All This Talk of Reform is Making Me Cranky

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Today is blog for education reform day and I’ve spent a week trying to think of what I wanted to say about education reform.

I’ve been reading a lot of the other blogs participating and have been duly impressed by the level of conversation and the ideas expressed.

It is all leaving me very cranky.

I know education reform is taking place somewhere but where I work I’m not seeing it. Oh wait. Is all that testing reform and I’ve just not noticed it? If so, I’m sorry, I’ll try to pay more attention in the future.

Here are some additional reforms I’d like to see.

1. I’d like all the students in my school, my city, my state and my nation have equal access to exotic things like math books.  I’m tired of reading about one-to-one laptop programs here and there when the kids down the hall from my classroom don’t have math books but all the other 6th graders in the school do.

2. I’d like to see the smaller class sizes the City promised and was given extra money to accomplish.

3. I’d like to see the reductions in paperwork the city has been promising for years. I’d much rather spend my time gathering materials and planning than filling out forms.

4. I’d like to see my employer pay for the supplies I have to buy every year. It used to be chalk and stuff like that, now it is hard drives, cables and other things to keep the small amount of tech I have access to so my students might not fall ever further behind the more prosperous part of the populace.

I know these are small things and not what anyone is really thinking about when education reform is the topic, but if we can’t get the small things done can we really expect the big things to happen?

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Strike Four! You’re In!

humour: Tux freeing himself from ball and chain.
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Every year the NYC Department of Education issues a booklet delineating the school disciplinary code. Every student and teacher gets one.

In it, there are separate sections for K-5 and 6-8, each with four categories of offense and consequence ranging from mild disruption to bringing a gun to school. The former might earn a phone call home, the latter risks expulsion.

The idea of distributing the code is to show students that their actions have consequences. This works for kids who really don’t need to read the disciplinary code to understand that they need to behave responsibly.

It doesn’t apply to the rest of the school population, especially those students who are the most disruptive.

Take today.

In our 8th grade special education class there are two students who are increasingly problematic.

R is hyperactive and, on good days, just runs around the room refusing to do any work.

L is a very bright boy with a VERY large chip on his shoulder. He is angry, contemptuous, and also refuses to do any work.

These two boys are like this in every class. They’ve always been difficult to motivate, but this year is worse than ever.

R has started making loud, animal like vocalizations while L has become a major bully, threatening violence at the tiniest perceived slight.

The disciplinary code says that when a student is disruptive to the point of interfering with the safe and productive conduct of the class, the student can be removed for the remainder of that period at the teacher’s discretion.

Sounds reasonable, right? So far, so good.

But a student can only be removed four times in a school year.

For the vast majority of students that is more than sufficient. 98% or more of our students are never removed from class for disciplinary reasons.

Then there are kids like L and R.

We make a point of not removing L unless he actually hits someone. R also has to behave in an extreme manner to be removed.  Even so, both maxed-out their removals by the end of the first quarter.

Now, in order for them to be removed they have to be given a principal’s or superintendent’s suspension.  That means at least a week in our detention room or relocation to a ‘suspension school.’

So when L got up in the middle of his first period class today, opened a bag of cookies and started throwing them around the room, there was nothing the teacher could do about it.

And two periods later, when L and R were on the opposite sides of the room throwing wads of paper, pencils and, finally, textbooks at each other, there was nothing I could do.

Danger Placard
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In fact, R made a point of telling me he knew he couldn’t be removed unless he did something extremely dangerous (like a three-pound textbook flying across the room isn’t extremely dangerous).

“I can do anything I want and you can’t do anything about it,” R told me. “I’ve already been removed four times and you can’t get me out of here.”

Now somebody has to get pretty seriously hurt for any of L or R’s actions to have consequences.

They’ve learned they’ve gotten a license to disrupt the learning of every other student in their class as much as they want.

And that may be the only thing they learn at school this year.

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Talking to Parents, Talking to Myself

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I’ve just finished two hours of parent-teacher meetings and I have another longer session this evening.

This afternoon I saw the parents or guardians of twenty students. That means that meetings lasted about six minutes each.

I like parent-teacher meetings.  I like them as a parent, but I like them more as a teacher.

As a parent, I like seeing my son’s teachers and hearing what they have to say about him and his work habits. It is not always pleasant news, but it is essential information that helps me help him.

As a teacher, I like meeting the parents because it often gives me more of an insight to their children, sometimes more by how they look and act than by what they say or don’t say.

But what I like most about meeting with parents is that having to articulate my thoughts about their children forces me to solidify and clarify my thinking. Sometimes, like today, it takes my thinking in new directions.

I teach social studies. Or I try to. The problem is that by the time they get to 7th or 8th grade a great many students have decided they don’t like social studies. They say that it is boring.

I tell students that social studies is just the study of people and society, but they’ve gone through years of social studies being about names and dates, not ideas and how they are expressed.

Today I heard some unexpected things coming out of my mouth.

I told parents of 7th grade students that it really doesn’t matter if their son or daughter can identify the differences between proprietary and royal colonies on North America in the 17th and 18th Centuries, and I told parents of 8th graders that it doesn’t matter if their child can identify the three proposals for dealing with the aftermath of the Civil War (or, if you are reading this in one of the former Confederate states, the War of Northern Aggression).

I told the parents that the content was exciting to me but that chances are their child’s life would not be significantly different if he or she did or didn’t understand the War of 1812.

Then I committed the heresy of heresies; I said that the content I teach isn’t important, but the skills are. “The content is just what we hang the skills onto so we can teach them.”

But that wasn’t what really surprised me.

What really got me was when I started telling parents that school is a weird place. I said that for some children the context of school is more damaging than beneficial. Even so, I said, it is something that one must go through to get to that point in life when that hyperactivity or singular focus their child has becomes a positive attribute instead of a negative one.

I said that school is a bizarre way to prepare children for adult life because in so many cases school tells children that they are mediocre at best, failures at worst.

Be patient, I said, and you’ll see many of what teachers call negatives turn into positives not because the child changes but because the context does.

I think in many cases parents come to these meetings already knowing what teachers are going to tell them about their child. They keep hoping that they’ll hear something different, that their boy is now staying in his seat and persevering, or that their social butterfly daughter has settled onto a branch and is drinking the sweet nectar of math or whatever, but that’s not what they get.

Usually they just get more of the same.

Not this year, at least not from me.

I saw hope where even I had not seen it before. I advocated patience I don’t always exhibit. I was telling parents these things, but I was also telling myself.

Keep expectations high, but relax.

There are more important qualities than being able to pass a test.
Heart, courage, leadership and emotional strength are there in their kids.
See that.

Celebrate that.


The kids are all right.

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Finding the Time, Using the Tools

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I haven’t written in a month. Sorry.

I’ve been kind of busy trying to become the teacher I want to be in a situation I should love but am struggling with. More on that in a later post.

This post is a comment I made in response to this.

Thanks for the kind words about my statement. Not only do students and teachers need a safe space to fail, we need the time to fail and learn from that failure. More and more I see time, particularly the lack of it, the biggest impediment to learning. The answer is not extended days or shorter summer breaks. Instead, we should severely trim the curriculum and revolutionize our notions of subjects and related content.

Old tools and spanners

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We are increasingly in possession of a collection of technologic tools that more easily allow for individualization of learning opportunities, methods and objectives, yet we retain 19th Century notions of discrete subject areas and common learning.

As we switch from individual to collaborative models of thought, learning and creation, it is less important that any one person have a great stash of learning as long as the collaborative team does. Additionally, the collaborative team need not be in a common classroom, school or continent.

We need to help students (as opposed to teach them) to learn how to collaborate, how to find collaborators and how to use technology to do all that and also present the results of the collaboration.

For these reasons and more, teaching the use of the tools is at least as important as anything else we do in school. When I was in middle school we had typing lessons and in high school we were taught mechanical drawing, both examples of teaching the technology and not the content. Doing so was important then and it is important now, perhaps even more so as there are so many more tools and so many more ways to use them.

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