Leaving Institute

Well, I warned you.  It’s been forever since my last blog post, and who’s really surprised?  Not that I command a great following, but I apologize for the delay in posts.  Just to reiterate, though, this is very typical with me and journaling.  So…yes.  Do with that what you will.

Anyways, Institute has now officially ended and I’ve moved into my new apartment in Las Vegas!  Woot!  Having a week of unstructured days where my only tasks are to buy homey stuff, set up said stuff, and investigate the local coffee shops (an act I am currently accomplishing at The Beat) feels extremely bizarre after the intensely structured five weeks I just experienced.  I’m trying not to get too used to it, given that next week begins more training with TFA, the following week is training with CCSD (Clark County School District for all of you not in Vegas), and then school actually begins.  This really is crazy.

I have to say, as stressful as Institute could be at times, I really did love it, and not just because I lived five minutes from the beach.  I learned so much in those five weeks, thanks to my amazing CMA (Corps Member Advisor- I’ve become one of those people who just throws out acronyms.  Oops.) and fellow TFAers.  I loved teaching content that I felt passionate about, and I loved hearing about my students’ lives.  One did legit magic tricks, another danced, yet another took a weekend trip to Mexico City to audition for a professional soccer scholarship.  I fully expect all of them to be very successful adults, and when that happens I plan to cash in on autographs and brag about those five weeks when I was privileged enough to teach them.

Obviously, this is not to say that Institute was void of challenges.  There were days when I was convinced that I didn’t communicate a single thing to my students, and days when I was convinced my students had no desire to hear what I had to say, regardless of how much or how differently I tried to communicate.  I frequently doubted my ability to have a lasting impact, especially given the short amount of time I had with these kids.  

Perhaps the most challenging moment came when we received the post Institute assessment scores, scores that would show if our students had met their individualized academic growth goals for the summer or not.  Given how they had been performing in class discussions and on daily assessments, I was very confident that our students would not only meet their growth goals, they would blow them out of the water.  With each test that I scored, however, I became increasingly frustrated, increasingly despondent.  Where was the evidence of the reading comprehension we had been pushing towards?  The inclusion of textual evidence in essay responses?  The explanation of that evidence?  The strong and clear claim statements?  At first it was easier to point the finger at the individual student: “Well, she’s been struggling with this the whole summer, so I can’t expect her to suddenly accomplish it during this test.”  Then I began to blame the test: “They included an excerpt from Heart of Darkness on a test for 9th graders?  Seriously?  I didn’t read this until my senior year of college!”  Neither of these points of blame could fully explain the low test scores, however.  Because, in the end, I was the one responsible for making sure that each student could perform well on this test.  If I knew a student consistently struggled with writing a strong claim statement, then it was my job to put extra effort into helping her.  If I knew that a text as difficult as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was going to come up on this final test- and I did- then I should have prepared them to recognize symbolism and imagery in similarly difficult texts.  It’s much, much easier to blame the students or the test, but I think it’s much more productive to understand my role in the results and what I could, and should, have done differently to change them.  I suppose this means that I’m beginning to get behind all of the reflection TFA schedules in, because as annoying and redundant as it can seem, it also means that I’ll be able to learn from my mistakes and hopefully correct them so that in the future I can achieve the passionate, community driven classroom I’m striving for.

So, there you have it: my Institute experience in a nutshell.  Frustrating, encouraging, bewildering, constructive, inspirational.  I’d like to finish out this entry with some memorable quotes from my students:

Mario: “Miss, wouldn’t it be cool if they made a movie about a war between the pioneers and the Spanish Armada?”

[after Karim announces that he got second place in the school talent show for his magic tricks]
Armando: “Yeah, I got first place.”
Me [knowing that he hadn’t actually entered]:  “Oh, really.  What did you do?”
Armando [without a pause]: “I cut myself in half.”

Me: “I like that you’re making a chip sandwich, Kevin.  That’s one of my favorite things.”
Kevin: “Miss, this is a Lays sandwich.  Call it by its proper name.”

Mario [after reading an article about ancient cave paintings in Spain]: “Shakespeare should have been a cave painter.  We would know so much more about him.”

Me: “Any big plans for this weekend, Armando?”
Armando: “No, not really.  I’m just going to Mexico City on Saturday to try out for a soccer scholarship.”
Me: “…I think your definition of ‘big plans’ and mine are very different.”

This was my class!

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TFA: Institute!

I’ll be honest.  I’m currently writing this blog because I need an excuse to procrastinate on lesson plans.  I’ve also never kept a blog, but I feel like this might be good for me.  However, be warned that this might go the way of all my journals: begun enthusiastically and then slowly pushed to the wayside as I think of more “important” things to do with my time.  I’m going to try, though.  Really, I am.

Teach for America is all about reflection.  I’m pretty sure I’ve reflected more on discussions and classroom lessons in the past few weeks than I have in the past four years of college.  I’ve “think-pair-shared” and independently and group reflected until I’ve felt like I have nothing left to give.  So, naturally, I’m writing a blog where I can reflect on my first year as a Teach for America corps member.  Makes sense.

It’s hard to believe I’ve already completed my first week of teaching.  (I almost had a typo with “year” instead of “week”.  Maybe that says something about how time goes by at institute.)  It was challenging, inspiring, shocking, and exhilarating.  My students are, beyond any shadow of a doubt, incredible.  I’m in awe of their insights into texts, their willingness to work diligently despite it being a beautiful summer, their camaraderie with each other and myself.  They already seem to trust me, and I’m not sure if I’ve done anything to deserve that, but I feel honored nonetheless.

Still, it’s impossible to miss that ever-looming achievement gap that we here at TFA talk so much about and dedicate our time to, one day, solving.  Most of my students have difficulty writing a complete sentence; others’ grammar is so jumbled that it’s difficult to decipher what they’re trying to say; still others already feel so behind that they’ve given up trying.  I gave them a long, extremely difficult assessment last week to measure their reading and writing level.  It had questions on an excerpt from Heart of Darkness, a text I didn’t read until second semester senior year of college.  These students are ninth graders.  I could see them growing increasingly frustrated as they tried to answer the questions, many eventually writing down cursory responses and then gazing distractedly around the room for the remainder of the time.  Even as I tried to engage them with the test, telling them how important it is that we know where they are academically so we can set proper goals for them this summer, I could see them thinking, “Why?  What’s the point?  I can’t win at this test.”

One of my favorite students, Mario, asked me on the first day of class if I thought he was a distraction.  It broke my heart to  know that he must have heard this frequently from teachers in the past, that he was so concerned about being a “problem kid”.  I told him no, of course not.  In fact, he had some of the most insightful comments in class that day.

He said, “If you were my teacher last year, maybe I would have passed.  Maybe I would like English.”

I’m so humbled by these kids’ trust.  I am by no means a great teacher yet.  I have so much still to learn.  But their confidence in me makes me want to work all the harder.  If they’re willing to try, even after all the messages of failure they’ve received over the years, messages that I see when they hesitate to offer their opinion or get stuck on an assessment, I am more than willing to give them my hardest work despite exhaustion and busyness and all of the other stuff I’m trying to wrap my head around.  These kids have already stolen my heart, and it’s only week two.  What an honor, what a joy to work with such incredible people!