Careful, The Stage Is Slippery; However, The Show Must Go On

I have been providing you with more fun entries lately, but in this one I really want to shed some light on what I feel is important.  I hope that you will take away something positive from this entry, but if the following bores you, I am sorry; I feel as though it is important to share some things that I have noticed.

After spending 2 weeks in an urban classroom, I have made a lot of adjustments in my views of what teaching is, how to be a good teacher, and how to make a positive impact in students’ lives.  The fact of the matter is teaching is not as easy as you think it is.  I have many friends that are in engineering, and other ridiculously hard majors, that tell me my classes are easy and that I should not be complaining about my workload.  Well let me tell you something, teaching is not easy, not in the slightest bit.  Is it fun and rewarding, absolutely, but only if you work hard at it, it doesn’t come easy, just like everything else in life.

I think that I should share the 3 things that I feel are the most important concepts that I have learned about teaching in the past 2 weeks.  I obviously do not know everything about teaching, but I feel as though I have vastly improved my knowledge about what is crucial and what can be placed aside during teaching.  I challenge everyone that reads the following to respond, tell me what you think.  I want to know if you agree or disagree, and if you do disagree tell me why and what you would change.  I feel it would be really valuable for both parties that are involved.

The first thing that I have learned is that when you are trying to manage your classroom there are 2 important things that you need to possess and display to your students.  The first if these is that you need to show that you care.  You need to care about the students, you need to care about the material, and honestly you need to care about yourself.  Each and every student needs to be cared for, and I have seen that strongly displayed throughout my classes.  My students act out a lot, they are loud and that could seem disruptive, and it is, but that is not the only thing that it is, there is a lot that is under the surface.  I did not buy that fact until I heard about the horrible home lives that a lot of my students have, and how that the attention they get here, be good or bad, is the most of the fulfilling moment of the day. You need to care about the subject; I have seen the students not care about other subjects in my school because the teacher does not care.  If you want your students to respect you and the class, you need to care about the knowledge that you are feeding them.  And, for real, don’t laugh or brush this off, you need to respect yourself.  You need to be confident in your abilities, and you need to be strong in your discipline.  I am the type of person that hates to be “mean” to other people.  I cannot do it.  It pains me inside, and that really hindered me earlier in the week.  The kids didn’t respect me because I did not respect me, and that was a problem.  As soon as I started to trust myself, the class respected me a lot more.

The second thing with classroom management is that you cannot relax.  My teacher, albeit a really good one, specifically at classroom management, told me that he has not been doing as well because he is getting laid off, and it shows.  Each day the kids have gotten worse and worse, because they get away with more and more.  It is really hard for me to sit back and watch as all my students talk, yell even, to others across the room, while taking a test.  But it is his class, and I can see that this is a valuable lesson.  I just need to learn from it and never give up, never back down.

The second thing that I have learned is that every student can do all the work.  All my students are smarter than they display to an outsider, they just put on a fake skin, a label that they feel they have, that they need to be dumber to fit the stereotype.   I hate this.  When I actually worked with my students, one-on-one or in small groups, I have found that they are more than capable of doing work correctly.  I feel as though the most important thing to do is show the students why the work is necessary, why they need to try and put in effort.  If I can successfully convey to them the importance of math skills, not necessarily being able to graph a parabola, but the fact that by doing the worksheets you can enhance your critical thinking skills, which will help you in other aspects in life, aspects that you think are actually fun and important.  In my practicum classes, the students have yet to be given a reason why they are doing these problems, and because of that the students are not trying to work any harder, actually they are doing less and less work, as the work gets harder and harder.  It really frustrates me that the students do not care, because I know that these young men and women can do all the work, but they just will not try.

The third important thing that I have learned it that by involving students into your lessons, the more beneficial for the students, and actually fun, the lessons become.  The students in my classes are bored a lot of the time and that is why they become distributive.  Whenever I allowed my students to come up and use the white board, two things happened.  One is that more problems were completed, and because of this number two occurred, which was that the students were more engaged.  When these two things happened, my students were smiling more, talking yes, and seemed to be having a good time.  And, if you ask me, when was the last time you had a good time learning math?  That was probably the coolest part for me of this whole experience, seeing my students enjoying mathematics.  I feel as though if students are more hands on involved with the lessons, they take away much more because they feel as though they were able to express themselves and prove not only to me, but also to their classmates, and more importantly themselves that it is actually okay to be correct, and that is feels good when you have a correct answer.

I have learned that I have potential to be a great teacher.  I have the drive, I have the determination, and I have the adaptability to be open to new ideas and techniques; however, I have also learned that I need to work on a lot of things.  I need to be more assertive; I need to get over that fact that being stern and strict is not being mean.  I need to learn that not every student is going to like you and be happy with you all the time.  I need to learn that being a teacher only begins with the material in the book, it doesn’t end until you want it to.  I want to learn how to push myself to allow my students to reach higher and higher levels of learning in both the school and the world environments.

No matter what I want to be the bests teacher, role model, and difference maker I can be in each of my students lives.  That is the sum everything that I feel I have learned during the experience.

And no matter what…

The Show MUST Go On.

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.

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