Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"...did she just say chro-mat-tin?"

My experience with PG County teachers has not been that great. When I took a semester internship with a local elementary school to teach an after school science workshop for third, fourth and fifth graders, I took my students outside for the first ten minutes of class. They were an energetic bunch, so I liked to wear them out before I taught anything. Plus, when I found out that they only had 30 minutes for both lunch and recess, outdoor time seemed more important to me. Somewhere in the middle of the semester, one of the teachers next door to my classroom came out and raised her voice (/yelled) at me. She said the kids were not allowed outside. The principal got involved and she was pretty upset, too.

For the most part, I felt like I had control over the class (there were about ten kids) and I honestly felt as if they needed the time out there. I guess it was just my way of managing my class.

One semester, I observed a high school biology teacher once every week. He had gotten into teaching late, but had been teaching for many, many years. His class was pretty chatty and his lectures were made by someone else (presumably a book company). He was a nice man and I appreciated his time, but he was not a "great" teacher. When I told him that I was planning on teaching, he responded with a "why? (There are so many other things you can do with a biology major!!)" It was clear to me then that he did not love his job and the way he taught showed that (to be fair though, he does seem to love his subject). I felt like some students in his class really wanted to learn. They would ask questions during lecture and their questions sometimes went ignored. I was told from another student who also was shadowing him (and his AP bio class) that he was very engaging when he taught. I figure that he is just one of those teachers who love AP but "hate" on-level classes. He once told me that he was waiting for his kids to get older, because that is when they would actually appreciate science. I think some of them already did, though he assumed they didn't.

Another semester, I interned with another high school bio teacher (in a different school). Again, she was a nice person, clearly worn down from teaching, but her class was very chatty, little was taught during class, and her students' grades were terrible. What really strikes me was how little she believes in her students. (I think this is one of the things that really differentiate new and old teachers, while I'm not saying that all new teachers are full of hope and all old teachers have given up.) At one instance, she told me that she "hates [her] kids." I didn't know how to respond. Basically, she thought they're unteachable and she thought that she is doing all she can. My verdict? She's not.

I understand it though. She's the one who's been dealing with the "same kids" time after time. Where we come from, teachers teach (however they like) and students learn. It's your own (as a student) fault if you fail, because the teacher taught the material and you didn't make the effort to understand it. Teachers aren't supposed to convince, beg or force their students to learn. Those in school should want to learn. It strikes me that with the demographic of PG County students, most of these students 50 years ago would have been wishing they could learn, but today it's a hassle. But still, it's no excuse not to be an engaging teacher or to be the teacher that changes their aversion to school and learning.

And then sometimes, I am just shaking my head. The other day she was teaching genetics and referred to the gene for tall pea plants as Tt and the gene for short pea plants to be Ss. It didn't make any sense to me and I wonder if any students made sense of it. Another day, she pronounced "chromatin" as chro-mat-tin (literally: crow. mat. tin). I did a double take - ...did she just say chro-mat-tin? However, she did correctly write the alleles when doing a Punnett square, but she didn't explain that she was wrong before so now students might think both ways are correct.

But that doesn't mean she doesn't do anything "right". She keeps food in the classroom for when students are very hungry (she doesn't give it out at the beginning of class, which is something I'm contemplating doing) and she brings in supplies for labs or projects (self-purchased).

And to be fair, I've met some decent PG County teachers, too. I just haven't worked closely with them. The teacher whose room I used for my science workshop was very supportive (he helped me with classroom management and told me that I was doing a good job with my attempts to be innovative with my lessons by using multiple medias). Also, the teachers flanking the current room I'm interning in (to the left, a TFA first year bio teacher and to the right, the science department chair) seem like good, committed teachers - so it hasn't been all bad. But to be honest, my experiences make me very worried that there are more "bad" teachers in PG County than "good". And by that, I mean there are a whole lot of people who don't want to teach and few that really do and love it.

And then came yesterday. For our ISG we have to shadow a current Fellow in the program and write a running record of the class we observe. I observed a high school math teacher. She was fantastic. She taught slowly, gave examples, answered questions, gave a worksheet for her students to follow along with (they filled in the chart), and then she assigned some work out of the textbook. While her students were working, she walked around the classroom to help. When about half of her class had to leave for an impromptu National Honor Society meeting, she continued to teach and said that the present students could pair up with the NHS students and teach them what they missed while they were out. I had the exact same thinking and was so pleased to hear that we were both on point with each other. Her students were a bit chatty but definitely seemed to respect her.

After class, she chatted with me about the experience and when it all comes down to it, I can see that people like her in a program like PGCTF are working steadily toward success.

In other news, I have totally been slacking on reading my TfSA so thoughts on Chapter 1&2 on the way...

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Sad Day for Shaw @ Garnet-Patterson, DCPS

I decided to read the Post before bed and I was so sad to read about Principal Brian Betts' murder.

About two months ago, I got off the U Street metro stop and headed to Shaw @ Garnet-Patterson for my DCTF interview. I was so excited and I thought that U Street was adorable. Upon entering Shaw, I noticed that the walls were covered in graphs that showed increases in progress for every class as well as pictures of outstanding students. I really enjoyed my day at Shaw, but I didn't realize its uniqueness until I later read that students had actually petitioned to stay at the school for one more year.

I knew that this school had something right.

It broke my heart to find out that their inspiring and innovative principal was found dead in his Silver Spring home yesterday. He was changing the culture of the school, though he was only at it for two years. DCPS needs more people like Mr. Betts. I imagine that come Monday the entire school body will be heartbroken, but I can only hope that they will continue their journey to become a better school.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

TfSA Introduction

"Teaching for Student Achievement [TfSA] is about ensuring that your students make dramatic academic progress. It's not about getting them to "like" school. It's not about making your students happy. It's not about getting them to think you're cool, boosting their self-esteem or even fighting racism, poverty or injustice. While effective teaching may result in any - or all - of these occurrences, they are not in and of themselves your main objective."
  • This paragraph rubs me the wrong way. When I got to the end of it, I thought to myself, wait, that's not what teaching's about? If I could only choose one goal to complete at the end of the year, sure, it would probably be TfSA for me. Maybe I'm too new at this (but hopefully getting trained won't change my opinion; I'm not being stubborn, I just want to stay positive), but I think teaching is totally about getting your students to like school. To me, teaching is not about getting them to achieve in your class. It's about getting your students to find a love for learning so that they continue to do it, class after class (and maybe even beyond formal schooling!). And it is about making them happy. In my experience, students (or anyone for that matter) are happy when they "get" things. (Think: lightbulb) And it's totally about boosting their self-esteem - getting them to believe they can achieve great things and then seeing them do it. And it is about giving them a fighting chance in spite of their circumstances. That's why Fellows are placed in the districts they are. To me, if a teacher focuses on these aspects, s/he can impact student achievement just as well as if s/he focused solely on increasing achievement. (And just for the record, I totally want my students to think I'm cool.)
[addressing the achievement gap:] "...many people tend to blame the low-performing students, their families, or their circumstances... few hold the teachers or the schools... responsible for providing sub-par education... students directly fault their teachers and their schools... struggling students believe they could be better students if they had better teachers and attended better schools."
  • Whoa, whoa, now. Everybody loves to play the blame game. As both a teacher and a student (I feel like I'm in some parallel world between the two) I can relate to both "sides", but the first thing I want to address is the fact the phrase "sub-par education". In my opinion (should I say that? It is my blog after all, so that's to be assumed), low-performing students do not always signal a sub-par education. A teacher's job is to relay information to their students as best they can. While I also think teachers should play a supportive role in students' lives, I ultimately think that a teacher teaches information clearly, simply so a student can learn it if they so choose. To do this, teachers often have to be creative in their thinking (What are different ways to teach this so every student gets it? Is there an easier way to teach this material?).
  • However, a teacher's job is not to lasso their students who are resistant to paying attention in class or cooperating one-on-one and continuously push the information on them. Maybe the teacher is great at explaining, but the student just wants to go outside and play. Is it, ideally, a teacher's job to convince these students to learn? I have had some great teachers, and when I didn't want to learn something, I didn't. I don't blame my teachers at all for my disinterest in fractions and decimals and my conscious decision to avoid them. In this case, I blame my lack of motivation. I also had some not so great teachers, where I really feel that I could have learned the information better had they taught it in a more tangible manner. Still, in this case while I can place more blame onto these teachers, I ultimately feel like it is also my job, as a student, to put in additional time into learning the material.
  • TfSA also says that struggling students think they would achieve more if they went to a better school with better teachers. (I wonder if there is any school in the U.S. that is totally devoid of good teachers.) I can totally resonate with this thought. My high school was not the best school in the area. Many schools surrounding it were newer and were more technology infused. I thought it back then, too, that going to a shinier school (presumably with more "expensive" teachers) would somehow make a significant difference in my learning. I'm not really sure it would. However, when we are speaking of really struggling schools (mine was average in one of the nation's best school districts), the disparity is much greater so I get where these kids are coming from. It's harder to complete an essay when your school's computers don't work or there are few of them.
  • I know it's been found that a highly-effective teacher is the most important factor in raising student achievement. I think it's true. But I also believe that education is a shared responsibility - among students, teachers and parents. Everyone has to be willing to work at it. It can't be one person's job the whole way through. And perhaps because struggling students have been neglected for so long, it takes a persevering teacher to remind them that they can learn.
"...71 percent of all secondary students said they wanted to attend a four-year college. Their parents expected 52 percent of them to do so, while their teachers only expected 32 percent of them to do so."
  • TfSA says that these teachers lack high expectations of their students. Very possible. But what about this: these struggling students often do not know many people who have attended college and their parents often did not attend college either. It is likely that the teachers, however, have and understand the magnitude of motivation that one is required to have to make it through college. Perhaps the teachers do believe in their students, but understand that many of their students currently do not possess enough intrinsic motivation. Just a thought.
  • I bring this up because in college, professors don't really care if you get it or not. Well, they care, they want to be good teachers, but they're not going to come up with different teaching methods for every student in their class unless every student seeks them out after class. And they certainly will not fuss about it when you don't come to class. No one forces you to learn anything you don't want to in college. This brings up one of my all-time biggest questions: between high school and college students gain a lot of independence. I think it's too abrupt. When is a "good time" to make the transition into the "college mindset" where students are largely responsible for their own learning and classroom success? I didn't practice this kind of independence in high school and I fell flat trying to fly on my own when I came to college (too much free time is a killer!).
And then comes this: maybe some struggling students have learned the routine in their low-achieving school system. Their teachers are not great teachers who often resort to not teaching anything in class because s/he has decided that their students are unteachable. They're used to not learning so they don't. I've seen it in PG County and it breaks my heart. I see all these kids with potential and I wonder how they're going to figure out that they've got it. Not from their teachers. Which brings me to my opinion that we need to have mandatory, regular, unscheduled teacher evaluations country-wide.

I wonder how some students who grow up with difficult circumstances, with less than stellar teachers find the inner will to rise above it all and stick it to their environment by becoming successful individuals.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Teaching for Student Achievement

PGCTF (and I assume all other New Teacher Project Teaching Fellows) provide Fellows with a handy guidebook called Teaching for Student Achievement. The book is pretty massive - almost 500 pages for Gen Ed and 600 pages for Special Ed. After enrolling, Fellows receive an Independent Study Guide (ISG) which details assignments to be completed prior to the beginning of Institute. One of those assignments is to read the guidebook in its entirety. It's a pretty daunting task to me, because I have never read what is basically a textbook from cover to cover. On the other hand, I am very excited for this book to tell me all the secrets to being an awesome teacher. Of course I know that it isn't going to do that, but I like the idea of it.

I keep meaning to start reading the book, but I keep going over the introduction chapter each time I pick it up because each time I skim, rather than read, the text. To be honest, it's not that riveting (yet). And because of that and the fact that I hate reading information I need to know (i.e. for school or for Fellows) without taking meticulous notes, I decided that I would blog about important things I'm reading as I go along - both to entertain myself and to retain the info.

I hope everyone enjoys going through the guidebook with me! :o) I imagine these blogs will be very long...

A little information on the guidebook: it was written by TNTP in collaboration with TFA and is a "research and data-driven device" (in other words, they study what works and pass it on). Also, in the first few sentences, it stresses that my primary responsibility as a new teacher is to immediately increase student achievement. I'm down with increasing student achievement and hope to be as immediate in doing so as soon as possible.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Using Ed Bloggers as a Resource

Since before I started this blog (all seven days ago), I skimmed through a couple DC teachers' blogs to learn more about their DCPS experience to help me make a better informed decision about choosing DCTF or PGCTF. Needless to say, every single blog scared me shirtless. While every blogger seemed to love, love, love their students, the same couldn't be said for the bureaucracy of DCPS. The idea of shaky job security, unsupportive principals and less than stellar teacher's union made me decide against DCTF and DCPS for now. I'll try again when I'm better suited to navigate the educational maze.

Anyway, back to the topic. Ed bloggers' blogs are such a fun read (DCPS or not), but I'm trying to start from the beginning of each person's blog so I can absorb as much of their experience as possible. Soo, I have a lot of reading ahead of me! Right now I just read through (life) lessons and tests from a first-year teacher (who is in DCTF). Below are some thoughts that came up during my reading expedition. (On another note, I hope bloggers don't mind my gathering information from their sites for my own opinion-making.)

  • "Even when parents' income and wealth is comparable, African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and immigrants for whom English is not a first language lag behind English-speaking, native-born, white students."
    • So often achievement gaps are traced back to 1. race, 2. wealth or 3. gender. Since it is clear here that wealth does not play an important factor in achievement and gender is not discussed, I wonder what it is about race that perpetuates differences between learners. Is it how teachers perceive students of these races? Is it that teachers negatively change the way they teach when they see the students that they're working with? Is it the overarching culture of learning that each race is stereotyped for? I keep reading that we need to close the achievement gap for those who do not have the same opportunities as their peers. Wealthier students often have better educated parents and more opportunities. So if these students have well-educated parents and several open doors - what's causing the discrepancy? I can understand why equally wealthy ELL students might lag, but the other racial groups puzzle me.
  • "Schools in America are dangerous places.  According to a 1991 study by the Centers for Disease Control, approximately one in twenty-five high school students carries a gun...It strikes me that while metal detectors may prevent a few guns from coming into the school, they have no real impact on the children's sense of safety.  Children simply get the message 'if you're going to shoot someone, it will not be in school. You must shoot them coming to school, or going home from school, but not in the school building."..School is too often the child's learning ground about the impotence of adult authority when it comes to violence." (from Geoffrey Canada in Fist Stick Knife Gun - adding to my reading list... now)
    • While I didn't enter school until 1993, this statistic startles me because I think of schools today as much more dangerous than schools "back then". I hardly ever felt unsafe, but to think that in that day and age violence was that prevalent just outside of schools seems surprising to me. I imagine that that statistic is much higher now, but perhaps I was just shielded from the idea of kids carrying guns as a child. But with that said, gun control. I think it's really necessary. Kids have no place being around such things and I hope that I will never have to deal with that kind of issue. This brings me to another issue. Aside from teaching our students content and course knowledge, we need to take time, regularly, to discuss life. The value of it, the improvement of it, the possibilities of it. We're not just teaching our students to be successful test takers, we're teaching our students to be become better citizens for a better society. And as if it's not clear, teachers have the greatest and most difficult job in the world because they hold so much at stake. Wake up in the morning (not feeling anything like P. Diddy, hopefully) and say to yourself, "Well, just another day of inspiring a student and changing the world."