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4 lessons from TFA’s summer bridge class

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Megan Carlson is a second year Teach for America corps member. She worked alongside Tom Ng, who is also in his second year with TFA; Jason Watson; and Samuel Reed of the Philadelphia Writing Project in a weeklong course to prepare incoming 2011 corps members for the realities of teaching in Philadelphia schools. This blog is adapted from The Carlson Salon blog. Megan Carlson wrote the post; it was submitted by Samuel Reed.

I felt humbled when I finished my duties as a teacher assistant for this year’s summer bridge course. During the course, facilitators demonstrated creative methods and strategies for teaching, and, more importantly, they encouraged a critical discourse around issues of testing, grading, creativity, race, privilege, and inquiry.

We asked the tough questions and came away with some reflections that will guide our work this school year.

The corps members (CMs) pushed themselves to answer:

  • Who are we as teachers?
  • Who are our students?
  • How will we form classroom community?
  • and more.

At times the conversation was frustrating, as it must be when discussing the myriad of challenges that face urban teachers and students. But, it ultimately forged a deeper understanding and a renewed commitment to foster social change within our schools.

Here are some of the key take aways from the week:

  1. Learning occurs within a context.
    Our schools exist in a specific social, political, and economic environment that affects who we are, who our students are, the way we communicate, the societal aims of education, and learning itself. Within the learning process, any “skill” that a student attains occurs within the context of the text which lends it meaning. Yet, the standards-based reform movement, with emphasis on testing basic skills, has created the myth that a student can somehow understand one aspect of a text in isolation. Absent the big picture, it is easy to see why our students become disengaged.
  2. Learning is relational.
    Learning is a process that occurs as teachers and students work together to derive meaning from the subject at hand. This is why it is essential to form a trusting classroom community, so that students feel safe enough to take the necessary risks to achieve true learning.
  3. This is a weird time in Philadelphia school history.
    For the first time, most new CMs will be placed within charter schools, as the District has placed many “failing” schools under outside management. Additionally, due to staggering budget shortages, the District let go of 1,500 teachers in early summer. On August 15, the District had 1,335 vacancies for fall and recalled 325 laid-off teachers. If this doesn’t make sense, you’re paying attention. All of this has just added to the chaos already occurring within Philadelphia schools.
  4. Be comfortable with contradictions.
    There are no easy answers. We need school accountability, yet tests reflect low-level skills. We need small classes, yet don’t have enough money to hire the teachers. We need innovation, yet stifle creativity.

One class discussion about possible contradictions centered on the subject of grades.

What do you give students who have tried their best and made admirable progress, yet are still not technically passing? If you pass them, will they continue to fall behind? Does the calculus change if the students have learning disabilities or are English language learners?

If you do fail them, will they internalize that “F”? What if they see no rewards for the effort and progress they have made? And what are the chances, after that failing grade, they drop out?

I observed the pain of the CMs as they grappled with these difficult questions. However, I have grown comfortable with contradictions. I do not to torture myself by trying to find "The Rule" that will govern every situation in the classroom. The truth is that every student, every situation, is different and judgment is often not based on some abstract code of teaching, but is completely wrapped up in the context of a moment.

The CMs reached this conclusion, as well.

I am left hopeful by the discussions of the week. It is within the space of discomfort (the kind that arises with irreconcilable contradictions) that critical thinking occurs. This is the space of freedom, where new ideas and new formulas can be arranged without the constraints of prior language or dogma. It is only through this type of discourse that real change will occur.