School Choice? Sure, but don’t expect miracles.

07/12/2011
Shell Game

Some say that instead of automatically dumping money into public schools parents should be given the money and allowed to spend it on any school or other education facility that they think might work for their child or children.

Okay, but…

For many of my students there are no parents to make those choices.

For many of my students the parents are working two or three jobs to get by and don’t have the time to educate themselves about the options, much less attend meetings or other appointments.

For many students, some of them mine, the lack of transportation limits their choices more than the lack of options.

The parents of some of my students show up for every parent/teacher meeting…drunk…or stoned.

For many of my students their parental inability to read English, or in some cases any language, limits access to information necessary to know of options and make informed choices.

School choice does not help the student who comes to class hungry, abused or unloved.

School choice does not change the housing situation of students who can’t find a quiet room or flat space to do their homework on.

School choice does not help the student who goes home and has to care for infants or younger siblings because mom is working a night shift. Or out with her boyfriend.

School choice might be the answer for some people in some situations somewhere, but my students need a whole lot more than choice to make their lives succeed.

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An Open Letter to Rupert Murdoch

06/13/2011
Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and Chief Executive O...

Image via Wikipedia

Dear Mr. Murdoch,

Congratulations on getting a nice juicy contract for your corporation from the New York State Department of Education. A contract worth $27,000,000, is that right. A nice healthy piece of change, that is.

And do I understand it correctly that you got this contract without bidding on it?

How does that work? No, seriously, I want to know. Not because I begrudge you getting a $27,000,000 contract without having to bid on it; after all, that seems to be how things are getting done these days. Bidding just delays things and creates a needless level of bureaucracy, right.

No, I’m asking because I want to get in on the act.

Now I’m not looking for $27,000,000. It sounds great, but I have no idea how to handle that kind of money. You do. That’s why you’re a businessman and I’m a librarian.

That’s why I’m having the problem I’m having. You see, I want to buy a circulation desk for my middle school library and I have to get bids from three different vendors to do it, even though I know which circulation desk I’m going to buy. It is not really the one I want, but at $1,231, I know it is the one my school can afford.

Sure, I’d like to have a more efficient, better-built circulation desk, but I’d probably have to get a dozen bids. It doesn’t matter. My public middle school in the Bronx (that’s part of New York City just like Manhattan, but the way) doesn’t have that kind of money, not $2500, no sir.

Now you’re probably thinking this letter is looking for money from you. Perish the thought!

All I want is for you to teach me how to get money from the New York Education Department, the New York City Department of Education, or any other entity without having to get bids and without begging.

I know you’re a busy man and don’t have the time to teach me stuff yourself. But you do have employees who could do it. Maybe that fellow Klein who works for you now, the one who was NYC schools chancellor for a few years. I bet he knows how to work the system.

With the highest regard for your business acumen, I remain,

Deven Black

Librarian

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Opening Minds for More than One Day

05/01/2011
There are days and there are days.

There are days I like: Thanksgiving; Labor Day; the first day of spring.

This is a day I’d rather not see again; Bloging Against Disablism Day, the sixth in what I fear will be a rather long run.

For the uninitiated, disablism is how most of the world treats people who have disabilities, like parking in a space reserved for handicapped people “just for a minute” while you run into the store. If that isn’t clear, a detailed description is available.

I’ve come across an example of disablism in my school.

Using underarm crutches.

Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday there were two students in our library all day. They weren’t there to do research; they were there because they have injuries that require them to use crutches. Apparently our school does not allow students using crutches to go above the ground floor, but all our classrooms are on

the two higher floors. We have an elevator but students can’t use it.

While all of their classmates are getting instruction, they sit in the library. The teachers are supposed to send down work for them to do but they usually don’t. Even if they do, it is a textbook and a worksheet, not exactly inspired teaching.

While all their classmates are chatting, socializing and learning together, these two boys (last year it was girls) sit and talk to each other. Sometimes they get so desperate for conversation they talk to me!

These boys don’t really think of themselves as disabled but they are, at least for the next six to eight weeks. That is not the problem.

The problem, what makes this an example of disablism, is that despite kids repeatedly breaking ankles, legs and other things necessitating crutches, my school has not come up with a better plan for dealing with these mobility issues and the students who have them.

It is truly an issue of “out of sight, out of mind.”

People who have disabilities don’t hide like they used to, don’t make it as easy to keep them out of mind as it once was. They’re on the streets, in the stores and at work more and more all the time. That visibility is helping to create mindfullness.

I hope this blog post contributes to this growing awareness. With any luck I won’t have to write a post like this next year.

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The Worst Words in Education

01/24/2011
Golden Gloves Prelim Bouts
Image by kate.gardiner via Flickr

“Life is full of harsh realities. And I want as a parent to give my kids the ability to navigate thru life.”

Those are the worst words in education.

They are the worst words because they are used to justify cruelty to children.

What kind of cruelty?

Competition, for one.

I’m not talking about football games, elections for class president or the selection of the prom king and queen.

I’m talking about academic competition, things like spelling bees and other class-wide contests.

This afternoon, before the NFL playoffs, I watched a three-part video in which Rick Lavoie discusses why competitive learning is so problematic, and why it is a bad way to motivate students.

According to Lavoie, there is a major difference between the competition in school and competition elsewhere.  In school we are forced to compete. In life we only compete when we want to.

“The only person motivated by competition is the person who thinks there’s a chance of winning.”

“We do our best work when we compete against ourselves, not against others.”

I learned this in fifth grade.

I loved fifth grade. I’ve written about my experiences in Mrs. Lorenz’s class before.

In a response to that post my friend Mary Beth Hertz commented:  “It seems a common thread is that we remember the teachers who took their time to find out who we were and to treat us as people. We also seem to remember the teachers who were a little out of the box.”

Mrs. Lorenz wasn’t always out of the box and one event in her class came back to me as I watched the LaVoie video.

We had been studying simple machines in science. It was the third of fourth unit of our science study and Mrs. Lorenz decided that instead of giving us a midterm exam, she would have a science bee.

Example of one of the 5 simple machines: Screw

Image via Wikipedia

We were divided into two teams according to some criteria or another. Each team had a mix of students from the different levels of ability in the classroom. Whenever a team member answered a question the questioner could challenge the answer. When an answer was challenged, Mrs. Lorenz would render judgment. An incorrect answer would get the answering student eliminated. Failing to challenge an incorrect answer would get both students eliminated. A correct answer would allow the students to remain in the game and the answerer would get to ask a question of the next member of the opposite team.

It sounds very complicated, but we all understood how it worked. We flipped a coin to see which team would get to ask the first question.

The game progressed and each team lost a few players in the first round, and more in the second and third passes through the remaining students. It came down to two students, one of the girls in the class and me.

I asked her a question and she got it right. She asked me to name the five simple machines. I named six and she was smiling broadly as she challenged my answer. If I were wrong she would win. If I were correct, I would win.

Mrs. Lorenz took her time making her judgment. The tension in the room grew.

She looked at me then turned to the girl and told her I was correct.

My teammates were excitedly congratulating me but I was watching the girl’s face and it looked like she was going to cry. Having me lose meant that much to her. I was very upset by the whole situation but did not really understand why.

I have a better idea now. What happened that day more than 45 years ago was very cruel to that girl, to our teammates and to me.

That girl was very smart, she was probably a better student than I was, but she needed to defeat me to feel that way. Because she didn’t, she was ready to cry.

Her teammates felt like losers and my teammates felt like winners. Neither feeling was accurate.

We moved the next year and I have no idea what happened to that girl, but I never took part in a class competition again. If I were forced to, I’d deliberately lose in the first round.

My being smart or not, my achieving or not, has nothing to do with anyone else’s work, only my own.  Whether I choose to compete or not has nothing to do with anyone else. It is my decision and no one can make me compete if I don’t want to.

It seems the realities of school are considerably harsher than those of life. That is cruelty. If we really want school to prepare children for the realities of life, competition should operate the same way in school and out.

Let’s end mandatory competition.

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What Grade Would You Give This? Why?

01/23/2011
Etruscan A.
Image via Wikipedia

As a student I never liked the idea of grades because they never told the right story about my effort (or lack of it), my abilities (or lack of them) or whether I was being challenged enough.

Was that B because I couldn’t do A-level work or because I was not interested enough to do so, or because the assignment was too easy and did not require my full attention or effort?.

As a parent, I don’t like grades because they don’t tell me anything I don’t already know about my son: he’s a great reader and writer who loves history but struggles with math and the whole concept of homework. (except for the math part he is a lot like me as a student).

As a teacher, I don’t like grades because they do not represent a standardized scale of measurement. An inch is an inch and a mile is a mile, but what the hell is a B-minus? Is my b-minus the same as the teacher in the next room’s, in the next school’s? What is the distinction between a B and a C, and does that C I might give mean the work was too challenging for that student or that I could not engage her enough to get her to work hard. Does that B represent an otherwise A student who didn’t try or an otherwise D student who got inspired and worked his tail off.

I also don’t like grades because I see my students concerned more with what grade they might get than with what they might learn in pursuit of that grade.

In addition to teaching in a middle school, I teach at a college, SUNY/Empire State College, that for most of its existence did not give letter grades.

We give them now because graduate schools demand it, but we continue the process of writing narratives about a student’s learning, how that learning was accomplished and how it was demonstrated.

I graduated from this college and my transcript is about a half-inch thick (no wonder grad schools don’t like them), but it gives the best description of me as a learner I have ever seen.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could give that kind of description to all students and their parents? What would it take to make that happen?

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Making a Point, Missing the Point

12/21/2010
Lava Lamp Red
Image via Wikipedia

I am still astounded at the new things I’m realizing now that I am responsible for taking a library that stopped progressing sometime in the mid-1970s and bringing it into the 21st Century.

The first thing is that organization, never my stro

ng point, is essential in a library. There is so much to keep track of: books, borrowers, the card catalog (more on that in a bit) return dates, trends (more on that, too, in a minute) and new releases.

There are likely more things to keep track of, but those are the ones I’ve discovered in my first two weeks. I hope some more experienced librarians I’ve come to know will inform me what I not paying attention to that I should also be focusing upon.

The second thing I’ve realized is that it is almost impossible to go directly from being an excellent 1970s library that unfortunately finds itself in 2010 to being a 2010 library ready for whatever develops in the next decade or two.
Let’s start with the card catalog.

The subject catalogue (
Image via Wikipedia

We have a lovely wooden card catalog unit with a matching four-drawer file cabinet. Both pieces would look terrific in my house. The newest item in that file cabinet is a clipping from the New York Times of November 8th about the results of the Presidential election held the day before.

The card catalog is an anachronism. I just uncrated 15 cases of books and have a stack of catalog cards about a foot high that I need to file. I can’t begin to estimate the amount of time it will take to do that filing, but I have to think there is a better use of my time than doing that.

One potentially better use of my time would be to organize our non-fiction section currently in total disarray. It does one no good to look up a topic, say the grammar of Old French (perhaps you wonder as I do why we have two books on that topic), and not have a clue where to find the books filed under 841 in the Dewey decimal system.

Or perhaps an even better use of my time would be to figure out how to sell off that non-fiction section (complete with six — count them! — six different encyclopedias) and the lovely wooden card catalog and file cabinet in order to buy a few e-readers.

My friend and colleague Lisa Nielsen has been hosting an interesting conversation about e-readers vs. books on her blog. The conversation started with the news that Principal James McSwain of Lamar High School in Houston, Texas got rid of many of the books in his school’s library and replaced them with e-readers and a coffee shop.

I’m not at all interested in the discussion of whether a

coffee shop belongs in a high school, but I am interested in the fact that Lamar High School can afford to buy a bunch on e-readers. So can a lot of schools around the country. But I’m scrounging for bookends.

A black metal bookend.
Image via Wikipedia

Think about that for a minute. E-readers for a rich district and school, but my poor students get to watch me try to scrounge bookends.

While you’re thinking about that I hope you come to understand that until we find a way to make sure every student in America has access to the same resources, whether they are great teachers, e-readers, or classrooms with heat, all the other talk is meaningless.

All the education reformers, all the politicians, all the teacher unions and all the teacher-training colleges are all avoiding the central issue affecting the future of education and the future of our country: the large and growing gap between the rich and the poor.

Find a way to fix that and you’ll see a whole bunch of other problems you waste time talking about disappear.

E-readers? Maybe someday.

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All This Talk of Reform is Making Me Cranky

11/22/2010
Education Reform I found this picture at: http...
Image via Wikipedia

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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Where Are All the Digital Natives?

10/13/2010
Internet Map. Ninian Smart predicts global com...
Image via Wikipedia

I keep hearing about digital natives.

I’d like to meet one.

From all I hear about them in the media, on Twitter, in education conferences and elsewhere one would think there were digital natives behind every tree in every forest.

Or behind every desk in every classroom.

Not mine.

Not any of the other classrooms in my school.

Maybe they’re all out in the suburbs.

I asked my 16-year-old son, a junior in a nice suburban high school, if he knows any digital natives. He doesn’t.

I really want to meet one.

So where are they?

I work with students who range in age from eleven to 16. I’d think that would be in the prime age-range for being digital natives, but no.

Maybe there aren’t any digital natives in the Bronx, home of the nation’s most poverty enhanced congressional district.

Maybe they’re all in Manhattan. Or Kansas.

Maybe they’re as rare as left-handed dentists.

Or maybe they don’t exist at all.

Just another figment of imagination, or perhaps just a neat phrase that inadvertently tripped off the tongue of some glib presenter somewhere and stuck.

Believing in digital natives is not as harmless as believing in the tooth fairly, though.

Thinking that all kids are digital natives means we don’t bother to teach them about digital things.

Thinking that all the kids are digital natives makes it easy to forget that there are a lot of kids from poor families who still do not have access to the most basic modern technology that most of us take for granted.

Out of the 85 or so students I teach, 26 say they don’t have any kind of computer at home. Of the 59 with computers, 14 say they don’t have access to the Internet.

Most of the remaining 45 say they just got Internet access within the past 18 months.

There may be digital natives somewhere.

But let’s keep in mind that there are digital have-nots right under our noses.

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Oops, there I go again…

08/25/2010
White Tiger Mouth wide open!
Image by kabils via Flickr

I need to learn to keep my mouth shut more often.

This is doubly so when my ‘mouth’ is my fingers typing here, on Facebook or, most important, on Twitter where  I am known as Spedteacher.

Here’s what happens when I don’t.

I hate when that happens. But it is completely my fault when it does.

So now I’ll be easy to find on most Tuesday evenings starting at 8:30PM NYC time.

#spedchat is for teachers (and not just special ed teachers, either), parents, administrators, students and everyone else with any connection or interest in special education issues.

Topics proposed for the first chat on August 31st are:

  • How can parent-teacher relations be improved?
  • What do grades mean in special education?
  • Is inclusion working for general and special education students?
  • How do we get general education teachers to understand? (the current leader in the voting)
  • How have school budget cuts affected special education?

You can participate in the decision about what the topic will be by voting here.

To participate in the chat just log onto Twitter ( if you don’t have an account you can get one free, here ), then search for the hashtag #spedchat.

For a better explanation of all of this please visit my co-conspirator and #spedchat moderator Damian Bariexca’s excellent blog.

I hope to see you Tuesday.

I’ll probably get myself into even more trouble.

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My New Thinking About Tenure

08/22/2010
Girls in classroom, Traveling Library at Publi...
Image by New York Public Library via Flickr

My school has an old librarian.

I have no idea how old she is but I’d guess she’s well into her 70s.

She’s a lovely lady with beautiful script handwriting. She’s lively, opinionated and completely out of date.

She’s so out of date that she has become one more obstacle in the way of my students’ success.

Renovations completed a year or so ago doubled the size of our library. There are more shelves, more tables, more room to move, some computers and a printer or two.

We also have a big, wooden, card file with those narrow pull-out drawers. It is not maintained, but it is the only way to find out what books may or may not be on the shelves.

We may have the only library in NYC still using a card file. I hope so.

Two years ago I went to the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians because it was in Manhattan and because I was a member of the group.

At the meeting they have a smallish trade show for history book publishers to show their wares and for history-related organizations to try to entice new members.

One of those organizations was one of school librarians. They were showing the latest technological innovations in their field. I was drooling.

I told the woman behind the table that I wish my library were more technologically advanced but that we still use a card file.

“How is Mary,” the woman asked. “Hasn’t she retired yet?”

No, and she shows no signs of planning to any time soon.

I go to other schools where the librarians are using computers to teach students how to research beyond Wikipedia, how to tell a legit web site from a bogus one, and how to create a web page.

I go to other schools that have librarians who teach students about blogging, podcasting and creating animations.

I’ve only taken one class of students to our school library and that was six years ago.

I thought I’d arranged for a lesson on how to do research.

Mary decided to teach them cursive writing.

My students thought I was nuts.

My principal thinks it is time for Mary to move on.
I think it is time for Mary to move on.

All the students think it is time for Mary to move on.

Come the first day of school Mary will be in the library.

Mary doesn’t think it is time for Mary to move on.

Sometimes tenure sucks.

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