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5 Things Olivia Blanchard Got Wrong: In Defense of Teach for America

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Books - Teach for America - Writing - Novel Conclusions writing blog

Detail of Painting by Angelo Bronzino via Wikimedia Commons

Just like Olivia Blanchard (who recently wrote the Atlantic piece “I Quit Teach for America”), I also quit Teach for America (TFA) before the beginning of my second year.  I was part of the 2005 Teach for America Corps; due to gang violence and having to file a police report against 2 teenage students who assaulted another student and me, I quit TFA in April of my first year of teaching.  I do not blame TFA for my resignation; even if I had taken the traditional route to teaching, I may have still wound up in that same classroom with those 2 unstable teen girls.

Though we both quit TFA, the stark contrast between Ms. Blanchard and me is that I still fully support TFA.  Despite all of TFA’s failings, of which there are many, I believe TFA to be the best widespread alternative teaching program in existence, and it has spawned some pretty fantastic, effective educational programs (look up KIPP, for starters).  There are a few arguments that Olivia Blanchard and others have been tossing at TFA, and I’d like to explain why they’re all essentially wrong:

  1. TFA is taking other “more qualified” teachers’ jobs.  Let’s be real here: GOOD TEACHERS DON’T USUALLY STAY AT ROUGH SCHOOLS, especially “bad” middle schools, unless they actually live in the neighborhood.  The middle school where I was teaching English in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles had a 35% turnover rate.  That means that about every three years, the entire staff was essentially new.  My school was grasping for teachers – we could barely even convince substitutes to come back.  These “more qualified” teachers were not appearing.  Why was there such a high turnover rate at this middle school and at most similar Title I urban middle schools in the US?  Because almost all teachers (not all, but almost all) hate teaching middle school, especially in a school where the average class size is higher than the average amount of desks in a classroom.  Teaching 200 plus hormonal 13-year-olds (rotating classes of about 35 kids each) – who are also involved in gangs, drugs, and underage sex, not to mention problems at home – is a daily lesson in psychological torture, the Marines of teaching.  After you pay two years of dues (and I’m not talking just TFA teachers, I’m talking most teachers), you can go teach at a better school that requires good teachers.  This was a common path.
  2. TFA doesn’t have enough minority teachers.  There were 12 TFAers and myself as first-year teachers at the middle school in Los Angeles Unified School District where I taught, and we were black, white, Asian, and Latino (and yes, I am a white girl, not a minority).  The other novice first-year non-TFA teachers at this middle school were all white.  The large majority of the staff members were white and black in a heavily (75%) Latino neighborhood.  This all means that TFA was actually bringing more diversity to the staff of this middle school (shocker!).  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 83% of public school teachers in the US are white.  In TFA, fully 18% fewer teachers are white (65% of the corps is Caucasian).  Once again, this drives home the point that TFA is more diverse than the average pool of public school teachers. 
  3. TFA teachers don’t have enough training.  First of all, my summer institute experience was different than Ms. Blanchard’s and closer to what TFA describes.  I don’t remember having any of the forced emotional sessions Ms. Blanchard describes, and I taught angry middle school students every school day, usually for 1-2 hours, in addition to crazy intensive amounts of classes about how to lesson plan and how to set achievable high goals.  Five weeks of teaching summer school and taking classes may not seem like much, but it’s more training than required in many parts of the country (in addition to the fact that the classes taught in summer institute and during our periodic weekend TFA seminars were actually useful and meaty, whereas the professional development taught at my school on in-service days was generally a time to grade papers and tune out the speaker).  In many states, teachers with a bachelor’s degree and no training whatsoever can get an emergency certification where they are taking classes while teaching (which is what we were doing in LA Unified School District as TFAers, in addition to our “inadequate” summer training).
  4. TFA slams other public school teachers.  This may have been something that Blanchard inferred, but this was not my experience at all.  In my experience, TFA wanted to help all existing public school teachers.  In my experience, TFA was helping to shoulder the crazy burden that the government and society have placed on public school teachers.  We all got the idea that we were joining the fight, not creating one.  But perhaps I’m just an overly optimistic human being.
  5. TFA is creating a “revolving door of rookie teachers” (according to Julian Heilig, also cited by Olivia Blanchard).  Of Title 1 teachers in general, in a statistic quoted so frequently in my first year of teaching that it’s indelibly printed on my memory, 50% quit within their first 2 years (and 90% quit within their first 7 years – yes, teaching is ridiculously stressful, no matter which route you take to get certified).  Of TFA teachers, 60% stay in the field of education after their first 2 years.  That’s 10% more than traditional novice teachers.  That means TFA is bringing in a higher percentage of teachers who stay in the field than traditional routes.

Why should anything I say count since I was one of the quitters?  Even though I was horrible at classroom management, I found out around the time that I left that my seventh grade English students did better on their secondary periodic assessments (colloquially known as SPA tests) than any of the other seventh grade English classes in a school of over 2000 students.  They actually learned to write five paragraph essays.  I was more than a little shocked that my kids did so well, but maybe TFA made a wee little difference to my students after all.

Teach for America is making a difference and putting teachers in classrooms where no one else wants to go.  Recently, a Mathematica study has shown that TFA math teachers create more results than non-TFA math teachers in poor schools (equal to about 2.6 months additional instruction), no matter their experience level; that’s pretty substantial stuff.  Teach for America is not perfect, but they are taking decisive action on a problem that many other people only complain about.  That deserves support.

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Can Good Writing Be Taught?

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What makes good writing good?  And can it be taught?

This topic is not new, but the recent Atlantic article The Writing Revolution reignited the debate (see here and here for more).  It certainly made the circuit among all my teaching friends.  The article follows the story of one underperforming school in New York that decided to pursue good writing with a passion, following the idea that structured writing, where students are taught tangible rules and how to apply them, leads to better comprehension of all subjects.  And so far, it seems to be working.

The school believed that the primary issue stemmed from students not understanding basic sentence structure and how to vary sentence structure, and they built from there.  If you think about it much, it’s not very revolutionary at all; it’s just focusing on fundamentals.  Varying sentence structure is a solid, basic rule of writing that is virtually invisible when it’s done well.

ImageBut let’s compare 2 paragraphs.  This first paragraph is the first few lines of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.  My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.  She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.  Of course, she did.  This is the day of the reaping.

Collins pulls us along and controls the pacing with her masterful use of varied sentence structure.  Longer. complex sentences tend to draw us out or be more contemplative; shorter, more to-the-point sentences give more punch.  Without the sentence complexity, it might sound a bit like this:

I wake up.  The other side of the bed is cold.  My fingers stretch out.  I’m seeking Prim’s warmth.  I find only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.  She must have had bad dreams.  She must have climbed in with our mother.  Of course, she did.  This is the day of the reaping.
Without something so simple as varied sentence structure, the paragraph sounds stilted and immature (although that is another way to play with the character’s voice).  What other writing concepts are invisible when done well, but glaringly obvious when they’re missing?
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