “aguas frescas” (fresh waters) – they are essentially fresh fruit mixed with water and sugar and the possibilities are endless. Seriously, just toss fruit in a blender with some water and sugar and keep adjusting until it tastes great. I’m a big fan of agua de pepino (cucumber water) and agua de sandia (watermelon) is hard to botch. The line-up also includes three classics that are made differently – horchata (a mix of rice, cinnamon and milk), Tamarind water (it’s the brown one) and jamaica (bright red, made of hibiscus flowers). I highlight recommend making jamaica at home (pronounced Hah-mike-uh). The powdered stuff they serve at some restaurants is the pits. The real thing has an extraordinary tart flavor and it’s SO easy.  Here’s an easy explanation:

Filipino Chicken Adobo – I went out on a limb with this one. I’ve never been to a Filipino restaurant nor to the Philippines so I don’t know how this is supposed to taste, but I am a huge fan of the Splendid Table radio show and have yet to go wrong with any recipes from their cookbook. I took the ultimate gamble and it was phenomenal – the flavor is out of this world. Do the recipe, then buy the cookbook!

Hummus – It’s cheaper to make at home and the possibilities are endless. You really do need the tahini (sesame paste) because it makes it creamier, as does a liberal dose of olive oil. I like to roast red peppers and toss them in.

Enchiladas – We did an uber-authentic Rick Bayless recipe. I was able to do it, but it took three hours and dirtied just about every dish in my kitchen. For a quick and satisfying alternative, just use our recipe!

I have been vanquished before, but I refuse to quit

Mexican beans – This is depressing, but I cannot make beans!!! Folks, consider this a call for help, bring on the intervention! Although I have figured out one thing – when beans taste REALLY good, it’s because they have lard.

Indian curry – I’ve only tried once. It was mas or menos. I blame myself. Going to try getting a better cookbook from the library.


Don't do it!

Food from the Yucatan- I actually fell in love with the district regional cuisine of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico through an amazing restaurant I used to frequent when I lived in Mexico City. The fragrant sopa de lima was bewitching, the papadzules surprisingly tasty (how do you coax egg and ground pumpkin seeds into that?!) and the cochinita pibil had depths of flavor that couldn’t be equaled. Needless to say, we tried to make papadzules and sopa de lima and it was the most disastrous dinner ever (We went out for burgers). I might try again if German didn’t have PTSD from the last go-round.

Mole – Haven’t tried it, why would I?! Just look at a typical list of ingredients and instructions and you’ll know why. And with Guelaguetza so close, well…


On my hit list

Sushi – And German thought my other attempts could kill him…bra ha ha!!

Tamales – I have a Sunset mag recipe I haven’t done for years, nor tried out on German. He’ll be the judge..

Chiles en nogada – a phenomenal and very unusual seasonal recipe from Mexico. I will first attempt to find a restaurant here in LA that serves it, but I may have no choice but to make it myself…

Korean beef – German and I saw a cooking demonstration on one of LA’s obscure public TV channels – Korean beef has that yummy sweet flavor, you will never guess what’s in the marinade – Asian pears!! We were shocked. I’ve gotta try it.


Filed under California, Food, Los Angeles

Los Angeles Through the Viewfinder

Great swaths of Los Angeles are downright hideous. Being from Sonoma, a place that is ridiculously gorgeous, this complete lack of natural beauty and human disregard for aesthetics initially wore on me.

There is a particularly bleak patch on the I-5 between my house in Boyle Heights and where my boyfriend lives in Norwalk. You pass the Citadel, an outdoor mall with an Eqyptian theme, which is epically garish and the “Destiny Inn.”

Then the smell hits you, a smell so sickly you can’t help but think it’s causing you cancer (I’m pretty sure it’s coming from Vernon). For the next few miles through Commerce, it’s nothing but ugly industrial buildings cluttered with an ungodly amount of billboards, punctuated by chain restaurants and one huge casino. There isn’t even enough dirt on the side of the road for weeds to grow. Even better, there’s often bumper to bumper traffic through this stretch so you have plenty of time to take in the vistas. And don’t even get me started on the “LA River” (picture the last scene of Grease).

Fortunately, my boyfriend happens to fully embody a classic Angeleno quality – imagination bordering on the delusional. I see what’s there, he sees what COULD be there. To illustrate using a “location” from our Halloween Back to the Future photo shoot:

And all those ugly spots I pass daily? I regularly spot them in TV dramas and car commercials, re-envisioned through the viewfinder by people like my boyfriend. The recent movie, “In Time,” was filmed entirely in ugly spots near my house. Yes, it was supposed to be an impoverished, dystopian wasteland, but let’s not take the shine off of it…

LA ugliness as seen in the movie "In Time"

The LA River in the movie "In Time"

Just to hit this point home, I’ll share a couple of videos of the I-5 freeway. This video was made by tourists on the way to Disneyland in Anaheim (0:50 – “Sign says we just entered downtown Burbank. Is this what you call beautiful? Because I sure don’t think so!”). And this was made by an Angeleno.

Los Angeles looks like a different place when you have a camera in hand. I’m going to be sure to keep mine on me.

1 Comment

Filed under California, I heart Cali, Los Angeles

Prehistoric Weirdness and Footnotes to History

Portland’s unofficial slogan is “Keep Portland Weird.” Yes, Portland can be weird at times, but it is a place that is actively trying to be weird. LA, however, is a place that is better described as bizarre – and it doesn’t even try.

In Portland, you might see someone with crazy face piercings, wearing a clown suit, riding a two-story bike cobbled together by hand and playing a harmonica. And maybe they’re in the middle of transitioning from a man to a woman. Pretty run-of-the-mill weirdness. In LA, you will encounter things that are more profoundly strange.

I am talking about the La Brea Tar pits, of course. There you are, on the excessively hip westside of LA. You hit up the pastrami at the famous Canter’s deli and top it off with dessert at that one really hip bakery that has amazing gluten-free cakes that cost about one-month’s salary. Then you mosey down past LACMA, which is featuring a really fantastic exhibit about a designer whose name you don’t want to say because you’re not actually sure how to pronounce it. And there you will find a bubbling pit of prehistoric tar.


“La Brea Tar Pit” literally means “The Tar Tar Pit.” Also, it is not actually tar – it is an “asphalt seepage.” But whatever it is, it is definitively there, smack dab in the middle of LA’s urban center, filled with fossils of prehistoric critters, the teeth of saber-toothed cats and mastodon bones. One point for nature.

LA is assertively man-made. It’s fashion and film and music and point-of-view are completely freed from the tethers of reality. Nature and history are not notable influences – they are largely forgotten in so many ways. But what keeps LA bizarre is the way nature and history aggressively pop up in the middle of all of this city’s fancy-pants fantasy.

I remember visiting Descanso Gardens up towards Pasadena. The gardens are a lovely place, as you might imagine, built by newspaper baron Elias Manchester Brody. They have a famed camellia forest that is just huge with tons of massive bushes with beautiful blooms in pink and red and white. Wandering around the gardens, I found a sign in the main house with a little history on the property. It described the rise of self-made man who went from rags to riches through hard work and a knack for tapping into business opportunities. For instance:

“In 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Boddy found himself with a business opportunity that was surely ambivalent at best. All along the west coast Japanese-Americans were being sent to internment camps to wait out the war, leaving businesses behind. Boddy acquired thousands of camellias from Francis Uyematsu, a successful local nurseryman, buying his entire stock. “

Just a footnote in one man’s life and in the history of a pretty place – but clearly a life-defining event for another man.

LA likes to forget that it was once a desert where wild animals roamed, a Native America village, a Spanish/Mexican colonial settlement, so many things it now no longer remotely resembles. But you’ll find that past in the footnotes. You just have to look.

P.S. The story of Francis Uyematsu is even more extraordinary than I could have imagined on my own – check out this LA Times article for more. 

1 Comment

Filed under California, California history, Los Angeles, Weirdness