Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On the Wisdom of 11-Year Olds and the Madness of Scientists

            A bit of background before we begin: I am currently teaching science at a Science, Teachnology, Engineering and Math (STEM)-themed summer camp.  The camp is a promotional tool for the school I now work for, a private school that is slated to accept its first classes of middle schoolers in 2012.  The students are an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse group of 25 young scientists from all over LA.  I’ll teach at two consecutive 3-week sessions; I am currently in my second week.

            On the first day of camp, along with various team-building games and typical camp stuff, we sorted the students into four groups, each named after a famous person from each of the respective STEM fields: Newton, Turing, Tesla, and Cantor.  We asked the groups to research their namesake and present their findings.  The goal was to encourage students to see scientists as human beings, rather than names or discoveries.  With Turing, we got even more than we bargained for – but more on that later.

            In college, I noticed the enormous disconnect between scientific discoveries and the actual process that creates them. Science is an exciting, vital enterprise, but the dry reporting of facts typical of a peer-reviewed paper or textbook belies the drama behind them.  Compare the white-knuckle race to discover the crystal structure of DNA to the way said structure is taught to children. 

I distinctly remember the first time it hit me during a college biology lecture: everything the professor was saying, down to the simplest statement, was built on hundreds of people and millions of hours of labor.  A fact like “the Golgi complex packages and secretes proteins” depends on the equipment pioneered by lens-grinders and alchemists, staining procedures developed by Golgi himself (and many others), not to mention the very concept of a “cell”, “protein”, and… you get the point, yes?

While I certainly don’t mean to suggest that science be taught like a historical melodrama – after all, the facts themselves do matter – we create an unnecessarily large gap between science students and scientists.  Once I realized the tremendous amount of struggle and passion that had gone into the driest of facts, I was far more motivated to join a lab and begin doing research – an experience that deepened my love for science.  The stereotype of scientists as loners who are either dull or crazed surely discourages some young people from entering the field. 

Consider, on a related note, the public perception of scientists.  I asked my class, on Day 1, to draw the first thing that came to mind when I said “scientist,” then share their drawings.  Close to three-quarters drew Einstein.   Not surprise, since Albert represents our idealized scientist: white, male, kindly, placid, asexual.  [Sidenote – I piled on the cheese by telling the class all they had to do to see a scientist was look in the mirror.  A bit heavy-handed, sure, but they’re kids]  Next, we brainstormed adjectives that described the popular conception of scientists; again, not surprisingly, “evil” was tossed out.  When I asked the class why, one girl volunteered that perhaps “we are afraid of what they can create.”  I chuckled to myself at that one.  For many, including me, the destructive capacity of science is part of its terrible draw; I feel compelled to discover more even when I know that, both as a society and an individual, knowing more doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness, and often leads to the opposite.

But my psychological profile aside, my point for Day 1 was that scientists are real people, united by little more than a desire to know.  As I told my class, yes; many scientists didn’t do so well in school as children, but to the extent that, e.g. Einstein ditched class, it was to play violin, not play video games.  He grew his brain.  “Father of Neuroscience” Santiago Ramón y Cajal didn’t use a slingshot to cause boyhood mischief, he built a cannon and blew up his town gate.  And don’t even get me started on my hero, the wonderfully exuberant Richard Feynman, who in addition to making some groundbreaking discoveries in theoretical physics, went on a series of wild adventures including moving to Brazil for an extended period to join a samba band.  It’s not all lab coats and pocket protectors.

Note that I don’t mean to totally deny the various stereotypes about scientists.  Many do work more or less alone (although that number is shrinking); many are awkward; some are asexual [paging Nikola Tesla]; some are completely bats.  David Foster Wallace’s biography of the mathematician (and one of our science camp groups’ namesakes) Georg Cantor explains this well.  Popular biographies of scientists or philosophers who went crazy – think Cantor, Nietzsche, or even chess grandmasters like Fischer – tend to focus on individual events in their lives.  Take Cantor (supposedly) being driven mad by the criticism of his contemporary Kronecker.  But on a larger scale, Wallace argues more eloquently than I ever could, it’s difficult to live with a certain degree of abstraction.  Those laymen with an affinity for discussing physics know what I’m talking about – the sort of derealization, the disorienting “zooming out” from oneself that accompanies a debate about Schrödinger’s cat, the possibility that the universe is a 2-D holographic projection or that the whole world just sprang into existence a moment ago – and how one needs to “snap back” into oneself before resuming normal life.  It’s taxing to think too much, and I’m not suggesting we sugarcoat that fact.

So anyway, scientists are real people, and knowing them can serve as a supplement to, but of course not a replacement for, familiarity with their work.  As promised several paragraphs ago, one group of students in grade 5-7 were assigned to research the life of computer scientist Alan Turing, a man whose work is difficult to divorce from his circumstances.  See, after Einstein and Oppenheimer, Turing was perhaps the scientist most instrumental to the Allied victory in WWII, as England’s top code-breaker.  He then went on to create fundamental concepts such as the algorithm and invent what became the basis of the modern computer, before England unceremoniously turned on him because he was gay.  After being chemically castrated for the “crime” of homosexuality (in 1952!  Good grief!), he took his own life by eating an apple injected with cyanide. 

And bless their hearts, the middle schoolers got it.  When presenting on Turing’s life, a girl got up and said “some people didn’t like him because he was different – because of who he wanted to love, and because that wasn’t considered okay at the time.  Maybe they were just scared of what he could do, because he was so ahead of his time.  But they attacked him for who he was and he poisoned himself, and we lost a genius.”

Without putting too fine a point on it, Turing represents the extreme end of what happens when a society decides to limit its idea of who a scientist is.  No, Turing wouldn’t be persecuted in modern England, but equally tragic is the staggering number of students who grow up loving science, and watch that love get extinguished as they grow up.  “I could never be a scientist because I’m ___________.”  While in the past (and maybe today, too), that blank might have been filled with “a woman” or “Black” or etc.  Gender, race, and so on aside, that blank might now be filled with “not boring.”  Science is not about textbooks, it’s about mischievous Ramón y Cajals and Feynmans.  And I am a firm believer that, while we shouldn’t dispense with textbooks and lectures, we should treat them as a compliment to breaking things, dissecting things, building things, and generally making a mess – or in other words, “science.”  

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Further Notes on Leaving Teach For America

As a teacher, I have developed a very strong desire to correct misunderstanding when I see it arise.  After reading over my last post, I felt this desire welling up, and I decided to post a few additional notes, in bullet-point form, to clarify a few of the potential misconceptions surrounding my previous post about leaving TFA.

-I am all for calling spades by their names, so in that sense, I am "walking out" on my commitment.  I am not doing this to screw over my students, and I don't believe that any students will get screwed over from this arrangement.  Next year I would be facing an almost entirely different student body.  My students in content classes would be different, and even our advisory system this year was dissolved for logistical reasons.

-Related to that, I made a two year commitment to TFA, but a one year commitment to my school.  I fulfilled my contract, and the students at my old school will get a new teacher.  This is as good a place as any to say that I don't really believe in the Magical Teacher Myth; this myth crops up on both sides of the debate over TFA's efficacy, but the basic thrust is that a student's success eminates directly from the teacher's actions.  While I don't deny that this is (partially) true, a large part of life outcomes for a student are determined by factors outside the classroom: access to technology, access to breakfast, parents who read to them at night, ZIP code, connections to college graduates, etc.

-Fine, then, aren't I walking out on my commitment to TFA?  Yes.  I have long been a vocal critic of certain aspects of TFA, particularly their apparent disinterest in challenging the NCLB paradigm of standardized testing and their general willingness to sacrifice rigor for on-paper "results".  Simply put, my commitment is to closing the achievement gap, and I would hope that any teacher would move to where he/she felt the most impact could be realized.  It does students no good to plug away within an essentially broken system.

-I also think that TFA does a lot of good, and of course I want public education to work.  I just think that TFA (and the reform movement) could learn quite a bit from systems of education in which teachers are given greater freedom; e.g. Finland's top-ranked school system.  By helping to create a successful private school that serves lower-income students precisely by allowing teachers the freedom to teach creatively, flexibly, and rigorously, I think I will provide a long-term benefit to the public school system.  Most importantly, I believe the long-term benefit I can realize through this route is potentially much greater than it would be if I stayed at my school for one more year.

-It is a sign of slavish devotion to the Magical Teacher Myth that certain people seem utterly flabbergasted by my willingness to leave a failing school one year early in order to have a much bigger impact by establishing the culture and curriculum at a new school.  Some teachers can have a large impact in one year, but certainly not inexperienced ones.  I'm proud of the work I did: my kids scored very well on standardized tests, and I walked away having made deep personal connections to some of them.  But competent teachers are, I believe, relatively interchangeable on an institutional level.  A bad teacher can do a ton of bad, but a good teacher can only do so much good, particularly in secondary education.

-Again, I don't want to deny that some teachers are better than others, and that good teachers deserve credit for their work.  But I am not egotistical enough to believe that students will suffer mightily from my absence.  I know that I inspired certain students, just like any teacher will be able to make a strong connection with certain individuals.  But, given that I'll be replaced by another competent young teacher out of the TFA mill (most likely), I don't see any reason to lose sleep over this.

-The biggest reason I'm leaving is that I feel like I could be more effective elsewhere.  One reason the Magical Teacher Myth falls flat for me is that most public school teachers actually have very little autonomy over what they are able to do in the classroom.  The curriculum is more or less set by standards, pacing guides, and benchmarks; obviously there is still room to put a unique stamp on things, but nowhere near the flexibility present in a private school that caters to low-income kids.

-I am inexperienced to be sure, and some people are justifiably concerned that a 22-year-old with one year of teaching experience has a job as a curriculum developer.  But the day-to-day work of my job won't be pacing around in an office, pulling great ideas from the aether; it'll be traveling around Los Angeles and beyond, meeting with successful STEM teachers and gathering good ideas and hard-earned wisdom.

-I don't want to glorify lack of experience, but there is something to be said for combining a fresh perspective with said good ideas and hard-earned wisdom.  The education gap continues to grow; we must be doing something wrong.  I think this "something" is mostly societal, but while wisdom increases with age, creativity dwindles; the trick in good curriculum development, I think, is finding a way to bring both perspectives together. 

Your thoughts, please.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Some Notes on Leaving Teach for America

Imagine you are in the market for a hammer (it doesn't really matter what it is; just go with it for the sake of the example).  You go to your local hardware store in search of one, and to your surprise, they're sold out.  You ask the clerk about it, and he tells you that he could place an order for one and get it in next week.  Then he pauses, deliberating.  "Or," he finally says, "you could go to the store down the street.  They have some in stock right now.  Cheaper than ours, even."

We've all had this experience, and it is, I submit, the Holy Grail of customer service: when a business actually refers you to a competitor.  Sure, the clerk loses a sale that day, but you can believe that you'll be going back to that hardware store, and recommending it to others.

It takes a certain confidence, a clarity of purpose, a commitment to something larger than personal success to do this, and whenever we are on the receiving end, it gives us a tremendous case of the warm fuzzies.

I have been on the receiving end of this in my exit from Teach For America, and it has deepened my conviction that, bureaucracy aside, there are people within the organization can genuinely put the interest of students above their own.

My Program Director [boss, basically] asked me, during our end-of-year meeting, why I was leaving; "most people who leave TFA are doing something else.  But you're staying in education.  Why?"

I told him the truth: if this were a breakup, my trite line of choice would be "it's not you, it's me."  I wasn't looking for another job -- I had no desire to leave TFA early -- but another offer found me.  I happened to get a job that required me to leave, but would provide me, I felt, the opportunity to do even more for students than I'm able to do currently.

The basic idea is this: I am working for a start-up school that will see its first class enter in Fall 2012.  I'll be running an after-school program as a recruitment tool, but the bulk of my time will be putting together the curriculum for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math department.  I'll travel around Los Angeles and beyond, meeting with science teachers and collecting great ideas; then, we'll put those ideas together in a school that will admit a mix of wealthy and poor students, with the former subsidizing the latter.

I have impact in my classroom, to be sure, but I also feel encumbered by the public school environment.  State standards determine what I have to teach, and in what depth, and I have no control over some policies that I think cripple students down the line (e.g. no due dates, no grades below 50%, no homework).  The best public schools get students into college, but can't keep them there, and this, I think, is the biggest issue the system has to contend with right now.

And, honestly, are we surprised?  I attended a high school with courses like Russian History and Modern Novel.  My students graduate without ever having chosen a class; without spending more than 40 minutes a day outside of direct supervision; without, in many cases, being able to formulate a grammatically correct English sentence.

While, obviously, an elite private school in Marin is an unfair benchmark, I believe that truly great education depends on academic freedom for teachers.  Freedom, is, after all, the ability to fail, so no doubt some teachers would use this freedom to play Angry Birds on their phones, but this is inevitable.  Most teachers get into this game because they really care, and the more autonomy they have in the classroom, the more ability they have to excite themselves about what they're teaching (and as we all know, genuine excitement is contagious and impossible to fake).

I do believe that, to some extent, this is the move in education.  One of the key policies in Finland's rise to the top of the world in education was their decision to, barring serious problems, close the classroom door and let teachers go wild.  It can happen here, too, and bringing this about will take dedicated, free-thinking educators; I have no doubt that many of those people are in TFA right now.  But my decision to leave was, ultimately, personal.  It's possible to educate with rigor in a public school, but I struggle with the benchmarks and standards (even though my scores, I think, were pretty good), the exactly-57-minutes-no-earlier-no-later I have to spend with my students every day, and so on.

So, having said all this, my Program Director said something amazing.  "I'm sad to see you go," he said, "and I don't want you too, but I understand why you're doing this.  Maybe someday you'll start your own public school -- I hope you will -- where you can do these things you're talking about."

I have griped about TFA at various points through my year of involvement with the program.  I have complained about what I see as excessive buy-in to standardized testing, and done my share of mockery of team-building exercises.

But ultimately what I see, and have seen throughout the year, is an organization that cares about the opinions of its members, and isn't afraid to be criticized.  Hell, TFA has been re-tweeting my posts practically since I started this thing.  I have seen that people in the organization have been discussing the same things that concern me since the biggest educational issue on my mind was which frat I wanted to join.  And I honestly think that, for many of the TFA staff, while recruitment and retention and numbers and so on are important, they are overshadowed by the needs of students.  It listens, and it adapts.  Today I had someone in the organization I had never spoken to before call me just, more or less, to tell me that the things I want to happen are already happening.

I am leaving TFA.  I'd stay in it if I could, but this is my chance to shape a school from its inception, to watch it grow and establish a culture that will last, I hope, far beyond my time there, and I just don't think I can have that type of impact in my current situation.

But I see TFA as a partner, and I hope they see me the same way.  I walked out of my meeting with my Program Director with serious warm fuzzies, the kind that come only from that particular willingness, in a professional relationship, to lay aside personal interest for a greater good.

As I got into my car after that final meeting, I thought to myself, for all my cynicism and complaining, that TFA is ultimately something positive.  It makes mistakes, but it listens, and tries hard to correct them.  I wouldn't trade this past year for anything.

Except a hoverboard.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Danke Schön

Thank you for all the joy and pain; though we go our separate ways...

TFA and I are breaking up.  It's not them, it's me.

I wasn't looking for another job offer, it found me.  But when it did, I realized something that had been in the back of my head all along: I don't really like being a public schoolteacher.

Perhaps readers of this blog have been aware of this, and are wondering what else is new.  But saying that I don't like being a teacher doesn't mean that I don't enjoy a lot of aspects of the job.

It's a breakup tinged with sadness.  I'm going to miss my students, and I'm not looking forward to announcing this news to them next week.

Nor do I regret joining TFA.  While I've griped some about the organization (mostly its lack of interest in standing up to the charter movement's over-emphasis on test scores), I would still recommend it to other people -- at least, to people who really want to be teachers.

The fact is -- and this is, of course, the criticism of TFA -- I never really wanted to be a teacher in the way most people define that word.  I wanted to try it.  I wanted to get kids excited about science.  Selfishly, I've discovered a tremendous amount about what makes me happy (and, more frequently, what doesn't) with respect to working life, and I feel a much clearer sense of purpose than I did before.  I still want to get kids excited about science, and I still plan to.  My new job will still take me into the classroom, albeit much less, but I'll have a lot more energy when I'm there.  More on that later.

I plan to repeat this post when I have more time to fill in the details and explain myself more fully.  For now, danke schön, TFA, and auf wiedersehen.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

An Eloquent, Well-Reasoned, Cooly Logical, Bitingly Witty Take on a Key Educational Issue

Dear Reader,

I hope that you've come to expect certain things from this blog.  An individual data point in the messy scatterplot of classroom experience.  A single hydrogen ion, so to speak, in the intimidating nebula of the education reform movement.  Just one extended metaphor in the bad love poem of Teach for America.

What I mean to say is that I try to personalize these impossibly large issues, and share my small, biased, flawed thoughts to serve as an impetus for identification with, and debate over, the experience of the teacher immersed in the world of TFA and education reform.  I try to provide intellectualism in the best sense of that word: depth without myopia; rigor without insertion of the proverbial head where the sun refuses to shine.  Also I include jokes and silly pictures.

Like this one.

But today, f*** that.  There are maggots... the staff bathroom.

For the past several months I have been watching the maggots go through their entire life cycle.  They hatched from some sort of egg-like thing, grew, molted, grew some more, and emerged as half-inch long, terrifyingly large flies.  Now, they flies have presumably reproduced and created more maggots.

The best part about being in the staff bathroom with the maggots is that the lights turn off if you don't move -- which is fairly normal for a bathroom -- but in this case, they turn off after two seconds, and the sensor has a rather stringent definition of "movement".  Suffice it to say that while peeing (or heaven forbid...), one has to sort of dance back and forth, or else you get left in the dark with wriggling monstrosities that drop from the ceiling and have literally hatched in front of my eyes.


That is all.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Meet My Students Part 2: The Grandmaster

I am no Fischer, Capablanca, nor Kasparov, but I consider myself a decent chess player.  I've read a book or two on tactics and endgames.  I know how the horsey and the pointy-headed guy move.

It's humbling to lose in chess to a student.  It's far more humbling, though, to lose consistently to your worst behavior problem.

Meet S -- real initial, if not real name (obviously).  One way to describe S is as a very spirited, outspoken young man.  Another way is that he can't keep his damn mouth shut.

S is a special education student even though he is undeniably brilliant because he has trouble regulating his behavior.  He can't stay in his seat half the time, and the other half he spends with his face on his desk in a sort of catatonic funk.  In his more lively moments, he is known for hurling aggressive comments at other students ("Come at me, fool!  Come at me right now!") that he considers to be gentle teasing, and other people consider to be mildly to severely annoying.  Personal space is alien to him -- he enjoys running up behind other male students and lifting them off their feet -- as is the concept that other people don't enjoy being called the n-word, even when it is ethnically inaccurate.  He was actually offended when I explained to him that he couldn't conduct a science project for my class on how "hardcore drinking" would affect his mood.

S is a tall, jovial 15-year-old.  He is an inexhaustible fount of smiles, jokes, and barbs; despite his off-color humor, he considers nearly everyone to be his friend, and will gladly hang out with nerds and jocks alike.  After school, he expends his pent-up kinesis in competitive soccer or online video games; while I haven't seen him play either, he is, apparently, a force to be reckoned with.  His life aspiration is to play professional soccer, then father enough sons with different women to create his own soccer team (and it's hard not to notice that -- with his towering height, slim build, and formerly shoulder-length hair [now a perfectly placed fauxhawk] -- he is the spitting image of a European soccer star).

Yet there are moments of insight, and even pathos, within S as well.  "Teachers don't like me," he proclaimed, somewhat unprovoked, one time.  Another, when I asked him why his test scores were so low despite the fact that he knows all the material, he responded that "with written answers, I just don't care.  Sometimes I write something, and I know it's wrong, but I already wrote it, and if it's right to me then, why change it?"

I initially wasn't sold on S -- in class, he can be a nightmare to try to manage (at least, he could at the beginning of the year), and while he considered himself to be a charming class clown, his unprovoked racial slurs often earned him a chorus of "Shut UP!"s from his classmates.  But then, I played him in chess.

Early this year, I had a chess club.  It went the way of the Dodo for scheduling reasons, but I'll never forget the first time I played against S.  He carefully removed a glass chessboard from his backpack and proceeded to demolish me.  Worst was that he actually explained to me, in advance, what he was going to do; I still couldn't stop him from doing it.  And rather than thinking in terms of single pieces, or tactical elements, like I did (and do), he saw the movement of the whole board.  "I'm going to have to strengthen my queenside," he would say nonchalantly, seeing my plan of attack five moves in advance.

Our record currently stands at 3-1-1 (advantage his, of course), and through these matches (and others left unfinished) I have gained a tremendous amount of respect for S.  He has become one of my favorite students, and, in his own baffling way, he has become quite friendly toward me.  He often drops in during my other classes to yell threatening comments at my students, and, as I practically chase him out the door, he'll look over his shoulder and cheerily belt out "Oh, Hi Mr. N!"  His performance in class has improved as well, and he rarely speaks out-of-turn; while most of the teachers at my school consider that tremendous progress, I'm saddened at by how far short of his potential he seems content to fall.

I honestly believe that S is one of the most (if not the most) brilliant students I have.  I have some highly impressive students (one worked through a college genetics textbook just for the hell of it, and got nearly every problem right); while S lacks the patience for these mental feats, he is able to absorb information immediately, and without really paying attention.

But he is passing by the seat of his athletic shorts, and, try as I might, I can't come up with a plan that works for him.  I've spoken with him one-on-one at length; I've met with his mother on multiple occasions; I've sat in on a meeting with his Special Ed teacher.  For a while, S would pay attention and do his work if I gave him the chance to be my teachers' assistant -- which meant that he got to come up to the board and review the practice problems with the class -- but he lost interest in that after a while.  Upon learning that he struggled with written tests, I developed an oral assessment scheme with him and his Special Ed teacher -- only to have him back out of the plan at the last minute.

Hence, the intriguing challenge of S; the tactical tango of thrusts and parries that feels so much like a chess game I can't seem to win.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Meet My Students Part 1: A Letter From the Past

At the end of TFA Institute, all of us budding teachers had to write a letter to ourselves.  The letter was to be a sympathy card; an expression of consolation from past self to future self, to help the latter get through the hard times that would surely be awaiting the former.

My letter included this excerpt:

"...remember... how you realized that what really makes you love this job isn't the abstract sense of good you get, or how "noble" everyone thinks you are, or even the fact that you get to talk about science every day.  It's that you get to make real connections with real people.  They are not "students" who you get to unload your love of science on, they are people with so much potential waiting to be unlocked.  Try to find it in everyone: remember ______, ________ and even _______ -- your proudest stories were just being able to talk to your students as people.  Telling ______ he was a natural leader.  Telling _______ you admired her courage to challenge you.  Telling ________ you'd make sure his mother knew what an amazing student he is.  Take the time to make those connections.  It's more important than anything you can teach them, and it will be what makes your years as a teacher really matter.  Stop being such a ****ing solopsist.  Reach out."

For all his cheesiness and sarcastic use of quotation marks, I think past me had (has?) a point.  So over the next few posts, I will be writing sketches of some of my favorite, most interesting, and most challenging students (or should it be "students," past self?  Touché).