Late Night Thoughts: I do not want to burn out

I got home about a half hour ago–not from having a nice dinner with friends–but after spending 4 hours planning after school.  Now don’t get me wrong, you know I love my school.  I love my students.  I love their families.  I even received a phone call from one student tonight as I was getting ready to leave, and I told her I was still at school preparing for her classmates tomorrow.  She was in shock.  She had no idea that her teachers spent so much time to create a positive learning environment for them each day.  Like my student, many people also are unaware of the late nights and weekends teachers spend regularly in order to stay afloat and push students to make significant academic gains.  It is only the second week of school, I must find a balance.

Moreover, the bottom line is that I do not want to end up like I did last year–burned out.  I dropped 5 pounds (weight my petite self definitely does not need to lose) and found myself spending Friday nights in a deep slumber instead of enjoying my youthful twenty-something years.  Many people may be wondering, “Why are you at school that late?  Why don’t you just go home?”  The fact is that I have way too much work on my plate and there are not enough hours to do it.  Most people can leave their work at work.  Teachers cannot do this.  Much preparation is done after work hours.  At my school, teachers are given a 45 minute prep period in order to prepare to teach 2 hour and 40 minute content blocks twice a day, daily twenty minute character building lessons, breakfast duties, among other necessary responsibilities.  The time just does not exist in the day to plan.  On top of planning, we also have to grade and track student work.  Each of these tasks takes multiple hours and each task must be done in order to produce the results we all want.

I am not complaining.  I am simply shedding light on the life of a teacher.  Starting today (I’m not going to include time spent prior), I am going to track the amount of hours I spend at school and at home doing the work of a teacher.  I will post updates of my hours in an attempt to showcase that teachers work relentlessly for their students.   I think many people will be amazed at how hard we work each day to prepare our nation’s future to live the lives of their dreams.   Many teachers could say, I’m off at such and such time and I’m not doing this, but we do it because we care for our students.  We want them to succeed and know that their futures depend on our high expectations, our top-notch lessons, and the sacrifice of our personal lives.  As a teacher in a turnaround school (a school that is labeled as chronically failing a.k.a. our nation’s worst public schools), I know that my work is crucial.  Teaching is truly a labor of love.

Hip Hop in the Classroom

This past Sunday, one of my coworkers and I decided to lesson plan at Starbucks.  While there, she shared with me a book, Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Collection of Poetry with a Beat, by famed poet Nikki Giovanni.   As I flipped through the pages, I became so inspired to use more hip hop, lyrics and poetry in my class this year.  I was reminded just how much hip hop and poetry is a part of me, and how I can reach my students in a fun and engaging way.

Outside of my literacy block, I use inspirational music to start my day as students complete their Do Now.  I have a track list that includes R Kelly’s The World’s Greatest, Whitney Houston’s The Greatest Love of All, Ashanti’s Dreams and many more.   I use the music to set the tone for the day, while also unconsciously feeding my scholars to believe in themselves.

Additionally, the teachers join together to transform hip hop lyrics into college-themed chants and cheers.   Last year, there was a battle between third, fourth, and fifth grades to change the lyrics of Wiz Khalifa’s Black and Yellow to inspire our scholars to get ready for the DC-CAS.  I can still remember my scholars bouncing while rapping, “Gonna pass, DC-CAS, gonna pass, DC-CAS” to the beat.

Nevertheless, I was not using hip hop as much as I could during my actual literacy components.   It was not because I did not think that hip hop as a part of literacy.  After some reflection, it was that I was focusing much of my attention on novels, short stories and non-fiction books, opposed to musical lyrics.  As a literacy teacher, I can use poetry and hip hop lyrics to teach read aloud and Reader’s and Writer’s Workshops mini-lessons.  Below are just a few from the book that I selected:

  • Tupac Shakur’s Rose that Grew from Concrete
  • Benjamin Zephaniah’s For Words and Pencil Me In
  • Antwone Fisher Who Will Cry?
  • Mos Def’s Umi Says
I cannot wait to infuse more hip hop and poetry into the literacy components of my classroom this year.  Hip hop music allows our children to feel free and express themselves.   By tapping into such a major part of their identity, teachers are sure to engage them with lessons that they will remember.  Growing up as a child, I listened to hip hop music.  While mainstream hip hop gets a bad reputation today, there many quality artists who are producing music that should not be overlooked.  

“Make a career of humanity…” -Martin Luther King, Jr

On Wednesday, August 24th, the District of Columbia Public Schools Central Office cancelled school cross the district due to the earthquake that had shaked the northeast on Tuesday.  My mother was coming to visit later on Wednesday, but pushed up her train so we could have some extra time together.  We decided to tour the Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial.  What a sight to see!

As I walked around the memorial and reflected on the quotes surrounding the statue, I came across one that really resonated with my spirit. It caught my eye because I hadn’t heard it before.   Read it below:

“Make a career of humanity…  It will enrich your spirit as nothing else possibly can.  It will give you that rare sense of nobility that can only spring from love and selflessly helping your fellow man…  You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

That quote is my charge.  It speaks to why I live.  I will always remember viewing the memorial the week it was unveiled and this quote will carry me through my journey.  I hope it inspires you as well.

More pics below:

The First Phone Call

Around 9:00pm on the second night of school, I received a phone call from one of my scholar’s parents.  I answered the phone and heard the pleasant voice of my scholar’s mom.  She began by explaining that her son was upset with her because she had not completed the contact form that was part of his homework on the first night.  Since he had not completed all of his homework, he did not receive a sticker for Homework Hoopsters* earlier that day in school.  He was one of three students who had not had this part of his homework completed.

I was thrilled to receive the phone call because it confirmed for me that my scholar was invested in class.  He wanted to be a Homework Hoopster and his mom assured me that he would bring it in the next day.  I explained to her my homework policy and she understood that he would not receive a sticker for that day.  It is best to have a hard, consistent stance with homework or else I risk students making up excuses for not returning homework in the future.   I will be sure to give him a shout out in school on Thursday morning.

*Homework Hoopsters is a monthly homework incentive program that I created last year.  On Monday a homework packet is sent in each child’s homework binder with a class newsletter that includes a place for parent’s to sign each night.  The homework for the week is included in each packet, but students only have to complete that night’s homework.  The next day, the homework is checked by a City Year Corps Member and a sticker is placed by a student’s name on a homework tracker prominently displayed in the room.  At the end of the month, the top homework returners receive a sweet treats (ie cupcakes, cookies, brownies, etc) party.  The treat varies from month-to-month.  Those students also receive a Homework Hoopster certificate.

Supporting Students: Focus Five Plan!

I experienced my first challenge by one of my scholars on the first day of school.  He came late to school and although I greeted him with a smile and encouraged him to join the group, I could tell by the look in his eyes that something was wrong.  I knew him from last year because I taught his older brother.  His mother is supportive, and I know I can always count on her to ensure that lessons taught at school are enforced at home.  Additionally, the other third grade teacher and I had a home visit with him and his mom prior to the start of the year so that we could begin building a relationship with him.  Lastly, I knew he had a Tier 2 Intervention Plan called Check In, Check Out (CICO).  CICO is an intervention created by the school that targets students who need an extra layer of behavioral support.  Scholars receive 3-4 targeted goals and teachers check in and out with them at the end of the morning and afternoon blocks.  At the end of the day, if a scholar has a certain numbers of points, he/she receives a small prize.  CICO proved to be extremely successful for my scholars last year.

This scholar, who I will refer to as Trey, refused to take part in our whole group exercises and soon began to tear up the classroom.  He tore his cardstock desk nametag to shreds and threw the pieces around the room.  He then proceeded to throw crayon boxes and pencils around the room.  It was during this moment of the day that I knew that he would be the first student that I will begin my Focus Five plan with.  Over the summer, I came up with a plan called Focus Five to target students throughout the day who I need to build immediate relationships with in order to ensure that I have a positive classroom culture.  The Focus Five plan is for me to spend significant amount of extra time with these scholars each day by doing things like eating lunch or playing on the recess field together, and taking the scholar aside and giving positive praise, among other things.  It is through this plan that I will speed up the relationship process in an effort to get this scholar to buy-in to the fact that I want him/her to learn and that I want him/her to feel comfortable in my class.

When I taught in New Orleans, I used a similar plan to create an incentive program for one of my students who wore a hat to school each day and would refuse to take it off and constantly avoided learning by walking around the classroom picking on other students to mask his low self-esteem.  It took me a bit of time to realize that he did not want to take his hat off because he was embarrassed that he did not have a haircut.  If I had not developed a relationship with him, he would not have confided in me about something so personal to him that was partly affecting his ability to learn in class.   I knew he came from an unstable home environment and was practically being raised by his older sister.  I decided that I would create a special plan for him that would allow him to get hair cuts on a regular basis while we also spent time building our teacher-student relationship.  In no time, I saw a change in my former student’s behavior.   He knew that I cared and that made a major difference.

Our kids have things that they deal with daily, and as teachers, we have to get to the root of what is stopping them from learning.  We cannot solve all problems, but we can give it our best shot.  The Focus Five plan will begin today in an effort to tackle potential problem behaviors early on through purposeful relationship building with Trey.  I will be sure to blog the student’s progress and any details of the plan that I have implemented.  Let us hope this plan works!

The First Days of School!

The first day of school was Monday, August 22nd.  It was the first taste of turnaround year two for a staff of a little more than half returning.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  After going through a whirlwind year one, I did not think too much calamity could shock me.  The other third grade teacher and I talked briefly before walking to the blacktop to meet our scholars and their parents.  I told her I was not nervous and assured her that we are fourth year teachers.  We have done this for three years already.  Walking swiftly to a sea of staff, parents and scholars with khaki bottom combinations and array of colored shirts, I soon was surrounded by my scholars from last year.  Greeted with bear hugs and smiles, I was amazed by how much they grew over the summer–most nearly matched my five-foot stature.  The morning was so calming and it was the first sign that turnaround year two would be different.

During breakfast, I met most of my new third grade scholars for the first time.  I placed nametags on their shirts as we exchanged brief get-to-know-you conversations.  We soon headed up to my classroom and my show began.  I began by telling them how we are “The Best Class on Earth” to go with the circus-themed décor and they completed their do-now. One major aspect of my school’s program is our school-wide culture plans.  After teaching in the Scholar Academies ( model for a year, investing my scholars in our culture goals came naturally.

Nevertheless, what I was not expecting was for them to be as receptive as they were to redirection.  Last year, there was a lot of resistance to the school culture.  Our scholars were not used to receiving consistent consequences of any form and did not understand why we practiced procedures so much at the start and throughout the year.  “If we don’t do it right the first time, we have to do it again,” I said as we practiced how to walk into the classroom and the rest of my beginning of the day procedures.  “We practice so we do not waste our learning time,” I followed up.  They did it without much huffing, puffing or tantrums.  Some students made occasional small comments, but took redirection extremely well.  Their response time was quicker and I had little instances of what was coined “the Stanton stare” last year–the stare students gave us when thinking whether they wanted to comply with a demand.  It seemed as if the hard work put in last year made a major difference—our students were understanding why we come to school and why we “sweat the small stuff” when it comes to school-wide systems such as walking quietly in the halls on the blue tiles or practicing bathroom procedures or always tracking the speaker while talking.  Day one as a school was good.

Day two proved to be even better than day one for me.  I enjoy having a projector in my classroom now.  The scholars love how interactive my lessons are and how I incorporate video clips and music into my lessons.  I have found to be a great a resource for converting video and music files to be used in the classroom.  During my Daily Do Now exercise, students listen to inspirational songs such as R Kelly’s The World’s Greatest and Ashanti’s Dreams.  They love the music, and the songs make them feel good.  Today, my scholars had an opportunity to watch a short clip of The Little Red Hen, discuss how to be classroom helpers and apply for classroom jobs.  They also listened to a read aloud on how we are alike titled The Me Too Game and played Stand Up, Sit Down to illustrate how we have so many things in common.  In the afternoon, I experienced my first earthquake while teaching.   My students had differing reactions.  Some where scared while others laughed.   We had to evacuate the building and school dismissed early.

Yesterday, I was reminded of Tuckman’s four stages of group development:  forming, storming, norming and performing.  Last year, I would say we made it through the forming and storming phase.  These first two days of school have felt like we have made it to the norming phase.  Our school is beginning to feel like the “learning sanctuary” described in our vision statement.  Our school has grown leaps and bounds from where it was last year, hopefully results will show over time.  Here’s to the best class on earth!

Late night thoughts: I’m forced to act.

Educational inequity is a civil rights issue.  When I think about the expectations for my school and reflect on the resources available, I am filled with rage.  The lack of resources at my school is deplorable.   I just want my scholars to have every opportunity available. Is that too much to ask?  They deserve to have more than what is given to them; they deserve the best.

When you meet my scholars, you may see their worn clothing on the outside. You see that their lives are hard to live. But when you look past their smiles & see deep in their eyes, you see boundless potential crippled by circumstances they did not choose. And it is in those moments that I’m forced to act.

A Day at the US Dept of Education with Arne Duncan

On Tuesday, I attended a day long event at the US Department of Education.   The event, planned by Leadership for Education Equity and Teach For America, brought together 150 people within the field for a day of speakers, panels, and question and answer session with the highest federal education policy advisers.  The highlight of the day was definitely getting a chance to ask US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan questions and hear his responses.

Taking a quick shot outside the White House.

The day began with a brief tour of the White House.  After the tour, I trekked over to the Capital Hill Holiday Inn to officially start the day.  I heard from several speakers including two of the Department of Education’s Teacher Ambassador Fellows.  They emphasized that the department really wants to hear from teachers.   Both women are lifelong teachers, who are taking a year off teaching to go around the country, lead town halls and focus groups,  and report back to the department, among other things.   I got a chance to chat with one who’s interested in visiting my school and learning more about our turnaround work.  I hope we are able to connect in the near future.

During lunch, there was school board panel that was of particular interest to me.  One of the panelists, Tina Hone, At-Large School Board member in Fairfax County in Virginia, shed light on her experience as a minority on a board comprised of people who differ greatly from her on various issues.  (She’s a Democrat, most of the people on her board are Republican.)  She spoke about being willing to take a stand–even if that means you will lose the vote.  I thought that was so timely and extremely important in this day, when so many people comprise for the common good.  As proponents of the common good, we must not comprise on what we know is true and just for Americans.  I applaud her for her dedication and fearlessness in the face of opposition.

After lunch, it was time to head over to the US Department of Education to hear from the chief– Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  Duncan wore some slacks and baby blue button up, which matched his calm demeanor.  He spoke for about 10 minutes and then went right into questions.  “I want to see more teachers in unions,” said a stern Duncan.  He said that more teachers need to be told to join their unions and get involved.  He said, “that’s where change will happen.”  Duncan also talked briefly about the egos of many reformers and how that mentality is counterproductive to the education reform movement.  I completely agree with his sentiments.   The back and forth between the “new reformers” and “old reformers” needs to cease.  I do not completely agree with either side, and believe that the labeling and trash-talk hinder our progress in the field.

Additionally, the secretary went on to answer a question pertaining to Race to the Top.  “Race to the Top is about pushing policy,” he said.  Then he adding that many states who did not win money made many changes to their policy that would not have done before.  I do agree that Race to the Top has led to significant changes in our education system.  I also believe that it did produce massive changes in a short amount of time.  However, I am very concerned by some specific policies linked to the grant.  (I will talk about them in future posts.)

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and I

Furthermore, Duncan also went on clearly state his priority of pushing colleges of education to better prepare teachers.   He stated plans to track college of education graduates and how effective those teachers are in the classroom.  Duncan emphasized that it is imperative that we bring the teaching profession  to the prestige of being a lawyer or doctor, and that we must pay teachers more.  Duncan understands that many teachers find it difficult to live off their salary, and that is one reason why it is difficult to attract and maintain talent.  The department is researching ways to be innovative in the future of teacher pay.

Although questioned about teacher evaluations, and more specifically,  linking teacher pay to test scores, Duncan said that “… just because a system isn’t correct, doesn’t mean we do away with it altogether.”  I understand how he feels about this.  However, what concerns me is linking teacher evaluation to test scores without adequate professional development and ongoing support.  Ensure that teachers have equal opportunities to develop, while simultaneously evaluating their progress.

Also, Duncan stressed strategic push for more people of color–particularly Black males–in the profession.   He said that he has been traveling around the country discussing this issue, and related the lack of Black and Latino males as teachers has an impact on how schools are able to support Black and Latino males.

It was a pleasure to here from Secretary Duncan.  Overall, the day was extremely insightful for me as a classroom teacher.  Rarely do teachers get a chance to engage with policy advisors and policy makers so I thank the Leadership for Education Equity and Teach For America for planning this event.  While I do not agree with every solution Secretary Duncan presented, I did believe that he is in fact  seeking teacher input.    During the last panel of the day, the department’s Communications’ Director said it best, “We’re just the bully pulpit.  The real work happens on the grounds.”  I could not agree more.   The department can only do, but so much in their position.  It is teachers, administrations, and communities that can lead grassroots, systemic change.

Currently fixing a broken plane while flying it!

After taking a one-year hiatus from blogging, I’m so happy to be back.   When I last blogged, I discussed the end of my Teach For America committment, and my decision to move back to the east coast.  In an effort to be closer to friends and family, I left the Crescent City and everything I had known since graduating in 2008.  I loved living in New Orleans and maintain contact with my friends and coworkers (Hi Milestone SABIS Academy!).   Nevertheless, in June of 2010, my 5 foot, 1 inch self, packed up my car with everything it could fit and drove from New Orleans, LA to Knoxville, TN and finally to Washington, D.C.

In June of 2011, I took a job at DC Scholars: Stanton Elementary.  After interviewing with several schools and education nonprofits, I decided that Stanton Elementary was the right place for me.  Stanton presented a unique opportunity for me to be the founding teacher of a District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) partnership school.  A partnership school is a new endeavor for DCPS where schools implement a turnaround model.  DC Scholars Stanton is managed by Scholar Academies out of Philadelphia, P.A.  I was eager to teach in a school that is on the cusp of school reform and on the frontlines of the toughest work–taking a failing school and completing setting it on the path to be a high-achieving school.  I signed up bright-eyed and eager to be a part of such work, in an area of DC that has been overlooked.

More importantly, Stanton reminded me of home.  It was a chance to work in a community similar to the one’s my peers back in Bridgeton, NJ experienced.  It was a chance for me to learn and advocate on behalf of the people working tirelessly everyday in a system that is currently set-up to allow them to fail.  Little did I know that embarking on such a journey as turnaround would place me head first in one of the most challenging, yet rewarding experiences of my entire life.

Last week, my coworkers and I began year two of turnaround.  At professional development, our principal, showed the following video of year one at Stanton.  Take a look at it below:

Many people will watch this video, and think we crashed and burned.  However, what you just saw is what many experience in turnaround work.   We came in thinking that obstacles were normal turbulence, but found out later we were in the ride of a lifetime.  People involved in turning around our nation’s most failing schools require unique skills because turnaround is no ordinary undertaking.  As a staff, we developed our turnaround toolbox.  Dealing with the fact that we have little resources (ie no computer lab and teachers have to share projectors), we began and continue to problem solve in order to meet extremely high expectations.

Our principal went on to tell us that turnaround staff have what most consider an impossible task:  We have to fix a broken plane while flying it.  And while many would spew doubt on our ambitions, we know that the time is crucial to give all children an opportunity–and that means taking best practices from high-performing schools and applying them to public schools.   Our scholars in southeast DC, deserve every opportunity as their more affluent peers in northwest DC.  We are here to help put our scholars on the path to success–no matter what it takes.  I commend the parents of my scholars for joining us in the journey.

I hope that you continue to read my blog, feel my passion, and are inspired through my words to take charge in advocating and acting on behalf of the greater good.  Thanks for taking time to read my first post in quite some time.  Feel free to leave comments and engage.