The First Three Weeks

This is the first and last of a very long post on my experience thus far as a Teach for America teacher. The first because it’s been a long time coming, the last because I hope that I will update with greater regularity in the coming weeks and years so that posts stay manageable and bite-sized. Due to the enormity of the experience I will try to encapsulate in this post, I have also divided the post into sections. Mostly for my benefit so that I can remember to jot down the important things, but also to illustrate how topsy-turvy the experience has been to transition so quickly from sheltered college student to adult.

Background
I am teaching at an elementary school for the summer. It is in a beautiful new building and filled with children who are hungry to learn. These past two weeks, I’ve been teaching 5th grade literacy with a focus on the students who are behind. Our class of sixteen students ranges in reading ability from the beginning of 2nd grade to the 8th grade.

I teach with three other TFA corps members (CMs) and together we form a well-oiled collaborative (collab). Each of us teach 1/2 hour of math and 1/2 hour of reading each day with a group of 3-5 students during Academic Intervention Hour (AIH), a rare opportunity for our students to be in small differentiated learning groups where we can target their specific needs head-on, as well as a full group 1-1.5 hour subject block. In my opinion, AIH is the most important hour of the entire day, because it it when students who are ahead are pushed and challenged to reach beyond what they’re typically asked to do and students who are behind can be pushed and challenged even more in an environment that is safe and aimed right at their level.

These past two weeks I taught literacy, which meant being responsible for a 55 min. read-aloud/shared-reading block with seven students and, just this past week, an additional 35 min. whole group spiraled reading/grammar program.

Every morning I wake up at 6:20 AM (or, earlier if I have some lesson planning left to do), take a shower, and enter the Rice servery by 6:50 AM where I grab items for my pack lunch and a quick breakfast (usually a breakfast sandwich of biscuits and eggs along with a cup of fruit). We board our buses at 6:58 AM and leave at 7:03 AM, on the dot, heading to the school with book bag, computer, lesson plans, handouts, and lunch bag in hand. This is the beginning of an often long and jam-packed day in which we teach, lesson plan, and become students ourselves. The classes we take to become better teachers include classes titled “Planning Purposefully,” “Executing Effectively,” and “Diversity and Cultural Awareness.”

During the weekdays, I sleep an average of 4-5 hours a night. Monday nights and Wednesday nights are the worst because lesson plans are due on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Even though it has only been three weeks, this intense schedule has made being at Institute seem much longer. More on this schedule later.

Finally, my collab joins with two other four-member collabs to form one CMA group. Our corps member adviser works with us to give feedback on our lesson plans, observes our classes, and is generally the go-to person for all questions academic.

Living the Academic Achievement Gap
Whenever we divide our class into leveled reading groups, I take the lowest level reading group. This group of three girls are my all this summer. When I plan, I plan for them. When I teach, I teach for them. They are fifth graders reading at the 2nd and 3rd grade level, and this is not the 2nd and 3rd grade levels of people who went to a Newsweek Top 100 college (we were probably reading chapter books independently by 1st grade), but rather a level at which they did not understand what it means to summarize a story, or describe a character, or even when to recognize that they aren’t comprehending a text. My students will read right through a paragraph, sounding out words, but emerge with misunderstandings of the most basic plot line.

I’ve learned through training, and through my work with these students, that the education achievement gap is a literacy gap. Reading lies at the heart of every discipline, whether it is mathematics (which requires complex problem solving) or theatre (which require reading and analyzing the script). The same girls I have for reading, also struggle in math because they cannot understand the question, and in science because they cannot generate the answers in writing.

Given the short time I have with them (just seven more instructional days), my goal for them is to walk away with this simple, but complex, understanding, that reading is comprehending, and that simply reading without comprehending is not reading at all. In the next few days I will be trying out techniques such as “making a mental movie,” “the comprehension alarm,” and “using context clues” to help my students really gain tools that will help them be drivers of their own learning. For those who are also teaching, every teacher is a literacy teacher, so I will be posting about those experiences as well in the spirit of sharing best practices. Please comment and share your experiences as well.

Finally, the girls I teach have wildly different personalities and wildly different attitudes toward their own learning. One, whom I’ll call Dawn, is totally invested in her own learning. She is the lowest achieving student out of the whole class (having only immigrated to the US just a year ago), but she tries her heart out to read, to behave in class, to improve. I am continually stoking that fire, by encouraging her, sending notes home to her parents praising her efforts, and acknowledging when she’s independently working to get smarter. The two other girls are not as invested, and I am wracking my brain trying to figure out how to show them the “I can.” This is hard, but I can learn it. I’ve failed at this before, but I can succeed. One breakthrough is that during AIH, which is targeted to their needs and level, these girls really become participatory, because they do feel successful. They learned, for example, how to read twenty new vocabulary words last week, as well as what they mean. This week they will learn at least ten more, plus the spellings of all 30.

A Possible Case of Abuse
Our students are not only struggling with academics. 98% of the students at my elementary school are on the Federal reduced-price lunch program. Some come from families that are less than supportive. On Friday, we had a case where there was suspected abuse against one student in our class. I do not know the details, and I hope that abuse isn’t actually occurring, but bottom line, if it is…. if it is, then all the force of the law and all the people we can gather (teachers, administrators, other family members) must do everything in their power to protect this child and to keep this child safe. I am glad that the student’s regular teacher is incredibly supportive, is at the school this summer, and will be able to serve as a stable point of reference during this time. I hope to see him come back in class on Monday.


Breakdowns
I’ve broken down twice in the past three weeks. The first was one night when I had to finish lesson planning and turn those plans in, even though I felt like forcing myself to go through the exercise of just making sure every box of the lesson planning template was an exercise in futility. The problem was, I needed to sleep to plan well, but there was not enough time to both sleep and turn in those lesson plans on time, which meant that the lesson plans were bad, and the hours I stayed awake to complete them were wasted because I would have to completely redo those lesson plans anyway. The second was when I was again, tired, but this time very frustrated that school logistics had cut into our AIH time, yet again, and my girls who did not know what “describe a character” meant would have to go another day falling further behind of their peers.

The common factors have been one, a dead tiredness that has caused the great majority of TFAers to just physically break down. Two, a pressure cooker of high expectations from myself and from the program. Three, a terrible sense of urgency. My children can’t read yet. They are going into sixth having just learned what it means to describe a character. They’ve been through at least two district tests that ask them to describe characters but they hadn’t even known what the question was asking. At times the sheer enormity of the situation, and of taking part in the responsibility to change these children’s lives, is overwhelming.

However, I’m learning, and I’m persisting. I’m working on my time management skills so that I will have enough time to both plan well and sleep well. My students deserve an alert and well-rested teacher, and their achievement will improve only if I think ahead. And, I wish that everyone in this country could feel this sense of high expectations and urgency, all stemming from a sense of responsibility for the education of our country’s children. Only then will this public and our politicians finally have the will to do away with “last in, first out,” ridiculous tracking systems that doom children from low-income backgrounds to a future of mediocrity at the age of three, de facto segregation along class and racial lines in public schools, and short-sighted cuts to education like those cutting the UC system off at its knees.

Victory
There have been many victories as well, over the past three weeks. I’ll only list a few here, but they are ones I hope to remember when times are tough.

First, my girls are growing in confidence every day. The other teachers mention how the girls are improving in their answers both in class and on paper. They are also excited to volunteer, and have really embraced vocabulary learning even when it’s difficult for them. They also did learn what it means to describe a character, and have retained this knowledge when I retested them. As we continue reading in the next couple of weeks, I’ll push them to give even more detailed descriptions, and to be conscious of tackling both physical and personality traits.

I’ve also gotten better at classroom management. Believe me, come next week, these students will be able to turn instantly from quiet hum of conversation to absolutely silent, ears open, eyes tracking the teacher within three seconds. Most importantly, they will be able to stay silent.

This same class is the class that cheered when I announced that it was time for their spelling test. That’s right, cheered. Yay for investment and making vocabulary fun!

Finally, I will never forget one reading group in which one of my students, who is normally disengaged and non-participatory, totally nailed the objective and ever since then, cannot stay quiet about the book we are reading. I plan to purchase the book for him so that he can read it on his own after summer school.

The Adult Life
While teaching and learning are happening, a learning of a very different type is occurring as I sign my first lease, buy my first car, and pay for my own insurance. I probably made mistakes here and there that have severe ramifications, especially financial because I’m still trying to figure out this whole budgeting thing, but at least I’m learning and at least I’m learning in a place with low cost-of-living!

For finances, I’m using mint.com, which is a fantastic hub for dealing with all things financial. It makes its money off of links and advertisements to other companies that want your money, so ignore those, but the tools it has for personal finance are pretty unparalleled. I’ve got it linked to my savings, checking, and credit card accounts. I also use it to set goals and budgets, as well as tag transactions for being tax deductible (hugely important for a budget-conscious teacher who will probably spend lots of money on school supplies). I think it’ll take a while before I find a work flow that works for me, but meanwhile it’s been interesting to figure out how all this works.

As far as living goes, I found a fabulous apartment in the perfect location in town with the most adorable floor plan and a view into what looks like an old Italian piazza. The interior has been completely remodeled and all utilities are included in the rental price. My car will be parked in a covered parking area not far away, it’s on the first floor so no pesky steps to climb, and it’s located right next to a super convenient shopping center. In other words, it’s perfect. It is also the first time that I will be living by myself in my entire life. I am a little bit nervous about the price (which is on the high side of my budget) and the new experience of living by myself, but I also think it’s worth the experiment. Come visit!

Bits and Pieces
And as always, life doesn’t fit itself into neat little boxes to be labeled and stored away. Instead, there are fragments of stories that deserve to be recorded that are really no more than a couple of sentences. For instance, I picked up a new skill. As part of the Chinese fellowship, I learned how to make beautiful beaded necklaces. Sitting on my desk is a gold and amethyst colored, star-patterned bead necklace that I think I’ll present as a gift to one of my students. It’s always special to receive a hand-made gift, and now that I know the skill, I can always make another one for myself.

Another story, which probably deserves its own post upon further reflection, is that I am currently reading Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes and the descriptions are so real that I feel like he’s tearing open a time-space tesseract for me to step through, into that alien jungle where leeches drop off trees, jungle rot destroys hands, and young men go to be forever changed. The depiction of the Vietnam War as one in which the United States was caught too unprepared and pigheaded to fight, and one in which ordinary men and women suffered for unnecessary decisions (on both the US and Vietnamese side), makes me wonder how we ought to act in the present. I have to admit that I treat Iraq and Afghanistan with little more than passing interest, and I find it very easy to not exert effort in thinking through their implications at all. I’m determined to do differently.

Finally, I’m super thankful to my collab because we have been team players who have worked together to target our students needs. We have also all shared burdens and pushed each other to excellence, and stayed up late together. I am also thankful to two current fifth grade literacy teachers I contacted who gave me great ideas on how to meet my students needs. I’m on a steep learning curve and their advice has been invaluable.

It’s been a blessing to be working wonderful people.

Looking Forward
7 days. 7 days. It’s much too short a time period. But, it is also a challenge to me to work as hard as I can, to ask as many possible questions, and to push to the very end so that my students will reach their goals for this summer.

More updates to come.