View Full Version : Teach For America: a new teacher's experience (long C&P)

10-26-2007, 08:02 AM
This letter from a friend of my son's made my day in many ways. It's discouraging to hear about the perceived shallowness of the training for teachers in this program, but I'm glad to hear Amos is using his imagination and seizing his students' attention.

Hi everyone,

I think I have survived six weeks at this point. I still haven't figured out how to get six hours of sleep, but I'm working on it. I plan every lesson the night before, which isn't a very good strategy. But my class is going well. The principal is very pleased with my work, partly because the other Earth Science teacher is crashing and burning. Instead of creating a project that guides students through the curriculum, he alternates between crazy, irrelevant projects and traditional lecture-worksheet learning. His students are writing brochures on etiquette in China. As he so eloquently put it, "They will say stuff like, 'Don't show anyone the bird.'" Then he gives 100-question multiple-choice vocabulary tests and wonders why his class average hovers around 40%. The principal is generally a very direct person, but she hasn't pointed out the problem with creating a brochure that has nothing to do with Earth Science or any form of useful knowledge. I am definitely the "junior" person on staff and can't point out that the Emperor has no clothes.

In my current project, each group is responsible for a different planet. They have to research the different reasons humans would not survive on their planet, including lack of oxygen, lack of water, temperature, air pressure, etc). Then they have to create an alien that could survive on the planet. So far, some of these aliens breathe methane, have crazy forcefields, and use invincible skin. I'm helping to make more realistic adaptations, like the flying shark that lives on Uranus.

Since I have some students who are really fast and some who are really slow, I decided to give personalized spelling and vocabulary quizzes. Students learn root words instead of whole words, and then as we learn new words like aesthenosphere and Cenozoic, the students can recognize the words by their roots. Also, it's fun to give my somewhat arrogant students words like ichthys (fish) and phaneros (visible). My least inspired student blew me away today by scoring 100% and finishing her quiz within a minute. She was happy for the rest of class. This is a wonderful contrast from two weeks ago, when she was assigned to write a letter to the Competitive Enterprise Institute ( cei.org), a think-tank of global warming deniers. I sent out letters from every student in the class except her, because her letter went something like this:
"Listen up CEI.
You m************. What s*** are you saying. You are all f****** wrong and you know it you b******."
You get the idea. But she was very proud of her letter. She insisted on reading it to the class, and I was forced to kick her out amidst the cheers of her classmates. Then she emailed it to the principal who wrote back that it was the "sorriest excuse for a letter she had ever seen." So you can see why I am happy that she scored 100% on the quiz.

For the first time yesterday, I had a student get really defiant. He borrowed a pencil from me, but when I asked everyone who had one of my pencils to bring them up to the front, he said "you can come get it from me." I read his mom the riot act and he was much quieter today. You might say, well I think this is a minor incident compared to your friend who had a student threaten to kill her and a 20-student riot in the hallway. And I would agree with you completely. I'm getting spoiled, and in return I'm trying to give as much individual attention to the students as I can. On Tuesdays and Thursdays after school, I'm tutoring some students who are not following me in class. Most of them are trying, but it's difficult to talk about weather maps if you don't understand that North and straight up are two different things. Next week I will attempt to teach them some complicated science, like explaining why elements have different spectra that you can measure with a spectrometer. Excellent!

Also, just the latest bit of Teach for America nonsense: at the latest conference, they "unveiled" the rubric for one of our core values and most annoying buzz-phrases, "Work Relentlessly." Basically, we're supposed to work hard, work smart, and not give up, and they have created a rubric that supposedly tells us whether we are "proficient" or "advanced." Even more ridiculous, rubric row W-3 demands that we balance work and play according to their specific criteria: "Beginning" level: the corps member constructively indicates when s/he is losing energy and motivation and addresses low energy by productively implementing a limited number of strategies. "Advanced" level: anticipates when s/he may lose energy and motivation and proactively takes steps to sustain energy through a combination of strategies.

Immediately after the unveiling of this rubric, I became a much more effective and enlightened teacher.

Thanks if you sent candy. You know who you are. Everyone else, my mailbox is nice and spacious.



P.S. For those of you who are interested in my personal life, I took an extremely relaxing trip last Saturday to the Outer Banks right near Kitty Hawk, where the frighteningly ugly Wright Brothers museum consistently scares birds out of the sky so they fall and splat. I went swimming, played soccer, worked on my luscious tan, and scored a rousing fourth place in a game of miniature golf

10-26-2007, 09:11 AM
Dave - what grade level is he teaching, and where?

10-26-2007, 09:45 AM
North Carolina, I think and sixth grade? I've sent an e-mail to check on that and ask for his blog address, too, which I'll post here if there is one.

10-27-2007, 07:42 AM
Apparently the kids are older than sixth grade (high school level?) and he's in Henderson, NC.

The latest e-mail:

Hey! I bet you were just sitting at your computer hoping someone sent you an email. Well, you're in luck. I finished the first half of my first semester, which I think merits some celebration. I baked my usual brownie recipe and tomorrow I'm going to a pre-Halloween pumpkin-carving extravaganza hosted by a TFA teacher who used to play professional basketball in Sweden. Now, some friends (particularly those with corrupted minds and low reading skills-- MDC) have been complaining about the length of these emails, but too bad. Fasten your seat belts.

I think I really tanked this week with my afternoon class, while I excelled particularly with individual students in the morning class. Let's start with the good news. My car's namesake, Justus, who has spent most of his life in special education programs, made huge improvements this week. He went from a 4/20 (F) on the first test to a 16/20 (A), the third-highest grade in his class (my tests are hard, the class average was an 11). The other teachers were very impressed. Sean, a "cool" football player in my class also improved immensely, from a 7 to a 16. He tries to spend all his time playing computer games, but I think I succeeded in showing him his potential. Another football player, a smart student who hates science, saw Sean's test grade and told everyone how proud he was of Sean. Except when he told people, it sounded more like this: "Sean IS smart. He can do the work. He got a higher test grade than I did! He's not stupid like everyone thinks." Thanks a lot, JaQuan.

This class is going well enough that they sat through an entire 2-hour lecture by Al-Anon and Alcoholics Anonymous today. A lot of my smart-mouthed students complained that they had enough problems already, they didn't need all these alcoholics coming in to tell them about theirs. By a skillful balance of threats and bribery, I kept 19 hyperactive/narcoleptic students attentive and respectful for the presentations, except for one of my problem-students who made a farting noise an hour and twenty minutes in. I had to hand it to my students, because some of the speakers were definitely more engaging than others (You won't woo a crowd of teenagers with a zinger like "Well, first I'd like to touch on powerlessness.") Also, nobody commented on the obvious: the speakers were all from the Raleigh area, they were all white, and they probably much higher-income (for example, one was the manager of a country club and one was like, "You need to find something you can enjoy, like I took up flying airplanes").

Now, the bad news. My afternoon class was pretty much out of control today. It was K's fault. K is my only student who doesn't have parents I can talk to-- her mom ignores her, and I know her father died recently because she loudly announces every week or so that she won't be in class the next day because "I have to go to Raleigh. I have to visit my dad's grave." So today in class, she gets really wild and, instead of doing her tectonic plates activity, starts wadding up papers and throwing them all over the classroom. She shouts out defiantly when I try to get her to talk with me out in the hallway.
Me (I attempt a whisper): "K, we nee..."
Her: "No, I don't care!!! I'm not going anywhere!!!"
So I attempt to continue class as if nothing is happening. I realize later that I could have tried peer pressure and I could have tried trickery. I could have refused to continue class until she left, and forced a showdown that I probably would have won since the rest of the class wanted to continue (I hope). Or, I could have asked her to take a message for me to the front office (since she is a class "messenger") that secretly said "Keep K out of my class for the rest of the day!" (At the high school, they have a police officer who will march in, grab a student, in extreme cases mace them, and drag them out of class, but there's no discipline plan for New Tech). But I didn't try anything, and other troublemakers in the class started to follow her lead. Soon I had students calling out, throwing papers, and other disasters. Half the class had completely stopped doing their activity. I ended up lecturing on random topics for the rest of class and inventing mandatory student surveys, abandoning the activity altogether. I barely held on until the end of class by handing out a hefty $500 in fines of their precious Warren New Tech Dollars. I didn't bother to fine K. I saved my sanity by helping one student after school, who had caused a lot of this ruckus in class. He said that he had always gotten D's, and didn't expect to get anything else. I helped him on different makeup work, and now he has a C in the class. I found it pretty funny that once he had a C, it really changed his attitude. He said, "Well, I think now that I have a C I should pay attention and be more respectful in class." We'll see how that goes; I am plotting different strategies to deal with K on Monday so I hope I never have another day like Friday. It's a lot harder to stall until the end of a disaster class when your class is 2 hours long!
As a side note, this afternoon class contains my best student. He scored a perfect score on the first test, but on this one Justus beat him by half a point!

This is turning into a lengthy email, but to close it out: it's comforting that whether I have problems in class or not, it's still going much better than the other earth science class. As I've said before, Mr. Akins is crazy. He is currently failing 27 of his 38 students. His best student has the lowest possible B, and many nerdy students who have never earned a B in their life are staring at a big fat D. This is because he gives difficult vocabulary tests and forgets to enter the grades in the online gradebook, so they show up as zeroes! So I was all ears when he asked me if I "had heard of the incident in his class today." I soon realized that he asks me this as a way to vent about events in his class that I wouldn't possibly have heard of. Today in class, one group of troublemakers was basically supposed to present their work as travel agents, booking transportation and accommodations for the class's fictional trip to China. Don't ask me what that has to do with earth science. Anyways, these students hadn''t done a thing in the past three weeks, and they came up on stage and admitted that they weren't really prepared. They provided one piece of information: there were about 5 miners trapped in the Chinese mines. Seconds later, when they quit talking and stared at the audience, students shouted out that there were actually over 150 miners trapped in those mines. Oops, my bad!

That's all I had for today. Stay cool.