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updates for 04.01.2011

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Coming Back Home

I'm moving back to my hometown of Detroit (well this time I might live in a suburb, but you get the point).  I'm not sure how I feel about this.  I certainly want to give back to an inner-city community, but does it have to be my community?  As in, my original community?  I know that sounds terrible, but just hear me out.  I always thought that I would settle in some other city and devote myself to worthy social justice causes in a brand new milieu.  And while that still might happen after my two-year commitment in Detroit, I never thought I'd live here again. It's not just leaving behind Michigan that appeals to me.  It's the sense of independence and adventure that comes with living in a new state (or country, even).  I liken it to living in a small town, feeling smothered by it, and aching to get out and start life anew.  Just because Detroit is a big city doesn't mean that I can't get the same feeling of claustrophobia that one can experience growing up in Deckerville, Michigan (population:871).  As soon as I graduated, I left the nest and didn't look back.   I still talked to my family regularly and came home for holidays; it's not as though it was familial relations that I scorned.  I just needed to  leave.  I had lived in Detroit for 18 years, and Michigan for 22 (I went to U of M).  It was time for a change of scenery (and weather).  Needless to say, this is a bittersweet situation.  I am overjoyed to be joining TFA's ranks, yet I am less than enthused to be heading back to the D. Sure, my parents and grandparents live in Detroit, and it will be wonderful to see them regularly.  I miss my family, but I honestly don't miss Detroit, or the state of Michigan in general.  Like I said, sometimes you just grow out of a place and need something new.  My aunt lives in Ohio, my brother lives in Baltimore (via Atlanta), my stepfather lives in Washington state (yes, you read that correctly.  He and my mom have a unique, bi-coastal marriage),  my cousins in Boston and New York, and so on and so forth.  Everyone is spread out, and while it made for sparsely populated holiday events and family reunions, I accepted it, and even came to embrace it. I don't miss Detroit.  There are aspects that I love about this city, and even the things I dislike are also things I am willing to vehemently defend if anyone tries to disparage the Motor City.  I will always love it, and hate it, and above all, support and defend it.  But I didn't want to come back. But now that I am back, I am going to make the most of it.  I will work tirelessly to do my part to close the Achievement Gap.  And in two years, who knows where I'll be?  I might decide to stay after all.

 


The Finland Phenomenon

One of the beauties of teaching and living in DC is that education is "big" here. The average person here "cares" about education. This is not to say that people elsewhere don't "care." But if we measure how much people care about education by tallying the number of education-related events, then one might rightly believe that DC is education central. Last week, I attended a documentary film premiere for "The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World's Most Surprising School System" at the National Press Club. The doc was produced by Bob Compton, a venture capitalist and education filmmaker. I happened to have met him at another education-related event and he invited me to watch his new movie. Of course, I was excited to attend. I sought to view the film with the goal of gleaning as much information as I could about Finland's education system. Finland, after all, is the only western country that has maintained its place in the top five list of high scores--alongside Asian powerhouses, China, South Korea and Singapore--on the PISA. And, as I've documented in the past, Finland spends far less than we do on education. What could explain this? Something teachable, right? Certainly. Before the screening began, Finland's Ambassador to the United States gave opening remarks. The Ambassador caught my attention when, referring to Finland's unusual success, he said, "the path to excellence can be one of doing things differently." Could, or even should, the US (or another country, for that matter) attempt to replicate the style of education delivery that Finland uses? Implicit in the Ambassador's statement was the idea that one does not have to conform in order to succeed; pushing forward on a solitary path can be just as effective. Indeed, we might be inclined to think that Finland has a set of circumstances that is completely unique and therefore non-translatable. Can we in the US--a relatively, diverse and unequal country--really learn anything from Finland? As Bob Compton pointed out, Finland is a small country (population: 5.4 million); Finland is culturally very homogeneous; and Finland has little economic inequality. A skeptic might argue that it must be these blessed characteristics that guarantee Finland's success. Yet, Bob Compton used the counterexample of Sweden to show that the story is not that simple. Sweden has many of the same blessed characteristics and, yet, placed 19th on the list of OECD countries. Demographics alone don't explain everything, Compton seemed to be implying. If it did, Sweden should be alongside Finland in the top 5. There must be something behind the "phenomenon." With that prefatory note, we began the movie. ***** The narrative structure of The Finland Phenomenon was peculiar. Prof. Tony Wagner of Harvard's Graduate School of Education, an expert on the global achievement gap, served as both narrator and field researcher for the movie. Prof. Wagner visited a number of schools and interviewed various sources in an effort to paint a picture of the primary characteristics of the Finnish education system. I don't feel the need to rehash everything that was described, since others have already done a pretty good job of it. What I would like to focus on are two concepts that stood out about the Finland phenomenon: (1) Trust - The Finnish education system is fundamentally focused around the concept of trust. We can see this concept most clearly when we think about their approach to teacher training. The teacher education system sets an extremely high bar for entry into the profession and then, once trained, teachers are free to work at their schools unencumbered by evaluations and observations and other types of monitoring. They are free to grow and develop as trusted professionals. Here in the US, we have the complete opposite. The bar for entry into the profession is unreasonably low. To make up for this, principals and school districts monitor the behavior of teachers by using performance evaluations and all the other "teacher quality" tools that are out there. The trust that exists in Finland seems to be nowhere in our system. (Here's a little analogy drawn from my knowledge of retirement accounts:  Finland : Roth IRA :: USA : traditional IRA. One of the big stresses about living in the US is the IRS. They like to take your $$$ away from you. Until you're taxed, you feel stressed (because you are still waiting to see your money get taken away). But, in Finland, just like with a Roth IRA, you get taxed on your way into the profession. Up-front, you lose a good amount, but once you've contributed to the account, you can grow what you've invested for the rest of your life, tax-free. At this point, you are trusted and relatively stress-free. In the US, as with a traditional IRA, you get taxed on your way out of the profession. As you are contributing to the account, you pay no tax. The trade-off is that you have to pay later. There is always the tax that is on the not-too-distant horizon--one that zaps your energy and, perhaps, makes you want to leave the profession (disclosure: I like Roth IRAs and have one myself).) Trust permeates all aspects of education in Finland. Teachers trust the students to do what they need to do in order to learn (e.g. they are given 2-week long independent projects). It seems like trust is a critical element in Finnish society. (2) Equality - Throughout the film, I got the sense that Finland truly lived up to the ideal of equality, particularly in the realm of education. One interviewed administrator made a comment about how schooling in Finland is about providing everybody the "same possibility," the "same opportunity," the "equality of opportunity." The movie made clear that Finland truly lives up to these words. Finland made big steps towards fulfilling equality by forming comprehensive schools beginning in the 1970s. The idea, similar to those of the Common School Movement, was to provide the same sort of education to all. In Finland, there is no ability-based tracking. Yet, there is a differentiated curriculum that allows students to choose a more traditional "academic" program of study alongside a vocational one. These are not tracks, however, because they both equip students with the same basic set of thinking skills; they are, rather, applied to different ends.  To address the diversity of learners in a classroom--particularly those with special needs--the primary focus in early education is to ensure that those with cognitive, social, or emotional gaps get the extra help they need to close those gaps before they become canyon-esque. In other words, I get the sense that, in Finland, everyone is in it together, helping to ensure that all children get valued equally. They are each given the opportunity to succeed in life.  The Finnish truly "get" equality and equity. Sadly, despite all the talking we do here, I'm not sure we "get" it as well. ***** After the film there was a panel discussion featuring Cisco's Annmarie Neal, CCSSO's Gene Wilhoit, NYT's Tom Friedman and NEA's John Wilson. It was an interesting conversation that got each panelist giving their own views about the causes and consequences of the global achievement gap. At the end of the panel, I approached Prof. Wagner and got an autograph in my copy of his book. Given that this took place on a school-night, I quickly zipped home and prepared for the following day's lessons. But I was glad to have been exposed to this phenomenon. profile counter

 


Bonjour!

Hi!  I'm Danielle, and I will be teaching French in Detroit this fall (of course, this is contingent upon me actually passing the French exam).  I'm very excited about this opportunity, but I'm certainly daunted by the prospect of, you know, teaching.  I've worked with youth before, and I've even taught a class, but there were some differences, as I was: a) teaching with someone else, b) teaching a class of 5 (not 35) students, and c) teaching for three hours twice a week, not eight hours five days a week. I'm scared out of my wits!  What if I'm boring?  (my biggest fear)  What if I can't manage my classroom well?  What if I have bad experiences with crazy, irate parents?  What if my colleagues or principal despises me? (hard to imagine that one since I'm an amiable enough gal, but people pick silly reasons to dislike others sometimes, especially newcomers). Still none of these fears of the future compare to what plagues my thoughts right now: What if I don't pass the French test?  I'm not at all afraid of taking the Basic Skills or Elementary Ed exam (call it Hubris if you like, but I just think it's easy material), but j'ai peur de l'examen francais.  ---> (I'm afraid of the French test). It's not just that I don't have the same lexical adroitness in French as I do in English.  It's just that I haven't spoken French on a regular basis in a long time.  While I consider myself fluent, there are certainly some grammar rules that I have forgotten, as well as some cultural facts (yes, francophone culture/history/geography/all things social studies is going to be on the exam).  Also, there is a listening portion, and I understand French a lot better when they're not speaking at an auctioneer's pace. I've been praying about it, so I know that I'll be ok.  But somehow, that doesn't make the nervousness wane.  Good luck to any of you who will also be taking exams in the  future.

 


Competitions

3/27/11 I felt so lucky this weekend to not have to grade a million papers. Rest in peace, writing taks. Still making it to bed right at an hour later than I intended. Today I was a busy bee though, and I accomplished a lot for the class this week. I broke my promise to myself and created several new documents. I just....I know how I want them and ppts online weren't hitting the right stuff in my mind. Principal sent out an email today. What with TAKS season upon us, every lesson should be objective-driven. Well, I still have 2 more days of broader stuff before I dig back into those objectives, but I changed my lesson a bit for tomorrow to include more author's purpose. And their homework is now a TAKS passage. So I feel like I've done my due diligence. No gym since last Thursday :(. Which means I have to go to the one in the morning tomorrow because we have teacher/TFA meetings all week after school. bleh. It's gonna be another long week. I'm already dreaming of the beach again next Saturday. Grades were due tonight. I only had 2 students fail. They've failed just about every other quarter. And I don't feel bad about it. One did get in most of his make up work, but after 9 weeks of essentially doing NOTHING in my class.....you can't pass off of 2 days of working. The other, well, she was missing one assignment that could've brought her to passing. I hounded her all week and she failed to turn it in. Last story, before bed. I shared this with some friends on Saturday, and I realized it hadn't reached the blogging world lately. It has been an off and on goal of mine to achieve impressive nails. Normally when I get bored or anxious, they're the first to go. Well, lately, my nails have been growing much faster. Last week, I was looking at my hand and thinking to myself that several nails on each hand were doing better than the others. And before I realized what I was thinking, I thought, "Let's compete. The first hand to get all nails long....." And then I realized I was trying to get my hands to compete with each other. And that's how I know I'm a 7th grade teacher.

 


6 foot 7 (Is TFA a terrible idea? Am I ruining kids' lives?)

by Lil Wayne My Long Division song will be written to the tune of 6 foot 7 by Weezy. I'm going to force my nieces and nephews to be in the video, so it should be a lovely family affair. As I was working on the lyrics I was thinking about teaching and gimmick-ness and Teach Like a Champion. There's a part of the intro to TLAC that I stumbled and struggled over for a few days, and in fact am still sort of dealing with:

"Making material accessible is acceptable - preferable, even - when it means finding a way in, that is, finding a way to connect kids to rigorous college prep content; it's not so great when it dilutes the content or standards"
I agree, but I think I really need to hear more about what Lemov means (notice how I didn't call him Dougie - that was only because I have MAD respect for him!). He goes on in this section to talk about not tailoring literature to brown students that's written by brown authors. He kind of takes the position that the best literature is written by white folks (FALSE, no group has a lock on "the best")  and is thus the most important for kids of all races to have access to. I mean, sociologically speaking, the cultural capital part of the argument is true. Students need to be able to reference Hamlet, solve for x and will be asked to do so in and outside of the classroom when they're in college. It pains me to know they'll likely not be asked to recall Morrison or Achebe. I doubt they'll be asked to recall the details of the Mexican Revolution. That's the reality, brown kids probably need to know Shakes better than anyone. So whytf am I writing a song about Long Division (other than the fact that it's awesome and most adults can't do it - but don't get me started on that)? It's fun, it's a good hook, but if I can't measure it's contribution to student learning than is it worth it? It might be an effective hook for some students and totally ineffective for others. It might be a fun way to get my niece to love math, but maybe I shouldn't use it in my classroom. Am I underestimating my students already? Do they need a hook? If kids in wealthy districts are expected to sit still and divide 226 by 17 than why am I not asking my students to do just that and to do it 3 times faster and with 100% more accuracy? Still I want my students to feel like math is awesome. Maybe we should build something so they can SEE math in action. I'm feeling like a failure because I can't figure this out. I will - I get that, and I'll mess up a million times, but, in times like these I sort of doubt the TFA approach. I don't know wtf I'm doing and the stakes are too high for the education of young children to be in such obviously incapable hands.
 


KIPP's Atrocious Attrition

I've been getting concerned lately about how TFA and TFA related organizations have been misleading the public about their successes. I know that every company tries to put the most positive spin on their results so that they can continue to stay in business, so that's natural. But when it comes to TFA, Michelle Rhee, and KIPP, it's not just about staying in business. The way they present their results actually affects politicians who shape public policy. If they lie about how they're doing and these lies lead us to dangerous policies, what's good for the organizations is bad for society as a whole. 'Waiting For Superman' was designed to win an Oscar, which it wasn't even nominated for. It was also supposed to advance the efforts of the charter school movement, as it was funded by some major players like Bill Gates. It also presented Michelle Rhee as a hero, and KIPP as part of the realistic solution to fixing public schools in this country. Though there was some initial buzz, like a bunch of coverage on NBC and also a week of Oprah, the movie actually had an unintended effect. People who really know what's going on got quite offended by the lies the movie promoted. The movie awakened the proverbial sleeping giant who then got busy debunking all the lies in the movie. This week two major players from the movie have been revealed to be much less than they claim to be. First there was the USA today story about how one of Michelle Rhee's greatest successes has cheated to get their results on the standardized tests. It just shows that if you scare people enough they will find a way to get the results you demand of them. Then, today, a study was released that finally examined KIPP in full detail. Even though I know Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg and like them both, I've been concerned about how their PR efforts could be misleading.  What the study has revealed was that part of their success comes from them booting out the kids who will bring down their numbers. The report says that 40% of the black male students who enter the school in sixth grade drop out of it before completing eighth grade there. This is a staggering number. I wish Dave and Mike would just say that this is what they do and that KIPP is not for everyone, but for the kids who don't get kicked out, it's a great learning environment. I could respect that. Of course statements like that would not get them as many $100 million dollar grants, so they don't say it. They imply that they don't do this which misleads politicians and billionaires to try to replicate KIPP with other charters. But they can't replicate it everywhere since they can't use the secret ingredient: Kick out (or 'counsel out' or have them 'self-select themselves out'  you can use whatever euphemism you'd like) the kids who bring down the numbers. The reason I'm happy that all these truths are being revealed is not that I wish anything bad for KIPP or Michelle Rhee (well maybe Michelle Rhee), but because I hate when public policy is swayed by public relations spin. We need truth and if you are not going to just give it to us, we will find it out ourselves. You're busted.

 


A Mess, of Shirts and Life

Imagine the following scene: Teacher: Sweetheart, your shirt is all ripped up in the back. What happened at PE? Sunshine: Yeah! It got the mess rip outta' it! Meak: Yeah, he been chase by he girlfrien'. She be like "ching ching ching!" (slashing mothion made with both arms, karate style) and he be like "Ahh!" (run away with high pitched squeal). Teacher: Oh, well, that would make sense (walk away, looking befuddled). That was how my morning started. Clearly, it led to a delighted smile on my part (a befuddled teacher should always smile, maybe even knuckle bump if the occassion calls for it). I had a troupe of 4th graders who were fidgety and cranky for 93 minutes this morning. It was the hardest 93 minutes of Lent so far.

Sidenote: I gave up using my cranky voice for Lent. I know that not using my cranky voice is virtually impossible (thank you, job)  and that I will inevitably fail at this commitment. But (a) I'm a commitment phobe anyway and (2) I feel that if Jesus were teaching my students he would use his cranky voice and love the heck out of them....just like I do. Sometimes, a kid needs a little cranky voice in their life.

I eventually gave the little sweethearts my "disappointed face" and reminded them that I do, in fact, know how to find the mean, median, mode, and range of a set of numbers. All by myself! I also know that, no matter how upset they get, they can not use a calculator to add up the numbers....or a times table sheet. Cranky voice drew a heart with bubbles floating around it. Cranky pants told me he didn't know how may times 9 went into 11 and that he "wadn't gon' do nothin' bout figurin' it out." Angry girl said that Smiley was a long-eared baldheaded gay mamma. Tootsie called Bootsie's dead grandmamma's name three times before Bootsie hit Tootsie upside the head and told her to stuff it. Excellent stuff here, folks. I love it, really. Tomorrow, from 8:00am until 9:00am a nice woman will come in and watch me with this group of sugarcakes. She will later be writing a review of my teaching abilities based upon this observation. Until yesterday, when I was informed of the looming dooming event, I had been planning on having a test. It's a Friday, we've spent 2 weeks on MMMR, we need to test and move on with our lives (see, commitment phobe again). I was told I can not have a test, because they need to see me teach. Thought process: Oh, well in that case I'll rearrange my entire teaching schedule for the next 2 weeks (only about a month out from the state test, mind you) in order to accomodate your observation. No problem. Really, I mean that. It's completely fine. Please, let's do this again sometime really soon. In preparation for the awesomeness that IS (positive thinking goes a long way, I'm told) going to happen tomorrow from 8:00-9:00 I purchased approximately 48 pieces of quality candy from the local grocery store last night. Bribery at its finest, folks. Those of you trying to fix March Madness could learn a thing or two here.
 


Venting is good for the soul.

I apologize that I never update this.  I think right now is the most challenging point in my career as a Teach for America corps member.  We have seven weeks left...according to my place value calendar that amounts to 38 days.  The finish line is in sight but I am still wrestling with my thoughts constantly.  I am staying for a third year.  Most days, I have this overwhelming sense of hope and possibility for the students I see everyday and I am not ready to leave them.  I feel like my district is at the tipping point...great change can happen if the right people stay here.  I also feel like so many people give me a laundry list of reasons for why they cannot possibly stay in this place and my reaction is always the same...the reason it has gotten to this point is because people come in, see that it is a dysfunctional mess, and then leave.  Human capital is one of the biggest problems Mississippi has.  People are literally fleeing to other places where opportunities are more plentiful. It literally makes me cry when people come to this place and leave because the problems seem too big.  Maybe I am too idealistic or optimistic but I just cannot believe that this is the way it will always be. Yesterday I was literally crying as I left school.  I felt so defeated and so inadequate.  I think all the negative thoughts people had been saying finally took hold of me.  I was so frustrated...my students still roll their eyes at each other, still throw finger signs.  I am not changing who they are.  I think that is the hardest thing to wrap my mind around.  TFA tells a good story of how we can change the course of students lives but my question is really? Can we really change things? Or do we just have blinders on and do not realize that everything we do is actually in vain? I guess only time will tell if a difference is actually made which is probably another reason I am staying.  I have to see if all my hard work pays off.  I have to see if my students will eventually be the ones who score proficient on the MCT2 simply because they can read. So this is my dilemma...some days are filled with hope, some with the feeling of being an absolute failure, and still others with the feeling that one more year is all I will physically be able to give to this school.  It is crazy how emotionally draining and mentally frustrating all of this is.  I think about the fact that I do not want to leave this place but for my mental health I may have to and that makes me cry as well.  I don't want to feel that way.  I want to figure out a way to make a significant difference in the lives of children and still feel okay about myself. These days I find myself disagreeing with the poem that says "our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, it is that we are powerful beyond measure" because my greatest fear is that I am inadequate and will simply be mediocre for the rest of my life. If you are still reading this, thank you for letting me vent.  Now it's time to clean my classroom, set up for tomorrow, go to kickboxing, and then get home in time to see who gets kicked off American Idol.  :)

 


Closing

Tulsa Public Schools announced this week its plans for school consolidation and closures. Under almost every scenario my high school will be closed to all current students. My students will leave their neighborhood school and be forced to pick from among Tulsa's other failing schools. This news comes with a great deal of emotion much of which I'm still unable fully to process. What I have worked out is that in no way, shape, or form do my students benefit from the closing of Rogers. Let it be said, they are not currently receiving an education. To remain at Rogers will benefit no one. They, however, will receive no greater benefit from attending another school and may in fact suffer as a result. I currently teach a remedial class to juniors. My students have historically been on the lowest end of academic achievement. Consequently, they are perpetually on the verge of dropping out. I worry that my students who cannot make it 4 blocks to school stand little to no chance making it 4 miles. I worry that my students who seem to constantly be fighting with their peers at Rogers will face suspensions far greater when put in schools composed of rival students, sports teams, and gangs. I worry that my students, who I have pushed, pulled, and dragged towards graduation, won't have anyone to look out for them next year. I think that ultimately Tulsa has made a hard but right decision to close Rogers (if this actually goes through). After working there for a year I do not see improvement, or a real desire to improve. I also know that my students are getting a raw deal now and that won't change for next year.

 


Just saying.

Today, I found out I was nominated for my school's Teacher of the Year award. An hour later, I found out that I am not getting performance pay money because I missed a couple of the second-year-teacher trainings (which I would have gone to if I weren't coaching for my school) . Oh, the great ironies of teaching. PS. I've never been one to obsess about celebrities (I don't even have a favorite singer or actor or anything) but I am one to obsess about Teach Like A Champion (HAVE YOU READ IT YET?). All I have to say is that Doug Lemov himself actually just commented on my blog, and I feel like I've died and gone to blogger heaven. Thanks, Teach For Us :-)

 


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