Monday, March 19, 2012

A Spring Break with TFA

By Nina Gokhale
I spent my spring break in Memphis, Tennessee as a participant in Maximum Impact: Alternative Spring Break with Deloitte and Teach for America. Over a period of four days, I was able to witness first hand the struggles of this community. We spent our first evening exploring Memphis, where only 4% of students graduate college-ready. The next three days we worked with TFA members and school administrators at various schools. Following are my reflections on each day’s events.

Beale Street is like a smaller version of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. Bars with neon signs line the street. Live music pours from open doors. There was a fair number of people out for a Sunday evening, but as we ventured out, the scenery changed. Historic landmarks and office buildings are heavily interspersed with boarded up structures. Few cars drove by. For the largest city in the state, it seemed far too empty.
I spent my day doing landscaping and secretarial work. The work I did was mundane, but somehow, I’ve still come away feeling satisfied. I’ve long been troubled by the fact that the work I do does not seem to make a long-lasting difference. And I’ve heard it a lot, but I’m really starting to see that small amounts of time can help. One hour from thirty-five of us can greatly reduce a teacher’s work outside of the classroom. A morning in the dirt can create an environment where students are proud and excited to come to each day. The gratitude everyone expressed is truly remarkable and has shown me that my efforts can be the highlight of another’s day, week, or month. 
We spent the following day at a middle school. Here I had the opportunity to work with small groups on math problems. For a few, it clicked. In other cases, however, I felt like I was merely speaking at the students, unable to tell whether they had any grasp of what I was saying. Only when I began to work on more personal levels with my groups of six, addressing individual issues, did I see any progress. But I struggled running around even with this small few. I cannot even begin to understand how teachers are expected to work with classes of 30 and address the various levels of students’ understanding. I always assumed that children slipping between the cracks was due to lack of care on part of the teachers, but I am seeing it’s a lot more complicated than this.

During a college Q&A, one student asked about paying for college. I gave the classic answer, about scholarships, financial aid, loans, etc. But it was difficult, giving them this broad answer, when many do not have the resources necessary to understand the complicated processes to finance their educations. And even with aid, there are still significant out of pocket expenses. A TFA corps member told us afterwards that he encourages his students to go to community college prior to attending a university. While a necessary move for many, this increasing long and expensive process will unfortunately make a college degree even less attainable for these students.
The idea of TFA terrifies me. Being the force that is supposed to motivate students and put them on track is an incredible amount of pressure. Yet for some reason, this new found fear is not driving me further from the idea of being a corps member, but closer to it. The hours of frustrations and failures are worth it, even if only a few achieve their potential. It’s scary, but the cause is worth fighting for.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Summary: The New Haven Experiment by Nicholas D Kristoff

By Paul Bucala 

This article addresses the conflict of interests between teacher’s unions and school reform in America and how New Haven, a small city in Connecticut, has taken steps to make teacher unions part of the solution, rather than the problem. The author of this op-ed, Nicholos Kristoff, opens this article with a couple of anecdotes that illustrate how teacher unions prevent incompetent teachers from being fired by school administers. For example, Kristoff tells the story how an L.A. union helped a teacher keep his job after he allegedly mocked one of his students. But as Kristoff states “that’s what makes an experiment under way [in New Haven] so jaw-dropping. New Haven has arguably become ground zero for school reform in America because it is transforming the system with the full cooperation of the union. After all, as Kristoff states, good teachers are a must for reforming America’s ailing public school system but the current anti-teacher union sentiment certainly does not attract talented young people into teaching.  A few years ago, the New Haven school district established a “revolutionary contract” with teachers. In exchange for job security, pay and benefits would rise. A new evaluation system was  also established that would be based off standardized test scores and other measures of learning.  Evaluated teachers would be fully protected by a transparent process Last year, administrators fired 34 teachers (2% of teachers)  and this year is 50 more are scheduled to be fired. The surprising thing is that both Administers and Teacher Unions support this new contract. Davic Cicarella, president of New Haven Federation of Teachers states “ We all recognize that we need to do something. Tenured teachers who are ineffective- that is an issue. We want to do something about it. But it is not fair to blame all the teachers. “ Fair and transparent accountability is welcome, Cicarella states but notes that it is “Not ok any more to just spray and pray.”

Taking a Semester off: The Life of a DC Reads Non-Tutor

 By Caroline Seabolt

After tutoring for 2 straight semesters for DC Reads, accepting an Internship at the Phillips Collection made me feel like a sell-out.  Being in the classrooms helping teachers and students this fall brought me pure joy and I loved every second of it, so the decision was incredibly difficult to make.  I accepted the internship because it was in the Education Department and I would be working with grades K-12. I definitely miss tutoring, but I know that my involvement with DC Reads is going nowhere.  I still attend weekly Advocacy meetings, and am planning to attend some seminars this semester as well.

There is a common misconception that one cannot be involved in DC Reads without tutoring.  However our various committees are open to anyone with an interest in education on campus and the DC Community.

There are a lot of different ways to teach, and I am learning how to do that bye using art.  I plan to use the teaching skills that I am acquiring from observation and practice at the museum and apply them to DC Reads when I come back to tutor next semester.  I can’t wait to come back!

Monday, November 21, 2011

A little more sleep, a lot more education

By Caroline Seabolt

For the past month, I have been working with a kindergartener named Lynell who, at first, could not recognize his own name.  Lynell was incredibly sweet but was distracted and behind from too many absences at school.  He also does not sleep at night.  Constantly, the teachers in the classroom tell Lynell to “wake up” and to go to bed at a "good" hour.  But honestly, how much control does a kindergartener have over when they go to bed?  The other day when I was having trouble getting Lynell to focus, he responded that he was sleepy. I asked him what time he went to bed and he muttered “one in the morning.”  Unfortunately, I can’t tell whether Lynell is purposely not going to bed or his mother is keeping him up, but either way it is affecting his performance in school.  I’ve talked to some other tutors about this issue I’ve been having and they tell me that they encounter the same problem.  As DC Reads tutors, we educate parents on how to include literacy in their children’s lives outside of the classroom.  But what about getting enough sleep?  Do parents know how much sleep their child is supposed to be getting a night?  These types of facts are crucial to make sure children get the most out of their classroom experience.  I would suggest at our next literacy event, we stress the importance of sleep to parents so children, like Lynell, can finally come to school well rested and ready to learn.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Reflection on TFA Founder Wendy Kopp’s Visit to Georgetown

By Allyson Lynch

I managed to snatch one of the last available seats in Copley Formal Lounge, which was filled with people waiting to hear from Wendy Kopp, Founder and CEO of Teach For America.  As someone interested in post-graduation work in education, I was beyond excited to be present at this event.  One topic brought up over the course of the evening related to the fact that many TFA teachers do not end up pursuing teaching as their permanent career.  This comment immediately caught my attention, because, were I to participate in a program like Teach For America, I would most likely end up in this group.  I have wanted to become a doctor since I was 12, so imagine my surprise when I came to Georgetown, joined DC Reads somewhat casually, and ended up just as engrossed and fascinated by educational issues as much as I was by the prospect of going to medical school...
Therefore, for the past three years, I have struggled with my non-compatible interests in both fields and wondered how to reconcile them.  What would be the point of doing a program like TFA if not to become a teacher eventually?  I would end up in this former TFA “non-teacher” group.  And according to Wendy Kopp, that is great.  As she put it, having experienced teaching and its challenges, especially in the schools TFA teaches in, is a valuable experience that can go a long way in changing things in the future for education, regardless of whether you end up an actual teacher.  The people who have experiences like that of TFA under their belt need to be in all other sectors, not just education.  When people who know what post-TFA teachers know go into other professions, they can help articulate the scope of the issues that face our education system, leading to a more universal understanding of why change is necessary, which can only help fix schools in America.  It was an inspiring message, especially for those of us that may still be undecided about our future career paths; even having had experience as tutors in DC Reads gives us the voice to impart change in education regardless of where our future takes us.  

Friday, November 4, 2011

Fall Fest!

By Caroline Seabolt

I love the idea of Fall Fest as a way for DC Reads tutors to strengthen our relationships with the children we help.  As a morning tutor, I do not have an individual tutee but have 20 incredibly cute kindergarteners at Kenilworth Elementary to call my own, so for me Fall Fest was more of a helping and observing experience.  The atmosphere was fun and celebratory of the fall and Halloween season. Kids dressed in full costume looks so genuinely happy with their tutors as they went to games, collected candy, and stopped at my booth.  I ran the table where kids would stick their hands in jars to determine which scary body part they were feeling, it was so fun to see their reactions!  

Facts That Will Shock You

By Bisi Orisamolu 

Yesterday DC Reads hosted a seminar with guest speaker Mr. Latham who had taught second grade for the past three years at Houston Elementary School. One thing in particular that Mr. Latham said was especially surprising to me. Someone asked the question of how and when it is determined whether a student should move on to the next grade level or repeat a grade. Mr. Latham revealed that in the DC Public School system, a student can only be retained in 3rd and 5th grade and only once. If the student has an Individualized Education Plan which is a program designed for special education students, then they cannot be retained at all. If a teacher would like to hold a student back in any other grade, there needs to be a special write up consisting of a lot of paper work that must be submitted and the consent of parents needs to be given. When asked how many kids he thinks are moved on to the next grade when they should be retained, Mr. Lantham answered all of them that are not at proficient. At Houston Elementary this would be about 60%. In a system where most of the kids are failing, it seems to only encourage the problem by making it so hard to fail.
It comes as no surprise that kids that are not on grade level are passing through to the next grade. However, the system is so imperfect that kids that do not know their letters or colors are passing through to middle school and high school. Holding 60% of a grade back might be impractical but holding back 0% also seems wholly inefficient. This causes there to be large discrepancies in the ability of the children in a single classroom. For example, Mr. Lantham said that in a 6th grade classroom the teacher may single out a group that is reading on a 3rd grade level and give them material on that level. Instead of creating an atmosphere of different grades under one teacher, it seems more logical to leave kids who are not passing in the grades that match their ability.