The State of the Union Wordle


I don’t know how many of my students listened to the State of the Union address tonight, but I can help them understand the emphasised points in the speech by showing them this Wordle of it.

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

Words, words, words, words


“Something has to happen to change the direction
What little filters though is giving you the wrong impression
“it’s a sorry state” I say to myself”
– from “Words”, Missing Persons: Spring Session M (1995)

It seems a lot of people are wondering about words. Words are for communicating, right? I mean, what else would you do with them?

Well you could play with them. Puns, anagrams, double entendres are all ways of playing with words. But even these word games depend on the same thing that clear communication requires, that words have weight. Some words are moonbeams and others sumo wrestlers.

Those metaphors only work because we have knowledge in common; the same force that gives words meaning.

Logicians will tell you that words don’t have inherent meaning, that they aren’t the things they describe. Cow doesn’t give milk, its just a name for the particular mammal whose milk most people drink. Say or write ‘cow’ and everyone has the same general idea. Our common agreement about words appends meaning to them.

I bring this up because of a little debate about what particular words mean is going on at Kate Says, my friend Kate Olson’s blog. The debate started with an item from the Traverse City Register I posted on Twitter:

I am different, not disabled,” is written by a young woman named Kim Kelderhouse who tells about how transferring to a school that used different words changed her attitude about herself and her education.

This article affected Kate enough that she blogged about it. That blog post generated some comments, like this one by Marcy Webb,

“To me, a learning difference = how one learns. A learning disability = a biological event which interrupts or disables learning.

I want to be part of the solution, too, but I think we need to call things what they are, and not sanitize them. There’s already too much of that.”

And one by Karen Jankowski that started this way,

“I use the terms interchangeably and do not believe it is sanitizing. Students are not labels; adults use the labels to help the students receive the specialized instruction they need to make effective progress, but the kids are not their labels. And often times, it is the curriculum that causes the ‘disability.’”

There were a few other comments, most along the lines of Karen’s.

Here’s what I had to say,

Differences and disabilities are not the same thing at all.

One of the things that everyone, but especially teachers, should understand is that the things we call disabilities are all context-dependent and school is the most debilitating context of all. Only in school do we expect a student to excel in all areas. The part of life that does not occur in school is much more forgiving.

Everyone has abilities and everyone has disabilities. Reading, for example, is very important and I have a pronounced inability to read. I can decode, but I lack fluency and comprehension. Despite that I am a successful writer in several genres, a teacher and a broadcaster.

I do have a serious, almost complete reading disability, but the disability is limited to reading music and is not much of a problem unless I sit down at a piano. Context is everything.

Most teachers consider ADHD undesirable in students but, again, disability is context-dependent. I have worked in small businesses for much of my life, a business manger hired by individuals who have a common entrepreneurial trait: ADHD. They are full of energy and ideas, but they need someone stable and focused to make their businesses work;

So you see, most of what we call learning disabilities is really ability exercised in the wrong context. We teachers have the responsibility of manipulating the context of our classrooms to allow students to develop and express their different abilities.

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