updates for 06.09.2011
Another good question. So the first question, again, is how do I know that TFA values quantity over quality? First let me clarify that this means that TFA is more concerned with growing the corps than it is with making sure that the new teachers are effective. I know this is true because TFA has published it on their own website. In their growth plan they list out their organizational priorities and the first one is not that the CMs are effective in instructing the hundreds of thousands of kids that they have been entrusted to ensure. Instead, the first priority is 'Grow to scale while increasing the diversity of the corps.' Then for the second priority, thankfully, they have 'Maximize the impact of corps members on student achievement.' Now I have two problems with this priority list. First is that it is crazy for TFA to not make increasing the impact of CMs in the classroom number one. They say that the teaching part creates TFAs 'short term impact,' which, in my mind, really minimizes how important it is that CMs are as effective as possible. My other problem with their mixed up priorities is that even if it is more important for them to grow than it is for them to succeed, why would they admit that? I generally ask TFA to be more honest, but in this case their failure to air-brush the truth makes me think that they don't even understand why someone might question this ordering of priorities. Still, this didn't surprise me much. For years I've noticed that TFA does a much better job recruiting than it does training. I've recently been complaining that TFA keeps the data about their failures secret. Actually, in doing some research for my previous post, I found a document they produce that explains a lot of the data I wanted. For instance, it is revealed in here that the 'quit rate' that I had been speculating about was 11%, which means one in nine CMs don't complete the two years. Also in the same document they report the percentages of CMs who meet the different performance categories: significant gains (1.5 years of growth), solid gains (1 year of growth), limited gains (less than 1 year of growth) Describing how they measure who falls into which category, they have on the website this puzzling explanation "Teach For America measures the percentage of corps members who can point to evidence that they have moved their students forward at least a year and a half's worth of progress in a year's time." So the CMs don't actually have to 'prove' that they achieved these significant gains? They just have to "point to evidence." How do they do that? So the document claims that in 2008 the percent of first year CMs getting significant gains was 30%. In 2009 it was up to 39% and they projected 2010 to be 44%. For solid and significant gains they said 55% in 2008, 65% in 2009, and a projected 70% in 2010. I have to tell you that I don't buy the whole year and a half thing. They didn't have these metrics when I was a CM, but as one of the most successful teachers in the history of TFA, I'm sure that, in my prime, I would have scored high in whatever system they had. And as proud as I am of myself for having been such an amazing teacher, I can't say that my students progressed a year and a half in one year. And I think that's fine. That really wasn't my goal. I wanted to develop confidence and problem solving abilities and also to show kids that math is fun and beautiful. Doing all that might not get them a year and a half of gains, but to me it was much more important. I have to question their metric since if 40% of 2009 CMs got these 'significant gains,' then I'd say that something is wrong with the rating system. Not to be a bummer, but do you realize how difficult it is to be a first year teacher? Aside from the basics like teaching all your lessons for the first time while also trying to fit into the school community and learn basic things like how to fill out paperwork, it is completely physically and emotionally draining. Even with my 13 years of teaching experience, if I had to transfer to a new grade level and had to make all new lessons and go through the process of realizing that my lessons weren't as fine-tuned as I thought they were, I'd be completely worn out. Imagining a bell curve of effectiveness, I speculate that the number of rock stars should approximately equal the number of people who quit, or about 11%. If TFA wants to delude itself into thinking that 40% of new CMs are making a year and a half progress per year, then it makes sense that they don't make improving training their top priority. They've already accomplished it. I'm not the only person, though, who thinks that TFA CMs are not as effective as these numbers suggest. According to her new book, Wendy Kopp feels the same way. She says so in chapter four of 'A Chance To Make History' "our teachers are still not, on average, changing the trajectory of their students in a truly meaningful way. With a lot of hard work, we are getting better, but we are not where we need to be: The bell curve of effectiveness within our corps is still too wide." This, to me, seems to contradict the stats that 39% of first year 2009 CMs and 50% of second year 2009 CMs have gotten a year and a half in one year. So, I guess we need to fix the training model? Surprisingly, no. A page later she explains "And it would be misguided to assume that there’s an as-of-yet undiscovered route for teacher preparation or retaining excellent teachers that will prove to be the silver bullet. There is no evidence, for example, that longer preservice training, teacher residencies that place new teachers as apprentices for a year before they assume full-time teaching positions, or incentives for teachers to stay in the classroom longer produce significant impacts." In other words, nobody knows how to train teachers better than TFA has, so let's focus our attention on the bigger picture, and this is the main point of the book, getting transformational leaders. This is the new focus of TFA. It's a machine that takes in five thousand of the best and brightest, doesn't really know how to improve training, and then turns them into to a few dozen leaders, maybe even a President of the United States one day. Let me finish with some constructive ideas about improving training: 1) The 'Teaching as Leadership' framework has a lot of flaws. I think the biggest is how much it oversimplifies things and also how it doesn't properly prioritize the skills that a new teacher needs to be successful. For example, the very first tenet of Teaching As Leadership is that all effective teachers 'Set Big Goals.' Meanwhile, I'd say that this is horrible advice. Most teachers who quit also had set big goals. Setting Big (and unrealistic) Goals is not the self-fulfilling prophecy they say. Read my big critique of TAL to get this in more detail -- I did it much better there. 2) I'm not going to stop harping about TFA's refusal to give CMs a proper student teaching experience. Four CMs sharing a class that sometimes has only 10 kids in it? That's just negligent. Yet, they've been doing this since 1994 and I don't get any sense that this will change. Obviously it would be very expensive to do it right, but it is worth it. Maybe a smaller, but better trained corps would result in more effective teachers, and even more future leaders. But that conflicts with the top priority of growth.
It’s time to start journaling this adventure of mine, here in Peru, providing healthcare to the people of the Sacred Valley with classmates, doctors and nurses from Cleveland. Watched The Motorcycle Diaries tonight, which made me remember the importance of reflecting on one’s experience and how those impact your own outlook on life. I think I only have time tonight to write about today. I’ll hopefully have time to back track in future dates. Today we went to a school near us in Urubamba for orphans. After school, we followed some of the kids back to their orphanage in Munaychay. I was put on education today. We went from classroom to classroom, teaching the kids about how to prevent intestinal infections and about dental hygiene. It was Jim and Anna (two nursing students), myself, and Andrea (an M1 who can speak fluent Spanish and therefore her presence was much needed and appreciated….seriously, without her these lesson would have taken way too long and I probably wouldn’t have communicated everything I needed to nor correctly). For the intestinal infections lesson, I wrote a skit for Jim and Anna to perform about two friends who plan in the field and then do many things wrong that cause them to become sick. For the dental hygiene lesson, we had kids read off some placards for us, and then practiced brushing teeth with them. At the end, we gave each kid a new toothbrush and we gave their teachers a tube of toothpaste for the kids to use. First, I have to say that the kids are pretty darn cute. We taught 1st through 5th graders. Highlights of the day are the 1st grade teacher who fell asleep while we were doing our lesson, the rambunctious 2nd graders whose teacher left in the middle of our lesson and didn’t return until about 10 minutes after we had finished our lesson, thus resulting in potential chaos for said 10 minutes, and the 4th graders who sang us a song (I mean, a full on song) after we finished teaching them. At 1pm, school ended and the kids went back to their orphanages. After we had eaten lunch, we packed up our stuff and got back on a bus to go to one of the orphanages at Munaychay. This orphanage is situated in what could only be described as a picturesque, paradise-like mountain environment. It sits on a hilltop, and the area is surrounded by hilltops, with snow-covered mountains behind those. A little ironic given the loneliness and sadness you know these kids have to go through, deep down inside. Most of these kids had either been given up by their parents because they couldn’t afford to care for them, or because their home environments were deemed to be unsafe for them. The kids ranged from ages 3 to 18, 70 in total living in 7 different houses on the campus. We arrived to see all the kids who we hadn’t seen at the school. We gave them all prophylactic multivitamins and albendazole. Unfortunately, education didn’t really have a role at the orphanage, so I passed the time by doing what I do best…playing with kids. I started playing with a group of early elementary boys, letting them play doctor and hear my heart and lungs with my stethoscope. One boy in particular wanted to hear his own heart and lungs as well, so I obliged. Then they started wanting to wear my sunglasses…why not? I pulled out my camera to take one photo and of course all of them wanted to take photos too, hahaha. I had to remind them to share, as they started arguing over who would get to use my camera, and eventually I decided that play time was unfortunately over. In any case, the kids went and played in one of the vans and turned it into their own little fort before heading back to their rooms. Mrs. Bafna pointed out a kid who had already visited intake about 5 times (according to her), and asked me to get him away. So…I decided to ask him to take me on a tour of the orphanage. I mean, what else better did I have to do? Jefferson took me to his dorm first, casa 7. There are 7 casas at the orphanage in total, each with 10 kids. Each casa has a kitchen, an area for studying, a play room, bedrooms (multiple children per room), a room for the tia (dorm mom), and bathrooms. They were clean and solidly constructed. It was clear that this orphanage was doing a solid job of caring for these kids. It’s run by a German man, and there were several volunteers from Germany at the orphanage who help with the kids’ homework, teach classes or play sports with them. These guys were all straight out of high school. The boys were doing their mandatory service year, and the girls were just there because they wanted a break before college. I think I like the idea of having mandatory service and think the US should have such a thing. It could be military service, community service or global service like these kids. Jefferson was quite the tour guide. He took me to each one of the seven casas, and showed me each room. It seemed like he knew where every kid stayed, despite having only been there a couple months, which I would find out later. He was extremely polite, knocking on each door before entering, asking if a tia was present before he entered, and explaining everything to me. I was curious to know his story, but of course I found it inappropriate to ask him. I was curious to know why someone would give up a 12-year-old kid. After the tour, I wanted to give him something beyond the sunglasses he probably weaseled his way into obtaining =). I thought about giving him a granola bar, but thought it might be too much like charity. Instead, I just asked to take a photo with him. One normal, one with the sunglasses. Looking back, I probably should have given him something because all I did was take. I’ve thought a lot about adoption post TFA. Before, I couldn’t understand why someone would do it, but after hearing my own students’ stories, and again seeing these kids at the orphanage, I think I want to give a child a “better” life some time in the future. We’ll see. Anyone who adopts has my utmost respect, for sure. Well, it’s getting late, so I’ll end it here. Tomorrow we go to an orphanage for kids with special needs and I am again assigned to education. Hasta pronto.
Thursday marked the last day of my first year as a Teach For America corps member. My grades are in and my room is packed up into a single large cabinet, one paper box and two bags. This post is designed to serve as a brief reflection on my first year as well as a central location to links from my Induction, Institute and first year experience. I learned much throughout the year about teaching, school system and community politics, how wonderful (and how troublesome) students can be, things that work and things that don’t. Next year, I will likely be teaching a traditional math course in addition to a handful of Double Dose sections. This will be an interesting and challenging change, but I am confident that I will be able to lead my kids once again (there is a high probability that I will have most of the same kids next year) to academic success. In the meantime, feel free to check out any of the TFA posts you might have missed. Induction & Institute
Men are governed only by serving them; the rule is without exception - V. Cousin
Day 3 of Induction is done, and it simultaneously feels like we're just getting started and like we've been here forever. The days are long and structured and generally more useful than I initially assume they'll be, but it's hard to stay focused on what's going on with the specter of Institute looming over every workshop and lecture. Thus far, we haven't been given a lot of details on how it's going to go down; what we have gotten is a lot of "You'll see when you get there!"s along with raised eyebrows and knowing smiles. So we continue to break ice and share our feelings and keep our eyes locked on Sunday.
Despite all the icebreaking and introductions, it's hard to get to know people here-- I mean really get to know them. Every morning we file into the dining hall for breakfast in our business clothes, looking so much like walking, talking resumes. So professional, so accomplished. Even the group outings have the same toy-just-taken-out-of-the-box feel to them, despite the change of dress. We talk about where we went to school, old jobs, what we did there, what brought us to apply for and commit to TFA, how weird the interviews were, and what we do (and very occasionally someone is willing to venture what they don't) like about the program. The workshops have been asking us to talk about racial, cultural and class identity, so we'll talk about that when prompted, in the very safe and guarded way that you talk about those sort of things in that sort of setting.
So I was really surprised at lunch today when I sat down with a few corps members, including one girl I hadn't even met yet, and the conversation quickly got real. It started with one of us sharing some pretty heavy family stress, and I was amazed when the entire table jumped in right away with support, advice and tales of their own similar personal struggles: how everyone seated there had faced substance abuse, eating disorders, self-mutilation or suicide, a host of other heartaches in themselves and/or those they cared for, and had lived to tell about it. Thrived, even. No talking resumes here. Just real people who had been through the darkness only to come out on the other side of it and decide that what they really wanted to do for at least two years of their lives is bring some light to children who desperately need it. I was floored; that whole "humility" thing TFA has been asking us to think about this week? I thought I got it, but I appreciate it even more now.
These aren't the kind of things that TFA (or any employer, obviously) is going to ask you about during your interview, but that conversation gave me so much more faith in my fellow teachers-to-be than any student leadership position on a resume ever could, and in seeing myself in our shared stories, I found a bit more faith in myself, too. Because that darkness comes for all of us at some point in our lives, and goodness knows it will come for some of our students (let's get real, it may already have done so). And they'll need structure, and engaging lessons, and lots and lots of hard work to help them grow the skills that will help them combat that darkness, but they'll also need to count on someone who's been through it before. I will probably not ever be able to completely understand what some of my future students will have to face in their lives--what form the darkness will take for them-- but I think that on some primal level we can sense that all of us as humans have that common enemy, and that we can help each other fight it.
Or, you know, maybe I'm still working Stephen King out of my system.
Anywho, here is a picture of some geese chillin hard in the park where we picnicked today:I think it was too hot to fly so they decided to stand around and poop instead. Good plan.
Hey y'all! I thought I would start a blog so everyone can keep up with the madness that is about to become my life here in the Delta. I just started Induction, which is pretty much an orientation to life here in the Delta, the mission of TFA and how it relates to our role as educators, and many, many more related concepts. Today we focused a lot on how to build transformative classrooms, the need for education reform in the Delta, our personal leadership styles, and how to validate diverse perspectives in our classrooms by building an inclusive and tolerant culture. At the end of the day we began working on our vision, or our overarching personal idea from where we will inform our decisions, formulate engaging lessons for our students, and solve critical problems that prevent our students from attaining the most excellent education that they deserve. Tomorrow we will revise our vision (which will be an on-going process), but I'll post what I have so far... My vision is: To be a compassionate teacher who seeks justice for each member of my global community, empowers others to relentlessly pursue their goals, is tolerant of others' perspectives, and celebrates diversity. I'm cautiously excited to see what the next few weeks entail. I'm excited because I want to soak everything in to become the teacher that my 5th graders at Hazlehurst deserve, but I'm cautious because I hear we get about 4 hours of sleep per night (YIKES).
Today was my first challenging day (of many to follow I am sure) on my TFA journey. I was full of mixed emotions all day, and at times, I struggled with what I was bringing to the table when I was surrounded with so many talented young people. This post will investigate what I have learned so far and outline my reasons for joining this powerful movement (in case there are desperate days in the future when I forget my purpose). Reason #1: All children should be ensured an excellent education-- We live in the home of the brave and free, but our educational system fails millions of children each year. Somehow, someway, we need to find a solution to this huge problem, and I believe that Teach for America is a step in the right direction. I grew up in a middle class neighborhood in an average to above average school district. I attended a small liberal arts college (less than 1600 students) in a small town in PA. My experience with the educational gap and diversity on a first hand basis are limited, but I certainly feel that I am accepting of others. No matter what my experience level is with teaching students in poverty, I want to be the best teacher for them. I want every student in my future class to succeed and learn to be a life long learner. I will not settle for mere average math students. With urgency, humility, and high expectations, I will lead my students on a path towards the excellent education which every student in this great nation deserves. Reason #2- My passion to serve others- In 2008, I traveled to New Orleans, and I first discovered how wonderful it felt to serve others. Due to my limited experience with diversity, I never truly understood how privileged I am as an individual. I thought that I was an average American, but through much exploration today, I discovered how privileged I actually am. Privilege is so much more than the salary that you take home at the end of every year. It is about the lifestyle you can live, the day to day stress, and the supports with which you have to work. Thanks to my new exploration of self which I am still building on, I realize how important it is for me to share my resporses with those less fortunate. I am ready to set out and serve the community of Charlotte in more ways than one. I will not merely teach, I will invest in my students and their families in order to serve the community as a whole. Reason #3- A Personal Journey- Although this was definitely not the main reason for my joining, it is a secondary reason. Through this experience, I am about to strengthen not only my students, but myself as an individual. At the end of my two year contract, I will leave the corps as a better teacher, a better leader, a better citizen, a better friend, and a better neighbor to my future community. I am not sure where I will end up after my journey with TFA, but I am certain that I will be a fervent fighter to end educational injustice for my entire lifetime. I will leave the corps with a deep understanding of the educational system and go on to accomplish great things as a teacher, administrator, or beyond. What lies ahead is limitless, so I must allow the challenge of this journey to challenge my thinking in order to strengthen my personal journey and the lives of my students.
As the number of days left between me and Baltimore are drastically decreasing, my stress levels are significantly increasing. How will all of my clothes fit into my suitcase? Do I really need all of things? Should I buy sheets here or wait until I get there? Where will I live when I get there? What AM I doing? So it's easier to break it down into tiny steps. My focus right now is on Saturday: the Biology Content Praxis II exam. I'm finally feeling comfortable about the exam. My practice test scores have gone from 65% to 85% over the last six weeks, and I only need about a 70% to pass the test. I can DO this! (but I could still use your thoughts when Saturday rolls around. I am, after all, still an English major at heart). When that's done (and I've finished cleaning my apartment in Lawrence), it will be time to focus on the pre-work I need to get done for Induction and Institute. It's a hefty amount, probably about 35 hours worth, but it shouldn't be a problem. I think (I haven't exactly looked at it yet) that it's mostly focused around the pedagogy of the job, and since I majored in education, this shouldn't be as big of a stretch as biology has been. I'm very excited for Institute. I've received lots of information in the last week about what will happen when I get there, including interviewing with district principals and dinners with alumni and current corps members. I've applied for the Johns Hopkins School of Education. I've sent in every single piece of required paperwork. I've printed every informational piece of paper I've come across and organized them in a three-ring binder... that may not have been necessary, but I feel better after doing it. I'm reading about Inductions that have started in other regions and can't wait to share my experiences with others as well. I can do this. I'm ready. Now I just have to wait.
The one word I'd use to describe my TFA experience so far is "intense". We had a LONG day today, with sessions from 8:30-6:30 with a half hour break for lunch. They were all interesting and mostly discussion-based, but after awhile, it gets to you. And one thing I learned for tomorrow: when you have 10 hours of sessions with a half-hour break for lunch, BRING SNACKS. I was really hungry for most of the day, which didn't help, and I'm going to learn from that experience for sure. The sessions were on everything from diversity to authentic leadership to creating a vision for yourself and your classroom. A lot of discussion, a lot of reflection. I've got a running Walmart list, and I'm trying to limit my trips to about once a week, just so I don't go every day and spend a ton of money. Wearing "business casual" clothes all the time still feels like playing dress-up, but I'm sure it'll become more natural after awhile. Everything about TFA doesn't quite feel real yet. TFA takes our training very seriously, which is reassuring and a little bit daunting. It's awesome that there are so many people on this campus that are incredibly dedicated to making sure we succeed. Tonight my task is to relax, go to bed earlier than I did last night, finish my packet from today, and iron my suit for our "Hiring Fair" tomorrow morning. Hopefully I'll get a job!
(I wrote this yesterday) Day one. What to say? I checked out of my hotel, drove over to Delta State, and after a few misdirections and completely illegal U-turns, I found the building we were supposed to check in at. I went in and there were stations set up, each with different folders or envelopes of papers that were handed out. I got my parking pass, “Okra Kard”, and room key, and, after more illegal U-turns and misdirections, found my residence hall. The dorms are sort-of suite style, with two rooms sharing a bathroom, so four people to a suite. Not too shabby! My room is a lot better than I thought it’d be, but it still reminds me just a little bit of a prison cell – I’ll have to get some rugs or wall-hangings or something to fix that. It took me a good half hour to unload my car (with the help of some awesome 2010 CMs!), and another two hours to unpack everything and arrange it to my satisfaction. It was pretty overwhelming at first (HOW did I get so much stuff?!), but I chipped away at it and it’s nice to have some sort of order to my possessions after a week on the road. After another trip to Walmart and a wonderful shower, I went to dinner with one of my suitemates and two of her friends, and it was actually really good! There was a salad bar and soft-serve ice cream, and some decent hot food choices. I’ll have to stay away from the soda machine, but other than that I think I’ll be able to eat healthy this summer. The program tonight was only about an hour long, and it was mostly “inspiration” and “introduction”. After a really long day, it was good to hear about the awesome program that I’m going to be a part of, but at the same time I have some specific logistical questions that I’d want answered before the more fluffy, entertaining stuff. But I’m still really glad that we just had a short session today, because otherwise I’m not sure if I’d have been able to stay awake. A lot of the introductions tonight were the Delta staff members who came from all over the country, and it was cool to hear them say what they loved about the Delta. They felt that this was home, and I hope to feel that way someday. It feels like a bit of a stretch right now, but I look forward to feeling that way myself. I do have to remind myself, though, that this is only the first day. I don’t have to be an amazing teacher today. I don’t even have to be a teacher today. It’s just the first day of Induction, and I really need to take this one day at a time. My roommate still hasn’t arrived, and maybe it’s a good thing. I’m not sure. I feel kind of lonely and bereft, and I feel like I’m missing an important social link that gets made at things like this. This is very much like camp or college orientation, where you meet a few people and then cling to them. I'm sure we'll all meet more people tomorrow. We have a packed day tomorrow, with sessions scheduled in 10-minute increments from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm. They sound interesting and fun, but I’m sure I’ll be exhausted by the end of the day. My task tonight is to relax and prepare myself for tomorrow.
One day, I will write a biographical post that includes a heartfelt message about why I joined the corps, an explanation of why I decided to blog about my experience, and the kind of content you can expect from me... but the first Wednesday of Institute is not that day.
Let me be clear here, this post is in no way anti-TFA or anti-Institute, but I am acknowledging and reflecting on the fact that Institute thus far has been incredibly difficult. The rationale, however, is that we are receiving the training and preparation necessary to lead our students and transform their lives. I came in as a graduate with a degree in English and a license in teaching it, so, at first, I will admit I had my skepticism. There is no doubt that my colleagues who have not previously been in a classroom can (and need to) learn every bit of this. But I myself feel as though I am learning a lot of new material, too... and I am grateful for it. I think it is making me a stronger teacher and a stronger person. Everyone can learn from this experience. Unfortunately, as I put it earlier... Patience is tested. Sleep stolen. And confidence challenged. Failure is an expectation and struggle is the norm. However, I was just speaking to a friend about the nature of this beast. It really is a bootcamp for teachers. "When soldiers enter bootcamp, they hate it, but they come out jacked." Of course, I clarified, we wouldn't come out of Institute particularly buff, but mentally, we'd be flexing like superheroes. Most of my struggle has come with the paperwork and the curriculum; I feel almost at a disadvantage here because I have years of experience with lesson planning and assessment and data...but none of it has ever looked anything like this. I find myself often very confused and almost defeated in how lost I feel. I always come around to the fact that I can study it later, pick it up with experience. We'll see. My collaborating teacher (with whom I'll be teaching 8th grade reading) is fantastic and I don't think I could have asked for a better partner. I could, however, ask for a better text to work with. We're teaching our 8th graders about non-fiction and I have a 30 page book on Tsunamis that basically reads like a bunch of torn out pages from that morbidly dry Science textbook from your worst memories of middle school. We will make it work. We have no choice. This is far from my comfort zone. In an idealistic world, I'd be teaching some form of literature to my students, enmeshing them into the vivid details and wonderful storytelling of a masterpiece. Instead, I am teaching them how to determine the main idea in a non-fiction book. Not easy. However, extremely important if you think about it. That is a major skill to have; it is the framework for understanding text. Perhaps my greatest aspiration as an educator is to arm my students with real-world weapons they can use to fight for their opportunities. This skill is certainly one of them; to be able to read confidently, to determine what's what, and to formulate articulate thoughts, ideas, and opinions regarding that text. We will make it work. We are also responsible for equipping them with the skills necessary to pass the 8th grade standardized test. No pressure... right. To begin, we finally got to meet our students today, running diagnostic tests to see where their reading levels were. Most 8th graders were somewhere between a 3rd and 5th grade reading level. The first student I took to test was a boy who caught my eye, he matched his blue nikes with a Superman t-shirt. He was friendly and incredibly easygoing with me, but it didn't take long for me to notice that he was battling a major speech impediment. From our introductory conversation to the actual diagnostic test, this student struggled immensely on every single word that he tried to get out of his mouth. He'd snap his fingers to help prompt and push himself. It took him over 5 minutes to read from a sample paragraph for fluency purposes. However, with each word he struggled with (literally EACH word on that paper), he persevered. He managed to piece every word together, and although it didn't flow together with ease, I was unspeakably touched by this boy's ability to fight and scrap. He read every word and he got every word right. When it came time for comprehension, he was able to tell me the ins and outs of every aspect of that book. I dropped him off in his classroom after I told him how proud I was of his efforts. I will have to test him again because the comprehension did not challenge him. The kid is brilliant. I was so moved by this boy's effort and focus that tears welled up in my eyes. I can't even imagine how difficult it must be, how embarrassing it must have been at one point (or perhaps still is at some points), to struggle with that speech impediment. People judge. They judge quickly. But after 5 minutes, I was able to see that not only was he one of the most dogged readers I've ever met, he was simply brilliant. I then got to thinking about the achievement gap and how ripped off kids are, especially kids from the areas we're trying to help. I also thought about how much it must suck to have to battle that each day, with strangers making assumptions about you and your ability. What happens when he goes to apply for jobs in the future? He will get the job. Because we will help him, day by day. To further develop his already impressive reading skills. To improve his fluency and confidence with speaking. To attain the education he DESERVES and is ENTITLED TO. So, yes, this Institute is crazy. I have gotten maybe 15 hours of sleep in the last five days. Deadlines loom in every angle and I often have to get out of my chair and walk around the room to keep myself motivated during some of the sessions, simply because they're so long and the information is so massive. I miss my friends. I crave the lax life, possibly lounging poolside or cooking in my friend's kitchen. But that can wait. We have VERY important work to do. And as long as I get to keep meeting kids that inspire the hell out of me, I'll happily walk around grumpy, tired, and intellectually challenged. Because the moment I see these kids, talk with them, and see what they're capable of, it all comes back together for me... This is the beginning of Institute. It is (the temporary) ending of a normal sleep cycle. But as long as my students can go to sleep each night even just a bit smarter and more confident than they were the night before, I'll continue to roll with the punches and fight for them. Our children are worth fighting for.
In the last few weeks, I’ve encountered a number of people who ask about Teach for America as an organization. Although my blogs might reflect negativity toward teaching and TFA, this is not the sentiment I intended. Rather, in my eyes, TFA serves its communities in a way that far outweighs its mission to allow all children access to high-quality education (a mission most admirable). TFA recruits some of the most accomplished college graduates in the country, people who have shown responsibility and resolve in their lives. These energetic people are placed around the country in its most underserved communities. In this respect, TFA brings diverse backgrounds to areas in which homogeneity is the norm. At my school, the biggest disservice to our students is the lack of resources for out-of-state opportunities post-high school. NOTE: I could go on for hours about the incompetency at my school, the lack of communication between administrators and teachers, the inability to plan ahead, and the implicit expectation for teachers to bite off more responsibility than is listed in their contract, but this issue is one that I find most detrimental to Clarendon’s most motivated kids. I began my College Club to address this void. The college counselor has endless supplies for in-state schools. Although an Arkansas college is better than no college, I think that our most driven students, those who could represent a depressingly underrepresented portion of the country in an Ivy League or other top-rated university, are not given the chance. I agree that we must know how to improve classes and curricula for all students, regardless of skill or reading level. However, I don’t want to see Clarendon’s best and brightest settle for less than their potential. Kristina is one of those students who needs this attention. She has a 4.0 GPA, a difficult family life, and she works in her spare time to earn extra spending cash. She’s a star in my Spanish class; after a month of class, she was asking her Spanish-speaking customers which flavor of ice cream they wanted by means of circumlocution. And as one of the 8 members of the Clarendon College Club, she has opened up and expressed her passions for a number of topics. On her brag sheet, Kristina wrote that she’s most proud of her “artwork.” Plenty of students have boasted about their “art,” and without rejecting their claims, I’ve passively congratulated them, then quickly forgotten about it. Kristina revealed that she has a portfolio from her AP Studio Art class, and I started to notice her sketches – Tim Burton-esque owls and mannequins – in the margins of her Spanish worksheets. I told her to bring her art to our following Club meeting. Working with Photoshop, Kristina has produced some of the most interesting photography I’ve seen from a student. I researched summer programs for fine arts in the surrounding states: Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee, and Louisiana. She didn’t know these types of programs existed. Opening up my College Club’s eyes to the thousands of colleges and universities in this country that could best focus their studies has been a rewarding experience. And this is why TFA is a valuable organization. These students would not be exposed to different opportunities available to them. Although tuition and family pressures are enough to turn these students away from the programs and colleges that could help them the most to achieve their full potential, TFA corps members bring diversity to regions that need to see it the most. A friend asked me yesterday, “Even if you show them these opportunities, aren’t there systemic issues, social ills and economic concerns, that must be addressed before anything substantial can happen?” And the answer, if I didn’t give it to her then, is a resounding yes. But in my classroom, social ills can’t bother me. Instead, I must focus on what I can influence. And for the next two months, my focus will be on Kristina and her fellow Club members.
I just emptied out the bag I've been bringing to work for most of the year. I found two pieces of candy, one sock, a container of toothpicks, a Rubix Cube, a pair of earrings, two dice, a measuring tape, thirty-five confiscated Sharpies, three forks, a coffee receipt, two Mexican fast food receipts, a large handful of exit tickets, and eight thank-you cards. That sums up my year pretty nicely. AND I just pulled out a pink post-it note with this quote: "It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it." - Jacob Bronowski
Thank goodness I taught at a high school last summer, because the DRA seems crazy! Okay, not really crazy, but just complicated. Lots of bits and pieces to remember, lots of kids, lots of time. And I'm sure the logistics of testing and the system has been reworked over and over to be the most efficient it can be every year, but there's only so much that can be done about how long it takes a student to read a book, you know? Still, if any of you institute vets out there have any suggestions on how to make it work better, let me know!!! I'm constantly increasing my effectiveness here... school-operations-managing as leadership! (SOMAL?) Anyway, mad props to my reading collabs at Young! They rocked it this morning with their first DRA administration, and I know they will only get better from here. No one complained that they had to walk a freaking marathon to get to the classrooms to pick up students; no one said one negative thing about the students or the systems; everyone I heard was making personal connections with the students already; everyone was asking questions (which is totally a good thing when you have a task to learn on the fly!) and making sure they didn't mess it up for the students. I could go on and on. I was so, so pleased that there were no major kinks, and it made me feel so good that the summer school students here will get four weeks with our corps members who are already acting like they were made to be teachers.
Well...this is a shameless advertisement for an awesome TFA job that I would love to see have an amazing person fill. The online content communities are looking for a leader for Geometry. I loved leading my community this year and felt like I was an important part of pushing the organization forward in providing tailored, high quality resources to new teachers. It was a great job that forced me to think, reflect and share about how to teach and share the practice. If you are interested applications are due ASAP..... let me know at cameron "dot" byerley "at" gmail and I'll let you know how to apply!
After two grueling nights of summer league coaching (one where I taught two teams at once) what I just can't comprehend is why my girls aren't trying. They seem to improve every practice, but I always sense that they don't really want this. I can deal with low skill level, but it is the most frustrating thing in the world to deal with girls who aren't trying. One bad play and the entire team gives up. I mean, my high school team had a similar skill level, but we tried. They complain about having to play freshman teams (when most of my girls are sophomores) which we all know we can defeat, and yet they are defeated by their attitude. I can teach skill, but how do I teach desire? Sorry for the rant, but it hurts so bad to watch my girls loose to teams that are worse then them, not because skill but because attitude. Anyways, I won't coach again until late July or early August. Hopefully institute will help me correct anything I may be doing wrong and teach me how to instill desire. Speaking of Institute today is the first day of Induction! I am leaving in just over an hour. I am trying to finish pre-institute work, get ready, and double check my packing (space bags rock by the way!). I am really excited and nervous to start. I can not believe this day is actually here after mentally preparing for starting TFA in November. I have a feeling it is going to be a great and intense summer.
Ironically, I've spent more time thinking about high school than I've spent thinking about college since I graduated 3 weeks ago. It probably has to do with the fact that I came home days after all of the pomp and circumstance and was re-immersed in my parent's house with my childhood friends and with all of the trappings of the first 18 years of my life. I find myself making endless trips to the ice cream parlor we went to before we were old enough to drink coffee and the coffee shops we went to before we were old enough to drink anything else; in the end it all seems surreal and other worldly. In the midst of this nostalgia, there's always the corner of my mind that's thinking about the weeks ahead. As I relive my middle- and high-school years, I remember that there's an unknown fleet of pre-teens somewhere in the cities of Chicago and St. Louis who will soon be "my kids." Induction is looming and Institute is just around the corner. I'm as ready as I can be to leave middle school high school college familiarity and throw myself in.
It's been a long day. A lot of sitting, a lot of listening, and a ton of socializing...it gets exhausting. I finally just stopped asking people where they were from/what their placement was/what college they went to and started asking about their favorite bands. It's a refreshing change of pace after discussing TFA's core values for 13 hours. But, honestly, induction so far has made me realize just excited I am to start teaching. Talking about it only makes me want to start more...I know there will be major frustrations and obstacles starting from day one, but I just want to jump on in NOW. And I might love Tulsa. I already have clicked with many of my fellow corps members, which is a great feeling. I know we will get through institute together, and I know we'll find ways of balancing work with some social life for the next two years here in the 918. The older corps members are really cool, too, and many have gone far beyond the call of duty to comfort me about housing, about teaching science, etc. When they say we can call them anytime, I can tell they mean it. I'm excited to have some more substantial stuff for this blog come institute... get pumped! haha
"We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." - Barack Obama Anyone who knows me well knows that I feel something like "buyer's remorse" every time I make any decision, monetary or otherwise. I've changed high schools, I've changed colleges, and I've changed career paths, and with every new decision, I'm left with the suspicion that I made the wrong choice. Usually, this suspicion does not turn out to be completely right--in most cases, these changes were for the better. At the same time, the regret is not entirely unfounded. With all of these decisions, I've discovered the nagging question not to be whether or not I made the right choice, but a question much bigger and scarier to face up to: "so what?" When I decided to transfer to OSU from Emerson, for instance, I had to ask myself, "So what? How are you going to make this opportunity matter?" I don't have a great track record of making things matter. The peak of my involvement at Emerson came in my brief stint as editor-in-chief of WERS, Emerson's student-run radio station. So what? At OSU, my extracurricular involvement was nonexistent; instead, I focused on academics. I finished with a 4.0, honors, research distinction, and a 65 page thesis on narrative theory. So what? How does any of this matter? Two days into TFA Induction in Nashville, that question has subsided. For arguably the first time in my life, I am 100% certain not only that I've made the right decision, but that I've made a decision that matters. For now, I'm not going to go into big spiel on why TFA matters, or why their mission resonates with me, or why I think this is going to be the hardest/most important thing I've ever done. I'm sure that will all come out in future blog posts. Instead, I just want to mention what I anticipate being one of my biggest obstacles as a techer: cynicism. Having just finished studying English for four years, I've been trained to be critical, skeptical, and cynical. Over the past few years, nothing has escaped my skeptical eye, whether it be spiritual or political or cultural in nature. But what I'm beginning to realize is that this cynicism is a privilege, something that can only exist in college classrooms among highly educated people who can look with upturned noses at the rest of the world. Even "thinking critically" is a sort of luxury. To think critically about something, you need to have a certain distance from it. You can't think critically about something if you're immersed in it. To move away from these abstractions and toward my actual point, it would be easy to come into TFA skeptical of their philosophy and practices. It would be easy to wonder why the program has so many critics, or to question the efficacy of teaching to a test, or to challenge TFA's unwavering belief in the success of all students to succeed. And to be sure, skepticism is healthy, and the program cannot grow if we do not engage honestly with its philosophy and practices. But for the students attending the schools we will be teaching at, the achievement gap is their reality. It's inescapable. If I'm going to help them achieve, I need to believe in my ability to do so, in TFA's ability to show me how, and most importantly, in the students' ability to achieve. And although these beliefs will come under siege from skeptics, critics, and those who our culture has instilled with low expectations of my students, I must stay true to them, suppressing that skeptical voice in my own head, or else the battle is already lost. There is no more time for cynicism. I can't afford it. I'll close with a quote that I have been thinking about all day. "All I ask of you is one thing: please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism--it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen." - Conan O'Brien
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