Texas Flood

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 31 2008

Summative Assessment (Pt. 4.2 and 1)


Here I’ll address some of the areas in which I think I grew a lot as a teacher over the course of institute, some of the areas I was already pretty good, and a lot of areas in which I feel like I’ve got some growth to do over the next year or two or infinity. In TFA, we refer to those areas in which we’re strong as “plusses”, which is fairly self-explanatory. When it comes to things that we need to change, the term is “deltas”, which is probably my favorite TFA-ism, and one of the few I think I’ll take with me and use in other areas of life when I need to give someone such a list. To a science or math person, this term’s meaning will be self-evident—delta refers to the Greek letter delta, which in equations stands in for the term “change in”. So, in this case, we’re using value-neutral language to talk about the areas in which I sucked as a teacher without labeling these things as “minuses” or “cons”.

So, we’ll start off with what I felt like I either came in fairly equipped to do, or what I was able to wrap my head around by the end of the summer institute. I felt like I had a pretty good sense of classroom management (though this could be misleading), excellent content knowledge, and that I engaged and motivated my kids fairly well. Not all of them, but enough that I feel like I have a good handle on finding ways to engage kids in things that might otherwise be fairly boring.

Classroom management wasn’t really an issue for me in any sense that I had to really grapple with over the summer. This could be due to the fact that I taught in a charter school with a fairly established sense of investment on the part of the students, and a school-wide discipline system of demerits that was consistently enforced by faculty and that the students were held accountable for. The students in my class, whether they wanted to be in class or not, all wanted to be enrolled at that school. This could also be due to the fact that I’m male, that I talk loudly and quickly and look perpetually serious and somewhat upset (I’ve heard), or that I semi-consciously cultivated a persona that was just a little bit crazy. I found, and it will be interesting to see if this works in my classroom (school starts In three weeks—yikes), that coming off just a little bipolar keeps your students in line. Acting pretty nice and calm, but then 180ing on them if they cross some predetermined line… I don’t know if it just freaks them out a little bit or what, but it seemed to work. I’ll have something a little more systematic set up this fall, though.

My content knowledge was good. I taught geometry, and I had spent the last year almost working on the history of math and science, with a concentration on what was going on in Greece—lots of it being geometry. I also had an excellent set of math teachers in high school. This fall, I’m not concerned about content, either—I’m teaching chemistry, I had great chemistry teachers in HS, and taught myself the ins and outs of basic inorganic chemistry while preparing to take the MCAT in a way that it’s all drilled into my head, and I have pretty solid methods of solving simple problems. Whether or not I can effectively teach these strategies to students however, is going to be an interesting challenge.

The last bit is about investment. That’s the word Teach for America uses to describe how into your class your students are. That word encompasses motivation, interest, the amount of work students are willing to do, and how much you hold their attention. I think this is the murkiest area for me—my students were motivated. My homework completion rate for the summer was probably ~ 90%. My students listened, most of them took notes on their own, and all of them took notes with me giving them explicit instruction to do so and breathing down the necks of those who didn’t. Students didn’t cut class, though some of them did go with their families to Mexico or Columbia, and ended up missing a significant chunk of class because of it—those were the ones who ended up failing, everyone who showed up consistently to class passed. So why is this area murky? I was teaching at a non-profit charter school. When I told my republican uncle I was teaching at a charter school and enjoying the experience, he laughed. This wasn’t an Edison school though, or one of the other for-profit chains of schools that are starting to pop up around the country and which are much more typical of the term “charter school”. This was a school started by, and run mostly by, TFA alumnus. A requirement for graduation is an acceptance letter to college. Students wear college t-shirts every Friday, there is a school-wide discipline system that leaves students fearing demerits and “marks”, and a palpable sense of teamwork.

These students are not socioeconomically distinct from those who I’ll be teaching this fall. Almost all of the students at the school are minorities, all qualify for free or reduced lunch. They went to public elementary school, and many went to public middle schools. The difference is in the culture created at this school. So basically, it’s impossible for me to tease apart what part of my students’ investment I created, and what part they came in already having. Therefore, it’s difficult for me to know what sort of strategies I can employ this fall to get my students into what they’re doing, and motivate them to do the work and earn a good grade and learn the material. We’ll see.

Because this entry is getting long and because being critical of oneself is not that much fun, I’ll limit my deltas to the one big one for now. My biggest weakness as a teacher is in the teaching itself—the introduction and explanation of new material to my students. While I’d hope, and I do believe, that my ability to break down concepts and relate them to other people is at least middle-of-the-pack as far as science and math teachers go, I have a really long ways to go in terms of improvement. I think the biggest area in which I’m weak is being able to explain things in a way that grabs the attention of high school students. I’m used to tutoring college kids, and feel most comfortable lecturing about things rather than having a conversation about them, or creating activities that explain the concepts. HS kids, particularly those who aren’t being brought through an education system designed to prepare them for college-level coursework, are not used to being lectured at. They’re also not really capable, in terms of attention span, of listening to someone talk for more than five minutes straight. Since talking is my strength, this leaves me in sort of a bind.

I think that since chemistry (what I’m teaching this fall) is lab-based, it will be easier to come up with activities to teach things compared to math, which is what I taught this past summer. I’ll scour the internet and bookstores for inquiry-based ways of teaching this stuff, and pick the brains of every quality chemistry teacher I run into. I’m someone who likes to ask questions when I think I can learn something, and I’m trying to go into teaching with the attitude that I can learn something from everyone I meet, especially in the profession.  If you’re reading this, and have any recommendations for resources, please e-mail me or leave a comment. It’d be super helpful.

Next up: TFA so far, and what its plusses and deltas are.

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