The Very Spring and Root

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

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I’ve Got Friends in This Game (BTR Blog)

Though I’m now all gradumacated, I will be continuing to blog for BTR as an alumnus. My latest post is about the excitement and anxiety that comes with seeing the first days of school approach.  Eeep!

I’ve got units and community building to plan, department and grade-level teams with whom to coordinate, disciplinary procedures to figure out, lab equipment to move in and test, and a classroom to arrange and accouter from scratch. Do I want a lecture hall focused on individual work? Table groups for collaborative learning? Or a roundtable setup for greater ease of whole-class discussion? What is my plan for universal access to content, especially for my students with learning disabilities or those who are still learning English? How much time do I want to spend building up our classroom identity as collaborative investigators? What do I do if my students resist my efforts at establishing community? Am I going to make an ass of myself on the first day? What the hell does the copier error PC LOAD LETTER mean anyway?

In other words, my brain is well along on an anxiety-soaked quest to discover every permutation of OH MY GOD WHAT IF I SUCK AT THIS.

You can read the whole post on BTR’s site.

BTR Cohort X: The Musical

My roommate, Juliet, led several other intrepid members of BTR’s 10th Cohort in producing this cheesy tribute musical to our residency experience. If you’re savvy with some teaching terms, you’ll probably find it funny — though fair warning, it mostly consists of a non-stop stream of inside jokes.

And it probably goes without saying, but this is for fun, not representative of any entity we work for, and definitely very satirical.

And for those of you who can’t get the songs out of your heads (ahem), here is the soundtrack and all the lyrics so that you can sing along!


We’ll Make Teachers Outta You (parody of “Let’s Get Down to Business” from Mulan)

Let’s get down to business
To defeat the odds
Urban schools are awesome
When you got BTR

You’re the brightest bunch we’ve ever seen
But we’ve got some work to do
Somehow we’ll make teachers outta you

Thirteen months before us
You’ve got grades to keep
CTs give their orders
Don’t forget to sleep

You’re the fly-est, most connected lot
Cohort X, it’s up to you
Somehow we’ll make teachers outta you

I’m never gonna catch my breath
Say goodbye to those who knew me
Boy I’m really glad I’m not doing TFA
This rubric’s got us scared to death
Hope that they don’t see right through me
Now I really wish that I knew how to maintain high cognitive demand!

We must be quick as we make decisions
We must force it like a great typhoon
Making content accessible
With backwards planning you know
You’ll get there soon

Time is racing towards us
till the MCAS arrives
Use your data wisely
And you might survive
You’re unsuited for boring test prep
But assessment is near at hand!
Somehow you’ll find a way
To maintain high cognitive demand!



LPD SONG (parody of “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore)

White, white, white, white… (black) white, white, (latina), white white white white

I’m gonna go unpack
we’ve all got privilege from our station
I, I, I’m huntin’ looking for oppression
It’s social location

RESIDENTS (various):
Nah, walk up to the class like, “What up? I got a big diagram!”
I’m so pumped about the Cycle of Liberation, man!
Racism, ableism, it’s so damn costly
And now people always like, “Damn! That’s a sexist comment.”
Rollin’ in, hella deep, teachin’ for democracy
Dressin’ down, ‘cause we’re sweatin’ bullets up in here
Got my ‘Readings for Diversity and Social Justice’ with me
I don’t get what mattress of oppression means,
But shit, she said it ninety nine times! (Map it)

I see that racist code
You can’t target me no more
I feel contextual
Rich white men are in control
I see that racist code
You can’t target me no more
I feel contextual

[Repeat chorus]


BLMB (parody of “P.I.M.P.” by 50-Cent)

I don’t know what you heard about me
But ya can’t get a holla past me
When my students think I can’t see
I got the motha f***in BLMB

Don’t care what you think about me
But I got some tricks up my sleeve
For behavior managing
I got the motha f***in BLMB

Sup? It’s oozing down to the kids’ level
If you gotta call ‘em out, but don’t ever


 TEACHER’S DREAM (parody of “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry)

You think I’m aggie when I try to ask you “why”
You think I’m forcing whenever I make it hard
I know you want to, so I let it all roll off, roll off

Before I met you, teachers weren’t listening
I could BS them, but you think I’m sense-making
Wish you’d tell me when I’m right or wrong
Just right, right or wrong!

STU: Cognitive demand is high.
JULIE: Yeah it’s hard, but it’s love.
STU: When I’m wrong, you still ask why
JULIE: Cuz I know you as a learner!

You make me feel like I’m living a teacher’s dream
The way you turn and talk
I listen in, so I can warm call all your
Thoughts and reasoning your thoughts and reasoning
My heart stops, when you raise your hand
Wait time lifts the cognitive demand
Stop and jot, you guys are learning
Don’t ever look back, don’t ever look back

I’mma get you sense-making with my talk moves on
You’re my teacher’s dream today

Go ahead and turn and talk with your shoulder partner
You’re a teacher’s dream today…

Chorus (fades)


GATEWAY (parody of “Glamorous” by Fergie)

G-A-T-E-W-A-Y it’s the gateway x2

From our first class, back in July
When Jesse said he was white
He said get ready for all your at bats
And the gateway…
The gateway gateway

The gateway…

Goals and Principles I mean
Other things don’t mean a thing
CTEs and planning
Shopping for some grading pens
Get your rubric memorized
Got your at bat on rewind
Get your feedback in your mind
Hope that Marcie don’t come by

I still gotta do mine
At bats all right
Cognitive demand is high
I’ll be stayin’ up tonight
Drama with my CT
Conference with my CTE
All I wanna do is sleep
S’up with this intensity?

G-A-T-E-W-A-Y it’s the gateway x2


Why Teach? – BTR Promo Videos

My teaching residency program, Boston Teacher Residency, has released a series of video interviews about the program and about urban teaching. Including my colleagues Randyl and Malcolm, as well as yours truly! Check them out below:

Randyl Wilkerson giving an introduction to BTR:

Malcolm Jamal King on being a male teacher of color and why he chose to teach:

And here’s me talking about why I chose to change careers from engineering to teaching:

Saddle Up

Today was our last Science Content Methods course, which was a little sad. Not too much though, since I know I will be continuing to work with my classmates as colleagues and friends for quite awhile yet. One thing that was really nice was the opening of our “time capsule” of sorts. Last summer, in the third week of the program (seems like a decade ago), we wrote ourselves letters to be opened at the end of the year.  Here’s mine:



Wherever you find yourself, there you are.

(Live truthfully in your given circumstances.)

Saddle up.


It’s Getting Better

My latest blog post for BTR has just posted. Excerpt:

The last three months have been a slow climb out of the depths of January. I’ve seen my own teaching and confidence improve, and I’ve taken heart at the day to day achievements of my fellow residents as well. Looking back, March was definitely much busier than October, which was in turn an order of magnitude crazier than the summer. Looking ahead, I can tell I am going to be even busier yet with my own classroom next year; each new level of immersion in the profession, art, and craft of teaching is going to bring new and greater challenge.

But here is the difference: I feel so much more prepared for it now.

BTR: Lasting the Winter

My latest blog for BTR, Lasting the Winter, posted a couple of days ago. Here’s the takeaway:

The Dalai Lama reminds us that “it is under the greatest adversity that there exists the greatest potential for doing good, both for oneself and others.” So despite this dark, cold time in the residency, I have to believe that it will make us stronger—that it has made our love stronger. Though I’m sure most of us would be friends anyway under different circumstances, the very fact that we surely must pull together for each other, or all be that much more miserable, certainly should add both urgency and potency to the acts of kindness we reserve for our fellow residents. For, by extension, we cannot help but serve our common purpose thereby as well.

You can read the full post on the BTR program blog.

Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative

Today I had the opportunity to visit the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), which is an innovative and highly successful urban revitalization program that has transformed the Dudley Triangle area. It overlaps the neighborhoods of Dorchester and Roxbury, notoriously (and often unfairly) labeled dangerous inner city areas of Boston that are experiencing an urban renewal.

Is intelligence something you have, or something you get?

It’s only two days into orientation, and we don’t even start formal classes until next Monday. But already there has been much in BTR to challenge me and prompt reflection.

In the first place, the cohort is incredibly diverse, not just in ethnic background and gender but also in content area, family social class, politics, perspectives, and preferred approach to intellectual discussion. The very fact of such a broad cross-section of people in the same room, all educated and passionate, is bound to create a sense of hugeness to this endeavor. We also realize that, in order to effectively address our common purpose, we must face head-on a disturbingly large number of interconnected issues together, all of which even individually are normally “third rail” topics in polite and professional conversation. The resulting mix is as charged as a thunderstorm, yet affirming and heady at the same time.

My favorite discussion so far has been a small-group breakout session on Resnik and Hall’s “Principles of Learning for Effort-Based Education”. In it, the two authors explore the social and cultural forces that shape how we Americans often harbor misconceptions about the nature of aptitude, effort, and intelligence. They attempt to create a new working definition for “intelligence” based on cognitive and social science research. I won’t summarize the whole nuanced article here, but rather focus on a specific facet:

The core problem is that our strong belief in the importance of intelligence and aptitude leads to a devaluing of effort.

Most of the discussion focused on the the negative side of this (i.e. that low expectations of students can drive a self-fulfilling cycle of low-performance), and I think deservedly so since this is a central impediment to learning in urban schools. However, in reflecting later, I wondered if unreasonable positive expectations might be detrimental in their own way too.

An example, using “positive” ethnic stereotypes. I remember a Filipino friend of mine telling me that growing up, she was afraid of being seen as “the dumb Asian”, and therefore was afraid of doing anything that might reveal incompetence or lack of knowledge. In other words, the superficially positive perception that Asians (both east and south) somehow have a natural aptitude for learning and “just get it” or are “just smart” can make them feel socially pressured to appear as if they understand and don’t need to put in a high amount of effort to do so. Outwardly, they may have become good at “faking it”, latching onto key phrases and repackaging them for their peers and teachers, but inwardly they may really want to ask a question or admit they don’t understand the why and the how. Or, they may decline to use study hours to indicate that they are above all that, but make things harder for themselves later when they have to rush in privacy. Thus, a great amount of material is memorized and repackaged (great for standardized test scores and even grades in many classrooms), but little in the way of actual thinking and learning have taken place.

In any of these cases, the student’s learning is still compromised by a devaluing of effort brought on by perceptions of intelligence and aptitude, even though the perception is, on the surface, a positive one.

Anyway, soooo many more thoughts on this and other subjects, but alas, many other items on the to-do list at the moment. Summary: I love this program, and can’t wait for Day 3 tomorrow (we got the day off for the holiday).

Next on the list: beer and socializing with my new cohort! Very important.

Happy Independence Day everyone! Toward a more perfect union…

Orientation – Day 1

Today was the first day of orientation. I learned many new things already, but at least one prevailing opinion has been reinforced: BTR is legit.

I was so impressed with the diverse array of backgrounds and experiences, as well as the uniformly high caliber and holistic commitment to teaching of the fellow residents in my Cohort. My one other H.S. Physics resident was a doctoral student in optics at Stanford. There’s a resident turning down med schools to teach Chemistry. A trial lawyer changing careers to teach English. The list of collective accomplishments by this group goes on, and to top it off I don’t think I have been in a more diverse array of people since NASA FIRST.


NPR: “Is Teach For America Failing?”

Gary Rubinstein was recently interviewed on NPR’s Tell Me More, ostensibly due to the kerfuffle caused by his highly controversial blog post lambasting the nonprofit service organization Teach For America.


So, I think it’s time to re-post one of the rants I originally posted on Feb 4, 2012 to my previous blog, The Very Spring and Root. Note that there are comments and discussion on the original blog thread that unveil new points and help to clarify the original content a bit.

Here it is:

The most common question I get when I explain what I am going off to Boston to do is: “Oh, so like Teach for America?” I’m never quite sure how to respond to that, but the immediate association between lateral entry into teaching and Teach for America makes me uncomfortable now. The answer is no, I’m not doing something like TFA, and for very good reasons. On the surface, Boston Teacher Residency and Teach for America appear to have much in common, and indeed I applied to, and was accepted to, both programs. They both are lateral-entry teacher training programs with a goal of closing the achievement gap across systemic racial and socio-economic divides. They both claim a highly selective admissions process and a rigorous training period for their recruits, and send high-achieving individuals into struggling schools. They both promise that the experience will be a foundation for long term transformational change in education.

So what’s the difference? As a good applicant should, I was continuously researching both of these organizations throughout the application process, in order to make an informed decision. What I discovered under the surface surprised and disturbed me, even some of what I got straight from TFA staff themselves. Bear in mind, I am a new BTR recruit… I do not in any way speak for the program or anyone else but myself. This is purely based off of my research into the issues and my personal experience with the application processes of these organizations. Let me go point by point.

They both are lateral-entry teacher training programs with a goal of closing the achievement gap across systemic racial and socio-economic divides.

Not much surface-level difference here. But when it comes to strategy, there is a world of difference. BTR is a partnership with the existing system, taking what already works in public education and distilling the best elements thereof to improve itself. It is locally-focused and has a holistic, long-term investment in the communities it serves. This seems far better aligning with the true problem in teacher staffing, which is not recruitment, but retention[pdf] of qualified individuals. By contrast, TFA is a large, national non-profit organization, whose members for the most part leave after their two-year commitment. TFA claims a roughly 60% retention rate of corps members “staying in education” after their 2-year stint, though they include those who have gone on to other positions in education besides the classroom, as well as those who have moved out of their initial high-needs assignment. Counting these factors brings the percentage down to about 44%. By the fifth year, slightly less than 15% remain. As for BTR? Fully 80% of those hired in the program’s ten-year history are still teaching in Boston Public Schools.

They both claim a highly selective admissions process and a rigorous training period for their recruits.

The first part of this statement is unequivocally true. Never in applying to undergraduate programs, graduate schools, or three employers (including NASA) have I experienced such a varied gauntlet as those to which these programs subjected me. Application questions, several essays, content examinations, responses to articles and videos, observation of group interaction and teamwork, multiple interviews, demonstration of the practice… there is no question that both of these programs are highly selective.

But what about the second part of the statement, about rigorous training? BTR offers a 13-month masters in education program, including full licensure in your subject, incorporating a full school year of mentorship in an urban school modeled on a medical residency… and they give it to you at effectively no charge, before you are placed into a classroom as a teacher of record for other people’s children. Following this, they offer ongoing mentoring and support as residents develop and grow as educators.

Many of my fellow candidates at the final Selection Day were career-changers or had post-graduate experience in their field of study or in education. By contrast, TFA compresses your training into a 5-week Institute, in which the most hands-on training you get is small classes of summer students. A masters degree is possible in most assignment regions, but is generally on your own time and dime… in addition to simultaneously teaching full-time, getting credentialed (because you entered the classroom on an emergency or waiver credential), and participating in TFA programming. As far as I could tell, all but two of my fellow candidates at the final interview day were undergraduate fresh-outs.

Now, I have done some challenging things in my life, but I do not in any way feel prepared to teach, let alone teach in a failing urban school, just based on my content knowledge, experience, and idealism. Maybe I’m misjudging the scale of the challenge, but right now I seriously can’t believe that someone would choose to send in such inexperienced young people (intelligent and high-achieving though they may be) into our most challenging schools. Especially when there is an option for more rigorous preparation that doesn’t cost you as much and allows you to focus on learning to teach before you actually enter the field! Unless… unless the goal isn’t to recruit, retain, and grow long-term educators…

They both send high-achieving individuals into struggling schools.

Again, on the surface-level, absolutely true. But considering what I have gone over already, particularly about preparation, what am I to conclude about the nature of the program and the intentions of its applicants? What does each program incentivize? I think it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that TFA appears to incentivize the entry of those in a hurry or those in it to check off a box. The core problem in our public schools is retaining high-quality teachers in high-needs areas. If you are in this for the short term, you are probably going to do more harm than good for your students by becoming a teacher. By all means, get involved through volunteering, advocacy, fundraising, or mentoring… but don’t use the futures of your students as collateral for your own idealistic goals. If you are not in this for the short-term (but still don’t want to go through the traditional schools of education), why go with a program like TFA when so many residency programs with more rigor and preparation exist? I found myself asking the question, whose interests are best served by the approach of each of these programs, the students or the recruits?

The nation absolutely needs every talented, intelligent, passionate, and creative person it can muster to the cause of improving our education system. But if an additional year of preparation and a long-term view of that on which you are about to embark deter you, then I would suggest that you are getting into teaching for the wrong reasons.

They both promise that the experience will be a foundation for long term transformational change in education.

In light of the previous discussion, there isn’t much left to add here. I’ll just leave you with a link to a great article in Rethinking Schools, Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America. In the end, it really wasn’t much of a question… the reasoning, given what I have discovered and more importantly what I value, pointed to one clear choice, and I took it. Boston, here I come.

Addendum 1: If your goal is not actually to become an educator for longer than a brief stint (or you are not at least entering the profession with the intent to make a good faith effort to try to stay), then the above reasoning will not apply as well. In that case, I would urge you to consider very carefully how and whom you are actually helping.

Addendum 2: I make no pretense of knowing what teaching is like. I have yet to teach a single hour in a single classroom. So, I am well aware that my opinions on this and other educational issues may change and grow with my experience. That’s called life. In the meanwhile, I’ll perform the best analysis I can with the information I have.