Hitting the Road

At some point during the course of my educational endeavors at Penn State, I developed a theory that teaching is a lot like driving. Not in the sense of actually maneuvering a vehicle (although I’m sure that simile could be effectively made). Rather, I mean it in the sense that it requires a learning period in which an experienced professional takes you under their wing in order to teach you to effectively perform. This person serves as a guide to show you the ropes of a practice that before you’d only ever seen or read about. But as I’m sure any driver can attest to, the majority of your learning doesn’t happen when a mentor’s beside you in the car. It happens after you get your license and find yourself alone in the car, foot on the gas, hoping that neither of the two semi-trucks on either side of you decide they need to merge into your lane.

A driving coach can’t predict every situation that you might find yourself in. What they can do is provide you with a set of basic tools for you to hone in the hopes of being able handling whatever is thrown your way.

I think teaching works this same way. Before awarded your teaching certificate and the ability to teach a classroom full of students on your own, a mentor teacher (or teachers) is required to help you develop enough as a professional to handle this task. They do this by providing you with skills, advice, and guidance through practicum experiences. Once you’ve demonstrated proper understanding of the profession, it’s time for you to take those skills you’ve learned and head out to begin teaching on your own. And that’s where the fun begins.

This past week and a half in the Robert Vaux High School has been this kind of learning experience for me. Under the guidance of my mentor teacher and a host of other school professionals, I’ve learned a great deal about many different aspects of what’s required to effectively teach in a secondary school.

This opportunity, coupled with my coursework and other practicum experiences I have down the line, will help me become the best teacher I can be.

Being that this is my final blog, I’m going to post some of the most important things I’ve taken away from my time in Philadelphia. To begin, I want to note the importance of the six guidelines from Corbett and Wilson’s “What Urban Students Say”, specifically the point about needing to push students. Through observing multiple teachers in Robert Vaux High School, I’ve noticed just how vital this is to getting students to actually work towards their full potential. Without the constant poking and prodding of their teachers, most students wouldn’t even lift a pencil. However, through a teacher’s constant insistence on work, some students are actually driven to perform at a level that they hadn’t previously thought themselves capable of. In the case of one English student, she found herself to be a more competent writer than she ever dreamed. I daresay she grew to like putting a pen to paper.

On a very similar note I observed a good deal on the topic of discipline. Coupled with this is the idea of order in the classroom, an element of the utmost importance as described by Mr. Carter during one of our professional development sessions. I had the good fortune to see how different teachers handled the duality of order and discipline in different ways. From these at times contrasting methods, I was able to form a rudimentary theory on how I would like to cover them in my own classroom. Mr. Krieger, the mentor teacher I was specifically paired with, isn’t the sternest of disciplinarians. He rarely ever raises his voice, and I never heard utter the “D” word. But that doesn’t mean his class lacked order. For the most part his students behave, albeit with a few dissidents in the mix. It wasn’t through fear of punishments that his students complied with him. Rather, it seemed to be respect.

You see, Mr. Krieger has good relationships with a lot of his students. He’s considered to be one of the “cool” teachers around the school. It’s not hard to see why. He’s always quick to joke with his pupils, and usually has an air of good humor about him. He also helps his students as often as he can, either with homework or, with one (what I think to be) very appropriate exception, monetary means. I think his students recognize and appreciate these attributes. They respect him, and through that comply with his wishes that they do at least some of their work. It’s not a forced respect. We all know how damaging and ill-conducive to pretty much anything that can be.

However, I noticed a tendency of some students to try and take advantage of Mr. Krieger. This became apparent when I saw their behavior in other, more strict teachers’ classes. Some students are overly disruptive when in Mr. Krieger’s class, whether through drifting in and out of the classroom, spending an entire period with their iPods in ear, or speaking loudly and out of turn.

Because of these disruptions I came to the conclusion that Mr. Krieger’s degree of respect with his students is definitely something to model. However, I’d like to take a stricter approach in my own classroom. Like other teachers I observed, I would like to keep a tighter shift and try to establish a more rigid classroom order (hopefully without sacrificing too much good humor. I noticed that, too.).

This isn’t to say that Mr. Krieger is naïve when it comes to discipline. There are some formerly disruptive students that he’s learned to deal with quite well. The key word here is learned. As was stressed in last night’s professional development, every student has different needs. This includes discipline. For some students, Mr. Krieger has identified what works in terms of discipline and has used that to better both student achievement and classroom order. I took this away as one of the most important things a teacher should remember upon attempting to manage a classroom.

This goes back to the importance of having close, positive relationships with students. It can help a teacher recognize what their students need to succeed. In some cases, it can even help them to crack a student’s “tough” exterior and realize that they’re not that bad, or slow, or stupid of a student after all. They just need an extra something to get them going. Building relationships and being intuitive enough to look for this extra something is what separates the good from the great. Respect, discipline, and close student relationships all work together to help build a positive, effective classroom environment.

I also learned the importance of keeping on your feet when teaching a classroom. There isn’t a second for a teacher to let themselves slide. I learned this lesson first hand yesterday as I gave my first lesson to a class by myself. Between PA interruptions, phone calls, students strolling into class late, and other teachers knocking on the door, a teacher needs to expect the unexpected. These are the types of things that, like some idiot driver’s risky traffic maneuver, you can’t be specifically taught to deal with. A degree of improvisational skill and ingenuity are required.

A final leaf from Vaux High’s book that I took to heart was multiple teachers’ insistence that at the end of the day, you can remember to laugh. Teaching can carry a pretty heavy emotional load. But as long as you can remind yourself not to take anything too personally and to be able to laugh and keep as much of a semblance of good humor as possible, you stand a better chance of making it through each and every day. I use a day by day scale because, as Mr. Krieger noted several times, baby steps get you through it.

Obviously, I also learned a lot in terms of specific ways of organizing lessons, leading class discussions, different class activities, etc. that I’ll be sure to take with me. But in the interest of blog space and readability, I won’t delve into each and every detail. Suffice to say, I actually learned a good deal more than I figured I would. But I suppose that’s because one can never measure what they’ll learn before they learn it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t need to learn it.

So now that I’ve come this far, I plan to take these valuable lessons with me throughout the rest of my college years and beyond. These are now part of my tool box, and I’ll draw on them as a solid starting point when I find myself alone behind the wheel. Hopefully, I’ll be up to the task. One can never quite know what a journey has in store for them.

Blog #2 – Small Victories: A Reflection on Progress in Urban School Reform

For the past week or so I’ve spent a considerable amount of time considering what it takes to reform a poor performing urban school. This consideration has been bolstered by material read for our seminar, including the six “guidelines” for an effective urban teacher. However, throughout this thought process one crucial aspect seemed to escape me: what exactly constitutes progress for an urban school, and how is this measured? Should it be determined by objective standards such as those that form the basis of standardized testing? Should it be through comparison with schools in similar situations? Can two schools be fairly compared to each other to determine either one’s progress, or lack thereof?

My first day’s experience in the Robert Vaux High School ignited these thoughts. Throughout the day I was continuously shocked by three aspects of the school: student performance, student behavior, and the teachers’ opinion of overall school progress. These elements are holistic. Behavior and performance are intricately intertwined, and the combination of the two informs the overall direction of school progress. Because progress is the direct product of the union of behavior and performance, I was very surprised to hear that teacher opinion was generally that the school was improving. Why was this so surprising? Mainly because the student behavior and performance I observed were more akin to elementary school misfits than high school juniors.

To summarize, I witnessed a display of behaviors that could never pass in any high school that I’d previously observed. The most striking was the vulgarity. Obscenities passed easily and unchecked as air in Vaux High School. Students were openly profane, not deigning to censure themselves even in the face of their instructors. And the instructors’ response? To quote my mentor teacher Mr. Krieger, an English instructor wrapping up his first year as a professional educator, “You have to pick the hill you want to die on.” (Morbid, but after some consideration, not entirely inappropriate) The issue of profanity in Vaux High School could easily be the subject of an entirely separate and complete blog, so I won’t delve into it completely here. The important take away is this: it’s rampant, unchecked, and most of the teachers are okay with that.

The other behaviors that astonished me were the frequent use of iPods and cell phones in and outside of the classroom, including during actual class time. I watched some students spend their entire fifty-five minute periods as venerable phone zombies. Likewise, many students’ ear buds never left their ears. And once again, some teachers were absolutely fine with that. When a shocked I asked Mr. Krieger about this weird phenomenon, he explained to me that once again you have to pick your battles. This somewhat makes sense when one considers that not every student spent their day tuned into their iPod or cell phone. While a majority of the students spent their class time either talking amongst themselves or engaged in some other non-academic behavior, some students actually did work. And this work was encouraged by Mr. Krieger who, after explaining the basis of his lessons, spent the rest of the class prying and prodding his students to complete their assignments in an earnest effort to engage them. Being an English class, these assignments consisted of plot-mapping stories, answering reading comprehension questions, and in one class, translating information from a novel into data that could be used as the basis of a cohesive, sensible essay (which one got the feeling few of the students had written before).

So out of the students who did complete their work, how did their performance stack up? Once again, nothing that I would normally attribute to high school juniors. For example, a comprehension question based on the beginning of a short story consisted simply of: “What did you like about the beginning of this story? Please provide details from the text.” Most of the answers (from the probably 50% of the class who put down their phones long enough to answer them) consisted of something along the lines of: “I liked it because I could relate to it.” This answer hardly provides evidence of comprehension. However, Mr. Krieger wasn’t upset by it. Similarly, Mr. Krieger showed me students’ worksheet packets for his creative writing class’ poetry unit. Some students completed only half of the required writing, which consisted of answering comprehension questions of poems, brainstorming for personal poems, and the actual completion of personal poems. Mr. Krieger didn’t consider the half-completed packets to be a failure. Instead, for some students they were a rousing success. This brings me back to my point on how one measures progress.

Robert Vaux High School is a Promise Academy School, meaning that it was one of Philadelphia’s lowest achieving schools that recently underwent sweeping reforms to try and improve student achievement. These reforms included the acquisition of student uniforms, lengthening the school day by an hour, holding school on two Saturdays a month, and a host of new and fresh teachers. The reason why my mentor teacher considered the performance he received in his class as progress, despite how it may stand up against most other high schools in the nation, is directly related to the school’s unique condition. Compared to how Mr. Krieger’s students performed at the beginning of the year they are now doing much better. This “much better” may translate to a few scribbled sentences on a piece of paper. But held next to the blank sheet that would’ve previously been the case, this is progress.

Considering this, I’ve come to a conclusion that progress is unique to each school, as each school is a unique unit in a unique situation. Urban school reform doesn’t have a single face. It has as many faces as there are schools. This morning I was astounded by what I was witnessing at Vaux High School. The teachers’ methods seemed almost absurd, completely out of line with what we’d read about behaviors necessary to reform. But taking into account the school’s situation, I’ve come away with a different view of the situation. The Vaux High School is an urban school on the road to increased achievement, very literally one student at a time.

Mr. Krieger’s mantra throughout the day was simple: “little victories.” A mantra is part of Hindu tradition, and is similar to a motto. It is a syllable or word that is believed to have the power to “create transformation.” This is exactly what urban school reform proposes to do. Mr. Krieger’s insistence on these “little victories” is his way of creating change. In the instance of his environment, this is all one can hope for on the path to success through school reform.

Mr. Krieger’s path to school improvement has a lot in common with something we’re all very familiar with: the pyramids of Egypt. These pyramids have survived for millennia despite living in the midst of harsh desert conditions. How? Through a strong, solid foundation built piece by piece. This video shows (through stop-motion and Lego) the piece-by-piece construction of a pyramid.

Urban education reform works much in the same way. Through his insistence of small, step-by-step victories Mr. Krieger is doing the best he can to build a solid foundation for urban schools to build stability upon. This is a process that, much like the pyramids, takes an abundance of time and energy. But it has to start somewhere. The only difference between that and the video is that, unlike the Legos, students don’t move into place on their own. They need a hand to guide them.

Now I know that the improvement of urban schools won’t be swift and sweeping, and I believe that this is a very important observation for me to make early on in this seminar. Sometimes, a student’s compliance to write a few lines of a poem that they wouldn’t have a month before is just as important as overall improved PSSA scores. To carry on the metaphor of famous constructs, Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Sadly, I don’t believe that enough people recognize this. As is obvious through my own prior ignorance of this fact, not enough is generally known in the public domain of what urban schooling is really like, and how reform and progress will really look.

Robert Vaux High School definitely isn’t perfect. Today gave me a lot to chew over, and I’m still chewing. There was a lot that I don’t agree with, such as the reticence to address vulgarities and a student who Mr. Krieger “pacified” by giving him a laptop to play on throughout class so that he didn’t disturb his peers. However, it’s important to note that I don’t consider this to be Mr. Krieger’s fault. The student has learning disabilities, yet is expected to function in a normal classroom setting without additional help. Sadly, Mr. Krieger, a first year teacher, hasn’t the education or resources to deal with such a student. This is certainly not progress.  In addition, the school’s cast of relatively inexperienced teachers compounds these problems. But the high school is making some progress, and acknowledges that at least through its small victories it’s doing so.

The Great Pyramids of Giza are considered to be one of the Eight Wonders of the World, man-made constructs that continually inspire wonder and awe throughout the ages. With enough time, energy, and dedication, perhaps the reform of urban school in Philadelphia and beyond can inspire that same sense of beauty of wonderment as a manifestation of human innovation and ingenuity.

Frank Caputo-Blog #1- Note to Educators

Hope is the Thing With Feathers

by Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

Much like Emily Dickinson, hope to me has always existed without sacrifice. I’ve always considered it to be a thing akin to air: easily accessible, infinitely renewable, and at no cost. Also like air, I considered it to be a necessity for life, something that invigorates and renews. It’s like a crutch, and you can’t stand without it. And best of all, it’s never “asked a crumb of me.”

However, this can’t be said for everyone. For some, hope isn’t a constant. Hope, that elixir of a broken soul, is a rarity. That thought it horrifying to me. Consider the gravity of that for a second. For example, imagine trying to go about a simple household task without the hope that in the end you’ll be finished, happy, and something will have been accomplished. How terrible would mowing the lawn be if you couldn’t envision it’s stopping? If you couldn’t imagine it’s not going on forever? It’s a nightmare of Kafka-like proportions. In order to make it through a bad situation, one needs hope, just like one needs air to make it from point A to point B.

The article “Note to Educators: Hope Required When Growing Roses in Concrete” works to drive this point home. It rightly paints Hope as the main ingredient missing in the remedy for Urban School inequities. It denounces false hopes currently plaguing the system. Instead, it preaches a new, active hope that can actually make a difference: critical hope. This involves not teaching in a vacuum of pure academia. An emotional aspect is necessary for this. Hope is necessary for this. Through an educator’s hope, they can engender that same hope in their students and overcome the manifold barriers mucking up urban education.

I think this thought is a great way to begin this seminar. Being the type of students highlighted in the article as the future of education (for better or worse), it’s important that we’re cognizant of this idea of hope as a medicine, not standardized testing or merit pay.  But before one has hope for something that they can help to foster in others, they need to experience the origin of hope’s need. I don’t know what it’s like to be a student in an urban school. I’ve never been a racial minority, and I’ve never lived in poverty. In truth, I don’t know where these students are coming from. Yes, I understand the grave inequities and social stressors assaulting urban school students, but I don’t know what it feels like to be in the midst of them. Because of this, I feel that this seminar, through allowing me to interact with this environment, can enlighten me.

Through observing and interacting with students and people in the field, I believe that this seminar will help me procure a thorough understand of this pain and this need.

It’s strange that I want to teach in an urban school even though I’ve never attended anything close to one. The genesis of this idea came during my observation time freshman year when I was placed in an urban high school, Reading Area High School. The teacher that I observed under was much like me, never having attended an urban school. Nonetheless, she regarded teaching in one as the most rewarding experience of her life. She felt she was really making a difference in not only the education, but the lives (even though they’re pretty much inseparable) of her students. And though they didn’t always show it, they appreciated it as well.

These words had an impact on me. Maslow’s hierarchy’s highest level is self-actualization: doing something meaningful, living with agency, and reaching out beyond yourself. Helping someone, really changing someone’s life, teaching a man how to fish, is the noblest thing one can do. These thoughts worked themselves over in my head, and eventually I came to the conclusion that I wanted to teach in urban schools. I wanted to make a difference where differences really needed to be made.

Now that I know more about issues with urban schools, this seminar is a great way to begin to get myself involved, and to begin to understand just what Jeffrey M.R. Duncan-Andrade declares as the Achilles’ Heel of urban school and social inequities: hope. It didn’t take much consideration to realize the truth of what Andrade is saying. I’m pretty confidant in the wisdom of his words. The next step is to, in my first steps into Socratic Hope, begin to understand the root of the hope so critical to education.

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