Sunday, June 26, 2005

Fourth Week

The fourth week is finished. The second-years have completed their summer coursework and I'm sure they are happy to enjoy the time off. They've been going non-stop since end of May last year, a process the first-years are just starting. Most are planning to go home for a little while and a few are planning to stay in MS. A couple will be coming to the Reunion in mid-July.

Unfortunately it wasn't the best week for Teacher Corps. There were scheduling problems for the second-years and organizational problems in EDSE 502 (Classroom Observations) for the first-years. These things happen from time to time but having gone through the program myself, and knowing both how busy everyone is and how disorganized their districts can be, I always hate for any organizational problems to come from our side. The teachers have enough to worry about as it is. In EDSE 502 one of the professors misunderstood the grading scale on the evaluation form we were using for formal observations. I believe we now have everything worked out, but at the same time I always like for everything to run smooth with the Teacher Corps.

The second-years had a mad dash to the finish line on Friday. They had two finals as well as some other work to do so they were quite busy. Their second and last final was on Friday at 2:00. We had our usual group lunch at 11:30, this time at Two-Stick. Two-Stick is the one and only sushi place in Oxford. Instead of mixing and mingling all of the second-years were gathered around one of the high, wooden tables with their food and textbooks taking up equal space.

On Thursday afternoon we had two workshops. Dr. Mullins did a "History of the Teacher Corps" presentation for the first-years. We videotaped and audio recorded the presentation and we hope to have both up on the website this week. This is the fourth presentation Dr. Mullins has done for the first-years. Previously he did a "Walking Tour of Ole Miss," a "History of Education in the Mississippi Delta," and a "History of Education in Jackson." The first-years loved all of them (and a few of the second-years attended as well), as Dr. Mullins is a such good speaker. These sessions are a precursor to what I hope next summer will be a weekly lecture series with Dr. Mullins. For those who aren't lucky enough to be here we will videotape everything and put it up on the web. We are planning to create a special "Dr. Mullins' Web Page" on our site.

The second workshop was on college admissions. This was for the second-years as over the next two or three years many of the students they teach will begin the application process. We had a speaker from undergraduate admissions, one from athletic compliance, and one of my former basketball players, Tambria. Tam is currently an undergraduate at Ole Miss and she talked about making that transition from Hollandale to Oxford, and from Simmons High School to Ole Miss. The best speakers are always the students. Tam is the second student speaker we have had this summer. The first was Ashley , a rising junior at Simmons High. Both of them did an excellent job of explaining how towns in the Delta are still segregated by race, and they also shared their thoughts on good and bad teachers. The general consensus of a good teacher is that he or she is firm but caring.

Reunion planning is going well. Ginny (our summer intern from UNC-Chapel Hill) and I met with the catering service to review menu options. When I mentioned that former Governor William Winter was the keynote speaker the caterer became much more interested. We will continue planning for the Reunion this week. It is only 19 days away...

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Third Week

The third week is down. Things went well. The first-years have gotten into the rhythm of teaching and class. I've informally observed about one-third of them and, for the most part, I've been happy with where they are at this early stage of their teaching careers. Their official observations, with Dr. Rowland and Dr. Sullivan, will begin this week.

For the first-years July will be a slower pace than June and then August, when they start teaching, will make all of this look like vacation. It is impossible to describe how physically exhausting teaching is, especially during your first year when you have to generate all of your lesson plans and other materials from scratch. As we tell each incoming class we will prepare you as much as possible. Does this mean you will be fully prepared? Nope. Nothing can, because there are so many factors we can't emulate: six periods of teaching a day; disorganized schools and administrators; 30 kids in a class; overbearing parents; parents who are never there; and so many other things. All we can say is that there have been many in your shoes before you (including myself and Germain) so we know what it is like.

The first-years and the second-years seem to have really connected. There has been great turnout for all official and unofficial activities. This past week there was a game of ultimate frisbee, basketball (including the controversial player switch), a group movie night to see "Cinderella Man" and lunch at Newks. For those of you who haven't been to Oxford recently (or at all) Newks is a recently opened restaurant that serves pizzas, sandwiches, salads, and soup. It is fantastic and they have a nice deck that we reserved for Teacher Corps. Everyone stayed for about 2 hours and enjoyed a leisurely lunch.

Over the weekend many of the first-years went to their communities to spend the weekend with a second-year or alum who teaches in the same community. This is the first year that we have tried this (we are calling it "A Weekend with the Second-Years") so we should know how well it worked out on Monday. I'm sure the first-years will also be blogging about anything interesting that happened.

Ginny, our intern, continues to do a fantastic job. This past week she started working on two major projects. The first is finding contact info for our pre-1997 alumni. From 1997 on (once everyone generally started getting an email address) we have just about everyone's info. But from 1990-1996 we have very little contact info for alumni. Of the 200 alumni I would estimate we have some contact info for about 40 of them. To find these older alumni Ginny is pulling the original applications, checking their undergraduate institution, and then contacting that institution to see if they have current contact information. Her second major project is to contact administrators at all of the schools where we placed first-year teachers this past year. Over the phone she does a short survey of how our teachers compare to traditional-route first-year teachers. Once compiled this data should give us one more angle with which to asses our initial summer training and our program as a whole.

This is the last week of class for the second-years. I still don't think they realize how fast the program will go from here. To put it in perspective, after Friday the second-years will meet only six more times; five Saturdays in the fall and one in the spring. After those six meetings they will almost certainly never be together as an entire group again.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Good to Great

For anyone who's interested in the direction of the Mississippi Teacher Corps I recommend the book "Good to Great" by Jim Collins. It is an empirical study of companies that made the difficult transition from a successful company to an enduringly great one. In my humble opinion that is the crossroads at which we currently stand with the Mississippi Teacher Corps. MTC is the best alternate-route teaching program in the country. What makes us the best? I'm glad you asked. Let us count the ways:

1) Benefits. We offer more benefits than any other program. Full scholarship for a Master's. $1,000 stipend for the initial summer training. Teacher certification. Job placement. Free textbooks. Numerous socials and events. Free housing during the summer. Free housing during weekend classes. Closed classes; only MTC members allowed. Courses tailored specifically to MTC. Staff and faculty that are either experienced K-12 teachers or MTC alumni. Full pay and benefits from your school district. Wonderful group of like-minded, high-achieving people.

2) Support. Because we only accept 30 people each year there is a lot of individual support. I visit every teacher (first and second-years) at least once during the school year. Other faculty and staff visit. We have a retired principal who visits everyone twice during the first year. Individual meetings with both co-directors. Phone calls. Notes. We do it all.

3) Competitiveness. With the exception of Harvard University (10%) we are the most competitive academic or teaching program in the country with an 11% acceptance rate.

4) Satisfaction rate. We do an anonymous evaluation (one of many) at the end of the program. The last question asks participants to rate their satisfaction level with the program. Since we started assessing this (with the Class of 2002) 100% have indicated they were "Satisfied" with the program. Of that 100%, 90% indicated they were "Very satisfied."

5) Impact. The best and most important for last: The average increase in the passing rate on state-tests by students taught by first-year MTC teachers is 38%. Read the last sentence again. That is a staggering number that indicates the effect MTC is having on student learning. Please keep in mind that 90% of the districts we go into have more than 92% of their students on free and reduced lunch (meaning that more than 92% of the students are coming from households below the poverty line).

Two years ago the goal Dr. Mullins, Germain and I had was to make this the best alternate-route teaching program in the country. We've now achieved that goal which means that, other than outright failure, we are in the most precarious position a program, organization, or company can find itself in: that of being satisfied with where we are. So where do we go from here. Simple. The goal now is to be the best teacher-training program in the country, bar none.

The most important factor in any goal is that it is achievable. This goal is achievable for three reasons:

1) Small size. The first reason is that we are a small program. Because we only take 30 people each year we can take the absolute best of the best, people who are outstanding academic students, who are committed to service, and who have experience working with kids from a critical-needs type background. Because it is such a small group we offer more support than any other program.

2) Continuous feedback. Because we are a two-year program we can offer continuous evaluation and feedback to our teachers. We have implemented formal or informal observations more than 12 times during the first summer, at least three times during the first fall, and at least once during the second fall. Because of this continuous feedback our teachers know and work on their weaknesses to become master teachers. The way I've begun to think about MTC is as a residency program. After medical school doctors do a two-year residency. Well, this is our two-year residency program. And our residents are placed in some of the most challenging schools in the country.

3) Challenging schools. The schools where we place teachers are challenging. Most of the schools are classified Level 2 or lower (The State Department of Education ranks schools from Level 1 to Level 5 with Level 5 being the best and Level 1 being in imminent danger of takeover by the state). Although we always hope our teachers stay at their schools past the two-year commitment, no matter where they go they will succeed because they have been successful in some of the most challenging schools in the country.

For these three reasons we can achieve the goal of becoming the best teacher-training program in the country. Will we achieve this goal? I don't know. But we can, and from this point on that is what we should strive for. I give us five years.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Second Week

The second week is in the books. Although it feels like we just started the first-years are one-quarter through the summer training and the second-years are halfway. For the first-years there is so much to cover. Ann is just about finished going over the basics of lesson planning, learning styles, assessment, etc. This week she will start with classroom management. As our alumni know, management is the key. Once you have that down you can teach the students whatever you want, but management is the base. Without it it doesn't matter how good you are at the other aspects of teaching.

The first-years have settled into the groove of student teaching in the morning and class in the afternoon. I've observed about one-third of the first-years student teaching. Overall I've been happy. A lot of the "veteran" teachers that MTC is in with are brand new themselves and have never taught before. This is good for MTC because they are more than happy to let our teachers do all of the teaching. While this creates a lot of work for our teachers in the short term, in the long term it is better that they start teaching in front of the whole class right away. The worst thing that the veteran teachers can do (besides not letting our teachers teach at all) is break the class into small groups and have each MTC teacher work with a group of four or five kids. This is not helpful because it is nothing like what our teachers will do in the fall.

Ann is doing a great job with EDSE 500. One of the best things about MTC is that we have great people working with us, both the participants in the program and the faculty who teach the classes. Ann has brought a lot of energy and creativity to the class and has them doing a lot of hands-on work that they seem to enjoy. It is impossible to cover everything our teachers need in such a short amount of time but, like Don Schillinger before her, Ann has done a great job of breaking down the first year of teaching to the essentials and then teaching those.

On Friday morning we broke the second-years into small groups. One group met with Dr. Mullins, one with Germain, and one with me. We talked about challenges and successes of the past year. In my group the general theme was balance: balance between work and home; balance between our optimism and other teachers' pessimism; balance between challenges and successes. One trend I've noticed about MTC teachers is that they are incredibly hard on themselves, morso than anyone else is.

The second-years are enjoying both of their classes: Ed. Research and Ed. Law. As many of our alumni will attest Ed. Research has not been a helpful class in years past. This year we have a new instructor, Dr. K.B. Melear, teaching the course and things seem to be going well. KB and I were able to sit down in the spring and plan out the course so that it would cover the required objectives and be useful to MTC. KB changed a lot of the coursework to make it relevant and then went to bat for us with the department chairs. Class seems to be going well and KB told me that everyday he looks forward to teaching the course because MTC teachers are such engaged students. That being said all classes are evaluated at the end of each semester so we will see how the scores and comments compare to years past.

Ed. Law is also going well. It is always one of our highest rated courses. Next year Ed. Law will be moved to the first spring semester, after Dr. Mullins' class, and the computer class will be moved to the second summer semester. We feel it is more helpful to have the computer class in the summer because of time and technology constraints for our teachers during the school year. We are still trying to find a way to get laptops for the teachers so if anyone has any ideas...

On Thursday afternoon the second-years beat the first-years in our weekly challenge. This week it was volleyball. We had a great turnout and games going on two sand courts. Next week is basketball. On Friday we had a group lunch with the first and second-years and faculty and staff at Taylor Grocery. Taylor Grocery is about 15 miles outside of Oxford, in the middle of nowhere. Some of the first-years were a little apprehensive (as I was the first time I went) as the place is country as hell, but a good time was had by all. Dr. Mullins, his son Andrew, Dr. Melear, and Ann were all able to make it. When I was not rearranging the seating I had a good conversation with Andrew, who is starting at Ole Miss in the fall.

Some of the first-years asked about t-shirts. Since the Class of 2002 we have given MTC t-shirts to all the participants, but not until January. The shirts have to be earned. Although I wasn't contemplating giving the shirts earlier the second-years insisted that they not be given until January when I asked their opinion.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

On Corporal Punishment...

The first-years had a good dialogue (verbal and written) on corporal punishment this week. It started with a debate in EDSE 500 and then carried over in some of the blogs. More and more uses for the blogs are becoming apparent; uses that Ann, Germain, and I hadn't even thought of. Ann says her new favorite phrase in class is, "Blog it out." When there is no time for a continued debate Ann will tell them to "Blog it out..."

The debate over corporal punishment is one that every first-year MTC group has. I'm sure all of our alumni remember their heated arguments during the summer about it. Each year most of the incoming class is opposed to corporal punishment (I remember being surprised that corporal punishment was still legal in the U.S.) and each year some people change their views as the year goes on. For others, their opposition only becomes more resolute. It is rare that MTC teachers use corporal punishment but when a student is referred to the office that student will likely be paddled by an administrator. In most districts corporal punishment has been used for years. Whether for or against corporal punishment the key is finding an effective consequence for students that choose to break class rules. Ann and I have been discussing various consequences (as well as having our own spirited debate on the pros and cons of corporal punishment). One of the keys is creating an environment in your classroom where there are rewards for positive behavior. Rewards for positive group behavior are the most effective because then the class creates a self-policing environment. Once you reach this point most discipline problems melt away. However, getting the culture of the class to reach this point in a school environment where there is not much organization or culture of positive rewards is the trick. It takes a lot of time, effort, and creative thinking. That, of course, is the benefit of corporal punishment; it requires very little time or creative thinking.

Some people worried in their blogs (and verbally to me) about hurt feelings. This is how I explained it to the first-years: MTC is like one big family. We sit around the dinner table (in this case the dinner table is the classroom and the internet) and have heated arguments but at the end of the day we are all family. Even though we may disagree on certain issues we all support and care about one another. Over the course of the next two years this group will become the closest of friends and colleagues. They will become family. That is something I see a lot of in the second-years. I don't know if they realize right now how rare it is, in your professional life, to be part of such a close-knit group that cares for one another, that holds the same collective values of service, and that is a high-achieving, intelligent, capable collection of people. You don't find that often and only afterwards do you realize how special and unique it is.

Friday, June 03, 2005

First Week

The first week of summer training has finished and I'm exhausted. This is always one of the busiest weeks of the year for me. The first-years started on Tuesday morning and the second-years started on Thursday morning so we had a lot going on.

On Tuesday morning it was nice to finally meet the first-years after talking and emailing with them for so long. We had one that didn't show up. No calls, no emails, just didn't show. Dr. Mullins called him and the guy said he had changed his mind. I couldn't believe it. The final number is 28 first-years, our largest class ever. And our youngest with the average age being 24.

We had orientation for two days with the first-years. Joe Sweeney (a second-year) and I both did Powerpoint presentations which you can view at under "Powerpoint." Joe's presentation was great and the second-years really seemed to appreciate his insights. Dr. Mullins and Germain both did excellent presentations as well. Dr. Mullins talked about the history of education in the Delta and Germain focused on being an effective teacher.

By Thursday afternoon (the first official day of student teaching in the mornings and class in the afternoon) one of the first-years raised his hand and said, "I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed at the moment." All of the MTC alumni out there know the feeling. The biggest reason is that we are going from 0-60 in a snap. We have eight weeks to prepare these teachers and time is precious. They student teach in the morning and take EDSE 500 "Foundations of Education" in the afternoon. By Friday morning some of them were already responsible for their own students as many of the "veteran" teachers at the summer schools are actually first year teachers as well. In the long run this will help our teachers but in the short run it is tough. It is the very first step on a long journey. And that journey is a rewarding one. Again, the MTC alumni know what I am talking about.

Mid-way through that journey are the second-years, having just completed their first year teaching and enjoying the laid back atmosphere of the second summer which involves only morning classes. I had three of the second-years (Eric Matte and Matt and Dan Bauers) do study sessions for the first-years that still need to take the Praxis II (a standardized test required for teacher certification). I set them up at three different tables and then anticipated having to introduce everyone and lay out the parameters of the session. Nope. The three of them are teachers now and once they sat down and started I didn't have to do a thing. It was wonderful to see and I told them Friday morning, "I remember a year ago when you were green as hell." I was so impressed that I pulled Germain out of the break room so he could watch.

When I started this job two years ago the goal Germain and I had was to make this the best alternate-route teaching program in the country. We both feel that we have achieved this now. Germain and I are both harsh critics and we feel confidant that we are the best. More importantly we have statistical evidence to back this up (see the Powerpoints). In years past I would sit in on a lot of the workshops and classes because important things were missed. Now, I don't feel that I have to spend as much time with the first-years because everything is running smoothly. If I need something (a presentation; help with a social; workshop ideas) I just ask the second-years and it gets done. No checking up or following up required. I know once they volunteer it is as good as done. And that is a nice feeling.