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).

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Another Brick in the Wall Part 3: The Students Speak Up!

Forgive the lack of focus in this post -- I recently had an opportunity to converse with some of the older students at my school, and wanted to record the gist of this conversation.  They offered some interesting perspectives on the teaching profession, anxieties about college, and the argument I developed in my last two posts about freedom in high school.

            Yesterday I was covering for the 11th and 12th grade chemistry honors class and didn’t have a lesson plan.  Since many of the students were applying to college or had already been admitted, they began to ask me questions about my own experience; soon, the question of why I had become a teacher came up.
            I explained that I had abandoned being pre-med at the last minute, but had been tutoring and mentoring for many years and realized that I loved teaching and working with students.  I also talked about my life-long love of science and my desire to share it.
            One of my students responded like this: “I’m going to college, and since I haven’t grown up with money, I almost feel like I’d be wasting my degree if I didn’t do something that would make me really rich.”  It was interesting to hear this perspective; having grown up around a reasonable amount of money, I have always wanted to be comfortable, but being truly wealthy is never something I have given that much thought to.
            The conversation turned toward education and my views on it.  I articulated, more or less, the argument of my previous post; that students enter college un-accustomed to freedom and that it behooves us to expose them to it further.  The students provided interesting perspective on this.  Many thought that our students simply didn’t receive enough structure at home to make this work, an echo of the argument I hear from most teachers.  A few, however, agreed that raising the expectations would be a good idea, but that we would need to create a more “serious” atmosphere to make it work.
            Students felt that, although they benefit from it, our teachers “care too much,” meaning that they feel coddled.  They related stories of endless extensions, and our school’s new policy that 50% is the minimum score (which has been very controversial among teachers, but was intended to not make students fall so far behind that they stop trying).  Many of the students agreed that our students misbehaved because the teachers expected them to do so, but felt that additional freedom would fall flat if not coupled with raised academic expectations. 
I found it surprising that the students seemed to think that teacher investment, something so prized by the charter school movement, was actually leading to lowered expectations.  “It’s nice that teachers care, you know?” said one student, “But sometimes you just need to let us fail so we get the message.  In middle school, my teacher barely paid attention to us.  Some kids would go out in the hallway and push chairs around and he wouldn’t even care.  But I did care, so I had to learn.”
Of course, I believe in a middle ground; I think it’s possible for teachers to create an environment that is supportive and serious.  But these students made it clear that we had failed to do that up to now.
Finally, the conversation turned to race and culture.  My students were desperate to hear my own first impressions of the community – “It’s okay if you’re racist!” one said.  “We just want to know what other people think of us.”
I answered truthfully about some of my own biases: that entering a community with billboard ads in Spanish had been jarring for me, and made me question whether members of this community wanted to learn English; I also explained that, because I considered myself anti-racist but needed to explain low achievement in urban schools, I sometimes wondered whether parents pushed their children to succeed sufficiently (essentially the “culture of poverty” argument).  I made it clear that I didn’t believe this anymore, so it was amusing when one student said that he agreed about his parents being too lax; most, however, said that they felt their parents did care, but didn’t know exactly what to do (the position I currently take).
The students who had been admitted to college seemed genuinely terrified of the “culture shock” that awaited them by plunging into an all-white community, and wanted to know how they would be treated in college.  One girl, who had gone to an admitted student program, lamented that, although she had tried hard to distance herself from ghetto stereotypes, found her white peers calling on her to teach them the “Soulja Boy” dance and begging her to speak to them in Spanish – “I didn’t know what they wanted me to do!  Should I be more Mexican, or less Mexican?”  She said she felt dumb when she had to take out a dictionary just to understand words in the admissions director’s speech!
I’ve said it before -- while we focus on getting our kids into college, we are terrible at keeping them there.  I still believe that the experience of freedom can be shocking, but perhaps not as jarring as adjustment to college culture.  The student who I’ve quoted repeatedly in this post -- a very bright, talkative young woman – said she struggled to be herself around her peers and was embarrassed of her vocabulary – not just because she was worried others might think she were stupid, but because she wondered whether she might really be stupid.
I tried to allay her fears by telling her that, by getting into a top college, she had overcome tremendous odds.  Students from advantaged backgrounds are exactly that: their margin of error is so much wider.  If a student from a rich family has busy parents, they can expect to be picked up by a nanny; if a student from a poor family has busy parents, they are likely to end up out in the streets, getting into trouble.  If a student from a rich family is caught using drugs, they’ll attend expensive rehab; if a poor student does the same, they’ll be expelled or put into the criminal justice system.
While it sounds strange, I wonder if students would benefit from learning about the culture of typical colleges, in the same way that a person entering a study-abroad program is usually required to take a short course on the local customs.  The student highlighted in this post joked about reading Harry Potter in order to fit in; should schools take on the responsibility of teaching our students the things that rich, white kids learn at home, and from their peers?  

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Another Brick in the Wall Part 2: Recommended Reading

Thanks to the aforementioned preschool teacher; this article expresses the arguments against standards-based teaching far better than I could.

What it leaves out is how a similar, although arguably less heinous arms race, affects privileged students.  While poor students in particular are denied critical thinking skills, nearly all students these days seem to be lacking preparation for autonomy.  Is it any wonder mine is called the "boomerang generation"?

While I hate discussing the economy, the job market's general suckitude certainly plays a role in the post-college uncertainty so many of my peers seem to face.  Of my friends, those who have steady jobs are mostly enrolled in programs designed as a "next step" for competitive résumé-builders (e.g. consulting, masters' degrees, and, yes, TFA).  Are we trapped in the hamster wheel -- precluding ourselves from real self-discovery, risk-taking, and entrepreneurship -- or just savvier than those who came before?

Then again, am I committing the sin of claiming that certain phenomena are unique to my generation when they totally aren't (after all, isn't The Graduate about this same type of post-collegiate confusion?  Doesn't this blog provide an example of someone finding himself within the structured confines of TFA?).  Have I diagnosed the wrong cause entirely for my generation's ills?  Hell, are there no ills at all?

Your thoughts, please.

Another Brick in the Wall

            Reformers of a liberal bent sometimes refer to the “school-to-prison pipeline”; the idea that students are prepared for institutionalization during their education.  As Pink Floyd explained in their critique of the school system, more education doesn’t always lead to better life outcomes.  So is it true?

I see your point, Pink Floyd, but when I leave them alone they draw phalluses on the walls.

            On first look, my school does share some characteristics with a prison, especially compared to the high school I attended.  My high school (as in, the one where I was a student) had an open campus; nearly all of junior and senior year consisted of electives that sounded like college classes (e.g. “Virginia Woolf,” “Russian History”); the dress code didn’t explicitly mandate the wearing of shoes and pants; and I can’t remember a teacher ever using a consequence besides asking a chatty student to move seats, or, on the other end of the spectrum, expulsion (detention was never used). 
            My current school is almost the polar opposite.  Students are not allowed to come and go as they please, detention is meted out daily, a uniform is required, and students graduate without having chosen a single class for themselves (which makes the use of the word “electives” a bit puzzling).
            Worst is that the students make a strong case against being granted further freedom.  If you fail to confiscate a student’s Sharpie pen, he will most likely use it to write on your walls while your back is turned (or, once, right as I was looking at him.  I suspended the student, not out of spite exactly, more because come on, really?).  Once I decided to give my advisory students some free time by taking them to the basketball court and giving them sports equipment to play with; I turned my back on a group of them for five minutes and they kicked a hole through the side of a metal shed.  And every day, the students complain about being bored during the 30 minutes they have to relax during lunch – the longest unstructured block of time they have for the entire day.
            Teachers at my school complain about having to serve as stand-ins for parents (and given that many of them really are parents, this doesn’t sound like a glowing endorsement of reproduction).  Implicit in the daily lunchroom kvetching is this idea: structure at school makes up for a lack at home.  It’s not an indictment of poor students and poor families, but (and my own experience makes this idea tempting) rich kids can be let off campus without breaking windows and can be trusted to be released from the classroom early and not write their names on the furniture.
            You don’t need a book about tiger mothering to realize that most wealthy students receive more structure at home than poor students.  While I think that my own upbringing struck an appropriate balance between work and play, this seems to be a rarity in an age when “getting into a good college” has turned into “getting into a good kindergarten.”
Recently I spoke with a preschool teacher who caters primarily to the munchkins of the very wealthy.  I realized, in speaking to her, that contrary to my own experience, most wealthy youngsters seem to receive structure aplenty, but, in a different way than my students, very little experience of freedom.  The parents of underprivileged kids, contrary to popular myth, do believe in the importance of education; they just aren’t always sure of how exactly to get their kids into top colleges.  Most wealthy parents, it turns out, know this all too well; my friend in the Stanford admissions office informed me that she had to take a call from a mother who wanted to know what instrument her six-year-old son should learn in order to maximize his chance of being accepted – and this level of absurdity in parent questions is more the rule than the exception.
My students endure a strictly regimented day, only to be released at 4 PM to get into trouble in the streets.  Their more privileged counterparts may attend schools that respect their autonomy (may being the operative word), but then they attend an endless cavalcade of swim lessons, piano recitals, and other activities guaranteed to ensure their admission at a good kindergarten so they can get into a good grade school etc. etc. until they get into a good college and… then what?
High-performing schools for underprivileged kids are notoriously bad at keeping those kids in college.  Wealthy kids who attend the best private schools are struggling with mental illness at an alarming rate (and in my non-professional opinion, one not completely explained by better diagnosis) because, as it turns out, life isn’t a video game in which acceptance to an elite college is the final boss (as it were).*

An elite college.

Kids need structure; they crave it, and they respond well to it.  Kids also need experience confronting freedom and ambiguity, because these latter are what grown-up life is about, and confidence in the face of these great unknowns is something we should foster if we are serious about moving toward an economy of entrepreneurs and inventors.
My parents were not of the helicopter persuasion, and my schooling prepared me for autonomy and choice; still, I find the task of charting my course to be somewhat dizzying.  I can only imagine how much harder it must be for my own students -- and for all students.

*Forgive the rhetorical flourish.  In my still-non-professional opinion, this is just one of many factors contributing to mental illness.  Still, I can't help but believe that our educational system’s single-minded focus on college-going, and the poodle-like hoop-jumping that accompanies this, creates students that are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of peri- and post-college life.  My decision to do TFA, for example, was jarring partly because it was the first major decision I made that wasn’t ordained since my birth (i.e., the first decision that was typical rather than categorical.  “Which college should I go to?” is a very different question than “Of the many possible things I could do with my life now, which is the one most consistent with my goals?”).

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Cultural Differences

One belief I just don't share with my students.

Teach For America training heavily emphasizes the "diversity competencies," a set of skills designed to help corps members think pluralistically and demonstrate tolerance towards others, no matter what your students say.

A couple of conversations from my classroom yesterday:

Student A: Hey [Mr. N], did your parents ever put you on time out?
Mr. N: Yeah, sure.  Why?
SA: [giggling] Ohmygawd.  No way.  I was watching this show [something to do with nannies; couldn't quite catch it] with my mom, and she thought it was just so weird when they put the kids on time out!  I can't believe people really do that!
Mr. N: Why, what do your parents do?
SA: Hit me, duh!
Student B: Yeah, my parents hit me all the time!
Mr. N: Funny thing about white people, we're not so into the hitting.
SB: That's so weird!  So time-outs actually work?

Student C: Hey [Mr. N], did you ever play with a Ouija board?
Mr. N: Yeah, once or twice as a kid.
Student C: Do you believe in them?
Mr. N: I believe they exist.  I believe they can tell the future about as well as any two people's hands pushing against each other can tell the future.
Student C: Is that really all it is?
Student D: You shouldn't play with those!  The devil will get you!
Student C: Yeah I know.  My dad won't let me play with one because he did once, and then bad stuff started happening.

Turns out items sold at flea markets are to be avoided as well; they're often bewitched.

While new teachers often feel the urge to try to "blend in" in the community in which they serve, there's really no point; they can tell you are white/rich/educated/etc, and students can smell B.S. a mile away.  Mine have come to see me, I think, as a quaint kind of creature that uses overly formal speech patterns, can't pronounce local place names to save his life, and hasn't heard of anything cool; a visitor from another world (often erroneously assumed to be Texas or Europe, as any real Californian would have a Mexican accent).

Who can blame them?  The only white people from wealthy backgrounds they meet are other teachers -- we just seem like a foreign breed.

"So you're white -- just white?" one will ask from time to time.
"And your parents -- they had money?"
"And you went to college?"
"So... why are you here?"

Nothing ever seems to satisfy this last question -- maybe in part because my own answer changes from day to day.  But most days (the ones when I don't feel the overwhelming urge to correct every "can I go restroom?" I hear), I'm happy to have crash-landed on this strange planet.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sweet Freedom!


Today I announced to my class that it would be the last day of review of the entire year.  To be using the word "last" with respect to anything related to my first year of teaching sounds almost indescribably strange -- sometimes I found it difficult not to wonder if it would ever end.

The class erupted in a chorus of "ah-WOO! Ah-WOO!" a la 300.  For the past two weeks we have started every day with an inspirational movie scene (think the "protect your dream" speech in the Pursuit of Happyness, or the training montage from Rocky that led to my "other people think you're dumb" speech; none have caught on to the same extent as the Spartan battle chant).  Today's clip found Mel Gibson as William Wallace bellowing about freedom, and, folks, I can relate.

He's the easiest person to take seriously.

The California State Test -- the culmination of my year of teaching -- is on Monday.  After that, I get 5 glorious weeks of teaching whatever I want.  Free at last.

So, because my chief complaint about the biology standards is their unnecessary focus on minutiae, our final unit will be "The Biology of You."  Nutrition (since my students think that Hot Cheetos is a food group), sleep (because my students think that video games are an appropriate substitute), sex (because my students think that standing up is a form of contraception), and finally, bioethics and bioengineering (with a discussion of my favorite topic of all -- resurrection of the dinosaurs).  For their final project, students will have to perform a science project on themselves; e.g. "does caffeine help me do better in school?" or "will writing down all my negative thoughts make me feel better or worse?"  Oh, and thanks to the generous folks at DonorsChoose, we're going to dissect sheep brains.

I started teaching because I wanted to make science relevant to my students, and, as I reflected about in my post about standardized testing and data abuse, to show them that science is a process that anyone can practice, not a collection of vocabulary and facts.  That is nigh impossible in a standards-based classroom.  I also swore that I wouldn't neglect my top students, which is hard to do when a good teacher is defined as one who brings a "C" student up to a "B."

But for one glorious month, I can be exactly the teacher I want to be.  Ah-WOO!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

In Which Mr. N Realizes That, Much Like He Does, His Students Like Talking About Themselves

If you're a writing teacher, go buy your kids journals.  Don't waste any more time.

As I've mentioned in the past, I'm a reluctant writing teacher.  Biology is my forte, and while I enjoy writing, I haven't received any formal training past one required writing class in college.  Becoming a remedial writing teacher has been rough; in my third week of school, my assistant principal had to come co-teach the class with me until I got the students' behavior under control.  While I haven't had any riots lately (especially not since I became the advanced 9th grade writing teacher at the beginning of this semester), Writing Lab often feels like a distraction from what I really enjoy teaching.

My original conception for Advanced Writing Lab was a project-based class, in which students would propose a project (based on a teacher-given theme) every two weeks, execute it, and defend it against their proposal.  About half the class stunned me with their creativity and drive; for the "Mental Disorders" project, for example, students turned in projects ranging from a 10-minute film about a guilt-ridden soldier, a 9-page semi-fictional account of a man who leaves his fiancee during their Paris honeymoon to pursue the Eiffel Tower, and a comic book about an ADHD-afflicted superhero.  The other half of the class stunned me with their desire to slam their rolling chairs into one another at high speeds when I sat down to work with a student.

Suffice it to say that, while students initially reveled in the freedom of being able to follow their literary pursuits, not all students demonstrated the confidence, ability, or willingness to stay seated in order to pull it off.  Even among the upper-level writing students there is a huge range of abilities; many students struggled with basic grammar skills (which I am piss-poor at teaching) and couldn't comprehend my feedback about "tone" and "word choice," or my lessons about how to distinguish a reputable from a disreputable Internet source.  I don't know what to do with students who think that "mines" is a pronoun, or that the word "had" must precede every past-tense verb; this is to say, I may be a passable editor, but I am not a good English teacher.

So, this past weekend, I went to Staples and bought 26 spiral-bound notebooks, handed them to my students on Monday, and said "Write about what's on your mind.  At the end of the period, if you want me to read it, put it in this pile; if you don't want me to read it, put it in that pile."

And the words poured out, dear reader, like saliva from the mouth of a Labrador.  Suddenly students with whom I had exchanged the minimum number of words required for basic communication were telling me everything -- their relationship troubles, their Caufield-esque angst, their thoughts on what exactly should be done with haters (often, don't listen to them, or f*** them -- non-literally, I assume).

When I proposed this project to my administration (slightly after I actually started it -- shh), my assistant principal said he thought it was a fantastic idea, and asked what I hoped it would accomplish.  I answered that I hoped that it would trick them into taking pleasure from writing.

The brightest students at my school still struggle with subject-verb agreement.  This isn't because our English teachers aren't good enough; it's because they don't read.*  My students can get the right answers on a worksheet, but spectacularly wrong in an essay (a sign of their difficulty with generalizing knowledge, which is, I believe, an indicator that our standardized curricula are failing to teach kid to think; see here).  Writing can be workshopped; it can be developed; it can't, beyond the basic mechanics, be taught.

If I can trick my students into having fun in writing class, maybe I can trick them into visiting the library and bringing home a book.  And in the meantime, I have to get back to reading essays about haters (who still, after all these years, be hatin').

More on this, as it develops...

*It's also because housing segregation means that my students aren't even exposed to that much English on a daily basis outside of school.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Guest Post at "An Urban Teacher's Education"!

I recently wrote my very first guest post, featured at the awesome education blog An Urban Teacher's Education.  This post is in lieu of my usual Tuesday update.  Check out my essay on standardized testing and TFA's misuse of data.  While you're there, check out some of my favorite of Reflective Educator's posts, like this one on why inspirational teacher movies are misleading, and possibly damaging, to educators.

Again, here's the link.  Be warned: there are no pictures.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

To Teaching, With Love (Institutionalized Part 3)

Right idea, wrong subject.

           In my past two posts, I have done a considerable amount of complaining about TFA Institute.  I’ve saved the best for last.  I really did fall in love with the teaching profession during Institute, and I have spent much of my first year teaching trying to rediscover that love.
            As I discussed in my last post, the most infuriating aspect of Institute for me was how little actual teaching it entailed.  Most of Institute seems aimed squarely at convincing you how wonderful TFA is.  Many TFA-ers have the camp counselor personality type, born with a megaphone in hand and an inexplicable enthusiasm for whichever organization they are currently in.  I am deficient in team spirit; Institute drove me up the wall.

Does this look like fun to you?  If so, you will love Institute.

            In the second week, we began teaching.  While I still didn’t love Institute, suddenly the soggy sandwiches we ate for lunch tasted just a little bit more palatable.
            I remembered this feeling from my interview with the school that would eventually hire me.  I nailed the phone interview, and then the principal uttered a truly awful sentence – “So we really like you so far, so why don’t you come down here and teach a class, and then we can make our final decision?”
            Anxiety flooded my stomach, gnawing at my insides like a parasitic, carnivorous guinea pig (because, you know… they gnaw on stuff).  I had never taught a lesson before, and now I had to be in front of students for 60 terrible, terrible minutes!  I barely slept the night before, and throughout that morning my hands were trembling.
            I walked into the classroom; 20 students were watching me, and at least 5 teachers – oh god, experienced teachers, they’ll judge me, what if my fly is unzipped or something, but I can’t check it now, that’ll look weird – and I started to speak.  “Good morning class,” I said, with less shake in my voice than I expected, and less desire to bolt out of the room than I’d thought.
            Then, the strangest thing of all happened – I was enjoying myself.  The students were answering my questions, laughing at my jokes.  My lesson was on Phineas Gage and how brain damage teaches us about brain function, and when I had a student act out the part where the 3-meter rod blasted through Mr. Gage’s head, he hammed it up with gusto.  I finished early, and took my students on wild ride of scientific factoids, including the true story behind zombies. 

Who wouldn't want to be this guy?

When I read the feedback from students at the end of my interview, I saw the word “calm” over and over – the last thing I expected to hear.  It was a lie, though; I was better than calm.  I was exhilarated.
            At Institute, this feeling came back.  My nervousness melted away in front of my students.  I am myself to a fault in the classroom; I just can’t put on a stern disciplinarian face, and I still prefer to get students to listen by convincing them that we’re all in this together.  I gave (and give) cheesy speeches and celebrated correct answers with dorky chants like the “cheese grater” (“that was… grate grate grate!”, while miming the action of shaving a block of cheese).  Other Institute-ers voted me “teacher persona most similar to real persona,” a high honor in my view, and I earned my lead teacher’s respect by drawing a diagram of meiosis that involved a stick figure with an arrow pointing at the crotch (and for being able to do this without the room devolving into giggling).
            Unlike most TFA-ers, I loved teaching at Institute; no matter how I felt going into the classroom, I walked out with a grin.  That was one of the two things that helped me survive; the other was that my “CMA”, or mentor, shared my dry sense of humor, and didn’t mind classroom discussions involving crotch diagrams.
            I am in a strange position of having an approach that I feel is opposite both to most veteran teachers and to most young TFA-ers.  Unlike the vets, I don’t think that the teacher needs to yell much to be successful.  Admittedly, I am just not very good at discipline, and I have to work hard on being stern without coming across as pissy or agitated, but (and I may just be naïve) I still think that students need to feel like you believe in them, and that your love for your subject should be contagious. 
Unlike most TFA-ers, though, I don’t have that boundless, camp-counselor enthusiasm.  In a way, this is a good thing, because high school students respond to “realness” and sarcasm, at which I excel, and I still manage to project empathy enough to serve as a confidant.   On the other hand, it makes me more vulnerable to hopelessness; I have found my joie de l'enseignement sucked out by lesson planning, and management, and benchmark tests, and credentialing classes, and 14-year-old boys thinking they’re tough, and so on.
            I was a better teacher at Institute than I was for most of the year because I was clearly having fun.  Once I started the school year, having to teach 5 periods a day, one in a subject I felt completely unqualified for, sucked the joy out of my practice, and I didn’t have the disciplinary chops to hold things together.  Now, though, at the end of my first year, I feel like myself again in the classroom.  It’s a fragile happiness, maybe, but it’s nice all the same.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Institutionalized Part 2 -- The Bad

The second post in my series about TFA Institute (click here for the previous post); this one covers basically everything I didn't like.  The next will discuss the good parts.

Your sweet ride for 5 weeks.

            After one week of endless talks about professionalism and the glory of TFA (also known as ‘Induction’), Institute proper begins.  Institute, the dreaded TFA boot camp; the scant 5 weeks of teaching experience a TFA-er will boast at the beginning of his first year; the land of lesson plans and sleepless nights; light of my life, fire of my loins!
            My one disclaimer – Institute experiences can vary somewhat region-to-region.  For example, in Arizona, it is hot and there is no air conditioning, while in LA it was just hot; in the Mississippi Delta, one has to get up at 4 AM to drive an hour plus to school; and presumably, since in MI you are legally allowed to hit children, they cover corporal punishment techniques (which were left out in LA). 
Largely, though, the experience is the same: 5 weeks, 4 of them involve classroom teaching for about an hour per day; lots of lessons about pedagogy; frantic copy-machine-use at night; inedible dorm food.  Your days are spent at an assigned school, at a subject matter and grade level that roughly approximates your actual placement.  Luckily, mine was a perfect match, but this is no guarantee.
As mentioned above, the focus of Institute is on teaching, but it occupies the minority of your actual time.  You do not step into the classroom for the first week, and for the subsequent four, you teach for about an hour, then lead small-group tutoring for another 30 minutes.  The rest of the 7:30 AM – 5:00 PM day is consumed with classes.
There are lessons to be planned at night, of course, but I happen to be an extremely efficient worker; efficient to the point that I rarely had more than an hour or two of planning to do once back at the dorms, and often I finished on the bus ride home.
This is probably a good place to mention that I was uncommonly good at Institute.  I was heaped with praise by the various people overseeing me, and renowned for my ability to deliver lesson plans at warp speed.  Yet, I still felt lost and unprepared when I actually started teaching in the fall, probably because Institute does not resemble being a teacher so much as being a student.  Hell, you arrive to school in the morning on a yellow bus full of fellow TFA-ers in identifying badges, all with identical boxed lunches.  It’s pretty hard to feel like an authority figure when stepping off of a school bus while being serenaded with camp songs (I guess I didn’t mention the singing.  Just like the acronyms I mentioned in my last post, it’s more fun as a surprise).

Unfortunately, there are no silly vests... yet.

The vast majority of your day is spent being a student, as well.  The topics covered are what one would expect: discipline (now called classroom management), lesson planning, literacy, and so on.  What isn’t covered is just as revealing, however.  During Institute, you write daily lesson plans, but your topic is given to you, down to the exact item on a test your students should be able to answer by the end.  I didn’t learn how to plan a unit, or write a test, and while I felt well-prepared to be in the classroom at the start of my first year, my long term plans were, frankly, abysmal.
So Institute is student life, during the most stressful finals week[s] imaginable.  On stress: yes, the pace is pretty frantic, and yes, most people don’t sleep much.  My fellow journeymen-teachers looked frightful each morning, baggy-eyed and coffee-jittered, running on 3 hours of sleep.  I slept; or rather, I could have slept.  My efficiency allowed me to set 9:30 pm as my bedtime, but I laid awake for hours on my extra long bunk bed with lesson plans and to-do lists running through my mind.
I would have quit TFA shortly into Institute if not for two things: the kids, and my “boss.”  And for those, you must wait… until next time.  While this post has been dominated by kvetching, it’s not all bad.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Institutionalized Part 1

You don't actually have to do your prep-work.  There, I just saved you 30 hours!

            Given that Institute is fast approaching for many TFA newbies, I thought I would write a post reflecting on my own experiences there.  Bottom line – it is probably not as bad as you heard.   Addendum to bottom line – it comes pretty damn close.
            TFA Institute is notorious for its sleepless nights and general high level of stress.  Bloggers routinely post guides on how to “survive” it.  My aim is not to write a how-to guide here, but rather give you a reasonably accurate picture of what it is like.
            If you are anything like me, TFA Institute will be your first experience working in a corporate environment.  You will have to wait for the audiobook version of this blog to hear the utter loathing with which I put those two words together.  The first week of Institute, known as Induction, is a neverending cascade of discussions on “professionalism” and “core values” and misc. BS, in which you are expected to not space out and be a fully engaged participant.  Like much of TFA Institute, this is a good time to reflect on how not to teach.  Lesson 1: if both parties involved realize that a given class is irrelevant, there is no reason for either one to be there.
            This is where you will hone your aforementioned “60 Second Tale of Overcoming Discrimination” [or, more commonly, “60 Second Story”], so if you haven’t overcome any discrimination this might be a good time to find something to be oppressed by.  You will also learn many wonderful TFA acronyms; I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but if you hear the term “Wid-Wat-Double-U” [a.k.a. WIDTWW, “what is due to whom, when”], the Standard English translation is “syllabus.”
My CMA didn't like the INM or the GP in tomorrow's LP on the WIDTWW! FML.

            You will also become familiar, at this time, with the degree of overscheduling and mindless self-promotion that Institute is all about.  If you are of the camp-counselor bent and find organized getting-to-know–you games fun, you are in for a great time.  You will probably hear from TFA founder Wendy Kopp, whom everyone else will discuss in hushed, reverent tones.  You will also be treated to statistics-free, doublespeak-heavy “lectures” on why the TFA method works; apparently, you just have to take their word for it.  Typical statement [from a diversity talk]: “We have found that, although in some cases students do learn better from teachers who share their racial/ethnic background, your own background will never get in the way of being an effective educator.”
            You will also get to know your roommate[s].  Since many TFA people are relocating across the country, Induction is a pseudo-collegiate experience; one gets the sense that this is what college must be like for people who join too many clubs.  One of my roommates played religious songs on the guitar and used “Hey bro, how many hours of sleep do you get a night?” as a regular small-talk query; the other showed me pictures of strippers on his cell phone and explained how he was going to “f*** the gay out" of the new car that he purchased from a same-sex couple.
            Incidentally, all of the TFA employees who staff Induction are physically perfect white or half-asian women.  Don't inquire about this at the diversity sessions.
            That is week one.  Next, Institute proper begins, and you step into the classroom for the first time.  Believe it or not, that’s the easy part.  At the risk of sounding saccharine, if it wasn’t for the kids, I’d have quit TFA by week two (and honestly, I came very close).  But your eyes are straining, and I have to get back to playing Wii (spring break is rough), so you will just have to wait… until next time.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Greasers: alive and well

            One of the most striking differences between the high school where I currently teach and the one I attended (besides the fact that everyone at my school was white, we were rolling in money, and the students actually had some amount of freedom) is the subcultures.  The groups of kids at the school where I teach are all but unrecognizable to me.
            At my old high school, there were two main brands of cool kids: the athletes, and the music kids.  The athletic presence at our school was toned down due to the lack of a football team, and it was the soccer boys who dominated that scene.  The other, broader category of cool kids, which I reluctantly call the “music kids” for lack of a better name, encompassed a wide breadth of northern California hipsters: the folk musicians in tweed coats and unkempt hair, the skinny boys in neon hoodies, the stoners, and so on.  This is the scene in which I was incubated, and this is the power structure that makes sense to me.

The cool kids

            When I first stepped into a Los Angeles classroom this past summer, during my TFA training program, I was immediately struck by the continued vitality of archetypes I assumed were long dead.  Metalheads still exist, apparently, as do Greasers – just 25 and 50 years past their prime, respectively – and all of them are Latino.  It’s shocking enough to suddenly be the only white person in the room, but I knew to expect that.  The massive popularity of swing music and Led Zepplin?  Nobody warned me about that one.
            There is one subculture, though, that’s instantly recognizable.  The shaggy hair, the too-thick glasses, the wisps of mustache – this was familiar territory.  Watching the gaggle of young folks at my school exchange hugs and talk endlessly about Xbox games fills me with nostalgia for my own not-so-distant high school days – Magic cards, girl gossip, hell, I even built an analog calculator with my best friend for a school project.

There are 10 kinds of people in the world: people who understand bina-- nah, I can't do it.

            In my adult life, I have taken on what I like to see as an avuncular role for these students.  On Friday afternoons, my classroom turns into geek central; a Wii is connected to my interactive whiteboard, games are played, and girls are scarce (although not, it must be noted, nonexistent; last week a few brave lady-souls showed up to ask if they could look at things through my microscope set).   For a magical hour, I am transported back to my youth -- all 5 years ago.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Teach the Controversy Part 2 -- "Not how it looks on Teen Mom"

This week and the next, Mr. N is highlighting his experiences with religion and sexuality in the classroom.  Check out the previous post.

Once, during an ecology lesson, I asked students to brainstorm factors that limit the size of the human population.  I was expecting to hear answers like food, water, shelter, disease, but no: by far the most common answer was “abortion”. 
While I try to avoid the issue as much as possible, a student forced it on me the other day by inquiring about stem cell research.  Another student asked when a fetus’ heart begins to beat, and she was indignant when I didn’t know the answer – “Aren’t you a biology teacher?”  My response – that I didn’t bother learning it because it’s a completely irrelevant factoid – had the good sense to stay in my brain.  The moment then became completely surreal as another student began chanting “a person’s a person, no matter how small!” over and over again.
I have my own opinion on abortion, which I’m sure is clear to the reader at this point, but I don’t feel the need to push it on my students.  There is one attitude about reproduction that I am completely intent on changing, however. 
In my students’ community, teen pregnancy is often not seen as an unfortunate mishap, but rather a cause for celebration.  Both girls and boys see childbearing as a sign of maturity and a way to attract attention, and since care is often a generation removed (as in, babies are raised by grandparents), the costs are diminished as well – except the opportunity cost of a lost career.  It’s a little worrisome to hear a 14-year-old boy in my class joke that he wants to have eight kids – “enough for my own soccer team” – when seniors are dropping out because of unplanned pregnancies.
When I taught my week of sex ed in biology, I made sure to include a completely unglamorous video of natural childbirth in which the wrinkled, blue-tinted baby emerged in a flood of screams and amniotic fluid.  Students covered their eyes in horror, especially the girls.  When one blurted out “Damn!  That’s not how it looks on Teen Mom!” I smiled to myself with the satisfaction of a job well done.