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updates for 08.07.2011

5 new posts today

I survived institute!

Well, the subject sums it up. I survived what I have been told is one of the harder experiences I will go through as part of TFA and what different people have labeled as "boot camp", "hazing", "prison", and "not as bad as people make it seem." My institute experience was a decent one. During institute, I think I only partially realized what I went through. Looking back, at first, it does not seem as bad as people described it to me. When I examine it closer, I realize that it was definitely exhausting. I made it a point to do almost nothing TFA related from 4:15 on Friday afternoons (when sessions ended) to Sunday afternoon or so because that was almost the only free time we got. I am the type of person who like to do things slowly and leisurely. In college, I would pull all-nighters sometimes as I preferred no sleep and some breaks to working super fast and sleeping for a couple of hours. Institute was different. Literally from 6 am to about 12 or 1 (or later) at night, I was working with little or no breaks. Now, I know people who slept by 10 and 11 pm each night so maybe I was doing something wrong and not actually working as diligently as I thought. I do know that I made pretty good use of my time by my standards though and still generally got under 6 hours of sleep per night. I have mixed feelings about institute. In terms of training and preparing us in a very short amount of time, I think it i a fairly good model. It's tough in the sense that you are thrown into a very real classroom with not a lot of preparation so it kind of forces you to figure out what works and such. You get a pretty good amount of feedback so if things don't work, you can try to fix them. I don't think it is ideal in terms of preparing teachers BUT given 5 weeks, I think it is fairly good. However, I had a lot of issues with institute as I know many other people did also. I do not think that everyone at institute, including myself, should have been teaching as soon as we did. I think  Teach for America has pretty strong applicants and so the people accepted are generally pretty capable. And don't get me wrong, at the school I was teaching at, there were some really amazing classrooms. Some of the teachers had education experience (either as education majors/minors or through previous jobs) and those people generally did a pretty good job as far as I know. There were also some people who just naturally were really great in the classroom. However, I think other people, such as myself, definitely needed more training and for sure more practice before we stepped into an actual classroom. I understand that it is hard to kind of distinguish who should be teaching and who should not be and that they are trying to fit things into 5 weeeks. So even though I definitely do not think one week of training is ideal, I guess I see that TFA has decided it works after many years of practice and kept this model for a reason. I do not agree with the way Week 1 of our institute was handled though. When you have so little time, I think it is wise to use that time to the maximum. Did this happen at institute? I do not think so and I was pretty frustrated by it and  I know other people were also. For example, we arrived to institute Sunday and had an opening ceremony Sunday night (and that's all) which seems reasonable enough. But then, we had absolutely nothing all day Monday until the evening time. Pretty stupid if you ask me. I also don't think the sessions we had were all that helpful or even relevant to our first week of teaching. There was a lot of information that I would have liked to see given but was not (like content specific stuff, a better introduction to lesson planning and classroom management, and even model lessons and examples on what to do and not to do). I did not feel adequatley prepared to begin teaching on Tuesday. Aside from that, there were the changes that happened. Now, to some extent, I guess it was good because it did prepare us for the uncertainty and chaos and what not that I am sure will come with working in the education system. It made preparing pretty annoying though. TFA institute classrooms generally have this collaboration model. You have a "collab" and the 2 of you teach the same subject and same students. Person A teaches the first hour, Person B the second, and then you switch. You plan your classroom set-up (rules, management systems, etc.) together and when the other person is teaching, you can either help students or just prepare or whatever. Our school was supposed to follow this and so my collab and I were going to plan as such. Literally a couple of days before instruction started though, we were told this would not be the case. We would be teaching different students and so we would have to each plan separately. This meant that our students would have be getting half the expected instruction and thus half the material. People (luckily not me) suddenly were given different objectives to teach (after already preparing for one set) and different tests to administer/teach to. That was a lot of negative stuff/things I had issues with. Honestly though, institute is not all bad. If anything, I had issues with it because I felt that student achievement for our summer students was not the  top priority (rather, training us for the fall was). The experience did teach me a lot and I know exactly what I need to improve, change, strengthen, keep, etc. for the fall. So in the sense of training and preparation, it was fairly good. It also definitely made me realize that this is an amazing movement. I met so many passionate, talented, amazing people and the few times I got to see other corps members teach, I was in awe and learned a lot. I think people have not been prepared for the craziness that institute is in the past and so we were definitely constantly prepared for the worst. As a result, I think I was able to get through it and I for sure learned a lot, not just about teaching but also about myself. As I move towards the fall and my permanent placement, I am definitely scared and worried. I taught at a charter school this summer that had a pretty good school culture and so the students were all disciplined and fairly motivated and such. I know that my fall school is going to be a lot tougher in terms of behavioral management and since that is a huge area of struggle with me, I am kind of anxious about that. I also am very aware of the shortcomings in my classroom this summer, especially in terms of keeping students engaged and invested. That is another thing I struggle with and something I know I need to improve on. However, I am forcing myself to think about the positive also. I am lucky enough to be teaching the same subject (Algebra) in the fall as I taught this summer so that is nice. I also realize that the content is something I am pretty comfortable with and I have kind of found ways that make it fairly straightforward for students so that is something I hope to keep doing. I also have a placement teaching 9th grade math so I am happy to know that I actually have a job. The nice thing is that my school has a few corps members working there so that will be nice too hopefully. Institute ended 8 days ago and since then I have been relaxing (which is probably why it seems so far away and also not so bad). First I went home to California to get some more of my stuff and mainly to see family and friends since I probably won't be home until the winter.  Now I am vacationing out East with family before starting the first 8 weeks stuff. Excited to begin planning for the school year, moving into my apartment in Newark, and starting my life out here but also scared obviously. It is going to be very different but hopefully I will not only survive but also be able to make somewhat of a positive impact on my students. I should definitely update this more often (but somehow I doubt that will work out).


What The 'F'?

Follow garyrubinstein on Twitter Anyone following this blog for the past few months know that, to me, the most disturbing thing about the current ed reform movement is the heartless shutting down of neighborhood schools, based mainly on test scores. Despite Arne Duncan's claims that he's seen too many 90/90/90 schools (90% poverty, 90% graduation rate, 90% achievement) to believe that it takes anything more than harder-working teachers to close the achievement gap in high poverty schools, he has yet to produce even ONE non-selective school that has such statistics. Diane Ravitch called him and other politicians out on this in The New York Times a few months ago, and you don't hear the reformers hailing miracle schools as much as they used to. This makes me happy since less dishonesty means that 'failing' schools don't have to fight for their lives while trying live up to a mythical ideal. But the reformers saw this coming, so I've noticed, recently, a new party line. Rather than focus on the absolutes: the percent of proficient students, regardless of poverty, in the old no-excuses, poverty-is-not-destiny, your-future-is-not-determined-by-your-zip-code, they will now focus on 'gains.'  How much students progressed in a year, relative to their starting point. One example of this is the teacher evaluation system that Michelle Rhee implemented in D.C. when she was chancellor there. About 28 minutes into this video she describes how 50% of the teacher evaluations were not based on absolute metrics, like getting 90% proficient, but on the 'gains' of the students.  This is what's now known as value-added.  How much did the students progress. Though this certainly sounds more fair than asking teachers to get impossible proficiency percents, there are still a lot of problems with these inaccurate tests.  And even if the tests were accurate, how can a teacher be blamed (held accountable) for kids, for instance, who missed much of the school year for poverty-related issues?  When this IMPACT program was implemented, they used it to fire over 200 teachers this year -- all from high-poverty schools.  You could argue that this makes sense since only the worst teachers are unable to get jobs at the better schools.  But I'd say, having taught at many different schools, that the teachers at the high-poverty schools are, on average, better than the ones in the low-poverty schools.  They are just working with a more challenging group so it is tougher to get those gains. As New York City, where I live and teach, works to shut down more and more schools, I just discovered a truly bizarre use of this kind of 'value-added' process which factors highly into the annual school report card grade which, in turn, factors highly into the decision to shut down schools. You won't believe this. Starting in 2010, New York City schools made their school report card grade based on the following considerations 15% school environment, 25% student achievement (percent proficient), and a whopping 60% on 'student progress'.  Up until the 2009-2010 school year, this 'growth' was based on student proficiency from one year to the next.  So if all the students had a 2.3 on math in 3rd grade and then they all had a 2.3 on math in 4th grade, they all grew by a year in a year's time. But for the 2009-2010 school year, according to their website, they changed it to this:

Student Progress (60% of overall score): measures how student proficiency has changed in the past year. Progress indicators track the yearly gain or loss in ELA and mathematics proficiency of the same students as they move from one grade to the next at the school. A student’s growth percentile indicates the percentage of students, starting at the same test score, whom the student’s growth exceeded. These measures focus on the capacities students develop as a result of attending the school, not the capacities they bring with them on the first day. The metric is calculated for all students and for students in each school’s lowest one-third, as determined by the previous school year’s ELA and Math proficiency ratings. Each of these four metrics counts for 15% of the total score.
So what this means is that they now measure the growth of the entire school like this.  For each student they take their score from the previous year, let's say that student A got a 2.3 on the 3rd grade math assessment, and they take that student's score on the 4th grade math assessment, let's say they got a 2.2, and then they figure out what percent of students in the city who also got a 2.3 on 3rd grade got lower than a 2.2 in 4th grade.  Let's say that 60% of all the kids that got 2.3 in 3rd grade got less than a 2.2 in 4th grade.  So for that kid, the score would be 60%.  They then do this with every kid in the school and take the median of all those scores.  So the entire school is based on the one kid at the median and how he/she did in comparison to all the other kids in the district who got the same starting score.  They do this for math and ELA and then they do it for just the bottom third of the students in the school to get 4 scores that make up the majority of the school report card grade. Now, the first thing to consider is what is a good score for this?  50% must be good since it means that the kids (or at least the kid) did better than half the kids who had the same starting point.  It seems like 40% wouldn't be too bad either. Well, I downloaded the complete 2009-2010 school report card spreadsheet to see how the five middle and elementary schools that received 'F's fared in this huge category.  (Good reading strategy:  make some predictions about what I might say next ...)
School Math % ELA % Bottom 1/3 Math % Bottom 1/3 ELA %
Academy of Collaborative Education 50 46 63.5 72
Cornerstone Academy for Social Action 56 50.5 48 56
Fredrick Douglass Academy IV 43 51.5 64 67
P.S. 332 45.5 64 51 65
Community Roots Charter School 62 44.5 77 46.5
Now, I'm just a school teacher so I don't know nuthin' about no statistics, but these scores seem pretty good.  Anything even near 50% seems commendable, and many of these are way above 50%.  And this comprises of 60% of their school report card, and these are the only five schools to get 'F's. Seems strange to me.

Teacher in-service week

This week, I got to meet the rest of the staff. They all seem nice! Early in the week I had a few professional development sessions. I also had meetings with all of the rest of the 7th grade teachers. I started getting my room set up. I also was taught how to use more educational software than I can ever possibly remember, let alone actually figure out how to use in my class. I finally got my school laptop on Thursday, so I could sort of start following along all of the training on how to take attendance and things like that. There was an open house for students and parents on Thursday night. I got to meet some of the students in my homeroom and their parents, which was good!  Unfortunately, I still didn't have access to the program that gives class lists, so I had no idea who was in my class until they walked in the door and introduced themselves, which was a little awkward. All week, other teachers have been going through their belongings as they unpack and bring me gifts of assorted schools supplies. I now have more paper clips that I could ever actual use with paper, so I'll have to come up with some lesson this year that requires paperclips as manipulatives... On Friday, I finally got access to the attendance program (which has my class lists). I have 3 classes of 24 and one class of 31, but apparently, there is typically a huge amount of reshuffling in the first few days, so I really have no idea who will actually end up in my classes. Two of my classes are listed with an asterisk. I asked what that means and was told that those are either accelerated classes or classes with a special ed co-teacher. Then I asked how I could find out which of those possibilities these classes actually are and I was told (somewhat in jest) that I would find out Monday when a co-teacher either shows up or doesn't! : )    I did some more digging and it looks like there will be a special ed co-teacher for both of these (it could actually be pretty nice to have a second adult in the room!).  Of course, I still can't access the database of IEPs, which is kind of unfortunate...     I'm sure it will all work out. Also, on Friday, we had an all-staff potluck lunch. I was one of the people assigned to bring dessert. I made brownies. It was the first time I have ever made brownies (solo). All of them were eaten and I got a few positive comments. This was particularly impressive considering that several of the other desserts were NOT entirely eaten. I hope my first attempt at teaching is as successful as my first attempt at making brownies! : )


New School Year! Weeks 1 & 2

I can't believe how quickly this school year is going! My first day with students was on Wednesday, July 27th. This year I am teaching Algebra 1. We are having 8 week terms at my school. In this 8 weeks, I have to teach my students the ENTIRE year of Algebra 1. Whoa. Thankfully I have them 3 hour a day, Monday through Thursday. Here are the PROs & CONs of this change... Pros: 1. 100% direct instruction- if I use netbooks it's a teaching tool not as the main source of new information 2. Small classes (I have 5 students in the morning & 4 in the afternoon) 3. I teach during the day all week. Cons: 1. I lost my prep period Monday through Thursday due to the new schedule. 2. Since I am teaching the same students 4 days in a row during the day, I have to teach a 12 hour day every two weeks. Our night students have different teachers every night... it's a bit chaotic right now. 3. My new prep time is on Friday.... which has also turned into the day of meetings so really no prep time. 4. 3 hours of instruction is a REALLY long time to plan for. I have between 3 and 5 objectives a day. My student took their first unit exam this past Thursday. Overall, they did really well. My afternoon class did much better and their attendance was also much better. If a student misses 1 day, they get SO behind since I cover so much material. It's kind of crazy how much they are learning in 1 day. But, I think they are really enjoying it. :)

Institute: a reflection (and some life updates)

Overheard on the last day of summer school F.: "I like that vest, but it looks ugly on Mr. K." Today marks exactly one week since the end of Institute. It's hard to believe that just seven days ago, there was still very little on my mind except big goals, student investment, purposeful planning, effective execution, and other such TFA kool-aid. I definitely still think about my students all the time, and I can't help feeling like I've abandoned them to some extent, but I pray that they would carry the skills and the confidence that I tried to equip them with this summer into the upcoming school year. As for all the other parts of Institute, I feel like I'm sufficiently removed from them now to do a clear-headed, unbiased reflection on the entire experience. First, a couple notes on what Institute is not. Institute is not a substitute for four years of education school and student teaching. It definitely feels like a ton of work in the moment, but the sobering reality is that the total number of hours I spent actually teaching is about the same number of hours I'll spend teaching during the first four days of the school year. Four days. That's peanuts. This will be something to be mindful of as I begin to participate in conversations about best practices with the faculty at my school over the next few weeks. (Wow, that was a lot of prepositions.) Second, Institute is not designed to break people's spirits and weed out CMs the way orgo weeds out prospective pre-meds. I can only speak from my experience, but I truly felt that every support system that TFA had in place--from the CMA who would spend hours brainstorming ideas for better execution, to the SD who knew everyone personally and genuinely cared about how they were doing, to the many opportunities to voice our opinions on the way things were run--was designed with both student achievement and the well-being of CMs in mind. And obviously, Institute is a much happier experience when you don't feel like TFA is constantly out to get you. So what is Institute? It is an opportunity for learning and growth, if you let it be one. I mean that for both CMs and the students, as I'll explain in a moment. In all honesty, I walked into my classroom on day one abhorring the prospect of countless CMs, staff members, and visitors observing and criticizing my teaching. I came from a place of pride, and, as I know intellectually but not often viscerally, "pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18). Fortunately, God was gracious to save me from said destruction. My moment of enlightenment, if you will, occurred when I observed a couple classrooms myself (including one taught by my CMA as a substitute) and realized that I had nowhere near the teaching ability of the same people who had been trying to help me improve my own practices. As soon as I began incorporating feedback into my planning and execution, my students began learning more, as evinced by their scores. And student learning and growth is ultimately what Institute (and teaching in general) is all about. In addition, Institute is manageable. It truly is, no matter how daunting it may seem to have to prepare three lesson plans in one night, or deliver a lesson about geometric rotations on four hours of sleep, or reteach an objective when there already aren't enough days to teach the original objectives. What I found is that the key to not being overwhelmed is not just spending time productively, but spending time productively in the right ways. For me, that meant occasionally shutting down my laptop, picking up the Bible, and just spending some time in a psalm of praise or supplication. Or sometimes it meant taking a break between getting back from the copy center and beginning the next set of lesson plans to go for a quick run on the track. Oftentimes, spending time productively in the right way meant having wonderful and deep conversations with fellow CMs about the important things in life, as I've mentioned in previous posts. The main idea is that, at Institute or elsewhere, it is impossible to be a good teacher if you're not a human being as well. Finally, Institute is fun. I don't mean to sound like a tool, but it is very possible enjoy the experience even amidst the stresses of teaching, attending countless sessions, and dealing with logistical complications. I can honestly say that my CMA and school group shared more laughter than tears, more smiles than complaints, because we started off with the attitude that only joyful teachers can lead a classroom of joyful learners, and I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, as a follower of Christ, I believe that life can only be properly lived in joy. Two passages come to mind: Philippians 4:11-13, where Paul talks about being content regardless of circumstance, and Galatians 5:22-23, where he talks about the fruit of the spirit, among which is joy. Though Institute was hard, and though students could sometimes be frustrating to no end, being wholly devoted to the service of God and thereby experiencing the fruit of the Spirit enabled me to have fun and enjoy my time with students, CMs, and staff members alike. ---------- Wow, that ended up being a lot longer than I expected, so I'll keep this next part short and sweet. For those of you who know me personally and therefore follow this blog to keep up with my life in addition to my teaching, things are going well:

  • I moved into my apartment in Cranston (just south of Providence) on Sunday, and because we've had abbreviated sessions for the past couple days, I've finally had a chance to start settling into my new home.
  • My housemate and I set up our bookcase/library yesterday, and it was interesting to note how much more welcoming the living room appeared after the addition of books. Hooray literacy! (At the moment, most of my books are theological in content, and most of his are classic works of literature or teaching references, but more are forthcoming.)
  • Cooking is a struggle since I don't know very many recipes, but surprisingly, nothing I've made so far has tasted awful, and I consider that a success. Also, note to self: plums are the best snack food ever.
  • I've been sleeping on the floor for the past week since I'm never home early enough in the afternoon to receive my bed delivery, but it's scheduled to arrive tomorrow, so tonight is the last time I'll have to experience this particular trial. Truth be told, it hasn't been too bad, but I have missed having a bed to crash in sometimes.
  • Tomorrow will be full of errands and catching up on all the C. S. Lewis that I meant to read as soon as I finished Institute. I'm excited--I haven't had a completely free day in a very long time.
And finally, just so I don't forget, here's a preview of a couple things that I hope to touch on in my next post: a description of the turnaround school where I'll be teaching next year, and a deeper reflection on why I Teach For America. Until then, so long!

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