Making the Desert Bloom

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 15 2012

Everyday brings its New Challenges and Rewards

After three weeks at the LA Institute, I have learned more about teaching than I thought was possible in this amount of time. I had to admit that I was leery (and still am leery) that I would be prepared to be a teacher in five, short weeks, but I am amazed at how much I learn with each hour that I am in the classroom. So far, I have only taught 8 full lessons (I administered a diagnostic test on the first day), but each one provides its own unique adventure. I realize that I have a job where I know the basic framework of each day, but the details that unfold along the way make it incredibly fascinating and unpredictable. Here’s some examples:

First, in the 9 days that I have taught, I have not had the same group of students for any single day. Of the 9 combinations of students, we have also yet to have a day where all 9 students show up. This week, we had Adriana show up for the first time on Monday and Stephanie showed up for the first time on Wednesday. For their education as students and for my education as a teacher, it is important that they are in the classroom. While I am surely not the best teacher yet, I figure that any enrichment that I can provide over the summer will help both of them out. As a teacher, they are both unique students with their own challenges and opportunities. Adriana is a really loud girl who wants to answer every question. However, she is a trouble maker when she is not getting attention or when she is with her new best-friend Donald. One of the major challenges of my class is now keeping Donald and Adriana apart. This task is quite challenging when they are at the same level in both math and reading. Since there are only 4 students in both of these groups, it is almost impossible to prevent them from teaming up. I tried my best to prevent it with warnings and negative marks, but their connection seems to be greater than the effect of my consequence system. So far, my co-teachers and I have written notes home and even called, but it hasn’t produced any tangible results. I really don’t want to send either of them to the office, but it may happen down the road.

Another theme that has taken me aback is the amount of testing we do on these kids. So far in 9 days, we have given out 2 reading tests, 2 math tests, 2 spelling tests, and 2 writing assessments. Considering that only 1 of our 9 students has been present for all 9 days, we have to schedule make-up tests during other teaching blocks. Therefore, instead of gaining instructional time, we are spending time collecting data points. However, I am not sure if this data is reliable for a number of reasons. First, for math, the tests are all multiple choice. While I have been spending a bunch of time teaching my students how to work out multiple choice problems instead of just filling a bubble, it’s hard for me to be 100% sure that my students aren’t just guessing. Second, if a students missed a lesson, why are we testing the student on that objective? Each question on the test is aligned to one of the daily objectives. Therefore, I think we should only test students on objectives for which they were present. The current system leads to either false rewards or punishment for the teacher. I am a big fan of using data points, but I need to make sure that this data is valid, or otherwise it is meaningless. Third and finally, it is hard to be consistent grading reading and writing. For math and spelling, you either get the problem right or wrong. Since the other categories are subjective, it is far more difficult to make sure that the data is accurate. According to my current data, a majority of my students have increased their scores by about 8-10 percentage points, which is supposed to be a good sign. However, that just means my students increased their average from the low 40s to the high 40s. They still have a long way to go before passing the previous grade level assessment.

While I have been pessimistic here in the previous paragraphs, I can’t express how much I enjoy actually teaching my scholars. The prep work in preparing to teach is grueling, but when I get up in front of the room, I instantly get in the zone. Once I’m in the zone, I am working as hard and efficiently as I can to make sure that my scholars understand the daily objective. However, I can be snapped out of the zone. For example, yesterday I lost where my exit sheets were, and had to look for them for 2 minutes. I was clearly flustered. This example is serving as a call for me to be more organized. Earlier today, I went to Target to buy more classroom folders to better organize my students’ work in addition to my own papers. I am very organized on my computer, but I really need to put this organization into my classroom immediately.

I would like to end this long post on some positive signs from my class. This week they did a better job at processing how to solve a problem than last week. By using graph paper and following this process, over half of the class can solve a long division problem, something that no one was doing when they entered my class. Through workshops, I was able to teach a long division problem to the higher-level students and teach basic division to the other students. It’s hard to control a class in two groups with one teacher, but I did a fairly good job at it until Donald and Adrianna started to act up. Now that I know this problem, I am going to find creative ways around it to better teach my class. Next week I move on from teaching math to teaching reading to the same students. I expect the first few days to be very challenging, but I know I need this practice before teaching full-time starting next month.

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