Browse Category: Teach For America

I made it through TFA

It was hard. Really hard, actually.

It’s funny – school got out not even that long ago, but my memories of what every moment of TFA felt like are blurring fast – I can name my kids and describe their personalities, but can I remember everything I taught?

We read Whistle for Willie both years. I remember that. I struggled to find time to do guided reading and math interventions. Spelling and phonics showed such a wide range of student understanding and I never really figured out how to bridge that gap. The multiple-choice-exit-ticket-in-groups-with-plickers thing worked out really well. I tried to make phonics more interesting, but honestly, it was a challenge.

I remember how irritated I was that we had to split one class set of books between two first grade classes, that we only had one set of teacher books between the two of us, that kids had to share books because I had 15 books and 16 kids.

I remember the constant struggle surrounding the bathroom in my classroom, preventing kids from making a mess in it, failing to prevent kids from making a mess in it.

The day they told us that yes, our school would be closing for sure, there was an adult who was in my classroom and they told me I couldn’t manage student behavior in front of my students. I held it together all through dismissal and the meeting after school where they told us we would have jobs in the district next year. Then I went back to my classroom and I called my mom and I cried.

I was too strict sometimes and maybe I raised my voice too much.

I feel like I should be able to distill the past two years into this short, sweet list of 7 things I learned from TFA. I can’t, really.

I learned how much I love my kids.

I learned how weird it feels when your kids mention that they saw you walking out of your front door, and you know that half of your kids know exactly which house you live in.

I learned what phonemic awareness is. I learned what a phoneme is. I learned what sounds short vowels make, I learned which g sound is soft and which is hard, I learned what a digraph is and what sound digraph oa makes. I learned what decoding means. I learned what an open and closed syllable are.

I learned that it’s a good idea to stay late at school on pantry night to get a bit of face time with parents.

I learned how often special ed fails our kids. I learned how complicated it is, and how often parents don’t understand it. I learned that having a baby doesn’t come with a manual in how to navigate special ed systems.

I learned exactly what things needed to be in order for when MDE comes in.

I learned how to make use of 39 days of extended school day because the city was out of water for a week and a half in January and now we have to make up that instructional time.

I learned that being alone with 16 6 year olds from 7:15 to 3:15 on those extended school days can be grueling or it can be inspiring but usually it is a mix of both.

I learned that this complicated, challenging, engrossing thing is something that feels worth it to me.

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.

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.

First Grade: Round Two

Somehow, it was the first day of school, and now we’re 15% of the way through this year. It’s weird how fast time has passed this year.

I think my management has gotten a lot better this year – we started teaching routines on day one and I’ve been trying my hardest to stick to them. Lining up the same way every day, moving to the carpet the same way every day, moving centers the same way, doing bulldog bucks at the same times and for the same things, that kind of thing.

I’ve been working on cracking down on the little things, so that my students won’t get the idea that they can get away with little things and move on to big things. For instance, I’ve been giving a lot more consequences for talking out of turn, calling out, and getting out of seats without permission. Hopefully, that’s going to give my students the idea that they can’t get away with anything, and prevent bigger issues like hitting and kicking. I’ve also switched from using a clip chart in the classroom to using a clip stick that I carry with me everywhere. Last year, I would need to give consequences at recess or in the hallway, but I had a hard time maintaining that consistency between the classroom and the rest of the school.

I’m also proud that I’ve been able to make rewards consistent for my students. I’ve been awarding bulldog bucks on ClassDojo for attendance, morning behavior, lunchtime behavior, and afternoon behavior. At the end of the week, students who have 15 or more bulldog bucks get a special treat. The treat changes week to week, but I’ve made sure that it happens every week.

Academics are also playing out a differently this year. I’m writing ELA plans, for one, and my teammate is writing math and science. Last year, it was the reverse. My principal wants us to use Saxon Phonics, but there wasn’t any money to pay for the refill kit, so I’ve been trying to make do with the parts I have left from last year. I really like Saxon and I think it helps tremendously with reading, but it’s a puzzle to teach when you don’t have the resources. We also had this issue with out reading curriculum – our school was supposed to be getting Wonders, but we didn’t have it for the first month of school. Now, Wonders has arrived, but we don’t have any teacher books and we don’t have any kind of training in how to teach it, so everyone’s hesitant to use it.

For the first month or so, I was just using EngageNY’s Listening and Learning strand and doing read-alouds of fables, then fairytales. I think my kids liked it, but my teammate and I were concerned that we were doing them a disservice by not putting more text in their hands – tasking them with actually decoding words on their own. This week, we went back to using Journey’s, which is the reading comprehension curriculum that my school has been using for years. I’m not a huge fan of Journey’s, but it’s what we have, and it’s been working okay. This was my first time using the assessments from Journey’s – last year, my teammate planned ELA and made the assessments, but I thought we’d give the curriculum ones a try. Looking at the assessment, I thought that it might not be rigorous enough, but it was a pretty reasonable bell curve for my students grades.

Our schedule changed this year, so that we’re doing centers in the afternoon, right before math. Our math block is shorter this year, and I’m worried that we’re not fitting enough in, and that our students are going to fall behind in math. I’m also concerned that we’re not incorporating enough spiral review into our lessons. Our curriculum, GoMath! doesn’t really have any spiral review, and I think it’s really important, but it also feels like we just don’t have time. I’m also worried that we’re not pushing our students to higher order thinking enough. At first, I was trying to work those in through my math meeting routine, but that took 15 minutes – it wasn’t working to do math meeting and then keep my kids on the carpet for our math lesson – it’s way too much time for first graders to sit still on the carpet. I’m still not sure how to make that it happen.

It’s funny – I’ve had a couple days this week where I felt like I was right back where I was last year. When I’m writing all of this out, taking the time to think and reflect about it, it does feel like I’ve made progress. It’s helpful, I think, to consider that progress when it feels like you aren’t moving forward fast enough.

And, because I am a total cornball, here is the song lyric that comes to mind in this situation.

“Look at where you are
“Look at where you started”

Teacher Planning Camp

Alternate title: my nerdy aspirations.

I have big, exciting plans for the upcoming holiday weekend, basically just planning for the upcoming year.

I have 4 days off and I hope I can get the majority of my planning done for the month of August. This includes planning the sequence of teaching procedures,

Here’s the agenda:

Friday, June 30

Make a list of procedures, begin scripting directions for procedures.

Saturday, July 1

Schedule teaching procedures for the first two weeks of the year.

Script directions for all procedures.

Put together 100 chart (cut numbers apart)

Create number cards for 100-120.

Sunday, July 2

Write social-emotional learning/class culture plan.

Write ELA first month plan.

Write math first month plan.

Write weekly assessments for first month (ELA and Math)

Monday, July 3

Write first month lesson plans for ELA, including student investment plan.

Write first month lesson plans for math, including student investment plan.

Write year-long writing plan.

Organize files in Google Drive.

Tuesday, July 4

Find/create worksheets for OA dry erase board center.

Set up binders for OA dry erase board center.

Create exit tickets for first month math plans.

Create any required printouts for first month ELA plans.

I’ll keep this updated with anything else that comes up – I’ll mark things when they’re completed, and add whatever else comes to mind.

Teach for America: We made it

Me, leaving my end of year meeting with my TLD

Yesterday was the last day of school.

Over the summer, I wrote in my classroom vision that I wanted to have a class where my students were collaborative and supportive and learning from each other. Come October, December, February, this felt like a silly, naive idea, totally irrelevant to the actual struggles I’ve had in my classroom all year.

All year, when a student doesn’t know the answer to a question, I’ve been saying “Can anyone help [student]?” Then, I tell that student to call on another student who has their hand raised.

Yesterday, I was reviewing trigraphs with my kids during our phonics lesson – I introduced the trigraphs, then I asked my kids to think of words that included that trigraph. For example, words like “light” “fight” “right” “tight” and “night” all include trigraph igh. The trigraph was dge, and I asked “Can anyone think of words with trigraph dge?” Z raised his hand, I called on him, then he spent a minute trying to think of a word. Then, J was sitting next to him and said “Z, do you need some help?” And suggested a word.

Totally unprompted.

It was this tiny glimpse of something I’ve tried in my classroom actually working. Like “Hey. I did that! I made that happen!”

Teaching as Design

TFA frames teaching as leadership. That’s the name of the framework we’re following, TAL – Teaching as Leadership. Throughout the recruitment, this is a point they head home – this is leadership training, our students need strong leaders, and diversity, equity, and inclusivity is the center of our leadership. As a student leader, this was appealing to me, but they could have sent a message that would have hit my heart in an entirely different way.

Teaching as design.

Teaching is an undeniably creative process, and to me, it’s design thinking. Specifically, it’s human centered design – you are constantly iterating and trying new things with real, small humans. In design, you start out with a problem, or a goal; making a thinner iPhone. In teaching, that goal might be getting your students to understand two digit addition with regrouping. You’re getting feedback, constantly, and you modify your work to respond to that feedback.

In teaching, the feedback you get is often loud and unruly and sometimes children stick their middle finger up at you if they have a problem with what you’re doing. Sometimes the feedback looks like data – test scores, exit tickets, STAR planning reports.

In design, the feedback is focus groups, user testing, A/B testing.

Either way, the feedback informs the way you proceed, it informs the changes that you make to your practice. With both design and teaching, it is a practice, and your practice is going to change and evolve over time – my classroom is going to be different next year from the way it’s been this year, in so many ways.

My students took the TFA math summative, and I spent hours grading and entering data for every student, for every question. It’s a sixteen page test, and I have 18 students, so this was tedious, to say the least, and it’s a rigorous test – my students were showing mastery on the tests I’ve been giving all year, but when the summative happened, we didn’t do nearly as well, as shown on the above spreadsheets. Look at 1.OA.6, 1.OA.1, and 1.NBT.5 – I can look at the feedback and get results that will inform what I’m doing next year. You bet we’re going to devote more time to those standards, from the beginning of the school year, and I’m going to be integrating more rigorous content into the curriculum that the district provides.

To me, this is design thinking – iterating and testing out ideas, and creative problem solving is at the heart of it all.

Grading Anxiety

When I was at Western, I was obsessive about my GPA. It felt like a chance to redeem myself from what felt like a huge failure at art school, it felt like a chance to finally prove that I was smart. In two and a half years, I only had one B and one BA, finishing with a 3.96 or 3.94 or something.

That number would have been higher if I hadn’t taken Early American Lit, which ruined me.

It felt like an accomplishment.

At high school graduation, I undoubtedly had the lowest GPA out of my friend group. I wasn’t dumb, but I had made some mistakes (I’m looking at you, C in freshman year Earth Science) and some things just didn’t work out the way I hoped (hey, straight Bs for the semester because I spent the week before finals in the hospital while my grandma was dying.) I graduated with a 3.4, which some of the colleges I applied to recalculated, adding in extra points for AP and honors classes.

I honestly thought that the obsession and investment and confusion over grades would be over when I graduated.

I was wrong.

My elementary school didn’t give out grades. My elementary school was, compared to the school where I teach, hippie-ish. There were movable walls! There was team-teaching! We had recess twice a day! Our report cards were a long list of skills, academic and social-emotional and practical, and you got a grade on each of those. They would include things like “Adding and subtracting two-digit numbers,” “Plays appropriately with peers,” “Using scissors” and “Identifying left and right.”

In kindergarten, I distinctly remember getting the left and right one wrong, because the person asking me gave me a hint, saying “Your right hand is the one you write with.”

I’m left-handed.

At my school, we give out grades. Numbers that translate into letters that translate into passing or failing.

Grading is frustrating because I have to give a number, to every student, for Reading, Language, and Math. That number doesn’t have a way for me to say “They are still behind but they have improved so much.” and it doesn’t have a way for me to say “Their grammar is great, but they struggle with phonics – they don’t quite get vowel patterns yet.” There’s no way for me to say “Their behavior changed recently, and we’ve been working on changing how we react to this kind of situation.”

I’ve spent this year trying to figure out how to handle grading – which assignments to grade, how to grade homework, how rigorous assignments should be in order to count them for a grade. I’m always trying to strike a balance – if the work you’re grading is too hard, everyone’s failing, if the work you’re grading is too easy, then your gradebook is full of 100’s and it’s not rigorous enough.

Then, there’s the troubleshooting side of things – how do I manage making up tests when students are absent? How do I manage making up work that was unfinished in class?

I still don’t feel like I have it figured out.