Friday, July 22, 2011

Those who can...

Whoever coined the phrase, "those who can, do and those who can't, teach" has never tried to teach fractions to fourth graders.

It's been a challenging week. I hope I've accomplished some good.

Here is some inspiration.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Happy TFA Day!

Thursday was a much better day than Wednesday. I re-taught the writing lesson that bombed on Wednesday, And since that first assignment was foundational for rest of the writing unit, I’m getting my students back on track for their summer objectives. While I was glad to have had a better lesson, it was still difficult to make that quick switch from teaching to learning how to teach ELL. In that 10:00-11:15 session, I was struggling to hang on and wondered how I’d make it through the afternoon ELL session that was still to come (according to our daily schedule).

But the workload is still relentless. At 12:45, we started trying to grade assessments so as to enter the tracking data that was due to our adviser by 2:00. But we were starting a 90 minute session on read-aloud strategies, so I had to prepare myself for the bright orange slip my adviser would give me for turning in an assignment past the deadline. Multi-tasking doesn’t begin to describe what we’re trying to do here.

The read-aloud instructor was modeling for us by reading his favorite book, The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Two pages in, he asked us to check out the notes up on the power-point. Point #1 read “I’m not really going to read The Lorax to you for 90 minutes.” Point #2 read, “All Friday deadlines have been pushed back to Monday. Afternoon sessions are canceled. Enjoy our free afternoon. Happy TFA Day!”

The fact that Point #2 was met by wild cheers, spontaneous hugs and tears of joy (I’m serious) shows just how hard we’ve been pushing ourselves. When we got back to the LMU campus, we found a carnival atmosphere; bouncy houses, lobbies converted into movie theaters, cotton candy and snow cones, pool parties, volleyball games and trips to LA places like Manhattan Beach. In typical TFA style, they did the free afternoon up big and thorough. Also in typical TFA style (they give acronyms to EVERYTHING) TFA day means “Totally Free Afternoon.”

So I’m finishing my lesson plan for tomorrow, hitting the gym and then taking the bus down to Venice Beach where I’ll spend the evening walking along the boardwalk, biking up and down the shore or maybe just have a nice dinner in beach-side restaurant.

Happy TFA Day!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Nope, Not Broken Yet

While I’m still not broken, I came pretty close today. During this “teacher boot camp” (my nickname for Institute), we are being pushed to our limits physically, emotionally and mentally.

Physically – the amount of work we have to do everyday is devastating. I work as hard as I can each day, allowing myself 25 minutes for a (sometimes) working dinner and yet I still can rarely get to bed before 11:30. The fact that I don’t function well on less than 7 hours of sleep and the fact that my alarm clock has to go off at 5:35 are taking their physical toll on me.

Emotionally – As soon as the students left the room yesterday, I laid down on their reading rug and pounded the floor in frustration. While I was venting another lady in the room was crying. One of our mentor teachers, who observes us and gives us great advice, just kept telling us “teaching is hard, hard work.”
My emotional outburst was due to the fact that EVERYTHING I tried that day, from my writing lesson plan, to the reading assessment to the individualized instruction I was giving to a student years behind grade level – COMPLETELY failed. Even though we only have 35 minutes for our reading lesson, I had to ‘reset’ the lesson TWICE, while having to exert my will to regain disciplinary control of the classroom each time (students act out when they’re confused). After leaving my classroom and walking to a instructional session, I asked my fellow 4th grade teachers if they could smell anything. “Those are Mr. Miller’s ashes,” I told them.

Mentally – We are learning by on-the-job immersion. We’re learning both a foreign language (teaching terms and philosophies) and foreign skills. There is precious little time to decompress and reflect. After my lesson plan blew up yesterday, I had to rush out of the classroom to be sitting ready to go for a session on phonics instruction. We push ourselves to the limit only to have to mentally turn on a dime to try to engage instruction on yet another teacher skill set to which we’re just being introduced. Those new skill sets are piled on top of the ones we learned the day before and we’re expected to start implementing them the next day. While I’m only retaining about 10% of what the content I’m engaging with (and our sessions are pretty much hands-on) my hunch is that TFA assumes their Corps Members are smart enough that when they’re re-exposed to a teaching strategy later in the year, they will recall that initial instruction so as to begin implementing it in their full-time classroom. It’s mentally exhausting, though.

So after hurriedly tidying up the classroom during the five minutes I had between a lesson planning clinic and getting on the bus (which leaves promptly at 4:35, meaning those who miss it have to pay $65 for a cab ride back to Loyola Marymount) I squeezed into my bus seat in a very bad frame of mind. There was too much emotional and mental overload going on. I vented to my wife for awhile, graded some papers during a vegetable dinner (the food is making some of us sick) then headed to the resource room to get help on math methods from some master teachers. But someone in the middle of my 6:30-11:30 working session, I started to get back into a good frame of mind. Maybe it was from the guitar chords of Green Day pumping through my ipod as I entered info from a writing assessment into our class tracker. But sometime during that time, my brokenness was melded back into a determined spirit.

I will NOT be broken. I WILL push through. I WILL do my best to grow as a teacher since, “good teachers are made, not born”. And I WILL help overturn the systematic oppression of our nation as manifested through our inequitable public school system.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Still Not Broken!

By Thursday afternoon I had come to a solid conclusion as to what this Institute experience is all about. I also came to understand why they call us "Corps Members." This is teacher boot camp and they are trying to break us. I'm not sure how to explain it all but imagine working at 100 MPH from the time you wake up at 5:30 until you go to bed around 1:30. Mixed in there are surprise assignments the staff throws on us (i.e. complex student assessments and the data entry that it entails) and instable working conditions (i.e. we had to move our classroom at the end of week, thanks to a labor dispute with LA's custodial staff). I did much better than my roommate, who averaged about 3 1/2 hours of sleep during the week. People are walking zombies, propped up by caffeine and the type of work-ethic that made them one of the 10% of applicants actually chosen to be a Corps Member. Of course, we're also fighting the physiological battles to stay focused and productive in the midst of sleep-deprivation and chaotic conditions. Toward the end of the week, there were groups of ladies on campus breaking down and crying. And guys venting to other guys with some colorful language.

I'm pretty sure this was all planned, too. Rumors get spread between current Corps Members based upon what they've heard from Alumni. The general consensus is that 1) Institute is the hardest part of the TFA two year experience 2) They are trying to weed out those who can't cut it 3) We are being violently taught the necessary skills of time-management and multi-tasking and 4) We are being taught the flexibility necessary to lead student achievement while working with school districts that are incredibly dysfunctional. As the leader of our summer school site keeps saying whenever some new curve is thrown our way, "if the people leading the educational system in our country made their decisions by asking 'what is best for the kids?', TFA wouldn't need to exist." That is very well said.

But I survived the first week of teaching. Today is Saturday and I'm going to take some Sabbath rest before putting in another long day tomorrow.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

My First Day of Teaching

Last Monday was my first day teaching. I taught a class of 4th graders how to make inferences from a story. There are about 600 TFA Corps Member here at the LA Institute and about 100 of us are at an elementary school in the Southgate neighborhood. We are split into collabs of 4 teachers each and during the day we each teach a lesson on reading, writing or math. I started with reading, obviously, and while prepping and delivering my reading lessons, I've been learning how to teach writing - which really scares my, btw.

Again, last Monday was my first day of teaching. I was the first teacher up for the day and the first words out of my mouth were proclaimed quite loudly, loud enough to jolt them upright in their chairs, "Hey, everybody!" Thus began a mini-lesson on our attention getting signal, followed by a mini-lesson on "carpet time" procedures, then the actual reading lesson.

I was able to play into my public speaking strengths in a way that I expected and I was able to maintain control of the classroom in a slightly better than expected way. Here are some excerpts of the observational notes given by two of the many people who coach and teach us.
"AMAZING! Are you sure you haven't done this before? You did a very great job for your first time" and "You are a natural! You have a strong command of the classroom and have obviously set your expectations clearly and reinforced with behavior narration."

It was quite a rush to experience my first day of teaching, but honestly, it went about as I expected.

Now the 2nd day was a bit different. First of all, we got 4 new students, which disrupted the classroom and threw me off because I couldn't remember their names. Secondly, the students were much more squirmy and talkative on their 2nd day. Thirdly, my "introduction to new material" part of my lesson plan was bombing and the kids weren't following me. For about 10 minutes, I was panicking. Panicking because I couldn't connect with the students and panicking because I wasn't sure how to respond to the talking.

But I was able to regain control of myself and the classroom. I started giving some behavioral consequences and re-thinking on the fly how to teach the idea of a "connection from the story based upon a character's personality traits." The rest of the time kept getting better. So to stumble out of the shoot, have my boundaries pushed by students, but recover and regain control - that was more satisfying than doing it correctly the entire way.

And one more idea regarding the TFA philosophy; TFA is completely performance driven. They choose people, like myself, who have been proven leaders but likely lack an Education Degree and assume that their leadership skills will translate into student achievement. While we are taught to craft lesson plans in an effective manner, we are evaluated not on how well we deliver the plan but on how well the students perform on the (end-of-lesson, end-of-unit and end-of-year) assessments. So the effectiveness of the teacher is based upon the success of the students.

I know that I'm good at public speaking and teaching. I'm going to have to grow in learning how to gather and interpret student-achievement data and how to make changes to my methods in response to student achievement, or the lack-thereof.

And one other note, on Thursday I was observed by one of the top instructors here at Institute, who has won some sort of national teacher award. My original Thursday lesson plan would've bombed without the help of a staffmember at Institute. As it was, that Thursday lesson and classroom environment were incredible and I was really into it. And that top instructor told me later that I did a great job and she even brought someone else in to observe me later. It was quite affirming.