Going to school is like waging a war – against the students, the facilities, the other staff members, yourself…  I guess it’s not as dramatic as all that.  It’s just that I wasn’t expecting school to be such a battleground, and I sort of walked into it unprepared.


I had the opportunity to visit a math classroom of a first-year teacher, and I was truly amazed that she was still smiling and so sweet to me after the period ended.  I asked her, flat out, “How do you do it?”  From the moment I walked into the room, the kids were behaving…wildly.  They were chatting, laughing, and totally disrespecting the teacher while she was lecturing.  It blew my mind – I don’t think I had ever experienced that sort of chaos before.  First of all, how rude!  The room was abuzz with noise, and maybe two students out of a full classroom were attempting to pay attention.  After soaking in the scene, I felt myself getting upset – and I wasn’t even the teacher.  This made me step back and objectively what was in front of me.  I felt so sad for the teacher – did the kids even know how nice she was and how hard she was trying to make math understandable?  I couldn’t focus on what the kids should’ve been learning because of the shocking distractions.  But I started walking around in this “teacher tread” I’ve developed over the past few days, trying to help students.  Some would completely ignore me when I asked them a question (they avoided eye contact all together), and it was really frustrating.  But I felt enormously relieved when some kids got over it and asked for help.  I loved it when I would explain something and they understood (as far as I know, anyway.  I think effective assessments that check for application of knowledge are really important.)  I think the fact that I was pretty much a stranger and a new face was also on my side – they didn’t know what to expect from me.  Would I be a disciplinarian?  Would I be a pushover?



I kept thinking, “How would I do this differently?  What would I do to counter such a situation?  If it were me, I’d…”  It was almost an unconscious process.  I formulated my own list of expectations, were I to actually be “Miss Kim,” in my head.  Of course, I imagined a completely hypothetical scene, and it was kind of scary that I’d immediately jumped to this in my mind (formed a mini monologue, even, of what I’d say to my class on the first day of school.)  From what I’ve seen, I would ultimately want to gain the kids’ trust and respect to make them the best students and the best people possible.  I learned from my observations that weak or wishy-washy language could be detrimental – the strength of the presentation, and conviction of the teacher really, really matters.  It’s crucial to be firm but fair, mandate respect, and have high expectations – and to build up confidence in the kids so they have high expectations of themselves.  I’d want to let my students know that I was on their side, and that they should take an active role in their learning – it’s their own education, so they should do something about it.  And perhaps the most important thing of all would be to let the kids know that I would not give up on them, no matter what – this, hopefully, would be understood by them.  I think, though, all teachers have this underlying goal.  Why is this so hard to get across?  Why do so many kids think teachers are their enemies?  And yet, I did help a few kids and they seemed to understand afterwards that I wasn’t out to get them – that was shining moment of my day.  I wonder what you do when kids don’t respond to you or look you in the eye at all?  And how can you measure progress or learning or retention (besides in the form of exams?)



There seem to be so many complex Issues with teacher quality (intelligence), creativity, will, motivation, etc.  If students can have a good, experienced, energetic teacher, they will really do well.  But resource-poor places don’t attract good teachers.  I can see some weaknesses of the teachers here (and I’m sure it doesn’t happen just here) and it really bugs me.  They’re doing the best they can, though – but it doesn’t make it any less irritating.



I felt almost guilty when I formulated these ideas, seeing and feeling that some teachers could be doing a better job.  But my thoughts were purely theoretical, and in practice, I realize how tired and frustrated teachers must be.  In addition, how can the administration make the staff accountable (i.e., hand out punishments for doing a bad job?) when resources are so limited – how can you improve and weed out teachers when there aren’t enough of them to go around in the first place?



Also, what can we do to make the kids care and motivate them to learn (especially when college isn’t the end all and be all of life to them, though it is so often drilled into other students?)  Would paying them, like in other NCLB districts, work here?  In this district, many tiers of classes exist within the structure, making the school seem more tailored to the students’ needs than what I’m used to seeing…but then again, maybe it’s because I was completely oblivious to so many things that went on even in my own, relatively tame high school in middle to upper-class suburbia.


I visited the same math class again, the next day.  That time, I was a bit more mentally prepared for what to expect.  Truth be told, it wasn’t much better than the first day, but the kids were a bit less timid in asking for help, and I was glad I could give it.  I still wish they would be more respectful, though.  How are you going to learn if you’re talking through a lecture?  (Wow, how teacher-ly do I sound now?)

In another classroom, I was taken aback by the attitude of the sixth grade girls.  What makes them tick like that?  What makes them that defiant and angry?  Do they need love and caring and attention?  Or are they just in their rebellious stage of life?  Maybe some kids are bored because they’re not being challenged enough – hence, the attitude?

After talking to a few people, it sounds like the behaviors stem from a number of intertwined factors (as always.)  Some of them include an unstable family life, emotional issues derived from instability and neglect, learning disabilities, and also, I think it’s just the age.  Middle schoolers are experiencing puberty, awkwardness, changing bodies and minds, confusion…to be blunt, no wonder they’re weird and emo!  They need to build up confidence.


When I was chatting with another, non-TfA teacher at the copy machine, he said something along the lines of, “Kids can be bottomless pits of need, which make the pros and cons of teaching.”  I found that to be very true.  As a teacher, you can not only provide knowledge, but also advice, a listening ear (for the various issues that usually prompt the behavior issues in class,) a friendly, stable adult presence, a shoulder to lean on…and Lord only knows these students need it.  But in order for the students to trust you and respect you and talk to you, a lot needs to be established.



I think it’s really unfortunate that the kids don’t seem to understand that we, the old and mean and scary teachers, were once in their place!  I remember writing in one of my many abandoned journals from elementary or middle school that I vowed to never forget how I was at that age when I “grew up.”  I can’t believe I still remember that, but I’m glad I do – it really tells me that perspectives change so much over time, and it’s crucial to be able to relate to your students.  It’s also nice to be young enough to remember being a student.  Actually, what am I talking about?  I still am a student!  It’s great to be able to mentally point out common teacher mistakes I still experience, and try to fix them in myself and my approach.  And I wonder how heritable teaching personality is – I recently talked to my mom and dad, who were both teachers for short periods of time, and it was nice to tell them my thoughts and have them understand exactly what I was going through – it seems some problems are universal and transcend time and space.



Just a note, I’ve been taking notes for myself every day throughout this experience – but haven’t been quite able to sync up my daily thoughts with the blog content.  So all of the above happened roughly one week ago.  I’ll catch up this week, though.  =)



PS. And happy Inauguration Day!  Hope you all got a chance to watch the ceremonies and festivities.


Posted by: semmiekim | January 11, 2009

…in which I become “Miss Kim”…seriously?

Hello all, from your very own “Miss Kim.”  Yep.  I felt rather old and frumpy being introduced and called that name by the students (real students!  how exciting!) but I think I’m sort of used to it now…

I’ve finished my first full week at school, and I’ve seen the whole system in action.  Being a part of the “staff” is nice, all in all, but I never realized just how much work goes into being a teacher – that’s the main thought that kept running through my head this week.  I don’t think it even matters if you’re a bad teacher or a good teacher – you still have to prepare.  It’s just that bad teachers are probably the ones who don’t plan thoroughly, or their plans go awry, or something between the plans and the presentation to the class goes wrong.  Also, being a teacher means that you’re expected to be a positive role model to all students 100% of the time – and that’s hard, particularly knowing what I know now.  Teachers are not that old, and they’re real people, too!  And it’s been very strange to be on the “other” side of the fence – not as the student, which I’m so used to, but as a teacher…sort of.


My first day at school, I met most everyone on the faculty at the copy machine (an awesome central location for early morning chats, by the way.)  They were all so very warm and welcoming, extending invitations for me to come and observe their classes or even help out, and I felt reassured until I saw the kids pouring through hallways.  I don’t know quite why I was so nervous/excited.  The school is small enough that I obviously stood out, and I received some curious glances from the kids the first time I stepped out into the hall.  Saying the Pledge of Allegiance and hearing morning announcements about “students who throw snowballs will receive lunch detention” brought back memories, and everything felt kind of surreal at that point.  I was still trying to get over the fact that people who are only a few years older than I am were here, employed and trusted as individuals to help children learn and become better people.


I think I’m going to end up having some sort of spiel on what improvements could be made here in every post.  There is no money.  The facilities are okay, but the technological support is seriously lacking.  There are rows of computers in each classroom, but maybe half of them are functional, and half of that number shut off randomly, or don’t read flash drives, or don’t print…  On the other hand, a lot of money is simply thrown at problems.  A number of individual PSPs (handheld electronic games) with reading/math games were given to our classroom.  Pros: the students get really excited (like, amazingly hyper and happy) when they hear that they’ll be allowed to play games (albeit, learning games) and stay quiet for surprisingly long periods of time.  Cons: the gap between new technology and teachers seems to widen every year (the teachers first need to learn how to work the games, what’s the best way to implement them, go through all the manuals, all while dealing with support teams from the tech side that are sometimes less than helpful), and when I asked the students how helpful the games were, they were a little ambivalent.  It’s interesting because students lack basic skills in reading and math, and they’re offered all these technological advances – but do they really help, when the fundamentals don’t exist?  I know that some of the Media Lab groups work on educational technology, and what they’ve produced (Legos, building toys) are wonderful – but it would seem to me that they only really benefit students with the basics under their belt, who can build on those skills.  The level of learning here – in middle school – is almost inconceivable.  In our classroom, we’re learning how to use a ruler, how to multiply and divide, how to add and subtract negative numbers, how to write improper fractions, how to convert decimals to fractions, how to read basic books…it’s atrocious.  It really is.  And it shouldn’t happen.  I sometimes wonder how the students in eighth grade math got this far without learning how to subtract or multiply, and I thought I was too disappointed.  However, when I talked to my host teacher, she agreed that proficiency levels were way, way behind other regions…and ultimately, that disparity is what TfA is trying to abolish.

It also seems that going to college is not a major motivator for students, for all the reasons cited in my last post.  But then I met E, a fabulously bright young woman in the ninth grade, who excels in math and is interested in engineering.  I was in our room, cutting out laminated flashcards, when another Corps teacher asked me to come and speak to a high school student who wanted to know more about college.  I got really excited and happy, and when I met this girl, another teacher told me that she had done exceptionally on the math portion of a standardized test, and was interested in going to a large, well-known college – like MIT, in fact.  She was interested in civil and mechanical engineering, and wanted to go far away for college, which is unusual, as most students who do go to university tend to stay in New Mexico or go to Arizona.  I was so glad to talk to E about classes and how she should take charge of her education, regardless of what the administration thought.  I’d really like to see her walking down the Infinite in a few years!  A day later, another student who I’d met briefly (he was so cute, saying “Hi Miss Kim!” in the hallway) came in to the room during our prep period, which he also had free.  This eighth grader, B, was interested in college as well, particularly law school – a great goal!  So my host teacher sat him down and signed him up to be on the mailing list for a specific university (we had to make an e-mail account first.)  These small events were so uplifting for me.  I asked if the school had any sort of support team for college prep, and I think there are a few guidance counselors, and some staff who help with the college process.  However, it appears that most of them are alumni of local schools (New Mexico and Arizona, mostly) and the option to go far away is not even really brought up – is this fair to the kids?  I don’t think so.  They should at the very least know that other choices and opportunities exist.

The most exciting and rewarding part of my week was watching the kids learn and retain new information, and seeing them open up to me, day by day.  It’s also really nice to see the kids smile (and remember my name!) when I’m talking or reading to them; they asked me questions about where I was from, where I go to school, my family, and I learned a lot about the kids’ families, too.  I just want to see them do well, and learn, and be happy.  And feel proud of themselves.


It’s interesting to be a part of a very small town.  We met two teachers, one of them from the elementary school, at a random stop at the post office, and everyone seems to know each other.  (This may be a weird comparison, but it’s slightly reminiscent of the Little House on the Prairie – maybe it’s the landscape here.)  It’s also interesting to listen to comparisons between really rural areas like this, and urban areas, like New Mexico.  Educational policy and standards and practices should be different between different regions.  Although schools in both settings have many discipline issues, it seems the causes are different according to where the schools are located.  From my discussions with other teachers here, most altercations and behavior issues appear to stem from family or domestic violence/issues (though I think the age of the students is also a factor,) while in inner cities, teachers and students would most likely be in the direct line of fire.  Both scary situations.  There were apparently one or two fights a week in the middle school (where I am) at the beginning of the school year – and the only reason these don’t happen anymore is because those kids have been expelled.  The high school apparently has security guards – I haven’t been there yet, but will be shadowing in a high school in another town for the last two weeks of January.   


I’ve also had time to upload some of the many photos I’ve been snapping here.  My backyard is a view of the lovely red rock that is all around, and most days, it’s perfectly clear (not a cloud in the sky) and about forty degrees here.  Much of the snow hasn’t melted because we’re at high altitude, and most of the photos were taken when I went on a walk around the area on Friday.  The last few photos are from a rug auction – held once a month at another elementary school – where artists display their crafts and many beautiful rugs are sold.  It was my first time attending/participating in an auction, and it was really interesting – but I also made a fool of myself when bidding on a rug and I didn’t know how to use my number to indicate whether I was bidding or not…my host teacher and another Corps member we met up with had to help me, and I heard definite giggles from behind me (from the Navajo families who were there, I think) – I just hope it was good-natured laughter.  I’m sorry that I can’t include any of the kids (for liability reasons) but enjoy the scenery!  Be safe, and have a good week!



Posted by: semmiekim | January 6, 2009

…in which i arrive in the land of enchantment

Greetings from New Mexico!


I’ve only been here about two days, but it’s amazing what I’ve learned and seen so far. 


My first impression of the “Land of Enchantment” was from the air, when I pressed my nose to the window of the descending plane, and saw vast stretches of brown, sparsely populated land, and the airport at the foot of a group of mountains.  (I’ve since learned the name of the range, only to forget it again – San Diez?)  It’s a different sort of beauty than what I’m used to at home; everything is carved on a much bigger, wider, taller, browner scale.  It’s all very majestic and breathtaking and rugged.  I was picked up at the airport by two Teach for America corps hosts, and met two other MIT students who are here for IAP.  On drive home, I saw heaps of stone and dirt that looked like a giant had shoved it aside into a pile, or attempted to start making a sand and dirt castle, but then stopped for some reason (I can’t describe it any other way!)  We got caught in a snowstorm on the two-hour drive home, which turned into a four-hour drive, as roads got icy and traffic literally came to a standstill while we snacked on Oreos and juice in the car.  Where I’m living right now is in the mountains, some 7000 feet high in elevation — so it also got progressively colder and snowier.  The police can apparently shut down the main highway if the road conditions get abysmal (what the…?)  We passed by some towns (“towns?”) on the way home, which were a little more than a few buildings and restaurants grouped together on the side of the road – but it made for a very interesting change of scenery.


A random fact: most places have fence in laws – in other words, fence in your animals or you’ll get in trouble.  Here, there are fence out laws – if you want the animals to stay off your property, you have to erect the fence to keep them out.  Funny, no?  So horses and other animals apparently come right up to my host’s porch to graze.  We actually got stopped by a herd of horses in the road – during the snowstorm – on the drive home.  The land I’m living on right now is “checkerboard” (not entirely sure if that’s the correct term), meaning that one square mile of reservation land (Navajo Nation) alternates with one square mile of US federal government-owned land.  I’m in a (very) small town, with a group of houses, some churches, a post office, a convenience store, a laundromat, two restaurants, and of course, the schools (elementary, middle, high and a private school.)


I don’t mean to start off with the grim and the unhappy, but maybe it’s best to get the background information out of the way.  Poverty – in some cases extreme – is the cause of most of the problems on the reservation.  It influences everything, including the school system and the educational opportunities (or lack thereof.)  My host teacher tells me that a lot of kids and their families don’t seem to have qualms about missing school, because they’re needed to stay home to take care of younger brothers and sisters, etc.  I saw signs in the school for a program to encourage kids to come to school by offering a field trip if attendance stayed high.  Also, because this area is so rural (I think it’s the most rural area I’ve ever lived in) and we just had a snowstorm, the roads are quite terrible and lots of the kids walk to school or to their bus stop – making it even harder to get to school.


I’ve been having many discussions with the staff here about what it takes to equalize the educational gap, and from my personal observations, I also see issues in motivating kids, or making them care about their education.  This last epiphany was slightly mind-blowing, I guess because I’ve grown up surrounded by highly motivated, highly achieving people – I never realized that that may not be the norm.  One cause of the negative motivation seems to stem from the problems of integrating or reconciling two different ways of life – the traditional values of the Navajo people (of course they should want to preserve their culture that they’ve lived with and had instilled in them for hundreds of years!), with the “success” and “happiness” that would come from getting an education to survive and live in today’s world.  Big clash.  To be honest, though, I wonder how the Navajos define success and happiness?  Apparently, there’s a disconnect between the life most of them want to lead – not in poverty – and their beliefs that state they should live within the four sacred mountains of this region.  Also, there’s the very real possibility that leaving the rez for college brings about changes in the individual, and it’ll be hard to come back here.  Ambitious students are also often ostracized or discouraged for their “wish to become like the white people.”  There’s an array of problems that plague the Navajos – of course, poverty, and to add to the list, a lack of resources (like teachers,) casinos, alcohol, drugs, vandalism, unemployment…the list goes on.  A note on the casinos – I wondered, weren’t they designed to bring in tourists and other outsiders to spend their money so the Navajos could profit?  But it seems this isn’t always the case.  Many residents think that gambling is a way to earn quick cash, and so will go to the casinos themselves to try their hand.  Wow.  Some places on the Nation even lack electricity or running water – because they’re routed by the federal government to places like Arizona – and these are basic needs that so many of us take for granted.  It almost feels as if I’m living in another country, but we’re still in the US! 


The Navajo Nation is a sovereign nation, meaning it has its own government and officials and laws – the residents are not subject to state or maybe even federal laws – but perhaps that’s not always a good thing?  I asked my host if the Navajo officials were merely figureheads, and it sounds like they’re not – but one has to think, couldn’t they do more?  Many officials are apparently corrupt.  Lots of money from the casinos doesn’t go towards improvements to the nation.  But I understand how hard it would be to govern a people who have really just lost everything.  To put it bluntly, the US government screwed the Native Americans over.  They were herded onto land that doesn’t grow anything and is in the middle of nowhere, given basically nothing, and their meager resources are being handed over to federal land.  The Native Americans were cruelly taken advantage of – and this is after the fact that most of them were killed or murdered by the masses, a long time ago.


We need to revamp the system, starting with changes to the cultural attitude towards education, and not just here.  This is a serious problem that exists throughout the nation, and abroad.  Though people have always blown a lot of hot air around about the issue, I think finally, in recent years, some tangible things seem to be getting done.  And honestly, it’s difficult to make progress – how do you solve these problems?  There are lots of gray areas, and lots of different ideas – also, programs need to be tailored to specific regions and abilities and wishes in order to be maximally effective.  The apathy and lack of motivation and willpower – the dumbing down of America – has become a part of the culture.  Side note: compared to the Korean educational system, which is not the best juxtaposition, but the only one I know enough about to comment at all, the American school system is so different.  There are definite pros and cons to each model, but teachers are much more respected in Korea, while teachers here are extremely overworked and underpaid – it’s a thankless task, as students usually don’t recognize the amount of work that goes into teaching, and society doesn’t realize that whomever you entrust our children to for months and years at a time will significantly shape them as a person.  Don’t all kids deserve to be exposed to the most positive and most educational environment possible?  To make real changes happen, people need to make sacrifices – it’s a given.  But from within one school to within the national system, are there enough people who are willing to take on these responsibilities and these tasks that will probably take years, do not have proven indicators or measurements of progress, and will most likely make the leader very unpopular?  Should experimental schools and policies to test out different theories and effectiveness measures be put in place?  And always, the question of what indicates real progress – how do you measure progress?  Look at standardized test scores, according to NCLB…but what do they really tell you about what life skills students have learned?


And finally, does the “problem” need to be fixed?  What do the people want?  But a question often brought up in my policy class, do the people know what is “good” for them?


(As suggested by a friend on the phone last night, it’d be really interesting to have a forum for discussing education and policy at MIT…)

But, but, but – you can’t dwell on the bad things.  I’m sure – I know – that there’s plenty of good here.  It’s been, a bit surprisingly, a very humbling experience so far in my interactions with the people.  We’re on “Navajo time,” meaning that the pace of life is slow — much slower than what I’m used to on the East coast.  I find it calming and refreshing.  I have always been greeted with smiles and kindness, even though I was clearly an outsider and the only Asian girl (discounting the other MIT student) in the Walmart where we went grocery shopping the other day.  (That Walmart was ginormous, by the way.  Apparently it’s the highest-grossing one in the nation??)  And I have to believe and trust that organizations like TfA are helping to turn the tide of educational inequality, which is a bigger problem than I realized, and exists almost everywhere.

Now that I look back on this entry, I realize how long it was – I just have been seeing and learning so much and I want to share with you all!  For next time – my interactions with real kids!  Congratulations and thanks if you got this far – hope you all are well and I will keep updating as soon as I can.  Be safe!


Posted by: semmiekim | December 30, 2008

new year, new blog…new location (for iap, anyway.)

happy 2009 to all!  hope this year is the most wonderful one yet.

january is a lovely month, during which the institute grants us four weeks of freedom to do anything we fancy.

i’m kicking my way off campus and out of my comfort zone — which i’ve occupied for too long (in other words, for more than a semester) — and will be traveling to new mexico to Teach for America (well, sort of.)

the mini-internship/program will have me shadowing two different Teach for America corps members, each for two weeks.  i am still a bit sketchy on the details, but i know that i’ll be in the classroom interacting with middle schoolers and high schoolers, and at least one school is located on the Navajo Nation reservation.

i’m definitely excited, but also a tad scared.  not so much of the teaching kids part, because heck, i’m a camp counselor!  but i hear that teaching (for America!) can be draining, both physically and emotionally.  and how formal is the environment?  what can i expect of navajo culture?  will the kids even like me???

i’ve been prepping in my own way, reading and watching some suggested materials from one of my hosts.  so far, i’ve learned a ton about the history of relations between the native americans and the US federal government, and current conditions on the “rez”…unfortunately, i can’t say that it’s pretty (metaphorically, of course.  the snippets of landscapes i’ve seen have been beautiful, in a rugged, non-northeastern-US sort of way.)

but hurrah for my next adventure — i’m glad to be traveling again!  not sure about internet availability in nm, but will try to update!

hope you all are well!


sk =)

Posted by: semmiekim | December 30, 2008

did xanga go out of style?

or rather, for me, it’s more like, “when did xanga go out of style?”

it seems like blogging has reached an all-time high in popularity. i remember the days we’d trade xanga addresses and read each other’s angst-ridden, pre-emo posts about anything and everything. i was particularly impressed with those who were able to find meaning in the mush.

that must have signaled the prehistoric era — the ancestor of trendy blogging.

as the years have passed, so have the online social networking and self-publishing avenues. xanga…facebook…now blogging.

i’ve decided to conform. i miss writing (rambling?) about random things. and i don’t want to be left behind!

hopefully, this becomes more than just a load of waffle.

so, please bear with me, and wish me luck!