Tying Up Loose Ends (and other weird things)

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 Everything I’m doing right now feels so weird. I’m packing up all of my things, and it’s such an odd feeling to look around and watch the room — my room — become more and more empty. I’m rolling up all of my clothes, hoping that everything will fit into the two suitcases I brought with me, and every second I think more seriously about where I will be and what I’ll be doing just 24 hours from now. I’ll be setting up my stuff back in Boston, eating food that I’ve prepared for myself, rather than the delicious Mexican cuisine that Lino and Amy have been making me for the past month. I’ll be sleeping in a real bed, rather than a mattress on the ground (which will be a plus), but I’ll also be surrounded with completely different people. 

Saying goodbye to all of the TFA teachers tonight was one of the weirdest things I’ve done in my life. Every time I’ve said goodbye to someone in the past, it’s been less of a goodbye-for-real and more of a I’ll-see-you-again-in-5-months-or-so type of thing. This time, it was I’ve-only-known-you-for-a-month-but-I’m-leaving-tomorrow-and-probably-never-coming-back-ever-so-this-is-goodbye-for-real. And damn, it was a weird feeling. I also said goodbye to all of Kori’s students, and that was really weird too. One student, who was supposed to be absent because she had a basketball game, stopped by with a teddy bear and a note – probably the nicest note I’ve ever received – to say goodbye. I also got to give my “Who is Miss O” presentation to the third period class, which I was supposed to do weeks ago but we never seemed to have time. 

This week was about tying up all of the loose ends of my amazing journey here at Gadsden, which included a couple of things. Firstly, Shilpa and I stopped by the front office to purchase ourselves some Gadsden apparel, and I ended up with a nice black “Panther Pride” t-shirt. I stopped by Mr. Franzak’s room to give him the URL to a website I had promised to share with a few of his students, and summed up my visit to him (his choice adjective was “interesting” and I completely agreed). I spent a good portion of my time distributing flyers for AP Bio and encouraging students to sign up for the class. I made a huge chalk drawing as well- one that (hopefully) every student saw as he or she sauntered from his or her last class of the day to the parking lot a couple days ago. I danced for first period, and I danced for the TFA teachers tonight, and dancing reminded me of all of the cool things I get to go back to in Boston. 

I’m definitely going to miss the TFA family I’ve met and become a part of over the past month, but hey, I’ll be honest, I can’t wait to get back to Boston to take more dance classes, more chemical engineering classes, and to be reunited with all of my friends from school. However, this semester is going to be different. This month has provided me with an incredible experience that has taught me a lot about education and even more about myself. I feel like I have a stronger grasp at the idea of what I might want to do when I graduate, and I can finally feel myself taking seriously the advice I’ve gotten from one of my most influential role models at MIT- that coursework is not nearly as important as the other aspects of an MIT education. And this semester I’m going to try to focus on prioritizing based not on my GPA, but on my passions. 

Today I had a conversation with one of Kori’s students who frequently has trouble focusing in her class, but is really smart. While other students were working on plugging in values to the age-old equation d=rt, I was helping this student learn how to do dimensional analysis to change units. It was the first time that I had really been able to connect with him, but more importantly, it was the first time I had ever seen him take a classwork assignment seriously. He usually does the work really quickly, turns it in, and goofs off for the rest of the class period, but today when I left him to work independently, he was focusing – pencil to paper- on his velocity and distance worksheet. I told him at the end of class how much I appreciated his hard work and how I want him to continue to work hard throughout high school. I don’t know if I was able, in those couple minutes of serious conversation, to thoroughly convince him that college is a really good option for him, but even if I gave him some tiny inkling of a feeling that continuing his education after high school is a good idea, that means I’ve made a difference. I’ve made a difference in someone’s life. How weird is that? 

Desert Pride

Today Shilpa and I spent the day at Desert Pride Academy, the alternative education school in Anthony, New Mexico. The school is where all of the other schools in the district send all of the students that they don’t feel like dealing with. Those who have failed numerous classes and need to recover credits, those who have gotten into trouble because of drug use or violence in school, teenage mothers, and students who just aren’t getting what they need out of traditional high schools all make up the student body of Desert Pride. Because of this, I thought that the students would be unruly, rude, and unfocused.

The first class I attended showed me how wrong I was. The students were all quiet when asked to be, did their work, and were genuinely respectful. I saw a student who had been in Kori’s class a couple of weeks ago before he transfered schools, and he seemed to be much happier at Desert Pride. I’m still not sure if it’s because this school is the last chance some students have to get an education and they realize this, or if it’s because of the small class sizes and individualized attention, but something about this school seems to be helping kids to turn their lives to a better direction.

One such force could be art class. Shilpa and I had the privilege of visiting the art teacher at Desert Pride for one 45-minute class period. We had heard a bit about this teacher and how success seemed to follow him. Every school that he taught at won art competition after art competition, and after teaching at Desert Pride for only one semester, the students had already won state recognition.

Shilpa and I walked into the classroom and were astonished at the incredible artwork we saw. And, as promised, here are some pictures of it.

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Amazing, right? What astonished me even more than the fact that none of these young artists had had any more than a semester’s worth of training was the fact that the art teacher did all of this with hardly any resources.

This teacher does not receive any funding from the state or the school, so he has to be incredibly resourceful. He buys drawing pencils second-hand and asks for left-over paper and card stock from other art teachers he knows who are retiring. Cardboard comes from Little Caesar’s hot-and-ready pizza boxes, and paints, which he stores in plastic water bottles, are donated or bought from fellow art teachers. Additionally, there is no art classroom at this school. During the first semester, the art teacher would gather all of his materials and move from room to room, teaching in a different classroom for each of the ten periods during the school day. This semester he shares a classroom with another teacher. When all of the students are present in both of their classes, there aren’t enough seats for all of the students, and sometimes it’s difficult because two classes are being taught in one room. All of these setbacks seems pretty daunting, but this teacher still manages to get amazing results from his students. It just goes to show that even when money is scarce, teachers can still be amazing, inspirational, and effective if they are creative and resourceful enough.

Popping

Today Kori and I spent second period (her planning time) and lunch  pretty much the same way we always do. We talked about my project and the next steps I should take, discussed plans for the rest of the day in terms of teaching (ie making copies, printing things out, etc), and we made our daily visit to the front office. Recently, a few of Kori’s students have been sent to intervention, the in-school detention, so we headed over there to drop off work for these students to do.

As we trekked over to the intervention building, Kori and I passed countless students enjoying the amazing weather on their lunch-breaks. Lunch at Gadsden is a lot different than lunch at Saline High, where I went. Compared to Saline students who are forced to eat in the cafeteria and are not allowed to roam the hallways or leave the school, Gadsden students have an incredible amount of freedom. Lunchtime is their 45 minutes to do whatever they choose. We saw students eating McDonalds, milling around outside, and hanging out at the cafeteria.

Kori and I heard music as we got a little closer to the intervention building, and as we approached we found two of her students hanging out, practicing popping, a style of dance in which one contracts his muscles really quickly to make it look like his body is literally popping. We stopped for a bit and asked the two boys to give us a demonstration, and they obliged happily. Popping is a style of dance I’ve been trying to learn for awhile now, and it’s not easy, but these two boys made it look simple.

We went on our way, delivered the notes to the student in intervention, and on our way back we saw the two boys again. This time, one was dancing while the other one was critiquing and giving tips.

It’s amazing that in this school where many of the students use their lunch-breaks to sneak into pecan groves and smoke marijuana, there are a few students who use their time to learn something as cool as popping. As a dancer, maybe I’m biased, but I’m so happy that 1) these students have time to just chill outside and 2) that they’re using their time to do something constructive. Sometimes it gets a little depressing to deal with students who seem like they don’t care at all about school or grades, don’t study, and don’t do homework. But kids like these two can really brighten up a dull day.

Support

Kori walks in, and I follow behind her as we enter and find our seats. Yesterday the room was warm, but today as we walk in, I zip up my coat. Yesterday’s faces were smiling, inviting, and I got a hug from just about every person. Today I recognize a few faces, but most people keep to themselves, and I learn the names of only those sitting immediately next to me. The meeting begins, and papers are handed out. Yesterday it was a list of questions, while today it’s a mustard-colored file folder with a lot of papers inside.

In two days, I’ve attended two professional development meetings: one for TFA, and one for Gadsden High School,  where I’m interning this month. These two meetings showed me the importance of constant support in a teacher’s life. The first meeting I attended was a PLC meeting through TFA, which stands for Professional Learning Community. TFA teachers are grouped according to their teaching styles and placed in groups of five or six to work together toward becoming better teachers. At the PLC meeting, everyone was given a sheet of paper and asked to answer questions regarding the relationships they have made in the past. Relationships with mentors, mentees, and current students were all discussed. We began our sharing session by setting some standards: remember that this is a Judgement free zone, and always assume positive intent. Even though I had just met almost everyone there, I felt comfortable sharing my experiences right away. The focus of the meeting was on building relationships with students, and there was a clear focus on student well-being and success.

Today, I made my appearance at Gadsden High School’s professional development meeting, and it could not have been more different from the PLC meeting I attended the day before. The focus of the meeting was on ICAT: Individual Career Advising Team. The purpose of ICAT is for teachers to advise a group of about fifteen students, to help them sign up for the right classes and plan for their future. The feel of the meeting was completely different from the one I had been to the day before. While attendees of the PLC meeting were quiet and respectful, this meeting was quite the opposite. Some teachers used the hour-and-a-half  meeting as a chance to catch up with their friends, and would tune into the meeting just long enough to ask questions that had been answered only moments before. I looked around to see other teachers shaking their heads when these questions came up. One teacher, sitting across from me, muttered, “This is the reason our school is failing.” A large portion of the meeting was spent deciding whether or not there was a typo on one of the papers that had been handed out, and discussing which sentences to highlight on which pieces of paper. I heard stories about teacher’s tennis games, and how apparently the future in education is to force students to choose a vocational career pathway in eighth grade and not let them change without explicit permission of the principal. The state standards for graduation had recently changed, and this meeting was supposed to address those changes so that teachers would be well-informed when advising their students. However, Kori and I left the meeting just about as confused as when we went in. Even though the focus of the meeting was on helping students plan for their future, interaction with the students was not addressed aside from an explanation of how to deal with students who wanted to change their career pathway. Suggested things to say included, “That’s too bad that you want to change. Here’s a box of kleenex to wipe your tears.”

Aside from the youth and freshness that TFA teachers tend to have that many other teachers lack, TFA teachers have something else that gives them a leg up from non-TFA teachers, and that is the extensive support they receive. TFA teachers live together, drive to school together, and even hang out on the weekends together. They talk about school, their ideas, and the successes and failures of their students together. A corp of leaders and thinkers, these teachers are constantly trading ideas with their colleagues and striving to help their students become lifelong learners. Every day they are re-inspired to bring out the best in their students, to make the biggest difference they can in the lives of their students. In the PLC meeting, we were asked to think of a current student, and to picture him or her in ten years, given the path he or she is currently headed down. After, we were asked to re-imagine the student in ten years on the path we would like to set him or her on. Imagine the impact teachers could have if every one of them was reminded, even once a week, of the difference they could make their students’ lives. Imagine how much happier they would be and how much better teachers they would be if they could just remember why it was that they decided to become teachers in the first place.

Some Classrooms Can’t be Flipped

Frustration. That’s what I’m feeling today. I’ve been getting that feeling where I just want to kind of melt on the floor and lay there for awhile, banging my head. It’s the way I feel when I’ve been working on a problem set for 10 hours straight, or when my code doesn’t run. However, my chemical engineering homework is not the source of my frustration today. Instead, it’s the College Board.

My project this January is to set up the framework for an Advanced Placement Biology class that my host teacher, Kori, will teach next year. The current AP Bio teacher at my Kori’s school is retiring, and the curriculum requirements for the class are drastically changing between this year and next. It’s the perfect opportunity to get a fresh start on the class.

Many of the Advanced Placement teachers at Gadsden High are feeling pretty jaded. Their students enter AP classes ill-prepared, and they don’t do homework or study. There are not enough textbooks for students to have their own copy, and as a result few teachers assign any homework at all. The AP Bio class has gotten to the point where the teacher sends home disclaimers to parents, telling them that although their child has signed up for a college level class, the truth is that most students will not earn college credit. In fact, most students enrolled in the AP Biology class don’t even end up taking the test, and the current teacher could not even remember the last time a student passed the exam. It seems like a lot of people have given up hope.

So anyway, back to the College Board, and why I’m not currently happy with them. I have delved into their website in order to learn as much as possible about the new AP Bio curriculum requirements, and to find suggestions on activities to do for the class. When looking through some sample planning and pacing guides, I began to get a little annoyed. I kept seeing the words “flipped classroom.” What this means is that students will watch some sort of video lecture at home and then work on problems during class time, when the teacher is there to help. The only problem with a flipped classroom is that it generally requires each student to have a computer and internet access at home, which is definitely not the case for most of the students in the class.

After dealing with “flipped classroom” after “flipped classroom,” I decided it would be a nice change in scenery to start looking at the lab component requirements of the class. I knew that for each of the four “Big Ideas” in AP Biology, two labs are required. I began looking through the lab manual to explore the type of labs expected. Out of the three options for Big Idea 1, two required computers, which are a tough resource to come by at Gadsden High (there are six computer labs, meaning only six classes including computer classes can use computers at a time). I continued looking, and expensive lab after expensive lab just kept popping up. Gel electrophoresis, E.Coli cultures, and spectrophotometers were all required. Heck, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they required a Q-PCR machine.

I realized that this kind of frustration must be what teachers experience a lot. They can be awesome at their job, but still not be able to teach students effectively because they do not have the resources. After talking to Kori about it, I found that it takes a lot of creativity to overcome these barriers. For example, another Teach For America teacher in the area is attempting to flip his sixth grade science classroom. He realizes that many students will not have access to a computer, but thinks that most will at the very least have a DVD player, so he is going to copy video lectures onto DVDs to have students watch at home. I think it must be pretty difficult for teachers to remain optimistic when facing these challenges, but if they don’t, it will be even more difficult for students to succeed.

Well, Here I Am

Yep, here I am. Sitting in what will be my bedroom for the next month. As I look around, I remember how lucky I am. Most four-weeks kids sleep on a couch for the duration of their stay, and here I am, living like a queen in my very own room, chilling out on the rather colorful blanket my host has provided for me. The empty white walls make me miss my bedroom walls at home, which are covered in art projects and paper plate awards and homemade murals. Perhaps I’ll fill these walls with receipts, or graded papers, or sticky notes. Buying tape will be my first order of business.

The video I posted below is one that was sent to me a few days ago by Joshua, one of the TFA representatives at MIT, with the note, “Some inspiration for you.” And inspiration it was. In the week between now and receiving that email, I have viewed it at least ten times and can now recite most of it from memory. I have shown it to just about everyone who has passed by (no seriously, ask any one of my friends). Most of them had the same response I did (well okay, I don’t know if they also got goosebumps and the  sudden urge to cry when Taylor removed the mic from the stand, but they certainly felt something). We would watch the video, and a nice thoughtful silence would ensue, or we would do some sort of “ooh” and “ah” about what it meant to really “make a Goddamn difference” as we compared the purpose of our lives to that of this man. For some reason, all of the sleeping, eating, and watching Spongebob I had been doing for the past two weeks just didn’t seem to make the cut.

Out of everyone who I coerced into watching the video with me, only one person had a response that was different from mine. Now don’t get me wrong, I love my mother a lot and agree with her about a lot of things, but just when I think I understand the way she thinks, she surprises me. Well, I had recently relocated to my parents bedroom for a change of scenery in viewing what had so quickly become my new favorite source of entertainment, and just as I was about to hit play, my mom walked into the room. I forced her to join me on the bed and watch the video, promising that she would like it.

Well, she didn’t.

As soon as it was over, I looked over at her, eyes still glazed and grin still on my mouth. “That’s just dumb,” were the first words out of her mouth. The grin disappeared. What? Dumb? Excuse me? I listened closely as my very first educator educated me.

“Everyone in education is always complaining that there’s no money for this and there’s no money for that. They’re always just complaining! Some teachers don’t get paid enough, but some don’t deserve even half of what they’re making!!”  – and that was just the beginning. However, the content of my mother’s rant is not my intended focus for this post. What I do want to focus on is the realization I made after overcoming the initial shock I felt from her response.

This is what I realized. Both of our responses are right. I am in awe of the amazing things that great teachers do. She is aware of some of the biggest problems that exist in education right now. But there is something else that the two of us also have in common, and that is that we are both not schoolteachers. We can learn as much as we want about education and the achievement gap and the local school board’s budget problems. We can research drop out rates and the neuroscience of learning until the cows come home. But the truth is that we do not know how it feels to be a teacher because we are not teachers.

This is why I am here. Sitting in this room. Writing this blog post. Daydreaming about how I am going to decorate my walls. I am here because I need to be here in order to understand what it means to be a teacher. Because I realize that change can’t happen until you understand exactly what needs to change. Because I want to, in the words of Taylor Mali, “make a Goddamn difference.”

And now I’m asking, using the words of this poetic genius again,

“Now, what about you?”