Thursday, August 30, 2007

Week 1

Overall, my first week of school has been amazing. However, I'm assuming that you might be interested in more detail than that, so here are some miscellaneous things I've noticed since Monday.

On the upside...
-My students are so cute! They're these sweet little freshmen who are so shy and scared, yet also so excited and eager to be at Mission
-My students have really taken to the norms we've set up for the classroom. It's not to say that they're always following them, but they're highly cognizant of them.
-My students don't seem to hate me. They smile at me and say hi to me when they see me in the halls. So far, I don't think I've ruined anyone's life. I'll continue to work on that.
-I continue to be in awe of my CT and in awe of how well STEP did in pairing me up with her. She is an incredible teacher and very much has the style I hope to take on.
-I'm learning a LOT. About everything from easy tips for quieting down a room to how schools function administratively. I am starting to think that I will actually be prepared to have my own classroom at this time next year.
-Kids have been very honest about what they like and dislike in math classes, and fortunately most of the things that they told us helps them learn are things we were already planning.

On the downside...
-We have way too many kids in our classes, and they're not going away. On the first day we literally had to call down to the office in the middle of class to get someone to bring us more chairs.
-We have at least two students who have assaulted a teacher. Yikes. One of the students I don't really know because she's only shown up once (they may have moved her to another class to reduce our numbers). The other is one who I really really like and he seems to like me as well. Although I expect that we won't always agree on things, I feel like I have absolutely no reason to believe that he'd even consider hitting me.
-San Francisco is experiencing a heat wave and only two of the five windows in our room open. It's so hot and stuffy that it pretty much puts all the kids to sleep.
-I have never had so many opportunities to practice my teacher look in such a short span of time (but on the upside again, it seems to be working pretty well)

And really on the downside...
The only thing I dislike about my whole teaching situation so far is that it is SO far away. San Francisco is about 45-60 minutes away, which means that we LEAVE Palo Alto at 6:30am. One of my biggest pet peeves in life is getting up before the sun, so I'm not really pleased with the 5:30am alarm clock and am dreading the winter. At least I'm carpooling, so I get to sleep on the car ride up there half the days of the week. But it's a bad situation when going to bed at 10pm (which obviously doesn't happen) does not guarantee enough sleep.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Night Before

Tomorrow is the first day of school. I can't believe it's here already. I guess I'm feeling exactly how I should be feeling--nervous, excited, eager to meet the kids, expecting that it will be nothing but chaos, ready to be exhausted by the end of the day. I've been up at Mission almost everyday for the past week and a half or so getting ready. I am absolutely in love with it; it's exactly what I was looking for.

The school itself is a beautiful in a lot of ways. It's a historic old building across from Delores Park in the Mission District. As you can see from the picture, there's a very impressive bell tower. Inside there are some lovely courtyards, complete with palm trees. In many ways it feels like the old Cass Tech building. Which means that it's definitely showing its age and the inside is not exactly brand new.

The staff at Mission is much more impressive than the building. The teachers are clearly dedicated, and all (at least that I've met so far) really seem to want to be there because they care about the students. I'm also impressed with the administration and the tone they set for the staff. For example, one of the school-wide goals is creating an anti-racist environment and education for the students. Last week one of the professional development days was a workshop on anti-racist teaching--something I think most schools would be hesitant to address so directly.

Then there's the math department, which I am so proud to be a part of. First of all, they're just fun people. They genuinely enjoy spending time with each other and sharing their teaching strategies, ideas, etc. They make time to observe each other's teaching and really work together to develop curricula that will be best for the students. It's really amazing to see them all work together, and even more amazing that they've welcomed me and the other STEPpies as if we're really part of the department.

Finally, I absolutely love my cooperating teacher (CT). She's everything I was looking for in a CT: she's really into trying new things based on what the students need, she explains her reasoning for everything but also asks my opinion, she has a teaching style (at least as far as I can tell right now) that's pretty much what I hope to model, and also she's just fun to hang out with. I can't wait to see her teaching in action. I've already learned so much in the past week; I think it's going to be a great year.

However... despite all the many things that Mission has to offer, the school is still struggling. Test scores are low, attendance is the worst in the district, enrollment is declining, etc. etc. I am trying not to pre-judge my students, but I also know that these kids are going to challenge me in ways I'm not prepared for. This is not Pioneer High School. But on the other hand, the fact that it's not Pi-Hi is part of what I like best.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

All Work, Some Play

As people may have noticed from my complete inability to respond to emails in the past six weeks, STEP is busy. My days pretty much consist of teaching, going to class, doing homework, and nothing else. But thanks to the mini-break last weekend, I finally got to do some of the touristy stuff I've been hoping for.

Friday was a trip to Pescadero Beach, just south of Half Moon Bay. It's right on Highway 1, aka the Pacific Coast Highway, and the highway definitely lives up to the hype. No New Zealand, of course, but I am obviously just biased.

One of the things I keep forgetting about NorCal beaches is that they're cold. I think "beach" and I think "lie around in the sun and play in the water," not "huddle under a blanket and stare at the ocean."

Not that this means people don't go in the water, just not me. I briefly braved dipping my toe in, but the cold was physically painful, so one toe was more than enough for me. Obviously my classmates are hardier than I am, which I'm perfectly fine with.

Saturday involved another trip to the coast, this time to Monterey Bay. We went specifically for the famous aquarium, but after seeing what a cute town it is, I definitely want to go back and explore more.

Those black things in the water and on the rocks are wild sea otters!

I could have spent most of my time at the jellyfish exhibit because I think jellyfish are beautiful (when the are behind a pane of glass). I was particularly interested in seeing the deadly box jellyfish that were supposedly out there when I was at on the Great Barrier Reef. I'm glad that at the time I didn't know how tiny they were because I would not have believed our guides who told us that it was no big deal that our feet and hands weren't covered by our wetsuits.

Anyway, these are moon jellyfish. My pictures of the other kinds didn't turn out too well.

There was also a pretty fantastic sea otter exhibit, another animal I could watch all day.

Speaking of things I could watch all day, check out the kelp forest. It's about two stories tall and you can just sit there and watch the kelp sway back and forth. When paired with the soothing music they play, the whole environment is instantly calming. I need to keep this place in mind after particularly stressful teaching experiences.

Also worth seeing, but in a completely different way, was the massive--and massively ugly--sunfish. I found it much creepier than the hammerhead sharks that were in the same tank.

After two successful days of ocean and water, I spent Sunday in the trees. Muir Woods is a beautiful redwood forest just north of San Francisco. As promised, the redwoods were tall, beautiful, and completely impressive.

A redwood fun fact (although I'm probably getting it wrong): redwoods can grow out of other redwoods, so when one falls over, a whole group of new ones will grow out of its roots. That's why you find small circles of redwoods all clustered together but then none other in the immediate area. These are called "fairy rings."

I was fortunate enough to make this trip with my wonderful cousins (you can see their account of the day, which includes some of the less pleasant, more nauseating details). As much as I've loved traveling alone and traveling with friends, nothing can compare to the completely different world you get to experience when traveling with a three-year old. Seriously, could she be any more adorable?

So all in all, a successful weekend; I checked off a number of items on my tourist list for the Bay Area. Next up: Alcatraz, walking the Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Island, Great America amusement park, and of course that's just the beginning. Considering that this was pretty much the only break I'll get for the rest of the year when I won't be coming back to Michigan, I'm sure doing all these things will be no problem.

Monday, August 06, 2007

On a Mission

"Teaching's not a job, it's a mission." - B. LaMay

Starting at the end of August, I'll begin my year-long teaching placement at Mission High School in San Francisco. I am so excited!

Mission High School Homepage
San Francisco Unified School District - Mission High School
Wikipedia Entry on Mission

I Judge You

The summer school we taught at was a little odd in its structure. There wasn't so much a grading situation, but basically you passed if you showed up often enough. There were no letter grades, but the students rated themselves on five "work habits": listening, attitude, completion of work, quality of work, and participation. These ratings, which the students completed three times over the five weeks, were supplemented with overall ratings and comments from the teachers and then constituted their "report cards."

Somehow I was deemed to be responsible enough to fill out the teacher ratings and comments for 1/3 of our class. Now I understand why some teachers base grades strictly on objective numerical criteria like tests and attendance. The thought of having to summarize each student in a 2"x4" space and five scores between 1-4, all in a productive way that will convey their strengths and issues to the students and the parents... it made me nauseous. But I did my best to let each student know that I think s/he can be a successful math learner. There were lots of "I really enjoyed having ___ in class because..." and "I would encourage ___ to..."

The worst part was actually seeing the report cards handed back to the students. Did Michelle (student names changed) really wonder why both her teachers mentioned that she has trouble working with other students? Did Rianna realize that those 3's we gave her are so much higher than I would've predicted at the beginning of the summer? Was Jose actually surprised about his 2 in "Attitude" after I wrote in his journal pretty much every day that he needed to check his massive ego (not in so many words, of course)?

Suddenly I wanted to apologize to all my teachers (as I have wanted to do so frequently since starting this program). My students were doing exactly what I used to do: ignore the report card when I got the highest score and complain when I didn't, even if I completely deserved it. Had my teachers put as much time into writing constructive comments as I had? I'm guessing no for the high school teachers who selected comments from a drop-down menu on the computer, but who knows? Maybe there was something they were trying to tell me by choosing "Is a pleasure to have in class" over "Completes all work accurately and on time."

I want the kids to see the grades they receive from me the way I see their grades: as an overall message from me that shows their strengths and where I think they can improve. Funny how that can't all be summed up in a single number or letter. Now I understand why my friend who switched from teaching third to fifth grade cried the first time she had to give letter grades.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Phase 1 Complete

This past week of summer school was definitely the best of the summer. The kids were more congenial than usual, as if they'd finally realized that they could joke around with their teachers. They spent two days working hard on a very difficult problem--even the kids who usually just sit back and try to hide were actively engaged and blowing me away with their ideas. Even when we had a rough introduction to combinatorics, they responded with questions rather than just giving up.

Of course, we finally hit this stride in what happened to be the final week of summer school. Thursday was sad. Who knew that I could get so attached in only five short weeks? My teaching partner Kaitlyn and I agreed that we'd been unusually lucky with our class. Each kid was highly likable in his/her own unique way, something I can't necessarily say for every group of students I've worked with. And I think they liked the class too, at least as much as one can like being stuck in a classroom all summer. For their penultimate journal entry, we asked if they thought what they'd learned this summer would be useful for their future math classes. Their answers nearly brought me to tears.
"Yes, I used to be bad at math but now I know I'm good at it."
"Yes because I had fun doing math this summer."
"Yes because now I know how to make hard problems easy."

Wow. But I shouldn't have been surprised. I saw amazing changes over the five weeks. There was one boy who came in with a scowl on his face and wrote in his first journal entry that he SUCKS at math, but by the end was one of the only students to figure out their last big problem--and he was excited about it. A girl who spent the first week with her head on her desk and refusing to do anything but draw ended up spending the last week volunteering ideas and smiling and laughing. I'm not trying to say it was "Stand and Deliver" or anything, but it was real and it was powerful.

I am glad to be done with summer school in that I'm looking forward to moving on to everything that's coming next: 1-2 weeks of sleeping in and only having Stanford classes, starting my year-long placement in an environment that's been chosen to match my needs and personality, getting to take more curriculum & instruction. But I am seriously going to miss my Buchser class.

On Thursday, a number of the kids thanked me for teaching them this summer and gave me hugs goodbye. Ashly, one of my students, wisely pointed out that we'll probably never see each other again. I'll never know if this class actually does have any impact on their futures. Why did I choose a profession that's fraught so much finality?