The Achievement Gap and Middle School Math

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 28 2011

End of week 3

Well, teaching is quite the emotional roller coaster. Many times this week, I felt like a terrible teacher (and in a few cases, a terrible person). A few times this week, I had a good moment really connecting with a student or seeing a lightbulb come on in someone’s head (but those were few and far between).

The students have been doing relatively well on their exit tickets, and most of them did OK on our first unit test which they took on Friday.

Almost all of my students now have textbooks (hooray!), the school has finally activated the gradebook software so I can finally start entering grades (hooray!), and I finally got the scores from the math diagnostic that the students took the first week of school (hooray!)….but the information I got only contains the percentage of questions each student got right, without actually telling me which questions those were, so that information is not very helpful at this point.

Last month I sent an email to register for classes for my certification program. One of the classes had a limited number of spots, so when I didn’t hear anything about getting into that class, I assumed I hadn’t gotten in. Then, on Tuesday, I got an email from the instructor saying she was looking forward to seeing me (and the other 19 people) Wednesday evening for our first class. The class runs from 5:00 to 10:00. I have students in my room until 4:30 everyday, so that doesn’t really give me time to eat dinner (or do anything else whatsoever that evening).  While super long, the class session did actually end up being relatively helpful and informative.

On Wednesday morning, I got an email from my assistant principal saying that all teachers would be required to submit our records of having talked to every parent in our homerooms (to remind them that their children are loved at our school—so they don’t transfer to a “better” school under NCLB) and that these lists would be due on Thursday….which would be fine, except that I had just found out the day before that I would have to be in that evening class all night on Wednesday from when school ends until it is too late to call people. I had previously called about 2/3 of my homeroom plus about 20 students from my other classes, but there were still a handfull of homeroom students I hadn’t called yet. I decided there was no way to call them that night, so I just printed out my call list and turned it in missing those last few names.

The next day, I found out that one of my homeroom students was transferring out. It was one of the students whose parents I hadn’t called yet. : (   I feel bad both because I hadn’t called that family, but also because the student and her parents apparently felt like she could get a better education from someone other than me.

…not that I disagree with them about that. Over these first few weeks, I have felt mediocre at best and certainly not “transformational” which is my job according to TFA. While my students do feel (physically) safe in my class, I don’t think they feel emotionally or intellectually safe, yet.  Most of them definitely don’t feel excited to come to class both because my lessons haven’t been consistently engaging and because I spend a sizable amount of time each class dealing with discipline issues.

The main problem I have is that I can’t get the whole class quiet long enough to be able to start handing out consequences to individuals who start talking—when the whole class is talking, I have no good way of handing out consequences. I think sometimes people start talking because they get bored, but then other people start talking, but then the class slows down since I have to spend time dealing with the talking, which causes other people to get board, which escalates the problem.

People also keep being added or withdrawn from my classes. It is hard to get to talk to those kids (or any other kid who needs to talk to me about something) since I need to spend all my time during and between classes making sure things aren’t getting out of control with the rest of the class…

On Friday, all of the 7th grade math teachers had all-day collaborative planning time. There were a few sessions led by administrators about various things to try to include in our lesson plans, and lots of time to work on the plans for the next week. Overall, this went pretty well.

This collaborative planning day was the first time I have had a sub. All of the 7th grade math teachers scheduled the first unit test for Friday, since we would all have subs that day. I left a long, detailed note for my sub describing all of the details about how the day works (which I wish I would have known on the first day of school). I also recorded a video of myself telling the class that I would be back on Monday and giving them a few reminders for working on the test. I brought in my personal laptop (since I needed to bring my school laptop to the meeting) and hooked it up to the projector so that the sub would just have to turn on the projector and push play on the computer (and I left specific instructions on how to do that). I walked in at the end of the day after my meetings were over, and the sub said she couldn’t figure out how to show the video. AHHHHHH!

Oh well.

In other news, I heard a rumor on Thursday which was officially confirmed on Friday that I (and all of the other TFA corps members) are getting a free iPad from Apple!!! Apple is donating them to us (and we can keep them)! They are trying to increase the quantity and quality of educational iPad apps that can be used in the classroom, so they are giving iPads to all of us so that we can figure out how best to use them in the classroom, give them some ideas, and possibly test out some of the things people have already been working on.

This will probably improve student learning, but not necessarily in the way they intended (by using cool apps in the classroom), but rather just due to fact that they instantly improved morale among several thousand of the most stressed teachers in the country! I think this increase in morale will translate into a greater increase in student achievement than the actual use of the iPads themselves in the classroom.

In other morale-boosting news: I got a card this week from the administrative assistant in the math department at my college wishing me well for the school year. I also got a call this morning from my 5-6 grade math teacher who provided some reassuring words and helpful advice. It is good to know that there are people out there who are rooting for me and my kids!

4 Responses

  1. Dan Mirus

    Congrats on the I PAD.
    The sub…can you pick your subs? If so, ask others in the department for some names to request. If not, keep the task as simple as possible. No technology. Also, if possible, stop by the classroom before the day starts, or on your lunch break, to speak to the sub.
    One way to get the kids settle is to just start teaching…reward the kids paying attention, praise is good, candy if the school allows (small totsie rolls, m&m’s,).
    Another way, make out extra credit slips pass them out to the students to be turned in end of day or week to put in gradebook.
    Start checking homework right away.
    Put homework assignment on the board right away…increae the number of problems the longer it takes to get settled.
    Put a puzzle on the board to begin class, give a reward to the student that solves it. (you may want to change puzzle from class to class if you find students are passing the answer on).

    Keep going forward. Those moments when you see the “lights” come on are what you live for. they do not come every day (wish they did). Stay positive…teaching is one of the most frustrating and rewardsing of all the professions. You are a good person and will succeed.

  2. Zack,

    I’m sorry to hear you’re having a tough time. Do you have an assigned mentor? If not, could you request one through the district?

    Please contact me through my blog if you have any questions regarding what to do or if you just need some support.

    Best wishes,

  3. Michael

    If you ever need anything, you know where to find me. Me, Chrissy and Russell would love to have you come visit us on the cool side of school :p

  4. Linda

    Zack, You are amazing! All teachers that I’ve become friends with say what Dan is saying – and if you’ve got him to help, you’ll be the best math teacher ever!
    Try not to compare yourself to “seasoned” teachers. I’m sure, knowing you for as long as I have, that you’re an amazing teacher … it takes some time for us all to adjust to new situations.
    Next time I’m in Atlanta, I’d love to buy you dinner! K? (Not on a Wednesday!)
    Hang in there. You can do this – I have tons of faith in you!

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Closing the achievement gap with middle school math

Metro Atlanta
Middle School

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