Monday, June 30, 2008

Day one rumitions

So today was our first day of Institute, which is the intense, four week, training session where we essentially learn the basics of being good teachers. Things started off well considering I was up until 1 a.m. and had to wake up by 5:30 a.m. I am NOT a morning person.

Anyway, I wasn't nervous about the first day. We don't start teaching students until next week so I knew I wasn't up against anything I couldn't handle. For the summer, I am working at Eleanor Roosevelt Middle School in Washington Heights, NY. Ironically, it's less than three blocks from the school I will be teaching at in the fall. For the next few weeks, I will be co-teaching with four other corps members to help students increase their reading comprehension and other English-related skills. The title of this blog post will link you to a map of the school's location.

I think Teach for America is trying to get us back into the mode of being in lower school again. Not only did we get lunch boxes filled with sandwiches, chips and soda today, but they also transported us to our respective schools in un-air conditioned, yellow school buses. Oh the irony.

Today was filled with various discussion groups and other training sessions that focused on the basics of good teaching technique: setting big goals, being effective, etc. I found most of our discussions interesting and most of my fellow corps members had some interesting perspectives about setting goals.

Tonight, we had a session back at St. John's University where we learned how to diagnose student reading and reading comprehension. Again, it's an interesting process, but I'm starting to deconstruct the practices my lower school teachers used on me. HA! They thought they had me fooled. Now I know their secrets (sorry about the random outbursts, it's 10:40 p.m. and I'm about to go to bed -- yes, I am an old man now).

One of our activities today was to make a first draft of our vision for our classroom. I kept mine fairly simple: to create a 100 percent inclusive classroom environment where teacher, students and parents are engaged in the educational process; students should be able to recognize the major genres of literature, and 100 percent of them will reach their growth goals this summer.

That's it.

Memo to myself

So tonight we had our welcome ceremonies for institute. From here on out, things get serious, and we'll be teaching real students in a week. Our key note speaker was a '93 TFA alum and current superintendent for NYC public schools. She told us to always remember what our "corps" is (and yes, the double meaning was intentional). Part of the process, she said, was writing a memo to yourself to remind you why you "teach for America." So I am going to take her advice and write myself a memo about why I teach for America. Sure this one might seem naive and need revising after I start teaching, but I think it will be fun to reflect upon later. So here goes:


To: Gordon Van Owen
From: Yourself
RE: Why you teach for America

Gordon, you're about to embark on the most challenging and rewarding experience of your life. Just imagine, a week ago you were living in a different state and unsure whether or not you could make it in New York City on your own. Well, you've survived the first week and seem to be on the right track.

But I think it is important that you remember why you are in New York. Sure you've always had ambitions and dreams of living in the big city, but it's not about you just yet. You're in New York to ensure educational equity for a group of students that might not otherwise get it without your efforts. You are in New York to not only change your life but to change the lives of a middle school in Washington Heights. You will make a difference.

Don't get me wrong, there will be points along the way when you can enjoy yourself and your time in the city. But for the time being, you must remember to dedicate yourself to your cause every day, otherwise you risk loosing site of the greater goal: ending educational inequality.

When the going gets tough and it seems like you can't keep going, remember Kipling's poem that says, "Hold on," even when every sinew in your body tells you otherwise. And when it's hard to tell if you're meeting your goals, just remember why you're teaching for America. You're teaching for America to change lives. You're teaching for America because of students like your sister who struggle with school and seem lost in a broken educational system. You're teaching for America because you wanted to be a part of something that is greater than yourself. Finally, you're teaching for America because it is the right thing to do.

Stay strong, stay focused, and just be.

Institute Starts Tomorrow

So tomorrow starts the big day; what we've all been waiting for since we got to New York one week ago. Tomorrow, we venture off to the schools where we will be teaching summer school for the first time.

We won't be teaching this week; we're still in training, but it's still a nerve-wracking experience. It's midnight, and I have to be up at at 5:30 a.m. and on a bus bound for Washington Heights an hour later. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am not a morning person, so this should be quite the experience.

I am excited though. For the summer, I will be teaching sixth grade English. I can't wait to meet my first students and learn the basics of being a great teacher (notice I said good, not great).

Wish me luck...oh, and keep your fingers cross that I find an apartment soon. The anticipation is killing me. My favorite so far has been a one bedroom as Lenox Terrance in Harlem. Click here to take a look at it. If you happen to know of any other apartments, please let me know!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

So I met the governor

So as I was walking the streets of Manhattan today, I walked into New York Governor Paterson and is entourage. He stopped and shook my hand as well as those of the other Teach for America people I was with. I have a picture that I'll upload later. I fell like it was my first run-in with a quasi-celebrity in New York.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

New York, New York

It's interesting being in a city where virtually everyone is different. I come from a place where most of the people look and think just like I do. But one of the things that makes New York the world's greatest city is that there is such a diverse group of people here.

Don't get me wrong, I always realized that New York was very different from Florida; I'm not that naive. But what has amazed me is how this city has grown. For those readers who don't know, I got a minor in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Florida, so I have a general idea of how cities have developed over the last couple of centuries.

But what I find most fascinating about New York is that while it is so different from every other city I've ever been to, it has developed in much the same way as every other city across America. Not to mention it faces the same social and cultural problems that many other cities do too.

What I've noticed most is the rebirth of New York's inner city neighborhoods. For example, following 9-11, residents were petrified to live in Downtown Manhattan or anywhere near the Financial District. Simply put, they were afraid. Similar trends were seen in areas like Harlem, Washington Heights, and various parts of Brooklyn. However, studies have shown that younger Americans are craving city life and are actually beginning to move back into these once desserted areas of our cities. This is just as true in New York as it is in Miami, Atlanta, Chicago, or even certain parts of Los Angeles.

I was walking through the streets of Harlem the other day and was amazed about how much it had changed in the few years since I had last been there. 125th Street, considered Harlem's main street, now has a Chuck E. Cheese across the street from the Apollo Theater, as well as a Gap, Children's Place, and a Starbucks. Some scholars refer to this process as gentrification while others call it community revitalization. Either way, for social observers, it's interesting to see how New York really is like other cities in the United States.

So this is Teach for America

So here I am, in New York City. To say the least, it's been a long journey that's gotten me here, but I'll admit that I am excited about the future and the potential to change the lives of students.

To catch everyone up, I graduated from the University of Florida with my master's degree in mass communications in May 2008. After writing a 145-page thesis, I realized that I needed a break from school for a while. So after some soul searching, and job hunting, I realized that I had fallen in love with teaching as a teaching assistant during graduate school. Granted, teaching college students is completely different than teaching middle or high school students, but I still felt like now was the time for me to make a difference in the lives of students. Plus, the media job market was looking a little slim, so I decided to consider doing Teach for America.

I didn't apply for Teach for America (TFA) on a whim. I had heard about it as an undergrad and was asked to apply several times my senior year at UF. However, graduate school was beckoning, so I decided to stay in school. However, after several of my friends joined the ranks of TFA, I learned a great deal from their personal experiences while working with students to help end educational inequality across America. I listened to their stories with great interest and felt called to join their mission.

Once the interview process was over and I learned about my placement in New York City, my excitement continued to grow. Living in New York had been a dream of mine for nearly a decade. In fact, I almost attended college in the city immediately after high school. So in many ways, my acceptance into TFA was a realization of a long-time dream.

I decided to start this blog on the eve of my formal induction in New York City. The rest of the corps and I arrived in New York on Sunday, June 22, and have been engaged in interviews and various other personal outings the last couple of days. But, starting tomorrow, formal training begins. So this blog is my attempt to share my experiences about learning to be a better teacher and my transition to life in NYC with all those interested.

Happy reading, and I'll fill you in on the details of the last couple of days in future posts.