The Next Step

08/22/2012

Tomorrow I’ll be driving my child to college for the start of what I still call his freshman year. His college calls him a ‘first year,’ very Harry Potter-ish.
An event like this causes me to look back over the high and low notes of his schooling and I realize that his experience encompasses some of the he best and some of the worst in American education.

His public school life started in an unusually public way. His class was the class filmed for the HBO serial documentary Kindergarten. It can still be seen,12 years later, mornings on the HBO Family channel. He’s the really tall, very articulate kid, but if you watch the show, pay attention to the teacher. Ms. Johnson, now a middle school English teacher, was the first of a string of incredible teachers Jonas had through elementary school.

His first grade teacher, Ms. Pakaln, made home visits. When we had her over for dinner she remained focused on her student despite parental efforts to engage her in adult conversation. That waited until the boy went to bed.

Mrs. Schwartz, his second grade teacher, really got him. Jonas was much taller, far more verbal, and almost totally uninterested in sports, Pokemon or any of the other things the boys favored and, as a result, he had very few friends. He would regularly get teased by the 4th and 5th graders in the playground who thought he was their age and in 2nd grade because he was a slow learner. Mrs. Schwartz engaged Jonas in conversations and assured us that his social life would blossom in high school when he found others like himself. She was absolutely right.

During the year Jonas was in second grade I started substitute teaching in his district to see if I really wanted to become a teacher. I loved substituting for Mrs. Schwartz even though it embarrassed Jonas, but I especially enjoyed subbing in the second grade inclusion class in one of the other district schools. The next year, when those special ed students moved to Jonas’ school my wife and I arranged for Jonas to be in the inclusion class.

It was inclusion done the way it should be done; two of the best teachers in the school, Mrs. King and Mrs. Greenwald, both certified in general and special education, teaching all the students. When one was teaching the other was at a big table in the back where any student could go for extra help, and both general ed and special ed students took advantage of the assistance. Jonas befriended most of the special ed students, explaining that they were as different as he was, only in a different way. Smart kid.

In fourth grade Jonas had his first male teacher, Joe Galantich, a magnificent teacher, especially of social studies which became Jonas’ favorite subject. Joe also got Jonas who, by this time, was reading at the high school level. They would discuss books, especially the Legend of Sleepy Hollow which seemed to obsess Jonas.

Fifth grade was the first disappointment. His second male teacher was a rookie and much more of a jock. I strongly suspected that Jonas had already read more books than his teacher had.

Middle school was even more of a disappointment via the 7th grade social studies teacher who taught the most exciting period in American history, the Revolution and founding of the nation, through textbook readings and worksheets. That was offset by the wise-cracking Mr. Wisner, the 8th grade history teacher (“I teach history, [bleeping] social studies is for [bleep, bleep] wimps”) who somehow never bought his teacher lounge profanity into the classroom but still made the kids feel like they were being let in on some adult-world secrets.

Ms. McGillicuty, the exceptionally skilled 6th grade math teacher, helped Jonas overcome his prior struggles so he could earn his first A in the subject. It would also be his last as the following year he returned to his more usual low Bs and high Cs in math.

Our district is known for its very strong arts program and the middle school art teacher stood out as one the best of those three years. Ms. Mahan’s streaked hair, feathered earrings and tattoos taught him and us that great teachers come in all kinds of packages.

It’s funny how I remember the names of all of Jonas’ elementary school teachers but only the names of the few good ones from his middle school experience.

High school proved 2nd grade Mrs. Schwartz right, Jonas’ social life blossomed. He had too many good teachers to name them all but two or three stand out.

It took a school trip to France for Madame Pence to get Jonas who, at one point, exasperated us even more than his low grade had by proclaiming, “of course I don’t do well in French, I don’t speak the language.” pointing to his excellent English marks as proof of his contention. On that trip, Mrs. Pence and Jonas were equally astounded that he emerged as the main translator for his classmates as they wandered independently in Paris. His functional French was far better than what he was able to show in the class quizzes and exams. His confidence rose so much that he has chosen to continue studying French as part of his college program.

Jonas’ high school English experience started off with a teacher who gave his honors class the following homework assignment: “Make a list of all the characters in Hamlet.” That’s it. A list. No thinking required. To his credit, Jonas refused to do the assignment, pointing out to his teacher, probably more politely than I would have at his age, that Hamlet, like every other play, had a cast list at the beginning. The rest of the year did not get much better.

Fortunately, that was the worst of it. His other English teachers stoked the intellectual fire somehow still burning in him.

Simona Moldovan was Jonas’ 11th grade English teacher as well as staff advisor to the drama club in which Jonas became very active. She engaged him in high-level conversations that thrilled him but frequently left the rest of the class far behind. She is particularly responsible for my son’s professional ambition; in a parent-teacher meeting she told my wife and I that his becoming an English teacher “would be the greatest repayment I could make to my profession.”

The other especially positive English teacher was the one he had this past year. Thomas Burns, arranged to have Jonas teach all the 12th grade sections a lesson his and Jonas jointly prepared. When the hoped-for discussion failed to materialize as anticipated during its first iteration, Mr. Burns said “welcome to your first first-period class, Jonas. If you want to be a teacher you’ll need to get used to this.” Mr. Burns also helped steer Jonas to his alma mater, SUNY New Paltz.

SUNY New Paltz

Jonas starts there tomorrow and I haven’t seen him as jazzed about school since the first day of kindergarten.

A big thank you to all of Jonas’ teachers. Whether remarkably good or remarkably mediocre, you helped him become the confident, articulate, socially conscious and well-rounded person he is.

I can let him go tomorrow knowing he’ll make some mistakes, screw up at times, and be better for the experience because despite occasional struggles and the few inept teachers, his love of learning is intact and he will soak up knowledge everywhere and from everyone.

A chip off the old block, he is.

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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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Bad Teachers Cause Student Failure? Great Doctors Have Patients Who Die.

01/16/2011
Heart
Image via Wikipedia

In discussions of the reasons for using value-added data to assess teacher effectiveness the following argument for firing teachers comes up a lot: “If a heart surgeon fails at his job, she/he will no longer retain that job.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

Who in his right mind would want an incompetent heart surgeon? Probably the same people who would want an incompetent teacher.

But there is a serious problem with this argument: even the best heart surgeons have patients who die.

The best heart surgeons have patients who die for most of the same reasons that patients of less stellar heart surgeons die; and, oddly enough, they are many of the same reasons that students fail, even some students who are taught by really, really good teachers.

It is really very simple and can be explained in three words: uncontrollable external factors.

Lit cigarette
Image via Wikipedia

Heart surgeons have patients who don’t follow aftercare instructions,who smoke, eat fatty foods, eschew exercise, drink excessively and otherwise engage in other activities that render the heart surgeon’s skills moot.

They also have patients who come from high poverty areas where getting good nutrition is more difficult and high-calorie foods are more common. And they have patients with genetic proclivities that make maintaining good heart health particularly challenging.

Many of those patients die. It is not the heart surgeon’s fault.

Even the best heart surgeons will tell you that they are not miracle workers and can’t make you healthy if you don’t do what you have to do.

Patients have to take responsibility for their own health; if they don’t, no heart surgeon can save them, no matter how well-trained or how highly skilled.

Teachers deal with uncontrollable external factors, too.

The uncontrollable external factors affecting teacher effectiveness include poverty, inadequate early childhood development, and brain-based aberrations that make learning particularly difficult.

Teachers have students who don’t take responsibility for their learning the same way some heart patients fail to assume responsibility for their health. We have students who don’t pay attention to instructions, fail to exercise their minds, watch high-fat television programs and otherwise engage in activities that render our teaching moot.

Many of those students fail. It is not the teacher’s fault.

Of course, heart surgeons have one big advantage over teachers.

Valve
Image by lschmitt77 via Flickr

They can replace defective or damaged parts. New valves? Not a problem. Reroute blood around a clogged artery? We do it every day! Need a new heart? Done!

I wish surgeons could do the same with brains.

But even then, it would be up to the individual to use it.

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Strike Four! You’re In!

11/17/2010
humour: Tux freeing himself from ball and chain.
Image via Wikipedia

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
Image via Wikipedia

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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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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Chaos and Injury, What a Year

06/26/2010
Pelham Bay Park (IRT Pelham Line) by David Sha...
Image via Wikipedia

My school year started with injury and chaos and it is ending the same way, only this time I’m not the one who is injured.

On our last full day of the year my school schedules a Field Day at a very large park a short subway ride away.

The ride over was uneventful, just what you want a subway ride to be, especially when you’re shepherding a large group of students.

The injury occurred on the basketball court. Somehow one of our 7th grade boys fell hard and hit his head on the asphalt. A large lump formed immediately. Ice was applied and an ambulance called.

At last report he was resting after having had convulsions.

The chaos comes from every teacher in my academy having to switch classrooms before next year starts. This is not typical even though it will be my fifth move in the four years I’ve worked at this school.

I am envious of those teachers who simply lock up at the end of the year and walk away leaving the room only requiring minimum effort to get the room ready for September’s students.

Not only have I had to move rooms every year I’ve taught, I’ve had to learn a new curriculum or two.

Next year I’ll be teaching 8th grade social studies again, but I’ll also be teaching the 7th grade for the first time. I’ll be teaching general and special education classes. My principal wants me to develop a technology-based literacy-heavy approach to the curriculum.

I’m happy about all that.

The 7th grade class will be this year’s 6th graders who I enjoy so much. The 8th grade class, this year’s 7th graders, is generally considered a class to avoid if you can.

I can’t, and I’m agonizing over how to approach them.

I’m being advised to be very strict, to set clear procedures with high standards of behavior and enforce them rigorously. This includes making them line-up silently before entering the class and behaving with maximum comportment once inside.

I am not a very strict person. I’m very relaxed in an energetic, intense way. I am far more inclined to tell students what I expect and help them try to grow to reach those expectations.

I’ve got to admit that this approach has not worked well for me and, as the saying goes, doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome leads to insanity. I’m afraid it will also result in diminished learning opportunities for those students who already have large educational deficits.

So strict it will be. I have all summer to practice my teacher stare, to learn how to project my voice better while learning that new curriculum and figuring out how to use technology to teach my students.

I’m also taking additional training in social studies content, on how to use my interactive white board to teach social studies and on grant writing.

So that’s how I’m spending my summer “off.”

Oh, I do get to take a trip. My wife and I are going to spend a week in Santa Fe.

For that week I’m going to try to forget about students, forget about curriculum, forget about planning and forget about gathering materials and resources,

Why doesn’t anyone believe me when I say that?

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Student Progress: Sometimes Its Not the Teacher

06/18/2010

Teacher accountability is all the rage.

March 6
Image by lorenabuena via Flickr

I don’t think there is anyone who would argue that teachers should not be accountable for what they do or fail to do, not even me.

The only argument is how to measure what teachers do.

Oh yeah, we also have to define what it is that teachers do.

Part of the problem is that part of what teachers do is not done in the classroom, part of what teachers do affects student development but has nothing to do with academics, and teachers are not the only ones in a school who help kids develop.

For one child in my school the teachers tried and tried, but it was the school secretary who made the difference.

And what a difference it is.

K came to our school three years ago as a hostile, extremely withdrawn and occasionally violent sixth grade girl.

Every day she wore this large black trench coat that she would pull up so that she could be totally hidden by it.

She was mute.

She ignored any teacher who tried to speak to her, no matter how gently.

She ignored any teacher who tried to speak to her, no matter how insistently.

She ignored students who tried to speak to her. If they got too close she would lash out with the sharpened pencil always ready in her hand. More than once a student would get stabbed. K just missed piercing one girl’s eye.

K did not like school.

K especially did not like the school lunchroom, a near toxic blend of cacophonous sounds near manic energy.

K was not at all manic.

K seemed to be an empty shell of a girl.

Our school secretary is a dour, efficient woman who does not tolerate teachers or other fools well.

But she has a heart a mile wide and twice as deep when it comes to kids.

Ann invited K to spend the lunch period in the office with her.  K accepted wordlessly by showing up.

Ann would continue to work while K sat there.

Eventually K began to draw.

#2 Pencils, A Lot of Them

Image by alex.ragone via Flickr

And draw.

And draw.

The first positive thing we learned about K is that she is a talented artist who, with only a #2 pencil, created pictures filled with texture and emotion.

Eventually we heard from K’s father who lives overseas. He told us some of what K had been through and we began to understand why she behaved as she did.

It was not a pretty picture, especially when K eventually drew it sitting at a desk in the office eating lunch with Ann.

K ate lunch with Ann every day.

In 7th grade K travelled with the rest of her class to their different subject teachers. K still wore her trench coat but she didn’t hide in it as much.

And she stopped stabbing people.

Every time I saw K I’d say hello and smile at her.

Eventually she would look up at my face as I did that.

One day I got a crooked, shy smile back.

K ate lunch with Ann every day.

The black trench coat was replaced with a very large sweater.

K continued to communicate with drawings. Sometimes we got what she was saying, usually not.

K ate lunch with Ann every day.

K did very little schoolwork. But she started to give other people that shy, crooked smile.

One day K whispered something to me.

She asked to go to the office to see Ann.

It wasn’t lunchtime, but I let her go. She spent the rest of the day there.

K started talking more.

And more.

She continued to draw, and she continued to eat lunch with Ann every day.

This year K is in 8th grade.

The sweater is gone.

K smiles and talks to anyone who will listen or smile back.

K made a few friends.

And there were even days when K did not eat with Ann because she wanted to be with her friends. She went to the lunchroom.

But most of the time you could find K in the office where she would sit opposite Ann drawing or helping out at odd tasks.

Now K holds her head up high and her bright blue eyes sparkle.

K is confident, relaxed and even kids around a bit.

K went to the prom! And had a good time. I know because she told me.

Last night I went to a retirement dinner for four colleagues. Ann is retiring in a week when our school years ends.

Last night was the first time I saw Ann smile and laugh.

Her work is done.

On Monday K will graduate with the rest of our 8th graders, all of whom have grown tremendously since they came into this school three years ago.

But none has grown and developed as much as K.

Today K will have her last lunch with Ann.

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