Well, here goes my first blog attempt.
I will be living and working in Guaimaca, a town in Honduras, starting January 14, 2011. I still do not really know what "working" entails, but I will probably combine some teaching and working in a health clinic.
The service program I am going to be a part of is called the International Extension Program, run by Stonehill College, and is the pioneer year for this program in Honduras. Two other sites, one in the Dominican Republic and one in India, are in their second years. I am looking forward to becoming one of the first year long volunteers at the Guaimaca Mission, which includes the Marie Poussepin Center (a girls school grades 7-12), the St. Rose of Lima health clinic, and the organic Nazareth Farm. Our volunteer group includes two other Stonehill alumni and one Northeastern Coop student...I am very excited to get to know them and start to build our community!
Now that we have less than a month before departure, I suppose I should start to think about packing. I have been preparing all summer and fall for this, but I get the feeling that, no matter what I have done, January 14th will be a huge shock for me. I have received all my vaccinations, taken every opportunity I can get to practice Spanish, started reading up on public health theory and practices, taught myself how to drive stick (and count cards, but I will try not to use that in Honduras), I have read a little about the culture and listened to podcasts, I spent time volunteering in three Detroit classrooms...and I know that, when I step off that plane in Tegucigalpa, none of that will amount to very much. The only thing I know with certainty is that the first month or two (at least) will be extremely difficult. I am only slightly ashamed to admit that there may be some crying.
But, hopefully the rewards will be far greater. I am not the most self-confident person, but I am confident in my ability to step into a difficult situation and to make it better. That quality defined my high school years, helped me define my person in college, and now will help me define my place in the world, post-college.
Below I have posted my pre-service journal, describing experiences I recently had volunteering in three classrooms in Detroit and living with some Teach for America educators for a week. That week not only introduced me to some new aspects of the classroom, but also to some of the factors affecting an impoverished population, indirectly through contact with student achievement, and directly through some experiences walking down Woodward Avenue. The journal is a little long, and pretty rough, but I had a lot of thoughts that I wanted to express.
So, thank you for reading, enjoy, and check back over the next year to read about my experiences working in Honduras!
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
A Brief Glimpse of Life in the Detroit Public Schools
This week I am visiting my girlfriend, who lives in Detroit with several roommates who are teachers with Teach For America (TFA), a service program that trains organized, intelligent and compassionate people to work as effective teachers in underserved school systems. The Detroit school system is just one of the many school systems across the nation that, due to a swirling complexity of cause and effect agents, consistently underperforms. Causal factors include inadequate teacher preparation and motivation and that may also be inconsistent across age levels and districts, an appalling lack of resources and menacing bureaucratic obstacles, to name just a few. However, the Detroit school system is arguably the worst in the country, with a graduation rate of just 32% (25% of boys and 39% of girls).
The city of Detroit itself is as depressing as any American city that has fallen on tough times. I grew up near Hartford, Connecticut a city that has, for as long as I can remember, been attempting to “revitalize” and rebuild on former glory. Hartford’s iconic Colt factory helped define an era of Western expansion, John Wayne movies, law enforcement, civil wars, and two World Wars. Today, the mosque-like blue point on the old factory is crowded out by I-91 and is no longer the center of industry in northern Connecticut. As conspicuously absent as the former glory and influence of the Colt industry is any central location that can be considered the “center” of Hartford; driving through its streets recently, I was struck with the urban sprawl that has deteriorated into rocky, narrow roads hemmed in by low-income housing.
Detroit is somewhat similar, except that it is currently, gruesomely, spasming after the withdrawal of the auto industries. Whereas Hartford has had time to revitalize, much of Detroit is still on the emergency room table, the doctors frantically paddling. Walking through downtown, the cold wind whistles through the nearly vacant streets that are reflected in empty store front windows. You are more likely to meet a homeless man than one walking to work. Today we saw a stray female dog with swollen nipples and a gaunt ribcage that reminded me of the dogs wandering the slums of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Every other building is filled with rubble, either from ceilings collapsing or from floors being torn up, and occasionally you will pass a building where, somehow, all that is left is the front wall.
Driving out of the city, down the streets that radially emanate from the center, the disused skyscrapers turn into blocks of houses, some without roofs, some shedding their outer layers like old reptiles unable to grow a new skin, and some burned and demolished into nothing more than a pile of rubble. However, many of them, even those in the worst condition, have blinds in the windows and are occupied. Before reaching the suburbs and the, literally, gated communities, entire blocks of houses disappear and are replaced by the old prairie grasses--the prairie is only thing that seems to be revitalizing in these parts of town.
This is the backdrop for the lives of tens of thousands of school-age children that usually drop out of high school several grade levels behind. It is also the community that 150 TFA educators entered this fall, for the first time in several years (after being pushed out by teacher unions earlier this decade). Like any other large group, they each have their own strengths and weaknesses, but combined, they form a formidable sword of change and hope for the children who are blessed with their classroom presence.
During my recent visits I became acquainted with a small group of TFA teachers, for whom I hold nothing but the greatest amount of respect. This group of people continues to be amazingly dedicated, self-sacrificing and ambitious in the face of situations that would make most teachers run for the (middle-class) hills--not that every middle-class neighborhood is serviced by a good school and gifted with perfect students. Certainly there are problems with many school districts, but what is so impressive about the TFA teachers whom I met is that they willingly tackle the largest problems in the worst educational systems in America...and most of them never even took courses in education. I have met an architect, one teacher who underwrote deals for multi-million dollar realty deals, another who worked on the Obama presidential campaigns and who also recently published a book, but many more who are fresh out college after taking a traditional liberal arts or science course load. However, what they all share is an undying passion for education, equal opportunities for all children, and the vision of a better future where these children do not become drug dealers, addicts, criminals, or so inundated by the molten flow of poverty that there is no thought possible, beyond simply keeping afloat.
A dash of idealism and global perspective is necessary to become a great teacher, but idealists do not survive in the world that these teachers enter every day. To set up a classroom at 6:30 in the morning, followed by a long day of teaching and after school help, and finally to drive home at 6 pm sounds exhausting enough if you can go home, cook dinner and turn on the TV until passing out. But the time I spent with some of the Detroit corps showed me that life is never that simple for a conscientious teacher in an area with so much need. Every night the teachers come home, dropping stacks of papers on the table and slumping into the chair to vent about a student’s destructive behavior, homework assignments that were not passed in, activities that were not completed, tests that were failed.
After eating a take out meal or a rushed cooked dinner, the teachers immediately begin to work on preparing lesson plans, classroom activities and homework. Cable TV does not exist here because there is no time, and it would only be a waste of their already meager earnings. Not only was I the first to fall asleep a little after midnight each night, but when I woke up to go to the bathroom three hours later, the lights were still on because they were still working. I do not know what happened between three and six, but I prayed they were able to sleep at some point. Of course, some nights their bodies overpower their strong wills, and sleep follows immediately after allowing themselves to stop moving for a moment.
While visiting Detroit this week, I took the opportunity to visit and assist in three classrooms taught by three of the TFA teachers that I met. I visited a first grade, sixth grade and ninth/tenth grade classroom on separate days and learned much each day. Undoubtedly, these three days were a unique opportunity for me as I hope to take what I have learned and observed and apply it to my own future teaching and service jobs, especially while serving in Honduras next year.
The first classroom I visited was a first grade class at a performing arts charter school. Charter schools are public schools, but they are often run more carefully and have a limit on the number of students enrolled, so parents have to enter their children into a lottery to be admitted. When I walked in the door, I was greeted with twenty five open-mouthed stares until the teacher introduced me, at which point about half of them said “Hi, Mr. Matt” and the other half continued to stare, some starting vaguely to smile. After I answered a few questions however, they opened up and I could literally see excitement filling their little bodies as they fought to stay still. Many of them could not stay in one place and started getting out of their chairs, moving around, and yelling out of turn. My friend the teacher quickly stopped this and any other commotions by telling them to show her their active listening positions and by using other techniques that TFA teaches during a six week summer institute.
Behavioral management is a key factor for every teacher, but nowhere is it more important than an environment where gang behavior begins showing up in first grade and where middle school or high school students may be carrying weapons or drugs. By the time students enter high school, they have fallen so far behind grade level that they feel abandoned by the school system and by their teachers, adding to a swirling mess of despair, anger and bitterness that is as crushing to observe as it is to experience. According to one teacher, children in her school experience these feelings as early as the second or third grade because, by that point, they have experienced more than an adult share of loss, failure and pain.
Despite the challenges these first grade students face at home and in their community, they are still children. They still loved me as a visitor and incessantly asked me questions about myself and my life, nearly all of them gave me a hug, hi-five or secret handshake at some point, and when we moved from one class to another, several of them wanted to hold my hand. Many of them do not have strong male role models, and it was astounding to see their wonder at and appreciation of the mere fact that I was willing to help them with their work, read to them, and talk to them.
Every time I work with children at this age, I have noticed that they often appreciate the firm, but caring, presence of an adult. First graders expect adults to be more mature and responsible than they are, and it really confuses them if an adult tries to be their best buddy. Children seem to just feel safer if the adult fills his or her role as a firm, yet fair and loving, caregiver. The teacher of this first grade class and I discussed during lunch how she did not understand why she could get the kids in trouble and yell at them, only to see the students‘ affection for her increase. We talked about the fact that her students may not have adult figures in their lives who show them that kind of care, and when she gives her students an authoritative figure, they benefit from and enjoy her guidance, support and classroom.
It is important to remember how to work with primary school age children, but this is especially true when working in a school system like Detroit or, I expect, Honduras. As a teacher connects with his or her students and learns about their individual stories, it may be tempting to give kids some leeway, to excuse them from something that may be difficult, or to lower expectations. A “helpful” bias such as this one actually does students a disservice because they do not learn the information, but they do learn that they do not have to try as hard to get results because they see that someone will help them out of any situation, even if it is one they could solve with a little effort. It is especially important that children in bad or resource school systems learn the value of hard work early on because their lives will not be easy-- they will face many obstacles and set-backs in both their academic and personal lives. This type of “helpful” bias, although it initially comes from good intentions, is as dangerous as prejudice against poor minority students assuming that they are not as capable as their more affluent or white peers. If teachers enable a “give up because someone will be here to save you” attitude, and children do not learn early on the value of determination and hard work, teachers will have done their students a huge disservice.
In the classroom, the first thing that I did was to tell them a little bit about myself and my college Biology background, which the teacher used as a transition into their first topic, the six groups of animals. Each of the students are working on a book that includes the groups, three facts on each group, and a picture they draw as an example. I walked around and helped them with their books, until it was their lunch time.
Right before lunch they were allowed to ask me three questions--they chose to ask me about college, high school and grades. For example, one student asked whether I always got 100% on my assignments. I tried to answer in a way that reinforced the values they are learning about doing their homework, trying hard, and listening to the teacher, while remaining upbeat and encouraging. It really touched me when two of the students came up to me on their way out and told me that they wanted to go to college--one because his big brother is in college right now (I mentioned something about role models), and the other because he wanted to go and get really good at math. While eating lunch with the teacher later on, I found out that this second boy is the one who has already been showing gang behavior. Apparently, he makes two kids hold down another kid and then tells other children to kick and hit the constrained student. This story really affected me because I had worked with him and found him to be a somewhat shy, motivated student, and because I had high hopes for him when he told me he wanted to go to college for math. I am sure that elementary school teachers see this kind of thing every day: students with promise and dreams falling victim to a random world that does not share the teacher’s vested interest in every child’s future.
While the kids ate lunch their teacher and I sat with them and supervised in a casual manner. During the students’ lunch they all flocked around me and continued to ask me a lot of questions. One thing that kept coming up was their amazement at seeing my blue eyes, which also was a common comment in the DR.
Walking them from lunch to their special, and from the special back to the classroom, a few of them held my hands, which was cute. I knew that I would not get any of the same affection or gratitude from any of the older students that I will work with in the next couple of days, so I enjoyed it while it lasted. First grade in general is a feel good age for me as an observer. I am sure that it would be very different if I had to deal with the kids on a daily basis and if I had to discipline them, but I had a blast the entire time I was there, just as I did when working with the younger kids in the DR.
After the students returned from their vocal class, I read a couple of books to the kids who had behaved the day before when they had a substitute. The other kids had to sit and write a letter home explaining what they did, why it was wrong, and what they will do better in the future. My friend, their teacher, had told me earlier that she was not going to send it home because there is a very good chance that the parents would beat their kids for any behavior like that. However, the exercise was still effective as an overcorrection method, and it definitely seemed to benefit the students. Meanwhile, I was in the back corner reading those books to the “good kids.” They were very excited for this activity, and also very excited to show off their reading skills by reading the sentences while I was. I ended up just letting them each read two pages, and if one of their pages had a picture but no words, I let them make up a continuation of the story. They also really wanted to turn the pages, so I let them turn the page if it was their turn to read.
There were a few moments while I was reading, and the students were helping me read, that were especially gratifying to the teacher, and even to me as an observer. The first was while reading Green Eggs and Ham. When I reached a sentence that was ended with an exclamation mark and the last word was capitalized (“I do not like green eggs and ham ANYWHERE!”), I did not put enough emphasis on that last word, so they all made me go back and do it with the proper amount of force. This moment was cool because it not only showed that they were following along and able to read the words I was reading, but they comprehended what was going on and started putting together several rules into an understanding and analysis of what they read.
The second instance when I had to stop and appreciate how smart these kids are occurred when they made up a continuation of the story on the pages that did not have words. The narratives they told fit well with the rest of the story, showing again their comprehension, but were also creative enough that they were using their imaginations. Additionally, they tried to make their own pieces of the story rhyme, just like the books we read were doing. If there is still anyone out there who believes that inner city kids just cannot perform as well as students from more affluent areas, I defy him or her to read a story to a group of kids who have had decent teachers, teachers who are motivated, care about their students, and know what they are doing.
Finally, I was very impressed with the students’ imagination and creativity after we read a story called A Bad, Bad Day. When we finished reading this story, some of them were upset that they had not had a chance to read a page, and one of them asked if she could tell me about a bad day that she had. When this student mentioned her idea, naturally everyone else wanted to share about their bad days as well. At first I was nervous because I thought that these students had probably had some really bad days, compared to any bad day that I may have had when I was their age, and I did not want to bring that up and hurt any of them.
Children, however, are resilient, creative, and above all, unpredictable. We heard from one or two students who mentioned bad days like the one who said her father burned down their house, but many of the other bad days we heard about were stories about running late for school and tripping over untied shoe laces. Towards the middle of the group, one of the students told a story about falling face first into a cake, and after we all laughed at that, all of the other students suddenly came alive. They were all excited, and they all made up stories similar to that first one (most of them involved cake on their faces) that got more absurd and more comical every time. Moments like these remind the teacher of hope and potential, even in a world where six year old children have had to watch their fathers burn down their homes.
After the book reading, when the other students had completed their apology letters, the teacher started a lesson on nouns. I sat with and tried to help a boy who, according to my teacher friend, does not have strong male role models but who has been responding well to adult male attention. I had also worked with him before lunch and tried to set a good example of the active listening position and the correct way to act in class, which I continued to do when I rejoined all of the students during the lesson on nouns. He really benefitted from the help in just that short amount of time and did a better job of paying attention, then did a better job on the classwork assignment as a result. During that assignment I hovered around that group of desks, where the children who struggled more than their classmates sat. Seeing the lightbulb turn on and the subsequent joy and pride was really rewarding, similar to the feeling I get when something like that happens during my tutoring.
When it was time to leave, they all gathered around and we took a couple of pictures, before most of them gave me a hug, hi-five, or our practiced secret handshake. I left the class very happy and feeling good about teaching in general. There were a few lessons that I took with me, including a few of the behavioral management techniques that could be valuable with children in a lower grade. When I am teaching in Honduras, the youngest students I will have will be twelve years old, but some of the behavioral techniques may still be useful, or they at least get me thinking about that side of the classroom, which goes hand in hand with lesson planning.
More important than any specific technique, however, was the confidence I gained from interacting with that many children in a classroom. Initially I was unsure about whether or not I could command respect as well as be liked by a large group of students, but the group work I did with some of the students and the results I got when I said something like “I will answer the question of someone who is sitting down and quietly raising their hand” were quite affirming. The tutoring I have done this fall was very different because it was one on one and in a more relaxed atmosphere, but today’s classroom experience helped me develop some confidence in my ability to relate and instruct a group of children. This is very important to me because when I go to Honduras and teach, I will be worrying about enough between the language, culture and course material that a little bit of confidence in front of the classroom will go a long way.
Today I went into a high school Biology classroom at a public technical school and helped out another one of the teachers I lived with this week. She is teaching five classes of 9th grade Bio, but her classes also include a fair number of 10th grade students and a few 11th and 12th grade students who have obviously fallen pretty far behind. I was there for her last three classes, which include her two worst classes and her best class, so it was an interesting contrast.
The first class I was there for had 38 people and the last class had 35, so it is definitely hard for her to give any individualized attention in addition to classroom notes and activities. She began all of her classes with a word problem on the projector to read through and answer a few questions about the information, which was not turned in, but kept in the students’ notebooks. After they settled in, she introduced me and I started almost immediately with assisting her students. Both the first and last classes began with an activity to practice their previous lessons on photosynthesis, which ended up being a useful, creative, way to learn the basics of this complex process. I have been trying to think of, and keep my mind open to, alternative ways to teach science courses besides simply lecturing and giving notes.
After the photosynthesis activity, the first and last classes began notes on cellular respiration. I was extremely impressed with the teacher’s level of organization; she had every notes page labeled for the unit and passed out in outline form to the students. These guided notes seemed effective because they eliminated the extra time that a student might spend drawing the diagram or writing the outline categories. Instead, they can just pay attention to the verbal information and fill the information in on their pages.
One drawback to guided notes is that when students have notes already in front of them, even if they have to fill it out, they can space out and just automatically fill in answers. In fact, I have often observed this problem during my tutoring this fall, especially with my Chemistry student. Therefore, notes (especially science notes, which can be dry) need to be engaging enough that the student is required to pay attention, or the follow-up activities need to immediately reinforce the information so that they are actively working through what was given in a lecture.
Active reinforcement teaching, as opposed to a lecture hall style of teaching, is a crucial aspect of effective teaching at the high school level, and I am grateful for the opportunity I had today to observe it in action. The majority of the last six years of my schooling, four years of college and two years of AP courses, were lecture style courses, so even this brief exposure to an active learning style was helpful.
My friend’s second class only had ten people in it, and it was pretty obvious what the difference was in classroom management and student achievement between the smaller and larger classes. The small class did not start with the photosynthesis exercise, but instead dove right into notes on cellular respiration and even took it at a more leisurely pace. They finished the cellular respiration notes about halfway through the class and then worked on an art project that incorporated information from both photosynthesis and cellular respiration.
While they worked on the art project I moved around the room and helped them with it, but I tried to help them with leading questions and by pulling information out of them that they know but may not know how to use yet. This skill is one that I have started to develop this fall while tutoring my students, and is one I hope I can continue to use and elaborate on when teaching larger groups. I also asked the students to explain the steps to me in their own words, something that I think tests comprehension and the ability to apply information. For example, it is not enough for a student to say that glycolysis is the process that breaks down glucose and forms energy, I want to hear about each step, where they all occur and why the step/end result is important. Today was a valuable way to practice these skills, as well as learn new active teaching and behavioral management skills for high school aged students. In the meantime, I gained a fair amount of confidence that will hopefully carry over to teaching classes in Honduras.
While walking around to help students with the activities and notes, I noticed that having someone else in the classroom, besides the teacher, is extremely beneficial in large classrooms. The teacher later told me that her students had a much better understanding of the material than they would have without my help, simply because more students were able to receive attention and get their questions answered.
The benefits I observed from the simple assistance that I provided in the classroom got me thinking about a strategy that I may try to implement while teaching in Honduras. If I am teaching and come to a particularly complicated or difficult subject, I may try to develop a system that uses one student as a “student expert,” or an “alumna profesional.” I could teach a student about the topic or activities ahead of time and use her help during these lessons the same way that I helped out in my friends‘ classes. That way, if I have trouble reaching all of the students and giving them all enough attention, they could get some support from a peer. I expect that another advantage to this strategy would be that having a peer help out would be good for overall performance. If students see that one of their peers can do the activity and understand the lesson, they will hopefully be more motivated. Random ideas like this made my work in the classrooms invaluable, even if the ideas themselves do not exactly pan out.
Behavior wise, the transition moments were the hardest to manage, and obviously the same tricks that work in first grade do not work in high school. The attitude with which one approaches a class of high schoolers that do not care about what they are learning, who can find several distractions in virtually anything besides the class material, is much more authoritarian.
If given any leeway, these high school students take it and abuse it to the point where the teacher becomes chronically ineffective. Whenever I asked a student to do something or told them to fix an errant behavior, I made an effort to be more firm than I usually would have been. I am generally an easy-going, soft-spoken person and sometimes I find it hard to be mean (in a good way), which is often what is required in these classrooms. However, I was pleased with the results because the students listened to me and I was able to gain a little confidence in my ability to be firm in situations where students are disruptive.
For example, several students would get out of their seats during class and walk around. When I could do it without causing more of a classroom disruption, I took them aside and asked their name, then addressed them by their name and assertively told them to return to their seats, which worked for the most part. I also did something similar if there were students disrupting class in other ways, like one student who was wrapping her scarf around her face to get a laugh out of people sitting near her.
There were also some issues at the high school level that just do not exist in the lower grades. For example, one student asked me in the middle of a lecture if I played a certain video game, so I told him that was not an appropriate topic for class but that he could talk to me after class if he wanted. Also, in these classes I had to deal with many more comments from the girls on my blue eyes, and a few more comments that were more inappropriate. For instance, after one girl made a comment about my eyes, the teacher told her to not cross the line, but the student immediately asked me if I had any kids. When I said that I did not, she asked me if I wanted any, which initially surprised me so much that I just stared at her. When I could think of something to say, I told her that that comment crossed the line and to sit down. Secretly, I found it a little funny because I could tell that she was mostly joking, but it is still not something that is appropriate for a classroom.
Dealing with the behavioral problems in the high school classes really showed me another side to the issue of classroom management. For example, I always worried that if I were to teach a high school or college level class I would have to deal with girls who are trying to get a better grade, and now I see that it is a definite possibility. I suppose I should learn some dirty words in Spanish so that I know if my students in Honduras are saying anything about me behind my back. This class also exposed me to the unruly behavior--students speaking out, getting out of their seats, not paying attention and not taking notes--that any classroom has to deal with, but which is especially prevalent in a classroom in an underserved area like Detroit.
In addition to classroom behavioral problems, there are problems associated with working in a poor and insecure area that the TFA teachers have to deal with in Detroit and that I may have to deal with in Honduras. For instance, while I was working in the last class of the day, three young men tried to steal a car from the parking lot. The officer who works at the school spotted them and interrupted the effort, and two of them got away in the car they came in. The other thief was already in the car and tried to get away, but the officer shot at him and hit him. The car was later recovered, but I do not know what happened to the boy who was shot.
Luckily security is pretty tight at this school and nothing worse happened--the car was recovered and none of the students or teachers were hurt so, overall, the situation was not as bad as it could have been. I could see that security was important to the school as soon as I arrived. The first clue was that it was very hard to find an unlocked door into the building, but when I finally found a door, I had to walk through a metal detector and toward a security booth with one guard; the other guard was down the hall. Seeing and hearing about these issues made me realize just how much of a concern safety is in an area like Detroit. I do not know what Guaimaca is like, but if its cycles of poverty lead to similar results as the cycles here in the US, I will be more prepared to be aware and careful than I was before working in the Detroit schools. There is a certain level of trust and naivety that we walk around with every day that we take for granted...I expect this feeling to be challenged and redefined while while in Honduras.
Finally, at the end of the day, I attended two after school activities. The first was a meeting of the poetry club that one of the other TFA teachers I have gotten to know has started this year. This meeting was very interesting to me because I am interested in and write poetry, and it was also an example of a contribution that can be made outside of the classroom. Some of the poetry read at this meeting was really very powerful because it was raw and full of emotion and heartache that I have never known. I took two creative writing poetry courses at Stonehill, but none of the poetry that any of us wrote was similar to the poetry I heard read today. It is amazing how different expressions of oneself can be, even when the cultures are not that distant politically and geographically.
The second after school activity I attended was a hip hop dance club rehearsal, a club started by the TFA Biology teacher. Again, this was a form of expression that I have never really experienced, and it was extremely interesting to observe and to be a part of. Both of the clubs I attended emphasized the fact that extra-scholastic activities are valuable to student expression and involvement, and they got me thinking about what I will want to try to start up in Guaimaca. I am interested in academic clubs like a poetry or science club, but I also have a background and interest in athletics that I hope I can exploit and offer to students at the mission.
The final day of my classroom experience in Detroit was in a sixth grade science class. These students are currently learning the rock cycle and its place in the changing face of Earth. Like the other teachers, this teacher started with a Do Now question, which by now I understand to be an effective way to get students to sit down and start out on task, instead of coming in and talking. It saves time in the beginning of the period, and if it is routinely assigned, I could see it becoming an important part of my future classroom style.
After working on the Do Now problem, the teacher reviewed the rock cycle with the class by asking their input as he illustrated each step on the whiteboard. Next, he briefly took them through a powerpoint that gave a slightly more detailed review. The main part of class, however, consisted of a lab assignment using crayons. Students “weathered” the crayons by shaving them with a penny and then compressed, compressed and heated, or melted the crayons to simulate different steps of the rock cycle. As the students completed this lab, they observed and recorded the appearance at each step. The lab was as much about teaching the students how to follow directions as it was about the rock cycle; there were several steps that had to be followed precisely to observe the desired effects and draw the correct conclusions.
During the lab my girlfriend (she was also helping out) and I walked around and helped the students with anything from lighting the candles to understanding the relationship between what they were doing and the rock cycle. It is easy to forget at this age that students may not be able to see the relationship between two disparate processes. That is, what seems like a simple analogy to us, like melting crayons represent lava and the hardened wax represents igneous rock, is really quite foreign to a sixth grader who barely understands the rock cycle anyway. Therefore, it was an important reminder to me that you cannot take anything for granted and that some concepts may require an explanation, even if it appears easy.
A couple of children gave me some trouble simply because they were hyper and did not want to listen or take the time to read and understand the directions. One boy in particular was constantly out of his seat and doing something he was not supposed to, such as playing with the candle wax or slamming his textbook down on his crayon shavings so loud that everyone in the room jumped. I actually thought he may have been drunk. I definitely smelled something on his breath but I could not tell if the smell was his gum or Hypnotiq.
However, I made sure to try and engage him in the lesson by getting him to work with his partner and making sure that he was making his observations and drawing his pictures. In addition, I would occasionally come over and ask him a question about what he was doing to both check his understanding and to keep him focused and thinking about the purpose of the lab. I felt a little bad for his partner because she was definitely one of the most motivated students in the class, and also pretty smart. She asked intelligent questions about the analysis questions at the end of the exercise, which I was glad to answer.
One of the techniques that the teacher used as behavior modification was a system of rewards, rather than punishment. Every time a group of students was behaving well--listening, taking notes and remaining in their seats quietly--he would make a mark on their section of the board. I do not know what the end result is, but I guess the obvious is that, after a group earns a certain amount of tallies, that group is rewarded. I liked this style of management because it encouraged students using positive reinforcement, and encouraged groups to look out for and monitor the members. However, it did not have as immediate an effect as a negative reinforcer or a punishment would; hopefully it works better in the long term.
Out of the three ages, middle school is the age that I feel the least at home with. For some reason it is harder for me to connect with students of this age because they are usually not old enough to have intelligent discussions or in-depth lessons with. However, they are also too old to connect with the way one can do with first grade students who really look up to a good teacher as a role model. That said, I do appreciate the fact that the middle school years are so formative. Experiences in elementary school are formative, but the fact is that students do not remember much of the elementary years. In contrast, middle school is when a person’s identity first starts to form and when a quality education experience can really set the tone for a high school, and potentially college, career.
The administrators of this middle school recognized this fact and developed a top-tier school that takes advantage of development that occurs in middle school. This charter school, in its first year, only has sixth grade this year, but will add a grade each year until it includes grades six through twelve. The sixth grade students currently in the school are guaranteed a place in each subsequent grade and will stay in the school until graduation. The entire curriculum, starting in sixth grade, is geared towards preparing students for admission to and success in college.
Schools started by the same group under the same leadership and curriculum across the country have had amazing success rates. For instance, a Houston school that this Detroit school is modeled after had a 100% graduation rate and a 100% acceptance rate to four year colleges, including top schools like Harvard and Princeton. This is compared to a graduation rate of 42% for the Houston school district (remember, Detroit’s graduation rate is even lower, at 32%). These numbers are nothing short of amazing, and bodes well for these sixth grade Detroit students.
The time I spent in Detroit with several TFA educators was eye-opening in several ways. First, the experience afforded me an opportunity to gain exposure to a city that is struggling with crushing issues such as poverty and vast social inequality. Additionally, I gained invaluable experience in the classroom that showed me how both the academic and behavioral aspects of classroom management are performed. I plan and hope to use the experience to better prepare and perform while serving in Honduras.