A Culver City High School teacher’s pedagogy of compassion

As you walk into  Carlos Valverde's classroom, you are welcomed by rows of colorful world flags draped beneath the high ceiling, the sometimes-provocative student artwork decorating tall walls, and stadium seats. Its bright, open atmosphere is unlike most high school classrooms, reflecting the unique lessons taught within. For the past decade, he has created and taught a high school course that challenges students' morals and beliefs, discussing topics ranging from transsexuals to closet racism.

Though Valverde originally sought a career in film and television, the organizations he got involved in at Santa Monica College transformed his career into one dedicated to leading young people into an awareness of issues they would face in the real world.

“The class is teaching the students some very sophisticated issues and themes that I don't think any other high school in the area is providing,” says Valverde.

Jasmine Delgado, Vice President of the Associated Students, took Intercultural Literature and Practicum, Valverde’s course, before she arrived at SMC. “It gave me the tools to have a critical analysis of [Occupy LA], what’s happening, and why it’s happening, and it helped me a lot more because he always pushed me to question a lot of things,” says Delgado.

Valverde, 39, attended SMC from 1990 to 1993. While here, he became the president of Club Latino United for Education (CLUE), and vice chair for the Inter-Club Council. He actively participated in the Latino Leadership Network, National Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, and the creation of the SMC Adelante program.

It was through volunteer work for these groups that Valverde discovered the satisfaction in making a difference through teaching. “My idea of social justice, the idea of inequality, the idea that there are groups out there that need more attention, that's where the idea began. It started all with SMC, with all those organizations and meeting people that were very like-minded.” says Valverde.

Being the most diverse district in Los Angeles County, some Culver City High School teachers, including Valverde, were in the midst of making plans to incorporate multicultural curriculum in classrooms for students. Teachers and students began attending special training on diversity with the Anti-Defamation League and other non-profit organizations, while Valverde was simultaneously studying interculturalism and diversity at Loyola Marymount University. His experiences, plus the No Child Left Behind Act revoking his privilege of teaching Spanish, led to the conception of what was originally called Multicultural Literature and Practicum.

“The class is really to teach about the themes dealing with cultural diversity, the themes and issues of race, culture, ethnicity, prejudice, discrimination. I wanted to create a space where kids feel safe to discuss these kinds of issues from a personal perspective so that the class teaches itself in a sense. So I wouldn't become the sole provider for information, it would come from the kids,” says Valverde.

It also empowers students and teaches them compassion and critical thinking. “One of the things I try to do in the class is just to give students the ability to be able to recognize that they have a voice; a voice in society that matters. I really want students to know that they have the ability to impact others. If I can give them that, then that to me is like inspiring them to say, ‘look, you have potential to affect others. That means that this world doesn't have to be as bad as it is, and we don't have to dismiss it as it'll never get fixed if you know that you can affect those around you,’ then that's a start,” he says.

Valverde says the class changes every year due to his belief that it is an ever-evolving class, calling for modifications in order to adapt to new students, environments, to stay current, or simply to teach an improved class.

Menelik Tafari, a senior at Soka University of America, is a former student who was affected by Valverde’s Intercultural Literature and Practicum course. “It can definitely be partially attributed to him that I'll most likely be pursuing an MA in Bilingual Education. But I guess the true testament to his impact on my life is that one day, I hope to surpass him, and become a Professor of Intercultural Education,” Tafari said, jokingly. “And for me, that's the secret to his success: his love and passion for those who share his classroom is what guides the questions he asks and the topics that are deliberated and tested. For me, he defines the Bodhisattva of the Earth,” he said, referring to the Sanskrit word for enlightened.

The class, which started with 27 students, has now expanded into an eight-section course and is taken by most of CCHS’s seniors. The class gave Valverde a key resource of information for his dissertation in social justice, specifically Educational Leadership for Social Justice from LMU.

“The course of study was towards a pedagogy of compassion, reflections, and teaching an intercultural literature class in high school. I'm trying to open the door in realizing that teaching can include compassion; and maybe you can't teach it, but maybe you can lead towards it by creating the right opportunities and lessons. So I think the greatest empowerment is that someone's compassion can affect others,” says Valverde.

Valverde is involved in launching a program called Solution for Peace, in which high school students are encouraged to create public service announcements to be presented to their peers at a mini assembly. “What's really powerful about this program, is that it's no longer the teachers and the adults telling students what not to do or be aware of certain issues, it's the students themselves,” he says.

His main focus in the meantime though, is being a good father, husband, and teaching. He says, “For now, I'm truly enjoying what I'm doing. I need to feel the same satisfaction as I'm feeling as a teacher if I ever move on. There's nothing more satisfying than to work with young people and go home every day knowing that you've done something good.”