Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Today is the ultimate hump day at Institute. Not only is it Wednesday, it is the Wednesday of our middle week. And despite the fact that we are only in our second week (out of four) of teaching, today was nearly the middle day of teaching. I've had 7 days in the classroom, and I'll have nine more this summer, four next week and three the week after that.

There's been lots going on but not a lot of time to write about it, so I'm not sure where to summarize. Some days of teaching have been good, some have been bad--and I'm told that's the way it will always be. I'm not convinced any of my students are understanding a word I'm saying, but most of them do fine on the work I give them, so I guess something is getting through. My class must be a bit boring, though.

The only real problem I'm having right now are a couple students who just don't do anything in class. One girl in my fifth period class today just sat there, not filling out the note-taking template I gave her and not doing any of the practice problems we were working on. She was also 5 minutes late for class, so I had to pull her aside after school and talk to her a little bit. I'm not sure how to break through to her, or why she's so disengaged, but I'm going to try to find out.

So not much insightful for me to say today. Relative to most people here in Houston, my experience has been relatively stress free, just tiring. Yesterday and today have been the first time's I've felt very wiped out. But hopefully once I'm over this hump and on the home stretch, the energy will pick up. At least the days go quickly when they are so busy.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

West Alabama Ice House

The end-of-the-first-week-of-teaching celebrations began (for me) with the Jackson Middle School social, in which 60-odd freshly anointed teachers, along with our trusty school staff, descended on a Mexican restaurant for tacos and $2 Margaritas. Sally, my wonderful CMA, bought all us young math teachers a round.

From there, I headed over to Dave and Buster's for the New Mexico/South Dakota corps social. I think the idea was to try to integrate the two reservation corps, but for the most part we were all antisocial and just stuck to our own states. I think I was too influential when we first arrived at Institute and I joked that I didn't want to meet anyone new, since we didn't really have the time to get to know them. But it's nice that our SoDak corps sticks together. Dave and Buster's, by the way, is another strange Texas drinking establishment in which a bar is combined with a Chuck E. Cheese style arcade and game room, so that drinkers and small children mingle freely.

Matt Kull, our program director, once again came through with the finest spot of the night. Most of the SoDak folk left D&B's to head over to the West Alabama Ice House. This was pretty much an outdoor only place, a collection of picnic tables with a giant fan to keep some of the heat away. The only indoor part, besides the bar itself, was basically a garage with a pool table. There were also outhouses and grills from which free hot dogs were being offered. Apparently country bands sometimes play on a small stage, too. At one point, I was talking with Wes, another South Dakota corps member, about the Lips; he's a fan, and went to Oklamhoma University, where they started out from. And then 10 or 20 minutes later, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots started playing over the stereo--not a song I would have expected to hear at a bar like the Ice House. It reminded me of the Goats and of riding around in a 15-passenger van at the University of Wisconson-Eau Claire, singing loudly. Strange the places a song can take you.
And We're Through

So I'm through the first week. Friday was the first day that I taught a real, academic lesson pointed towards my students' final assessment, since Wednesday and Thursday were TAKS testing days for most of the school. I was given lesson plans to teach for the first few days, but I pretty much entirely scrapped them, because they were probably too easy for my students and didn't prepare them very well for the sorts of questions they actually know. So I had to stay up pretty late Thursday night drafting an entirely new lesson plan, on reducing fractions. Since this was the first lesson plan I'd written entirely on my own, and I had written it late the night before it was going to be delivered, I wasn't sure how it was going to go over.

My first period class remains absolutely perfect. They paid very good attention during my lecture, and we able to repeat back all of the steps that I gave them for reducing fractions. I didn't realize how hard some of the fractions I had given them were to reduce (they have trouble finding factors for bigger numbers), and when they didn't have time to finish, some of them asked if they could copy them down to finish later. And we played fraction bingo as a rewards, and I had them tear up pieces of paper to make their markers--and when I asked them to silently throw their paper away, they did it perfectly! My fifth period class was just slightly off the mark on all of these things--a little bit chatty, and not really paying that close attention to the lecture. Most of the students arrived late, too.

But yesterday during my off periods I went to observe some other, "real" classes and that was an awakening. Compared to the sort of chaos that is going on in most of the classrooms at JMS, my fifth period class is a dream. Sara, who is in my CMA group, had her class line up outside the door 5 or 6 times, trying to get them to enter the room quietly and get to work, but it never worked. Once they were in their seats, not a single student in the class was paying attention. One student kept getting up and switching seats when Sara had her back turned. It was painful to watch--not because Sara was doing a bad job, but because there was so little she could do to keep order. I'm going to have to be prepared to be a little more strict when I get to South Dakota.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Day 2

Most of the kids at Jackson have to take the TAKS (the Texas standardized test) today and tomorrow. My charter school kids don't, though. I was provided with the same enrichment lesson that the other math teachers were going to use for the Jackson kids who had already taken the TAKS. It was written by my CMA, and consisted of a game in which students arrange a series of fractions and decimals from greatest to least. During my first period, the kids were great, and even though I gave very poor directions, they were perfectly quiet during the game. I also felt like I was a little more interesting for them today, a little less boring.

So as I was walking from my afternoon session, in which I learned about new ways of introducing material, to my fifth period class, I was thinking of all these great ways of refining my presentation to make it more engaging. I figured it would be so much better the second time around.

The first problem with fifth period were the three new kids who showed up, who threw off a bunch of my plans. Then I felt like I had the lesson pretty down, so I stopped looking at my notes for it. Then a couple students were struggling with the long division I was using to divide fractions into decimals--but most people had it down, so I didn't want to dwell on it. So despite all my new techniques, it seemed like the lesson presentation was much less successful. Then came time for the game. I think after two days of TFA teachers, these kids are starting to figure out that we are not their charter school teachers and we don't know much about discipline. Not that they misbehaved much--I'm still much better off than most other people I've talked to--but they were much more prone to talking to their friends and getting off task today. And after yesterday I didn't think I was going to need any discipline at all, so I wasn't ready to start calling people on everything. So tomorrow I have to buckle down and set these kids straight on how I want them to behave.

Our goal for this summer, besides our development as teachers, is to have every one of our students score at least 80% on our final assessment. We gave a diagnostic yesterday that was essentially the same as the final exam to see how far they had to go. My two classes were around 50% and 60%, which may not be too bad, because I'm not sure how much of this material they have been taught before. My first period class picked up really well on my lesson--they almost all aced the worksheet I gave them--but my fifth period class, though they scored the 60% on the diagnostic, struggled a little bit more. The big problem for me in this class is the divide of talent. On the one hand is the girl who is still struggling with long division; on the other hand is the boy who scored a 97% on the diagnostic, only failing to reduce one fraction. I have nothing new to teach him; I have material not in my objectives to teach her. How am I supposed to keep them both engaged in the same class?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Let's Do This!

I don't know if the rain washed away my sense of momentousness, but I wasn't particularly worked up for today's first day. It is the beginning of my career, for at least the next two years, and my first real job--but I just figured I would go in there and do it. I slept really well last night, which is unusual for me before something that should be nervewracking. Maybe it's just the fatigue.

I teach first period, so I got in my room first thing and set everything up. With about five minutes to go, I went out front to wait to greet my students. And then I kept waiting. Most of the students have been in summer school for a couple weeks, and are just switching over to new TFA teachers today. But because I'm teaching kids from a different charter program, today was going to be their first day of school. So instead of reporting to first period, they had to register first. They didn't end up getting to my class until half an hour after the period started. Part of my first day was supposed to be a half-hour diagnostic, and the class is 70 minutes long. So right off the bat I had to scrap all my plans. I handed them the diagnostics as they walked in the door, and let them work on that for about a half hour. Then I quickly read through my rules and talked about our big goal for the summer. Then my watch wasn't synched up with "Jackson time," so the bell rung in the middle of my talk. I didn't give them surveys to fill out or the letters to their parents, or the media release forms required so TFA can videotape the kids (they are actually videotaping the teachers, but the kids get on there, too). So I learned a little lesson in adaptability today. Luckily for me, these charter school kids are EXTREMELY well-behaved. My worst problem was one kid who wouldn't raise his hand before answering my questions--and I never really made that expectation clear anyway. I think my diagnostic/rule speech line up made me come across as a tough guy, too. Especially with my naturally intimidating teacher voice. Compared to what I've heard from everyone else, I have it pretty well-off. I'm not sure if it's really going to prepare me for South Dakota, though.

My fifth period class was somewhat better, somewhat worse. The kids were the same--perfectly behaved, very smart. This time I had the whole period, so I got to work through my whole agenda. And then there were 15 extra minutes. I filled that pretty quickly, and then unable to think on my feet, I just let them do some homework for a little while--which is in general not supposed to be done. But these kids didn't even talk to one another. If they finished their work, they just sat at their desks. I think I'm going to ruin their charter-school training this summer.

The weird moment of the day was when I was collecting my students' diagnostics, and I saw where one of them had scrawled "Mr. Upholt" in his sixth grade handwriting. Is that supposed to be me?
My Picture on

The AP recently ran a story about Teach For America, and they sent a photographer to one of our CS Sessions (that means curriculum specialist sessions; our CS basically teaches us how to teach). The story ran on a couple days ago, and was in a lot of papers across the country. The most important part is that you can see me in the background of the photo, too, which is sort of cool. I'm on the right side of the picture, behind the girl in pink. See it here.

Monday, June 19, 2006

More Rain?

The New York Times says there may be more coming.
Rained Out

Originally I was just going to focus on South Dakota here, but my parents want to hear about Houston and about teaching, so I'll try to get some updates when time permits. I have been updating my running log, so anything relevant to running, like weather and sleep patterns, will be in there. And that's pretty much what you need to know about Houston: it's really freaking humid, and I wake up at 5:30 every morning.

Last week we got a crash course in how to be a teacher. After hearing how stressful Institute is supposed to be, I felt like things were pretty easy. Long hours of classes, but the work itself was pretty basic. I was for the most part enjoying myself. The most stressful thing for me was seeing everyone else be stressed and wondering what kind of work they were doing that I was skipping out on.

I got a little taste of Houston this weekend, but still feel like I haven't really experienced much of the city. On Saturday night I went with most of the South Dakota folk to Minute Maid Park to watch the Astros play the Royals. Not the most exciting game, but it was fun. Afterwards, we went to the bar at the University of Houston's Hilton hotel, where we had hung out the night before. There, we ran into a number of CMAs and our SoDak program director, Matt Kull.* They invited us from there to Taco Cabana, a sort of classy fast food restaurant that happens to sell margaritas and beer. Only in Texas.

Last night was when the stress finally hit. Today was supposd to be our first day of teaching, and I was finally realizing how much preparation the first day of teaching takes--so that was probably what everyone else was doing while I was feeling relaxed. Most people here have to teach in a "collaborative" with a couple other teachers, though, and I get a class all to myself, which may be making things easier for me. I'm the first and fifth period sixth grade math teacher for Project Chrysalis, a charter school program that is holding its required summer sessions at Jackson Middle School (go Jaguars!). I'm supposed to be teaching rational numbers and ratios over the next four weeks.

We woke up today to some intense thunderstorm action. Lightning and rain just pouring down. It's been raining a lot this week (which is apparently unusual), so it didn't seem like anything too special, just a little more intense than usual. Still, it didn't look like an auspicious start to our teaching careers, and a lot of us were joking that school might be cancelled for thunder and lightning. So I get dressed, ate some breakfast, and packed up a giant box of school supplies. I arrived in the lobby to masses of people and rumors that one or more of our schools had been cancelled for flooding. Turns out that the Houston Independent School District has cancelled all classes at all schools due to flooding. There were some megaphones and some sirens, just because the staff is ridiculous, and they sent us all back to our rooms so that we souldn't be wet and crowded in the lobby. We are waiting for word of what comes next. I guess the first day of school is one day later. I'd rather just get it over with, as unprepared as I am.

*CMAs are Corps Member Advisors, which, if you think of Institute as an extremely intense summer camp, are sort of like counselors. There are tons of these acronyms, which I am becoming far too conversant in. The program director(s) for each region come into our classes during the school year to check how we are progressing as teachers.

Monday, June 12, 2006


Hildner was wondering about the difference between Wanblee, Rosebud, and Pine Ridge, so I figured I could give a quick explanation. Pine Ridge and Rosebud are two of the reservations in South Dakota, as you can see on this map:

I think most of the reservations in South Dakota are Lakota reservations; I know that both Pine Ridge and Rosebud are. Lakota is differentiated from the Nakota and Dakota, other variations of the Sioux language. The Lakota on Pine Ridge and Rosebud are actually separate tribes, the Oglala and Sicangu, respectively. Along with five other tribes, they make up the Great Sioux Nation. One other note about these reservations are how big they are. I'm told that Pine Ridge is a little smaller than Connecticut, and it's population is around 20,000.

Wanblee, meanwhile, is the town where I will be living and teaching. It is on the Pine Ridge Reservation. This map indicates just where Wanblee is. The surrounding gray area shows the extent of Pine Ridge.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


We spent the past two days driving from South Dakota to Houston, spending nights in Salina, Kansas, and Irving, Texas. Not too much to note. I took a couple pictures in the middle of Kansas where we stopped for gas, and I'll try to get those up in a little bit. Irving is just outside of Dallas, and I spent yesterday afternoon hanging out with Jake. We did a nice run around the neighborhood where he grew up and enjoyed some Shiner Bock, Lance Armstrong's favorite beer. I'm now moving into my dorm room in Houston for what is supposed to be five very hellish weeks. I probably won't have much interesting to update, or time to update anyway, but maybe I will be able to explore Houston a little bit on the weekends.

Here is a little town in Kansas where we stopped for gas and where I started driving. When we got out of the car it was like stepping into an oven. I forget the name of the town but you might be able to see it on the water tower in the second photo if you look really closely. That's how you know where you are out here.

Here is a view of the Houston skyline off in the distance from my corner room in Moody Towers, University of Houston:

The room is pretty ugly, but we've determined it's the best one on the floor.


On Thursday night we took a little trip down to Nebraska (about 9 miles south of the casino). We started out at the Fort Niobrara Wildlife Preserve. We were told that we were guaranteed to see elk, but we might not see any buffalo. We started off just seeing some prarie dogs, who made weird chittering noises and had their burrows build very close to the dirt road in the preserve. Prarie dogs are a lot smaller than I expected. You can see one in this picture if you look closely.

There ended up being a herd of buffalo grazing right next to the road, which was amazing to see. They were shedding their winter coats, so they looked very mangy.

This next shot is just a general view of the wildlife preserve.

Next we went to see some horses, which must have belonged to a rancher nearby. I've seen horses in person before, but it's been a while, and I was surprised by how big and how beautiful they were.

This guy really liked me, and almost knocked me over when he was nudging me with his head. Then he started to lick my toes non-stop. I guess my feet were a little sweaty, so there was some salt on there.

After we left the wildlife preserve, we drove into downtown Valentine (pop. 2800), and went to the Bunkhouse Saloon, the typical TFA hangout for those on the Rosebud Reservation. I didn't think playing shuffleboard and listening to country music at a bar where most of the clientele wear cowboy boots and hats would be my think, but I must have some country roots, because it was fun.
Pine Ridge

On Wednesday, we took a tour of the Pine Ridge reservation. Here are a few quick shots.

We first stopped at the Oglala Lakota college. I have to take two courses from the college over the next two years, one on Lakota culture and one on South Dakota human relations, I think. I may be able to take these at a college center in Wanblee, though, because the main campus is about 40 minutes away, near Kyle. We looked at the college's histroy museum, which offered a brief run through of Lakota history. This is a view from behind the building.

The parking lot at the college.

Later we went to the memorial at Wounded Knee, where what is supposed to be the last Inidan - U.S. battle occured in 1890--though the Lakota call it a massacre, not a battle (the museum at Oglala Lakota mentioned how it is called a battle when many Indians are killed, and a massacre when many whites are killed.) In 1973, there was another "skirmish" at Wounded Knee, when the American Indian Movement and the FBI had a seventy-one day stand off. Joe Whiting, our tour guide, was working for the law enforcement at the time, so he was helping to keep AIM entrenched at Wounded Knee. His brother-in-law, meanwhile, was on the inside. The FBI blockaded the roads, believing no one could get in or out. The Indians at Wounded Knee, though, knew how to cross the fields, so every night Joe's brother-in-law would walk 20 or more miles over the grassland to Joe's house in Kyle. They would eat dinner together and then return to their opposite sides at Wounded Knee. These two pictures are of the cemetary/memorial at Wounded Knee.

Later we went to a resort on the reservation for dinner. It got really windy, which is why the strap from my camera is in this picture.

The landscape on Pine Ridge is a little different than on Rosebud. There are a lot more canyons and rock formations, including a good spot to run about four miles north of Crazy Horse. All of these shots I took from the van on the way back to Rosebud, so some of them might not be on Pine Rige, but they give a good indication of the landscape. The first one is another view of Long Butte.

Home, Sweet Home: Crazy Horse School

I've been busy and lacking internet connectivity for a little while, so I have a lot to put up here. I'll start with what's most important. Luke and I got to see Wanblee and Crazy Horse High School on Thursday. The school is on top of a hill in Wanblee, where the only real place of business is a gas station/grocery/pizza/fried chicken place. If you didn't realize (I just did), you can click through pictures to see a larger version, which looks a lot better.

Crazy Horse School:

This is another sign for the school, across the street from the one above (off to the right of that picture). It says "Crazy Horse School, Alcohol and Drug Free Workplace." (Actually, Pine Ridge is a completely dry reservation, where it is illegal to sell or possess alcohol.) Behind the sign is probably teacher housing.

The playground at Crazy Horse School. The High School and the Elementary School are in the same building, with the Elementary School in the basement, down a long tunnel. The Middle School is across the street.

The Crazy Horse Chiefs. The image painted on the building is the same design used on the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is under construction near Mt. Rushmore. You can read some info on Crazy Horse from Wikipedia here.

A view of the school from a bit further back.

In front of the main entrance is a war memorial, which includes names organized under various wars. I'm not sure if these are Crazy Horse alums, or just residents of Wanblee who served or died in these wars. Native Americans, as I think I might have mentioned, are the most overrepresented minority in the military, whether it is due to unequal recruiting or a warrior culture.

They have a very nice gym inside. The big sport on the reservation is basketball, and Luke is going to be the school's head coach next year. Last year there were no high school runners, but they assure me that with good recruiting I can get some people out. I'm planning to have Luke hold a fall basketball meeting, and then require his players to train by running cross country. The school also has an indoor pool, which is also pretty nice, and will be good for training in the winter. This is the first school I've ever been at with a pool!

Coach MacLean at the site of his many future victories.

This wall will soon need updating.

Here is a view of the Wanblee water tower above the school.

This is a view of the lanscape behind Crazy Horse Middle School (the building in the right of the photo). Just to the left of the school you can see a stone formation in the distance. This is Long Butte; its supposed to be a good place for hiking.

There are some nice views of the landscape from the school.

There is a whole neighborhood of teacher housing next to the school. This is a view of one of the streets.

This green is near the center of the housing.

This is the house where Luke and I will probably live. Two of the departing TFA teachers, known as "the guys," lived here for the past two years. It's on the very edge of the housing neighborhood. The houses I've seen are pretty nice on the inside. Our only question is who will get the one garage during the winter.

The edge of our lot. We've got a pretty good view, being the last house.

The back yard of our house is very overgrown. We plan on parking a grill somewhere around here.

A view from the back yard.

This one is not our backyard, but the yard at Liz's apartment, where we stayed. Looks pretty nice right as the sun is starting to go down.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Pow-wow Dances

This evening, we were introduced to a number of the dances that are performed at Pow-wows, and the etiquitte we should observe if we attend a Pow-wow. Unless otherwise specified--often when ceremonies are more distinctly spiritual, I think--photography is fine at Pow-wows. I didn't really like taking pictures, though, because I felt like by looking through the camera I was distancing myself from the dances. So I just tried to get one shot of each dance to share. They're not very good, and don't really show what the costumes look like (most of them were made by hand by the dancers). I'm going to make the photos larger here to try and show more detail. The dances were performed by the One Star and Bad Hand dance and drum group, basically an extended family group who have all been dancing and singing for their entire lives.

First, a shot of the drum circle. The drummers beat the drum in unison while they sing. You can't see the drum in the middle of the circle:

The first dance was the Chicken Dance. It is supposed to resemble how the Prairie Chicken walks during the mating season:

The next dance was the Grass Dance. There was a story that goes with it, but if I try to repeat it I will botch the details:

In the Jingle Dress Dance, the women wear dresses that are covered with the rolled-up tops of snuff cans. Before snuff arrived out West, shells or bones might be used, but these become brittle and eventually fall apart:

There are two variations of the shawl dance, one of which is much more reserved. This photo is of what I think was called the Fancy dance:

Finally, we have the men's Fancy Dance. It was getting dark at this point, but I didn't want to use a flash, so you really miss how extensive the costume is here: