Sep 27 2008

How blogs by new CMs help assess the institute

Since my own first year in 1991, I’ve been very interested in the quality of teacher training at the institute. Each year, I’ve done my own sort of evaluation of what they’re teaching and how well they’re doing it. It used to be the feedback forms from my workshop. Since this year, for the first time, I was effectively prohibited from doing my workshop (I did it, but because of poor scheduling and communication, only one person came, and that was someone I personally invited), the only thing I have to go by is what the new CMs are putting on their blogs.

Based on some of the mistakes that I see the new CMs make, I think about how it reflects on TFA’s training. Is it that TFA encouraged them to make these mistakes? Or did they try to warn them about these mistakes, but did a poor job of getting that message through? Either way, it’s something TFA should think about.

An example of this is from an enthusiastic new science teacher. Here’s a quote from a longer blog entry called First Friday This is what he did on his fourth day of teaching high school chemistry:

Today I taught about the theory of Malleable Intelligence (for TFAers, we get an article in our TAL curriculum book that I just photocopied and turned into a lesson plan. Hooray instant lesson plan!), and I started out with a controversial quote from DNA discoverer James Watson, who said something about blacks having inferior intelligence to that of whites. It was meant to be a conversation starter, and with my other classes it worked out well. With this one class, I’ve got six students who love to speak out, and argue, and protest that I’m being unfair (stop whiiiiining), and another six who I haven’t heard a peep from. They worry me. I feel like I don’t have the time or energy to help the silent half of my room–who I know are having trouble–because I’m so busy keeping the other half in check. In short, differentiation is hard. It’s harder when you’re not very good at classroom management.

Somehow this guy graduated from the TFA institute thinking that this was a good idea for a new teacher who doesn’t really know his kids yet. New teachers should not take such risks, especially during the first week. The kids need to feel secure that their teacher is teaching the ‘regular’ curriculum. Kids should learn a simple skill that the teacher can easily measure whether or not they mastered it so they can do well on the first quiz or test.

Instead, this guy thinks a good motivation is to show them a racist quote. In theory, this would motivate kids to prove James Watson wrong. It would wake them up and get them into the lesson. In reality, he just hasn’t earned the right to do a lesson like that. It doesn’t seem to fit into the curriculum and it can make the students angry in a bad way. It’s just a terrible risky idea. (The article came from the TFA handbook, I’m sure not as something that they think you should teach your class, but something to spark a discussion about low expectations for minorities during teacher training — it’s definitely not intended to be an ‘instant lesson plan.’)

My question is, what was it about his training in TFA that enabled him to think that this was a good thing to do? Did they reccommend it? Or did he misunderstand something? Probably the later. Either way, though, it shows that TFA is either teaching risky practices, improperly teaching good practices, or just not assessing properly if the new teachers have learned the good practices.

5 Responses

  1. brette

    I’m an ’08 corps member, and I’m quite familiar with the article. I was actively encouraged to use it as a lesson during institute. Grades for the summer were due before the last day at our institute site, we had two days where we didn’t have to teach any content (it wasn’t going to be graded since the grades had been turned in). We were told by our CMAs and the school director that we needed to “do something constructive with the extra time, like play an educational game, do a short project, or read an article on malleable intelligence.”

    The article is in the pre-institute reading that we were sent, and it’s in the Toolkit section of one of the books–the section full of resources for us to use. It’s not intended just for CMs to discuss in their free time.

    I did end up using the article during institute. At no point during training were we instructed or even guided on how one might use the article in a discussion with students. I found that facilitating any sort of discussion around the article (with students that I didn’t know that well) was difficult at best.

  2. Alison

    Regardless of the case in point, teachers who blog is a small sample and one that I can imagine being skewed in a variety of ways. From personal experience I’d guess that more people blog to vent when things aren’t great. In addition, just because people attend TFA training doesn’t mean they adopt the principles of it, either due to competing beliefs or a lack of effort, among other things (e.g. sleep deprivation).

  3. jtillotson

    I agree with Alison, and want to say that I also presented an article on malleable intelligence that a lot of my kids loved. We talked about an experiment where monkeys with toys were found to get smarter than monkeys who didn’t have toys or social contact, and some of them drew conclusions about how toys made them more inventive and creative.

    I think starting off with the quote might have been a poor choice, but I’m not going to fault the teacher for doing so. I think they had an interesting idea (show that not too long ago, people thought that qualities like intelligence could be determined by outward appearance, and that even people we think of as very smart can be wrong about things) even if it didn’t go over well.

  4. Hi Gary,

    First of all, thanks for your feedback. I might also mention that I’m a female teacher.

    What jtillotson says above encapsulates what I was going for in my lesson: to discuss the idea that a scientist, a respected figure in society, could hold some incredibly controversial views. Also, Dr. Watson did not base his statements on scientific evidence, whereas the article in the handbook cites several scientific studies that support the idea of malleable intelligence as a valid theory. I wanted to explain to my students that, in short, science can be used to refute stereotypes.

    The quote was probably a bad choice, but I have small class sizes, and my students – maybe surprisingly – did not act up. Instead, they were rather interested in reading the article. At the end of my lesson, I had them write a letter to Dr. Watson, using scientific evidence from the article to support their opinion. For the most part I got articulate answers. True, some of them were more enraged by the quote, but the majority of my students were able to take a step back and respond using the evidence they had just learned from the reading.

    I took the idea to teach this during the first week from some fellow CMs during a professional development Saturday. A veteran teacher and TFA alum at my school also said that she had had her students read the article in previous years and that they enjoyed it. The article is written on a level that could be understood by my high school students. Maybe it was not intended to be a lesson plan, but it certainly sparked an interest in my students.

    Curriculum-wise, I can definitely see where you are coming from: the lesson doesn’t fit into my curriculum, and I was using it as a filler during the first week because I did not want to get into content before things settled down. I’m quite sure there’s a better way of closing the first week of school, but what’s done is done. It was a risky thing to do, but it seemed to turn out well for my students. If I could do it again, I wouldn’t use the quote. But I would consider introducing the experiments that led to the development of the malleable intelligence theory, because my students enjoyed learning a bit about how their brains work.

    What they teach at Institute is certainly far from perfect, and I feel woefully unprepared coming into the school year. I would hesitate to blame a beginning teacher’s inadequate lesson plan on TFA teachings. I would just blame it on inexperience.

    Thanks for your feedback, it’s allowed me to stop and reflect for a moment. You might be pleased to know that I’m now well into teaching chemistry content — far from controversial, risky material — and my students seem to be doing well.

  5. garyrubinstein

    Thanks for the feedback from everyone. I’ve got to apologize for getting the wrong gender of kelleyc. Also, I like your reflective attitude. I felt from reading your blog that you were someone who really was willing to do what it takes to succeed, which is why I thought I’d offer my unrequested advice.

    I’m very interested in what sorts of improvements TFA has made in their training philosophy since my own training in 1991 and my experience working at the institute in 1996. I worry that many of their suggestions are OK for elementary school, but don’t work so well in middle and high schools.

    Teachers make a lot of mistakes. I’m at it for most of the last 17 years, and I still make mistakes every day, some small and some big. What I like to know with the new TFA teachers is if their mistakes come from just inexperience or from taking some risky advice from TFA too literally, or from misinterpreting what they’ve learned at the institute. I think that TFA and teacher training programs in general don’t warn new teachers to be careful about taking risks. They don’t define what’s risky and what’s not so the new teachers don’t have anything to guide them. To me it’s the most important thing for new teachers to think about, and I feel like this is not emphasized enough.

    I’m glad things are going well for you. You’ve got a good attitude, and you are a good ‘sport’ for not seeming at all upset that I’ve used your blog as an example to highlight a very common new teacher risk.

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

Region
Houston
Grade
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Subject
Math

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