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updates for 02.11.2011

10 new posts today

Hello, world!

Hello, indeed, world! I am so excited that I figured out how to start up a blog on here! I spent a lot of time reading other blogs during the application process trying to figure out what TFA was really like. I hope that maybe someone else may see this blog sometime and I will help them along in the process, too! For a brief introduction-- my name is Erin. I graduated last fall from Rutgers University with a double major in Evolutionary Anthropology and Art History. It took me 9.5 semesters to finish undergrad and I am glad that it's finally over! I spent my first two years of college at Tulane University in New Orleans studying Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. I made the decision to transfer back home to New Jersey and Rutgers and I am so thrilled that I did. I found my niche quickly at Rutgers with the Evo. Anthro. department. I first fell in love with primatology because of my background from Tulane (and a transformative summer I spent in the Costa Rican rainforest as a field assistant).  I then fell for bones. And it stuck. I am an osteology nut who gets her kicks from identifying bone fragments (I always did like puzzles...). I tacked on Art History because it has always been one of my loves. I have been an 'artist' forever- primarily painting- and art history allowed me to get my art fix without trying for a BFA or something silly like that :P I have recently dubbed myself a dabbler. I love learning a little bit of everything and have found that I also enjoy sharing (teaching) those things with others. My decision to apply for TFA was a natural one. I just felt (in all 206 of my bones) the need to teach. I am thrilled about my placement in Middle School Science in the Greater Newark region. Interestingly, it would've been my middle-school self's WORST nightmare. I HATED- and I mean it- science until college. I was always a writer, reader, drawer. Then I took a class called 'Diversity of Life' to fulfill a gen. ed. requirement during my freshman year and I got hooked. Now, I really hope that I can turn around some young minds who might fear, disregard or even HATE science. What else about me? I am an animal lover and a dog enthusiast. I share my world with two rescued mutts, Simon and Elinore. They have been in my life for 10 and 8 years, respectively. I live in a lovely little house with two guys. I date a wonderful man named Phil who was in my major at Rutgers and is awaiting responses from his graduate school applications in forensic anthropology. I am the 4th of 5 children. I am an aunt to 3. My full time job right now is studying for the Praxis II tests I will be taking in the next 1-2 months. That's about it... I hope this served as a good general introduction. I will post more tomorrow about TFA related stuff, but I thought this was an important first step!

The World’s Hardest Easy Geometry Problem

I’ve always believed in rigor and Bloom’s and teaching higher-order thinking. Of course! Of course I want to teach my kids to think at a level higher than the state tests require. But today, the Mirror of Teaching revealed some assumptions I can’t wait to shed. . This particular Thursday morning, I was feeling guilty about Bob. Responsible, analytical, unassuming Bob. He came in just before school started to turn in some missing work, and seeing him reminded me of how much I’m not doing for him in 2nd period. He finishes everything early, plows through the extra stuff I give him, and often asks to go to other classes to finish other projects or assignments. Half the time, I’m so caught up with my low kids and feel so guilty for neglecting him that I just let him go. I want so much to challenge him and push him harder—he’s the kind of kid who needs to be stumped. So, on a whim, I posed this problem to 2nd period. I was gone for half of the period finishing up an ARD (Yes, this is the THIRD day this week that I’ve been pulled out of first period—don’t EVEN get me started) and couldn’t fit my lesson in, so I figured I would give my two or three high, bored kids something to chew on while the rest of the class had a review/makeup/refresh day. I told them three things: One, the first person to solve it would get $10; Two, I spent two full days on it over break and didn’t figure it out; and Three, they already knew everything they needed to know to get the answer. Well. They ate it up. All of them. What I had intended to be a five-minute introduction of the problem turned into a 30-minute whole-class brainstorm session—the first of its kind, mind you. There were side conversations, sure, but the class was generally involved, and kids did things like addressing each others’ misconceptions, taking notes because they thought an idea might help them later, and asking each other “why?” The best part was seeing my medium and medium-low kids get really into it (“really into it” here means they were following what was going on and asking a question or making a suggestion every once in a while). And! My Silent student, who makes every effort to only speak when she absolutely must, stopped me as I was whizzing by with a “miss! [wait… wait…] … it’s 10.” It wasn’t 10 at all (and her reasoning was that it looked kind of like the 10 degree angle just below it), but I was thrilled that she was so confident in her answer that she’d put herself out there like that. She didn’t even say it with a question-mark. *** It was really, really cool to see my kids try something hard. We had FUN! … But what today revealed to me is that I never really harbored the expectation that my kids would be capable of sticking with a problem like that for long enough. I’ve seen them give up on so many lower-level tasks and leave so many higher-level problems blank that I started to assume they just didn’t have enough of a skill base yet to do much critical thinking on their own. ... I hope y’all readers know how hard that is to admit. (Hello, my name is Ms. Walker, and I have low expectations). . Turns out everything they say about higher-order thinking is true:

1)      “Higher-order thinking creates a more lasting memory of what is learned,” they said. Watching my Gangly girl use what I told her about triangles’ interior angles to solve a larger, harder problem makes me more confident she’ll remember that skill than any perfect exit ticket would. Assuming kids need a skill base in order to think at a higher level is exactly my problem. This geometry problem is perfect, because it requires very few skills but a LOT of thinking—precisely the opposite of what I’ve been asking my kids to do. Right now, everything is screaming at me to make them think in order to gain the skills, not to do it the other way around! 2)      “Lower-level objectives have very little use on their own,” they said. I realized the reason my kids give up on the low-level problems might have less to do with their low skill level and more to do with the fact that there’s just no point to problems on worksheets. (For me, the point was always “the teacher said to, and I want a good grade.” If those things didn’t matter to me, I would have simply refused to practice). The skills we teach don’t matter until they require kids to think.

It was just so JARRING to see my kids—my math-phobic, work-phobic, thinking-phobic kids—really putting their minds to something for a sustained period of time. And it was difficult to realize that it was my fault—the reason I hadn’t seen them work like this before is that I never gave them the chance.  I’ve been feeding them skill-and-drill, basically, and wondering why they’re not learning. Pushing deeper thought isn’t a luxury—it’s a necessity. I’ve been harboring this misunderstanding for months, and blaming my kids for my own mistake. They do know how to think. I just don’t yet know how to pull out their thinking and use it. . Anyway. I have way too much to say about this (as you can see). This probably could have been split into a high expectations post and a higher-order thinking post… but today, they’re very meshed.

TFA Summit: aka meeting all my online friends!

I am SO EXCITED to meet people at summit. I've been working all year on communities with a group of people who I can just tell are fantastic and I am so interested to have real, live, face to face, idea generating conversations in DC this weekend. If you read my blog and want to meet email me at cameron.byerley@gmail.com and I'd love to talk math ed or teach for us! The math team is leading a session and I can't believe I'm about to go talk to 250 people about how to teach math. Remember four years ago when I was an absolute disaster? You don't remember since I didn't write about it much but two years ago this time I was having some major issues with my administration because they didn't think I'd ever master the "art" of teaching. They thought I was missing something key and not going to make it. And now, I live and breath math education(well, still the bike, not going to lie). I got to Pat Thompson's Calculus class and notice new things every day about student thinking. On a problem today a student wrote V(b)=pir^2h(r) and explained v(b) in the kid's mind means "volume of barrel." It should have been "v(r) for the volume of a barrel as a function of the radius of the barrel." They thought the "of" in f "of" x was just like the English of. No idea about functions. Oh dear... But, in any case, we were thinking about summit and how we will see old friends, make new friends and meet people we've sent countless emails to. We'll see the entire huge organization represented in a mass of excited, passionate, creative and hardworking people. I'm wondering if there has ever been such a gathering for education. The next big idea or the next big partnership could get born this weekend. I'm hoping that our online communities will get tons of resources from our "flash drive campaign" and that people will be so inspired by hearing us talk that they will want to come and keep the conversations going online. And, and this is very silly, there is one person at summit who I have an internet crush on and have never met. He seems absolutely amazing online but he has absolutely no idea that I am even silly enough to entertain the thought of having a crush on someone I've never even met. If that goes well, I'll definitely write a blog post about it someday....

Snow Day: Take 2.

Two snow days in one school year…apparently, this is pretty unheard of in the Delta.  Generally, I hate the snow, and I still do.  But there is something about a snow day that is so much more appealing on the teacher side of the fence.  It’s a chance to take a nap with my dog in the middle of the day, a chance to read a book without a state objective in mind, and a chance to eat a whole bag of Dorito’s at 2:30 PM that I didn’t confiscate from a child.  I’ve promised to eat healthier in 2011, so I stopped at one bag. Yesterday was ridiculous.  It started snowing at 10 and my kiddos loved it.  Snow is a rare treat for them, so I understood why it was so exciting, and we were released early.  They announced at the very beginning of the day that school would close early at 2.  My first block came in and was great.  We continued reading our story and had some great discussion about how the author created mood.  Fourth block did the same thing. Then there was third block.  This semester, they have quickly risen to the rank of my best behaved & hardest working class.  I take them to lunch every day.  We have to walk by a big wall of windows to get to the cafeteria, and when they saw all the snow sticking by noon (at least an inch), they lost it.  When we went back to the room, they would not stop talking.  I couldn’t even get through the word of the day because of the exuberant (that was yesterday's word, but they still don't know what it means) chatter.  So, instead of teaching, I went old school all over them and made them write lines.  For those of you unfamiliar with this term, it’s when I opened their text book and said, “Start copying on page 203 and don’t stop writing until I tell you to stop.”  They did not like this.  Apparently, this is the most common form of punishment at our in school suspension as well.  My ISS regulars did not like this overlap of punishment.  I made them write for the whole hour because at no point in time were they all quietly writing.  At the end of the block, I collected their lines.  They asked me if they were getting a grade for it.  As the bell rang, I responded by taking a pair of scissors, cutting their papers in half, and throwing them away in front of the entire class.  Their jaws dropped and this was the only time my class was silent all day…just another small gem of teaching joy.  I dedicate this snow day to third block.  I don't miss you an awful lot today.

Bet they were stylin'

I love the conversation snippets I pick up while circling the room during group work. Today, 4th block was in reading circles, working on chapter 4 of Night by Eli Wiesel. As I pass by, the group "illustrator" had a question for his peers "Dude, did Nazis have hats?" "What? Yeah they did." "Oh." "What, did you just think they walked around all hatless?" "I dunno, maybe." "They're German, man. They were all organized and junk. They had hats." "Ok then if you're so smart, what did the hats look like?" "Um..."*leaning over the illustrator's paper* "Wait, what is that guy wearing? It looks like a football jersey. One of the old school ones." "Heh, heh, Nazi throwback jersey." ***** Do you ever wonder what exactly is running through kids minds while you discuss deep, philosophical questions about dehumanization and assimilation in class? I don't know, but I suspect that for at least some of them its "Huh, I wonder if Nazis wore hats."

Real As It Gets

                               by Jay-Z (all my posts are titled after songs / other pop culture references)

  I was re-reading the archives of my personal blog the other day. It's pretty funny, if i do say so myself, but alejo del tema - let me get back to it. I'm sharing a post about an agregious find I made in a 6th grade classroom in my hometown. I had to edit it since Teach For Us is a family show :)
So yesterday I was looking through a social studies packet used in the curriculum of the Amherst Regional Public School system. Just as an aside, Amherst [Massachusetts] is usually thought of as a liberal beacon, a San Francisco East, if you will. Amherst is super liberal and political discussion often centers around who is the most liberal progressive person in the room. Now of course, I grew up in Amherst, so I don’t believe the hype but I do know that Amherst is a liberal community and in general, a nice place to raise children. Amherst even has a social justice curriculum (which my dad wrote). Too bad they haven’t made its use mandatory. Anyway – long story short, Amherst is aight and generally down with progressive ideas. Imagine my ************* surprise when I saw this question in the afforementioned packet:
Why were the Aztec people partially responsible for their downfall at the hands of the Spanish?
Uh, excuse me, I’m sorry. I do not accept the premise of the question. We don’t blame victims of genocide for acts of genocide. That **** is stupid. We’d never ask “Why were Jewish people partially to blame for the Holocaust?” so why the **** is it okay for an “educational tool” to ask the same question about the Aztecs. Oh wait – I know to ensure students (and their communities) don’t feel bad about acts committed by their ancestors and ensure students don’t understand and work against modern racism. Ah so that’s it – if they can convince kids that the Aztecs and other indigenous folks were to blame for their own genocide, then all the troubles stemming from that genocide were also their own fault and in modernity we don’t have to take any responsibility for, or action to address systemic anti-indigenous racism. It takes HELLA effort to maintain the power structure. Even though I think of education as a powerful tool for liberation it can be used for evil. The worst part was when I brought this question to the attention of the teacher; that woman just stared at me with a confused look. Then when I pointed out the problem with the premise of the question she was like “oh you’re right.” And then was clearly over it. I’m scared y’all – cause that woman, in liberal Amherst, Massachusetts, didn’t care. Not all educators want to educate for liberation. I do – and then I need to work with my dad and write some more social justice curriculum and ensure people use it!
I'm terrified of what things might look like in Texas or Arizona, yikes!  I mean really - there's little oversight for teachers' teaching tools (which in general is a good thing). How, as a principal, will I ensure curriculum and teaching tools aim to support the development of global citizens? I need to hurry up and come up with a good idea. Vamos a ver...

Dispelling the Myths

This weekend I will be off to D.C for the TFA 20th Anniversary Summit. I'm pretty pumped about it. I'm attending a session by Malcolm Gladwell who is one of my favorite non-fiction writers. I also got an email from the New Orleans DST (District Strategy Team) prepping us for some networking opportunities with the New Orleans partner schools who will be there.  I'm not sure I'm quite ready for the resume passing out and the schmoozing, but it will be great to get started on that hiring path. I also found out that the mayor of New Orleans, who happens to be the father of a 2010 GNO CM,  will be at the Summit which is really neat. Anyway, I wanted to post a link to an article in Time magazine that counters  five myths about Teach for America, just in time for TFA's 20th Birthday Celebration. If you've read any critiques about TFA the same themes always come up: TFA is nothing more than resume-padding for the elite, the program perpetuates a revolving door of inexperienced teachers and TFA teachers are woefully unprepared for the classroom. I do think there is some truth to some of these criticisms, but I also think the column's author,  Andrew Rotherham does a decent job countering these points. Check out the article here.

How geography impacts charter school sustainability and growth

An important look at the impact of geography on the sustainability and growth of charter schools. In summary, states in the South and West present a more fiscally challenging environment than in the NE and Midwest. Operating margins and per student surplus is higher in the latter regions. The trend of charter school placement seems to capture the impact of these conditions. Also, there is an alarming disparity in total per pupil finding for charters vs. non-charters. Charters average 19% LESS per pupil funding than non-charters. D.C. charters get 42% less! One implication of this disparity is that, despite the perception that private funding increases operating budgets for charter schools, it is primarily used to help close the funding gap caused by discriminatory public financing. Is it time to reform public charter school finance? (Nodding head.) More on this momentarily.

The First Test in Ten Years

After Teach for America informed me that I would be teaching social studies, they indicated that the next step was registering for the GACE (Georgia Assessment for the Certification of Educators) examinations.  The purpose of the GACE is to assess the knowledge and skills of prospective Georgia public school educators. The GACE is required for educator certification. The GACE has a Basic Skills component.  It is possible to exempt this component with certain SAT or ACT scores.  If you attempt to exempt this portion of the test, be sure to request your score reports from SAT and ACT quickly, especially if your scores are from a decade ago!  It will take them some time to locate them, if they are able to locate them at all.  I took the SAT in 1994 or 1995, and they were unable to locate my scores.  ACT, however, was able to find my scores in approximately two weeks. The idea of a big, pencil in the bubble test was a little intimidating.  I have not taken a test in almost ten years!  Especially one in which I have to choose a correct answer.  Law school was filled with tests where I could write, write, and write, and explain, explain, and explain.  And honestly, in law school, most of the time, there were no "right" answers--it was more about the appropriate analysis of the issue.  The GACE was a little daunting, I'll be honest! I registered for three GACE examinations: middle grades social sciences, political science I, and political science II.  I had absolutely no idea what subject matter the tests may cover, so I opted to purchase study guides.  I selected the XAM GACE study guides.  Note, they will be significantly cheaper on Amazon than your local Barnes and Noble or Borders, but you can still expect to pay somewhere between $20 and $40 per book.  You may also get lucky and find them on eBay. My experience with XAM: Well... in hindsight, they were ok.  The study guides did give a framework of material that could be covered on the test.  But the reviews on Amazon are correct--these books have some problems.  You will find some discrepancies in the narrative sections of the study guides.  For example, one section of the book will report that a significant piece of legislation was passed in year X.  A few pages later, it will report that the legislation was passed in year Y.  In the practice tests, the question numbers do not always appropriately align with the answers.  Some questions are repeated, and when they are repeated, they sometimes have different answers!  Some of the test questions covered information that was not presented in the text of the study guide.  Frustrating.  When I studied using these materials, I kept my computer close at hand to double check the information presented and to get further information on the internet.  I was not entirely comfortable with the books when I was studying for the tests, and immediately after the tests, I would have reported extreme disappointment with the study guides. I did not use any other study materials, so I am not sure if there are other study guides or materials that may be more effective in preparing for the GACE or certain sections of the GACE. The tests were administered very efficiently at my test site.  I found the tests themselves to be challenging and nuanced.  And after the tests, the month-long wait for the results began. Yesterday, I received my score reports and learned that I passed all three tests.  Very thankful!  Although I was displeased with the XAM books, I guess they got the job done, so in hindsight, I will say they are ok.  But proceed with caution. So now, the GACE is behind me, and I have a job lined up for the fall.  Time to start doing some intensive reading about being a teacher.  Anyone have any books to recommend?

Moving on, letting go, and saying goodbye

It was decided on Wednesday that I need to make a decision on when I'm departing from my current job and how.  For most people, this would be easy--you set a date, pack up your things, and wave goodbye.  For me, it's much harder.  I've basically had the same job since I was 16 (I've moved up the ladder to higher ranking positions, but it's all within the same organization).  They helped fuel what makes up my entire belief system and what I studied in school. I've also been there almost 10 years--it'll be 10 years in March--and the idea of walking away is heartbreaking.  Punch in the stomach, gasping for air, hard.  My coworkers are more then just the people I work with.  They're my friends and have become a second family to me.  These are the people who have become my support system through everything; the ones I can call at 3:00am if I'm having a crisis and they won't say a word about it other then give me encouragement or support.  They were my cheerleaders during the application process and testing.  They had faith in me when I had none left in me. How can I walk away from that? If the stars are in perfect alignment and I follow my heart, I may be able to step down into a lower position, work until the end of June and then come back at work a few days after institute before orientation and then work the Christmas holiday season.  Part of me thinks that's the best path for me to take and the one that will cause the least amount of pain.  It would mean letting a lot of people down and disappointing even more.  But I'm also at a point where I have to decide what's more important: a job that stresses me out to the point of physical illness at times or my sanity?  I'm heading into the hardest stretch in my life and I feel like I'm dying right now.  Is that fair to myself? How do you decide what's right when neitehr are theoretically wrong?

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