Thursday, October 4, 2007

Teach for America Q&A: Summer Institute

Each summer, thousands of talented people either just out of school or embarking on a new path travel to Teach for America's Summer Institutes in New York, Houston, LA and elsewhere to get a crash course in teaching. They teach summer school while taking classes, attending seminars, meeting with advisers and documenting every facet of what they are doing. A lot of this time period, due to the tidal wave of information and new experiences that were coming over me at that time (not to mention it's now been over 4 years), is a blur. I remember emotions and my state of mind, anecdotes of triumphs and tribulations, and the end result (that I still didn't know what I was doing). I knew this was going to happen, and I knew this would be an important time in my life, and so I kept as many documents and records of that time as I could. Looking back at what I kept from the summer of 2003, brings back vivid memories of the roller coaster ride that was Institute.

Before we had any students, we had a week of preparation at the school we would be teaching at. "The first day was hectic," I wrote to my mom. "[T]hey had us on a tight schedule, plus I missed the bus this morning and got lost while driving there. It was not a good start. I haven't heard anything about the job yet either. I'll let you know what happens as soon as I know!" Unlike most of my fellow teachers-in-training, I did not have a job waiting for me in the Rio Grande Valley. Today, most corps members have a job well before Institute starts, sometimes even before they move to their region. I didn't have a job until late July, a week after returning to the RGV from Houston. This meant I had to wait to get housing until the last minute, driving my already-high stress level through the roof.

I was assigned a 6th grade social studies class, which in Texas is world civilizations and cultures. In an email just before classes started to my ex-girlfriend, I wrote:
My first two days are all planned out. Tomorrow I am doing a lesson about introducing the concept of culture through thinking about the differences between each other. Then tomorrow we'll do the same kind of thinking by comparing and contrasting two different countries. I'm starting to think about Wednesday through Friday now (since the draft lesson plans are due tomorrow night) but I'd like to get a better idea of where the kids are and I won't know that until I have them do their activities tomorrow.
It's funny to read this now; I still wait to get an idea of where the kids are before planning the next lesson, changing things on the fly when necessary.
As classes began I got into a routine of long days and hard work, as I described to a friend from home about two weeks into teaching:
Teaching has been a series of ups and downs but I think I am improving. Basically we are at school from 7am-4pm and have workshops and other meetings each evening. Then of course there's lesson plans, progress reports, making copies and
so forth, and all in all things are busy pretty much all week.
I wasn't doing a great job the first few weeks of Institute. In fact, I was almost put on the CMIP (Corps Member Improvement Plan), which basically means you need to get your shit together before you are kicked out of Teach for America. It is the scarlet letter of Institute, the worst thing they can do short of outright asking you to leave. I know exactly why I was so close: I had never worked so hard and failed in my life. I was frustrated, and I took it out on my
adviser and the other people around me. Luckily I pulled myself back from the verge and as the last week of Institute concluded, I felt like I was just hitting my stride. I even wrote a prospective speech for the closing ceremonies, the bulk of which was this email sent to a friend at home in middle of Institute:
This whole month has been a series of highs and lows. I'm afraid though that what I think are highs don't really exist and I'm just kind of taking things that aren't anything and turning them into something I can hold on to.

What I'm most worried about is not my personal failings at the job so far but that I'm hurting, or at the very least not benefiting, these students that need my help. I've been very upset about that, even through all of the issues I've had trying to control the class, because I feel that ultimately their misbehavior is my fault. I know this because every bad day I've had, I've told the other teacher in my collaborative group about it, and he always comes back and tells me they were fine for him. I see it every time I've seen him in the classroom, he takes care of business, and they obey. I tried to really assert myself today, and so I have 7 kids with lunch detention and 3 calls to parents. One of the phone numbers didn't work at all, the other two I had to ask my friend who speaks Spanish fluently to call for me. I have two parents coming in later this week to talk to me, so I guess that is a step in the right direction.

Yesterday was just insane, and I can't believe I let it happen. We--or rather I--was trying to have them read a great article from the local newspaper about this Pakistani family that recently immigrated and how American culture has influenced their cultural values, but they were completely not into it. Kids were carrying on conversations, playing around, getting up and walking around the room, crumpling up paper just to throw it around... until I just looked up from reading along when one of the kids was reading aloud and see this chaos and I yell "everybody STOP!" and then I had to tell three different kids to sit down and not get up again! I nearly lost it. I tried to go back to what I was doing, but all I could think about is how angry I was.

The main problem that I've identified through a lot of reflection is that I'm just not following through on consequences. I wasn't doing a good job of keeping track of things, was ignoring seemingly "little" things, and basically letting them get away with anything with no consequences. I know why I have a problem with this: there is nothing I hate more than having to deal with that sort of thing. I think I did a good job today, and even though things didn't go as smoothly as I would have liked, I felt better because I dealt with the problems. It's like any other nagging problem, if you don't deal with it you are completely consumed by it.

Then I have been concerned about where my lessons themselves were going, although I've been getting generally positive feedback all along about that thing. But I still feel kind of lost because the topic they gave me was such a vague, abstract concept that I had trouble breaking down into simpler steps. I am trying to focus everything now on making sure my students understand what culture is, what cultural traits are and how they affect each other, how culture spreads and affects other cultures, and so on.

We have started our big final project where they are each working on a country of their choice and creating a sort-of exhibit for a Museum of Culture. They are breaking down their country's culture into four major traits: languages, religions, foods and holidays/celebrations. For each part they'll identify the trait, explain it, give some visual representation of it, and so on. I think this will help cement the whole concept in their minds, but I'm just not sure.

The only thing that I want to remember from this week is one of those things I want to think is great and wonderful and positive but for a number of reasons can't completely accent. One of my students, Quention, asked me where I would be teaching in the fall, and I told him I would be in the valley and not Houston. He said he wanted to move down there just to be in my class. Then later that day when he got his progress report, which was very positive, he was elated and ran over and hugged me. I felt really great about it.
In my speech I went on to write about how I joked with my fellow corps members that I was going to write a book called "The Kids are Running the Classroom" and how when asked for a word to describe my day I explained that it was similar to what would have happened if all of the doomsday scenarios about Y2K had come true. Then and now I doubted my ability to ever become a great teacher.

Thinking about this time in my life reminds me of how far I have come yet how little I have learned. Still, I see one constant: I have never, and will never stop trying to become that great teacher I want to be. That is the great lesson I learned at Institute.