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updates for 07.23.2011

9 new posts today

new in town

I'm finishing up my fourth whole day in my new house in Arkansas, and it's been quite a week. I still vacillate between cautious excitement and overwhelming anxiety, and the lack of structure hasn't helped.  Our whole summer was so hyperstructured that we didn't have the chance to really feel too much, and that helped with the whole moving-across-the-country-and-into-the-unknown-abyss thing.  And, on Monday night after Orientation, all of that structure stopped.  We have a few things we have to do before our Math Pilot Orientation this coming Monday (I'll talk about that later), but for the most part TFA released us into "our region" without much guidance. So having a week of completely unstructured time has been a bit of a shock to me, and I have had moments of panic where I wonder "Where am I and what on earth am I doing here?".  It's usually when I realize that this is my life now.  Having too much time to think in such a crazy life change isn't necessarily a good thing. This little town in Arkansas that I'm coming to love is my permanent residence now -- as permanent as a residence can be for someone in my situation in life. In college, everything is very transitory and you approach life with that mindset.  Adult life is not transitory, and I think I'll like it once I get used to it. Orientation was, for the most part, a complete waste of time and really turned me off to TFA.  This is unfortunate since Institute, which is supposed to be the horrible part, was a good experience for me and left me feeling good about TFA.  But Orientation spent 2 days covering information that could have been condensed into an email and maybe a 2-hour session.  TFA drilled efficiency into us at Institute, and to have such an inefficient Orientation was annoying.  I understand that TFA has to be thorough, but Orientation was so frustrating that I ended up just withdrawing into myself and not absorbing very much information.  Probably not the best response, but I was so overwhelmed that I couldn't handle any more information or any more Kool-Aid. My little town in Arkansas has really welcomed me with open arms, and it's been reassuring and intimidating at the same time. I want to make a good impression, and the culture is so different here that I don't want to commit some faux pas without realizing it.  But smiles and firm handshakes are pretty universal, I think.  I haven't really told people about TFA;  I've just been saying I'm a new first-year teacher and that I came here for a teaching job and for community, both of which are true.  I am here to be a teacher, and I want to stay past my two-year commitment if I like it.  Plus, like I said, I'm really annoyed with TFA right now.  But TFA got me here, and I have to be grateful for that. My roommate and I are getting along really well in our new house!  We're trying to get involved in the community and get our feet under us before the school year starts. This week I:

  • subscribed to the local newspaper
  • got a library card
  • spent about $700 at Walmart
  • "studied" for the Praxis test I have to take tomorrow
  • baked chocolate chip cookies and gave them to my next-door neighbor
  • visited my school for the first time
  • saw my classroom for the first time (more on this later)
  • changed my address officially on the USPS website
  • bought even more cardigans
  • organized a filing system for myself for the school year
  • took a cold shower before we had our water heater turned on
  • ate a LOT of Mac 'n Cheese and canned soup
  • slept on an air mattress
  • finally got wireless internet in my house (a BIG step)
  • got about 12 church invitations
  • watched 8 1/2 movies
My roommate and I have gotten into this routine where we work and run errands all day, then have a picnic in our living room (we don't have a couch yet) and watch movies at night.  We eat junk food and spend at least two hours trying not to think about TFA or teaching.  I like our little routine, and anything familiar is comforting in my new life of uncertainty. I saw my classroom for the first time today!  I'm not sure if it was more exciting or terrifying.  It all became very real all of the sudden, and all I could do was grab a paper towel and start scrubbing the old writing off of the whiteboard in my nervousness.  My arm is sore now, but doing something tedious like that helped me process the fact that I would spend the majority of my time in the next 9 months in that room. It's not a bad room!  The school is pretty neat and clean, and I have a SmartBoard, which I have NO idea how to use.  The few administrators and staff members I've met so far have been SO friendly.  They said that the school is truly like a family, and I'm really intimidated by the idea of entering in to that family.  I just feel so foreign; my California accent sticks out and I feel so very conspicuous whenever I walk around this small town. When I was at school today I realized that I'm stepping into a place where almost everyone else knows what they're supposed to be doing and are doing that.  I just hope that someone tells me what I'm supposed to be doing, because I don't have a clue. I also need to realize that it's only July, and most decisions for this next year haven't even been made yet.  I'll do what I can and do my best to ask questions without being a pest.  They gave me the professional development schedule and I'm going to be content with that for now.  I know from my parents being in education that most things in schools aren't decided this early and aren't set in stone ever, so I have to be patient. I was talking to two of the (AMAZING) custodians today, and when I told them I was from California, one of them said "Well, you're far from home, aren't you?". Tears sprang to my eyes and I realized anew just how far I was from anything familiar.  I had a moment of self-pity, but luckily I was able to put it aside so I didn't start bawling and make these nice ladies think they had hurt my feelings. We had a nice conversation, and on my drive back home I thought about it.  I am far from anything familiar.  I do have this weird feeling of running with nothing under my feet almost all the time -- I can't contextualize this experience into anything I've experienced so far in my life, and that's really unnerving to me.  Rural Arkansas isn't very much like California, and being a teacher is different from being a student. After a few minutes of thought, though, I reminded myself that I'm never far from home.  I am far in physical distance from my family, but my home is found in God, and He is my one constant no matter what my life throws at me.  I just have to cling to that this week. In the 3 weeks that remain before school starts, my roommate and I are going to try and build more structure into our lives so that we're more productive and less manic. Advice please, teachers out there in cyberspace!  If you were going to a first-year teacher and you had 3 weeks left before school started, what would you be doing?  I need all of the advice I can get :)

Still unplaced...

So in-service starts in a week and a sizable number of my corps remains unplaced, including me. There are about 90 people still without positions, of 175. It's so frustrating especially while I sit through sessions that I know would be helpful if I had a placement, a subject, a grade level, but the landscape in Memphis is such that I could be teaching anything to 6-8 graders and math to 9-12 graders. It's definitely been a tough process and my attitude is really in need of an adjustment. I'm going to work on that this weekend. They still assure us we will be placed and we have received lots of information about the placement fund (which funds 90% of our salary for the first 40 days of school). We just finished the first 3 days of orientation, or round 0. We have 8 days of it (which seems much longer than Atlanta (4) and Delta (2). I'm not sure what the differences are but I'm interested to know what ya'll worked on. We are talking about visions, goals, and standards right now. The process of breaking down standards really interests me, but without a placement it's annoying. I was working on Algebra II today because I know if I was placed into a geometry, algebra I or lower classroom I could definitely be ready to teach that, but Algebra II needs some review. Charlotte, NYC, Seattle folks, how's placement going out there (out in the world, as my ED would say)?


End of Week 4

It's Friday! I don't think I've ever looked forward to my weekend more than I have at Institute. This isn't because I don't enjoy what I'm doing, but more so it has to do with the fact that during the week, they keep us so, so busy. The weekend is nice because it's definitely a time where I can recharge by catching up on sleep, hanging out with friends and/or fam, and taking time to think about all that I'm experiencing. Just yesterday our school director alerted us to the fact that although we are teaching everyday, so far, our time in the classroom as teachers of an actual class has been equivalent only to about 3 full days of what we will experience when we move back to our regions. This was a really humbling reality for me. I feel that I've grown leaps and bounds since my first day in the classroom, but I still have so much to learn. This week I had the chance to see some of my fellow teachers in action. Part of what keeps me going is seeing the energy and commitment in my fellow corps members. Knowing that they're being asked to do just as much is being asked of me and still managing to stay positive and keep things in perspective really encourages me. This past week was pretty rough for me; I was really starting to feel the physical weight of sleep deprivation. When I started to express concern that I didn't think I could keep this lifestyle up, every single person I talked to helped me bring back things into perspective. No one dismissed what I had to say, but also, no one affirmed what I had to say without giving me a much needed reality check. Another  huge part of what keeps me going is seeing other teachers in their classrooms. Today I was able to see one of my CMA group members teach his high school chemistry class. After he gave students time to work out a problem about Charles' Law, he asked for a volunteer to come to the front of the class to work the problem out. A student named, J, volunteered and  was absolutely amazing; he not only worked the problem out, but he also explained his rationale and checked to see that his classmates were getting it by throwing in multiple CFU's (Checks For Understanding). The student did an amazing job, but I know that lying back of that amazing student was an amazing teacher who taught that student. All of Sam's students, like mine, are taking the course remedially. For a remedial student to get up in front of 35+ of his peers and not only work out the problem correctly, but effectively teach his peers how to answer the problem was mind-blowing. Even though it wasn't my classroom, that energy and that kind of learning inspired me so much. We have one more week left with our students at Hamilton High School. We've really been pushing our Biology students to come in for the extra tutoring that we offer at 7:30AM before class starts at 8:30AM; attendance has definitely been better this week, which encourages me to keep giving it my all.


T minus 2 weeks!

Round 0 ended this week (this was the 4-day TFA session designed to get us ready for school to start--in two weeks!). Overall, it went pretty well. Among other things, I got to meet my TFA MTLD (Manager of Teacher Leadership Development--basically my TFA boss) and the rest of my math teaching cohort. They all seem like good people, which is nice! I still haven't heard what grade/classes I will be teaching. I know it will be 7th or 8th grade math, but I don't know which classes and I don't know how many different classes I'll have to prep for each day. I'm hoping to hear any day now! Unfortunately, it might take a while longer to find out.... the list of Georgia schools making AYP (adequate yearly progress) was released yesterday. Many of the schools in my district did make AYP last year. Hooray! However, my school did not make AYP for a few subgroups of students in math and English and, unfortunately, this is the second year my school did not make AYP, which means my school is now subjected to "consequences" from the state. At this stage, this means that the school has to send a letter home to parents telling them that they can switch their kids to another local middle school if they want. They have until August 5th to do so....which is fine, except that this is the Friday before school starts on the following Monday (August 8th), which doesn't give the school much time to finalize class lists (and make decisions about staffing)....and the schools where all of these students will be going will have the same problem for the opposite reason. Hopefully, I will find out what I am teaching sometime before then! In other TFA news, all of the Atlanta corps members who took their GACE (Georgia Assessment for the Certification of Educators) exams this summer got the results back earlier this week. Unfortunately, a sizable number of people did not pass (particularly those taking the math tests).  Passing these tests is required in order to teach in Georgia. The TFA people that didn't pass can delay working for TFA until next year, try to get transferred to a region which doesn't required any exams for certification, or try to sub for a few weeks at the beginning of the year and try to take the test again. A very unfortunate situation all around. : ( I'm actually kind of frustrated that TFA placed people in subjects for which they failed their GACE tests. All of these amazing and passionate people are now stuck in an awful situation. For all of these people, I am certain that there are  subjects for which they could have passed their tests and been awesome teachers. There are people who were assigned to teach math (and take the math tests) who haven't taken any math since junior year of high school. It must be pretty awkward when TFA has to call a bunch of principals and let them know that one of the teachers that was placed at their school didn't pass the test that covers content knowledge in the subject they were supposed to have been teaching. It makes TFA look a little silly! If there were just a few people that didn't pass, I could see people arguing that they simply should have studied more. However, since there were so many people that didn't pass, it instead makes me think there is a deeper problem with TFA's system of assigning people to subjects they aren't qualified to teach. My first day of work is officially on Monday. Next week, we have a whole-district new-teacher-orientation on Monday and then a school-level new-teacher-orientation later in the week (supposedly, since I haven't gotten the details on this yet). The following week is an in-service week for all teachers and the week after that is the first day of school! All very exciting!! I can't wait to get started!!!


My biggest gain

We have one very young 3-year-old who, for the first two weeks of school, cried all day.  And I'm not just talking about "crying," I'm talking about hysterical WAILING to the point that everyone in the cafeteria, even other sad kids, would stare at him while he threw a tantrum every morning when his mom tried to leave.  Apparently his brother was the same way and this is characteristic of their family--severe separation anxiety.  It was so serious and painful to watch that I really wasn't sure this child would make it through summer school.  There were even some really rough moments with him that I wished his mother would decide he was too young and pull him out of school. Fast forward to the end of week 4 of summer school.  He's started talking more and communicating feelings and participating in lessons.  He's becoming more verbal and learning his classmates' names.  He doesn't cry anymore. Yesterday, I asked him if he liked school.  He nodded.  Today, at breakfast, I told his mom what he had said yesterday and she told me that, this morning, HE was rushing HER out the door and kept saying that he had to get to school. I think I finally have a concrete response to the question, "Why do you teach for America?"


Teaching So That Kids Actually Learn: My First Project Based Learning Plan

Think back to your clearest memories of elementary school or middle school. What do you remember? I know what I remember... my fifth grade oceanography project lead by Mr. Soderberg, teacher-extraordinaire. In teams of four, our group of fifth grade scientists were tasked with the challenge of saving the ocean floor. The project went something like this. On day one, we watched a video of lobsters, bleached and dying due to pollution in the water. Emotionally connected to the lobsters, now, we attacked a document with clues about where those lobsters were. Together with my team, we teased out as many details as we could, trying to pinpoint where we would begin our tests. Success was crucial. If we choose the incorrect initial location, our budget would be slashed as we tried to make up for the mistake. As the week continued, we had to decide as a team which tests to run to figure out what pollutant was causing the lobsters to die, and from there, how to save the lobsters. Some tests tested acidity, others dredged a sample of the ocean floor. My team had several heated discussions, we had competing interests to balance, one of finding the answer but the other of protecting a limited budget. Each test we ran would be expensive. Using the information from our tests, we had to select a series of recommendations to make to the local government to combat the ocean pollution problem. Our recommendations would determine whether or not the lobsters lived or died. In the end, my team was the most successful team in the class. We made the best recommendations and came in under budget. For the next six years, I would be convinced that I was going to be an oceanographer, exploring the ocean depths the world over. Thinking back, I remember, not the tests, not the single day experiments, but the projects, the ones that spanned several weeks and made me truly think. Fast forward twelve years and I am now a fifth grade science teacher. But, instead of teaching through in-depth projects, I fought for survival every day that first year, often times planning a single, slightly related but not really lesson for the next day the night before. It was stressful, it made me cranky, and frankly, I hated planning. It wasn’t that I didn’t work hard (I did), or that my students didn’t learn anything (they did), but did they walk away from my class that first year having been transformed? I think not. Another criticism I have of the standard lesson planning process (Understanding by Design included) is that the *purpose* of learning was more contrived (to master the Standard, to grow as scientists, to get ready for high school) then it was authentic (to solve a challenge). This is why I’m happy to announce that next year, I’ll be teaching at least 80% of my content through projects. This means that the standards my students master will be standards they *need* to master in order to be successful on their project. This also means that they will be motivated to learn, not because I tell them to or because it’ll be tested, but they’ll be motivated to learn by the work itself. I’m also excited to stretch my students’ skills so that they will be prepared for a world that is not content driven, but skills driven. They’ll need to analyze, problem-solve, collaborate, and communicate. They will need to research, design, create, and present. And in pushing them, I’ll be pushing myself as well. And, instead of writing more on this topic, I’d like to share the work I did with two other teachers this past week during a Project Based Learning professional development conference. It, more than anything else, will probably explain the excitement that’s going on inside my head. http://youtu.be/xCqb3A876IU


Ready and Waiting

I am moved in to Orangebrug, SC.  We have almost two weeks until new employee orientation, and almost three weeks before the first day of school.  My roommates and I are beginning to learn the city and are trying to navigate around without the GPS.  The South Carolina corps is brimming with excitement.  We cannot wait to get into the classroom. We spent the last month in Houston, TX at institute.  I taught fifth graders in summer school, and sat through hours of sessions learning how to better my craft.  Even though I went through the education program at my college, completed student teaching,  and am certified to teach in North Carolina, institute was the single most beneficial experience in my young teaching career.  I cannot wait to get this show on the road here in South Carolina.


My Perfect Day by Donovan, 3rd grade

My Perfect Day By Donovan, 3rd grade On my perfect day I want to be king for one day. I will prevent innocent civilians and make sure gangs and guns are no longer welcome in the United States or the world. Then I will go with my family and have a great time with my brothers and sisters and cousins. I would rent a whole amusements park and we will go and stay at the Key Line resort Co. and then when my day is over, I will positively make sure that every neighborhood will be safe.



If I knew then what I know now...I would do it all over again! Those three, seemingly meaningless, dots that make up an ellipsis tell the real story of Teach for America’s Institute. When put together, those menial periods hold the count of the hundreds of hours we poured over lessons, strategies, and data, the tears we cried, the profanities we used, and the dreams we birthed.  As an outsider looking in, and a veteran teacher at that, I was convinced that TFA Institute was a hyped up teacher orientation and training. I mean, come on, how “bootcamp-esqu” could this really be? Honestly, it wasn’t boot camp but that is not to say that it wasn’t exhausting, taxing, and draining. Somewhere amidst exhaustion and overload I laughed, cried, planned, and found myself. I planned. I never thought I could pour over plans like I did during Institute. In my undergrad and grad classes planning was a component of teaching; in TFA planning is the epicenter.  It’s exhausting at times, but the implications for students are phenomenal.  I cannot believe how powerful an effective plan can be. It was a learning curve and ultimately a mental shift, but I can never go back to the time when planning was a component of teaching and not THE component. My days started early and ended 18-20 hours later, but they were never void of fun and laughter (thanks largely in part to the spectacular collaborative team I was a part of!) I laughed. I spent almost every waking moment of my days with the same people—from teaching to dinner; from running to the bus at 7am to leaving the conference room at 3am—and from the inside jokes, to mimicking students, staff, and CM’s, from the intense hash-out sessions to sharing our past experiences and future dreams, TFA has brought some incredible people into my sphere. Karla, Cornelius, and Kate, you are three exceptional people and you not only taught me so much, you also became great friends. Darko, and the Darkonites (or “Pumpkin’s Kiddos” depending on who you ask) you are exceptional people and I am better for having worked alongside each of you. I cried. I didn't cry because I was getting little more than 3 hours of sleep or because there was no reprieve from work (seriously, 18-20 hour days most of the time), no, I finally broke down when I realized that in 3 and 4 weeks my students were telling me they learned more than they had all year. I couldn't hold back the tears because 5 weeks of quality education seemed more like a slap in the face than a helping hand for these boys who were multiple grades below academically.  I cried when Jose told me that he actually liked school because he knew teachers cared about him. I didn’t stop tears when Jose told me he was going to one of the top charter schools for high school or when Moises’ precious smile that lit up his face appeared because he totally got the mental math trick I taught him. Institute is long hours and physically takes a toll, but that is no comparison to the emotional component. Walking into a classroom you know the statistics, 5 minutes into first period statistics become names, and before lunch statistics take on personality and somewhere between Day 1 Reading and Day 4 Math you fall head over heels in love with these amazing kids who not long ago were stats on a page. It is that point of no return that keeps me in the classroom and the point that keeps me focused and relentlessly pursuing equal education for these “babies” that wrap themselves so quickly around my heart. I cursed, because Standard English seemed too proper a knife to wield as I stood enraged at the systems, policies, and practices that repetitiously carve out FAILURE as the destiny for students in poverty. I swore as I heard about parents and questioned their approach, and as I dealt with repeated behavior problems, continued truancy. I simultaneously wanted to shake, yell at, hug, and inspire these young boys.  I refrained J and ultimately, I found that anger is the most efficient fuel for passion. I found myself. Institute is meant to break you in many ways, but it is also the perfect place to discover aspects of yourself that you didn’t know or had forgotten. It is also the place to refine your passion. I have always been deeply committed to education, but it wasn’t until Job Corps that I realized how much I wanted to be a part of education reform. Now, as I embark on the next 2 years with TFA, I am discovering even more precision and focus for these dreams I dream. Institute has not been “Hell Week”. It has had tumultuous times and it has taken a lot of sleepless nights and emotional investment, but tomorrow as I say goodbye to the six 8th grade “Boys to Men” I say with full assurance that it was a small price to pay to know these boys and be a part of their growth.


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