Thursday, January 03, 2008

First Year of Teaching

Here's an excerpt from a letter I wrote detailing my first few months of teaching to some Teach For America sponsors:

More than half of my students are designated as English Learners, meaning their ability to speak, read and write in English ranges from nearly fully conversational to students who have never been in an American classroom before and still communicate with gestures more than words.

Regardless, all of my English Learners come to class each day ready to learn in a language other than the language they grew up with, an added challenge to the already treacherous biology curriculum. Language development for these students is an ongoing goal in our classroom.

I began my first year of teaching in September, and since then I continue to learn more and more about my students alongside their own learning. I’ve learned firsthand just how ingrained some students’ perceptions were of themselves as “dumb” and why they used to give up on their education so quickly. Now, we focus on study skills, and through tracking study times and quiz scores on an individual basis, I show my students with hard numbers and data that bad grades are a product of bad study skills, and similarly, good grades come from good study skills. One of my classes has improved their average quiz scores by 10%, not because they are intrinsically smarter, but because they increased their average study time per night by 3 minutes. Another 3 minutes more, I tell them, might translate into another 10%. Their eyes glimmer. They realize that they can succeed if they try.

Science is all about using data to find trends and connections between phenomena. Students act as scientists when they observe their study habits and their grades, and find links between the two. I remind them of this every day.

While study skills are extremely important, our big goals for the year focus on the Biology California Standardized Test that they will be taking in May. That test is based on learning objectives set by the State, and so we focus on those same objectives. As students master these goals (80% or higher on quizzes), they work their way toward “graduating” and moving on to college. To recognize their progress, as students master more and more goals, they get to choose colleges they’d like to attend, and their names and their college banners goes up on the wall above the whiteboard. Students love our graduation days where I hand out diplomas that they can (and happily do!) take home and share with family members and peers, and this acts as incentive to work hard in preparation for the Big Test, not to mention gets them thinking about going to college.

Through our class focus on language development, study skills and college, my students are working hard to prove to their community and to California that they have great potential and the desire and drive to succeed.

I truly appreciate your interest in supporting students like mine through Teach For America, and it inspires me to work harder alongside my students when I know that my community supports my efforts.

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