Damped and Driven

The Longest Post Ever: Summary of the first few months of teaching
November 20, 2007, 5:43 am
Filed under: Not School, School

First order of business i think is to give some background about my situation and how the last few months have gone. I sent an email update out to family and friends so i thought i’d just post some of that info here.

I graduated from the University of St. Thomas this past spring with degrees in Physics and Electrical Engineering. It was a ton of fun. Most of my last year was spent working on a bike trail monitoring system. The idea was that it would be a device that when mounted next to a trail, would count the people on the trail and figure out what they were doing: riding a bike, rollerblading, running, etc. It ended up turning into a 2 year project ( i.e. we didn’t finish it), but I learned a lot about image processing in the course of our part, which was interesting- linear algebra is pretty amazing. I got to know some really great folks at UST over my few years there and many of you are receiving this email.

I got quite a kick out of learning about physics and engineering, but was looking to do something different before jumping into grad school- i’m seriously considering school in physics at UW Madison. After getting a taste of what working as an engineer might be like, i decided i’d like to do something different, maybe some sort of service, so i applied to a program called Teach For America. The premise of the organization is basically that recent college grads, even if they didn’t study education can be good teachers and fill a need for qualified teachers in low income areas. The idea sort of resonated with me after learning that SD was one of the placement sites. TFA has sites all over the country, many in big urban areas like NY and New Orleans, but also on some reservations in South Dakota. The idea also sounded cool to me because of the opportunity to try and get some students fired up about science- theres not enough kids interested in science and technical fields these days.

I applied and was admitted and decided to give it a go. I got placed in SD, where i was hoping, and spent the summer in training in Houston TX. That was quite an interesting experience, although Houston is sort of a sweaty big place that i really have little desire to return to. I learned a lot there, mostly that i still have a lot to learn.

I am now in my placement for the the next couple of years. I’m teaching 9th grade physical science and upperclassman physics at Todd County High School: http://www.tcsdk12.org/TCHS/TCHS/Welcome.html Go Falcons! in Mission SD on the Rosebud reservation. Rosebud is home to the Sicangu Lakota people. (They are sometimes referred to as Sioux, but that name is a pejorative gift of French trappers.) Todd county and Shannon county, where the SD TFA corps are teaching, are two of the poorest counties in the US. It’s a sort of desolately beautiful place; much of it is badlands, not exactly the most productive land, but it’s where the federal government decided the reservations would be. The Lakota people have a long history of oppression and tragedy here, but also amazing strength. Many Native leaders that you’ve heard of, like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, were Lakota. The Lakota language is also still spoken. Although most people on the rez don’t speak it fluently, there are many who do and there is a definite push to revive the language. I see it in my school- the advisor for the drum group is in the room next to me, and there are courses here you wouldn’t see at an average high school, like Lakota language.

Mission is a metropolis of about 800 people, and is a city center for the rez, with the high school and some other bigger services like a family dollar, hardware store and an actual radio shack. If the measure of a city is if you can purchase an avocodo at the grocery store, then well mission is pretty awesome. It even has a pizza place. The nearest big city is in NE, Valentine, pop. 3000, about 1/2 hour south.

The SD corps is the smallest of all the TFA corps, there are about 50 corps members, 25 per year, spread over a pretty huge geographical area, two reservations in two different time zones. One great aspect of the situation is that you can really get a chance to know some of those folks, as well as the folks that you work with. In other regions there are hundreds of corps members and you never really get a chance to know them. The sense of community is pretty tight, it’s nice. As for me, i live with two other ’07 corps members. Darius is from VA and Reid is from Milwaukee. If it wasn’t for them, i’d have gone crazy quite a while ago.

Rommie Darius and Sunset

Rommie Reid in the Badlands

I’ve seen some interesting events already. There is a tremendous amount of cultural richness here. One situation that i think is a pretty good microcosm of many of the things going on on the rez was the Rosebud fair. Rosebud fair happens right at the beginning of the school year. Many students don’t actually show up to school until after Rosebud fair. It’s a giant pow-wow, rodeo, and carnival. At the center is the circular pow-wow ground, with bleachers and all that. Around the outside are the vendors selling stuff like jewelry and indian tacos, farther yet is the fair rides and all that. Theres a grand entrance where all the dancers dance into the arena. Veterans lead the way. Theres grass dancers (which are supposed to emulate pheasants i think: it looks really interesting), there are traditional dancers, fancy dancers, shawl dancers, jingle dancers, dancers of all ages. Its an amazing sight, all the plumes and color and of course the drum going and singing.

Its interesting because at the center is the drum and the pow-wow, the beating heart of the culture and then all around it is all the crap. Among the vendors selling traditional crafts and food are vendors selling gang stuff, shirts with tu-pac or al pacino from scarface, hats with dollar signs on them, bling. It really has nothing to do with the kids, but they still sell the stuff; it’s strange. Around the fair is where the drinking is. I think its a good model for many of the problems on the rez. At the center is this amazing culture and resilience and beauty and around the outside is all this crap that has kind bogged the people down. Many of the student don’t know their culture, don’t feel connected to it so they end up lost, looking for something and what many of them embrace is gang culture.

Another event that sticks out in my memory was bar triathalon in Vetal. Its not a town, its not even a crossroads, because there is no intersection, its more like a wide spot with a few trees and a Bar. It’s one of the closest bars to Mission, being about 40 miles due west. Anyway, a few weeks ago they hosted a bar triathlon: pool, darts and a mini-golf course set up in the bar. It was a riot. It was a nice opportunity to hang out with some of our buddies from pine ridge and well play bar mini golf. Theres plenty of fun to be had in rural SD.

What does an average day look like? The high school is right near my house which is nice as i can walk to school. I teach 5 sections of 9th grade physical science, (intro high school science), half basic physics, half basic chem. I also teach 1 class of physics geared toward upperclassmen. Its a lot like any other school, but there are some immediate differences, some good, some bad. We’re a public school, but we don’t do the pledge in the morning, there is a song from the drum group, which is really cool. It definitely starts the day off differently than the standard “We pledge ale blah, blah,blah.” Lakota culture has a presence in school and i think thats really a big part of solution to overcoming some of the problems here. There are also some differences from an average high school that are real problems. Looking over my books for the first couple weeks of 2nd quarter, my students are averaging about 60% attendance, yikes!

One other thing, i don’t like to toot my own horn, but i got some nerd publicity, woo! SPS, the society of physics students did a write-up of some of their members who were doing TFA, including me. You can check it out here:

Also, if anyone should prefer corresponding via snail mail, my address is
Zach Simmons
PO Box 1064
Mission, SD 57555

Please distribute this blog address to anyone i missed.

I hope this finds you all well,


Here we go
November 19, 2007, 2:58 am
Filed under: Not School, School

Hi, So i guess i’ll cave and start a blog. This journal will document my teaching experiences and hopefully provide an efficient way for friends and family to keep tabs on me. The other aim is for this journal to give a sense of what this experience is like, should others be interested in doing something similar. Cheers, z