My Students Are Visual Learners; Maybe Their Parents Are, Too

Image by James F Clay via Flickr

I started calling parents today.

Friday, as I finally gathered the energy to leave school about an hour after almost everyone else, I stopped in the office and copied down the names and numbers of the parents of the students in my 8th grade social studies class.

Friday was also the last day of the marking period and I wanted to talk to the parents before the next one starts on Monday.

Friday I apologized to the dozen or so students in that class who are eager and trying to learn.

I end up teaching each of them one-to-one for a couple of minutes each session. It’s the best I can do under the disruptive environment in the class.

Today I talked to as many of their parents I could reach and told them how hard their sons and daughters are trying under very difficult circumstances.

I was ready to be blamed for the class situation but only one parent even hinted at that. Most said they appreciated the call and what I was trying to do for their child.

I also called the parents of the disruptive students to enlist their help in changing the behaviors of their children in the new marking period.

I was not able to reach many; the numbers the school had for them were no longer in service. The few I reached were only surprised that I was calling over the weekend and not by the message I was delivering.

It seems that where almost none of the attentive students had told their parents about the class, all the parents of the other students seemed to know what was going on and that their child was not learning, mostly because of my inability to control the class.

They were willing to blame me right up until the moment I cited specific behaviors I saw yesterday, Most admitted they’d heard reports like mine about their child before, but not to the extent I alleged had occurred.

Parent-teacher conferences are two weeks away.

Historically, not many of the parents of 8th graders show up, but those who do will see a demonstration of our new SmartBoard.

I’ve put fresh batteries in my Flip video recorders and I’ll be documenting visually and audibly what goes on in the classroom every day starting Monday.

If things go the way I hope, I’ll be showing a documentary about my teaching and student learning.

If things continue to go the way they’ve been going, every parent will know who and how.

I’ll leave it to their children to explain the why.

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Two Teachers In One, But Not In The Good Way

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I have come to the realization that I have a split personality.

Or something like that.

I am one teacher for my sixth grade general education social studies class and a totally different teacher for my eighth grade class.

I feel like Certs. Two, two, two mints in one. Except I’m three.

I also have self-contained Read 180 special ed classes, but I’m going to ignore them for now and talk about those two social studies classes.

Today all my classes went on field trips. I stayed behind with the seven students who did not want to go. I still can’t walk very far, so that worked out nicely for me.

I spent the day hanging up large posters of the life cycle of the Nile River the 6th grade students had made. There were six in all, two each for the flood stage, the planting season and the dry season.

Each poster was very different from the others but they all told the story of their river phase in words and graphics more or less successfully. Some were very creative. Some were a bit too creative. I don’t recall seeing helicopters mentioned in connection with Ancient Egypt and I doubt the citizens lived in prairie-style log cabins.

As I hung the posters I recalled the noisy, busy and fun atmosphere in the class as the students worked in teams on their posters. It was the same as they worked in different teams doing map analysis.

I really look forward to my sessions with that class. I’ve created a Ning for them and relish their excitement using it. I teach them little buy I spend time thinking up projects to help them create learning.  The class works for me and I work for the class.

I’m a very different teacher in my eighth grade class. I’m more controlling, or I try to be. I’ve written of my difficulties and while things have improved some, its still not the class I want to have.

I haven’t made a Ning for them. I don’t do posters with them. I am trying too hard to gain control because I need to feel they see me in the room.

Today I had seven kids in my X class. That’s what we call the mixed grade class of students left behind on trips. I had five sixth graders, two of them special ed, and two general ed 7th graders.

I would also have had five students from my 8th grade class who did not have the $6 for the tickets to the play they were seeing but I paid for them. I also gave them money so they could eat lunch at a restaurant with their classmates.

None of them asked me to do that. And they all seemed surprised and happy that I would. I told them it was a loan and they had all the time they’d need to pay my back, but it was worth the $75 not to have to deal with five of the bigger troublemakers in the class.

Except that I think I got more for my money than the five trouble-free hours I expected. The three boys were stunned that I would lend them the money to attend the play, that I trusted them to pay me back.  The two girls gave me hugs and one was in tears.

These kids are not used to having men in their lives who they can depend on.

When I was out for three weeks with my knee troubles I was just one more guy who showed up then disappeared.

Today was my 13th school day in a row at work. It’s a new personal record for this year, shattering the previous record of four days.

I’m back. And today I made a small difference for those five kids by being there and solving a problem for them.

I’m hoping I’ll see some of the effect of that sixth period tomorrow when I have that 8th grade class again.

And for the first time since the first week of school I’m looking forward to it.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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One Down, Thirty-three To Go

old classroom (Mie Prefectural Normal School)
Image by shuichiro via Flickr

I’m still struggling with my 8th grade class.

I’ve written about them before, and I’d like to be able to say the situation has gotten better and I guess it has to some degree. I have about ten higher performing students who actually try to do the work and tell the others to be quiet so they can. It works for about five minutes.

I have some of the middle level kids dropping into my Read 180 room in odd moments and after school just to hang out and chat. This is very important to me. It tells me they’re trying to get to know me and also show me that they’re not like the real troublemakers.

One of the boys who dropped in last evening was the one who I had to drag out of the classroom by his collar to stop him from banging another boy’s head on a desk. He did not resist and when he came to my room I told him it was not my intent to embarrass him but that “I could not have that shit going on in my class.”

I almost never curse.

Spending my early years working in radio cured me of using what was already a very minor part of my vocabulary.

Many of my students curse all the time. They need jobs in radio.

Anyway, the boy was stunned by what I said and while his mouth was still agape I offered him my hand to shake. He took it, smiled, shook his head and said,

“Man, you are so different from what I expected.”

I didn’t ask what he meant by that. I’m not sure I want to know

Today that same boy dropped by my R180 room as I was getting ready to leave at 3:15. Yesterday I stayed until 5:00 so he seemed surprised and disappointed that I was on my way out. I explained I had an appointment with the doctor for my knee. He wished me luck.

I smiled going down the elevator. I’d already had my luck for the day.

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When You Have Lemons…


lemonadestandawardThis blog never fails to surprise me.

I started writing this blog because of Twitter. On Twitter I found dozens, now hundreds, of people who seemed interested in what I was contributing to the discussion.

But saying all I want to say in just 140 characters requires a better writer than I

Here, I have all the space I need so I just start typing.

I am frequently surprised by what I write.

Sometimes I start typing intending to write about one subject and say one thing and I end up writing something completely different.

When that happens I usually learn something about myself, my teaching or my students. Those insights are addictive. That’s why I keep writing.

Some of the responses to this blog surprise me.

Most have been very gratifying.

My father now tells me he likes my writing. So do a few other people.

My last post got a particularly surprising response.


Thank you for your blog. It’s good to see that people are still passionate about teaching. I’m glad I found you through Twitter.

Your blog has touched me for many reasons, mostly because I have a son with special needs, and his teachers are my heroes. To that end, I left you a present on my blog – I’ve nominated you for the Lemonade Stand Award. To accept, you must comply with the following conditions:
– Put the Lemonade logo on your blog or within your post. You can lift it off my blog (
– Nominate at least 10 blogs with great attitude or gratitude.
– Link the nominees within your post.
– Let the nominees know they have received this award by commenting on their blog.
– Share the love and link to the person from whom you received this award.

Please accept the award. I can’t wait to see and follow the people you give it to.

Here goes. The blogs I’m going to list are mostly aimed at teachers. Some of them have to do with teaching children with special needs but many just help me reflect on my teaching and the context in which I do it. is a blog for special education teachers that introduces us to tools, techniques and ideas that help us help all kids. Teachers aren’t miracle workers, we just do the best we can. This blog tells how one dedicated teacher does it and provides ideas, inspiration and information to the rest of us. Alice gets it. She understands that students have needs that go beyond books and academics. She works hard to meet those needs as best as she can. Bud is a smart man who has a different perspective and comes to different conclusions. I don’t always agree with him, but he makes me think. In her own words: I am a disability advocate. As a young woman affected by a disability and a special education major, it is my hope that parents, students, teachers, and other professionals who assist students with challenges will find my work informational and educational. Lisa is the general ed teacher in an inclusion class who does amazing things with her students A look at the same classroom from the special ed teachers point-of-view.’ Writer, mom, advocate for people with disabilities. Put them in any order you like and you come out with a literate, readable, sensitive blog. Is written by a special ed teacher in Atlanta who loves her kids but not always the logistics of teaching them. A passionate advocate for public education, this blogger always titles her blogs with song lyrics.

I wonder if these bloggers also sometimes are surprised by what they write.

This time I wasn’t.

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Teachers & Tech, Today, Tomorrow, or When?

Printing press from 1811, photographed in Muni...
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I am one of those old new teachers. Or is it a new old teacher?

I keep trying to learn new tricks. In my field, the new tricks all involve using technology as a teaching tool.

This evening I participated in what seems like the 100th discussion on the topic of why teachers are not embracing technology.

The conversation took place on Twitter where messages are limited to 140 characters. I’m not really a 140-character kind of thinker, so I’m going to expand on some ideas here.

Why aren’t teachers embracing technology? There are so many reasons.

We’ve seen so many new mandated ideas that last right up until the next mandate. But technology is likely to continue to dominate the lives of our students. We have to use the tools they want to use.

Okay, I’ll use those tools. Where are they? Some districts and some schools within other districts have tons of tech: computers galore, interactive whiteboards, iPhones for every student and more. I’ve got a whiteboard and two computers in the classroom, one of them running the white board. That’s it, and we just got the first of that last year.

But even when the tools are available they’re used to deliver the same old lessons a new way. Teachers don’t learn any faster than anyone else. It is unreasonable to expect teachers to learn how to operate new tools and design new lessons incorporating them at the same time. That is like asking a carpenter to learn how to use a new type of saw and design a new type of furniture to build with it at the same time.

For teachers, tech is not just new tools; it’s a new language. Blog, Wiki, Ning, Voicethread, podcast, Wordle, glog, mash-up; tweeter, and those are just a few of the nouns. How many of them do you know? How many of them do you use? How many of them do you know how to initiate? And wait until you hear the verbs.

I’m willing to make the effort, where can I get some training? My school is making a big investment to equip all classes with interactive whiteboards and projectors. Cool. We’ve been trained how to hook the computer, whiteboard and projector together. That’s it.  Not one shred of training how to create on the whiteboard, how to use its unique capabilities, how to plan a lesson incorporating their use. With budget cuts, a lot of training planned his been pulled off the table. Its like buying someone a car, handing them the keys and saying “Figure out how to drive the thing by your self.”

But can’t you learn about tech from that great Twitter PLN you rave about? I love my PLN and I have learned so much about tech from them. I’ve learned the language. I know where all the parts of that car are and all their names. But that’s as far as it goes. I can’t learn to drive by correspondence course.

Okay, but there are teachers who won’t warm-up to new tech even with training. What about them? Some of those teachers are afraid of failing, of looking stupid in front of their students. They know how tough schools are when it comes to failure or looking stupid. There are also others who don’t care and will never change. My friend Paul Blogush says we should let them go extinct. I agree.

Another friend asked why teachers can’t use tech as easily as we use texts.

We’ve had centuries of reading and 50 years of textbooks. We’ve had five years of tech (though Ira Socol says slates and chalk are tech, just old tech, we all know what I mean, right?).

When we’ve had tech as long as we’ve had textbooks we won’t be having this discussion.

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Of Apples, Trees and Teabags

Seeger's album Clearwater Classics. The title ...
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There was a health care rally in my town today. Lots of people gathered in the park by the river to hear speeches, rally with their neighbors, and to hear Pete Seeger sing.

Seeger, now 90, was doing his fourth concert of the day.

Things like that almost make me ashamed to be hobbling around with my bum knee.


But this post isn’t about Pete Seeger, or about health care and only marginally about a nice day by the river.

This post is about my son.

I’m not one of those dads who goes around bragging about my son at every opportunity, so forgive me if I do it for a few moments here.

My son is 15, towers over me (and I’m 6’1”) and is articulate beyond his years. When I was his age I was working on political campaigns, marching in war protests, and helping to organize women who were being shafted by the city government.

Along with all the people at the park supporting healthcare legislation there was a small cadre of people who themselves tea-baggers and oppose government intervention in healthcare precisely up to the point where that lack of government intervention might affect their Medicare.

But this post is not about hypocrisy. Or socialism. Or healthcare. Or me.

It is about my son who spent his day engaging those teabag people in debate.

He talked and talked, not at the counter-protestors, but with them. He was polite, he was informed, he was forthright and he was relentless.

When one teabag man said that the current health care bill was aimed at having the government provide free health care to illegal immigrants, he told the man he was wrong and told him to read the page of the bill that specifically prohibits that.

The man’s friend read the page, admitted my son was right, and told his friend that too.

So many of today’s teens are disinterested, uninvolved, apathetic or too involved with their PSPs or Wiis to bother learning about their government, much less doing anything about it.

I just want you to know that I’m very proud of my activist son.

I’m sure he appreciates this.

But he appreciates getting Pete Seeger’s autograph even more.

I’m cool with that.

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When Bad Things Happen to a Good Teacher

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This is a story about the rubber room.

A teacher in my school got arrested today.

He got arrested after a student slapped him around and then, when he finally raised his hand to defend himself, she bit it and broke the skin.

All the students who witnessed the incident say the girl started it and that my colleague never struck her, pushed her or contacted her at all other than when she bit him.

Not one of his colleagues believes this man is capable of attacking a student. He is thoroughly easy going, relaxed, and non-confrontational.

This is a teacher who has dealt with most of the more violent, combustible, disturbed and/or psychotic students who have passed through the school in the four years he’s been there. He never even yelled at any of them.

While he was in the nurse’s office having his hand treated, the girl was telling the assistant principal that she had been attacked. The AP did what the law says he had to do; take the girl seriously and call the police, even though he was positive the girl was making the story up.

Instead of having a nice weekend my colleague will be waiting to appear before a judge for arraignment.

He will be released on bail, but he won’t be allowed to come back to work on Monday, not even to pick up his things.

Instead of going to work he will be told to report to one of the City’s Temporary Reassignment Centers, usually hot room with low ceilings and few windows. These are the rubber rooms.

On any given day there are about 700 New York City Department of Education employees assigned to rubber rooms. Some are principals, assistant principals or other administrators, but most are teachers.

Each person in a rubber room gets paid his or her full salary. They get their full benefits. They even get the pay increases they’d otherwise get for longevity or advanced degrees. This costs the city about $65 million per year.

People assigned to rubber rooms report there every day and stay there during school hours. That’s their job; they are specifically prohibited from having any duties. Then they go home.

Like all the others, my colleague will stay in the rubber room until the charges against him are resolved. Some people stay in the rubber rooms for more than three years. One has been in a rubber room for more than five years – the charges against him have never been proven or dismissed and he refuses to resign.

Rubber rooms exist because the teacher’s union, the United Federation of Teachers, insists that teachers not be fired without due process or based on unproved allegations.

Sometimes the accused person is guilty and deserves to be punished.

My colleague is innocent and his students are being punished. They are being denied this dedicated teacher.

A lot of people say teachers in the rubber room for more than a year or two should be fired. After all, they wouldn’t be there if they were innocent.

My colleague is innocent and will be there anyway.

Let’s hope it is for a very, very short time.

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Learning A New Lesson About What I Already Knew

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I had a lousy day yesterday.

Today was much better even though my leg hurts more.

My PLN helped make it better.

For those who are not teachers, a PLN is a Personal Learning Network. Mine is made up from my colleagues at school and elsewhere in the New York City Department of Education along with a couple of hundred really generous smart teachers I know only through Twitter.

Those Twitter friends really came through for me yesterday by teaching me what I already knew about what to do with that 34-student 8th grade social studies class.

When the class came in at first period today  they saw a map of the Missouri Compromise on the interactive whiteboard we finally got to work (well, mostly work) early this morning, the homework for the next two days on chart paper, and heard Ashokan Farewell, a Civil War era song, playing on the speaker I bought for my iPod that I forgot I had.

The class entered in almost stunned silence. I taught a mini-lesson, we had a discussion, they did some group work, and for about 38 of the 45 minutes in the class they were engaged and participating

We still have to work on those group-work skills so we can get through a whole period, but I came away with a totally different feeling than I had when I left work yesterday.

I’m actually sorry they’re going on a field trip tomorrow and will miss our class. I’d really like to go with them and let us see each other in a different light, but since I can’t really walk much I’m staying behind.

As I thought about the difference between yesterday and today I realized that I owed a lot of the improvement to my PLN.

They didn’t teach me anything new; they just helped me remember what I already knew and couldn’t access.

And that’s when it hit me.

I couldn’t access what I know I knew because of stress, frustration, pain and other forms of dismay.

My students have the same difficulties remembering what they know, usually for much the same reasons.

All I needed was a little reminder, some sympathy, and a good dose of encouragement.

Maybe that’s all they need too.

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