Dear Future Samantha

Dear Future Samantha,

I hope teaching is going well! I hope that you’ve inspired your students to achieve and love school and learning.

I hope you’ve helped your students realize that they can do anything.

I hope that your students love to read and have favorite books and seek out new ones. I hope your students ask questions about the way the world is, and that they don’t stop inquiring. I hope you’re able to control the classroom effectively and create a culture where students feel cared for and supported. I hope you’re taking time to have a life outside of TFA, too – I hope you make time for friends and family and health and sleep. You’re gonna be great.

I wrote that letter to myself at the beginning of Justice Journey, nearly two years ago. It’s funny, looking back and seeing what is and isn’t true, where I’ve succeeded and where I’ve struggled. It’s funny how hard it is to put myself back there, two years ago, trying to remember what I was expecting going in to all of this.

I didn’t expect to learn half of the things I’ve learned here.

I didn’t expect to feel as deeply connected as I feel now.

I didn’t expect to want to stay here at least a third year and teach longer than that.

I didn’t expect it to be as hard as it has been.

I thought year two would be easier than it has been.

I thought I would be better than I am.

I had no idea how funny and unique my kids would be. I had no idea my school would be closing and I had no idea how weepy my school closing would make me. I had no idea that I would get as loud as I sometimes do in the classroom. I had no idea that I would care as much as I do right now.

Bringing Yourself to the Classroom

In TFA, I’ve heard people talk about how your classroom is a reflection of your personality, how you need to bring yourself and your leadership experiences to this work.

I’m skeptical of the idea. I feel, often, that my identities are not particularly helpful in the classroom, and I generally don’t see how they work with the classroom in any kind of purposeful way. I try to keep my life pretty private at school, just because I feel like it isn’t relevant and isn’t helping my kids learn.

For TFA, we have to do a student leadership project. I wasn’t particularly excited about this requirement – it felt like another thing piled on top of everything else going on at the end of the year. I collaborated on the idea with the other TFA teachers at my school, and we decided to make a video about the history of our school, because of the upcoming closure. When I talked about this with my kids, I framed it by saying this “Have you ever watched the news on TV? Do you know how there are the people who are on the news every day, the reporters who work for the news station? Do you know how they sometimes go and talk to regular people and ask them questions? Well, we are going to become reporters, and we are going to interview people we know about what it was like to go to our school a long time ago.”

We’re journalists. We’re reporters. We’re interviewing people. We’re telling stories about our community.

What was my leadership experience in college, which basically got me in to TFA?

I was the Editor in Chief of my college newspaper, the Western Herald.

You can only connect the dots looking backwards.

Mississippi River Half Marathon

I did the thing. It was raining the entire time. My time, according to the chip, was 2:57:34. My unofficial, I will be okay even if I don’t make it goal, was under three hours.

I made it.

Here’s the full race report:

Before the race – I spent the night at my friend’s house in Indianola, about half an hour away from Greenville. I had driven into Greenville the night before to get my race packet, and then had dinner in Greenville. I woke up around 5:15 or 5:20, and left Indianola at 5:40 or so. It was a very early morning. All the runners park at the finish line, then busses take everyone to the starting line – either the Mississippi half, or the full marathon/Arkansas half. I sat next to someone on the bus who I consider to be TFA-MS famous, and I fangirled a little bit.

I planned to walk for some portions of  the race – I walked some during my long runs in training, and I noticed how much better it made me feel, even if it was just for a short interval. Initially, I planned to run the first five miles, walk a mile, then run the rest of it, relying on race day adrenaline to carry me through miles 6-13. Continue Reading

My 2018 Reading List

Alfons Morales

One of the blogging goals I’ve set for 2018 is to publish a book review every month. That means I need to write a book review every month which means I need to read a book every month. (Yep, I learned about backwards planning from TFA.)

Here’s a tentative list of books I want to read in 2018. I’m prioritizing reading fiction by women of color. If there’s any other books that are wonderful and amazing that I should add to my list, leave your recommendations in the comments.

  1. Little Fires Everywhere – I’ve already started this.
  2. The Hate U Give – I started this one months ago and put it aside, will pick back up.
  3. NW: A Novel – This has literally been on my Kindle since 2013 and I just haven’t read it yet, how embarrassing.
  4. Turtles All the Way Down – Yes, I realize this is by a white guy.
  5. Harmless Like You
  6. Sorry to Disrupt the Peace
  7. Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember: The Stroke that Changed My Life
  8. No One is Coming to Save Us
  9. A Good Country
  10. The Tower of the Antilles

My plan is to add books to this list as the year goes on and add links to the book reviews that I write when I’m done.

2017 >>>> 2018

Jungwoo Hong
For me, 2017 featured a lot of growth and a lot of learning.

I know this is a surprise to zero percent of the people who know me in real life, but I am a little bit Type A and a little bit goal oriented and I love setting New Years Resolutions. I love how they have this promise that we’re all going to make vast improvements, fix all our flaws, change our lives. If there’s one part of the year when I want everyone to believe that it’s possible for people to make a change, it’s the grey chill of January.

In the spirit of New Years, I’m going to share my health and blogging goals for 2018. Continue Reading

A running update

I ran six miles this week.

I mean, I ran 11.7 miles this week, but I ran six of those in a row. I’m really proud of that.

Two months ago, I was definitely not capable of running six miles, but now I can. I could probably do seven right now, but I’m all cozy and I don’t want to right this minute. Maybe tomorrow.

I’m decently on track for the half marathon, but I haven’t been following a plan with any kind of accuracy. I’ve been using the Nike+ Run Club app, but I haven’t followed it exactly because life is a thing that sometimes gets in the way of running.

It’s funny how running more and getting halfway okay at running changes the way you feel about two things: running and your body.

Running first, because that’s a lot easier than bodies.

When you first start running you are inevitably kind of garbage at it, and it’s hard, and you just kind of hate it. In my last year of college, I started running again, with plans to run a 5k, and I started running a fair amount, doing Couch to 5k, and my own program of running as far as I could, and increasing the time by one minute for every run.

It was awful! Western’s incredibly hilly campus didn’t help. I would cuss out loud while I was running because it made me feel marginally better about the awfulness of it all. The only good part of it was when I would lay down in the cool, moist grass for ten or 15 minutes after every run.

Continue Reading

On Christmas and Loss

My grandpa died a week ago.

I was lying in my bed, in Mississippi. Groggily checked my phone, there’s a text from my mom saying “Call me, urgent.” I didn’t need to call her to know what it was, my grandpa was sick, in and out of the hospital, for months. My mom kept me updated on how he was doing, talking about whatever surgery he had, how dialysis was going, how he was going to have the hyperbaric chamber treatment for wound healing.

He came to Thanksgiving dinner, at my parent’s house. He was ill and he was in pain and his condition was not going to improve. Maybe it’s good that he went when he did.

I really expected him to be around another week or so.I went home early, on Thursday morning, getting home just in time for the visitation to start. At funeral visitations, I always do this, I go into friendly and presentable mode. I think I told 50 or 60 people that I’m in TFA, in Mississippi, and so on. I’m not going to actually feel sad when there’s that many people around.

We went to the funeral on Friday. It was at our church, where I spent my childhood running around barefoot and sneaking around the belltower. I actually cried there, during an eulogy that a family friend gave.

We did a funeral procession, all the way across town to bury my grandfather next to my grandmother, near my great grandparents and my great aunt and great uncle.

All of the realization that he’s gone has been hitting me in waves. Everything’s good one minute, then the next I think of something little, anything really, and I realize that my grandparent’s house is not a place I’m ever going to go back to.  I realize I’m never going to use my grandfather’s deathtrap drill press again, or see my grandpa spoil every dog, giving them too many treats. It’s this mix of nostalgia and grief, so much of what I’m missing was so long ago.

In my family, the only force capable of causing any kind of change in holiday traditions is death. On my dad’s side, we had Thanksgiving at my grandparent’s house every year, until my grandmother died. On my mom’s side, we had Christmas every year at my grandparent’s house, until the Christmas right before my grandmother died.

On my mom’s side, Christmas is formal, sit down dinner, traditional food on nice china. This year, it was sitting on the couch, funeral food leftovers on nice china. I’m not complaining about this, I advocated for a chill, low-stress Christmas.

When my grandpa wasn’t at Christmas dinner, it was another wave of remembering. He’s not here. He isn’t going to be here. Not this year, not next year, not ever.

I feel compelled to come up with some bible verse or some quote about how he’s in a better place, but that doesn’t feel right. I miss him, and that’s all.

Nine and a Quarter Years

By now, we’ve all heard of the 10,000 hours idea. In case you live under a rock, the gist of it is that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become expert at anything. This idea is more of a guideline than a rule, but basically: If you want to be an expert at something, you have to spend a lot of time working really hard at it.

Tonight, I was working with a bunch of other teachers at the TFA office, and I said to someone “My reasons for wanting to teach next year are mostly selfish. I just want to be good at teaching.”

I fully stand by that statement. I want to get to a point where I can look anyone in the eye and say “I am a good teacher.”

Am I a good teacher right now?


Right now, there are some things that I do well. I’m  good at thinking up centers activities that will be the right level of rigor for my kids. I’m good at writing unit plans and keeping track of all the moving pieces involved in that.

There are a plethora of things I have improved at. I have gotten better at classroom management. I have gotten better at being consistent with rewards and consequences. I’ve gotten better at planning out instructional routines. I’ve gotten better at recognizing when my students need a brain break and providing that. I’ve gotten better at keeping everything I need for a lesson organized, so I’m not scrambling to find it as we go.

There are areas where there’s still plenty of room for improvement, like building relationships with students and making sure that everyone finishes all of their work and being up to date on my gradebook and being up to date on my data and finishing my intervention paperwork and remembering every meeting and I should probably wipe down the tables in my room and and and and and.

Anyway. 10,000 hours. I’m at school for eight and a quarter hours per day by contract, 10 by necessity, and we have six hours of instruction every day. So I’m devoting six hours per day to deliberate practice, trying to get to the point where I can say I’m a good teacher. Six hours times 180 days of school is 1080 hours per school year. 10,000 hours/1080 hours per school year is nine and a quarter years of teaching to become an expert at this.

I guess the good news is that I’ve already made it through a year and a quarter, so I have eight years left, and then, hopefully, I’ll be able to say that I’m a good teacher.

A Literacy Experiment

Jessica Ruscello

Reading growth is a thing. A really important thing.

The reading growth goal that TFA assigns us is 1.6 years of growth on the grade equivalency scale, when our students take their STAR Reading test. Right now, we have a range of scale stores from 66 to 88, which translates to a .4 to 1.2 in grade equivalency.

1.6 is a lot of growth! It means I need to get my kids to read at a 2.0 to a 2.8 reading level by the end of the year. In other words, I need to get every child in my room reading above grade level.

We took STAR for the first time on August 27, and our average grade equivalency was .59. We took STAR again on September 20, and the average grade equivalency was .80. That’s growth! I think there are a few factors going on – first, the kindergarten and pre-k test (STAR Early Literacy) reads questions to the students, so the first time they take STAR Reading, a lot of the kids are taken aback by the fact that they have to read the questions on their own. I think this pulls down some scores – kids who show that they’re high readers in the classroom had some relatively low scores on the first test, and this might be why.

One idea I had to improve our reading growth was sending home books to read – I have access to Reading A-Z, and I thought that if I send home one of their leveled readers every week with every child, along with instructions to read that book every night for of the week, that might make a difference. Using the leveled readers also allows me to differentiate – I can send home a level C book with my lower readers, a level D book for my on-level readers, and a level E or F book for my high readers. This should allow my kids to get more of what they need in terms of reading material, and help them grow more. By December, I should be sending home a level E book with my lower readers, a level F book with my on-level readers, and a level G or H book with my high readers, and that should continue to progress throughout the year.

Of course, this relies on parent engagement too – I need my parents to remind their kids to read. I also need to pick texts that my kids are interested in, so they’ll actually want to read those books.

The one thing I wish I could do is isolate the effect of this – I wish I could, somehow, have a control group of students who are receiving regular classroom instruction, and regular homework, but not sending books home. I think that would be unethical, though, to do something that I think would help improve reading scores, but only do it for half of my kids. I wouldn’t want to have to explain to parents that I tried to do something extra to improve reading scores, but their child wasn’t included in it because…I wanted to run a little experiment in my classroom. It wouldn’t be useful, either, to compare my STAR data from last year to my STAR data from this year, because I’m not teaching the exact same way I was last year, and I wasn’t in the same classroom for the entirety of last year.

So, readers, I’m looking to you – how can I test to see if this is actually working, while still including all of my kids, and all of the kids in the other first grade class? If you have a bright idea about testing the effectiveness of different methods in elementary classrooms, leave it in the comments on this post.

Half Marathon?

In August, I did something that was a little bit ambitious and a little bit impulsive. I registered for a half marathon, which is coming up in February.

This is big! I ran a 5k in college, and I ran a (very, very slow) season of cross country in seventh grade, but overall, I have not-very-much running experience. I’ve been running more since I registered for the half marathon. I’ve been following the Couch to 10K app, which is interval based and then moves on to just running 2 miles, then 2.25 miles, then 2.5 miles and so on.

I’ve looked into a few different training plans, and I haven’t come up with a singular plan that I’m going to stick to. I’ve looked at the Nike Run Club app and the Hal Higdon plans

Another factor that I’m really concerned about is the fact that I’ve mostly been running on a treadmill. Mississippi is really hot and humid and I would much rather run in the cold than in the heat. Also, I can watch Netflix whole I run on the treadmill.

I’m telling myself that once it cools down a little, I’m going to start running outside, but I’m worried that the treadmill is different enough from running outside that it’s going to be a tough adjustment.

I’m going to keep writing about this half marathon thing, because that’s the only way I know to hold myself accountable. Check back for updates, and all that.