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.


  1. Someone in my Facebook network posted this link on her profile and so I just thought I would take a quick glance. This story is one of the best I have ever heard re: determination and the battles TFA corps members must wage when fighting for children in education. What an inspiring story and kudos to all you TFA'ers making a difference one classroom at a time :)

  2. Hi Linna,

    Thanks for your comment. I forwarded it on to Rob. I hope his story moves you to consider donating to Teach for America. It really is a great organization doing incredibly important work.

    Matt Ghering