updates for 07.04.2011
There are so many new posts from TFAers who have just started their Institute experiences, and it feels so weird to realize that I am now more than halfway done with mine. So where have we gotten, me and my 3 fellow collaborative (henceforth collab) members and our 16 soon-to-be-first-graders? I know you know we've all learned a ton, from teaching strategies to mindsets to how to work better in a team. But let's talk about the kids, because they're cuter anyway. The kids have learned, as we found out from our Mid-Institute Assessment last week. They've grown a little more than average amounts in math, and have mastered a lot of critical thinking skills in reading. Although upon seeing the results of the MIA (we do love the acronyms here at TFA, all the CMs and SDs and SOMs and CMAs, especially in our CS sessions or DCA relfections), I find myself in the same position as the teachers who claim that test scores don't really reflect what their kids know. I was sympathetic to this problem before, but now I get it. I have kids who I know can do a problem, without a doubt, because they got 23 of the exact same problem right in the morning with me. But they missed it on the assessment in the afternoon. Some of it is just frustration: tests have to be given in the exact format written, which means a lot of slow reading at the pace of the slowest student, at which point faster students get bored, skip ahead, don't understand the problem, circle something random, skip it and get it wrong (this is huge: my most advanced student left 1/4 of the problems blank or mis-answered because she was bored waiting for people and tried to do it on her own). Some is formatting: kids who could demonstrate a skill when they had to fill in a blank can't do it when they have to circle an answer. A lot is vocabulary: a kid who completely understands how to tell a joining story can't figure out what to do when told to "tell a story that uses the plus sign." Of course, we could and do teach things with the exact vocabulary students will see on the assessment, to avoid these issues. But sometimes the assessment language is so confusing that although you mention that language over and over, the kids understand and learn the teacher explanation; when given the assessment language again, they get completely confused. And this doesn't even get into test anxiety and the fact that you aren't allowed to reassure kids or give clarifying information. The problem is that if you are a middle-class kid with a reasonably high vocabulary and solid reading skills, you can figure out what you're supposed to be doing even if you haven't seen the format before or the language is a little different. If you're a low-income kid just learning English with a pretty limited vocabulary, you're learning 100 words a week; if the convoluted assessment words weren't the ones that stuck, you're out of luck. You don't have the kind of print and language experience that teaches you to extrapolate from what's there to show what you know. And you might very well have the kind of confidence problems brought on by poor past test experiences that make you doubt your ability to do this in the first place. I'm not saying anything revolutionary here, and I'm also not naming any problems that couldn't be true for any kid anywhere, regardless of class or income. I'm also not trying to make excuses for my kids--in fact, they grew significantly from pre-test to MIA, so I don't really need to. But I'm the one who graded those assessments, and I know my kids know more than that. We're going to review and reteach and review some more, and hopefully in two weeks I'll be telling you all about how my kids rocked their End-of-Institute Assessment. I'm not OK with the typical response to test frustrations, namely that since I know the kids learned more than that it's acceptable that the test didn't show it. Because here's the thing: if they can't show someone what they know, can't recognize themselves what they know, and can't even extrapolate their knowledge from a fill-in-the-blank to a multiple choice problem, how are they going to be able to use that skill at all? It's very frustrating for both of us.
At Institute, the staff really stresses taking "personal time" (i.e., not working on Saturdays, having a "stop time" where you promise yourself to go to bed each night, etc). So far, the focus on it seems a little silly. After all, it's just basic time management to know when you need to stop/break and we haven't had that much work yet (I've been getting about 6 hours of sleep a night weekdays, and about 8 on weekends). That said, I'm grateful to the staff for caring about our well-being and making sure no one's pull all-nighters the first week. Plus, it gave me a great excuse to go into the city this weekend! (Note: "weekend" in TFA means Friday night and Saturday. We went around talking in my dorm room this morning talking about "how was your weekend?". No one thought this was strange or pointed out it is still technically the weekend.) Both Friday night and Saturday, I went into Manhattan, which I have taken to calling "downtown". New York geography is something of a mystery to me, so I'm probably misusing directional terms like "downtown", "up", "down" etc. Some quick observations about New York: - Starting out on NY mass transit can be a bit difficult. For one thing, their buses don't take dollar bills! (In Chicago, we can pay with either transit cards, coins, or bills.) No one mentioned this to me, so I was at the mercy of fellow bus patrons the first time I went downtown. Luckily, there was a kind woman who swiped me on using her bus card. They also don't announce or display stops on NY buses. You just have to know when to request a stop by looking outside. You request a stop by... pushing on a strip of plastic camouflaged in the lining of the windows. (I've seen pull cords, stop buttons, and a few other mechanisms, but never one hidden inside the bus!) I'll take a picture of this soon and try to post it next weekend. That said, transit is everywhere and relatively quick, so I'm not going to hold these flaws against them. - New Yorkers are surprisingly sweet (which shouldn't have been a surprise, given all the awesome NYers I know!). In Chicago, there's very much a culture of "Chicagoans helping Chicagoans". People are great to each other and always quick to suggest some spot to check out or program that could help them. We are... less fond of tourists. We're not mean or anything, but they have an unfortunate habit of getting in the way. NYers, on the other hand, seem determined to help you enjoy their city. People have been fantastic about helping me get where I need to go, giving unsolicited advice on how to get there better, and helping me have a great experience. I've bought student rush tickets to three shows this weekend and every single time, the usher helped me get a better seat out of the goodness of his/her heart. So, what I actually did this weekend! Well, first, I headed downtown to try to get tickets to Book of Mormon. It's sold out until next year (literally!), but they have 22 lottery tickets for every show. So I participated in my first lottery (and then did it again). I didn't win either time, but it's still a bit of a thrill and I hope to keep trying and maybe get it sometime. I've got four weekends, and I hope to spend at least one day of them doing fun things. After not getting a ticket to Book of Mormon, I wandered the theater district waiting to see what struck my fancy. I had been leaning towards the new Spiderman musical (I know it's supposed to be dreadful, but it's about superheros!), but thanks to one of those costumed ad people that give out flyers, I wound up at Catch Me if You Can. I've decided that my favorite thing to do might be to just wander the theater district until I see a show that catches my fancy*. After buying my ticket, I went to chill out at MOMA for a while. They have free Friday evenings sponsored by Target, which I've managed to catch twice this year. It's a great way to kill a couple hours in between dinner and an 8pm show. *The one problem with this is that sometimes I get very attached to a show that turns out to have already closed! There are posters up everywhere for Wonderland, which I super duper would have loved to see, except it closed in May after only a handful of performances. And, of course, sometimes they're sold out. But that's okay because there's always standing room/next weekend! I really love going to museums on public free days. When I go on a paying day, especially if I show up right around the opening, I always feel out of place. I always feel like people are watching me look at the art and deciding if I'm legitimate. I also don't do art museums like a normal person. I just sort of wander aimlessly, sometimes circling a room two or three times, and then stopping in front of something for a while to think and then moving on, just taking it in. I like the feeling of art museums much more than any specific gallery (except for a few!). But public free days are the best, because that's when the people like me are there. I love watching people take pictures of their kids with a Monet or a couple of high school kids trying to translate the Spanish text on a Kahlo. I especially love going to a museum that I've been to before, so I can wander about with just a vague idea of where I want to go and eventually wind up somewhere great. I only had about an hour and a half at MOMA, but they had a great special exhibit about German Expressionism. Very raw and interesting, although I would have loved to bring along one of my German-speaking friends (both because she would have liked it even more, and so I could have a translator for the poster pieces!). Now, for the shows I saw both days (note: If you're the jealous, angry, theater type or not interested in theater at all, you probably want to stop reading here. That's okay. I love you all anyway): - Catch Me if You Can: This was the show that taught me that Broadway shows offer student rush! For much cheaper than the TKTS booth! The show is based on the book/movie of the same name. The script/production itself isn't stellar. It's one of those cliched productions that feels a bit gimmicky and has more musical numbers than plot or character development. That said, I'd still recommend this production because the actors in it are so amazing! Aaron Tveit, who I have adored since he originated Gabe in Next to Normal, is one of the best young actors on Broadway today. His voice fills a room in a way I've seen few famous actors do, and the emotion of his performances is amazing. He had me near tears in the second-to-last scene, even though the emotional turn of events was far too sudden and made almost no sense plot-wise. Norbert Leo Butz, a two-time Tony Winner, is hilarious and has talent oozing out of his pores. One of his numbers was the first time I ever saw an actor have to ask an audience to stop clapping so they could move on with the show. [caption id="attachment_17" align="alignnone" width="224" caption="That would be Aaron Tveit signing my program! He is shockingly handsome in person, even for a professional actor."][/caption] - Jerusalem: I had no intention of seeing this play, although it had been recommended to me (I'm not that into sad plays). However, through a series of unexpected errors, I wound up wandering into the theater after several of my plans fell through. It was fantastic! The power of this show (which was imported to Broadway with almost the entire West End cast) comes not from the plot, but from the pacing and acting. I can imagine it going very, very poorly with a different cast. As it was last night, it is part love-letter to that scoundrel who taught us to break the rules (this actually reminded of part of the Father's Day Freakonomics podcast), part eulogy for that childlike freedom from consequences, and part cautionary tale about breaking ties with a community. It is by no means happy. It's the sort of play that makes you walk out thinking deeply, feeling somehow shifted into a higher plane where everything feels a bit fuzzy. As I walked out, I saw a couple from the audience standing in the sidewalk holding each other, not saying anything. They eventually shuffled to the side of the sidewalk, still hugging. Jerusalem is that sort of play, the kind that makes you want to hold your loved ones close and never let them go, protecting each other from the world. - Anything Goes: Despite a very well-advised recommendation from my grandmother, I didn't really plan on seeing this show either. However, I learned that it features Sutton Foster (who is another of my Top 10 Broadway Idols) and that she was going on vacation from the show on July 17. I couldn't be sure I would get another shot downtown before then, and I was in the mood for something traditional and happy by dinnertime. Since winning the Best Revival Tony, this show has been mostly sold out for ages. However, they were offering $30 standing room tickets, and I was promised that we could see everything from the back of the mezzanine. Which was completely true. In fact, the show was so amazing that I completely forgot I was standing (I've discovered that, like my father, I want to be standing or walking a hefty portion of the day). And, at intermission, the usher let me take someone who hadn't shown up's completely-center-second-row-of-the-mezzanine seat (wow!). I would encourage anyone who's in the NY area to go (I might even go with you!). It has what is certainly the most impressive dance number (the title number) that I have seen in my entire life. Well, I'm off to print handouts and lesson plan! More updates as interesting things happen!
I don't really know how to describe institute. Yes, it is a lot of work. But I think most of us knew that it would be. I have no complaints about the workload because, honestly, if you are efficient and productive, it's not that overwhelming (but it is definitely a lot, and it is not always easy to be efficient and productive when so much of it is group work and so much if it is incredibly confusing and the templates you're forced to use are hard on your computer/brain!). I haven't gone to bed past 11 once since institute started, but maybe I'm just weird like that. I've always been an extremely, extremely efficient worker, and this is a skill I picked up in high school and hope to always be able to claim. I do have a bit of a procrastination problem, but the set up of institute makes procrastination pretty much impossible since there are already so few workable hours in the day. So, anyway. I have no problem with the workload but it's definitely strenuous. There is just a LOT of information to learn and a lot that needs to get done. I'm sure it will change on Tuesday when actual classes start. Waking up early is definitely difficult (probably the worst part of institute) but there is so much folklore around sleep at institute that that shouldn't really surprise anyone. I am teaching pre-k (3) starting on Tuesday, which is definitely a new experience for me altogether. It's a little hard because in the ECE classes there are 4-CM collaborative groups sharing the same class, which means that there are four personalities and needs and desires to juggle at all times and it can be a bit of a challenge. I think that our collab is working reasonably well and I am excited about our kids finally coming in next week. We all definitely have really different learning/teaching/communicating styles, so I am a little worried about us being consistent with our 20 3 year olds (consistency is very important for young children, particularly with consequence and rewards systems). I have learned SO much about classroom management/how to get through to young children this week that I don't even know where to start. I suppose the resonant points for me have been that many of these children will never have set foot in a classroom before. They don't know how to raise hands, line up, sit on the carpet, or hold pencils (for the most part; I'm sure some do know these things) because they've never been in school before and, duh, no one has taught them how to be in school. At the same time, though, about half of our children will have already taken pre-k 3 and need to pass our summer assessments in order to progress to kindergarten (while the others are just starting early for the summer and will go into pre-k 3 in the fall). This means that half of our kids are able to write their own names, while the other half doesn't know how to hold pencils or write. This is really freaking me out a lot but I seem to be the only one in our collab who is particularly worried about it, so maybe I'm just paranoid? As for the other aspects of TFA, I'm still not really sure what to say and very little I feel comfortable putting on a public blogging network. I will say I am really into TFA's mission and message still, and I am really impressed with the methodology and many of my fears have been quelled by seminars and sessions and one-on-one conversations I've had with current CMs. However, I will say that TFA's "culture" is overwhelming to me, for sure. I guess I would be considered kind of an "introvert" (although I've never seen myself like that before) and thus all of the high energy group bonding has really been hard to deal with for me. I get literally no time to myself whatsoever (although I love my roommate, so no complaints about that) which is hard because I derive energy from being alone (and I really don't think there's anything wrong with that). I'm 21 years old and forgive me but I'm not really interested in rhyming cheers and chants and ice breaker games that have you writing a poem about your personality. I appreciate the necessity of recognizing my role as a team member in this process, and I am a part of the team, or else I would not be here. I don't know. I apologize for the negativity I'm displaying here and I know that my negativity about team spirit stuff is probably palpable to everyone around me in person at group events, too, which makes me really sad because I DO want to be here and I understand why team building is important. It's just that I went to a college where we didn't really have sports teams, there was absolutely zero Greek life, everyone knew EVERYONE else (for a reference point, the number of Baltimore CMs is more than half the number of people who went to my entire college, and the amount of CMs at Philly institute is more than double the size), there was no such thing as a "business major" and we had like 20 school colors that definitely did not match in any way. This has been a really hard adjustment for me (liberal arts schools are such a curse sometimes). And I feel that TFA overdoes it, a lot, with the team building and I feel comfortable saying this (at least on the internet). I can still be a committed member of TFA and of the Baltimore corps without shouting about it, right? I am certain that TFA loses people like me over this every year, to be honest, because it's alienating. People who are dedicated and passionate and care about children and want to teach and love their region and like TFA holistically, but who are forced into believing that if they cannot fully embrace and integrate into TFA's "corps climate" then they can't be successful Teach For America corps members. I feel that all of the encouragement for CMs to live and breathe together makes TFA such an insular, cult-like environment that it causes some CMs to lose perspective a little, and that scares me. I just want to say that I am in no way trying to criticize TFA's climate, really, because I know these team building exercises and all of this patting ourselves on the back is really important and necessary for some people to make a comfortable transition into working for TFA. But this environment is not what works for everyone by any means, and there is nothing wrong with that. I've met some AWESOME people here who I love and everyone I've met virtually is so smart and accomplished and impressive. I'm not saying I don't want to be here or that I don't like the people here, just that I have different needs in making a huge life transition than many other people do.
I am soooooooo jealous of all the other institutes that have tomorrow off. Philly doesn't. (We get to start a little late, but still, it's not the same thing.)
Well I have to agree that institute is crazy and getting up at 4:45 sucks a lot but it really isn't that bad. Most of the sessions are pretty boring but nothing is like too ridiculous. Lesson planning is intense but CMA's ROCK and help you out so much that is just not that bad. I think the secret of surviving at Institute is to do your work as much as you can during the day and to realize that someone who gets 2 hours of sleep a night is less helpful to their kids than someone who got 7...I can't even say 8 cause it's impossible to get 8 hours of sleep. Also, I think going home to Baltimore is going to save me. I came home yesterday and felt this huge sigh of relief. Baltimore has just been waiting for me and nothing has changed. my friends were all excited to see me and the love of my life, a 2 year old puppy, was all I needed to feel the stress just melt away. The only thing that could really help would be if we could get up at like 6, that would just make a world of difference!! We also had two days last week where we didn't have to get up until 7 or 8 which was awesome!! This week we have a 1/2 day for the 4th of July and then we get our kiddies!!! YAY!!!! That will make everything way less boring!! Also, there are some awesome people here. I think that you need to weed through the white knights and super-dooper overachievers, but there are def some awesome people! And there is a lot of spirit which is kind of a nice experience because I have never really had that at college or anything...it feels nice to be united around a common cause especially one that is so important. I swear I am resisting the Kool-AID but it does feel good to scream out, "BMORE...HARDCORE!" The only thing that is sh****y is that I still have no job ) : What if I am doing all of this for nothing and I never get a job and i am just fucked...that would suck. But me n my best friend from college just found a place over in Ridgley's Delight with a yard for the dog and 2 bedrooms n 2 bathrooms...which is so ideal!! Gonna go enjoy my last day in Baltimore before returning to the trenches.
Weeks 2 & 3. Wow. Despite all earnest intentions of managing a continually updated time, I have fallen victim to the limited hours of free time in the day. Such is the nature of TFA Institute. Friends and family fall to the wayside, and your primary focus becomes the kids you struggle to teach each day. I really do mean to call it a struggle, although some might consider that a misnomer. It’s a struggle to crawl out of bed at 5:45 after only a few hours of sleep. It’s a struggle to get on a non-air conditioned bus to drive an hour south in the Mississippi Delta to get to your school. It’s a struggle to teach 8 amazing kids in a room without windows or a/c (my room is actually a constant 88 degree, humid furnace at all times). It’s a struggle to know how you’re growing as a teacher, and that your learning curve is a major disservice to these kids at times. It is a struggle, but it’s worth it and it’s already incredibly rewarding. During our first week of teaching, I gave my 8 lovely students a quiz to hopefully learn more about them. I learned that many didn’t like math, or school, or had an unhealthy obsession with hot cheetos. But I learned that S wants to be a cardiologist – and is adamant about leaving her hometown. I learned that C wants to change her attitude, because she knows it’s preventing her from achieving her potential. I’ve seen that J has a great mind and is capable of so much – he’s just been allowed to feel like he can’t for so long. The first week, my kids made some great gains. Our retest after lessons showed mastery of objectives they struggled with in class, and showed a great deal of retention (yay!). This past week, however, was hard. And I mean hard. The objectives were difficult ones to teach, yes. But I ultimately failed in finding the right ways to present the material in ways that were captivating and attainable for my students. It’s hard to feel like I didn’t waste their time – but maybe that’s just the perfectionist in me. At any rate, I do love these kids. I still don’t “feel” like a teacher, but I definitely don’t feel like the person I was even 3, 4 weeks ago.
This week has been out of control. I have slept less than 5 hours a night. Lesson planning is hard and I get little feedback except that I need to do them over. I am having more problems with content than I thought- I need to research what everything is that I'm teaching extensively before I start trying to teach it. Teach For America- could you have leveraged the motivation with the work over these past 2 weeks? I was SO TIRED of talking about TFA's core values and know I miss those days in the midst of 2 lesson plans a day, management plans, investment plans, sessions on DCA (diversity something or other), visions, parent letters, contact cards, posters for my class, grading assessments, creating HW assignments, and more. I NEED SLEEP! My goal for the past couple of days was to not complain and to get my stuff done quickly and efficiently. Nonetheless, I broke the goal a couple of times. I am feeling frustrated with the amount of feedback I get on my assignments when I know I need feedback. I also know they aren't "assignments". These are things that will determine whether my kids are going to pass the Regents Exam come August. The stakes so high, the stress is high. I need support. But I feel a little lonely at Institute. It IS hard to get to know people in meaningful ways while all you have time to do is ask each other what worksheet they used for the Inferencing lesson. I am teaching at Bronx Preparatory Charter School- such an amazing school. I would be so stoked to work there for the whole year if I was in the NY corps. I have a phone interview with Achievement First at 12 pm today... wish me luck! Keeping my fingers crossed that I will be placed soon. Keep in touch all who read this- which is probably just Danielle haha :)
Week one of Institute is complete. I celebrated by hiking a trail that ends at the Hollywood sign with the Hiking CCG group. There was such breathtaking views on this 5 mile hike. Our reward after we completed it: My first ever In N Out burger. Wait, what? I had free time? Ha. I am so glad that I got to spend some time off campus because I needed a few hours to forget about TFA, LPs, WIDWATW and behavioral narration. The sessions this past week have been really beneficial and I have been able to take at least one idea that will help me become a more effective teacher. This is important since I teach on Tuesday! On Friday our school held a "Popsicles with your Teachers" meet and greet where parents and students could meet us! It was so surreal eating popsicles with my students knowing that on Tuesday I will be teaching them how to add and subtract money amounts. To say I am nervous is an understatement. I know my hike at Institute has only begun, I still have four more weeks of rough terrane to hike on until I reach the top!
When I have told the new 2011 CMs that I just finished my 6th year in the classroom, I get these awed looks. I always feel slightly embarrassed by that reaction. If you've read Outliers by Gladwell, you'd understand my hesitation to let anyone call me an expert. Also, considering the number of subjects I've now taught, I'm not sure I've developed much of a competency is any of them. Now, I'm heading off into another field of ed entirely - special education. I start my "alternate accelerated route to certification" for SPED on Tuesday. I'm trying to be excited but I'm not. What is exciting to me about SPED is the legal compliance, and I already know most of that stuff. What is not exciting to me is the actual pedagogy, which would be the part I don't know. I have been very blunt with my school about this. They know that I would rather be a bean-counting paper-pusher than a teacher, and yet they decide to send me for SPED certification anyway. I have a melt-down and declare I hate teaching, and no one bats an eye...? Here's the interesting thing: once your school decides they need you, they'll fight like hell - even against you and good sense - to keep you. I'm now feeling like I can't escape. I can't get out of teaching now that I've gotten in. This isn't true at all. I've turned down two other jobs and law school. I guess, in the balance, I prefer teaching to being broke. And I love living in New Haven enough that I would rather be here doing a job I like half the time than living somewhere else I don't like doing a job I love. I know people expect a lesson or a moral or a key takeaway from this post. She wouldn't throw something that ambivalent up here without a message about teaching, you might think. I would. But this is not that ambivalent post without some moralizing. TFA and other ed reform movements project a lot of zeal, and somehow it seems that you should feel the anger at social injustice in your chest everyday that you teach the disadvantaged. When the ed-Maccabees have come down from the hills and the shouting is over and the signs are in the recycling bin, it is your life. Your life will be more than teaching and your teaching will be more than zeal over injustice. Some days you will be angry that a 17-year-old reads like a 5th grader, and some days you will be angry that someone took the last cup of coffee and didn't make more. Some days you'll be upset about the last civil rights battle of our generation, and some days you'll be upset that you can't go skiing during spring break because you need to write a unit plan. I think it's okay to not be "on message" all the time; it's okay to be human and not constantly perform amazing feats of educational strength. Be angry about how much you've sacrificed to teach. Be angry that you can't run off to Europe or drive a BMW. Be petty. Yell. Then go back tomorrow and teach. It's like a marriage. You won't be in love with teaching all the time; not everyday is a high. But you work at it, and you will love it whether you like it that day or not.
Many people have been commenting that they'd like more helpful teaching advice and fewer angry rants from me. When I started writing this blog, that was the main point, and most of my earlier posts were just that. So what I've done is create a 'category' of teaching advice so new CMs can be more efficient with their time and not have to sift through the nearly 100 posts in the archive. Click Here to see the teaching advice posts and be sure to comment if you have any questions about topics you might want to hear more about.
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