Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Teach for America application essays

Here are the two essays I wrote for my application to Teach for America. I received a rejection saying I was ineligible for the program since I didn't have the 2.5 GPA that TFA requires because it's required by some states for teacher certification purposes or something, so I'm assuming the essays were never read.

1st essay: The topic was “A Time You Overcame an Obstacle to Success”

Success, I think, is actually a somewhat vague concept. The idea of success that’s most prevalent in our schools, corporations, and social circles could probably be described as “getting ahead,” or “beating out others.” We compete for grades, we compete for scholarships, we compete for internships, we compete for jobs… And then that’s when the real competition begins.

I grew up going to a K-12 private college prep school in Huntsville Alabama. I remember in middle school, grades were everything to me. That’s just what my friends did at the time, I guess: play computer games and maximize the grades on our next test, our report card, etc. As far as I was concerned, education = grades. I had no conception of what one would be like without the other.

Gradually I began to differentiate between the two. Around 10th grade, I remember being in a math class that was covering something I had learned about year ago. I remembered that I had understood it pretty well a year ago, had gotten a 99 or something on the test, but a year later, I was totally clueless again. This troubled me a little bit at the time, but I didn’t really know what to do about it, so for the most part I went on trying to make good grades, believing that was the right approach for learning how to function in society.

In college, around the end of my sophomore year, I finally got it. Grades only have meaning within the academic/corporate cultures that use them. They have little relation to how smart students are, and much more relation to how willing they are to follow directions and how much time they willing to invest in them.

The problem is that schools spend little time on providing actual educations for students (teaching how society works) and too much time on training them for life in “the real world” (aka the privatized corporate business world). Sure the content may be geared toward education, but the method through which students are evaluated twists it toward corporate training.

We’ve replaced the natural reasons for learning (wanting to know how society works, how it can be improved), with “incentives” and “motivators” like grades to some extent, but most glaringly adult approval. The result is that learning occurs through imitation of processes rather than through the creation/recreation of ideas. (See my Letter of Intent.)

For me, my reasons for learning are now much more varied than simply the desire to get good grades/the approval of others. I want to learn math and physics, because I find it interesting to learn the stories behind technology, how we are able to do all the amazing things and are able to make such accurate predictions about how the world works.

Most students today equate success with acceptance into a corporate structure. They get jobs because it pays well, because it has “upward mobility”; usually not because they believe in their work. I believe my greatest success in school has been to escape form this approach to education, and begin to truly learn about our society, and how I can contribute to its progress.

2nd essay: The topic was "Why I want to join Teach for America"

Learning can be approached as imitation or as creation/re-creation.

Most teachers are somewhat aware of this distinction: they might call it memorization vs. understanding, higher level vs. lower level, or something like that. The problem is imitation is the only method that is commonly taught, because imitation is the only method that can be effectively graded. And most teachers rely on some sort of grade, or reward mechanism to control their classes.

I believe these two methods have very little in common; that being able to imitate the process of getting a “right answer”, writing a “5-paragraph essay”, etc has little to do with being able to create/recreate for yourself why math is useful in developing technologies or recreating in your mind why our country is so politically divided along party lines.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe imitation has its place; society, reality, is built on imitation. And in school also. In order to get a degree, students should prove they have attained a minimum level of proficiency in reading, writing, math and science, and imitation is a perfectly acceptable method of attaining this minimum level.

But our understanding! Our ideas! Our ideas should never be subjected to learning by imitation. An idea that is learned through imitation has no purpose, no vision of its potential, of what it could be. Imitation has its functional place in reality; there it should remain.

I believe progress is achieved through innovation, through the creation/recreation of vibrant ideas. Imitation can serve to spread and maintain existing social structures, but ideas are kept alive by people believing in them, not by people imitating what they have been told.

I think Teach for America is one of these vibrant ideas that people believe in, and that is serving to help our society progress. I believe I would benefit from and could contribute a lot to the Teach for America program. Otherwise, I’m planning on working in a high school somewhere in the southeast anyway, so no biggie either way. : )