Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 07 2010

What to do when you don’t know what to do…

As I write this afternoon, I almost long for the time incentives posed by a ticking clock, mounting bill, and gaggle of travelers.  The emotionally-charged nature of a blog, whether on my experiences abroad or my preparations for teaching, slows my communication as I search for the words to express my myriad emotions, and I am convinced that last summer’s weekly email updates materialized in large part due to the bustling internet cafe from which they were sent.  I’ll do my best despite the different environment here (including wireless internet, a laptop computer, and signs of spring outside the window)…

What excites me most: the responsibilities of heading a classroom.  Seeing connections between my marketing and general coursework here and my life as a teacher [read: Excel and data, investment strategies, and assessment design].  The opportunity to meet awesome corps and community members, including my students, and the chance to teach and learn together.  And finally, something that grabbed me in our campus newspaper, but originally published by David Jennings in the Oklahoma Daily: “Allowing all the layers of ignorance to peel away after being burned by the experience of larger things.”  Powerful stuff.  I’m really looking forward to Teach for America’s ups and downs, and the title of my blog represents the life outlook I bring to TFA.  Namely, things can be enjoyable without always being fun, and the journey, however arduous, is ultimately the reward as well.

I’m in the thick of pre-reading right now and am enjoying the materials presented.  I think the planning will be especially fun and natural for me.  While the achievement gap will continue to astound and anger me–and setting appropriate goals will be difficult in light of it–I do look forward to bringing creativity to the lesson planning process [an aside: to me, creativity is "working differently with results" so this isn't just about fun activities]  My students and I may use code/cipher-writing to learn about number sense, patterns, and data analysis; I’m learning more about this in The Code Book by Simon Singh.  We might create a living number line to study operations with integers.  As for geometry, the paper protractor and other activities from “Toys from Trash” will find their way into the lessons.  In addition, many of the virtual manipulatives here are excellent, either for use on the computer or adaption for classroom (and/or refreshing my own skills).  Aspiring or current math teachers, what is working for you??

I hope my classroom management allows for such active, group-based learning and that as I face the realities of a classroom and of the achievement gap, I can adjust my expectations and plans without sacrificing what I hold as most important.  Two things that surface as important right now are discussing values and life skills / caring for the whole person and also teaching problem solving.  Someone once described problem solving as “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.”  Given how the economy is changing due to globalization and computerization, our education must prepare students to solve problems that go beyond arithmetic and predictable patterns.

One study, albeit years ago, centers on the question, “There are 26 sheep and 10 goats on a ship.  How old is the captain?” to which 80 percent of elementary students responded by adding the two numbers together (Prawat, 1992).  Children saw a problem, chose one of four operators, did the arithmetic, and gave a non-sensical answer.  We have to ask ourselves, “why?”  Have we taught children to read carefully, think critically, and evaluate the answer?  Or have they only been exposed to straightforward “operations” problems?  Granted, there is a lot I don’t know about Prawat’s research, such as the format of the questioning and the age of the children, and about the realities of the classroom [high stakes testing alert!] and I don’t mean to disparage more straightforward problems.  I do think the research commands some introspection as educators and some attention in my classroom.

Compare the sheep and goat problem to the following: “A motorcylclist was sent by the post office to meet a plane at the airport.  The plane landed ahead of schedule, and its mail was taken toward the post office by horse.  After half and hour, the horseman met the motorcyclist on the road and gave him the mail.  The motorcyclist returned to the post office 20 minutes before he was expected.  How many minutes early did the plane land?” adapted from The Moscow Puzzles by Boris Kordemsky and reprinted in Crossing the River with Dogs: Problem Solving for College Students (this one is solvable with the information given, and I’ll post the answer next time!)

One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.

3 Responses

  1. Sara

    Just a few words of advice as you are mentally preparing for your journey… at this stage, I would recommend spending less time thinking about how you want to teach concepts. I’ve worked at the summer institute for three summers and we basically teach you a very specific way to plan. Lesson planning is extremely hard and at the beginning we focus less on the creativity and more on the basic fundamentals. People who had a set idea in their head often end up disappointed/confused/resistant and have a harder time getting started. I think a better idea for right now is to focus on observing classrooms, either in person or virtually, completing your pre-institute readings and reflecting on the broader themes and concepts, and thinking about your transition to a new city. Good luck!

  2. jj CM

    Sara, thank you! Your comment is definitely relevant…it’s a conversation I have with myself often. I need to work for that balance between creativity and fundamentals, and all the other parts of teaching, and I realize it’ll be absolutely hard to come by in the first years. I think you can tell from my post I’m calibrating my expectations already; being humble (and humbled) at institute, when there are tons of people with more experience than I have, also will help. Thank you for your encouragement! Still, my blog wouldn’t be complete without these naive and excited ramblings :)

    This coming week I have two observations; I’ve also completed about half of the pre-institute readings and assigned videos…enough to know that Teach for America does discourage activity-based lessons a little, while still encouraging those that are thoughfully designed and engaging. Aside from the formal work, anything else you recommend (to Sara and others)? A good site beside TFAnet for videos? Sara, thanks again!

  3. Sara

    Great questions! I guess I would say, a blank slate isn’t such a bad thing in this case. However, if you want to make EXTRA sure you are prepared beyond the basics, it might help a lot to spend time “internalizing” (fancy TFA word for memorizing and understanding) the TAL rubric, specifically B1, I1-5, P1 and P3, and E1-5. This is what you will be rating yourself on at institute and if you have a solid understanding of it, your work will be much easier. :-)

    Good luck!

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a Teach For America teacher's blog

Metro Atlanta
Middle School

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