Collection by Annah Kuriakose
I was speaking to a close friend of mine from college recently, and she asked me why I thought the second year was so much easier than the first. I thought of this analogy, which I think is pretty apt to describe the change: The first year is like being in a foreign country without knowing the language. You have no friends, everyone seems to be staring at you, knowing you're new to the area and taking advantage of you; you just don't get it yet. You fumble with everything, you're incredibly overwhelmed with the amount of information being thrown out at you because there is no logical way to process it all, it's just sensory data, and you feel incompetent, even though you keep trying to convince yourself and others I'm actually a competent person, I know better ways to do these same things!. The second year, though, is infinitely easier, if only because you now know the language, in a way that only immersion can bring about. That is my challenge to the first-years for whom quitting is even a possibility now: stay long enough to learn the language. Then--and then only--decide whether or not you like it.
I cannot express how happy explanations about math problems make me. I've become, through trial and error, positively addicted to asking questions like Why? Why not? What if...? When would I...? This isn't to flatter myself. It's actually a voluntary (imagine that!) post about how thrilling it is to hear kids use vocabulary, give rationales, provide justifications for right answers, and--best of all!--justify why the wrong answers are wrong! At the moment, it's impossible imagine anything more exciting! The most wonderful things I hear all day sound like this:
"You have to take the first term of the binomial and multiply it with the entire trinomial."
"That's not just a negative sign. There's an invisible 1 there that you have to distribute."
"I can tell that B is a distractor because if I'd added those exponents instead of subtracting them, I would've gotten that one."
"Here's a question you would ask, Ms. K: Now why wouldn't you distribute that 5 to the 4x as well?"
"They tried to trick me with that distractor, but they're not gonna get me!"
This past Wednesday-Friday, I had the opportunity to go to Atlanta to attend an orientation for the summer interns of the Southern Education Foundation, a non-profit that has given me and three other MTC teachers a grant to work on a large-scale project with some of our students this coming year.
The entire orientation was incredibly well organized and executed. We got the opportunity to meet and listen to many people who have experience in lots of different aspects of education in the South. We heard from lawyers, advocates, superintendents, presidents of several non-profits, and representatives from several other organizations that all work to bridge the achievement gap in the South.
For me, the entire orientation was such a refreshing reminder of why I'm here. During the school year, it was so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day aspects of teaching, classroom-managing, administration-heeding, and lesson planning. It's easy to pinpoint individual people for the problems that have such glaringly obvious solutions in my head. Get them to read more. Have a parent work on this with them. Tell them to go home and study. It's hard not to start blaming people--the students, for being apathetic about their schoolwork; the parents for not providing guidance and structure at home; myself, for not being able to communicate the academic content effectively; the administration, for not handling non-academic issues effectively--and it's very easy to lose sight of the broader picture and of the poverty that underlies all of these issues. This orientation reminded me that I'm here because of vast inequities in education that my students are victims, not perpetrators, of. It reminded me that not only was their fight not fair in the past, it's still not fair today. It reminded me it's a whole system, not individuals, that we, as a country, need to change. I heard many dynamic, passionate, knowledgeable people these past few days. I'll share just a few highlights:
I'm glad that we actually discussed Brown v. Board of Education, because I realized there were many things that I was unaware of about the history of educational inequalities. For example, I never knew that one of the cases brought before the court was student-led. Also, Elaine Jones' (Director, NAACP Legal Defense Fund) talk after the film Beyond Brown certainly underscored how recently this fight had begun.
Sharon and I got a chance to talk to the interns about our experiences in the classroom. I really appreciated this opportunity because I thought that some of the discussions really lacked a teacher voice. While we're both only first-year teachers, the learning curve has been pretty steep. I was surprised at how much I just wanted to keep talking about my students and sharing their experiences with people who care so much. Speaking to the interns gave me so much hope. This summer, I've been surrounded by teachers who are giving their time, effort, and energy to kids who need it most, but knowing that there are people in all kinds of jobs who care about my students and are making it their life's work to ensure that each of my kids has the same chances as every other kid in America is so heartening! I heard over and over that the solution to these vast, systemic educational inequalities has to be multi-faceted, a strategic plan that will include litigation, grassroots/community organizing, advocacy, philanthropy, improvements in school policy...the list goes on. It's impossible not to feel like if there are enough of us working on it, from every angle, it'll change one day.
The best part of the whole trip, I think I can say pretty confidently on behalf of the other teachers and myself, was the visit to the KIPP WAYS Academy in Altanta. This was the second KIPP school I'd visited and I am (still) in awe of what they do. I had three thoughts after pretty much everything David Jernigan, Executive Director, said: 1) That is SUCH a good idea! 2) That is SO easy to implement... 3) Why isn't my school doing it?! I think the structure and guidance that KIPP schools provide their kids is (unfortunately) novel to many schools in the areas where we teach, but it's far from impossible to implement. I love the idea that the kids have to earn everything, from their uniforms, to their desks, to their lockers. I was also utterly impressed with a KIPP alum, Charles King, who talked to us about his experiences as a "Kippster." Loved it.
On Friday was my favorite panel, one of the most interesting and, I think, the most relevant right now to me, as a teacher. We had two lawyers and the director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU talk to us about the school-to-prison pipeline. I especially enjoyed watching the film Bring Your "A" Game, because I think it does an excellent job of speaking "to" high school, even middle school boys, who are real members of this pipeline today. It emphasized the importance of graduating from high school and going to college and gave practical tips on how to begin that process. I really want to show it to my students.
In fact, I really wish my students had been there to see all of the presentations I saw. I wish they could have seen and heard each person who stood up and spoke on their behalf. I wish they knew how much so many people who've never met them care about them.
Dr. McConnell mentioned that this year's training has been better than ever before. It seems like a lot of the issues that have arisen in the past have been corrected over the years and that a lot of thought was put into what we actually go through in the summer. Keeping in mind how receptive the program has been to suggestions and comments, there were really only a few things that actually bothered me about the training.
Overall, I found it enormously useful and reassuring. In the amount of time that we had, I think we were trained as best as we could have been. Summer school is a very, very good idea (how did the alums survive the fall without it?!). It was wonderful to be able to teach students who actually needed to be taught, and it was very good experience. The only two two things that I could suggest would be to somehow draw more students (lower the cost of summer school?) so that classes don't only have one student in them and to try to get first-years teaching the exact subject they'll be teaching in the fall (including grade level).
I was very impressed with the TEAM. I think the fact that they were there was really, really reassuring. Their feedback and modeling was very valuable.
It was nice to be teaching classes and taking classes (in June) concurrently, so that we were getting training in how to make a lesson plan exactly when we needed it. It was also nice that in July, we didn't have to worry about that, and that we got the classroom management role-play practice instead.
The role-plays were one of the things I found to be most useful, not necesssarily because they mimicked exactly what would happen in a classroom, but because it exposed us to so many possible disruptions in our classroom, many that I would never have even considered on my own. In the future, though, every role play should be as realistic as possible. I learned less from the ones that got carried away than from the ones where I got a realistic response from the "student." Finally, the group role-play was kind of disappointing. I felt that we really should have discussed each role play after it was done. If getting every person in front of a larger classroom was a priority, stretch it out over a few more days, allowing talking time between each role-play.
Aside from those suggestions, though, I felt that I got excellent training this summer. It had all of the components I would have wanted in terms of training- real teaching experience, lesson planning practice, and classroom management suggestions. We had honest evaluators, lots of feedback, and even a chance to evaluate ourselves by taping our lessons. I feel as close to prepared as possible for what the fall will bring.
Tahina, Asia, Kelly, and Shanika all chose very interesting topics to study for their summer project. It seemed like they were drawn to and inspired by different aspects of Mississippi (and different speakers who spoke about them).
I was particularly impressed by the variety in topics, ranging from prison conditions to teen pregnancy, from the idea behind freedom schools to giving Mississippi students a voice. The amount of research they were able to collect in such a short time was also commendable, and that really came out during the Q&A sessions. Asia's use of a real letter sent by the prisoners and Tahina's effort in video-taping aspects of the Corps and doing her own narration really added a lot to their presentations.
[Side note: The intern projects, I think, are a great opportunity not only for the interns to get to know a little bit more about Mississippi, but also to get some smart, educated minds engaged in making some positive changes in this state. In other words, I think the intern projects have the potential to be much more than they are. Rather than doing an informative presentation with historical facts and statistics, they could easily narrow down the topic to one issue, and really take it to a new level. Draw some conclusions, posit some theories, suggest some solutions! It's not every day that the issues that plague poorer areas of our country receive the kind of critical thought that the interns are putting into these projects. There is SO much potential in the project ideas (and in each of the interns) that a lot more action could come out of the same amount of work. Even if they don't have enough time to implement something, they might inspire someone else to pick up where they left off. Just my opinion.]
The questions I still have are mostly about the interns' opinions about some of what they said.
For Tahina: Why did you choose the title "Muted"? What are your ideas about how to correct that problem and what would it take to implement it?
Asia: What are your thoughts on the prisoners' rights in light of the offense? (For example, is it fair that a repeat offender of a worse crime, for example, get fewer prison rights?)
Kelly: What is the impact of marriage on the teen pregnancy rate? When are young people getting married, and which comes first, the marriage or the pregnancy? What do you think is the significance of culture (culture of the South, culture of Mississippi, culture of a particular demographic group) regarding younger births in accounting for the data you collected?
Shanika: Can you think of any drawbacks to freedom schools? Do you think anyone would see it as "re"- segregation?
- I keep unintentionally choosing good lessons to film, so the one I chose this week was a fun, engaging lesson on "circle graphs" (please tell me that I remember them as pie charts because of a regional, not age, difference). I think it reflects my overall progress, and definitely shows that I have branched out a little from the standard teach-guide-observe model. I've been able to incorporate some fun activities without losing anything in the way of accomplishing the objective.
- Watching myself wasn't nearly as painful this time.
- Getting someone else to tape was a good idea, but taping with my Mac was not. I could barely hear anything WITHOUT the AC on, and then when I turned it on, it became a silent film.
- I look confident in front of the classroom, regardless of how well prepared I am or feel. It feels like my own and I think I know the students well enough to know what I can say or do that will make them speak up or shut down.
- I used fruit snack packets to make circle graphs about the proportions of any particular color. They liked that. And we suspended Rule #4 so they could eat them in class, too.
- I had them work in groups to create a multiple choice question that they were to ask everyone in the room. Their answers were to be graphed. I think the social part of the activity was a huge strength. The frequency of smiles skyrocketed past the average math class rate.
- I question well.
- I should have modeled how to talk to people. I still assume a little bit too much when it comes to what they "should" know. When I asked them to interview the others in the room, their version of "interview" was: thrust notebook with written question in front of someone's face, grunt to indicate you want attention, point to communicate. I'm not even trying to be funny.
- I consistently forget little logistical things- mentioning when the formal assessment will be, closing on time, including the preview of the next lesson in my closing, etc.
- I'm still having a hard time gauging how long the "involve the students" part of my closing will take. I might estimate 10 seconds for an answer, but then have to wait longer than that, and since I don't want to rush the wait time, my closing gets cut off. I'm not sure if I should just call on students who I KNOW will know the answer or if I should just start closing earlier.
- The level at which I taught circle graphs was very low. I could've done a much more in-depth lesson with little activity time and I opted instead to do a fun lesson that really hammered home stuff they probably already knew...
What I learned:
- Kids will smile if you do.
- Kids who don't want to be in math class are VERY slow at everything, from responding to a question to writing notes to walking around the classroom. It was like watching the video on slow motion. A silent slow motion film.
Has my style/ability changed since last month?
- My writing on the board, without turning my back on the class, has gotten better.
- I've improved at asking questions. I don't take as long to word them anymore, so I'm definitely questioning more clearly. I'm still asking very low level questions, though.
- I'm talking less.
- Like I mentioned earlier, I'm forgetting smaller things now. I can't ever close in time, and my sets are getting weaker.
Overall, I don't think I've changed a ton. My biggest strengths are still classroom presence and questioning. My biggest weaknesses are still time management and challenging students. The best improvement has been getting more creative with my lessons.
As promised, I tried one of the questioning strategies again in one of my recent lessons. I did the "muddiest part of the lecture" one-- the students wrote down the toughest part of the week as an exit ticket.
I really liked this strategy. It's a no-embarrassment, helpful tactic that'll help teachers get first-hand feedback about how effective their instruction is. Out of my four students, three wrote legitimate answers, which, after looking at their tests, they were being completely honest about. The other wrote a cop-out answer by naming the topic we'd be working on minutes before, which, based on his work, I knew he'd completely grasped. Two students named the same difficult topic, which we hadn't talked about for a few days. That told me that they both still remembered it as having been a challenge when we did it; I really appreciated knowing that going into the review session and test, and had I had more time, I would've tried to spend another period on that particular topic, or organize a study session for any students who were having difficulty with it. I definitely think this is a strategy I'll revisit during the year; it's quick, helpful, and (usually) honest.
Ever a fan of online quizzes--particularly the kind for which you don't have to give your cell phone number at the end for the results--I took the Myers-Briggs for the second time in my life (though this time it was on a shady-looking website with awkwardly phrased questions). Ever resistant to be labeled, I didn't take the results too seriously. I don't remember the results the first time, but this time, I was told that I am an INFJ, an Idealist, and specifically, a Counselor.
The strength of of my preferences (as percentages, the calculations for which remain a mystery to me) are given below:
Counselors have an exceptionally strong desire to contribute to the welfare of others. Counselors do quite well with individuals or groups of people, provided that the personal interactions are not superficial, and that they find some quiet, private time every now and then to recharge their batteries.
- This bodes well for teaching. I'm definitely a quiet-time-to-recharge-my-batteries kind of person. Nice job, Myers-Briggs.
Counselors are scarce, little more than one percent of the population. They are highly private people, with an unusually rich, complicated inner life.
- I wouldn't call myself "highly private," but the rest of that is more true than I care to elaborate on. At the same time, I imagine that's a safe assumption about a lot of people (that is, more than 1% of the population. And certainly they don't mean the WORLD'S population?)
As employees or employers, Counselors are concerned with people's feelings and are able to act as a barometer of the feelings within the organization.
- I do like to think that I can read people well. I hope this carries over well into the teaching profession, as kids are at once the most simple and most complex of all people.
Blessed with vivid imaginations, Counselors are often seen as the most poetical of all the types, and in fact they use a lot of poetic imagery in their everyday language. Their great talent for language-both written and spoken-is usually directed toward communicating with people in a personalized way.
- I disagree with the first part; I find myself far from what I think of as poetic. But I do think I can communicate well, at least in written form. Spoken communication, I can already tell, will be one of my challenges in the classroom.
I agree with a lot of aspects of this personality type, particular in the amount of intuiting this type tends to do. I like thinking of myself as an Idealist, and career-wise, I've only seriously considered Teacher or Healer (two other types in the Idealist category). While I resist being too strictly categorized, I guess I can learn to live with being considered among the ranks of Mahatma Gandhi and Carl Jung himself.
1) TALK LESS. For some reason, since we began talking more about talking less, I've been talking almost uncontrollably in class; I just can't help the word-vomit. In one of my more recent lessons, I found myself talking DURING INDEPENDENT PRACTICE. (It was something of an out-of-body experience; I was asking myself, "What the heck am I DOING?" even as I continued to speak.) I felt like I was channeling some of the elementary/middle school teachers I've had or something, whom I remember as NEVER having been quiet. I'm not sure why I'm so bad at this, but I have a few guesses:
- The logical explanation: I sometimes don't figure out the best way to explain things until after I say them once. Then I rephrase. Then I rephrase again. Turns out, if I figured out how to say it effectively (and efficiently) the first time, I wouldn't waste as much time talking. Both more planning and experience will help.
- The psychological argument: Since I'm thinking about NOT talking, all I can do is talk.
- The cop-out excuse: It's the kids' fault. They don't get it when I say it once, so I have to keep saying it again and again and by then, the period's over.
The talking needs to stop.
2) QUESTION MORE CLEARLY AND MORE EFFECTIVELY. I noticed early on that I ask questions multiple times before I like the way they sound (related to problem #1). Since I don't call on students to answer until I think it reflects what I'm assessing, I a) sound like I'm not allowing any wait time at all, and b) screw up time management considerably. I also got some feedback that I'm asking very low level questions, and I completely agree (though I wouldn't have noticed until someone pointed it out.) I'm a HUGE fan of testing comprehension consistently throughout the lesson, but it would be more effective if I probed a little deeper with my questions. I owe that to my students.
3) MANAGE TIME MORE EFFECTIVELY AND APPROPRIATELY. I haven't quite mastered the art of managing a lesson with effective modeling, guided practice, and ample time for independent practice (not to mention, sufficient questioning)...in under 50 minutes. I'm particularly struggling with getting the independent practice in (the most important part, I know) for enough time because I'm spending too much time on earlier procedures. Especially in math, this section is soooo important, and I'm only now coming to the realization that I can only teach so much before they have to learn it themselves. The concept of a teacher not doing the work is (inexplicably) novel to me, and making sure my kids get enough time to do the work themselves during the lesson is something I need to work on.
I recently watched the video I took of me teaching a lesson on formulating equations (7th grade math). Here's what I thought:
- I hate watching myself on tape, but I can't deny that it was helpful.
- Body language is very important. Little things like shifting my weight, biting my lip, etc, are much more pronounced than I would have guessed they would be.
- Teaching really IS like performing!
- The lesson I watched was one that I had to improvise on for the first 20 minutes or so (because I didn't communicate well enough with the teacher before me), and I think I actually did well with that! It looked like the way I did it was how I'd planned it.
- I have a loud, attention-getting speaking voice.
- I think I listened to students' responses well. I usually used their own words in confirming what they said, and responded positively to any response they actually gave.
- I repeat myself a lot, which I think helped.
- I give time reminders a lot.
- The students were always doing something. There was no "downtime."
- I indicate very regularly what I want them to do.
- This was one of the lessons in which I didn't talk nearly as much as I usually do. (in that sense, this lesson was an anomaly.)
- I modeled the product I wanted for a project I had them do, which helped me to get the result I wanted from them.
- I should sit more. I walk around a lot even when the students are working independently, and it is clear that they do not need my help at the moment. My instinct is to walk so that they know I'm watching them, but I think it may just be distracting at times.
- I talk too fast sometimes, not when I'm explaining a concept (when I'm very conscious about it), but when I'm giving or explaining directions, which is when I don't think about it as much.
- My shoes are noisy, almost annoyingly. I can't decide if I like the authoritative clicks they make around the room or if I should go for something less irritating to the ear.
- I talk a LOT. I think it's almost a comfort thing.
- I turn my back to the class too much when I write on the board.
What I learned:
- I should have someone else tape for me, rather than tape from a table, because while I could always see myself, I could only see two of the four students, so as I'm watching the video, I'm not sure what the other two were doing most of the time.
- My questions need to be clearer. I often ask a question, realize I didn't phrase it optimally and change the question before the students have time to think about it or answer.
- Continuous directions help the students stay on task.
- The cardigan I call my "librarian sweater" REALLY looks like a librarian sweater.
- I need to get better at writing on the board sideways or get used to pre-writing all of my notes.
- Talking a lot disengages students after a while.