Week 1 Down (Or Week 1 All Over Again)

 

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I can’t believe it, but week one of institute is in the books. At first each day felt super slow, but then midway through the week we started hurtling toward the finish. We’ve had workshops on lesson planning, diversity, “vision-building,” rule-setting, classroom management and more, but starting tomorrow we will have to take that week of learning and put it into practice. It’s odd, just as we have gotten used to the pace of the days here, everything is about to change. It’s almost like we are starting over again. We’ll teach from 8-1 or so, and then we will have workshops after that, and come back to the dorm and lesson plan after that. Everyone here is always talking about stressful all-nighters; I haven’t experienced that at all, but maybe Monday is when things start to get challenging to that degree. 

That hardest thing for me right now is lesson-planning. Every single one of our lessons has to have a script for what the teacher is going to say, and a column parallel to that with the anticipated student response. I have never done anything like that for lesson-planning, and it is taking a lot of getting used to on top of not being sure about exactly how to teach math. I guess that’s the upside, though; forcing me to write a script makes me think harder about how I am going to present every single problem and operation, rather than leaving it up to chance in the classroom. 

We met our faculty advisor, Ms. Neil, on Friday. She has been a teacher for eleven years. She emphasized one thing, and it’s the same thing our workshop instructors have been emphasizing: consistency. Specifically, consistency when it comes to classroom management. That might be one of our biggest challenges since working in a group of four means each teacher will have to be on exactly the same page about the ways we discipline and reward. If one of us is doing something different, it could undermine all of us. I’m interested to see how co-teaching is going to go. 

I asked Ms. Neil what her first year teaching was like. “Hell,” she replied. Is that scary to hear? Sure. But I can also see that Ms. Neil is a great teacher. Our summer school principal came around while we were talking to her and said she’s amazing at questioning, differentiation, classroom management. Even though “hell” is a scary word, it’s comforting to know that Ms. Neil was there, and now she’s here. I’m not expecting to be great right away, but I have to tell myself I can get to great. In fact, they are big on mantras here at institute. Maybe I’ll make that my personal mantra: Get to great. 

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Day 3

So, we are through day three, although each day feels way longer. So far we have been attending workshop after workshop, so the day doesn’t move very quickly although we do get a ton of information. Somehow a day of sitting in workshops can feel exhausting, but I’m trying to take as much from them as I can. The biggest changes from day one are that now I have a better understanding of who exactly I’ll be working with this summer. I’ve met the teachers from my region, my advisor, my advisement group, the team that runs the school I’ll be teaching at, and the team I’ll be teaching with. I co-teach with three other teachers, and that will be one of the most interesting aspects of this process since I have never had to do much collaborative work. Even in college, I always convinced my professors to let me out of group work. It’s interesting to start to see what kinds of work styles my co-teachers have and what they seem to prioritize here. Although working in a group makes things like lesson planning go a little slower, it will help prepare me for co-teaching in fall.

It’s interesting, right now everything is moving at a glacial pace because we basically sit in one place all day listening to lectures, but when we start teaching on Monday I think everything will ramp up really quickly. We will be teaching and having meetings and attending workshops and lesson planning each day, so things will go from really slow to super-fast. Even though I’m extremely nervous to teach math, and am already having trouble with the curriculum, I am excited to meet our kids and start teaching. I am here to become a better educator, and once we start I’ll get feedback from my kids, my co-teachers, my advisor, the district teacher who will watch our group, and more. It seems like a lot, but that’s the only way to improve. Also, over the past three days it has been so easy to focus on myself and my troubles and anxieties here, and I expect that once we start teaching it will be really stressful, but my focus will shift away from me and onto my kids.

The best part of yesterday was definitely a visit we got from Ms. Darren, a veteran teacher who is running the summer school program. She’s not at all affiliated with TFA, and she’s been working in Chicago schools her whole career. She gave us great, extremely useful advice, which was awesome after hours of theory, but more than that, she just had this warmth and toughness when she spoke to us that screamed “teacher.” You could see exactly how she operates in the classroom, and as she stood and spoke her genuine love for the career was so inspiring. Everyone who works at TFA is extremely encouraging and peppy and young. They are constantly smiling and reminding us about “this movement.” They are motivating, but Ms. Darren brought a different, more genuine sort of energy. She’s the kind of teacher I aspire to be.

Day 1 Down

Well, day one of institute is down, and it was much harder than I expected it to be. Today should have been simple: check in on campus, move into the dorm, meet fellow corps members, get a good night’s rest. Although we do have an early wakeup call tomorrow, today there was no lesson planning or grading to slave over. It should have been an exciting first day.

So why did I end up crying through most of it?

I enjoyed my morning in Chicago. I walked around the downtown area and though I missed New York, I was relaxed and excited. The fear set in when I got to institute and saw that I had been assigned third-grade math for summer school. Math? It was the last thing I expected. I am horrible at math, and I hadn’t even considered the possibility of teaching it this summer. Challenging as the assignment may be, though, I know I will need to be able to teach math in fall, so why not start now? It shouldn’t have been a huge deal, but my insecurities worsened as I entered my hall, which buzzed with upbeat chatter. I introduced myself to my hallmates, who had already become fast friends in the room next door, but found myself wanting to retreat into my room (a single). Everywhere I went people seemed to already be clustered in groups. How had everyone already become friends?

I spent most of the day in my room trying to get a grip. It’s not like me to become that emotional and shy. My friends and family keep telling me what I know, rationally: that it’s natural to be freaked out in a new environment at first, that I’ll get more comfortable, that I will get busy and things will move quickly, that I will make friends eventually. But no matter how true all of that probably is, right now I feel like the kid who eats in the bathroom at lunchtime. I feel lonely, and pathetic for feeling lonely.

I have confidence in my ability to be a great teacher, and I can’t let this experience break that confidence. All of these nerves and fears and anxieties are completely new to me, but I am just going to take it one day at a time. I had a very challenging, alienating first day. Hopefully tomorrow will be better. No matter what happens, I have to commit.

My Kind of Town (Chicago)

I have just arrived in Chicago for my first day of teacher boot camp, as Diva calls it. Since I can’t check in at my dorm until 1:00, I’ve headed to the downtown area to pick up some essentials from Walgreens, Macy’s and the like. My first impression is of space. I am in the central touristy, shopping area, near Millennium Park, and the streets are nearly empty. Maybe that’s because it’s a Sunday morning and most of the stores are closed; whatever the reason, it’s certainly a lot different than New York. On the bright side, the weather is pretty and the lack of people makes it easy for me to haul my luggage around! Walking around midtown Manhattan with a huge backpack and a roller bag would be hell.

Soon I will check in on campus and move into my dorm room. I have heard so much about this boot camp, from “it was awesome!” to “it was torture!”, so I really have no idea what to expect. I have developed something very unlikely: a mantra. (If Diva is reading this, she is laughing. She knows mantras are not very Molly.) One thing I think I failed at as an after-school educator this year was establishing a guiding culture in my classes. Most of the time my students and I just got started on projects without much preliminary discussion about what values would guide us. I’ve been thinking a lot about that, and in future years I hope to invest my students in what I’m currently calling the “Four Core Cs.” The mantra goes something like this:

Each day I will be…
1. Curious
2. Caring
3. Courageous
4. Committed

This summer, I envision the C’s manifesting as such: I will bring curiosity to every interaction at teacher camp, meaning that I will try to learn from and about my fellow TFAers, the staff at my school, and most importantly my students. I will be curious about Chicago and the community in which I’ll be teaching summer school.

I will care for my co-TFAers by offering support and encouragement. I will do the same for my students, and I will care for myself by getting rest and managing my time responsibly.

I will be courageous by challenging myself to use new strategies in the classroom, extending myself socially, and pushing myself to learn all the time.

I will commit myself to this experience fully, meaning that I will not let my skepticism take hold and temper my motivation.

I hope that writing all this down will serve as a reminder when I need it. Right now I don’t feel stressed. Mostly a travel-tired fog has settled over me, but I can’t wait to see what sorts of people I will meet later today and to find out where I’ll be teaching summer school.

Why Mad Men Represents the Best of TV

Don and Sally

Don and Sally in an early season (L) and in last Sunday’s episode (R).

 

On last Sunday’s Mad Men, Sally catches Don in a lie—she visits SCDPCDPCHCHJ (I can’t remember the agency name anymore) and finds that he’s not there, but doesn’t confront him about it when he later claims he was at the office. Once Don finds out Sally knew the truth, he asks why she withheld as well. “It’s more embarrassing to catch you in a lie than to ignore it,” Sally says, no doubt recalling the events of last season, when she walked in on Don mid-hookup with a woman who was not his wife. Don sneers at Sally’s response, accusing her of lying in wait, then trapping him in a fib, “just like your mother.”

Mad Men rarely patronizes its viewers, so the show doesn’t spell out that Don is referencing the events of season three. In episode 3×11, Betty confronts Don about his identity theft after opening the Pandora’s box in his desk, chock-full of family photos and references to Dick Whitman’s life. As soon as Don spits that insult at Sally—just like your mother—we flash back to Betty standing righteously in Don’s office; to his mistress, the long forgotten schoolteacher, hunched in Don’s car parked outside. Don’s entire journey—really, his descent—is present as we flash from the moments after Betty’s confrontation in season three to the Don Draper of season seven. In the former season it was odd to watch Don, always suave and composed, shaking so forcefully in the face of Betty’s discovery that he couldn’t light his cigarette. Now Don is often that unmoored; he traipses around his house in pajamas, marking the levels of his quickly depleting liquor bottle. “I can explain,” Don sputtered to Betty in season three, the box of photos between them. “I know you can,” Betty replied. “You’re a very, very gifted storyteller.” It was true then; it’s not so true now.

At the moment that Don knew his wife had found him out, he must have thought it was the lowest point in his life. Looking back, he knows it was not, as do we. The depths of his misery have only deepened, and today he is essentially an unemployed alcoholic in an unhappy marriage. In a four-word phrase—just like your mother—Mad Men reminds us of Don’s relationship with Sally, his relationship with Betty, his relationship with the truth, his relationship with himself. We become conscious of the years and years we have spent with this character. Television is unique in this way; a movie, a book, a painting, are contained experiences, stretching over hours or days. Television stretches over years. This is changing through shows like True Detective or the new Fargo, one-and-dones that in future seasons will perhaps be united by an aesthetic sensibility, if not by character. But the best television takes advantage of our extended relationships with its characters and uses that intimacy to move us. “Just like your mother” reminds us how broken Don is, and how fraught he and Sally’s relationship is. Which is why the episode’s ending scene is such a gut punch. Don drops Sally off. They have had dinner, have mended at least a post on the fence. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” she tosses off through the car window. “I love you.” Don is stunned, and touched, as are we. It’s so hopeful, the capacity for love after all that. And therein, the power of television: that we are able to experience all that. 

Introducing the Winter Soldier: The creation of a truly terrifying Marvel villain

Great analysis of why the Winter Soldier was way scarier than any recent comic-book movie villain I can think of.

Cinesnark

captain-america-the-winter-soldier-poster-bucky A couple weeks ago film critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a plea for fellow critics to include discussions of form in their film reviews, to at least mention how the language of film is helping or hindering the movie being reviewed. It was an eloquent point well made, and also apropos of what I want to talk about in re: Captain America: The Winter Soldier . I’ve already reviewed the movie (available here and spoiler free), so what I want to get into now that we can talk about stuff without people yelling SPOILERS (seriously, if you haven’t seen it, stop reading now) is how all of the elements of filmmaking worked together to bring to life the Winter Soldier, the most memorable, bone-crunchingly scary villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet.

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Behind the Gate

“Have you really been
behind the gate?”

Yes, I say, full with the pleasure of
a secret.

They wait

They wait

to hear.
Some eyes are round with wonder;
some squint, unsure if they should believe.
Their imaginings include
celebrities murderers runaways princesses
magic.

It is a big gate
in a small town made huge
with imagination.

How to explain
that what’s really there,
behind the gate,
is greater than even the realities in their heads.

“There is a magic forest,”
I start to say.
But get stuck.
They won’t believe
that there are creatures in the woods.
A yellow brick road, of daffodils.
A room that has no walls,
just colors,
oranges
yellows.

It is a Mad Hatter place for
the grownups become children, laughing wildly,
and the children become grownups,
or what we believe grownups to be,
sharing our grand ideas of the world as everyone listens.

Not listens,
believes.

Anything can be real there.
In the kitchen, Joy explains that we mustn’t be afraid
of fairies or ghosts.
Jay is quieter, but explains,
with his food and drink and peaceful smile,
that we mustn’t be afraid
of happiness.
Jack presides over it all–
the ponies and parties and pretty people–
and explains that we mustn’t be afraid
of the truth:
That even though we are children, always told
to quietdownsettledownsitdowncalmdown,
we must live up to the fact that we’re
exceptional
beautiful
even brilliant.

Only as an adult do I learn
that few people
want that for others.

How paradoxical
that children think with such clarity
but are told they know nothing,
while adults think in metaphors
just to make sense of something.

The easy metaphor
for what’s behind the gate
is Gatsby,
with his mysteries
and his majestic parties.
But what’s behind the gate is much truer
and rarer
than that:
Love.

When Your Students Give You Hope for Humanity

Or at least for feminism. The other day a bunch of my students were singing Let It Go.” “Why is everyone so into Frozen?” I asked (I haven’t seen it).

Because Ms. A,” Ayla said. “It’s about a girl who doesn’t have to get rescued by a guy!” I guess there is some controversy over whether or not Frozen is actually feminist, but the fact that Ayla perceived the lack of a damsel in distress as a great thing about the movie made me so happy. I’ve definitely been in college classes where grown men and women didn’t understand why a need even exists for movies about women with agency.

Another thing: I’ve been running a Journalism club this semester, and my students have been working on a newsletter with coverage of school shows and after-school activities. One seventh-grader wrote an opinion piece on why uniforms should be abolished. When I came across my boss today, who had been looking over the newsletter, she asked me if we could get anyone to write an opposing piece on why uniforms are good. I was doubtful; I had talked to students in my club about this, but none of them were in support of uniforms and I didn’t want to force them to write in defense of something they didn’t agree with just to appease my superiors. The point of Journalism club is to highlight the importance of students’ opinions, after all, not just adults’ opinions.

I had to check off attendance for a sixth-grade class, so I settled in at the lunch table with the attendance list on my right and the newsletter on my left. As I looked it over and thought about what I could do for the pro-uniform piece, a bunch of my students flung their backpacks down next to me and started giggling and jumping around and doing sixth-grade things. Usually I would have told them to sit down and chill out, but they had spent the day on state tests and I figured they needed to let loose during after-school.

“Ms. A, what you are looking at?” Ayla asked.

I handed her the newsletter and explained the dilemma. “Who do you think would want to write about the other side of this issue?” I asked.

“Oh!” Ayla started rummaging through her backpack. “I can do it. I mean, I wish we didn’t have uniforms, but I can see why we do.”

Other girls started to chime in. “They make school safer!” Leah exclaimed.

“We can express ourselves other ways,” Anna said as she braided another student’s hair.

Before I knew it, the girls were brainstorming the merits of uniforms while Ayla feverishly transcribed their opinions. By the end of the half-hour lunch period, they had come up with a three-paragraph essay, fit for publication, in defense of uniforms. I was dumbstruck; I had thought that they would be physically hyper and mentally fried after a day of ELA tests, but the entire class was eager to create a sound argument—topic sentences, supporting facts and all—for absolutely no grade, extra credit or test score. At least once a day, when they do something particularly sweet or awesome, I both wish they would stay exactly the same age forever, and wish I could flash-forward ten years and see what kind of amazing things they are achieving.

Teach for America Coursework 1

TFA sent along a bunch of coursework to complete prior to training in summer. Though the coursework is apparently not going to be tracked by TFA in any way, I figured I’d dive in and try to glean some good information from it. (Note: this is not going to be a polished, well-written post. It’s mostly just for me.) There are lots of readings and post-reading questions in the packet, so I’m going to use the blog to keep track of some of my initial responses to the questions and ideas TFA is posing. The first section presented four topics: Charter Schools, Common Core Standards, Politics and Teacher Evaluations. I was to choose three, read the corresponding articles, and think to myself about how these issues will affect me and my students, and what elements of the issues are not covered in the readings. Continue reading

Leather Jacket

“Ms. A is torturing me,” Leah says. Her posse—Hana, her black hair streaked with purple; Jamila, always swaying unsteadily like she’s not exactly sure how to balance on sprouting limbs; Leslie, a head taller than her friends, contorted downward so as to hide from her impending beauty—turn to face me, eyes wide and unblinking, like a set of dolls.

“Why is that?” I check all of them off on the attendance sheet. Paul leans over my shoulder, having just shouted “I’M HERE! I’M HERE!” in my ear. “I see you,” I replied. He has come to fact-check. Now his blue-eyed gaze is directed away from the attendance sheet and toward the quartet of girls. For once, he is silent, probably in hopes of gaining some insight into what makes these creatures tick.

“Your jacket,” Leah whines. She has braided her sleek brown hair with a ribbon intertwined so that she looks sort of like a My Little Pony. “I want a leather jacket so bad but my mom won’t get me one.”

“Why won’t Mom get you one?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” Leah says, with the same anguish that animated her when the sixth-grade talent show coordinators wouldn’t let her sing a particularly angsty Lorde song. Her wallowing is briefly interrupted when her gaze flickers toward an enthralled Paul; Leah has already turned Michael and Kevin down for pizza-and-movie dates this week.

“Here.” I slide my jacket off and offer it to her. The slack leather, pockets bulging with keys and credit cards, is heavy in my grip as it sways in the space between us. “Go ahead,” I urge.

Leah pauses and glances around as if she might get in trouble. Then she slips into the jacket and skips away, ladies-in-waiting shuffling behind her. “It doesn’t even fit her,” Paul observes as he fans a set of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards out on the sticky cafeteria table. Indeed, two Leahs could slip into the leather jacket’s wide shoulders. Nevertheless, she struts from table to table, posture upright and giggles loud, donning the garment like armor.