Thursday, September 11, 2008

Year 2, Semester 1, Week 1

This week was incredibly busy for a number of reasons, as is every first week of school. The first day of school is always the worst, for both teachers and students. Students are understandably nervous about their new classes, new teachers, new classmates, and in our case, a new principal and an entirely new system of schoolwide policies. I find the first days to be the most awkward because there are so many things you don't want to teach but have to in order to establish any sense of order later on in the year. Nobody likes going over the syllabus or the class rules, but it just has to be done. There's really no way to make it interesting though, no matter how hard you try.

I always try to do something to grab the students' attention, even if it's just for a minute or two at the end, and even if it's only vaguely related to science. One demo involves taking a bite out of a “candle” made out of string cheese with an almond wick (which lights up just like a real wick), and talking about the need for careful observation in science. The other demo involves making a mixture with acetone and water which, when poured on a dollar bill and lit, will engulf it in flames without actually burning it. That one's a little more of a stretch to relate to class, but the students never seem to mind.

My physics class is great so far. There are only seven students, and I know about half of them pretty well from last year. A couple of them were in my Earth Science class last fall, and were some of the top students. All of them are really excited to be taking physics, and have already asked if we can have an “advanced topics in physics” class next year if they all pass the state test their first semester. Our first week was spent building up our “physics toolkits,” which means making sure everyone has practiced the necessary math skills, knows how to graph and interpret data, and has basic lab skills. We've done two labs so far: one finding the density of several objects and relating it to floating coke cans (diet coke floats and coke sinks), and one testing what factors influence the period of a pendulum (exciting to physics people because it can potentially be used to find the acceleration due to earth's gravity).

Physical Science is good overall. My first period class is a little quiet, but we're working on getting people to talk. Whenever I ask questions or for someone to offer an idea, everyone just stays silent and looks at me like I'm going to get uncomfortable and give in without calling on them (I don't). By the end of the week things were a little better. I think it's because they're all sophomores and spent last year in a sectioned off part of the building for the school's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) charter initiative. They're integrating all of the STEM students into the high school this year while still supposedly keeping them in the STEM program, so they're essentially like freshman as far as the juniors and seniors are concerned. The STEM students though seem a little intimidated by the chaos of the school as a whole.

Fourth period physical science is a larger class, and usually has a little more energy, which is good, most of the time, provided there isn't too much. The students range from 10th to 12th grade, and their abilities span the entire spectrum from EC (“exceptional children” - the new term for special education) to close to gifted. They're doing well though, and I'm better able to differentiate their assignments now that I know how to do it. Also, not dealing with chronic behavior problems helps. We haven't run into any of those yet, and are hoping not to. I thought it was going to be my toughest class to win over, but it's actually going very well so far, and the kids seem to be enjoying the work and have been completing massive amounts of homework so far (which is something I've never had happen before, even in physics).

I still have lots of energy from the summer, and I've been getting to bed early so that I'm actually able to get things done during the day. I'm sure that as the semester goes on I'll start staying up later and putting things off, but for now it feels good to be effective and efficient.

For the most part, the other TFA teachers seemed to do really well. There were a few problems with discipline, but overall, things seem to be headed in the right direction. The one exception was our biology teacher. She had been having difficulties from day one, but was asking for advice on how to improve and implementing it the next day. The trouble was, when something didn't immediately work for her, she'd get frustrated and try something else. To be absolutely realistic, things aren't going to go perfectly in your first few weeks of teaching. (Actually, if they're going even moderately well, you're lucky.) I was encouraged by the fact that she kept reaching out for help, but somewhat worried by the fact that she was so frustrated and impatient with her students. Friday afternoon we talked about solutions at lunch, and she said something to the effect of “I've had enough and don't want to come back next week.” I knew this wasn't just the frustration talking, and planned to sit down with her and Ms. Rosenberg (our 3rd year TFA English teacher) after school and talk her through it.

Apparently after school was too late, because when I went across the hall to her room, our human resources director and principal were speaking with her and she had signed a letter of resignation. It's hard for me to comprehend exactly what went wrong – whether things were genuinely so bad as to drive her away, or if she just “didn't like teaching,” (her own words) and made an extremely selfish decision without considering its broader implications.

Teach for America has a very spotty record in Weldon over the past few years. 2006 was the first year they placed teachers in the district in over a decade, and that year three out of the six teachers quit mid-year, for a number of reasons. Last year we lost three additional TFA teachers mid-year, bringing our attrition to over 50%. It's not that Weldon schools are harder to teach in than any of the surrounding schools – it's just that we have had very bad luck. At this point, having a TFA teacher quit reflects poorly on the organization as well as on the other TFA teachers still teaching in the system. We worked very hard last year to give the organization a good name, and it's really frustrating when the snap decisions made by one person set us back so far. More importantly is the impact it has on the students, who are now left without a teacher in a state-tested subject that they are required to take to graduate. I may be teaching Biology next week, like it or not.

I'm really confident that the other TFA teachers will do well though. They're incredibly grounded and remain optimistic, even when things aren't going well. Many of their students were in my classes last year, so I know from experience that they've got some challenges ahead of them. Regardless, they seem to be approaching things exactly how they should, and having a stricter schoolwide discipline system in place helps immensely.

Our football team scored its second win of the year this week, this time against rivals Roanoke Rapids (who make up the “district-within-a-district” that's a result of the gerrymandering that went on several decades ago). The score was 40-22, and even though the coaches said they were playing sloppily, that's still a pretty solid win.

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