Same Rules, Different Game?


When I got back to work after spring break on Monday there was a brand new interactive white board mounted in the middle of the blackboard in my classroom. Though I have long wanted one and am very excited to see one in my room, I have not used it. My principal, though smart and forward-looking, does not have a clue how these things work and did not order the USB or VGA cables required. He also has not scheduled any training and thinks that once we get the boards running teachers will intuitively know how to use them to improve teaching and learning.

At first the IWB seems to be one of the great leaps technology allows us to take, from 19th century chalk on slate technology directly to this century’s seemingly magic information systems.

On deeper reflection I see the principal’s ignorance as a metaphor for the revolution allegedly happening in education: people with excellent intentions are doing a half-assed job of implementation.

The touts say technology will transform education from the 19th century industrial model to an evolving 21st century system that will make learning student-directed, individualized and far more effective.

After all, technology is Superman. Seemingly mild-mannered and unthreatening, it knocks down restrictive classroom walls, moves near the speed of light, is able to leap over wide achievement gaps and will revolutionize teaching and learning.

And pigs will be pilots.

Technology, as it is allocated and implemented in American schools. It maintains 19th century education models instead of destroying them.

When it comes to tech my students are still on the outside looking in, trapped in the 19th century model of social welfare: the poorhouse. We are forced into an aging and uncomfortable building where the City and foundations throw us scraps that excite our bellies but provide insufficient nutrition. Given an egg and a pie pan, but no flour or recipe, we’re told to bake cake and feed ourselves.

Meanwhile, some people are revolting by creating similar publicly funded but privately run poorhouses where lucky children chosen by lottery all have to dress the same. They get what seems to be slightly better food but are forced to sit at the table longer and eat as much as the overlords say. Though able to look through windows that let them see and hear everything, they’re told what to look at and, just like at old poorhouses, lack the background knowledge to make sense of it.

None of this is intentional. Despite evidence to the contrary, I do not believe there is some great conspiracy to maintain the inequalities of our society. Well-meaning, dedicated and generous people work hard to improve both kinds of poorhouses. They push here and tweak there, and seem to with the game by rising standardized exam scores.

Using the same old scorecard shows that the game hasn’t yet changed in a substantial way. Its like baseball adding the designated hitter and making the fences further away when what’s really needed is each batter being able to choose the ball, pitcher and number of swings before striking out.

Bookmark and Share

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009

Odds & beginnings


Yesterday was the first day back from spring break and, as usual, I was eager to get back into the classroom. I was rested refreshed and aware. So aware that I was in my classroom almost 25 minutes before I realized that a Smart board had been installed during the break, just as had been promised.

About an hour later I noticed the plastic envelope on my desk that held the software and other implements for the Smart board. Right about then I noticed something was missing: the projector needed to operate the Smart board. The principal called a minute later to tell me a computer and projector would arrive in my room later that day.

Today my principal visited my room, looked around and noticed, apparently for the first time, that there’s no desktop computer. My Read 180 program runs on five elderly laptops. The Smart board is at one end of the 30-foot-long room where one electric outlet is and the laptops are at the other end of the room where the computer network cable comes out of the wall and the other electric outlet is located.

As we stood there looking around the room the song “Alice’s Restaurant” started running through my mind. Not the whole song, but the part when the protagonist had been arrested for littering and the sheriff, Obie, had prepared “twenty-seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one” to be used as evidence against him. Then the judge came in with his seeing eye dog and Obie began to cry.

I had a brand new totally interactive white board on which we could make circles and arrows and write paragraphs and do all kind of wild and beautiful things and I could not use it because I don’t have the more pedestrian hardware necessary to make the board work. I felt like Obie.

Unfortunately, that was not the biggest frustration of the day.

I also found out that the 14-year-old boy who I had had very high hopes for but who had punched me last month got arrested for something and, because he was already on probation for mugging a man earlier in the year, would be locked up in a juvenile facility, most likely for the rest of the school year.

I stayed after school for almost three hours talking with a colleague trying to make some sense of my day. Now I’ve written this. It still feels empty.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009

Bookmark and Share

Why is this post different from all others?


Today, on the last day of Passover, i wanted to write about the celebration of freedom from oppression that is the heart of the story that is told each year at seders so that we will never forget that once we were oppressed and now we are not. I also wanted to write about Passover food. This week always brings special treats to make up for the oppression of matzoh. Apparently there is no wild yeast in the desert because in the 40 years the Jews wandered there their dough did not rise.

I wanted to write clearly, eloquently and movingly. Then I read a wonderful piece of writing by a really smart, caring, and aware fellow named Will Richardson. He says what I keep trying to say much better than I manage. I strongly suggest you read the blog post he put up a couple of days ago called “Failing Our Kids.”

Today is just one more day when I realize and appreciate how fortunate I am.

Bookmark and Share

Just relaxing…


I’m rarely comfortable. I’ve never quite gotten the hang of living with the body I have and am rarely physically comfortable for very long.

My mind is not comfortable either. It’s always synthesizing something new, making bizarre connections between little bits of information. It’s sort of like having a machine that makes something occasionally valuable out of belly lint.

I do almost all my computer work on an original MacBook that got so overwhelmed by all the stuff on it that I recently had to add two gigabytes of memory and use a great little program called Xslimmer to reduce the size of programs by removing unnecessary items like the Cyrillic alphabet and translations into Old English. Not that there’s anything wrong with them. Some of my best friends are Cyrillic and many of the rest are old, if not particularly English.

Anyway, I was feeling comfortable with this laptop. I could find anything I needed among the 25,000 or so documents and 1100 or so emails stored on it. Until yesterday.

Yesterday I started to install Mac OX5.6, code name Leopard.

Leopards are sleek, so I was a little surprised that this particular leopard would need something like 25 gigabytes, slightly more space than the 278 megabytes I had free on my hard drive. No worry, I did a complete back up, then wiped my hard drive clean. Plenty of room now.

Leopards are sleek and fast. Another surprise. I would have time to get in my car, drive 25 miles, half of it in city traffic, to work and teach a full period, then drive home, stopping for gas along the way before this Leopard would be done installing. Cool, I’m not going to work. I’m on spring break, which is why I’m doing this installation now. I’ll have the time to learn the new operating system and make some mistakes on it before I need the laptop for anything critical.

As I’m writing this approximately 29 hours after starting this installation, I’m still trying to reinstall all those email messages (after I semi-intentionally deleted about 350 of them), my iPhoto library, and assorted other things. I’m also trying to figure out why my bookmark synchronizer is synchronizing my bookmarks every three minutes or so no matter what I do in its preference panel.

And this is the first time I’m using Pages, the Apple program, part of a suite of applications that will convince me I don’t need MS Office anymore.

All of this has reminded me that whenever I get comfortable it is time for me to do something to take me beyond my comfort zone because no matter how much I know or how good at something I might get, there is always room to do it better or learn something new.
Like where did all those passwords I used to have stored go?

Bookmark and Share

Words, words, words, words


“Something has to happen to change the direction
What little filters though is giving you the wrong impression
“it’s a sorry state” I say to myself”
– from “Words”, Missing Persons: Spring Session M (1995)

It seems a lot of people are wondering about words. Words are for communicating, right? I mean, what else would you do with them?

Well you could play with them. Puns, anagrams, double entendres are all ways of playing with words. But even these word games depend on the same thing that clear communication requires, that words have weight. Some words are moonbeams and others sumo wrestlers.

Those metaphors only work because we have knowledge in common; the same force that gives words meaning.

Logicians will tell you that words don’t have inherent meaning, that they aren’t the things they describe. Cow doesn’t give milk, its just a name for the particular mammal whose milk most people drink. Say or write ‘cow’ and everyone has the same general idea. Our common agreement about words appends meaning to them.

I bring this up because of a little debate about what particular words mean is going on at Kate Says, my friend Kate Olson’s blog. The debate started with an item from the Traverse City Register I posted on Twitter:

I am different, not disabled,” is written by a young woman named Kim Kelderhouse who tells about how transferring to a school that used different words changed her attitude about herself and her education.

This article affected Kate enough that she blogged about it. That blog post generated some comments, like this one by Marcy Webb,

“To me, a learning difference = how one learns. A learning disability = a biological event which interrupts or disables learning.

I want to be part of the solution, too, but I think we need to call things what they are, and not sanitize them. There’s already too much of that.”

And one by Karen Jankowski that started this way,

“I use the terms interchangeably and do not believe it is sanitizing. Students are not labels; adults use the labels to help the students receive the specialized instruction they need to make effective progress, but the kids are not their labels. And often times, it is the curriculum that causes the ‘disability.’”

There were a few other comments, most along the lines of Karen’s.

Here’s what I had to say,

Differences and disabilities are not the same thing at all.

One of the things that everyone, but especially teachers, should understand is that the things we call disabilities are all context-dependent and school is the most debilitating context of all. Only in school do we expect a student to excel in all areas. The part of life that does not occur in school is much more forgiving.

Everyone has abilities and everyone has disabilities. Reading, for example, is very important and I have a pronounced inability to read. I can decode, but I lack fluency and comprehension. Despite that I am a successful writer in several genres, a teacher and a broadcaster.

I do have a serious, almost complete reading disability, but the disability is limited to reading music and is not much of a problem unless I sit down at a piano. Context is everything.

Most teachers consider ADHD undesirable in students but, again, disability is context-dependent. I have worked in small businesses for much of my life, a business manger hired by individuals who have a common entrepreneurial trait: ADHD. They are full of energy and ideas, but they need someone stable and focused to make their businesses work;

So you see, most of what we call learning disabilities is really ability exercised in the wrong context. We teachers have the responsibility of manipulating the context of our classrooms to allow students to develop and express their different abilities.

Bookmark and Share

When Teachers Want a Break, But the Students Don’t


Today was the penultimate school day before a long break for Passover and Easter. Starting Thursday I’ll have seven school days and two weekends away from work.

I love my job but it requires a great deal of energy and it can really wear me down over time. My colleagues and I have been anticipating this break, counting down the days and periods until it starts at 3PM tomorrow.

When I was a student I relished these breaks and looked forward to them with glee, but my students are reacting very differently. They are increasingly edgy, antsy, emotionally stressed and violent. Ask why and they’ll tell you they don’t want the break. They want school to continue.

Many of my colleagues will be traveling to Florida, Africa, Europe, South America and Jamaica among other destinations. They’ll be driving, flying or taking cruises.

Even though I’ll be at home spending most of the time off preparing for a college course I’ll be teaching starting in June I’ll still be able to sleep late, work at a more leisurely pace, and stop to smell whatever is blooming next week.

My students will also be staying home, but they won’t smell anything blooming.

For these kids staying home doesn’t just mean remaining in the Bronx; most of them will not leave their apartment.

We don’t have a park in the neighborhood and the parents, many of whom work two or more jobs, don’t want their pre-teen and teenage children wandering around completely unsupervised.
School is where these boys and girls socialize, spend time outside and have at least a little taste of freedom.

School is where my students get two nutritious meals a day and teacher-provided snacks. No school? For some it means little or no food. When students held a canned food collection just before Thanksgiving the donations, supplemented by teacher donated turkeys, were given to other students in need.

School is also where these boys and girls get to show how smart they can be, how good they can be. When they’re not smart or good they’re given encouragement, instruction and another chance instead of a slap, a belt or worse.

No wonder they don’t want a nearly two-week break. Its not that they love school or their teachers all that much.

It’s that they like home less.

Bookmark and Share

A Special Day


I got honored today in an ususual and delightful way: a series of novels was dedicated to me and my students.

The novels are the latest series by Elise Leonard and published by Nox Press. Elise is a former teacher who took what she learned in the classroom about the shortage of serious literature for high school students with poor reading skills and did something about it. She has crafted two series of novels that are sophisticated enough to engage HS students who don’t notice that the books are written at the first or second grade reading level.

Ever since I started teaching in a middle school three years ago, I’ve been looking for books written at the first grade level but not written for first grade students. Middle school students do not want to read about furry little bunnies or bright yellow duckies. They want books that talk to them at their reading level AND their age level. Elise Leonard delivers the goods.

When I happened to land on the Nox Press website , I purchased one copy of each of the ten Junkyard Dan books. Each book is a nearly 100-page novel with character development, plot, conflict and resolution. The books are distinct but interconnected, the idea being to start with the first and to read the others in succession, the reading level being a bit higher in each book as you progress. Student reading levels rise as they realize that reading can be engaging and fun.

Today Nox Press’ latest series, A Leeg of His Own, was dedicated to me and my students, particularly one student named James. James was in my sixth grade class two years ago. At that time we worked on sight words and basic phonemes. When James read the first Junkyard Dan book, The Start of a New Dan earlier this year, it was the first novel he ever completed. It took him three weeks to read the 91 pages of the book, coming to my classroom before school started each day to read a bit more. He finished the second novel in just under two weeks. Now he’s reading the third in the series.

Left to right: me, James, Elise Leonard

Left to right: me, James, Elise Leonard

James is very hard working, but also very shy and he was simultaneously aghast and proud that he was being singled out for recognition. In her presentation after the ceremony Elise said that she hoped the recognition that we were getting today would inspire more struggling readers to try again and to keep trying until they succeeded.

Something clicked. After the ceremony I was interviewed and photographed by a local reporter. When I finally got upstairs to my classroom I had a small line outside of students, mostly boys, who wanted to start reading those books. I had to chase Elise down and order more copies. I had to pay for my first set. My principal paid for the ones I bought today. Recognition has its rewards, I guess.

Bookmark and Share

My Motivation


My earliest memory is of an evening in our apartment when I was about three years old. There was a cardboard box on the table in the dining area and my parents were taking canned goods out of the kitchen cabinet and putting them in the box.

They explained to me that while we did not have a lot of money, we had a lot more than some other people in the world and they could not afford to buy food. Because we were lucky enough to have enough to eat we had a responsibility to help others in need.

The power of that memory has ruled my life, and I am very happy about that.

Bookmark and Share