Why I Am a Union Man


Today is the 98th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in which 146 young women, many of them teenagers, died in a fire on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building, then a modern factory-loft building thought to be fireproof.

March 25th, 1911 was a typical day at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. located in lower Manhattan. A couple of hundred women, mostly immigrant teenagers, were hard at work as cutters, at sewing machines and as pressers. They were hardworking women who were paid by the piece.

These women felt safe. They were in America, the greatest nation on earth. They had jobs, and while they had to work very hard, they were earning their keep and, some of them, supporting parents and grandparents. They were working in a modern building, built to the highest standards of the day and reported to be fireproof.

Then the fire broke out.

There was really nothing to worry about. The building had fire exits that led to stairwells that led to the street. Everyone could get out safely. That was the plan when the building was erected. Safety first.

There was only one problem. The bosses at the factory made a small alteration. In order to prevent the women from taking breaks or going out to smoke or chat the bosses had done what bosses all over the City did.

They chained the fire exit doors shut. All of them.

Panic. Women were killed as they were pressed against the steel doors by dozens of women trying desperately to escape.

Women were killed by inhaling the smoke generated by a fire attacking a hundred or more bolts of fabric ready to be cut.

Women were killed when they jumped out the windows of the ninth and tenth floors, figuring that gave them a better chance of survival than anything else.

Some did survive. They were lucky enough to not hit the cement sidewalk because they landed on the bodies already there and were not killed by the other bodies landing on them.

One hundred forty-six lives lost because the bosses were greedy and chained the fire doors closed.

There are still greedy bosses. That’s why I’m a union man.

Look at the pictures before you start to argue with me:
fire and its aftermath

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I Do My Job, You Do Yours


No one has yet invented a broad, replicable and accurate way of assessing student learning and the edutechnocrats are far, far away from being able to pin student learning, or lack of it, on any single teacher Yet we increasingly hear talk of tying performance bonuses and even job retention to student standardized test performance.

At some point we have to move away from the false idea that students only learn in classrooms and from teachers. Not only is this not true in any sense of the word true, it does not even take into account that the US Dept. of Education says the optimal way for students to learn is socially as part of a learning community. Anyone who looks at how students actually learn will quickly realize that students learn far more from their parents, each other, and their home community than they do from teachers.

Despite this, teachers are blamed for falling scores on easily manipulated tests (ever notice how the scores always go up in election years?), and other indications that society is falling apart. I am surprised that teachers have not yet been blamed for the current economic crisis (‘If the consumer education and math teachers were doing their jobs none of this would ever happen!’). The curricula we are required to teach are so overloaded that saying it is a mile wide and an inch deep is a drastic understatement.

It is time to make very difficult decisions about what we teach. We must decide which is more important, that a student walk out with a battery of skills to apply to any future situations, or should the take-away be a collection of disconnected bits of specific factual knowledge? If the latter, a very difficult question: what knowledge? If the former, what skills will students who will graduate into a future evolving even faster than it does today, need?

Until such a time when the President, Congress, Governors, state legislatures, city councils, town meetings and school boards have the determination and courage to answer those difficult questions, they should stop criticizing us for not being adequately able to feed those massive curricula into student heads while, at the same time, igniting their thirst to be life-long learners. Life long learners do not have to be created by teachers, we are all born that way, and we continue to learn despite, not because of, what goes on in our schools.

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When Fathers Respond


This is part of how my nearly 80-year-old father reacted to my last posting:

When I read your blog (When Students Attack) my first impulse was to go looking for my old baseball bat and go up to your school and crack a few skulls.

I quickly realized that violence was not the answer to the problem, but I find it frustrating to admit that I don’t know the answer.

It angers and alarms me that you should be attacked. And it stuns me that these students should have the temerity to assault you.

On a happier note, I sent my broken fishing reels to Penn Reels for repair, and they were delivered back to me this morning. So let’s look forward to a day or two of fishing when the weather gets warmer.

This is how I replied

Thank you for wanting to defend me, but I am glad you did not as it would have sent two damaging messages. First, violence is not the answer as it only promotes more violence. Second, having someone come to defend me after the fact delivers the message that I cannot handle my own problems, even though I can and do on a daily basis.

My work is challenging in so many ways. I work with some very angry children who usually have every reason to be angry. They usually act that anger out by yelling, fighting with peers or in more destructive ways, but almost never by hitting a teacher no matter how many threats they make to do so. The threats are bluster, a show for their friends or enemies to establish how tough they are. They aren’t tough and they know it, thus the show.

My work is incredibly rewarding when I see even the slightest incremental growth in maturity, problem-solving skills, or academics. That happens in some measure nearly every day, but it didn’t happen Monday. I have always been eager to come to work, but not Tuesday. I felt defeated and debased. Then I remembered Mamie Eisenhower’s words, that people are about as happy as they decide to be, and I decided to start the day fresh. I cannot afford to hold grudges.

It turns out that the girl who jumped on me had been told late last week that she would be moving into a more restrictive school on Wednesday of this week and she was not happy about it and figured she now had nothing to lose. This was a student I had hopes for. She was very difficult and occasionally violent, but I never had a problem with her. I set, and helped her understand, the high behavioral expectations I had for her. I gave her incremental goals and small rewards when she met them. When she didn’t, I made it clear that I still believed that she could and she would have as many opportunities as it took. With me she was cooperative and almost pleasant.

I have not had the chance to talk with her since the incident, but I suspect she thought that I, her champion and the only adult who treated her pleasantly and with respect, had betrayed her. She doesn’t have the vocabulary to express that thought so she acts out, not only because she feels betrayed but also because she does not know how to express that violation.

That’s the main thing I offer these troubled students: respect and understanding. Its usually enough, and it works better the longer I can work with the student. That’s what so perplexing about the boy who hit me. I started chatting with him when he was in a friend’s fifth grade class. He has a horrible home situation, but he has intelligence and a sense of humor. Last year he was in my class and, while there were occasional problems, he did good work and responded, eventually, to the the academic challenges I gave him.

His home situation has deteriorated this year and he is spending more and more time on the street. The quality of his work and ability to cope emotionally are both declining. He has been betrayed by adults so many times that he has given up on us. He recently was arrested for mugging a man and he has come to school high more than once. He no longer has a border between the street and school, he sees it all as one abusive continuum. He reacted to my challenge as he would have had to react on the street.

He has been put on in-school suspension (as opposed to being suspended and placed in a suspension school) and we’ve seen each other, but every time I try to talk to him he runs. He knows I won’t hit him (I explain my beliefs about non-violence to my students on the first day and several more times in the school year), so I think he’s embarrassed. If so, that’s good; it shows remorse and a continuing sense of wrong and right. There’s still something to work with.

Fishing sounds great.

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When Students Attack


I had a rough day Monday.

One student punched me in the stomach, later a different one jumped me from behind.

I like to keep my classroom door open. My room gets very warm and there is better air circulation with the door open. Usually it’s not a problem, but Monday it was.

I had one 7th grade class in the room with all ten students working when three students from the other 7th grade special education class ran into my room and started hitting one of the boys. I hurried over to intercede and the invaders ran out of the room. I walked over to close my door and one of the invaders lunged and punched me in the stomach. Then he ran away.

There was no physical damage, but I was stunned. The boy who hit me was in my self-contained common branch class last year and, despite occasional outbursts, he showed promise as a writer.

Five periods later I was covering the afternoon homeroom of the class that had been invaded.

As I walked into the room the five other members of the class were picking on a short, quiet boy (not the one who was hit earlier). The students were calling him vile names and he looked like he was about to cry.

I tried to get the boy out of the room. It was almost dismissal and I was going to let him leave a couple of minutes early to avoid his classmates outside. As I was calling him to me a large, aggressive girl jumped into my back, chopping her arm just to the right of my neck.

I am substantial, but gentle and a pacifist. I’m tall, broad shouldered and barrel-chested, which could explain why I’m rarely challenged physically. Why wasn’t it working for me then? Had I done anything differently, anything that would explain these attacks?

My knees buckled and my head snapped back. I felt a little dizzy. I spun and backed my attacker into a wall. I checked her hands for weapons. Her hands were empty so I let her go. She left the room and went to the principal to complain that I had restrained her. He thought I acted reasonably under the circumstances and told her so. It’s nice to be backed up.

Here’s what I’m puzzled about: the girl in question has stabbed students with a pencil or pen three times, twice just missing the victims’ eyes. Because of that she was on an expedited track to a more restrictive environment in a different school. Last Thursday she came to say goodbye to me, that it was her last day in my school.

She’s still here.


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If you give a student a tool…


If you give a person a hammer, they’ll stop using a rock.

If you give a farmer a tractor, he’ll stop using the walking plow.

If you give a road worker a jackhammer, he’ll retire the pick-ax.

If you give someone a tool, you expect it to be used.

So when I gave the 7th grade special education students calculators to use on the state math exams…

I saw students compute the supplementary angle to another using their fingers.

I saw students look at an order of operations problem and do the computations with pencil & paper.

That is how they did it in 6th grade where calculators are not allowed for use on the exam. This year, their teachers taught them how to operate the calculators and they say the students enjoyed using them in class.

The test directions even tell the students to use the calculators.

So would somebody please explain to me why they didn’t? I just don’t get it.

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Language is Where You Look For It


I am easily fascinated.

Much of my life is a process of serial intense attention to one thing, immediately followed by something else. At times it seems to be a good thing, like when I am fascinated by the task I’m supposed to be doing and pay intense attention to it. At other times my fascination is a deep preoccupation with the flight of a bumble bee or the pattern on the back of a snake.

Some fascinations are singular and very brief, others are recurring and long-lasting.

Autism is one of the long-term recurring fascinations. Its particularly captivating because of all that we know we don’t know about it. I’m intrigued by the variety of ways it affects people who have it.

I recently chatted with the mother of a young woman who has autism and who, as a child, would only communicate through art. Of course, at the beginning, it was not at all clear that the girl was trying to communicate or what she might be trying to say, but this girl is particularly bright and was able to make her pictorial messages more explicit.

The ability to communicate is such an intrinsic part of what makes us human that it is hard for most of us to imagine what life is like for people who can’t understand us and are not understood by us. We are always communicating. We use words, but the clothes we wear, how we drive and who we choose as friends also communicate something — whether consciously or not.

Most of us easily learn and intuitively understand these non-verbal languages, but people who have autism don’t. People with autism are speaking to us, but we have not yet learned their language.

At the Celebration of Teaching & Learning yesterday, Peter Fauastino, President-Elect of the New York Association of School Psychologists (NYASP), said that everything a person with autism does should be viewed as communication and we need to try to understand what they are trying to say. Doing so will draw on all of our ability to think in pictures and in metaphors, to read non-verbal cues. It will require us to discover what we might be trying to say if we were acting the same way someone else is.

It won’t be easy. The language of autism is not systematic, there is no grammar and syntax. It will be more like learning to read Chinese while someone is screaming at you in Esperanto.

I am going to try.

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Celebration now, come on!


This has been a week-end of celebrations.

Last night was my son’s fifteenth birthday, and I celebrated it by actually seeing him for the first time this week. I leave for work before he is awake enough to come downstairs, and this has been hell-week for his high school’s musical, Disco Inferno. Hell week means rehearsals after school until 11:00 or later every night. I try to be asleep before then, what with the alarm going off a little after four each morning.

Disco Inferno, if you’re not familiar with it, is a Faustian comedic-dramatic musical set in and around a London disco during the summer of 1976, and its filled with platform shoes, ruffled shirts, double-knit polyester leisure suits, and the beat-driven lyrically weak music of the era, including the song Celebration, originally done by the Trammps.
Jonas has acted in several shows, but this was his first time working as a member of the crew. He celebrated opening night by going to what appears to be the first of a series of cast parties all four nights of the show. I got to see Jonas for the ten or so minutes it took to drive him there. I celebrated that, and staying out past midnight for the first time since New Year’s Eve by going to bed as soon as I got home. I would have stayed up until he came home at 2AM, but I had to get up early to catch a 6:15 train into the City to attend another, bigger, celebration.

Today was the second day of the Celebration of Teaching and Learning, an annual two-day teacher professional development marathon (actually more interesting than it sounds) and education trade show. I attended several sessions dealing with autism, including a speech by autism celebrity Temple Grandin. I al scored four tote bags (!!), the stereotypical teacher trade-show loot, and two t-shirts, one of which fits me. Celebration!

I also learned precisely how hard it is to find people in a crowd when you don’t know what they look like, so I had another celebration(!) when I finally managed to meet three of the new friends I’ve made on Twitter (where I’m known as spedteacher): @LParisi, @Karenjan and @CSouthard. Its usually nice to put faces and in-person personalities to on-line friends and this was no exception.

Now all these celebrations might lead you to think I’d want to put on my dancing shoes, and boogie down, but I have a different kind of celebration in mind. Man, I absolutely know how to get all the way down and have a CEL-LE-BRAYYYYYY-TION!

I’m going to bed.

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School food


These are some of the things I have in my file cabinet:

a pepper grinder; sea salt; kosher salt; an unopened jar of Trader Joe’s unsalted crunchy peanut butter; wax paper; a good paring knife; high-quality plastic forks, spoons and knives, a couple of dozen boxes of heat-and-serve Indian vegetable packets; microwave-safe containers, and four types of tea: lapsang souchon; keemum; Irish breakfast and Constant Comment.

In my refrigerator I have lime pickle, hot mango chutney, sweet mango chutney, tamarind chutney, blackberry preserves and spicy mustard.

I usually have some chocolate and some pretzels around.

I’m a very adventurous eater and will try anything once. I’ve even tried raw sea slug. Twice. But I never want to have to go down to the cafeteria and eat school food.

I last ate school food forty years ago when I was in junior high school. I hear it has improved a good deal, but my now-ancient experiences prevent me from finding out first hand.

One of my great pleasures at work is getting out of the building. I do it every chance I get, but it is especially nice on warm, sunny days. On those days I go for a walk and buy lunch.

The neighborhood in which I work is not known for its many quality dining options but there are two decent ones. If I walk down Purdy St. to Starling Ave. and turn right I will eventually come to a better-than-average taqueria run by the parents of two girls who attend my school, but I usually turn to the left and quickly come to Desi Sawad, my somewhat friendly neighborhood pan-South Asian steam-table restaurant and take-out shop.

I say somewhat friendly because I had been getting take-out from there for about two years before the woman behind the counter said anything more than how much I owed her for my order. On that occasion she said, “Do you want naan?” I said yes and she never asked again. She just gives me my curried goat.

I always order a couple of the vegetables of the day. I’m partial to the okra in a spicy sauce and the black lentils, but the meat I order is always their delicious curried goat.

Today wasn’t very warm, but it was sunny and the energetically gusting winds of the past few days had finally worn down and were resting, plus I had three periods in a row without students, so I took a walk and turned left.

It had been a month or so since I’d been in Desi Sawad and something had changed. I was greeted warmly.

“Oh! Welcome back Mr. Goat!”

I really need to order something different tomorrow.

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Hitting the wall in the technology marathon


I’m a word person. I am the least visual person I know. Could this be the problem I have with technology? Or is it my age? Perhaps what they say about middle-aged dogs is true; you can teach them a new trick but it takes a long time and will frustrate both you and the dog.

My father, from whom I got the writing gene, asked me today how he’d know when I posted something new. I told him he could subscribe via email, just as soon as I could set it up. That’s why this evening, after a very long day teaching very taxing students, I spent three hours trying to figure out to enable email subscriptions here.

Thanks to a bunch of new friends I’ve made via twitter, I can talk web 2.0, second life and all the rest of the tech talk like a 14-year-old (any 14-year-old other than my wordy son), but I can’t figure out how to do the stuff I talk about. My avatar has no brain.

That you are now able to subscribe to receive notice of new posts by email is the work of one of my twitter friends named @Kolson29. That’s her twitter name. The rest of the time she’s Kate Olson, a generous young special education teacher in the wilds of central Wisconsin . I put out a call on twitter for some technical advice and within minutes Kate was offering to do the work. She no doubt thought it would be easier to do herself than it would be to teach me how to do it. That’s not how special education teachers usually work, but she already has a pretty demanding job and doesn’t need a new student, especially one like me.

Thank you Kate. And dad, I subscribed for you. Think of it as a gift for teaching me all those words and punctuation marks, and how to put them in some kind of order.

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Snow day!


On most work days I get up at 4:25AM. This gives me enough time to shower, get dressed, take the dog out, feed the cats, make coffee, eat a sensible breakfast, drink coffee and read the local newspaper before driving 40 or so minutes to school in order to arrive early enough to find a parking space on the street before school starts at 8:00.

It snowed a lot last night and this morning the wind is howling with 40mph gusts and blowing sharp, icy snow around in swirls that look like white dust storms. I set my alarm for this morning a half-hour earlier than usual so that I could take extra time driving to work. I knew the schools where I live would be closed today, but I expected NYC schools to be open. Just to be prudent, I checked the procedures for announcing delayed openings and school closings, and re-read the protocols on what to do if schools need to be closed early.

I don’t know if it some macho thing or just recognition of the NYC schools’ essential role as day-care center cum delinquency & teen crime prevention agency, but New York City public schools almost never close for snow. President Obama chides the District of Columbia schools for closing for a little ice, but the Chicago schools close more often than those in NYC. Okay, Chicago usually gets more snow, but NYC is still stingy when it comes to school closings.

In NYC, school closings, if they are to occur at all, are announced between 4:00 and 6:00 in the morning. I checked the Department of Educations homepage to see if an announcement had been made for the first time at 4:01. Nope. I checked again when I came out of the shower. Nope.

I went downstairs, fed the cat, started the coffee maker and let the dog out. I enjoyed watching my aging Lab-setter mix became a puppy again as he ran and played in the snow with a big smile on his face (anyone who says dogs can’t smile has never owned a Lab or setter). Back inside, 5:00 now, I checked again. Aha! There was now a notice on the DOE homepage that said “Any changes in school opening times or school closings will be announced here.” Those teases!

Quick poll: should I drink a cup of the coffee I’d made and commit to being awake, or should I abstain in order to quickly get back to sleep if the schools were eventually closed? What to do, what to do? As I dithered around trying to make this decision I checked the DOE website relentlessly and ate a bowl of Joe’s-Os (those product placement guys need to discover the power of blogs) with blackberries (the fruit). Finally, at 5:50AM, I poured myself a cup of coffee, took a sip and checked my email. At 5:55 I finished my first cup of coffee and gathered my materials for the workday, and checked again. Still no announcement. I filled my travel mug, put on my coat, and was just about to put on my gloves when I decided to check one more time.

Now its 6:30 and I really regret that first sip of coffee.

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