Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 16 2010

Last Days in Houston

Thursday, July 15th: BIG TEST DAY!
Somehow, I was able to keep all my kids in their seats to take the test. They all put their nose to the grindstone and hammered that baby out; it was about an hour of just sitting there doing math problems, and I was so proud.
It was so hard, though, roaming around answering questions without really answering them. Suddenly they cared whether they got the answer right or wrong, and were asking all the right questions, and instead of working through it with them and really teaching them, I just had to say over and over again, “Just show me what you know.” It was heartbreaking. After the fifth time telling  one of my girls this, she pushed her test off her desk and buried her face in her arms… but then I walked away and she picked it up again and started working.
My unofficial favorite scooted his desk into this little secluded corner by the window, and was absolutely focused the entire time. He asked a couple questions, but was the only one who wouldn’t be distracted by any side-conversations. He was just plugging away, gettin’ er done.
“The kid I love the most” kept talking about how easy this test was, and two of my girls kept chattering in Spanish. But for the most part, it was a very mathematical day for room A104.

Grading was so difficult. Not only was it hard to be rooting for the student and watching them get questions wrong, to be thinking, “but we DID that! she KNEW this one yesterday!”… but it was hard to figure out how wrong to grade the wrong ones. For the pre-test scores, we were only given a check or an X telling us whether they did or didn’t get the question right. But if the question asks you to make a stem-and-leaf plot, what’s right and what’s wrong? If you’re supposed to make a scatter plot of six points and you get 5 out of the 6 correct and misplace the last one… do you get a check, or an X? After torturous deliberation (and advice from my CS), I decided that math really is all-or-nothing, and gave a 0 for any non-perfect answer and a 100 for any perfect answer. That was SO hard to stick to. I couldn’t have known how hard it would be to hold that expectation without actually having to do it while grading 30 tests.
But, even with the hard standards and all the 0s and all the “just show me what you know”s, I had just over half of my students meet their growth goals (“growth goals” were calculated by TFA based on how much the top 25% of students in Institute classrooms grow, on average). And all but one student improved their score by at least a little bit.

THIS is exactly what my babies needed. The time before lunch was spent hanging out with teachers, getting test results back, getting folders back, seeing how much they’d grown over the five weeks. We took class photos and just chatted for most of it.
Some of my students were (rightfully) thrilled about their scores. Growth of 30 percentage points in five weeks? THINK of what you could do in a whole school year! … and some just saw the number and got upset. My Drake-wannabe saw his 56% as a 56%, no matter how many times I told him to think about the fact that he’d started the summer at a 29%. My drama queen saw her 69% and ripped her paper up, even though she’d started at a 46%. I tell you, they’re obsessed with “passing,” and everyone’s question was, “but did I pass?” I didn’t realize until later that they were talking about passing to the seventh grade, and just talked about improvement and growth the whole time.
My favorite favorite was happy, though. He was proud of going from a 21 to a 56, and he rolled up his test and kept it with him throughout the whole day. :)

Look at the teachers talenting!

Another teacher and I went to HEB and bought some treats for my second period students for lunch; and after lunch was the talent show (!) and field day (!). Everyone stayed seated and generally quiet for the talent show–something all of our school staff would have thought impossible five weeks ago. It was truly incredible to see these kids, the same ones who were climbing over seats and screaming and chasing each other during their first assemby, sit and watch their peers (and teachers!) on stage. MMm. THEN teachers led their students from dodgeball to trivia, from hula-hoops to relay races… and everyone had fun. My two silent boys from first period, who NEVER speak (really–I’d heard about three words out one of them before this), came up to me and started conversations. The other does not strike you as the athletic type at first glance, but that kid was a dodgeball master. And again–to see these kids walking in lines from acivitiy to activity, to see them stop and return when teachers called their names…
A field day with these kids five weeks ago would have been an absolute disaster. People would have gotten hurt, everyone would have been stressed out, the kids would have either been beating each other up or sulking against a wall somewhere. But there they were, having a deliciously sweaty good time. I spent some time talking with a student of one of my collab-mates’, who put it concisely: when I asked whether she liked all the lines and the rules and stuff, she said, “well, if we played these games before, there would probably be lots of fights.”

The management successes felt like a group accomplishment for our school team. Hall duty and bathroom duty and lunchroom duty and dismissal duty, and “Code Alamo” (our emergency text-message alert system for fights or emergent vandalism or missing students), and all the time spent walking kids from class to class or to and from the bathroom… all of it paid off in a wonderfully orchestrated day of fun for our babies. BUT then there were individual successes, just as sweet: My favorite gave me a pressed penny from San Antonio, saying he hoped his family would move there so I could be his math teacher again. My drama queen shouted out all the answers to the math vocab questions during trivia, and it was so COOL to hear “Numerator!” and know that it was me who taught her that. It was so gratifying to hear my silent kid’s voice and to be able to have a real, two-sided conversation with him. And my hard-to-focus kid from second period–who performed in the talent show and who did a hilarious impression of me for the class–his grandmother wrote a letter to our school director saying, “…you must have amazing teachers in there, because my grandson has never talked this way or been this excited about school before. Please please continue this summer school program…” And my tiniest student, the just-over-waist-height adorable little girl who’d called me a ‘fucking bitch’ during the third week, came up and hugged me at the end of the day before she left. I tell you, this day made all of the time and effort and tears and frustration totally worth it. Finally.

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