Sunday, August 17, 2008

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

This is the end...

Tim Golden asked me a few weeks ago for my end-of-TFA thoughts. This blog has been gathering dust in the corner. You'll have to excuse me: TFA was keeping me busy in Houston all summer, and then, suddenly, things were over.

I've always struggled with endings. Last summer, I don't think I wrote about the act leaving South Dakota until I actually came back to the state again in the fall. But yesterday, feeling a little bit nostalgic for my Teach For America days, I made my way to Edison High School in North Philly to see how Institute is going in these parts; I figured that was as good an occassion as any to reflect on what happened, and what comes next.

I get the same questions repeatedly. Even the CMAs I talked to yesterday wanted to know: how did I like it? Which is open to broad interpretation, of course. Their follow-up of So you didn't go crazy? makes it a little more clear.

My practiced response--the one that garnered the question on sanity--is that I loved South Dakota, but teaching not so much. I'll certainly miss the inherent adventurousness of my lifestyle in the country, and the people that I adventured with. I won't miss writing tests, or writing lesson plans, or the pressure that came with teaching--or at least the pressure that I put on myself. And I wasn't really there to adventure; I was there to teach.

So perhaps a more important question would be did I teach? I've been indoctrinated by TFA to believe that if the results don't show learning, then there's no teaching. I believe I enumerated the results of my final exams in an earlier post; suffice to say they weren't pretty. During a professional evaluation with my school director at Institute this summer, she remarked that I was sometimes over-critical of my teaching experience. It was feedback I had anticipated, but no matter how I spin the experience, I know I'll never be satisfied with my performance. There was too much more I could have done.

Not to say that there is no positive spin. At my end-of-year conversation, my Program Director told me that despite the low performance of my students, the organization still considered me a high performing teacher. Which I found to be a bit ridiculous and a complete reversal on the message they continually project. But I think they ridiculous just how crazy my school was, and recognition of the effort I put up in front of those obstacles. I believe there was debate over whether it was even worthwhile to continue to place corps members at my school. I compared ridiculousness notes with other CMAs at Institute this summer. And while most TFA schools have their problems, ours still rank pretty high.

I was also honored in various ways by the school itself. On one of the last days of in-service, Luke and I were both given star quilts--a big honor in Lakota culture. At graduation, the salutatorian thanked the two of us in particular for the work we did for her and her classmates. That's one of the moments from my two years that I'll remember best.

I'm not done with education. Walking into Edison High School yesterday, I felt a tingle of recognition for the parts of teaching I liked: meeting students that are warm and friendly despite all the things that have been stacked against them. I'm already tutoring a girl here, who, though her family is far from struggling financially, reminds me of the same issues I experienced on the rez. She thinks she developmentally incapable of doing the math, but she's not: it's just that no one made her memorize her multiplication tables. At the very least, I'll be writing about education. A few of the teachers I met yesterday told me they would keep me posted on story tips coming out of their schools.

I'm sure there's more to say about how these two years have changed me. But again, that was never the point--and I'm still floating too much now, figuring out what I'm doing, to have a grip on how I changed. Maybe one day soon I'll have a more fitting epilogue.

Watch for a new blog soon, less constrained in topic and updated with more frequency.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


On Friday I drove up to Kadoka to vote early for the South Dakota democratic primary (I'm flying down to Houston on Sunday, so I'll miss the excitement). The county auditor was on lunch break; I decided to walk up to the Jackson County Library to peruse some magazines, but it seemed that the librarian was on lunch break, too. I ended up having to sit around for twenty minutes in the County Courthouse. Just before 1 pm, various county officers paraded back into their various offices from lunch break.

About two weeks ago I took off from school early--I was only going to have three students that afternoon, anyway--to drive down to Pine Ridge to see Bill Clinton speak. He spoke in Mission yesterday; I've heard rumors that Hillary will be speaking in Kyle later this week. Meanwhile, Obama hasn't made it out of the "big cities" in the east of the state.

Bill had a series of talking points tailor made for the reservations: health care (Indian Health Services per patient funds are half of those for federal prisoners); diabetes; education; alternative energy sources. People who caught him in Mission confirmed that he spoke about the same issues there. Clinton did well by Indian County when he was in office. I've lost my notes from his speech, so I can't confirm any of positive policies he put in place, but I do remember him stating that when he visited the same high school gymnasium a decade earlier, he was the first President to visit a reservation since FDR.

Obama seems like the frontrunner for June 3 here in South Dakota; in an April 3 poll, he led Clinton 46% to 34% and NPR recently reported that he is easily out fund raising Clinton here. But a strong turnout of Native American voters could make fund raising numbers irrelevant. I was recently told that Native Americans are the country's most Democratic demographic; given that South Dakota is far from the most Democratic place in the country, if the Clintons can successfully galvanize the Native populations it could be a closer race than people anticipate.

Will the Clinton's strategy of campaigning on the reservations pan out? I mostly know the sympathies of youth here--of my own students, too young to vote, and of the twenty-somethings that are aides in my friends' classrooms--and, as seems true across the country, the youth seem excited about Obama. His "First Americans for Obama" seems to have met with success, too; I recently heard a radio story about how, upon becoming the first Presidential candidate to visit the Crow Nation in Montana, he was "adopted" into the tribe (complete with adoptive parents).

Which is why I'm disappointed that Obama has chosen not to visit us here in South Dakota, too. He may not need South Dakota to win the nomination--and he may not need the Rez vote to win South Dakota--but maybe he will. There is one more week. Are you coming, Barack?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Posting from school...

...where, twenty minutes ago, a bunch of students broke out into an impromptu water fight in the hallway, throwing water balloons and dumping water bottles on top of one another.

Our Principal's response: hey, that's okay. In fact, it's a good idea! Tomorrow we'll have a school-wide water fight, in which teachers are also fair game!

(If this is true, I will not be coming to school tomorrow, in protest.)

No matter that we're letting students wander the halls at will this afternoon. No matter that students came running into the English room, grabbed five water bottles for use in the fight, and said "F*** you" to the teacher when he tried to contain them. He wrote them up; the Principal told them they did nothing wrong.

We haven't really had discipline all year. But we've tried to look like a school. With four days left, we've stopped doing even that: every day I expect nothing but mayhem, with no attempt to control the kids at all.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Rant

Usually I mention all of the foibles of school in my running log, because somehow it seems more private and inaccessible. But I've gone this long without being discovered, it seems. With a week and a half of school left, I'm feeling more willing to speak openly. And I need to vent.

I gave my Algebra II final today and I was plugging numbers as a result. I will start out with what is the most important number: my students averaged 48% on the final exam. If I discount the one student who was not with us the entire year and the student who worked for only about five or six days, that number goes up to 60%. Which is not quite as heart-tearingly awful, but is pretty damn miserable itself. (Consider, too, that I lopped 40% off the end of my test because we just didn't manage to cover that material. Which means that is 36% mastery of the material I intended to teach.)

There are many things that can explain those numbers. My own performance as a teacher is obviously one of them. I think it's important for teachers to take responsibility for what happens in their classroom, so I hate to have this next paragraph sound like an excuse. But here goes:

I also ran numbers on attendance in the class. In the first semester, my individual attendance average was 75%. One student made it to 79% of the classes. (Noah, our English teacher, once mentioned that he noticed something somewhere online saying that attendance below 90% is legally considered some form of delinquency). This semester, when things started to go sour, we dropped to 54% attendance.

When running these numbers, I counted only days where I had a student in class: early outs, assemblies, cancellations--these did not count. Nor did the days where simply no one showed up. By this standard, we had 97 days of Algebra II this year (if you count this week and next that will probably go up to 104 days). Our school year is scheduled for 172 days.

Here is what I find most shocking: if I look at the raw number of days that students were actually in Algebra II this year, my student who was in the class the most attended 65 days of class. In the entire year.

What do we do about it: we don't punish students who skip class ("Just fail them," instructs the principal); if our secretary is on maternity leave, we don't even bother to check if absences are excused; our School Information Coordinator refuses to share his attendance data with our Truancy Officer; we cancel school at least once every two weeks, sending a wonderful message about how important school is.

My favorite story about how we encourage good attendance comes from just this week: on Tuesday, there were three elementary school field trips scheduled. We no longer had enough buses to get all the students to school. The solution: anyone on a bus route just doesn't have to come that day. Glad to know we have our priorities straight.

Attendance is only the first issue. Recently we learned we lack sufficient funds to pay all our employees for the rest of the year. Nonessential staff are being cut just so we can keep our doors open. It's unclear where all that money went.

Time to run off this frustration.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

3 Weeks

I'm realizing I've never really left behind a place before: West Hartford will always feel like home, and I will always be back there for a week or so every year. My stint in Haverford last year was my shortest since I arriving at college--at a solid two months. And now I'll be spending another year there. Every few months I seem to hope a plane and head home--to one of my homes. I take note of what new changes have accrued and then fall into easy old rhythms.

My roots in South Dakota feel much less permanent, though: within a year or two, all my close friends here will have picked up and moved on, too, to somewhere else.

When I come out to visit next year, I imagine it will be strangely unlike coming home. For the first time in my life I will be visiting an old home, a place I once lived in and (probably) never will again; revisiting a part of my life, that, unlike even college, won't be truly repeatable again.

It will be strange. I'm already over prone to nostalgia.

South Dakota Weather

For the past two weeks, South Dakota has been at its springtime best: every day I walk out of school with my shirtsleeves rolled up; the sun is shining; even the grass, usually dry and brown, is turning green after the snow. Camping weather, finally.

We made plans to head to Custer. Then I started checking the weather: high of 53 on Saturday. Then a revision: high of 48 on Saturday. High of 42 on Saturday. High of 38 on Saturday. 60% chance of precipitation on Saturday.

So camping turned into cabining.

Saturday turned out be a nice day. It was sunny but cool in the morning. In the afternoon we decided to drive to Little Devil's Tower. My guidebook said it was a hike suitable for families with small children.

When we got in the cars it was 40 degrees out, cold but sunny, a beautiful day. Within the 15 minutes it took us to get into the park, the temperature had dropped to 30. Still nice if you kept moving.

Passing into the rocks.

The hike was flat at first. Then it started to get steeper. And steeper.

Small children can't climb rocks like this.

The top of the hike was great. We were scrambling straight up rock faces. Atop the mountain, we had a view on one side of Cathedral Spires (I think) and on the other Harney Peak. The other side of Harney Peak was lost in a low-lying cloud. A bitter wind blew across the mountain. And as we waited for the stragglers to arrive, the clouds moved closer.

Soon a few tiny bits of snow were swirling in the wind. By the time I made my final ascent, I could not even see the outline of Harney Peak and the Spires were a swirl of mist. Just clouds.

Climbing in the snow.

Zach enjoying the view and the snow.

Within the twenty minutes we spent on top of the mountain, we found ourselves in a full on blizzard. An inch of snow had accumulated before we made it off the rocks--nearly an inch by the time we made it back to the cars.

And for those keeping score: 65 degrees and sunny today.

Cross reference the first photo to see the changing conditions.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

4 Weeks

Four weeks with students; five weeks at school; six weeks--maybe--in South Dakota.

I'm anticipating the end of my teacherly responsibilities with a good bit of impatience, something I feel somewhat bad about. But then I stop to think about what teacher does not look forward to the summmer? It's one of the perks of the job, really.

Four more weeks with students still seems like a lot of lesson plans and tests and, yes, behavior problems. Seeing the end so close deflates my work ethic: I just wish it was here already (and there will be a lot of work in these four weeks, unfortunately). It's a microcosm of my two-year experience; knowing that there was a best-used-by date on my teaching career made me less invested in a lot of aspects of teaching. I would've done much better, I know, if I had thought of this as an experience with no end.

Only six more weeks in this state, though, seems like a damn short time: that's really six more chances to go camping, to walk through the Badlands, or to hang out with the friends I've met here.

My parents came to visit this weekend, and I took them to some of the local "attractions": we hiked out on Eagle Nest Butte, seven miles south of town, and out at Wolf's Table, in the Badlands seven miles north. We drove 50 miles north to Philip for dinner, the first time I've been to the town; two nights ago we ate at Club 27 in Kadoka, the first time in my two years I've made it there, either. I also talked a lot: told them a lot of the little stories from the past two years that I hadn't shared yet. I've always known that I'd get nostalgic when it came time to leave here; it's in my nature to be wistful about everything I leave behind. Now I'm starting to see where that nostalgia will leak out from, and it's making the littlest experiences--a sunny day, or a drive through a canyon--seem that much more poignant.