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updates for 12.26.2011

4 new posts today

When You're Hardest Hit

When I was in middle school, my mom gave me my first journal. It had a soft, green plastic cover and on it were the first and last stanzas of a cheesy inspirational poem written by an unknown author. I'm sure you've heard it. It's called 'Don't Quit'. Below I have included the poem in its entirety for your reading pleasure.

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will, When the road you're trudging seems all uphill, When the funds are low and the debts are high, And you want to smile, but you have to sigh, When care is pressing you down a bit, Rest, if you must, but don't you quit. Life is queer with its twists and turns, As every one of us sometimes learns, And many a failure turns about, When he might have won had he stuck it out; Don't give up though the pace seems slow-- You may succeed with another blow. Often the goal is nearer than, It seems to a faint and faltering man, Often the struggler has given up, When he might have captured the victor's cup, And he learned too late when the night slipped down, How close he was to the golden crown. Success is failure turned inside out-- The silver tint of the clouds of doubt, And you never can tell how close you are, It may be near when it seems so far, So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit-- It's when things seem worst that you must not quit. - Author unknown   When I was in middle school, I needed to read that poem every day before vomiting teenage angst onto the pages of what would become only a tiny piece of the dozens of journals I filled. Middle school sucked. Turns out, teaching middle school can kind of suck, too. I find myself wondering who else out there is struggling. It's an embarrassing problem to have, quite frankly. None of us want to be the shitty, can't-manage-your-students, stereotypical young white teacher. None of us want to be the fuel in the "Why TFA Is Bad" debate. I want to defy all the TFA naysayers. I want to defy the people in my own family who keep telling me to quit. I want to defy the voices in my head that tell me I suck at life. I want to defy those who don't believe the gap can be closed, at least not by a new teacher. I'm not even a "traditional" corps member. This is not my first job out of college. I've been at this corporate hustle a while now. Teaching was supposed to be the "fun job". (I don't mean that to minimize the seriousness of our mission. I mean only that this career change was part of me following my true passions.) I made it through Institute. I made it through Year One. Perfectly? No. Struggles? Yes. But never- not once- not for a single moment- did I ever think about quitting. A few bad days, but overall, it was amazing. Suddenly here it is, Year Two. The year that is supposed to be easier. Better. When you really get to start having an impact because you learned so much about teaching. Right? Wrong. I'm at a new school (school from last year got shut down). Teaching kind of a new content area. Teaching 7th grade, the best grade of all. And every day it feels like I am drowning. Seriously. Every day I recommit. Every day I chant mantras. Pray. Read lame-ass teacher books. Meditate. My new apartment's white walls were bare all semester, except for a piece of notebook paper that had "I AM THE CEO OF MY CLASSROOM" scrawled across it. I stared at that for hours as I struggled to go to sleep every night, sick over the challenges I knew I would face in a few hours. Even with only five days left in the semester, I wanted to quit. Everyone was already in holiday break mode, thinking it's almost here. I was thinking, holy shit, how am I going to make it five more days? Seriously. That's like saying we only have five eternities left. And then I think beyond that, this isn't a game of survival. Surviving TFA doesn't mean you've won. Surviving TFA shouldn't be the goal. Who quits in their second year? I have to believe it is rare. The very few I've truly confided in have told me to just stick it out till the end of the year. Have they seen a calendar? Do they realize the end of the year is six months away? SIX MONTHS. I used to think I could endure anything for a year. This year has taught me how vastly different a corps member's experience can be based on placement. I told my principal from last year that even though I'm a ten times better teacher this year than I was last year, I'm a ten times worse teacher this year than I was last year. I've gotten better, but the results are worse. How can a school mere blocks away from my old school, which was so bad it got shut down, be so much worse? It keeps falling back on my shoulders, as it should. I take ownership of my responsibility in the results in my classroom. But I have to say what I know is true: We have to admit that there are placements that are beyond the capabilities of the average corps member. I'm not going to complain too much about TFA or my placement. I signed up for this. But comparing my experiences from Year One and Year Two, I can say that not all placements are created equal, and you might want to suspend judgement of those who quit TFA. There are some placements that are simply too challenging for the AVERAGE TFA CORPS MEMBER to be able to have an impact. We all think we teach in the worst school. We don't. My mom told me I need to make a decision about whether I am quitting or not. It's never been about that. I've never been debating in my mind whether or not I am going to quit. All along I have been committed. I'm merely reaching out for help, grasping for anything that will keep my head above water (and my students' heads). I am saying yes, I'm going to do this, but HOW? I am running a marathon. I will not quit until I reach the finish line, but I might not be capable of reaching the finish line. If my body gives out, what then? At the risk of being critical, I am extremely disappointed with how TFA has handled my cries for help, which weren't actually cries, and which I have attempted to keep professional and grounded in the reality that exists, which is much bigger than myself. I'm disappointed that St. Louis allows our children to go to school in the school that I teach. I'm disappointed when people blame the parents of my students, when they are the "victims" in this injustice. I'm disappointed when administration puts the responsibility for every failure on the shoulders of the teachers. But most of all, I'm just disappointed in myself. I'm disappointed that I cannot be the teacher I know my students deserve. My PD recently sent out data that categorized corps members into five categories: Path Changing, Dramatic Growth, More Than Typical- Gap Narrows, Typical- Gap Does Not Change, Limited- Gap Widens. I literally threw up when I read this. Gap Widens. I'm part of the problem now, not part of the solution. No matter what the outcome is this year, one thing I know for sure: it's not going to get easier. I may become a better teacher, I may still see significant gains with my students, I may overcome many challenges. But things aren't going to get easier, and I have to accept that. I'm grateful to have a week to reflect upon my teaching and to identify my priorities coming back from break. I recently confided in a "friend" (read: mental health professional) my struggles with maintaining my sanity throughout this semester. I listed off the external factors that make every day for me Hell. She said, wow, you just made an extremely strong argument for quitting Teach For America. And then it hit me. No, I just made an extremely strong argument for NOT quitting Teach For America. The reasons I want to quit are the exact reasons that I can't quit. And I won't. But I don't see light at the end of my tunnel.

Wrapped Gifts

I had a student on a behavior contract, but we were having trouble thinking of a reward for perfect completion of the contract. Did she want me to bring her lunch? Special class seating? A Saturday activity somewhere? Homework passes? She kept insisting she wasn't sure, but she was excited about the contract anyway.   When she got through a whole week with unbelievably perfect behavior, I pushed her again on what she wanted. It took her another two days to think of something, but finally she came up with it.   She came to me after class and shyly said, "We can't really get presents for Christmas this year. For my reward, do you think you could give me a Christmas present?"   My heart melted a little. A present for Christmas, when she wasn't going to get any? I would love to do that.   She hesitated a moment after I agreed, and then got up the courage to add one last thing - the part she really wanted. It turns out it wasn't the actual gift she was yearning for, but the experience. As if she were asking the impossible, she looked up at me and said, "Ms. Mathinaz, could it be wrapped?"


1 Plus and 1 Delta on Legal Education

Believe it or not, I'm still here and I still intend to keep this blog alive. I blame my first semester of law school for my lack of writing. Now that I'm on break, I finally have time to put away the massive casebooks and return to pleasure reading. Boy, did I miss that. Given that I've been away and that my writing muscles are rusty, I thought I'd restart ABCDE with a post on legal education, a timely topic. Indeed, the New York Times chose "Legal Education Reform" as a recent editorial subject, declaring American legal education as "in crisis." Another critic considered whether law school was a "losing game." The recession certainly put tremendous pressure on the market for legal services, making law school a less obvious "bargain" than it once was. Perspectives abound. I avoid the social, political and economic debates here. Instead, I focus on the pedagogy of legal education, spurred, in part, by a recent NYT Room For Debate on the Socratic method. My views are shaped by the experience of my first semester of law school. (As I've done in the past and as I did frequently while teaching, I am providing one plus ("good job") and one delta ("room for change") on legal education.) + Unlike many of the NYT commentators, I believe that the Socratic method is not only an excellent pedagogical tool in legal education, but an indispensable one. I can't imagine successful legal teaching without it. The Socratic method, from the professor's perspective, is simple yet effective. The professor cold calls students (sometimes at random, sometimes in a more predictable sequence--it all depends on the professor's style), poses questions, and essentially carries out a conversation consisting of questions and answers. Through this back and forth dialogue with students, the professor teases out the nuances of a case, ultimately uncovering the underlying legal principles. For a professor, it's a no-frills technique: consider what the students need to know, prepare a series of questions that will lead them there, and know how and when to ask them. The method benefits students too. Because most professors cold call, and because most students want to avoid the embarrassment of being called on and not knowing what to say, students furiously prepare every reading assignment. The unpredictable nature of the cold call ensures this. As a result, frivolous comments are practically nonexistent and the quality of each class' conversation is consistently at a high level. Also, the question-and-answer sequence allows students to practice impromptu speaking skills, indispensable for the aspiring litigator. Finally, the method provides a way for professors to reveal their thinking, to, in essence, do a thinkaloud with the aide of her students. The sequential nature of the method--starting with the facts of the case, moving into the legal issue in question, and finally into the holding and the reasoning supporting it--provides a scaffolded way for students to learn the law. Obvious drawbacks exist. Sometimes, professors mis-gauge the students' quickness in grasping an idea. If the questions aren't organized sequentially, a classroom can find itself lost very quickly. It is also not the fastest of methods, especially when a professor calls on a particularly loquacious student. Its "formulaic" nature might lead to the ignoring of some meta issues (e.g. "is this law fair?").  Finally, although this was much more of a problem back in the "One L" days, the method does leave room for professors to abuse their positions of power and intimidate or embarrass the unsure student. These problems, however, can be overcome, because they are all professorial and not inherent in the method itself. If a sequence of questions doesn't work, a professor can revise them such that they are better organized. The never-stops-talking student problem can be solved by the professor posing narrower questions or beginning the question with a limiting clause (e.g. "in one sentence, what would you say is the holding of the case?"). Deliberately leaving room for the meta-questions can prevent the method from deteriorating into a robotic, uninspiring conversation. Thus, used correctly--and almost every professor should be able to--the Socratic method is a powerful teaching tool. Despite all the palm sweat it drew out of me, and the fewer hours of sleep I could attain because of it, the Socratic method helped me in a big way this first semester. I look forward to it in the new year. Haters should go away. ***** In a sense, the Room For Debate's focus on the Socratic method was misguided. There are too many bigger fish that deserve frying. Here is my delta (room for improvement): Legal education needs more guided practice aligned to the skills tested on the final exam. This is a simple suggestion in line with the "best practices" TFA taught me. An effective teacher should assess essential skills using a final exam, and the teacher's critical role is to guide students through the semester so that they can eventually tackle the exam on their own. Legal education, at least as I've seen it, doesn't do this well enough. There are really three parts to the delta: (1) the exam, (2) legal skills and (3) guided practice. I address all three, but I take issue primarily with the last. (1) The Exam In most law school classes the exam is the be-all and end-all. 100% of a student's grade turns on her exam performance, which sometimes comes as a 3-hour in-class and other times as an 8-hour take-home. As proof of it importance, administrators impose strict procedures, including the requirement that professors grade them completely blind (students use anonymous ID #s). Although the high-stakes nature of the law school exam is daunting to some, I ultimately support its use. Its "standardized" nature and its goal of capturing student learning are invaluable. There is room, of course, for professors to provide other methods of assessment. Plus, it would be nice to not have an entire's worth of work depend on one task. A student who falls very ill during exam week is screwed. Yet, on the whole, this is not the problem... (2) Legal Skills The exam, in itself, isn't a problem because it actually does a good job of assessing students' facility with essential legal skills. Indeed, perhaps the primary point of an education is to acquire skills. It would be a damn shame if a law school exam tested the "wrong" skills. Thankfully, from my experience, it seems pretty clear that exams test "real" legal skills. A typical exam question is a complex "fact pattern" (essentially a scenario) that tells a story. The student's task is to parse these facts, "spot" the legal issues embedded within, and provide an analysis, based in law, of the issues. Oftentimes, the questions are framed as if a client has literally come to you for legal advice. For example, an owner is attempting to sell a house to a prospective buyer. The buyer inspects the house and sees no glaring problems. Just in case, he asks, "is there anything else I should know?" The owner responds, "Nope," even though he knows that the neighboring plot of land will soon become a sewage treatment plant. The buyer buys the house. The question states that the owner has come to you for legal advice after the buyer, upon learning of the plant, files suit: "Draft a memo to your client." In such a situation, a student would be tested on an immense number of skills:

  • First, distinguishing the important from the unimportant. A typical question might be a 2- or 3-page single-spaced narrative. Not everything is critical. Here, it likely doesn't matter that the owner had recently purchased a house in a neighboring town--such a fact has no bearing on the situation at hand.
  • Second, identifying the issues. In this case, a student would have to realize that the owner may have violated the law of nondisclosure--he may have had an obligation to tell the buyer about the plant.
  • Third, analyzing issues. Here, to analyze whether the owner violated the law, a student would have to assess whether knowledge of the soon-to-be plant was "material" (critically important), whether the buyer entered the agreement at his own risk, and whether information about the plant was so public that it was so public that an owner wouldn't have had on obligation to mention it.
  • Fourth, writing clearly, concisely and under pressure. Typically there are word and time limits. Professors stress concise, direct and effective writing.
  • Fifth, multitasking. Given that a fact pattern might have a half a dozen other actors, and a dozen other issues, an exam tests the student's ability to juggle many things at once.
Professors tell me, and I would certainly agree, that these are the essential "think like a lawyer" skills. While there are some glaring omissions (e.g. oral advocacy or teamwork skills), law school exams seem to assess these real legal skills. Thus, the problem in legal education is not about the skills themselves... (3) Guided Practice The real problem is that legal education doesn't provide the right kind of guided practice. I stated above that I have problems with neither the law school exam nor the skills it tests; both are invaluable. But I don't think law schools are doing enough to get students from point A (knowledge, legally, of nothing) to point B (ability to effectively apply the bevy of legal skills simultaneously, given a complex problem). At the outset, I concede that there is already a ton of guided practice in legal education. The Socratic method is, in fact, one giant system of guided practice. It is a giant thinkaloud that helps the budding lawyer see how the professor approaches a case. Often, to impress upon students the impact that even the slighest nuance can have on a legal outcome, the professor will pose "hypos" (hypotheticals). So, to be clear, guided practice abounds. But, the guided practice is rarely of the right kind--the kind akin to an exam, the kind that is aligned to the way lawyers really approach legal issues. In essence, every time we undergo guided practice, we do so in an isolated way. A law school exam question is simultaneously lengthy, complex, confusing, packed with legal issues, and inclusive of excess information. In class, we might deal with a very lengthy case, but only focus on a single legal issue that our professor has already directed us towards. Or, we might deal with a series of legal issues, but the facts of the case might be simple and clear. In other words, our professors develop in us legal skills in isolation; but our professors rarely ask us to apply them in unison. ***** So how, then, do students cope? It is not as if we all fail. As I see it, students basically teach themselves how to apply all the skills simultaneously. This comes through brute-force, trial-and-error methods during reading period, when students, huddled together in study groups, tackle professors' prior exams (of course, at some law schools, professors don't supply past years' exams). The critical flaw, at least from my perspective, is that most of this process is blind. Few professors provide model answers, so students never know if they are "right" (or, at least, arguing using good reasoning). In fact, professors rarely even mention  exams during the semester and then, all of a sudden, during the last class, they mention the exam and its format and how we might actually prepare for it. I see several explanations for this state of affairs, none of which are sound:
  • Inertia - this is simply how things have always been done. Professors teach using the "traditional" Socratic method and the traditional model of "easy" hypotheticals. The exam, then, is given at the conclusion of the semester. End of story.
  • Legal "hazing" - this inertia is, in some ways, intentional. That is, the legal learning process is meant to be a struggle. All of our professors, after all, went through the identical trials and tribulations of 1L year. They suffered, so we should too (not for malicious reasons, but more for paternalistic, "this is just something that you have to go through to become a lawyer" reasons)
  • Assumptions of intelligence/capability - students are smart or capable enough to tackle legal problems on their own. Having introduced the basic methods, in isolation, it is now the students' turn to apply the knowledge independently. Professors "trust" the students.
Professors must do more to align what we do in class with what really matters, which is the ability to come up with a well-reasoned solution to a complicated problem. So, from time to time, professors should set aside the casebook and present an exam-like problem, which the class would then, collectively, tackle using the Socratic method--and with our professor as guide. Taking the skills out of isolation would make the legal education that much more enriching. ***** All of this is constructive criticism. I've had a wonderful first semester. I feel as though I've learned a tremendous amount, not only about specific areas of substantive law (e.g. contracts, torts, civil procedure), but on general legal thinking, which, thank goodness, I think will help me no matter what career path I choose. Every single professor has done a fantastic job. Heck, even the "struggle" of prepping for exams was useful in some ways. I'm slowly seeing the power that a legal education can have. But I think that a legal education could be even more powerful. All it takes is a rather simple curricular re-alignment.   profile counter

Reflections of a traveling teacher

It seems fitting—symmetric, at the very least—that I should be writing my last entry of 2011 the same way I wrote the first: in an airport terminal, waiting for my flight while reflecting on what lay before and what lies ahead. In the past four months, I have embarked on the toughest journey of my life. There have been delays, cancellations, and technical malfunctions. I've had to change course, then change back; and at times, neither the origin nor the destination has been clear. I've constantly been on high alert, but sometimes I've fallen asleep at the wheel. I've built up relationships with completely strangers, only to never see them again. I've seen things that can only be seen on the ground, and I've seen things that can only be seen from a bird's-eye view. I've hit new lows, and I've crashed and burned, only to rise back up again. Extended metaphor aside, my first semester (technically my first quarter and a half, but who's counting?) is over, which means it's time for some major reflection. Since I last updated during Thanksgiving break, I've made significant changes to both my classroom and my lifestyle—changes that have, for the most part, made my teaching experience exponentially easier, if not more effective. (The latter remains to be seen, since I've been remiss in grading assessments from the past couple weeks.) In the classroom, I rearranged rows of individual desks into groups of four and started emphasizing guided, group practice much more than independent practice. At the suggestion of my MTLD, I also began assigning students group roles such as timekeeper (responsible for keeping the group on task and on time), gatekeeper (responsible for ensuring equal participation), and coach (responsible for helping group members who feel lost). This has definitely lightened the load of teaching, since I can now serve as more of a facilitator than a one-on-one tutor as I circulate around the classroom, and it gives my kids a chance to teach each other, which is apparently the best way to learn something. Another physical change that I made to the classroom was the addition of Christmas lights to the ceiling. They have nothing to do with mathematics or our college theme, but I'll be darned if they haven't lightened the mood in the classroom and kept students who would otherwise be talking to each other during class distracted. Picture below. (This was before I rearranged the seats.)

'tis the season
On the lifestyle front, I've been working out three times a week, and I started taking multivitamins for the first time in my life. At first glance, these are small things, but they've made a huge difference for my physical and mental health. I actually feel rested and hungry, rather than exhausted and indigested, when I wake up in the morning. I can get through school without feeling completely dead at the end of the day. I am more focused and efficient while lesson planning or grading, if only because I know that I've set aside several hours per week for the gym. Most importantly, I can be energetic and joyful in the classroom again, and my kids have commented on the difference. Part of what made October and November so difficult was not having a daily routine that I could depend on like in college, and starting to figure out that routine in December has made a world of difference.


Looking back on the past four months, I've noticed a change in my attitude towards teaching—a change that is perhaps best exemplified by how often I say "my kids" instead of "my students" these days. The more time I spend with them, the more I realize that each one is an incredible individual with unique interests, passions, and dreams. In a sense, they've become extremely real to me. Yes, I joined TFA to help close the achievement gap and help students in need. But what that meant didn't hit me until I wrote my first letter of recommendation for R. last week and realized that I was playing a significant role in whether he grew up to become a successful and compassionate member of society or an abusive alcoholic like his father. It didn't hit me until I performed in my school's holiday talent show with three students in "guitar club" and saw them beaming with pride because our weeks of practice had finally paid off. It didn't hit me until I had a conversation with A. after school last week and found out that the reason for his habitual tardiness and slipping grades (slipping from an A to a B, that is) was that he worked at Ruby Tuesday from 5 pm to 2 am every day in order to support his family. In the moments when teaching has felt impossible—when the hours seemed too long, the responsibility too heavy—it is this change in attitude that has kept me going. Having to take a sick day used to make me feel guilty, but only because I was missing a day of work, which is something I simply did not do in college or high school. Now, having to take a sick day breaks my heart because I know that my kids are missing out on a day of instruction and practice that they need to compete with their well-off peers on the East Side and in Barrington. When I'm up at midnight lesson planning, telling myself that I don't deserve this, I remind myself that my kids don't deserve the countless hardships that they deal with on a daily basis—yet they deal with them, and still manage to bring enthusiasm to the classroom. It's the least I can do to be prepared for them and try to love them as Jesus loves them.


In keeping with the season, I've been reading through the gospels lately. The Nativity story is a familiar one—Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem, are unable to find a place to stay, have Jesus in a manger, and get visited by shepherds who are told of His birth by an angel of God. What strikes me most about the story though (besides the mind-blowing fact that the omnipotent God of the universe was born as a human baby, obviously) is what happened before all of that. Mary was visited by an angel and informed that despite being a virgin, she would bear a son named Jesus, the savior of mankind, of whose kingdom there would be no end. Mary's response to this absurd news? "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." (Lk 1:38)

What a pure, child-like, mountain-moving faith. We live in a time when people fancy themselves sophisticated and scientific; there is no room for faith in a society that must always be moving, advancing, growing in worldly wealth and wisdom. Yet I suspect that if more of us had the faith that Mary had—faith to submit ourselves to God's sovereignty and trust that His plans are for our welfare—this world would be a much happier place. There would truly be peace on earth and good will toward men. The healing work that Jesus came for and began during his life would be continued in every corner of the globe. And just maybe, 120 students in an inner-city Providence high school would be inspired to go out and do amazing things with their lives, in the service of God. Is that not reason enough to earnestly seek that kind of faith?

And on that note, Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone reading  this. May your holiday season be full of joy and quality time with loved ones. See you all on the other side of the new year!


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