Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 17 2012

Week 1

Phew. Week 1 is done.

I’ve been thinking about writing something all week, but I didn’t want to write a post that was only ranting about how difficult my kids are, which is pretty much how I was feeling by evening every day, so I held off. Today, for the first time all week, I’m actually feeling…OK. But one thing is definitely apparent: this year will be much harder than last year.

I think I can narrow it down to the three most difficult issues.

  1. Attention span. Granted, my kids last year had their days, but the attention span for my current kids appears to be about 5 minutes. If it’s been longer than that without every single one of them doing something (moving around, talking to a partner) I’ve lost three quarters of them. I’ll still have the 5 or 6 who are answering all my questions, but the rest are totally spaced. They are masters of the sit-and-stare, because their past teachers have been OK with them being quiet, even if it means they aren’t listening or learning.
  2. Verbal skills. This is twofold: problem number 1 is that they have low oral language abilities. This means that even more so than most of our kids, they don’t speak in full sentences, don’t know what words mean, and can’t find the words to explain what they want to say. For DIBELs testing, they have to retell a story. I’ve tested 9 of them so far, and 2 of them just repeated words from the passage at random as a retell. Problem number 2 is my own pet peeve: they have no idea how to talk to each other except by whining. “Moooooooooove! Nooooooooooo! Come ooooooooooooooon!” Every time they do it we have to come up with alternate, respectful ways to say things. We play a game: I whine at them annoyingly, and they tell me whether I sound like a fourth-grader or a two-year-old. Guess which one wins, six times a day?
  3. Swiss cheese. Possibly because of the sit-and-stare, they have ENORMOUS holes in their knowledge. Some of them know their multiplication tables but can’t add. They know what a line of symmetry is, but none of them can subtract with regrouping. I am trying to have them organize their notebooks with a table of contents in the front so they can find their notes again later, but this was a problem because only one of them knew what a table of contents was. Every time we think we’re getting nice and cheesy, we run into another giant, stinking hole. And it’s really hard to model how to think about something, how to understand this concept they’re missing, when they can’t pay attention for more than 5 minutes.

So life is tough these days. My whole grade level is reeling from the contrast between last year’s group and this one. One of the other teachers actually has the lowest group by a lot: she has 9 kids who cannot read at all.

But at the same time, there is reason to be hopeful. Today we started place value activities, and because whole-class instruction is totally not working (see #1), and they’re in different places academically (see #3) I split them into 2 groups. Whatever group wasn’t working with me was playing a place value racing game involving changing ones, tens, and hundreds. There were base ten blocks everywhere, desks out of order, kids flopped on the carpet…it was chaos. And then my TFA manager person walked in. But you know what? In the midst of that loud, crazy chaos, they were actually learning! It was focused chaos.

The other promising sign was our conversation at the end of today. We’ve been talking about Core Values (how TFA am I?) like Respect, Empathy, Perseverance, Integrity and Drive all week. Other than Respect, they hadn’t heard these words before and all week were not really getting it. We didn’t even get to a lip-service level of understanding, much less actually influencing behavior. But today at the very end of the day we read the wonderful Dear Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco. It’s about how, as a child, she had a really hard time learning to read and felt stupid until her fifth-grade teacher went above and beyond and helped her learn to read. Periodically throughout the book I asked the kids if they could find examples of our core values, or places where they were missing. Somehow, between yesterday, when they couldn’t even tell me what empathy was, and this afternoon, they did an about-face and not only recognized it, but could explain it out loud. “Her grandma is showing empathy because she really knows how Trisha feels.” “Those boys are not being respectful because they are calling her names.” “She is showing perseverance because she keeps trying.”

Moral of the story? It’s been a rough week. But it just might get better.

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    In which I muse about New Mexico, teaching, and life in general.

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