Institute Recap

It’s now been a little more than a week since I returned home to Charleston from five weeks in the Mississippi Delta (the town of Cleveland, to be exact) participating in Institute – a fancy word for Teach for America’s summer teacher training program. I lived on the campus of Delta State University and was bussed each weekday morning to a nearby school where I taught Kindergarten, with an emphasis on math and literacy. Before leaving for Institute, I did my research (like a good, former journalist) and I thought I know what to expect. But, despite my best attempts to follow the daily schedule I crafted after scouring Institute-prep blogs, my days looked a little something more like this…


Teaching the concept of opposites during Academic Intervention time. Notice the unkempt hair…womp.

5:30 a.m.: Hit snooze on first alarm, thus beginning the daily internal struggle – “Can I go another day with a ponytail and sleep 15 more minutes?” (Sorry, Mom).

5:45: Finally get motivated. Spritz up outfit with my new favorite invention – Downy wrinkle release. Don name tag and the 15 or so paperclips that always seem to accumulate there. Practice “teacher face” in the mirror. (Just kidding…I’ve already got that down flat.)

6:20: Head to the dining hall, saggy green DSU lunch box in hand, and silently pray there’s more left than the gray – yes, gray – PB&J sandwiches. Being on one of the latest buses to leave does have its disadvantages.

6:30: Get to the bus early to get the good seat that – fingers crossed! – will be occupied by only me for the twenty minute bus ride to my school in Rosedale, the next town over.

7:20: Arrive at the cafeteria, attendance sheet in hand, to greet students and usher them through the breakfast line. Mentally prepare for the onslaught of milk spills, sticky, syrupy high-fives, and admonitions of “Please don’t talk with your mouth full!”


Coloring a book cover during one of our morning activities!

8-9:20: For the first two weeks of institute, I attended teacher prep sessions during this time, while my co-teachers taught literacy. The last two weeks, I took over the reigns of leading morning reading sessions, much to my enjoyment. We kicked off each day with our welcome song (“Hickety Pickety Bumble Bee“), a morning message, and opening activity before plunging into our book of the day. My kiddos’ favorite? Froggy Gets Dressed, by Jonathan London, about a frog who forgets his underwear while preparing for a day playing in the snow. Their howls of laughter could be heard in the classroom across the hall, so I’ve been told!

9:30-11:10: For the first two weeks, I and a co-teacher taught one math lesson each during this time. This was the first time many of our students were introduced to basic mathematical concepts, such as counting, writing numbers, and determining more/less. While numeric order and value seem like basic knowledge that is easy to grasp, they are hard concepts to teach to 5 year olds! Try to think of a simple definition for “number” or “more” or “count”. Remember these must be definitions they can not only comprehend, but will also remember a week or month or year from now. It’s more complicated than you think! The experience of teaching math strengthened my appreciation for teachers, especially those at the elementary level. It’s so easy to forget that these basic, foundational skills are not innate but must be taught and reinforced and sometimes taught again, with healthy doses of perseverance, creativity, and, of course, patience.


The kids sure loved when we listened to Claire de Lune…and I did too.

11:10-12:10 p.m.: This block was known as Academic Intervention Time (AIT), when my co-teachers and I worked with our students in small groups to reinforce math and literacy skills. As much as I enjoy large group instruction, my real passion lies in working with students at the small group or individual level (one of the many reasons I am so excited to be teaching SpEd). By the end of the summer, I knew exactly which numerals the students in my math group could write independently, and which five sight words my reading students could identify, making my instruction and assessment personalized to meet the students academic needs. I don’t think anything will ever compare to the moment one of my students read a page in a book by himself, looked up to me with joy in his eyes, and immediately wanted to finish reading the book on his own.

12:25-1: Lunch time…by far the messiest part of the day! If we were lucky enough to have all of our children make it to the lunch table without dropping their tray, we were then bombarded with seemingly endless requests to open ketchup packets or cries that a fork or apple was left behind in the lunch line.

1-4:30: After the kids departed, the rest of our afternoons were generally devoted to what I fondly refer to as “teacher training.” It was during this time that we perfected lesson planning, practiced behavior management, and participated in numerous discussions about best practices. As much as I enjoyed the resources and ideas presented during this time, but, as someone who learns best by doing, it was the mornings spent in the classroom that best prepared me.


So. Much. Paper.

5—: Evenings at Institute were a blur of quick meals, sprints to the copy room, and preparing books and math manipulatives for the next day. I’ve never before been surrounded by more paperwork and school supplies, but I can truly say I loved every minute of it.

Despite the long days, messy hair, and, let’s just say, unsavory meals, there are moments I will never forget and I would not trade for the world.

Such as the first time a student held a pencil correctly in his hand. And the many times since that he used the strategy I taught him to grip his pencil or crayon.

Or when another insisted he would never, ever like reading but then read a book all by himself and asked me to bring him more the next day and said he wanted to make his daddy and teacher proud.

Or when one of my math AIT students, on his own accord, began reciting our math goals chant (complete with hand motions): “Math is for everyone. We can do it, yes we can!”

Or the laughs we’ve shared as class when we read in “Froggy Gets Dressed.” Or when one of my girls had the class rolling for a few minutes after offering up this charming sentence : “The cat is…stinkin’ in the butt.”

Or the class’ dance parties – a reward for 10 class points – to Beyonce and Taylor Swift.


Graduation day!

Though I only knew and worked with these beautiful children for four weeks, I grew to understand them as individual learners and individual people. I know one will always throw up her hand before I’ve even finished asking a question. I know another will sit quietly the entire lesson, but then master every objective. I know yet another will get pouty if he doesn’t get the chance to participate. As much as they taught me about education, they taught me so much more about building relationships and truly loving the students who enter your classroom.

It was a great summer spent in the Delta. During my time there, I also…

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A Boundless Hope

It’s been a jam-packed two and a half days so far, the vast majority of my time spent answering and asking what I’ve narrowed down to the five key questions any new TFA corps member must be prepared to discuss: What’s your name? Where are you from? Where did you go to school? What are you teaching? Have you been placed?

I’ve probably cycled through that information 50+ times, and I haven’t even met everyone yet! As a South Carolina resident, it’s been particularly fun answering the newcomers’ questions about the state and hearing about their preconceived notions about the south.

Yes, Bojangles serves fried chicken (but I think Zaxby’s is better). Yes, there are alligators. Yes, Charleston is amazing – duh. No, South Carolina barbecue is not served with Kraft barbecue sauce. And have you ever heard of a Palmetto bug? If you haven’t, don’t Google it. Seriously.

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TFA SC does Cookout!

And tonight I had the pleasure of introducing some friends to the glorious Cookout milk shake (another thing not to Google…the calorie count in those things. Sheesh!).

What I have also vastly enjoyed is the opportunity to speak about the education in the state, as well as the sociopolitical climate, based on my firsthand experience. I attended high school in Dorchester County, where the median income is $49,636 or 107.3% of the national average. By comparison, Colleton County, where I will be teaching, has a median income of $31,059, or 67.2%.

The County is less than an hour from my house, but the difference is striking. When we were introduced to the landscape of South Carolina (not the landscape you’re probably thinking of!), we talked a lot about the rapidly growing communities, such as the North Charleston area where my family lives, which are situated right next to communities being eroded by massive population loss. I know when my family moved from Virginia to the Charleston area more than 8 years ago, my parents researched and decided to move within the boundaries of the best school district in the state.

But while my family had the means and opportunity to dictate our educational access in such a way – providing me the chance to participate in the International Baccalaureate program and attain an excellent education that charted me on a path of endless possibility – this is not possible for every family. The students in these communities have a great need. They need an advocate, they need a teacher that’s on a fire, a teacher that will serve them selflessly, a teacher that will hold them accountable and have high expectations, but also understand their unique background and experiences. A teacher that may be a little naïve and idealistic, but will hope, pray for, rejoice with, cry alongside, and love them unconditionally.

While I may have resisted when my family first moved down south from Northern Virginia, I am now so proud to say that I am from South Carolina. And I am proud to say that I will be working as part of an incredible movement on track to change the face of education in the state. The positivity, hope, joy, and passion that has been exhibited by everyone in the TFA SC family in just the past few days is so inspiring to see…and absolutely contagious! I’m so excited to see what we all accomplish in the state I’ve grown to love so much.

The Adventure Begins

The day has finally arrived! Tomorrow I start my grand adventure with Teach for America. It’s been almost a year since I first began to seriously consider applying to TFA and I could not be more excited for what lies ahead. I will spend the rest of this week in Florence, SC for Induction with fellow corps members placed in the state and then will hit the road Sunday for five weeks of training and teaching in Cleveland, Mississippi. It’s going to be a challenging, inspiring, whirlwind of a month and I’m looking forward to sharing the ups and downs on my blog.

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Sixth grade Caitlin had some pretty neat ideas!

As I was finishing up packing tonight, I came across a class journal entry from sixth grade where I first wrote about wanting to be a teacher and even outlined a lesson and behavior plans for my “class.” How fitting! My career aspirations began with working as a pediatrician (that was, until I saw blood) and jumped to journalism most recently (until the blessing of an eye-opening internship). But somewhere deep inside I think I always knew I would end up in front of the classroom – even if I didn’t always admit it to myself and others. I’m so thankful that I discovered Teach for America and feel blessed to be a part of their mission to end educational inequity. As a teacher, I want to be a creator of change, a source of hope, and an enduring advocate for the children who might not be lucky enough to share the good fortune I received in the form of a top-notch education. Teach for America provides the opportunity, resources, and support to work toward this mission.

This is going to be a wonderful journey.