Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Corps member guest post

This post is the first in what will hopefully be a series of guest posts by current TFA corps members. I wanted to highlight real examples of the challenges in some of our local schools and the great work corps members are doing to overcome them. Today's post is by Rob Strain. Rob is a 1st grade teacher at Charles Drew Elementary School in San Francisco, and he's pulled together a great story on the importance of goals. So without further ado, here it is!

My magic mountain
Rob Strain

Let’s not mince words: your first year with Teach For America is tough. The mental, emotional and physical toll of those first few months is not unlike training for your first marathon—full of ups and downs and draining in ways you didn’t think were possible. But somewhere along that bumpy, uphill trek, you realize that you’ve reached a turning point that places you and your kids on the path to success. For me, that moment was the day I put a hastily constructed paper mountain on the back wall of my classroom.

Let me back up for just a second and introduce myself. This past June I completed my first year as a Teach For America corps member, teaching first grade in the Bayview district of San Francisco. I’ve been following Matt’s extremely noble (and just a tinge crazy) plan to help support disadvantaged students in the Bay. What has struck me the most in his blog entries are the numerous parallels between training for a 37 mile run and teaching in a low-income school. The one that keeps coming back to me is the incredible power of having a clear, ambitious goal. It's true of runners, it's true of teachers and, surprisingly to some, it's even true for 6 and 7 year olds.

A year ago, I set the goal for my students to grow 1.5 years in reading. To put that in perspective, one would typically hope to have all students reading and writing basic sentences upon entering first grade. Many of my kids were still figuring out what sounds went with what letters. As a result, for many of them, succeeding in this goal would mean tripling the growth they had made in previous years. I knew in my heart that achieving this goal was of paramount importance. As someone in the Bayview community had once put it, there were two places for our kids: college or jail. This was only a mild exaggeration and underlined the significance of putting them on an early path to success.

The trick was finding a way to communicate the importance of this goal to six and seven year olds. How was I going to get kids who still had bathroom accidents to invest themselves in a goal that had decimals in it? The first week of school I revealed the “Big Goal” in front of twenty blank stares. I tried to punch it up a bit by mentioning that we would likely have a huge party when we achieved it, but they weren’t sold. We trudged along for the first couple of weeks with me focused on maintaining general order and the students focused primarily on testing the boundaries set for them. To say that it was mayhem would be an overstatement…but it was far from ideal.

Then came one October morning. I was pacing around my classroom at 6:00AM trying to figure out what needed to change. Was it the seating arrangement? Had I not been clear about the class rules? Then I looked over to the front wall where it stated our Big Goal in block letters: “We will grow 1.5 years in reading…” That was it! The kids had no idea what that meant and certainly no idea why it was so crucial. The running equivalent would be training to go some undetermined distance sometime in the fall. It doesn’t exactly instill a huge sense or urgency or drive.

I ran down to the supply room, ripped off a big chunk of brown construction paper, bunched it up a bit and stapled it to the wall in the shape of a mountain. That morning, the students colored little pictures of hikers with their names on them. Then, one by one, each student pinned his or her hiker to the bottom (“base camp,” if you will) of the mountain. I explained that by the end of the year, all of those hikers would be at the summit of the mountain, but that this could never happen without tremendous amounts of work and dedication.

The result of this stunt still amazes me. Every morning the students eyed their place on the mountain. Their faces beamed when they moved their hikers up to the next level. Every so often, they would break into spontaneous “Big Goal!” cheers to celebrate their success and spur on their peers. I could deescalate many behavior problems simply by drawing their attention to the mountain. And for me, there was no greater incentive to constantly work harder than seeing a gaggle of hikers still struggling to ascend to the top.

At the end of the year, a TFA staff member stopped by to visit my classroom. Like with most new visitors, the students clamored for the chance to show off the Reading Mountain. Ja’Den and Amir finished their work first, asked our guest to close her eyes, and escorted her, hand in hand to the mountain. They counted to three and screamed, “Open!” In front of her was a scattering of hikers all hovered around the top of the mountain. I am proud to say that the Superstar Scholars of Room 206 did not only meet their Big Goal—they surpassed it, averaging 1.7 years in reading growth. Again, to put that in perspective, it means students like Crishay went from not writing a full sentence to creating elaborate narratives and Alayzia went from being a non-reader to browsing Roald Dahl books. Though it may seem silly, I attribute a huge amount of their success to that makeshift mountain. The simple act of having that clear, tangible goal and being able to watch their progress toward it made all the difference for my kids.

What Matt is doing is a perfect embodiment of this phenomenon. His run has a clear beginning and a very clear, albeit extraordinarily ambitious endpoint. Having that goal and that commitment drives him to push his limits with his focus constantly on that ultimate 37-mile trek. Please take a moment to support Matt in his journey up that proverbial mountain, and in doing so, help students like mine achieve their own big goals and tackle their own mountains.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Who's with me?!

I have to say, things feel a little lonely on this here blog. There hasn't been a single comment yet! The three and half hour runs are more than enough alone time people ;)

Maybe it's my fault though. The blog has a good and growing follower count (Thanks everyone!) but I haven't really given you all any good chances to participate other than through donating.

Allow me to rectify the situation. I'd like to invite you to be involved. For those of you who are runners in the Bay Area, come run with me! From now on, I'll tweet my runs 24 hours ahead of time. Just follow @gherinm or search twitter for #>amarathon and feel free to join me. And, if you're interested in joining for the climactic ultra, just let me know. The more the merrier :)

For those of you who aren't runners or aren't in the bay area, I invite you to find your own "marathon" to push beyond. Maybe it's physical, a weight to bench press or a number of pull-ups. Maybe it's professional, an ambitious project you want to accomplish or a promotion you're gunning for, or maybe it's just something personal, learning a language or reading a daunting book you've always wanted to read (I'm currently tackling Infinite Jest, myself). Whatever it is, set an audacious goal and start today!

Tell us about your goals in the comments too. As we all know for earlier posts, commitment can be an excellent motivator :) Also, if this thing is going to succeed, its got to be a team effort. As a teacher, I got by with a little help from my friends. Teach for America alumni mentored me. Local college students volunteered as tutors. My sister helped build study packets (Thanks again Amy!). I'm hoping this run will be the same way!

Oh, and as promised here is your "Song of the Post"

Friendly Fires - Paris (Aeroplane Remix)

I'm going with a European capitals theme ;)

As for pictures from the runs, you'll have to wait until next time. I forgot the camera again last week. I did finally charge the battery, so I should be prepared this week at least. It should be a good one too. I think I'm going to run the SF marathon!

Monday, July 13, 2009

All for Ones

This is all to raise money for education in the bay area, so I wanted to write a quick post on donations.

First of all, please donate! I can think of few greater injustices in the US than the achievement gap between white and minority students, and the current economic crisis only threatens to make things worse. Furthermore, Contributing to Teach for America is not only one of the most effective and direct ways address the problem, it is also money well spent on an organization know for producing results efficiently and effectively.

Second, I've received a number of questions, so I've compiled quick FAQ. See below for the answers, and let me know if you have any further question to add. I hope this helps, and I hope you'll consider supporting the effort.

Finally, I wanted to lighten things up a little and start letting you all in on some the amazing sites and sounds that I'm coming across during all this training. Take you along for the ride, so to speak. So I've decided to start posting pictures from my runs and songs from my playlist. I keep forgetting to take my camera on the runs though, so I'm kicking things off with the song Rome by Phoenix. For some reason, I particularly like the part of this song where he sings, "I thought I couldn't do this without you." I think it reminds me I can. Hope you like it as much as I do :)

Phoenix - Rome

Donation FAQ

1. How much should I donate?

I'm glad you asked! My suggested donation is $3/mi. If I complete the run that comes out to $111 total. I suggest this donation for a number of reasons.

a. Its relatively small compared to the enormity of the problem.
b. Its a nice round number.
c. It makes for a catchy blogpost title (Subtitle: $111 for 1 more teach in the bay!), etc.

2. How do I make sure More than a Marathon receives credit for my donation?

The donation link is tagged so that all donations are credited to More than a Marathon. There is no need to place any special information in the donation form. To direct your donation to the bay area, simply select that option under "Program."

3. I would like to donate if you complete your run/per mile completed. Is that possible?

Unfortunately, the Teach for America system does not allow conditional or per mile donations. However, I have created a form to allow pledges of support in either form. Simply fill out the information below, and I will follow-up with you after the run to collect the appropriate donation.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Less is more

I love that saying, "Less is more." It says so much with just three words, and it's true in so many ways. A former co-worker of mine once opened a document review by telling his manager that he had taken the "less is more" approach. His boss just told him that he liked "is more." but I almost always lean the opposite way. I'm almost always a fan of less.

For example, I always keep the Easterlin Paradox -- basically the scientific proof that more money does not bring happiness -- in mind when choosing jobs and I'm a huge fan of Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice. But really, and this will sound odd, my leanings go back to the Cold War. Well, not really to the Cold War itself, but to a discussion of the Cold War I had in graduate school. Interestingly, mutually assured destruction, despite the arms race it created, is actually a great example of why" less is more."

Let's say you're President of the United States, and you're pretty worried that Russia might shoot a ballistic missile at the US. Naturally you want to know what to do if something does come to pass, so you sit down with your top advisers and hash it out. At the end of the day, you boil it down to two real options: retaliate or let it slide.

At first glance, retaliate seems the obvious way to go. I mean, you can't just let your people get nuked! But, then you get to thinking about it, and you realize, "Hey, what if Russia did the same thing. We'd just keep retaliating until we're all dead."

So then, you start thinking maybe you should just let it slide, keep losses to a minimum. But, then you think,"Man, if Russia knew I was just going to let it slide, they could bomb us whenever they wanted!"

At this point, the dorky economist in the corner, raises his hand and says, "Uh, Mr. President, uh, I think I may have a solution. What if we set the controls so that we have to retaliate."

"We just said retaliating won't work! Weren't you listening!"

"Well, uh, I didn't say we were going to retaliate. I just said we'd set it up so we'd retaliate if they fired a missle at us. That way, they'd never fire one. If they did, it would just be assuring their own destruction."

"You mean that by forcing myself to retaliate, even if I don't really want to, I can actually prevent an attack? That's brillant! Get me the Pentagon!"

In game theory, they call that making a "commitment." By committing to retaliating, you prevent an attack. And, that's the insight. By commiting to a course of action -- sometimes even one that in the moment might be tough -- you can sometimes reach a better outcome.

Now say your a recent college graduate and you're thinking of teaching in a challenging under-resourced school. You know its the most rewarding thing you could do, but you also know that the first year of teaching can be tough. You're a little worried that after a year your friends cushy, higher paying jobs might be tempting. You know the money won't make you happier (see above), but you want to make sure you stick to your principals and see it through.

Here's where one of the many small brillances of Teach for America steps in. You make a public two-year commitment. So whenever its been a long day, or whenever you're tired of being underpayed and overworked, you have that extra support. You remember that, "I said I was going to teach for two years, and I'm going to see if through." And, what do you know, at the end of two years 6 out of 10 of corps members stay in the classroom. They got over the hump and they're off to great careers in education.

Now say you're a guy who's thinking about running 37 miles to raise money for a charity, and you're worried you might get sick on your first long run in the cold, foggy San Francisco weather. Well, let's just say I'm glad I made a commitment :)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Doubling down

"... the No. 1 most predictive trait [of success as a teacher] is perseverance, or what we would call internal locus of control. People who in the context of a challenge — you can’t see it unless you’re in the context of a challenge — have the instinct to figure out what they can control, and to own it, rather than to blame everyone else in the system."

-- Wendy Kopp, founder and chief executive of Teach for America
Full interview in the New York Times

I just finished my first weekend of real running, and in a stroke of serendipity I also came across an interview with Wendy Kopp in the New York Times this Sunday. The above quote really stuck with me. After this weekend, I get the feeling perseverance might be the No.1 predictor of my success as well.

The theme of the weekend was doubling. Today, I ran my regular route, Golden Gate Park from tip to tale, twice. Adding in a couple of loops around Stow Lake, I'm hoping that I made my 18 miles because, if not, I'm a little bit intimidated. By the end, even my insoles ached.

Friday was the real test though. I ran the Dipsea trail, and keeping with the theme of the weekend, we doubled it. So they say that fools rush in ... and in this case I definitely played the fool. A friend, Daniel, organizes runs for the Golden Gate Tri Club, and he suggested I join the crew for the run. 13 or 14 miles, it sounded pretty innocuous.

I showed up the next morning, and found out that things weren't as they appeared. Daniel forgot to mention that the run basically the run summits Mt. Tam, twice since we doubled it! He also forgot to mention that the last time the club ran the double dipsea it took three and a half hours. My normal time for a half is 1:30. I was starting to get pretty damn nervous.

The club got me through it though. They taught me how to pace myself for long runs, walking up steep climbs, managing my heart rate for the long haul, etc. They're great guys, and I'm looking forward to running with them more in the future. Still, I hope it gets a little easier with some training.

In a lot of ways, my experience in Teach for America was similar. The mission inspired me, but I had not idea what I was getting into when I signed up. And, similarly, I made it through due to the generosity of those more experienced than myself. James Abbatiello, Sarah Usdin, Elzy Lindsey, Jinan Sumler, the list of my mentors could take up its own blog.

Teach for America teachers also double down. Each commits to teaching two years, and in a lot of ways that second year is a lot like my second trip on the Dipsea. You're know more. You're better prepared, but you also now know what you're really up against. You succeed through perseverance. Wendy said it better than I ever could in the second half of the quote above.

"In this case, there are so many people who could be blamed — kids, kids’ families, the system. And yet you’ll go into schools and you’ll see people teaching in the same hallway, and some have that mentality of, “It’s not possible to succeed here,” and others who are just prevailing against it all. And it’s so much about that mind-set and the instinct to remain optimistic in the face of a challenge."

In a lot of ways Teach for America reminds me of Malcom Gladwell's latest article for the New Yorker, How David Beats Goliath. Wendy Started Teach for America to change the rules of a game that was unfairly stacked against some students. She graduated from college and tried to become a teacher in New York only to find it overwhelming. In her words,

"That’s what led me to realize: You know what? We should recruit people to teach in low-income communities as aggressively as people were being recruited at the time to work on Wall Street."

From there, its been all hustle. Thousands of corps members working harder in classrooms across the country to make a difference. David beating Goliath, one student at a time. Its how change happens, and its an inspiration to me. I hope it is to you too.