Saturday, June 23, 2012

Week 1 Institute - It's over?; Oh wait, 3 more weeks.

Howdy Y'all.

Yes, y'all is a southern thing but I've been enjoying the word for years. Now that I'm actually in the South I get fewer odd looks and more positive responses. Nice change.

It's been a week of Institute. We got our students, or as many of us (not me) call them, our "babies". I guess that's another southern thing.

On Monday, we were all very nervous because most of us had never taught before. Even those that majored in education, worked with kids in tutoring programs and those whom have student taught were nervous. Yet, it was an exciting day. We were going to put a face to the names we had tried learning for the past few days. "Tazarius" "Damarius""Briana" "Briana".... Is it just me or do all the names sound the same or are the same?

To say the least, it wasn't easy the first day to match up all the names. Those that sounded super similar were the hardest.

We gave a diagnostic test the first day so it eased our transition into the classroom. There was no real teaching, just testing to see where our students were in our content.

For me, the fun part were the activities my teaching team (the 4 of us) decided to do after their first exam in Math. Since I have given them that first test, laid down the law and monitored their efforts to complete the exam, I was also given the first chance to show my lighter side.

We decided to play a name game since no one had known each other previously and it would be a great way to lighten the mood while getting students out of their seats. Our game? -- The Zombie Name Game. Kids in a circle being chased by a zombie who wants whosever name was called. It was fun, especially once the kids started to warm up.

Unlike most teachers in our summer schools in MS, I teach everyday due to my subject and grade level (Entering 9th Grade Math). The next day, after our diagnostic, I had to teach at 8am. No, I wasn't giving another test... I was actually teaching. The true moment to see if I can help my students learn.

The hardest part about Teach For America and getting up in front of the classroom as anew teacher is that you want to be you're best, but you're a teacher in training.

No, my first day wasn't horrible. In fact, I think my kids learned a little about something, although definitely not all that I wanted them to learn -- or rather, they hadn't necessarily mastered the skills I wanted them to.

I was the first teacher that my CMA (Corps Member Advisor) had observed that week. After observation in the classroom, he holds a debrief to go over where I can improve and what I did well. Later that day, the moment came and boy was I nervous.

He shared with me that I have the respect of my students, they listen to me, and that I have a great presence as a teacher (teacher voice and all). Where I needed to improve was my teaching methods. Standing at the board to write out math problems with the kids? Ineffective. Standing at the board, writing notes for them, and not checking to make sure they are writing them down? Ineffective.

Yes, I felt like a failure. I wanted to go in and be a superstar for my students. Not for my own authentication of ability, but for the best learning environment for my students.

Best part, being the first observed and the first debriefed I was able to take everything my CMA said and build it into my lesson for the next day.

After that first day of teaching, which was tough emotionally (not that I was said, I just wanted to be so much better), the week was amazing. Everyday got better and better. My students became more engaged. Everyone (except one).

The feeling to know that your class likes what you're doing, that your class is learning (seen in exit assessments) and to have their respect; honestly an amazing feeling.

No, my classroom is not perfect. It's the furthest thing from perfect still, but it's improve immensely from the first day. Not only am I enjoying myself, but I'd like to think that my students are enjoying themselves and that they are learning.

Next week, I'm excited to get my students up and out of their seats more often. It's not always about lecturing about students... actually, it never is. It's about getting them moving so their brains get exercise and so do their bodies. If they're having fun, if they're competing, and most importantly, if they're smiling... they're learning.

Of course, there are always chances to have fun. For me, I have daily fun, but for a lot of people they aren't. BUT, by fun I mean going out or playing a sport. This past week we boring for me because no one else had the time to play volleyball or the likes because they "had so much to do." To be honest, I get all my work done early every day, with enough time to decompress or do something I'd like -- as well as taking a nap, and I teach everyday (unlike most of these teachers). I'd like to see my corps members grow this summer to the point where we all have an easy time teaching and making lessons so we can all have fun together.

Every Thursday my CMA group (a group of 12 corp members and our CMA) go out. Every Friday we go hard out at the "clubs" and bars. Let's just say my weekend starts Thursday and I have fun all weekend.

I'm going to try to break up these long posts by day, and make smaller posts from now on. It'll be easier to follow my own life and make it more interesting for all y'all to follow my timeline.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Instititute - Day 3: One Day At A Time

Institute started on Monday with classroom site visits and sessions at our schools. As I'm sure everyone would guess, we were all nervous to see what lay ahead!

Our schools ranged in distance from an hour away to 5 minutes away. Depending on your distance you got on the buses between 6:00 and 6:50am. I lucked out and was placed in East Side High School in Cleveland, MS -- the same town that our Institute is held.

During our days so far we have learned some very basic things -- For Example, the achievement gap is consistently stressed but so is the progress that can be made. We're taught not to bring in our outside biases into conflicts in the classroom to ensure that our students excel.

We had Welcoming Ceremonies after the first full day of work and represented our areas through cheer competitions. Out of the 7 regions represented at Institute Training the MS Delta (my region) has the largest representation. We all sat in the back of the auditorium so when we started cheering everyone looked back and saw half of the trainees yelling and screaming and throwing up some Delta hand signs.

Although Institute is rumored to be one of the hardest experiences, it so far has been super enjoyable. I've met so many people from all over Teach For America's regions (Appalachia, Memphis, Southern Louisiana, Louisiana Delta, and more!).

My Corps Member Advisor, who leads us in our development through trainings and observations with feedback, is Harold. He is the man. He looked at us on Day One and said,

"You will not work past 8pm. There is no need for that to happen. My goal is to be in bed by 10pm and that's because you will submitting things for my review at 8pm. But also, some CMs like to take breaks in the middle of the day. We will work from 7:30am until 8pm so that you have the rest of the time free."

This is contrary to some CMAs who aim to put in every last hour into work, when it's really about working smarter not harder.

At this point, it's important for you to note that my Institute experience will be different than somes'. First, I don't do stress -- it's just not my thing. Secondly, I have lucked out extremely. Not only do I summer teach in a school 5 minutes away from Institute, but I also have the best CMA who is teaching us the proper material in a smart way AND I have the best subject (math) which makes it easier to do things systematically.

Ultimately, I want to take my excess energy from my Institute Days and put them back into Institute through providing support to other CMs and making sure that we keep our community healthy. These days will be hard, long and tiring, but these days will be filled with growth, excitement and new experiences.

I have made the personal choice to also try to stay healthy myself. For the last week and a half, my MS Delta CMs have continued to bond over sports. I find myself regularly picking up a volleyball, frisbee, football or putting on my running shoes. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I wake up at 4:30am (far before I need to wake up) and head out for a run with other CMs. At night after Institute, we all just find others to go to the courts or the field. The experience has been amazing because I've never been around so many sport fans, or physically active people. I look forward to eventually getting the beach body (even if I'll never have the time for the beach!).

Every day is a new day with more content to learn, but it's been hugely valuable for me to take it all in and put my hands into the dirty work.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Induction - Day 2: Jackson isn't in the Delta?!

Man, every day so far (it's only been two) has been amazing for many many reasons but ultimately it's because the other Delta corps members (CMs) and their constant excitement and banter with me that has made these few days easy. My roommate and I, both teaching in Jackson, MS are able to hash out all our thoughts and ideas about the Delta and what it might be like in Jackson. We're all normal people and the majority of CMs that I have met don't think we're superheroes and we understand that we'll have shortfalls in this upcoming summer and two years.

Now, I'm not going to keep talking about how amazing everyone is. Y'all understand that TFA hires a specific type of person and conveniently, we all get a long. I'd like to talk about Po' Monkey though...

Po' Monkey?

Why, yes, Po' Monkey.

Po' Monkey (actually Poor Monkey, but we're in the South and nothing sounds like it's spelled) is a local bar with real people from the Delta area. It's small, maybe the size of your kitchen, or maybe the size of your living room (whichever is about 15' x 25'). The dance floor was even smaller, I swear it was the size of your bathroom. Mhm, that's means you don't have room to breath unless you're standing on that toilet.

In all reality, it's a small place (here's a link to a little 3 minute video about Po' Monkey! I've already re-watched several times since I love it)

The reason I bring up Po' Monkey is because I had fun real southerners. Yes, they might have been in their early 30s or perhaps older but to dance with them was truly a great experience. One black lady had never seen a white boy shake it and ultimately I became the first white boy to dance with her. It's a different world people. We've got to make the new community also see our true selves (with some boundaries in a cultural context).

Po' Monkey gave a shout out to the TFA Delta CMs and made us feel welcomed. It was amazing to be new to the area and already be taking in this staple of MS culture. Did I mention the stuffed animal monkey's hanging from every crevice in the ceiling? Yup, I danced with them too, but mostly because I was too tall.

The nitty-gritty of my day in Induction? Sessions have been some real defining moments to start my experience in the Delta. We're were challenged to think about how pop-culture portrays the Delta (Kenny Chesney's - She Thinks My Tractors Sexy, or O Brother Where Art Thou?). We visited a school in several counties, mine which was Quitman County Elementary School. And we were asked to think about ourselves as growth mindsets rather than fixed mindsets.

During my visit to the elementary school, we met some amazing little cheerleaders who were the first Black squad to win the state championship and then went on to become the 8th best squad in the world. This squad was started by a TFA corps member. It was amazing to talk with these youngins' and to start a little competition of "Who has the best Cheerleading Jumps -- Joshua, a tall (getting older) guy from MA, or the girls who placed 8th in the world" I'm happy to announce that the girls won, but it was amazing to be able to connect to some students already and to get not only them but their current coach (who isn't TFA) excited about us all coming into their communities by sharing our similarities and connecting!

The panel that spoke to us shared that we are part of their community, but only as much as we try. We are different, we will get weird looks, we will be asked who we are and why we're in the MS Delta because we clearly aren't locals. They explained that this provides us an opportunity to bring students a new perspective, to open their eyes and expose them to new things and people. But it's not just the students, but we're a challenge for the communities to open up as well since many communities have members that have never left the South and don't know anything different. Although we were told that we can make change in the community, our panel said we can only make this change through becoming something larger than the TFA community and something smaller than our community which is the local one. To be a part of such a large movement, I believe some people forget about the smaller communities that we are moving into and looking to become a part of it. We shouldn't forget that we're moving into their home. We're brining new things to their place of work, play and learning. Being different gives us the ability to strike up conversations in the coffee shops and bring new joy to people in our areas. And we must do just that -- already prevent ourselves from becoming self-contained and look to be a part of something more important, a community.

Along the same lines, growth mindsets are a way of thinking that intelligence can grow if you try hard enough. Fixed mindsets are believing that intelligence is innate and can not grow. We all come into TFA believing that our children are growth beings, but I think a lot of TFA CMs forget that we too must be growth beings (those of growth mindsets) if we are to actually do well and make progress toward our goal. We come in with great experiences, but hardly any of us have experience in the classroom and those of us that do still don't know what is best for their future students. This means that we must think of ourselves as people that will grow through failure and acceptance -- moments of pure bliss and complete strife in the classroom. I'm hoping I see a lot of my fellow CMs start to look at themselves as always learning and still naive so that they can make strides in intelligence just like our kids, but for the betterment of our teaching for those kids.

Lastly, we will face challenges that our communities will sometimes have fixed mindsets. They'll believe that there is no way out of this education inequity because they are so used to it. They've been primed to believe that their intelligence is stuck and so is their future -- to return to the Delta where there is no economic powerhouse that shares in and promotes the growth. Unfortunately, most towns and cities employ more people in their school systems than any other area. There are no factories and if there are one or two, they're in rich suburbs that attracted them due to the already sustaining wealth. I can't way to see my area in Jackson go from fixed to growth and to bring together my community.

Jackson, MS may not be in the Delta technically but they suffer from the same things. It's the perfect time for a new corps of 43 people to go into the schools since Jackson is finally opening up to TFA. But it's still young in the city and there are many people that don't know what we are doing and some that may believe we are hurting their children. We have the chance, in Jackson, to change the perception of education and TFA and to push students up toward success but hopefully bring them back to the Delta to make further change beyond my time. There are a of thoughts about my placement in Jackson that I'll talk about in another blog post because I'm still developing my perceptions of my placement but I'm happy to say that I'm more excited than ever through talking with formed CMs that were the original corps in 08!

Until my next dance off!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Induction - Day 1: Maybe I'm Ready!

So today was the first day of induction. As one of the TFA staff members put it, "the first full day as a Teach For America Corps Member."

Yesterday was a little more overwhelming than I expected. Sometimes it's hard to find connections and relation points with people that are so diverse that you're not sure why you are in the same room. Ultimately, we all in TFA have a similarity which has acted out as a starting point for further connections and that is our commitment to TFA and closing the gap of education inequity.

Today it was more of the same connection forming with more people from even more diverse settings. In the corps we have blacks, whites, asians, indians, and every other race. We have males and females and probably some transgender persons (though I have not met them). These things though are only primary diversity factors. What makes the most sense is to bond with each other over secondary diversity factors that are more personal and not obvious from the first visual analysis of our peers. These characteristics include learning style, humor, ideologies and even things much less important like income. Regardless of my preconceptions, it has been amazing to meet so many unique individuals.

Throughout our sessions today, we focused on Diversity & Inclusiveness and Movements. It was challenging to think about things more closely, to face more realities about the disparities but what the most difficult part about the discussions were the need to face our own personal beliefs and misconceptions that have been guiding our views in (sometimes) the wrong way.

I won't bore y'all (yes, I'm picking up a southern twang and words after one day) so I'd just like to give an example of a couple of exercises and meaningful pieces of discussion today.

What priorities in this fight seem most important for you? How will you hold onto them in the midst of day-to-day pressures?
The biggest priority for me is to believe in the kids, to know that they are excited and ready to learn. We often lost hope, respect and belief in people when we repeatedly see a lack of commitment or respect. But we must know that it is our perseverance in believing in the students and creating stronger community of higher pressures that will ultimately push them further. Ignoring the problem will not solve the problem, it is pursuing a solution and fighting the internalized externalities that will create progress.
In the midst of the time, we will face hard times, but by becoming part of my community, I will be forced to hold myself accountable while so many others look to me to help them.

We ended the day by reading the Legacies of former and current corps members. These aren't legacies that were actually left, but what corps members thought they wanted to leave behind after their first, second or further years. Below is what I believe to be my Legacy Mindset:

"By the end of my first year... I want to see and know there is a an increased commitment to learning from my students. I want to have a classroom structured where students don't need to raise their hands because they are respectful and a classroom where students will help their peers when they understand the material better. A culture breeding respect and kindness combined with commitment will pave the way toward successful academia for my students.

By the end of my second year... I want my students to be excited to come to school and that they are making strides toward college. I want my students to know that they can pursue their dreams by completing their education and to realize that their opportunities will be severely limited if they don't. I'll still leave the decision to them but I want all my students to make the right one to stay in school.

By the time I leave the classroom... I want my students to have a community within the larger community that spreads respect, joy and a love of forward-looking ideas."

Even though it has been a long first day, a lot of the TFA group found enough energy to go out to Pub Trivia to celebrate our new-found friendships that will surely last forever. Now that I'm home, and my team lost the trivia, I have decided it is in the best interests of everyone that I get some rest... I like my (so-far) good reputation with the TFA 2012 Corps.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Finally Arrived - Not Sure I'm Ready

Today was the day that I arrived at Delta State University where the next 5 weeks will be filled with a lot of learning and a lot of people.

On my way to Induction/Institute/Orientation, I visited family in MI and TN and met up with a bunch of Delta TFA Corps Members in Memphis. We had a couple nights in the city and enjoyed ourselves before, what will be, 5 weeks of intensity.

Now that I am in the Delta, I'm realizing that my life will be drastically different than what I have known. Although I will be teaching in Jackson Public Schools, a Southern city is nothing like a New England city. There is a lot of land and fewer people. There are no skyscrapers but there are a lot of cotton fields. I'm feeling the magic of the south but it is tiresome to take in so much.

As one of the first to arrive at Delta State at 10am, I have already met dozens of people and have needed two naps. Our dorm rooms have been filled with carloads of stuff that we all assumed we would need. Toothbrushes, shorts, laptops and surely our pre-institute homework.

In one hour our Induction will begin with a Welcome Ceremony and then dinner in the quadrangle of DSU. There's a lot of buzz around the dorms with people getting to know each other and trying to make new friends. Ultimately it's Freshmen year of college all over again, except we're all motivated to make change in our small world. Together, starting tonight we will start to share our stories as to why we want to make change, why we chose to be a part of the TFA movement, and how we see ourselves reaching the kids that we are about to teach.

This summer will be hard, but I'm sure it will be rewarding. All of us will feed off of the energy of others while we struggle to make sense of everything that we will be learning.

I'll try to keep everyone updated over the next few weeks but you'll probably read a lot of babbling from late-night banter.