Teach For America Alum or Middle School Teacher?

(Photo credit: Robert S. Donovan)

(Photo credit: Robert S. Donovan)

I was having dinner recently with a few other teachers who are all TFA corps members or alumni, and we hit on an interesting topic: how do you identify yourself when people ask what you do?

For me, that question really hit home. When I accepted my offer to join Teach For America in Memphis almost three years ago, I was thrilled to join such a prestigious organization. The first few times I flew home to New England for Christmas and then again during the summer, I definitely wore a TFA t-shirt on the plane. I was subconsciously begging to be asked what I was doing with my life, and when the question inevitably came, it went something like this:

Club Kids: Why Extracurriculars Matter

(Photo credit: Shawn Rossi)

(Photo credit: Shawn Rossi)

It’s the semifinal round of the county debate tournament. The prize: a ticket to the county debate championship and a trip to Washington DC for nationals. Our varsity debate team went 4-0 in the preliminaries and smoked the competition in the quarter and semifinal rounds. I’m judging another debate, so I don’t get to see them clinch the win, but I know I’ll never forget the moment when I exit the room to the broad, smiling face of one of our coaches, telling me, “You’re going to DC!”

I can think of few things in these students’ young lives that have been as meaningful as this victory. Teachers, think back to what you remember the most about your high school career. I’m betting that your strongest memory isn’t geometry, English, or history. More than likely, it’s the club or sport in which you participated. That’s because school should be about more than learning academic content—it should also be about combining that knowledge with practical life skills. This is what clubs and sports, or extracurriculars, are built to accomplish, and why we should consider them an essential component of scholastic education rather than a supplement.

By |April 3rd, 2014|Perspectives|0 Comments|

Poetry as a Microphone

Nixlot Dameus

Nixlot Dameus

This school year, I was assigned to teach a course called “The Art and Craft of Poetry.” I was excited about the creative journey that could possibly ensue—but I also was dreading the daunting task of filling 90 minutes a day with poetry, five days a week, for five months. My first students had much the same reaction. They filed through the door—some misunderstanding the course as semester-long “arts and crafts” session—and were either excited about what the course would possibly entail, or clearly dreading the thought of poetry.

“Ms. Kang, isn’t this an elective?”

“Yes.”

“I didn’t pick it.”

“Great. Welcome to poetry.”

One of those first students was Nixlot, a 15-year-old teenage body-builder who was always the first one to class, wielding his bulky gym bag. Recognized throughout the school for breaking lifting records, Nixlot was most known for his strength. In my classroom, however, he also proved to be a leader. While many boys were preoccupied with balling up paper and playing trashketball when my back was turned, Nixlot was the student picking up the crumpled balls and appropriately placing them in the bin. To me, his silent gestures of service spoke louder than the state records blasting through the school loudspeaker.

Thinking Critically: Why I Support the Common Core

(Photo credit: Steve Snodgrass)

(Photo credit: Steve Snodgrass)

Back in September, I decided to teach my kids how to use the tools of geometry: compasses and protractors. I figured I could give the tutorial in a day and then move on, but the entire experience quickly turned into a mini-nightmare. It turns out that using these tools isn’t as intuitive as I’d thought. They require you to critically analyze a problem to determine what to do and how to use them, follow a five-to-seven-step process, and then explain your answer. Needless to say, I’ve spent considerably more time this year teaching students how to use these tools than I’d anticipated.

If I’m honest with myself, I know that my kids probably won’t need to use a compass or protractor five or ten years down the road. They probably won’t even remember the difference between a compass and a protractor. But they will need to be able to look at a problem, break it down into its components, and use what they know to come to a solution. As a result, I always try to keep in mind that problem-solving and critical thinking are the most enduring things that I can teach them, and that strengthening those skills should be the end goal of any lesson or unit.

This is why I continue to support the Common Core standards: I’ve seen how they empower me to focus on critical-thinking skills with my kids. The standards aim to be “robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.” I believe that the most important thing the standards do is to empower teachers to teach the skills so necessary in the global economy. I’ve experienced the power of the standards in this regard in three key areas in my classroom.

By |March 20th, 2014|Perspectives|0 Comments|

Rigor, Relevance, and Rejecting Beyoncé: Implementing the Common Core Standards

Sixth graders working in Chris Schneck's (Metro-Atlanta '12) science class in Camp Creek Middle School.

Sixth graders working in Chris Schneck’s (Metro-Atlanta ’12) science class in Camp Creek Middle School.

At the beginning of the year, my plan for implementing the Common Core standards had the intensity of a Beyoncé song. We’d be up all night reading really dense books. The text would be so jam-packed with new words that students would practically have to grit their teeth as they read. With animal ferocity, we’d read, we’d write, and we’d analyze texts that were way above our reading levels. We’d use every standard for every text, and my kids would work so hard that they’d leave my class sweating. Never tired, never tired!

Then, after my seventh grade scholars rebelled against Thanatopsis and revoked our two-week scientific-article study chronicling the interpretation of the iridium layer found in the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, I realized that difficulty and sweat are not what it’s all about.

From the Teachers’ Lounge to Capitol Hill: Common Core Conversations We Should All Be Having

English honors class taught by Vincent (Vinnie) Amendolare (South Carolina ’12).

English honors students taught by Vincent (Vinnie) Amendolare (South Carolina ’12).

Like any large-scale education reform, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are bound to have both benefits and drawbacks—so using blanket statements like “best thing since sliced bread” or “the ruin of the nation” aren’t all that productive. Whether the Common Core will have net positive or net negative effects in classrooms across America is largely dependent on how the education community handles the foreseeable flaws, deals with the inevitable hiccups, and prevents the potentially destructive side effects.

Before digging into the complexities of Common Core, it’s important to understand what led to its creation. The idea of teaching to a set of standards or expectations is nothing new. Even before standards-based education took off in the 1990s, most teachers were given some sort of guidelines for what they should teach. Whether it was a list of standards from the district, a binder of worksheets inherited from the teacher next door, or the table of contents in the textbook, most teachers has some guidelines. Not surprisingly, that led to enormous inconsistencies in what was taught from classroom to classroom. And because education is in the hands of individual states rather than the national government, the quality and comprehensiveness of standards were largely dependent on the amount of time and money that states or districts could devote to creating them. Districts with better personnel and better funding created better standards. So a logical next step was to standardize what was taught in every classroom across America—which brings us to the Common Core State Standards. (For a more thorough history, I recommend Diane Ravitch’s National Standards in American Education: A Citizen’s Guide.)

Although the idea of creating national standards may be noble, there are many issues surrounding the Common Core that deserve a thoughtful discussion before pushing this policy any further. Here are just a few.

4 Reasons Why I Love the Common Core

First grade students taught by Cait Clark (South Carolina '12) at Bennettsville Primary School in Bennettsville, South Carolina.

First grade students taught by Cait Clark (South Carolina ’12) at Bennettsville Primary School in Bennettsville, SC.

I love the Common Core. In the past, this statement has elicited responses ranging from bemused skepticism to serious questions about my mental health, so allow me to qualify my statement. I do not love everything about the Common Core. I do not believe it to be the single answer to the problems plaguing education, and I have serious reservations about the speed with which it was rolled out and the impact it may have on teacher evaluations. Nonetheless, I believe the Common Core to be a net positive for education reform in the United States. So before you pass judgment on this understandably contentious policy initiative, consider the following defense.

The Common Core is vertically integrated. State standards in their current iteration rarely demonstrate a rational transition from one grade level to the next, and this current modular system of individual standard sets results in a disconcerting lack of coherence between grade levels. Some standards overlap to the point of redundancy, while others are so discontinuous as to lead students to a fragmented view of the discipline. The Common Core represents a coherent set of standards that develops a core set of skills and builds out from them. While the nuance of those standards is certainly up for debate, the linkages between them are at least purposeful and well developed.

Teachers and Politicians: 4 Ways to Improve the Conversation

(Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker)

(Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker)

I love watching Olympic figure skating. The athlete makes the art of skating appear effortless, but only through thousands of practices and a flawless execution. I think this is a lot like teaching: if an observer watches me work in my classroom, he will see me teach, correct, praise, admonish, and deliver the dreaded teacher stare, all in the space of two to three minutes. It’s taken me a long time to master these skills, but now that I’ve got them down, I can make teaching appear easy to the untrained eye.

But while good educators excel in the social skills required to interact effectively with students, we often fail miserably at interacting effectively with politicians. I’m not just talking about Congress or our president—I’m referring to those even closer to us, such as our school board and our city council members. These are the people who actually make the decisions that impact us each day, and we ignore them at our own peril. Like it or not, who we teach, what we teach, and the resources we receive to do so are dictated completely by politics and politicians. Quite simply, politicians determine everything that happens in our public education system.

By |March 5th, 2014|Perspectives|0 Comments|