Snow Day! A Reprise

02/10/2010
Tweed Courthouse, New York City - The headquar...
Image via Wikipedia

Why is it that when the New York City Department of Education seems to do the right thing for what seem to be noble reasons, the cynic in me rises to the surface and speaks.

Last year in early March there was a weather forecast very similar to today’s: snow beginning overnight and becoming heavier as the day progresses with near blizzard conditions due to 45mph winds.

NYCDOE memos say they’ll announce school closings, a very rare event, before 6AM and last year they waited until the very last moment, finally announcing the shutdown after many dedicated teachers had left early to get to work on time and far too late for parents to make alternate arrangements for childcare.

I wrote about that little bureaucratic snafu that morning.

I don’t know if Chancellor Klein or someone with his ear read that post, or the hundreds of other excoriations online, but things were done a little differently yesterday.

New York City is finally moving into the modern era when it comes to communicating with citizens and other people interested in changes in routine. The City offers a notification system similar to the ones introduced to college campuses after the Virginia Tech shooting.

This system allows people to sign-up for text message, email and telephone notification of things like changes in parking regulations, school closings and public health emergencies. I signed up early yesterday morning

Shortly after 11:30 yesterday morning the NYCDOE posted a message on their homepage in the Spotlight section below and to the left of the link teachers click to get to their curriculum information, teaching resources and DOE email.

The email link is significant. My principal and, I’m sure, many others in the system are trying – for budgetary if not environmental reasons – to reduce the volume of paper memos by distributing information via email.

We are told to check our email frequently.

We are never told to check the DOE homepage and most teachers I know don’t spend much time, if any, looking at it.

At about 1:30 in the afternoon I recieved a text message, an email and a phone call from Notify NYC telling me that Alternate Side of the Street Parking Regulations were suspended on the next day due to the impending snow.

Nothing about school closings.

On its homepage, the DOE said it was announcing the school closing so early to give parents time to make childcare arrangements for the snow day.

Still, it was not until more than three hours later, 3:03PM to be precise, that Notify NYC texted, called and emailed to announce the planned school closing.

snow covered cars
Image by dgphilli via Flickr

Apparently knowing that you would not have to move your car to the other side of the street in the morning was more important to NYC residents than knowing you would need to arrange alternative childcare.

Admittedly, its not always easy to find legal parking in NYC, but its got to be easier than finding emergency childcare.

Lots of teachers live in the suburbs and lots of teachers have young children.

Suburban schools close due to snow because it is difficult and dangerous to try driving school busses on slippery streets. Just after noon I received three notifications that my son’s school would be closed.

NYC schools rarely close because only special education students travel to school and home on what they call the “cheese bus.” All the others walk, are driven by parents or ride public transportation.

NYC teachers with school-age children also need to make childcare arrangements so they can go to work even when the suburban schools are closed.

But it was not until 4:30PM that the DOE finally got around to emailing its employees about the decision to close the schools.

The NYCDOE did make the right decision and they made it in a much, much more timely fashion this time. They get a well-deserved pat on the back for that.

But the NYCDOE needs to learn something from the difficulties they seemed to have communicating that decision.

They could realize that having high expectations, like mine for them, is not enough to produce desired learning; that learning requires teaching and time for repeated attempts to err, try again and, eventually, get things right.

Maybe they’ll understand that learning does not happen on a steady, smooth upward incline on a graph.

The NYCDOE went from an F to a C, or in the terms we use, from a low one to a high two, in a little less than a year. They are approaching the standard for school closing.

Eventually there will be another major snow storm, another opportunity to do better.

But chances are they’ll have a lot of time to reflect on their performance this time, to think about how they could do better when the next performance exam comes, and to practice the procedures involved.

I wish they’d give my students that kind of time.

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Goodbye 2009, Thanks For All The Lessons.

12/31/2009
Surely we must be learning
Image by tonyhall via Flickr

These past few days of relative idleness instead of work have given me time to think, consolidate, reflect on and synthesize from what I have learned in the past year.

I wanted to write a post thanking the people who taught me this year but there are far too many of them to name individually.

Of course my wife and son top the list, here is a brief rundown of some of the others I want to thank:

–my PLN on Twitter has been an incredible resource of knowledge, advice, support and amusement;

–my principal who asks his teachers open-ended questions about grading philosophies, for example, then actually listens to what we have to say;

— the other administrators and colleagues at my school are daily sources of inspiration, encouragement, kindness and challenge;

— my students, they think I’m teaching them but I’m learning more from them than I could possibly put into a decade of lesson plans.

I’ve grown and learned an amazing amount this year, just like every other one. It is what I’ve learned that’s different.

Humans are sponges, we learn all the time. Sometimes students even learn what we want them to and what we think we are teaching them.

All of us teach all the time. The only difference between someone called a teacher and everyone else is that we get paid for our efforts.

The difference between teaching in school and teaching through our lives is that professional teachers, like me, are under the delusion we know what we’re teaching when we plan a lesson.

Academics are a very small part of the lessons we deliver each moment through our behaviors, tone of voice, manner of dress, choice of vocabulary and sets of expectations.

——

I’ve learned that if you want a student to learn a new skill you name the skill, show what it looks like, model using it, and give students time to practice using the skill in a low-threat environment before asking the student to perform the skill in a summative assessment.

Why do we forget this when we teach teachers?

One of my Twitter friends, Eric Sheninger (@NHMS_Principal), posted this today:

Prof. New Years resolution: provide even more PD so my staff realizes the true potential of edtech and web2.0

Tech PD is great, but if you really want teachers to use the tech you have to give them time to practice, to learn from mistakes made privately, to develop enough skill so that they have confidence they won’t look like complete fools once they are in front of students.

Asking a teacher to use or teach using the technology without adequate time to practice is equivalent to giving a student a summative assessment the day after a lesson.
——-
I’ve discovered that change is easier for me than I thought it was, but it is still not easy. The problem isn’t change per se, but how it can challenge one sense of control and one’s place in the general organization of things.

The same things that make change difficult for me also makes learning difficult for my students.

The place a student knows, his home, community or school situation  — as bad as it may seem to us — is often less threatening to a student than any new one.

I seer this when I try to move students in self-contained special education classes into inclusion classes. The students have mastered survival in a class of 12; the skills and behaviors required in a class of 32 are very different.

While the student may be able to do the academic work, the social adaptations required are often overwhelming because they threaten the student’s self-definition.

——

My professional resolution for the new year is to be more aware of, more tuned-in to my student’s need and the factors that interfere with their learning. I resolve to make my classes even safer environments for growth and development.

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope it is a safe, healthy, enjoyable year filled with opportunity, growth and love.

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When You Have Lemons…

10/13/2009

lemonadestandawardThis blog never fails to surprise me.

I started writing this blog because of Twitter. On Twitter I found dozens, now hundreds, of people who seemed interested in what I was contributing to the discussion.

But saying all I want to say in just 140 characters requires a better writer than I

Here, I have all the space I need so I just start typing.

I am frequently surprised by what I write.

Sometimes I start typing intending to write about one subject and say one thing and I end up writing something completely different.

When that happens I usually learn something about myself, my teaching or my students. Those insights are addictive. That’s why I keep writing.

Some of the responses to this blog surprise me.

Most have been very gratifying.

My father now tells me he likes my writing. So do a few other people.

My last post got a particularly surprising response.

Hi,

Thank you for your blog. It’s good to see that people are still passionate about teaching. I’m glad I found you through Twitter.

Your blog has touched me for many reasons, mostly because I have a son with special needs, and his teachers are my heroes. To that end, I left you a present on my blog – I’ve nominated you for the Lemonade Stand Award. To accept, you must comply with the following conditions:
– Put the Lemonade logo on your blog or within your post. You can lift it off my blog (http://jonsmomblog.com).
– Nominate at least 10 blogs with great attitude or gratitude.
– Link the nominees within your post.
– Let the nominees know they have received this award by commenting on their blog.
– Share the love and link to the person from whom you received this award.

Please accept the award. I can’t wait to see and follow the people you give it to.

Here goes. The blogs I’m going to list are mostly aimed at teachers. Some of them have to do with teaching children with special needs but many just help me reflect on my teaching and the context in which I do it.

http://teachingeverystudent.blogspot.com is a blog for special education teachers that introduces us to tools, techniques and ideas that help us help all kids.

http://learningismessy.com/blog/ Teachers aren’t miracle workers, we just do the best we can. This blog tells how one dedicated teacher does it and provides ideas, inspiration and information to the rest of us.

http://mizmercer.edublogs.org/ Alice gets it. She understands that students have needs that go beyond books and academics. She works hard to meet those needs as best as she can.

http://budtheteacher.com/blog/ Bud is a smart man who has a different perspective and comes to different conclusions. I don’t always agree with him, but he makes me think.

http://www.empowerpeoplechangelives.com/ In her own words: I am a disability advocate. As a young woman affected by a disability and a special education major, it is my hope that parents, students, teachers, and other professionals who assist students with challenges will find my work informational and educational.

http://lisaslingo.blogspot.com/ Lisa is the general ed teacher in an inclusion class who does amazing things with her students

http://christinesouthard.blogspot.com/ A look at the same classroom from the special ed teachers point-of-view.’

http://www.vickiforman.com/ Writer, mom, advocate for people with disabilities. Put them in any order you like and you come out with a literate, readable, sensitive blog.

http://www.specialeducationteacher.me/ Is written by a special ed teacher in Atlanta who loves her kids but not always the logistics of teaching them.

http://katjewave.blogspot.com/ A passionate advocate for public education, this blogger always titles her blogs with song lyrics.

I wonder if these bloggers also sometimes are surprised by what they write.

This time I wasn’t.

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When Bad Things Happen to a Good Teacher

10/02/2009
New York City Police Department Chevy Impala p...
Image via Wikipedia

This is a story about the rubber room.

A teacher in my school got arrested today.

He got arrested after a student slapped him around and then, when he finally raised his hand to defend himself, she bit it and broke the skin.

All the students who witnessed the incident say the girl started it and that my colleague never struck her, pushed her or contacted her at all other than when she bit him.

Not one of his colleagues believes this man is capable of attacking a student. He is thoroughly easy going, relaxed, and non-confrontational.

This is a teacher who has dealt with most of the more violent, combustible, disturbed and/or psychotic students who have passed through the school in the four years he’s been there. He never even yelled at any of them.

While he was in the nurse’s office having his hand treated, the girl was telling the assistant principal that she had been attacked. The AP did what the law says he had to do; take the girl seriously and call the police, even though he was positive the girl was making the story up.

Instead of having a nice weekend my colleague will be waiting to appear before a judge for arraignment.

He will be released on bail, but he won’t be allowed to come back to work on Monday, not even to pick up his things.

Instead of going to work he will be told to report to one of the City’s Temporary Reassignment Centers, usually hot room with low ceilings and few windows. These are the rubber rooms.

On any given day there are about 700 New York City Department of Education employees assigned to rubber rooms. Some are principals, assistant principals or other administrators, but most are teachers.

Each person in a rubber room gets paid his or her full salary. They get their full benefits. They even get the pay increases they’d otherwise get for longevity or advanced degrees. This costs the city about $65 million per year.

People assigned to rubber rooms report there every day and stay there during school hours. That’s their job; they are specifically prohibited from having any duties. Then they go home.

Like all the others, my colleague will stay in the rubber room until the charges against him are resolved. Some people stay in the rubber rooms for more than three years. One has been in a rubber room for more than five years – the charges against him have never been proven or dismissed and he refuses to resign.

Rubber rooms exist because the teacher’s union, the United Federation of Teachers, insists that teachers not be fired without due process or based on unproved allegations.

Sometimes the accused person is guilty and deserves to be punished.

My colleague is innocent and his students are being punished. They are being denied this dedicated teacher.

A lot of people say teachers in the rubber room for more than a year or two should be fired. After all, they wouldn’t be there if they were innocent.

My colleague is innocent and will be there anyway.

Let’s hope it is for a very, very short time.

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I’m Not In The Game

09/16/2009
flip_front
Image by Terry Freedman via Flickr

I’m not teaching this week and I may miss a few days next week.

I’m not happy about it.

I tore something in my knee and can’t walk until its repaired, probably sometime early next week.

One of my associates on twitter says I’m getting grumpy because I’m hurting.

I told him to deal with it.

Grumpy, indeed.

Now I know how baseball players on the disabled list feel. At least they get to go watch the games.

Another member of my twitter crowd says my students will miss me.

My students don’t know me, and I don’t know them.

I taught three days before becoming disabled. I’m just some large old guy in their eyes.

They may not even remember my name. But I’ll know theirs because of an idea I picked up on twitter.

On my first session with each class I took my Flip Video camera and had each student say their name, one or two things about themselves, and their name again. I’m spending my time watching the videos and connecting names with faces and interests. I even know how to pronounce all the names.

I wish I could credit the person who gave me this tip, but I don’t recall who it was. I’ve learned so much from my twitter PLN that its almost impossible to recall who taught me what even though I’m sure they’re all very memorable teachers.

While its great that I’ll know my students’ names, I’ll have other fences to climb.

Right now my students are not learning the procedures I want them to follow, not taking the assessments I created to test their prior knowledge. They’re not tuned in to my plans for the year.

Neither am I. Even though I knew I’d be teaching general education students this year I did not plan well. If what I saw and heard in the discussions on the first day or two are indicative, I have seriously underestimated the thought processes and knowledge of my 6th grade class. I only had one session with my 8th grade class and we spent that doing the name video and a bit of paperwork, but I bet I made the same underestimation of them.

Teaching requires a constant series of evaluations of and adjustments to the needs and abilities of students.

Continuing my baseball analogy, teaching is like playing shortstop. You keep track of the game situation and generally plan what to do if the ball is his towards you. You plan for a ball on the ground and for one in the air (with tech and if the tech doesn’t work), but you still need to react to the specific speed, spin and placement of that hit that just left the bat.

Some teachers are as good as Derek Jeter and others are more like Heinie Sand, but we all have to deal with the balls hit to us or the students in front of us.

I’ll get back on my feet and back in the game. I’ll adjust, and my students might also.

So what if we start a few games behind.

It’s a long season.

We can still be champions.

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First Day Observations: Pulling Back the Curtain To See the Wizards

09/10/2009
William-Adolphe Bouguereau's La leçon difficul...
Image via Wikipedia

School started for real today.

I like the way my school does opening day. When the weather is nice, the homeroom teachers stand in the schoolyard with picket-like signs bearing class numbers and wait for their students to arrive.

Administrators, counselors, and non-homeroom teachers like myself roam the schoolyard with lists of all the students and their assigned classes so we can direct new students and those who’ve forgotten their assignments to the right place.

Everyone is very excited and the whole scene takes on the atmosphere of a reunion. It is fun to see students returning and to meet those arriving for the first time. The former are confident, smiling and effusive while the latter group is less sure of themselves and somewhat wary.

Parents of returning students greet teachers warmly (for the most part) while those we meet for the first time seek reassurance and answers to questions about uniforms, supplies and dismissal times. I linger in the yard with a box of tissues to disperse to happy or overwrought parents for drying their tears.

We all feel good about school for a while, and it is always interesting to see how long that good feeling lasts. I rarely get up to the third floor of our building, but on our second floor that good feeling made it all the way through the day.

I taught my first general education class this afternoon and found out that sixth graders can be polite and coherent and that some know way more about Mayan civilization than I do. That last bit is actually no big accomplishment, but I came away impressed and much more relaxed about having 34 students in the class instead of the 12 I got used to teaching special ed.

I roamed from class to class in our academy of five classes, one general education class for each of our three grades (6,7,8) and a self-contained special education class in the two lower grades. I’ll be teaching social studies to the 6th and 8th grade general education classes and reading to the two special education classes as well as another from a different academy.

All the teachers in our academy conveyed the same information about uniforms, procedures, trips, activities, and more, and it was interesting for me to wander from class to class and see the differences in delivery

I’m starting my sixth year teaching and today was the first time since student teaching that I could watch another teacher conduct a class.  I don’t know what the students learned today, but I got great insight into the teaching personalities of my colleagues.

This is not how it should be.

Teachers need to be able to see each other teach. We need to see what works and what doesn’t. We need to hear how a lesson is delivered, or observe how technology is used.

Almost all the proposals for making schools better have some language about spreading best practices. The more extreme ideas include taping a skilled teacher delivering a lesson and showing that lesson to students around the country.

That suggestion ignores the fact that one of the prime predictors of student achievement is the quality of the relationship between student and teacher.

Putting the silly proposals aside, there are still powerful reasons for having teachers watch each other.

But despite the almost universal approval of interclass and interschool observation it almost never happens because if I’m going to watch you teach someone else has to cover my class since I won’t be in it.

Coverages are expensive in dollars and student learning. No one wants to bear either cost.

That’s the funny thing about this whole discussion of improving education. It goes on and on and on despite no one having any intention of making any real changes.

You see, real change is expensive and, as I said in my last post, if it works they pull the money rug out from under you.

As one of my colleagues responded, it makes no sense to punish schools for doing better.

Nope. No sense at all.

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Outside My Comfort Zone? Way Out.

09/01/2009
Table set for the Passover Seder
Photo by Gila Brand, via Wikipedia

I am a creature of habit.

I read the Sunday New York Times Magazine on Saturday.

I always put on my right shoe first.

At Passover a song is sung that talks about all the good things God did for the Jews. If He only brought us out of slavery, Dayenu, it would have been enough.

My principal decided to push me out of my comfort zone this year.  He says I will become a better teacher as a result

Dayenu.

I’ve already written about how, for the first time in my career, I’ll be teaching general education students.

Dayenu.

I’ll be teaching a grade I’ve never taught.

Dayenu.

I’m going to teach differently by integrating technology into my teaching.

Dayenu.

I’m not going to have my own classroom.

Dayenu.

I’m sharing a room with three other teachers.

Dayenu, dayenu, dayenu.

There’s stepping outside one’s comfort zone and then there’s what I’m looking at as I look forward to the arrival of students next week.

I know its about those students, not about me, but I wonder how much more effective a teacher they would have if I were more comfortable at work.

I’ll let you know as the year goes on.

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Making A Difference Differently

08/23/2009
A typical American snack vending machine
Image via Wikipedia

I used to want to change the world.

All of it, for all time.

No one ever accused me of thinking small.

I tried. I worked really hard at it.

I marched; I carried signs, candles, and bullhorns.

I boycotted grapes and aluminum foil. I sat-in.

I signed petitions, wrote letters, organized students, organized grown ups, made speeches, registered voters, voted, and more.

I did that for a long time. I still do some of that.

I’ve changed the world.

Really.

Not on the scale I wished to, but change none-the-less.

It happened in my first year teaching, and it was completely unintentional.

New York can get pretty cold in late autumn and as November slid into December 2004, it did.

One morning I noticed that none of my students had gloves, mittens or hats.

That afternoon I went to a dollar store and bought every stocking cap, pair of gloves, and set of mittens they had. I cleaned that store out. When I told the owner why and who they were for he gave me a generous discount. It still cost me about $75.

At that point of the year I was the push-in writing teacher for three of the four 4th and 5th grade self-contained special education classes. I taught 36 students and they all got either gloves or mittens and a stocking cap.

I had one pair of gloves and a stocking cap left.

The one special ed class I did not teach was the fifth grade class of students who had emotional disabilities.

Almost all of the students, and certainly all the poor, minority and/or special ed students in the NYC public schools have every reason to be extremely angry and most are.

The few deemed to have emotional disabilities are the ones who act on the basis of that anger in what is seen as a less than positive manner. These actions include relatively mundane things like yelling and cursing a lot, and less benign activities: hitting people or throwing pencils, chairs, desks or other students; generally putting people at risk of physical harm.

There were eight students in that class and one acted on his anger more violently than the others. At the end of my first day as a certified teacher I had to hold this kid, Tyrone, wedged between the cafeteria wall and a vending machine to prevent him from doing further damage to the face of some other kid who had somehow angered him.

I managed to hold onto Tyrone even after he knocked the vending machine over. I kept telling him that I had no problem with him and he did not have one with me. Eventually he relaxed and I let him go. By that time the other student had been taken to the nurse’s office.

I did not see Tyrone for a couple of weeks after that because he had been placed in a suspension school, about as close to being a juvenile prison as you can get without actually being one.

I had one pair of gloves and a stocking cap left. I was standing in the hallway holding the bag they were in when Tyrone walked by.

I gave him the bag.

Tyrone stared at me. I told him to look in the bag. He kept staring at me. Then he looked in the bag for what seemed to be a minute before he finally took out the gloves and hat.

As he stared at the items in his hand his shoulders began to shake. I realized he was crying.

I didn’t know what to do. Another fifth grade teacher, a gentle, generous and experienced giant named Mitchell Weintraub took Tyrone into his otherwise empty classroom.

I went down the hall to my next class.

Later that day Mitch filled me in.

Tyrone never knew his parents. He had spent his entire life as a foster child, moving from one placement to another.

It turned out that it was Tyrone’s 13th birthday. Tyrone thought the hat and gloves were a birthday present, the first he had ever received.

I cried when Mitch told me that and I’m tearing up again now.

I know that every thing that happens has an effect on every other thing that happens afterwards, and that the effect of any one occurrence increases exponentially over time.

That truth is the basis of the Butterfly Effect, a notion that the wind created by a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing will, over time, cause a hurricane in the Caribbean.

I didn’t know it was Tyrone’s birthday and I would not have given him a gift had I known. We did not have that kind of relationship.

Even so, that bag of warming things meant a lot to Tyrone.

It meant someone loved him.

The other evening, after sharing an intense day of science professional development and a pitcher of beer, I got into a heated discussion with a NYC Teaching Fellow second year teacher who saw nothing wrong with teachers being rewarded or fired based on the test scores their students receive.

I don’t think I sold him on the idea that the tests are unfair, easily manipulated and fail to test the abilities most people say they want students to develop in school, but I think I helped him realize that the most valuable thing teachers do can’t be assessed from year to year, from class to class.

The most important things that teachers do isn’t measured in a test or from year to year. What we do takes years, sometimes decades to come to fruition.

We change the world, one Tyrone at a time.

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Not So Special Anymore

08/18/2009
Teacher in primary school in northern Laos
Image via Wikipedia

My teaching life is changing again.

Every year I get a new teaching assignment. Up till now, no mater how different each assignment would be, they’ve all had something in common: they’ve all been teaching special education students.

Starting September, all that will change. I will still be teaching special education students using Scholastic’s Read 180 program, but I will also be teaching social studies to two general education classes, one 6th grade and the other 8th grade.

I am entering my sixth year of teaching, my fourth in a middle school, and I should be pretty fearless about entering any classroom by now, but this new assignment has me on edge.

Most of my anxiety is centered on class size. I’m used to having classes of no more than 12 students. My general ed classes are likely to have more than twice as many,

I know. I sound like a wimp.

After all, teachers in certain third world countries often have 70 or more students in classes.

But they don’t have to worry about making the mayor look good by constantly raising test scores. I wish my mayor worried about students learning useful skills and other important stuff, but that is fodder for another blog post. This one is about not feeling special anymore.

I’m not worried about my not feeling special anymore. I will admit that there is a certain undeserved cachet connected to being a middle school special education teacher. I say undeserved because the people who assign cachet to the job think I teach maniacal children running through the halls throwing desks.

The truth is, that hardly ever happens.

I spent twenty-five years in the bar business before becoming a special education teacher. I tell people who now don’t see how I can be excited about going to work every day that my students are much easier to deal with than my bar customers were.

As difficult as my students get at times, they are sober.

I’m not worried about my not being special but I am worried about my students not feeling special.

I don’t like the idea of putting labels on students but I work in a system that constantly does it so I’ve tried to adapt. My adaptation has been to do my utmost to make my students feel special in all the ways the education system tries to convince them they are not.

I tell them they are smart.

I tell them they are talented.

I tell them they are distinctive, exceptional, exclusive, extraordinary, select, individual, memorable, and unique. ,

I tell them that most of the difficulties that they have with school are more about school than about them.

I let my students know that there is at least one pretty smart adult who believes in them, and that I also do.

My worry is that I will not be able to do as much for each individual student when I have twice as many students.

I’m worried that I/ won’t remember all those names.

How can I help all those students feel special if I can’t even remember their names?

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An Ethical Dilemma

07/11/2009

This past week I attended an institute run by the Center for Social and Emotional Education. The best part of the three days was a workshop on using socio-moral dilemma discussions to improve engagement and the school climate.

I define ethics as the subjective application of morality in situations where there is no clear course of action, as when two courses that seem right are in conflict with each other. It is different from morality in that morals tend to be more absolute.

Ethics come into play when there are conflicts between:

Truth vs. Loyalty

Short Term vs. Long Term

Individual vs. Community

Justice vs. Mercy

All four factors came into play during a discussion among my colleagues a couple of months ago. The principal invited the teachers to join him for lunch and discussion. The question he posed was, “When you give a grade, what does that grade mean?”

To most people the grades that students get seem pretty straightforward. A, B, C, D, F; what can be simpler than that?

But what exactly do those grades tell another teacher or, perhaps more important, a parent?

There were about two-dozen teachers in the room. One was a rookie and another had over two decades of experience; the rest of us fell along a normal bell curve between those extremes. There were English teachers, math teachers, a science teacher or two, some 6th grade common branch teachers and a couple of social studies teachers. Five of us teach special education students and the rest don’t.

Discussion was spirited as we attempted to define what a grade of B means. Each of the ethical paradigms came into play.

Truth vs. Loyalty General education teachers argue that grades for all students should follow the same scale because, after all, a B is a B and its meaning should be clear. Special education teachers use different criteria because those students have different annual performance goals.


Short term vs. Long term
Each B being equal serves the short term goals of standardizing criteria for sorting students academically. Students who never earn high grades despite considerable effort often suffer feelings of inadequacy and failure which over the long term reduce effort and chances for success in non-academic areas.

Self vs. Community Which should take precedence: the need for standardized criteria facilitating clear communication between teacher and parent regarding academic accomplishment; or the need to acknowledge and communicate the work of individual students who make herculean efforts to pull a standardized criteria grade up from a D- to a C- ?

Justice vs. Mercy Some teachers believe that grades should be based on academic achievement only but others think that grades should be based on efforts made no matter the academic result. Trying to solve this dilemma some proposed grading on a combination of effort and achievement, how much weight teachers should give each factor was not settled.

We didn’t come up with generally satisfactory solutions for any of those paradigms. It became clear that despite efforts to teach to standards and standardize assessment, each teachers had his or her own definition of what each letter grade means and what a students need to do to earn them.

So here’s an ethical conundrum for you to work on in your spare moments at work, at home or lounging near water with beverage in hand:

Is it ethical to give parents report cards with grades that don’t mean anything in particular?

Let me know what you come up with because I know this is going to be the topic of the principal’s first luncheon in September.

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Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009