Monday, April 28

So close...

...and yet so far. For pretty much my entire life this time of year has been a time of counting down the days until summer, or graduation, or leaving Germany, or moving to South Dakota. And now I find myself counting down again to the end of the school year. As per usual I feel like there is far too much to do and fit into the last weeks of school, and at the same time absolutely cannot wait for it to be over.

Today I actually felt like I have taught my students to be better readers for possibly the first time this semester. All my classes are loving "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian" and having a text that they are so engaged in makes all the difference. Even though we're still covering the same literary elements we did while reading "The Most Dangerous Game" and other texts, they seem to suddenly be actually getting it. Maybe it's the repetition, but I really think a big part of it is that with this book I actually have their attention! Finally they seem to getting how characterization works and they're able to point out examples and write and talk about it! And they're so good at finding similes and metaphors and explaining what they mean! They can even apply those skills to reading their own book independently! Amazing! It's like I'm really teaching something! remarkable.

After that teacher high in my morning classes the rest of the day was a pretty horrible let down. The entire school, k-12 participated in a completely unorganized and last minute "community clean-up" all afternoon. Which basically meant hundreds of children and teens were set loose on the town with very little reason or motivation to do any cleaning or stay together or anything else. On the plus side, it was a lovely day out and at least some trash got picked up, so who am I to complain?

Monday, April 21

Relentless Pursuit

I keep thinking to myself that I should write more book reviews in here, and then never getting around to it. But this a book I feel I have a somewhat unique perspective on. Plus it just came out last week, so I can be an early reviewer :)

The book, Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America, is by journalist Donna Foote who followed four 2005 corps members in one high school in L.A. for one academic year. I pre-ordered the book right after reading Mr. AB's glowing review. My roommate thought I was crazy for wanting to spend free time reading more about TFA and teaching, but I was sucked in immediately and in the end it made me feel more connected to the organization and the mission, and less alone in how I'm feeling completing my first year of teaching for America. Locke High School and LA are about as different as can be from from St. Francis Indian School and the reservation, but they're also remarkably the same. I feel the same frustrations and see the same dysfunctions at my school as the four corps members in the book do.

It's good to know that other first years are hitting the same highs and the same horrible lows in their classrooms and in their lives. It's good to know that other teachers feel so extremely isolated, even in a huge urban center. Other teachers come into a class with no curriculum and no support from administrators. At one point one of the corps members says she could be playing paddy cake in her classes and no one would know. That's what I've been saying all year!!! Only I usually substitute underwater basket weaving or German for paddy cake....

The sections about the Program Director and his struggle to support corps members also hit home. PD's have a tough job. It was nice to know that other corps members out there struggle with the limited support TFA offers which sometimes just feels like an extra burden.

There are lengthy sections of the book about Wendy Kopp and the history of Teach For America as an organization. I'm personally fascinated with the organization and it's success, so I enjoyed those sections. I could imagine readers who were more interested in the teachers being bored by them, however. I knew that TFA is data driven and tracks everything, but reading a little of the behind the scenes drove home the extent to which data and tracking dictate everything.

At the end of the book there seems to be little hope left for the future of the school. The TFA alum who had come on as an idealistic administrator quits to become principal of a charter school. Locke High School's test scores remain awful and violence is on an upswing. The book does not paint a hopeful picture of failing schools. But for anyone out there who thinks there is any kind of quick fix for schools- read this book! I'm going to make my mom read it because she's a professor of project management and I feel like I can never fully explain to her why my school can't just be better managed. This book is the answer, the problems are so complex and pervasive it seems nearly impossible to pull a school out of the spiral of failure.

I almost wish that the book could have included corps members in other regions, especially rural regions, but by following only one school Foote is able to narrow in on the outside factors affecting the city, neighborhood and particular school which are indicative of the factors affecting all high needs districts, urban and rural.

In case you're interested, here are a few differences between TFA LA and TFA SD:
I can't go out to happy hour when I've had a rough day or week.
Going "out" one weeknights is a no-go, but themed house parties are far more plentiful.
Two other corps members work at my school, instead of 22. And 0 alums.
None of my classed are overcrowded.
My school is small, I am the only freshman English teacher, I don't have other teachers to collaborate with or literacy coaches to guide me.
I can't go home to my posh apartment on the nice side of town, I live in a FEMA trailer about 100 yards from school.
I can't unwind by driving to the beach and apparently winter here lasts until mid-April.
My students are all the same race- 99% Native.
Less violence- a few fights, but no guns or shootings and I almost never feel unsafe at school.
The only other people my age in a very large radius are also teachers, predominantly TFA.
I know every current South Dakota corps member (40-ish) and PD (only 1!)
TFA doesn't organize "excellent school visits" for us, I suppose because the nearest excellent school is 300 some miles away.

I tried to list similarities, but they are too numerous. Poverty in America is the same everywhere. Gangs, violence, drugs, broken families, anger, hostility, and hopelessness abound. Trapped in the ghetto or trapped on the rez, it's the same cycle of poverty and oppression and the same struggling schools unable to serve the population that needs an excellent education the most. **One similarity I nearly forgot to mention because to me it goes without saying, is the potential of the students. Black, Latino, or Native; inner city or reservation; they are all just as talented and capable as their wealthier peers when given the opportunity to learn, and there is no doubt that they deserve that opportunity.

I thought that reforming an inner city school would be more possible. After all, it seems like it would be easier to get awesome administrators and teachers to live and work in LA than it would be to get them to move out here, but as it turns out it's not. One thing Locke High School does get, however, is a whole lot more media attention and general awareness of it's existence. Multiple celebrities and high up school officials and politicians visit Locke, and now someone's written a book about it. In the end that may be what will turn urban schools around, enough attention will eventually draw charter schools and education reformers to make radical changes or provide alternative schools in the area.

But what will happen here? Does anyone even know that there is a small failing high school out here? Does anyone care? Who will ever swoop in to save it?

But I digress. A lot. Relentless Pursuit is excellent journalism and as far as my experience goes, portrays 'the good, the bad, and the ugly' (as the principal in the book says) of TFA with great depth and objectivity. Read the book.

Saturday, April 12

Snow Break

"Snow break" seems a more accurate description than "snow day" to describe this weekend. A spring blizzard found its way out to the plains this week, starting Wednesday evening and lasting through Friday afternoon. As a result school was canceled Thursday and Friday.

Because I come from a long line of Minnesota farmers and I'm mildly obsessed with radar weather, here's a radar image of the storm still moving in Thursday morning...

I've spent the last three days being very lazy and it has been glorious. I spent quality down time with great friends who I don't see enough of. There were movies, junk food, chit chat and card games. It hasn't all been mindless though-- I learned to play Spades AND Bridge in the past two days. That's an intense amount of skill and knowledge acquisition.

The down side is that if there were even a tiny bit of momentum left in my classroom before this weekend, it's pretty much going to be dead and gone on Monday. Blah.

There are about 28 days of school left. The light at the end of the tunnel is bright and it is distracting. Great things might happen in my classes before the end of May, or very little of anything might happen. One way or another, I'm going to make it.

Side note:
There was a great travel article on Munich in the NY Times today.
I miss it.
Someday I will live in Europe again.

Sunday, April 6

Herons Nesting

Originally uploaded by photoschwalbe
My dad took this picture in Minnesota this week near our lake house. I like it. I kinda feel like those herons up in the trees waiting for the the ice to melt. I'm ready for summer.

Sickness and Testing

Over Easter break I went on a lovely trip back to Colorado for a few days. Upon returning home I came down with the horrible terrible flu that's been going around and was out sick for the entire 4 day week. Blah. I don't recall ever being that sick before. I've definitely never missed that much school before, as a student or a teacher and I felt pretty guilty about it especially because it was the week before standardize testing started and I missed out on teaching my mini test prep unit. So if my kids get bad scores I'm blaming the flu...

After sitting around my trailer for four days I was pretty ready to go back to school last Monday, but no. We had a snow day. That's right, a SNOW DAY on the very last day of March. Crazy South Dakota weather. I finally went back to school Tuesday and had a fun-filled (read: unbearably tedious) week of administering standardized tests. woo. The tests don't even really count for my 9th graders because the South Dakota state tests used to determine AYP are only given to 11th graders at the high school. So my kids just took the Standford 10 achievement tests, and I have no idea what even happens to those results. I don't think that all standardized testing is a bad thing, in fact it could be a great and useful tool, but pointless and poorly written testing is definitely a bad thing.

Now after two weeks of not actually having to teach anything or prepare anything I feel very derailed. Its hard to be excited about doing anything else the rest of this year when it pretty much just feels like it's all over and on the downward slide. Only about 6 weeks left. And I have to decide what to teach in those remaining weeks when there is SO much stuff we haven't read and learned... so many state standards I haven't even touched on. I'm going to plan better next year. I need to plan better next year.

Sometimes I hate having a job where my decisions dictate the high school literary experience of so many kids... It's a lot of pressure, you know?