Summer at RePublic

Last week, I started my summer fellowship at RePublic Schools! I’ve mostly been working at Smilow Prep, but I’m going to spend the majority of my time at ReImagine Prep, which was the first charter school to open in Mississippi.

My fellowship is an operations position, and most of the work I’ve been doing is preparing the space and materials for students to arrive in August. On the first day, we unpacked and set up all the Chromebooks, above. Today, I affixed college flags to the walls in all of the classrooms, which was more challenging than I expected.

It’s been interesting to see the ways in which RePublic runs differently than a public school – they face different challenges with their buildings, their curriculum, in relating to parents and building school culture. I’m hoping to use this summer to gain a better understanding of what’s working for RePublic, and try to bring some of that into my school in August.

Michigan to Mississippi, by the numbers.

931 miles.
160 miles driven on the Natchez Trace. For anyone who hasn’t driven on the Natchez Trace, it’s a slow, scenic drive with very inconsistent cell phone service. The scenery is very similar to northern Michigan.
10 phone calls.
1 state driven through by surprise. Hello, Alabama.
3 gas stops.
33.67 miles per gallon, on average.
1 nap taken with the window rolled down at a rest stop in Kentucky.
2 potted plants in the car with me.
2 caffeinated beverages drank.
4 cheese pies eaten.
1 Chipotle burrito bowl eaten.

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.

Afternoon Rhythm

The graphing activity we did in math yesterday, from Tara West’s FirstieMath on TeachersPayTeachers.

I’ve been focusing a lot of my energy, lately, on getting my afternoon math block right. The morning has gotten better because I’ve been more consistent about explaining centers and I’ve started our morning meeting earlier, but it still feels, often, like my afternoon is a hot mess, my kids won’t stop talking, and there’s 10 minutes at the end of the day where I’m not sure how to keep my students occupied while we’re getting ready to go home.

Things have been getting a little better – about two months ago, I started doing a little math meeting routine where we all say the date, “yesterday was” and “tomorrow will be. For example, “Today is Friday, March 31, 2017. Yesterday was Thursday, March 30, 2017. Tomorrow will be Saturday, April 1, 2017.” Then we count to 100 or 120 by fives and tens.

Last week, I added in a little number sense routine, where I hold out some blocks and ask how many blocks I would have to add or take away to get to a different number of blocks. I try to get the kids to explain it to the class, which I guess is something like a math talk.

Here’s an example.

Ms. Macy: I have some blocks. Can anyone tell me how many blocks this is?

Student: It’s 34 blocks.

Ms. Macy: Good job, yep, it’s 34 blocks. I wish I had 12 blocks. Can anyone tell me how I could get to 12 blocks?

Student: You could take away two tens and then take away two ones.

Ms. Macy: Great job, now do that with the blocks and explain it to the whole class.

Student: (gets up in front of class) So we started out with 34 blocks, and I knew we wanted to get to 12 so we have to subtract, so I took away 2 tens but I still had 14 left. I took away 2 more ones and then I had 12.

This week, I started something new in my math block that’s actually worked out pretty. It feels like such an obvious solution, I’m a little embarrassed that it took me this long to figure it out. I got a review packet off Teachers Pay Teachers, printed off five pages of it, and have my kids do a page of it every day, as an early finisher activity. This buys me a little time at the end of the day to get homework folders together, and gives my kids who don’t get dismissed as early something to do while I get my bus riders out the door.

Lent

Lent starts this week.

I low-key love the idea of Lent because I like all the things Lent is about less, about giving up, about making space in your life for the things that actually matter. It’s about cutting through the nonsense that so often occupies our minds and focusing on the things that actually matter.

It’s a little bit Puritanical, in the best way.

I don’t come from a background that makes a huge thing of Lent, and growing up, I mainly heard it from my Catholic friends and family as a time of giving specific things up – chocolate or pop or fast food or TV.

I’m not terribly interested in that concept of Lent. It’s weird, for me – the same as obsessively setting SMART goals, it’s a way to get yourself laser-focused on improving your life/spirituality in one very specific way, and often allows us to let everything else fall by the wayside, instead of trying to improve things with a more holistic mindset. You give up pop but spend the whole of Lent craving it, what’s the point?

It’s so tempting to be like “I’m giving up stressing about school for Lent!” but frankly, that’s unrealistic at this point in time – I’m stressed about school all the time, I’m frustrated with my management and the state of my classroom. It feels like I’m working really hard at management, and I’ve only seen marginal improvements. I have my second formal evaluation coming up at some point as well, and that’s huge and scary.

Giving up stress wholeheartedly isn’t an option, but I can work on narrowing my stressors down to the few things that really do matter – focusing on my management and worrying less about larger issues at play in the district, for instance.

Pope Francis had a perspective on Lent that I really appreciated.

Dear friends, Lent is the favorable season for renewing our encounter with Christ, living in is word, in the sacraments and in our neighbor. The Lord, who overcame the deceptions of the Tempter during the forty days in the desert, shows us the path we must take. May the Holy Spirit lead us on a true journey of conversion, so that we can rediscover the gift of God’s word, be purified of the sin that blinds us, and serve Christ present in our brothers and sisters in need.

Not focusing on giving something up so much as readying ourselves for renewal and conversion. Serving Christ in those in need. I can get behind that.

Unrelated: The world really needs a devotional for Nasty Woman that blends empowering scriptures and feminist theory. Someone who knows the Bible better than me, go write this.

The Cost of a Surprise Trip Home

I went home this weekend, unexpectedly. I had a family member pass away last weekend, and the memorial service was to be held this weekend, in Metro Detroit. I debated a bit, about coming – I was concerned that it was just too much, that I would be too stressed for the next week, that it would throw everything off.

My mom convinced me that I needed to be there for my family, so I went home. I left on Friday morning, using a personal day at school, and came back to Jackson today.

Airfare: I started looking up flights while I was still on the phone with my mom, discussing the potential of me going home. Flights out of the Jackson airport were nearly $700, so I looked into options out of other airports in the region – New Orleans, Atlanta, Birmingham – in hopes of finding some cheaper flight to Detroit. It worked out that my best bet would be New Orleans, where I used one of the vouchers I received in January to get a ticket, where I only had to pay for the “taxes and fees” portion of the price. It was $84.52.

Gas: I realized how low I was on gas somewhere in Louisiana, and then I was running late and I was anxious about running out of gas and missing my flight. I made it to the airport without filling up, then filled up my gas tank as soon as I could, when I arrived in New Orleans on Sunday. $27.91 along with the anxiety about running out.

Parking: I hate paying for parking, in any circumstances. It always feels like I’m spending a ton of money, and I’m not getting a thing or an experience that is worth anything to me. The experience I’m getting is not having my car towed, and while I would hate to have my car towed, it isn’t an experience that I pay for gladly.  It cost $41.31 to park at a parking lot near the New Orleans airport for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Food: I planned on packing food to bring to the airport with me, to save money on buying food in the airport. Somehow, in everything that was happening on Friday morning, that was forgotten, and while I ate breakfast, I didn’t eat lunch, leaving me ravenous when my mom picked me up at the Detroit airport. I stopped to buy a coffee drink on the way to the airport, $2.83, then spent $2.75 for an iced coffee at DTW before I got on the plane today. Let’s count the sushi that I bought at Trader Joe’s and ate on the way home as trip food as well, $3.49.

Total cost: $162.81. Less than I expected, and worth it, given the circumstances. Even while I was adding the numbers up, I expected it to be around $300. I’m not sure why I have such a bad sense of estimating that – I thought that I had spent almost twice as much as I did.

I write about this kind of thing because I’m endlessly curious about our attitudes, ideas, and feelings about money – there’s nothing else that makes people quite so uncomfortable and secretive than talking about how much things cost, and our own financial situations. I hope to shed a little bit of light on things by writing posts like this one.

Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded

Last night, I finished reading Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded. It was excellent, really – it’s a deeply personal memoir by Hannah Hart, of My Drunk Kitchen fame. Honestly, this book surprised me. Hart is awesome, and I love her YouTube channel, but I did not expect this book to be as vulnerable as it is. I expected this to be a pretty simple story – telling about how she reached YouTube fame by getting drunk and cooking, telling about some of the experiences she’s had as a YouTuber and content creator, that kind of thing.

Instead, this book was an intimate story about her troubled childhood. Hart’s mother has schizophrenia, and went without any kind of treatment for much of Hart’s childhood. This meant that Hart grew up in a home that was filthy, with a parent who was not fit to take care of herself, let alone care for her children. Hart was also raised Jehovah’s Witness, which is another dimension she touches on in the book.

The clean, easy way for this story to work would be that Hart had this troubled childhood, then she went off to college, then My Drunk Kitchen, then she lived happily ever after. Instead, life is messy, and she writes about the ways her mother’s mental illness has affected her today, and her more recent struggle to win conservatorship over her mother and care for her within a system that doesn’t make things easy. The memoir feels as though the ending is unfinished, and it works in the context. Hart’s struggle with her mother is still a work in progress, and it’s not clear what will happen next.

This was a compelling read, even if it was not the easy, funny memoir I expected. Parts of the book were funny, for sure, but it also had moments of pain and depth that I didn’t know to expect.

Dispatches from Pluto

I heard of Dispatches from Pluto sometime when I first found out I was placed in Mississippi, it was recommended by someone from TFA, as a depiction of life in the Delta. I had been meaning to read it for a while, but hadn’t gotten around to it.

I finally got around to reading it, courtesy of the Jackson Hinds Library System* and it was a really quick read – it was entertaining throughout.

The premise is that Richard Grant, a British journalist who’s been living in New York, moves to Mississippi with his girlfriend. Before moving there, he experienced the same thing I did when I told people I was moving here: people who had never been here telling me that it would be awful, everyone would be racist, and everything would be backwards. Grant states his purpose clearly, at the very beginning.

One of my hopes in writing this book is to dissolve these clumsy old stereotypes, and illustrate my conviction that Mississippi is the best-kept secret in America. Nowhere else is so poorly understood by outsiders, so unfairly maligned, so surreal and peculiar, so charming and maddening.

He had met a woman named Martha in Oxford years before he moved to Mississippi, and she had told him about the Delta, and tried to take him on a tour of the Delta. Years later, he came down for a tour. He stumbled upon a plantation house in Pluto, and persuaded his girlfriend to move there with him.

The book depicts a sort of exploration of things that are specific to Mississippi. The author goes to Parchman State Penitentiary, discusses the schools in Leflore County and Whitman County Elementary, with some details about the Barksdale Reading Institute and all the work being done to improve that school. The author plays golf with Morgan Freeman and a dentist who worked at Parchman, and covers the campaign for mayor of Greenwood.

I always want to ask people who live in the Delta how realistic they think this is – I know there isn’t a single story of the Delta, but does this book paint a picture that people living in the Delta recognize? Sometimes it seems unrealistic – his story covers a lot of unique people and places, but fails to acknowledge the high poverty rates and the lack of healthcare that many people face in the Delta. Those are likely a more realistic depiction of life in the Delta than playing golf with Morgan Freeman.