I matter

09/18/2012

I used to be very shy. VERY shy. Then Angela Maiers showed me that I matter. 

It was three years ago at a major technology education conference in Washington, DC. I thought of it again this weekend because I was in DC with Angela for the first Bammy Awards for Excellence in Education.

The NECC was my first education conference and it is a huge one. Five days and tens of thousands of people. I had been on Twitter for a few months and had made some soft connections; I’d had some conversations with people and I knew a few names. At that time my handle was @spedteacher, being shy I used my job at the time instead of my name as a moniker. I was a very small presence despite my large size.

In many ways the NECC was a huge step for me. I had not yet met anyone I knew through Twitter face-to-face and I was in awe of the knowledge, the experience and expertise of the people I followed there. I was learning so much and wanted to learn more. I always want to learn more. Curiosity is my driving force. So I decided to go to NECC.

Attending NECC was an expensive proposition. Registration is a few hundred dollars; DC hotels were not cheep and were at a premium, especially those within walking distance of the convention center. When a teacher from upstate NY, who I didn’t even know through Twitter, contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to share my hotel room so we could both cut our expenses I only hesitated for a moment before agreeing. Fortunately, Ryan Wassink and I got along well.

One of the features of the NECC is what they call a Bloggers Cafe where people gather to write their blogs, chat with others and generally just process the huge amount of information being presented. In this instance the cafe was a collection of small tables and cushioned benches and couches of different heights. I would go there and sit off away from anyone else. I was VERY shy.

One afternoon I got to the cafe and it was fairly empty, I sat on a bench leaning my back against the side of the empty couch next to it. I did not yet have this blog so I was on Twitter looking at tweets about the sessions I was not able to attend. Some people came and the cafe began to fill up. There was an interesting conversation going on behind me and I was listening intently. At one point I turned around to see who these people were and as soon as I did this very pretty woman looked at me and said, “You’re spedteacher!”

That woman was Angela Maiers. Angela is an award-winning educator, speaker, consultant and professional trainer known for her work in literacy, leadership and global communications. She is a big deal. She recognized me. And she introduced me to everyone else in the conversation. Then Angela asked me what my take was on the topic.

I have no idea what the topic was, but I will never forget that Angela thought what I had to say mattered.

Angela has been telling people that they matter for a long time. She talks about it, she writes about it, and she lives it.

I’m writing this to tell you that you matter, and I’m writing this to tell Angela how she mattered to me. Angela recently started a group on Facebook called Choose2Matter. She, and it, have helped me change my teaching this year.

I’m telling my students that they matter. It started the first time I saw them and played them this message (make sure your sound is on, then click the play button!)

There are geniuses here!

I asked them to tell me about the kind of genius they are. Engagement was instantaneous. They all wanted to make a Voki and tell their message about the kind of genius they are and how they matter.Everyone got right to work, thinking, writing planning.

All except one small girl who just sat there staring at her paper. I went to her, knelt to her level and asked if she was okay. She nodded yes. I asked if she was having difficulty writing. She nodded yes. I said, “you’re very shy, aren’t you?” She nodded yes. I told her to whisper in my ear the problem she was having.

She leaned over, cupped her hands around my ear and softly said, “I don’t know what kind of genius I am.”

I whispered back, “I don’t know you yet so I don’t know and can’t tell you what kind of genius you are, but my first job this year is to help you discover it for yourself and learn how to show it to the world.”

She smiled.

I mattered.

Thank you, Angela.

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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.


Teacher Gets A Final Report Card: B-

06/16/2010
Students holding report cards.
Image via Wikipedia

It is report card time again.

I give one to each of my students and my students give one to me.

I started this earlier this year and I did very well in the first quarter.

My students tell me that in some ways I improved as the year went on. In other ways I did not.

As in the past, I let each student decide what criteria was important to them and how they would grade me. I do this so I don’t impose my idea of what is important on them.

On my first report card I got very favorable grades. This time the students were more discerning.

“We always learn something in class (Progress: 75%) but you need to be more tough (Discipline 40%) Overall grade: 65,” wrote one boy.

“You as a person: A+. You as a teacher: C-. Surprise tests are never a good idea,” a girl explained.

But another student wrote, “You always prepared us for tests, you always spent extra time with me when I didn’t understand something.”

Two students said I get out of control sometimes, and two others asked how I manage to keep myself under control all the time (deep breathing I learned in yoga class).

Many students offered suggestions for how I could improve:

speak more clearly.

explain more, even when we don’t ask questions.

give more work.

be a tougher disciplinarian.

control the class better.

get a different job.

Other students appreciated that I:

gave choices about assignments.

assigned a lot of projects.

played music and served food from the countries we studied.

am open to criticism.

don’t hold grudges.

Today I also told my 6th grade students that I would be their homeroom and social studies teacher next year.

Only two people shouted out “OH, NO!”

Three girls hugged me. Two boys hugged me.

When report cards are what you seek you see they come in all forms.

One troubled boy tried to throw a chair at me.

Another boy stopped him.

In my mind, that’s a B- average.

Lots of room for improvement, indeed.

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Pushing Beyond Their Limits

05/20/2010
Six Flag Great Adventure from high up
Image by xmascarol via Flickr

I’ve got a great 6th grade social studies class.

They’re bright, chatty, funny, ambitious, and thoroughly indoctrinated into the hunt for grades.

It’s really sad to see, all these very sharp kids more concerned with getting the right answer and scoring 100 on tests than actually learning and making connections.

It is as if we’ve taught them to just regurgitate information instead of constructing knowledge.

I do what I can to fight that tendency.

I’m not big on tests, but a couple of months ago I started giving this class weekly assessments of some kind.

I’ve told these kids that everything in life, every moment, is a test and I’ve reinforced that occasionally by announcing the assessment after it has occurred.

Today I realized that I could not give them their weekly assessment tomorrow because they would be away on the 6th grade end-of-year trip, so I started class today with the announcement that I had good and bad news for them.

I gave them the bad news first: “There’s no room on the bus so I won’t be able to go to Great Adventures with you tomorrow.”

The students were stunned and upset. Then I reminded them that I had good news, too.

“Because you’ll be on your trip tomorrow I can’t give you your weekly assessment then…,”

Cheers!

“…so Ill have to do it today,”

Shock!

Some were angry, some very worried, and one girl looked like she was going to cry.

Even S, as close to a dream student as I’m even likely to see, reacted like I had betrayed her.

We’ve been studying the Renaissance the past two weeks or so and we’ve talked about how it contrasted with the Medieval era, how culture flourished and new styles of art, music, eating and fashion had emerged.

The past two days we’ve been starting to look at the age of exploration, discussing why people explore and looking at maps of the known world in the last quarter of the 15th Century.

Europe in 1470

Image via Wikipedia

My assessment today had one question.

What was it about the last half of the 15th Century and first half of the 16th that led to the massive amount of exploration by Europeans in that time? What else was going on that led to an explosion of voyages on sea and land in search of riches, spices, and the fabled Northwest Passage to Asia?

I was looking for my students to think about the Renaissance and how it really was a rebirth of culture. We had discussed how that rebirth was possible because of the relative peace of that era.

I wanted them to realize that the same peace that fostered the curiosity and creativity of the Renaissance also fostered curiosity about the earth and its limits.

As I walked around the room I realized that no one was giving me the type of answer I was expecting.

Many students were telling me why people explored and the rest were describing conditions of war, poverty and pestilence common in Medieval times.

I restated the question in different words.

No change in their answers. Even the one or two who realized this was the Renaissance time-period did not make the connection.

I stopped the assessment.

I explained that almost everyone was heading off in the wrong direction, that I knew they knew what was actually going on in the 1490s and beyond, but that they were giving me details of an earlier time.

Only now do I realize they were telling me why people have emigrated in the past century, something many of them have done.

In the middle of the class I knew that they had not made the intellectual leap I thought they would.

Most of the kids were angry that I had stopped them from continuing to write their answers, even after I told them they were going off in the wrong direction. After all, they had worked hard putting their ideas on paper.

The more accomplished students in the class were angry because I had asked them such a complex question.

I told them that I thought they could make the intellectual leap I was asking them to, but perhaps I was asking too much. I reminded them that after a few years teaching intellectually challenged students, I was still learning how to teach and assess intellectually gifted ones.

Then I told them that if they get every question right every time, they’re not being challenged enough; that they would not know what they were capable of until they failed at something because they had over-reached or had been over-challenged.

I explained that I assess them constantly and already knew that they got what was different about the Renaissance, that they understood many of the reasons men and women go off into the unknown.

“I know what you know,” I said,  “Now I want to discover what you’re doing with what you know.”

They thought for a while.

They looked at each other.

They looked at the floor.

They looked at me.

Finally one tiny girl spoke up.

“I remember at the beginning of the year you told us you would be very different from any other teacher we’ve had.”

I smiled at the memory.

“You really weren’t kidding, were you?”

“And I’m going to be your social studies teacher again next year!”

Smiles all around.

I think it was my proudest moment in my teaching career.

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Finally, Something BADD To Say

05/02/2010
spinal fusion model 2
Image by Dillon K. Hoops via Flickr

Yesterday, May 1, was Blog Against Disablism Day.

I wanted to write something good, something intelligent, perhaps something engaging as my contribution to the effort.

Nothing came to mind.

Then I picked up the New York Times this morning and read about Dayniah Manderson.

Ms. Manderson and I have a lot in common. We are both teachers. We both teach in the east side of the Bronx. We both teach 6th graders.

When the elevator in my school doesn’t work I haul my cart and carcass up the stairs.

When the elevator in Ms. Manderson’s school doesn’t work she can’t do that.

My cart, at its most full, weighs about twenty pounds.

Ms. Manderson’s weighs just under 300 pounds.

Ms. Manderson has spinal muscular atrophy and her “cart” is her electric wheelchair.

Spinal Muscular Atrophy is something one is born with.

Children born with Type I usually die before they turn two. Ms. Manderson has Type II. People with that form of the disease rarely live past 30.

I don’t know how old Ms. Manderson is. It doesn’t matter so much because she is doing a lot with whatever time she has.

But this essay is not about Ms. Manderson.

It is also not about the principal who told Ms. Manderson that if she were hired as a teacher the students might “throw her down the stairs.”

No, this is about the other principal. The one who looked at Ms. Manderson and saw a teacher with potential, not just a person with paralysis.

I don’t know that principal’s name, but he or she got it and is one less person we have to convince not to engage in disablism.

Small victories need to be celebrated.

Next!

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Never Let Go, Never Give Up

04/30/2010
Clinging Vines
Image by TexasEagle via Flickr

“Once I am your teacher I never let go.”

That is one of the first things I tell my students at the beginning of the school year.

I started saying that in my third year of teaching when I finally got my own class. They were twelve sixth-grade special education students and they didn’t believe me.

Those kids are freshmen in high school now. I still have the phone

A gang sign of the Bloods

Image via Wikipedia

numbers of their parents or guardians in my cell phone’s directory.

Every now and then I call one of them to see how the boy or girl I taught is doing.

Some are thriving, some having a harder time.

One has dropped out and joined a gang.

I ran into him the other day after school.

He was wearing his colors so I didn’t have to ask him what was going on in his life.

We made small talk for a while before I asked him what happened, why had he given up on school.

He is a smart boy who has raging hormones and is easily distracted. He is also a very good basketball player.

He told me that his school doesn’t let freshmen play on the varsity and that students must maintain passing grades to be on a team.

He is capable of it, but he didn’t have to work too hard in middle school because, as a special education student, he had modified requirements for passing from grade to grade.

Those modifications disappear in high school

In high school all students are required to meet the same standard.

We warn them, but it still comes as a shock when it happens.

This boy realized around midterm, right around the time this HS basketball season ended, that he would not become a tenth grade student. He would not be on the varsity next year.

He has always had problems at home and those problems had worsened.

That’s why the gang is so attractive. It is a new family.

They don’t let go easily either.

This is where the corollary to I Never Let Go comes in.

I also never give up on a kid.

I reminded the boy of what I had told him four years ago and he laughed.

“I didn’t believe you then, but you tracked me in 7th and 8th grade and always checked in with me and my teachers.”

“I thought that was over when I graduated.”

I smiled.

“I never let go, and I never give up on a kid,” I told him.

“And the best thing about never is that never never comes.”

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U Made the Difference

03/24/2010
John Quincy Adams
Image via Wikipedia

“The success of this academy,” my principal said the other day “depends on what happens in room 250.”

Room 250 is the largest room in my academy, which is one of seven small learning communities within the school.

It is a very busy classroom.

It is the homeroom, math, social studies and science classroom for our very challenging 7th grade class.

This 7th grade class is even more demanding than my 8th grade social studies class that also uses the room. I’ve written about my struggles with this class a couple of times.

I also teach my 6th grade social studies class in room 250.

A teacher from outside our academy also uses the same room to teach the blended non-Regents Exam-taking 8th grade science class.

In case you haven’t been following along in your scorecard, the score is four teachers teaching three subjects to four different classes, all in the same room.

My principal was not kidding. Control room 250 and you control the academy.

Room control has been an elusive target this year. Even with more orderly classes, sharing a room four ways requires more compromises than we often feel capable of making.

One big problem has been the layout of the room.

Early in the year I was told to have assigned seating. That lasted exactly one day because the next day when we came into the room the desks were arranged completely differently.

It seemed like every time I went into the room some aspect of the layout was different.

Moving around the room was difficult because some desks always seemed to be in the way.

Using our interactive white board was frustrating because someone moving his chair a little would hit the wire along the floor connecting the projector to the computer and throw off the alignment, making the interactive part inoperable.

Even the most experienced teacher among us was ready to give up because nothing he tried helped him keep the class on task.

Our school has a contract with the Center for Social and Emotional Education to work with us on improving the school’s climate for learning.

Our consultant from CSEE met with Mrs. E, a teacher in our academy who told of our difficulties.

“You is the solution to the problem,” the consultant said.

“No, you ARE the solution, not you is,” corrected Mrs. E,

“Not you, U, as in a U-shaped arrangement of the desks.”

She then drew a picture.

Classroom
Image by James F Clay via Flickr
Classroom
Image by James F Clay via Flickr

Mrs. E showed the rest of us the picture later and we all agreed that U was worth trying.

That was Friday. Monday we arranged the room just as shown in the drawing.

What a difference a day makes.

In the U everyone can see everyone else.

In the U the center of the classroom is open and it’s easy to see who is working or not, easy to move from student to student.

And no one trips over the wires.

My 8th graders have been far more attentive, far more cooperative.

Has it worked for all students? No, but its shifted the climate enough that not working or misbehaving is an aberration instead of the norm.

All the other teachers are having the same experience with all the other classes.

Here’s what I’ve learned from this experience:

John Quincy Adams was right when he said, “Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”

When what you’ve tried isn’t working, try something else even if you’ve already tried a lot of something elses.

Having a lot of experience doesn’t mean you know all the right answers, and having the right prior knowledge is better than having the most.

Even the smartest person in the room can learn something new.

But my number one take-away from all this is that while it is great if students are attentive and engaged, it is our responsibility to create the circumstances that make their being that way easy.

Maybe U is your answer, too; maybe not.

But an answer is out there and it’s our job to find it.

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