This will be my third and last post as a Teach For America corps member going through institute. As you may know from the previous two posts, it’s been far from a walk in the park. As one corps member that will be teaching in Kansas City put it, “YOTO – you only Tulsa once.” But I’m joyously laughing out loud as I write this.

Last week Wednesday marked the beginning of a revolution in my reading class. My co-teacher and I stopped “taking turns” teaching and became a real team. We started jumping in and out of the lead teacher role. We stopped giving our scholars long worksheets that years of being “behind” in school have taught them to fear and fail. We turned assessments into games. Like moms who do weird things like add ground vegetables to brownie mixes, we started hiding rigorous writing exercises in between fun kinetic activities, like crumpling pieces of paper and throwing them to the front of the classroom (“snowball answers”). Our class average hasn’t been below 72% since.

And today…today was the best! Our kids, some of which read a grade or two above their 4th grade level, and most of which read one or two levels below that, completed a writing activity that falls at the two top levels of Bloom’s pyramid of intellectual behavior!!

The objective was to have the scholars find out if Sophie, a character from Roald Dahl’s The BFG, had changed throughout the story.  In order to do this they were to ask and answer questions about the character. This may sound foreign to you as an advanced adult reader. I know, because before this summer I rarely, if ever, thought about how I managed to understand what I read, but this is one of the ways I do it. Think about it sometime and you’ll see you do too.

So anyway…these Scholars did it! They wrote questions to ask Sophie that would allow them to decide whether she had changed throughout the story. This is cool because in order to write appropriate questions the students needed to understand, truly, how the character had changed, and what her answer to the questions would be. Does that sound exciting to you?! It does to me!!! I’m not getting blank stares anymore. These little people are with it!! Here are some of my favorite assignments turned in today. Hope you enjoy as much I did.

Sophie are you scared? yes or no - I love this because she's really imagining she's talking to Sophie and expecting an answer.

 

Sophie, iva you scared in the ear? - This little girl wrote only in Spanish or not at all the first week of school. Now she feels confident writing and will code-switch for the sake of completing an assignment.

By my most advanced lady.

My most advanced gentleman.

My most improved gentleman. - I love this!!! This student wouldn't even pick up a pencil 4 weeks ago, because he was so sure he would fail. His goal was to improve his independent reading skills by 3 points, he increased by 5. Most of the words on this paper he sounded out and spelled himself.

I will be forever proud of the work my co-teachers and I have done this summer. I hope these children will also be forever proud of the work they’ve done this summer.

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Yesterday marked the end of my second week of teaching rising fourth graders, some of which read on a pre-kindergarten level. It also marked the halfway point of those children’s summer school. With this coming Thursday and Friday off, in honor of our nation’s independence, I have exactly seven days to teach some of the most basic reading skills in hopes the children will someday be independent AND successful themselves.

During my first week I must have been on a new and green teacher high. The lesson plans seemed common sense. My class average, which I’m very aware of because Teach for America is many things, but definitely data-driven, was at 71%. Pretty impressive, given that I teach reading and many of my kids cannot read and write. I was enjoying my students’ work and understood why there are blogs upon blogs about things students say or write.

My personal favorite from week one, especially given that the next day’s vocabulary word was “cannibal”: “The BFG is not going to eat Sophie because I mean why would a person eat another person!”

Then this week, after I modeled using inferences to find the theme of “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas (that people who look different on the outside can be friends): “Yeah, but…were John Smith and Pocahontas just friends?”

But between that first week and yesterday I was sure humbled once again. After I swore up and down that I would go to sleep no matter what, I found myself getting only three to four hours every night. I was getting progressively more tired, stressed, and fed up with anything that I viewed as extra fluff. I got so “focused” on meeting lesson planning requirements for the powers that be that I was leaving myself no time to practice executing the lessons, which at the end of the day is what really gets my kids improvement. My focus on the wrong things showed. This Monday and Tuesday, the class average dropped to a 63%.  I essentially wasted two of the precious days these kids have in summer school because I was too caught up in meeting my deadlines and my expectations,  not to mention being a tired and negative Nancy, when I should have been worried about what the kids needed.

All of that changed Tuesday night. I remembered that my roommate and I had made a pact to be positive. And what would help us stay that way despite the long days, longer nights, and frustrating data collection process? BFFs. Not our best friends forever, though they help, but “beer and french fries.” That’s right…the thought of a Friday night doing something just for ourselves. Whenever I heard myself getting a little negative I thought “BFF,” and rephrased my thought or sentence.

For example, “my time issues can’t be fixed! My kids just need more time to grasp new material,” became “I’m hopeful that x strategy will fix my timing issue, I’m just not that confident yet.” “X strategy didn’t work….arrgg” became my new mantra: “back to basics! Tell them our goal, and teach the Key Points.”

My lesson on Wednesday started with this phrase “Good afternoon scholars. Before we start I want to apologize for rushing through yesterday’s inference lesson. That wasn’t courteous of me, so my goal for today is to teach you how to make predictions at a speed that’s friendly to you.” The class average shot back up to 71% and by Thursday, when I retaught inferences, some colleagues that observed said they were impressed by how “with it” my students were during the verbal “checks for understanding” that I do while I’m teaching.

All this to say that I finally found something that 1) I actually have to work very hard at to do well and 2) I can and have failed at…it’s called teaching.

Fortunately for me, if there’s one thing I love it’s a challenge. By golly I found a way, in just 6 days, to teach my lowest level reader to make four short vowel sounds, place them correctly in the middle of two consonants, and blend that vowel with consonants to make some words. It’s called “phonercise”…something I read about on good old Google and customized. That kid enjoyed his morning “phonercise” so much that he actually completed his in class worksheets, without extra prompting, throughout the day. When I called his mom last night to tell her this she was ecstatic!

So yeah, I technically only have seven more days, and my lowest students may not be able to read a grade-level book independently by the time I leave their lives, but that doesn’t mean I”m going to stop trying to get them there and that doesn’t mean they won’t have taken some important steps on that path. If I believe they will, and tell them that, they too will believe and do it!

In the meantime, I’ll do whatever it takes to get through the grown-up part of this experience. Refer to the picture above…tootsie rolls during a “teaching phonics” workshop.

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