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updates for 01.25.2011

13 new posts today


the immortal george eliot

I've never been good at naming things (if that were the case I'd've picked a decent nickname a long time ago) so perhaps the title of this blog is a little pretentious. But as of today, D-for-Decision Day, the first day of the rest of my life, the day I leased my soul to Teach for America, whatever you want to call it...as of today, George Eliot's words seem rather fitting. From the few blogs I've browsed since clicking the "Commit" button six hours ago, it's clear that my journey as a Teach For America Corps Member (CM?) is going to involve copious amounts of blood, sweat, and tears. Well, maybe not copious amounts of blood. But I'm sure the abundance of the latter will more than make up for lack of the first. And yet, I accepted my contract with giddy excitement and quickly went about exploring TFAnet and CM blogs about Institute. As an English major, I was required by unspoken law to choose a "literary" favorite novel, rather than the pulp fiction I considered my lifeblood pre-college. I had a hard time getting into books with more than two hundred pages and a date of publication pre-twenty-first century, much to the chagrin of my professors. However, fifteen minutes into George Eliot's masterpiece Daniel Deronda, I was hooked. Daniel's struggle to find direction in life and ultimate realization of purpose seemed to mirror my own journey with the LGBT community and I saw myself in the impetuous, manipulative, but ultimately good-natured character of Gwendolen Harleth. When Daniel gently and indirectly rebuked Gwendolen with his comment on her selfish bid to climb the social ladder, his words stuck with me:

"To most men their early home is no more than a memory of their early years, and I'm not sure but they have the best of it. The image is never marred. There's no disappointment in memory, and one's exaggerations are always on the good side."
Eliot speaks truth. It's difficult (at least for me) to recall past experiences with any of the vivid negative emotion that is so present as they are occurring. I tend to have idealized memories of my life in Oklahoma, my high school years in Singapore, or my first job as a voice actor. Ask me about those experiences now and it's all "I miss it so much, whyever did I leave my friends/move to the U.S./quit that job." I tend to gloss over the fact that I was miserable and lonely in OKC. I don't mention the time I bawled my eyes out after getting on the wrong bus in Bukit Timah or the day I cried for three hours because I would never get to experience an American high school. For some reason, I forget the late hours of recording and headaches from the headphones and sore throats from too much anime screaming when recalling my job at Nickelodeon. On the one hand, this selective memory can be a good thing. I'm much more likely to advocate a random move to a foreign country, for instance, than if I could accurately recall every detail of my time living in one. But on the other,  it's not really fair to the person I inspire to pack up and leave if I don't give them the full story. So while there is no disappointment in memory, and everything I write in this blog will necessarily be my recollection of it, I will try to let the tagline of my blog be my guide and make sure that my exaggerations are not always on the good side. I don't want to sugar-coat what I know will be a challenging and at times impossible experience. I want to share my thoughts, feelings, and, yes, memories in as open and honest a fashion as possible, so that future CMs will know what they're getting into. But I want to present those memories as an unmarred image, because when it comes right down to it, no matter how I feel during my TFA experience, at the end of it, I will be a stronger, better, happier person and not be disappointed in my corps experience. Because there's no disappointment in memory.

Quit rate for 'misplaced' CMs?

I got a lot of feedback from the 'Calling All Quitters' post from a few weeks ago.  I had figured that many of the people who quit would have written about the inadequate training model, strengthening my thesis that it's really time to call for an improvement. Many of the people who responded, however, spoke of being 'misplaced.'  I thought I'd write a little about this phenomenon.  For twenty years, the TFA interview has always had the litmus test scenario:  "What would you do if you trained to teach high school math, and at the last minute you were told that the place with the most need was a first grade classroom.  Would you quit?"  Anyone who got into TFA knew that the only way to answer that question is to say "I would not quit," whether it was true or not.  I remember after TFA interviewed me and also another guy I knew at Tufts and afterwards the other guy told me that when they posed that scenario to him, he had said that he would quit.  Then he told me that he was glad they warned him of that possibility since he hadn't considered that when he applied. Well, I thought he was not very strategic.  I didn't think I would quit in that situation, but even if I thought I might I would have still said the same thing.  You've got to be smart enough to say the right things at an interview. That question is supposed to test the flexibility of the candidate, but it really doesn't test anything but how well you can ace an interview or how naive you are, thinking you have any idea what a challenge it is to teach in a grade level where you have absolutely no training. But a certain percentage of people, I'm not sure what that percentage is, do get misplaced.  They train for one thing and then the needs of the district require them to accept a position in a completely different grade or subject level.  And from the responses to the 'calling all quitters' post, some of them do eventually quit, regardless of what they said at the interview.  Then, according to one of the comments, TFA staff reminds the CM that they said in their interview that they wouldn't quit. What I'm wondering is, first, what the 'quit rate' for CMs who are misplaced is (I'm guessing it's got to be at least double the people who are placed properly, or about 20% -- this is just a guess, remember), or at least what the success rate is -- how well, do these misplaced CMs really do?  Assuming these numbers are as scary as I'd expect them to be the next natural question is why does TFA ever misplace people? Five weeks of training, by anyone's measure, is not a lot of time to master all the nuances of teaching.  The student teaching is about four weeks, but that is surely the most valuable component as CMs get to experience actual kids who quickly prove how unpredictable kids can be.  Now I think that the training is very inefficient, but I do think that it's 'decent.'  Certainly someone with no experience with a certain grade level is at a serious disadvantage. So the real question is, what can TFA do when the jobs they hoped would be there simply are not there?  If misplacing people almost guarantees failure, what else can they do?  If misplacing weren't even an option, what 'out of the box' possibilities are there? Maybe the CMs can get paid full teaching salaries and health benefits by TFA while they await openings that relate to the training they received either in the region they have moved to or maybe even in another TFA region.  TFA could foot the bill for relocation if a CM has to move to another region. I realize that this solution costs money -- precious money that could be used to help fuel the recruitment effort.  But if the goal is to narrow the achievement gap, TFA has no business sending someone into a situation where he or she has an extremely high chance of quitting. Of course all of this is speculative on what the quit rate of the misplaced CMs is.  Any stories out there from CMs who were misplaced and had great experiences?


Welcome fellow 2011 Corps Members

I love reading about all the new members and their excitement! I so wish that I would have blogged right after I got accepted back in November.  I remember being super excited but at the same time apprehensive.  My family didn't really know too much about Teach for America and my dad was big on getting a job in the field I majored in.  So once I found out I immediately text my mom but didn't tell my dad for three days, trying to build up the courage and plan out exactly what I was going to say to make him understand how big a deal it was that I got accepted and also how important Teach for America and it's goals are.  Once he understood my passion for wanting to do it he was fully supportive and encouraging.  I now am just anxious to get the whole process going.  I'm suppose to be receiving a pre-institute package between the middle of February and March to get going on all the required work and readings.  I wish it would get here soon because I feel like I just have so much down time right now.  I do love waking up every morning though and reading everyone's blog posts.  I especially love when people give out the names of the books they are reading and find helpful so please everyone keeping doing that!  Congrats again to all the new 2011 CM's :)


How to Get Your Student's Attention in Math Class

We've been covering data analysis in math class -- an introduction for most of my students to mean, median and mode. We've been practicing with a good deal of word problems: test scores, pennies, stamps, and game scores. Math class is, unfortunately, in the afternoon. This means that my students often check out and the gap in my math class is much wider than it is in reading. I'll admit it -- sometimes I purposefully throw things in to wake them up. Today, I was trying to come up with a sports team name. Many of my kids are on their own teams, so any of those name aren't an option (the Jaguars score better than that! etc). So I made up a problem about a basketball team -- called the Sabers. Oooo whee! You'd think I'd just said that I cancelled all the district testing for this week--heck, any testing related to the TCAP. I got almost a bigger reaction than when they realized they'd earned their pizza party for class points. "Ms. Astronaut! You watch the GAME??!?!?!?!" "Aw yeah, she watches the GAME!" "No way, she doesn't watch the game" After I calmed them down, we continued with the lesson. I then proposed that to find the range, we take Derwin's high score and Jason's low score and -- "Oh My GOD she watches the GAME!!!" "Man, I love me some Derwin" "She watches the Game! She watches the Game!" Yes children. I watch some of the same shows that you do, as disturbing as that is on occasion. We'll add that to the other tv shows I can talk to you about that surprised you (I'd list them, but it's pretty much Disney channel shows. ) It's been a strange transition back to school with my kids since we've had so many snow days. As a New Englander, these days are starting to get a little ridiculous. If it's called the night before, you wake up and look out the window to see just a hint of snow dusting your car. The ice has been a bit of an issue since no one is prepared to deal with it. I keep myself motivated with the small things -- my kids wanted to know how they could nominate me for Teacher of the Year --some of them seemed sad when I told them I wasn't one of the options this year --my kids are finally learning how to be quiet during testing (thankfully, since we've got a lot) --pretty much all of them responded with a resounding NO! when the word "substitute teacher" was mentioned --my donors choose project got fully funded! My kids have NO idea that all these wonderful books will soon be on their way! --One girl's response to the question "What do you think is the President's most important job is?" Response? To make sure that the world is perfect. How can you not love that?


Half way through my 3rd year teaching art

Hello again. I realized I hadn't written anything since November...that's what the holidays and preparing for a wedding will do to ya ;) ...so I'm back! I was encouraged to find a few comments from people getting ready to teach art or getting into TFA. Thanks for writing! Sometimes you wonder if anyone is benefitting from your posts (other than yourself...), so YAY! Glad to know some of you are inspired by my experiences or have learned something from them. That should be the purpose of filling space on the internet right? In recent news- it's a NEW YEAR! Sweet! Happy 2011 everyone! We are just under 55 days until the wedding, and showers have begun! I can't wait to change my name and confuse all my students ;) haha In recent art classroom news, these are my ideas laid out for 3rd quarter....  Overarching theme "Watch Me Grow!"....artist to be studied: Claude Monet. Students in K-5 worked on a still life their first couple weeks back from break, and I was impressed with many of them! A few kiddos came out of the woodwork and displayed technical skills I didn't know they had! That's always a bonus ;) I am currently collaborating with kindergarten on their day & night theme by doing a warm/cool color collage. Tomorrow I am going to experiment with them on doing an easier version of a tempera batik. We will fold construction paper in half, draw a day scene on the right side with chalk & a night scene on the left with chalk. Students will paint inside the chalk lines and let dry. Once dry, wipe off the chalk so there are lines in between their painting, and cover the right "day" side with blue ink, and the "night" side on the left with black ink. Hope it turns out as cool as I've seen it done! With 5 and 6 year olds.... you never know what you might get ;) One of my kindergartners has an imaginary snake named "Snakey," enough said right? In collaboration with 1st grade's "plants" unit, kids are making a mixed media plant collage! They are kinda good so far! Students first draw plants with pencil and label the parts "roots, stem, leaf, flower, fruit," followed by collage with yarn, beans, pom poms, textured paper, and anything else that would be great for this project. I have high hopes for this one. 2nd grade is getting ready to do a "textured landscape," also using mixed media for a collage. They are learning about cultures in their homerooms, so my desire is for them to see how different topography and landscapes impact the cultures of their people- what they wear, eat, and what type of shelter they have. 3rd grade needs to work on their fractions, so we'll do a drawing where I tell them to put certain lines or colors in HALF of the drawing or a FOURTH of the paper... etc. You get the picture I think ;) If you don't... review your fractions! 4th grade is doing medieval age stuff so we'll first learn how to hone our 3D form drawing skills, and then we'll see if they can draw a medieval castle in 3D style with correct perspective! 5th graders need to know the difference between a pyramid and a prism, so I may review this once more with them before moving onto Claude Monet-based projects. I've tried to plan out all of 3rd quarter since this is WEDDING CRUNCH TIME. I know God will help me to get all that I need to get done DONE, and that I don't need to worry or be anxious about anything! He is Sovereign, He is Faithful, He is good. My hope is that these lessons help our kids make connections with what they're learning in homeroom, but even more, they learn some life lessons in patience, perseverance, & other good things! I know God is teaching me these life lessons as well. I am pumped to be half way through my 3rd year teaching art- I can't believe how far I've come and I am looking forward to next year (most likely my last year), and what God seems to be stirring in me for my future.... he he, ciao!


No Silver Bullets for Education

In her new book out today, Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America, describes the lessons learned from 20 years in the education reform business: The achievement gap can be closed, and there’s nothing elusive about what it will take. The book, A Chance to Make History (link to Amazon), offers evidence that we truly can work toward the one day when all children will have an opportunity to attain an excellent education. Big Ideas from the book:

  • It is possible to ensure educational excellence and equity.
  • Success requires rallying around a new mandate for public schools in urban and rural communities: to provide transformational education.
  • Developing more transformational schools will require the same comprehensive set of strategies—and the same energy and discipline—entailed in reaching ambitious goals in any endeavor.
  • While there is nothing elusive about this solution, there is nothing easy about it either— and oversimplifying the issue will fail to advance the cause and serve as an unfortunate distraction of time and energy.
  • Increasing the pace of change relies on building the capacity of our education system, creating a policy environment conducive to change, and fostering educational innovation.
  • To be successful, we will need to grow the force of transformational leaders who have the foundational experience of transformational teaching. Teach For America is a critical source of such leaders.
To learn more about the book, you should check out the Chance to Make History website.

Those poor, poor kids. Imagine how they must feel.

I'm so angry. I've ridden my bike home, vented to two friends and I'm still angry. I'm taking a class and I asked if I had the prerequisites for it. They said that I would be fine. And now when I ask questions they treat me like I'm an idiot. They put all these symbols up on the board and move them around and never say what any of them mean. There is no way to make sense of it all because they don't tell us what anything stands for. They reference vocabulary words that I don't understand to explain things. When I tell them I'm confused they treat me like I'm an idiot and explain precalculus to me. Precalculus! I taught Precalculus. They also told me that I needed to understand Calculus good today. I responded "I do understand Calculus well." UGH. The instructor speaks English well but he cannot speak mathematics with meaning. I think he's a nice enough guy who has decided that I'm an idiot. Partial fractions? Really? Do we have to go over that? I can't tell if he's doing this for my sake or for someone else. To make matters worse I got lost looking for the bathroom, started the quiz late and didn't even do well on it. I keep trying to answer questions in class so that he knows that I'm not an idiot when I ask questions. But he's just not understanding me. There is this awful breakdown in communication. Class switches from being so easy that I could teach it to so impossible to understand that I don't even know where to go learn about the answer. I almost wanted to start crying when he told me I needed to understand Calculus better. I wanted to challenge him to a Fundamental Theorem of Calculus show-down. And when I graphed the differential equation we were analyzing on Graphing Calculator and asked him what it had to do with the graph he put on the board he said mine was completely different. He's not even listening to me even when another student pointed out that what I had on my calculator made sense. UGH! I honestly think that he knows how to manipulate symbols, has never thought about the meaning and just doesn't know what to do with me. I'm so hyper-critical about instruction now that I'm in math education. I see Pat Thompson teach Calculus and everything makes sense. Not because I know it but because he gives things meaning, ties things together, speaks about quantities and how they related. And now I'm seeing what it feels like to take a math class where the teachers use symbols you don't understand and you don't even know where to begin to ask questions. It's demoralizing and frustrating. We definitely need to fix math education. I can see why people hate it. This feels awful. A whole world of people totally missing the point about why you are confused. I'm not sure if it helps to understand math education well enough to be able to comment on and analyze the break down in communication or not.


DEAR

Tyrik walked into class this day holding his backpack out in front of him like a prize, grinning proudly at the three other people who had made it in from breakfast before 7:40. "Ms. D," he said in a hushed voice, because it was DEAR, after all. (Drop Everything And Read). "I brought my own reading today." "Oh?" I rubbed his head, because for all his faults, he's actually really freaking cute. He unzips his backpack and pulls out two magazines- Better Homes and Gardens and Good Housekeeping. They're both at least 4 years old, stained and smelly, the back covers missing. He held them up to me, one in each hand. The pages flopped from side to side like he was holding up a recently shot duck, its wings shifting slightly in the stale trailer heater breeze. "Very nice, sir. Find a place to read!" I said, pushing him in the direction of the desks. He crawled under the computers to a dusty sanctuary in between the broken internet cables and a forgotten yardstick and opened the cover, where he sat quietly for about ten minutes, absorbed by the pages of advertisements for face cream and fertilizers. As DEAR ended, he tapped my elbow to show me a full-page advertisement of children with cleft palates. "Why do these babies look like that?" "Some babies are born like that, Tyrik, and people can donate money to help them have surgery to get better. See that box?" I showed him the donation form for what I'm sure is a long-since shut down foundation. Tyrik reached into his pockets for quarters and found three of them. "I could send them these," he asked, a Delta question. (delta question: phrasing and inflection implying a question but without the question word, often an imperative sentence) "I can have an envelope?" Another delta question. I handed him one and he sat down. And to think that I doubted Better Homes and Gardens...


For Better Or For Worse

I had a pretty miserable car ride to work. Not exactly looking forward to this 5 day week. Showed up at school on this Monday morning and my principal mentioned that one of the Rocketship higher ups finally found my enraged post titled "Dear John" -- a very angry letting to the CEO of my school. The sentiments that I expressed in that letter I still very much agree with, but for the sake of not getting in mega trouble, although this would not be the first time my writing got me in trouble, I have removed it. If you're dying to see my letter (which I'm sure you're not), feel free to email me and I'd be glad to send it along. Oh and if you're wondering why I put that letter in such a very public place: Well, when I got accepted to Teach For America, the recruitment director who recruited me referred me to Teach For Us, since he knew I wanted to be a writer. I was able to read about the good, bad and horror stories from various corps members all right here AND I still chose to go ahead and accept the offer from TFA. So part of the reason I write this blog is for those future corps members to be able to get the full scope of what my experience is like--the fantastic days and the unlivable ones. Either way, Happy Monday.


Double vs. Half

Deval Patrick, my dear Governor, once said to me (and 2,000 of my closest friends) that "this is the only country in the world in which it's a a bad thing to speak more than one language." It's true and it's silly. Our mythology paints us as independent thinkers, creative problem solvers and dynamic lovers of freedom. Here's the thing though: these United States of American traits don't seem to apply to discussion about language. Language is a realm in which some US Americans seem to think we should all be the same. Language is precious. Concretely, studies show that first languages can shape both interaction with and understanding of and in the world. Strong skills in a student's primary language are correlated with  higher levels of success in second language acquisition. Importantly, I think, is the fact that your mother says she loves  you in your first language, your abuelita writes her most famous recipes in your first language, your first language is the language in which you are comforted when you're sad, when you're sick and when you're afraid. As a grown up I can reflect that real deep feelings, like fear and anger and pure joy are felt and expressed in your first language.  There's a long history of folks with power using it to control other folks' language choices (think about enslaved Africans brought to this country and forced to abandon their languages,  Indigenous communities in this nation forced to teach their children English posing significant dangers  for the future of their native tongues and obviously, states  like Arizona that have  made  it illegal  to teach in public schools if you have an accent - and they clearly don't mean a British accent, they mean if you're Mexican and if your spoken English  has reflections of your multilingual abilities). Having the right to be heard, felt and understood in your first language is a human right and a question of social justice. I'm not ever going to insist that you stop speaking the language your grandpa used to teach you how to throw a pitch. I'm sure as hell going to insist that you learn English and grow in your abilities to speak, read, write and instrumentally use English. I'm more interested in doubling your language capacity than redirecting or halving it by ensuring you only speak English. In other words - I'm going for double rather than half.


What's Happening in Atlanta

Here are some stories in the news today in the ATL:


(Written Last Weekend)

Despite winter break, a determination to be at school less, and feeling guilty about not updating my blog, I've still been terrible about it. The phrase I find myself repeating over and over is, "just keep swimming" (as said in Wanda's voice from Finding Nemo) Just keep swimming >Even when your district test scores go down in 3 of 4 classes. >Even when your kids tell you they hate you and hate your class every day >Even when they steal your cell phone out of spite for a referral Yep. They need it. After school today, I ran into a woman I don't know who works at my school. I asked how she was doing and she replied, "terrific!" I said back, "Yeah, how couldn't you be? 3-day weekend!" to which she replied, "No. I'm always terrific. Life is too short not to be!" I admire that. I don't know where I dropped pieces of my optimism, but I'm trying to take a few steps back to pick them back up. Perhaps 6th period is my favorite class because I tell them how much I love teaching them every day. Perhaps 2nd period is so difficult because I told them they're my worst class. I'm on my way to Berkeley to reconnect with high school friends, talk strategies with a friend from institute, catch up with a cousin who taught in Japan, and see a high school teacher who taught me how to love reading again. These are the people that inspire ME so that I can come back with a fresh perspective to inspire THEM. I so want to love these students unconditionally, but it takes such a huge amount of self confidence to trust that that is happening. I don't cry. Well, maybe twice a year. I had one meltdown in November (seeing as I had had no release since I started this whole crazy TFA thing in June) that involved crying for 5 hours without stopping, but then that was it. Stress zapped. I figured I'd be good for another 5-6 months, but 2nd period snapped me on Wednesday. I didn't cry in front of them, but as soon as they were out of my sight and I was on prep, I started bawling because I have failed these students in terms of generating a drive for learning and a respectful classroom. I woke up on Thursday with a new optimism. They were awesome in 2nd period. And then what happens? I discover 3 girls have devised and executed a plan to steal my cell phone. I don't care about the phone, but the implications this has about the environment in my classroom are upsetting. I look forward to the return of these girls with a slight apprehension as I work to build up my classroom. TFA work is sitting on the back burner. Need to get on that. Skiing is my best release. I need to vow to continue to go at least once per week. It's the only time I can let myself stop thinking about my students. I think about them while I eat breakfast, while I wash my hair, while I sleep/dream, before school, during school, at lunch, after school, over dinner, over a beer with friends, etc etc etc. It's endless, awesome, exhausting, and sometimes needs to be put on pause. Here's a promise to write more often, and a promise to myself to continue to pursue my students' excellent science education no matter the circumstances that present themselves to me.


Still a kid

This boy in my homeroom is famously hard to handle. He has screamed threats at teachers, thrown things at teachers, cussed at teachers. His mom passed away a few years ago, his dad hasn't been the best, and he relied heavily on his grandmother until she passed away in December. He's had a tough life and my heart aches for this kid. On Friday, he showed up in my classroom during my prep period. I tried to send him to class, but he told me that first he had something he wanted to show me. He dug around in his pockets for a few seconds, while I imagined him pulling out all sorts of dangerous or inappropriate items. Instead, he pulls out a little toy excavator truck (like this). He tells me he used to have a smaller one, but this one is bigger and he likes it better. He starts rotating the arm of the truck up and down and rolling it on the desk, making a little vrooom noise under his breath. He's not being eighth-grade-ironic... he is genuinely delighted with this toy and proud to show me what it can do. He's acting like any little boy with a toy car, which is a side of him I've never seen before. Where there's usually an angry semi-adult challenging his teachers all day, there's suddenly the kid in him peeking out. It's adorable and I want to hug him and let that kid play with his truck forever.


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