I have been asked to speak next weekend at a small event to raise awareness of and support for Teach for America. They asked me to speak for five minutes about my experience in the classroom. Below is what I have prepared for the event:
Good evening. My name is M_______ Weinberg, and I am a 2008 Corps Member, and math teacher at G________ Middle School in Watts California. I was born and raised in Urbana, Illinois. I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in New York in 2008 and will graduate with a master in urban education, policy and administration this May, 2010. And if you had told me that two years ago, I probably would have laughed at you. So let me tell you a little about how I got here, and the beautiful children with whom I get to spend every weekday.
In college I studied anthropology and computer programming. I knew that my life’s work must center around social justice, and in my senior year I applied for grants and positions that would take me around the world to pursue this – to Brazil, Cambodia, Mali, and Peru. There was one application, however, that stuck out, different from the rest. I applied to Teach for America.
In my application for TFA I wrote, “I ask myself where I can make the most significant contribution to social justice in the world?… I believe that education is the center of a community. I believe that the movement to tackle injustice and inequality must be grass roots.”
I had the privilege to turn down a job offer in Cambodia, because I knew I had too much work to do in my own country. And indeed Teach for America has given me plenty of work to do.
Everyday I come to school for my kids. I come to school for E______ and J________, who at the start of seventh grade could not do long division, but now will shoot up their hands to volunteer an answer to a division problem on the board. I come to school for J_____, who was in my room on time, even after the night her brother was taken to jail. I come to school for A____, J____, and D_______, who tell me I’m the best math teacher they’ve ever had, because I don’t sit at my desk and read a newspaper during class. In their own words “I actually check to make sure they’re learning.”
So let’s back up to the beginning of the school year. It is a week before the students will arrive and my principal tells me that I have been chosen to teach an experimental Intervention Math course. I will have sixty students that all scored far below grade level on their California State Test last year, and earned a Fail on their report card. These students could not do long subtraction, and long division made them throw down their pencils in frustration.
Fast forward four months of working tirelessly to get my students on track, and I was so proud because I had a bus load of thirty students on their way to tour the visual effects house, Digital Domain, in celebration of having received an A or B on every test and quiz they’d had in class. Our new mantra for this semester is “I am Algebra Ready.” I tell them everyday, you need to be able to do this to get into Algebra next year. And they will tell you, they’re going to rock that Algebra placement test and be in calculus before they graduate high school.
But now it is March, and we have gone months without a break from school. The students are restless and I am restless. So I began a competition between the classes. The period with the highest class average come Friday wins donuts and juice boxes and fifteen minutes of free time. Come Friday 3rd period was in the lead with a class average of 76% as their grade. What kids would turn down 15 minutes of free time? Third period rallied together and said let’s use this time to retake old quizzes and try to reach 80% grade level. I have found that the best classroom management is to let your kids know how proud you are of them. Aside from the usual methods of verbal praise, a positive phone call home, I have added a unique Ms. Weinberg form of letting my class know they make me proud. I hop. I ball up my fists and smile and hop up and down. It looks very silly… and that’s the point. So this Friday as my students sat down to retake old quizzes in an effort to reach their goal, I hopped.
In addition to the intervention course, I teach 8th grade Algebra Readiness. This is a class for students not ready to enter Algebra I, and who need to repeat the seventh grade math standards.
For this class, my program director at Teach for America and I set a goal of a class average of 58% on our first district assessment. This sounds low, but it shows they scored at grade level. And I need to tell you I could not help myself the day I reported our scores to the class. In tears, I told them that they had scored a class average of 70%. Our class was the highest scoring on that district assessment in all of G_________.
When our first report cards came out, I threw an A/B Club party for all the students that earned an A or B on the report card. Towards the end of the party, two girls approached me and asked “Did you know I’ve never earned a B in math before?” I told them I did not believe that, because they were so smart and dedicated in class. E_______ stopped me and said, “No, it’s because no one’s tried to teach me before.”
While telling you all of these stories from my classroom, I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging. What I’m really trying to tell you is that my kids are awesome. My students want to show you how capable, dedicated, and invested they are. And while I could tell you stories all night about my students’ successes, the truth is I still worry for their future. Teach for America has taught me to focus on my locus of control. I cannot walk every student home safely at the end of the day. I cannot cook my students a good dinner, sit them down to do their homework, and put them to bed before nine. What I can do is pour my energy into showing them how it feels to set measurable, attainable goals, and then to meet them. Thanks to the support and guidance I’ve received over the past year and a half from everyone in the Los Angeles corps, I have been able to do that with all my heart.