Friday, August 19, 2011

Reflections on the TFA/Penn Summer Bridge Course aka Notes on Education

Yesterday, I finished up my duties as Teacher Assistant for the Penn Graduate School of Education Summer Bridge Course for incoming 2011 Teach for America corps members.  The course is designed to be a week-long intensive introduction to the academic work corps members will engage in over the following two years at Penn GSE. Focusing on issues of pedagogical theory, it tends to be quite different from TFA's summer institute (teacher boot camp, for those non-familiar), which is more of a practical “how-to” on teaching in the classroom.

Throughout the week, we (the facilitators and TAs) demonstrated creative methods and strategies for teaching, but, more importantly, encouraged a critical discourse around issues of testing, grading, creativity within the classroom, the importance of multiple perspectives, race and racial tensions, privilege, and inquiry-based learning. We asked the tough questions. Who are we as teachers? Who are our students? How will we form the trusting relationships and community that will allow true learning to flourish? The new corps members really pushed themselves to answer these and more. At times the conversation was frustrating, as it must be when discussing the myriad of challenges that face urban teachers and students, but it ultimately forged deeper understanding and renewed commitment to exact social change within our schools.

In my opinion, we created a really positive, productive, and powerful (sorry for the alliteration; I'm an English teacher) learning community in our week together. I am left believing that the 2011 TFA Greater Philadelphia Corps is going to do great things.

With that, here were some of the take-aways from the week that deserve note:

      1. Learning occurs within a context

        This axiom speaks to several levels. First, that our schools exist in a specific social, political, and economic environment that deeply impacts who we are, as teachers, who our students are, our mutual life trajectories, and the way we communicate. All of this affects how, when, and where students learn. It also affects toward what purpose education is directed in this country. For example, though we are wont to believe that the purpose of education is to create equality, foster opportunity, and deliver rainbows and unicorns, the corporate/capitalist ethos of our society creates (perhaps intentionally) far different aims and outcomes in the educational system.

        Second, within the learning process, itself, any “skill” that a student may learn does not occur in isolation. A text is a composite of many devices and styles (along with the life experiences that both reader and author bring to it), all of which work together to make meaning. Studying one thing, isolated from the whole, is inherently meaningless. Yet, the standards-based reform movement, with it's emphasis on testing basic skills, has in many ways created the myth that you can somehow understand what a metaphor is, without understanding that metaphor within the greater context of a particular text. Furthermore, to study these different “skills” without any connection to the big picture, the greater meaning, is disengaging to all students. What's the point of studying something if it doesn't mean anything, if it exists just to exist?

      2. Learning is relational.

        Related to the above point, learning is a process that occurs within and among both teachers and students. Together, students and teachers work to derive meaning from the subject at hand. This is why it is essential to form a trusting community within the classroom. Students cannot take the risks necessary to engage in true learning without feeling this safety and bond. Because the relationship between student and teacher is so foundational to any learning, it makes the process of knowing oneself, as a teacher, and one's students crucial.

      3. This is a weird time in Philadelphia school history.

        Most of the incoming corps members are entering the Philadelphia school system at a very chaotic time. Most CMs will be placed within charter schools, as the district has placed many of the “failing” schools under outside management in accordance with the stipulations of No Child Left Behind. Additionally, due to staggering budget shortages, the School District of Philadelphia let go of approximately 1,500 teachers in early summer. Recently, however, SDP has announced that there are 1,335 vacancies for the fall and they are recalling 325 teacher lay-offs. If this doesn't make sense, congratulations-- you've been paying attention. All of this has just added to the confusion that leads to good teachers leaving urban schools and culture-shock within schools with near-constant turnovers.

      4. Be comfortable with contradictions.

        There are no easy answers. For example, we need school accountability, yet our tests are biased and reflect low-level skills sets that are disengaging for students. We need smaller classes, yet there is no money within the budget to hire more teachers. We need innovation, yet many charters (the bastions of innovation, supposedly) have proven no more academic success than their district counterparts.

        We had a wonderful discussion on the last day of the course which speaks to this point. As many corps members were wondering about the practicalities of their classrooms come fall, the class-wide conversation steered itself towards the subject of “grades.”

        What do you give a student who has tried their best and made admirable progress, yet is still not meeting the objective standard set? We are told that it is important to hold high expectations of our students. After all, if you pass them, won't they continue to fall further and further behind? Would it be fair to the other students who have met that goal? Shouldn't you fail them with the hopes that they will recover and be on grade level the next year?

        But what if they started out that year at a 3rd grade reading level? What if they internalize that “F” as part of their identity? What if they see no rewards for the efforts they have put in, for the progress they have made? And what are the chances, after that failing grade, you might not see them again next year?
        Compare them to another student in the class. What if another student aced the first quarter, then refused to do work the rest of the year because they knew they would pass? Should these two students get the same grade? What if the failing student has a learning disability or what if English is not their first language? What changes?

This was a very emotional conversation, and I could see the pain of the 2011 corps members as they grappled with these difficult questions and reflected upon their experiences at summer institute.  In the middle of the conversation, I told the corps members that they were going to soon have to determine whether a student's letter grade was going to be the measure by which they assess learning.   Though it may seem leading, I offered this question sincerely.   I honestly have no answer to it.  

Before that moment, I had sat quietly through the conversation, because I have grown comfortable, in a way, with the contradictions that were being raised. The question of grades-- along with all the contradictory things I face on a given day-- is beyond me. I do not to torture myself by trying to find the Holy Grail Rule that will govern in every situation in the classroom. The truth is that every student, every situation is different and judgment is often not based on some abstract code of teaching, but is completely wrapped up in the context of a moment.

The corps members in the room reached this conclusion, as well. While this might make some despondent, I am left hopeful by their discussion. It is within the space of discomfort (the kind that arises with irreconcilable contradiction) that critical thinking occurs. This is the space of freedom, where new ideas and new formulas can be arranged without the constraints of prior language or dogma. It is only through this type of discourse that real change will occur.

I am excited to see where we will all take this next year.


ps Shout-out to all the people who worked to make the Penn Bridge Course a fabulous success!  

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