It Isn’t In the Air

Chalk Dust

Image by scholz via Flickr

It’s not in the water.

It’s not in our food.

It’s neither in the music we hear nor the news we watch.

It is certainly not in the chalk dust we breathe.

None of those things hold the magic to make a good teacher better and a better teacher great.

How does it happen?

It happens through the structured processes of teachers learning from better teachers.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

I hope I’m not bursting anyone’s bubble when I tell you it isn’t quite that simple.

Not even the best teachers among us are good at teaching everything. No one teacher will ever tell you that they know all there is to know about teaching. If your kid’s teacher ever says that to you RUN to the principal’s office and have your child’s class changed.

Teaching is incredibly complex and very hard to do very well, just like being a nuclear physicist. Fortunately, the people most likely to be bad teachers never try teaching at all. Most of the rest of the people who turn out to be bad teachers quit within the first three years.

So much for the new teachers being the best ones. Enthusiasm is great but it only carries one so far. You don’t get to become one of the best unless you hang around for a while, at least until the magic happens and you get to rub shoulders, work hard and learn from better teachers than yourself.

As much as I champion incidental learning, there is a lot to be said for structure in the process of learning complex things, things like nuclear physics and teaching.

All the politicians say they want better teachers, but they act like developing them is just a matter of drinking the right water, breathing sweeter (or maybe smoggier) air, or perhaps they think we need to breath the dust of colored chalk instead of bland white.

I know they think this way not because they say so. Oh no, they say just the opposite, but I learned a long time ago to pay no attention to what politicians say; you have to watch what they do.

What they’re doing is planning to take all the funds away from the National Writers Project, the Teaching American History program, and all the other programs that provide the instructional and experiential structures that turn good teachers better and better teachers more so.

This is a map of the NWP's local Writing Proje...

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Times are tough. Teachers are being laid off. Class sizes are getting bigger and bigger. Those teachers who will be in the classrooms come September will have to do much more with much less.

Don’t we want them, don’t we want us, to be able to do the best possible job, to teach our sons and daughters to be capable, confident writers, to help them understand that history is made daily and that actions today determine our future as much as any event or person in the past?

Cover of

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Write, call or, better yet, camp out in the office or front lawn of your Congressperson or Senator. Make them understand that great teaching is not as simple as breathing and that it doesn’t come out of a sparkling spring. Tell them the ugly truth and make them face it.

Great teachers are made the hard way. Through working at it in superlative programs like the National Writers Project and Teaching American History.
Tell your Congressman that they can’t have it both ways. They can’t complain about bad teaching while pulling the funding from the programs that improve teachers.

Insist that the National Writers Project and Teaching American History be funded now, tomorrow, next year and for as long as there are teachers willing to work hard to make themselves better at their craft.

Otherwise they should just shut up.

This is being cross-posted at the Cooperative Catalyst, a collective blog by people who care deeply about the state of learning in this country and are trying to figure out how to fix it and this post is part of the #blog4nwp effort to save a very worthwhile program.

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The Importance of Problem-Solving Skills

Santa Fe, approximately 60 miles North-Northea...
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I saw a very odd thing today.

I am on vacation in Santa Fe, NM and my wife Jill and I were walking back to our hotel from an event on Saturday morning when we saw it.

Someone had abandoned a Range Rover automobile in the traffic lane at an intersection.

Cars were pulling up behind this one at red lights and, because they could not see through the heavily tinted rear window, honking when the light turned green as if there were an inattentive driver behind the wheel.

Jill and I steered a couple of cars around the very expensive abandoned one before I looked in through the car’s open window and saw the key in the ignition.

I called the police and waited for the officer to arrive.

When he got there he ran the license plate and looked around the inside of the car. There was a wallet in the little storage box next to the driver’s seat.

A second officer arrived.

As the two officers were discussing what to do next a young woman wearing a nice dress ran up to the car.

She told the officers that it was her boyfriend’s car but she had been driving it.

Range Rover Supercharged
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According to her, the car stalled in the intersection and as it was near her boyfriend’s residence, she had gone to get him.

The police officers were very polite and clearly skeptical.

The woman repeated her story and looked down the street waiting for her boyfriend to arrive.

I wanted to hang around to see how it all played out but the skies were threatening (this is the aptly named rainy season in the high desert) and I’d already gotten drenched once on this trip.

As we walked back to our hotel I wondered how this woman had done in school.

The thought is not as strange as it may seem.

As the police had told the woman, she should have stayed with the car and asked someone who had a cell phone (on the odd chance she didn’t have one) to call her boyfriend.

Doing as the police suggested required what I consider the bare minimum of problem-solving skills.

Apparently this young woman did not even possess that level of ability.

For that matter, neither did the somewhat older driver who sat behind the abandoned car for two light cycles before finally driving around it.

I am so glad that schools are increasingly using project-based learning that helps students develop problem-solving skills.

That is more and more how I teach.

None of my students will ever abandon their cars, even cheap ones, in traffic lanes.

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Student Progress: Sometimes Its Not the Teacher


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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Differentiating Deliciously

The Food Technology room at Marling School in ...
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No, I’m not talking about the social bookmarking site.

I’m talking about education and food. That’s what this blog is supposed to be about and in a Twitter response to my last post, @ToughLoveforX remarked that high schools should have teaching kitchens.

I disagree.

All schools should have teaching kitchens. Maybe even all classrooms.

The earliest lesson that I remember from my schooling was when, in first grade, we shook heavy cream for what seemed like forever to make whipped cream and butter.

The next lesson I recall is when we made applesauce.

There was a time not that long ago when most high schools and middle schools had classroom kitchens. Most were removed shortly after Russia’s first space shot galvanized American educators to get serious about science and math because we had to put a man on the moon.

Been there. Done that.

Now its time to reexamine that decision to remove those kitchens.

Kitchens are the perfect venue for teaching middle and high school students.

Those students have an abundant interest in food and eating, so there is incentive to show up for class.

Each of the major disciplines can be addressed in the process of completing the task of planning, preparing and reflecting on the flavors of a menu.

Researching dishes to include on a menu involves language arts, social studies and nutrition science,

Scaling the recipe of a dish for a smaller or larger number of servings is measurement math and multiplication or division.

Costing the price of the ingredients, creating a budget and doing the purchasing incorporates various math concepts and skills.

Cooking and baking involve chemistry, physics and nutrition science.

Invitations, dish descriptions and critiques all involve writing.

And so on.

And why stop there? Sewing classes, woodworking shop, and other venues of practical skills are rich with academic possibilities.

Every day I have students coming to me and asking for food. Every student in my school is eligible for free breakfast and lunch, but I hear stories about how mom works two jobs and doesn’t come home until midnight and then starts to prepare supper.

It is a long stretch between an 11:30 or noon lunch and a midnight or 1:00 AM supper. Even if there were no academic benefits to having teaching kitchens, doesn’t it make sense to give these students the ability to prepare a nutritious meal or two?

There is a big push right now to introduce more and more technology into classrooms and I’m all for that. But the technologies most classrooms need are not interactive white boards or hand-held computers; what classrooms need are stoves, ovens, chopping blocks and refrigerators.

The investment for a classroom full of computer-based technology and a teaching kitchen are roughly the same but kitchen equipment is far more durable, more easily maintained and far less likely to become obsolete within a few years of purchase.

Critics of my proposal, and I expect there to be many, will say that classroom kitchens don’t teach 21st Century skills, or that I’d just prepare kids for flipping burgers.


Writing a recipe is pure concept mapping.

Planning a menu requires the accumulation and integration of information from a variety of sources and the creation of a cogent new document. Its a process of planning, drafting, gathering feedback, revising, proofing and publishing. Sound familiar?

Well run kitchens require collaboration, planning, critical thinking, problem solving, adaptation to changing circumstances, the ability to gather and evaluate information, mutual respect, attention to detail, and the ability to apply principles learned in the synthesis of new concepts.

Those sound like 21st Century skills to me.

Is there some risk in giving your average high school student a cleaver and 10″ chefs knife? Absolutely, but far less than giving that same student a car.

The fact is, the technology most classrooms need is not an interactive white board or hand-held computers; what they need are stoves, ovens, chopping blocks and refrigerators.

OK, maybe a computer or two to access recipe sites and to write the class blog.

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Learning Not To Drown

A life preserver, or toroidal throwable person...
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Once again I’m feeling like a fish out of water.

I’m a special education teacher teaching two general education social studies classes.

I’ve told you about my struggles with my eighth grade class. It is just the opposite with my sixth graders.

I teach in three different classrooms. I have one room for my Read 180 remedial reading classes for special education students.

I teach my 8th grade general ed class, and most sessions of my sixth grade class in a room I share with three other teachers.

But on Tuesdays I teach my 6th grade group in their homeroom because the shared room is otherwise occupied.

My sixth graders, N61, are deeply involved in group-studies of how the geography of different countries affects the way people in those countries live.

Normally the homeroom teacher leaves when I come in to teach her class but today she stayed in the room for a meeting with our principal.

There are 28 students in the class, divided into six groups.

One group wanted to use the computers in the classroom to show me two videos they made as part of the project.

Four groups wanted to go to the school’s library to do research or to use the computers there to assemble PowerPoint or more technologically advanced presentations.

The final group wanted to go to my Read 180 classroom to work on the one Internet-capable computer there.

I know the school rules. I’m not supposed to send large groups to the library without supervision.

I’m absolutely not allowed to let students be in a classroom unsupervised.

None of that stopped me. I sent 18 students to the library and five into my other classroom unsupervised while I watched the two videos.

Then I remembered that my principal was in the room.

Uh oh.

I was running from one classroom down the hall to the other and back (did I mention that today was my first day not using a cane since I injured my knee in early September?)

Finally, my principal finished his conference with the other teacher and called me over.

I was ready to try to defend my decisions about letting students work without supervision and I was ready to get chewed out.

“I see you’re giving these students a lot of freedom. This class can handle that independence. If you try this with your 8th grade class you’ll need to keep a much closer watch on them.”

“There’s one thing I always have to teach special education teachers who move into general ed classes; the classroom management is totally different”

“Its much easier to get the attention of 12 students than when you have nearly 30. I’ve watched other special education teachers yelling at their general ed classes to get them settled. That doesn’t work, and you’re not a yeller.”

Then he taught me to use a procedure that apparently every general ed teacher in the school uses.

By that time most of the students had drifted back into the room and were noisily chattering about the work they’d done. The din was considerable.

I tried the technique.



Before I got to three the room was almost silent.


The students clapped twice and were quiet.


It works.

Why has this secret been kept from us special ed teachers?

So though I felt like a fish out of water again, I was starting to develop lungs and learning to breathe.

It was very quiet.

And the air was very, very sweet.

And I sit here wondering…

Will this work tomorrow in my 8th grade class?

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Good News! And Maybe The Opposite.

no original description
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We got good news today.

It was leaked to us late last week, but today we were officially told.

Our school had met Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) goals in all categories and subgroups for the second year in a row. We were now officially a school in good standing under NCLB (No Child Left Behind).

Four years ago we were on the verge of being closed because of our history of failure.

Our then newly minted principal started changing the school’s atmosphere, expectations and attitude. Staff started to meet, reflect and change the way they taught.

Extra money was allocated to pay for extra professional development, new materials and Supplementary Education Services (SES).

The turnaround was not easy and not without turmoil, tears and other tribulations, but it was complete.

Going from failure to success was quite an accomplishment by our students, and our staff.

We could not have done it without the help of the Supplementary Education Services, mostly after-school tutoring and enrichment programs, we were able to bring in.

It was a complex and rich recipe that worked.

It worked.

It worked well. And quickly.

So you might think that the things that worked so well would continue.

Not even for a second.

Today we also got some potentially bad news.

As soon as we made AYP for the second year running all the extra money was removed from our budget.

Goodbye extra training.

Goodbye new materials.

Supplementary services were withdrawn. Completely. Cold turkey.

Does this make sense to you?

Not to us either.

We think the extra supports should have been withdrawn gradually, perhaps over two years in order to give us a chance to lock-in our gains.

Students arrive tomorrow.

By the end of this year we’ll find out how we will do without our crutches, without even a cane.

One more reason this will be an interesting year.

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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

A Special Day


I got honored today in an ususual and delightful way: a series of novels was dedicated to me and my students.

The novels are the latest series by Elise Leonard and published by Nox Press. Elise is a former teacher who took what she learned in the classroom about the shortage of serious literature for high school students with poor reading skills and did something about it. She has crafted two series of novels that are sophisticated enough to engage HS students who don’t notice that the books are written at the first or second grade reading level.

Ever since I started teaching in a middle school three years ago, I’ve been looking for books written at the first grade level but not written for first grade students. Middle school students do not want to read about furry little bunnies or bright yellow duckies. They want books that talk to them at their reading level AND their age level. Elise Leonard delivers the goods.

When I happened to land on the Nox Press website , I purchased one copy of each of the ten Junkyard Dan books. Each book is a nearly 100-page novel with character development, plot, conflict and resolution. The books are distinct but interconnected, the idea being to start with the first and to read the others in succession, the reading level being a bit higher in each book as you progress. Student reading levels rise as they realize that reading can be engaging and fun.

Today Nox Press’ latest series, A Leeg of His Own, was dedicated to me and my students, particularly one student named James. James was in my sixth grade class two years ago. At that time we worked on sight words and basic phonemes. When James read the first Junkyard Dan book, The Start of a New Dan earlier this year, it was the first novel he ever completed. It took him three weeks to read the 91 pages of the book, coming to my classroom before school started each day to read a bit more. He finished the second novel in just under two weeks. Now he’s reading the third in the series.

Left to right: me, James, Elise Leonard

Left to right: me, James, Elise Leonard

James is very hard working, but also very shy and he was simultaneously aghast and proud that he was being singled out for recognition. In her presentation after the ceremony Elise said that she hoped the recognition that we were getting today would inspire more struggling readers to try again and to keep trying until they succeeded.

Something clicked. After the ceremony I was interviewed and photographed by a local reporter. When I finally got upstairs to my classroom I had a small line outside of students, mostly boys, who wanted to start reading those books. I had to chase Elise down and order more copies. I had to pay for my first set. My principal paid for the ones I bought today. Recognition has its rewards, I guess.

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