I am definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Almost six months ago now, I accepted a position at a charter school with extremely combating feelings of excitement, pride, and absolutely guilt.
I felt guilt for leaving MY KIDS in St. Louis, I felt guilt about leaving the traditional public school sector to join the "easy path" at a charter school that would have everything in the world. I felt like I was turning my back on the mission that has captivated my soul for the past two years. Like I told my students yesterday during Community TIme, I felt like I was doing the wrong thing for the right reasons -- but all of that is behind me.
In February of 2011, thousands of Teach For America corps members, alumni, staff, and supported rallied in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the organization that has been the enlightening point of many lives. At that juncture ... St. Louis was deservedly thrown under the bus for being the epitome of what happens when you throw money at a problem. In this case, when you throw money at a failing education system.
In my last classroom, I had ridiculously limited materials. Paper? Pencils? Books? Ha. But then my second year, I received a Promethean Board. Amazing, Did my teaching improve? Drastically. Did my students' learning improve? They ended lightyears away from when we met in 2010. Could we have done it without it?
I don't know the answer to that. Materials are necessary. What I've learned working at my new school, however, is that support is more important. Support makes the different. Support encourages a staff to be intrinsically competitive at all times because of the culture of determined achievement. Support gives a teacher the confidence to believe in her choices about her scholars and her classroom. Support keeps a great teacher on her toes at all times because she feels that she is able and depended on for doing so.
My school now may have less materials even than my previous one, but it has more support, encouragement, expectations, and appreciation than money can afford. I can't imagine what this school would do with all the resources in the world, but I know they would not be wasted on inefficiency or untaught practices.
What I am blessed to see at this school is that achievement is not inherited, it is earned. My scholars now and their families are the glowing example of the critical need for all partners in a single child's education to be locked, united, and gracious of one another's contributions and aware of one another's responsibilities. We hold one another accountable, we feel guilty for 30 seconds of down time, we pull into the parking lot when the sun is still asleep and leave as it is resting again.
I walk into my "educational cottage" -- okay, you know what it really is -- knowing that I am going to be amazed by the character that I will see from my scholars that day. Because they have more character than any people I have ever met. I know every morning that I will be inspired by the scholars and the staff around me, that I will leave our daily morning staff meeting at 7:25 with an inspiring quote and conversation to rock me through the day. I know that at least one of my principals will be in my classroom at least once that day. I know that at least one scholar will ask for extra homework. I know that 22 scholars will spend half of their energy supporting their classmates through moments of insight as well as struggling moments of misunderstanding.
I am working harder than I've ever worked before -- but in a totally new way. I cannot begin to compare this experience to the one I've had the last two years, but I can say that all of my energy now is pulled into GREAT teaching instead of surviving. The guilt is gone, as I realize now that I am learning what is required of me and our schools in order to produce a competitive and equipped next generation of society.
My scholars are still on the suffering end of the achievement gap -- they need me, and they need me to step up my game -- and this fact shows me how vast this gap really is.
And THAT is why I haven't spared the time to blog since before institute. I've been on fire.
"Look cool on the outside, but burn with the desire for teaching on the inside."
Chicago Institute 2012: Instructional Conference
I drank the juice.
While you guys were remembering the troops, at the lake, on the beach, on a porch somewhere soaking up the sun and frolicking on what I think is one of the most meaningful three-day weekends we have, I was at school.
Yes, I went straight from Walbridge to Noble Muchin in Chicago for our second institute conference learning how to develop corps members during their institute experience. Just when everyone was talking about TFA being over, I jumped into TFA institute work. In a weird way, it’s the vacation I needed. I had a really strong end with my kids, and it’s been very hard for me to internalize what it means now for that time to be over, and IC is helping me get pumped up for what’s ahead and the role I am playing this summer in developing new teachers who are going to go through the highest of highs and lowest of lows that have inspired me.
Side note: I am teaching my third year! I will be making the move back South to North Carolina to join my family, and I am so bittersweet about that move. I’m thrilled to be bringing back what I’ve learned to students in North Carolina and taking care of myself a little bit by being close to my family. The difficult part was leaving my students and the other students and staff at my school who I have grown so close to, including the Walbridge 7 and beyond. It’s hard to have to tell them that I’ve leaving them and not feel like I’m abandoning them. My heart breaks every moment I think about my students, but I have to remember that I’ve done well by them and I’ve prepared them to move on.
Back to why this conference has been so therapeutic and revitalizing for me: I will be teaching fourth grade at Maureen Joy this year, coaching corps members during institute this summer, and I’ve officially grounded myself in the work for the long-run. I have this really strong sense of commitment and capability that I didn’t start out with, and this opportunity is developing me even more in my mission and strengths.
While I’m here to professionally develop my corps members, I feel like I am getting the PD I needed to really reflect on my experience and push myself to the next step.
Okay, so maybe I need to revise my confession from before: I didn’t just drink the juice, I’m pretty much swimming in a pool of it.
I’m sitting here in my bright orange institute t-shirt (ugh, Clemsux, sorry), beaming about the Behavior Management Cycle (BMC) and Academic Intervention Time (AIT). Be ready for alphabet soup readers, you’ll be getting TONS of it.
They worked hard, they are smart, they will go far.
They reached for the stars … and they better never stop.
Two years. Over 40 students. 3 years of growth. Thousands of hours, laughs, stomps, light bulb moments, pencils, and checks. It’s over – we did it!
I hugged the last student goodbye on Thursday and closed the door to MY Room 206 for the final time on Friday, May 25. I don’t know why I even thought I might not sob like a baby.
I am leaving my kids with a strong sense of the future ahead. My students have shown me growth, understanding, love, and hope. They are curious, they are interested, they are eager. TFA Vision = check!
January 2010 came with an acceptance letter to TFA St. Louis, and I cannot believe how far I have come and changed since that email. I joined Teach For America feeling like I was going to join a mission, I was going to be challenged, I was going to see things I’ve never seen before and have my heart wrenched. While all of these things surely did happen (and they happened daily, hourly, and by the minute), they are only the smallest slice of the pie.
Here’s the thing: TFA is not a two-year journey for me. TFA has rerouted what I want and see for my life because I’ve found something much more important than myself. I am now and forever a teacher and I cannot turn my back on it. When I joined this organization, I realize those who love me signed at the “teacher” spot on my resume, wondered what I would be doing “next,” and hoped that I would seek “more” for myself. I’ve heard, “You’ve worked so hard, I just don’t want you to settle for less.”
Let me tell you now: Teaching is the most rewarding, most difficult, most purposeful higher calling that I could imagine. Let me give you my key points now as to what, why, and how I will be a lifelong advocate for education, children, and change in this country and world.
What: I will be a teacher. I will wake up each morning looking forward to the eager faces I see who deserve better than they know. I will come in with a plan that I will never see come perfectly to fruition. I will begin a to-do list every day what will never be fully completed. I will be told I don’t care, I will be told I’m not good enough, and I will be told that it doesn’t matter. I will close my ears to anything less than 100% positive and productive.
I will be ignored, I will be yelled at, I will be undervalued.
I will also walk into a school each day and hear at least five, “Good morning Ms. Davis” welcomes from children I do and do not know. I will be hugged by at least two dozen smiling faces each and every day. I will receive calls, texts, pictures, and notes that say “I love you.” I will see youthful ambition, I will see mind light bulbs turn on, I will see relentless pursuit at its highest level. I will see people who are battered, abused, abandoned, hopeless, and scared wake up each day and sit in a classroom ready to learn. I will be thanked by strangers for my commitment to our children. I will be invited to birthday parties, football games, and dinners by families of the students I love. I will equip students to find their voice, their power, and their ability to grow and succeed. I will give students the language of goals and hard work and purpose.
I will be on my feet without a seat at least eight hours each day. I will come home with pen, marker, and chalk all over my face and hands. I will have a wall covered with art work and letters. I will come home and do it all again until I go to bed and be told than I work part-time hours.
And at the end of the school year, I will see the fruits of my labor when my students leave my class knowing that they are advocates for themselves. They will hug me, thank me, and tell me that they’ve never felt smarter or happier.
I will read a letter from my third-grader who says that I am his happy thought, and that he cannot wait to graduate from college and make the world better.
How will I do this? I will never look at my calling as a job. I will get to know every child as much as I possibly can. I will focus on the UNDERSTANDING that all students deserve the opportunity to attain an excellent education. I will wake up every day with the charge that I may be the only advocate for my student and that I cannot let them down. I will remember that I represent Teach For America, my school, teachers, students, and families every where and that it is my responsibility to change not only the trajectory but also the perception of those people and organizations.
I will do this through to-do lists, Diet Coke, chocolate, my family, my friends, my puppy, and plenty of chick flicks on the weekend to help me get through it. I will let people in and share my stories with strangers so that they can be advocates themselves. I will remember that to do this work, we must be positive and purposeful and on a mission at all times.
Duh. It’s hard to explain the why because for me it has become so foundational to who I am as a person, a teacher, a TFA Alumn (what-what), and an advocate. Children are innocent and deserve everything that a fulfilling life has to offer. They represent our past, they are the audience of the present, and they are our future. Every child deserves to dream, know they can reach their dreams, and feel empowered to do so. Why would I not want to be a part of a movement that is driven to help thousands of children realize their ambitions, push society to be a better place, and bring our world to a place of empathy and peace.
The why seems “duh” to me.
I realize that is a crazy Teach For America rant, but this is what my experience has done to me. It has allowed me to see that I am only a tiny part of this world, but through teaching I can make a giant impact on the lives of students and the futures they CREATE.
“You do not enter the future, you create it.”
My students are part of a special classroom in Walbridge Elementary. Here is their story: (dun, dun)
They rocked out. Class average on our author's purpose communication arts test: 86%. Class average on our perimeter and area test: 77%.
Of 15 tested students, 8 got 80% or above on BOTH their tests.
Of 17 students tested on their spelling tests, 14 got 80% or above with the majority of those having 100 or above. Also, they had to not only spell the word write, but correctly write a spelling dictation sentence and give me the part of speech of each spelling word.
They are AMAZING.
Spring Break. Peace out, kiddos.
"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." Dr. Seuss.
Of course, Dr. Seuss was talking about the environment, but I don't think that has to be limited to the birds and the bees and the trees. Our environment is the setting for where we live and grow, right? So this will be my charge to my students, my peers, and all the parents out there - unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not. Our children are not getting better, and it's going to take caring and change on our part to make that happen.
This week has been amazing, one in which every single moment made me happy to be a teacher. I can't always say that. Teaching is like what I hear marriage is supposed to be like - you love it, you hate it, (or as Steve Carrell says in one of my favorite movies of all time) you "love them even when you hate them." But this week, I got away with loving it and my students every single moment. Maybe that's why I had the energy to blog this week.
Creating a life for yourself takes more energy than I could have ever imagined. I always knew that I would be responsible for making my own path, but it took 19 years of being a student and two years of being a teacher to realize that each brick in that path would have to be placed with deliberate and extreme care.
And here I am, just figuring it out a little at a time on my own, and I am charged with passing that message onto a class of 8-year-olds. It might sound like biting off more than you can chew, and it is ... and yet, I know they are getting it.
I know it because my kids are amazing. They are a family! I watched them carry on academic discussions with one another, defend one another, question one another, tutor one another, provide for one another ... and I just find myself constantly amazed at how precious and sincere children can be. I find myself also wishing I saw more of that from the adults who are supposed to be modeling good citizenship to them. If only we all were as grateful for help and love as our children are to receive it from us. Every now and then, I see it. But its our charge to make that sporadic display to a constant.
This week, like many others, has tested me in ways that I couldn't have imagined for myself two years ago. And yet, I find myself knowing what to do without hesitation. I have to admit, I'm growing up and I'm proud of who I'm growing into. This week I had people who needed me, and I found strength I didn't expect and the knowledge of what to do without having someone to show me the way. I am so thankful for this experience, because without it I wouldn't be a person of strength and I wouldn't have been able to help this person in the way that they needed. Through this, I have found a friend and a purpose.
Another special thing happened this week: another brick fell into place in my path. Okay, I know what my fiance and best friends and family would spat at me now - I can't say I'm lucky, I earned it. Okay, okay, there you guys go. I said it. This week I was offered a job as a Corps Member Advisor for Teach For America Chicago Institute. I am so humbled and excited for this opportunity - it's everything I've wanted.
I don't know why I've had the blessings I've had in my lifetime. I realized this week that I really have always gotten everything I've ever wanted. I have a family that I care for so much it hurts. I am surrounded by friends who would do anything for me, and constantly do. I graduated from an amazing university after the perfect college experience in my favorite subject since I was 5 - literature. I got my lifelong dream job of being a teacher, I've explored life in new and exciting cities, and I am about to marry my very best friend in front of all of the people that have made my life what it is. And now I am sharing the most meaningful experience of my life with a room (no, a school) full of children who I truly love to my core, who inspire me every day to see the possibilities that are ahead of our world if only we choose love and purpose over hate and doubt.
Yesterday I took three of my boys to go see "The Lorax." We wore our 3D glasses, shared snacks, and enjoyed the movie. I cried. It touched me to see these students spend their weekend happily with their teacher, watching a Dr. Seuss movie and talking about the environment and the book we read in class.
I care a whole awful lot, and my students care a whole awful lot, and that is why I had the week I had. That is why they had the week they had. And that is why I am going to cry my eyes out May 24th when it all ends, and take all that energy and help my corps members put down those bricks in their own paths and in that ole achievement gap. It's about time we make that change - "unless."
Scholarly rigor. That is how I describe this morning with my third-graders.
I decided a few weeks ago that for Black History Month, I wanted to sneak in some social studies to an otherwise COMMARTS-MATH curriculum structure. I replaced my Daily Fix-It's (Daily Oral Language) with a morning activity in which the students learn about a new figure in Black History each day. The best so far was watching their faces when they watched a short video biography about Nelson Mandela ("Ms. Davis, I don't understand. How can someone be arrested for wanting what is right?").
One of the figures I knew I wanted to point out was Langston Hughes, not only because I admire his poetry, but also because he his from Joplin, Missouri, and the kids can relate to him. When I wrote up his biography for the Do Now series, I had an idea: What if my kids could read Langston Hughes poetry?
First thoughts? Langston Hughes is advanced poetry, much too advanced for third-graders, right? Especially third graders at reading levels from pre-kindergarten up, right? I decided to the whole "raise the bar" thing a try and just SEE what I could extract from their eager little minds. I designed a poem brochure: two poems, three questions, the same questions asked for each poem.
Curriculum says our students should compare and contrast this week, so that's exactly what we are going to do. We are going to compare and contrast the theme of dreams in two Langston Hughes Poems: "Dreams" and an excerpt from "As I Grew Older."
I set up my class like a college English class, with discussion and partner-shares being the majority of the lesson. I guided, I facilitated, but they THOUGHT.
I could literally not believe what kind of high order thinking came out of my students this morning. We talked about how Langston Hughes grew up in the turmoil of segregation and how he was poor but pursued his dream of being a writer. We read about life is like "a barren field frozen in snow" if we lost our dreams --- and THEY got what it meant. We talked about the walls that separate us from our dreams. When I asked them what wall Hughes was referring to, I was amazed by their answers: "His poverty?" "His color?" "Segregation."
For real. I'm not making this up. I was FLOORED.
More than any other point in my teaching career thus far, I felt what it meant to raise the bar for your students, raise the rigor higher than you can imagine, and they will RISE with your help.
Believe in our kids, they will surprise you.
Teach For America is not for me, it is not for any of its teachers, it is not for flashy resumes or impressive recommendations. Teach For America is completely and profoundly for the children, and even under the deepest of scrutiny or floating among the highest praise, it will always just be an effort to make the world better in some way. And all this considered, the people who actually go for it are changed and affected more on a daily basis than they or anyone they know can ever imagine.
Change often works on the lines of the butterfly effect, small changes that ripple through existence to effect in real change. If this is true as I know it is, than THIS experience has to offer a change that will, at least some day, mean something real and true for every individual involved and uninvolved directly.
Each day Teach For America has allowed me to explore the best sides of myself that I never saw before and the darkest sides that I hoped didn't exist. I've discovered patience, and what happens when it completely runs dry. I've discovered frustration and pride, angst, ineptitude (on my part and others'), misunderstandings, manipulations, passion, curiosity, pain, joy, success, failure ... everything about others and myself to the upteenth degree. And somehow, it never ceases to rock me, day in and day out as this tidal wave of emotions and struggles it is.
The past three weeks have tried me in a whole new way, and for the first time ever I found myself feeling like there is something I cannot do. I honestly cannot articulate the way this job plays on my conscience, even when I know I'm doing something for the best, or making a judgment call for the better of the whole. Yesterday I just cried in the middle of a conference over a student because of the feeling that I cannot help him. Similar to a student I had last year, I won't give up on him. Why? Because everybody else already has.
I see a student in my class who has been in trouble day in and day out since he started school. In and out of classrooms, principal offices, and schools. He's smart, too smart, and he hasn't had the precedence of change to go on. Maybe it would be easy to write him off when he makes the same mistakes in my class, but regardless of what I'm supposed to do, I just can't do it. Maybe it's a burden, but I truly feel like I am his only chance, the only teacher who will take him on. It worked last year with that little girl, it can happen again right?
I'm not saying this to act like a martyr or whatever - I just need support. I need the support of my family, my friends, my co-workers. My conscience will not allow me to watch this boy fall in the cracks set around him ... so even if it pulls me down, I know that I made a commitment and doing anything else is something I can't and won't live with.
After my third semester in this challenging experience, I am proud of where I am. I am proud of the turbulence I've endured and the struggles I continue to (stupidly so, maybe) take on. Over the holidays I plan on reflecting on where we've come, where we are going, and what I can do it control as much of it for the better as I can.
I'm a southern girl to the core, and my boyfriend and my students don't let me forget it. Yesterday A.J. pointed out how strong my accent gets while I'm on the phone with my parents and that it sticks with me for a while after. Today my kids laughed about me going to Kentucky. I'm beyond excited for the 5-day break, and it's got me thinking about how much I miss the South, the Carolinas.
What do I miss most? Well, the little things count don't they?
I miss my family so much it hurts every day. I miss the hair curling humidity and rolling hills. I miss Bojangles sweet tea and the hangover-cure chicken biscuits. I miss Sunday family dinners at my grandparents house, Bar 2004 in Copper Beech, Carolina Bagel and tripping over the bricks on the USC Horseshoe. I miss The Daily Gamecock, suburbia (at a minimum), men holding doors and "bless her heart"s.
I miss flip-flops being worn any day of the year without being met with dubious looks, coats held off until Christmastime, and coozies all over the place.
I love Saint Louis. I love where I took my life for this turn. But I'm longing for a little time back in the South ... when I make that visit ... well, to be continued ....
Today I woke up with a little anti-pep in my step. Wonderful weekend + short work sheet = Not in work mode. I know I should be super happy about the short week, but it just makes me anxious! Plus, cold windy Mondays without the sun give me a little case of the grumps. For the reason that Mondays often hit me with a giant cloud, I've decided to turn it around with a weekly Top 10.
This week: Top Ten Student Successes from the last week.
1. One non-reading student both read and correctly spelled 20 sight words (another low reader did the same, with his first 100% on a spelling test since meeting him last August.) My used-to-be-nonreader has never showed more confidence. Win.
2. All 14 students ACED their Study Island multiplication assignment today in the computer lab, 3 even getting an A on a division assignment.
3. Center Routine 1-2-3 rocked my kids' socks off. 1 - Stand in ready position 2 - Point to your next center. 3 - Walk without touching. Wonderful.
4 - Successfully executed small group guided reading sessions with all of my groups.
5. One of my students (who I've had since last year) successfully identified all 26 letters, their sounds, and the word that they identify with (beginning sounds). He was beaming as he showed me.
6. Another nonreader student who used to get b and d, m and w, x and z mixed up - got it!
7. Complaining that I wouldn't let them take home their multiplication books home to finish for homework.
8. EXCELLENT spelling test session for the second graders. So proud.
9. One student who kept struggling with multiplication (he didn't know what to do because he has behavior troubles after lunch, and he would just add them) had the lightbulb today when I showed him using tickets how to build and break apart groups (multiply and divide). He then got a 100% on his assignment.
10. Best seating chart ever.
Sometimes the smallest leaps are the biggest. A letter mastered, a sound discovered, a word recognized
My kids are rocking my socks off today after what can be called a rough week to the core. (The roughness, by the way, has nothing to do with my children themselves, but rather the circumstances for which I joined TFA in the first place.)
So I walk in today after a day of ZERO raised voices from my end yesterday (score!) and a determination for two solid days of nurturing voice in a row. And then I look over my kids' homework, something I am not so good at doing on a regular basis. What I saw were the most creative, adorable stories. The assignment was for students to pick at least 5 spelling words and write a short, creative story.
I'm sharing a few of these now for two reasons. 1) Kids are adorable and their silly and creative ideas are too much to not share. 2) I look at what my students were writing with a year ago, and I'm amazed that they are creating full stories linking words together that only share prefixes as their commonality.
Here are their stories: (dun-dun)
TT - One day we went to the park. I was kind of UNHAPPY about all the trash we saw on the ground. I was very UNCOMFORTABLE about being there, so I decided to REACT. We began to look for a RECYCLE bin. UNFORTUNATELY there was not one. Then we all realized (vocab word) that it was a MISTAKE. The park crew was cleaning and blowing trash to be cpicked up. We all just laughed.
ZG - Once upon a time there lived the craziest man. He had a daughter and a son. He went to school to UNROLL the chair. He had to REACT and he MISLEAD the kids to the basement in the school. He made lots and lots of MISTAKES. He MISSPELLED all of the spelling words. He was an UNKNOWN man. And he had to REWRITE all of those spelling words. When the people started to UNLOAD the board (we have a promethean board now), the children said, "HUUUUUUUUUUUU!" They started yelling, "I want to measure my muscles! I'm UNHAPPY with you flower! We DISAGREE!!!"
CM - One day a man named Jack was UNHAPPY because he lost his puppy. A man named JOHN said to him, "Do not search for your puppy," but Jack DISAGREED. He was DISHONEST with himself because the puppy wasn't lost. He was very DISCOURAGED because he did not find his puppy. At the end, he UNROLLED his sleeping bag and his puppy was under the bed!
JF - Once upon a time a boy named Muppy was in a spelling bee. He MISSPELLED DISHONEST and DISAGREE so he REACTED like he was UNLOADING boxes.
These both cracked me up and impressed me in many ways. For your entertainment. Soon to come, the video I shot of my kids reading a Native American play called, "Pushing Up The Sky." Be excited.
PS: This post is titled "Let's Go Gamecocks!" because a couple days ago when my kids were being loopy in line to the gym, one of my students started clapping his hands and chee