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updates for 01.19.2011

7 new posts today

Dear John

Dear John Danner (CEO of Rocketship/my highest boss), Please, please, please never have your PR lady send me an email that looks like this again. These emails spouting how wonderful Rocketship is make me furious. With today’s, I had enough. In the NPR All Things Considered piece titled, “Schools Tested By Budget Cuts Learn New Strategies” your comments made me disgusted beyond belief with Rocketship. While I am completely on board with what Marguerite Roza, school spending analyst of the Gates Foundation, and Michelle Rhee, the most exceptional TFA alum on the planet, say about large class sizes—essentially that if classes must be large, then find the most effective teachers and weigh down their load, since they should be able to handle the challenges of a larger class––that is definitely not what is happening at Rocketship. Look at the Kinder Math Team. Of the three of us, I am by far the least experienced (hello first year teacher?!) and I have the most kids (28 or 29 and at one point in the year it was 30 in all of my classes VS. 26 or 23 at the other schools). I am also working at a more challenging Rocketship placement, since my school is brand new. Being at a brand new school and teaching kinders means that my students don’t have older siblings accustomed to the rigidity of Rocketship to lend a helping hand. Although Michelle Rhee says, "The way that I think would make sense is to identify the most highly effective teachers in a particular district, and think about assigning a few more students to each of their classrooms.” That is surely not what the Rocketship model lives by. Yet, you have gone on NPR and implied that you do by commenting on such a segment. In fact, Mr. Danner, you have chosen to go on National Public Radio and spout that Rocketship, specifically KINDERGARTEN AT ROCKETSHIP (that’s ME you’re talking about) has “carefully guided computer based instruction.” Well sir, I would say that is HIGHLY DEBATABLE. I have yet to receive a report detailing what topics my students are covering in that computer lab and when I requested one I was shot down and told that I already had too much data to analyze. What else did you choose to toot about to the press? Oh, how the money you save by not having a fourth teacher in each grade buys us more career development. Well, you failed to mention that all of this development comes at the expense of our livelihoods. This 15-hour workday model is not sustainable! Did you happen to pass along the retention rate of teachers at Rocketship to NPR? Because from the way things have been going it’s atrocious. And I truly love the closing hook of segment: Make class size bigger in order to avoid cutting art classes. HA. There is no art at Rocketship. Good grief. Danner, next time you decide to talk about your brilliant hybrid model at the kindergarten level, please consult with your kinder people on the front line. I personally think this model is despicable, developmentally inappropriate and has far too many kids squeezed into the mouse hole of a space you call a classroom. Don’t go on NPR and talk lies about my job just so you can quadruple Rocketship by next August. It’s not right for the kids and it’s not right for your staff. Please, re-read those Fall surveys! The staff thinks expanding this charter network is a bad idea. If you heard “loud and clear, the angst that people feel about expanding before all of the support systems at the school level are solid and things feel sustainable,” than why are you boasting to the almighty National Public Radio?!?!?!?!?!?!?!!?!? Just because we are, as you say, “trying to get the car fully built while also pushing on the gas” is not a quality reason to keep expanding. Please, just leave me (a struggling first year kindergarten teacher with over-enrolled classes at Rocketship) out of all your PR hullabaloo, won't you? Ms. Strawberry Fields p.s. In other news, this evening I left school and went straight to a coffee shop to lesson plan for next week. On the drive over, I remembered how four months ago I made this same trip. Four months ago when I arrived at the shop, I called my mother and spent the next two hours in hysterics about how much I hated my job and couldn’t handle it anymore. Well, I think I still hate the job just as much, but I’ve become so numb to it all that I’ve stabilized at being constantly anxious and miserable and thinking this is what happiness feels like. 14 hour days are what happiness feels like. p.p.s. Last week I was talking with the girl who teaches next door to me. Earlier this year I had mentioned to her that my friend in the DC corps told me that everyone out there is on the medication Klonapin in order to stay calm. Well the girl who teaches next door said that she’s having trouble sleeping and is thinking about getting an anti-anxiety drug to help her get to bed. She was saying that although things have gotten better––and I agreed, they’re still not good. Yet for some reason her body has adjusted to being permanently anxious. What kind of fucked up workplace do we submit ourselves to everyday? It’s not the one that I heard about on All Things Considered.


Today’s lesson was not my best. It’s the first lesson in 2011 that has pretty much flopped, though, so I’m not too broken up about it. When my lessons flopped before, I could see it coming—I knew I’d planned it too hurriedly or carelessly, or I knew there was something involved that the kids wouldn’t swallow. But this flop was due to pure oversight on my part. The lesson, in a nutshell:

  • I talk about cause & effect, the words “depends on,” and then independent/dependent variables. Kids do some matching together and take notes in graphic organizer template thing.
  • I hand out strips of paper with widely varied situations (eric wants to know how many skateboards he can buy with $500; Ice cream man notices that he sells more on a hot day, doubling the radius quadruples the volume, etc).
  • Kids have a worksheet with blanks in key phrases we went over in the notes (“ ___ depends on ___,” “___ causes ___,” “__is a function of ____,” “____ varies with respect to  ____,” etc)
  • Kids decide how they could fit their situation into the sentences by deciding on variables and whether they’re dependent or independent. We rotate the situations around the room, so kid 1 fits his situation in #1, then passes it to kid 2, who fits that situation into the blanks in #2, etc.
  • Kids then fill out a worksheet of wordy multiple-choice questions about dependent/independent variables.
Why it failed, in a nutshell: MY KIDS ARE ILLITERATE. (note: problem = teacher not foreseeing and preparing for illiteracy, not students’ illiteracy itself)  Let me explain. I foolishly made a lesson that was completely based in common phrases of the English language, first by making my main idea that “the dependent depends. The independent doesn’t” and second by making a worksheet with 10 common ways we describe functions in everyday speak. I thought I was clever—turns out m y kids don’t even know what “depends on” means. This is not an English Language Learner problem (only about 4 of my 110ish kids are ELL). I discovered today that my kids use “depends on” to mean “determines.” As in,  “How many hours you work depends on how much money you’re going to make” or “your foot size depends on whatever shoe size you buy.” So it makes perfect sense to my Pink-Haired Mohawk to say “How many Big Reds you drink depends on how often you go to the bathroom,” because to him, that means the Big Reds make you have to pee. It wasn’t until the day was half over that I realized I’d heard them misuse “depends on” in conversation before, and that THAT was why my “the Dependent Depends” gig wasn’t working. I was making as little sense to them as they were to me. Then, I had them match these variables they didn’t get into more common phrases that pop up in text (i.e. word problems) –these they understood better, but I’m sure it was confusing to have me mix them in with “depends on.” THEN, I had them answer 7 multiple-choice questions that amounted to a full page of text. Judging from their scores, I don’t think most of them even read the questions or the answers. (That, and then there was the activity itself. Strips of paper. Never a good idea, unless you’re going to glue them onto something. If I’d done this lesson well, I would have printed them out in huge print on colored cardstock, or laminated them or something. 1x3” pieces of paper aren’t inspiring, and kids rip them up or fold them, so they don’t recycle for the next period very well.) Things I tried, with varying success: In first period, each kid had their own strip of paper, and nobody got started. Then when they did, there’d be back-up when the faster kids would burn through them and have to wait for the person before them to get done and pass their strip. So in third period, I paired them up so they’d at least read the situation to someone. Then in fifth period I had the idea to give them all 2 minutes to read it with their partners and fill in their blanks, then call “switch” and we all passed together. Once I realized (at the beginning of seventh)  about our communication breakdown, I changed my tune: instead of the dependent depending, X and Y were now in a relationship. X is the independent one, and Y is the one who can think for themselves. Everything Y does is determined by what X does. (Then I thought of my Literacy Specialist from Institute: “ooh, you could do a R.A.F.T on that! Have X write a breakup letter to Y!”) Come to think of it, my LS would have loved my lesson. Talk about literacy being important for mathematics! This is DAY ONE of reviewing functions and already the way my kids talk is getting in the way of their understanding. Things I learned: Strips of white paper with small print aren’t fun or inspiring. Activities with words are interesting, but one should be careful not to make too many assumptions. The more structure, the better. Small timed chunks work better than big timed chunks. My kids need a lot more word problems. If one wants kids to pass paper strips in a circle, instead of merely swapping with their neighbor, one should say "Rotate!" instead of "Switch!"   ... mucho confusion.

Graceland (and an introduction)

So I have been reading and enjoying these blogs for about two months now, and I think it's only fair that I write one post so that I can introduce myself to anyone I've left a comment.  I don't think I will start regularly writing anything until I start Institute in June, but the blank empty screen looked so sad that I will fill it with this for the time being! Anyways! My name is Rachel, and I am going to be a 2011 CM in the Mississippi Delta. I will be teaching secondary math despite majoring in "Decidedly Not-Math" (which seems to be a common theme among 2011 CMs who have written posts over the past few days!).  My favorite things are music,  coffee, and football, and my least favorite things are slush puddles.  This makes January kind of a mixed bag for me, between the NFL playoffs and the freezing Connecticut rain.  Fortunately, I am pretty sure freezing rain is uncommon in Mississippi, so my next two Januaries should be unbeatable. One more fun fact about me is that I have a tendency to relate everything that happens in my life to songs that I like, so I am going to try to accompany every post I write with a song that relates to it in one way, or that encompasses how I feel when I am writing it.  This song is the song I associate with getting accepted to the Delta corps (note the first line!). Graceland by Paul Simon I can't wait to meet everyone! See you in June! P.S. I am taking a course called "Public Schools and Public Policy" this semester, so if anything particularly noteworthy or relevant to TFA comes up, I will definitely write something about it!

Cell processes

Of all the things I teach my students, they seem to loose the most interest in cell processes (mitosis, meiosis, photosynthesis etc.) I am trying to make it as much fun as I can and try to incorporate all types of real life experiences, but its like pulling teeth. I assigned students to create a depiction of the cell cycle and almost every student turned in a project that was copied straight from the book. I don't know how to get students to stop plagarizing. Plagarism is so wide spread throughout our school that I don't know how to approach it in my classroom. I want to focus on the science, but it is so tempting to get on a soap box about plagarism.

The Good Word.

I am blessed to be in a profession that is conducive to my unconventional ways.  It’s alright if I want to add “It’s Hammertime!” after I tell my students to stop their independent practice.  It’s perfectly acceptable to confiscate food from a student and eat it in front of him/her.  One of my favorite kids had a Blow Pop on her desk.  I took it.  She looked at me and sarcastically remarked, “It’s not like you’re going to eat it.”  You better believe I unwrapped the strawberry flavor (it’s my favorite) and ate it front of the entire class.  And just to prove a point, I threw it away when it got down to the gum.  That really ticked her off.  On her way out of the door, she looked at me and said, “I won’t bring candy in here again.”  You’re jam right you won’t.  At school, I often substitute the word “jam” for a similar sounding word—as in, “It’s a jam shame” or “You’re jam skippy”. In other unrelated news:  I am a resident of the great state of Mississippi.  I now have an MS driver's license/license plate and I am registered to vote down here!  I'm officially a Mississippian, which means I'm officially Delta for life. This semester continues to be a productive one.  With all the student switches, my fourth block has been dominating the good behavior arena.  They are in it to W-I-N it.  Several of these children didn’t pass the first semester, which was technically Compensatory Reading, but they quickly realized I have no problem failing children that don’t do any work.  These few first semester behavior/academic miscreants have spread the good word (Mr. Henley is mean all the time.  All the time, Mr. Henley is mean) to their friends. Third block has proved to be quite the little academic powerhouse.  They constantly have the highest exit ticket scores and master the objectives rather quickly.  The student switcharoo left their class accidentally tracked with many of my highest level students.  Then there is first block.  First block has its good days and it has its bad days.  They are in for a rude awakening when I send home my first set of progress reports.  Three weeks in to school and ten kids are failing because they didn’t turn in homework.  Hopefully, they’ll take the message to heart and pick up the slack.  If they want to leave Weston, they’ll change their tune. I’ve got to run.  My roommate and I are currently in a pretty heated Harry Potter movie marathon and the 8:30 showing of Order of the Phoenix is quickly approaching. PS:  welcome to the next set of 2011 corps members!  Enjoy your last semester.  You are going to blink and then you’ll be surrounded by tests, long term plans, and data trackers.  That reminds me.  I actually have to accomplish something tonight.  Deuces.

quite a relief, actually.

I signed up to take my Praxis I, and I'm taking it this Thursday.  I looked at the information given on the Praxis website, and apparently this test is not challenging.  Apparently it's kind of like the SAT I, where it's just general reading, writing, and math.  It's a 4-hour computerized test, and fortunately I don't have to drive an hour to get to it, so I'm not concerned.  It's really nice not to have to spend two months studying for this test. So that's two of the hoops I have to jump through to get certified, successfully navigated!  I won't get my Praxis II (aka the math death test) results for another 3 weeks or so, so I shouldn't count my chickens, so to speak.  I'm saving my flashcards and keeping my graphing calculator within easy reach, in case I didn't pass. Starting this blog has made the fact that I'm actually doing TFA so much more real to me.  This is my last semester of college, and thankfully I have just two classes to take, so that'll leave lots of room for the big box of Pre-Institute Work that's due to arrive in February/March.  I'm really excited about this new chapter of my life - this is truly the best option I could think of for my post-college years, and TFA ties all of the aspects of transitioning into the "real world" together nicely: getting a job, finding people to live with, finding somewhere to live, getting a master's degree, and finding my place in the field of education. The only thing I'm unsure about right now is teaching math.  I read an interesting blog on this website (http://wessie.teachforus.org/2011/01/02/is-it-harder-to-achieve-big-goals-as-a-tfa-math-teacher/) about the specific difficulties TFA math teachers have, particularly math teachers without any significant math background.  One of these difficulties that really struck me was that because these new math teachers often have very little experience in math, they have no idea what a healthy, functional math classroom environment looks like, and have no idea how to create that environment in their own classrooms.  This is completely true for me.  I've had mostly lousy math teachers in my limited math career, and even the good teachers conducted their classes in pretty traditional ways that I'm not sure would be successful in the teaching situation I'll be in in the Delta.  I'm hoping that my classroom observations will help, but mostly I have no idea how to conduct a creative, interactive, transformative math class.  I have lots of great ideas for teaching an English or History class, because that's my background, but when I think math class, I think of a dim room with an ancient teacher droning on and writing illegible nonsense on an overhead projector.  Not a good start. On the other hand, I think my math inexperience will be an asset to me in some ways as a teacher.  I enjoy doing math (when I understand it), and I know what it's like to not get it right away.  I know what it's like to despise math, and hopefully all of these things will help me in my classroom.  I'm just not sure how, yet. also, I love this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzSmS5JRYdw

The Very First One

After many technical difficulties, my blog is finally up and running. As an extremely brief introduction in case anyone I don't know ends up reading this, I am: 20 years old (21 on Saturday), a University of Virginia student, a native of Charlottesville, VA, and a double major in history and linguistics. I took my first PRAXIS exam last weekend (Mathematics Content Knowledge). It could have gone better, but I'm banking on the fact that I only needed to get about half of the questions right. Hopefully some of my guesses were good. Tomorrow is the first day of my last semester in college, which is beginning to make TFA, life, and everything else feel a lot more real. I have been telling myself for the last few months that I need to take it easy this semester. I have been planning on taking only 1 or 2 classes so as to give myself some time to just enjoy life. Somehow, I am currently enrolled in 17 credits. I think I need to find a happy medium. When I started thinking about TFA today I got both really excited and also kind of sad. College and I have had a very up and down relationship over the past few years, so I never thought I would feel this way about it being my last semester. In one way I am ready to leave and to do something new. TFA is exactly what I want to be doing next year. There is no question about that. But after meeting with my advisor yesterday to talk about applying to graduate programs in a couple of years, I started to think about next year and how I will be the teacher instead of the student. As one of the nerdier people in the world, I love learning. I love being a student. I love going to class. So I need to start shifting my thinking a little bit. Just because I will be the teacher next year does not mean that I won't be learning as much as my students (hopefully) will or as much as (if not more than) I am learning now. Having been assigned to teach math, what I am most scared about is not the content or the test scores or anything like that, but it is translating my passion for learning and analyzing and discussing into the language of math. There is no question in my mind that I could get kids excited about studying history or English, but I am scared I won't be able to figure out how to do this for math. I am sure in a couple of months when I actually standing in front of a room of students who are realistically only a couple years younger than I am and a couple (if not more) inches taller than I am all of whom I need to get to do their homework and participate in class this concern will fade into the background for a while. Right now, however, it is front and center.

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