updates for 07.20.2011
The National Education Association recently passed some kind of resolution to oppose TFA sending corps members to cities that are not suffering teacher shortages. This, of course, was the original intention of TFA. We are not supposed to take jobs away from people who are planning to become career teachers -- just to go where we are most needed. Here is the wording of New Business Item #93 from their website: "NEA will publicly oppose Teach for America (TFA) contracts when they are used in Districts where there is no teacher shortage or when Districts use TFA agreements to reduce teacher costs, silence union voices, or as a vehicle to bust unions." In response to this decision, a former corps member named Laura Cunliffe, who now works for the Progressive Policy Institute, wrote a scathing critique. Near the end, she writes: "Policy Studies Associates, Inc. recently published a report that may explain why the NEA is kicking up such a fuss about Teach for America. “Ninety-five percent of the principals rated corps members as effective as other beginning teachers in terms of overall performance and impact on student achievement; sixty-six percent rated corps members as more effective than other beginning teachers, ninety-one percent of the principals reported that corps members’ training is at least as good as the training of other beginning teachers, sixty-three percent rated corps members’ training as better than that of other beginning teachers, and eighty-seven percent of the principals said they would hire a corps member again.” I was a struggling first year corps member 20 years ago. Now I'm a veteran teacher and I still feel like I'm struggling many days. Teaching is hard. For a new teacher it's nearly impossible. So I decided that I'd look at the report and see if there was anything in the report that could help put those fabulous numbers into some kind of context. So I clicked on the link and it did not get me to the actual report, but to the one page summary by TFA. At the top of the report, it referenced the source as “Teach For America 2009 National Principal Survey,” Policy Studies Associates, July 2009. So I looked up the company and went to their published research reports and the report was nowhere to be found. So I emailed the company and they referred me to TFA to get the report. I emailed the TFA contact, and she was away for a few days. I was starting to fume. Then someone did get back to me. She was actually very helpful in providing what I needed so the tone of this post will not be so angry this time. I learned that I could not get the actual report for several reasons. The main one is that the purpose of the survey is partly a contractual obligation that TFA has to certain school districts. Also, the data is provided to TFA funders. It is not intended to be used as a way of proving that TFA teachers are miracle workers, as Laura Cunliffe of the Progressive Policy Institute does. In short, as I suspected, the numbers are misleading. The survey was send out to about 2,200 principals who had a first year CM at their school that year. Already, this is a biased sample since there might be plenty of principals who had bad experiences who don't hire TFAers anymore, who are not part of the survey. Then, the response rate was just 60%, which may or may not be good. I'm not a statistician to know if that's a good return rate. I do think that this is a self-selecting group, though. So if a principal is fed up with TFA since they're not satisfied with their people, maybe they won't do the survey -- or maybe they are more likely to. The TFA researcher offered that even though the principals are instructed to just consider the first year CMs, it is possible that they have second years too (who, I think are generally excellent teachers) which they could have considered which would certainly bump up the numbers. Finally, I learned that this was one of those 5 choice surveys where you disagree strongly through agree strongly. If the principal picked 3, 4, or 5 it counted as 'agreed.' Most schools that have new CMs have several. So if a school has five CMs and two of them quit, they may very well pick a 3 on this survey, and they are included in the 95% who are satisfied. This puts these numbers, I hope, into proper perspective. Remember that only 89% of CMs even finish the 2 year commitment so when you see that 95% of principals say that new CMs are as effective as other beginning teachers, that number seems a bit high. Being as good as other first year teachers, of course, isn't saying much. First year teaching is incredibly hard. I struggle when I have to teach a new course. If I had to switch to a new school, that would be another challenge. Being a first year teacher, teaching at a new school, teaching new topics. It's crazy. The difference though between TFA teachers and non-TFA teachers is that, at least in theory, the non-TFA teachers are planning to have long careers so the tough first year gets averaged out with a bunch of good ones. Exaggerated claims of success are rampant in this current ed reform debate where there is a lot of money to be made off the backs of poor kids. NEA is a great organization and does not deserve to be attacked by a TFA alum.
I think what people are saying are totally true; I lucked out with my CMA. She grades our lesson plans, gives us feedback, tapes us and analyzes, and can also talk about how to best prepare for the first day of school. Other CMAs are nice... but not nearly as proactive in preparing Corps Members, from the totally unscientific evidence I have gathered. Yesterday was the last day I had to worry about rough draft lesson plans. I am ready to go for tomorrow - I printed everything before I left for Happy Hour. Tonight was filled with the best possible discussion about what we should do when we get to our region. I learned how to talk to students and instill discipline. But best of all, I just mingled with CMs from other regions and grade levels. It is so nice to realize that as driven as we all are, we want to take a break every once in a while. We want to sit and talk about subjects inappropriate for third graders or the school bus. We are so focused on pushing ourselves to improve that we need to relax for just a half hour and recall the funny stories of why we do what we do. How are our children improving (or not)? How are we closing the achievement gap for our kids every day? What can we do to make it better? Most importantly, how can we make this sustainable experience? I am going to do this for two years (at least). They aren't even prepared to handle me.
Summer school is nearing its end, and I can tell because suddenly every eighth grader in Room 311 has gone bananas. Yes, yes, yes - I'm pointing with the thumb - I know it's my fault that my students are not in control in class. But seriously, there must be something in the water because my well behaved, responsible philosophers have turned into screaming hellions. This is the true measure of the Institute experience: you can never be prepared for anything. I walked in this morning to support the lead reading teacher with an investment plan for some of our high achieving, but behaviorally challenging kids. I found a last minute room change (we acquired 2 pet turtles and our seats were suddenly tables and chairs instead of desks in rows) and an absent FA (Faculty Adviser) who was replaced by a stream of school staffers throughout the day so that we could have a licensed teacher in the room. And then, the chaos descended. The main idea of this story? Some days are going to be bad days. My conclusion based on prior knowledge and textual evidence? Tomorrow will be better. Consistent consequences will trip off my tongue, I will become proficient in the art of non-verbal classroom management, and other magical events will take place. At least the turtles were endearing. The truly amazing Institute truism, however, is that merely an hour after I wrote the first half of this blog post, my roller coaster of happiness took an abrupt turn for the better. I answered a riddle at the tech station and won a pack of Starbursts. I had a frank and productive meaning with my CMA. I ate dinner. And even though two of these three events are food related (which should probably be foreboding), I'm feeling better as the evening goes on. After all, only three more sleeps until Institute is over.
(Short post since I'm quite behind on work, but this post has been rattling around in my head for a while.) Some background for those of you unfamiliar with the placement process, before I move onto my weekend and a Big Thought: Here's how TFA regional placement works: You apply. In the final application stage (after you've already passed two rounds of gatekeepers), you fill out a "preference form". On it, you rank what TFA regions you would like to go to and subjects you would like to teach. They recommend you rank as "highly preferred" at least 5 regions (you rank within the general categories of "highly preferred", "preferred" and "please-don't-send-me-here!" - everything has to go in one column). You can also put in any "special circumstances" you have (i.e., spouses) that might have some importance to where you get placed. TFA locks the preference form away without looking at it. Later, TFA decides whether or not it wants to admit you to the corps. It sends out the "YAY YOU'RE IN" email (or the other one). Then, an algorithm decides where you'll be placed and what you'll be teaching based on your qualifications (i.e., classes), what regions need what you're qualified to teach (keeping in mind "qualified" differs from region to region), how many people wanted that region more than you, what the odds are someone else will come along later and want that spot more than you, ten thousand other logistical factors of placing a few thousand people... and your preferences. It spits out a placement. It's generally understood in TFA that you need to be open to going many places when you apply. Detroit, for instance, was my 7th choice. I ranked two of the largest corps ahead of it. Including one 'high need' corps. The TFA mantra is basically "we send you where you are needed most, your preferences are tiebreakers". TFA does NOT consider where you went to school, where you are from, where you have lived, or other ties to places other than spouses and children. Now, my weekend: I had an amazing weekend. On Sunday, I went out to Central Park to picnic with a group of amazing friends of mine from college. (You can read one of their thoughts, see some pictures, and get a great kugel recipe here: http://catflightoffancy.blogspot.com/2011/07/kugel.html?spref=fb.) I miss most of the people from my life pretty dreadfully a lot of the time. TFA is hard. It's lots of long nights and fruitless work and being pepper sprayed by children. Now, it has a ton of benefits. I love my kids (even when I want to kill them sometimes). My coworkers are great. But there is something to be said for the fact that, especially at Institute, your "fellow CMs" are also your coworkers. So while I can complain about my kids to my roommates sometimes, venting about our school site or TFA is dicier. Plus, sometimes I just want a non-TFA perspective (or to relay information TFA people already know!). It was so amazing to be back with these people who know and love me, and be able to just talk. We talked a bit about my classroom, of course, but no one asked me how my lesson planning steps were going or if I had BMC coaching tomorrow. It was great to get to be a person instead of a teacher. Lots of corps members are finding ways to do this - some of us have college friends at our Institute cities or significant others who can visit. But it's work to find "our people" in our Institute and placement cities. Some people don't have anyone here. Institute (and TFA) is a lot like falling: it's fast and exhausting and disorienting and exhilarating and nauseating. On our way down, it can be a huge life saver to have something stable to grab onto - something that isn't falling with you. The people in our lives give us those handholds, and I can't help but feel pity for the corps members who can't access those in a meaningful way (1 am phone calls aren't for everyone!). I'm deeply apprehensive about my time in my region, where I won't have the ability to call a friend and arrange a meetup that's an hour away. Now, I'll have my car, and I fully intend to spend lots of time in the car driving to Chicago and my hometown. But what if I was in Hawaii or New Orleans? I understand that the needs of our students have to come first, but TFA makes shockingly little attempt to place us in regions where we have existing support networks and I can't help but think that it's harming the mental and physical health of corps members. The Army makes a point of taking care of spouses and children because it knows that its members need those support networks. Some people join TFA to have a new adventure in a new place, and future corps members should have a way to indicate that. But most of us join to make differences in our communities so that our loved ones have a better world to inhabit with us. A placement process that doesn't take into account the motivating and stabilizing power of those ties seems to me painfully flawed.
For the first time in my life, I ran successful centers today. If you're not a teacher, "centers" are where you set up different activities around your classroom and put kids in groups that move from one to another. It's the type of thing my old school always said we should do (it's great for review and to give the teacher time to work with one small group) but no one could ever clearly articulate what it would look like in my eighth grade classroom. I would try, it would be way more work than it was worth, it wouldn't turn out well, and I'd let months pass before I tried again. I'm still beaming with joy over how well it went today. The kids were all super excited about it (I called it "Game Day" instead of "centers" and they spent plenty of time cheering over the idea), they stayed on-task well, and I was able to work on long division with a small group without worrying about the rest of my class. The kids played Memory with equivalent fractions, War to compare decimals, a "board game" with random digits on cards to practice place value, and they operated with decimals at a center that just had random problems on index cards which were "fun" because I called them "Missions To Complete". It was excellent test review and we all loved it. I even had a TFA Program Director come in and video tape about half an hour of my class to show her corps members. It turns out there's at least one person in the world who thinks my room is now a place you might want to show new teachers. There's the possibility that someday, somewhere, someone might see me on a training video. Life goal: accomplished. Unfortunately, it's unfair to attribute more than about 5% of my great day to myself. Sure, I made good activities for the kids, I was exceedingly clear with behavioral expectations, and in my third year I'm just much more competent at running a classroom. But still. I had help at my school from someone who walked me through what centers should look like and the key components for pulling them off successfully. I work in a place with such tight behavioral expectations that I barely need to have my own. My kids are ten and eleven years old, which is still an age where they can be excited over "Missions" and they want to be cooperative. There's too much working in my favor now for me to take credit for anything on my own. (Oh well.) Plus, this girl brought me cherry jelly today. She and her mom picked the cherries and made it themselves. How could I not have an awesome classroom when I get homemade jelly first thing in the morning?
So school starts in 2 1/2 weeks. There is still so much to do. I have decided that my classroom theme this year is going to be Safari. I have done nothing but think of Safari things for the past 2 weeks. Even when I am not doing school related work I somehow end up tying my thoughts back to a Safari. I feel as if I have a million safari animals running around in my head! The crazy thing about it is that I don't mind all the safari animals hanging out in there. :) The PreK teacher in me is coming out in every aspect of my life. I was standing in front of my youth group of middle and high school students and started using my attention getting and wiggle tactics with them!! When I read my fiction series chapter books for fun during my free time (which is decreasing rapidly) I find myself wanting to read aloud and use my read aloud strategies to engage with the book! I am extremely excited about the start of a new year and meeting my long awaited first class!!
It's pretty weird to be back in the real world again. For so long I haven't had to think about meals or housing or even entertainment. It was all about the kids, lesson planning and data. It's odd to be thinking about my house in Gallup (which, by the way, my awesome roommate picked out for us yesterday) and what I'm having for dinner tonight, which seem somewhat inconsequential compared to the academic futures of my 1st graders. I suppose the end of Institute deserves an update on how far my kids came. If you are not a TFAer, you might not know what our concrete goals for our kids were: to grow an entire reading level (basically, a book they needed help with at the beginning of the summer should be an independent read at the end) and to reach a specific math growth goal. The math goal was calculated based on their initial math test, and then was set to be as much growth in math as the top quartile of students could make in the amount of time we had. Simply put, we were trying to get all our kids to a level that typically the top 25% of kids can achieve. In reading, our kids did fantastically. All but 3 of them moved up an entire reading level. Partly this makes me really excited, because for the kids I was working with most, with the level they have now they can read to themselves to get better at reading. This is so important because of the very real possibility that neither parents nor their 1st grade teacher, who may have 36 students to teach, will be able to focus a ton of one-on-one attention on them. But I'm also really sad for the 3 who didn't make the goals. Two of them I don't worry about: they missed their goals for things I know they can do but the test format didn't really allow them to do, such as being able to point to each word as they read from left to right, when the book has text bubbles in a non-linear mishmash. One of them I am really sad about. This girl was the second-best reader in our class, way too good to read with the lower level kids but not on the same level as our best reader. Nevertheless, we had to put her with our best reader for reading groups because it was the only place possible. Our best reader grew 2 whole levels this summer and completely blossomed. Our second-best reader didn't grow even one level. I realize, too little too late, that she never really got reading instruction at her level. Because she was so good, I didn't worry about her. But because she was only being instructed at a level that was too hard for her, she didn't learn like she should have. I never would have put a lower level reader with a book that was two levels too hard for her, but because this girl was so advanced, I somehow thought it was OK? That was my fault. I own that. In math, our kids didn't do so well on the test, but as I said in an earlier post, it's somewhat because test-taking is a really hard skill for them. It's still an important skill, but between learning the math concept and learning how to show it on a test, I'm glad they at least learned the math concept. On the last day of school we played math games with adding and subtracting, and watching kids say out loud, "I put 8 in my head and count up 4," or "I put 6 in my head and 3 on my fingers and count down," just made my day. Except for two. Two of our kids learned almost nothing this summer. I'm realizing that it's the same thing as my second-best reader: everything was always too hard for them. But in this case it's because, as we never really figured out until the last day of school, one of them doesn't actually know her numbers from 1-10 (this is a pre-K skill), and the other doesn't know the symbols for numbers (though she does well with models). They faked it really well, using our body language and cheating off their peers. But both of my lowest achieving math students were at so low a level that I didn't even know where to start, and on top of that, my estimate of their low level was actually too high. So overall, my kids did really well this summer and learned a lot in both reading and math. But there are still 3 kids I know I didn't do enough for. Assessment scores and amount learned should never really be a surprise--you should always know from data where your kids are. But for these three kids, the worst part is that I didn't really know how much I didn't do until the end.
I think it's safe to assume that many teachers were like me when I was little. I'd eagerly look forward to the return to school -- not just to find out who my teacher was or who would be in my classes, but for the back to school shopping. As the daughter of a teacher, I was super lucky. My mom would bring me along for her trips and then we'd go for a special trip just for me. School supplies are an ongoing concern for teachers. In a low-income school, it just gets even more complicated. What will the kids bring in? Will the kids bring in anything? What are the kids most likely to bring in? What do they absolutely need to have? How much am I willing to spend to make sure my kids have those supplies? Fortunately, MNPS provides some money for teachers to spend. Unfortunately, its nowhere near what they need to cover expenses throughout the year. The biggest issue in my classroom this past year? PENCILS. By the end of the year, I was able to recognize the look in my students eyes when they didn't have a pencil. I lost track of how many conversations involved pencils. My favorites were always along the lines of "I don't have a pencil because someone stole it". Someone stole it? The pencil you had in your hand 5 minutes ago during our last activity? THAT pencil was stolen? I consulted with numerous teachers and came to this conclusion: 3rd and 4th graders have the hardest time with pencils. No one has a solution that has worked for every class. Various pencil techniques tried Communal pencils They are very possessive of their things. No one wanted to drop off their pencils for fear of not getting the SAME pencil the next day or later on. They would develop the strangest ways of determining which one had been their pencil previously. Earn a pencil from the classroom store Our school had a school-wide system of "Bear Bucks" which could be spent on a variety of things, ranging from bigger events down to goodies form the class store. The cheapest thing? Pencils. However, students often spent their Bear Bucks on other things Sharpen all pencils in the morning only One of my goals this coming year is to include more purposeful movement. This past year, I had more than a few who would try any possible reason to get up from their seats. They would inevitably have broken pencils even if they sharpened several in the morning as they boys in particular would break their pencil tips off to throw them at each other and get up. Use individual pencil sharpeners What to do with the pencil shavings? Even with the ones that "catch" the shavings had a tendency to get dumped in the middle of the room. Also, other teachers expressed concern from their own experiences with the kids trying to use the blades on themselves or the other students. "Ask 3 before me" When kids would ask for pencils, I would tell them to ask a neighbor (or three...). The kids quickly realize which students take good care of their things and which ones do NOT. Unfortunately, the ones that didn't take good care of their pencils also didn't take good care of other people's pencils. Mechanical pencils At first, I thought this would be the answer. I always used mechanical pencils. What I never did though, was use the lead as a trade commodity. While I'm glad my kinds understand bartering, sharing lead sounds like a simple task, but it's fairly elaborate. And messy. Golf pencils I bought a gross (144). Instead of being the weird pencils with no erasers, they became the hot new commodity. We went through the entire box in 3 days. Thick pencils Designed for students learning how to write, my students loved them. These perhaps worked the best. The problems? Expensive, and they don't sharpen on a standard size. And we broke that sharpener. The sharpeners We broke 1 electric, 1 battery powered, and 1 wall mounted pencil sharpener. Needless, I'm still figuring out what I'm doing about pencils for this year. But I was super excited to head over to Staples to discover some amazing discounts. I got 250 pencils: $0.25 2500 index cards: $0.25 50 highlighters: $0.25 2 packages of copy paper: $2.00 I finally started to understand the feeling the women on Extreme Couponing have when they score a major deal. I do not have the 60 hours a week or massive storage space to be a serious contender on that show, so I'll just stick to my school supplies.
This has been my saga for the past few years now. Three years ago my parents filed for divorce and I was devastated. My best friend said: "Everything happens for a reason." At the time I didn't believe her, but one short year later I told her the same thing when her mother passed away. Now, three years later I am a strong believer in this statement. Back in March I searched on tfanet for a science teacher in the Dallas 2010 corps and I e-mailed the first name that popped up to ask if I could come observe her classroom. She quickly wrote me back and invited me to come observe her after graduation. I moved up to Dallas two days after graduation and went to observe her. As I noted in a previous post, she was PHENOMENAL. I loved every second of my visit. The school is smaller, the students are amazing, and she did such a GREAT job with them. Yesterday I met her for gelato and she told me about the opportunity to interview with this school next week. I was ECSTATIC. Still am for that matter (hence the waking up at 6:00 a.m.). The school reminds me a lot of the school I attended for high school (smaller, everyone involved in extracurriculars, not many sure of what they are going to do after high school). My family will tell you that I didn't go to THAT bad of a school, and I didn't. But, my school also didn't necessarily set up their population for success (the reason only 5 of us to my knowledge went to a four year university and actually finished). Many have told me that they didn't have the parental influence that instilled in them the values of hard work and determination. Okay so what? Where was another role model from a different avenue? A teacher, a coach, a counselor? I know that at my high school about 95% of us were involved in some type of extracurricular activity if not a number of them. I was involved in yearbook, band, cross country, golf, softball, basketball, UIL, track, volleyball, and anything else I could get my hands on throughout high school. This was because of my parents, but many of the kids were involved just because they wanted to be. I truly believe that my school could do so much better. If you go back to my hometown you will see many of my fellow graduates with many kids, working a minimum wage job, and supporting their already large family. This saddens me beyond end. This hurts me knowing that I left my community to go to college and I haven't gone back other than to bury my best friend's mom and grandmother and to move all of my stuff out of childhood home. Since I can't go back now, I am crossing my fingers that I get to work at this school here in Dallas. This would be my dream come true. To be that role model for at least one child and show them that they CAN succeed and do whatever they want to do in life rather that be go to college, tech school, cosmetology school, or whatever else it is that they want to do. The opportunities are endless at this school and I know that if placed there I can and will make a difference. I am so thankful that last March I got a response from this wonderful science teacher at this school. I am so thankful that she let me come observe her classroom and that I saw firsthand what these wonderful children are capable of. I want to show them the world. And if I get to do this through chemistry than all the better.Plus, I get to paint my face and go to all of the football/volleyball/basketball games! SCORE. Wish me luck on Monday. :) Now off to make my first day of school powerpoint that I have put off for so long now. In the words of Journey, Don't Stop Believin'
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