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updates for 07.08.2011

15 new posts today

Let's be less dramatic, shall we?

I feel like I turn to this blog a lot to process my experiences in writing, which often means that they have a snapshot moment or powerful feeling at the middle of them. I'm realizing this may be somewhat melodramatic to read all the time. So while I have just come from the first-ever Native Achievement Initiative meeting ever held at a TFA Institute, the first meeting to focus specifically on Native issues and communities with 3 corps who will be working with Native kids (South Dakota, Oklahoma and NEW MEXICORPS!), I'm going to put that post off till tomorrow in favor of something a little less dramatic. Here are my 2 less dramatic thoughts:

  1. I (think I) suck significantly less at teaching now than I used to.
  2. I've had no time to talk to my friends recently.
Re: statement 1, I think the thing I am taking away from Institute is an ability to tell which area is currently malfunctioning in my classroom. We have all these big theoretical conversations about What Is Investment or Why We Should Manage Behavior, and I'm often frustrated because yeah, I buy it, investment matters, now tell me something practical already! But the good bit of this is that when my kids were bopping around this afternoon not quite with it (read: flopping on the carpet) I could figure out that it wasn't my content, it wasn't my scaffolding, it wasn't my expectations or behavior management technique, it was my investment strategy that was lacking. Which is why my kids, although they learned the objective, didn't care about it at all. Classroom diagnosis is good because although I'm kicking myself for not fixing it at the time, I know what went wrong to fix it now. Re: statement 2, I'm pretty bummed. My friends matter so much to me, and I value their opinions and insight and jokes and funny faces and dance moves and so much more, but for the past month or so I have quite honestly not had the time to even call them. The time difference doesn't help, because by the time I'm finished with lessons for tomorrow it's 1:30 in Chicago and 2:30 in Boston (that's in the morning) which is a bit past calling hours. If you're one of those special people I love so much, rest assured that I both love you so much and am recommitting myself to staying in better touch as soon as Institute is over. Slash this weekend? Let's start then. I'll be writing my inspirational dramatic post tonight too, but until I post that one I hope you've enjoyed the totally normal not-so-epic musings. I'll be honest, I needed the brain break of writing this one.

KIPP On Trickin' -- looking at the raw data

I've written before about KIPP attrition in response to reports that had been released studying it.  When reports conclude that KIPP does not have high attrition, they tout it on their websites.  When reports concluded that they do have high attrition, KIPP responds with a rebuttal. The problem with most of these reports is that the data they give us has already been analyzed and then turned into percentages, which are only relative measures.  This is why I finally got around to navigating the New York START data system to find the actual raw data for myself which I could then compare to KIPPs annual report card that they release. The reason I'm so committed to uncovering stories of exaggerated success is that these stories have become battle cries for 'reformers' like Michelle Rhee.  She, and others, have been influencing politicians to create flawed education policies based on misleading success stories. Because KIPP has many critics, they responded to those critics in their recently released annual report card.  In it, they address the six main concerns that critics of the program have raised:

  1. Are we serving the children who need us?
  2. Are our students staying with us?
  3. Are KIPP students progressing and achieving academically?
  4. Are KIPP alumni climbing the mountain to and through college?
  5. Are we building a sustainable people model?
  6. Are we building a sustainable financial model?
Of course their answers to these questions will be 'proved' to be 'yes' for all six questions in their report. In this post, I'll focus on point 2, attrition. On page 15 of the report they write
"A KIPP school with great test scores—but high student attrition—is not meeting our mission. By choosing KIPP, students make a commitment to excellence and in return, KIPP promises to help each student on the path to and through college. We believe these promises are sacred and we hold ourselves accountable to fulfilling these promises to every student. Our second essential question asks us to consider whether we are making good on the commitment we have made to every single one of our KIPPsters. This means making sure that the students who join us stay with us year after year. We highlight this question because we believe it is as important to a school’s health as its test results. The reality is that a school with great test scores and high student attrition is not realizing our mission."
Then they show the attrition for each school on the 99 pages that summarize the success of their 99 schools.  Some schools boast 2% attrition, while others are as high as 47%.  But the most telling statistic is the pictograph on page 15. Well, 88% doesn't sound too bad when you read it as quickly as most rich donors do.  But when you look at it more closely, this does not mean that 88 percent of students who start the middle schools as 5th graders will eventually graduate as 8th graders (most KIPPs are 5-8 middle schools).  The 12% attrition is PER YEAR.  So this means that 88%, on average, make it to 6th grade, then they lose 12% of those, which takes us down to 77% for 7th graders, 68% for 8th graders, and finally 60% for graduating 8th grade.  Suddenly it doesn't look so good. Then I thought I'd take an individual school 'KIPP Academy New York' which is the first New York KIPP, and check their actual school report cards against their claims on the KIPP report card.  They claimed to have a 4% attrition rate, which really means that compounded over four years is really a 15% attrition, but is still way better than the 40% attrition based on their published overall 12% attrition rate. So I downloaded the 2009 and 2010 school report cards.  I learned that there were 203 5th, 6th, and 7th graders in 2009 who became 192 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in 2010, which is 95% which is very close to the 96% that they published.  But then I looked closer at the numbers and also followed a particular cohort from 5th grade in 2007 to 8th grade in 2010 to get a fuller picture of what is going on.  For this I needed the 2007 and 2008 school report cards. One thing I noticed was that in 2009 they had 30 students with disabilities in their 5th, 6th, and 7th grades combined while in 2010 they had only 22 in their 6th, 7th, and 8th combined.  So of the net 11 students that they lost, 8 of them were students with disabilities. Things got more interesting, though, when I followed the 2010 cohort from the time they were in 5th grade.  In 2007 that class had 72 students with 44 girls and 28 boys.  Four years later they have lost a total of nine students so they have 63.  But, and here's the strange part.  Those 63 kids are 16 boys and 47 girls.  (some ratio!)  So it seems like they lost AT LEAST 12 students from the 72 (the 12 boys, that is) which is about 17%.  Since the number of girls actually increased, it shows that they have REPLACED some of the students they lost with other kids.  This is not factored into the attrition rate, though it is possible that the new students are better at the standardized tests than the ones who left, while the attrition rate is not affected.  So when we look at the improvements in test scores from 5th to 8th grade, we are looking at two different groups of kids.  With sample sizes of 70, a few kids makes a big difference. I also noticed that in 5th grade there were 5 kids with Limited English Proficiency, while in 8th grade there were only 2.  Now, this could mean that students lose their LEP status, so I'm not sure if this is relevant. I haven't fully immersed myself in the KIPP data, but I hope I've given enough information to demonstrate that KIPP misleads when they report an 88% retention rate and also that the raw data conclusively demonstrates that they fill in some students with students who leave which makes their attrition rate seem better than it is.  Now, I'm making an assumption that the kids that fill in those spots are better, academically, than the ones who are counseled out.  Even if I'm incorrect about that, I hope I've introduced enough for people to think about when they hear data about KIPP's success.  Also, I hope I've given some tips to others who want to investigate miracle schools to find some of their own anomalies and share them.

The Second Conference

Today is day three, grammar day. Laying the Foundation (LTF) is a program my district bought into with the AIMS grant. The purpose of it is to provide a[nother] framework to guide teachers in their pre-AP classes to better prepare students for AP classes. Sixth grade in Dumas has no pre-AP classes. I teach sixth grade. I am at this conference. Also, at my last conference (APSI in Little Rock), the consultant that was the middle school ELA (English Language Arts) facilitator made a point of having us read the notice from College Board (the company that created and is expert on everything AP) that specifically denounces the entire concept of exclusively pre-AP classes. It's tracking, exclusionary, and counterproductive for all parties involved. Not to say I have any alternative. The past three days of this workshop have been spent sitting beside Betsy, a self-contained special ed teacher. Most of the time she is holding, feeding, or patting the itty booty of 8-week-old Isabel, her daughter. First impression: why on earth did you bring your tiny baby to sleep in a laundry basket beside your feet at an English workshop for a week?! The answer was found when my lit coach directly asked her: her district made her come, by whatever means necessary. In other words, we don't care if your infant is too young to travel or if you might be unprofessional or a disruption in taking her to a crowded classroom of educators every day for a week; professional development matters! Can't help but think of the priority of work-life balance and flexibility in the UK or at Google, with starry eyes. To get to the conference, at a brand new high school in Springdale, AR, we travel in the Bobcat Bus, a 15-passanger vehicle my district purchased with pride before checking to see if our insurance would cover the transportation of students in such a machine (it won't). It has a huuuuge Bobcat decal on the side with a vivid purple and yellow backdrop proclaiming DUMAS, AR. I typically drive. I left my wallet in Dumas this week (read, but don't tell anyone: I do not have my license). As for the training itself, we have four modules to get through, and three consecutive years of scaffolded training. I am in the first. Fortunately (or not, your call), I was required by my district to teach LTF lessons this past year already. Meaning I inherited all the print resources from the previous ELA teacher, self educated myself on how to apply them or what the program means in my classroom, and have already taught some. This, somehow, after one year and little formal training, put me ahead of my group in terms of knowing the content. The saving grace is my facilitator, SP, college football player with a BA in English. Apparent poet and writer, he has a daughter at the U of Texas we hear about regularly, and he looks 10 years younger than he is. The first day he found out I'm a TFA teacher; the second he stated in the middle of a passion-for-education digression something like "I am impressed by these very dedicated teachers [pause]. She doesn't even know I'm pointing at her." I looked up from the compulsively small and regular lines I was drawing and realized he was pointing at me, paying me a high public compliment, largely because I'm a TFA teacher, something he then shared with the group (run on, I know, get over it). From behind me in the room came responses of "ooooh" and "wow..." and "what's Teach For America?" It was the most (flatteringly) embarrassed I've been as a result of my TFA-dom since starting. He gets it. Post-conference hours have included phone conversations, finishing Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, starting Monster, running with my lit coach (her demand, my happily obliging her), dinners with all eight of us Dumas teachers, and shopping adventures to Khols and Target. Today we went "to a show" (movie) and I'm about to re-pack for the five hour drive home tomorrow. My favorite aspect of the conference is the culture, and simply being surrounded by Arkansas teachers. Even after a year, I am still attempting to learn to assimilate into teacher culture-- totally different than TFA culture. The Arkansas teacher culture at large, from what I've seen, is realistic, intelligent, and passionate. Last night my lit coach (who I'm rooming with at this hotel) made a point to tell me that if I ever leave Dumas and choose to return to teaching, "Most schools aren't like ours." Which is precisely why I'm there. (But also-- how accurate is her claim?)


Preparing for Institute

I write this on the night before the last day of institute. I want to follow up on this post (which I found INCREDIBLY helpful) about how to "survive" institute, based on my experiences here in Atlanta. I don't want to call these survival tips because, really, institute is not that bad. I wish it could shake the horrible reputation it has. I wonder if we have potentially great CMs turned away from TFA because of what they've heard about institute. Obviously not everyone feels this way, some people don't like it, some don't make it through, but I didn't consider it a horrible experience. To throw some numbers out there, 3 people out of a corps of 183 dropped out of institute this summer. "1. Prepare to sweat." Here in Atlanta, the schools are air conditioned to a fault. So actually, prepare by bringing a sweater. That being said, no matter how cold the room was, when I got up to teach those kids I did start to sweat. Aside from teaching and riding the bus home (15-30 min in Atlanta) everything is really air conditioned here. "2. Do the prework!" My feelings on this are mixed. I will honestly tell you, though, that we did not have to turn any pre-work in, nor was it really referenced explicitly--with the exception of exercise 8. I don't think I got a lot out of the pre-work because I really had no concept of what teaching would be like. The diversity stuff was useful, though. Make your own decision here. "3. Don’t buy a bunch of crap before you get there." Definitely true. You might be teaching high school English in the fall but have fourth graders at Institute. My collab spent about $70 total on supplies after we knew what TFA was giving us. If you have brightly colored cardstock, bring that, otherwise save the supplies for when you get there. "4. Get organized from day one." Yes yes yes. I'll add to this one as well. Pay attention in CS sessions. I didn't really pay much attention, especially in the first week of teaching, and I feel like I probably missed out on some great tools. Pay attention so you know the tools and get organized so you can use them "7. Have a bedtime." To be honest, I rarely reached my bedtime goal but that doesn't mean having one didn't help me. I went to bed by 11:30 every night (I would have preferred 10:30). I can't imagine functioning on less than 6 hours of sleep. In the first week, get even more sleep because the days in those CS sessions drag on. When you have your kids they go much faster. "9. Love your students." Definitely do this. It took me a while to get to the point where I could appreciate them. To be honest, I still don't "get" some of my students. But I do miss them. My collab and I went to see them at lunch on the day before the test (due to the APS cheating scandal we had to be out of classrooms after Tuesday of this week) and they told us they already missed us! Take pictures of your kids and your classroom (just don't put them online!) "10. Don’t leave town on the weekends." I loved getting to explore Atlanta. Each weekend I went to at least one attraction (I packed a whopping 5 activities into July 4 weekend). You may never return to your institute city, so enjoy it while you're there. "12. Copy early." For Atlanta, this meant copying by about 10/10:30. That's when the lines started to get long. I would finish up my lesson plan for the next day, copy, and then work on my drafts. "13. Don’t plan all weekend. Don’t play all weekend." This is pretty obvious, I think. I did what most CMs do at institute, have fun on Saturday and plan on Sunday. "15. Take advantage of your team." I thought I would struggle with Respect and Humility and then I met the amazing team at my school. Reach out to them for help! Some of the people in my CMA group were upset that the only person who came to observe them was their CMA. I saw when I was struggling and I reached out so that I had my CS and my SD in my classroom. Feedback is the name of the game here. These people know how to teach, use them as resources! Also, don't discount the value of your fellow CMs. "17. Things (not) to bring. (a car)" Here is where I will disagree with this list-maker. In Atlanta it is great to have a car. Not much is walk-able from Tech, nor is public transportation readily available. I'm not saying you need a car, but if you have one and like the freedom it gives you, consider paying the $94 parking fee and bringing it. I've seen so many posts on our facebook group from people who need rides to target, to the pharmacy, who just want to do something but don't have a car with which to do it. It really helps you on the weekend to have a car because then you don't have to wait for plans, you can make them. The rest of his/her post on this I will agree with. A big backpack. A water bottle. A LAPTOP. "18. Find alone time. Find time to reflect." Ok, so feedback and reflection are the name of the game. Every day take some time to think about what you did well and what you can do better. This is essential in order for you to continually increase your effectiveness (one of the TAL rubric rows). Take notes, just stop and think, do whatever to make your time in the classroom a learning experience both for you and for your kids. "19. You do not know everything." Commit to trying each of TFA's methods at least once. You may think the behavior management cycle is silly and won't work for your seemingly old, mature 14 year olds, but you can't really know until you try (disclaimer: I used it with mixed results, but am committed to bringing it with me to the region). "20. Don’t build it up too much." This is by far the most most important piece. I was terrified of institute. I wanted induction to last forever so I wouldn't have to come here. And here I am 5 weeks later telling you that it was really not that difficult. I cried a few times, I worked hard, but it was never anything I felt like I actually couldn't do. I'm not going to say I loved institute (I might say that in the future, but right now I'm just super excited to get back to Memphis so I want to get out of here) but I certainly didn't hate it nor think it was the hardest, most challenging thing I've ever done.


A (Not So) Quick Reflection (Longer Update this Weekend)

I really don't have time to be writing this right now, but I need to take a moment and "reflect" (TFA speak for "think, typically out loud). I promise a longer post with pictures, thoughts, and more later. For those of you who haven't heard the story yet, my classroom is a disaster. Instead of the typical summer school class, which tends to be small and full of kids motivated to pass so they can move on to the next grade, the 8th grade science team at my school has the entire grade level. The story goes something like this: Their teacher was horrible and taught them no content. And then quit. They watched movies all day. Moreover, they will all be retaking the class in the fall regardless of how they do in summer school (and, honestly, there is no way I can teach them a year of Regent's level material in four weeks anyway). So my kids are having summer vacation. In a subject they have no experience in. And hate. With all their friends. And me. Behavior is terrible. I would like to issue a caveat here. It could be much worse. For the most part, all my kids do is talk out of turn and occasionally get out of their seats. They talk constantly. They talk to each other, about each other, and very little makes a difference. They rarely touch each other, and when they do it's typically playful. They have never threatened me. They have never attacked each other. They generally follow directions in terms of consequences (i.e., when I say "come sit up front with me", they move and do it, even if they still won't fill out their notes sheets). TFA has lots of procedures and strategies for dealing with this, and I am seeing improvement in my room every day (keeping in mind that I got through NOTHING on my first day except telling them to be quiet), although it is by no means to the level I had hoped to start at. Of my four co-teachers, I also have the least relationship with my kids. I am still learning their names, which the other teachers learned on the first day. However, on that first day, I went first, and it was a disaster. After my time was up, I made the decision that I needed to leave the room and stay out of it while my co-teachers taught, so that cognitively the kids understood on some level "new teacher, new slate, my behavior might need to change". I honestly believe if I stood at the back of the room the whole day, it could have made that day worse for the rest of my collaborative (co-teachers). So, in TFA, there are basically two parts to getting your classroom under control: 1. Investment, or showing the kids that you care and convincing them that they care too. It can be done with any group of kids. I'm even starting to see it, inch by inch, in my kids. They have so much potential. They go to a pretty good school (except the Science Debacle) and are mostly ready for high school. They're on grade level. I already know which of them I am personally attached to the most. But I have very little opportunity to really bond with my kids because they don't come in for breakfast and don't stay for lunch. They walk into the building and leave as soon as possible, and I can't work with them one-on-one without the larger group descending into chaos. I see teachers, even teachers who work on the same subject with the same kids and even in the same school, who have made such bonds. Interestingly, they appear to have not done it through the TFA-suggested ways, although some of those have helped. Mostly, they sat down with their kids on the first day of class and made bold moves, letting the kids talk about their experiences and setting up a framework that the kids feel relatively safe. I doubt my ability to make such a framework in my time here in NY- the kids already have ideas about me and this class. However, I am grateful to have seen how it's done and hope that I can emulate it in my classroom in the fall. 2. Management - TFA is very big on making kids follow the rules (duh, perhaps). Every TFA classroom has a list of posted rules, a list of posted consequences, and a behavior chart with each student's name on it where we mark every time they receive a warning or consequence (we decide individually what those consequences are). There is also a standard system for positive feedback, and a customizable system for rewards. It works wonders (for those of you who know/care, behavioral narration is amazing. I will define this in a later post for those who don't). However, it requires a constant effort in my classroom. I could, and have, spent an entire period just encouraging those who are following directions (i.e., keep silent) to continue and using the consequence system for those that are not. It did help. However, I feel there is a misunderstanding among new teachers using the system, especially at Institute. Here are some pitfalls they often do not encounter, which I have: a. You need to know your kids' names. This may seem obvious, but I definitely got some flack for not praising/punishing students by name on my first two days. The problem? I didn't know their names. We asked them to make nametags, they didn't or quickly discarded them. My co-teacher took attendance quickly at the door. They wear uniforms. This made initially identifying students for praise, punishment, and increasingly severe consequences problematic. b. You need to outline your system before using it. I know there are people who disagree with me on this. They say "if you can't get kids quiet long enough to explain the rules and consequences, just start telling kids what rule they're breaking and give them the appropriate consequence". This seems to me unfair and impractical. How do you call a kid's parents if you don't know their name or have their contact information? How do you tell them to answer their behavior management questions if you've never told them what they are yet? Kids also have a well-developed sense of fairness, especially in my classroom where they will rise up to protect someone in the cohort if they have been wronged.* I'm pretty sure "breaking rules you hadn't had laid out for you and being punished by a system you don't know" falls into the general category of "wronged". *Interestingly, my kids will not rise up as a group if the administration of the consequence is logical, direct, and followed the rules I have laid out. No one objected to me kicking out my first student today after he stood up and swore after a morning of talking out of turn (except for the few children who disagreed about what vowel had been uttered in f_ck, but they were quickly quelled). However, when I tried to move another of my students down the behavior chart after mistakenly identifying where she was on the behavior scale (the previous co-teacher had moved her down, I thought I had done it, and the scale is supposed to reset with each teacher), my students immediately began raising hell. I won't admit this to them until the end of the term, but I deeply admire them for their class-wide sense of community. c. It is sometimes physically impossible for me to administer my consequences fairly. If seven students all begin talking at once, someone must be called out first. And that student will immediately respond with one of two things: "I WASN'T TALKING" (this is a very popular answer, even if their conversation partner admits to the charge) or "Look at them! THEY'RE talking too!" The second point is fair, and I have tried out several answers without yet coming to one that I feel comfortable with (I know there are some people who would say that you shouldn't respond at all, but I feel that the honest charge deserves an answer. And I don't want to ignore the comment and continue with the consequences, perhaps punishing the kids they pointed at next, because that makes it seem like the kids choose who gets punished). Now, on to the point I actually wanted to talk about. I've been getting lots of advice and support from staffers, teachers, and fellow corps members on my classroom. I have failed to internalize all of it, or even most of it, but I deeply appreciate their gesture of support as I know it comes from a place of helping me and the kids (even when it's more criticism than constructive), and some of it has been deeply helpful. Even just being able to decompress with a staffer after my class (or texting people from my personal life) has become useful for me. And I'm noticing an interesting pattern (I've noticed lots of patterns about corps members, especially Detroit ones, which I will post later on): Corps members of color (especially African American ones) seem to be excelling at management as a group. Wow, that seems loaded. Some caveats: There are fantastic white corps members who have amazing management (including Emily, one of my co-teachers, who has basically been working magic from day 1). There are African American, Latino, Asian, and other corps members who are struggling with management. However, as a block, African American corps members seem much more comfortable with discipline and management. The way they talk about it is different than white corps members. Even before they got into a classroom, they talked about it differently. I have become deeply acquainted with the phrase "acting a fool", which means something akin to "acting without respect for yourself or others, typically to the detriment of both", from these corps members while other corps members said "misbehave". Management seems to be more natural for corps members of color, and more integrated into their philosophy. A white corps member often says "I need to show my kids that I care about them, but be careful to still discipline them fairly and effectively, so I can't let my worries about whether the action will harm my relationship with a student get in the way of management". A black corps member says "I told my kids on the first day that I hand out consequences and discipline because I care about them and want them to succeed and believe that they need to be on-task and involved at all times to do that." The latter is something that, if presented philosophically, most of us would agree is true (what's the point of managing if you don't care if the kids learn?) and is a Big Idea in TFA management, but it's not intuitive for most of us. We perceive management as something that gets in the way of relationships. This doesn't appear to be a concern for corps members of color nearly as much. I can't decide why this is. Is it something about their personal background, their culture, or the way the students are responding to them? For those of us that didn't have that conversation on the first day (and out attempts to have it on the second day failed), is there a way to effectively convey that sentiment? (Thoughts on this are welcome!)


I'm already ignoring the title of my blog...

...but I wrote this post last week and never actually hit 'publish.'   I wrote this up mostly so that I can look back fondly on Institute someday and cherish the time I spent here. (And by "look back fondly" I mean, "remember how much life sucked and take comfort in the fact that it will never be like this again.") My Typical Daily Schedule 5:45 a.m.: Alarm goes off. Glance at my sleeping roommate with intense hatred due to the fact that she gets to sleep 30 minutes later than me. (Hope you're reading this, Fiona!) 6:15 a.m.: Pack up 50 lbs worth of instructional materials and trudge to the cafeteria to pack my lunch. 6:40 a.m.: Bus leaves for school. 7:15 a.m.: Arrive at school 8:30 a.m.: School is supposed to start. Zero students are on time for my class. 8:45ish: Reading lesson actually begins. 10 a.m.: Done with reading and writing for the day, the math teachers take over. 11:30: Eat lunch with my students and enjoy the amazingness that is middle school drama. 12:30: Back to the classroom to tutor a small group of students during 'academic intervention time.' 1:30: Students leave and the fun part of the day is over. Settle in for 4.5 hours of TFA training session fun time! Diversity! Effectiveness! Literacy! Acronyms! 4:55 p.m.: Back on our wonderful school bus. 5:30 p.m.: Back to the dorms, eat dinner, start lesson planning. 8 p.m.: Trudge to the copy center, make copies and rock out to some N*Sync, return to lesson planning. Somewhere between midnight and 1am: pass out and get ready to do it all over again!


"Oh I'm just talking to my essay"

Based on the minuscule amount of free time I've had during my first few weeks as a teacher, I think it's  a safe bet that this blog will end up being mostly a great place to post the funniest things my students say. I'm learning pretty quickly that their priceless quotes are one of the greatest perks of the job. An example from my writing lesson today: All 10 of my summer school students were in the computer lab typing their persuasive essays. Student H (wish I could use his real name, because it really fits his personality) was sitting next to two girls. H is my classroom's most talkative and disruptive student, but he is so clever. I constantly find myself turning around to regain composure after he's said something ridiculous to one of my co-teachers. H also likes to frequently brag about his game with the ladies- and yes, he's 12. Anyway, H was up to his usual antics today, distracting the girls trying to work next to him. Me: H, why are you talking and distracting your classmates? H: Oh, I'm not talking to my classmates. I'm just talking to my essay on my computer, ya know? Me: Ohhhh I see. I guess you just have to talk to your essay because you can't get any girls to talk to you. H: (Looks completely shocked for a second, then starts cracking up) I like that Ms. S, I like that.


Who ever said little girls were made of sugar and spice and every nice?

My last post was so full of lofty, theoretical considerations that it didn't even address the fist fight that went on in the Ladies' Washroom that same day. So much for a nice observation time so my CMA could offer feedback on my lesson plan. Rather, I dragged desks into the halls, separated little girls and had them write down what happened, and thanked my lucky stars that my collab member had stuck around after lunch to help with bathroom duty. To set the scene: imagine, if you will, a girls' restroom the hot pink of a two year throwing up penicillin. Two sets of grape double doors hide the inner sanctum of four stalls and two sinks. There are no mirrors, there is no soap, there is no toilet paper, and one toilet is missing a seat cover. I, quite honestly, have seen some nicer accommodations in a county jail – and the paint color is less offensive there, too. I, naïve young teacher that I am, am calmly administering our subtraction facts to students waiting in line. Steal 10 minutes of precious learning time to use the facilities, you say? Ah ha, I will counteract your time stealing ways and play math games. I can close the achievement gap while waiting for the loo! So, as I said, little old me, keeping students in line and backing up a step every time they crowd in to see a card. When what should my wondering ears hear but howls like a she-wolf eating a tofurky by mistake. Then comes one instigator prancing out of the bathroom saying “Miss Murphy, they was in there and I heard them go fight fight and they's hitting in the face.” The cast of characters: J. - The victim, the girl who's a little slow but usually eager to please the teacher, but the other girls just hate on. N. - An instigator, according to all reports, but was non-violent M. - The little hellion that actually threw punches, but was thoroughly egged on A. - Another instigator, apparently a sneaky one (as you are about to see) Here's what the guilty parties had to say (in writing, verbatim): N. - This what happen A----- tood me they was gone to fight and I wes to us it then I leftte out M. - Wene I went to the butroom A---- figt figt figt. A. - When I went in the bathroom I saw M--- up in J-------- face saying com on lets' fight then N------ came in then I said to N------ they are about to fight thats because M--- wanted to fight J----- anyways Because I saw it M--- hit J------ and J----- started to cry. And then she included pictures of stick figure M. with angry eyebrows and fists, stick figure J. with a ponytail and tears, and stick figure A. off to the side with a speech bubble saying “Do not fight”. And scene. From what we can peace together really happened (stick with me now) A grabbed J's hand and used it to hit M. who turned right around and punched J. in the face. Hence the histrionics. Whew. How's that for learning on the job? While I worked this all out in the hallway, you know my class disintegrated. So rather than a fun math game being incorporated into my lesson plan, my collab member lectured them on treating each other like 4th graders and appropriate standing-in-line behaviors. I came back from a war zone to a battlefield and I felt like General Lee marshaling my faculties for one last dramatic stand before tossing in the towel and sending them to the buses. It was a pleasure to see them out the door yesterday afternoon. But as I said, I'm committed to finding a positive piece to my day. I washed all the chalkboards in my class. It was a fresh start for them and for us. And, I had my first TFA friend come silently work on lesson plans in my room after midnight. It's nice to know there is somebody to lean on when you need them.



So, one of my collab members dropped out today.  Let me preface this by restating that, in ECE, there are four members to a collab.  Person A teaches Literacy Block 1, while B assists and C/D are upstairs in session.  Then B teaches Lit Block 2, while A assists, with C/D still upstairs.  Then the kiddos go to lunch, and C/D come down and A/B go up for session.  C teaches Math Block with D assisting, and then D teaches Centers with C assisting.  There is an upwards rotation every week, so I am teaching math this week, and next week I will be teaching centers.  Only now, person B has quit and so I will be teaching BOTH math and centers next week. I am not going to pass judgment on the person who withdrew from TFA, even though it was only our second day of teaching, because I don't know her beyond this limited time working with her.  I will say, though, that things are about to get a lot more difficult for our collab.  For one thing, each us has to teach 2 blocks now without an assistant (we have our SMT ((that's Student Mentor Teacher, who teaches the kids at our school during the school year)) but she isn't a TFA teacher/can't really take on the role of a CM and still has to observe us, too).  Assistants are kind of important in ECE.  Most public school regions have them for pre-k.  Let me put it this way:  We have 14 3-year-olds (some on the very young end).  Managing them all is not a possibility for an individual who has never set foot in a classroom before during their first month of teaching no matter how much of a superstar they might be.  The kids have been responding well to my management so far, so teaching two blocks doesn't really bother me (although I wish I didn't have to do it my second week and I know it is going to be very difficult both for me and for the children), but I can't say I'm thrilled about having double the lesson planning to do.  I mean, I've been working SO efficiently and productively that I've been able to go to bed early, go home on the weekend, and talk to my boyfriend/family every day.  But this hasn't been easy.  I can't really imagine now having double the work and frankly I am fighting back tears just imaging it.  Being with the kids twice as long seems like a blessing, but doing twice the work after hours--even if it will help me in the long run--is the last thing I need right now.  TFA has said since we got here, "bend like a willow."  This seems particularly applicable for our collab right now and is decent advice, but there's only so far a willow can bend before it gets uprooted. But of course, the people this affects the most are the children.  Today was our second day of teaching and Institute is hard.  But our kids are so good, and smart, and each of them is so different.  Some are struggling, some are extremely proficient, and many are somewhere in between.  Little children need routine and reliability and many of them do not get it.  Too often, ECE aged kids are walked away from because working with little kids is tough.  If you think that teaching pre-k is playing with blocks and holding hands all day, you are very mistaken.  If you think lesson planning for ECE is writing about show and tell, again, you're very mistaken.  This is hard, important work, and this event has shown me that more than anything else could.  I want to be there for my kids more than ever because I'm seeing firsthand that other people won't be. While I was talking to my CMA about this at the end of the day, one of my girls--our star student, actually, who our SMT described as "the class mother"--who was still in school because she goes to the daycamp after class, ran up to me, said, "Hi, teacher!" and gave me a huge hug before running away.  That one moment is what I will hold onto tonight while I'm scrambling to do twice the amount of work that I think I'm capable of.


First Day of School (July 06, 2011)

I’ve decided that despite the massive amount of lesson planning I have to do, I need to first follow through with my commitment to update this blog on a regular basis. There are a ton of things on my mind right now, as I’m actually updating on the school bus back from my first day of school. Today’s the first time in my life that I’ve ridden on a school bus and actually felt like a teacher and not a student. (We’ve been being shuttled on a school buses throughout the entire training process thus far, including the week in Kansas City). Getting to meet my summer school students today was a much needed reality check. I’ve been fairly exhausted this past week, shuffling back and forth from session to session, working with my teacher group (aka collaborative group or co-lab for short), and learning how to write lesson plans. For all my former teachers out there who are reading this update, I just want to say thank you. I never realized how much work goes into writing a 45-minute lesson plan. You all always made it look so easy, so natural; being in your shoes for even a few weeks has given me a whole new level of appreciation for the work that you do. I think it’s worth explaining the setup of my summer training and experience just because I’m certain that most of you are unfamiliar with what I’m actually so busy with in my day-in and day-out. Currently, I’m in my second week of Institute (TFA Teacher Training, as I like to call it). The first week was all informative sessions ranging from classroom management to diversity and culture. For the remaining four weeks, we are teaching in inner city summer schools in Los Angeles. We are all teaching in collaborative groups of four teachers, all of whom are first–year TFAers. I was placed at Hamilton High School teaching high school biology with corps members from both the Bay Area and the Los Angeles corps. To say the least, working in this teacher group has been very challenging. I think all of us sort of expected that we would be getting to teach summer school more or less individually. As it turns out, we are actually teaching the same students in the same classroom in 45-minute back-to-back blocks with a short 20-minute nutrition break between the first two blocks. This means that we all have to work together to streamline a classroom management plan and a classroom culture that we can all implement with consistency for our students. It’s been challenging because there are so many varied personality types within our teacher group and because everyone has really solid ideas and plans, but obviously working as a teacher group requires that we all be flexible. I keep having to remind myself that the success of my students depends not just on me, but also on my teacher partners. Reminding myself of this has been helping me keep my head above the water. Today I went over the rules and procedures for our classroom. I think it makes for a nice transition to tomorrow, which is my first day of real instructional time! We have 20 students as of today, with more on the way as summer school enrollment is still open. Yes!


The end is in sight, but the work is plentiful

There are officially only 6 days of institute left. Tomorrow, and then next week. And one day next week is our exit exams, so really only 5 days of teaching which makes the work plentiful. Suddenly it is very real about how much our students have to learn and what a short time schedule we have. To try to help my students, I've started having a few of them come in a little early and I work with them for about 20 minutes before class to tutor them by reading some NY Times articles about professional sports (which is also a learning experience for me since I have no idea about the NBA, NFL, etc.). But, it is helping my students to think critically about the news and is also helping to boost their confidence in their ability to read and understand various texts. After tutoring one student yesterday, he was fully engaged and participatory for my English lesson and got the highest grade yet on his exit ticket. Although I can hardly take the credit for all of that, I love to see my students participating more and taking more responsibility for their learning. But, the stakes are high. With only five teaching days left, I find myself trying to make sure I include as many different comprehension and analysis strategies that I can think of to move my students to be more independent thinkers and writers. I've got my work cut out for me for the last week. But, classroom management is just about under control completely. My students are taking class much more seriously and are taking ownership of their futures. Yesterday, after one student got moved to a different seat my collaborative teacher told the class not to laugh at her because that was disrespectful and we all support each other in our classroom. One student, who has taken the most ownership in his learning, raised his hand and said "She is disrespecting us by wasting our learning time." How does a teacher answer that? He is right, but that doesn't make disrespect ok. My collab addressed the problems with disrespect and moved on with the lesson but it was a heart-lifting moment to see our students understanding that the stakes are high and the time is short. And now I am off to go observe some other teachers to see how their classes are going! I need to absorb as much information as possible over the next week to be as best prepared as possible when the school year starts in less than a month!


When it Rains, it Pours

Thank you Morton's salt girl for providing the visualization for one of the most depressing expressions ever. No sooner had I posted the previous monologue yesterday when I headed upstairs to the DCA session about diversity. And when I say diversity, they mean discussing white privilege. Which I think is an entirely appropriate and legitimate subject to broach considering that many people from many different backgrounds are working together for these students. Even though I understand white privilege, it is essential to consider how other folks I'm working with perceive me. It's important to understand how my students can, at times, perceive me. I think my largest frustration with the DCA sessions has been the incessant talking and few answers. Given the background I come from, I understand the importance of diversity, I realize the opportunities I have been afforded and I know that many of my students do not have similar guardians or school systems that emphasis honest reflection on and critique of our society. But now I want the answers. I want to practically apply these theoretical discussions to my life and my classroom. I want to know what to do when I see a staff member that shares the same cultural, ethnic, or racial background as my student treat that child in a way I deem wholly inappropriate. I want to know how to reconcile my education and training concerning things like classroom management (a firm and controlled tone, no physical violence, no degradation of students) with seeing a student outside my classroom disciplined in entirely opposite ways. I'm not here to be the blessed white person bestowing the power on a lesser community like a guardian angel. I'm here to be – at the core – a servant leader in the Jesuit tradition. I'm here to work and sweat and cry and raise up a community from within by becoming a member of it. So I feel sometimes like a cultural anthropologist. I learned in my college level Anthropology 271: Global Perspectives about the anthropologists who joined tribes in distant forests, went through their manhood rituals and learned their greetings and signals. If that's what I'm supposed to do, great. I know I can. And it will be infinitely easier than any of those anthropologists because I still have running water (side note – I love being able to use the staff bathroom. It has air freshener and a stall door that locks. It really is the little things). So if that is what I'm supposed to do, awesome, let me go do it. If I'm supposed to introduce a new educational system, cool, I can do that too. If I'm supposed to keep my head down, mentor the ten students in my class and get out with two years growth, alright, let's go. Just freakin' pick one! I'm not going to ask the corps members or CMA's that are Hispanic American or Latino/a American or African American or Asian American or Native American or Middle Eastern American or Native Hawaiian or identify with any background American similar to my students to speak for a whole community. I know they would not be so ignorant as to ask me to speak for all white people. But I do want to ask them for any insight they might have they can shed any light on my predicament. In our politically correct society, I'm too afraid of alienating anyone by asking the wrong question to actually ask. Because I do not want to be labeled as the culturally insensitive. There are few designations quite as terrifying for the educated, white person as being culturally insensitive (see what I did there, speaking for all my peeps). There is a terrible stigma attached, I feel, to being racially insensitive. Other people who identify as not-your-race avoid or tip toe you, other people who are your race feel superior for not making such a faux pas... so I do nothing, I ask no questions, I observe endlessly and compile my questions hoping to find someone who is willing to talk about it without preaching. Without condescending. And who may get as much out of the conversation and the challenges I present to their mindset as I do.


Not Another Math Problem

We started off this summer with Taylor Mali poem on "What Teachers Make," a personal spoken word favorite about what teachers make. I wanted to push myself and anyone else who might be feeling a little discouraged to think about what students will make in this spoken word poem by Sarah Kay. If you're ever feeling slightly discouraged and need a little pick me up I highly suggest YouTubeing this beautiful artist, you will not be sorry. So this is...not another math problem.


student surveys

In an effort to post more during the week, I'll post some of my students' responses to the "classroom culture survey" that the powers that be had us give our kids this week. What has your teacher done to help you know how to behave? take me outside so I can calm down by giving us tickets so we can buy things on Friday help you out what you need help with go to the back table told me a lot to behave talked to me she gave me a journal for me to write in instead of misbehavingly walking out. start giving us little pro point so we can behave gave me the rules tell me to be quiet What more should your teacher do? just let me calm down just play a little more games nothing she just right help us have fun in class ever day give me money be more strict holler a little bit and maybe they’ll start doing what she says (all teachers) let us do fun games and stuff I do not know maybe see how I am then go by what they hear about me learn more How do you know whether or not this teacher truly cares about you? because she shows it each in every day by getting up in the morning in come teach me and she alway say try your best because they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t they help me if I need it yes because she is nice to me I just love these kids so much.  And I have to be up in 3 1/2 hours, so I'm going to retire for the evening.


lots of stuff.

Yesterday a nationally-recognized dust storm swept through Phoenix and then less than 6 hours later (at 5:50 am, mind you) the fire alarm in my dorm went off. Two unrelated events that fit perfectly into the theme of my time here thus far: hella chaotic, slightly illogical and altogether almost laughably challenging. I read a post on here the other day where the writer declared s/he was fed up with TFA and all the "bullshit" that accompanied it, never really specifying what this bullshit was. My goal in this post isn't to call her (?) out and defend TFA in any way, but it did make me think. I thought I had a keen eye for bullshit: i.e., what was that thing I learned how to do in high school and then utilized repeatedly in a large number of my college courses? Oh yeah...bullshit. So, pretty fairly, I thought I could differentiate between someone telling me/expecting me/forcing me to do something for no logical reason (which is the way bullshit would play out in this arena, I think) and telling me/expecting me/forcing me to do something because it mattered in some ultimate way. Does that make sense? Going into the program I knew in order to survive I was going to drink some of the Kool-Aid, and I was prepared to accept that fact. But the truth is, I'm completely doused at this point. And I think it's actually helping me in the classroom. 99% of what I learn every day about how to teach is relevant and immediately helpful to my classroom. Maybe this is, of course, because I've never taught a damn day in my life before this. OF COURSE when someone tells me, HEY, this is the best management system we've found to maintain high behavioral expectations, I'm gonna be all up on it, because I both a.) don't know any better and b.) NEED KEVIN TO STOP EATING PENCILS AND LICKING SHARPIES AND PAY ATTENTION, you know? I'm not here to speak out against people who feel overwhelmed by the rigid (and yes, they are rigid) expectations of the program and how this carries out in our classroom (for example, we are expected to carry out an almost eerily scripted behavior management cycle which includes giving explicit directions, narrating positive behavior and handing out consequences in short, one-word quips with almost zombie-like demeanor which yes, is a little creepy/laughable when you hear 25 teachers saying essentially the same thing but also yes, makes my kids sit up a little straighter and focus at least for a few seconds) nor am I here to be TFA's perfect angel and say that everything it suggests we implement works. I'm just reflecting on the fact that for whatever reason, unlike I thought, I haven't chafed against many of the expectations set out for (okay, implemented upon) me, and I think that's because I literally have no idea what I'm doing. BUT ANYWAY I'M DONE REFLECTING. Last Thursday, the Oklahoma regional team (my executive director, some program directors and operations manager) came out to observe us in action, and sat in on my lesson just in time to watch my behavior management CRASH AND BURN. As in, BEHAVIOR MANAGEMENT DID NOT EXIST. Hella embarrassing. I'd become so desperate to have my kids show signs of life/meager understandings of the material that I'd been completely ignoring the constant buzz of sound around me. Afterward my advisor wasn't shy: "Jess, that was pretty bad." So. Okay. Over the weekend my team teachers and I revamped our behavior plan. We cut out consequences to make a new system (warning, probation [loss of free time], call home], ditched the tables and formed our chairs into rows, and vowed to give really explicit directions. Because if you think 7th graders know how to sit in a chair, I'd have to challenge you, unfortunately. Tuesday was the best day behavior-wise for our class. My ears were like WHATTTTT WHY CAN WE FINALLY HEAR. The silence was DEADLY AND I LOVED IT. Okay, so I got a little excited. But so much more actual learning was going on it was insane. Lesson learned? Um...Emilio was absent. No just kidding. The lesson learned was, sometimes you have to be a leeeeeetle insane with your behavior management plan in order for it to be successful. I.e., teaching seventh graders how to sit in a chair. Hmm, what else? Oh yeah, I got my schedule for the fall! I'm team teaching with a wicked cool corps member who is doing Sped inclusion, and even though neither of us really know what the exact model looks like, I'm so excited that we'll be there to support each other. If I've learned anything from co-teaching this summer it's THE MORE THE BETTER (well, kind of..at least in terms of differentiated support). We're teaching 90 minutes of something called Ramp Up to English 9 in the morning, which is essentially basic literacy skills for students 2+ years behind in reading and incorporates Independent Reading, Read Aloud, and Vocabulary, which we pretty much do every day here. Then we have an Honors 9 course which I'm so excited about. I just hope my students behave better than I did when I was in Honors 9. I'd just gotten bangs and thought it would be funny to tease them up in the middle of class and wait for my classmate's reactions. You guys, I was my own worst nightmare. Thennnn I'm doing an ACT prep course, WHAT'S THE ACT WELLLLL I'LL FIND OUT RIGHT? (because I didn't actually take it) and then another 90 minute literacy block to close out the day. Now that I have my schedule I'm both a.) getting really excited and b.) freaking the hell out. Oh and c.) wondering if I should have engaged more in our sessions on teaching fluency/literacy rather than made dice with Play-Doh. 24 days till the first day of school!...Yeah. Yup. I don't know.


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