A Mosaic In Progress

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 02 2013

Ignoring the Colored Post-its

Back in May last year, I got to observe three different teachers in three different schools as part of my institute pre-work. Prior to summer institute, corps members are given a set of tasks and articles that they must complete in order to increase awareness of their assigned region and investigate what successful teachers do. Shortly after leaving my job and moving back to Indianapolis, I had the opportunity to visit one charter school. As soon as I walked in, I could not ignore the huge “College or die” mural that emblazoned the wall of the entry hallway. I turned to enter the main office and saw the college acceptance letters from Seniors hanging next to the door. I can only guess what the school’s vision is for the students.

After I introduced myself to the first-year Algebra teacher and Indianapolis corps member, he escorted me down the huge hallway into his classroom. It was no surprise that his classroom was consistent to the school college theme. In fact, it was undeniable that the vision of the school was for every student to go to college. Classes of students are separated into “colleges” named after prestigious universities … the class I visited was part of Cornell. Walls were adorned with banners, flags, and flyers from various schools. The end of each class ended with a recitation of the school’s big three goals of everyone to pass the state standardized exam, approach each class with effort and excitement, and become prepared for college mentally and socially. Each student was tabbed as a “scholar” as opposed to a mere “student”.

According to Inc., the term vision is a picture of what success will be at a particular time in the future. It’s a destination, not the route to get there. The vision of my former employer was “Every Home … Everywhere … with Pride, Passion, and Performance” … I worked at an appliance company. It provided employees with a goal. Going into my first and second year of teaching, I was asked to produce the same thing for my classrooms.

In 7th Grade Math, I am solely focused on building the mindset that all students view Mathematics as a collection of logical ideas that can be easily understood. I don’t want to see students give up. As the year goes on, I couldn’t help but notice that mine seems comparatively less ambitious than those of corps members everywhere. Their visions are much loftier and, in most cases, “college-centric.” Students are referred to as “scholars” in and out of the Delta. College banners are hung on school walls, including walls at my school. Mottos are memorized, repeated, then shared. I remember one afternoon during a Professional Saturday that a group of teachers from a Delta charter school delivered an “achievement roller coaster” chant in unison. Not sure if that’s what it actually was but it was how I perceived it.

And this leads me to two questions: do these visions actually increase the amount of learning that go on in the classroom? That’s a big question on its own. The question that was brought to mind more recently though is “Are these visions causing us to ignore the ‘colored post-its?’”

To illustrate my second question, I thought of one of my students this past week. For a science project, we assigned a presentation for all the groups. All the members are expected to select tasks they are responsible for and fill out a project management log. Usually, students fill out the log and go on working on their assigned tasks. I use it to remind students what they are suppose to be working on. While walking around the room, I noticed that KL pulled out a stack of colored post-its. She pulled out one color for the big project tasks and then took out another color for the smaller sub-tasks. With the post-its, she started directing the other group members to focus on the small parts and the order in which they need to be completed.

I was introduced to KL during a summer basketball camp. I tend to associate quiet and reserved with shy but she was definitely not shy. She was very inquisitive and that continued throughout the first weeks of school. Her sister, who also has the same initials, remarked that she’s quite annoying. I also noticed the odd attention to detail. Math homework from her was pretty easy to grade. KL always wrote the question and answered the work in the exact order on the exact line and column. Can’t help but wonder if she used a ruler when one wasn’t required. Of course, she would be the one to also demonstrate a new organizational technique for her team.

I almost wanted to narrate the behavior like any stereotypical corps member. “I see that KL has filled out a task inventory using two colors of post-its demonstrating clarity of direction and project management.” You know how much involvement I had in teaching this to her? Zero. Never before had I seen this. This is basically a less technological version of Microsoft Project that she reproduced. Yet when I think of someone who is highly educated or scholarly, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t colored post-its. Therefore, the most attention I would have given to this behavior is a pat on the back and then forgotten it shortly thereafter.

When constructing my visions, I only considered academic success. I imagine that’s the case for many teachers and administrators when they promote a college theme. I don’t mean to suggest that something is wrong with that. However, I wonder if it’s possible that in our efforts to direct others to college that we leave out the creativity of our students.

One Response

  1. “In 7th Grade Math, I am solely focused on building the mindset that all students view Mathematics as a collection of logical ideas that can be easily understood.”

    I think this is a GREAT goal for you! It seems like a goal you have control over. You can encourage kids to go to college, but you have no real control over the years after they leave your classroom. You do have the ability to slowly and surely improve your skills at teaching math in this way. I think your goal and the pursuit of it is the type of learning that eventually can lead to college.

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