A Reflection on the Highlight of Week 1

In one of my rowdier classes, we were getting nowhere in the lesson due to the constant level of chatter in the room. While reviewing my rules and expectations, I noticed that none of what I was saying really seemed to be sinking in. It seemed like the kids knew perfectly well what the rules were, but ignored them anyway. It was like they simply didn’t understand the purpose of having rules in the classroom. In particular, the class struggled with rule number 2, which concerns raising ones hand to ask permission to speak or move about the classroom. I decided to get creative. I proposed to the class that we see for 15 seconds what the classroom would be like without rule number 2, when I said “go”.

Holy crap.

Complete bedlam broke out. People screamed. Desks were kicked over. Chairs went flying. Kids jumped off tables.

I thought things would get rowdy, but I seriously believed the kids couldn’t possibly do any real damage in 15 seconds. Considering nothing got broken and no one got hurt, it was absolutely hysterical. But clearly it can never happen again.

…A Bit More Collected

Well, it took me about 24 hours to cool off from Friday, and frankly, it’s not just school that had me riled up. I’m feeling a lot more positive and purposeful about my situation. This weekend, I am going to take care of some major tasks that should hopefully greatly reduce my levels of stress.

I’ve learned a number of things this week. First, is to avoid at all costs any back and forth conversation with students. My favorite phrase has become, “That’s a question/discussion we’ll have to save for after class time. Right now, we’re discussing the rational numbers.” Very useful for deflecting off-topic questions. If given license, students will complain and bicker about everything. The solution is to tolerate none of it. Secondly and somewhat related, meticulous notes must be kept about everything that happens in class, especially concerning behavior that merits consequences. When a student or parent asks why they were assigned detention, it is extremely helpful to have written down the specific offenses and the times at which they occurred. They will argue, but all I have to do is read my log and tell them that that’s the end of the discussion.

This week, I taught lessons that weren’t a part of my units and gave an informal pretest. Both experiences were quite valuable, because they let me see exactly what issues need to be explicitly addressed before we start doing real lessons and tests. And believe me, there are plenty.

Anyhow, I think that next week, many of the loose ends will begin to come together. Plus, it’s a 4 day week, and that’s definitely something to celebrate.

The Real Deal

Week one has been grueling. Eight hours is a long time to be in school, for me and for the kids. Considering the amount of time it takes to set up, clean up, and meet with my team and administrators, my work days are 10 hours, mostly on my feet. That doesn’t include planning at home.

There have been a lot of good points, but these past couple of days haven’t been a particularly happy time. Our school operates by strict rules in order to keep the place from turning into the clown show some of the kids are used to. Right now, most of the kids hate it, especially since most of them have friends at comparatively lax traditional high schools. I’ve spent more of the first week putting down rebellions than instructing. It’s totally necessary, but not a lot of fun for anyone.

Generally, my students fall into 3 categories: the ringleaders, the followers, and the on-task kids. The ringleaders are probably about 10% of the population. They trying their best to establish the school culture they want, namely: partytime. The followers are about 75% of population. They are the kids who join in when they think it’s safe, because they know the ringleaders are the most likely to get in serious trouble. They take advantage of the situation. Because they’re such a big group and are so difficult to single out, they are the ones who ultimately bring lessons to a halt. Then there’s the remaining 15% of kids who have the discipline to stay above the fray.

I don’t enjoy repeatedly warning students, dealing out detentions, calling parents, and sending kids down to the office, but they are earning it themselves. I’ve already been on the receiving end of so many blow ups from students who simply don’t get that the reason I’m always picking on them is because they are the ones blatantly breaking the rules. Somewhere, some of these kids have gotten the idea that they are entitled to do whatever they want, whenever they want, and that they’re free to make a fuss whenever anyone tells them differently. That attitude is not going to fly at FAST or anywhere down the line.

What’s so frustrating is that right now, most of the kids just can’t comprehend what an opportunity it would be to attend a school like the one we are determined to create. All they want is fun and games all day, and they don’t make the connection between the great goals they have in life and what it takes to get there. So it’s basically my job to beat them into submission and then to drag them, kicking and screaming, to where they need to be until they understand why we do what we do and know how to do it themselves.

But that’s not all. Until recently, we haven’t had any real data on my students. It’s starting to come in, and quite frankly, it’s astounding. I teach heterogeneous classes comprise of kids ranging in math ability from first to eighth grade. If I’m going to be able to make class worthwhile for all of these kids simultaneously, I’ve got my work cut out of me. We don’t have time to spend addressing all the nonsense, but I definitely can’t afford not to.

I’m optimistic that we can make massive gains this year, but not until these cultural problems are addressed. The first step toward progress will be to continue to crack down on misbehavior. I might have to spend most of next week’s afternoons in detention, and maybe also the week after. I’d truly hate to lose any of my students, because they are, after all, just kids. But some of my major challenges are walking briskly right down the path out the door. Put simply, anything that derails progress will simply not be tolerated. But I sure am looking forward to actually being able to teach.

One thing I know I’ve got to start doing though is to spend more time concentrating on the positive things going on in my room. I’ll burn out at this rate.

And They’re Off!

Day one has come and gone. And I must say, I don’t have anything crazy to report. For the most part, everything went fairly smoothly (in perspective, of course). The hardest part was that our ribbon cutting ceremony happened much earlier and went by much more quickly than planned, leaving me with over an hour and a half of homeroom time to fill. Thank God for what I learned at Summer Bridge!

To a large extent, it look like these first couple weeks will be a bit of a replay of the Summer Bridge experience. A lot of my new kids are still in that wide-eyed phase. I’m a bit concerned that my Bridge kids aren’t really setting the tone the way they should be. Instead of being positive leaders, a lot of them are feeling entirely too comfortable goofing off. Now that the expectations have been shared with everyone, tomorrow is enforcement day.

Day One Cometh

What a week this has been. With summer bridge out of the way, I’ve finally had a chance to step back and look at the big picture. I have both a monumental opportunity and a monumental challenge ahead of me. I bounce back and forth between feeling exuberant and overwhelmed.

I know I mentioned this before, but I really want to reiterate that our staff here is the most diverse, dedicated, and capable group I have ever worked with. We’ve got an incredible mixture of veterans, relative neophytes, and brand new folks (like me). We spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday working on our mission and vision statements for the school. Never before have I found so much meaning and felt so much ownership in working on mission and vision statements. It felt real, and it was clear that all of us are really personally invested in making FAST a top-caliber school. We didn’t finish the vision statement, but our mission statement is something we spent a lot of time crafting, and that I think we all internalized. I’ll post it when I get a copy of the draft.

As awesome as that experience was, it feels like our reality is already not representing our dream. The CEO of schools and the mayor’s office have a lot riding on our success, and they are coming to our opening day ceremony. I wish I could say I felt like we are anywhere close to being prepared.

Physically speaking, our school is still a mess. We inherited a building that was a pretty big disaster, and that had been looted for most of its items of value. It’s come a loooong way, but it’s still nowhere close to looking like any school I experienced growing up. Not to mention the logistics are up in the air. school starts in less than 36 hours, and we still have no official schedule. It’s pretty hard for me to design lessons or a yearlong plan when I don’t know how much instructional time I have.

On a less immediate level, I have serious concerns about other aspects of the school. As of now, the students have no choice in their schedule. They move from class to class as a group, all levels in the same class. In addition, there currently are no foreign language classes.

Our plans for this school are downright audacious. We plan to have and use the most cutting-edge technology in every classroom. We plan to offer AP class to all grade levels. We are working to partner with University of Maryland to allow juniors and seniors to split time between our campus and theirs, so that they can literally start college before leaving high school. Right now, it’s awfully hard to see the path from here to there. At the same time, I remember reading One Day, All Children by Wendy Kopp, the story of the founding of TFA and its tumultuous (to say the least) early years. To summarize, Wendy graduated from Princeton with a crazy idea to start a national teacher corps, and through absurd determination, awesome personnel, and absolute refusal to dilute her vision, managed to build the program from an extremely shaky start into the national institution it is today. Through those same traits, I have faith that we can turn FAST into to something awesome too. I feel blessed to be here. And also just slightly scared to death.

Good times in Summer Bridge

It sucked being told, with less than a half hour’s worth of notice, that I’d be teaching Summer Bridge. And it still sucks now, even though the program is over, because I have a pile of work to do that most everyone else has had the chance to get started on 2 weeks ago. But all in all, it was a good learning experience.

Transitioning from working with 10 or less students at Institute for 45 minutes a day to running my own class of upwards of 25 for 4 hours a day presented many of the challenges I had anticipated, especially in terms of delivery and management. Moreover, I didn’t have any time to do any rigorous planning ahead of time, let alone draw up my glorious plans to achieve student investment.

On the other hand, I learned how to think on my feet, the hard way. Far and away the majority of the time I taught these last 2 weeks was totally improvised. I met about half of my students, and have learned a lot about their respective strengths, weaknesses, personalities, and aspirations. I can’t say my classroom management has been perfected, but I think I’ve found my style, learned what won’t work, and formed some good ideas for where to go next.

Not to mention, I had the chance to begin the process of forming this initial group of students into the nucleus of the culture we’re determined to build at Friendship. I believe I’ve earned outright respect from a few students. But at the very least, I think most of them know that I care about them as people, I won’t let anything slide, I stand up for my principles, and that I’m a lot tougher than my low-key demeanor might indicate.

For example, I learned an important lesson Friday in classroom management. Thursday was supposed to be the last day of class for my school’s Summer Bridge program, and Friday, we had the celebratory field trip to the roller-skating rink. Well, I get a call Thursday evening informing me that because of a miscommunication between the skating place and the school, we were actually going to be leaving for the trip 2 hours later than planned, and because the school’s auto-dialer isn’t in service yet, the students would be showing up at their normal time, and I’d better plan something for those 2 hours. I wasn’t exactly shocked—at this point, I’ve learned to be surprised if something like that doesn’t happen.

I talked with the co-teacher the night before, in half-freakout mode, and she assured me she’d come up with something. When I showed up the next day, she had some promising ideas. I had assumed that the language arts teacher, who had been running the other 9th grade class had also gotten the memo. Not so much. He showed up right around the time class was supposed to start, and when asked if he was going to help occupy the kids, he replied that he was not; he was going to work on curriculum. (You know who else would love a chance to even see his curriculum? THIS GUY!)

So, it fell to me and the co-teacher to handle the whole 9th grade. We decided we’d try the possibly foolhardy idea of cramming the all the 9th graders into one classroom. Needless to say, the students were confused and pissed off We thought they’d somewhat enjoy the opportunity to play some games. They wanted none of it. They were becoming increasingly irritable and disruptive. We tried hard to redirect them. We punished them for not participating in the game by making the write reflections for 15 minutes. Then offered them the choice of playing the game or sitting silently. They chose to sit “silently”, and were anything but silent. I started giving out warnings, and telling them we were now operating on a two-strike system. Two strikes, and you’re staying home. This flew for all of maybe a minute and a half before they started testing me. And as I’m sure they suspected, I was reluctant to toss people off the trip, and pretty soon we were back to square one.

But no way was I about to give in. I noticed that there were a handful of folks in the class who had been perfect or almost perfect all day, and who had managed to stay above the chaos, and it occurred to me that in addition to the fact that everything I was trying wasn’t working for most of the kids, I hadn’t spent enough time recognizing how well that other group was behaving. So, without talking, I walked over to the board, and next to my Warnings section (which was 2 full columns by now) I made a new section called Commendations and wrote down the 4 or so names of kids who had been more or less perfect. Then I put a big X through the entire warning section of the board. Pretty quickly, the room got silent, as the kids got curious about what was happening. One of my ring-leaders spoke up, “are those the people who are going on the trip?” I replied that she was exactly right. The warning system was dead, and the new commendation system was in force. Through good behavior, the people not on the Commendations list could be put on it, but by the time the buses left, anyone not on that list would not be boarding a bus.

The results were immediate. There was about a half an hour of nearly perfect silence. Even my stubborn students were angels. To further make a point, after the assistant principal announced that the buses had arrived, about a third of the class still hadn’t paid enough penance to have made the Commendations list, and I let them sweat it out, adding them to the list one-by-one to release them to the buses.

The trip itself was fun. The kids were pretty shocked to see that Mr. Johnson knows how to skate and bowl, and is also pretty dominant at Tekken Tag.

So what did I learn from this? First of all, incentivizing works way better than punishment. The stakes were exactly the same in the Warnings and Commendations systems, but the results couldn’t have been more different. Secondly, don’t threaten punishments you are not willing to follow through on. I was reluctant to kick a kid off the trip simply for making a side comment to a friend, even if it was a repeated offence. Once that message was sent, most of the class ran with it. I also learned that behavior expectations need to be explicitly stated and that it needs to be extremely clear that the teacher has the final word. If allowed, kids will complain, debate, and try their hardest to manipulate. I was steadfast about not giving in to any verbal debate, but through their actions they manipulated the situation into getting away with a lot. The key response to any attempt at argument is “this is not the time to discuss that. Save your questions and comments for after the activity, and we can talk about it then.” The questions rarely come up again.

All in all, my 9th graders are pretty good kids. A handful of them are going to be pretty challenging, but I feel like they’ll all eventually fall in line. One of the biggest problems I face is that although most of my kids have fantastic goals for themselves, right now, most of them don’t make the connection between their goals and the level of effort and engagement it will take to reach them. As one of my coworkers put it, by telling these kids they can be anything they want, we’ve almost done them a disservice, because they haven’t been given the skills it’s going to take to get them there. So this year is going to be a jarring experience for many of them as we slam them into a much higher gear right off the bat.

Keep checking back, because it’s going to be an interesting year.

Week One In Baltimore:The Scene Is Set

In many ways, this past week has been far more challenging than any of my weeks of Institute. While I have had the opportunity to sleep 7-8 hours a night, which is fantastic, my days have become much more intense. Because I didn’t know I was going to be teaching this week, I haven’t had the chance to do any daily planning, much less any of the critical reflection about how I was going to reinvent myself as a teacher based on lessons learned at Institute. I teach 3 1/2 hours each day, and the lion’s share of that time is completely improvised. On top of that, I’m trying vainly to settle in at my house, attending 4 1/2 hour TFA workshops some nights, and working on the coursework for on of my Johns Hopkins grad school classes for teaching. But the main challenges are at school. Did I mention, we don’t have AC?

Our school is completely chaotic at the moment. Our staff is working it’s butt off to iron out major details that must be in place by the time school starts: things as fundamental as the daily schedule, the curriculum, and the rulebook. As a result, I have to operate for the summer with none of these structures in place. I am tempted to think that all this should have been ironed out months ago, but honestly, I have no idea what it’s like to be an administrator of a brand new school (other than the fact that it looks unimaginable difficult), so I am in no position to blame anyone for anything. My job is to take lemons and make lemonade.

At FAST, we have an incredible opportunity to establish something special and an incredible responsibility. All charter schools are accountable to making significant progress, as compared to the traditional public schools, but Friendship has interesting challenges of its own. Our school opens with a considerable amount of controversy and scrutiny. We occupy the building that up until this year was Canton Middle School, a rough school right in the middle of one of Baltimore’s up-and-coming neighborhoods. Residents had long complained about the unruliness and outright violence of students from the school, and had almost succeeded in having the building closed down and destroyed. But when our current CEO of schools came on last year, he reversed those plans, deciding to locate our charter school in the building, to the outrage of many of the residents. But he stood his ground, refusing to destroy an old, but still-operable school building. The whole saga was city-wide news for a while. Needless to say, a lot of eyes are focused on how well this thing flies. My principal has told us not to be surprised to see the mayor or councilpeople drop in on our classes.

I will be under additional pressure permanently. The reputation of schools in this district is defined by test scores. Our school is composed only of 6th, 8th, and 9th grade classes. All of the 9th graders will be taking the state algebra test at the end of the year, which is the only test 9th graders take. So to a large extent, my school’s academic reputation hinges on how well I can get these kids to perform on this test.

The news isn’t all so dire. Although our staff is small, my impression of them so far is that they are extremely capable, dedicated and diverse. People have gone out of their way to look out for me, and it has really paid off for me this week. But the thing I’m most excited about is the school culture we are building. Our administration is adamant about making Friendship a school with a culture focused on achievement. I find that I have rethink my idea of how a high school operates. There’s a part of me that looks at our expectations and thinks, “things were much more free at Naperville North, and we achieved at extremely high levels.” But this definitely isn’t Naperville, and it’s going to require a completely different method to get the same results in Baltimore.

For most of the students, the behavioral and academic expectations we are working to institute will be way beyond what they have experienced. Right now, they are extremely resistant, but with time and pressure they will conform. Eventually, they will take pride in their school culture, once they realize that the structure allows them academic growth beyond what many of them have ever experienced. But put quite simply, right now, most of my students simply don’t know how to behave properly, and don’t view school as a formal setting. They are going to need a lot of structure, and a lot of aggressive intervention to fix that. I’m looking forward to the day when instead of cracking jokes and goofing off, my students are having intellectual conversations and conducting themselves like the young men and women I know they are capable of being–the day when their internal expectations match the ones we have for them. Only once we reach that point, we might be able to talk about running the place in a less authoritarian fashion.

I have spent this week winging it, and making impromptu speeches on behavior, expectations, and all sorts of cultural issues. For the most part, things haven’t been sinking in. The assistant principal delivered one of the most vicious tongue lashing I’ve ever witnessed, and pretty much promised to suspend a kid on the first day of school, and still they acted like children during my math class. But starting Monday, the hammer falls. I imagine it will take sending a couple kids to the office, or maybe even several, to catch major ass-whuppings from the administration, but they will learn that it’s time for business. And when they do learn, the kids I have now will be a nucleus for the culture we envision when real school starts in a couple weeks.


On a totally unrelated note, I’m really sad to hear about the death of Bernie Mac today. I had never laughed so hard that I cried until I saw his stuttering bus driver bit on Original Kings of Comedy. What a bummer.

Reflections Galore

I’ve become a big fan of having students write reflections. The kids generally hate writing reflections, but the responses can be incredibly insightful. At the most basic level, I get to see what the student took away from the lesson, which is great feedback for me for how well my methods are working. I also get a feel for who is really thinking and who is going through the motions, which allows me to figure out how to better reach individual students. And every now and then, I get a response back that very thoughtfully written. My students can be very insightful and self-aware, and making the whole class write a reflection is well worth it if I can get one profound response back. My students have amazingly lucid goals for 9th graders. They can also be brutally honest about their insecurities, and sometimes it’s a little heartbreaking. But it’s also those moments that make me feel like I have a chance to step in and actually change a kid’s life. And deep down, that’s why I got into teaching: to try and be the teacher I so desperately wished I had back when I was that age.

Welcome to B-more Public Schools

Day 1 of orientation did not disappoint. I knew that teaching at a brand new school would have its challenges, but I suppose I didn’t expect it to play out so blatantly. Let me start with the good news. My placement school is Friendship Academy of Science and Technology (FAST), a charter school about a mile from my house. Today, I met the other faculty at the school, and I am very impressed. We have an extremely diverse staff, who all seem really focused. Our principal, Dr. Roberts, wants to create a school with a solid, positive culture. I know that in order to make my class run the way I want it to run, I’m going to have to be like a drill sergeant in enforcing my academic, behavioral and cultural expectations, and knowing that Dr. Roberts is holding the entire school to that standard will make my job much easier. I really think Friendship is going to be a special place to work.

That being said, today was nuts. I found out on Friday that I would be reporting directly to Friendship instead of the district orientation today. Unfortunately, the introductory professional development sessions held last week conflicted with the last week of Institute, so I didn’t have the chance to meet the rest of the staff ahead of time or find out what the next couple weeks would be all about, other than that the school would be holding a program called Summer Bridge. What I would learn upon arrival at 8am this morning was that I would actually be teaching the program. Starting in 15 minutes. I could have been pissed off about this, but I knew coming in that there would be surprises, and that the best thing I can do is try and take them in stride. When choosing to teach in some of the least fair schools in the country, one has to expect to take some low blows from time to time.

All in all, it went pretty well, despite the fact that the pretests I was supposed to administer never came, and I had to wing it for the last hour and a half. Hopefully things will get more orderly these next couple days, because unlike the veteran teachers, I don’t have lesson plans, activities and materials to fall back on in a pinch. On the bright side, I got a pretty nice complement from my principal’s mentor on the way I ran the class. Thank God I got the class I did, because the other class I could have gotten was about 3 times the size, and much more unruly. I won’t be so lucky for most of the summer, because although I get to keep my class for homeroom, I’ll teach both classes every day. The lovely news about the whole Summer Bridge situation is that when the full school reports in a few weeks, I will hopefully have established a culture and a routine that all the rest of the students can fall into.


One thing that was reinforced for me today about teaching is how important rhetoric is to teaching. I’ve always been a pretty taciturn person, especially when it comes to speaking off the cuff, but when working with students, teachable moments happen all the time and having the ability to ad lib a mini-lesson is an essential skill. For example, today, to get to know one another, we played two truths and a lie in one of my classes. One of my students, a black kid we’ll call Kevin, picked as his two truths that he was part Irish, and that he liked rock music. I can’t even remember what his lie was, but no one guessed it right. When I grilled one kid on why he thought the lie was that Kevin liked rock music, he said it was because he didn’t dress like a rocker. I asked him how he could tell, since all the kids were in uniform. He responded that Kevin wasn’t wearing a spiked belt, and that he didn’t walk or talk like a rocker. When I grilled another kid on why Kevin couldn’t be part Irish, he responded that it was because he didn’t have greasy hair and a moustache. Gambling on the fact that Kevin had picked his two truths cleverly, I let him reveal the lie and it proved the whole class wrong. I turned that into an opportunity to drop an impromptu speech on the dangers of stereotypes and prejudice. It’s moments like that where your rhetoric comes in handy, because those “ah-ha” moments are when what you say as a teacher sticks with the kids. I wish I could say I blew their minds with my speech, but it was probably just adequate. I guess the skill will come in time.

Turn the Page

It seems like a year ago that I meandered my way off of I-95 looking for Temple University for the first time, and yet sometimes it’s hard to remember where the last month of my life went. The whole experience is kind of a blur. When I was packing up my stuff yesterday, it was a bit hard to process the fact that Institute was really over.

The experience was at times surreal, extremely taxing, extremely hilarious, inspiring, communal, bitterly frustrating, monotonous, thought-provoking, and joyful. I’ve gone from being a bumbling, ineffective teacher to a more confident, yet still-ineffective teacher, but the good news is that I will leave Philly with a truckload of experience and ideas that will hopefully make me far more successful in the fall. Not everyone makes it through Institute, so I feel blessed that I was provided the strength to endure it. And I hope I managed to teach these kids at least a couple things while I was there.

I’m going to miss my students, as knuckle-headed as they can be at times. I’m not so far removed from their age to remember how hard it was to be 14. And many of my students deal with far more pressing issues than the fairly standard stuff I had to think about at that age. They’ve got a million forces, most of which I can’t see, pulling them in a million directions, and it’s a struggle to try and make my vision for them compelling. The last day of school, I gave my students surveys, and the results weren’t surprising. Most of my kids found me to be a reasonable teacher, but I scored pretty low on the categories pertaining to how much they perceived I really cared about them as people. The more poignant feeling I get when thinking about my students than nostalgia is the feeling that I let them down. As brutal as Institute was, my one impossible wish is that I could do the whole thing over again and get it right before I start the “real thing”. I’m absolutely determined not to feel the same way about my first year come June.

What I want more than anything now is a week off to decompress, settle in, and start game-planning everything big and little thing I’m going to do and change up for the fall, but I don’t have that luxury. Yesterday, I drove to Trenton to collect the remainder of my belongings and towed them in a U-Haul to Baltimore, of where I’m now officially a resident. Tomorrow, at 8am, I report to my school for the next two years, Friendship Academy of Science and Technology (FAST), to start orientation and to help run the Summer Bridge program. In the evenings, I’ll be attending Teach For America orientation sessions, and doing grad school coursework. Sometime in the spaces between, I get to steal off to do other very important things, like buying bedding, if I’m lucky.

This is the first year FAST will be open. From the experience of meeting the principal, Dr. Roberts, at the hiring fair, it seems like the place is going to be something really special. I still don’t know much about my school, but I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to say soon. Tomorrow will be a big day.