Wednesday, January 9, 2013

No longer behind the concession stand...

though I often wish that I was!

It has been nearly a year since I posted in this blog, and for some reason I had the urge to revisit it. Perhaps, it's because I've basically been acting like I still work at my old job for the past week or so. Last week, I decided to e-mail all of my former students to see how they are doing. I'm slowly getting responses back, about half at this point, and I'll try to post a bit of an update on them once I have more responses. It has been so invigorating to brush off my stalking/harassment hat. I desperately miss my students and I miss the feeling that I am working for something incredible. At some point I'll write about my current field placement working with the elderly which is certainly important, but not quite my style.

 My main motivation for reviving this blog was to continue to have a place to put my big thoughts and to post some interesting articles that I find (most often through great people on facebook). Even as my field placement and my studies divert me somewhat from issues of access to education, it remains near and dear to my heart. And with that, I give you this article from the New York Times a few weeks ago. I posted it on facebook, but I think it's important enough to re-post.

 I wish that I could say that every student that I've heard from so far is happily enrolled in school with no struggles or complains. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and many of the issues are mentioned in this article.

Until the next time that I'm bored and inspired at my field placement... ;>)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Mid Year Blog Post

This time of year marks the halfway point in my term of service, and to commemorate that we were given letters that we wrote to ourselves during orientation. I was pretty skeptical about the whole activity, mostly because it reminded me of things like new years resolutions where you set goals for yourself that you are inevitably going to struggle to keep up with. Having those goals and hopes in writing, I figured, would only make me feel worse if they weren't followed through on. In some ways, that is true, but in other ways, this letter has served as a good reminder of the things I find important. If it isn't abundantly clear, I really hate January, and I have a really difficult time during this month to stay motivated, optimistic, or productive. I'm going to try to use these excerpts from my letter to get myself back on my feet and start February feeling strong, confident, and empowered.

"Dear Self,

The whole point of this letter is to capture the optimism and energy of orientation to be looked at in 6 months- probably when we're heading towards burn out. To be honest, I'm not really feeling the positivity at the moment, so I'm sorry if this might not be the type of letter you might want or need right now.

Despite my kind of "meh" mood at the moment, I have a lot to be proud of. I've gotten good at articulating what I want and going for it. I've done quite a few things in the last couple of weeks that have involved making myself quite vulturable- and I've made it through each one mostly unscathed. I hope that when I read this in the future, I am still doing these things because I really think it helps me be my authentic self as much as possible.

I hope I've made a name for myself in this organization. I know that I have a lot of insight and dedication to give and I am ready to really show that to everyone I serve with.

I hope you still love your job. I hope you are more firm with your students and that they are succeeding because of that. I hope that team Harding still takes time out of the day to have fun, and that despite everything, you're still not ready to leave on friday afternoons. Mostly, I hope you feel empowered, trusted, and loved in every area of your life, and if you don't, that you are working to change it.

Hang in there,

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Be the spark, fuel the fire

Last week we had a really cool experience in session and Victoria and I composed this story to share with all of our coworkers as a dose of winter time inspiration (I can use all of the winter time inspiration I can get- bring me spring now!). My supervisor, Ben, suggested I post this on my blog, which I thought was a good idea since 1. I haven't blogged since the middle of November, and 2. I tend to take a more critical approach in my blog, so it could be nice to throw some fully positive posts in there sometimes.

Before I share the story, I want to dedicate it to my supervisor, Ben, who is in his final weeks in his current position. He switching over to the development side of the organization I work with, which is absolutely awesome, but means he cannot be my supervisor anymore!

To Ben, who knew long before we ever could about the flames our sparks could cause and who supported and believed in us the entire way!

In my opinion, January is terrible. It’s cold, it’s dark, the holidays are over, and when I got up this morning the wind chill was -25. Sometimes, in these conditions, it’s hard to stay motivated or to remember why we leave the warmth of our beds in the morning.

Today, one student reminded us.

By the end of session, we had three students left (let’s just say the students are lacking some motivation too). We decided to show them the video that was made about our organization as part of an award we received in the fall. At the end of the showing, we were all in tears. The students started to reflect on the movie and then the program itself.

Victoria’s student, Kee, sat at his desk clearly deep in thought. Nearly always in his NJROTC uniform, Kee is incredibly polite, loyal, kind, and surprisingly insightful. For most of the year, his case manager told him that he would have to go to a 2-year school because his baseline ACT score was a 9 and he has a diagnosed learning disability. The day Kee got accepted to his first school was one for the memory books.

Finally ready to share his thoughts, Kee started to talk about the impact of our program. He told us that this program changes everyone’s lives, inside and out. His friends can see what he has accomplished and are inspired to make their lives better too. He thanked us for our hard work, and we told him that we couldn’t do what we do without motivated and promising students like him. His response to this was a powerful analogy. He compared himself and the other students in our program to fires and us, their coaches, to the gas that keeps the flame going. Flames can sometimes get really small, he said, and without something to keep them going, they can burn out.

Hopefully this can serve as a reminder to all of us that the work/service that we do is making a big difference. In these cold months, stay motivated and keep fueling the fire!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Classism in the college application process: why fee waivers are not enough

As I work through the college application process with my students, I have flashbacks to my own application process:

It was winter break 2005 and I spread out all of my college application materials across our expansive kitchen island. I had been rejected from the school I applied early decision to and it was cram time. In about a week I managed to crank out 11 applications which we then sent overnight express to each campus. I have a distinct memory of my mom being around during this whole process. I know that part of the reason was for moral support, another part was because I had her look over all of my applications and essays before I considered them final, but another reason was because she was the keeper of the check book, and each application required a check.

Luckily, most schools have come to the realization that for low income students especially, a $35-$55 application fee is simply not feasible, and they allow/provide fee waivers for students who are receiving free/reduced price lunch. My students would not be able to apply to nearly as many colleges if they were required to pay the application fees for all of them and I am glad that these types of provisions are in place to promote equal access to higher education.

Unfortunately, there are still costs that have yet to be fully addressed, especially by many more elite/selective schools. I have one student who is applying to a number of incredibly selective schools, many of which I applied to or considered applying to. While all schools require official ACT/SAT test scores, most will accept the scores as reported on student transcripts. Others will often accept a copy of the reports we have mailed to our organization's office. Today I had to deal with a school that accepts nothing but the official score reports sent from the testing website.

The process for sending official ACT score reports goes like this: When students register to take the ACT, they can send up to 4 score reports for free along with their registration. After they've taken the test and received their scores, reports cost an additional $10 per report, per test, per school. My student has taken the ACT 4 times; two of which he was able to take for free using a fee waiver, but the other two he paid nearly $50 each to take. The college in question requires students to sign an agreement that they will submit the official reports from every test taken. This would be a $40 cost for my student (one for each of the ACT tests he took). After explaining the situation to admissions staff, I was able to get them to agree to accept just the reports from the tests my students want considered, but he will still have to pay for the reports from those tests. What about the students who do not have an advocate?

It is incredibly difficult to talk with my students about the fees and costs related to college applications. For many of my students, the decision ends up being between paying for an additional score report(s) and giving their 1-3 hours of wages to their family or into their savings account for college. These fees are ridiculous and could be the difference between a qualified student applying to a college or not. As an higher income student, I had the luxury to apply to as many schools as I wanted, send scores to as many schools as I wanted to, an complete applications on my own time line since my parents covered all of the costs and fees. Low income students do not have such luxury. Even when fees can be waived, these students have limited time frames to get things completed and submitted or a limited number of reports they can get. I don't believe that we can consider access to higher education to be equal until students of all income backgrounds really do have the same opportunities.

I find it particularly frustrating to see these policies being implemented to schools that claim to be committed to economic diversity on their campus. These schools identify themselves as being ready to meet full financial need of their admitted students, yet they cannot comprehend the financial burden of applying to their institutions.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Some Overwhelming Thoughts

On saturday morning, my student who is 7 months pregnant will take her second, and final ACT. Next to her, or perhaps in a different classroom, will be the student who didn't take the test in June because his father was in the hospital and, soon after, died. Finally, my only student who never took the ACT, the one whose house I drove to and whose family I woke up at 7am one day, will take the test after battling months of crippling depression and absence from school. And still, a few seats away, will be my students who opted to take the test for a 3rd time and who are currently paying me back for the $49 registration feel in installments from their pay checks.

Each day, this job humbles me.

A new school year has begun, and it has taken no time at all to feel overwhelmed, under-rested, and as though I will never be able to do or give enough to my students. Although, I suppose, that is the nature of the service that we do: to realize how incredibly vast and deep the gap is between the options and achievement of low income students and their higher income peers in our society, and to commit to battling it day after day until more people and more institutions take notice and commit to change.

I have already experienced my first celebrations and my first disappointments. My first student was accepted to college, and my first 7 students were not awarded a scholarship that I nominated them for. I know that this year will be full of such ups and downs, and my hope is that the ups overwhelmingly outweigh the downs.

Briefest of brief updates: check
More posts to come: hopefully!

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Once upon a time I created a blog where I planned to write all of my reflections of my life in the world of college access. I did this for a while, well about 40 entries worth, writing about college access, my students, my life, my coworkers, my thoughts... and then spring came and I completely dropped the ball. This is not to say that I haven't been thinking about these issues, or even talking about them extensively with many of you, but I've forgotten how important it is for me to write them down. My recent experience with the GRE reminded me that I truly enjoy writing, so I hope that I can continue to do some this year, not in the form of letters of recommendation. Orientation for my term of service starts on Monday, and in the spirit of going "back to school," I decided to majorly clean and organize my room. Granted, it still needs a few hours of work, but in the process I came across some notes that I took during last year's mid-term retreat which centered on a documentary about the life of Hubert H. Humphrey. Here's what I wrote:

Through this term of service so far, I have realized how powerless individuals can be (perhaps not the point?). What is necessary is a whole group to really promote change. An individual can be the spark or that first push, but one person cannot change everything.

This makes me feel both more and less responsible- more to be a part of something great, but less pressure for me to make change on my own. I can inspire others, but I cannot do it alone, not should I be expected to.

I fear that I see myself less in the realm of public service in my future. I think that I see myself utilizing the best of my intellectuatl and personal strengths in a way that will not directly involve service. But, since service is a core value of mine, I think it will shine through in everything that I do.

What do I owe the world? Service? My strengths? What if they are not the same?

This passage is a bit of a ramble, but I think it was really fitting to find on the figurative (and almost literal) "eve" of the beginning of another term of service for the following reasons:

1. In the end of my babble, I write a bit about my future and what I will do with it. These thoughts were, I think, the starts of ideas that led me to taking the GRE this year and coming up with a tentative graduate school plan to head towards after this year. These days I'm finding myself believing more and more that what I am obligated to give this world is the very best of myself, which to me means that I will not necessarily find myself in the place that is most needy, but rather in the place where I can give the most and best of myself to really make change. More on this to come in future posts, I'm sure.

2. This realization about my individual power and its limitations is something very important for me to keep in mind as I start this year. I know that there will be times when I feel like everything is riding on me, and those are the times when I will need a reality check.

More posts to come sooner than later, but until then enjoy this nugget from Mr. H3 himself:
"This, then, is the test we must set for ourselves; not to march alone but to march in such a way that others will wish to join us."

Monday, May 16, 2011

Love from Senior Coaches

Right before the real deal ACT in April, all of the senior coaches came up with speeches and gifts for their junior coaches. Colin and Mitch said the following before splitting up and reading separate poems for us:

M: Though you face harrowing dangers at the upcoming ACT.
C: Worry not, young apprentices, soon enough you will be free.
M: Your students will do great and apply their Kaplan training.
C: You've taught them well, and there's no risk of it waning.
M: And though at times it may seem that the panic never ceases,
C: Rest assured, college access heroes, there will be major score increases.
M: So to the two junior coaches who roam the halls of
C: Thank god you're coming back, as I don't think they could stand your parting.
M: Any new folks would pale to the magical Abigail
C: And your students, sparkly Victoria, do immortally adore ya.

Mitch read this for me and also had gifts to go along with the theme, which should become clear pretty quickly.

Abigail, sit right down and take a trip to Hogwarts
After months of Kaplan methods make the hat do all the sorts (at this point I was given a paper witch hat)
The hat wants to apologize, he could not sing, laryngitis
But he kindly wrote down verses for me to recite to us

Unfortunately, today you won't be placed in any houses
Instead you have to sit here and get ridiculed by us louses
The hat is here today to provide you with some special brews
all in the name of escaping those nasty ACT blues.
(Mitch made a bunch of little containers with mysterious 'potions')

First, the hat knows that Victoria and you are always in a tizzy
So during this stressful time here is some calming drought, extra fizzy. (cherry coke)

Tomorrow remember that you are a great coach and you did everything right
The hat is confident your students will flex their test-taking might
After months of wordiness, graphs, strategies, and the pythagorean theorem
The hat would like to reward your hard work with some veritaserum (vodka)
This will force your students to say what they know is true-ish
that it is cool that they have a coach who is quite Jewish.

And although your desk is a vortex of crap
you can always tell me you can find their ACT reports with the Marauder's Map (piece of paper)
And I am sure that tomorrow all your students will show up early in homage to their mentor who too is quite nerdy.

Now I know that you worry that you are not a good junior coach.
On that topic, the sorting hat would like us to approach
He would like to disabuse of this notion
By turning you into the best JCo with polyjuice potion (mix of juices)
But know that something strange and magical it will do
The potion will only succeed in turning you into you!

Excuse me for this rhyme is getting long
But I have to compete with Colin's songs
I guess the only solace for enduring this slog
Is that you will be able to write about it in your blog (done!)

Now the hat wants to leave you with one last parting gift
An elixir that will give you quite a post-ACT lift
It will get you through long into the night
but better keep this one out of LT (leadership team) sight
Just one warning, it is not as sweet as candy
it is a vail of liquid luck, or in other words, Brandy!

We felt so loved!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

No time to write for pleasure these days...

So much has happened in the last month +, and I've been too busy to write about it! So many topics are swarming around in my head, but today I think I'll write a little bit about how well I've gotten to know my students in the past few months through their special circumstance essays and my letters of recommendation.

In our organization, we have our students write "Special Circumstance Essays/Letters." Basically, these essays are submitted in addition to all of the other application materials to each college and are meant to give some context to each student. They are supposed to tell the story behind the great or sub-par grades or ACT scores as a way to encourage admissions committees to look beyond the numbers. They might also explain a temporary dip in grades or show schools what obstacles these students have had to overcome and how overcoming those obstacles has uniquely prepared them for college. The things I've learned about my students have been amazing and heart breaking. Here's a dumbed down summary:

- 8 of my students have parents or siblings who are addicted to drugs, alcohol, or gambling.
- 7 of my students have been in this country for less than 10 years.
- 11 of them were born outside of the country, most of those are here in the US as refugees
- 5 have parents or siblings with extreme physical disabilities
- 6 have lost siblings or parents in their lifetimes
- 3 have suffered from some sort of depression or anxiety
- 20 have yet to tell me their stories.

Hearing these stories and learning about the situations my students have had to go through has been a profound and overwhelming experience. There is so much pain that I do not think I could ever endure that my students had to experience before they were even in high school. I am amazed that not only have my students survived such hardships, but that they have come out of these experiences stronger and with a fervent desire to go to college and improve their lives. This has shown me that the work that I do is meaningful and worthwhile, and that I cannot picture myself doing anything more important right now.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Can low income students afford to be untalented?

So, I haven't posted in a bit and have a ton to catch up on with this blog, but I'm up late waiting for a brisket to cool and reflecting on my day, and here are some thoughts.

Right now our students are applying for summer enrichment program- basically any program of any length over the summer that will keep them active mentally or physically, help them explore an interest, aid in developing college related skills, or give them some experience on a college campus. One of my students is applying to do a summer program at a local art school- a 2-week pre-college program on comic illustrations. Anyone who applies to the program has to fill out an application with the basic types of question about parents and emergency contacts and a brief statement of interest, and most students pay an application fee and a multiple hundred dollar tuition, though there are scholarships available. However, to apply for a scholarship, students must not only fill out the regular application, but they must also submit a portfolio of 10 of their pieces of artwork. When I learned this it started to rub me the wrong way: basically students who could afford it could just sign up for the class, but lower income students have to prove their interest and talent in ways that wealthier students do not. In some ways, it makes perfect sense. How could anyone expect to get free money without proving some level of skill or talent? Scholarship money, of any sort, should go to students who truly want and need it- and in this case, to students who show an active interest (and probably talent) in art.

So, despite the fact that this policy does make sense to me, I continue to feel kind of icky about it, especially when I think about my childhood experiences. Growing up, I would be the kid who decided two days before the due date that I wanted to do a program like this art program. I would write a little paragraph about how great art is and how learning blah blah blah would help me develop some skill or understand the world or reflect on blah blah, my parents would write a check, and I would be set- excited to try something new and my parents happy to have something to entertain me over the summer. I was a child of many extracurricular activities. Seriously. I took lessons on 3 instruments, ice skated, horseback rode, played 3 racket sports, and did gymnastics. In fact, the only activities I can think of that I never tried are organized field team sports, speech or debate, and karate (or similar combat sport). And, for the most part, I was/am terrible at every activity I tried. In fact, I'm actually best at making fun of myself, shopping, baking oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and arguably writing- and I learned none of these things through private lessons over the summer or school year. Despite being terrible at every activity I tried, I still had the opportunity to try many new activities and meet a lot of different people- gaining a large amount of cultural and social capital along the way.

My students, for the most part, do not have the opportunity to explore activities the way that I did and that's because, for the most part, they have to prove an actual talent or incredibly strong interest in something to make a commitment to it. Their families require this proof in order to legitimize dedicating their time, effort, and sometimes money to this activity for their child and the activities themselves require it to allow fees or tuitions to be waived or subsidized.

This whole phenomenon is mirrored perfectly within college as well. I have written a number of times about my privilege to be able to "tool around" in my elite liberal arts school majoring in religion and taking courses like "Jewish Ethics"- a path that is somewhat impractical but interesting. Many of my students, on the other hand, are incredibly focused on finding schools with the pre-professional programs they think that they want. Because while I had the luxury to try out a number of activities, classes, etc, with the hopes of finding my "calling" or interests, many low income students must find the most direct and practical path that draws on their strengths and talents.

To end this babbling I have two big questions:
- First, does this phenomenon of low income students having less opportunities to explore areas where they have yet to develop any particular talent only contribute to the lack of socioeconomic mobility in society? I ask this because it seems that having the ability to explore a number of paths or activities connects someone with many people, ideas, or organizations that will ultimately be helpful in the future. For people without the access to such resources achieving the same types of mobility may be difficult.

- Second, I wonder if any studies have been done on the success or achievement of low income students in various extra curricular activities versus their wealthier peers. I would hypothesize that low income students in such activities are often better at them than their wealthier peers because they often have to demonstrate a talent in order to become involved instead of simply signing a check.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Northern Michigan

I find that I gravitate toward the critical in this blog- possibly because it's easier to write passionately about or because it attracts more readers and responses, or because my liberal arts education has permanently scared me with a glass-half-empty mentality, at least when it comes to writing. Whatever the reason, I've managed to come up with a slew of topics I could write about that would criticize or highlight the inequalities in the education system, but to be honest, I'm really not in the mood to write about any of them right now. I had a really good day today and have been loving my job as much as ever, so why end the day on a critical note? Instead, I'll share some great moments from a college visit I recently chaperoned.

Last week was spring break for many schools in the area, so my organization tries to take advantage of that time by organizing a variety of over night campus visits to some schools that are farther away- and I found myself signed up to chaperone one such visit to Northern Michigan University. NMU is located in the upper peninsula, an area of land that I didn't even realize was part of Michigan- can you tell I'm not a midwesterner? (But, seriously people, the UP is not incorporated when you use your hand to describe Michigan... so how was I to know?) We took a group of 48 students to NMU for 2 nights and 3-ish days (including the two 8 hour bus rides) and it was actually a lot of fun and relatively little stress. Here are some highlights:

- Staying in a hotel. We stayed as a group at a Country Inn and Suites and it was a riot. In the evenings we had a couple hours of hang out time in the hotel when students could play games, do their nails, go swimming, or just hang out. The activities that the students came up with to do included: facials (yes, some girls brought face masks), personal questions with a group of 15 students in a circle (adorable!), Black Jack (with mini syrups as chips), and, apparently, running up and down the hallways squeeling. We had 3-4 students assigned to each room and at night we would do room checks and lights out checks (it kind of reminded me of being an RA, except that I was really bad at it). We were always a little nervous to do room checks, especially because we had one couple on the trip that kept sneaking off together, but the best thing we encountered was one of our students ironing his shirt for the next day while his two roommates looked on in disbelief.

- The campus tour: this provided an endless amount of material. The group was split in half, and my tour guide's name was Jon, a senior some-kind-of-art major. Jon, like many tour guides I've encountered (and like I was, I'm sure), tried hard to make a bunch of jokes that usually just didn't fly with the group. There ended up being a number of occasions when David and I were the only two laughing at the back of the group, it was rough. Some of Jon's gems:
- When talking about the Writing Center: "They mark it [your paper] up in red ink, just the way I like it"
- Trying to engage the students "Maybe we can be friends, we can meet up at starbucks after I'm off work" Creepy Jon..
- Describing the giant wooden dome that encloses the NMU football field "It's all wood- you look up and all you see is wood!!"
- Describing the security system on campus: "If you hit the red button, you'll KNOW you hit the red button" (Jon had a thing for red)
- Talking about the performing arts building that used to be called by the acronym F.A.R.T "the higher ups got wind of it and had the name changed"
- Describing his show on the campus radio station "I would just play whale calls and sometimes I would play the whale calls over other music and the music would sink up with the whale calls, it was beautiful!"

Oh, Jon. Between his awkward comments and the figure eight, 4 flights of stairs death march of a tour he led us on, we will certainly never forget NMU.

- Eating in a dining hall. For any of you readers still in college, enjoy the dining hall while it lasts, you will never get this much variety again! Victoria and I certainly took full advantage, and it earned Victoria the nick name "Chompy Chomp".

Overall, the trip was a lot of fun and I was amazed by how well behaved all of the students were. NMU is an interesting school that I probably will encourage a number of my students to apply to. To end this post, I will leave you with the poem that David, Victoria, and I wrote about our trip to share with people at work:

Over Spring Break to Northern Michigan University we did go.
We thought the bus ride would be a low.
When we had to watch Dodgeball it was, but OHHH…well.
The school, dear Jeron did try to sell.
To our delight the students fell….. in love.
It was so cold that you almost needed a glove.
We laughed, we climbed, we swam- so fun!
The students were certainly sad when the trip was done.

The campus tour was excellent, but wet and dreary.
To the students who wore flip flops, we were kind of leary.
They had Starbucks on campus, we wish we could have stopped.
But luckily in the bookstore for sweatshirts everyone shopped.
The panels were informative and held in a room that was fanc—y.
When the students seemed low energy we made them danc—y?

Staying in a hotel was certainly a highlight.
At midnight we checked to make sure the students had gone night-night.
We stocked the hotel with nail supplies, cards, and games.
The students certainly did not find the tiny swimming pool lame—s.
The food on campus was all you can eat.
And eat we did, it was such a treat!

We went to the gym- Oh me oh my
On the Rock wall, went up towards the sky
Ping pong and Wallyball were popular sports
There were lots of other things to do- all sorts
Back in the hotel we had to recover
But could have stayed more days- at least another

On the way back to Minnesota.
We weren’t surprised that there was snow—duh.
The students were pleased to watch Despicable Me.
However they did not cry, like in Toy Story 3.

Overall the trip was a success.
Our students saw a great University, which did impress
We hope some of these students will call Northern Michigan home
And everyday will get to see that big beautiful wooden dome.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Blog Revival?

So, months ago I set out on this noble mission to blog about my life and my work and share some issues of college access, privilege, education, etc. with anyone willing to read. Once my weekly work hours became 50-60, I mysteriously lost time for blogging. Shocking, right?

Anyways, fear not, loyal readers, I still am having lots of education related thoughts, I'm just keeping them in my mind more these days. In an effort to revitalize the blog (and maybe decrease the amount of things swimming through my brain), I will provide you with a list of the topics I would like to blog about in the future (as in hopefully one post every few days, wouldn't that be nice?) if any of these seem particularly interesting, you should leave me a comment, which might give me that boost I need to start posting here again:

- Stories/Quotes from the recent 2 night/ 3-day campus visit I chaperoned
- ACT score updates
- Racism in the hallways?
- Our favorite sophomore interview moments
- Students doing drugs
- Recreating the campus tour to be more accessible to first generation students
- Reflections on "the power of one" concept
- who needs our services?
- The privilege of being "undecided"
- My biggest teaching mistake
- The stigma against 2-year/community colleges
- My new (part time) job!
- A summer opportunity
- Unpredictability in my students lives

Please do give me some input, or maybe I'll just go down the list and use this as my guide. Hope you're still out there, dear readers!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

BTCS goes political, briefly.

Some of you may know that there is currently some legislation in Congress that proposes a number of budget cuts, including the elimination of funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the umbrella organization over Americorps, of which I am a member. With the hope that with more awareness will come more action against such legislation, I wanted to share a letter the CEO of the organization I work for will be sending to all of our supporters:

"Dear Friends,

We need your help to Save Service. The United States Congress is considering legislation to eliminate funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) from the budget, jeopardizing thousands of service initiatives around the country, including our own. Contact your Member of Congress today to get involved in the conversation and sign up for “Save Service District Day” at the link below.

With CNCS programs like AmeriCorps, Learn and Serve and Senior Corps at risk, our communities could potentially lose the support of organizations providing needed services like Teach For America, Admission Possible, Foster Grandparents, Habitat for Humanity, Public Allies, City Year, YouthBuild and many other local organizations, jeopardizing services in education, youth development, elderly services, healthcare and nutrition. At our organization in this year alone, 72 AmeriCorps and VISTA members provide college access and success services to 7,400 low-income students, and we hope to continue to grow in those communities and others nationwide.

These competitive CNCS grant programs are some of the strongest levers of public investment, each requiring private sector matching dollars and demanding results-based reporting. The federal investment made in faith based and community organizations through CNCS leverages nearly $800 million in matching funds from companies, foundations and other sources. At our organization, every dollar in AmeriCorps investment is matched by four private sector dollars. Additionally, these national service programs provide needed full-time and part-time career opportunities for Americans in today’s economy.

Congress is debating this bill now, and they'll be looking to their constituents to see how much -- or how little -- the American people support these cuts.

We need your help. Tell Congress that we cannot afford to lose the critical services these programs provide in our communities. Contact your Member of Congress today, and sign up today at
for your local "Save Service District Day.” Visit your representative’s local office on February 25th to make sure they hear your voice."

When I think of this legislation, I am almost silenced by how shocked I am that it exists. I consider myself a pretty reasonable and open minded person, and while I tend to fall on the liberal side of things politically, I pride myself in being able to understand the opinions of many conservatives (I owe that to my proud Republican father and, probably, my religion degree). However, I cannot, in any way, understand the reasoning behind cutting funding to CNCS.

Let's forget, for a moment, about the moral and social implications of such cuts- which would be unfathomable (can you imagine a society without these kinds of public service organizations?). Instead, let's think about money- because, after all, that's what this seems to boil down to. According to a less than perfectly trustworthy source (wikipedia), more than 85,000 people currently serve with Americorps (plus thousands more serving through other CNCS programs). We don't make a salary, we are awarded a living stipend of around $11,000 for a year of service. Based on the number of hours we end up working at my organization, that evens out to about $3 and hour- not even close to minimum wage. This means that there are more than 85,000 government slaves working for our country right now. Or, as a colleague of mine said in a slightly less abrasive way: "we're the cheapest labor out there!" I understand that the government is in need of money right now, but at this point, if nothing else, Americorps is keeping some 85,000 work eligible people at bay and paying them practically nothing to do some of the toughest jobs in our society! How is it in any way logical to cut funding for these programs, releasing these employees out into the world only to become unemployed because of the terrible job market?

So, if you're reading this and are thinking about pressuring your local politicians to oppose this legislation, I encourage you to do so! Do it for the students I'm trying to get into college, or the families moving into their first real home, or the students being helped with their reading so they can succeed in school, or simply because it makes the most financial sense- whatever your reason, I hope you'll support continuing funding to CNCS.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Photographic Reflections on the Past Few Weeks

My new years resolution of posting here has crashed and burned, but I guess that's what happens when you work 3 50+ hour weeks in a row. A lot has been going on, and while I am planning a more thought provoking post, here's a little update in picture form.

Last week was Valentine's day! Victoria and I obviously went all out:

Here is Victoria with the box of chocolates we wish we had received on Valentine's day.

And here I am the day of dressed in as much work appropriate pink and red as I could find.

We decorated our office for the special day as well:

Note the following decorative elements (outlined in hearts with arrows pointing to them):
1. Decorated foam hearts hanging from the ceiling.
2. Our awesome "Jux Stay in School" heart- sneakily making fun of our students who like to text/write the word 'jux' instead of 'just'
3. Valentine's mailboxes for me and Victoria. Unfortunately, neither of us got any notes in our boxes...
4. Calendar of Robert Pattinson, which is not actually reserved for valentine's day, Victoria just loves him.

This past week has also been the kick off for student recruitment- which means that we are attacking sophomores left and right trying to get them to join our program. The crazy excitement portion of recruitment is called "Hoopla" in our organization, and here are some ways we have been getting students excited:

We made a recruitment rocket! Please don't mind the awkward whited out areas, I'm trying to maintain some confidentiality for the organization I work for. Victoria wears this rocket with a tin foil hat and runs around scaring students. I'm honestly not actually sure this makes our organization appealing for students, but it's really entertaining for me.

We decorated the office! Doesn't it look welcoming?

We also had some of our students do a rap that we're playing during morning announcements. Here are the musical masterminds:

And here is one last image to leave you with for now: Victoria showing some attitude to a student who missed two make up ACTs after school- he looks pretty terrified to me!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Classist ACT Prompt?

Last weekend my students took their third practice ACT. This is an exciting time because they have finally had a few good weeks of ACT strategy and they are eager to see if their scores have improved. This is also an important time for me to figure out which students are understanding the material and which students need some extra attention. While most of my students seemed confident that they had at least improved a little on each section, they left the test with defeated looks on their faces after finishing the last section, the essay. After reading the prompt, it's not hard to see why my students felt this way.

The prompt goes:

"Most people enjoy having a yard so that they can design both the exterior and the interior of their homes. Some people prefer landscaping that is polished and controlled, with lush green lawns, carefully trimmed shrubs or bushes, and flowers that are replaced each season so that they remain fresh and colorful. Proponents of this type of landscaping believe that the visual design of a yard is the most important factor and that neighborhoods should have standard guidelines so that the area looks uniform and consistent. Opponents of polished landscaping believe that yards require a variety of treatments, based on factors such as the climate conditions of the region, and advocate for choices that incorporate water conservation, native species, and edible plants. In your opinion, should people follow standard landscaping guidelines that focus on a yard's visual design, or should they vary their landscaping design out of consideration for other factors like climate or conservation?"

As I see it, there are two main problems with this prompt:

1. We told our students that every prompt they would get on the ACT would have something to do with their lives as students, something they could relate to. We gave examples of debates surrounding school uniforms, year round schools, single sex education, serving fast food in the cafeteria, weighted grades, the list goes on. This prompt has nothing to do with the lives of the majority of high schoolers in this country and I'm pretty sure that most high schoolers would have no opinion on the issue whatsoever (unless you're one of my good friends who worked summers with a landscaping company).

2. This prompt certainly has no relevance or context for most low income or urban students- who may be living in housing without yards or might not have the income to afford landscaping. This is the issue I will be focussing on for the remainder of this post.

Most of my students qualify for free or reduced lunch and if they don't, they definitely make well under the average income for the state. The neighborhoods surrounding the school where I work have small yards, but, as far as I can tell, no neighborhood association regulating landscaping or anything else. When I think of neighborhood associations, I think of wealthy neighborhoods where the residents can afford to pay dues to have a council that puts on BBQs and gives gifts to the mailmen. That is certainly not the kind of neighborhood my students come from. For those who don't live in single family homes, they live in apartments or town homes without yards. Thus, this prompt brings up a concept that almost none of my students have any experience with.

In fact, quite a few of my students did not know what landscaping was- and this was true among my coworkers as well. In their essays we had students argue for having landscapes instead of yards or having a back yard, or what to put in your yard (think swimming pool and playground). It was clear that besides not having any personal experience with landscaping in their own yards, they had never even encountered the term.

To me this begged the question: 'is this a classist prompt??' And honestly, I believe the answer is yes. The definition of 'classist' is "biased based on social or economic class." For a writing prompt to be classist it would have to give an unfair advantage to those of a certain social or economic class. I believe this prompt does just that. If I had this prompt when I was taking the ACT (or SAT in my case), I would have had absolutely no trouble answering the prompt. Why? Because most if not all of the neighborhoods I lived in growing up had guidelines for landscaping. More than that, I'm pretty sure that for at least the last 13 years my family has had a LANDSCAPER. I grew up seeing drawings for new gardens in our yard, hearing about the installation of underground sprinklers, and watching my parents ask permission from neighborhood councils to put fences in my yard (and wouldn't you know they even cared about what material the fences were made out of). I grew up surrounded by this information because my parents had the expendable income to pay for everything that comes with landscaping and because we belonged in a social class that expected it of us.

Most of my students do not have the same exposure to landscaping as I did, giving them an unfair disadvantage when approaching this prompt. In the words of one of my co-workers: "they might as well have asked if hired help should be full time or part time or if neighborhoods should be gated or not!"- this prompt was clearly aimed towards a set of students with a certain life style, one which, from my knowledge, most urban low income students do not share.

It's incredibly frustrating to think that a standardized test, one which is supposed to put students on an even level regardless of their high school, background, religion, race, etc. can so blatantly give an advantage to some students over others. What's worse is that it is really difficult to help our students overcome this type of disadvantage. We can teach our students how to write a well structured essay, but we cannot give them life experiences they've never had- and when a whole prompt is based on such an experience, having it can make or break one's score.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Holy Matrimony

Lest you begin to think that my life is all work and no play, here's what we did a few weeks ago:

We got engaged!
Like our rings?

<--- This one's mine.

And this is Victoria's ->

We'll keep you posted on our wedding plans!

OK, well, that was lies. Here's what actually happened:

A few weeks ago I entered to win a variety of online contests on something I do every week because, well, why not? I saw that one of the contests to enter was for the Wedding Fair in the Minneapolis Convention Center. I thought to myself, 'oh, I know someone who is getting married! I bet Mitch would LOVE to go to this,' so I entered the contest. Low and behold, I won the tickets! And, of course, Mitch and his fiance had plans for the day so it was up to us to come up with a creative way of using the tickets.

Solution! We decided to fake our own engagements to two of our coworkers and go to the fair pretending to be planning our weddings.

Here are the lovely couples:

D.J. and Victoria

How they met: D.J. and Victoria ended up working at the same Caribou Coffee. Victoria didn't like him at first, but eventually he grew on her and they fell in love!

How he proposed: Unknown. But it might have involved pickles.

Wedding Plans: Jungle themed wedding at the Minnesota Zoo on July 28th 2012. Yes, this is a Thursday and it will be followed by a two-day reception. The bride and groom will wear loincloths and there will be plenty of lanterns around which remind D.J. of Thailand.

Me and David

How we met: Although we went to different schools in different states, one of David's best friends went to school with me and we met when he visited her one weekend. The rest is history.

How he proposed: It was the last night of Chanukah and as I went to light the first candle, there was the ring around the candle!

Wedding Plans: Late summer/early fall 2011, with either a red/orange/fall foliage or purple color scheme. We will be married near a lake where we will have our guests light floating lanterns over the water. The ceremony will be inspired by Jewish and Unitarian Universalist customs.

We like to think we were pretty believable. I even got complemented on my $15.00 TJMaxx ring. We got to taste some different types of food and cakes. We also watched a couture wedding dress fashion show and decided which ones we liked and didn't.

All in all, a really fun way to spend a sunday and some free tickets. Unfortunately, it appears that we have not won any of the honeymoons or dinner cruises we entered contests for, maybe next time.

I'll leave you with this image: Victoria and D.J. poking some mossy center pieces.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Zen Buddhist Story

Today we had a full corps meeting, as we do every friday and during some work time a co-worker of mine, D.J. brought up a story that I thought would be fun to share with you.

D.J. first told this story at a professional development session that he attended at his school which was addressing the concept of tracking in schools. Many schools now will assign their students to various tracks: a college prep track made up of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes and a regular or non-college bound track with regular or even remedial classes. In the meeting, someone asked: "Does academic tracking perpetuate segregation in education?" D.J. replied that it does not have to, but only if both tracks have similar expectations and a set of future plans. The college track gives students a set of defined goals and ways to achieve them. The 'regular' track, however, does not provide it's students with any rigid expectations, or plans for the future. D.J. believes that the best solution would be one where expectations are appropriately high and understandably clear for all tracks.

To illustrate his point, D.J. told this story:

There was a monastery in the mountains of Thailand that was once considered an attractive order to be a part of. It contributed a lot to the well being and spirituality of the community around it. Recently, however it had become a dying order. Monks and Nuns were leaving in droves and the spiritual vitality of the community was dwindling.

The head Abbot of the monastery decided to visit a Rabbi of a successful and vibrant community to seek some guidance. The Abbot told the Rabbi that he was worried about the future of his monastery. The Rabbi replied: 'That's just terrible, and too bad because I heard from an Abbot nearby that a member of your monastery is about to become the next to be enlightened, so it would be a shame for it to die out." Surprised, the Abbot thanked the Rabbi for his time and headed back to his monastery.

When the Abbot returned to the monastery he shared the Rabbi's news with the community. Everyone was surprised to hear that the next to become enlightened was among them, but mostly returned to their normal lives.

As time went on, the members of the monastery started treating one another a little differently- thinking that maybe the other was supposed to be the next to become enlightened. And then they thought, wait, maybe it's me! So each individual started working harder on his/her spiritual development and soon the order was rebuilt and back to it's full vitality.

The moral of the story is that it does not matter whether or not someone in the order was about to become enlightened, the expectation that someone would was enough motivation to rebuild the order. When the members of the monastery could envision a future for themselves, they were successful.

According to D.J., if all students were able to aspire to a future they could envision, they would all be successful, regardless of what track they were assigned and whether or not they end up in college in the future.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Case of the Terrifying Mother

Last week we had an interesting and terrifying visitor. She is the mother of a senior in our program and she came to our office to demand that her son, a junior, be admitted to our cohorts. First, she asked why no one had recruited him for the program, to which we replied that we advertised all around the school last spring and it was up to the students to take the initiative to apply. At this point she replied that she was taking the initiative on behalf of her son now- that he is a Native American with two siblings who went through the program and that he must be accepted right away.

I'll be the first to admit that I don't always handle conflict well- emotional break downs? suicide attempts? love issues? I'm all over those- but being yelled at... not my cup of tea. My "fight or flight" instinct kicked in and I went with the "flight," immediately referring her to my supervisor and sending him a panicking e-mail (sorry, Ben!). This seemed to sedate the mother enough to leave us alone, but not without taking my business card first- now I'm screening all of my calls.

Colin was able to catch up with the student in question and found out that he had no interest in applying or joining the program. We also looked up his grades and found out that his gpa is a 1.4, well below our requirements for applicants (2.0 or higher).

When the mother finally left the office, we were so shaken that we cowered under our desks in the fetal position. See Victoria below:

While this was a kind of hilarious office story that hopefully amused you, dear reader, it points to a bigger issue of a parent's dreams for her child and her child's goals for himself. It was heartbreaking to hear how desperately this mother wanted her son in our program, wanted him to graduate high school and attend a four year college just like his sisters only to find out that the son seems to want none of that for himself. The story became even more heartbreaking when we learned that the oldest son of the family had been killed serving in the US military in Iraq and knowing that many of the hopes and expectations of this family ride on this son's shoulders now.

So often in my studies of Education in college I thought and wrote about parent involvement being key to student success. I even wrote one paper about how parent involvement/motivation/presence is one of the key issues facing our educational system today. This encounter, however, proved my entire theory wrong. Here, the parents were incredibly invested in their children's education and success, despite their low income and minority status- but it was, most likely, the son's lack of motivation which will lead to his lack of educational attainment.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Wanna Know My New Boyfriend's Name? Kaplan!

With the new year has come a new focus to our curriculum: Kaplan ACT Preparation.

In the beginning of the week we handed out 3 prep books to each student and walked them through what were essentially wedding vows betrothing them to their prep books. The goal was to emphasize how important our students should be taking their books and this prep season in general and to make things a little fun because, let's face it, the next 3 months will not be all that fun.

Teaching the Kaplan curriculum is scary and frustrating. Scary because what and how we're teaching our students really matters now. Before, we were having conversations with them: what kind of school do you want to go to? what is the best way to save money? what should you include in your resume? Now, we are entrusted with helping our students improve their ACT scores and properly teaching them the techniques to do so.

Teaching Kaplan is also frustrating because it doesn't all relate to our students. Some examples:
- Kaplan does all of these cheesy things with the word "Kap" in it. For example "Kap Wrap" is the end of the section question that is supposed to make them think. "Thinking Kap" is the question at the beginning of each unit that is supposed to use the same methods that we will be teaching later in the section. I'm assuming this was amusing for the authors of the kaplan curriculum, but my students are not amused.

- Kaplan uses language that is too technical or confusing. Here's a perfect example in a section that I have to practice teach tomorrow:
In the English sections students read an excerpt and encounter various grammatical and structural errors which they are then prompted to correct.
" I rose slowly through the wooded sections, but upon reaching the flat, open areas, I rode MORE FASTLY. (this is not really in caps, it's actually underlined"
The first step of the method is to figure out what the problem is. In my mind I say: "oh, ok, the problem is that 'fastly' is NOT A WORD" but no.... according to the Kaplan book, the issue is that 'more is incorrect with slow'- what does that even mean?? If I told my students that, they would just look at me with death stares.

In a broader sense, my issue, perhaps not just with Kaplan but with the ACT in general, is that so many of the English questions are wrong or right because they "sound right." That's great for the majority of American high school students, but not for those who have learned English as a second (or third or fourth) language. To them, things don't just "sound right" in English- partially, I would argue, because English doesn't make all that much sense in the first place, but also because they don't naturally think in English. The second language that I'm closest to fluent in is Hebrew (and, mind you, there's no way I would survive a day in an Israeli high school where I was expected to speak Hebrew)- but there are very few occasions where I could read something in Hebrew and tell you that it "sounds wrong" or "sounds right"- it's Hebrew and if I'm reading it I'm going to assume it's grammatically correct- or at least it's more grammatically correct than I could ever write it. For my ELL students who struggle so hard to write correctly in English, how can I expect them to notice someone else's mistakes?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

BTCS's New Years Resolutions:

I've had over 1,000 page views on this blog since I started it at the end of October, very exciting! I'd like 2011 to bring in an even more exciting year of blogging for me.

Here are my blog resolutions:
- Post at least once a week
- Tell more stories about my students
- Bring in guest writers!

If you have any suggestions for more goals for the year, you should let me know!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Reflections on a Recent NYT article

Last week, my friend Judy e-mailed me an interesting article from the New York Times, and I now finally have some time to write about it.

Find the article here... hopefully

For anyone who doesn't feel like reading the whole thing, here's the gist. It's a December 17th article entitled "Is Going to an Elite College Worth the Cost?"

The article begins by discussing well cited studies that have claimed that:
Strong evidence emerges of a significant economic return to attending an elite private institution, and some evidence suggests this premium has increased over time.

Alumni of the most selective colleges earned, on average, 40 percent more a year than those who graduated from the least selective public universities, as calculated 10 years after they graduated from high school

The author then brings up that it has been over a decade since the research yielding these results was completed and that the incredibly high cost of elite colleges in the present day should have an effect on these results. He goes on to discuss the different factors in this discussion from cost of college, strength of alumni ties, the current job market, job satisfaction, and strength of different academic department, to ultimately conclude that the best choice for each student will be different and dependent on many different factors.

While I find this whole article interesting, especially as it is relevant to my status as the graduate of an elite college, there were some statements made about low-income students that I found particularly worthy of discussion.

First, the author discusses a study that compared the earnings of students of the same academic caliber (based on SAT scores and class rank) who went to highly selective and less selective schools. The study found that:
The earnings of graduates in the two groups were about the same — perhaps shifting the ledger in favor of the less expensive, less prestigious route. (The one exception was that children from “disadvantaged family backgrounds” appeared to earn more over time if they attended more selective colleges. The authors, Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger, do not speculate why, but conclude, “These students appear to benefit most from attending a more elite college.”)

I found this little side note about 'disadvantaged' students incredibly interesting and found myself wondering why the authors of the study refused to speculate as to why disadvantaged students benefit so much from an elite college education. To me, the answer is perfectly clear: Social and Cultural Capital. In the sociology classes that I've taken, I learned that groups that are widely considered disadvantaged are not only lacking in income or savings financially, they are lacking the social and cultural resources to allow them to be mobile in society. Social and Cultural Capital refer to the resources, physical or imaginary, that aid in social mobility. Social capital refers to who you know: the types of people and communities that you are connected to. Cultural capital refers to different experiences or knowledge that you can acquire. Members of higher social classes tend to have a lot of both types of capital- they gain social capital by knowing powerful heads of companies, community leaders, politicians, etc. and they gain cultural capital by going to 'good' schools, being exposed to music and the arts, or travelling. These people, in general, have more and stronger connections beyond their immediate communities or families than members of less privileged social groups. As far as this particular example of elite colleges go, the study results do not surprise me. For wealthy students, the level of selectivity of their college has little relation to their future success because with or without the resources such an institution has to offer, they have family and cultural connections that will help them succeed in society. For disadvantaged students, however, the resources and types of capital they can gain from an elite college are most likely very unlike those they were exposed to growing up, and without attending those schools they might have never been exposed to them. Thus, they gain much more from their experience in an elite school then their wealthier peers. Of course, this then brings up issues of the dominant society and expectations of mobility, but I think that's more than I would like to go into tonight.

Later on in the article, the author discusses the worth of an elite college education for those interested in being trained in college to go directly into the work force:
Someone who knew he needed to earn a reliable salary immediately after graduation, and as a result chose to study something practical like business or engineering, might find the cost-benefit analysis tilted in favor of a state school, he said [referring to a sociologist mentioned earlier in the article].

“Students from less affluent backgrounds are going to find themselves in situations where college is less about ‘finding themselves,’ and more about skills acquisition and making contacts that will lead straight into the labor market,” Mr. Thomas said. For such a student, he said, a state university, particularly a big one, may also have a large, passionate alumni body. It, in turn, may play a disproportionate role in deciding who gets which jobs in a state in a variety of fields — an old-boy (and increasingly old-girl) network that may be less impressed with a job applicant’s Ivy league pedigree.

This excerpt struck a chord with me for a number of reasons. First, many of the students I work with fall in the category of wanting or needing to study what this article refers to as "practical" subjects that will lead more logically to specific careers and jobs. And, while I agree that bigger public state schools often have those more specialized programs of study, I resent the implication that broader (perhaps liberal arts) degrees prepare students less well for those specific occupations (can you see my liberal arts education shining through yet??). Furthermore, I fear that statements like this only perpetuate the idea of a worthless liberal arts degree and allow employers to resist students with them regardless of how qualified or able they are. My second issue with this excerpt comes with the discussion of students "finding themselves" in college. To me, this quote seemed to imply that college as a time for personal exploration and development is a privilege reserved for the wealthy, or those students who don't actually have to worry about finding jobs after graduation. I have a number of reactions to this- first, I kind of understand it because I do remember feeling during much of my 4 years of liberal arts education that there was no direct applicable point to what we were doing. We spent a lot of time talking, arguing, and surrounding ourselves with smart, like minded people. I often found myself frustrated with the feeling that we weren't actually doing anything and that often felt like a privilege associated with attending an elite college. However, I also think this points out a very unsettling quality of the social class system of this country: not only do we find ourselves separated by the amount of money we have, the people we know, and the resources available to us- we are also permitted different ways of spending our time, learning, and even thinking. This seems to imply that privileged students are allowed, if not expected, to lounge their way through college- searching for themselves and thinking lofty thoughts, while their 'disadvantaged' peers have no time for such things and must instead focus on gaining specific marketable skills so that they can enter the job market quickly and efficiently.

All in all, I find some of the implications of this article unsettling, even if I feel that the general questions raised in it are good ones. However, I worry about what all of this means for the students I serve and the organization that I represent

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Numbers and Their Meaning

The organization I work for uses a lot of numbers and statistics. After all, it is due to some sobering and unfair statistics that the organization exists at all, for example: low income students are almost 30% less likely to enroll in college as their wealthier peers, every year there are 200,000 low income student who graduate from high school and are capable of going to college but do not go, and, in a 2005 article I just found, only 6% of low income students can expect to earn a bachelor's degree by age 24, compared to 51% average nationally.

It is only logical, then, that since we base our existence on statistics, we must be able to show statistics that prove our effectiveness. The amount of numbers floating around my head and our organization-wide friday meetings is overwhelming: number of students, rate of reliability for rsvps for a college visit, number of schools applied to, amount of scholarship money received, average baseline score, percentage increased, number of students enrolled, number of students dropped... the list goes on and on.

Yesterday, a new set of numbers came out: ACT 2 scores and percentage increase from baseline scores. With 82% of my 41 students tested, they've had a 7.7% score increase. Victoria, of course, blew me out of the water with 97% (functionally 100%) of her students achieving a 13% score increase. In a desperate attempt not to feel like such a loser, I began breaking my numbers down into more numbers. 22 of my students increased their scores with an average of an 18% increase. Six of my student got the same scores. 5 of my student's scores decreased an average of 11%, and I have one outlier, we'll deal with him later. Before I knew it I had a major excel document with every students baseline and ACT2 score and their score increase/decrease percentage color coded by percent attendance. It was getting a little scary.

With all of these numbers floating around in my head, I went to session and began having brief check-in meetings with each of my students, and it was then, cheesily, that I realized that my statistics, no matter how specific, broken down, high, or low, could never do justice to the experiences of my students. No percent could make me more happy than the smile on my student's face who improved from an 11 to a 17, or more determined to solve the mystery of my incredibly attentive student who dropped from a 16 to a 12, or more proud of my ridiculously high achiever who started with a 28 and has made it a goal to improve by 2 points every practice test and might actually do it, or more frustrated with the student who overslept and went from a 6 to a 10 on his reading section but got 1's on English and Math because he completely missed those sections.

So while I might sit here wishing that 7.7% score increase could be just a few percentage points higher, I must constantly strive to remember that the 7.7% is actually 41 different stories of happiness, triumph, frustration, determination, confusion, sadness, hope, and faith, each one as statistically significant as the next.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Watch this and you will be happy...

Holiday Cheer!

This is courtesy of Victoria. Also special thanks to Chuck for helping me figure out how to put a link in the blog!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Letting our Inner Artists Shine Through

Today was a review day for our students, we printed out a million review sheets an set them free. This led to some fun free time for me and Victoria during late session so we decided to draw pictures of ourselves on the white board.

We started off with Mitch:

Important characteristics to note: The blond hair/pale skin, the vest which he only wore once but it made our day, the hand rash (it's an issue), the college application in one hand and special official transcript stamper in the other. We think this is our best/most accurate drawing of the four.

Here's Colin! Essential traits: V-neck cardigan, buttoned, work shirt over blue apple store shirt (an ex-employer), skinny-ish pants, brown "dress" shoes, guitar, and he's singing his famous recruitment song, "Hey Sophomores"

Moving on to Victoria- it's important to note that Victoria pretty much always wears the same thing to work. Jeans, above ankle height boots, a work shirt, and a cardigan of the black or grey variety. She is shown here carrying an LSAT book, which if she's not actually carrying, she's thinking about in some way.

This is me. I'm told that I made the hair a little too much, but other than that I think it's a good representation. I always try to stretch the limits of my green work shirt by pairing it with various colorful cardigans that may or may not actually match. In the fall I also favored the skirt instead of pants, but this is changing. In my hands I hold a copy of Twilight which, by the way, I am not READING... I'm listening to it on cd during my commute (does that excuse it at all?)

So, here we are! For any of you readers who haven't seen us all in person, maybe this can paint you a picture.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Creating Overly Dependent Students

This past weekend was our first practice ACT for our students. Because we really wanted them to be there and we knew that without reminders they would probably not get themselves up on a Saturday morning at 7am to get to school, we tried to contact every one of our students the night before. We even called students repeatedly the morning of until they woke up and made their way to school.

On Monday, one of my very favorite school traditions occurred: administrator hall sweeps! Here's how it goes: the bell rings, students begin to walk to class, an announcement sounds informing students that hall sweeps are occurring, then staff members appear out of nowhere and begin herding students to their classrooms. I've mentioned sweepers before, but this time I came up with a new comparison: they remind me of snatchers in Harry potter! Here's a picture to jog your memory:

So, I started wondering if we're doing a little more coddling of our students than necessary. Is our over-attentiveness actually poorly preparing them for college? In college no professor is going to call his/her students the night before an exam and remind them to be there, eat a healthy breakfast, and bring a calculator. Furthermore, no one roams college campuses herding students to class. If students aren't going to class or other important academic events now, what will ensure that they attend in college? Some might argue that being on top of students in this way now will encourage them to subconsciously value such activities in the future. However, I worry that it actually inspires rebellious activities- if someone doesn't think I'll want to go to class on my own, why don't I just prove them right? And, doesn't the amount of people forcing students to do various activity merely validate these activities as not fun or worthwhile? For example, if I had to be nearly physically forced into my physics class, I'd consider it an admission that physics class is really as awful as I think. Don't we want to foster an environment where students are self motivated, not where they need our constant gentle (or not so gentle) nudging?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

freedom OF or FROM religion

Victoria loves Christmas, and even more than that, she loves decorating for Christmas. I've never been one for the Christmas decorating per se, but I do love decorating for other holidays (Valentine's Day is a personal favorite). So, as often happens when the two of us get excited about something, we went crazy buying and collecting various forms of holiday decorations for our office. We ended up with tinsel and ornaments, personalized stockings and holidays cards, a mini christmas tree (with ornaments!), a light up Menorah, dreidels, gelt, and a holiday themed table cloth to tie it all together. We were set.

As we showed off our decorations, Mitch (aka the Grinch, for this story at least) mentioned that it might not really be allowed for us to display religious icons such as the Menorah in our office in a public school. Concerned about what was permitted of us, we held off on the set up and sent an e-mail to our supervisor to get the go ahead.

We weren't quite patient enough and did some decorating without hearing the final verdict. The outcome is pictured below, a perfect scene of coexistence, if you ask me:

Ultimately, however, we were informed by our supervisor that according to the higher ups in our organization it was alright for us to display ornaments, tinsel, and winter themed decorations like snow flakes and snowmen, but anything that could be interpreted as a religious symbol was out. This meant no more Menorah and no more Christmas tree for us, sad day. (Don't be too sad for us, though, the office is still quite festive, pictures to come tomorrow)

Being the Religion major that I am, I couldn't help but start to think of the greater implications of this "ruling." To me it seems to boil down to the difference between freedom of religion and freedom from religion. As employees of a government funded organization based out of a public school do those we serve (and we in turn) have the right to the freedom of religion- that is, the ability to practice whatever religion we want however we want- or freedom from religion, the right to have no semblance of religion in one's vicinity.

These are two very different things. If I have the freedom of religion then it should be no problem for me to display my Menorah in my work space just like my student can take time during session to pray or another teacher in the school can wear a cross necklace- so long as none of us are imposing our beliefs on others or trying to convert anyone. But, if it is freedom from religion that we are truly granting then pretty much none of that should be allowed.

I understand why my organization made this ruling- it's safer and keeps anyone from potentially getting in trouble or misinterpreted. But, I wonder when being 'safe' in this way is going too far. When does prohibiting religious displays in an office turn into prohibiting displays of religion on one's body (I can't help but think of France and the headscarf fiasco)? And, how far of a leap is it from 'freedom from religion' to 'freedom from culture'- discouraging people from displaying anything related to their heritage or cultural upbringing? Most importantly, in my opinion, how many teaching and learning opportunities are lost when we silence or hide religion instead of allowing students to see and question it?

The Kinds of People We Were in High School

Today, one of my students, let's call him Lil Insane, came by to do a make up session. He's a hilarious kid who's smart, but you wouldn't know it by his ACT scores. As we were talking about essay writing, he mentioned how people never guess he's a good student who is on the honor roll based on his physical appearance (he's a tall African American kid who wears slouchy pants and always listens to his ipod).

Somehow we moved onto a discussion about how he would judge us based on our appearances. The conversation went as follows:

"Well, Victoria would be that party girl who's the life of the party and Abigail would be her friend who's always like 'No! Don't go with him'. "

So then we asked about Mitch and Colin:

"Colin's that cool guy, everyone thinks he's cool. Mitch was probably in Math club or something. Colin probably went to all of the parties but Mitch had lots of girlfriends."

This definitely made my day.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

It has been too long

Greetings from Atlanta, Georgia! I am here for the holiday weekend and will hopefully post a few times this weekend from here if time allows.

I haven't posted in about a week and a half, which I worry starts to become a dangerous length of time for a new blogger, so it's time to play catch up.

Things that we've been up to while not blogging:

- New Students: Victoria and I accepted 2 new students each into our cohorts from the incredibly long wait list. This brings my group to 41 students (now surpassing the number in my graduating high school class) and Victoria's to 40. This has required not only tracking them down in class but also administering baseline ACT exams to them after school. All of our new students are boys and one of mine happens to be one of my student's boyfriend- whoops, hope that turns out ok- for right now it's great, she makes sure he shows up everywhere and does everything that he has to. Let's just hope they don't break up for another year and a half at the earliest.

- The Study: I don't think that I've mentioned the study yet on this blog but it has in some ways been the bane of our existence. While the organization that I work with has had many success stories and incredible statistics for the students we serve, we have no actual data on how our students do compared to their counterparts who do not participate in our program. Thus, this year, the organization has commissioned a researcher from Harvard to complete a study about the effectiveness of our program. If the results are what we expect that they will be, it will mean really great things for the organization and open a lot of doors for funding and expansion. This all sounds fine and dandy, right? Right! But, the problem comes with the administration of said study. For the study to be effective it needs a control group- a group of students we can compare our students to. For the most useful results, these students must be pretty equivalent to our students, the only difference being that they are not in our program. So, a randomly selected group of our wait list students were chosen for the task and we, the junior and senior coaches at each school participating, were given the task of tracking down and asking the students to participate in the study. Don't get me wrong, I definitely see the benefit in this study, but it has been incredibly uncomfortable to approach students on our wait list not with the news that they were accepted into the program but instead that they were selected as participants in a study that will hopefully show how much better their lives would have turned out if they had been in the program... It feels kind if wrong. More on that in another post, perhaps. Back to the point, we spent parts of last week in a final attempt to track down students who have so far been unresponsive about their willingness to participate in the study.

- Kaplan Training: Most of mine and Victoria's roles this year is to help our students prepare for the ACT. In order to be qualified and prepared to do this we are being trained by Kaplan, the test prep organization. Every friday for the next few weeks we will be spending 4 hours at Kaplan practice teaching and going through their ACT prep curriculum page by page. Coming up in a future post: opinions/responses to Kaplan training and particularly the Kaplan Method for our students.

- College! This point really has nothing to do with how I've been too busy to blog, but it's still an awesome point to end this post on: the first of Mitch's students got accepted into college! We're all really excited for him and it's really awesome to see all of the organization's hard work paying off.

Happy early hours of Thanksgiving all!

Monday, November 15, 2010


Turning 22 in the office looks like:
Victoria is wonderful and decorated my desk area and made me cupcakes! Also- now you can see my incredibly neat (lies) desk area.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Public School Compared to my Expectations

As Colin so artfully pointed out during a team outing to Sonic for lunch (I know you're jealous)- I had never spent a full day in a public high school before starting this job. It's true, I spent most of my childhood enrolled in Jewish Day Schools and high school at a private all-girls school where I wore a kilt every day, true story. Times spent in public high schools included taking the SAT back when I was in high school... and that's about it.

So I began to think about how this 'urban' public school compares to my idea of a public school and how working in an urban public school compares to my expectations. I'll reveal some of my thoughts in list form:

-. First, this school does not feel incredibly urban to me, despite being described as such. Perhaps this is because in the Midwest, at least, the term "urban" is a little more lenient. When I think urban, I think inner city Baltimore where the schools take up city blocks and are surrounded by row houses and other urban buildings. This school is a sprawling one story building surrounded by sports fields nestled in an ordered yet relatively spacious neighborhood of modest single family homes. I feel more like I am in a suburb than a city when I drive to work every day.

- Safety: I don't feel unsafe when I'm at school. I'm aware that this is a gross generalization about 'urban schools' that really unfortunately stereotypes the student population that we work with- but I won't pretend that I wasn't worried about it at first. In fact, my mom strongly discouraged me from working at a job that would place me in an urban school because she didn't think that I could handle it. Can you blame her, though, with headlines in Baltimore like "Teacher ‘petrified’ after being attacked by student: Baltimore educator says she cannot bring herself to return to work now" (for the rest of the story see here: Fortunately, I am not at all worried that any of my students would attack me and think, instead, that they would probably come to my defense if necessary. There are also no metal detectors or anything of the sort here, like I might have expected. And, unlike other schools that our organization works with, I've witnessed no fights, though I've heard that they do happen.

- PDA: There are a lot of teenagers making out around school. I think that's actually less of an urban thing or even a public school thing and more of a co-ed school thing. Still, it's awkward. That would not have been/ was not tolerated at my high school, and believe me, there were relationships going on. Our motto is usually 'look away and walk away quickly'... I don't need to see any of my students doing that.

- Sweepers, and I don't mean the kinds with brooms: There are people at this school who are HIRED and PAID to sit in the hallways and force the students to go to class. They watch down the hallways suspiciously and demand passes from students. Seriously? I can think of many many more effective ways to spend a school's budget. Perhaps a better college prep program? Maybe ensuring that we don't fail to meet AYP AGAIN this year...? Funny fact: On more than one occasion, Victoria and I have been 'swept' and I saw a sweeper eyeing us today... pathetic.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Is a 4-year degree program right for every student?

One of the primary goals of the organization that I work for is to get all of our students accepted to and enrolled in 4-year degree programs. The idea behind this is that graduates of 4-year program make more money over their lifetimes than graduates of 2-year programs or those who do not go to college. Additionally, students who go to a 4-year school are more likely to stay in school than those in other programs. Lastly, more often than not 4-year programs have a greater emphasis on the Liberal Arts than two year programs which usually focus on specific occupations, thus 4-year programs are considered simply better or more intellectual.

So, sitting here with my Liberal Arts school degree in Religion, in a job I adore but which is in no way financially supportive, with the knowledge that if I decide to finally get a "real job" I'm going to have to go back to school to get a degree in something actually useful- I find myself wondering if a 4-year degree really is the right thing for every student.

Is getting a liberal arts degree specifically and a 4-year degree generally more of a privilege than a necessity? Is forcing our students into 4-year programs only setting them up for failure?

When talking about this with Mitch yesterday after session he mentioned the cases of a few of his students who he is not sure should be going to 4-year schools. Some, he worries, are simply not ready for college- they rarely show up for session, they have poor writing skills, or they have a very difficult time verbally communicating in English. He worries that these students, even if they get into 4-year schools, will end up dropping out because they will be too discouraged and not receive the support they need. Or, there's the student who has a child and very little motivation. Could a 2-year program be a quicker path to a career for this student so that he could start truly providing for his family? Then there's the student who is dead set on being an auto mechanic- there are a few 4-year programs that do exist in that area, but the majority are definitely two year programs. Should that student be forced into a 4-year program simply because that's what the organization has decided is the best place for him regardless of the incredible additional expense and potential time wasted by choosing that program over a 2-year program in the same area?

Then I think of some of my students who are in similar situations. One of them, who wants to be called AMP in this blog (she'll be mentioned again, so I guess it's good for her to have a fake name) really wants to be an orthotist or a prosthetist- aka someone who designs and makes orthotics and prosthetics. When she approached colleges at the mini college fair held at our school all of the representatives told her about pre-med programs and how she would need to go to medical school for that degree. In reality, its a 2-year program at most. Or, there's my student who wants to be a pastry chef and would love to go to the Culinary Institute of America or Le Cordon Bleu. However, both of these schools are considered for-profit institutions that we are supposed to steer our students away from because of their less than stellar retention and graduation rates. I understand the concern, especially with for profit schools that are not specialized, but I also have no interest in sending my students to schools where they cannot study what they want.

So I wonder, then, if our emphasis on 4-year degree program is really motivated by theories of social mobility. Education is widely considered one of the primary sources of social mobility. All of our students are low income and I'm sure that parts of the unspoken goals of the organization is to help them move up in the socioeconomic class ladder. Is it then classist of me to believe that some of our students would be in some ways better off to do shorter programs that would land them in jobs faster rather than enrolling in longer term, less career specific, more expensive programs? Or, is that a good suggestion that would help our students more gradually change their social class standings: instead of jumping from low income, potentially non-educated groups to over educated liberal arts minded groups- taking a brief stop at the educated, hard working class that would actually allow them to support their families and communities?