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updates for 06.20.2011

16 new posts today

First Thoughts on the First Day

DISCLAIMER: These are my first thoughts, published with little to no editing. Take that how you will. Today I arrived at Induction for the KC Corps. The following impressions are presented in no particular order.

  • no fitted sheets for the mattress?
  • it's really hot out.
  • are these towels meant for munchkins?
  • seriously, is everyone here mainlining kool aid?
Now for a slightly more detailed... venting session. All along, we've been told that we'd have "plenty of time" to look for apartments during induction. Lo and behold. Upon arrival I'm presented with a schedule that has mandatory events from 7am til 9pm for four days. When exactly am I to look for apartments? The witching hour?  I do not question the value or validity of the info sessions this week, and while I appreciate the availability of  social events to help me get to know the city and a few of my fellow CMs, Dave & Buster's? Really? How's going to a chain restaurant/game place going to help me get acclimated to KC ? Oh, and I'm sure that 3 hour bus tour of this (not large) city will be riveting, you know, not actually seeing or doing anything, except seeing places where I could see or do something. I'm sorry, but we have very limited time before we need to go 2000 miles away for institute, and my time could be better spent looking for somewhere to live. I'm not a 7 yr old in need of ice breaker activities and hand-holding. After emailing a member of TFA-KC staff, I'm told that I have Friday and Saturday to look for housing. Silly me, I thought those were travel days for the people driving to California. I might regret staying up to post this in... 6 hours when I have to wake up, but I want to get this out there. Sorry for the downtrodden, disillusioned, disheartened, disappointed post, but it's pretty reflective of my feelings right now. What did I get myself into?

End of the innocence

It's been a rough night. It actually has nothing to do with lesson planning, or deciding where I'm going to hang my latest motivational poster in Room 215A. Nor does it really have to do with the never-ending drama about my unfinished business at Vanderbilt, where I tonight I helped clear the name of a innocent person - she was being accused of being a drunk, bumbling idiot by a 60-year old who needs to find better hobbies than DJing on a college radio station. The real matter tonight is that we lost a corps member. I don't even think posting this is appropriate, but I'll try to keep it as anonymous as possible. On Friday evening, I learned that one future teacher left Rice on Thursday night. But I didn't know that member all that well. So it was a real shock when A. made the rounds at dinner to tell us that this night would be her last, and that she'd be heading home very soon. From the best I understood, and everyone has their own reasons for doing it, but A. was passionate about changing kids lives in somewhat of a different way than TFA does. Without speaking for her, what I understood was that A. believes in more of a holistic approach, whereas TFA tends to see test scores as the way out... whereas test scores for individuals who are driven in other aspects of life might just be the route to mounds of college debt. And I think tonight, because A. was so public about leaving Institute, it has a lot of us thinking about why we're here. Institute is no question the hardest thing I've ever been through. I've been through so much red tape to follow procedures. I try to stay awake through lengthy CS sessions where I try to make sense of the piles of information I'm taking in. I try to motivate my students who have seen all too much failure, to success. And I have been set to extremely high expectations when you consider the learning curve on this kind of stuff. There's so many variables in rotation at once that it's hard to stay focused, or really determine what the big things I'm supposed to get out of Institute really are. For me, this loss is big. But I know that, for me at least, I am where I need to be. I'm pushed to the limits, and I don't necessarily agree with 100 percent of what is thrown my way. But a lot of it does make sense, and I believe that I can make a positive impact in the lives of middle schoolers in the West Rio Grande Valley. While A.'s leaving is really sad for me to hear about, it doesn't change the situation that the need for change in the valley is real. It doesn't change that I'll be in the third-poorest county in the United States,  and doesn't change the idea that I know that I will make a difference. At the same time, ignoring the silly posters around Institute, it's not fun and games anymore. Suddenly, as I work on my tracker and such, it's real. More real than ever before. It's about us, it's about the kids, and it's about putting both in the hands of an organization that you hope is leading all in the right direction. From time to time, I've had my doubts, tonight probably more than any other. But the Valley needs me. I just know it. And I'm willing to go through pretty much anything for the 120 kids I've yet to meet or know their names. And the same for my 8 summer school students who might not meet their growth goals, but are damn straight getting to 8th grade somehow. And so, when my car pulls out of the Rice/Timbuktu lot for the last time, it will be pointed due south. But I'm not going to forget the people who got me this far. I'll miss you, A., and I know you're off to change the world another way - be sure to stay in touch with all of us.


Take that, beasts.

This past week was the first week of Institute, and I knew I would be busy, but DAMN.  I get up at 4:30am, shower, get dressed, collect my materials and thoughts, and put on LOTS of bug spray.  I'm sure you've heard that Delta mosquitoes are bad, but you have NO idea.  I have passed by people having bug-bite-counting-contests (not a lie), and people literally shudder when they look at my legs and ankles.  Tomorrow I am wearing long pants.  Take that, mosquito beasts. After applying my new fragrance, I (hurriedly) go to the dining hall for breakfast, eat even more quickly, and pack my lunch before running to my bus, which leaves campus promptly at 6am.  I swear to myself every day that I will get up earlier, but I know myself better than that.  The bus ride to school is so relaxing and makes me feel like I am home.  We pass corn fields and other farmland on a two-lane road, and I review my materials, listen to music, or take a nap.  All in all, the morning bus ride is probably my favorite part of the Institute experience so far.  I meet my kids tomorrow, so I bet that's about to change! I am teaching HS English at a school about an hour away from Cleveland.  I am teaching with two other girls this summer, and we are going to give our "Rock Stars" the tools necessary to continue their quests to be critical, independent thinkers on their way to college and success!  For almost five hours a day in Room 1, our students are going to read, write, and think critically so that they will be that much more prepared for school when it starts again in August.  There are moments when I wonder what the heck I am doing here, away from family, friends, and the ocean.  Then I remember.  Like every person here, I am here for one reason.  I am working for "One Day." We all are.  Take that, achievement gap beast. (Also, I saw the Mississippi River for the first time.  Talk about a BEAST!)



Ok, a LOT has happened since my last post. This past week was Induction in St. Louis, and today we all moved into the dorms at the Illinois Institute of Technology for Institute. So I think I'll start from the beginning... Induction was great! We stayed in the dorms at Wash U, which is a beautiful campus in a really nice part of the city. I experienced a couple midwestern thunder storms - twice, I was woken up in the middle of the night by insane thunderclaps, one of which set off car alarms on the street! It doesn't take much to impress me when it comes to weather. Our days were full of sessions, primarily about the ideals and values of Teach For America as an organization and what our "charge" in St. Louis is all about. I'll admit, a lot of it was pretty abstract and repetitive, and definitely the TFA "kool-aid" I've heard about. But I think it also had the intended goal of making us all more aware of the situation we're facing in St. Louis. The city is unique because St. Louis City is separate from St. Louis County, which is where most of the wealth in the area is located. These means that children born in literally adjacent zip codes, on either side of the county line, can have drastically different academic trajectories because of the quality of their public school systems. It was really interesting to learn about, and really drove home the utter inequity of the situation the students in St. Louis are facing. On a lighter note, Induction was also a good time to get to know other incoming CMs and spend some time in the city. Everyone here is extremely nice, smart, and genuine. I guess I shouldn't be surprised by that, given the whole nature of this program. I've already made what I know are going to be some great friends, including the three girls I'm living with next year! Because we found an apartment! It's a gorgeous 4-bedroom (tangent: NOT the easiest thing to find. We viewed a lot of really great historic homes with 4 bedrooms, but they all had unsettling (read: four story, so obviously haunted) layouts and super funky bathroom situations. And sorry, 1 1/2 baths for 4 young women just isn't going to cut it. And in fact, our place isn't technically a 4-bedroom now, but having charming Southern roommates can work wonders on landlords in the midst of renovating.) in one of the areas of the city where a lot of corps members live. I'm beyond excited for it. I had one job interview during Induction for an elementary position at a turn-around school, which essentially means that this school just got rid of its administrators and half the staff, and they are now looking to supplement with TFA corps members. I don't think my interview went very well, due in large part to the fact that halfway through, my interviewers brought in two students and asked me to give an ad hoc lesson! I was actually decently prepared for it, because I wasn't the first to interview, but given my utter lack of instructional experience, it was a pretty horrible lesson. Anyway, we'll find out tomorrow about the job, but I'm really not getting my hopes up. And now, to Chicago. As I mentioned, we moved into the dorms at IIT today, which felt very much like the first day of freshman year. We received our school placements for the summer! I'll be teaching 6th grade reading and math here in Chicago. This first week will be all sessions at our placement schools, then we start teaching next week! I have this looming sense of doom, like this evening might be the last free night of my summer. I know that isn't entirely true, since we technically have weekends off, but I feel like we've all been amply warned about the rigor of Institute, only getting 5 hours of sleep a night, etc. I like my sleep, so we'll see how this goes. I'm in the process of determining my personal goals for the next five weeks. I heard once that a goal isn't a goal until you've written it down, but I'm going to take a day or two to formulate them fully before doing that. After all, if TFA is about anything, it's about reflection. We spent the majority of our time at Induction reflecting, and apparently at Institute we reflect on our reflections. Seriously. So I'm going to follow suite and take a day or so to really identify what it is I am personally aiming for over the next five weeks. Anyway, this post is far too long as is, so I'm going to call it a night. After all, it's nearly 10:00 in Chicago, and I want to get rest while I can, before the madness truly begins. Up at 5:40 tomorrow morning for breakfast and loading the buses to our placement schools! (And from what I've read from other blogs, 5:40is pretty luxurious, so for now I won't complain! But we'll see how I feel in two weeks...) Much love from Chitown!


Fool That I Am

by Adele

Tomorrow I move to California. I'm packed and ready. I'm excited - but not quite as excited as I thought I'd be. Don't get me wrong - I'm THRILLED about teaching, it's just that at the end of the day I still have reservations about TFA as an organization. Like why do they spend so much money on staff (and I heart the bay area staff - so this isn't personal) but how many people are on the payroll and is paying them the most effective way to close the achievement gap? Also if one more person in TFA (CM or staff member) says that the achievement gap is the civil rights issue of our generation - my head will explode. Honestly - the civil rights movement was explicitly about comprehensive social change. So voting is great, but you need a job and access to quality education as well. What I'm saying is that civil rights are just that - plural as in more than one right that radically alters the social fabric. So let's fight on for educational equality - but let's keep it real - we don't live in a meritocracy.

I want to teach and I'm so thankful that I get to meet CMs who feel the same way tomorrow. I'm glad I get to meet the staff to whom I'm owe my job and my future career. I'm so excited to jump in and teach summer school in a few short weeks. I love my kids, I just hope that I'm not to much of a fool and I can figure out how to effectively teach them from jump :)


On The Things I Learned From Sports, Vol. 1

"Hope is not a strategy." This was one of my Coach's favorite things to say.  To preface- my Coach probably has a very high-functioning form of OCD.  Her attention to detail and her perfectionism are both scary and impressive. She did more thorough scouting reports (I kid you not, our average scouting report was 4 pages, had full season stats, recent results, and diagrams of all of the other team's plays.  I thought this was normal until a friend at another school told me her coach gives them a half sheet of paper with bullet points), watched more video, and dedicated more practice time to scouting/game prep than any other coach in our league, and probably all of Division III for that matter.  Although we all appreciated her hard work, by the 5th time we were watching the same game clip of our next opponent, Coach usually found herself met with a room-full of glazed eyes and nodding heads. At this point, she would usually get up on her soapbox and preach to us the importance of preparation.  Along with the usual cliches like "failing to prepare is preparing to fail," she always always always reiterated "hope is not a strategy"  somewhere in her sermon.  In fact, she said it enough that even though I only paid attention 75 (okay... 50) percent of the time, I still got the message. I was sitting in a CS session the other day (Note: for the non-TFA people reading this- and by that I mean you mom and dad- CS sessions are essentially professional development mini-lessons) discussing the importance of practice (Practice? Y'all talkin' about practice?) when it hit me that annoying little phrase was super applicable to teaching. So, apologies to President Obama, but I gotta agree with Coach on this one: hope is not a strategy. It is not enough to hope the achievement gap will close.  We as a nation have to take action, in the classroom and in the legislatures. It is not enough to hope my kids will understand my instructions.  I have to be mind-numbingly explicit. It is not enough to hope my kids will improve.  I have to push them. It is not enough to hope I will improve as a teacher.  In kool-aid speak, I have to continually increase effectiveness. And, last but not least, it is not enough to hope people will read this post.  I have to post it to twitter.


Death to All Problem Solving "Strategies"

Dr. QFOSAC IF I TRY RUBIES One of the most talked-about skills in education is the skill of problem-solving. TRAP N RAP IT PIRATES UXE But, as this list of acronyms indicates, educators are almost baffled as to how to actually teach problem-solving. UNWRAP RUNS UNRAAVEL Instead of teaching the authentic process, we sometimes fall onto the trap of using only test-taking strategies to mimic what critically think adults actually do when presented with a question or problem. I had certainly fallen into this trap my first year of teaching. The science and math departments at KIPP Academy recognized this, thank goodness, and so we came together to align how we teach and reinforce problem-solving across our content areas as well as across our grade levels. At first, we began with just placing all or our problem solving strategies on the table so that soon, all the strategies bled into one another and started to look like alphabet soup. Our 6th grade math teacher, however, pushed back and said*... "We don't solve problems like this, so why do we teach our kids to? They hate going through all these steps and complain about it." He went on to say, "I think about problem-solving as layers. At the most basic, problem solving is understanding the question and then thinking about it. That's it. The next layer is the one that includes strategies." A light bulb went off in my head. "I get it! The first layer is like buckets. One bucket holds all the strategies for identifying the problem, like underlining important words and defining them, and the questions/brainstorming/pondering bucket has strategies like researching, or making connections." "Right, and each layer is like a transparency, one on top of the other." "But what are those buckets? Or layers?" "I don't know, but just talking about it won't help. I'd like to do an actual problem together, as a team, and see how we actually figure it out. I wish we could video tape it or something, to see what we do." "Well, what's a good problem that we can use?", another teacher piped in. "I have some sample problems right here." "What about, 'Why do glasses have the shape they do?'" "Do you mean reading glasses? Or drinking glasses?" someone asked. "Drinking glasses." "That was important," I said, "because I was totally thinking reading glasses." "Do we actually have transparencies? And markers?" "Yeah, I do," the sixth grade science teacher said. One minute later we had transparencies and expo markers on the table. "Here, you get it, right?" "I think I do," I said. "I'll go ahead and write what we do. I think that we've all agreed that the first step is 'Identify the question', right? Remember how we had to clarify whether or not it was drinking glasses or reading glasses?" I wrote "Identify the Question" on one transparency. "And if you were a child," the seventh grade math teacher commented, "you'd also have to translate 'glasses' into cups. My kids call all glasses, 'cups.'" "Right, so a strategy to identify the question would be to define the vocabulary." I wrote "Vocabulary" in another color and on another transparency to visually make a second layer. At this point, everyone started jumping in. "I would start by drawing a picture of all the different glasses I can think  of. Some with stems, some without, some that are large, some that are small" said the seventh grade science teacher. "Great, then I would ask, why are there some similarities, and why are there some differences? For example, why are all glasses round?" "Well, that helps you drink from any part, right? You don't have to worry about putting a corner in your mouth." "And why are glasses a certain size? I mean, why is its circumference a certain size" "It has to do with efficiency. If it's too small, then you can't pour anything into them." "I was thinking more that it can't be too large, otherwise you can't pick it up..." Our discussion went on as we kept on proposing new questions and new answers. We talked about how we were using strategies like visualizing objects in our mind, and asking clarifying questions. We talked about how it was important that throughout this whole process, we were checking for reasonableness. Did our ideas make sense? We built off of each other's thoughts and went off on different tangents, but we always returned to the question of, "Why do glasses have the shape they do?" Finally, as we were exhausting our different options, I suggested that the best way to present our answer would be through an infographic. I quickly sketched out my idea and explained, "Let's draw a picture of a glass, or make a model, and then identify each part of that glass and explain the different variations that are possible for that part and why each variation was necessary. In other words, let's apply what we had discussed and learned to some product to communicate our results!" We agreed as a faculty that this would be an excellent idea. "So wait, what do we call the second step to problem-solving? We've been questioning, pondering, brainstorming..." "What about brainstorming?" "I don't like that, because we're doing more than brainstorming." "I think we'll just have to call it ponder." "I agree." "And what about that last step. It's not coming up with an answer, and we don't want students to get there too quickly." (Students sometimes have the bad habit of choosing an answer first, and then retroactively justifying their answers instead of the other way around.) "Let's just keep the word, apply." "I agree. It leaves open the option to use multiple ways to share the answer, whether it's through an infographic, model, or book report." "Awesome." "Cool." And, there you have it, the three steps to problem solving:
  1. Identify the Question
  2. Ponder
  3. Apply
I learned a lot from this experience. First, I was completely impressed by how collaboration could really bring out the best. As a joint math and science faculty, we are more tightly knit together as a professional learning community because of this experience, and we'll be using the same language to support our students as they develop their own problem solving skills. Second, we're aligning our work so that our students, too, can have the authentic experience we had problem-solving. This experience has inspired me to allow my students the time and skills to really work together to tackle problems. Not only will they learn content more deeply and authentically, they'll be engaging in the exact kind of authentic work adults do when they are faced with a problem. Finally, I like how this new framework gives students the flexibility to choose strategies that work for them. My team teachers and I did not all use the same strategies on this problem, but that was great because we were able to put our strengths and contributions together to make something truly valuable. In the same way, I'll teach my students the different strategies they can "try out", but then give them the choice to choose strategies that work the best for them. Never again will I give my students an problem solving strategy that they have to follow. Instead, as long as they show that they've gone through the three steps above, they'll be golden.
The KIPP Academy Problem Solving Framework:

My Infographic Sketch (not complete, but hopefully you get the idea) (= :

*All quotes have been reconstructed from memory. I tried to be as close to the spirit of our conversation as I could, but I also know how fickle our memory is, so all mistakes / misinterpretations are my own.

The Calm before the Firestorm

We're ravaging the school supplies sections of the SuperWalmart and the Walgreens and the two dollar stores in town.  This morning, I walked the half mile to Our Lady of Victories.  It's across the road from a cotton field, like every building in Cleveland.  And sitting there in a pew, I was confused and kind of enraged.  Because you can talk about the "achievement gap" and you can throw it around like the catchy buzzword that it is, but there are times when you actually see it right there in front of you and it's maddeningly tangible.  Where were those old men that hang out at gas stations or the women that live in the tin houses on my school route or the little kids that took reading tests at Quitman on Friday?  Where do these little kids at the Catholic church, with bows in their hair and books in their hands, go to school?  Surely not Quitman County Elementary.  How come all these kids to get to grow up like this, how come I got to grow up better than this, and the students I meet tomorrow don't?  Why are these kids at the Catholic church, wearing their sundresses and their Ole Miss belts, all white?  Why are my students, who don't have a notion of college, much less a notion of their favorite ones, black?  Why hasn't this difference righted itself yet?  Whose fault is this?  Why doesn't someone put an end to it? So I was angry and I felt guilty and I just didn't know what to think.  Because I'm supposed to be the changing force in these kids' summers and hopefully in their lives.  I'm supposed to be putting at end to it.  But I have no idea how to do that, how to fix things like this.  Tomorrow, I won't be thinking about my six years at Hockaday, but maybe I should be. Tomorrow, I start my foray into teaching, bright and early on the bus with the blinking white light.  And it's going to be a challenge and it's going to change me and I'm going to grow up and hopefully do something practical with my life.  But yesterday, yesterday I was still just a young kid, watching the country roll by from the passenger seat of a pick up truck (oh Texas, how I miss you) and drinking beer on a lonely bank of the Mississippi River. Driving out here, you're reminded of Texas.  The fields go on forever and the sky tends to follow, only there's rows of cotton and corn instead of grasses and cattle.  No cattle guards or fences, just fields.  And the ground's still wet from the last flood instead of dusty and crackling under your feet.  Mississippi makes me miss Texas because it makes me feel much the same way when I'm out there in the open fields with the sky and the land and the soft, humid breeze.  Makes me feel more like I'm in church than when I'm really in church. Getting on the school bus tomorrow morning.  Wish me luck.


Hope you are 20/20...because we're building a vision

Induction is over and the long anticipated craziness that is institute starts tomorrow.  One session that stuck out to me this past week was regarding visions and goals: for myself, my students, and my classroom. What is the difference between a classroom that has a vision and one that does not?  As a current corps member said it can be determined in the way students answer one simple questions: Why are you doing your work? A vision-less classroom: Because my teacher said so. A classroom with vision: To be a world learner, to ask myself more questions, to go to college, to be successful, to reach my potential. The advantage of having a classroom with vision is priceless.  I would be doing my students a disservice if I did not walk into that classroom with a vision.  But how to build one?  Well I believe it starts with goals.  Concrete, measurable, obtainable goals. Goals such as: 90% mastery of material, or perfect attendance.  These goal need to line up, and lead up to the greater vision.  This vision needs to be compelling students and faculty alike; it needs to be challenging and fun. It needs to be something we all want to work towards, even on the hardest of days.  I must develop strong short term goals, to learn to positive long term goals to eventually get on my way to mastering the vision.  As I say goodbye to my students at the end of the school year I want them to be curious about the world. I want them to have a thirst for learning and know that education is not confined to our classroom walls.  Students with special needs often feel below par and not good enough. I will work of developing confidence and self esteem by setting high expectations and goals; and helping my students reach them.  My students deserve to feel and know that they are in charge of their future, that they can control their life trajectory.  With hard work, they can do anything.  I want to FUNDAMENTALLY change the trajectory of my student’s lives. As a fellow corps member so eloquently stated, our students need strong qualitative goals to build character to set up for the qualitative goals.  Before I ca finalize my vision I need to know what drives and motivated my students.  I want to build relationships and know them as people to help set up a vision that is appealing to us both.  I look forward to this journey and would love to hear feedback. What is your vision for whatever you do in life? Who were your favorite teachers? Why? Do you think they had a vision for the classroom? Tomorrow we begin going into the classrooms. Look for stories soon!  Thanks for reading! Xoxo, Samantha—or should I say Ms. Bloom?


Thank goodness for tabs...

Snapshot of what lesson planning looks like on my computer:
  • 7 Word documents:
    • 3 lesson plans
    • 2 graphic organizers
    • 1 assessment
    • 1 Unit Plan
  • 11 internet tabs:
    • 3 of read-aloud books
    • 2 of TFAnet
    • 1 of my OSAT student tracker
    • 1 of Amazon
    • 1 of Gmail
    • 3 of my Facebook home page
Which means 3 separate times I got bored, went to facebook, yelled at myself for being off track, clicked away from the tab, and repeated the process 5 minutes later.
This will get done. Except much like writing papers in college, once I've done the thinking and planning part, the actual writing and filling-in-the-blank part is no longer interesting. Still necessary, though. The driving force behind all this planning: I GET TO TEACH KIDS TOMORROW!


How much I have spent on teaching supplies in two weeks: $110. Gotta love it. I bought dry erase markers this weekend along with some "prizes" such as a Whooppee Cusion for our new raffle system that we will be using in our classroom. My collab and I sat down along with my CMA and our SD yesterday to figure out what to do with our classroom to rebuild classroom culture. Wednesday and Thursday of last week were ROUGH. Rough rough rough. I had a student tell another student to tell me to go away when I asked them a question. I had a student tell me she disliked Mexicans which is why she wouldn't work with them. And I had a student, as I was trying to connect with him while walking out to the buses, tell me that he didn't care about anything I said and to leave him alone forever. But, even with all of that I still believe that my students want me and need me to get them to the 8th grade. Some of my students try soo soo hard, and the sad part is that the students that are "non-compliant" are my smartest kids, but some of the lowest performing. When I talked to one of the girls who has a large 'tude problem she gave me answers to the assessment that were completely right. She is SO SO SO smart.. just doesn't try. But then I have a student who works soo hard who I like to call my internal "favorite" even though I shouldn't have favorites, but he unfortunately is not succeeding as well as I think he should. He answers all of the questions correctly during CFU (checks for understanding) but when he gets to the assessment just can't answer the quesitons... :S On the other hand, my collab and I came up with some great ideas for the next two weeks of school and are going to spend the first 15 minutes tomorrow building culture. We are going to work really really hard on getting them invested in their individual goals. I am so excited/nervous/apprehensive/worried/and giddy all at the same time concerning my class tomorow. What if it goes downhill like Thursday's class? If it does, what can I do to fix it? Teaching is hard.. the hardest thing I've ever done for sure. I love it and hate it. I cherish every second of it yet dread the nightly grind of lesson planning. I haven't found my niche here yet.. which is sad. But everyone seems to like me I guess? I miss my fiance, but wouldn't change anything about this summer. Confusing? Yep! But it's all for the kids. In the Words of Journey, Don't Stop Believin'


F(ailure)(=)ML, or, my second week

It's been a hard week. I sort of hit the ground running, and was positive that it would move quicker and be a more accessible week than last, relying on the kids I'd meet to give me the excitement and adrenaline to pull through whatever. And that was true to a point. However, with it came more stress, and an actual come-to-Jesus-moment where I broke down and realized that I am Atlas. These kids' futures are not necessarily on my shoulders; they ultimately hold the key and the responsibility to unlocking their own potential. I can teach until I turn purple, but the kids need to make the connections. But what is on my shoulders is the urgency to be a good teacher, to be an effective teacher, and to start delivering ASAP-because time is running out, and, after this week, I've learned (difficultly) that I need to get better quickly- because my strategies last week simply did not work. The data punches me in the gut and takes the wind out of me when I look at it. Some of them look to be learning in class, but then when they're actually tested on their own... it's just not coming together. That reflects on me. That does not reflect on them. That's where the punch makes contact with me. And it hurts like hell. I started out Monday with optimism. I felt sparks inside me as I sat at one of their desks in my classroom, as my other co-teachers hung up posters and checked their emails. There are four of us sharing the room, and the other three are fantastic people and I'm lucky to be grouped with them. My partner is teacher 'A', I am teacher 'B', and then the other two are 'C' and 'D'- which mirror the duties of 'A' and 'B' respectively. 'A' and 'B' rotate every four days. Being 'B', I was lead teacher for the first four days, responsible for planning and teaching the 60 minute Lit lesson. My partner taught Vocab for 10 minutes, then I taught, then she taught CRCT (dreaded standardized test) Prep for 20 minutes. When I finally got to rotate to the lighter schedule, I was grateful; I needed it. I was coming off of the ropes in a beat up haze and if the battle went on any longer, I would have dropped to my knees. It started off well, I thought. I was circulating the room with energy, I was getting to know my students; I was enjoying the moment like I never stopped teaching in December. I noticed some of the kids just weren't paying attention. I went to ask one student why he hadn't filled anything in and if he needed my help with the directions. That student, who had been challenging me all morning, finally hit his boiling point. Within some weird flash, there I was, being verbally attacked and threatened by the student. During that moment, everything around me went silent and blurry, and it was just he and I. The kid is big. He's much older than his 8th grade peers. He's under house arrest. For what, I don't exactly know. But for a split second, things got real, really quickly. I felt in my gut that instinctual feeling when you know you're about to be attacked. I haven't felt it really ever, because I've never really been in a true fight in my adult life. But I felt it, and accurately. He rattled in his desk and his voice got louder and louder. In my head, I had two choices... I could either walk away from it and let him have this one. Or I could stand there and stand my ground, figuring out in my head what to do with him as I pretended to be brave. I chose fake bravery. I stood tall and asked, "are you done yet? are you done yet?" - until the Inclusion Teacher came to my aid, yanked him up, and escorted him to the Principal's office. I probably should have just asked him to leave at the beginning and not had an altercation with him, but it all happened so fast and so insanely that I felt shellshocked directly after. "Did that really just happen?" I asked my colleague. I was told I handled it well. I was told I was badass. I felt like crawling into a hole. Tuesday came quickly.  I woke up in my tired 5:00 fog, showered, made my way to the circus that is the dining hall at 6:00 a.m. breakfast, picked up my generic lunch, and was on the schoolbus to another day of fun. It actually went well. Rather than pull him aside directly, I decided to just start over with him and see what would happen. I had gentleness and warmth in my mind. I wanted to win this kid over and fix things. It worked. My lesson went along just fine, he was following along and following directions, and at one point, he raised his hand to ask me for help. I leaned over his desk and we talked about what to do and what things meant and it felt amazing to help this student out. It felt amazing to me that he raised his hand and let me get in his space not even 24 hours after clenching his fist at me. Things were better. Things got better on Wednesday too, and proved that this was not a fluke. I had repaired my first broken relationship with a student. Good. I wouldn't see him on Thursday or Friday because he got suspended... Wednesday, I'm not even quite sure I remember what happened. Other than the disasters of my week, everything else seems to mesh together and form some scary mosaic. The routine of Institute is as follows:

  • 5:00 wake up. Curse the day. Wander to the shower. Shower. Get dressed. Pack up.
  • 6:00 meet trusty friends in the lobby. Walk to the dining hall. Stand in line for lunch. Get lunch. Take only ONE of everything (there's an enforcer to watch). I steal two waters always, anyway. They're baby waters and I am a thirsty boy. Breakfast is always insane. A bunch of tired and fake-happy people running around a dining hall. The line to get fresh fruit (pineapples, strawberries, melon) is always impossibly long. I usually go for cereal and then yogurt with some orange juice. Sometimes I grab a muffin or a croissant. Sometimes a hardboiled egg. Always an iced coffee in my thermos before I leave. Always. Oh, and Fridays are hot breakfast. Fancy.
  • 6:30 we board the school bus. I usually fall asleep sitting upright on this 25ish minute ride to our Middle School across downtown Atlanta. The one bus driver was adorable and gave us some inspirational speech on the first few mornings. Then everyone kept trying to get on her bus and ignoring the other one, to the point where her bus would fill up and the other one would take maybe 15 Corps Members. As Institute went on, and CM's got more tired, and her speeches got lesser and lesser, nobody really cares anymore, so long as they get a bus.
  • 7:00 we arrive at school. Our staff is usually strangely perky and positive, waving at us, cheering, and giving high fives. I'm not sure what this is intended for. Or maybe it helps certain CM's become more optimistic about their lives. I am not a morning person, and I solely rely on my coffee and my kids to wake me up. I personally do not enjoy peppy people invading my personal space and trying to make me smile at 7 a.m. after I went to bed at 1 a.m., but I'm too polite to shoe them away. They mean well. I'm sure they're tired too.
  • 8:35-9:35 is "Academic Intervention Hour", aka, a more structured study hall where we reinforce learning objectives with our kids and give them instructional support.
  • 9:40-9:50 My partner teaches her Vocab. Unless we've rotated. Then this is me.
  • 9:55-11:00 I teach my Lit lesson. Unless we've rotated. You get this by now I'm sure.
  • 11:00-11:20 My partner teaches Test Prep. Unless... yeah.
  • By 11:30, we have to attend a session, which is a workshop where we sit down and get a PowerPoint presentation from our CS (Curriculum Specialistic) until 1. I am usually so tired I have to stand to stay awake and so starving that I start nibbling on my lunch that I had planned to save until 1.
  • from 1 to 1:20, I scarf down lunch. Typically, a turkey sandwich, sun chips, two waters, one cookie, a banana, and an apple. Typically, the apple has been consumed before I get this far. (The session).
  • From 1:30 to like 3ish, we do another session.
  • From 3ish to 4:30 we meet with our CMA (Corps Member Advisor) and our group and maybe get some work time in. My CMA is insanely wonderful and I've had conversations with her that have changed my life already. She's a CM from the Greater New Orleans Region and she is the ONLY Reading CMA (everyone else outside of my group of 12 is teaching Math).
  • At 4:30, I get on the bus and pass out in a sweaty ball of heat as we sit in gridlock traffic and press onward to home (Georgia Tech). Then I meet up with friends and rant/unwind over dinner. Then I go home and start working. I maybe take a half hour to 45 minutes of personal time before resuming work. Then work doesn't stop until midnight-ish. My ongoing goal is to make that stop time sooner.
  • The print/copy room is a giant pit of frantic CM's all trying to get on computers and printers and copiers before the last call at 11:45. The wait time has gotten up to 25 minutes. They hand out celebrities' names instead of buzzers like a restaurant would. So far, I've been Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, and Martha Stewart.
Sounds fun, right? I struggled with my lesson plan template all week. By Wednesday night, I felt like I finally had it down for Thursday. I showed my CMA, she made me tweak something small, and I still felt like I was going to smash it out of the park. She informed me I would be observed. I was confident and excited at the thought of this. Then it bombed. On video. In front of her. In front of my FA (Faculty Advisor). In front of my partner. In front of 13 students who can't afford to take witness to an ineffective lesson. Why did it bomb? I'm not exactly sure why. I knew it was bombing as the words were coming out of my mouth, though. And it got so desperate that I had to go up to my CMA, who was observing me, and ask her "what do I do now?". Afterward, my partner took over and I sat at desk, staring at the wall in frustration. My FA told me it didn't "bomb", which was sweet. But I still think it did. I sat in sessions all afternoon with that blend of failure, hopelessness, defeat, and frustration. It stewed and simmered for hours. I didn't want to look at anyone. I didn't talk to anyone. People asked me if I was okay or what was wrong. I was honest. But minimal. My CMA told me to meet with her later that night. At 6:15, we sat down in a windowless room and went over my performance, mostly with me talking. It physically pained me to admit that not all of my students were on task. It humiliated me to admit that I did not control and manage 110% like I probably should have. It hurt to say that, no, I wasn't as prepared as I could have been. That I absolutely failed at managing my time and my students suffered because of it. The whole entire thing was a mess. My students aren't learning. My students got a lesson that was sub-par and that's my fault. How are they supposed to make gains and meet goals if I fail them? As I discussed this with her, I thought of some of my kids... kids who are learning to speak English and kids who are learning how to read, and I could, if only for a moment, visualize them in a few years with and then without the success I need to help them reach. My eyes welled up with tears in front of my CMA. At times, I saw her eyes well up, too. When I used a text on Alcatraz, I prompted my kids to imagine they had just been given the command to build the world's strongest prison. How would they make it a successful prison? One of my students told me he would implement educational programs for prisoners to get better. I almost cried then and there. If anything, Institute is attacking my indestructible aura that I thought I had so toughly built up. I haven't gotten teary-eyed this rapidly in succession ever in my life. After we had that talk, though, I began to feel better. Friday, I got to teach Vocab and Test Prep, and it was a much more successful day for me. For all of us. I got observed again by my CMA and our LS (Literacy Specialist) and they both had great things to say. I was back to feeling proud and effective. But then our students' assessment scores from the week came back. Back to my point, they do great on our practices in class, but they're struggling on the actual independent assessment. This reflects on us as teachers. For week 3, I need to get better. I must get better. Luckily, I think the first step to getting better is admitting you've failed and realizing where you need to improve. At the risk of sounding like an AA program, I won't go any further about "steps". But I have solutions on my mind. Be firmer with behavior management. Be more cognizant of time and respect the serious importance of a well-structured itinerary. Rehearse more. Make better assessments. One thing we've done well, though, is establish rapport with our students. With each day, we've gotten closer with them. Helping them academically, sure, but making little (yet significant) connections with almost every single one. We've pinpointed a few we need to hone in on next week. Because this class is much like a family. And we will look out for each other. And we will make sure every one is accounted for. And we will all succeed together. That starts with us becoming more accountable, more effective, and more resilient. I have been TKO'd by this week. But I will not stop. I can admit to my failures and own them. But I will leave them behind me and take this next week as an opportunity to succeed. We will.

Mosquitos Are Not Fun

After everything I had heard or read about Institute, I was prepared for almost anything. I was ready for a sleep-deprived zombie-fest in which everyone stumbled around looking disheveled and slightly unhinged.  While I have been tired—the product of five days without more than six and a half hours of sleep—it has been more than manageable.  Almost everyone I spoke with was doing fine and even those who had to rely on industrial strength coffee were fully functional. Speaking of coffee, one of the better modes of its transportation that I have seen these past two weeks is this 64 oz. behemoth of a container: I immediately wanted this thermos after seeing it and I don’t even drink coffee.  Once I scrounge together enough cash (it’s pretty expensive on a paltry teacher salary), I am going to buy it as a replacement for my water bottle.  It holds 64 oz. and keeps the contents cool, AT THE SAME TIME!! It is AMAZING! But I digress. One doomsday prophecy that has lived up to the expectations has been the mosquitos.  We were told to buy bug spray before entering the Delta so that we could be prepared for the onslaught that would surely come.  I brought one can to induction but soon learned that this was not enough, or so I thought.  One of my region buddies made it seem like bug spray could only be purchased in Charlotte because the Delta had run out due to the Mississippi’s flooding.  He basically forced me to buy four more cans so that I could be spared from the Malaria or West Nile virus that all mosquitos carry.  His central argument was that if you run out, you will die or something like that.  Anyways, suffice to say, five cans of bug spray is overkill but one can is definitely a necessity.  The first day, I sprayed my arms and legs but only one of my hands and of course, the only place I got bitten was the one hand that I didn’t spray.  On the second night of Institute while I was in what I thought was a safe haven i.e. my room, my face was bitten three times:  once on the forehead, once on the bridge of my nose, and once on my cheek.  You haven’t lived until you have a mosquito bite on the bridge of your nose.  It looks like a bad sunburn that no amount of cortisone can combat.  I have learned the only way to remain bite free is to bathe in deet and hope for the best. The most exciting part of Institute so far, other than golfing using a miniature-golf putter because they didn’t have a lefty, has been the dorms.  They are the best on-campus mode of housing that I have ever seen.  The rooms are really nice and there is a spacious bathroom in each room.  I was pleasantly surprised after hearing about where the 2010 Charlotte corps members were stationed. The beds are comfy and the AC is in working order.  Coming home to a nicely cooled room has been wonderful. All in all, Institute has been a pretty good experience so far and the teaching begins on Monday so I am pretty excited.  Lesson planning has gone moderately well and I am looking forward to teaching the kids how to enter and exit the classroom quietly and in an orderly fashion. Besides the mosquitos, I would have to say that Institute has been a success so far.


The Mighty Mississippi

Well, clearly I haven't been doing a good job of keeping up with this whole blog thing. It's amazing how busy Induction week and the first week of Institute have been. The short recap of induction involves a flat tire in Louisville, arriving late in Charlotte, attending intense and emotional sessions that only drove my passion for this work, going out with 2010's and picking their brains for advice, saying goodbye to my boyfriend, apartment hunting (successful - cannot wait!), and most importantly - beginning to build some strong friendships. And now - Institute. How to begin. Well, first, you should know that I was dreading the Mississippi Delta and having to stay here for 5 weeks. But surely enough, as we were driving through the flat but beautiful Delta - I fell in love. I am shocked at how much I love this place, the people, the culture, everything (including, occasionally, the hot hot Mississippi weather). Institute has been pretty intense so far though - I wake up at 4:45 every morning to ride a warm bus to my school placement that is almost an hour away, then attend session after session with little breaks until 4:30pm when we load that bus (which is now HOT instead of warm) back to DSU's campus to arrive in time for the sweaty shoving and pushing that occurs in the dining hall around dinner. Then it's off to lesson plan or do "homework" for 3-4 hours (maybe more) and hopefully hop into bed by midnight in attempts of getting at least 4.5hrs of sleep before doing it all over again. So, with that said, if I haven't been calling you or keeping up with friendships enough - I apologize. I would use my hour bus ride as chat time, if only I had steady service while driving through the vast rural farming land... After a week of preparation (2 including Induction), tomorrow is my first day of teaching. I am placed to teach entering 8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) at Greenville-Weston High School for the next 4 weeks of summer school. I cannot wait to meet my kids tomorrow morning. We have been making plans for them and talking about them hypothetically for a while now and it will be so amazing to finally meet them and see how they really are. - - Alright, now let's transition into story time. Last night was probably one of the best nights of my life - and DEFINITELY the best night of the summer. It started with 35 of us Charlotte Corps Members going out to dinner at a local Mexican restaurant. After a few margaritas and some great conversation, 9 of us decided to go on a journey to find the Mississippi river. We drove down a long flat rode with the windows down, blasting music, as the sun set and the warm Mississippi air poured into the car that I was riding in. Then we came to the park we had heard would lead to the river - but of course, the park was gated closed (which we assumed was due to it being pretty late, but then later found out it was most likely due to flooding damage and fallen trees - It definitely hadn't been open in quite a while). So of course we parked the cars in front of the gate, and climbed around it. Walking in the darkness we reached a beautiful lake, cracked open some beers, and continued our journey. After a long, long stretch of dark woods, we had almost given up. At this point, many of the girls were getting scared and there was an eery feeling that was sort of looming over us - after all, we were alone, no one knew where we were, we were clearly trespassing deep into these woods, and had no cellphone service. One of the guys decided he would run ahead and find the river, then run back and lead us to it - determination. We protested, saying it wasn't safe to split up, but off he ran until we couldn't see him anymore. The rest of us kept walking, hoping he would come running back shortly. But, as we kept walking, and walking, he never appeared. We reached a giant tree that had fallen across the path - seemingly with no way around or over it, and we panicked. We yelled and yelled his name, then finally found a way around the tree and realized he must have kept going. Then in the distance, we heard him coming - panting and sweating, "Guys! I found it! It's just up here!" And we trekked on. The woods opened up to this beautiful clearing with pools of water around us. The ground crunched beneath our feet - since this area had flooded and then dried, the ground was so dry it sounded like popping bubble wrap as we walked. Our friend had found an observation tower which had a sign that said "Closed For Winter" on it (obviously hasn't been used in a while), and we began to climb the 8 stories to the top. Was it a smart idea to put 9 people on a janky wooden 8-story tower that creeked and swayed as we went higher? Probably not. When we got to the top we were overlooking the mighty Mississippi River. The stars we brilliant and the hot breeze was blowing through our hair as we stood in silence. We began laughing and complaining of the heat, but every couple minutes we would all just stop and take it in. Then one guy, who tends to be the motivational speaker of the group, pulled us in for a huddle. We stood in a circle with our sweaty arms around each other and vowed to never forget this moment - obviously this was all done as a huge joke as he carried on about how our journey to the river is like the ones we'll have with the kids we teach - full of obstacles but if we don't give up, we'll make it to the beautiful ending (something like that). We all laughed and joked, then threw our hands into the middle of the circle and yelled "Charlotte!" on the count of three - but in a sense, we all knew it was real. We had shared something together this night - and we will never forget it. All that said - I absolutely LOVE this place. And I love these people. - Kris.


the dawn of Ms. S

Today marks the beginning of Week 2 of Institute.  In other words, we're 20% done with Institute, and if you include Induction, 1/3 of the way with our summer TFA training!  That's great! This week was really long.  But it was good, at the same time.  I learned SO much about lesson planning, classroom management, and investing my students.  "Investing" is one of those TFA words that I now find myself using more often than I'd care to admit.  In that vein, it's hard for me to be completely invested in my class this summer (that's probably because I haven't met them -- I'm sure meeting them will change everything).  I'm teaching the same group of entering 8th graders with one other math teacher and 2 English teachers, and we share a classroom and all of the decisions for that classroom.  It's been like the ultimate group project, and the stakes are high.  We've all ended up compromising our own very specific ideas for our future classrooms, and some of it has been hard for me, because we're doing things differently than I would do them myself.  So it's easy to say to myself, "Well, when I have my own class, I'll do this...".  But I know I need to be grateful to have the support and collaboration of my co-teachers, and take advantage of that while I can.  Plus they're amazing people. One thing I did notice about this last week is that when you have as rigid of a structure as TFA enforces during the week, you don't have time to think or feel a whole lot. But when that structure goes away, as it does on the weekends, all of those thoughts and feelings that you haven't let yourself think and feel all week hit you very hard. I had thought I was holding up so well all week -- it was really hard to get up at 4:15 every morning, but I didn't feel too tired for the rest of the day most days.  I even managed to go to the gym.  But yesterday morning was a different story.  It was like my exhaustion finally caught up with me, and it took me two hours to drag myself out of bed, a full six hours (wow!) after I normally got up.  And the emotions caught up too -- they were mostly good, but all very extreme and it was a mood swing-y kind of day. Thankfully I got a lot done, and I'm starting to feel more comfortable with lesson planning!  I need to practice and practice so that I get faster at them.  That's the main reason I haven't gotten a lot of sleep so far: it takes me too long to plan lessons.  But that's normal, I guess, and that's why they're giving us all of these really strict deadlines: to force us to learn to lesson plan efficiently. We had a nice little ceremony at my school on Friday, where we received our "Teacher Names".  It was pretty cool, actually, even though all our "Teacher Names" entailed was a lanyard and a plastic nametag with "Ms. S" written on it.  We've all started calling each other by our last names, just to get used to it. Today is church, calling my parents, rehearsing my lessons for this week, and hopefully meeting with my co-teachers about this week.  There's a lot we have to do before the students come tomorrow, and that makes me just a little bit nervous. Speaking of nervous: the students come tomorrow!!!  Eeep!  All we're doing is teaching rules and procedures and giving a diagnostic, so it shouldn't be too bad, but I still have my moments of terror.  I teach the last block of the day, and they happen to have lunch right smack dab in the middle of my block.  So tomorrow I have to supervise their taking a test that they've already been working on for an hour, walk them through the school to the cafeteria, sit and eat lunch with them, walk them back, and make them finish said test after they've had lunch.  That's what I'm the most nervous about, and I'm prepared to do whatever I need to do (there might be bribery involved) to get them to walk to and from the cafeteria silently, because that's when the rest of the school is watching them (and me). Then on Tuesday I'm teaching Order of Operations.  I have a very scripted lesson plan and I plan to rehearse it a lot today, but I still have this fear that I'll be up there talking and somehow I won't teach the kids anything.  But I am grateful that you only ever have one first day of teaching, and every day has to be better than that because it's not your first day.  Even if things go badly and the kids misbehave, it's still not your first day of teaching. Overall, Institute has been a good experience so far.  Though the sleep deprivation isn't very fun, I'm spending all day each day learning and working with great people, and it's all for the kids.  I'm sure I'll realize that even more when I actually meet them. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YoX_zWmiiA&feature=player_embedded#at=12 This was ridiculously inspirational to me.  My principal showed it at the end of the day the other day, and it was a good reminder that we will get better at this whole teaching thing.  We just have to practice.  Everyone feels like they suck at lesson planning/teaching right now, and we're not very good yet, but it's important to remember that it's normal not to be good at something right away.  We're all such overachievers that we forget that, and we forget that all of the other overachievers are feeling the same way. Hopefully that I'll remember that this week, and I'll feel "happy of myself" when I do make progress!


Year 1 In Review

WOW! What an amazing year this turned out to be! I really couldn't have asked for anything better than what I experienced with my 5th and 6th graders this year. I think an overlaying theme of my school year has been personal growth. My students and I both, have grown so much and we've helped each other become more effective in our classroom. When I look at quantitative growth, I sit here extremely proud of my students for making significant gains in their academic course work. This means that my kids performed at or above the level of their peers in more higher performing areas close to Nashville on the Formative Assessment for Social Studies! This has been a great accomplishment because my students truly did it for themselves. They worked hard for themselves, and ultimately achieved for themselves. When I think about more of my major successes with my students, I think about their qualitative growth. My goal was to work towards creating effective and contributing citizens to the Nashville community. I have seen my students grow both physically and mentally, and I've seen them evolve in students who know right from wrong and can successfully choose the way they perform and behave in the classroom. I see students who are polite, caring, and inquisitive. I see students who have great handshakes, smart study skills, and their own personality. If anyone were to ever ask me what has been the most pleasing and rewarding thing I've ever done, I will always refer to my experience in the classroom with my 95 shining stars on their way to becoming college bound and some of our country's greatest successes. The best part about all of this is that there is still SO much to be done. I look forward to working with middle school students for a long time to come! I'm in this for the long haul. I'm also looking forward to helping new teachers develop down in the Mississippi Delta at Institute! Until next time, Mr. F


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