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.

Advertisements

Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

03/22/2011
The principal's office of Union City High Scho...

Image via Wikipedia

I really like my principal. When his office door is open it is almost always okay to just walk in and talk to him. He’s smart, generally fair, willing to listen to ideas and different opinions. He gives useful, timely feedback on formal observations and more frequent informal ones. He talks to you in private. Most of all, he is consistent. Our school has very little teacher turnover. Our school rating has been rising steadily.

I’m not trying to butter him up; I just want to show how very different he is from the first principal I worked for.

It was impossible to just walk into that first principal’s office because it was behind a thick Plexiglas barrier and she had to buzz you in even to approach her. She was not open to ideas and had no interest in what parents or people on her staff thought or had to say. She regularly yelled at teachers in front of their students. She’d love you one day or year but hate you the next.

Barrier - PCA 93

Image by Donald Macleod via Flickr

Feedback was rarely constructive and hardly timely; I’m still waiting for the results of her 2006 observation of my lesson.

On more than one occasion she changed the rating of a lesson observed by one of the assistant principals from satisfactory to unsatisfactory even though she was not present at the observation.

She once said in public, “I like my new white teachers better than my old white teachers.” I was a second year white teacher and turnover was so high it wasn’t clear whether I was new or old.

The first year that teachers could transfer without prior principal approval more than 70% of that school’s teachers moved on to other schools, including all of the fifteen or so first and second year teachers. The same thing happened the following year. That school’s rating declined consistently and now it is being closed.

I bring this all up because right now a 50-person state of New York task force is in a big hurry to develop a new teacher rating program. They want it written before the end of June so the regents can approve it and regulations can be developed to implement it in September.

You’d think that they’d want to test the never-before-tried plan before they broadly apply it, but no. Apparently teacher livelihoods are not so important that you’d want to make sure the system was fair, workable and accurate before using it to make decisions affecting the continuation of their careers.

Under the plan, teacher ratings as highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective would be based 20% on student performance on state tests, 20% on school-district tests (that don’t now exist) or unspecified other measures, and 60% on classroom observations and other reviews. It is not at all clear what the basis for rating teachers in non-testing subjects — social studies, art, music, phys ed among others — or librarians would be.

Teachers rated as ineffective two years in a row will be subject to a hearing regarding the termination of their employment.

Governor Cuomo says, “We need a legitimate evaluation system to rely on.”

Absolutely, but this isn’t it.

The Journal News reports at least one educator on the panel creating the system, South Orangetown school superintendent Kenneth Mitchell, thinks the state is moving forward recklessly, “There’s a real potential for implosion…you need years to make these changes.”

One of the regents says he fears that forcing a new system on districts in such a short period of time could lead to unforeseen costs and worse.

“It’s gotten so far out of hand, but there’s nothing we can do at this point. If mistakes are made and the data is flawed, it would be terrible to make it public. People will say ‘I don’t want my kid in that person’s class.’”

Did you notice that not even the people worried about this program never mentioned the possible effect it could have on teacher livelihoods?

This is why teachers like me support unions.

United Federation of Teachers

Image via Wikipedia

Without my union standing up for people like me principals like my first one could ruin careers on a whim.

Without my union standing up for me I would be leery of disagreeing with my principal no matter how much I thought he might be on the wrong track.

Without my union standing up for me I would not be able to say my chancellor, a very capable woman in the publishing field, is completely inexperienced, unqualified and unsuited to run a school system of any size, not to mention the biggest one in the country, and that by appointing her our mayor insulted the students, their parents, and everyone who works in the NYCDOE, no matter how true it is.

Without my union no teacher would be entitled to a fair hearing on disciplinary matters.

Without my union no parent would have any voice in the operation of their children’s schools.

Without my union the billionaires like Bill Gates.would not have anyone standing up to them as they privatized public education. Would anyone listen to him about anything to do with eduction if he didn’t have all that money?

Without my union the special education students would get lost in the shuffle and not get their mandated services.

Without my union standing up for people like me I would not have received the quality education I got from the NYC public schools.

Without my union standing up for me I’d be afraid to write this blog post.

That’s why teachers like me support unions.


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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

10 + 1 Not To Miss

05/16/2010

I recently got tagged in a blog post by Shelly Terrell (@shellterrell) one of the many people I rely on for my continuing teacher education.

Tagging sometimes seems like the blog equivalent of literary logrolling in which authors conspire to praise each other’s books, but I really do read and recommend the blogs I am about to tag.

If you are tagged, follow these rules:

1) Insert the picture above into your blog with a link back to the blog that nominated you
2) List 10 blogs you feel others should read
3) Tell the bloggers you have nominated that you have tagged them.

Here, in no particular order, are the ten blogs that have made a difference in my teaching and/or my thinking.

SpeEdChange by Ira Socol (@irasocol) Ira is the single most interesting person I have met on Twitter. He’s a dyslexic former NYC police officer, author, and now doctoral candidate in Special Education and Educational Technology at Michigan State University. He is a passionate advocate for Universal Design in Education.

Philly Teacher by Mary Beth Hertz  (@mbteach) An inner-city technology teacher reflecting on teaching, learning, leadership and life with intelligence and spirit.

For the Love of Learning by Joe Bower (@joebower) challenges the “deeply rotted myths” that modern teaching and schools live by and explores more progressive forms of education. Always interesting, stimulating, incisive and quite often fun.

Keeping Kids First by Kelly Hines (@kellyhines) The title says it all. This blog is focused on teaching and learning, but takes a broad view of those topics. Don’t let Kelly’s easy-going North Carolina charm distract you from the deep thinking going on in these posts.

Learning is Messy by Brian Crosby (@bcrosby) His students are 4th graders, mostly second-language learners, many of them in special education. Brian focuses on how policies, processes and politics affects his teaching and students.

Upside Down Education by Amanda Dyles (@amandacdykes) She’s passionate about “using technology to ignite learning” and the subjects she teaches her 6th graders: science and social studies. And, despite living in Alabama, she’s a passionate Red Sox fan.

Human by Tomas Lasic (@lasic) A tinkerer who likes to ask ‘what if…’, Tomaz says “Rather than teaching people, I prefer to make them think and learn together.” And he plays water polo.

A Geeky Momma’s Blog by Lee Kolbert (@TeachaKidd) Asks questions. Asks lots of questions. Really good questions. Sometimes she finds answers.

ClassRoots.org by Chad Sansing (@classroots) One of the people with whom I often disagree. Here’s where we meet: Classroots.org presents failure and learning from it as equal partners with success in innovative teaching.

Reflections of a Science Teacher by Sandra McCarron (@sanmccarron), who describes herself as scientist educator and life-long learner. She likes to blow things up; all in the name of science, of course.

And one more…

Living the Dream by Diana Laufenberg (@dlaufenberg). Diana teaches social studies with passion and it comes through in every single post of this blog I recently started following. Diana discusses her teaching at Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy and explores larger themes of teaching and learning.

Challenge:

Take time the rest of the week to read these blogs and see which ones to add to your daily read! If you’re tagged in this post, please spread the love.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Academics or Life Skills? Yes! No! Maybe!

05/07/2010
Floor balance scales, foot lever and two dishe...
Image by Lichfield District Council via Flickr

Essential Questions are fun because there is no one right or wrong answer.

There are many answers, each with the ultimate potential to be right or wrong, or even change from right to wrong or back at any given time.

Our Essential Question today is: Academics or Life Skills? Should special education teachers emphasize one over the other, or is there a happy medium?

My answer: Yes.

My other answer: No.

My third answer: It depends.

I’m not trying to be difficult (there are those who will say I accomplish being difficult without any effort at all) but this is one of those questions of which the answer one gives depends entirely on one’s conception of the purpose of education.

My conception of the purpose of education is that it is essential that children be prepared to lead adult lives.

Vague?

You bet!

This is the problem with statements that need to apply to everyone.

Even if we narrow the statement to apply only to special education students;

It is essential that children be prepared to lead adult lives to the best of their individual abilities.

Not much clearer, is it?

The problem is that in stating the purpose of education, we are trying to answer an essential question.

Every student, whether or not in special education, needs an individually crafted answer to questions of whether academics or life skills should be stressed and to what extent one should be stressed more than the other.

It gets more basic than that: For each individual student the definition of what is appropriate to teach changes as each student develops.

When it comes to education, there are no easy answers.

It is time we stopped looking for them.

___________________

This is the third and final posting of a string of blogs for the Classroom Insiders series at We Are Teachers. I appreciate the opportunity I’ve had to reach their audience.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

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.”

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]