The Fear In Their Eyes


My school, which at 500 or so students isn’t so big to begin with, in September will start its third year in an evolution that has seen us break down into smaller and smaller, increasingly semiautonomous academies.

The first three academies were started by the then brand new principal who was looking for a way to turn around what had become an unruly school on a downward path. This year there were four academies; next year there will be at least six. All beyond the first three were started by teachers who bonded around some common idea: the arts; science; or citizenship and community.

My academy for next year is made up of teachers who were not asked to join one of the other groups or who, like me, teach students from different academies. No matter. We sat down together and I was able to convince my colleagues that the thrust of our academy should be collaboration on learning projects using technology.

Our school is so far from the cutting edge in technology that we’re not part of the knife. Our first in-class computers — two Dells and a printer for each classroom — were installed just two years ago. Most of the teachers have mastered receiving and sending basic email, but not all have managed adding or downloading attachments. This spring we got some Interactive White Boards (IWBs) but we haven’t been able to use them yet.

The idea of project-based learning excited my colleagues, but when I talked about podcasts, blogs, wikis, and all the other technologies we could harness, I could see fear in their eyes. I know that look; I see it every day in my students’ faces.

Teachers are overwhelmed by the subject of technology; there is too much to learn, and it needs to be done so quickly. They are afraid that they wont remember what they’re taught. They are afraid of being wrong, of making mistakes, afraid of failing. They are afraid of not being in control, of showing weakness, of cracking the image. They are afraid of not seeming competent, capable and confident. They are afraid of being made fun of.

They are afraid of being stupid.

Afraid of being like their students.

Developing awareness of the similarity of their reactions to what happens when a student faces a challenge might be the most important thing they learn in their careers.

I know its been that in mine.

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Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009

Not Smart about SmartBoards


Shortly after returning from the Christmas/New Year break my principal told me that due to a new focus on raising the achievement levels of special education students, all the special ed classrooms would soon be equipped with the very first wall-mounted Smartboards in our school. Oh boy!!

For the first time in recent memory special education would get a new resource before anyone else and we would be trained how to use them effectively. Oh boy!!

Sure enough, when we returned from spring break, the special ed classrooms, plus a few more, had brand new SmartBoards wrapped in smart-looking black cloth covers and with long slim bags of thick plastic holding the special pens and eraser to use with the boards. Oh boy!!

Two of the other classes that got the SmartBoards are the eighth grade Regents-level English and Math classes. I’ve seen the SmartBoard in action in the math class and I sat through a lesson on quadratic equations much more attentively than I did when Mr. Falk tried to teach me about them 40 years ago. I got it this time, and so did the current students who clamored for the opportunity to use the magic board to plug in minus-b and the square root of b-squared minus 4ac. Oh boy!!

For the past couple of years I’ve been reading about the transformative effects interactive white boards (IWBs) like Smartboards have on teaching and learning, how they increase student engagement, renew teacher enthusiasm, make it easier to differentiate lessons, provide more hands-on opportunities and really help visual learners like most of my students. Oh boy!!

But that is not what is happening in my classroom or in any of the other special education classes. Actually, almost none of the special education teachers have taken those nifty black covers off the boards or even peeked behind them. You see, unlike the two top-notch Regents’ classes, the special education classrooms did not get a projector; a laptop computer; and specific kinds of cables, the other equipment needed as part of the IWB magic act.

Its like we’re trying to cut the pretty lady in half without the box or a saw.

We’re told we could use our classroom desktop computers which, if functional, are anchored in place facing walls that don’t happen to have the SmartBoard mounted on them. Difficult, but we’re used to working in difficult situations and would figure out how to deal with it. Also, the projectors, whenever we get them, would not be ceiling-mounted, the common arrangement when the IWB is immobile. Instead, we will be required to dismantle all the connections and, for securely lock the projectors in closets or cabinets most of us don’t have in our tiny rooms, then reassemble the system again the next day. Would you do that for 184 days a year, or are you more likely to go through that process just a couple of times before deciding it is just easier to leave the thing in the closet and forget about it? Me, too.

I understand that money is tight, but I wonder what it means to my students to see those idle boards hanging there taking up previously useful space. Do they know that the Regents’ classes full of top-level students are, once again, getting better treatment? What conclusions would they draw from knowing that? What would they think about seemingly intelligent and well-meaning adults spending over $2,000 for each SmartBoard but not coming across with the extra $1000 or so necessary to utilize it?

As I sit in my empty classroom at the end of another long, difficult day trying to motivate students who are so sure they are going to fail that they won’t even try, I’m wondering how I can hope to raise my students’ self-esteem when they continually get messages that they’re only worth partial investment in resources. I’m left shaking my head at how a system composed of thousands of well-educated professionals can be so consistently careless about the meta-messages it delivers through well-intended but poorly executed gestures.

As excited as I remain by the potential of IWBs and as excited I was to see one mounted over my blackboard (rendering that ancient technology useless), I wish these SmartBoards had never been installed. Instead of making my job easier they are making it that much harder leaving me to wonder again why I am continually gullible enough to think that this time will be different, that this time my students are going to win.

Oh boy.

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Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009

The Votes Are In


Today was election day at my school. I was running for Chapter Leader to replace the woman who has held the post the past six years, mainly because no one bothered to run against her I was told.

It turned out to be a three-way race as the woman who has been our UFT delegate since forever also decided to run for chapter leader. It was a close vote, but she won. I came in second and the incumbent a distant third.

I am only slightly disappointed to have lost. Being Chapter Leader is a lot of work and I have enough to do. What really disappoints me is the voter turnout. Only 74% of the voters eligible bothered to cast ballots. At a time when teachers are under increasingly strident attack as the cause of whatever educational miasma might be affecting the nation’s students and teacher jobs are threatened, 100% turnout should be the norm.

What the teachers in my school don’t seem to understand is that their union is only as strong as the members’ willingness to stand up for themselves. Voting is the first step. I think my victorious colleague is going to have a long walk.

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Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009

Vice Versa


When she arrived from Ecuador two years ago, Juanita, who barely spoke ten words of English, was placed in a special education class. Today she is a sixth grader who speaks English well but she is still in a special education class. Her teacher and I are wondering why.

Juanita is a real person, though that is not her real name. She is charming, funny, friendly and hard working. Aside from the remnants of her accent she seems like any number of other girls in our inner city middle school. Juanita smiles easily, tells a good joke and occasionally gets a little cranky. Her classwork and grades are not spectacular, but they are not terrible either. They are on the level of a middling general education student.

So why is Juanita in special education?

I don’t know for sure, but it looks like she was placed in special education because there was a seat available there and none in an ELL or bilingual class. Perhaps there wasn’tt even a bilingual class in her elementary school.

Her initial IEP, written four months after she arrived in New York, notes that Juanita read and did math well below her grade level, but it did not note that all the testing was done in English, a language Juanita did not speak. Juanita’s mother has never attended school. She says she was unaware of what special education is; she thought it was an extraordinary class to help her daughter learn the local lingo.

Juanita did not learn much social studies, science or math because she did not understand what her teacher was saying. The social English she was rapidly picking up from her classmates was not a lot of help academically. Juanita should have gotten ESL or bilingual instruction. She did not because the school was more focused on what worked for them instead of what worked for her.

Let’s look at another case.

A month after he came to the US with his parents Robert was enrolled in kindergarten in a multi-ethnic, mixed income suburban district. This district has a policy that all students born outside the US must be placed in ELL classes, no exceptions.

Blanket policies are rarely a good idea, even if that policy would have helped Juanita. Here’s why.

Robert was born in South Africa to British parents. English is not only his native language, it is his only language. He speaks it with better enunciation and grammar than the school aid who insisted she had to enroll him in the ELL class.

These events occurred in different school systems, but there’s a fundamental problem in education when the student who needs ELL instruction can’t get it and the student who does not need it is forced into it. Common sense would help, but it is not enough. Basing education decisions on the needs of the student is also required.

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Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009

Shaken & Pretending I’m Not


We got a new seventh grade student in the special education department this past week and news that he was coming spooked me. According to reports the boy was in a juvenile detention facility for some time for breaking someone’s jaw. I don’t usually pay attention to reputations or rumors, so why did this boy’s immanent arrival make me doubt my abilities. I am usually very confident in my abilities to form relationships with students, to mediate their behaviors and to help them learn. Not this time.

I was so shaky about what was about to happen that I reached out to colleagues around the world via twitter for advice on how to handle this 13-year-old who somehow had become a haunting specter. My personal learning network on twitter includes many special education teachers and they advised me on how to introduce this child to me and my classroom. They didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know to do but I was reassured that my experience had taught me enough to handle the situation.

So why was I still nervous? I’ve had new students, many of them very troubled or having psychological problems, come into my classes before with aplomb. Why not now? Why was I so alarmed?

I’ve been reflecting about this and have come up with several reasons for my apprehension.

I’m tired; it is late in the school year and I am already starting to think about the process of shutting down my program and packing up the computers, books and other tools of my trade.

Getting any new student this late in the year is frustrating because there isn’t time to accomplish much of anything.

The new student was being placed into a class that was already difficult to manage because of its range of disabilities and behaviors which include two students who are selectively mute, a student with obsession compulsive disorder, another hostile angry boy and three hyperactive students whose medication levels desperately need to be adjusted to account for recent growth.

The final reason for my anxiety bothered me the most. I have already written about the two physical attacks on me earlier this year. Though I have no remaining physical damage from those incidents I apparently still have psychological damage to repair. If students who I had relationships with could come to attack me, a student who did not know me and who has a history of violence seems even more likely to.

I am large and strong and can be physically intimidating, facts that generally give me confidence and a sense of security, but I am also 55 years old, not in prime physical shape and increasingly aware of my mortality

Having fear is reasonable under certain circumstances and this may be one of them, but showing fear is a sign of weakness that is certain to be exploited.

There are only about 30 days left in the school year and only about 20 periods left when I’ll have this new boy in my classroom. I can hide my fear that long.

I hope.

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Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009



Here’s the problem. I have a long standing disdain for high-stakes standardized testing. I have made my opposition to the exams, and the reasons for it, clear with varying degrees of diplomacy in some large number of forums.

So why did it feel so good today to find out that the 71 students I teach performed spectacularly on the New York State ELA exams they took in January?

How well did they do?

The year-to-year scores of 70 of the 71 students went up. This means that those students had at least one year of growth in one year. For special education students, who tend to fall further and further behind each year, a year’s growth in a year is a major accomplishment. That so many students accomplished that is a testament to the hard work the students and all their teachers have been doing.

My principal is really happy. The other teachers are really happy (and relieved). I am really happy, which makes me feel miserable because I feel like I’m selling out my beliefs for a sense of accomplishment and the metaphoric pat on the back I got from my boss.

Pardon my language, but screw that!

My colleagues and I don’t like the rules I have to work under and I say so at every opportunity. Despite that, we show up every day and work very hard. Today we found out that effort produced results. It dissipated all my frustration, justified my irregular methods, healed my psychic wounds and relaxed lockdown-caused locked-up muscles.

I may not like the way the game or the way it is scored, but today we won.

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The administrators have reached the end of their ropes and, starting this Monday past, put three of the classes I teach on lockdown.

What brought this about? A simple matter of a majority of the students in the class perpetually being where they were not supposed to be: wandering the hallways, visiting the other academy either up or down stairs, bursting into classrooms (mine being a particular favorite since I like to keep my door open for the cross ventilation it provides), or invading the office of the counselor assigned to special education.

The lockdown means the students in those classes only leave the room for lunch and electives. If they want to go to the bathroom they are escorted. Instead of moving from one teacher to the next for instruction in different subjects, we go to them like a tribe of itinerant craftspeople toting our chart paper, markers and other tools of our trade.

This idea of bringing the mountain to Mohammed was supposed to be so hard on the students that they would see the light and reform their behaviors in order to be allowed to once again join the ebb and flow of the other hormone-laden middle schoolers crowding the halls during period change. Instead, it is the teachers who are feeling put out of place and punished for not managing our classes better even though we have been told repeatedly that is not the case.

This has been particularly hard on me because, even though only three of the six classes I teach are on lockdown, the Read 180 program I use is not portable and depends on the student being able to use the computers in my classroom. Where the English teacher relies on the library in each classroom, and the social studies, math and science teachers load themselves up like pack animals and carry their materials, I wander from one classroom-cum-prison cell to another empty handed.

After spending a couple of days guarding the door and watching the clock, I dug through my packed-away goods and found my stash of dice. I have fraction dice; 8, 10, 12 and 20-sided dice; and foam dice but what I wanted was my deep supply of regular six-sided dice to teach my students how to play Petals Around the Rose, a puzzling game I learned during my student teaching (it may be the most important thing I learned while student teaching).

Petals Around the Rose, the name is significant, requires five dice and I carry another five to give to the person who figures out the scoring. Figuring out the scoring is the whole point of the game. (If you’re interested you can play an online version of the game.)

Magic. Rattling those bones got everyone’s attention. So far I’ve given away two sets of dice, one to an 8th grader and one to a sixth grade boy. I wish I’d taken a picture of their excited faces when I told them they had figured out the game and would now have the privilege and equipment to teach the game to others.

When I walk into a locked down classroom now instead of having to duck as another projectile whizzes by my head, I am greeted by shouts of “did you bring the dice?” That’s a good thing because today I was told the week-long lockdown has been extended indefinitely.

I better buy some more dice.

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Vote for Me!


Today my candidacy for United Federation of Teachers chapter leader at my school began. For those unfamiliar with New York City, the UFT is the union for teachers, paraprofessionals, psychologists, social workers and a few others.

It feels odd running for office. I spent a large part of my teen years working on political campaigns for people running for President, Governor, US Senator, Congressperson, Mayor, State Legislator and the like. I think this experience will do me good in this campaign. There have been insinuations that my opponent, the incumbent, stole he initial victory six years ago and no one has run against her since. I’m sure the statute of limitations has expired on some of my electoral activities. Let’s just say that no one is going to steal an election from me.

There are many people who say that unions are out of date, that they stand in the way of innovation and whatever set of priorities or policies that carry the mantle of reform at the time. Because they have almost no control of the policies that affect them most, It is particularly when policies and procedures are in flux that front-line workers need strong representation and, in some cases, protection.

I have already told the story of how unscrupulous bosses committed murder in the pursuit of profits. These days, at least in education, the bosses hardly ever resort to murder, but they still have thugs to do their bidding for them. For example, there is Iris Blige, the principal of Fordham HS for the Arts in the Bronx.

According to staffers and students at the school, Blige belittles teachers and is prone to screaming attacks and general all-around bullying of staff and students. Her reign of terror has resulted in an astounding 70.5 percent turnover rate for teachers between September 2007 and September 2008.

“She has turned a fresh, budding school environment into a fractured community of turmoil and betrayal,” said teacher Peter Healy, adding that Blige has ruled by “creating a fear-filled environment.”

You can read the whole story in New York Teacher. Ms. Blige is not alone. The principal of the elementary school where I started teaching yelled at teachers in front of their students, changed ratings from satisfactory to unsatisfactory for observations at which she was not present, and once commented “I like my new white teachers better than my old white teachers.”

Fortunately, principals like those two are in the minority and the one I work for is generally approachable, collegial and reasonable. Even so, one of the lessons history teaches us is that rights not fought for soon disappear, and I’m going to be on the front lines of that battle.

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Word of the Day: Disablism


Today is Blog Against Disablism Day. A couple of hundred bloggers around the country and world are devoting their post today to the subject of disablism. Some will be angry, some will be funny and some will be proud. Many will tell of personal experiences of being victimized by disablism.

What is disablism?

Disablism is not hiring Stephen Hawking as an astrophysics professor because his voice is artificial.

Disablism is not voting for Max Cleland not because you disagree with his positions on issues, but because he has no legs.

Disablism is not seeing Stevie Wonder perform because he can’t see you.

Disablism is paying more attention to what a person can’t do than to what he or she is capable of.

I learned at a very early age that everyone has a mixture of abilities and disabilities and that what someone can do is more important than what they can’t. My best childhood friend taught me. His name was Alan Kamen and I knew him in fourth and fifth grade.

Alan was so good at so many things that I was jealous of his abilities. He played piano and the accordion, hit the ball hard when we played softball and spoke two languages. He was also blind.

Being an ignorant kid and too young to drive, I had no idea that blindness was a disability. Alan went to the same school as me and all the other kids in the neighborhood; he was in my class. He read the same books we read; they were big, heavy and in braille, but otherwise the same. When we wrote with pencils he wrote on his heavy braille typewriter. Alan played softball with us almost every day. We used a ball with bells in it and when he ran the bases we stood on the base and yelled so he could find it. Those were the only concessions we made to his being blind.

Alan taught me that there is usually more than one way to do things, that adaptation is a necessary life skill, and that everyone has abilities that are very easy to miss if you pay attention to what they can’t do.

No one is asking you to do anything special, just let ability trump disability.
The world being the way it is, we can’t afford to toss anyone’s abilities away.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009

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