Monday, June 26, 2006

TeachForAmerica - Institute Day 15

I taught writing today.

Well, I don't know if what I did would actually constitute as 'teaching' per se. Really, I just stood in front of the class and tried not to freak out all hour.

This was the 4th day in front of my students, and I think they were really looking forward to Thursday. There is this weird thing about the summer school I am teaching at. For the first 4 weeks of the summer, or however long it goes, there is Title 1 summer school, which basically means that the kids who failed the Texas standardized test are required to be at school. That period ends with a retaking of the TAKS test on Wednesday. All students are officially done with school for the summer at that point Wednesday afternoon when they complete the test.

So, for those of us teachers (TFA cough cough) who have classrooms that continue past Wednesday, the reality we are facing is a total lack of interest, a focus on leaving (as is natural) and a foreseeable drop in attendance by large numbers. I am guessing that at least 50% of my class of third graders decides to opt out of the TFA summer school. And that is depressing.

But back to the writing debacle. TFA is big on pushing the idea that all student actions can be tied back to a teacher mindset or belief. The progression has some fancy name which now slips my mind, but the stages look something like this:
1. Teacher's mindset and beliefs influence the...
2. Teacher's actions and behaviors, which shape the...
3. Students' actions, which dictate the...
4. Students' achievement.

As a result, I look at Mr. Harris who was acting out today in class and got sent to the principal's office and while I initially think "Man what is his deal?", this eventually builds into "What am I doing that is causing/contributing to Mr. Harris acting out?" And then even further, "What do I believe about Mr Harris that is causing me to act this way?" This line of thinking ends with me being very impatient, wanting so desperately to be good so that my kids can learn. It is a hard place to be in.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

TeachForAmerica - Institute Day 9-12

preparation for the last day of the week ran the gamut of emotions. At the conclusion of the day in our CMA groups, the outlook for potential completion was not good. The assignments that were expected of us depended firstly on the curriculum objectives chosen as lesson focus for the rest of the summer.

Choosing objectives is a tenuous skill at best, and our Unit Calendar was further complicated by an uneven distribution of academic goals. Some subjects that were pivotal to the summer program, like writing, were only allocated 3 hours of "Target Objectives" that needed to be taught, while others like math, have 900 minutes of Target Objectives while only 490 minutes are available for classroom instruction. This disconnect is simply insurmountable if all the lesson objectives are kept, so I was forced to adapt. Through collaboration of all the 3rd grade corps teachers, a schedule was eventually drawn up, but this was merely the starting point for the nights work.

Objectives form the backbone of lesson planning because each day's instructional growth only serves as true 'academic achievement' if it is directed toward a specific goal. Backward planning from the desired outcome is the only way to insure that lessons are building cohesively, constituting a true body of knowledge, emblematic of an "academic school year". The objectives move verbatim onto the individual day's lesson, focusing that teaching and conveying the information that had been deemed important from the lens of the objective framework.

Daily lesson plans for Monday and Tuesday are due on Friday for the subject concentration of responsibility. Next week I teach writing. This next week also marks the introduction of the Math/Literacy hour into my collaborative's work load. Thus the onus of administering and planning 2 lessons per day that focus on math and literacy skills at the academic of the student begins on Thursday the 29th. The three collaborative members will divide the class into tiers so that each group can have differentiated teaching directly in line with their current ability level.

Time wise, Wednesday and Thursday were simply overwhelming. My normal schedule which included some personal time in the form of athletic activity was thrown out the window due to a daunting list of deliverables. These two work days followed this schedule:
5:45 - 6:53am: Wake, shower, dress, pack lunch, eat, get on bus.
7:00am - 4:00pm: Setup classroom, prep, teach, Curriculum session, Work session
4:00-4:30pm: Ride bus back to Moody, change.
4:30-6:45pm: Find reading books, revise lesson plans, start deliverables, eat dinner
7:00-9:00pm: Attend evening Curriculum session
9:00pm-12:30am: Write rough drafts of lesson plans for next week, finalize tomorrows lesson plans.

I slept 11.5 hours last night.

I am ready for a nap.

Monday, June 19, 2006

TeachForAmerica - Institute Day 7 & 8

Teaching Day 1
- The Associated Blair, Houston, TX

Due to unseasonable amounts of rain, all Houston area schools of the HISD school districts were closed today due to flash floods and flood warnings. Thompson Elementary was cancelled as early as 6:00 am, before the Teach for America Site Director even arrived on location.

The Teach for America staff scrambled to implement impromptu educational sessions in lieu of an actual site work day. While it took some time to get the Institute setup at Moody Towers, relocating the 550+ corps members from their 8+ school sites, the staff performed a near miracle in communication and organization by having classes running by 9:30 in the Moody Commons and RFC cafeteria. The daily schedule was a far cry from the one most corps members planned for, but the extra 2.5 hours of free time in the morning, and the cancelled evening sessions left most corps members recharged after a late night prep session.

The Associated Blair interviewed one corps member for his thoughts on the proceedings. This is what he had to say:
"I don't know about the rest of these folks, but I was ready to go to school today. Yea, of course you get excited when school is cancelled, I don't think that ever changes, but this was the first day ya know? Anyway, I guess more preparation couldn't hurt. Plus I needed a hair cut."

More rain is expected over night so it remains to be seen if TFA Institute Day 9 will turn out to be Day 1 of teaching, but the TFA Corps Members are getting anxious, as they are penned up in the Moody Towers. These dedicated individuals are here to enact significant gains in alleviating the education gap in this country, and that can only happen if they get in the classroom. This reporter for one, hopes that tomorrow will be the day.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

TeachForAmerica - Institute Day 5 & 6

Week one is officially complete.

On Friday morning I turned in lesson plans for my portion of Monday's and Tuesday's teachings. The whole lesson planning process is completely new to me but the system that TfA has introduced seems like a logical one. TfA is definitely a process driven organization, and while part of me (that would be the corporate side) thinks that their devotion to the almighty Process is a waste of time, the current reality is that their processes are really improving TfA for the better. I have heard lots of stories already about how much better Institute is this summer than in past summers.

Anyway, all of the lessons for the first week had been prepared in advance for every subject and grade level that any corps member might teach. Basically, veteran TfA teachers collaborated to make a summer curriculum that included very specific lesson goals, and the first week went so far as including a break down of exactly what the lesson would look like. In this situation, our actual "lesson planning" really took the form of inserting and classroom procedures that we were using, and tweaking things based on our specific classroom materials.

Since I am teaching reading during the first week, my lessons revolve around...yea, reading. Big surprise. To correctly prepare my lesson plans, I had to go choose two different books to use in my 5 step lesson plans. Below is a brief description of a 5 step lesson plan:

Opening - This section provides the 'hook' or motivation for the subject material and relates the material to the broader class scope. Ex. "Yesterday we learned about the Prediction. Today we will learn about another aspect of a story, the story elements. These are a very important part of being great readers."

Introduction to New Material - This section is Teacher Centered, where the teacher actually presents the new information. Ex. "The four story elements are Character, Setting, Problem and Solution. The definition of these story elements is..."

Guided Practice - This section begins the shift from Teacher centered to Student centered. The teacher general does examples with the class, or asks specific class members to do parts of the lesson. Ex. "Now that I have broken down this story for you, let's do one together. I'll read Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears and you will raise your hand when you think we have a new story element."

Independent Practice - This section completes the shift from teacher to student centered instruction. The student uses this opportunity to master the skill or information of the lesson. Ex. "Please read the story by your self and complete the graphic organizer, just like we just did as a group."

Closing - This section summarizes the new material, and reconnects it to the larger picture. Ex. "Now that we know the four story elements are character, setting, problem and solution, we are going to be much better at reading stories and understanding them, which is important for our Big Goal."

So yea. That's some of what I have been learning, and doing. TfA has fit all of *their* lessons into the same format, so they are continuously modeling the 'correct' behavior to us in informational sessions.

One other thing. On Friday afternoon, a significant amount of our school time was devoted to collaborative time to work on classroom materials. My collaborative developed most of our bulletin boards (pictures to come). After that group time, there was a school meeting in the cafeteria for all TfA staff and corps members. The staff passed out popsicles, played the Jackson 5 "A B C", and presented us with our 'diplomas' and 'teacher name', documenting our graduation from the first week of institute.

Monday is my first day in the classroom, so this weekend will be filled with sleep, practice, and lesson planning/prep. Mr. Blair will be ready.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

TeachForAmerica - Institute Day 2, 3 & 4

On Monday I talked a bit about my disconnect with the methods that TfA was using in 'encouraging' or motivating me or whatever. SOOOO much has happened since then...well here are a couple of stories, and then I'll drop some interpretations down at the end.

On Tuesday, our classroom sessions focused on Planning, Rules and Consequences for our classrooms. Obviously these are extremely important aspects of teaching, but our classroom sessions were basically a restatement of the pre-institute reading, except with some examples, guided practice and independent practice. Our independent practice was the development of some rules that we might be using in our classroom.

Later that day, our group got a chance to work on our Management Plan, which is basically a overview of how the Rules, Consequences, incentives and everything fit together. My collaborative group and I were discussing possible themes for our classroom, alighted on a Construction Theme, and decided we could name our 'mascot' FWBR, the acronym for the rules we had developed. I started looking around for my rules sheet, since I remembered developing these rules. But I couldn't remember *when*. It took me a couple of minutes that it had only been 2 hours since developing those rules.

On to day 3 our core member group had a session on Diversity, Community and Achievement. The session was entitled "Life Map". The task for this lesson was to draw a map, or write or whatever we wanted to do to express the major stages in our life that brought us to our current place at Institute with TfA. We were given markers, paper, pencils, whatever, and put to work. Once we were all done with our efforts, our Corps Member Advisor (CMA) asked for volunteers to share their life maps.

The first person to share was Bernard. Bernard grew up in Texas, and was exposed to race and class based disparities for his entire life. When he applied to and was excepted to Rice, everyone in his high school attributed it to Affirmative Action. In subsequent, turns a woman who married a Hispanic man talked about the insults and isolation put upon her children, and the turmoil that caused her in turn. Disha talked about how her parents moved to the US from India, and she grew up being friends with everyone, but then went back to India and witnessed the poverty and shameful teaching practices (beatings for wrong answers in class).

Today our classroom sessions focused on the implementations of classroom Procedures and the benefits the can yield. We went through the development of a procedure, and continued learning about lesson planning. We had a lot of working time to prepare a large set of deliverables for tomorrow morning at 8 am. In fact, I put in a 6 hour session this evening locking down my contribution to these deliverables, including the development of 2 procedures (a listening posture and call&response) and 4 reading lesson plans (I will be teaching about predictions, cause and effect, and story elements on the first two days of class).

And now for the decompression: I am exhausted, first and foremost. This entire process seems as if it is almost more a test of will than a test of learning ability, but maybe that is the point. Two of the 5 behaviors that TfA is emphasizing is continuous improvement and relentless pursuit, and how can those be taught and emphasized if we are given a cake walk of a school? Secondly, in these diversity discussions, I end up feeling like my story lacks significance. In the words of my Diversity text, I am from the "Power Culture". I am white. I am affluent (middle class, but affluent in the world's perspective). I am male. I am Christian. I am heterosexual. These are the dominant norms of this US culture, and as a result I have *always* been given the benefit of the doubt. It is hard to expose my story in the midst of ones that seem so much more relevant to the issues that this society faces, and ironically, I am afraid that I will be judged because I come from a 'Power' background. But then I share anyway. And I guess that I know that my story does have meaning, and that I am doing the things I do not because of some debt that the Power culture owes, but because it is the responsibility of *all* people to act in the service of society. And in the mean time, I will do what I can, currently TfA, to change the disparities that are oh so real, and I can come along side Bernard and Disha and Christina and my heart will break hearing the pain they suffered, and I will shed tears with them.

I hope I can handle this.

Monday, June 12, 2006

TeachForAmerica - Institute Day 1

I relocated to Houston driving over 2000, passing through 11 states, and burning 6 quarts of transmission fluid and 2 quarts of oil. I wasn't really all that nervous about things, even when I spent 16 hours in South Carolina working on my Pre-Institute reading material and still wasn't done. It was only when I was driving into downtown Houston, on Wednesday, June 7th for my Houston Induction, that the nervousness overwhelmed me, nearly causing a U-turn.

Luckily, I did not turn the car around. Luckily, I continued to the Houston Crowne Plaza Hotel, where I spent 3 days and 4 nights getting acclimated to Houston, the mission of TfA, the Houston Corps and the expectations I have to look forward to at Institute. And after making friends, meeting tons of people, sitting in on numerous informational sessions and eating lots of food, I moved over to the University of Houston campus for Institute on Sunday, June 11th.

Today I woke up at 5:20 am. School starts promptly at 7:00 every morning, and depending on where your summer school is located, you could have between 5 and 45 minutes of commute. I am located at Thompson Elementary, the closest summer school location. My bus leaves at 6:53 am every morning. If I arrive at 6:53 and 30 seconds it will have already left. The five minute ride takes us into the middle of a old residential district, where Thompson Elementary has been located since its founding in 1949. Thompson has had a long track record hosting TfA corps members (over a decade), and so the transition for this summer is pretty seamless. My fellow corps members and I are welcomed by Michael C. (I forgot his last name) who is our Site Director, and challenged to focus on the immense challenge before us: We must learn to become excellent teachers of students, but we must also help the summer school students achieve significant academic achievements *this* summer.

Today mainly consisted of 'get to know you' type material, and a review of the first two behaviors of our Teaching as Leadership text; Setting Big Goals and Investing Students and their Influencers. All corps members have already read these texts, and have completed reflective exercises to help connect the central ideas of Teaching as Leadership to our own experiences, but TfA is reviewing it none the less. And we review all day. We finish up at 4:00 pm.

So far this experience, learning to be a teacher, has been a challenge of mental outlook. In many of the required readings, and in some of the motivational talks that I have been exposed to, I found myself resenting the emotional strings that the writing was playing. The stories were real, I am confident, but at the same time it felt as if they were trying to get an emotional response from me, and I resented it. I had to remind myself time and time again that I *believe* in the mission of Teach for America, and that the educational injustices in this country are *reason* for becoming impassioned.

And then I am okay. Because I do believe in the mission for Teach for America. The more I hear about the racial and monetary injustices perpetuated by the educational system, the more I want to go FIX it. So that's good.