updates for 06.15.2011
As per last night's decision to focus on the details as well as the highs and lows of Institute... here we go. Low Point? Feeling left behind for most of the morning and afternoon. Think of it like this. TFA is one of the most selective programs in the country. Picture how intelligent everybody is in this place. It's daunting. Now think about how hard we can all be pushed. Now picture the grand scale of the work Teach For America is trying to get done--a day when all children in America have the chance for an equal education, and picture how Teach For America has spent twenty years continually improving their methods, in order to push each corps as far as they can possibly go in order to meet that lofty goal. TFA has our indoctrination down to a science. Picture a room full of exhausted over achievers, pushed to their absolute limit, working to solve educational inequality in America. It's a powerful and scary thought. I feel like most of us aren't used to being challenged 100% of the time every single day, but two days in we are holding on relatively well. Personally, I am used to learning concrete facts in school (eg. William the Bastard crossed the English Channel in 1096 yadda yadda yadda). Thinking concretely about things like literacy and vision planning in an immense challenge for a visual learner like me. We spent nine hours straight learning the specifics of how to craft a lesson plan (from objective to key point to assessment to exemplar student response to literacy integration), and honestly I had the sensation that I was constantly being pushed off of a cliff. I had zero time to go to the bathroom, much less consolidate the information. It was rough. An hour more of that and I would have lost it. Institute is intense, and it requires the courage to ask questions, the humility to ask for help, and the introspective capabilities to sound out your fears and weaknesses... so that you may plough past them, to become a badass teacher. And forunately the day did not end there. High Point? Feeling it all synthesize in my brainz. Of course TFA had it in control all along. I spent from 7am to 2:30pm *this close* to standing up in the middle of session and shouting SLOW DOWN FOR THE LOVE OF GOD! At the very end of the day, however, we finally sat down in our CMA groups and began to process and utilize all of the information we had encountered so far. And thus did Rachael begin to write her first lesson plan. And it was good. Elated at my initial success and bolstered by a string of compliments, I got on the bus and had a great and terrible conversation about the Vietnam war with a CM I'd never met before: a former veteran, dentist, and dental pedagogy professor my dad's age who just sold his business and joined Teach For America. TFA: it takes all kinds. Home. Email. Dinner. Homework. Bed. That's how it goes on week one. So far, so good.
So this is the first post where I title : What I teach for. Pretty certain throughout my two years I'll find a new "What I teach for" weekly.. but I'll try to keep this title minimal. :) Last Thursday my talker who I will call my helper now was a mess. She was a complete mess. Poor thing kept talking and I pretty much lost control of my classroom. Yesterday I made a seating chart and she was the main reason I did it. Yesterday, she was better than Thursday but I think that was because she earned all of her checks for bad behavior within the first five minutes and I told her that the next check she got would send her to the office. I gave her the job of picking up pencils and she loved it. She thrived. After class yesterday I pulled her and two of my other kids - my sleeper and my caller-outer out of the line to talk with them about behavior issues. I told all three of them that my big goal for them the next day was to have 0 checks on my discipline chart. Today my helper came in completely silent, grabbed her folder, a pencil, sat in her assigned seat and started the Do Now. WOW! I was floored. She did AMAZING. Completely silent. She actually was one of two who made a 100% on her assessment today. PHENOMENAL CHANGE! She was a true leader in my classroom today. She made less than a 40% on her pre-assessment but TFA thinks that we can bring her score up to 80%. I believe it. I know she can do it. But, I also know that she is capable of so much more than just being promoted to the eighth grade. She is what I teach for today. Tomorrow I am sure someone else will steal my heart, but right now my helper has it. She took it and maybe she'll keep it forever, go to college, and become the doctor she wants to be. :) In T-5 hours I have to be awake and getting ready - G-NIGHT! In the Words of Journey, Don't Stop Believin'
June 11, 2011 I'm in the Andes Mountains in Peru for a medical trip with people from my school. Crazines. I'm waiting on a train to go up to Machu Picchu now...gonna meet up with Trisha and Nikki from Duke. Perfect time to catch up on my experiences thus far, right? Left the morning of June 4 from DC. Flew to San Salvador, then to Lima, where I arrived at 8:30pm. My next flight to Cusco was at 5:40am...yeah. The plan was to meet Aki & Satoko at the airport's food court while waiting for the same 5:40am flight. Problem was that I had to go through customs for my international arrival and t hereby exit the airport. Went to check in to my flight, but the ticket counter was closed...so I waited outside customs, hoping to spot out Aki who'd land at 9:30. Train's here, hope Nikki and Trisha arrive soon... June 12, 2011 Back at the train station to return to Ollantay tambo from Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu. It...was...amazing. Anyway, back to June 4. Just when I was reaching for moneyt o go exchange, I see Aki walking past me, exiting customs. I shout out her name and she had the same question of how to get to the food court. Turns out the food court is before security, so we sat and talked while waiting for Satoko. Satoko eventually came and we all passed the time getting to know one another, eating McDonald's (the menu was the same and chicken nuggets tasted the same...the sauce even said "Made in USA"...) and watching the night crew clean the floor. Aki was particularly amused by the technique of the floor cleaning. One person at a cafe was even wiping the ceiling... The Lima airport is definitely nice and clean...I can attest to it...and the stores never close. While other travelers slept, we stayed up. The time passed pretty quickly, actually, and at 3:40am we went to check in for our flight. While in line, we ran into the Bafna family (doc, his wife and their 12 and 15 year old kids) who had stayed the "night" across the street in a hotel. Once on the plane (we had to be bussed from the gate to the plane), the three of us quickly passed out, even though it was a short hour plane ride to Cusco. Upon landing in Cusco, the cold temps were quite apparnet. We were supposed to be picked up by a taxi, but the guy was nowhere to be found. Finally, one taxi driver mentioned that the airport was closed today due to the election, which made Mrs. Bafna to think to look outisde the airport parking lot for our driver. Lo and behold, there was a guy with a sign saying " Cleveland Clinic, Kevin Sang"...close enough. Onto Urubamba we drove. Everywhere we saw raffiti on walls pushing for one presidential candidate or the other. Today was the runoff election between the communist Ollanta and the daughter of the former president who committed mass murders...it kinda felt like a lesser of two evils thing to me... After an hour, we arrived at our gorgeous hotel, La Quinta Eco. The staff is amazing as I'd come to find out. We were in time for breakfast and to see some familiar faces out as they left for the airport. I settled into my room with 4 other classmates and only 3 beds, sent my mom an email to assure her that I'd arrived, and bought my train ticket to Machu Picchu. As a group, we went to lunch where I had some roasted chicken and some Coke to stay awake. It was this careful balance I had to maintain between staying awake and not dehydrating myself due to the altitude (I measured my pulse oxygen content at night and it was about 87 mmHg...enough to be deemed worthy of requiring oxygen support...). At 6pm we had an orientation meeting for us newbies and learned the schedule of where we'd be going for the week. Then it was dinner. The hotel provides us with breakfast, lunch and dinner every weekday. It's all delicious. The lunch they drive to wherever our clinic is located. Seriously...awesome. Only thing left was to shower (finally) and go to bed. I had a solid food baby due to both the food, some constipation and possibly the decreased pressure at our altitude. I actually for once thought I look a little fat in the mirror =). TMI? Sorry. Unfortunately I had to take a cold shower because the hot water is only on at certain hours of the night...=/. --- The next morning, Mon June 6, I awoke to my bedmate, clawing my eye on accident...hahaha. Slept a bit more until the usual intended wake up time of 7am. For breakfast, we had the standard eggs, ham/sausage, bread, strawberry or peach yogurt, quinoa/granola mix and my papaya/orange juice mix. Yeah, be jealous. We walked about 10 min to the bus station to get to Lamay. Yay public transportation. El Puesto de Salud en Lamay is essentially our clinical base while we're here. We go there every Monday and Friday to see patients. Today I was assigned to shadow Dr. Bafna, who's an ophthalmologist. We paired up with the glasses station because, well, it just makes sense. We saw some people with cataracts, but for the most part, people just needed glasses or had dry eyes. For cataracts, we could only refer them to surgery. Unfortunately, cataract surgery isn't done in the region, so these people have to wait until next May when some volunteer docs come through to do this surgery. For dry eye, Mrs. Bafna made packets with a cut up cloth and instructions on how to dampen the cloth to put over the eyes for 5 min to help relieve dry eye. Yes, the poor man's version of eye drops, essentially. For glasses, Dr. Bafna used a cool device known as a reflexometer, I think, to help guess a persons' prescription before using an eye chart. It made things much more efficient. At one point we were called to do an ophthalmic exam on a guy who had fallen 12 feet while on the job and hit his head. The concern was an epidural hematoma (bleding just underneath the skull and outside the brain), which can present with a lucid interval in which a person is conscious before crashing. The fact that the guy vomited while in clinic made it that much more concerning as well. Dr. Bafna ruled out papilledema (which occurs due to increased cranial pressure from something like internal bleeding). We still felt that he needed a CT scan, but the man refused. The CT would require him to go to the hospital in Cusco. He couldn't pay, so he didn't want to go. So...the decision was to ask him to wait 2-3 hours to see if anything changed. When it didn't, he left with some ibuprofen. The docs suspected the vomiting might be a side effect of the tramadol he was given soon after the fall (about three hours before he came to the clinic). The rest of the night was pretty uneventful. Had a didactic/lecture on hypothermia from Dr. Fike, ate dinner, and prepped for the next day.
Waking up at 5am has never been easy for me. Even back when I was a swimmer, forcing myself to climb out of bed in the way-too-early morning was challenging. After living on "college time" for the last four years, when I was more likely to be going to sleep at 5am than waking up at 5am, this has become a serious struggle. In order to overcome my morning blues, I put together a pump-up playlist that reflects the main values of Institute summer school on the bus to Institute. These values are ZEST, GRIT, PARTNERSHIP, COMMUNITY, and URGENCY. The playlist lasts almost exactly as long as it takes to get to my school in the morning (give or take a few minutes depending on tractor traffic), and builds from just-woke-up happy music to I'M GOING TO KICK TODAY'S BUTT music. I have a bunch more for Zest and Urgency than for the other values, but that's because those are the ones I need to focus on the most! So, without further ado, here is my "To School" playlist:
One of the great things about keeping a blog or really any kind of journal is that I can give myself a pep-talk but disguise it "social-networking" or "self-expression." Here's today's pep-talk... err I mean blog post. Throughout induction and institute, my peers and I have had a running joke about who is and who isn't "drinking the kool-aid." You know, the TFA kool-aid. Embodying the core values, the power of the self fulfilling prophecy, the urgency of our community's need, etc. It seems like everyone on staff is ready to dish out the kool-aid 24/7. Institute and induction are basically an all-you-can-drink kool-aid fest. [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="292" caption=""Ohhh Yeah""][/caption] That's all fine by me, because I am an avid kool-aid drinker myself and have been ever since being taught by a CM alum in the ninth grade. So, I've really liked being around other drinkers of the kool-aid (DOTKA, for short). However, I recognize that for many of fellow 2011s, it was a little too much kool-aid. Now that teaching has begun, I realize that calling these beliefs "kool-aid" does not nearly do justice to how nutritious they are. Mid-way through the first week of lessons, I have started to notice two camps amongst my 2011 cohort: those who are discouraged, and those who are determined. Admittedly, there will likely be some flip-flopping over the course of institute. Furthermore, there have been times where I myself have felt both discouraged AND determined. But the whole point of this post is that it seems to me as if all those who could be grouped into the "determined" category... are drinkers of the kool-aid (DOTKA's). Not that DOTKA's have necessarily been more successful. I certainly have not. It's just that there's something in that kool-aid that makes you keep going (high fructose corn syrup?). I think my lesson today is a good example of that. I struggle to envision a way in which my first day of teaching at institute could have gone worse. Two of my students were crying by the end of class, I had to separate 2 separate groups of students for hitting each other, and only got 2 of my 11 students master the day's objective. I failed my kids in almost every way. But, even though I teared up at least three times (and counting?) today, I'm still drinking the kool-aid. I've heard that if you're stuck on a desert island, you can sustain yourself on only watermelon for upwards of 3 weeks. If institute is a desert island (and here in ATL it's definitely hot enough to be) then the kool-aid is my watermelon. The kool-aid gives me the motivation and the tools to persevere, so I'll keep drinking it til my lips turn blue. To all my fellow DOTKA's- Cheers.
It is utterly AMAZING how time passes. I remember back in January when I got the news that I had been accepted into TFA, it seemed like June 20th would never, ever come. Now it's (almost) here. In between January and now, a lot happened to me. I finished my thesis and all of my classes, secured valedictorian and gave the commencement speech/graduated, took a *long* road trip with my best friend from Massachusetts to Knoxville to DC, and so many other things, large and small. This has been a very emotional few weeks for me, mostly because I really loved my college and was exceptionally sad to say goodbye to it. I'm still kind of trying to get used to the idea that I'm not going back in the fall, and everyone keeps reminding me that I'm moving on to bigger and better things. Oh, AND I just got my wisdom teeth out last week, something that sooo needed to happen. That kinda put me out of commission for a few days so I've had a lot of deep introspection time. I'm about healed by now, but I have two huge bruises on my face that left me looking like I just lost a fight. I hope they're gone by induction. Of course, all of this transitioning hasn't been easy. For one thing, I still don't have an apartment and I have to say that searching for one has been very frustrating. I lived on campus at college for all four years, so I've actually never had to do this before. My brother and I are planning to live together in Baltimore together and have isolated a neighborhood we definitely want to live in. Beyond that, it's been incredibly difficult to find a suitable place, and it's funny because we live in DC and thus have the ability to go and visit/sign a lease at virtually any time. I don't think we are going to find a place before induction, which starts next Tuesday. Unfortunately, for the Baltimore corps, institute starts immediately after induction and so my timeframe is somewhat restrictive. He may have to choose an apartment without me while I am at institute. Another worry has been the fact that I am currently unplaced. Although the TFA staff has consistently told us not to worry about it yet, it's still kind of alarming, especially after we received an e-mail today from Baltcorps telling us that, due to budget cuts, there's a decent chance that the 65% of us who are still unhired will not be hired in the content areas we've been assigned, and may need to take additional Praxis tests/be extremely flexible. This is kind of scary because I've spent the past 5 months preparing myself for ECE. I know it's important to be flexible and I will be, but I am pretty sure that I am actually unable to teach something like, say, high school math. I haven't taken a math class in YEARS and barely got through math when I was in high school. I want to be available for a high needs area and appreciate the necessity of some amount of self-sacrifice to make that happen, but I was pretty excited about ECE and I've been kind of daydreaming about my future pre-k or kindergarten class/classroom for almost half a year now! I really hope that everything works out, and they said not to worry, but it is impossible not to. No placement and no apartment has given me lots to feel anxious about for the past few weeks. I just want induction to get here so I can start channeling this nervous energy into something positive... On the plus side, I've spent the past two weeks updating my wardrobe into acceptable-for-adulthood items. This has been surprisingly difficult! At my college, it is socially acceptable to wear blankets (yes, blankets). Not that I did, but that should give you some idea of how much effort I've put into my wardrobe up until now (very little). It's been hard to find clothes that fit the relatively strict, formal guidelines we've been given for institute/induction while on a budget (and not mention finding clothes that are both formal and appropriate for Baltimore/Philadelphia summers). I finally finished assembling my wardrobe today, I believe, so at least that's one big project out of the way. I am also almost done with the pre-institute work, which I've found really engaging and inspiring so far. One week...!
Weird, I tell you. Besides the intense, long days that you'll hear about from everyone who's every done it, what you don't hear about is the really weird developmental place you're in. The message from TFA, and it's one that I don't think they can stress too much, is "Hey, we know you just graduated from college and you're high on life and all, but you need to grow right the eff up, NOW. There are children coming on Monday and they need you and you and only you are responsible for their future, so hoist up your big boy pants." Which is exactly right, and totally scary, but it's kind of undermined by the reality of daily life at Institute. For starters, you're living in super traditional dorms; most of us haven't done that for years (while some of us, like me, never have), so you get a lot of people running around giggling saying "aww, we're freshmen again!" It doesn't feel very adult at all. Then you get up early in the morning, grab your backpack, put a sandwich and a cookie in a lunchbox with your name written on it sharpie so it doesn't get mixed up with anyone else's, and board a bright yellow school bus. Then you get to the school where you sit in little-people chairs all day and your every minute is structured and when the teacher says "1-2-3 Eyes On Me" you shut right up and listen to whatever she has to say. I get all the rationale behind all of this, but it is impossible not to feel infantilized. In other news, while I still have no idea what I'll actually be doing in Charlotte, for the next four weeks at least I'll be teaching creative writing to high school students, which I couldn't be more thrilled about. And that's good, maybe, because the other people I'm co-teaching with seem less than thrilled. I'll just have to be enthusiastic enough for the four of us! We had to take the pre-assessment today so we could patch up any gaps in our content mastery if need be, and I was pretty impressed both with the intensity of the exam and the quality of the texts we were asked to work with, including not just the perennial favorite "The Lottery" (which still gives me the heebie-jeebies every. time.) BUT that awesome scene from Watchmen where Rorschach has broken into Daniel's house and his eating his beans; students were asked to talk about characterization. I know, right? Totally perfect. This is the first time I've seen teens asked to study Watchmen legitimately, but I hope it's not the last. We're meeting the teacher in charge of the project tonight, and I hope to give him a high five on his excellent taste. I can't wait to meet the students, even though I'm pretty terrified. My biggest worry, though, is that this class will be so chill that it won't prepare me for being the no-nonsense adult teacher I'm going to need to be in the fall. My adviser said this class is supposed to be kind of relaxed, which is exactly what a creative writing class should be, but that's not very helpful to me trying to develop a professional persona. Another weird thing about TFA is that no matter how well you research it before you sign up, no matter how many feel-good recruitment events you go to, you can't really get a sense for its culture until you're actually in the thick of it. I'm still trying to get a handle on it, really. When I try to succinctly describe the Teach For America approach the only word I can come up with, honestly, is "American," with all the cultural baggage both good and complicated that word implies: A worship of exceptional individuals, a hunger for biting off more than is maybe a good idea to chew, a youth-driven, DIY, haters-gonna-hate, never-tell-me-the-odds sort of mentality. It's as inspiring as it is sometimes troublesome. Sometimes I get really into it, sometimes I think it's a little short-sighted. But at the end of the day, you have a bunch of brilliant, dedicated people who are working tremendously hard in a teeny tiny swelteringly hot town to help kids, and it's exciting to be in that environment. I'm really interested to see how the next few weeks play out, and I'll try to update as often as I find time. In the meantime, I have to go stand in a very adult line to eat my very adult dining hall dinner.
Well, here I am. My last week before my journey in TFA begins. In the past couple of months, I have graduated college, moved out of DC for good, and moved into my new apartment in Boston. On Friday, my boyfriend and I are getting a dog. Needless to say, it has been a month of huge changes, and in another week, those changes will only get bigger. I STILL haven't been placed, and thus, am getting more and more worried. I know I shouldn't be, but it seems like so many other members of the Boston group have been placed. I feel like there's something wrong with my resume or something. There is going to be a hiring fair, though, during Induction next week, so I'm hoping something good will come of that. On a happier note, I LOVE living in Boston. I'm living in a really quiet neighborhood just over the Brookline border about three blocks from Commonwealth Ave. and from BU, which will be really convenient, as I plan to pursue my master's degree through TFA starting in the fall. The apartment is small, but it's perfect. My mother just bought us a brand new couch as a graduation present, and I couldn't be more excited. Like I said, we're getting a dog this Friday, and both my boyfriend and I are so excited to welcome little Olive, a black goldendoodle into our new little family. At the same time, I am both so incredibly nervous and so incredibly excited to go through Induction and to move to Philadelphia for Institute. While I wish I could just stay here in Boston for Institute, I'm excited about getting to know a new city and to work the hardest I've ever worked in my life. I am terrified and ecstatic all at the same time, and a big part of me just wants it to start already! I am slowly working through my pre-institute work and have my second school visit tomorrow. My mother is an assistant principal at an elementary school in Lowell, MA, and thankfully was able to set me up with a great classroom to observe. Previously, I observed my old high school French teacher, which was both great and weird. I am more looking forward to the visit tomorrow, as I have absolutely no idea what to expect. I'm also excited to see all the cute little kids. This summer is panning up to be the most eventful I've ever had, and I couldn't be happier. I will try to update more once Induction is through and I've begun Institute, although from everything I've heard, I might just be too tired.
Well not much has really changed as of late. A few days after I started this shabang, I was contacted for an interview at a school in Baltimore. The school is led by a TFA alum originally placed in New Orleans, so I was hoping that my experience in NOLA would make her remember me. I submitted timeframes that I was open for a phone interview, but never really heard back about an exact time. So I woke up at 4am the morning of the interview in case they called, and made myself available until about 3 or 4 in the afternoon. They never called. Turns out, they had overestimated their hiring needs, and didn't need any new teachers. So, as it stands, the score is SCHOOLS 2 : JOSH 0. As induction/institute gets closer (seven days!) I'm beginning to get more and more nervous. A friend from GW who is teaching in NOLA (jealousss) got hired during induction, so hopefully I fare similarly. Pre-institute work is...going. Tanya came to visit Seattle for a week, so I didn't do any work while she was here. I'm about 50% done, though, and I have plenty of time to finish things out. It was awesome having her here, though. I may have found a place to live! A 2010 CM is looking for roommates in a townhouse near Camden Yards. I haven't met him, nor seen the house, but Google Streetview makes the neighborhood look awesome. And, ya know, Google is always right. That's pretty much it. BUT, I have found another thing to chronicle here. WordPress, the blogging client used by Teach For Us, suggests tags based upon what you write in your post. It notoriously suggests things that are off-topic and generally absurd. As such, I'm going to start chronicling some of the best. For today's post, it suggests: abstraction, mathematical, and WordPress (so vain).
I decided to stay in the Delta this summer and teach summer school. Surprisingly my school district is having summer school this year! I wasn't sure if my school would get everything together in time to have one but they did...now whether it is running effectively and smooth is another story that I won't bother yall with! Induction was last week and Institute started the other day from what I hear. The town has been taken over by TFA. It's very easy to point out the TFAers but that's okay that was me last year! A few friends, Delta alums, and I went to one of the Mexican restaurants in town. We always go there so it was funny when the waiter told us where to take the check, how we pay for it, things you don't normally say at the restaurant but my guess is all staff members were told to make sure to be super friendly and explicit with directions to anyone looking under the age of 30 and with out of state accents! I went to the Induction closing to watch and observe (read: creep--sorry there's no not weird way to put it! haha). One thing I'm glad TFA Delta did this year that was different from last year was having community dinners!
TFA CM CMA ISAT WIDWATW PD ELIT OSAT OPS LP CMA CMB CMC DOK ..YUP, all in about 2 days! Starting my first kinder lessons this week! I will be teaching Kinder in Clarksdale for summer school. While you may be thinking "uhh, Lydia I thought you already told us that!" Welp, I kinda did. But I am going to be teaching SUMMER SCHOOL and FOR 2 YEARS in Clarksdale :) so excited. Now onto Kindergarten math lessons. Thank you Dr. Stevens for all of those scripted lessons we had to write, I'm back at it with TFA!
I wish I had kept a blog or a journal throughout my first year of teaching, but other things (ie, children, making copies, cleaning rat poop from my room) got in the way. Now that I have the summer off, I wanted to take some time to rehash my first year, put it down on paper, so to speak, and move on to my second year with some sense of completion. So here it is: I just finished my first year of teaching as part of the TFA 2010 corps in Houston, TX. In August, I began teaching 8th grade remedial reading at a struggling middle school part of a much-heralded reform program in Houston called "Apollo 20" (look it up). Basically, Houston ISD targeted a group of failing middle and high schools, and decided to cut a good chunk of the staff (teachers and administration), extend the school day and school year, and include "double dose" classes for math and reading for remedial students - which is how my class came into existence. Since HISD cut a lot of of staff, they had to hire a bunch of new teachers - and thus, my school had 20 first-year TFA teachers on staff. Eek. While we had a pretty incredible sense of community and "where-the-f-are-we" camaraderie, there are obvious problems with sticking 20 teachers that have no idea what they're doing in a difficult, low-performing school. Let's just say the first couple of months were rough. That stretch between Labor Day and Thanksgiving was just plain hellacious. Long story short, things got better. I built better relationships with my students, grew to love some of them and simply tolerate others, and in the end, my kids made 1.7 years of growth (woop!). There are so many weird and scary and generally hilarious stories that led up to this moment, so many misunderstandings and clarifications and culture clashes - for example, me being Jewish and Russian was completely mystifying to most of my students, who would then say things like "No way! Swear on your Jewish." Yeah... it doesn't work that way, guys. Anyway, a tale for another day. The thing is, yes, things got better, and yes my kids made significant gains, and yes, we all survived the year intact. But at the end of the year, in my 8th grade classroom, the average reading level was still a 5.3 (fifth grade, three months). So while I can set big goals and plan and do all of the various TFA-y things I am supposed to do, closing the achievement gap, even narrowing it significantly, seems like an incredibly daunting task. I'm not really sure who to blame - myself, Teach for America, other teachers, the administration, the institution, the country, the parents - but something is seriously off here. I end this year proud of my students' accomplishments, but nervous to see how they pale in comparison to the accomplishments of other kids their age. If anything, this experience has taught me that there certainly is a gaping hole in our educational system, but the best that Teach for America and its corps members can do is put a temporary band-aid over the problem. I don't mean to say that TFA is not an effective organization; rather, just that its effectiveness is severely limited for a variety of reasons that I'll discuss at some other point, and that clever marketing and PR has made others (including prospective incoming corps members) have an incomplete idea of what their experience will truly be like. To end on a better note: here is why, if you must, I teach for America. One of my favorite students this year was named Emmanuel. He immigrated from Mexico two years ago with his family. He has absolutely atrocious spelling (see: ejukashun) and pretty low reading comprehension, started at maybe a third grade level. However, he has always been very hard-working, very respectful, never a behavior problem, just a pleasure to work with. In the last weeks of school, I was sitting in small group with about five students (including Emmanuel) and, one way or another, we got on the ever popular topic of my religion. Upon learning that I was Jewish, Emmanuel looked up, said, "I don't like Jewish people," and moved to a seat farther away from me. Now, I had been expecting something of this nature the entire year. Nothing ever happened. When it did, this is not who I expected it to originate from. Emmanuel comes from a fairly strict Catholic family (as do many students at my school), and, as he explained, he was taught that the Jews killed Jesus, and the Jews are all going to hell, etc. When we talked about this incident later, I asked him if he had ever met someone Jewish. The answer, of course, was no. We continued talking about this for a little while - too long of a conversation to recall here. The next day, Emmanuel came in and apologized - no small feat for an 8th grader (to remember something onto the next day and to genuinely apologize). A very mature action for a very young boy. The reason I bring this up is because Emmanuel could have very well gone through his life never having met anyone Jewish, and could continue have certain biases and misconceptions about people, places, and ideas that he may never encounter in person. As you can see, this is a child that is perfectly capable of muddling through some pretty serious bullshit, thinking critically, and coming to a decision on his own. I don't know if I could do that at his age. I know several middle schoolers with above average standardized test scores that lack this capacity as well. Next year, Emmanuel is going to a high school where 40% of incoming freshmen do not make it to graduation. I hope he is the exception.
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