The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

This content shows Simple View

January 2012

TFA Acceptance: Secondary School Math, Bay Area

Dear Nalin,I am pleased to extend you an offer to join the Teach For America 2012 corps! Your acceptance into Teach For America reflects your outstanding accomplishments, leadership potential, and commitment to expanding educational opportunity for children in low-income communities. In order to secure your place in the 2012 corps, you must complete the confirmation forms on the Applicant Center on or before Monday, January 30 at 6 p.m. ET.

Changing children’s life trajectories by effecting meaningful gains in their academic achievement is an incredibly challenging pursuit. You have demonstrated great potential to excel as a classroom leader who will work in partnership with families, schools, and communities to offer your students the educational opportunities they deserve, and we are excited to welcome you to this effort. More than 28,000 Teach For America corps members and alumni are using their unique talents, skills, and perspectives to help transform education for children in low-income communities and address the factors that contribute to educational inequity, and we hope that you will join us in this important work.

On the Applicant Center, you can view a special welcome video from our Chief Executive Officer and Founder Wendy Kopp, as well as access information that will help you make an informed decision about this significant commitment, including:

  • Regional and grade/subject assignment: In determining your assignment, we made the best possible match between your regional, grade-level, and subject-area preferences, the projected needs of the school districts with which we work, and the requirements necessary to teach in those districts. Since we carefully consider each applicant’s qualifications and preferences when determining his or her assignment, we rarely reassign an applicant to a new region.
  • Information about your region: Over the next few days, staff members from your region will be welcoming you to the 2012 corps. In addition, you can access important resources on the Applicant Center that will provide: details about living and teaching in your region; information about the summer institute; and the phone numbers and/or e-mail addresses for corps members and alumni who would be happy to answer any questions you have.

If we can be of any assistance, please contact us at Congratulations again, and welcome to Teach For America!


Sean Waldheim
Vice President, Admission


We are pleased to invite you to join the 2012 Teach For America corps and are excited to assign you to teachmathematics (grades 6-12) in Bay Area, with option to join 2012 charter corps in Sacramento. In order to reserve or decline your place in the corps, you must complete our accept or decline forms by January 30 at 6 p.m. Eastern Time.

I am not Superman

Last night I watched Waiting for Superman, the much vaunted documentary on the education system. It was a powerful, emotionally-driven film. While it certainly did help me solidify my feelings that I want to dive into these trenches, I don’t think it did so in the way the movie intended.

On my top list of things that I find distasteful: being the recipient of an emotional argument for a very legitimate purpose, when the analysis part of my brain is simultaneously screaming disingenuous!

Now, I am not an educator or in the field of education, so perhaps I don’t have the firsthand perspective. However, given my potential (I would even dare say probable) imminent career change and the research I have done pertaining thereto, I would consider myself at least more informed on the subject of the documentary that the average viewer.

Here is what I liked:

  • Increasing public awareness of education as an important issue.
  • Sparking a debate on what it means to have a good school and a good teacher, thus prompting the further question of what that actually means.
  • Pointing out some of the glaring blemishes of the teachers unions’ claim that they are the staunch defenders of a noble profession. (Note: this is worthy of its own blog post or five, so I won’t get into details, but say that I *do* in fact view teaching as a noble profession, I just disagree that the unions are presently helping that cause).
  • Making the social conditions in which some of these kids are growing up visible to the largely educated, suburban, and insulated populace that governs the country and controls the flow of information and money.
  • Arguing against the idea that kids who fail are failing due to circumstances within their control (e.g. they should just be working harder, their families are just lazy or don’t care, etc).

Here is what I didn’t like:

  • Making all (or most) public schools appear to be failing “dropout factories” and all (or most) charter schools to be a highly successful proven solution. Firstly, the whole concept of failing or succeeding is based completely on a flawed (or at best, incomplete) metric, standardized test scores. Further, most studies on charters are likely flawed, many (including KIPP) have been accused of counseling out poor students from continuing or even applying, resulting in a pick-and-choose, and finally, even with these biases, the studies don’t actually even show that charters are more effective on the whole anyway but probably worse.
  • Extrapolating from the known fact that there are bad teachers to the conclusion that metrics exist to accurately quantify good teaching, and that we should be using these metrics to fire teachers.
  • Asserting that teaching is like other professions (e.g. lawyers, doctors, etc) and therefore should be treated the same. (Ironically, the anti-reform side uses this same logic to argue that traditional schools of education are better than alternative entry programs in terms of quality… “Would you trust a surgeon who never went to medical school?” Highly disingenuous as well.)
  • Glorification of Michelle Rhee as some kind of hero, when she was closing schools (the only stable thing in some of these communities) and firing teachers (at a time of enormous need for them) based on metrics which are inconsistent and unreliable at best.  I mean, I don’t want to vilify her as some have, but I’m just saying the portfolio on her is at least mixed, and this documentary doesn’t seem to give any balance to that.
  • Using emotional (and, as it turns out, staged) content to encourage activism on behalf of the corporate-supported charter movement, which is even further harming the ability of our public schools to make the reforms they need to make.

More on many of these sub-issues later…. or this will be a really long blog post.

To Bear the Burden of a Long Twilight Struggle

After all the inspiration of BTR Selection Day, the very next day I visited the JFK Presidential Library and Museum. Many points of the visit were highly inspirational, and served to highlight my feelings from the previous day. However, two moments in particular stood out.

The second is harder to convey, as it involved watching Jacqueline Kennedy in a black veil watch her dead husband’s casket pass draped in a flag while bagpipes played.

The first was simply to watch JFK’s Inaugural Address in full, on a large screen. While many of the specific quotes from this speech were familiar, I had never before seen the speech in its entirety. I cried not only because of the power of his words, but for the sad fact that much of the evil and decay in the world that he decried is still here today, 50 years later, and in some cases even worse. Is this the best we can do? Where are the gunslingers like this man today? Is our idealism dead?

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage–and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do–for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

Now the trumpet summons us again–not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need–not as a call to battle, though embattled we are– but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation”–a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.

The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it–and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.

BTR Selection Day Debrief

So, BTR Selection Day was amazing. Took a bus into Dorchester, a very working class neighborhood in south Boston. Here I am obviously lost and wearing a suit. People were very friendly though, struck up some great conversations.

Checked in at the Burke High School, during a normal school day so wading through a sea of students, and found my pod… Pod 6, HS Science candidates. I was very impressed by the caliber of my podmates… a computer scientist with a minor in math from Harvard… a U Michigan neurobiology major… a rising biomedical researcher… you get the idea. A very humbling meet-and-greet.

The founder/director of BTR greets us, a former math teacher in BPS himself. A bit rambling, but very motivational speech.

Group activities are up first, where we are given a sets of incomplete personal and academic information on a student case study… as a team of teachers it is our job to debate and conclude on what is going on and what our pathway forward should be. All the while the observers are hovering and scribbling notes… no pressure.

Then sample lessons. Pod 6 is invited into the classroom, 11th grade chemistry, urban public high school….  The lessons go well though, and I think mine did very well. I had restructured my Kepler lesson to be more student-inquiry-based and participatory, drawing multiple analogies to similar systems, and designed to guide the students to forming their own conclusions. They got it. And more, they seemed really hooked by the end. It felt so good.

20 minutes for lunch. Brief socializing with potential future colleagues while wolfing down sandwiches.

Two separate interviews, one focused on on personal qualifications related to the application/resume, and the second apparently on philosophy of education and awareness of contemporary issues in American public education.

A content assessment, testing basic knowledge of the subject and a 30-min free response: “Design an experiment to teach the principle of conservation of linear momentum. Identify the equipment, process, data to be collected, analysis procedure, and learning outcomes.”

Finally, a writing assessment, asking us to use information from the pre-reading to write a persuasive essay defending one of several approaches to teaching science. Essays will be evaluated on structure, logic, use of data available, and indicators of strong integrated thinking and leadership potential.

So, a very exhausting but exciting day… overall impression was that it went very well for me, but we’ll see… I’ll hear back in a week, January 20th.

Made sure to sample the local cuisine, particularly what the natives call “cuppachawdah widda beah”. Delicious of course.

Icing on the whole trip: the following day I didn’t have to get to the airport until early evening. I made it to the JFK presidential library and museum… among other inspirational points, the multiple exhortations to service of an ideal, a social good, a higher calling… definitely put a cap on it. Bought three books, and flew home.

On the Verge of Something Great

I’m feeling nervous and excited for my final BTR interview. I’ve done the pre-reading, watched the video we were supposed to watch, prepared my lesson, printed my handouts, analyzed the organization’s content, press, and evaluations, and of course done a whole hell of a lot more thinking. Now I’m all packed and ready to leave tomorrow morning on a flight bound for Beantown.

I’ve updated my five-minute TFA lesson to fit BTR’s seven-minute format and explicit emphasis on student-driven learning. I removed a lot of the background and “telling” and instead have a series of questions prepared to guide students themselves through the logic train. I have about a three minute reserve to allow for questions and thinking/debating time. If they go through it quickly and time permits, I plan to lead them to draw parallels between the potential/kinetic energy tradeoff of the planetary system with more simple examples, like pendulums or springs.

NASA card prepared… How do we know where the planets will be at a specific time? It will take the Curiosity / Mars Science Laboratory mission 8 months from launch to landing to reach Mars… The Red Planet isn’t staying still in the meanwhile How do we know where it will be? And it just so happens that January 11, the date of the sample lesson, is when Curiosity will be pulling a major maneuver, so it’s timely and appropriate as well.

Do I got this? I got this. I’m still nervous and double/triple checking everything though. I guess that’s a good thing. I learned from theatre that any actor who tells you that they don’t have stage fright is either full of shit or not taking it seriously enough. Signs I want this.