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updates for 03.05.2012

6 new posts today

State tests in 15 days.

Have you ever dreaded something so much that every time you think of it, your stomach does a little barrel roll? And you feel kind of nauseated? And you try desperately to think of something, anything else? And then has that something that you're dreading ever been something that was beyond your control? Or something that isn't even something YOU are doing? This is the NMSBA for me. My kids take this test in 15 days. And we have only 4 instructional days, then Spring Break, then 1 day when we come back and presto, change-o, Test Time. Yes, I know what you are thinking. What moron decided we should take the high-stakes standardized test, the test that determines things like our school's reputation, funding, and future interventions, DIRECTLY AFTER a week of no school? Bear in mind that I have at least 3 students who will not read a book all week. I have 3 who will forget how numbers work in that time. I have at least 1 who may hear fewer words spoken to her all week than she does in 1 day of school, and, if prior breaks are any indication, will also forget her letter sounds in that time. We have a 4-week window to give the NMSBA, and there is absolutely no reason that we have to do Spring Break in that window. It's pretty much dumb. So dumb. There have also been some incredibly supportive things from our school, which is increasingly becoming an (even more than usual) awful place to work. Highlights: a berating session with our writing coach, with another doozy planned for Thursday (on the plus side, she is so awful and everyone hates her so much that we have managed to angle for a new writing coach after Spring Break...hooray!). Also a cutesy set of black-and-white poorly copied test-taking strategies, a la "Good test takers read the question carefully!" and "Good test takers listen to the teacher!", that will somehow magically fix all our test comprehension problems. Plus, the piece de resistance, a list of explicit Dos and Don'ts from our (increasingly insane, abusive, and awful) principal. Things like "DO NOT use the Restate strategy for open-ended responses. They get NO credit for this." or "DO NOT prescribe a method for answering math questions such as ACED. Encourage students to show their work any way that makes sense to them." or "Use computer program X to practice math facts. This is mandatory. No exceptions." All of which are either bad advice (yeah, sure, honey, however it makes sense to you! What, you say this chicken scratch makes perfect sense to you? Then great!) or advice that is a perfectly fine leadership decision that runs COMPLETELY CONTRARY TO EVERYTHING WE'VE BEEN TEACHING ALL YEAR. And if you were going to make these decisions, o captain my captain, you should have done so in August, before we started all this. None of this is making my topsy-turvy stomach feel any better. And although I know my kids have learned a lot this year and have grown in math and reading skills, I have no idea if they've grown enough. And I am incredibly, excruciatingly aware that the areas in which they struggle the most, such as comprehending complex or strangely worded questions, or completing multi-step problems, or remembering to answer all parts of the question, are things that the NMSBA is incredibly heavy on. I will have a week to ponder all this from the relaxing setting of flat on my behind, doing nothing more strenuous than reading a book, which, quite frankly is something I think my entire school could use. But still...eek. I pray to whatever education gods may be for the clear-thinking, careful work, and ability of my kiddos.


A quote for Sunday night

"By perseverance the snail reached the ark." - Charles Spurgeon


Two Steps Forward, One Step Black?

At our professional development yesterday, we watched and discussed a 1947 racial perceptions study, which demonstrated (arguably) the extent to which even African-American children have internalized negative attitudes about their own race. Anderson Cooper’s coverage of the updated version  of this research rehashed age-old questions about race and called into question the racial progress we have made as a society. Now, we have to ask ourselves where these perceptions come from. It is against basic scientific theory to hypothesize that black children are born with low self-esteem. Where does this come from? Is it a lack of positive role influences or an overwhelming amount of negative influences? Every day, I read another article lamenting the need for more black male educators* and role models in part to avoid situations like this. One of the most beneficial aspects of Teach For America, in my opinion, is that it creates a pipeline of successful African-American graduates to otherwise under-served areas. The percentage of black corps members is still not where it needs to be in the Delta, but it is improving. It’s not just a white-black thing, though. It is, as the article stated: “as the parent of two black boys I know firsthand that white teachers can excel at teaching black children. What set those outstanding teachers apart was their genuine desire to see my boys succeed and hard work to build relationships with them and with our family.” As I’ve expounded previously, I’ve seen many non-black corps members do extremely well and forge better relationships with their kids than their counterparts. Even though I do not teach the advanced kids, my students this year do not think of themselves as “the dumb kids with behavior problems;” as we know, seeing is believing. They have better perceptions of themselves when it comes in science in large part due to the positivity of their 7th Grade science teachers, also TFA. It comes back to individual levels of empathy. It is perhaps more “natural” for a black teacher to build these relationships but it is definitely possible among white teachers as well. I grew up in a community where I didn’t have a black teacher- ever. I don’t say this to say: “I turned out fine, what’s wrong with them.” While I excelled K-12, I had a lot of questions about race upon entering college that plagued me and distracted me from my studies. It was at that point that I needed a black educator to help me discover more about myself. It’s not to say that white teachers were inadequate, but being able to turn to a black mentor such as Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates was transformational because he provided a perspective that others would be unable to give; he had the credibility to authoritative assure me that there were “35 million different ways to be black in America.” Had I not had this mentor, I too likely would have become another victim of the achievement gap. However, let’s flip the focus of mentorship on its head. In many cases, we focus on the lack of positive role models in kid’s lives. For example, it took some time for my students to become comfortable with the idea of a black male science teacher. Honestly, what is to be expected? I don’t know how I would have reacted if I had a teacher who looked like me when I was in middle school. I’d like to think that I would have been extremely receptive given that I didn’t have an analogous figure at home, but it’s hard to say in hindsight. I didn’t necessarily suffer from not having immediate black male role models; rather I gained from having a lack of negative black male role models. Say what? Let me explain. Color me sheltered, which I probably was (I grew up in Maine after all); however, African-American students in Maine do quite well in terms of graduation rates according to the Schott Foundation. Why is that? I’d argue that it is due to a lack of exposure to negative characterizations of black people. One of the reasons that I view and treat all people as equal individuals is due to an upbringing that didn’t expose me to a lot of racial stereotypes. For example, I wasn't allowed to watch MTV as a kid (I started to sneak it by the time Shakira came to the USA...) I did not know that I was supposed to fail, to drop out of high school, or to serve time in jail. It follows that I had no real sense of limits on my potential. I had no inclination of a “can’t do” attitude. I believe having a boundless mindset is critical to success- call it an “Empire State of Mind.” Wealthier, perhaps whiter, children grow up having experiences that teach them A.) they have unlimited potential and B.) they have the resources to capitalize upon this potential. Granted, this is a gross generalization, but think about it! I’m disheartened when I read about another business closing or an entrepreneur leaving the Delta (c’mon Morgan Freeman!) because it represents yet another instance of black success leaving. Our students need to see examples that give them authentic reasons to keep the faith and take pride in their entire package. Last year, I didn’t think that I was what my students needed because I was too foreign to them. Sure, we were all black, but I’m from the north and had spent the last four years in a wealthy, private university. This year, I’ve found that I was wrong to shy away from that identify. Rather, I had to embrace my education while also showing my students that I was a person who enjoyed things like shooting the breeze when not at work and shooting baskets when at the court. In a media-saturated environment where they are used to seeing shooting of other things, it’s vital to achieve some sort of balance rather than a simply a critical mass. If we are to achieve “One Day,” we can’t haphazardly throw “positive” role models at children in an attempt to maximize gains. To be "black" is not to be "bad." We need to also work on minimizing negative exposure and work with the communities themselves to bring out the best they have to offer. Poverty aside, I think we will find a lot. [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="512" caption=""It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.""][/caption]


It's March. Seriously? Finally? ...Seriously?

I have a school year calendar on the bulletin board in my apartment.  Literally, as soon as I get home every day, I get satisfaction from drawing a big, black line through that day.  Ha!  Over!  I won.  If I didn't write the date on the white board of my classroom or cross out the day on the calendar every afternoon, I think I would have completely lost track of the month.  The days blend together because of the craziness that is being a corps member.  That, combined with my first snow-free winter...I'm all out of synch. So when I look up and see six months of crossed-out days and three-ish months of untouched days, I think, March?  Seriously? Finally? Back in September...okay, October...okay, November...I wasn't even registering that March was a month that, in fact, would come.  I was surviving on a day to day basis, and I had no idea how I could make it through that week, let alone to some distant, mythic month of March.  Would I be alive in March?  Since I couldn't answer that question non-sarcastically or non-morbidly, I put the concept of Spring out of my mind. So I guess March is a testament to survival.  Congratulations, corps members of 2011.  We are over halfway done with our first year of teaching.  It's a nearly impossible job, so that is a milestone worth celebrating.  


Transformational Change

3/4/12 Lately, my students have had the ability to bring tears to my eyes quite unknowingly. I am proud to say I haven't had any negative teary meltdowns in class this semester (read: yet), but here are some examples of why my students are the apples of my eye. For example, last week, 2 of my girls asked me if I would sponsor a debate team next year. I told them we could discuss it later b/c I didn't know how to phrase - no, I'm sorry, I'm leaving you in May.  This week, one of my students asked how our tutoring group could be sustainable next year. I told her to speak with 8th grade teachers. I didn't have the heart to tell her. May is going to be terribly difficult. But anyways, this semester, I began a group for my tutors. The only day we could meet was on Fridays. In exchange for them tutoring for me, we meet for an hour on Fridays and complete ACT prep and are reading "Tom Sawyer" and do ACT vocabulary. This group is the highlight of my week. It was originally supposed to be an elite group of 10, but when 20 applied, I didn't have the heart to cut anyone. So I established standards, i.e. can't miss more than 2 meetings and must tutor at least once a week. A few unexpected students dropped out, mostly due to overcommitments, but        now, in March, I have a consistent group of 16 who show up. And they're not all high students. I'd say I have my top 6 students, then about 5  A/B students, and then a few C's, and even one student failed one quarter . It's the highlight of my week; the ideal classroom. I have actually stopped myself from taking off a Friday b/c I didn't want to have to cancel the club. I quickly realized I would have to read most of Tom Sawyer with them, but they're into it and excited. They want to be there, and they want to know more and to be prepared for the ACT. It reinforces for me the belief that all the initiatives being taken at high school should begin in middle school. With this, I was asked a month ago to help with two ACT preps for our 11th graders. Although I protested on the grounds that my experience with the ACT was limited to my taking it many years ago, I was told that "it didn't matter, they had promised parents ACT prep, and they needed someone to do it." So I signed up for grammar & writing, contingent upon my 7th graders being able to attend. What ensued was glorious. I expected 4 of my 7th graders to show up......12 attended, and I was SO proud of their brave souls. I grouped them each with a high school group, and in some groups they were leading the discussions and keeping students on task. Now, in particular this semester, I have been working with one student, *Ricardo*, who last semester averaged 2-3 good days per week & 2-3 bad days per week. We were up and down all throughout January as well. This is the student who would tell me "miss, you always look at me with a mean face," "Why do you use such a mean voice?" I explained to his mom in January, almost in tears, that he has a tremendous amount of potential of leader, the charisma to lead all his peers, but that if he didn't learn to read (he's at a 4th grade rdg level), he would never find beyond minimal success. At the end of January, when he bombed his benchmark, I had a heart-to-heart with him. He told me his dad had been talking with him about engineering since our project on colleges. He wants to go to MIT. We talked about how that would require him being at the top of his class by the end of next year. I changed his partner in class; I paired him with *Delia*, one of our top students. I pulled them both in and had him explain to her his current rdg level and why he needed to be completely focused in class. I gave her permission to keep him focused. Now, a month later, we are seeing results. Don't get me wrong, we still have our bad days. But let me finally (two chapters later, lol), tell you about his progress. Ricardo has passed his mastery quizzes for the past 3  weeks. He still fails book quizzes, but when he comes in to make up the reading time, I can at least know that he reading once a week. He participates in class. His writing has improved dramatically. He asks me if he can come to tutoring, even though as far as writing goes, he isn't on my radar. He practically begged me the other day. Then, Friday, he asked if he could come Saturday. I told him only my lowest 10 were coming. He said please. I told him ok only if he would be a tutor. The look on his face was priceless. He also then decided to stay for the tutoring meeting and reading of Tom Sawyer. He loved it and said he would continue coming in following weeks. Tutoring begins at 9, but most students arrive around 8:30, especially the ones with siblings of other grades who begin at 8 a.m. I ended up at 8:30 with 8 students there already, including 3 of my "fickle 5," the term I have given to my 5 boys who will pass or fail depending on their mood that day. I don't even remember how it began, but we ended up having a 20 minute conversation about Ivy league colleges, the US rank in education compared to other countries, and the Thomas Friedman talk I had attended earlier that week. We googled the education rank, and they were appalled to see how low the U.S. scored. We watched a clip of Thomas Friedman explaining why he thinks we have dropped. We talked about why the buildings of the colleges they want to attend look so old. In a word, I was in teacher heaven. While I know these are students who would have to make drastic changes to be competitive for these colleges, I also know that the first step is investing them in these goals. My student, Ricardo, has owned his goal of attending MIT. Luke tells anyone who asks he is going to Harvard. They can tell you they need an ACT score above a 30. They still haven't completely made the connection that their C's are not leading towards scoring above a 30 in high school, but we're making progress. Anyways, this began my morning with a huge smile, but back to Ricardo. Him tutoring was a leap of faith because 1/2 of the people who needed the tutoring were his guy friends with whom he gets terribly distracted. Before we began, I went through the apostrophes worksheet at his station. He missed about half of the questions, but we corrected them, and he's quick, so he understood quickly. Then, right before beginning,  I told him how important it was for his classmates that he stay focused. That this could make the difference for some of them for passing or not. Ricardo: "But miss, they won't take me seriously!" Me: "You have to be serious. Be a leader. If you are serious, they will be serious." Ricardo: "Ok. Ok, so like, don't follow them, but set the example." Me: (inside - omg, he's getting it!!!) Yes, exactly.   I hovered near his station for the first 5 minutes, but I was amazed by his focus and commitment. I did have to remind him to be positive (one of his comments - how can you not get this?), but he exceeded my expectations. When one of his friends was off-task, Ricardo got me, and I got him back on task. When his friends came to his station, they were like, "What? Ricardo is a tutor?!" and I said, "Yes, he's excellent at apostrophes; he's going to help you alot." Afterwards, he asked if he could attend the ACT prep with the other 7th graders. This week, only 3 11th graders showed up, and 6 of my 7th graders. It was wonderful though seeing Ricardo engage with high schoolers about different arguments for essays.   We're on the brink of transformational change.


Keeping up with research

As midterms begin and sprin break is only a few (extremely long) days away, the reality is hitting that I'll be out of here soon and finally on to a new chapter of my life. ENC just had a conference call on placement, and our first round of interviews start the last week of March. With all of this coming together, I've had Research on my mind. I am a research junkie - I devour research articles on anything and everything. I have a folder on my computer titled 'Articles to Read' because I find them and there are literally not enough hours in a day for me to read everything I would like to. I'm also wrapping up three years of research on educational inequality. I've looked at New Jersey school data and te ways that income as well as social and emotional learning practices affect a child's education. This is what led me to be attracted to TFA, and it's something that I want to spend my life looking at and coming up with solutions for. But I'm left with a question - is it possible to continue research as a CM? Are there bough hours in a day to teach, grade, eat, and then do research? Does anyone have an experiences with keeping relationships with undergrad professors or finding new ones to mentor you while you're in TfA? Has anyone kept up with past research, or started new research while they were a CM? Any advice or thoughts are appreciated!!


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